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V/A - Alchemism DVD

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Artist: V/A

Album: Alchemism DVD

Label: Alchemy

Review date: May. 17, 2005

Osaka, Japan's Alchemy Records is one of the most influential labels that you've probably never heard of. Celebrating 20 years of uncompromising independent releases, the label has collected this DVD of highlights. Almost exclusively live footage, the video quality varies but it's doesn't usually matter; the joy is in seeing footage of everything from noise to punk rock and psychedelia, tracing the interests and taste of label owner Jojo Hiroshige. For many, this DVD may be the closest they'll get to seeing live shows from these bands, and the historical value of the older clips is undeniable.

When the Alchemy label was founded, the Kansai area (including Osaka and Kyoto) was considered a backwater to cosmopolitan Tokyo (and for some that view still remains). Like many so-called backwaters, it spawned a notable creative underground, and Alchemy Records has long identified with and supported bands from that area. The first releases were from punk bands like Ultra Bide and Inu, followed by noise artists like Hanatarash and label founder Hiroshige's own infamous Hijokaidan. Over the years the label has expanded to include psychedelia and the uncategorizable, but since it's entirely based on Hiroshige's own taste, the nearly 200 releases follow a clear aesthetic vision.

The first of the 18 pieces on the DVD is the only non-live clip, a professionally-produced video for one of Jojo Hiroshige's own recent pieces. A sort of deconstructed garage rock, the implied violence of the music is matched by the mysterious images. From there, we move on to a set of recent live videos from some of the newer bands on the Alchemy roster. There's crazed Boredoms-style noise-rock from Oshiripenpenz, slow dreamy psychedelia from Doodles, and ultra-thick fuzz, Velvets-style, from Up-Tight. The pseudo-cover from Christine 23 Onna that follows is a hoot (I won't spoil it by naming names). It's a great piece, complete with stage diving by Maso.

Kenichi Takayama's solo guitar changes the pace. While the guitar is somewhat repetitious, the performance is undeniably strong (subtitles would have been appreciated). One of the longest-running bands on Alchemy, Ultra Bide are still going strong, and their recent "improvisation anarchy" clip shows why, with a combination of punk and prank. The 1990 piece from Omoide Hatoba is one of the highlights of the DVD, followed by third-gear punk rock from Sekiri, filmed the same year. From a couple of years earlier, label stalwarts The Genbaku Onanies represent their punk roots with an appropriately rough video clip.

One of my own favorites from Alchemy, Angel'in Heavy Syrup, are included via a long song from 2000. It's a fantastic performance with some of Mine's finest psychedelic lead guitar, but the static camera angle from the side is a let-down. The great Subvert Blaze follows with a nicely-filmed bit of heavy art rock from 1991 that showcases that band's fantastic technical abilities.

A short film of Hoburakin (a.k.a. Hovrakin) from 1981 is a great surprise, a terrific historical document from these influential art pranksters. Genbaku Kaidan, a blending of The Genbaku Onanies with Hijokaidan, totally destroy "Silver Machine" in the next piece, total chaos from 1986. That's nothing compared to the SOB Kaidan clip from 1989, a wall-of-noise assault filmed at Osaka's notorious Eggplant live house (since shut down). It's the tail end of a set, complete with the band dropping concrete blocks on their guitars and chasing the audience away.

Masonna's piece, from 1997, is a rather shady video so it can be hard to make it out at times, but it's a good document of an always great performer. The Incapacitants then proceed to take dark and mysterious to the next level, showing table-top noise makers how it's really supposed to be done. The DVD then concludes with a 25-year anniversary performance by Hijokaidan. The latest lineup is almost too much to take, with the core trio augmented by the drummer from the Doodles and Fumio Kosakai, the other half of Incapacitants. Naturally, it's totally insane noise, some of the most intense you will ever hear, guaranteed. Fabulous stuff from perhaps the most powerful live band in existence.

Anyone at all interested in the past and present state of independent music in Japan has no real choice here, this is an absolutely essential document. It would be nice to have a bit more information on the DVD, such as band profiles, discography information and the like, but really it's the video that matters. There are very few collections like this out there, and perhaps no others with such an overview. I would have killed for this 10 years ago, and now, you don't have to.

By Mason Jones

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