Thursday, 12 January 2017

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 12): Asocial Terror Fabrication "Under the Dark Force" Ep, 2010

This is the last part of the Japanese Crust vs The World, a series that proved to be far more demanding and, eventually, exhausting than I had originally imagined but was a lot of fun to do and, hopefully, to read.

For the last entry, I wanted to pick a record from a band that was still active. I usually do not review recent records, mostly because I feel that one needs time and hindsight in order to gain the critical perspective necessary to look properly at a given work. Too often, we are caught up in the ceaseless, glorified flow of novelties and, because of our decreasing attention span (both in terms of quantity and quality), we end up celebrating records that are really not that good and hailed short-lived bands who intentionally play the right fashionable subgenre as classics. Not being a mean-spirited geezer, I am not going to mention neocrust and the half-arsed "raw-noise-punk" or the lazy postpunk trends of late here, although I could have. And yes, that is called a preterition.

There has definitely been some solid Japanese crust being released for the past ten years and I was unsure (as usual) of which band to pick. Bands like Absurd Society, Asmodeus and Massgrave recorded top crust in the early 10's, but then long-going bands like Death Dust Extractor, ZyanosE or Disturd - the latter even getting better and better with the new line-up - relentlessly kept delivering the goods (and I am not even going to mention LIFE who are in a category of their own). And then you have brand new acts too like Avvikelsse, whose recent Ep brought back the best years of Crust War, or Scene Death Terror and Ulcer, who I am dying to hear proper studio recordings from as they are likely to cunningly blow the crust barometer to bits... In truth, some bands did disappoint me during those years but I am guessing it had more to do with my own high expectations than with the music itself... Anyway, things really do look good on the Japanese crust front and I feel optimistic for the next few years. But to get back on tracks, I decided to pick a record from Asocial Terror Fabrication to conclude the Japanese crust series for several reasons. First, ATF (you didn't really think I was going to write "Asocial Terror Fabrication" throughout the whole post now, did you?) epitomize the high referentiality that has always been an important part of Japanese crust and they certainly carry that tradition with pride; second, ATF have that specific Japanese crust sound that no one else seems to be able to recreate, as hard as they might try; third and finally, it is a bloody great record I am personally really fond of and, in the end, it is probably what matters the most.

ATF are a Tokyo band that (apparently) formed in 2007. From what I have read, some members have also played in Exclude and Abysstyx (both of which I am completely unfamiliar with and I therefore cannot confirm the veracity of the intel) and singer Riki played the drum (well, beat the proverbial D) for Krossa. I remain quite undecided about the name "Asocial Terror Fabrication". I do like the idea it conveys for its "crusties gone Mad Max" implications and I feel it actually suits the music well. But it is a bit of a mouthful, isn't it? Three distinct words and nine bloody syllables. I am guessing it could be a nod towards late 80's crust and longer band names such as Deviated Instinct or Genital Deformities or indeed Extreme Noise Terror (both phrases having a similar linguistic pattern), and, although I am not sure I like the sound of the moniker, it certainly borrows from the traditional lexical field of crust, in an act of both structural and nominal referentiality. And that is exactly what ATF is about.

The first demo was recorded in 2009 and had five songs. If the Doom-styled logo already gives the game away, it is the actual picture on the cover that is the most relevant. The highly contrasted picture of the crustier-than-your-socks singer obviously, and intentionally, refers to the one found on the cover of Abraham Cross' "Peace can't combine", which, keeping the Doom nod in mind, indicates that ATF was going for multileveled worship: the early Doom sound by way of Doom-worshiping Abraham Cross. Actually, the demo is closer to Abraham Cross than Doom so could it be... the worship of Doom-worship? Seeing it in that light, ATF's demo would take on an interesting meta dimension that, given punk's propensity to continually recycle itself, would reflect the overall trend of self-aware referentiality, both deferent and cheeky. Musically, and unsurprisingly at this point, the demo is absolute gruff crust heaven. If you think Abraham Cross' singer sounded like Jon Doom, you are in for an epiphany as Riki sounds JUST LIKE him. It is extremely impressive and also almost scary... These five songs in seven minutes sound like a crash course in cavemen crust. The riffs are great, the arrangements clever and the production has that raw, almost subterranean, aggressive and tense quality that is a genre-defining characteristic but that few bands can actually pull out properly. And the vocals... listen for yourself. Apart from Abraham Cross (the religion) and Doom (the deity), the dischargy songs of Sore Throat also come to mind (but it is almost redundant to point it out since this specific influence was at the core of the Abraham Cross sound) and I am also hearing some Private Jesus Detector in the songwriting, in terms of gruff power and impact (and well, they also had a rather long name, right?).

Demo art

The Ep "Under the dark force" was released in 2010 (or was it 2011? I cannot remember exactly but Discogs says 2010) and contained six songs. These were actually part of a larger recording session as the three songs from the split Ep with Exithippies were also taken on this occasion. It was released on Hardcore Survives, a label that has grown to be one of the most reliable in terms of top-notch Japanese crusty noize and had put out records from D-Clone, Disturd, Kriegshög or Skizophrenia!. And now the time has come to be completely honest with you. Although I had heard the demo before and thought that it was a great effort indeed that made the (demo-era) Doom fanboy dance inside my skinny self, it was really the cover of this Ep that made me jump on ATF like a goofy nerd. Absolute, unashamed, direct Deviated Instinct worship, to be more accurate their 86/87 era ("Terminal Filth Stenchcore", "Welcome to the Orgy", "A Vile Peace"...). And despite DI's "cvlt" status, few bands visually paid tribute to them as obviously and lovingly as ATF. Granted, the insert of the demo already had a pretty cool crow, but there were also your typical Disorder/Electro Hippies/CFDL smiley faces and one sloppy Amebixian character, so I think ATF aimed delightfully at the broader early crust aesthetics on that one. But "Under the dark force"'s cover is all about DI (well, the font for the band's name might be Genital Deformities' actually) and so is the first page of the foldout (I mean, it has to be a scarecrow, right?). This is the ultimate level of fanservice and I will be forever grateful for that. Thanks Asocial Terror Fabrication.

And now, it would be logical to assume that ATF also went for some heavy Deviated Instinct worship sonically on this Ep, right? Well... they didn't. Not exactly. If you look hard enough, you will be able to spot a DI riff but "Under the dark force" was actually not about the Norwich bunch. So why the over-the-top DI's referentiality then? Well, it is a contextual clue rather than a textual one. In other terms, it acts as a symbol of an epoch and of an overall vibe, namely the mid-late 80's UK crusty punk wave. It wouldn't be far-fetched to describe this Ep as "Mermaid crust" in reference to this Birmingham pub where so many early crust gigs took place (the metaphor does not work quite as well with the imaginary creature). Although Doom and Sore Throat were definitely still crucial influences on this one (with Abraham Cross' pregnant template in the background of course), ATF added elements from other regulars at the Mermaid like early Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, (noisecore) Sore Throat, to which you can also significantly add (though I am not sure they actually played there, they shared that specific vibe) Genital Deformities and Mortal Terror. Of course, the production and the distorted sound of the guitar and bass indicated that you dealt with a Japanese crust band, because they have that recognizable craft, but "Under the dark force" (and the aforementioned split Ep) nevertheless spoke that Mermaid crust language which they learnt through the Abraham Cross textbook. It is a brilliant exercise in style, but one that does require the listener to know the basics of the language and its culture. Does it make ATF an over-referential band? Possibly, especially since one might argue that punk music has always been meant to be easily accessible and spontaneous. But then, don't all works of art (and yes, even your filthiest crust band makes art) require some level of cultural background for them to make sense? I am aware that there are thousands of music styles I am not able to understand because I lack the basic information and knowledge, I don't speak their specific language. Even if I feel ATF's Ep is strong and energetic enough to be enjoyed even without being a fluent crust speaker, I still think a lot of its meaning and essence would be lost in translation without at least some skills in crust linguistics. And I am fine with that.

The production on this Ep is brutal (not quite on the level on the fantastic "Peace can't combine" but it still works great), with a lot of echo, it sometimes sounds like it was recorded in an actual cave and I am reminded of the crasher crust school quite a bit on this level, although there are important differences in terms of intentionality. It is an absolutely ferocious record with an impressive flowing quality, as it has that groovy and filthy referential old-school crust sound (in merely 6 minutes, the band managed to vary the beats without it feeling forceful or mechanical) and, never falling into pointless technicality, still sounds relentlessly aggressive, angry and out of control (which it is definitely not, they know what they are doing). This is exactly how I like my crust, with a dark neanderthal vibe, a tense moodiness and meaningful chunks of punk in it. The split Ep with Exithippies, released on Doomed To Extinction (a label also responsible for a really good Contagium Ep that is not unlike ATF actually), also comes recommended. In 2015, the band released two new recordings, a tape entitled "Folly of wisdom" (that I have not heard), and a split Ep with False Insight that saw ATF back with an early Carcass old-school grindcore vibe (and borrowed font, of course) and some crisp Hellbastard and Axegrinder nods in terms of visuals. It is tough being a fanboy sometimes.

The band is still very much active despite the significant change in sound and some of its members started the intriguingly named noizy Kaltbruching Acideath that sounds much closer to what ATF originally did and has a demo out.      

Friday, 6 January 2017

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 11): Zoe "The last axe beat" Lp, 2004

I left 2016 with some over-the-top Japanese Amebix-worship in the shape of early Acrostix and, to smoothen everyone's transition into the new year, I shall enter 2017 with (wait for it, wait for it...) more Japanese Amebix-worship! Now, before you roll your eyes, point your bony finger at me, blame me for this indecent display of unoriginality and accuse me of laziness, let's take a deep breath and think about it for a second. And while we're at it let's open that can of cider you've been saving for special occasions.

I cannot count the many times I have heard people complain about punk being redundant and boring for its lack of originality... Usually, as a backing for such arguments, a diatribe about bands sounding like Discharge (or any other cult band depending on what kind of punks you hang out with) quickly follows, as if it were the irrefutable evidence of punk's hopeless lack of creativity. And I am not saying that there is no truth in such claims and I often find myself mumbling whenever I hear a new "crust" band trying aimlessly to be a death-metal one but ending up sounding boring and stale. Still, "worship-type bands" should not be discarded just for the fact that they build their discourse on another band's legacy and sometimes it requires a lot of inventiveness and indeed of creativity to emulate a specific band in a way that is highly referential but still brings an interesting, fresh perspective. Basically both unoriginal and original at the same time and still sounding good. After all, you could very well see the very careful emulation of Discharge's "Why" as a rather interesting exercise that paradoxically needs an important level of artistic sensibility and clever songwriting to be properly achieved. Of course, Discharge is not the most relevant example here since repetition and redundancy were crucial to their music in the first place as they shaped a new language and semiotic system that many bands still directly use nowadays, the degree of strictness varying from one band to another.

Of course, one is free to think that "worship-type bands" are ridiculous and goofy and that they should play stoner-ska or blackened-shoegaze or something that has never been done before instead of rewriting Amebix songs. Like Zoe. Because that is exactly what this band is doing. They take several elements of the Amebix legacy, sometimes directly referring to the Amebixian scriptures, at other times including post-Amebix influences, and blend them, from a Japanese crust context, in order to create a music that embodies amebixness and whose originality resides precisely in this creative drive that encompasses both the actual band and its direct legacy. On a metatextual level, Zoe also incarnate the potent fascination that Amebix have always held in the punk world. The overt referentiality can then be seen as a reflection of the mythic quality of the band, Zoe's work thus becoming a self-aware discourse about both amebixian music and our own obsession with it (the claim that the band aimed at creating a metadiscourse might be far-fetched but that is my own reading, make of it what you will).

Zoe were from Osaka and apparently formed in the late 90's, although their first demo, "The beginning", was only recorded in 2002 because of line-up instability from what I can gather. At the core of the band was Taki (aka TM Spider on "From Hell" and Lightning Baron on "The last axe beat"), previously in Gloom, Defector (as the "metal guitar") or War Cry, who played the guitar, sang and even produced Zoe's records so it is safe to assume that much of the songwriting was also his. The name "Zoe" is a bit mysterious in terms of paronomasia... "Inferno Punx" spells it as "Z.O.E." so it might very well be an acronym I am not aware of (but I don't have a clue either so any informed guess is welcome here). Taken simply as "Zoe", the name might refer to "zoea", which is some sort of larva in the crustacean world. This would make sense I suppose since the zoea is a primitive life form just like the amoeba, the spelling variation being yet an additional reference to Amebix and their name-making process. On the records, the phrase "The darkest heavy" actually precedes the name "Zoe". I cannot really pronounce "The darkest heavy Zoe" without giggling so I assume it is not really a part of the moniker but must be read as some sort of slogan beside being a wink at "The darkest hour" and stating what Zoe were going for in terms of mood: dark and heavy.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard of Zoe. A mate of mine, known to be a grumpy but quite knowledgeable geezer in terms of Japanese noize and crust (he even distributed some Crust War releases in Paris in the early 00's), told me that he was about to receive a new record from the label that I might enjoy. To be truthful, I think he phrased it like that: "They are called Zoe and they are dreadful, absolute rubbish Amebix-type heavy-metal with bloody makeup on... I am sure you are going to love them". And of course, he was right, I loved them straight away.

The band's first recording was the four-song 2002 demo entitled "The beginning", a rather thinly produced effort (it even has some unwanted feedback here and there) that still set the basis for the Zoe sound to great effect. By no means was Zoe the first band to go for Amebix-worship, but they took a rather unique creative stance. Bands like Axegrinder ("Serpent men" era) and Misery had reworked the Amebix sound very early on by making it heavier, doomier and, dare I say it, crustier, which was the logical step in the late 80's. Zoe, on the other hand, from the vantage point of view of the early 00's, did not merely take Amebix into account but the entire Amebix world, in other terms the "post-Amebix' bands like Zygote or Muckspreader or those that gravitated around them like Smartpils and other pagan psychedelic acts. This shift informed Zoe's music and aesthetics deeply and unless you are actually interested in Amebix as a band, vibe and worldview, you will probably miss what Zoe were ambitiously trying to do: syncretizing the Amebix world. I am not saying they did it perfectly but the intent is indeed fascinating and taking it into consideration, it made perfect sense that Zoe included heavy-metal, grungy and psychedelic bits into their music, just like Zygote did.

But let's get back to the band's discography before getting seriously into the Lp. After the demo, Zoe had one instrumental song, "Spere alive", included on "The Darkest 4" compilation tape, a rough number that sounded like an eerie tribute to the song "Monolith" that opens the eponymous album. In 2003, Crust War released the Ep "From Hell", a much better-recorded work with a title-track that still stands probably as the best blend of Zygote, Amebix and Antisect to this day. Apparently, Zoe were meant to do a split record with Effigy at that time. The two bands were close (the members of Effigy even told the Zoe story on the album's insert... with added Effigy visuals!) and, although the split did not materialize, not only did Zoe and Effigy release an Ep with the same title, "From Hell", almost simultaneously, but the bands also did their own respective version of the same song, also called "From Hell", which highlighted their different but ultimately complimentary takes on the old-school crust sound. Listening carefully to these two versions back to back is actually a brilliant exercise and an articulate essay about the discrepancies and parallels between them would make for an ideal entry test for my soon-to-open Department of Crust Studies. Right? The Ep also included some sort of strange teaser with just the first minute of "Spider" that would appear in its entirety on the Lp (I haven't figured that one out yet).

The album "The last axe beat" is undeniably Zoe's most accomplished work (the Lp format arguably fits the genre better). Perfectly-produced (you can really tell since four of the seven songs are new recordings of previously released songs) and displaying top notch musicianship, it is expectedly saturated with varying degrees of Amebix and Zygote referentiality, in shape and content, but it does not have the dreaded sloppy patchwork feel. If anything, I would say it sounds like a huge painting representing the Amebix universe, or like very well-crafted and tasteful crustpants. The music is certainly dark and heavy but not in the common accepted sense of "loud and crushing" that too many bands adopt (and no, adding death-metal riffs and guttural vocals will not necessarily make your sound heavier or darker). The album is groovy, powerful and has a genuinely epic quality but must be understood as a vibe-driven record. There is a very specific atmosphere pervading the songs, although they are quite diverse in terms of beats and moods. "The last axe beat" revolves around a carefully construed "Amebix essence" that is to be found in different times, places and shapes in the Amebix universe (I am aware that I am starting to sound like a New Age preacher but hold on in there). It has the same ritualistic, tribal, pagan feel with an earthy and dark but euphoric psychedelic vibe reinforced with the high-pitched almost heavy-metal vocals. You could make a comprehensive list of each amebixian element and then find them all on "The last axe beat" (which can be played as an Amebix bingo as well): the "Arise!" tribal beats, the "Monolith" synth-driven bits, the "Wind of knives" heavy rock/grungy moments, the classic Amebix arpeggio ones, the typical bass sound, the fast thrashy hardcore, the tuneful and lugubrious zygoty guitar leads... without mentioning several obvious reworkings of actual songs, the literal intertextuality of the song titles and the many visual references, from the font to the Amebix face.

"The last axe beat" is not a perfect album in terms of narration, as I feel it may be lacking in storytelling structure (something Amebix actually excelled at) that could have been strengthened with an actual intro and maybe a couple of additional songs (the Lp is rather short). Another missed opportunity for me lies in the overall look of the Lp, which is fine but not really spectacular. However, it is still a unique and fascinating record that is more subtle than it looks and offers a paradoxically creative perspective on crust music by working on a very specific realm. It probably will not speak to those of us that are not that much into Amebix (or are just not nerds), but as a record that literally and figuratively epitomizes the obsession with Amebix and genuinely, self-consciously embraces it, it is unrivaled. Following the album, Zoe contributed two songs to the "Konton damaging ear massacre" compilation Lp (re-recordings of "New world" and "Zygospore" that smartly refer to different recording sessions of Amebix and prove that the same song recorded differently can significantly nuance the original moods) and to "Amebix Japan" but then, at this point, it feels almost redundant or even offensive to mention it.


Monday, 26 December 2016

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 10): Acrostix / Contrast Attitude "Awave! / Now the world is from CHAOS to another more CHAOS..." split Lp, 2004

This record makes me a little nostalgic actually as it takes me back to an exciting time when I was proudly flying the "No war but the crust war" flag and trusted the label for top crust records with my life (as well as with indecent shipping costs sometimes, this goes without saying). Thinking about the 2002/05 crust period retrospectively is interesting. In the grand Crust Narrative, these few years are situated just before the so-called stenchcore revival of the mid-noughties which - although it admittedly did produce some good records - certainly changed the way crust music was being looked at, further sectioned the genre and turned what were essentially takes on the genre into the genre itself by giving it a new name: stenchcore. That it coincided with the rise of the internet culture from the mid-00's onwards should be no surprise and the growing codifications it implemented have become today's norms. But this Lp, along with the Effigy records of the early 00's, also made me realize something else, that Japanese crust (and indeed Japanese punk music on the whole) is, to a large extent, oblivious to the punk trends regularly sweeping across the rest of the world. They just seem to do their own thing in their own context and I highly doubt the short-lived 00's stenchcore revival had any significant influence on Japanese crust bands (Hellshock being arguably an exception in that respect, but then, if anything, they were themselves highly influenced, in terms of intent more than sound, by Japanese crust music), which accounts for the usually high quality level and the sound specificities of crust bands over there.

This record also makes me giggle a little as I am reminded of how people reacted to it at the time. They were all pretty unanimous (and, by and large, still are). Contrast Attitude's side absolutely ruled, but what was that cheesy heavy-metal band doing on the B-side of a hardcore/crust record? I would be a rich punk (understand "I could buy a decent brand of lager for a change") if I had had one euro each time I heard "I have never even listened to the full Acrostix side... That shows how much it sucks. I mean... who do they think I am? Some hard-rock fan with greasy hair? I only bought it for Contrast Attitude anyway because I <3 D-beat and that". Almost 13 years after its release, the general appreciation of the Lp has not really changed and you can be sure that Contrast Attitude will be raved about while Acrostix will be promptly discarded (to be fair, some people did get into "(A chain of) hatred" later on though). As for me, as much as I enjoyed CA, I always preferred the Acrostix side. Sure, they were not a hardcore-punk band at all on the Lp, but I loved the fact that, while they sounded familiar through the heavy Amebix/Axegrinder influences, they also sounded really different from what I knew at the time, with the epic layers of synth and the strong ballad vibe. It was crust music but it felt like they had picked one aspect of old-school crust - in this case the rocking melancholy vibe of "Drink and be merry", "Right to ride" or "The final war" - and assiduously worked on it in order to tell a different side of the Crust Story. And I bloody loved that idea. Of course, I now have a much more articulate idea of what the band originally was going for and where they coming from in their early days, but despite the more cerebral view I acquired, I still see these three Acrostix songs as genuine masterpieces and proper attempts at telling the story distinctively, from a different but complementary narrative position if you will. It is quite ironic and even sad that crust music became so generic and forceful shortly after.

Like Contrast Attitude (with whom they shared a member, bass player Sin), Acrostix were from Matsusaka, in the Mie prefecture. The band's birthdate is unclear but seeing that their first appearance on a record was in 2002, it is safe to assume that they formed not long before that. On the paronomasia front, "Acrostix" is actually a great name methinks. Beside the "-ix" suffix obviously nodding toward Amebix (and they did nod a lot), undeniably the band's primary influence, referring to the concept of the acrostic was a clever move and I see it as a comment on songwriting and how by changing the order of elements you can create something that is both new and yet rooted in a tradition. The constant retelling of a story that changes with each telling and narrator and yet retains its intrinsic meaningfulness. And it sounds great as well, but I am grateful they did not go for "Acrustix", it would have been too corny.

If the first appearance of Acrostix, with the original version of "Filth chain" on the "Crust night 2002: the war begins for them!!" compilation cd on Tribal War Asia, did give a few hints about the band's identity, it still very much had an incomplete feel. Basically a raw rewriting of "Arise!", the song had some solid Effigy-like riffing (another important early influence) but lacked that groovy atmospheric vibe that made Acrostix stand out. The second effort, the self-titled four-songs demo recorded in late 2002, was more convincing, if still on the raw side of things. Keeping building on the Amebix gloomy rocking sound, especially with the omnipresent groovy bass lines and the raucous but distinguishable vocals, the songs were heavy but not in a punishing way as they relied more on vibe than sheer power. But it was on "The darkest 4" tape (a four-way split between Acrostix, Effigy, Disturd and Zoe) released in 2003, that Acrostix truly took off. Despite a rough production, the band made a choice that proved to be a game-changer and considerably improved the atmospheric quality of the songwriting: they added a synth. And not just a little of it, no, they completely went for it, ballistically. The synth provided that extra texture, a new meaningful layer that fitted and further developed the melancholy vibe of the amebixy numbers perfectly. The song "The day comes" paved the way for what was to be the apex of the early Acrostix period: "Awave!".

Now, before I go on with the Lp I am actually here to discuss, just a few words about synth-driven crust music, because that is exactly what we are dealing with here. Of course, Amebix did use the synth on some songs (on "Arise!" and especially "Monolith") and at the end of their existence, they even had a full-time synth-player on stage, George. Although the synth was undeniably crucial in establishing and enhancing that gloomy, monumental, otherworldly vibe that Amebix created, it was still mostly used as a textural layer, as a means to an end, rather than an actual instrument on par with the guitar or the bass, although some moments on "Monolith" were certainly synth-driven and pointed in that direction. It was in this interstice that Acrostix flourished, by taking the "Monolith" mood and vibe and adding a new structural voice with a more important role being given to the synth. Building on the Amebix synth-tradition, some bands had used it afterwards, often parsimoniously, like Axegrinder on their Lp, Saw Throat, Counterblast, Filth of Mankind in a very meaningful way and Morne (their 2008 demo being a masterwork on that level).

Of course, the "Monolith" period and the few songs recorded afterwards by Amebix remain Acrostix' primary pool of inspiration, however there has always been one scene, oft forgotten, heavily into synth and old-school mid-paced groovy crust: Greece. And that is exactly where I pinpoint the other main songwriting influence of Acrostix. A quick look at Acrostix' side of the Lp's cover gives the game away for me. It depicts a wolf howling to the sky. Now I am aware that it is not exactly the most original motif in the world of punk and metal (and to be honest, the cover is the one thing I do not really like on the Lp, well, along with the celtic cross on the "o" of Acrostix, it does not roll that well on a shirt in Europe, does it?), but I am definitely reminded of the cover of Χαοτικό Τέλος' "Μπροστά Στην Παράνοια" Lp from 1993 that has wolves howling in a moonlit forrest (flying crow included of course). Even more so since Χαοτικό Τέλος had possibly been the most synth-driven crust band so far and their 1991 tape "Πέρα Από Τα Τείχη Της Σιωπής" remains, to this day, the best example I can think of synth-driven "amegrinder" apocalyptic crust music. I may be reading too much into the wolf reference but Acrostix cannot not have been aware of Greek synthcrust (there is another subgenre for ya) and despite significant discrepancies between the sound of Acrostix and Χαοτικό Τέλος, I do not think I am mistaken to think that the former took some important cues from the latter and Greek crust as a whole in terms of arrangements and placements. Interestingly the release of the split with Contrast Attitude coincided with that of another synth-driven crust record (despite the rarity of this take on the genre) in the shape of Χειμερία Νάρκη's "Στη Σιωπή Της Αιώνιας Θλίψης" in late 2003 (yes, Hibernation if you prefer).

On the Lp, you will therefore find three songs of synth-driven mid-tempo dark and rocking heavy crust music with a distinctive Japanese feel in the guitar (that crunchy distorted sound being the trademark), groovy bass lines and half-sung/half/shouted vocals. As I mentioned several times, the late-Amebix influence is all over (literally with songs called "Awave!", "Eternal winter" or "The biginning of the end" and the "Amebirider" drawing that blends Amebix' face with the Hellbastard one, just in case it was not clear enough) and Acrostix do manage to recreate this deceptive simplicity, organic, earthy and atavistic with an incantatory quality, although they also add some punch and intensity thanks to a great production and an emphatic songwriting intentionality. The three songs blend with each other so I left them on a single track as it stresses their flowing atmospheric quality. The standout number here is the closing one, "Eternal winter" with an epic and ethereal intro where Sin the Baron (also on the bass, quite obviously...) sings for real (and I mean SING) before the song builds up into an intense, crunchy, catchy, gloomy crust anthem with simple yet amazingly effective bass lines and top tunes. That is melancholy crust and rocking bleakness you can actually dance to, unique and yet heavily referential. Japanese crust at its best. Following this split Lp, Acrostix took a different musical direction, adding a lot of punchy Japanese hardcore to their recipe, and, although very powerful, I never was quite as taken by their (synthless) later records, even if I must admit that I do like the "Truth turned gray with justice" Ep from 2008 and the sax-driven (yes, you read correctly) crust song on the B-side.

The other side of the Lp, poetically entitled "Now the world is from CHAOS to another more CHAOS...", has four songs from Contrast Attitude who have a very different take on the whole thing and that often makes for great split records, right? Looking at the foldout cover, you can pretty much guess what CA are all about with the use of the Discharge font and "D-beat till death" being proudly stated... or can you? CA are not really a D-beat band and although they do make use of the beat and of some riffing, they are in no way as orthodox as Disclose or Final Bloodbath for instance and sound like a much more versatile bunch with one idea in mind: hardcore intensity. Not quite as monomaniacally systemized as Disclose, as crustily insane as Gloom nor as hyperbolically relentless as Framtid, CA are maybe somewhere in the middle. There is a noize element in the guitar but it is not exaggerated, it is fast and punishing without being manic, heavy and thrashy but not really metal, catchy and with a fist-raising intent but never going into Burning Spirit territory... CA are a balanced band if you think about it and the songs, without ever being truly memorable, are clearly effective and well written. The four songs on the split Lp have a great sound which highlights their modernity as I never felt the band tried to go for old-school or openly referential. The drumming is super tight, as usual, with a delightful pummeling crasher crust feel, the riffs are good and bring Diatribe or Broken Bones - more than Discharge - to mind, the yelled vocals are intense, direct and harsh but never forceful and on the whole there is an undeniable hardcore energy and spirit permeating the sound through smart hooks and tempo changes. The production may not be heavy enough on this particular recording but the songs remain top-shelf in their style and I can definitely imagine them being particularly great live (like a useless fool, I missed them when they toured in Europe a few years ago). CA have been going since 1998 and still deliver the goods which is something that I always admire.

The foldout is quite good-looking with an abundance of visual references to Discharge, Amebix or Antisect and you have got plenty of band pictures for added crustness. I am not such a sucker for the covers however as they are pixelated and have a real "early digital imaging" feel, and I guess they should have gone for the old-school DIY punk look of the inside. Oh well, it was another time. And good news, as this quite wonderful split Lp still goes for cheap today and can be obtained for a tenner. The gods of punk-rock are sometimes undecipherable.


Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 9): Defector "パンクシステムデストロイ (Punk system destroy)" Ep, 2003

As I mentioned at the start of the series, selecting records that could, taken diachronically as a story and synchronically as a whole, give a sense of what Japanese crust was all about felt like something akin to a Herculean task. Not unlike the Hydra of Lerna, you pick one record and then another crucial one just pops up from your memory. It is bloody endless but cuts had to be made and top bands like Crocodile Skink, Guillotine Terror or Argue Damnation were eventually left out (but I will come back for you, I promise). The five year gap between SDS' "Ameber" and the present record does not imply that there was no significant Japanese crust record released between 1998 and 2003, but let's say that I wanted to write meaningfully about the noughties because it was a very rich decade on that level and I had to start somewhere. So there, Defector it is.

Writing about Osaka's Defector just a month after my extravagant ravings about Gloom might sound a little pointless, if not redundant, and I do think that the various hyperbolic mumbles that are to follow should be read while keeping in mind Gloom's creative perspective (if you are too lazy to do more than three clicks, meaning you were probably born after 1992, here it is). There are bands wishing they were judged on their own actual production rather than that of the members' former bands. But I do not think that Defector belongs to that category of bands since, beside having former Gloom people, the band kept building openly on their predecessor's legacy.

I first heard Defector in 2005. Of course, I had seen their name on distros but the "noize" tag kinda frightened me (even more so because it was written with a "z" instead of an "s", thus suggesting that it would be even noisier than that Gloom Lp or that Confuse live side I had so much trouble listening to... and can you really blame me?) and I did not really care to give them a shot. Until the summer of 2005 when I stayed in Dublin for a couple of weeks with my best mate. I have great memories of those crazy days but I guess this is not really the place and you will have to wait for my autobiography for details. We were staying at some friends' house in a neighbourhood called Phibsboro, where a good few punks lived. And painted on a derelict wall in the hood there was a slogan that I bloody enjoyed: "Punk system destroy". Of course, it was a tongue-in-cheek thing (you know, Irish humour and that) but I loved it. It sounded both silly and witty. So I asked where the slogan came from and learnt that it was the name of a Defector Ep, which was then promptly played at the house. I cannot say I liked it though because Defector's (noize not) music is not really one that you can really grasp fully when drinking and chatting with mates, but I still made a mental note that said, roughly, "it's alright that, a bit shambolic and fuzzy but I'll remember to give it a proper go". Truth be told, I really needed to understand Gloom first in order to get what Defector were up to but I eventually did, although it did take me a few years to achieve (but really, you just cannot focus on everything).

Defector formed after Gloom's final split (there were three of them apparently), following the release of "Mentally achronistic". The band had Jhonio on the bass and Habi on the drums (both of whom had always been in Gloom), Jorge on vocals and two guitar players, Taki (Gloom's first guitar player) and Toyo. The name "Defector" was itself taken from the 16-second Gloom song I love so much (from "Recomendation of perdition") and I suppose both bands can be said to play a similar genre. So that's a lot of Gloom in one single band. Do Defector sound like Gloom? Absolutely and definitely not. Although you do find the same structural basis, Defector were far more noise-oriented as the title of their first Ep, "Ultra noize violence" (there's a new subgenre for ya), can attest. They were noizier but not necessarily noisier than Gloom, noizy but not noisy. Am I being cryptic? Let's put it that way. Defector, like Gloom, saw the noise aspect of punk music as a creative statement and an aesthetic trope. As it was rightly pointed out to me about my review of "Recomendation of perdition", Gloom's assertion that "All answer it chaos!" was also a comment on the mid/late 90's trend of cleaner production, sound and texture in crust punk and hardcore. The chaos they referred to was precisely their intent to go back to a hardcore essence where noise and rawness prevail. Although there is no denying that the noisiness of mid-90's Gloom and Defector were completely intentional and denoted some crafty and tight musicianship, as opposed to a lot of 80's bands whose noisiness had a lot to do with limited skills and/or shitty gears (though the noise intentionality should certainly not be discarded either), these Osaka bands embraced and advocated the noisy textures of Confuse, Gai and the likes. This is how I read Defector's use of the word "noize", as the stance of "noise as a creative choice".

However, Defector did not use "noize" in the same way as Gloom and not to the same effect either. In fact, you can almost grasp Defector's perspective just by looking at the cover and the insert of "Punk system destroy" since they are ripe with information. In 2003, Defector's message was the following: "It's just like a law / Punk system destroy / Fuck regulations, fuck it!! / Burn away your explanation!! Kill the regulation punks!!". Now, that sounds a bit harsh, innit? You could probably read it in the same light as Gloom's, meaning that it could be a critique of the drive for a better, more polished sound displayed by the hardcore world then. I would argue that it also had a lot to do with the growing musical restrictions and closed-mindedness, not only in terms of sound but also of genre, that the band felt. This Defector's Ep (more so than the first one) could be listened to as a purposefully noizy and versatile work that endeavoured to be free from the constraints generated from punk trends and limited expectations. It is like a big proverbial "fuck off!" if you will. Of course, it is also "just" a good crasher crust (or noize violence or however you want to call it) and even as such, it is a worthy one. But then, well, we do have two guitars, don't we?

Two guitars in Japanese crust is very unusual, to say the least, and seeing that Defector were made up of rather experienced punks, it must have meant something. While the drumming and bass parts are not that different from Gloom's in terms of intent (understand, they are insanely tight and effective), the guitar work is something else. While Toyo deals with the blown-out, distorted, fuzzy guitar texture and piercing feedbacks, Taki is responsible for the monstrous crunchy metallic crust riffing. And, despite the obvious difficulty to make the two guitars work together, especially when they seem to go in different directions, they do work perfectly but nevertheless tensely, they managed to complement each other but are still somehow frictional. You have that extremely distorted sound that is used almost as a layer of noize on the one hand and then groovy old-school crust riffs on the top of it and the crux of the Ep lies in the conflicting yet pregnant songwriting relation between both. I am not a particularly good musician, but I am pretty sure that cannot be easy to do right and tastefully. The two songs on the B side ("No control" and "Lunatic annihilation") demonstrate fantastically a very unusual blend of Confuse/State Children texture with SDS/Effigy metallic crunch. But if the blend is so successful, it is also because of the songwriting vibe of Defector and what they intended to create as an atmosphere. While I argued that Gloom were going for a representation of the brutal insanity of modern life, Defector picked another side of insanity, one that is clearly deranged and emerges from a desire for the loss of strict meanings. Defector's music sometimes does not just represent insanity, it just sounds insane and demented. It stems from the unexpected changes and moments in the songs (the opening of the "Lunatic annihilation" sounds like a madman's dream), the drooling ferocity of the songwriting and also the constant presence of that distorted guitar that gives the impression that the songs were recorded over an old tape and that some of what you hear belongs to completely different songs. It was a conscious creative effort from the band (quite postmodernist actually) to convey the sense of a dislocation of meaning that still produces liberating artistic cohesion. Fuck regulations, right?

On a strict musical level, this is a crust hardcore tornado you are facing. The Japanese Bristol sound is here, the Doom/ENT/Sore Throat tradition too, some Hellbastard/SDS metal riffs, I hear some Anti-Cimex worship here and there and Discharge also plays a central role (there are several visual references to them on the cover)... This is a very intense, aggressive, over-the-top, noizy punk as fuck record but also one that I think is very interesting to listen to carefully. A proper "Noize not music" effort is always more than just that and in this case, it is certainly more subtle than the primitive "5 mobs 2 cord thrash" suggests, like an articulate primitiveness. Similarly to Gloom's "Recomendation of perdition", you can find dead crusties on "Punk system destroy", this time impaled rather than hung and the slightly deranged cheesy montage with the band members indicates that fun was had indeed. "Punk system destroy" was released on Crust War in 2003 and the band also appeared on the label's 2005 compilation Lp "混沌難聴大虐殺 Konton Damaging Ear Massacre" alongside Framtid or Poikkeus. Interestingly, the two guitar players kept doing what they did, with "Metal penis" Taki playing in Zoe and "Noise penis" Toyo fronting ZyanosE a few years later.                      


Monday, 19 December 2016

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 8): SDS "Ameber" 12'' Ep, 1998

I wish to express my sincerest apologies for the short break I had to take (I wish I had an alright excuse but it is mostly because I am a disorganized lazy bum) and truly hope that no breath was held. But let's not dwell on this and let's get back to Japanese crust, shall we?

Today I am extremely pleased to rave, once again, about a band that has become a regular guest on Terminal Sound Nuisance (they deserve to have their own parking space at that point), the mighty SDS. Since it feels pointless to make the introductions, I refer you to earlier posts (Future stays in darkness fogCrust and anguished life and Meaningful consolidation) if you want to know more (and why wouldn't you really?) about the band's pre-"Ameber" period. Probably more than any other act, SDS embodies the essence of Japanese crust, although the band never defined itself as "crust". This is not as paradoxical as it might seem since they belonged to the first generation and, under the moniker Sic Death Slaughter, appeared on the "Suck my dick" compilation tape as early as 1987, which not only made them contemporaries of the UK crust explosion but, more importantly, located the band in a timeframe when the term "crust" was not yet consolidated as a genre-signifier. Basically, SDS, like many early crust bands, witnessed the retroactive use of the concept of "crust" applied to their work, even though their influences were to be found in protocrust bands like Discharge, Amebix and, above all, Antisect. A much more relevant way to look at SDS would be to see them as a "UK sound band" (the notion was discussed in the introduction to the series) since the recreation of the classic British hardcore punk sound - understood here more as a specific sound and vibe rather than a strict geographical space - was always at the core of the band's songwriting. This peculiar drive in the broader Japanese punk context of the late 80's made SDS a somewhat unique band, despite their overt referentiality which should not be mistaken as a lack of originality in this specific context. While the Bristol sound had been very popular for the largest part of the 80's, SDS were the pivotal ones who, also thanks to the earlier impetus of Crow, significantly shaped the love for the UK sound of Discharge, Discharge-loving bands (not to be confused with "Discharge-influenced bands", as it is all a matter of degree and template) and the Discharge-fueled metal-punk breed that they generated that would prevail in the 90's and spawn a new genre in Japan.

As mentioned in them fancy sentences above, SDS were a unique band and their originality lied as much in the music itself as in the concept underlying the music. They took what they saw as "the UK sound" and used it as a meaningful clay in order to create cohesive works that are much more intricate and subtle than a mere superficial glance would suggest. And this is why I have always loved SDS records, they all have a creative direction while simultaneously echoing with each other through the UK sound chamber. That and because they are about as intense as a charging rhino. I chose "Ameber" for two reasons. The first one is cheesy. "Ameber" was the first SDS record I bought as the cd version could still be located on some distros when I got it (that'd be in 2004 methinks). But I also wanted to write about it because I feel it is the SDS record that is the least discussed (if at all) and the most misconceived. And I just won't have that. Not on my watch.

"Ameber" was recorded in Nagoya, in June, 1998 and released on MCR Company in September on vinyl and in December on cd (it was actually the label's 100th release). "Ameber" was the follow-up to the "Scum system kill" 1996 Ep that marked the start of the band's "Punk metal bastard" era which revolved around insanity, musically and aesthetically. With a twelve-year long existence, SDS had already been around for a while when "Scum system kill" came out and for any crust band to survive, they have to evolve and add new things to their recipe (Misery is a prime example of that). To a relevant extent, the last four SDS records can be seen from a narrative perspective, each of them a retelling of a similar madness story but from a different point of view in time. "Ameber" is about shapelessness and polymorphism. Far from being just a nod toward Amebix, the name "Ameber" (meaning the parasitic amoeba) actually pointed to the many forms or indeed, to the absence of form, that evil and alienation can take. The cover is purposefully unsettling as the band aimed at breaking from the traditional black and white visual on the vinyl version. If the name "SDS" wasn't written at the top of the cover, I would think it was some sort of heavy psychedelic space-rock record. The idea behind the drawing was one of a threat without definite boundaries and matter and, given the very futuristic design, I would tend to think that it also expressed the coming of an alienating and discarnate digital age that causes a directionless insanity (a theme that would appear again on 2000's "Digital evil in your life"). The trope of a threatening shapelessness can be found in several instances in "Ameber", notably with the ominously blurred drawings of a soldier and of the circular design. Interestingly, the cd version introduced a new cover that looked very different but expressed a similar idea. Even though the threat has the shape of a monster made of electricity, it is still immaterial, fluid and subject to change, just like a modern amoeba that would be the child of the swamp technology feeding on dead matter rather than the product of a natural process.

Out from the cyber void

If the music of "Ameber" was meant to reflect this idea of a madness-inducing, shapeless technological society, it does not imply that it is without direction or focus, quite the contrary. It is one tight and powerful storm of a record. It is certainly SDS' most atmospheric and versatile work. The four songs are blended with each other through the use of creepy, psychedelic noises and ambient textures which confers "Ameber" a sense of narrative wholeness and storytelling. Although the songs themselves are pummeling fast-paced numbers, the different layers of sounds that tie them together, the changes in vocal tones (from gruff possession to evilly high-pitched), the presence of heavy epic mid-tempo transitions and the looped, stretched guitar riffs gives "Ameber" a strange and deranged organic quality. Antisect's "In darkness" era is of course an important reference point here, especially in the emphatic riffing and in the structural fluidity of the record, Anti-System also comes to mind and I distinctively hear some Zygote (for the heavy psychedelic vibe) and Amebix as well (for the incantatory mood) but it is clearly, first and foremost, SDS creatively at work. The bass lines are insanely groovy as they provide the backbone to and enhance the deceptively simple guitar riffs the impact of which relies on their circularity; the drumming is focused and super tight; there are some over-the-top aggressive guitar solos and the vocals are aptly insane-sounding and convey that sense of techno dementia. It is like Antisect had been caught in an electric storm and were battling in cyberspace. There is a relentlessness, an inevitability in the songwriting as the songs crash like waves. In its precise play between form and content, "Ameber" is almost a concept album, although I dislike the term, there is a sense of an organicity conflicting with technology and about to clash with it (as song titles like "Brain invader" and "Cyber god" suggest), on the brink of losing the battle, which is actually a recurring motif in crust if you think about it. "Digital evil in your life" would finish the story of this tension by offering a savage glimpse into an actual insanity that has finally come.

Mega hyper super thanks to Kenichi who took the time to answer my questions for this post and gave me some interesting insight into "Ameber".