Blow your eardrums out with the ultimate Japanese psych-rock power trio.
Makoto Kawabata is best known as the shamanic, wild-haired leader of Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., a psychedelic band that has released about 500 albums since 1995. I’ve never really connected with Acid Mothers Temple — the ratio of rambling hippie bullshit to RIFFFFFSSSSS was always skewed in the wrong direction, even on their most aggro releases like 2002’s Electric Heavyland. At the same time that he was getting AMT off the ground, though, Kawabata started Mainliner in 1995 with bassist Asahito Nanjo (also of High Rise and Musica Transonic) and drummer Hajime Koizumi. Koizumi appeared on the group’s first album, the ironically titled Mellow Out, but only played two shows with them before quitting. Kawabata and Nanjo replaced him with Tatsuya Yoshida of Ruins and soldiered on.
I heard Mellow Out when it was brand new, more than 25 years ago now, and it’s a stunning debut — “stunning” in the sense that it’s like picking up a brick and slamming it straight into the spot where your third eye should be. The first track, “Cockamamie,” is only 1:51 long, but feels like time itself has frozen, because the mix is so blown-out it sounds like someone practicing Hendrix riffs through a walkie-talkie the size of a SubZero refrigerator. The next two tracks, “Black Sky” and “M,” are 15 and 18 minutes long, respectively. “Black Sky” is built around a single staggeringly heavy riff, played over and over and over and over and over until your head caves in. Nanjo’s vocals are sung in an upper-register yelp, fed through a cloud of reverb; he sounds a little bit like Takashi Mizutani from Les Rallizes Dénudés. Around the 11-minute mark, Kawabata launches into an absolutely horrific guitar solo that sounds like Greg Ginn imitating John McLaughlin through a subway PA horn. He solos all the way out until the piece just ends, stopping abruptly in a quick shimmer of reverb.
“M” kicks off with a short drum solo; after a minute of tub-rattling, Nanjo steps on the pedal, and the bass is so distorted it’s like he’s placed his amplifier directly inside your skull. Kawabata’s guitar, though it’s playing the same riff, just sounds like overtones buried within the roaring morass. After four minutes (one verse and a chorus, basically), he breaks through with a high-pitched, eardrum-frying guitar solo that seems to be playing through two channels just slightly out of sync, but both totally distorted like Ron Asheton playing you unused Fun House riffs through a pay phone, and it continues for 15 minutes. You know Motörhead’s slogan “Everything louder than everything else”? Mellow Out is what that actually sounds like.
I loved Mellow Out unreservedly, but Mainliner almost shook me off with their second release. Mainliner Sonic, released in 1997, was compositionally tighter, but sonically even more assaultive. The songs were all in the five-and-a-half to seven-minute range, but the mix was so blown-out it was almost literally unlistenable on headphones, just wave after wave of static and clattering drums with that high-pitched, ringing late ’90s snare sound snapping at you like an angry dog from the middle of the storm. Nanjo had abandoned attempts to “sing” and was just shouting the lyrics, but they were completely buried in the mix, too. High-volume distortion was one thing, but this sounded like a Guitar Wolf live bootleg recorded on a Walkman. Fortunately, they’d recover quickly.
That same year, Mainliner released Psychedelic Polyhedron on the French label Fractal. (Mellow Out and Mainliner Sonic had been on Charnel Music.) Fractal was a really interesting label for a few years there — I bought several of their early releases at Mondo Kim’s on St. Mark’s Place, including High Rise’s Durophet, two reissues by the free jazz supergroup Center of the World (saxophonist Frank Wright, pianist Bobby Few, bassist Alan Silva, and drummer Muhammad Ali), and the Arthur Doyle/Sunny Murray duo album Dawn of a New Vibration. Anyway, Psychedelic Polyhedron was still loud and somewhat noisy, but the mix was much clearer and less blown-out, and its two tracks, “Show the Cloven Hoof” and “Cardinal Virtues,” were less riff-based and more exploratory. Kawabata had a deeply fried wah-wah/reverb thing going on that made his solos land somewhere between Hendrix’s playing with the Band of Gypsys and Pete Cosey’s most aggro work with Miles Davis circa 1974, interstellar and earthbound at the same time. Each track took up a full LP side, and they were entirely instrumental; when the album was reissued on CD in 2004, the nearly 11-minute “Solid Static” was tacked on as a bonus. It starts out as a jamming garage-rock tune, but eventually drops into a mellower gear and Kawabata takes off on a surprisingly ’60s-indebted solo. (It later turned out that this was part of an attempted — and quickly abandoned — change in direction for the group; see below.)
When Mainliner returned with 2001’s Imaginative Plain, released on the legendary Japanese psych-rock label PSF, Yoshida had left. The new drummer was Koji Shimura, formerly of White Heaven and also a member of Kawabata’s Ohkami No Jikan project, and he drove them hard, adding a slamming punk-rock energy to their explosively rifftastic new material. This album falls somewhere between Mellow Out and Mainliner Sonic in terms of approach; three of the five tracks are the shortest they’d released to date (“Attack” lasts just 3:21!), but they stretch out on the nearly eight-minute “Soft Line” and really go to town on “Ride Blue” — the ride lasts a brain-melting 16:43, about 15 minutes of which is guitar solo.
That was the last the world heard of Mainliner for over a decade. Kawabata and Shimura concentrated on Acid Mothers Temple, while Nanjo made a few more records with Toho Sara and Ohkami No Jikan, but then he either retired or people stopped updating his Discogs page. I can’t be sure. Anyway, I loved almost all of Mainliner’s early work, but I had mostly consigned them to history when in 2013, the album Revelation Space appeared without warning on the UK label Riot Season. It was credited to Kawabata Makoto’s Mainliner, and the lineup consisted of Kawabata, Shimura, and new bassist/vocalist Kawabe Taigen, of the “acid punk” band Bo Ningen.
It was immediately apparent that this was an entirely new band. Taigen’s vocals had an androgynous, shoegazey quality that worked surprisingly well, floating through the storm of fried-amp guitar like an iridescent ribbon in a mud puddle. The album had five tracks, some short and blasty and others long and abstract but all of them heavy/noisy as fuck. It didn’t grab me as viscerally and immediately as Mellow Out or Imaginative Plain had, but they hadn’t gone all the way out into AMT-style space-jam tedium. They were still monsters of rawk.
Eight years later, without warning like always, Mainliner released Dual Myths, an album I included on the best-of list I submitted for The Wire’s critics’ poll. (Disappointingly, others did not share my enthusiasm.) It’s their masterpiece, no kidding. They had toned down the in-the-redness, at least when Kawabata wasn’t soloing, and Taigen’s vocals were even breathier and more swaddled in shoegaze reverb. It sounded like a Japanese psych-rock version of Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR, of all things. It was still unbelievably heavy and blown-out by normal human standards, but more disciplined and focused than Mainliner had ever been before.
In the last two years, before and after the release of Dual Myths, Kawabata has put seven other Mainliner releases up on his Bandcamp page. They cover the band’s entire career, from their very first show in 1995 to one from January of this year, along with some rare studio recordings, and some of them have rapidly become my favorites from the band’s catalog.
If you want to start right at the beginning, well, Mellow Out Live in 1995 documents the live debut of the original lineup at Tokyo’s Showboat club on October 10, 1995. They play two songs, a 20-minute “M” and a 14:29 “Black Sky,” and while the sound is rough, it’s actually a little less deliberately eardrum-scorching than the studio album. It’s as if the dense washes of distortion are the result of substandard recording equipment rather than deliberate aesthetic choices, and you can listen through that to hear what a kick-ass band they were from Day One.
Kamikaze is a small treasure; a lost studio album, the first with Tatsuya Yoshida on drums. It was meant to follow Mellow Out, but rejected at the time in favor of Mainliner Sonic and Psychedelic Polyhedron. Nanjo put out an ultra-rare cassette version in 1997, and Kawabata made some CD-Rs in 2013, but this Bandcamp release is really the first time it’s had a chance to find an audience, and although it’s short (three songs, 32 minutes), it’s worth hearing: effectively instrumental and completely fried. The title track sounds like the tape is dissolving as the music plays; it’s like Mainliner remixed by Merzbow.
Solid Static isn’t great. It gathers outtakes from a rejected fourth album attempted in 1997-98, on which Mainliner were trying to find a new direction, one less focused on endless guitar solos and more on actual songwriting in a garage-psych style. The production was still primitive and blown-out, but the melodies and structures were more Sixties than early Seventies, and it didn’t work. Yoshida left, Shimura came in, and they returned to their strengths, releasing Imaginative Plain.
The rest of the Bandcamp releases are live documents of the current lineup: Live in Tokyo 2014, Live in Kobe 2015, Eventual Survivors in Osaka 2021, and Burst Osaka 2022. The last of those was recorded on January 30 of this year, and it’s the best one, loud as fuck without being a wall of noise, exploratory and rifftastic at the same time, and often genuinely beautiful. (Eventual Survivors is really good, too.) The most interesting thing about the current incarnation of Mainliner is just how much Nanjo was actually keeping them on a leash. Under Kawabata’s leadership, they stretch the fuck out. I mean, the version of “New Sun” (the closing track from Revelation Space) on Live in Tokyo 2014 is almost 37 minutes long, and even though they only play four songs on Burst Osaka 2022, they take 90 minutes to do it.
When Mainliner first emerged 25+ years ago, they seemed like a one-idea band. And if they had been, they’d have stopped being interesting a long time ago. But the more you listen, the more fascinating their artistic journey becomes, particularly in this current incarnation. If you’ve never listened to Mainliner before, there’s no better time to start.
If you made it all the way down here, thanks for reading! Here’s one more thing, as a going-away present.
I’ve been writing for an excellent new website called Shfl, which is an organic recommendation engine. I and a bunch of other really good writers (Sasha Frere-Jones, Michaelangelo Matos, Roz Milner, Nate Patrin, Ned Raggett, Jeff Treppel and more) have been posting short blurbs about albums we like, as well as longer guides to specific genres and slices of musical history.
This week, I’ve written a guide to Seventies Elvis. I’ve been kinda obsessed with his late catalog for years — I think the best of it is his best work, period — but never written much about it, aside from reviewing the 2013 compilation Elvis At Stax for The Wire. I tried to do it justice here, covering all the major studio albums post-From Elvis In Memphis and one crucial live set.
See you in a week!