The Southern hemisphere’s island-continent of Australia has lately been the unholiest of breeding grounds for music, and the label Art as Catharsis has been hand-picking the most beautifully hideous flowers for years to make an ever-growing bouquet of the most obscene kind. They deal with all sorts of music, mostly metal – post-metal, drone, shoegaze, black metal, you name it – and jazz, but always with an experimental twist to it, and often blending various styles and blurring the lines between the genres. Most recently, I’ve come to absolutely love it through bands like Instrumental (adj.), Dumbsaint, Serious Beak, We Lost the Sea and, today’s topic, Kurushimi.
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Describing themselves as “doom jazz” is only a euphemism stemming from their modest nature. More thoroughly, and realistically, their sound includes noise, doom, grindcore, black metal, as well as electronic music, like dub, all on an improvisational jazz foundation. As five musicians armed with a turntable, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, a flute, a guitar, a bass guitar, and drums (as well as conductors), Kurushimi is one of the most recent actors in the field of free jazz. On this album, the collective often drifts towards drone music, as in the first song, “鎌鼬” (Kamaitachi), which develops upon a very simple monochromatic riff a flurry of improvised leads and solos from the saxophonists and guitarist, or goes quasi-hallucinogenic, like “鬼門” (Kimon), the longest track, which goes from pure psychedelic prog à la Pink Floyd, but with shred all over the place, to some free-grind reminiscent of the Japanese band Schreckwürmer with sax, to ambient music, and that’s only the first five minutes of it! The other songs show different textures by varying the proportions of ambient, metal, drone and prog, including some grindcore and black metal, and by playing with new instruments and effects, such as flute, amp feedback, distortion or delay pedals, and degree of energy in their execution. Needless to say, they are versatile musicians ready to move in a different direction in an instant, at the signal of a conductor. Basically, Kurushimi is bridging the realms of jazz and metal, of Dillinger Escape Plan and Ornette Coleman, adding to it elements of other genres and painting it with horror themes. It’s experimental free jazz, but without the loss of structure. Here’s how Andrew, bassist and conductor, puts it:
The whole time in my head, I wanted to aim for music that was intense, beautiful, weird & disjointed, but also had ‘song-structure’ of sorts. The problem, in my opinion, with a lot avant-garde music & free-jazz, is its loss of song-structure. I’m a real stickler for elements & sections that the listener can grab onto, and remember later etc. I feel we achieved what I had in mind.
What’s funny with this is that the musicians were left in the dark as to what was ahead, before the actual improvisation game, and what concepts were behind the conductor’s mind.
Kurushimi derived from another Sydney-based collective, Violence in Action. They reuse Zorn- and Zappa-inspired “games”, designed to manipulate superficially some elements of musical improvisation, involving a conductor steering the musicians in one direction or another. This is what Simon Dawes, guitarist of the band, had to say on how these musical games work:
Games can involve players layering non-oscillating drone notes on top of each other (intro to “Kimon”), anticipating and mirroring each other’s performances (bass and drums in the intro to “Amanojaku”, and later at 4:51 to 5:21), tradeoffs between performers (6:20 to 7:07 in “Amanozako”; 5:21 in “In A Grove”), looping short motifs that come out of nowhere (guitar at 7:45 in “Amanozako”), etc. There are more games, each with a specific purpose in mind, as well as gestures from the conductor giving players freedom to improvise whatever they wish, join existing loops (9:04 in “In A Grove”) or perform within the parameters of a specific genre (for Kurushimi, one hand signal indicates designated participants play what could be called “freegrind” whilst other signals implement jazz or dub).
Therefore, musicians are at the mercy of the conductor. He is leading the pack, and can give orders to each individual musician. He is deciding when to grind the gears, and when to relax a bit, when to go haywire and when to lay quiet. Let’s go deeper into the themes in the conductor’s mind.
Thematically, Kurushimi (Japanese for pain, anguish, distress) draw strong influences from Japanese folklore, particularly the 妖怪 (yōkai), monsters and apparitions, and literature like “In a Grove”, the translation of “藪の中” (Yabu no Naka), a short story written by 芥川 龍之介 (Ryūnosuke Akutagawa) on, fundamentally, the vision of objective truth by humans, their interaction with and reaction to it. The yōkai depicted on the album are the 鎌鼬 (Kamaitachi), sorts of weasels with sickle claws or ghosts; the 百々目鬼 (Dodomeki), hundred-eyed cursed women; the 天邪鬼 (Amanojaku), a sort of evil spirit leading people to do wicked things, it also connotes perversity; the 陰摩羅鬼 (Onmoraki), a demon linked to funeral rituals; the 天逆毎 (Amanozako), a demon goddess; and the 絡新婦 (Jorōgumo), or entangling bride. Also, while not being yōkai themselves, the other songs relate to Japanese folklore, and the darkest kind: 鬼門 (Kimon) means “demon gate”, and it is the direction (North-East) through which evil spirits pass, and finally 死神 (Shinigami) is the Japanese equivalent of the Grim Reaper, or the Greek mythology’s Hades. Those are all pretty scary stuff once you dig some of their back story, listen to Kurushimi’s songs, and walk out at night, alone… Both conductors, Andrew Mortensen and Lachlan Kerr, having strong ties to the Nippon culture, history, aesthetics and art really set the stage, thematically, for this project. Paintings and pictures of said yōkai and other creepy images were handed to the players for inspiration. This and a minimal amount of background information really were the only information available to the improvisers prior to playing the game and record the album.
苦しみ left us with about 80 minutes of demented but organized material with this self-titled release. It is an experimental jazz metal fusion album of the highest quality, and being almost entirely improvisation only makes it more fascinating. I hope you dig this album as much as I did! If you want more, you can check out Live at The Record Crate for three quarters of an hour of improvised jazz-metal, which was recorded in March 2015 and used the same rules as in their newer eponymous full-length.
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If you want to hear more from where this came from, check out the bands of each member: Instrumental (adj.), Serious Beak, Seims, Godswounds, Fat Guy Wears Mystic Wolf Shirt, the Kim Lawson Trio, and The Subterraneans.