Les Rallizes Dénudés - Heavier Than a Death in the Family

by Rich Morris Rating:10 Release Date:

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess you probably haven't heard of this band or this album. Which is fine. Great, in fact, since that's the point of this, an occasional new series which aims to introduce you to some unfairly neglected but stone-cold classic albums. We're starting here because, well, because this is the most obscure album I own and I love it. Actually, perhaps love isn't the best word to describe my feelings for the fabulously monikered Heavier Than a Death in the Family. I respect, admire and slightly fear it. It's a work of such utter, relentless, blank-eyed ferocity that listening to it in it's entirety is like submitting yourself willingly to a weekend of water-boarding.

You may not have heard of Les Rallizes Dénudés but a quick Googling returns a wealth of writing on this determinately, unceasingly enigmatic and gloomy band. Feel free to have a read of what you find, but I'll sum things up neatly here: Les Rallizes Dénudés (or Rezzies, if you don't fancy that mouthful) are one of the best rock 'n' roll bands of all time. 'But if that's the case', I hear you cry across time and space, 'why have I not heard of them?' The answer to that is this was a band born way ahead of its time, in a country totally unprepared for the music its members created, run by a government which stood for everything they were against.

If the Jesus & Mary Chain had formed a dozen or so years early and in Japan, taking their cues from The Velvet Underground and psychedelic rock, they would have sounded like Les Rallizes Dénudés. In stark contrast to both the Beatles-sound-a-like groups then storming the charts and the wannabe heavy rock bands on its fringes, Les Rallizes Dénudés (the name means The Empty Rallizes, if that helps) produced endless waves of lacerating feedback and echoing guitar noise, ebbing and flowing over sometimes monotonous, sometimes dubby, occasionally surprisingly poppy rhythms.

Formed in 1967 by the ever mercurial Mizutani (no surname, it was that kind of band), and performing among mirrors and blinding strobe lights to a coterie of performance artists, dissidents and weirdos at the pastoral Kyoto University campus, and always - but always - clad head-to-foot in black, the group were by a long stretch the most anti-social, anti-establishment thing the emerge in fusty, repressed post-war Japan. After an early attempt at capturing their sound in the studio resulted in too wimpy a finished product, Mizutani refused to try again, instead entrusting the band's recorded output to fan-produced bootlegs whose combined savagery and rarity have since conferred legendary status upon them.

Heavier Than a Death in the Family is a compilation of live recordings dating from '73 and '77. Just listen to the opening minutes of first track 'Strung Out Deeper than the Night' (running time: 11:45) and you can see why the album's title is so apt. This band sonically beat and bludgeon you into submission. Layers upon layers of screeching, howling, growling guitar and pitiless bass pressure pummel the listener into a state somewhere between trance and hangover. Over this maelstrom ricochets Mizutani's distinctive vocal style. I have no idea what he's singing about, but I've never felt this represented an impediment to my appreciation as I sincerely doubt anyone can decipher the warped, distorted, staccato grunts which constitute his singing. Nor does it stop one being ensnared in the visceral power of the music.

'The Night Collectors', 'People Can Choose' and 'Ice Fire' follow the opening track's full-on assault template, and each is mighty fine. The album's finest moments, however, come when the band (on this album, Mizutani plus guitarist Nakamura Takeshi, bassist Hiroshi and drummer Mikami Toshirou) stray from the formula. 'Night of the Assassins' kicks off with an incongruously upbeat doo-wop bass-line suspiciously similar to Ben E King's 'Stand By Me' and sparse, funky guitar licks before the effects-laden mudslide descends. Mizutani even sounds a little carefree. The dazzlingly inventive, discordant, densely rhythmic guitar playing Mizutani unleashes around the three minute mark sounds like PiL, Magazine and Devo arriving through a time-warp to jam along. The song could be a satirical comment of the contrived pop sounds fashionable in Japan, but that doesn't stop it being a bizarre pop gem.

Meanwhile, fourth track 'Enter the Mirror' takes a break from ear-drum shattering noise to invent shoegaze a good decade ahead of schedule. Over a dreamily simple bassline (Hiroshi is the unsung hero of this record. As became the norm in post-punk, his melodic playing is the anchor around which the guitars can rage), Mizutani's plangent guitar and yarning, fallen-angel vocals create a desolate, beautiful infinity. When, as it must, the onslaught arrives, it feels richly earned and not a single sky-scraping, gut-punching note is wasted.

Les Rallizes Dénudés had few peers - The Stooges and Krautrock proto-punks Faust being the only two which spring readily to mind. They were so far out on their own in their home-country that something was bound to give. The band weren't helped by their support of radical politics. In 1969 they 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, Mizutani, who also had dealings with the Red Army, became increasingly convinced he was under surveillance and the band went to ground for a while. Still, rumours of subversive political acts abound - did the band really perform at a junior high school, playing through 30 metre high speaker stacks and distributing texts by Hegel, Lenin, Che Guevara, Cervantes, Nietzsche and Ed Sanders?

The group's legend grew in the 90s thanks to some ultra-rare recordings and growing press recognition. They also featured prominently in Julian Cope's excellent Japrock Sampler. Because the infamously shadowy Mizutani has long shunned the music press, the music he made still seems to exist in a hermetically sealed bubble, apart from the accepted flow of pop culture evolution. However, you can detect the band's influence on NY avant-noise royalty Sonic Youth and the aforementioned Jesus & Mary Chain. From there, of course, a whole swathe of late 20th century music stretches out before you.

Heavier Than a Death in the Family isn't too hard to track down. Suffice to say you won't find it in the racks in HMV, but I picked up my copy for a reasonable price off Amazon, while I recently discovered the eternally wonderful Piccadilly Records in Manchester stocks this and other Rezzies releases. Released on Phoenix Records, who specialise in far-out 60s/70s Jap-rock, Heavier... really is a must-have for any serious fan of esoteric, borderline deranged music. In another decade or so, it would be heartening to think that Mizutani and co will have followed The Velvets, The Monks and Neu! to wider recognition, finally attaining their rightful place as a vital stitch in the the duvet of leftfield rock. C'mon - get hold of this album, spread the word and make it happen.

 

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