Richard Pinhas & Merzbow: New Destinations on the Keio Line

Richard Pinhas & Merzbow: Keio Line!Richard Pinhas & Merzbow: “Tokyo Electric Gorilla” (Keio Line!, Cuneiform, 9/30/08)

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Trains run along the Keio Line from the western suburbs of Tokyo, carrying commuters into Shinjuku Station, purported to be the busiest metro stop in the entire world. Over three million people pass through Shinjuku every day, to work within the gargantuan skyscrapers that pierce its skyline or wander through the seedy Kabukicho district in search of some transient pleasure.

Richard Pinhas and Masami Akita (better known to noise aficionados as Merzbow) are not your average commuters. Traveling along the Keio Line to a small recording studio last year, Pinhas and Merzbow were plotting to bring together their disparate musical styles to create something new and exciting, a form of music that marries the epic, soaring sonic waves of the former and the crushing, violent blows of the latter without diluting either.

Hailing from France, Richard Pinhas is an eminent avant-garde guitarist who transforms the instrument into a new and wild creature with applied electronics and loops. His work in the 1970s, both solo and with his group Heldon, helped lay the foundations for the integration of rock and electronic music that has become so prevalent today.

In addition to his vast musical credentials, Pinhas also is an intellectual with a PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne. His work, sweeping ambient vistas that appear open and limitless, seem informed by the interpretive ambiguity of post-structuralism, which he studied under the noted French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. “The main thing is to create something new,” Pinhas says of his music, with distinct emphasis. “A new material, beyond loops, repetition, sounds, harmonies, or melodies — something really innovative.”

As Merzbow, Masami Akita has challenged audiences for nearly 30 years with confrontational and aggressive works that can be both thought provoking and infuriating. With over 200 albums to his credit, Akita is the foremost purveyor of what has become known as “noise music,” furious blasts of formless, shapeless sound sometimes coupled with punishing bursts of synthesizers and electronics. Equal parts musician and performance artist, Akita has a daring style that throws the very definition of music into question and forces listeners to reconsider their preconceived notions and boundaries with regard to art.

“The main thing is to create something new. A new material, beyond loops, repetition, sounds, harmonies, or melodies — something really innovative.”

He is also an author, using his writing to explore underground sub-cultures like sadomasochism and bondage in his native Japan and to bring awareness to his passion for animal-rights activism. “Animal rights are one of my motivations for collaborating with someone,” Akita says. “I have worked with Keji Haino, Boris, Jim O’Rourke, and John Wiese. They are all vegetarian or vegan. Richard liked my ideas on the subject.” These themes can be noted on Merzbow’s 2008 solo album Dolphin Sonar, a harrowing protest album against the slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

“Masami and I,” Pinhas says, “are at the confluence of two opposite but complementary musical waves — the noise wave and the post-rock electronic loop style.” Though they come from different worlds and musical perspectives, there was something present in the music of Merzbow that got Pinhas thinking, right from the start. “I played as the opening act for Richard’s first concert in Tokyo, in 2006,” Akita says, “and when he came back to Tokyo in 2007, he asked me to collaborate with him on a live performance and a studio recording.”

Despite their different approaches, Pinhas identified with Akita’s approach to his craft. “When I first saw Merzbow play live on stage, I was really astonished,” Pinhas says. “I immediately connected to his whole musical process, his way of working and musical conceptions, feelings, and intuitions. I quickly realized that there was a special relationship between the Merzbow construction of sound and something that I had dreamed to do, or be a part of.”

The admiration was mutual. “I had been a big fan of Richard’s music since the ’70s,” Akita says, “especially Rhizosphere and Heldon’s Third. They are favorites of mine, so I was very honored to play with him.”

The music they worked on together became the double-disc album Keio Line!, named for the metro line on which they plotted their approach. “Each hour on the metro, we talked,” Pinhas says. “It was a good initiation to life in Tokyo.” With only 11 days in which to fit two concerts and the Keio Line! recording sessions, Pinhas was determined to absorb as much of Tokyo as he could, searching for inspiration. “I spent all of my time discovering places in Tokyo, breathing in its spirit, and I have to say that I love — really love — this city.”

Keio Line! finds these two strong, generative artists working together nearly seamlessly, never overpowering one another and always working toward the same sonic goals. The album was recorded live, and though the pair had some idea of the direction in which it would move, much was left to fate.

“We played everything very spontaneously,” Akita says of the sessions. “This is all improvisation.” There was no need to set boundaries or limitations. Pinhas and Akita were free to find their way together. “There was a natural distribution of our roles during the recording,” Pinhas says, “without even talking about it beforehand.”

The first disc includes “Tokyo Electric Guerilla,” “Ikebukuro: Tout le Monde Descend!” and “Shibuya AKS,” which transports the listener onto the Keio Line, using their shimmering gusts of guitar and rumbling undercurrents of noise to resemble the rushing, Dopplerized sounds of the metro bustling down the track.

They are infused with the aura of Tokyo in which Pinhas spoke of immersing himself, as if it were a collection of scattered sounds encountered in his urban wanderings. The swirling, loopy pieces inculcate listeners into this strange, new world that Pinhas and Merzbow are discovering together — a mixture of melody and noise that is concise and insistent like a meditative mantra.

The second disc emerges from the travelogue and into invective. Here, Merzbow and Pinhas allow their personalities to hold the stage, with the simmering “Merzdon/Heldow Kills Animal Killers” and “Fuck the Power (and Fuck the Global Players).” These tracks eschew the chilly beauty of the first disc in favor of a much more pointed, aggressive stance that recontextualizes the whole effort.

“Chaos Line,” for example, seems to reference “Shibuya AKS,” capturing a simple, melodic element from the latter and throwing it into the rich, roaring din of the former. Merzbow seems to get the last word on “Fuck the Power,” using his EMS synth to hammer away with a brutal pulse that groans and stutters into oblivion. It’s a stark finish, one that shows why Merzbow’s noise has lately become en vogue among rock musicians looking for new ways to express anger and intensity.

But Merzbow isn’t concerned that noise music’s newfound prevalence in rock music might dampen his impact. “If the proliferation of noise helps to promote a better understanding of my music, it would be a good thing,” Akita says. Pinhas, however, is less generous to many of those seeking to spice up their act with some noise. “To be clear,” he says, “I don’t generally appreciate or like most noise music. I think that more than 90 percent of it is real shit — but when it is at such a high level of creativity, by people like Merzbow or Wolf Eyes, it is real music, real invention.”