Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Jun 14, 2006


Les Rallizes Denudés - Heavier Than a Death in the Family (Live '73-'77)
(Ain't Group Sounds)

You hear so much about something; then you actually hear it. More often than not, profound disappointment ensues, the let-down directly proportionate to the hype and anticipation preceding the initial encounter. That said, Les Rallizes Denudés live up to, and probably even exceed, their legend.
I'm reluctant to add to the reams already written about Rallizes, but what was captured here is too astonishing to ignore. Since the story has been told elsewhere, and with much greater authority than I can claim, I'll keep the history lesson brief.

Japan, 1967. Fresh-faced garage bands whose creeping Western psych-rock excesses were kept carefully in check with infusions of corporate cash dominated the musical scene. Guitarist/malcontent Mizutani defied this trend by basing his fearsome foursome Hadaka no Rallizes (or Les Rallizes Denudés) on the pastoral Kyoto University campus, far from the big-city studios and power centers of the so-called "Group Sounds" industry. Rallizes followed in the Velvet Underground's anti-commercial footsteps, attracting an entourage of artists, free thinkers, and student radicals. Playing amid mirrors and strobe lights, Rallizes became the focus of Exploding Plastic Inevitable-style performances, the petulant, black-clad Mizutani - commanding an outrageously overloaded guitar tone to match his imposing presence - an ever-rumbling thunderhead of musical disruption.

Mizutani's intense resentment of the studio system and solipsistic worldview made him a producer's nightmare, sabotaging the best of intentions on those few occasions when Rallizes were cornered or cajoled into a formal recording session. In the studio, the band's bristling electricity dissipated entirely, preserving a pale and lifeless revenant of Rallizes on record. Attempts to consign Rallizes' intangible essence to Super-8 film proved almost as futile. According to those fortunate enough to have experienced the real deal (among them a young Keiji Haino, Asahito Nanjo, and Makoto Kawabata), only certain live recordings were able to capture even a spark of the band's preternatural spirit. Not surprisingly, this has meant scant evidence by which to corroborate Rallizes' gargantuan reputation. Three double-album live documents in particular -Rallizes' side of the 'Oz Daysset, Live '73, and Live '77 - are so critical to the Rallizes legend that bootlegging them has become the backbone of several enduring cottage industries. Heavy as a Death in the Family is, in fact, merely the latest pirated incarnation of Live '77, better sounding than usual and re-sequenced to incorporate an orphaned 1973 recording,. I wish I could say that Heavy will be easier to track down than earlier Rallizes "releases," but the nature of the beast assures that this is not the case.

"Strong Out Deeper Than the Night" fills 15 minutes, but I suspect you'll be too entranced to keep count once the first minute and a half have elapsed. Nakamura Takeshi's trebly, vaporous rhythm chords, drummer Mikami Toshirou's sluggish semi-skank,and Mizutani's half-purr/half-yelp vocals are so swaddled in reverb as to seem reflected off a million mirrored surfaces. Without warning, Mizutani starts throwing charred guitar shapes that weld scathing feedback to pungently florid psychedelic strokes. Just imagine the effect combined with flashing lights and looking-glass walls! Only bassist Hiroshi abstains from excess, and his FX-free, devastatingly simple hook leads you in and out of Mizutani's maelstrom shaken but intact. Those are the ingredients, and they read well enough on paper. Yet actually hearing Rallizes thorough transmogrification of the basest of troglodyte Rock stomps is liable to snatch your breath as surely as a square kick to the solar plexus. You won't care how it was done or why it was done; just the proof that it can be done will be enough. And Rallizes do it again with the demolition doo-wop of "Night of the Assassins," a perverse delight wherein Skullflower stands by Ben E. King while Mizutani makes his feelings about those blasted Group Sounds unmistakable.

"The Night Collectors" pushes pop song to scandalous levels of distorted delirium where everything melts into a throbbing, hemorrhagic migraine. Two decades on, High Rise and Mainliner would "patent" this sound - not to mention Rallizes' magical combination of crippling distortion and cruddy fidelity - without really improving upon 1977's model. Sheer beautiful-noise overdrive of rarest pedigree, "The Night Collectors" points at a possibly unstated influence on Sonic Youth and their ecstatic kin. At the other extreme, the I-can't-believe-it's-not-Velvets exhibit "Enter the Mirror" tickles gently as a buttercup on the chin. Mizutani demonstrates a much lighter touch here, and he comes off just peachy. Shame about Hiroshi, though. The bassist seems utterly stymied by the pedestrian chord changes, and falls back on an ill-matched Loaded lilt. As Mizutani veers off into ever bolder and more spectacular Quicksilver-styled solo sprees, Hiroshi's bouncy bass line just sounds hopelessly lost. Whether it's deliberate dumb-brilliance or not, it hardly undermines the track's charming change of pace.

A complete 2CD bootleg of '77 Live is known to exist, but you want to seek out Heavy for "People Can Choose," a taste of Rallizes circa 1973 that ranks with the finest Krautrock of its era and attains a peak of exhilarating rock excess the Stooges would have surely recognized and applauded. Toshirou bashes the cymbals like a primal force unleashed. Mizutani and Takeshi drive the distortion further into the red than one might think possible. Hiroshi goes absolutely berserk, though the no-fi, umpteenth-generation recording plows him under the ruckus. If any ten minutes of recorded sound could be said to testify for the rawest, raunchiest thrills music has to offer, "People Can Choose" is a prime contender. A comprehensive "Funhouse"-style boxed set of alternate takes is most certainly in order and may be just what this world needs to set everything right again.

Heavy ends in the protracted Apocalypse of "Ice Fire." Mizutani's doomsday echo and the heavy, sulfurous stink of scorched earth mark Rallizes' passage into history, and I can't imagine anything following, or even surviving, in the wake. That outfits such as Haino's Fushitsusha, Kosokuya, and (to a lesser extent) Nanjo and Kawabata's Mainliner were later able to reclaim this obliterated terrain for their own flags verges on the miraculous - akin to perfume gardens springing from the salted soils of Carthage.