Masami Akita performing live at ISSUE Project Room in 2010; photo courtesy Seth Tisue
Merzbow (メルツバウ Merutsubau) is a Japanese noise project started in 1979 by Masami Akita (秋田 昌美 Akita Masami). Merzbow is best known for a style of harsh, confrontational noise as exemplified on the 1996 release Pulse Demon. Since 1980, Akita has released over 400 recordings and has collaborated with various artists.
The name Merzbow comes from the German dada artist Kurt Schwitters' artwork Merzbau, in which Schwitters transformed the interior of his house using found objects. The name was chosen to reflect Akita's dada influence and junk art aesthetic. In addition to this, Akita has cited a wide range of musical influences from progressive rock, heavy metal, free jazz, and early electronic music to non-musical influences like dadaism, surrealism, and fetish culture. Since the early 2000s, he has been inspired by animal rights and environmentalism, and began to follow a vegan, straight edge lifestyle.
As well as being a prolific musician, he has been a writer and editor for several books and magazines in Japan, and has written several books of his own. He has written about a variety of subjects, mostly about music, modern art, and underground culture. His more renowned works were on the topics of BDSM and Japanese bondage. Other art forms Akita has been interested in include painting, photography, filmmaking, and Butoh dance.
In 2000, Extreme Records released the 50 CD box set known as the Merzbox. Akita's work has been the subject of several remix albums and at least one tribute album. This, among other achievements, has helped Merzbow to be regarded by some as the "most important artist in noise".
Life and career
Masami Akita was born in Tokyo, Japan on December 19, 1956. He listened to psychedelic music, progressive rock, and later free jazz in his youth, all of which have influenced his noise. In high school he became the drummer of various high school bands, which he left due to the other members being "grass-smoking Zappa freaks". By this time, he and high school friend Kiyoshi Mizutani had started playing improvised rock at studio sessions which Akita describes as "long jam sessions along the lines of Ash Ra Tempel or Can but we didn't have any psychedelic taste".
He later attended Tamagawa University to study fine art, at which he majored in painting and art theory. While at university, he became interested in the ideas of dada and surrealism and also studied Butoh dance. At Tamagawa, he learned of Kurt Schwitters' Merz, or art made from rubbish, including Schwitters' Merzbau (meaning Merz building, German pronunciation: [ˈmɛʁtsˌbaʊ̯]), which is the source of the name Merzbow.
Merzbow began as the duo of Masami Akita and Kiyoshi Mizutani, who met Akita in high school. Akita started releasing noise recordings on cassettes through his own record label, Lowest Music & Arts, which was founded in order to trade cassette tapes with other underground artists. The earliest recording he made was Metal Acoustic Music. Various other early releases included Remblandt Assemblage and Solonoise 1. The Collection series consisted of ten cassettes, the first five were recorded in a studio for an independent label called Ylem, which went defunct before they could be released. So, Akita released them himself, and recorded five more at home.
Akita's earliest music was made with tape loops and creatively recorded percussion and metal.
I threw all my past music career in the garbage. There was no longer any need for concepts like 'career' and 'skill'. I stopped playing music and went in search of an alternative.— Masami Akita
Early methods included what he referred to as "material action", in which he would closely amplify small sounds so as to distort them through the microphone. This method was used on Material Action for 2 Microphones and Material Action 2 N.A.M.. Among early releases like the box set Pornoise/1kg, Merzbow created artwork using photocopies of collages made out of manga and porn magazines he found in trash cans in the Tokyo subway. Akita explained this as trying to "create the same feeling as the secret porn customer for the people buying my cassettes in the early 80s".
ZSF Produkt (pronounced Zusufu, from an ancient Japanese word meaning "magnetic") was founded in 1984 to release music by similar artists within the industrial movement but eventually became the successor to Lowest Music & Arts. Numerous Merzbow releases were recorded at ZSF Produkt Studio, Masami Akita's home studio.
During this era, Merzbow found much wider recognition and began making recordings for various international labels. Batztoutai with Memorial Gadgets was his first LP released outside of Japan. He also started touring abroad with the help of various collaborators. First, Merzbow performed in the USSR in 1988, then, toured the USA in 1990, Korea in 1991, and Europe in 1989 and 1992. Kiyoshi Mizutani left Merzbow after the 1989 European tour and continues to pursue a solo career.
Noise electronics era (1989–1999)
During the European tour in September–October 1989, Merzbow could only bring simple and portable gear; this led to the harsh noise style Merzbow became known for in the 1990s. Cloud Cock OO Grand (1990) was the first example of this new style, Merzbow's first digital recording (on DAT), and the first recording made for the CD format. It also includes live material recorded during the tour.
But when I started live in late 1980s I didn't like to use tape on stage. I like only live electronics. So, my studio works changed to more live composition style. I'm still using many tapes in studio works, but difference is I treat tapes and instruments. Before, I used tapes as overdubbing concept. But now tapes are crashing together, no static overdub. I found that style on Cloud Cock OO Grand.— Masami Akita
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Merzbow began to be influenced by death metal and grindcore. Recordings from this time are mostly recorded at extreme volume, some mastered at levels far beyond standard (Noisembryo, Pulse Demon). In 1994, Akita acquired a vintage EMS synthesizer. From 1996, plans were made to release a "10 (or maybe 12)" CD box set on Extreme Records. In 2000, Extreme Records released the Merzbox, a fifty CD set of Merzbow records, twenty of them not previously released.
Throughout most of the 1990s, Merzbow live was a trio with Reiko A. on electronics and Tetsuo Sakaibara (aka Bara) on voice and dance. Masami Akita occasionally played drums for Hijokaidan during the early–mid 1990s.
In the early 1990s, Masami Akita composed the soundtracks to numerous kinbaku videos by Fuji Planning (不二企画 Fuji Kikaku) and seppuku-themed videos by their sub-label Right Brain. Akita also directed Lost Paradise (失楽園 乗馬服女腹切り Shitsurakuen: Jōbafuku onna harakiri) for Right Brain. Some of this music was included on Music for Bondage Performance and Music for Bondage Performance 2, co-credited to Right Brain Audile. Director Ian Kerkhof would use a Merzbow track for his 1992 film La séquence des barres parallèles, and Akita composed original music for Kerhof's 1994 film The Dead Man 2: Return of the Dead Man. Kerkhof made the documentary Beyond Ultra Violence: Uneasy Listening by Merzbow in 1998. Akita also created music for Ilppo Pohjola's Asphalto (1998) and Routemaster (2000).
Laptop era (1999–2009)
Since 1999, Akita has used computers in his recordings, having first acquired a Macintosh to work on art for the Merzbox. Also at this time he began referring to his home studio as "Bedroom, Tokyo". At live performances, Akita has produced noise music from either two laptop computers or combination of a laptop and analog synthesizers/guitar pedals. Reiko A. and Bara left Merzbow during this time, Reiko Azuma now has a solo career. Since 2001, Jenny Akita (née Kawabata) started being credited for artwork on various releases.
I started raising four bantams, the little ornamental chickens. With this experience as a start, I gradually started to be concerned and care about chickens and all the barn animals I used to eat without giving it a second thought before. So I started reading books and researching on the internet about Animal Rights and that triggered an awareness of "evil" that human society has done.— Masami Akita
During this period, Akita also became a supporter of PETA which is reflected in his animal-themed releases. An example of this is Minazo Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, dedicated to an elephant seal he visited often at the zoo and Bloody Sea, a protest against Japanese whaling. He has also produced several works centered around recordings of his pet chickens (notably Animal Magnetism and Turmeric).
Also in 2002, Akita released Merzbeat, which was seen as a significant departure from his trademark abstract style in that it contains beat-oriented pieces. This has sparked some controversy among fans, though some reviewers pointed out that it sounded very similar to Aqua Necromancer (1998) which features samples of progressive rock drumming. Merzbird (2004) and Merzbuddha (2005) followed in a similar vein with sampled beats combined with Merzbow's signature harsh noise.
Current era (2009–present)
Starting in the mid-2000s, Masami Akita began to reintroduce junk metal and effects pedals back into his setup. By the early-2010s, he was using a large number of pedals, oscillators and tone generators, and reduced to a single laptop running granular synthesis software. In 2014, he toured without a laptop. In 2008, Akita reintroduced the drum kit, his first instrument. This can be heard on the 13 Japanese Birds series. At this time he changed the name of his home studio to Munemihouse.
Beginning in November 2009, Merzbow started releasing archival material from the 1980s and 1990s, both reissues and previously unreleased material, several of which were released on cassette. The Blossoming Noise label reissued the 1980s cassettes E-Study, Collection 004, Collection 005, Normal Music, and Flesh Metal Orgasm. The Kibbutz cassette was reissued on vinyl by Urashima. Other cassettes of unreleased material include Untitled Nov 1989, 9888A, April 1992, and Variations for Electric Fan. 2010–2013 saw the release several archival box sets; Merzbient, Merzphysics, Merzmorphosis, Lowest Music & Arts 1980–1983, and Duo.
Akita began collaborating with the Hungarian drummer Balázs Pándi in 2009, initially Pándi served as a live drummer for Merzbow. This resulted in the live albums Live at Fluc Wanne, Vienna 2010/05/18, Ducks: Live in NYC, and Katowice. Akita and Pándi then began to record studio albums collaborating with additional musicians, Cuts (2013) with the Swedish saxophone player Mats Gustafsson, Cuts of Guilt, Cuts Deeper (2015) with Gustafsson and Thurston Moore, and An Untroublesome Defencelessness with Keiji Haino (2016), all released by RareNoiseRecords. Akita, Pándi, and Gustafsson also toured together and released the live LP Live in Tabačka 13/04/12.
Merzbow also released several collaborations with industrial/noise musicians he had know since the 1980s: Spiral Right / Spiral Left with Z'EV, The Black Album with John Duncan, and a trio of releases with Maurizio Bianchi, Amniocentesi / Envoise 30 05 82 (a split with two tracks from 1982), Merzbow Meets M.B., and Amalgamelody. Gensho, the seventh collaborative releases with Boris, was released in 2016. It is a double album, one disc is by Boris and one by Merzbow, that are meant to be played at the same time.
Merzbow's sounds employ the use of distortion, feedback, and noises from synthesizers, machinery, and home-made noisemakers. While much of Merzbow's output is intensely harsh in character, Akita does occasionally make forays into ambient music. Vocals are employed sometimes, but never in a lyrical sense. Contrary to most harsh noise music, Akita also occasionally uses elements of melody and rhythm.
Akita's early work consisted of industrial noise music made from tape loops and conventional instruments. Similar to his present albums, he produced lengthy, disorienting pieces. He also became famous for the sheer volume of his releases.
The avant-garde nature of Akita's work made acceptance by mainstream and unprepared audiences difficult. When he performed with Kiyoshi Mizutani in 1988 at the Jazz-on-Amur festival in Khabarovsk, the Far East of USSR, his improvised, experimental electroacoustic set was praised by fellow musicians as well as the festival's producer. The number of the - jazz-oriented (and - even just curious) - crowd, however, had been expecting a more traditional (and much-much more quiet) performance, and started walking out. Prior to his second performance at the festival — which was to be made to an even more conservative audience— Akita was asked to play "more musically." On that first stage, Merzbow used the finest example of "classical analogue live noisemaiking technologies" to display: untuned guitar, a drumset, various micro-objects, small springs centered in its shell baffles, large aluminium boxes with strings inside to be attacked with a fiddlestick, etc. along with multi- piezo-pickuping and close-miking techniques, live processing through vintage US fuzz, ring modulator etc. boxes, and quite vivid and spontaneous approach, backed by domestically supplied slide and light shows. These live recordings were post-processed/re-mixed and released as Live in Khabarovsk, CCCP (I'm Proud by Rank of the Workers) LP – and as the (once more re-mixed comparing to the LP) CD 26 of the Merzbox later on.
During the 1990s Akita's work became much harsher and was generally mastered at a louder volume than usual. These were heavily influenced by death metal and grindcore bands of the time (a prime example is the Venereology album). The mid-1990s saw Akita being heavily influenced by psychedelic bands and this was reflected in various albums.
In addition to Merzbow, Masami Akita has been involved in a number of side projects and groups.
- Abtechtonics (or variations of this) was used by Akita for his artwork on Merzbow releases and his books.
- House Hunt Hussies is credited for a track on the Sexorama 1 compilation. ZSF Produkt is listed as the contact address.
- Lotus Club was used for the tape Le Sang et la Rose in 1983 because of the difference in musical style.
- Pornoise was a mail art project Akita had in the 1980s where he made collages using discarded magazines – in particular pornographic magazines – taken from the trash. These were then sent along with his cassettes, the idea being that his art was like cheap mail order pornography. Pornoise/1kg was released as part of these activities. Pornoise was credit as the artist for a track on the Sexorama 2 compilation and co-credited for artwork on Scissors for Cutting Merzbow.
- Right Brain Audile is co-credited on the two Music for Bondage Performance albums, as they're soundtracks he did for several S&M and faux-Seppuku films produced by Kinbiken/Right Brain. The abbreviation RBA appears in track titles on Merzbient, which features recordings from this era.
- SCUM was a project where Akita made new releases out of previous Merzbow sessions using cut-ups, effects, and mixing. SCUM is an acronym, standing for something different on each release, including "Society for Cutting Up Merzbow" (a reference to the SCUM Manifesto), "Scissors for CUtting Merzbow", "Steel CUM", etc.
- Zecken was used for two solo synthesizer performances in 1996.
- Bustmonster was a "conceptual death metal" group (because they couldn't play death metal) with Tetsuo Sakaibara, Fumio Kosakai, Masahiko Ohno, Shohei Iwasaki, Maso Yamazaki and Zev Asher.
- Flying Testicle was a trio with Yamazaki and Asher.
- Merzbow Null was a collaboration between the groups of Merzbow and Null. In addition to Masami Akita and Kazuyuki Kishino, it featured several other members of both groups such as Reiko Azuma, Asami Hayashi, Kiyoshi Mizutani, Yushi Okano, Ikuo Taketani, etc. They did many improv performances during 1983–84 and released over a dozen cassettes.
- Tibeta Ubik was a duo of Akita and Kishino active at the same time as Merzbow Null.
- True Romance was a performance art project in the early 1990s with Tetsuo Sakaibara (who became a live member of Merzbow) and Toshiyuki Seido. The performances included fetish equipment, simulated gore (including autopsy), mechanical devices, nude models, etc. It was inspired by Viennese Actionism. Masami Akita was a performer in addition to composing the backing music.
Other groups include: 3RENSA with Duenn and Koji Nakamura, Abe Sada with S.M.U.T., Commando Bruno Sanmartino with Fumio Kosakai and Masaya Nakahara, Kikuri with Keiji Haino, Maldoror with Mike Patton, MAZK with Zbigniew Karkowski, Melting Lips with Hanayo, Muscats with Hanayo and Masaya Nakahara, Metalik Zeit with Aube, Merz-Banana with Melt-Banana, Satanstornade with Russell Haswell (they later released an album entitled Satanstornade under their real names), Secrets with Tetsuya Mugishima (aka Seven), and Shalon Kelly King with Fumio Kosakai.
After completing his degree, Akita became a freelance writer and editor for various magazines in Japan. He frequently wrote on a variety of topics such as sexuality (including pornography, S&M, and Japanese bondage. Excerpts appear in the Music for Bondage Performance album notes), underground and extreme culture (including music and art), architecture, and animal rights. None have been published in English.
|Year||Japanese title||English title||Publisher||ISBN|
Tōsaku no anaguramu: Shūenteki porunogurafī no gekijō
|The Anagram of Perversion||Seikyūsha||ISBN 4-7872-1005-X|
Ikei no manierisumu: "Ja" no minzoku
Fetisshu fasshon: Henbō suru eros to kairaku shintai
|Fetish Fashion||ISBN 4-7872-1010-6|
Sekkusu shinboru no tanjō
|The Power of Goddess of Love||ISBN 978-4-7872-1011-1|
Noizu wō: Noizu myūjikku to sono tenkai
|Noise War: Noise 10 Years||ISBN 4-7872-7035-4|
Kairaku shintai no miraikei
|Terminal Body Play||ISBN 4-7872-1018-1|
|Body Exotica: Sexual Atrocity||ISBN 4-89176-288-8|
|Scum Culture||Suiseisha||ISBN 4-89176-303-5|
Sei no ryōki modan: Nihon hentai kenkyū ōrai
|Modern Sexuality Bizarre||Seikyūsha||ISBN 4-7872-3087-5|
|1995||裸体の帝国 (ヌード・ワールド Vol.1 ヌーディズムの歴史 1)
Ratai no teikoku (Nūdo wārudo vol. 1: nūdizumu no rekishi 1)
|Nude Empire||Suiseisha||ISBN 4-89176-312-4|
Nihon kinbaku shashinshi
|Jiyu Kokuminsha||ISBN 4-426-73800-8|
|Anal Baroque||Seikyūsha||ISBN 4-7872-3134-0|
Nyoinkō: Seigaku koten yori
|Think Vagina||Outou Shobou||ISBN 4-7567-1131-6|
|ストレンジ・ヌード・カルト 不思議の裸体天国 (ヌード・ワールド Vol.2)
Sutorenji nūdo karuto: Fushigi no ratai tengoku (Nūdo wārudo vol. 2)
|Strange Nude Cult||Suiseisha||ISBN 4-89176-313-2|
|Love Position||Outou Shobou||ISBN 4-7567-1141-3|
Watashi no saishoku seikatsu
|Cruelty Free Life||Ohta Publishing||ISBN 4-87233-979-7|
Note: English title refers to English writing on the cover, sometimes it's a translation of the Japanese title, or a completely different phrase.
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