Reviewing the Unreviewable
I’m not entirely certain that Loverock, the latest slab of primitive rock and roll from Japan’s venerable Guitar Wolf, is, well, reviewable. I am reminded of how Roger Ebert’s review for Pink Flamingos ended: “I am not giving a star rating to Pink Flamingos because stars simply seem not to apply. It should be considered not as a film, but as a fact, or perhaps an object.” While I certainly enjoyed Loverock far more than Ebert enjoyed John Waters’s legendary gross-out epic, I find myself unable to really objectively rank it.
It could be that the only thing that one could compare a Guitar Wolf album to is another Guitar Wolf album. Still, even comparing Loverock to the rest of Guitar Wolf’s catalogue is a fairly fruitless task. After all, what makes one Guitar Wolf album better than another? Guitar Wolf is one of those rare bands that suffers from consistency. Some acts are consistently good, but change styles between albums, pleasing some fans and alienating others (say, early ‘70s Bowie). Other times, a band has a consistent style but an inconsistent track record (the Ramones, most obviously). The problem with Guitar Wolf is that they have not changed their trash rock sound nor have they really dipped in quality over their long career. It’s certainly commendable that the band has stayed vital for over a decade, but it leads to a problem in distinguishing particular albums. Loverock is another album by Guitar Wolf, where they do what they do just as well as they did the last time.
Perhaps the only thing left for a critic, in face of an “object” such as Loverock, is to take the approach chosen by the poor critics left to analyze even less reviewable recordings like Merzbox and Zaireeka, and just describe the darn thing and let the individual reader decided whether they want it in their collection or not.
Guitar Wolf has been in the trash rock business since the late ‘80s, eventually gaining a quasi-mainstream audience thanks to Matador Records. The ‘90s were a perfect time for the band to gain a cult audience in America, and Guitar Wolf were part of a growing number of Japanese acts that took cliched American pop culture and transformed it on their own terms. While Pizzicato Five, for example, absorbed ‘60s easy listening and disco kitsch and reflected it back at America in a totally reconfigured format, Guitar Wolf took American garage rock and made it bigger, louder, and less polished. Not being bound by a cultural history, as most garage rockers today are, they managed to produce a raw and angry sound without the sense of belatedness that affects most retro-rockers. Guitar Wolf artfully captured all the signifiers of rock and roll—witness their motorcycle gang outfits and matching sunglasses—but the band made a frightening and righteous noise that sounded like little else before them.
Loverock finds the band still reveling in that righteous noise. The album is a physical assault of sound, dedicated to causing cathartic headaches and earaches to all who listen. The guitar solos approximate the sound of tape machines malfunctioning, while Billy (“Basswolf”) and Toru (“Drumwolf”) defy the usual rhythm section goal of establishing the beat and take on the more worthwhile task of filling in all possible gaps in sound. The lyrics are mostly in Japanese, and the booklet gives loose translations that make very little sense. Of course, considering the nature of the band, the lyrics are probably not even intelligible to native speakers. Some moments do stand out from the ruckus. On “Demon Card”, the band attempts an ultimate rock and roll blowout, complete with a wonderfully bad production job and a “fuck you” chorus. “Time Machine of Tears” attempts to be a ballad, but Guitar Wolf isn’t going to be wimpy about it and do anything as drastic as reduce the volume or the tempo. None of the other songs really distinguish themselves, even as they are playing, rendering the track listing nearly useless. Where exactly does “SF Tokyo” end and “Black Rock’n'Roll” begin?
Guitar Wolf, ultimately, does not create songs. Instead, the band creates huge towers of sound dedicated to the sound that electric guitars make. Guitar Wolf operates on the principle that the highest form of pleasure is the kind received from bursted eardrums. If this sounds like a compliment rather than an insult, pick up a copy immediately.