Reissue Of The Week: Les Rallizes Denudes’ CITTA 93

A narrative is forming around Les Rallizes Denudes that perhaps some of their haunting strength has sprung from the lo-fi quality of their bootlegs. Cal Cashin spends time with the new crystal clear official release of CITTA '93 and finds their sublime avalanche of sound just as addictive as ever

The late 1960s was a time of profound counter cultural upheaval in Japan. Much like the West, the first generation of post-War students blew their minds with art, drugs and rock & roll. Amidst this whirlwind, heat, flash, certain artists emerged as trailblazers, transcending the tumult of a volatile era to make an eternal impact.

It was the artists that emerged from the 60s with a clear vision and singular sound that defined a hazy era in Japanese counterculture. The indica drone of the Taj Mahal Travellers sounds like fresh hell even to a contemporary audience, whilst the LSD-fuelled biker skronk of the Flower Travellin’ Band’s eternal 1971 opus Satori remains amongst the most potent hard rock brawlers ever made, by anyone. Masahiko Satoh’s Amalgamation and Belladonna Of Sadness OST rarely stray far from my turntable, while the batshit fusion of Akira Ishikawa and Count Buffalo’s Uganda (Dawn Of Rock) delighted me endlessly when it was reissued this year.

One name remains inescapable, however, whenever the history of guitar music in Japan is discussed. Les Rallizes Dénudés. Their star burns the brightest. They are the greatest of all, and over a three decade career, phantomic kitten Takashi Mizutani laid down the blueprint for generations. They were never huge or particularly critically revered in their native Japan, but a culture of fervent bootlegging and sleuthing amongst Western musos has turned the group into an underground legend over here. In spite of the fact that they never played outside of Japan, they are probably the most influential Japanese rock group in the Western sphere.

You can hear ripples of Boris and Merzbow in their demonic feedback and amplifier totalism and you can sense premonitions of Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain in the infinite squalls of their guitar music. The blueprint for shoegaze was laid down on ‘Strung Out Deeper Than The Night’, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that any of the British shoegazers came close to evoking the sonic cathedral constructed by Mizutani’s pedalboard. It is music completely removed from its own time, and even today, listening to a Rallizes bootleg has the rare transformative effect of making time stop entirely.

Still, the spectral presence of Takashi Mizutani haunts guitar music as we know it, and with every scrap of new recording that surfaces, the legacy grows.

Japrocksampler by Julian Cope remains the most definitive text on Mizutani, a recluse, of whom very little else is known to the English speaking world, as however fantastic a read it might be, it is the sole account of most of its stories. The Japanese translation is even printed with a disclaimer that not all information is wholly accurate with regards to the chapter on Les Rallizes Dénudés. There’s a case to be made that Les Rallizes Dénudés are the most enigmatic group of all time – they are a group that inspire total devotion, but about whom, every ‘fact’ of their history is mere conjecture, hearsay and third-hand anecdote.

The most comprehensive article on the group, ‘In Search of Les Rallizes’ by Grayson Haver Currin for Red Bull Music Academy, sees a journalist attempt to track down the hermetic front man, finding far more questions than answers. Taking Japrocksampler on its word, Cope describes Mizutani as an enigmatic beast – a Francophile who formed the group at Kyoto’s Doshisha University as a folk ensemble, before he was driven to sonic transgressions by Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum and The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’. Whilst Les Rallizes struggled for anything other than cultish success, they became infamous in 1971 when bassist Moriaki Wakabayashi took part in the Japanese Red Army’s plot to hijack a commercial aeroplane and fly it to North Korea. It’s said that Mizutani was asked to take part, but declined, and became somewhat of a hermit in response to increased government surveillance.

Notoriously, Les Rallizes Dénudés never recorded an album as we know it, and the band’s legacy is almost entirely dependent on live recordings (with the odd lo-fi demo strewn about for good measure). Their late 70s and early 80s cannon of bootlegs is perhaps the most vital contact point for newcomers; Heavier Than A Death In The Family, Blind Baby Has It’s Mother’s Eyes and the officially released ’77 LIVE are just the most astonishing documents of a skull-crushing psychedelic juggernaut in its most potent form. This was the time when Les Rallizes were at the height of their powers, and most bootlegs date from this period.

Having not made a public appearance in roughly two decades, with very little known of his whereabouts, Mizutani passed away in 2019. It was not until late 2022, after much consultation between Mizutani’s family and former bassist, producer and archivist Makoto Kubota, that his death was formally announced.

Mizutani put the group on hiatus in 1988, and little is known about his manoeuvres in this period. The group were all but done, until 1992, when out of the black arrived a feature length film entitled ‘Les Rallizes Dénudés’. It was released by French director Ethan Mousiké, and featured a collage of live recordings and backstage clips – the kind of ‘documentary’ that asks more questions than it answers, and really only adds to the mystique of the group.

The latest archival release, CITTA ‘93 arrives via Temporal Drift records, and it documents the group’s second show after their hiatus, at Club Citta, the group’s main Kawasaki haunt, where they’d play the bulk of their 90s shows inclusive of their final performance. The record showcases little evolution from the 70s sound, but still they sound lightyears away from their contemporaries. And even though only one new composition (‘Darkness Returns 2’) crops up, there is a freshness to the material as classics like ‘White Awakening’ and ‘The Last One’ take new forms entirely.

The show has been widely circulated as a bootleg – it is not one of their most notorious by any stretch – however this reissue is made from a high quality digital 8-track recording that has been in a vault for thirty years, and therefore might just be the Rallizes recording with the highest fidelity in the known universe. This is all testament to Kubota’s mastering job here, total witchcraft in and of itself.

All very well, all very exciting, but there’s definitely an argument that the poor sound quality of the most widely circulated bootlegs is part of the group’s appeal. Part of their legacy. Mizutani’s vocals echo through them, they are the howls of ghouls, the hiss of the yuréi. Heavier Than A Death In The Family, for most people’s money the definitive bootleg, is a record totally infested with ghosts. Haunted music, on which the singer takes the form of a malignant sprite, and the guitars chime loudly from spiritual netherworlds beyond. To me at least, with the sad passing of Mizutani himself, this ghostliness, this crackle, feels more evocative and recordings like the spectral waltz ‘Enter The Mirror’ on Heavier Than A Death In The Family now pack a transcendental emotional punch.

Meanwhile, the feeling of awe that these records evoke every time the guitar completely overpowers the recording equipment in a miasma of distortion is really something. It’s difficult to say, though, if it adds to the growing legend of the group, or if it is a great tragedy of the artistic medium that ultimate studio versions of ‘Enter tTe Mirror’ and ‘The Night, Assassin’s Night’ do not exist, and will almost certainly never exist (although, as Mizutani had a private archive, who can say for sure?). A Samson and his luscious locks of hair situation?

In an interview with tQ’s Jennifer Lucy Allan, Makoto Kubota revealed that “extreme, extreme cat” Mizutani hated the countless bootlegs of his music, citing “very bad art work and bad production quality,” and Kubota alongside Temporal Drift and The Last One Musique have set themselves the mission of doing right by the late great Mizutani. Deluges of material surfacing after the passing of an artist can often feel cynical, but CITTA ‘93, last year’s OZ Tapes, and future releases by this cohort are done with Mizutani’s wishes at the forefront.

CITTA ‘93 goes some way to remedying this, as it is comfortably the best quality live release in their official back catalogue. Every layer is like crystal in the mix. Mizutani’s vocals are uncharacteristically clear. Recordings of this performance have been in circulation for a while, but this is worlds away sonically.

After years of consuming only lo-fi recordings, listening to CITTA ‘93 is like the first gallery visit after a new glasses prescription, the first conversation after having your ears syringed. As you’ve never heard them before, Les Rallizes Dénudés sound spectacular, and this clarity adds another dimension to the band’s sound. Who’d have thought the greatest band of all time might still sound phenomenal when they aren’t just recorded and mastered like total shit?

‘White Awakening’ is the case and point here. Its first section sees the group sounding like a terse alternative rock group, not a million miles away from math-rock, with lots of showy guitar licks presented in a tidy fashion, until, with a gratuitous stamp to his pedalboard, Mizutani opens Pandora’s box, unleashing torrents upon torrents upon torrents of messianic noise. Total skronk, a sea of reverb that would put MBV to shame and some fretwork that would make John McLaughlin feel inadequate. Razortight motorik playing from Kodo Noma is the only thing that prevents a hellish descent into total chaos, on what is undoubtedly the best rendition of this classic number in the Rallizes discography.

‘The Last One’, the group’s customary set closer, sounds fittingly apocalyptic with its descending guitar riff, reverberating with tremors of Mizutani’s old (alleged by Cope, anyway) rival Keiji Haino and Fushitsusha in its sludge. Meanwhile, ‘Darkness Returns 2’ is a free and flowing exercise in Can-pilled Neu!-coded psychedelia, sprawling 24 minutes of rhythmic propulsion and erratic guitar improvisation, and ‘The Night, Assassin’s Night’ is great here, as the noise and feedback of infamous bootleg versions is replaced by vibrant melodic cascades.

However, as with last year’s OZ Tapes, the delicate moments are perhaps the most essential, Mizutani is truly a weaver of sonic textures. ‘Memory is Far Away’, a classic slow burner, sounds beautiful with added clarity to the elusive singer’s voice. Free from his invisibility cloak of reverb, the rippling ballad echoes a Jonathan Richman phantasm projected back down to Earth from the astral plane. ‘Bird Calls In The Dusk’ is more brisk, but equally potent, it’s a much rarer track that sees the Rallizes at their gentlest ever, a woozy shoegazing lullaby unlike anything else in their back catalogue.

This new remaster of CITTA ‘93 is a vital addition to the discography of the band that, for me anyway, rises above all others in the pantheon of rock music. It’s not just the newfound clarity that adds shape to classics in the noise rock cannon, but it’s the reassurance that in 1993, over two decades into their career, after the whole world had caught up, they still sounded like an indomitable sonic colossus. Makoto Kubota’s mastering job is impeccable, an act of kintsugi on the original tapes, whilst CITTA ‘93 has breathed new life into one of the most exciting, treacherous and enigmatic discographies on the planet.

The musical stirrings of 70s Japan, especially with regards to this group, remain murky waters for anyone in pursuit of completist histories. However, the brilliance of CITTA ‘93 is testament to the fact that, after all this time, Les Rallizes Dénudés remain an enigma worth cracking.

CITTA ’93 is out today via Temporal Drift

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