Ché-SHIZU isn’t the kind of music you ordinarily expect from P.S.F. Records.
Delicate and dreamlike, Ché-SHIZU isn’t the kind of music you ordinarily expect from P.S.F. Records. Hideo Ikeezumi’s legendary imprint hosted some of Japan’s most extreme musical outsiders, from the wild distorted guitars of Fushitsusa to the psychedelic speed freaks (whence the label’s initials) of Acid Mothers Temple and the honking free jazz of Kaoru Abe. The US label Black Editions has been reissuing the P.S.F. catalog, and has just released the first vinyl edition of Ché-SHIZU’s 1994 album A Journey. It’s not an essential trip, but, heard with 24 years of hindsight, it may seem more familiar than it did upon its initial release.
A Journey begins, appropriately, with a station, “Juso Station,” its melody launched by a bass line and the erhu, a violin-like instrument that is sometimes mistaken for leader Chie Mukai’s voice. The dirge-like “A Shadow” follows a similar tone, with a thrilling transition when the erhu almost imperceptibly segues into Mukai’s haunting vocal. Strangely bubbling keyboards add texture to the conventional electric guitar lines of “Nokogiriyama No Inu,” one of a number of tracks here that evokes the vast landscape of a spaghetti western; perhaps that’s a function of a traditional instrument like the erhu used in a modern context, transforming conventional genre much like Sergio Leone revamped the cinematic vocabulary of the western. Similarly, “Nigihayahi” suggests a surreal tango – in fact, much of the album has the air of an art house movie soundtrack.
If Ché-SHIZU occasionally sounds like one of the trendy bands that played the Bang Bang Bar on “Twin Peaks: The Return,” that may be because the music world has caught up to it. That sound can come off as shtick when it emerges from a band led by a wispy blonde. As daring as the television show could be, some of its contemporary music cues seemed all-too-predictable. But given Mukai’s bona fides, her group earns its cool aesthetic.
“Anything was fine, as long as it was different from what others were doing,” Mukai explains in a 1996 interview. Her career has followed this contrary path, down to her group’s departure from the rapid-fire sludge of P.S.F. She went to art school and studied with Fluxus violinist-composer Takehisa Kosugi (look for his mesmerizing 1975 album Catch Wave), and her early group East Bionic Symphonia built a long-form tension with expansive drones (check YouTube for its 1976 album, a live recording that was a graduation project from Bigakko art school).
Ché-SHIZU was a more song-based project. While other Japanese underground acts of the time went heavier, it came at psychedelia from its gentle side. While the title of the instrumental “A Dream of Trousers” is a vivid image, the music is led by a dramatic, martial piano figure and loose percussion and guitar. This isn’t the tightest ship in the sea; there are occasional flubbed notes, and if that lends the music a more fragile, emotive quality, a little more precision wouldn’t have hurt. A Journey ends with two variations on a title theme, piano-heavy instrumentals that conjure a difficult path indeed. Ché-SHIZU’s most recent album is 2016’s Hi No Tamaki, which continues Mukai’s sometimes gorgeous, sometimes off-kilter approach to the tension between traditional and modern melody. But P.S.F. junkies may be more interested in tracking down the bolder experiment of the East Bionic Symphonia.