Japan’s is a culture of cute. Everywhere you turn, there is some infantilized icon being force-fed to a society that seems to gorge on silly banality like artificially sweetened mother’s milk. The most visible symbol of cute gone wild is of course Hello Kitty, which is plastered on everything from cheap handbags to couture clothing. But there’s also the doe-eyed innocents found in so much anime, and those annoying Pokémon gorgons, which you might find plastered on your Boeing 747 the next time you hightail it to Tokyo.
Japan’s psychedelic underground has engaged in a sustained rearguard assault on this culture of synthetic charm for more than three decades now, battling callow materialism with an iron cudgel of liberated noise. Guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and the late free jazz saxophonist Kaoru Abe are the spiritual leaders of the movement, maverick eccentrics whose mangled-note mosaics were a formative influence on current bands like Fushitsusha, elder guitarist and hurdy-gurdy player Keiji Haino’s experiment in Sabbath-bloody-Sharrock freak-out.
Drawing inspiration from the country’s rich tradition of deafening abstraction, Jap-psych’s most compelling ensemble is Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paradiso U.F.O., a big, hulking amoeba with a massive corpus of recorded music and a deliriously protean sound.
Acid Mothers Temple’s mad scientist is Makoto Kawabata, a guitarist who was weaned on rock of the prog, hard, and kraut variety—Amon Düül, Deep Purple, Genesis. Viscous music drips out of Kawabata’s pores; he recorded over 40 homemade cassettes before he graduated high school, then worked in countless noisy groups throughout the ’80s and ’90s before starting Acid Mothers Temple in 1997. AMT is less a formal band than a clutch of farmers, crackpot mystics, ex-yakuza members, and painters from Nagoya, West Japan, who live in a loosely communal environment. “The soul collective exists in order to protect our freedom,” Kawabata told The Wire magazine recently. “Our slogan is simply: ‘If you want to do something, then do it—no matter what.’ ”
AMT cultivate a cultish image. For pictures, they tend to wear peasants’ frocks and Rosicrucian robes and wield wooden walking sticks, like something from an old Incredible String Band album cover. AMT’s own album art is all strobing lens-distortion and Odessey and Oracle Day-Glo tableaux. There’s an element of dime-store mysticism in their well-cultivated mythology, but just for self-referential kicks, really. Kawabata likes to fuck with Summer of Love imagery, but his very loud happening is a hippie smile turned upside-down. For Kawabata, ’60s psychedelic rock only paid lip service to breaking boundaries, and the plastic inevitable never really exploded. AMT turn unfettered anarchy into a dose of ecstasy.
Acid Mothers Temple’s huge recorded output—they have released albums with English-language titles like Absolutely Freak Out and Monster of the Universe—is really one long distended trip, with countless detours (Tuvan throat-singing, pastoral folk, bleep-blip electronics) that periodically double back into a gurgling primordial soup of minimalist, amped-up drone. Epic noise polluters like “Bois-tu la biere?” use the basic tools of rock—one chord, one elemental Moe Tucker beat—as an armature that is then made whole with jagged shards of sound, strange spectral yelps and chanting, and slash-and-rattle guitar lines. Often, the band will downshift into extreme austerity and let the mayhem slowly accrete until they have constructed a tsunami that just keeps cresting.
I haven’t come close to hearing everything the Acid Mothers have recorded, because it’s a bitch to sniff it all out—which is, of course, a large part of AMT’s appeal for snobby Other Music types. But I will say that, based on my limited if well-intentioned fieldwork, AMT’s latest release, New Geocentric World of Acid Mothers Temple, might be the band’s most likely to succeed. Or at least the tracks that flip the bird at tuneful niceties are countered by some really gorgeous stuff. The opening track, which bears the absurd title “Psycho Buddha,” is a pincer movement of eardrum pain, an absurdly tumultuous yet oddly cathartic free-for-all. It starts with a feint: a gingerly plucked bouzouki (or a bowed peacock harp, I’m not really sure— they’re both listed in the liner notes) and a loop of someone (singer Cotton Casino?) intoning “what, what, what . . . ”
Then there’s an abrupt smash-cut, and strafing gunfire ping-pongs wildly while a messy concatenation of shit—Koizumi Haijime’s clangorous drums and Ayler-esque sax, demented bagpipes, distorted bass—jostles for attention underneath. The first time I heard it, I wanted to throw my dog out the window. The next time, I decoded its internal logic and willingly succumbed to its gleeful madness.
After “Psycho Buddha” ‘s shot of adrenaline administered directly to the heart, New Geocentric World chills a bit. “Space Age Ballad” is a fake traditional Japanese composition floating in an amniotic fluid of harmonium and devotional chanting; “You’re Still Now Near Me Everytime” ‘s druggy undertow sounds like a summit meeting between Yoko Ono and Jason Pierce. Kawabata’s chop-socky solo tumbles over Haijime’s falling-down-the-stairs drums while Casino chants something whose meaning I’m sure is indeterminate even to those who speak Japanese. “You’re Still Now” is the kind of hypnotic thrill ride that AMT revs up better than any band on the planet.
By harnessing some of AMT’s amperes into more shapely song structures, Kawabata could do for the Jap-psych underground what Kraftwerk did for German experimental rock—bring a murky subcult into the light of day. But given his history, it seems likely that New Geocentric World will merely be another signpost that he’ll whiz by without even looking back.