Thursday, 12 January 2017

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 12): Asocial Terror Fabrication "Under the Dark Force" Ep, 2010

This is the last part of the Japanese Crust vs The World, a series that proved to be far more demanding and, eventually, exhausting than I had originally imagined but was a lot of fun to do and, hopefully, to read.

For the last entry, I wanted to pick a record from a band that was still active. I usually do not review recent records, mostly because I feel that one needs time and hindsight in order to gain the critical perspective necessary to look properly at a given work. Too often, we are caught up in the ceaseless, glorified flow of novelties and, because of our decreasing attention span (both in terms of quantity and quality), we end up celebrating records that are really not that good and hailed short-lived bands who intentionally play the right fashionable subgenre as classics. Not being a mean-spirited geezer, I am not going to mention neocrust and the half-arsed "raw-noise-punk" or the lazy postpunk trends of late here, although I could have. And yes, that is called a preterition.

There has definitely been some solid Japanese crust being released for the past ten years and I was unsure (as usual) of which band to pick. Bands like Absurd Society, Asmodeus and Massgrave recorded top crust in the early 10's, but then long-going bands like Death Dust Extractor, ZyanosE or Disturd - the latter even getting better and better with the new line-up - relentlessly kept delivering the goods (and I am not even going to mention LIFE who are in a category of their own). And then you have brand new acts too like Avvikelsse, whose recent Ep brought back the best years of Crust War, or Scene Death Terror and Ulcer, who I am dying to hear proper studio recordings from as they are likely to cunningly blow the crust barometer to bits... In truth, some bands did disappoint me during those years but I am guessing it had more to do with my own high expectations than with the music itself... Anyway, things really do look good on the Japanese crust front and I feel optimistic for the next few years. But to get back on tracks, I decided to pick a record from Asocial Terror Fabrication to conclude the Japanese crust series for several reasons. First, ATF (you didn't really think I was going to write "Asocial Terror Fabrication" throughout the whole post now, did you?) epitomize the high referentiality that has always been an important part of Japanese crust and they certainly carry that tradition with pride; second, ATF have that specific Japanese crust sound that no one else seems to be able to recreate, as hard as they might try; third and finally, it is a bloody great record I am personally really fond of and, in the end, it is probably what matters the most.

ATF are a Tokyo band that (apparently) formed in 2007. From what I have read, some members have also played in Exclude and Abysstyx (both of which I am completely unfamiliar with and I therefore cannot confirm the veracity of the intel) and singer Riki played the drum (well, beat the proverbial D) for Krossa. I remain quite undecided about the name "Asocial Terror Fabrication". I do like the idea it conveys for its "crusties gone Mad Max" implications and I feel it actually suits the music well. But it is a bit of a mouthful, isn't it? Three distinct words and nine bloody syllables. I am guessing it could be a nod towards late 80's crust and longer band names such as Deviated Instinct or Genital Deformities or indeed Extreme Noise Terror (both phrases having a similar linguistic pattern), and, although I am not sure I like the sound of the moniker, it certainly borrows from the traditional lexical field of crust, in an act of both structural and nominal referentiality. And that is exactly what ATF is about.

The first demo was recorded in 2009 and had five songs. If the Doom-styled logo already gives the game away, it is the actual picture on the cover that is the most relevant. The highly contrasted picture of the crustier-than-your-socks singer obviously, and intentionally, refers to the one found on the cover of Abraham Cross' "Peace can't combine", which, keeping the Doom nod in mind, indicates that ATF was going for multileveled worship: the early Doom sound by way of Doom-worshiping Abraham Cross. Actually, the demo is closer to Abraham Cross than Doom so could it be... the worship of Doom-worship? Seeing it in that light, ATF's demo would take on an interesting meta dimension that, given punk's propensity to continually recycle itself, would reflect the overall trend of self-aware referentiality, both deferent and cheeky. Musically, and unsurprisingly at this point, the demo is absolute gruff crust heaven. If you think Abraham Cross' singer sounded like Jon Doom, you are in for an epiphany as Riki sounds JUST LIKE him. It is extremely impressive and also almost scary... These five songs in seven minutes sound like a crash course in cavemen crust. The riffs are great, the arrangements clever and the production has that raw, almost subterranean, aggressive and tense quality that is a genre-defining characteristic but that few bands can actually pull out properly. And the vocals... listen for yourself. Apart from Abraham Cross (the religion) and Doom (the deity), the dischargy songs of Sore Throat also come to mind (but it is almost redundant to point it out since this specific influence was at the core of the Abraham Cross sound) and I am also hearing some Private Jesus Detector in the songwriting, in terms of gruff power and impact (and well, they also had a rather long name, right?).

Demo art

The Ep "Under the dark force" was released in 2010 (or was it 2011? I cannot remember exactly but Discogs says 2010) and contained six songs. These were actually part of a larger recording session as the three songs from the split Ep with Exithippies were also taken on this occasion. It was released on Hardcore Survives, a label that has grown to be one of the most reliable in terms of top-notch Japanese crusty noize and had put out records from D-Clone, Disturd, Kriegshög or Skizophrenia!. And now the time has come to be completely honest with you. Although I had heard the demo before and thought that it was a great effort indeed that made the (demo-era) Doom fanboy dance inside my skinny self, it was really the cover of this Ep that made me jump on ATF like a goofy nerd. Absolute, unashamed, direct Deviated Instinct worship, to be more accurate their 86/87 era ("Terminal Filth Stenchcore", "Welcome to the Orgy", "A Vile Peace"...). And despite DI's "cvlt" status, few bands visually paid tribute to them as obviously and lovingly as ATF. Granted, the insert of the demo already had a pretty cool crow, but there were also your typical Disorder/Electro Hippies/CFDL smiley faces and one sloppy Amebixian character, so I think ATF aimed delightfully at the broader early crust aesthetics on that one. But "Under the dark force"'s cover is all about DI (well, the font for the band's name might be Genital Deformities' actually) and so is the first page of the foldout (I mean, it has to be a scarecrow, right?). This is the ultimate level of fanservice and I will be forever grateful for that. Thanks Asocial Terror Fabrication.

And now, it would be logical to assume that ATF also went for some heavy Deviated Instinct worship sonically on this Ep, right? Well... they didn't. Not exactly. If you look hard enough, you will be able to spot a DI riff but "Under the dark force" was actually not about the Norwich bunch. So why the over-the-top DI's referentiality then? Well, it is a contextual clue rather than a textual one. In other terms, it acts as a symbol of an epoch and of an overall vibe, namely the mid-late 80's UK crusty punk wave. It wouldn't be far-fetched to describe this Ep as "Mermaid crust" in reference to this Birmingham pub where so many early crust gigs took place (the metaphor does not work quite as well with the imaginary creature). Although Doom and Sore Throat were definitely still crucial influences on this one (with Abraham Cross' pregnant template in the background of course), ATF added elements from other regulars at the Mermaid like early Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, (noisecore) Sore Throat, to which you can also significantly add (though I am not sure they actually played there, they shared that specific vibe) Genital Deformities and Mortal Terror. Of course, the production and the distorted sound of the guitar and bass indicated that you dealt with a Japanese crust band, because they have that recognizable craft, but "Under the dark force" (and the aforementioned split Ep) nevertheless spoke that Mermaid crust language which they learnt through the Abraham Cross textbook. It is a brilliant exercise in style, but one that does require the listener to know the basics of the language and its culture. Does it make ATF an over-referential band? Possibly, especially since one might argue that punk music has always been meant to be easily accessible and spontaneous. But then, don't all works of art (and yes, even your filthiest crust band makes art) require some level of cultural background for them to make sense? I am aware that there are thousands of music styles I am not able to understand because I lack the basic information and knowledge, I don't speak their specific language. Even if I feel ATF's Ep is strong and energetic enough to be enjoyed even without being a fluent crust speaker, I still think a lot of its meaning and essence would be lost in translation without at least some skills in crust linguistics. And I am fine with that.

The production on this Ep is brutal (not quite on the level on the fantastic "Peace can't combine" but it still works great), with a lot of echo, it sometimes sounds like it was recorded in an actual cave and I am reminded of the crasher crust school quite a bit on this level, although there are important differences in terms of intentionality. It is an absolutely ferocious record with an impressive flowing quality, as it has that groovy and filthy referential old-school crust sound (in merely 6 minutes, the band managed to vary the beats without it feeling forceful or mechanical) and, never falling into pointless technicality, still sounds relentlessly aggressive, angry and out of control (which it is definitely not, they know what they are doing). This is exactly how I like my crust, with a dark neanderthal vibe, a tense moodiness and meaningful chunks of punk in it. The split Ep with Exithippies, released on Doomed To Extinction (a label also responsible for a really good Contagium Ep that is not unlike ATF actually), also comes recommended. In 2015, the band released two new recordings, a tape entitled "Folly of wisdom" (that I have not heard), and a split Ep with False Insight that saw ATF back with an early Carcass old-school grindcore vibe (and borrowed font, of course) and some crisp Hellbastard and Axegrinder nods in terms of visuals. It is tough being a fanboy sometimes.

The band is still very much active despite the significant change in sound and some of its members started the intriguingly named noizy Kaltbruching Acideath that sounds much closer to what ATF originally did and has a demo out.      

Friday, 6 January 2017

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 11): Zoe "The last axe beat" Lp, 2004

I left 2016 with some over-the-top Japanese Amebix-worship in the shape of early Acrostix and, to smoothen everyone's transition into the new year, I shall enter 2017 with (wait for it, wait for it...) more Japanese Amebix-worship! Now, before you roll your eyes, point your bony finger at me, blame me for this indecent display of unoriginality and accuse me of laziness, let's take a deep breath and think about it for a second. And while we're at it let's open that can of cider you've been saving for special occasions.

I cannot count the many times I have heard people complain about punk being redundant and boring for its lack of originality... Usually, as a backing for such arguments, a diatribe about bands sounding like Discharge (or any other cult band depending on what kind of punks you hang out with) quickly follows, as if it were the irrefutable evidence of punk's hopeless lack of creativity. And I am not saying that there is no truth in such claims and I often find myself mumbling whenever I hear a new "crust" band trying aimlessly to be a death-metal one but ending up sounding boring and stale. Still, "worship-type bands" should not be discarded just for the fact that they build their discourse on another band's legacy and sometimes it requires a lot of inventiveness and indeed of creativity to emulate a specific band in a way that is highly referential but still brings an interesting, fresh perspective. Basically both unoriginal and original at the same time and still sounding good. After all, you could very well see the very careful emulation of Discharge's "Why" as a rather interesting exercise that paradoxically needs an important level of artistic sensibility and clever songwriting to be properly achieved. Of course, Discharge is not the most relevant example here since repetition and redundancy were crucial to their music in the first place as they shaped a new language and semiotic system that many bands still directly use nowadays, the degree of strictness varying from one band to another.

Of course, one is free to think that "worship-type bands" are ridiculous and goofy and that they should play stoner-ska or blackened-shoegaze or something that has never been done before instead of rewriting Amebix songs. Like Zoe. Because that is exactly what this band is doing. They take several elements of the Amebix legacy, sometimes directly referring to the Amebixian scriptures, at other times including post-Amebix influences, and blend them, from a Japanese crust context, in order to create a music that embodies amebixness and whose originality resides precisely in this creative drive that encompasses both the actual band and its direct legacy. On a metatextual level, Zoe also incarnate the potent fascination that Amebix have always held in the punk world. The overt referentiality can then be seen as a reflection of the mythic quality of the band, Zoe's work thus becoming a self-aware discourse about both amebixian music and our own obsession with it (the claim that the band aimed at creating a metadiscourse might be far-fetched but that is my own reading, make of it what you will).

Zoe were from Osaka and apparently formed in the late 90's, although their first demo, "The beginning", was only recorded in 2002 because of line-up instability from what I can gather. At the core of the band was Taki (aka TM Spider on "From Hell" and Lightning Baron on "The last axe beat"), previously in Gloom, Defector (as the "metal guitar") or War Cry, who played the guitar, sang and even produced Zoe's records so it is safe to assume that much of the songwriting was also his. The name "Zoe" is a bit mysterious in terms of paronomasia... "Inferno Punx" spells it as "Z.O.E." so it might very well be an acronym I am not aware of (but I don't have a clue either so any informed guess is welcome here). Taken simply as "Zoe", the name might refer to "zoea", which is some sort of larva in the crustacean world. This would make sense I suppose since the zoea is a primitive life form just like the amoeba, the spelling variation being yet an additional reference to Amebix and their name-making process. On the records, the phrase "The darkest heavy" actually precedes the name "Zoe". I cannot really pronounce "The darkest heavy Zoe" without giggling so I assume it is not really a part of the moniker but must be read as some sort of slogan beside being a wink at "The darkest hour" and stating what Zoe were going for in terms of mood: dark and heavy.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard of Zoe. A mate of mine, known to be a grumpy but quite knowledgeable geezer in terms of Japanese noize and crust (he even distributed some Crust War releases in Paris in the early 00's), told me that he was about to receive a new record from the label that I might enjoy. To be truthful, I think he phrased it like that: "They are called Zoe and they are dreadful, absolute rubbish Amebix-type heavy-metal with bloody makeup on... I am sure you are going to love them". And of course, he was right, I loved them straight away.

The band's first recording was the four-song 2002 demo entitled "The beginning", a rather thinly produced effort (it even has some unwanted feedback here and there) that still set the basis for the Zoe sound to great effect. By no means was Zoe the first band to go for Amebix-worship, but they took a rather unique creative stance. Bands like Axegrinder ("Serpent men" era) and Misery had reworked the Amebix sound very early on by making it heavier, doomier and, dare I say it, crustier, which was the logical step in the late 80's. Zoe, on the other hand, from the vantage point of view of the early 00's, did not merely take Amebix into account but the entire Amebix world, in other terms the "post-Amebix' bands like Zygote or Muckspreader or those that gravitated around them like Smartpils and other pagan psychedelic acts. This shift informed Zoe's music and aesthetics deeply and unless you are actually interested in Amebix as a band, vibe and worldview, you will probably miss what Zoe were ambitiously trying to do: syncretizing the Amebix world. I am not saying they did it perfectly but the intent is indeed fascinating and taking it into consideration, it made perfect sense that Zoe included heavy-metal, grungy and psychedelic bits into their music, just like Zygote did.

But let's get back to the band's discography before getting seriously into the Lp. After the demo, Zoe had one instrumental song, "Spere alive", included on "The Darkest 4" compilation tape, a rough number that sounded like an eerie tribute to the song "Monolith" that opens the eponymous album. In 2003, Crust War released the Ep "From Hell", a much better-recorded work with a title-track that still stands probably as the best blend of Zygote, Amebix and Antisect to this day. Apparently, Zoe were meant to do a split record with Effigy at that time. The two bands were close (the members of Effigy even told the Zoe story on the album's insert... with added Effigy visuals!) and, although the split did not materialize, not only did Zoe and Effigy release an Ep with the same title, "From Hell", almost simultaneously, but the bands also did their own respective version of the same song, also called "From Hell", which highlighted their different but ultimately complimentary takes on the old-school crust sound. Listening carefully to these two versions back to back is actually a brilliant exercise and an articulate essay about the discrepancies and parallels between them would make for an ideal entry test for my soon-to-open Department of Crust Studies. Right? The Ep also included some sort of strange teaser with just the first minute of "Spider" that would appear in its entirety on the Lp (I haven't figured that one out yet).

The album "The last axe beat" is undeniably Zoe's most accomplished work (the Lp format arguably fits the genre better). Perfectly-produced (you can really tell since four of the seven songs are new recordings of previously released songs) and displaying top notch musicianship, it is expectedly saturated with varying degrees of Amebix and Zygote referentiality, in shape and content, but it does not have the dreaded sloppy patchwork feel. If anything, I would say it sounds like a huge painting representing the Amebix universe, or like very well-crafted and tasteful crustpants. The music is certainly dark and heavy but not in the common accepted sense of "loud and crushing" that too many bands adopt (and no, adding death-metal riffs and guttural vocals will not necessarily make your sound heavier or darker). The album is groovy, powerful and has a genuinely epic quality but must be understood as a vibe-driven record. There is a very specific atmosphere pervading the songs, although they are quite diverse in terms of beats and moods. "The last axe beat" revolves around a carefully construed "Amebix essence" that is to be found in different times, places and shapes in the Amebix universe (I am aware that I am starting to sound like a New Age preacher but hold on in there). It has the same ritualistic, tribal, pagan feel with an earthy and dark but euphoric psychedelic vibe reinforced with the high-pitched almost heavy-metal vocals. You could make a comprehensive list of each amebixian element and then find them all on "The last axe beat" (which can be played as an Amebix bingo as well): the "Arise!" tribal beats, the "Monolith" synth-driven bits, the "Wind of knives" heavy rock/grungy moments, the classic Amebix arpeggio ones, the typical bass sound, the fast thrashy hardcore, the tuneful and lugubrious zygoty guitar leads... without mentioning several obvious reworkings of actual songs, the literal intertextuality of the song titles and the many visual references, from the font to the Amebix face.

"The last axe beat" is not a perfect album in terms of narration, as I feel it may be lacking in storytelling structure (something Amebix actually excelled at) that could have been strengthened with an actual intro and maybe a couple of additional songs (the Lp is rather short). Another missed opportunity for me lies in the overall look of the Lp, which is fine but not really spectacular. However, it is still a unique and fascinating record that is more subtle than it looks and offers a paradoxically creative perspective on crust music by working on a very specific realm. It probably will not speak to those of us that are not that much into Amebix (or are just not nerds), but as a record that literally and figuratively epitomizes the obsession with Amebix and genuinely, self-consciously embraces it, it is unrivaled. Following the album, Zoe contributed two songs to the "Konton damaging ear massacre" compilation Lp (re-recordings of "New world" and "Zygospore" that smartly refer to different recording sessions of Amebix and prove that the same song recorded differently can significantly nuance the original moods) and to "Amebix Japan" but then, at this point, it feels almost redundant or even offensive to mention it.