Altered States

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If pure musicianship is the guiding criterion, Altered States can arguably match any guitar/bass/drums trio in the history of rock, which may strike some as an overstatement but the evidence is there…
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If pure musicianship is the guiding criterion, Altered States can arguably match any guitar/bass/drums trio in the history of rock, which may strike some as an overstatement but the evidence is there for anyone willing to seek out the band's Japanese label releases. The trio's music draws from a wide range of influences including progressive rock, jazz-rock, psychedelia, metal, noise rock, electronica, funk, ambient, and even country music. It should also be stated that Altered States are often purely an improvisational group, although they are also known for tightly arranged music on albums such as 1995's landmark Mosaic (featuring many guest artists) and and 1997's 6, as well as scored interludes within extended pieces (e.g, the third untitled track on 1996's 4) that take the listener by surprise; King Crimson from the Starless and Bible Black era catapulted 20 years into the future and with two decades of musical advancement might be one way to perceive what the band is capable of accomplishing.

Vocals are a quite rare occurrence and can take the form of crazy gibberish (Makigami Koichi on Mosaic) or agitated shouts over the top of high-voltage instrumental jamming (4), so if your tastes run to conventional singing and pop song structures, you are out of luck with Altered States, and would likely conclude that the group has no place within a rock pantheon dominated by the likes of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And yet when it comes to technical chops, skilled use of digital-era effects, telepathic interplay, masterful use of wide dynamic ranges and interludes of space, and the building of tension and release of fearsomely explosive energy, Altered States have few peers. If they had a few hit singles to their credit, perhaps the world might view them differently.

According to the cover of their 2005 double-CD set Bluffs, Altered States have been around since 1989, but some band biographies place the time and place of the group's inception as 1990 in Osaka. Guitarist Uchihashi Kazuhisa was in a jazz and improvisational group formed by drummer Yoshigaki Yasuhiro, and the two established Altered States with bassist Nasuno Mitsuru -- they originally played in jazz clubs but apparently found the jazz genre an ill fit for their exploratory style, and therefore chose to pursue a more rock-oriented direction. Altered States have nonetheless never abandoned certain aspects of jazz, most certainly the genre's improvisational emphasis. After a series of scorching avant rock releases during the '90s, at the close of the decade the band even released an album of fractured interpretations of warhorses such as "All the Things You Are," "Someone to Watch Over Me," and "A Night in Tunisia," titled, appropriately enough, Altered States Plays Standards (Eyewill/Highways), complete with retro '60s-styled cover art suggesting a classic release from the heyday of Blue Note or Riverside.

Café 9.15
As for "jazz" of more contemporary vintage, they collaborated with Brooklyn reedman and circular breather Ned Rothenberg in 1994 and 1997; Rothenberg is featured on Mosaic and on the 1996 Phenotype release Café 9.15. Jazz is also not off limits to drummer (and trumpeter) Yasuhiro, an ongoing member of anything-goes sonic experimentalist Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Quintet and New Jazz Orchestra who appears on such albums as the NJO's 2005 Out to Lunch Eric Dolphy tribute. It should also be noted that forward-thinking jazz festivals in Japan and Europe have not hesitated to include Altered States among their rosters of performing artists. (During the '90s the band also made a number of well-received appearances at international new music festivals such as Tactlos in Switzerland, Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec, and Ring Ring in Serbia.)

Lithuania and Estonia Live
A look back at the band's early recording history reveals that Altered States were apparently together for a couple years following their inception before the release of their eponymous debut on Kazuhisa's Zenbei label in 1992. During the '90s, six more Altered States CDs would be released, not only on Zenbei but also on other independent labels such as God Mountain, Trigram, and the aforementioned Phenotype and Eyewill/Highways. The studio releases Mosaic and 6 are good places to start an investigation of Altered States, but given their dedication to on-the-spot improvisation without reliance on overdubbing, some of the band's most exciting and adventurous music can be heard on such live albums as 1994's Lithuania and Estonia Live, recorded at the Tallinn and Vilnius Jazz Festivals (with Yoshihide as guest) the preceding year, and 1996's 4, recorded at New York City's Knitting Factory in April 1995. During 1995 the Zenbei label also released a monthly series of videocassettes featuring Altered States in live performance at a variety of locations in Japan, Europe, and the United States, including the Knitting Factory gig. All three members of Altered States were also members of Yoshihide's Ground Zero band during the '90s, and can be heard on such CDs as Consume Red, Revolutionary Pekinese Opera, and yes, Ground Zero's own Plays Standards CD.

Bluffs II
Perhaps due to the bandmembers' involvement in various other projects (including Mitsuru's membership in drummer Tatsuya Yoshida's Korekyojinn and Kazuhisa's frequent collaborations with international creative improvisers as well as his work organizing Kobe's Festival Beyond Innocence), Altered States did not release a new CD following their 1999 album of standards until Bluffs in 2005 (on the Innocent Records label, which Kazuhisa established as a replacement for Zenbei), followed comparatively quickly by Bluffs ii in 2006. Both albums feature completely improvised music and (especially the two-CD Bluffs magnum opus) reveal the trio's powers to be undiminished from its peaks of the preceding decade.