Albums, like books, can be seeds: they can lie dormant for any length of time and then flourish in completely unexpected ways. This was definitely true of Yoshinotsune, one of Merzbow’s less widely-discussed albums, and one I confess I went to with expectations that held me back. The album’s apparent theme was Yoshitsune—a national hero of Japan, the subject of enduring legend, and a personal fascination of mine. But the record itself didn’t seem to use its subject in a way that connected at all with the music, and after the high of Amlux this seemed like a letdown. I threw it back onto the shelf and tried to forget about it. Months later it surfaced again, on one of my portable music device’s playlists, and then in that context—without my overriding expectations for it—it clicked wonderfully. What had sounded arbitrary and uninvolving the first time now made sense.
In many ways I had a hard time not bringing expectations to the record, partly because of my affection for the material Merzbow was referencing (if only for the sake of a title and the names of the songs). In recent years he’s been drawing more explicitly on Japan’s past and heritage, but in creative and unpredictable ways. It isn’t always possible to map an unbroken line from the source material or the underlying idea to the finished product—probably in the same way you wouldn’t necessarily draw a connection between a tube of paint fresh from the factory and a finished Mondrian canvas. And maybe you shouldn’t have to, but one of the pleasures of Merzbow’s music is that I’m being challenged—that I’m being asked to see past the changes on the surface and sense the greater governing dynamics of what’s going on.
Most of the time when a musician uses a historical personage (or a work of fiction, or even another piece of music, etc.) as inspiration for their work, it often feels like they’re trying to make a soundtrack for a film about the subject that doesn’t exist yet. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s only one possible approach out of many, and I admit that was the approach I was kind of hoping for with Yoshinotsune. That explained my disappointment when I didn’t hear anything of the kind; Yoshinotsune is not soundtrack music but a set of atmospheres or states of mind. This is the best way I can express it: if the people that served as the inspiration for this music were themselves musicians like Merzbow, this is what they might have created.
The first track (and the longest), “Ushiwaka Kurama Iri” (“Ushiwaka Entering Kurama”), draws on a common image from the Yoshitsune mythology: Yoshitsune as a young man (named Ushiwaka), living cloistered in a monastery on Mount Kurama and allegedly being taught swordsmanship by the karasu-tengu or crow-gods that dwelled there. The entire track is dominated by a pounding, monolithic taiko-drum beat and the blaring, roaring sounds of a heavily-processed conch shell—the sort of things Ushiwaka himself probably imagined would sound his marching off to war against the rival Heike clan. What evolution there is in the piece is mostly in the form of relative changes to each element in it; it’s not an unfolding drama, but a static tableau.
The other two tracks work in the same way. “Hachiman Taro no Uta” (“The Song of Hachiman”) begins with a rapid strumming reminiscent of a heavily-distorted biwa that eventually only becomes one of many colliding elements. “Yoshino no Yamazakura” begins with a chirping that sounds almost like an abstract rendering of birdcalls on a sunny afternoon — “Yamzakura” means “wild cherry tree”, a staple object of natural adoration on such a day—but in time it’s overtaken by Merzbow’s signature shearing noise walls; these cherry blossoms appear to be dipped in blood. Come to think of it, Yoshinotsune seems most informed by the way Heian-era Japan was transformed so radically by Yoshitsune and other warrior-heroes: the decadent elegance and beauty of the times was ripped apart when the Heike and Genji went to war to see who would rule.
For a Merzbow record, difficult is part of the territory, but this is the first time I’ve encountered a Merzbow record where the cultural baggage I brought to it—baggage that had nothing to do with music itself, really—got in the way. I suspect there’s a broader lesson to be learned from that.
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