Home Run Derby
It’s a little known fact in the States that baseball’s all-time home run record doesn’t belong to Hank Aaron, but rather Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh. Unfortunately for Oh, he does not get much credit due because the differences between the American major leagues and the Japanese major leagues make it impossible to know just how Oh would have faired against Aaron if they played in equal situations. Luckily, music is universal, so the great rock band Guitar Wolf, possibly one of the greatest rock bands to come out of Japan and certainly the loudest, can be judged against any of its American and European peers. The new compilation Golden Black has arrived, making it easier to take stock of the original line-up of Guitar Wolf before the tragic death of their bassist Billy a.k.a. Basswolf, and see just how they fare.
A few things first, this is not a greatest hits album, as the idea of such an extreme band as Guitar Wolf having “hits” is a bit far-fetched. Also, it is not a “best of” album as Guitar Wolf’s body of work is so consistent in quality and approach that finding the “best” material out of their sizable discography is a fruitless task. Golden Black simply attempts to pick out representative tracks that define Guitar Wolf’s restless “jett rock and roll”, while including a handful of rarities. I should also note that this is one of the few albums that deserve a warning sticker. Guitar Wolf’s albums were so unevenly produced that there’s a great difference in the volume between tracks. If you turn up the volume to the point where you can properly hear the “quieter” tracks, it is impossible to listen to Golden Black on headphones without suffering some hearing damage. If this sounds less like a warning to you than an endorsement, stop reading this and buy this album. If you’re a little more hesitant, just keep your hands near the volume switch in-between songs. This is the band that recorded Jet Generation, which has earned the unofficial title of “Loudest Album Ever Recorded”, after all. (At least the band had the decency to issue a warning for that particular album.)
Guitar Wolf, as I have established, is loud. The Guitar Wolf philosophy is to give everything to every song: make it loud, make it vital, make it exciting. The 26 tracks of this album are sort of the musical equivalent of a home run derby, the band is literally trying to take every song and push it to its extremes, hitting it well out of the park. The opening “Canana Fever” establishes the band’s operating procedures quite well, it starts of kind of sounding like the Ramones, but there’s a slow metallic lurching quality that makes the familiar punk rock formula seem alien, and a little unsettling. Then “Canana Fever” goes off the rails quite spectacularly, and suddenly it sounds like Guitar Wolf is an army of musicians rather than a mere trio. Just when it seems that the band doesn’t know what it is doing and has decided to just be noisy, a guitar riff comes back at the proper time and Guitar Wolf reveal the lockstep musicianship buried underneath the shoddy attire of amateurism. Then the guitarist launches an insane anti-solo, and there’s no way of quite understanding how in control Guitar Wolf actually is.
Guitar Wolf, as Golden Black reveals, doesn’t quite go beyond the confines of their well defined formula. There’s different riffs, slightly different tempos, and memorable slices of deliberately broken English (“Jett Beer” is my new favorite song title), but there’s a monotony in listening to Golden Black in one sitting. There’s a reason most bands don’t give their all in every song like Guitar Wolf, it’s exhausting to both band and listener. The album includes the quasi-ballad “I Love You, OK” towards the end of the album as a little breather, but even on this slower song, a hint of menace and craziness creeps into the mix, and there’s a palpable tension within the band, as if the song’s going to collapse into noise at any point. This compilation actually is less than the sum of its parts, numbing the listener to the joy of Guitar Wolf’s elegant chaos. I recommend an intermission between the first thirteen tracks and the second thirteen tracks, listen to some Cat Power or something for a bit to cleanse the palate before heading back into the fire.
The album ends with Guitar Wolf’s assault on one of the most storied rock songs of all time. “Summertime Blues”, it could be argued, has had three definitive versions: Eddie Cochran’s blasting and ironic original, Blue Cheer’s genre-defining lumbering, metallic beast, and the Who’s full-on live explosion. Guitar Wolf is unafraid in its attempt to outdo all of these guys, channeling the song’s adolescent rage in a chaotic righteousness, all the while maintaining the song’s satirical overtones (they don’t even bother to get the words completely straight). They don’t quite succeed in topping that trio, but the three of them, Seiji, Billy, and Toyli, at least succeed in proving that they are not just a great Japanese rock and roll band, but they a great rock and roll band, period.