The Blind Promise of White Heaven

Regular Terrascope readers may recall me mentioning an album a while back called 'Out' by White Heaven. It never did get a full-blown review, since by the time I'd come across it towards the tail end of '91 all 500 copies had long ago sold out (and there's nothing so frustrating as reading about a record which there's no chance of you ever getting hold of, I know that experience...); nevertheless enough copies were around for a buzz to be generated and the album, and the band, received enough of a thumbs up to warrant further investigation. Which is roughly what this is all about.

It was an investigative journey which featured more hurdles than the average sheep-dip, since despite an aggressively guitar-dominated rock sound akin to the Walkingseeds school of interpreted grunge with an ace West Coast guitarist of two decades before fronting the band, despite fine throaty singing and suitably obtuse lyrics and despite even muddy production techniques which gives their music a live, garage-like shadowy feel which belies their melodic resonance, White Heaven aren't a home-grown American band. Neither are they Australian, nor even British (sad to say); nor Western European nor even Northern, that Scandinavian hot-bed of deeply rooted garage-band fervour. Nope - White Heaven are from Tokyo, Japan, a country better known in the kind of rock circles you and I move in for those applaudable CD reissues of forgotten gems of yesteryear and for a penchant for musically worthwhile (and inevitably interminably boring) 'progressive' acres of keyboard-heavy noodling. Wild and hairy psychedelic Japanese bands strapping on guitars and giving them hell aren't exactly common even in Japan, and the number of albums released which come to the attention of the Western world must be pretty small. Which isn't making an apology for the fact that this is the first I'd heard, and in some ways the fact that White Heaven are Japanese is irrelevant since 'Out' would be a significant elpee no matter where it originated; I just find it interesting. Interesting too that the band perform all their own material, not a cover version in sight and that their sound, whilst drawing heavily on heavy psychedelic rock in its purest, honed-down form, is something uniquely White Heaven.

'Out' itself sports a rather fine matt black sleeve with gold writing and the simplest of graphics. It has all the look and feel of a private-pressing; and indeed with the production values maintained at the lower end of the scale (in itself a surprise for a Japanese album, where quality is usually of the highest significance - above even musical content in many cases) it could easily have been a case of intrinsic value outweighing the excitement factor. The music however is in every way a delight for lovers of warp-factor guitars and incisive melodic interplay; a band that features a twin guitar onslaught which leaps and soars around the upper end of the scale with all the delicate precision of Cippo jamming, as well he might had he been allowed to live, with a riff-heavy Krameresque understudy and a Hell/Verlaine-influenced vocalist. Of the six songs featured - 'Blind Promise', 'Dull Hands', 'My Cold Dimention', 'Mandrax Town', 'Fallin' Stars End' and 'Out' itself, it's the latter two which really curl the toes - which isn't in any way meant to belittle the power of the remainder. 'Fallin' Stars' curls and licks its way up to a flashpoint of screaming guitar notes which had me literally stood up to attention, and subsequent playings, which have been frequent, still guarantee a momentary shiver of delight; 'Out' has a similarly West Coast laid-back psychedelic snarl oozing through it, rolling itself around your tongue until you can almost taste the electricity flowing from the amps. 'Mandrax Town' is the other winner, layered guitars punching their way through to your consciousness and the song itself featuring a Doors-like circular rhythmic onslaught which gathers momentum as the number progresses.

A fine band, like I say, and definitely worth chatting to except - and here comes the first hurdle, except that there's a slight language barrier which lends everything said in the following article something of a guesstimate on my part. I nevertheless hope I've captured some of the essence of the band and if you need any further confirmation of their budding greatness, I suggest you play their song on the EP with this issue which they kindly donated the DAT master of for us to collectively get off on, so without further ado I'll cut to the history bit...

Formed in 1980 as The Living End, the band was launched as "a free-form avant garde rock outfit with psychedelic touches" and released two home-made cassettes, 'For You' in 1980 and '4 Hours in the Afternoon' in 1982. After several personnel changes The Living Ends became White Heaven in 1984; and in 1988 a further cassette was released called 'Electric Cool Acid'. Now this one I've heard; it's a live recording (in front of an audience, that is, at Yaneura, Tokyo) and features embryonic versions of 'My Cold Dimention', 'Dull Hands' and 'Mandrax Town, as well as a studio version of 'Out' (an out-take if you will) plus a quite excellent number entitled 'Coloured Mind Drops' in which the whole shebang comes to a head... hard to believe somehow that this was recorded as long ago as 1987 and has remained hidden to the Western world ever since.

The first version of 'Out', the album, was released in 1989, again as a cassette only promo and "completely different to the LP version", containing 5 songs entitled 'Out' (unsurprisingly), 'Dull Hands', 'Coloured Mind Drops', 'Blind Promise' and 'Paper Beach'. The album itself was pressed up by the P.S.F. label in 1991, limited to 500 copies and on vinyl only and reportedly recorded in just 4 days. The only other White Heaven recording is an alternate take of 'Blind Promise' which appears on a P.S.F. sampler CD entitled 'Tokyo Flashback', an album which features 8 disparate artists of the Tokyo underground scene and which is probably worth an article in itself; suffice it to say that White Heaven are the stand-out act, with Ghost following close behind - more on that (or them) at a later day, probably around the time that P.S.F. release a promised eleven-band Volume 2 of the collection.

White Heaven meanwhile have undergone yet more personnel changes and are currently gigging heavily in Tokyo, with a second album pencilled in for the end of this year ('92). To fill in some of the detail, I asked You Ishihara (vocals and guitar) a string of questions over a several month period which he kindly gave his considered answers to; roughly translated then the story goes something like this...

"The members of the group on 'Out' are myself, You Ishihara on vocals and guitar; Michio Kurihara on lead guitar, Naohiro Yoshimoto on bass (from the band Verserk, sic) and Ken Ishihara on drums. Kurihara and Yoshimoto have since left and have been replaced by Souchiro Nakamura (lead guitar) and Kouji Shimura (bass).

"When I started the group in 1980 it was basically just a series of jam sessions with a large number of members coming and going. We would be playing freeform avant-garde rock, heavily influenced by 1970s German rock and latterday 'noise' music. We used the group name 'Living End' and settled on a regular line-up of myself and Tetsuya Sakamoto (guitars), Takayuki Nakagochi (bass) and Ken Ishihara (drums). By 1984, Mr. Sakamoto was writing the songs and I was writing lyrics - we performed all original music. I believe Tetsuya Sakamoto to be a songwriter of incredible talent... a lot of his songs and his guitar style were somehow influenced by the Velvet Underground and the new York underground scene of the mid-2970s, stuff like Television, Suicide and the Voidoids, but they were all songs of his own and had a real original atmosphere.

"After several gigs we were joined by another guitarist, Ken Matsutani, and changed our name to White Heaven. Matsutani was working at the time in the 'Modern Music' record shop in Tokyo, which specialised in psychedelic and avant-garde recordings. I was a regular customer in the shop, and he joined the band soon after we met.

"White Heaven's first show was at Kichijyoji in Tokyo at the end of 1985. We played mostly our original songs, plus covers like Pink Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive'. Our sound at the time featured a simple melody, but our 'big sound was making freak-out' [I couldn't help it, I had to leave that charming description intact! - Ed.] Our playing style escalated, and we reached a peak around the summer of 1986. Unfortunately, at the same time Matsutani left the group and has since formed his own band, 'Marble Sheep & The Rundownsun's Children' (who have released a CD on the Alchemy label and have one song on the Tokyo Flashback compilation). Immediately after he left, Michio Kurihara joined White heaven - he had previously played guitar in a band called 'Onna', who had a very dark, psychedelic sound - they made one single, although Kurihara wasn't in the band at that time.

"In 1987 we released our live tape 'Electric Cool Acid' which featured a hard, heavy psychedelic guitar sound throughout. We sold it in Tokyo and Osaka and shifted about 100 to 150 copies - it's completely sold out now. The following year our original guitarist Sakamoto left the band and we were reduced to a four-piece again... we had often changed bass players, incidentally. Throughout the Spring to Autumn of that year we recorded demos of some of our songs, although we weren't satisfied with the results and they have never been released. It wasn't until late 1990, during four days in November, that we recorded what was to become our album for P.S.F. Records, at Studio J in Tokyo. The album was released in April 1991, and by October all 500 copies had completely sold out - more than half the copies being shipped to Europe and the U.S.A. Shortly after recording the album lead guitarist Michio Kurihaa left the band, and was replaced by Nakamura. Bass player Shimura also joined us."

Wasn't it strange though that it had taken so long for what was obviously a great band to release their first album?

"One reason for that was that we had had so many personnel changes, although the main thing was that no record companies in Tokyo were interested in releasing our music, and we didn't have the money to release it ourselves. We'd had two aborted attempts to release an album before 'Out' came out, once when Matsutani was with the band and then immediately after Sakamoto left.

"Some of the reviews in Japanese music magazines were totally unjustified and way off the point. I think every country has the same problem with writers on major music papers, so consequently few people can learn about real psychedelic music, great music that has real spirit to it."

I next asked You about Kurihara's guitar playing, whether (as I suspected) he was seriously influenced by the American West Cost freeform guitar stylists of yore.

"When Kurihara first joined us, I heard many elements in his guitar style. Surf, psychedelic, traditional music, contemporary music, free jazz. Both he and I and White Heaven itself have merged many of those complex musical elements in almost ten years together. Kurihara's own guitar sounds are of course very influenced by Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer (our favourite) and John Cipollina, another favourite. He is a very respected guitarist on the Tokyo underground scene and s now playing session work again, so we will again be able to listen to his special guitar style in the future."

My next question revolved around some of the songs played by White Heaven, where they originated from and which ones have been retained in their current set. You: (no, not you - You Ishihara):

"We've been playing 'Blind Promise', 'Mandrax Town' and 'My Cold Dimention' since about 1987. 'Dull Hands' was our first original song from The Living End era. 'Fallin Stars End' and 'Out' itself were written by myself shortly after Sakamoto left the group, and remain the main songs of our live shows. About three other songs that we regularly play are from our 'Electric Cool Acid' period. Also, since 1989 we've been playing 'Coloured Mind Drops' which will probably be featured as a studio cut on our next album."

I put it to You that 'Fallin Stars End' and 'Out', two of my favourites from the Out album, are quite simply great songs - equal to anything I've been listening to in the past few months...

"I'm flattered!" [I think that's the right translation - maybe it was 'flatulent' though? - Ed.] "Both are the most important songs for me on the album. It is so difficult to explain what my songs mean to other people because they are so personal, but for example the story behind 'Fallin Stars End' is that I have travelled far way from this world and I can do nothing, I am just amazed and feeding off the current of the underworld and yet the situation is tinged with sadness as well as happiness. Sadness because the audiences just look, maybe because they do not understand the English lyrics, and happy if somebody feels the same way as I do."

How about live performances; do White Heaven play often?

"We do live shows about once a month. Our audiences consist of between thirty and a hundred people, so we are not that well supported. A large part of the audience can't really understand the music, which is a very great disappointment to me."

Finally, how about the underground scene in Tokyo? Listening to the P.S.F. compilation suggests that there are some truly great bands out there just begging to be heard (of those not mentioned already, High Rise turn in a particularly stunning performance on a number called 'Mainliner' incidentally).

"I don't know that an underground scene as such exists in Tokyo, but some bands are beginning to relate to one another. The categories are various; experimental, avant-garde, folk, psychedelic etc. The artists often play on the same stage, it feels like one of those legendary 60s scenes sometimes. Of course, all this activity is hardly covered at all by the mass media and to be honest very few people support it. Now though P.S.F. artists and a few others are catching the attention of Europe and the U.S.A. and some magazine are picking up on us - amazing really, because many of the groups have been together for 10 years or more. Many of these groups will be introduced to foreign countries in the near future, and I only hope that people will be able to hear the real Japanese music scene..."

Me too, pal. If White Heaven really are the tip of an iceberg, we're all in for a inscrutably jolly time of it.

With thanks to You Ishihara for his time and patience and to Richard Allen for scoring a copy of 'Out' for me - God bless you both.

Written, produced and directed by Phil McMullen - July 1992.