Once upon a time, a record company was a brand of distinction — you could pick up a Motown record and know to a high degree that you were going to get not just a certain kind of sound (or soul), but you’d be picking up something that was highly reflective of a given person’s taste. Motown is now part of Arista, which is now part of BMG, and likewise many other former “labels of distinction” have been absorbed into the same collective whole and rendered fairly faceless. A great many indies have similarly followed suit — Wax Trax! is now nothing but a marketing logo used by TVT (itself part of Time/Warner) — and the end result has been a lot of extremely bland music with no particular purpose.
There are still a few holdouts, though, and it probably isn’t surprising to hear that at least one of the most important ones is not in the United States. P.S.F. / Modern Music is headquartered in Setagaya, Tokyo, and after having listened to a fair smattering of their catalog over the past decade I don’t flinch when I hear people describe them as “the most aesthetically perfect record label in the world” (Forced Exposure). They’ve earned the label by sheer dint of selecting, publishing and curating one remarkable artist after another, and as a result every time I’ve picked up a P.S.F. disc — even one of their compilation albums — I’ve been at the very least impressed. Typically I’m left speechless.
The one artist who leaves me stumm more often than any other in their collection has to be Keiji Haino, he who has remained a titanic figure in Japan’s underground music scene for nigh on four decades now. I managed to see him live at Tonic in New York City two years ago, and even though my fanaticism for him had already been cemented by his recordings it was doubly reinforced by the sight of him performing live. I sat close enough to him to bounce a tennis ball off his guitar case, and he used a set of delay pedals to build up one layer after another of strumming drones that acted like tape loops. On top of this pulsing bed of noise he wailed, shrieked, moaned and caterwauled, and even those who knew no Japanese or had never witnessed one of his performances were unable to tear themselves away. He was short and reedy, with a cascading mop of black-going-to-grey hair and his face forever half-hidden behind wraparound sunglasses, and like all of the great musicians I have seen he did not so much seem to be playing as pulling something through him.
You know Haino when you hear him, and then you never forget him. More than almost any other musician I can think of, he understands the way dead silence, the spaces between things, and the severity of an attack can be artfully alternated. In one sentence he breathes out a barely-audible syllable; in another he screams as he bangs the strings of his guitar. At heart he calls himself a “bluesman”, and it’s not hard to hear the cosmic ghost of Blind Lemon Jefferson (a perennial favorite of his) hovering over him as he plays.
Haino has appeared on over a hundred and fifty albums, either bearing his own name or as part of one of his collectives. When he teams up with other artists, I always worry he’ll blow them clean off the stage, but he somehow finds a way to integrate his playing and singing so that while he may be leading the group he is not replacing it. Hist most famous appearances in the context of a band have gone under the collective name Fushitsusha — “The Unlost” — and that is the label under which most of his best, most sustained and most beautiful music has been produced. The exact lineup for Fushitsusha has changed drastically over the years, but it’s almost always a trio: Haino on guitar and vocals (and sometimes harmonica), a drummer, and a bassist.
Most of the Fushitsusha albums were recorded as live performances, and don’t have the polish of studio productions. For this band, though, it’s not a drawback; if anything, the live sound only adds that much more grit and passion to their playing, and nothing is added or changed in the post-production. Their first published recording as a band, and one of the first releases by the P.S.F. label, was a self-titled double album with a presentation would set the template for every future Fushitsusha release: a black sleeve, black discs itself (even the printing on the CD is gloss black over matte black), the band’s name in silver on the cover, and spidery silver printing in what liner notes may appear. (The only way to tell most Fushitsusha albums apart is to read the catalog number.)
This first record (referred to as “P.S.F. 3/4”) never had more than a thousand copies pressed, and yet that alone was enough to spur off interest in Haino and any of his cohorts. 3/4 passed into the realm of near-legend; copies changed hands for insane sums of money. Even after many of his other albums were reissued on CD, Haino would not allow 3/4 to be reissued; he even brought up the possibility of re-recording the same songs with the newer Fushitsusha lineup. In time, however, he changed his mind, and P.S.F. now offers 3/4 at a reasonable price for an import double CD (US$36).
Most of the direct comparisons made with 3/4 are to another, equally essential double CD Fushitsusha live set (called Double Live or 15/16, also after the catalog numbers), recorded in the early Nineties — but 3/4 is markedly unlike that album. It’s a touch more serene, where 15/16 is generally more about volume and power, and the songwriting and composition that Haino uses is more in evidence. No one track is shorter than seven minutes; most of them average about ten. The longest song of the whole set, “Koko” (ここ / “Here”), may be the single best song in all of Haino’s recorded output thus far. It clocks in at 26 minutes, but despite its length and relatively languid pacing, you’ll be holding your breath through the whole thing. At any one moment in the song it’s hard to remember the exact series of changes or progressions that led us there, but somehow Haino remembers, and he is like the one sighted man leading the blind out from a land of fog.
Most of the Fushitsusha (and Haino, and P.S.F.) catalog gets filed under the general rubric of “avant-garde”, or even “acid rock”. It’s close, but for me terms like that are starting points: the whole of Haino’s work has so much more going on in it than merely playing for as long and loud as possible. The whole galaxy of influences he has at his disposal — troubadour music, Charlie Parker, classical Chinese opera — never come out sounding like any one thing but him. At one point he recorded an entire album of the hurdy-gurdy, and instead of being cheesy and foolish it was to the hurdy-gurdy as Keith Jarrett’s Spheres was to the pipe organ.
I don’t listen to 3/4 very often. Not because I don’t like it — if anything, it’s because I like it too much. I try not to play it a great deal because I fear that if I do so, I will somehow dilute its power. This is not rational, and I know it: when Van Gogh’s Starry Night appeared on calendars and in poster frames, that didn’t dilute its beauty any. If anything, the painting became all the more lovely, because it was now available to everyone who couldn’t see it in the flesh. But somehow I feel that to overplay music this dense and all-consuming is a mistake, bordering on an insult, and maybe that for me is a sign of its true power.