“A screaming comes across the sky,” begins Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow — a description which could well apply to the female primal scream that opens Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s 1979 debut album. Given that the side-long title track translates to “Mt. Fear” — a volcanic mountain reputed in Shinto mythology to be the entrance to the underworld — it comes off less as some avant-garde indulgence, and more as The Beast That Shouted “I” at the Heart of the World.
For a long time Geinoh Yamashirogumi existed in my mind as the quintessential cult band. They were mysterious to a fault; even other hard-core underground music fans didn’t know a thing about them apart from being the folks (singular? plural?) who created the soundtrack for the animated film Akira. They had a relatively small number of releases; after 1992 or so they put out no new recordings at all, but continue to have live performances. They specialized in synthesizing musical traditions from every corner of the world, from Japan on outwards, and using modern technology (synthesizers, cutting-edge recording studio systems) to bring it to a global audience. And they were from Japan, another major magnet of fascination for me personally — not just because of the cultural aura that provided, but because that made them all the more remote and difficult to learn anything about in a practical way.
That situation has changed in the last decade or so, but only marginally, and so the best way to come to any real understanding about the group or its intentions is to listen to their music. And for a long time, just finding their music in any form was hard enough. Until the mid-Nineties, the only album readily available was the domestic version of the Akira soundtrack, which existed in a greatly shorn-down edition mixed with movie dialogue and sound effects. Then Invitation Records, a JVC sublabel that had long been their home, reissued the entire Yamashirogumi catalog in lavishly-remastered CD editions. Most of them remain available and in print as Japanese imports, where before the only way to find them was as killingly expensive vinyl editions sought after by audiophiles willing to pay as much as a thousand dollars a copy. Even if you didn’t subscribe to the theory that vinyl provided better sound quality than CDs (which I don’t), the presentation of those records alone turned heads: the original LP edition of Osorezan, which has fetched a thousand dollars or more between collectors, had a laminated jacket decorated with flecks of gold leaf.
The exotic look of the album more than complements the music. After that opening scream dies out, the next several minutes consist of a slow, spiraling procession of percussion and vocalizations — moans, shrieks, gasps, all reminiscent the Delphic utterances of the shamans at the real-life Osorezan. Gradually this gives way to a haunting chanted melody supported by relatively conventional guitar / bass / drums, closer in spirit to the mutant rock mantras of groups like Magma, or better yet fellow Japanese undergrounder J.A. Seazer. The whole thing accelerates over the course of another ten minutes to an orgasmic high, and then evaporates in a cloud of ethereal synth and ecstatic vocalizations. Side two, “Dou no Kenbai [Copper Sword Dance]”, is a more straightforward rendition of Balinese, Javanese and other southeastern Asian musical forms in another sidelong suite, and while it’s intriguing for the way it explores those forms it doesn’t have the fierce mystique of the first program.
How does a band like this, or an album like this, come to anyone’s attention? In my case it was through progressive rock fans — folks who had taken the aforementioned Magma or Brast Burn to heart, and were unafraid to stump for Osorezan as a proud inclusion in the “OUT” section of a store like Other Music. They couldn’t pigeonhole Geinoh Yamashirogumi any more precisely than I might have, but they weren’t hung up on trying to do so — the music and the band, both, were treasures to be approached with the same zeal as an out-of-the-way restaurant sporting a menu of nothing but chef’s specialties. Even if they used a little too much of the “endurance-test aesthetic” to talk about the album — where the best measure of the quality of a given thing is how difficult it is for the uninitiated to sit through — they saw more of what made it special than most other folks. Especially those who approached the band from a world-music perspective, put the needle on the record, and then fled the room when they heard that blistering opening.
Reliable information about Geinoh Yamashirogumi remains difficult to come by. Their website is entirely in Japanese, and the only English-language information about the band is a word-for-word replica of the liner notes written for the re-releases of the group’s albums in 1994 on CD. The only consistent member of the group is composer, amateur ethnomusicologist and (for lack of a better term) bandleader Shoji Yamashiro — actually Tsutomu Ōhashi, a scientist and researcher in a number of fields including molecular biology and brain science. Most of the other performers either remain anonymous or have no other performing credits that can be verified, but two of the personnel on this recording stand as exceptions to that description, though. Guitarist Takayuki Inoue and keyboard player Katsu Ohno were both members of the veteran Japanese bands Pyg and The Spiders; Inoue’s cutting guitar and Ohno’s subtle synthesizer work are both highlights here.
The mystery only deepens on closer inspection. What is it that drew Ōhashi to this sort of musical work, and how was he able to have it recorded and released with such lavish production? How did Inoue and Ohno get involved? Has the group forsaken recorded work for the sake of the spontaneity and immediacy of live performances, or were they just unable to get Invitation to continue sponsoring them? I suspect I’ll only begin to find those answers by improving my translation skills, and seeing what the liner notes for all the rest of their albums have to say on the subject. But apart from all that, this first album remains one of Japan’s most striking musical moments in any category — high- or low-brow, popular or rarefied, “prog” or “ethnic”, you name it.