The Quietus | Features | album of the week
Keiji Haino and SUMAC by Kazuyuki Funaki
In late September, NASA crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid in hopes of redirecting it. The Dart probe, obliterated in the experiment, was fired at the surface of Dimorphos, a small asteroid orbiting the much larger Didymos. It’s a story that mixes scientific brilliance with a certain cosmic comedy. It’s plausible, and everything says it’s true, but there’s a nagging feeling that it could be a parody, maybe a belated April Fool’s Day joke. The absurdity is only exacerbated by the fact that no one will know if the experiment was actually effective and that the asteroid followed a new course for a few more weeks. Such are the epic time scales and mind-blowing physics involved.
It is both an impressive and bizarre topical story. Driving up the vastness of the universe, the many ways it could wipe us out, and the resources humanity can use to try to influence it. This triggers a startling realization that we’re somehow throwing rocks at trains, or at least probes at asteroids, in our attempt to make a real impact in space.
There is a sense of the sublime poised on the precipice of the surreal in Keiji Haino’s music, at least from the outside. We live in a kind of golden age for the freewheeling noise musician, the muddy rock guitar hero, the chilling vocal soloist and the working haunted hurdy-gurdy virtuoso. A string of releases over the past few years, both solo and collaborative, adding new dimensions to his ever-evolving oeuvre.
Haino falls somewhere between doom vortex conjurer and merry prankster. Always fierce but all in delicacy and nuance, sometimes playful but never anecdotal. His music seems to channel contradiction and conflict, to sit in an unresolved space and stay there for as long as possible. He feels resolutely oriented towards reflection and understanding of a complex, confusing and often contradictory universe. For example, describing the weight of Haino’s music, its ability to disarm, disorient and silence, is more like conveying the effects of an eerie silence than the sound itself. The eerie stillness of a wide open, desolate place, the hypersensitivity that comes in a pitch black room as your ears focus intensely on signs of the presence of something else. Stranger still is that the louder his music, the more the terminology of silence makes sense.
In this youthful apocalypse our golden blood must be shed never let us down marks Haino’s third collaboration with SUMAC, the trio of Aaron Turner (formerly of Isis), Brian Cook and Nick Yacyshyn. It’s a disc imbued with capricious energy. Sonically, it feels like the appearance of a monumental collision. It’s not apocalyptic, but it’s not ecstatic either. It’s an album that stares reality in the face and responds with a squeal, a whine and a flurry of feedback.
Opening “When Logic Rises, Morality Falls Logic and morality in Japanese is just a different character” is a constantly delayed ascent of the space rock, left to simmer on the launch pad as it accumulates energy. ‘potential energy. It’s cosmic music that’s been frustrated without becoming frustrating, the whirlwind the four musicians conjure up through chilling returns and tangled guitars allowing us to contemplate and absorb the tension, to feel it like a vibrating slab of matter sound. When Haino’s vocals kick in, fierce and fragile, it soars but never quite transcends. Take on the disturbing weight that has been created but never escape it.
Track two “a jagged coiled cable in this cable, the sincerity couldn’t be contained” hits with a distortion so visceral it induces charred black synesthesia. It’s a coasting ride in the dark, instruments so buried in the maelstrom they’re unrecognizable, all that’s left is pure electrical noise. As the clang begins to take shape, the rhythm section stirs and breaks free. Drums roll and crash, basses spin like a broken motorcycle. Out of nowhere, the pinches and scrapes of a mysterious acoustic instrument. Playful and brief, it quickly fades away behind a heart-rending scream.
Superficially, Haino and SUMAC seem unlikely collaborators. While not exactly AC/DC, SUMAC has a penchant for chugging and monolithic, vast walls of volatile sound. That’s usually not the terrain Haino really excels at. His music, since his beginnings Wastashi Dake? from there, is dominated by small gestures taking on enormous weight. Despite all its sonic extremes, Haino tends towards subtlety.
The intellect that gave birth to here (eternity) is too youngreleased in September, is a sprawling documentation of two concerts Haino performed with the free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brotzmann. Haino alternates drums and guitar under Brötzmann’s blasts, screams and circular detonations. On percussion, Haino seems to freeze time, stumbling, pausing dramatically and then launching into rhythms running at a different frame rate than the sax. With the guitar, he unleashes spasms of anger, bursts of twang that seem to attack the microscopic pauses for breathing in Brötzmann’s playing. At other times, Haino twists into gnarly excursions, flurries of notes playing with negative space, filling it with sound and transforming its contours.
Solo, Haino’s music is deeply personal and decidedly nocturnal. My Lord Music, I most humbly ask for your indulgence in the hope that you will do me the honor of allowing this seed called Keiji Haino to be planted within you., released earlier this year, was the latest in a series of hurdy-gurdy solo albums. Where French drone folk trio France embrace the instrument’s medieval tonality to unleash swarms of time-erasing drones, Haino examines its creaks and moans in chilling suspension to startling effect, the feverish sounds it extracts amplifying the dead air of the space where it was recorded as much as the particular tones of the instrument.
This sonic paradox, where noise seems to make us aware of the visceral power of silence, is constant in Haino’s music. 2016 saw a reissue of 1973 Live – Milky Way Part 1, a live set prior to the formation of Fushitsusha and the release of Haino’s first solo album. A dazzling forty-seven minute swarm of electronic frequencies, it evokes nothing less than cosmic stillness. A state of restlessness in the face of something vast and unchanging.
Even in 2021 Keiji Haino and the Rustic Rocks, an album of deconstructed covers of rock classics, nuance and detail are everything. Haino and the group scrambled the originals almost beyond recognition, leaving just enough of a trace to keep the source material recognizable. These remaining fragments made the extremes of the pieces’ metamorphoses all the more apparent.
Haino’s music generally comes across as an explosion of centrifugal force, small gestures constantly trying to pull outward; SUMAC feels centripetal, with the trio pulling immense weight inward toward a ground-shaking singularity. Yet somehow the two entities merge through frayed walls of distortion and crumbling beats. The mismatched nature of the collaboration makes the production all the more dynamic. Haino is the catalyst that further disrupts SUMAC’s already volatile balance. Where Their First Team, 2018 US Dollar Bill – Keep your face to the side, you’re too hideous to look straight on, saw them combine into an apocalyptic boogie, sometimes resembling a turbocharged version of Fushitsusha; the latest record sees Haino lean more into SUMAC’s dirge, creating more of a holistic unity. The membrane between them seems much more permeable now, creating a new mutilated platform for the two.
In this youthful apocalypse… was recorded live at Vancouver’s Astoria Hotel in 2019, a venue the release notes describe as a “shabby hotel dive bar in a bad neighborhood.” Even when it comes to live albums, it’s particularly gnarly. The sounds are mixed together in an unusual way, the drums overly huge in some places, oddly buried in others. It creates a strange and fluctuating imbalance, the feeling of sitting on the precipice between sanity and madness, between embracing civilization and pushing it into the woods with a tinfoil hat. It constantly looks like the group is barely holding itself, and its equipment, together. The epitome of insecurity in noise rock, perhaps, fraying at the edges, almost breaking, but barely managing to stay above water. It only adds to the sense of an existential wrestling match that seeps into the album. These are themes that have been present in Haino’s music for a long time. Working with SUMAC gives them an unsettling clarity.
On that fuzz pedal you stuck down your throat, its screw started to come loose. Your next effects pedal is up to you, do you have it ready?’ the quartet chisels a burst of feedback into a throbbing pulse. Five minutes later, he stumbles into the most unlikely of grooves, one that feels like he’s reflecting off the walls as Haino goes wild at the top. Perhaps the foursome are exorcising their demons, but their attempts seem to go no further than a mirror that sends them straight back. The track ends with a dead stop heavier than any sound could have been. His resolve forever just out of reach.
Haino’s music conveys conflict. He confronts them, amplifies the contradictions and embodies them through sound. In the few interviews with Haino available in English, he alludes to the ideas behind the music he makes, and how, for him, sounds and their form carry immense weight. As he explained to Alan Cummings for Thread in 2002: “What I especially want people to understand is that checkpoints should never be created. I don’t mean we should destroy them, but I want people to really realize that they are not free. I grew up on rock but I want to take it to another world.
I would dare say that what makes Haino’s music so captivating is not so much the vast ideas themselves, but the fact that he makes the struggle with them audible. It’s the sound of someone facing the void and trying to come to terms with everything it says about us. SUMAC provides perfect partners for this journey.
This is most powerful on ‘Because proof of a fact is valued over the fact itself truth??? becomes fractured”. Quite magnificent, the track marks a startling curve in the hitherto obliterating progression of the album, a rising celestial drift that culminates with Haino demanding “Let the brightness prevail over the obligation… No need to discover , be the one to be discovered.” The line is open and full of meaning. SUMAC runs with the moment, bending its potential meaning in perfect sync with Haino. It might not be able to deflect an asteroid, but the sheer weight the quartet summons is at least a reminder of what it’s like to live in a universe where things like this might be possible.