Review by Steve Crawford with Photography by Denise Wilson

A Kushikatsu Records event always promises to be just that little bit different from most other events. Specialising in promoting Japanese acts over here in the UK since 2016, Kushikatsu have put on a diverse array of bands over in the last 2 years, from J-Punk, J-Rock, J-Pop and J-Psych groups, such as Mutant Monster, Shonen Knife, Touch My Secret, Kikagaku Moyo, Hibushibire and Necronomdol to name a few. Despite the Japanese sounding name Kushikatsu Records are actually based in Birmingham being run by former Bearos Records label boss Alan Farmer. So Japanese music fans lucky enough to live within striking distance of Birmingham and it’s suburbs are pretty much guaranteed a chance to see such bands in small local venues. Although of course these bands do play other venues when in the UK, there does seem to be a growing groundswell of interest and support amongst the audiences in Birmingham for these Japanese musicians. Birmingham, I’m reliably informed often proving to the busiest night of the tour for many of these bands.

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So on the night of Wed 22nd August at the Hare & Hounds in King’s Heath, Birmingham expectations are high as Qujaku headline with support from fellow Japanese band Kuunatic and from a little bit closer to home The Contact High.

The Contact High, a three piece consisting of drums, bass and synthesizer are a mainly instrumental group. There sound has been described as having “Elements of Krautrock… with errant psychedelia… driving post-punk… experimental, ambient, alt-rock” which all sounds pretty good. Propelled along by a tremendous drummer, in flower pot hat and stripy t-shirt, and repeating bass riffs, leaving the synthesizer to take on part of main “lead” instrument. It’s a long drone that warps and stutters from the synthesizer that introduce the band which gradually builds and grows louder The aforementioned psychedelic noises are wrought from it. One setting, sounding like it’s throttling the hell out of a Clanger (in a good way) whistles, oscillates and has a smattering of Theremin, is particularly pleasing.There’s no break between tracks; one ends to merge into the beginning of another. Vocals are used, but sparingly and I imagine are deliberately indistinct, adding to the sound-scape rather than being up front to be heard and interpreted. The end of their set is flagged by the tolling of doom laden electronic bells and all to briefly they have finished. To date you can only listen to The Contact High on Soundcloud, they have no physical realises which to purchase? Which is a shame as I’m pretty sure quite a few Hare & Hound audience members would have happily shelled out for something on CD or vinyl that night after their performance. Either way they will definitely be added to the “would see again” list.

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Like The Contact High, Tokyo based Kuunatic are also a three piece also consisting of drums, bass and synthesizer. And whilst it’s true that there is an intersection with The Contact High in the Venn diagram of psychedelia Kuunatic do deserve some sort of chart all to themselves as they do offer something unique.

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As they take to the stage I’m happy to report that there is some sort of band uniform going on with all three members looking glorious in their different coloured, big sleeved, floor length robes and tribal style face paint giving them a slightly stern and slightly fierce aura, especially the bass player who will lock eyes with audience members in a bid to out stare them.

The regal sounding ‘Spiral Halt’ starts their set with trumpeting and ‘pomping’ keyboards played against a sparse tribal drum beat. As with several of Kuuantic tunes tonight this one is a multi-tempo, multi-time signature. Japanese flutes, angular keys and low winding bass lines intertwine their way through this song before the opening section is repeated again.

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They describe themselves as “bringing primitive oriental psych sound…” and it’s this oriental aspect that sets them apart and gives them their uniquely distinctive sound. Apart from the flute no other traditional instruments are actually used but the Roland Juno Di synth recreates an approximation of the Japanese stringed Koto on one number. There’s also post punk discordant, spikiness to them and some of the bass lines wouldn’t be out of place in a Joy Division song, which perhaps lends them a haunting, supernatural quality.

Although the band members weave, shimmy and sway on stage there is an overall stillness to their performance which is in stark contrast to tonight’s head-liners.

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There’s no band uniform for Qujaku, it’s a collection of individuals. Lead singer/guitar Shuya Onuki looks very Thin White Duke era Bowie; loose white shirt and baggy trousers with bleached blonde hair. Bassist Hiromi Oishi resplendent in long flowing snakeskin dress; guitarist Soushi Mizuno and drummer Ryo Harbuto in various shades of black.

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Qujaku have been described as “gothic dark shoegaze” with a “swirling dark psych-rock” sound. Talking to one fan who saw them play Birmingham’s Sunflower Lounge last year he likened them favourably to American experimental rock band Swans. As they take the stage and strike up their opening salvo it’s clear what he means. The opening number is reminiscent of Swans ‘No Words. No Thoughts’. It’s a track that builds and builds with several parts or movements to it. For the first five minutes a drone is created as a lap steel guitar is played with a violin bow through various effects that creates the aforementioned swirling, warping psych drone. This is, punctuated by Ryo Harbuto’s constant cymbal tapping as Hiromi Oishi just repeatedly hitting the body of her bass with her fist and from somewhere and somehow they seem to conjure up a chorus of lamenting voices. All the time Shuya, as leader conducts the band on stage in a Michael Gira like way; standing side on to the audience keeping track of what each member is playing and at what point to break into the next section. Whistles and bells herald this next section of the opening number as both bass and drums pound out a slow sonorous beat with repetitive one chord strumming from Shuya’s battered and modified Fender Jazzmaster. It’s ten minutes in before any vocals start, which of course are all in Japanese. Shuya directs them upwards towards the ceiling, pointing an accusatory finger at something or someone? Whilst no doubt an understanding of Japanese would add to the experience, it actually doesn’t matter and in no way detracts from the overall enjoyment of Qujaku’s performance tonight, (or indeed Kuunatic’s). Instead you enjoy the ethereal and haunted vocals that emanate from the human body in a slightly different way. Fifteen minutes later and the first song finishes and far from feeling it was a bit of a slog to get through your left with the opposite feeling of: shame it couldn’t have gone on a bit longer. Tonight Qujaku will play a set of approximately one hour with about five songs (as far as I can work out. No set list was available) all lasting around the ten minute mark and not one of them out staying their welcome.

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Song two and an out of breath Shuya beckons the crowd forward, who until this point have mainly stood at a respectable distance from he stage, possibly wisely? This next track proves to be an absolute assault and battery of drums and bass. A clangorous controlled cacophony and although loud, it’s not muddy or so distorted that it becomes an indistinct mush. There is clarity as there is with the whole set tonight. Nevertheless the audience are being drenched in a seismic wave of dark, heavy psychedelic noise and will leave with the sound still dripping from them. On the subject of the audience there are clearly a tranche of them that are more than familiar with Qujaku but even those that aren’t, don’t hold back in showing their appreciation of the performance tonight.

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The band themselves are musically tight and punctuate their performance with various coordinated stage moves: the jump up in unison whilst hitting a chord before you hit the ground move is employed to great effect. Bassist Hiromi raising a leg to head height and slamming it down sumo style move (although a more unlikely sumo you’re ever likely to see). At one point drummer Ryo has to stand up out of his seat to muster enough power and force to really, really hit that drum kit – hard. Drummer’s are usually the heart of any band and so Ryo proves to be tonight, beating out the rhythm as if aboard a Dragon boat. Although not alone in the percussion department. For one number Soushi is relived of guitar duties and uses an extra snare and unidentified piece of percussion to drum in sync with Ryo.

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The final song of the night and Soushi, now reunited with his Gibson SG is wrestling with it like it’s some mythical beast or serpent attempting to eviscerate him, nevertheless he is wrangling glorious sounds from it as he does his best to strangle it to death.It’s a battle that one minute sees him writhing around on the stage floor and the next up and leaping into the crowd, whirligiging amongst the audience members who need to duck and cover as he narrowly misses clattering a few of them with his headstock. He ends up on the floor again, still playing, before victoriously clambering back onto stage for the final closing bars of the set.

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All things being equal Qujaku should be a lot bigger than they are. Of course bands of this genre are never going to sell out stadiums but if they got to somewhere near those bands that these days easily sell out smaller venues such as Thee Oh Sees, Hookworms and the like then justice will have been done. It’s a magnificent and unforgettable performance that will live long in the memory.

See the full photoset from tonight’s gig here.

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