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Music

Les Rallizes Dénudés: The trippiest band you've never heard of

From The Velvet Underground to Oh Emperor, there’s no shortage of eclectic outfits, but Les Rallizes Dénudés might be the most obscure of the bunch. Famously championed by Julian Cope, the Japanese group exhibited many of the trappings that were later pencilled as shoegaze, albeit in a more primitive form to the multi-layered works pieced together by My Bloody Valentine.

Formed in 1967 at Kyoto’s Doshisha University, the band created a sound based on feedback, form and fury, capturing an essence that was often too cerebral for mainstream audiences. Indeed, most of their recordings have been issued as bootlegs, which only adds to the band’s legend. Through the cacophonous feedback, Takashi Mizutani’s shrieks come poised, pushing the music into a virulent, more visceral, direction, but always by imparting greater importance on the audience than the work itself.

The music is tight, punchy, and unrelenting in its presentation. From the shimmering guitars to the disembodied yelps that cry out through the proceedings, the songs muster a type of attack that plunge directly into the eardrums, carrying audiences onwards until that last scintillating note has been laid low.

And so Les Rallizes Dénudés developed that mystique kept them hidden from the eyes of the presses, wrapped in anonymity based on purity and shrewd musicianship. They became the ultimate faceless band, hidden behind masses of reverb and vigorous playing. Takashi Mizutani’s identity remains enigmatic, even to his former bandmates.

“I hadn’t met up with him for a long, long time,” revealed bassist Makoto Kubota. “I had phone conversations here and there but not much since I left the band in the mid-1970s – maybe there were some chats and drinking tea together a few times after that. I had become very busy with my own projects and in the 1980s I was touring like mad. Finally, I quit bands, stopped gigging and I became a full-time producer around 1989 or 1990.

“Then I got a phone call from Mizutani in 1991 saying he had a plan to introduce three official CDs. He asked me about the demo tape we recorded together in 1970, so this was already over 20 years later. It’s weird now, that I am mastering my own music from 50 years ago. It doesn’t sound too bad! But anyway, I got a call from him, and we had a conversation, and we were supposed to meet but somehow it didn’t happen, and after that, I didn’t talk to him again until two years ago.”

What snippets are offered of the singer show a deeply committed, if intensely private individual. Rumoured to be sheltered in Paris, he died in 2019, although this wasn’t confirmed to the public until 2021. During one of their last phone calls, Kubota and Mizutani discussed the possibility of performing in America.

Undoubtedly bolstered by the internet, the band’s legacy is based on a series of taut, albeit terrifying, vignettes. During a protracted rendition of ‘Night of the Assasins’, Mizutani plunges his guitar directly into the stage, to curate a spectacle of noise and fuzz. Between strokes, Mizutani sings a tune rich in melody, serenading the listeners with a fable that were popular on the radio channels. This means the song is one of his most immediate pieces of music, and his most elliptical.

Although details are flimsy, bandmember Moriaki Wakabayashi did indeed assist in the hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351 orchestrated by the Japanese Red Army in 1970. Returning to Japan after spending 32 years in North Korea, Wakabayashi’s interests now lay in hurting Japanese morale. He and three other hijackers agreed to give up their crusade, and return after an unpleasant time spent abroad. “The hijack was a success, but the result was a failure,” said Red Army founder, TakayaShiomi. “We had always planned to go to Cuba, but that hurt North Korean pride. When the Yodogo hijackers arrived in Pyongyang, they said they wanted to stay. But that was a lie. They had no choice.”

Back to the music: Intensely coiled, and driven by maniacal performances, the bootlegs deserve to be heard by the public. And although the band have never officially released nor completed an album, there is enough material out there to merit listening.

They always sounded better in concert, where they were free to perform with vigour, verve and strength, bending every guitar note to their will. But a quicker representation of their abilities can be found in ‘White Waking’, a stunning dissertation on the collective ability to cleanse ourselves and move on. Featuring a lovelorn vocal, the piece is soaked in chiming guitars, piercing the track through a convoy of burning notes.

What emerges from the song is a band superbly confident in their abilities, and able to meld any disparate genres under one style-hard-rock, psychedelic-rock, folk-rock, pop and Japanese songcraft. The emphasis is on the instrumentation, but the vocals are also noteworthy, culminating in a vocal style that sounds like a cross between the pop whimsy of The Beatles against the more obscure pop pieces churned out by Os Mutantes.

In 1997, Takashi Mizutani gave his last performances to a live audience. Joining him were jazz saxophonist Arthur Doyle and drummer Sabu Toyozumi. His death leaves a gaping hole in the world of psychedelia, but like most psychedelic artists such as Syd Barrett, John Lennon, Arthur Lee and more, he doesn’t need to be mourned. His work just needs to be listened to.

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