You’ve seen those kind of half-crazed, super enthusiastic guys on city corners with their pawn shop electric guitars and lousy, toaster-sized amplifiers, hoping to make a bit of cash by rocking out some massively tangential, fuzzy, insanely repetitive blues riffs? How they always wear leather vests and feathered fedoras? You start to wonder, “Who are these guys, and why is there at least a half dozen of them in every city in North America?” Now we know there’s at least one of those dudes in Japan, too, and he’s got a recording deal. Tetuzi Akiyama might actually be best known for his gentle, abstract improvisations on guitar, but on Don’t Forget to Boogie he celebrates the raw and dirty, street-level sounds of the blues. This is a tribute to the rebel heroes of the electric guitar, an instrument Akiyama describes in the liner notes as “the greatest invention of the twentieth century.” And there’s just something incredibly, vociferously addictive about this album, which is basically a series of savage, endless guitar licks ripped from the likes of AC/DC, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker. But with Akiyama’s fingers, using the concept of the beat-up guitar and amp, the rhythm and blues sound so fresh, so alive, that it feels as if he’s brought our attention to an element we forgot existed in rock music.
No question, Tetuzi Akiyama is one of Japan’s leading avant-garde musicians, a guitarist who’s released four solo records now (his most very recent, enha4, a limited edition CD, is only available in Japan) and a handful of stunning collaborations, with the likes of Otomo Yoshihide, Taku Sugimoto, Bo Wiget, and many others. Along with Sugimoto, he’s often attributed as one of the first members of a rag-tag group of musicians in Japan whose sound is commonly called “onkyo” — roughly translating as “reverberating sound” — a philosophy of improvisation that holds silence in high esteem. It’s an expression of sound easily aligned with John Cage, but came about also as a more direct response to the noise music that dominated the Japanese underground, via Merzbow and Boredoms and Keiji Haino. After all that squall, something had to give. Either a musician had to compete for decibels with the ultra-noise of Japanese culture, or, as Sugimoto and Akiyama decided, compete for silence.
Don’t Forget to Boogie isn’t a quiet record, but the onkyo philosophy is still somewhat in action here, with tracks like “Money, Love Rock”, a two-minute jam of squealing guitar picking that fades in and out with funny silences as if the amp is going on the fritz. Comes as no surprise that Toshimaru Nakamura (an expert on the mixing board) edited the album — the experimental edges to this release are subtle and smartly consistent with the style of playing. Next up, the ten-minute swamp dirge “Dead or…” is pure, adulterous rhythm, built for knucklehead bobs, and has the kind of unblinking bloodshot focus and length of a total stoner-rock jam, like it’s been played by a kid in his basement high on sparkling bud, hours spent on his discovery of this seriously hypnotic blues progression, strummed until his fingers go numb.
It’s also really necessary to comment on the packaging of this vinyl-only release, because the packaging is so jaw-droppingly gorgeous and in keeping with the fetishistic high quality that has become as much a part of the notoriety of the IDEA label as the music itself, so much so that it becomes an integral part of a listener’s full appreciation of the sounds. The hilarious image of Akiyama on the cover sitting beside a dozen bottles of booze, a pile of skulls, a tommy gun, gold change pouring out of his guitar case (he is, after all, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll street musician), cigarettes, the requisite fedora and vest, a deluxe guitar, a framed Hell’s Angels poster, and, inexplicably, a tall glass of milk, represent a message of playful revelry in the badass tropes of rock ‘n’ roll.
The gold inlaid text on the OBI strip that fits the sleeve’s edge reminds us that the tribute comes from Japan. And the vinyl-only distribution of this release harkens back to the golden age when rock music faded into huffing murmurs after too many repeated plays on the old turntable with a needle as dull as a fingernail, which is exactly how this record sounds — pre-played. The second side of the album also explores the genre with a slightly different approach, so it’s appropriate to have to go through the rigamarole of consciously flipping the record to hear side B. There’s a kind of Terry Riley or Tony Conrad type of sonic minimalism that pervades side B. The open-ness and simplicity expands Akiyama’s approach to the blues into terrain that might feel closer to his roots in the abstractions of his local improv scene. Sometimes I love side A more, and sometimes I love side B more. I don’t always flip the record, in other words, I just put the tone arm back to the start. Few records are so satisfying, so fun, so exciting, and so innovative. This kind of magic occurs just frequently enough in the music industry that every year I discover something I never thought could exist so perfectly. Don’t Forget to Boogie happens to be my pick for the best record of 2003.