Various Artists

Festival Beyond Innocence, A Brief History in 67 Chapters: Disc Three, 1998

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Many listeners in the know associate the Japanese avant-garde scene with horrifyingly loud electric guitars. The third volume in a series of four discs documenting the annual Festival Beyond Innocence event in Kobe is where the heavy-hitters in the guitar department seem to show up, although like the other volumes in the series there is quite a wide range of music, tight editing creating an overall effect something like listening to a hip underground radio show. When it comes to loud Japanese guitarists, there is only one Haino Keiji -- thank Buddha -- and his presence here is one of the reasons fans of guitar freakouts will want this volume. Uchihashi Kazuhisa, festival organizer and CD series producer and editor, also comes up with quite a bit of guitar mayhem here, playing on substantially more of the tracks than on other volumes in the series. For one of these performances, he and Keiji join forces with K.K. Null and Imahri Tsuneo to create a quartet called Guitar Panic! Other out-of-town guests include Steve Beresford from the United Kingdom, Helge Hinteregger from Austria, and the entire Ne Zhdali band from Estonia.

Listeners have the potential to become completely confused as soon as the first track starts, a good sign when it comes to avant-garde music. This performance supposedly features the Altered States trio combined with Beresford, a typical event in a festival in which participants are mixed and matched in several different combinations during the program. It also makes sense for Beresford, who was a member of a group called Alterations for years. One of the very first sounds heard is a tortured, squeaking saxophone, and a check of the credits indicates there is no saxophonist on board. The possibilities are that the track sequence has been switched, or that someone is providing the saxophone via a sampler. After all, the only thing weirder than a typical performance of this type of improvisation is a performance in which the musicians make use of recordings of other improvised performances. Whatever they are doing, whoever is doing it, it is great. This first piece, about five minutes in length, is everything a piece of improvised music should be. It includes both horribly raucous noise and delicate moments of space, the players moving with an impeccable grace that, for the three regular Altered States members, indicates a comfort and ease working together, and for guest Beresford confirms that he is a player who is a delight to have on-stage in any circumstance. A sound similar to Balinese gamelan and the koto stylings of Yagi Michoyo comes next, this slight scent of traditional Asian musical styles only a momentary aroma in the musical kitchen. What replaces it is the smell of melting electric guitar cables and fried amplifier components, meaning our friend Keiji is ready for action.

The ensuing performance, one of three appearances by Keiji in this collection, is in some ways a traditional rock power trio with Samm Bennett on drums and Tsuyama Atsushi handling the bass. There are great moments, and some totally powerhouse guitar picking, yet problems develop out of the guitarist's seeming inability to groove with his rhythm section comfortably. A comparison with live Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings makes the Keiji trio collaboration sound quite flabby. Bennett might be trying his best, but his heavy metal thunder rolls are too timid. Why fault Bennett, however, when an industrial jackhammer would provide more appropriate accompaniment for the guitarist. In that case it is easy to imagine one of the guitarist's technical assistants leaning over the jackhammer operator and suggesting "Mr. Keiji suggests you play louder!" A trio with Korean saxophonist Kang Tae Hwan, Kazuhisa on the daxophone, and percussionist Yoshigaki Yasuhiro is a musical highlight that should sweep away any bad vibes left from the power trio. In some ways, this is almost a seminar in making music out of so-called "bad sounds." The daxophone, invented and built by German guitarist Hans Reichel, has the ability to mimic the voices of half the earth's population, with or without head colds. Hwan has a tone that could be compared to his native pickled foodstuff kimchi -- spicy, omnipresent, and sometimes so far from what is considered proper intonation that it would give a college stage-band director a serious stomach ache. A short piano solo by Beresford is a great choice to follow, the undistorted tone of the acoustic piano in itself a splendid contrast to the twisted sounds that have come before.

So far, very little in the nature of composed or arranged music has been featured, but a bit less than halfway into this disc the usual component of avant rock and other genre mutating begins happening. "Sea Jack" presents the sound of Phantasmagoria, a septet fronted by Kazuhisa that starts out with a groove quite a bit like the theme from Shaft and later evolves into something like a Carla Bley orchestration complete with arrangements for trombone, trumpet, and sax. Trombonist Ando Makiko also shows up later in the program for a hilarious trio with Yuko Nexus6 on laptop and Unami Taku on guitar; Makiko wisely makes use of a legitimate bop sound on his horn, resulting in a track that sounds like a dialogue between a big-band trombonist and several burping, hiccuping drunks. Following the clash of the previously mentioned four guitarists, Beresford is featured in a one-minute solo electronics performance with about an hour's worth of substance packed into it. In his editor's job, Kazuhisa uses this to set up a final series of arranged genre material. Haco gets funky, backed up by the anonymous rhythm section of Eddie and Bill, but perhaps names like these really stand out in Japan. Saxophonist Yanagawa Yoshinori, his tone superb, and pianist Katori Koichirou present a strong performance from the free jazz tradition before the program concludes with "Rhino II," a Ne Zhdali track. The heavy Frank Zappa influence on this piece sets it apart from much of the other, more original if not always successful music that is featured.