My experience with so-called “Japanoise”, a musical subgenre of the wider “noise” umbrella term, has largely been directed and guided by my use of the internet and the potential for interconnectivity of social media. However, my obsession with this genre would not have come to fruition without a particular personal anecdote that uncovered an entire secret history, a dark underbelly of the international music industry attached to a genre suited to only the most dedicated and involved of musical connoisseurs, and equally as difficult to appreciate. This autoethnographic report will be divided into two parts: firstly, my personal account of my introduction to the concept of noise music through a holiday in Japan, and secondly, a contextual analysis of several Japanoise releases. This project will partly be guided by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s research on cockfighting in Bali – wherein Geertz’ personal experiences shaped his understanding of the underlying cultural narrative within forms of entertainment.
The extremity of noise music, and the abrasive nature of such an artform, is what drew me to investigate further. Yet I would have not ever stumbled upon this hidden world if I had never been so particularly invested in punk music as a youth. The Ramones, a seminal proto-punk band, were particularly important to me during my formative years for their rebellious attitude, gutsy riffs and endorsement of non-conformity, all of which were values I strongly identified with. Naturally my interest in The Ramones, and punk rock as whole, waned over time as I became wholly invested in the heavy metal scene, whilst also developing an obsession with vinyl collecting, yet I still remained a fan. These developments in my hobbies and interests would eventually converge on a holiday to Japan in 2016, where I was able to explore a nation where physical music had not died out but rather was still in fashion, from the historic and Tower Records in Shibuya, to smaller independent and specialized hideaways mostly populated by jazz aficionados. Upon visiting Tower Records, I was determined to hunt down a very specific first pressing of Boris – Feedbacker, however I was dismayed to find that what I was looking for was quite rare, and that Tower Records was more of a JB HIFI-esque establishment. However, the staff were more than helpful to direct me to Disk Union, a much smaller record store only accessible by elevator with a floor dedicated specifically to heavy metal music that may have had what I was looking for. Upon arriving, I managed to find what I was looking for but my attention was also averted to a strange looking release behind a cabinet in the corner of the store entitled Ramones – Britzkrieg ’75 (Demo Tracks), which was also selling for an absurd amount of yen for a single LP. This piqued my interest, as I was unaware of any such release by The Ramones, and I was excited by the prospect of finding something rare. After asking the cashier to sample the album, I could hear him chuckling to himself as he played the record over the floor’s speaker system. However, it quickly became very clear to me that this record was not a Ramones release at all, as I was confronted with the equivalent of audio pornography – the sounds of intense sexual intercourse and nothing more. I was obviously embarrassed, but more so confused as to why the record was so expensive, and how the Ramones could release something completely devoid of any musical content whatsoever, despite the track list suggesting otherwise.
I was told by the cashier that what I had just experienced was a release by the extremely prolific and notorious underground exhibitionist/noise/punk act The Gerogerigegege, who appropriated the Ramones’ image in order to lure the listener into a false sense of security. Naturally, I found this experience to be bizarre, and just shrugged it off. Upon returning home, I became enraptured with the genre of noise music, exclusively using digital media to expand my knowledge and fascination. My research had led me to discover several artists I still listen to on the regular, such as Black Leather Jesus, Prurient, and The Rita among others. From what I have experienced, Western noise music tends to manifest in the form popularized by the artist Vomir known as “harsh noise wall” – an extremely dense layering of textures and feedback with the intent of removing the notions of progression and entertainment from the music by any means necessary (RYM, 2019). However, this is not always the case. Since the definition of ‘noise’ in a musical context is interpretative, Western noise artistry is incredibly dynamic – including crossovers with black metal (Wold – Screech Owl), the use of industrial sound engineering techniques (Einstürzende Neubauten – Kollaps), and the overlaying of vitriolic speech with screeching feedback (Deathpile – G.R.).
I had found that the scene has adopted the internet and music sharing and streaming platforms such as Bandcamp, Discogs, and Spotify to distribute releases old and new, mostly for the sake of convenience. Bandcamp and Discogs in particular have been extremely important tools in the trading and selling of physical analog media, as this allows the traditional method of distribution to remain relevant in the digital age. The physical format is the I am when I was growing up, from DVDs to CDs. Through my research I discovered that Japanoise artists tend to release exclusively on physical media, only adopting digital platforms for the purposes of rereleases or label deals. I believe this is a result of the still quite vibrant physical media culture prevalent in Japan today, whereas of 2016 CDs are the still the highest selling format (Weetzie, 2019). In fact, digital platforms such as Bandcamp have allowed for cross-cultural interactions within the scene, especially through popular noise-centric labels such as Deathbed Tapes which has released a plethora of albums and collaborations between artists of widely varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Social media also plays a large role in the facilitation of the international noise scene, allowing for tape trading groups and fan clubs to interact with artists directly, buy and sell, and discuss upcoming projects and collaborations easily. This reliance on cross-cultural digital congregation has largely dissipated the need for regional scenes, yet these scenes are integral to the spirit of experimental music, so many local and international circles are still in operation today coexisting with the notion of modern interconnectivity.
For the second half of this autoethnographic project, I decided to expand my knowledge of Japanoise by purchasing a few cassettes and records and critically reflecting on the content within, and by noting any sonic, textual, or thematic similarities or major differences to Western noise counterparts. I will be utilizing my own audio equipment for the purposes of listening to these releases in their intended manner.
Merzbow – Pulse Demon (Remastered)
This Merzbow release – real name Masami Akita – is considered one of his seminal works, and a perfect example of his frenetic and varied utilization of noise as music. I was able to purchase the reissue on Bludhoney Records, an American internet-based label focused on experimental electronic music that has featured the works of artists from across the globe. I can instantly tell that Akita primarily uses computers and digital software for his recordings, mostly due to the lack of tape hiss, and the layering of effect pedals and noise generation appears seamless. Merzbow’s use of the aforementioned “harsh noise wall” is also apparent throughout this record, most prominently in “Worms Plastic Earthbound”, but interspersed with several different radio-wave loops and other miscellaneous progressions. The experimental use of drum beats in “Extract 1 [Bonus Track]” is clearly evident of a focus on digital manipulation rather than an analogue approach common in Western noise. Pulse Demon is also notably harsher than what I have experienced within the Western scene, combining abrasiveness of Vomir with a heavy focus on technicality and heavy improvisation. Rather than seeking to create a disturbing anti-ambience (also a common feature of the Western noise scene), the album’s sonic direction changes every few seconds in an attempt to hypnotize the listener.
Controlled Death – Black Scorpion Rising
Controlled Death, a side project of Maso Yamazaki (aka Masonna), utilizes harsh vocals – a heavy metal inspired technique manifesting mostly as screaming combined with heavy reverb and delay effects. Harsh vocals are a commonplace feature of the noise genre (notably used by the US/UK based projects Deathpile and Whitehouse) yet Yamazaki experiments with their inclusion by integrating these vocals within the music itself rather than as a standout feature. Masonna is considered a harsh project even by Japanoise standards, and Controlled Death seems to be a more lo-fi and ambient focused extension of Yamazaki’s schtick. Black Scorpion Rising combines noise with experimentations in drone, comprised of short yet almost ambient passages reminiscent of abandoned train yards, derelict factories, abandoned technologies, and the ghosts that haunt them. “II” mixes in passages of panicked static, which reminds me of how Merzbow uses static on Pulse Demon to achieve the same effect. I would compare this release to the works of ambient electronic artists such as Biosphere or Stars of the Lid, as the music conjures a dreamlike effect yet still retains the disturbing elements prevalent within Japanoise.
The Gerogerigegege – Tokyo Anal Dynamite / Yellow Trash Bazooka
After my first embarrassing experience with The Gerogerigegege, I decided to revisit their work for this assessment. Their most popular release, Tokyo Anal Dynamite, resembles a mainstream punk outfit in sound – vocals and instruments are recognizable and it is apparent the band is playing before a live audience. However, the instrumentation on the recording is heavily distorted, and any adherence to time signature, beat, rhythm or tempo is virtually non-existent, creating an aura of chaos and violence unmatched by any conventional project or band I have ever heard in my life. Individual tracks are indistinguishable from each other, other than a loose gratuitous Japanese and screams of “One! Two! Three! Four!” in between bursts of screeching guitars and heavily compressed drums. The natural feedback from the amplifiers and microphones add to the unforgiving atmosphere, and the fusion of traditional punk and harsh noise apparent on this release is a unique listening experience I was very receptive towards.
The second release I decided to review, Yellow Trash Bazooka, is yet another example of this unholy alliance. This release was influenced primarily by grindcore (especially AxCx), consisting of short tracks played sloppily yet aggressively by amateurish instrumentation, focusing thematically on words starting with the letter ‘G’. I have surmised that The Gerogerigegege’s creative output relies on a humorous tone, contrary to the Western scene tradition of serious and often disturbing subject matter, yet is spiritually similar in the sense that a lack of dynamism or progression is present throughout. It is often difficult to determine what messages The Gerogerigegege are attempting to convey with their output – is their work a deliberate attack on conservative Japanese attitudes towards sex? Mere juvenile exercises in audial nihilism, or vulgarities purely for the sake of shock value? My personal understanding is the former, however the interpretative nature of Japanoise music as a whole is largely responsible for my newfound interest in it.
Overall, from my sample size I discovered some distinctive similarities between Japanoise to Western interpretations of the noise genre, but ultimately my epiphany concerning Japanoise is my discovery of its sheer uniqueness – characterized by releases and artists notably harsher, more abrasive and extremely dynamic. I had expected a sense of mundanity prior to my research, as I had difficulty conceptualizing how exactly noise could be experimented with sonically, but I was pleasantly surprised at how regional musical scenes are able to develop a sense of identity.