I think I’m tripping Japanese

In 1988, four motley bohemians set up a menagerie of makeshift percussive instruments – a saxophone, recorder, violin and ocarina – in a heavily populated train station in Tokyo, and proceeded to wail to an off-put throng passing by. The ensuing music was both cacophonous and beautiful, noisy and slight – and manages, one way or another, to be thoroughly unignorable.

Five years later, the same ragtag group claims to be a medieval music club in order to gain permission to perform in Japan’s oldest wooden Jesuit church. The result is a delicate, nuanced acoustic performance that matches the previous show’s intricate immateriality.

Since releasing their amazing album Hypnotic Underworld in 2004, three of the original four (plus three new members) have toured sold-out venues around the world, demonstrating again their mystic radiance and showing, unflinchingly, that they haven’t changed in over 20 years. The difference? Those petulant businessmen and ambivalent shoppers from the train station are replaced by eager head-bobbers and psychedelic warriors, all hoping to join Ghost’s spiritual voyage.

This year, Drag City has released a long overdue collection of previously unavailable video footage, chronicling Ghost’s 20 years of sublime live performances. “Ghost: Metamorphosis” is not likely to convert the uninitiated into devout followers, but for fans it is absolutely essential. Beginning with a shaky record of the aforementioned train station performance (included as an extra on the DVD), “Metamorphosis” follows the band through many of its now famous temple performances in the late ’80s and ’90s, small venue shows in Tokyo and tours in England and the U.S. The whole package is a consistent assemblage of each major period in Ghost’s sublime career, with each album getting equal live treatment and every member who has ever participated in Ghost’s revolving cast getting immortalized in grainy Super 8 and VHS footage.

At many points (especially in the early performances), Masaki Batoh and company are almost indiscernible amidst the blackness of the stage and video limitations – only occasionally do you catch a fleeting glimpse of a swinging microphone, a backlit pennywhistle or Batoh’s gangly, robed frame. Yet this only adds to the experience of these performances. It is the music itself that matters here (miraculously, even in those early shows the sound is retained exquisitely), and the shadowy phantasmagoria of the stage seems to weave the sounds from some archaic device incorporating instrument, nature and air itself. Truly, the magic of the performances translates brilliantly – this is probably one of the finest music DVDs I’ve ever seen.


Tripping you novice
A Japanese psychedelic primer

If you’ve checked out a sampling of Ghost’s discography (if not, start with their latest, Hypnotic Underworld, and work backwards) and need a crash course in Japanese psychedelia, these tripped-out albums are a sure bet. You don’t need drugs (seriously!) to enjoy a one-way mind flight by way of these gems. Just invest in a pair of headphones that can take a beating.

Flower Travellin’ Band – Satori
Dropping on burn-outs in 1971, this largely unknown anywhere but Japan freak-out is arguably the one that started it all. Combining the raw, heavy power of Black Sabbath and early Blue Cheer with a heavy dose of mysticism, this is one of those desert island records that never diminishes. Buy it now.

Les Rallizes Denudes – Le 12 mars 1977 a Tachikawa
Finally available fairly widely, this live show from Japan’s most covert psychedelic band is amazing. There is some amazingly fuzzed-out, low-fi magic at work here, the likes of which nobody else has achieved. Dark, disturbing, nostalgic and exceedingly trippy.

Fushitsusha – Withdrawe, This Sable Disclosure Ere Devot’d
Recorded in 1997, the album further establishes guitarist Keiji Haino as nothing short of a wizard. His guitar spells will envelope your brain in a paranormal fog, drawing out your very soul only to stir it into acid before placing it carefully back into your psychedelic shell. This noisy, feedback-drenched collage is so loud and abrasive that it actually shoots back around and becomes ultimate beauty.

Acid Mother’s Temple – La Novia
Though unnaturally prolific, AMT has yet to release a bad record. And this is one of the best. These two long tracks, both variations of traditional music from the Occitan region of France, are spacey, loud, fast and wholly listenable. This is the album that permanently altered my musical sensibilities.

LSD March – Kanashimino Bishounen
A new release (just last year, in fact), this album stands up to the best. Singer and guitarist Shinsuke Michishita is obviously a Les Rallizes worshipper (in fact, all of these artists are), but his is a poetic journey that is often soft and delicate rather than speaker-blowing. Very dark and very, very psychedelic.