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V/A - Amaterasu

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Artist: V/A

Album: Amaterasu

Label: Fractal

Review date: Dec. 18, 2003

Compilation albums are tricky. In general, they seem to come in three categories: style, themes, and random (as in a label sampler). Amaterasu walks a fine line between the three. Named for Japan's Heaven Shining Great Deity, the Shinto sun goddess, the two CDs contain a number of song titles referencing the sun - a rather oblique connection; sonically, this compilation runs the risk of disconnection. At its heart, it's really a geographical assemblage, with 14 artists (15 songs) from Japan brought together under one roof. The stylistic variations here run from old-school psychedelic rock to improvised sonic textures and noise.

It's a great introduction to the variety of contemporary Japanese music, of course, so anyone curious about the spectrum of artists included will find it naturally valuable. I believe these are also all previously-unreleased tracks, so fans of any of the artists here will want to track it down. Hopefully in the process, they'll discover new names to pursue as well, since I've always maintained that compilations are best used to attract people familiar with a few of the names, and lead them to unfamiliar others.

So what do we have here, then? The first disc starts on the decidedly rock side with Overhang Party's "Sasori”, a slow, droning extended track with some deep psychedelic acoustics. Tsuyama Atsushi (bassist with Acid Mother's Temple, among many others) contributes a strange collection of spacey, echoing voices and synths, mysterious stuff with fuzz-noise guitar that comes and goes amidst electronic blips and quieter, floating moments. Iuchi Kengo's "Sunstar" is all arrhythmic synthesizer sounds clustering and overlaying one another, distinctly at odds with the next track, from former Angel'in Heavy Syrup vocalist Itakura Mineko. "Heart of the Flower" is simply delicate folk guitar with Mineko's breathy vocals. Zeni Geva guitarist Tabata Mitsuru contributes over ten minutes of hyperkinetic planetarium-style synthscape, similar to the squiggly synths of Space Machine (aka Maso Yamazaki of Masonna), next up with "Triangle”. Nagai Seiji, of Taj Mahal Travellers, follows with "Object A”, ten minutes of low, rumbling atmospheric noises. It has moments that get pretty thick and intense, but it's never overly abrasive. The disc concludes with Acid Mother's Temple leader Kawabata Makoto's "Beausoleil”, over 14 minutes of ebbing and flowing waves of sound texture, much like the ocean pictured in sound.

The second disc places more of an emphasis on both rock-styled songs and avant-garde, less on electronic soundscapes. Kuriyama Jun's "House of the Rising Sun" opens the disc, and amazingly, not only is it actually a cover of the old chestnut, but it's great. This stellar cover is presented in a truly hazy, reverb-soaked reefer coma. Miminokoto follow with a live recording, a thick garage-rock psych jam that's on the more energetic, punky side of their work. I haven't heard anything from Totsuzen Danball in quite some time. Their contribution is a spaced-out track featuring chanting over prog-rock-influenced guitars and sparse percussion. The only artist to be featured twice, Itakura Mineko offers a second song with more delicately-picked acoustic guitar with her equally-delicate vocals. Mukai Chie's "Solo Improvisation" is twelve minutes of er-hu drone and scrape with eerie vocals, all of it with a vaguely gypsy feel to it somehow. Sax legend Urabe Masayoshi's "Alto Saxophone Solo Fragment" self-describes nicely -- it's eleven minutes of harsh, echoing sax. Avant-guitarist Miyamoto Naoaki offers up a long sample of his eerie guitar feedback textures, often sounding more like woodwinds or synthesizers than guitar. The great Kousokuya close the disc with "Heigen”. Kaneko Jutok's great psychedelic group, recorded live, finish things with deep, slow, ominous psychedelic rock, extremely sparse and haunting.

If you're looking for an introduction that covers a fairly wide spectrum of what the Japanese independent scene has to offer, Amaterasu could be a good place to start, as it covers a little of everything: psychedelia, ambient, avant-garde, even a bit of folk. The vast majority of the selections are very high-quality, from artists at the forefront of Japan's underground. But if you prefer compilations that cohere along stylistic lines or have more than a geographical theme, you might be disconcerted by the wide variety here.

By Mason Jones

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