Masami Akita seems to have four major sources of inspiration for the work he releases under the name Merzbow: “scum culture” (his term for pornography, fetish/bondage material, horror/gore, etc.), pure abstraction, animal and nature rights (viz., F.I.D., Bloody Sea, Turmeric, etc.), and Japan’s own history and culture. The latter gets some of the least representation in his catalog, but for me it’s some of the most fascinating stuff. Yoshinotsune has been my stock best example of that, but Collapse 12 Floors sits nicely alongside it, especially since it refers to a piece of Japanese history that I have my own affinity for.
The big tipoff to what 12 is all about is the title of the third track: “Collapse 12 Floors, In Asakusa 1923”, a reference to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. Most of Tokyo was leveled in the quake, but one of the landmarks that was most affected was the fabled Asakusa Twelve-Story Tower or Asakusa Jūnikai Ryōnkaku. An octagonal, red-brick building with an incredible view and a somewhat cantankerous elevator, it was built in 1890 and designed by William K. Burton, a Scottish engineer who had also designed many of the water supply systems for Meiji-era (post-1868) Japanese cities. It rose high above the skyline and boasted numerous attractions on each of its floors. The quake caused the top three tiers of the tower to snap off, and just about every photographic catalog of the ’23 quake has an image of the hollowed wreck of the tower, the sky visible through its upper windows.
For a couple of years 12 Floors was one of my most listened-to Merzbow discs, but I had a hard time pinning down what I could say about it that wasn’t simply a rundown of what spewed out of the speakers. Then I read Yasunari Kawabata’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, newly translated into English, and felt like I had seen and smelled and tasted a little of the moment in time that was also being evoked on this record. The book drops you into the middle of the post-quake hurly-burly of Tokyo’s Asakusa district, with language so rich in allusions that it gave translators headaches for decades. Both the book and the album are impressionistic in their own ways; with 12 Floors, I thought something of the same thing as Yoshinotsune. This isn’t an attempt to recreate that time or evoke it, exactly, but something that Merzbow might have created had he lived during that time.
It doesn’t seem that way at first, though: “Wa 30.25”, the opening track, sounds a great deal like an outtake from the same sessions that produced 1930 — noise loops subjected to a good deal of phase shifting and equalization, starting and ending as if it were in the middle of something. “Kareha” (“Dead Leaves”) is where the album ties in most closely with its subject and period, as it blends, skips, switches and interleaves cut-ups from various Japanese jazz-age 78s. When there’s noise, it’s mostly subdued rumbling and chittering, more environmental than assaultive. The effect is weirdly nostalgic, like flipping quickly through a sheaf of ephemera from the period — newspapers, magazines, handbills, or the votive stickers (plastered in improbable locations) that Kawabata describes in the opening chapters of his novel.
Gradually the noise steps to the fore, and the third track (“Collapse…”) features the wah-wah / phased noise loops from the first section, but with a few more environmental effects and more of the choppy granular synthesis we heard applied in the second track. After some time you start to realize you’re hearing many of the same basic sounds over and over again, just heavily transformed and processed. It’s less like experiencing the earthquake itself as it is picking through the rubble afterwards, where everything that was once familiar has now become a pulverized wreck.
Collapse was put out by the Norwegian [OHM] Records label, also the distributors of what seems to be another Japanese-culture-inspired Merzbow release, New Takamagahara. In the same vein is Merzbo’s collaboration with The New Blockaders, The Ten Feet Square Hut (so named for Kamo-Chomei’s philosophical tract of the same name). The connections between the titles and the albums themselves may be tenuous, but that doesn’t make me any the less interested in exploring what connections do exist.