Les Rallizes Denudes- Heavier than a Death in the Family

I think it’s fair to say that Les Rallizes Denudes are the ultimate cult band. Nasty statement right? While this may be the type of sentence you hear after feeding a student DJ too much coke, the fact remains the same, they are. Rather than this piece being some vain masturbation exercise, the aim is to cast light over a lost classic in the hope you’ll like it. If you’ve already heard the band then you know how good this thing is. If you haven’t then that’s fine, infact that’s great, that’s the whole damn point.

The album in question is the fabulously monikered “Heavier than a Death in the Family”, which as well as being one of the greatest titles ever, perfectly articulates the sound within. Imagine Hawkwind meeting The Jesus and Mary Chain in 1960’s Japan. Early listens of this album were difficult. A listen back-to-front was like volunterring for a weekend of waterboarding. ‘So what?’ I hear you cry, ‘Why have I not heard of them?’ The answer is simple, Les Rallizes Denudes (LRD) were a band born way ahead of their time. In contrast to the Beatles-sound-a-like groups that were dominating the Japanese charts at the time, LRD (the name means The Empty Rallizes if that helps) used lacerating feedback and soaring amplification, that was sometimes monotonous, sometimes dubby and even poppy at times. Tie that in with links to radical left-wing politics, extreme sensory assault at live shows and a general revolutionary aura and you have what must be the ultimate cult group.

A google search will give you plenty of information, but let me briefly summarise their history. Formed in 1967 by Mizutani,( no surname, it was that kind of band) and performing behind mirrors and strobe lights to a coterie of performance artists, dissidents and weirdos at the pastoral Kyoto University campus, and always-clad head-to-toe in black, the group were by a long stretch the most anti-social, anti-establishment thing to emerge in fusty, repressed post-war Japan. After various attempts to capture the sound of the band in the studio, Mizutani refused to try again. This is why their discography is so weird and disjointed, instead of relying on the studio Mizutani entrusted the band’s recording legacy to the fans and their bootleg recordings.

Heavier Than a Death in the Family is a compilation of live recordings dating from ’73 and ’77. The first track on the record “Strung out Deeper than the Night” is what the band are all about. Sonically, the tone is heavy, heavy drug music that throws you about and throttles the listener into submission. The track is just so thick. Layers upon layers of feedback washed down with pulsing drums and Mizutani’s vocals that are indecipherable over the monolithic guitar sound. This formula continues for the next three tracks “The Night Collectors”, “People Can Choose” and “Ice Fire”, each of these are mighty fine examples of propellent guitar savagery. For those listeners out there wanting a breather, then you’re in luck. “Night of the Assassins” is a dramtic change in direction (those of you who liked the Dirty Beaches record last year will recognise the bass line from “Lord of the Highways”) . The track kicks off with this upbeat doo-wop bass –line strangely similar to Ben E King’s “Stand By Me”. Confused yet? Don’t get me wrong the track still contains many of the ingredients that make up the band’s sound, but there is a clear pop song lurking beneath this sonic assault, making this the most bizarre pop gem you’re ever likely to hear. Perhaps it’s a satirical play on mainstream Japanese tastes at the time? I guess we’ll never know.

Meanwhile, fourth track “Enter the Mirror” showcases the dubby sides to the band. Centerting around his echo-laden guitar lead, the tracks rolls along like some sort of meditative sound scape, Mitzutani’s fallen-angel vocals creating a desolate, beautiful infinity amongst the chaos. When, as it must, the onslaught arrives, it feels richly earned and not a single sky-skraping, gut-punching note is wasted. Like an ongoing air raid “People can Choose” opens with this thunderous guitar riff that sounds like The Stooges at their most loose. With everything the band craft the sound appears to be kept from the verge of collapse by a nose-hair, capable of plunging into a chasm of sonic waste at any time, but somehow appearing out the other end for the next gut buster. The finale to this barbaric excerise is “Ice Fire”, another familiar noise jam, that sounds like a battery of marshall stacks being played at the bottom of the South Pacific.

If you think this record is simply ‘noise’ then you’re probably 80% right. But I think it’s way more complicated than that. This record represents the dissaffected youth of 60’s Japan. Music so extreme the right wing government couldn’t claim an ounce of it for themselves and familiar enough for teenagers to hear echoes in their western noise icons. The band did hit the headlines though, but for the entirely wrong reasons.

As I mentioned, the band’s links to extreme left-wing politics reached a head in 1969. During this year the band played at the Barricades A Go-Go concert at Kyoto University, organised by students occupying the university. Such a gesture was no mere pose: a year later original member Wakabayashi joined members of the Japanese Red Army in hijacking a Japanese airliner to North Korea. After this widely reported incident, Mitzutani, who also had dealings with the Red Army, became increasingly convinced he was under surveillance and the band went underground. The band have cropped up now-and-again over the next 20 years, becoming featured in Julian Cope’s brilliant Japrock Sampler and a highly collectable compilation quickly snapped up by fanatics. Les Rallizes Denudes are a unique band in musics complicated history, and while their records may not be available in HMV, this band are worth the hunt and the next 60 minutes of sonic assault to come.

Alex Hall

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