PRINT September 1996


Keiji Haino

KEIJI HAINO IS AN OBSCURANTIST’S dream. He has a supernally cool, all-black surface—knee-length leather jackets, Beatle boots, stovepipe pants, Ray-Bans, long, beautiful hair cut straight across the forehead. The rocker getup is both a beckoning and a keep-out sign: being understood is not his modus, but Haino has achieved a reputation as a kind of unearthly visionary for giving his audience what it wants.

A birdlike Japanese man in his mid ’40s, Haino has learned to make his every step seem important. One of his American friends claims never to have seen him without sunglasses. Though able-bodied, he has recently affected the use of a cane, and I’m told that, despite his middle-class background, he speaks an antique and peculiar Japanese.

Of course, it all works: the high-wattage phraseology surrounding this wizard of multi-instrumental improvisation rarely falls below extremes. “As is apparent the second he walks into a room,” wrote Don Bolles a few years ago in the widely read fanzine Ben is Dead, “he is the king.” By the word-of-mouth channel running from the Massachusetts neohippies of Forced Exposure magazine through the public advocacy of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, higher-circulation music glossies, and then the big time, Haino has become almost famous—famous despite his aura, or maybe because of it. In any case, he is more talked about than heard, more described than seen, but his ever-growing catalogue of records—most of it on the Japanese PSF label—represents a music that’s becoming harder to ignore.

Haino occupies a badly mapped place in improvisation. He’s claimed by at least three separate fields: free jazz, which he played in the early ’70s with the group Lost Aaraaff; lurching, aggressive rock improvisation, which he plays with his electric trio Fushitsusha; and “pure improvisation,” a category that only by failure of marketing logic includes both space-out artists (ambient music, by another name) and sobersided formal abstractionists (like the English guitarist Derek Bailey). None of this matters to Haino, of course; “Boku Wa Boku”—I am what I am—is all he offers to explain himself, and he claims to be interested in little other than blues, opera, and European medieval music.

Haino’s most celebrated work is with Fushitsusha. He doesn’t do anything halfway, and in concert plays louder than audiences are used to; like the Who, he only performs with supersized Marshall amplifiers, and his guitar is so highly processed that the merest touch of a string sets off shock waves. It all looks like rock, but Haino’s electric-guitar music is to heavy metal what Stan Brakhage is to Hollywood. He makes a delicate art with all this heavy hardware, based on a piercing picking technique, repetitive, slowly mutating phrases, and a commitment to long-haul exegesis. The best example is Fushitsusha’s “Double Live” (PSF), epitomized by CD 2, track seven (of course, the pieces are untitled)—it’s something like Lou Reed’s guitar solo in the Velvet Underground’s 1968 “I Heard Her Call My Name,” enlarged to triple size and pulled across 14 minutes. This is a remarkably honest performance, admitting the possibility of defeat as it barrels along, wobbling across the beat—there’s an attenuated vulnerability to Haino even at his toughest, which is I think what more of his press agents would say if they didn’t know that likening his playing to train collisions would sell more copies. “Double Live,” itself a masterpiece of obscurantism with its solid-black crepe-paper packaging and dark-gray type, is strong medicine, but a more distilled version of Haino’s guitar-slinging experience exists on Fushitsusha’s recent CD The Caution Appears (Les Disques du Soleil et de l’Acier).

Haino’s art is based on his obsessive solitude, and consequently his solo performances are more revealing. Many of these have recently appeared on record: Tenshi No Gijinka (Tzadik), a chilling, churchlike recital with tambourine and Haino’s calm soprano voice; The Book of “Eternity Set Aflame” (Forced Exposure), a dense, electronically juiced guitar performance, like the sound of a well-tuned power room beneath a baseball stadium during a night game; and 21st Century Hard-y-Guide-y Man (PSF), a set of improvisations for the hurdy-gurdy, an ancient cranked instrument with the reedy wheeze of bagpipes. In Haino’s practiced hands it becomes something else: a medieval blues harmonica droning out overmodulated overtones. All these recordings are monotonous, long-winded, compulsive. But despite the longueurs, Haino is compellingly sincere: stay with him, and he will move you.

Ben Ratliff writes about improvised music for the New York Times and The Village Voice, New York.