By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
DESPITE A GROWING cult in the Western press, Japan's High Rise rarely, if ever, pose for proper band photos. Oh, there are plenty of fuzzy action shots, usually taken during the power trio's jet-engine-test-cell-volume live shows. But the faces are always hard to make out, with only the guitars in vague focus--and that ubiquitous foot on the effects pedal. It's a nice visual summary of the group's take on rock's impulse toward "noise and coolness and delinquency," to quote bassist and vocalist Asahito Nanjo (speaking in New Zealand's Opprobrium). You'd never guess it from their album covers, but each band member cuts a figure as a 1960s retro biker rebel in black leather jacket, pinstriped bellbottoms, and sunglasses that NEVER come off. Pretty appropriate for musicians who credit their ax man, Munehiro Narita, with "motorcycle guitar," and sound like a thousand Panheads with loose pipes, gunning their engines into a Marshall stack.
High Rise, who play the Twin Cities for the first time Saturday, have an indie mystique that Jandek or the Flatlanders would happily surrender body parts for. Narita and Nanjo knew each other as teens in the late-Seventies Tokyo punk scene, where pre-hardcore, no wave, and free jazz shared fans and bills, if not styles. It wasn't until 1984 that the friends formed Psychedelic Speed Freaks to meld these influences, changing their name a year later to High Rise (from the J.G. Ballard novel) and releasing their first, self-titled record. For years their music was available in the West only through rare limited editions and pricey reissues from the Japanese psychedelic/improvisation label PSF (named for the band's first incarnation). But last year the Virginia label Squealer (squealermusic.com) rereleased much of the band's catalog, including the bracing recent concert document Live, originally recorded in 1994.
Cleaner, louder, and hotter than their studio stuff, Live shows how critical high-volume distortion has become to the band's sound--call it the shadow fourth member, like Echo the drum machine was to the Bunnymen. Narita's long guitar ad libs channel every buzzed-out lick ever recorded--from biker-rock king Davie Allan through the Stooges' Scott Asheton--while Nanjo seems to model his bass throb on Godzilla's late-night tiptoe through a fragile metropolis. Everything else is buried: Nanjo's vocals sound like he's singing through an intercom six feet under. The drummer on the disc, Yuro Ujiie, seems to have stolen his massive toms from that Zep-worshiping kid on Freaks and Geeks and sounds like he's playing them somewhere out in Anoka County. (Koji Shimura mans the kit these days.)
High Rise certainly didn't invent the idea of raw 'n' dirty blues-rock rendered in a broadly improvisational style--they stretch out and swing around riffs that were musty before Cream broke up--but they push the mode to formal extremes. Their numbers usually follow a rough structure: The opening riff and the lyric stay constant from performance to performance. Beyond that, all bets are off.
The band also refuse to categorize themselves as punk or noise, though they claim that the default category of psychedelia is somewhat ironic, given their vehemently anti-drug stance. The lyrics of 1986's High Rise II seem to consist of junkie slang sung in English, supposedly meant as a deterrent. Personally, all I can make out is something about "too many scars, too many scars" on "Induced Depression"--not exactly an explicit directive toward sobriety. Still, according to the hallucinogen-savvy, High Rise is not recommended as the backdrop for your first lysergic experience. Just listening to this music--or seeing it live--is a good way to scare yourself straight.