In Space No-One Can Hear You: Keiji Haino & SUMAC

*Into This Juvenile Apocalypse Our Golden Blood to Pour Let Us Never*, the third collaboration between the Japanese artist and the trio of Aaron Turner, Brian Cook and Nick Yacyshyn, is another typically brutal outing, but it’s the subtleties and silences that make it for Daryl Worthington

Keiji Haino and SUMAC by Kazuyuki Funaki

In late September, Nasa crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid in hopes of redirecting it. The Dart probe, obliterated in the experiment, was fired at the surface of Dimorphos, a small asteroid orbiting the much larger Didymos. It’s a story which mixes scientific brilliance with a certain cosmic comedy. It’s plausible, and everything says it’s true, but there’s a nagging sense it could be a parody, perhaps a belated April Fool’s joke. The absurdity is only exacerbated by the fact no one will know if the experiment was actually effective and the asteroid nudged on to a new route for another few weeks. Such are the epic timescales and mind-boggling physics involved.

It’s a news story somehow both awe-inspiring and bizarre. Entailing the vastness of the universe, the many ways it could wipe us out, and the resources humanity can wield in an attempt to influence it. It triggers a startling realisation that we’re kind of throwing stones at trains, or at least probes at asteroids, in our attempt to have any real impact on space.

There’s a sense of the sublime balancing on the precipice of the surreal in the music of Keiji Haino, at least from the outside. We’re living in something of a golden-age for the free-wheeling noise musician, sludge rock guitar hero, shudder-inducing vocal soloist and haunted hurdy-gurdy virtuoso’s work. A string of releases in recent years, both solo and in collaboration, adding new dimensions to his ever-evolving oeuvre.

Haino sits somewhere between conjuror of doomy vortices and merry prankster. Unfailingly fierce but with delicacy and nuance, occasionally playful but never trivial. His music seems to channel contradiction and conflict, sitting in an unresolved space and staying there as long as possible. It feels firmly pointed at reflecting and understanding a universe that is complex, confusing and often contradictory. Case in point is that describing the weight of Haino’s music, its ability to disarm, disorientate and hush, feels more like conveying the effects of an ominous quiet than sound itself. The eerie calm of a wide open, desolate place, the hypersensitivity that comes in a pitch black room as your ears focus intently for signs of something else’s presence. Stranger still is that the louder his music is, the more the terminology of silence makes sense.

Into This Juvenile Apocalypse Our Golden Blood to Pour Let Us Never marks Haino’s third collaboration with SUMAC, the trio of Aaron Turner (formerly of Isis), Brian Cook and Nick Yacyshyn. It’s a record drenched in temperamental energy. Sonically, it sounds like an apparition of some monumental collision. It’s not apocalyptic, but neither is it ecstatic. It’s an album which looks into the face of reality and responds with a gnash, a wail and a burst of feedback.

Opener ‘When logic rises morality falls Logic and morality in Japanese are but one character different’ is a space rock ascent constantly stunted, left to stew on the launch pad as it accumulates potential energy. It’s cosmic music which has been frustrated without becoming frustrating, the swirl the four musicians conjure through spooky feedback and tangling guitars allowing us to contemplate and absorb the tension, to feel it as a vibrant slab of sonic matter. When Haino’s voice comes in, fierce and fragile, he soars but never quite transcends. Lashing out at the ominous weight that’s been created but never escaping it.

Second track ‘a shredded coiled cable within this cable sincerity could not be contained’ hits with a distortion so visceral it induces a charred black synesthesia. It’s a free-wheeling ride into the murk, instruments so buried in the maelstrom they’re unrecognisable, nothing left but pure electrical noise. As the clang starts to take shape, the rhythm section fidgets and pries itself free. Drums roll and crash, the bass revs like a busted motorbike. Out of nowhere come the plucks and strums of a mysterious acoustic instrument. Playful and brief, it quickly vanishes behind a harrowing scream.

Superficially, Haino and SUMAC seem unlikely collaborators. Though not exactly AC/DC, SUMAC have a penchant for the chugging and the monolithic, for vast walls of volatile sound. This, typically, is not the terrain where Haino really excels. His music, from debut Wastashi Dake? onward, is dominated by small gestures taking on enormous weight. For all his sonic extremes, Haino tends towards subtlety.

The intellect given birth to here (eternity) is too young, released in September, is a sprawling documentation of two concerts Haino played with free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Haino switches between drums and guitar under Brötzmann’s blasts, squeals and circular detonations. On percussion, Haino seems to freeze time, stumbling, dramatically pausing and then launching into rhythms operating in a different frame rate to the sax. With guitar he unleashes angry spasms, shards of twang that seem to attack the microscopic pauses for breath in Brötzmann’s playing. At other points Haino twists into noodly excursions, flurries of notes toying with negative space, filling it with sound and morphing its contours.

Solo, Haino’s music feels deeply personal and thoroughly nocturnal. My Lord Music, I Most Humbly Beg Your Indulgence In The Hope That You Will Do Me The Honour Of Permitting This Seed Called Keiji Haino To Be Planted Within You, released earlier this year, was the latest in a series of solo hurdy gurdy albums. Where French drone folk-trio France embrace the instrument’s medieval tonality to unleash swarms of time effacing drones, Haino examines its creaks and whines in creepy suspension with startling effect, the febrile sounds he extracts amplifying the dead air of the space where it was recorded as much as the instrument’s own peculiar tonalities.

This aural paradox, where noise seems to make us aware of silence’s visceral power, has been constant in Haino’s music. 2016 saw a reissue of 1973 Live – Milky Way Part 1, a live set that predated the formation of Fushitsusha and the release of Haino’s first solo album. A blistering forty-seven minute swarm of electronic frequency, it evokes nothing less than a cosmic stillness. A state of restlessness in the face of something vast and unchanging.

Even on 2021’s Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks, an album of deconstructed covers of rock classics, nuance and detail are everything. Haino and band slurred the originals almost beyond recognition, leaving just enough of a trace to keep the source material recognizable. Those remaining fragments made the extremes of the tracks’ metamorphoses all the more apparent.

Haino’s music typically comes across as a blast of centrifugal force, small gestures constantly trying to fire outwards; SUMAC’s feels centripetal, the trio pulling immense weight inwards towards a floor shaking singularity. Yet, somehow, the two entities gel through frayed walls of distortion and crumbling rhythms. The ill-fitting nature of the collaboration makes the output all the more vibrant. Haino is the catalyst that further upsets SUMAC’s already volatile equilibrium. Where their first team-up, 2018’s American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On, saw them combine into an apocalyptic boogie, at points feeling like a turbo-charged version of Fushitsusha; the latest record sees Haino lean further into SUMAC’s dirge, creating more of a holistic unit. The membrane between them feels much more permeable now, creating a new, mangled platform for both.

Into this juvenile apocalypse… was recorded live at Vancouver’s Astoria Hotel in 2019, a venue the release notes describe as a “dingy hotel dive bar in a bad neighbourhood”. Even as live albums go, it’s a particularly gnarled one. Sounds are mixed in unfamiliar ways, the drums inordinately huge at some points, strangely buried at others. It creates an odd, fluctuating imbalance, the sense of sitting on the precipice between sanity and insanity, between embracing civilization and legging it into the woods with a tin foil hat on. It constantly sounds like the band are barely holding themselves, and their equipment, together. The noise rock embodiment of precarity, perhaps, fraying at the edges, almost breaking, but somehow just about managing to stay above water. It only adds to the sense of an existential wrestling match that seeps through the album. These are themes which have long been present in Haino’s music. Working with SUMAC gives them unnerving clarity.

On ‘that fuzz pedal you planted in your throat, its screw has started to come loose. Your next effects pedal is up to you, do you have it ready?’ the quartet chisel a squall of feedback into a stabbing pulse. Five minutes in, it trips into the most unlikely of grooves, one that feels like it’s reflecting off the walls as Haino rants over the top. Perhaps the quartet are exorcising their demons, but their attempts seem to travel no further than a mirror that bounces them straight back. The track ends in a dead stop heavier than any sound could have been. Its resolution forever just out of reach.

Haino’s music conveys conflicts. It confronts them, amplifies contradictions and embodies them through sound. In the few interviews with Haino available in English, he’s hinted at the ideas behind the music he makes, and how, for him, sounds and their form carry immense weight. As he explained to Alan Cummings for The Wire in 2002: “What I want most to get across to people is that we should never create positions of control. I don’t mean that we should destroy them, but I want people to become really aware that they aren’t free. I grew up on rock but I want to take it to another world.”.

I’d venture that what makes Haino’s music so endlessly enthralling is not so much the vast ideas themselves, but that he makes the struggle with them audible. It’s the sound of someone facing into the void and trying to come to terms with all that it says about us. SUMAC provide perfect partners for this journey.

It’s most powerful on ‘Because the evidence of a fact is valued over the fact itself truth??? becomes fractured’. Utterly gorgeous, the track marks a startling curveball in the album’s hitherto obliterating progression, a rising celestial drift which peaks with Haino demanding “Let brightness override obligation… No need to discover, be the one to be discovered.” The line is open-ended and pregnant with meaning. SUMAC run with the moment, bending its potential meaning in perfect sync with Haino. It might not be able to divert an asteroid, but the sheer weight the quartet summon at least gives some reminder of what it’s like to live in a universe where things like this might be possible.

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