Tokyo Flashback is not for the faint of heart.
Unbeknownst to many throughout the Western world, for decades Japan has been a hotbed of musical innovation. While some of these bands may quietly sneak their way into the music narrative in the West—Cibo Matto and Yellow Magic Orchestra are two that come to mind— they’re generally relegated to cult-act status, appealing to a niche group of music fans. The small offerings that have managed to break through are but a few names in Japan’s kaleidoscopic music scene.
Earlier this year, Japan lost one of the main architects in its experimental and avant-garde music history. Hideo Ikeezumi once famously stated that, “I only release what I like,” and his label did exactly that. Started by Ikeezumi in 1984, P.S.F. Records was known for its cutting-edge, avant-garde freakout acts—music created by those willing to push against the outer edges. Originally released in 1991, Tokyo Flashback represents just one of the 10 compilations originally released by the label, as the label’s discography stretches out to over 200+ releases.
What Ikeezumi liked was anything but the ordinary, his label representing the most extreme forms of Japanese psychedelia and experimental art rock. Any semblance of traditional melody or structure is completely slashed and burned in Tokyo Flashback, a mostly full-on assault of high-gain distortion and heaving drones. Clocking in at nearly an hour and 10 minutes over a mere eight tracks, it retains a relentlessly experimental approach throughout, as each track lives up to its label’s moniker: P.S.F., or Psychedelic Speed Freaks.
Once said to embody the spirit of P.S.F., White Heaven’s “Blind Promise (Alternate Take),” while every bit the compilation’s most traditional take, is a noisy homage to the Stooges and other proto-punk high-energy rock. Singer You Ishihara’s guttural voice grinds over chugging riffage, all juggled about by a rollicking rhythm section that violently shudders. With a certain laidback ease to their groove, White Heaven find an uncertain middle ground between ‘60s psychedelia riffage and smashed-up punk energy.
Those familiar with Britain’s cosmic space cadets Hawkwind will find some solace in the healthy dose of space rock found on High Rise’s “Mainliner.” Unceasing waves of distortion contort into beautifully ugly shapes and, occasionally, a string of chords just concise enough to dip its feet into formal songwriting territory. High Rise were originally named Psychedelic Speed Freaks, their first album the label’s source of naming inspiration.
Keiji Haino is, perhaps, the most recognizable name present, as he is still one of Japan’s leading musical provocateurs. “Right Now” is, in typical Haino fashion, impenetrable to all but the most adventurous, eight-and-a-half minutes of himself, alone, moaning and morphing his voice into both harsh, violent bursts and whimpering suffering. Haino pop ups earlier in the guise of Fushitsusha’s relentless “Here-You,” his metallic guitar reverberating in reckless, out-of-tune glee.
Kousokuya isn’t quite far behind—splatterings of messy, strung-out guitars and skittering, incoherent rhythms define “End of Dawn,” singer Jutok Kaneko’s haunting wail haunting the proceedings. In a way, its minimalism is the polar opposite of Marble Sheep and the Run-Down Sun’s Children’s “February 22 1991,” a maximalist piece of blown-out drums and guitar thrashing that revels in a phased-out whirl of a mix. “Crime and Laughter” by Verzerk is similarly steeped in wailing vortexes of distortion, its initial snail-like pace a stomping plod before blasting into double time halfway into the jam in a thrillingly unexpected twist.
One of the few songs not smothered in distortion, “Tama Yura” by Ghost, is Tokyo Flashback’s strongest moment, a misty funereal drone carried over by weeping violas—a darker take on the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Ghost was a fascinating group, apparently living a nomadic lifestyle that saw them dwell in crumbling subways and abandoned temples throughout Tokyo. Their haunting music would be equally appropriate in either situation.
Tokyo Flashback is not for the faint of heart, but for those willing to throw themselves into the void, it is an endlessly fascinating listen. Ikeezumi’s vision of P.S.F. as a collective of forward-thinking acts is perfectly represented throughout Tokyo Flashback’s abstract obliterations of the rules of Western rock. Twenty-six years on, it all still sounds as vital as ever.