(You can’t say we don’t try to broaden your musical horizons here at NCS, but today’s guest post by Phro may push them farther than we ever have before.)
Well, there’s been a lot of talk recently about Celtic/bagpipe metal around these here parts. Which is pretty fucking awesome, if I may be so bold as to force my opinion on you like a political advertisement. Nothing wrong with a little sack in your metal, right? (Yeah, that’s the best I have right now…don’t expect anything too funny from this.)
Anyway, all this “traditional instruments doing dirty things with my metal behind closed doors and having babies that clearly are far more awesome than simply genetics should allow” got me thinking about a traditional instrument that I love: the shamisen. (Click here to get some Wikiknowledge dropped on your ass.)
Now, I know every FrownyFaceTrveCvltMetalHeadOfDoom out there thinks his or her favorite thing is the most metal thing of all, so that’s not what I’m going to say. However, if you don’t find yourself rocking (at least just a little) to some good tsugaru-jamisen, I’d say. . . well, I’d say this music probably isn’t for you and that’s tots cool. Seriously. Tots. Cool.
Before we really get started, I’d just like to explain very briefly what the fuck a shamisen is. A lot of people describe it as a Japanese guitar, which is just stupid. I think “Japanese lute” is the most commonly accepted description, but I prefer to think of it like a banjo. (They sound pretty similar to me.) Anyway, they have three strings, a long, thin neck, and a small box body.
Depending on the kind of shamisen, the form and size will be different.The Okinawan shamisen is smaller and the body is usually round and made of snake skin. The “standard” shamisen is about a 3 or 4 feet long with a body of about 10 inches which looks like a box. (It is a box, but the top and bottom are covered with animal skin.) The tsugaru-jamisen is basically a bigger version of the standard one.
Important note: there are no frets and the damn things go out of tune like a drunken sailor, so players are often re-tuning between songs. The largest string also has a natural reverb to it, so it’s the only acoustic instrument I know of that has built-in distortion. (I could just be stupid. Let us know how stupid in the comments below!)
Alright, so, today, for your totally-not-really-all-that-metal-but-kinda-metal entertainment, I’m going to be presenting some shamisen rocking. Pull on your hakama, throw some sen in your wallet, and let’s get this matsuri going.
This is going to be one of only two artists on this list who has an actual Encyclopedia Metallum page (http://www.metal-archives.com/bands/Zenithrash/59136). I would describe the little music I’ve heard by this guy as . . . psychotic black metal. All black metal is pretty psycho, I guess, but the synthesizers on the song below are pretty . . . fucked up. It’s definitely metal with some traditional Japanese instruments thrown in. He has a pretty good blackened death scream/growl going on, too.
(If you’re wondering, it’s vaguely similar to Shangren, which has been featured on NCS before.)
Next, we have a more metal band whose singer uses the shamisen. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be active right now, but you can check out their MySpace page (http://www.myspace.com/takatoraband) and quite a few videos on YouTube. Like many Japanese bands, they seem to have gotten their start playing on the street, but they did eventually release an album. As far as I can tell, it’s not widely available, so you’ll have to wait for me to get it to hear more about it.
The guitar intro in the following song is a bit long, so you can skip to around 1:00 if you just want to hear some shamisen rocking.
GOD OF SHAMISEN
This one is a good next step, since they actually bill themselves as a rock/metal/funk band featuring tsugaru-shamisen. (They claim to be the first, and I have no way to verify this, so . . . maybe?) Anyway, they’re based out of California, and their shamisen player is a guy by the name of Kevin Kmetz. He’s the first non-Japanese person to win a prestigious award for the shamisen (go look up the name if you really want to know). He seems to have pretty eclectic tastes in music, and it shows in the band.
They have electric guitars and drums backing the shamisen, though it’s not all rocking all the time. Personally, I could do with less funk and more rock/metal in some of the songs, but other songs (like the one below) are pretty rocking. (Their Encyclopedia Metallum page is here.)
There’s a good chance you’ve already heard of these guys, actually. They seem to be (or to have been) gaining in popularity recently, and they totally deserve it. They’re less metal and more rock/pop, but when they rock, they good and truly rock. My favorite album by them, though, is called Hishou and it is purely traditional Japanese instruments with no guitars/keyboards. But this is probably their most famous video.
Here’s one that’s just shamisen.
Now, let’s look at some more traditional tsugaru-jamisen players.
This is the guy who popularized the tsugaru-jamisen in Japan. While the shamisen is a pretty essential part of folk music in Japan, it’s particularly the tsugaru-jamisen that’s the rockingest. (It’s also larger than the shamisen used in other Japanese folk music.) His style is considered “hard” in that he really pounds the strings, and it’s that style that you can still see today in the more popular tsugaru-jamisen acts (like the Yoshida Brothers, though I would hesitate to put them strictly under the umbrella of acts influenced by Takahashi).
If you’re looking for some fast, distorted acoustic music, I think this might be man for you to check out. If you want to learn more about him, here’s his Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takahashi_Chikuzan.
This guy is pretty interesting. He won some high-level competitions in Japan before moving to New York on a Rockefeller grant. He’s recorded with a number of musicians, including John Zorn. (Apparently John Zorn is a sax player. I, personally, can’t stand the saxophone, but I guess he’s famous, right?) Anyway, the video below starts pretty slow and then builds to a nice furor. Nothing like Wormrot fucking your brain with a shotgun barrel, but that’s not what this is about, is it? (You can learn more about him on the world wide Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michihiro_Sato.)
KAGAYAKU AND KAGAYAKU
This is a duo of two young women who are both national competition winners. I discovered them on YouTube by accident. Their style is a bit “softer” than Takahashi Chikuzan’s, though I’m not sure if that’s a result of the recording or not. Anyway, the following video is basically them rocking out and eating some nabe (basically Japanese stew).
This is a group of three Japanese women who are alumni of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (according to their Wikipedia page). I haven’t heard enough of their music to say positively one way or another, but they seem to be mostly making pop/rock. However, they use a few different traditional Japanense instruments, like the koto and shakuhachi, in addition to the shamisen. The following video is a tribute of sorts to the Tale of Genji, one of the most awesome works of fiction ever. (You have no idea how much I’m restraining myself from going off on a tangent about why Genji is fucking awesome.) It also has some pretty awesome noh dancing in it.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure what this woman’s name is. Her style is much “harder” than the last two. That’s all I have to say. Check this shit out.
Alright, that’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you didn’t, why the fuck did you read to the end??