Les Rallizes Dénudés – “Tachikawa, 12th March 1977” (2015)

If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.
— Advice given by Circe to Odysseus, The Odyssey, Book XII

In Greek mythology there were a small number of sirens, daughters of the gods who lived on some small islands and who could entice sailors to jump overboard to their deaths simply by the beauty of the music they played.  Odysseus was able to survive their song by having his crew plug their ears with wax and then tie him to the mast to prevent him from jumping overboard, which sounds like a lot of work to hear something that you obviously shouldn’t be listening to.  Though to be fair I had to hide my Mötley Crüe Shout at the Devil cassette from my parents back in the day, so I probably shouldn’t judge.  It is from them that we get the term “siren song,” which refers to something dangerous or ill advised that is impossible for a person to resist.  For some people this could be drugs or alcohol, or perhaps an insatiable need for speed or an extra marital affair, things that are bound to end, in the long run, with ruin.

My siren song is the music of Les Rallizes Dénudés.

Les Rallizes Dénudés are just plain bizarre, a group of psych-rocking Japanese dudes (and at times including a dudette) whose original bass player Moriaki Wakabayashi participated in the hijacking of a plane that was then diverted to North Korea. (♠)  The group never actually released an album, though their output is prodigious in the form of various compilations of studio takes and live performances.  They played their last show in the 1990s and most of the former members (at least those who are still allegedly alive) are locked down so tight you’d think they were in the Federal Witness Protection Program and  they don’t appear to talk to journalists.  They’re an obscure cult band that seeks to maintain their obscure cult status.  Which is both incredibly frustrating and incredibly alluring.  Like a siren’s song.

Les Rallizes Dénudés are an itch that you can’t scratch.  They’re the splinter in your mind that Morpheus described to Neo.  They’re yin and yang and yinz.  They’re steel wool rubbing against your skin, a tattoo on the sensitive part of your inner arm, stepping on a thumbtack, burning the roof of your mouth with hot pizza.  They’re like coming around after you’ve been desperately trying to stay awake on a bus or airplane, constantly falling asleep and immediately waking up as your head falls forward, all the while slowly drooling down your chin.

And I have to buy their records whenever I see them.  Which fortunately is rarely.

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But it happened the other day at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, and that is how I come to find my self listening to the incessant fuzz that is the double album Tachikawa, 12th March 1977 and slowly losing my sanity.  I thought maybe this was going to be a somewhat different sounding Les Rallizes Dénudés when I heard the opening track “Enter the Mirror,” which is actually quite catchy and well recorded, but things quickly took a turn for the Rallizes and by time I got around to the third song, “氷の炎,” I was obviously entering a new stage of consciousness, one in which rational thought was impossible and every returning to normality improbable.  “夜より深く” is an acid-fueled lo-fi fuzzball juggernaut, an example of the Dénudés’ “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” style repetition holding together in an intriguing way, though without any of the polish of Iron Butterfly.  Arguably the oddest thing that happened to me while listening to this album was dozing off during “夜、暗殺者の夜” and then being suddenly jarred awake by the pure silence that followed the song, which ended side A.  I’ve never been startled by silence before.  It was, to say the least, a touch unsettling.

Les Rallizes Dénudés aren’t for the faint at heart.  Sure, you can probably sample them a few times, think to yourself “well that was different,” and go on your merry way.  Or you might feel that splinter in your mind as your reality shatters like a broken mirror on the floor, leaving yourself chasing the dragon over and over and over again…

(♠)  This is an epically bad idea because, when it’s all said and done, you’re in North Korea, which is where Wakabayashi still lived as of 2014 in isolation, though a luxurious one by North Korean standards.  Kids, don’t go to North Korea.  Nothing good can come of it.  Though I do secretly hope that there’s a hip hop artists in that country who has a big hit song called “Gin and Juche”.  That would be epic.

The Best of 2015

Man, 2015 was an absolutely fantastic year.  Holly and I got to do some traveling, going to Portland (OR) and Salt Lake City to see concerts, doing some record shopping in Ireland and Paris, and of course attending our seventh consecutive Iceland Airwaves Music Festival.  We went to shows with friends, listened to new music, and discovered new bands.  So with all that in mind, here’s a recap of Life in the Vinyl Lane’s musical year.

Top 5 New Releases in 2015

1.  Halleluwah – Halleluwah
2.  Lífsins Þungu Spor – Dulvitund
3.  .A:A. Mix. 1 – Alexandra Atnif
4.  II – Albino Father
5.  Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – John Grant

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A lot of great music came out in 2014, and I had a hard time whittling down my initial list of a dozen albums to pick the Top 5.  In fact I thought I had my list ready to go until I played Lífsins Þungu Spor for the first time about two weeks ago, and it actually bumped another album off of the list.  I was confident in my choice of Halleluwah for the top spot because I’ve been playing their debut (not available on vinyl at this time) a ton, and it’s actually the second time they’ve made my year end best of list, with their 10″ K2R (which stylistically is miles away from Halleluwah) held down the #4 spot on my 2012 list.  Dulvitund, Alexandra Atnif, and Albino Father were all performers I encountered for the first time in 2015, and John Grant rounds it out with his second appearance on one of my Top 5 New Releases lists.

I’m particularly happy with this list because, unintentionally, all the performers fall into different genres.  Halleluwah brings a sort of old school popular music sound, something that reminds me of an updated version of Edith Piaf; Dulvitund is electro darkwave; Alexandra Atnif creates some edgy experimental industrial beats; Albin Father is the second coming of garage psych rock; and of course John Grant is John Grant in all of his loquacious brilliance.  There’s something for just about everyone on that list.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

1.  Alexandra Atnif (US/Romania)
2.  No Stayer (US)
3.  Captain Moonlight (Ireland)
4.  SGNLS (US)
5.  Kælan Mikla (Iceland)

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This was a super-tough list for me this year.  The first two choices were easy.  We discovered Atnif this summer when we picked up one of her split tapes at Amoeba down in Los Angeles, and acquired two more of her cassettes over the course of the year.  She’s super talented and isn’t afraid to experiment with some very severe sounds.  No Stayer also came to me via a cassette (Rogue) when my friends over at Philadelphia’s Sit & Spin Records sent it my way.  I was down with their style of hard rock/metal, but then sort of forgot about them for a bit before re-discovering them on my iPod a few weeks back, and I’ve pretty much been listening to them every day since.  Captain Moonlight’s working class, Irish-issues-themed hip hop was a refreshing return of hip hop to being social protest music.  I enjoyed SGNLs synth punk enough to pick up two of their records this year, SGNLS and II (not to be confused by the Albino Father album of the same name).  Kælan Mikla was sort of a darkwave dark horse on this list, because they don’t currently have any physical releases (though they do have a track on Iceland Whatever, Vol. 1), but I was very impressed by their live show at Airwaves and can’t stop thinking about them.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

1.  Philly’s Dopest Shit, Vol. 1 – Various
2.  Lengi Lifi – HAM
3.  Hype! Boxed Set – Various
4.  W.C. Monster – Bootlegs
5.  Great White Wonder – Les Rallizes Denudes

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OK, I’m cheating a bit here, because my top choice is a cassette, and my #2 pick is a CD.  But both of those were important additions for me this year.  Philly’s Dopest Shit turned me on to a ton of great bands like No Stayer, SGNLS, Ruby Buff, and Spent Flesh.  Lengi Lifi is a very difficult to find, CD-only HAM live album and was the last one I needed to complete the HAM discography.  The Hype! Boxed Set was an opportunity for me to reconnect with some great Sub Pop 7″ records and exorcise those demons that still haunt me after selling my Sub Pop singles 20 years ago.  W.C. Monster is a collectible Icelandic thrash record, while the Great White Wonder box set is just a flat-out psych noise trip from Japan’s Les Rallizes Denudes.

Top 5 Live Shows

1.  The Kills – Roseland Theatre, Portland OR
2.  Bubbi & DIMMA – NASA, Reykjavik
3.  Bo Ningen – KEX Hostel, Reykjavik
4.  The Sonics – Easy Street Records, Seattle
5.  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Pioneer Park, Salt Lake City UT

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This is the second consecutive year that The Kills (right) have taken the top spot in my Top 5 Live Shows, and I kind of feel like any year that I see them live, they’ll probably be my number one pick – they’re quite simply that damn good.  At Airwaves the combination of Bubbi Morthens and DIMMA was a perfect blend of old school punk rock and new school technical metal, while Bo Ningen played the most insane, high energy set of crazy that I’ve ever seen.  Easy Street Records crammed 200 people into their shop for show benefitting KEXP radio, and The Sonics played along with a veritable who’s who of Seattle rockers, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.  And BRMC… well, they’d been at the top of my list of bands I wanted to see for years and years, and this summer we were able to use some airline points to basically get down to Salt Lake City for free to see them live, and they were outstanding.

This was probably the toughest list for me to put together, because we saw so many great shows this year.  Agent Fresco, Hot Chip, Thievery Corporation, Steel Panther, HAM, Halleluwah… there were just so many awesome performances to choose from.  But the five that made the final cut all had something special about them that took them to that next level and made them more memorable.

Top 5 Favorite Places to Buy Records

North America
1.  Easy Street, Seattle
2.  Silver Platters, Seattle
3.  Diabolical, Salt Lake City
4.  Fingerprints, Long Beach (CA)
5.  Amoeba, Los Angeles

The Rest of the World
1.  Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2.  Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
3.  Bell, Book & Candle, Galway (Ireland)
4.  Syncrophone, Paris
5.  All City, Dublin

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Easy Street and Silver Platters are my regular local haunts, so it will be hard for them to ever get knocked out of the top spots.  The same is true for Lucky and Reykjavik Record Shop – any year that we make it to Reykjavik, these two are likely to be at the top of list.  One thing that all these places have in common is that they’re very supportive of their local scenes, and that’s important to me because when I travel I like to look for local music.  Plus they had some cool and knowledgeable people, people who are obviously passionate about music.

Top 5 Music Books

1.  Girl in a Band:  A Memoir, by Kim Gordon
2.  Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, by Brendan Mullen
3.  For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique, by Dan LeRoy
4.  The Truth of Revolution, Brother: The Philosophies of Punk, by Robin Ryde, Lisa Sofianos, and Charlie Waterhouse
5.  Crate Digger: An Obsession With Punk Records, by Bob Suren

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I probably read about 15-20 music books in 2015, and the above were easily the best of the bunch.  And of these five, Kim Gordon’s was by far the most compelling, probably more so as the story of an artist’s life and struggles than for anything specifically related to Sonic Youth.  Truth be told, I’ve never owned a Sonic Youth album, and I couldn’t name single one of their songs if I tried (I may have to give up my music blogging card for that admission, but whatever), so I wasn’t particularly predisposed to feel any particular way about Girl in a Band.  The Truth of Revolution, Brother is a pretty unique project, one that I sponsored via Kickstarter.  Part of the appeal was that a couple of OG Icelandic punks were interviewed in it, specifically Einar Örn Benediktsson and Jón Gnarr.  It was an interesting take on punk philosophy, which resonated even more so after hearing Einar Örn talk for a few minutes prior to a Ghostigital show about what being a punk means to him.

 

This year Holly asked if she could contribute a few lists of her own, and it seemed like a great idea to me since her perspective is often quite different from mine.  So with minimal commentary, here are some of her top musical picks for 2015.

Top 5 New Releases in 2015 (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1.  Dodge and Burn – The Dead Weather
2.  FFS – FFS
3.  Born Under Saturn – Django Django
4.  Adjust to the Light – Fufanu
5.  “Inside Paul’s Boutique”

We didn’t have any albums in common in our Top 5 lists, and in fact she only had one album I’ve even written about on hers!  Number five is an outlier – it’s the roughly 12 hour incredible show that KEXP radio did in which they deconstructed all of Paul’s Boutique, literally playing in full every single song sampled by the Beastie Boys on that album, in the order they appeared on it.  It’s epic.  Don’t believe us?  Check it out for yourself HERE.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1.  East India Youth (UK)
2.  Islam Chipsy (Egypt)
3.  russian.girls (Iceland)
4.  Alexandra Atnif (US/Romania)
5.  Operators (US/Canada)

Again, not much overlap between the his-and-hers lists, only Alexandra Atnif.  That being said, all four of the other bands here made it to my initial list as well, they just ultimately didn’t crack my personal Top 5.

Top 5 Live Shows (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1.  The Kills – Roseland Theatre, Portland OR
2.  Thievery Corporation – Showbox Sodo, Seattle
3.  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Pioneer Park, Salt Lake City UT
4.  East India Youth – NASA, Reykjavik
5.  Bubbi & DIMMA – NASA, Reykjavik

We actually have quite a bit of overlap her, and both Thievery Corporation and East India Youth made to to my short list.  There were just so many good shows in 2015.

 

So there you have it, ladies and gents.  Another fantastic year is almost in the books, and I can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store for us.  And since we’ve already purchased our tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2016 and to see Devil Makes Three at Red Rocks in Colorado in May, I suspect it’s going to be pretty excellent.

Les Rallizes Dénudés – “Great White Wonder”

I’ve written a bit about the Japanese lo-fi psych powerhouse Les Rallizes Dénudés before, having come across vinyl copies of Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes and Heavier Than a Death in the Family over the last year or so.  I find them fascinating in a train wreck sort of way, and they certainly have a very cult following.  Sometimes I wonder, though, if the cultish aspect of Les Rallizes Dénudés is more important for the band’s popularity (such as it is) than the actual quality of the music.  Is Les Rallizes Dénudés that classic insider band, the one people trot out when they want to seem hip or like they’re deep into music?  “Seriously?  You’ve never heard of Les Rallizes Dénudés?”, said with mouth agape.  I know the band shows up from time to time on vinyl fan pages like the Facebook “Now Playing” page (which I love), generally to lots of likes and comments.  I mean, this isn’t casual or easy listening.  But sometimes having to work at something actually makes it feel more rewarding.

The vast majority of Les Rallizes Dénudés’ output is “unofficial”.  That’s a bit of a loaded word in the music world, one that puts a release into a legal grey area.  Does the band in any way approve of these releases, are they being paid royalties, or do they not even care?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure anyone knows since band leader (and only consistent member) Takashi Mizutani doesn’t give interviews and doesn’t seem interested in fame.  Or maybe he just gets off on being “that guy.”

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As near as I can tell, Great White Wonder was first released as a four CD set back in 2006 and has gone through a couple of different versions.  The five LP vinyl box set was created and put out in 2011, allegedly a limited edition of 1,000, though the boxes are not individually numbered (there’s a white box on the back intended for numbering with “Of 1000” written below it, but it appears they aren’t actually numbered… at least mine isn’t).  I found my copy on Discogs for about $70 from a US seller, which was a pretty decent price – some international sellers were lower, but I figured I’d have to pay more in postage and likely wait a lot longer for delivery, so decided to keep it “local”.

The set is material taken from four different live shows spanning a six-year period between 1974 and 1980:

  • Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo – July 13, 1974
  • Shibuya Adan, Tokyo – October 1, 1975
  • Maison Franco-Japonaise, Tokyo – July 22, 1977
  • Kanazawa University – November 7, 1980

Julian Cope devotes an entire chapter to the band in his 2007 text about the roots of Japanese rock, Japrocksampler:  How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock ‘n’ Roll.  While Cope includes four Les Rallizes Dénudés releases in his personal Top 50 Japanese albums, Great White Wonder was not one of those that made the cut.  Though taste being what it is, and the varieties of sounds generated by Mizutani over the years, I’m not sure anyone can easily pick an album out of the band’s unofficial catalog as a recommendation without knowing something about the listener, because while there are some similarities from album to album, there are a lot of differences as well.  In that respect they remind me of Nurse With Wound (another very cultish band).

The 1974 Meiji Gakuin show is excellent.  The recording quality is certainly far from sound board quality, but that’s not really the point, is it?  It’s a more relaxed performance than my prior experiences with Les Rallizes Dénudés, with some badly tuned psych guitars and quite a bit of singing.  “Inside Heart” is particularly good, as are the two versions of “Otherwise Fallin’ in Love with You,” especially the one that appears on side B (yes, there are two versions of the same song from the same show) which reminds me very much of the song “Jellyfishes” by the Icelandic band Skoffin, which seriously trips me out even though I may be the only person in the world that hears it.  Musically this show isn’t overly loud or rambling, with the songs, while quite long, each seeming to stay within a very general structure and not dissolving into some type of free-form freakout with the possible exception of the final track, the 20 minute odyssey “The Last One,” which is super fuzzy and relentless.  This show covers three sides and runs about 72 minutes.

As I was listening to the Shibuya Adan show, I found myself digging the second song.  And when I looked at the track listing, lo and behold it’s our old friend “Otherwise Fallin’ in Love with You” again!  I think I’ve officially found my favorite Les Rallizes Dénudés song.  This set is of comparable quality to that of Meiji Gakuin, and maybe just a bit better.  “Field of Artificial Flower” is able to synthesize both the relentlessness and the poppiness the band exhibits at their best, though those drums… those drums… boring a hole into my brain.  “White Walking” is a nice respite, a low-key number with an early 60s slow pop sensibility, while “A Memory Is Far” has the best sounding vocals, not necessarily from a recording quality standpoint, but instead something that fits Mizutani’s vocal range like a glove.

After listening to 2 1/2 sides of this five record box set I had to take a break.  Like, for a couple of days.  I found myself fantasizing about quitting my job, selling everything I own, living in a van on the beach, and starting to do a lot of ketamine.  Such is the power of Les Rallizes Dénudés.

Little did I know what i was in for when I started the set from Maison Franco-Japonaise.  Is my turntable broken?  Did someone spike my drink with acid?  Because things just got trippy.  Like really, really trippy.  This is some true psych, not some garage rock trying to be weird.  It’s atmospheric and bizarre with lots of sustain.  The recording quality of this show certainly contributes to the almost liquid quality of the sound – it’s by far the muddiest of the recordings so far, like it was recorded using a pocket tape machine wrapped in gauze and put into a can of molasses.  There are even a few momentary dead spots, and I don’t think it’s from the needle jumping the grooves (though that’s possible).  It does rock a bit after the opening track (“Dreams”), but it keeps a bit of that dreamy quality that separates it from the first two recordings.

Which brings us to the fourth and final show at Kanazawa University in 1980.  Now this is interesting.  “Flames of Ice” has a heavy post-punk kind of feel, something I felt from the other Les Rallizes Dénudés I’ve listened to but hadn’t yet heard on Great White Wonder.  There’s a bit of The Doors here as well – I can almost picture Mizutani on the stage like Jim Morrison.  It’s a much more “rock” set than the other three, one with a  more familiar sound to it – “Night of the Assassins” is very garage rock.  This is perhaps as close as Les Rallizes Dénudés ever gets to sounding like a typical band.

Man, I’m spent after two listening sessions and five records.  Les Rallizes Dénudés doesn’t work in small doses, but it doesn’t hold up for long doses either.  About one LP side is the sweet spot to my ears, and fortunately I think there are a few good sides on Great White Wonder that will see me come back to it again.

Les Rallizes Denudés – “Heavier Than A Death In The Family”

I’ve written about the Japanese psych band Les Rallizes Denudés before, having picked up a copy of Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes on our recent trip to Japan.  I’d first heard of them in Julian Cope’s book Japrocksampler:  How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock ‘N’ Roll, so was glad to be able to track down an album when we were there.  Cope had great praise for that record, but even more for the double album Heavier Than A Death In The Family, which he had in the #3 slot in his Top 50 list of Japanese albums.  I actually sort of fell into this copy by accident when ordering Gina X Performance from the guys over at the Medical Records label, as they just happened to have a copy of this that they were selling as well even though it isn’t one of their releases, having come out on Phoenix back in 2010.  Regardless of why it happened to be there, I wasn’t going to pass it up.

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There’s actually a lot of similarities between the two Les Rallizes Denudés albums I’ve heard.  Both have copious amounts of feedback and veritable walls of noise that take up most of the musical space.  When the vocals do come into the mix they have to fight for room, but are more or less ethereal and sort of drowning under the current of the guitars and cymbals.  It’s noise… but it’s a flat out trip.  It’s not for everyone, that’s for certain.  Hell, I’m not even sure it’s for me.  But it is interesting, and captivating in its own intense way.

After the double barreled, full frontal assault of the first two tracks, “Night Of The Assassins” is a bit of a reprieve from the sheer volume of feedback, with it’s old school, early rock ‘n’ roll beat and heavily distorted surf-style guitars that give the vocals room to have an impact – this is more of a traditional “song,” though still flat out weird.  Think “Stand By Me,” but on acid.  But probably not a version you’d want to listen to if you actually were on acid, because it would probably make your face melt.  “Enter The Mirror” slows it down even more, casting aside most of the violent feedback (though with an ever-present background buzzing) to create a sparse soundscape that makes Mizutani’s vocals even more haunting, and even a bit disturbing.  But don’t worry, by the time “People Can Choose” rolls around, the wall of feedback is back, with a vengeance.  I think that bass line will be burned into my brain for days.

Les Rallizes Denudés play some wild, out-there stuff.  They went to the edge and just kept on walking – no toying around here, just keep moving.  It can be tough to listen to at times, but there are rewards there if you can be patient enough, and Heavier Than A Death In The Family may just expand the way you think about music by a little bit… and every bit helps.

Les Rallizes Denudés – “Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes”

The first time I’d ever heard of Les Rallizes Denudés was when I read Julian Cope’s 2007 book about Japanese music, Japrocksampler:  How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock ‘N’ Roll, the same book that turned me on to previous blog subjects Flower Travellin’ Band.  Cope devoted a chapter to Les Rallizes and reviewed some of their albums, putting four of them in his personal Japanese rock Top 50 list, which included this record in the #12 spot.  I can’t possibly tell you anything about the band that Cope hasn’t already extensively documented, so I’d refer you to his work.  That being said, here are a few bullet points about Les Rallizes Denudés:

  • The band came together in the late 1960s
  • The band itself never released any of its own material – basically everything is a bootleg
  • In 1970 bassist Moriaki Wakabayashi was part of a group that hijacked a JAL flight and took it to North Korea, where he still lives to this day.  Which is kind of a big deal.
  • Founder Takeshi Mizutani has been a sort of recluse since the 1970s

Despite all of this, or possibly because of it, the cult following of Les Rallizes Denudés continues to grow.

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I found Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes at Kyoto’s Jet Set Records, the only Les Rallizes I ran across on my trip to Japan.  At four songs I assumed it was an EP, but it turns out I was wrong – I didn’t anticipate just how long these “songs” would be, with the album running around 53 minutes.  According to Cope, versions of these songs were being performed in the 1980s, and he believes the tracks included on this record probably date from around 1986.  If I were going to put a genre on it, I’d probably go with psych post-punk, which I may have just completely made up.  There’s a relentless repetition to much of the groove, overlaid with screeching guitars and feedback, occasionally punctuated by some otherworldly, echoey vocals.  Basically, this is a trip.  If you played it really loud outside your front door on Halloween you wouldn’t need to buy any candy, because all the kids would be afraid to ring your doorbell.

Les Rallizes Denudés is that special kind of weird that doesn’t feel contrived, like someone is putting on some fake “hey, look how crazy I am” persona.  It seems more like a look into the deep recesses of someone’s brain, the scary places that most of us try to ignore or pretend don’t exist.  It’s intense.  It’s driven.  If you look at it long enough, you’ll either come away a better person or a nutball.  I’m glad I pulled the trigger on Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes – it’s something pretty special.