To paraphrase Strong Bad, Japan is weird, man. On the surface, it’s a country with one of the most powerful economies in the world, a technological edge so sharp it makes the USA look like it’s stuck in the 1800s, and a society defined by rigid concepts of propriety, honor, and face. But just below the surface lies a seething underground the likes of which is found nowhere else in the world, an underground that manifests itself in film, comics, animation, sculpture, and of course, music.
Oh sure, you’ve got your Top 40 acts and bubblegum pop groups. After all, they have MTV just like we do. But there’s also a vibrant underground scene, one that ranges from the kitschy Shibuya pop of Pizzicato Five (whose music is so sweet and saccharine it’s downright subversive) to the electronic pastiche of Tujiko Noriko (who out-Björk’s Björk) to the ultra-kawaii garage pop of Shonen Knife. And let’s not forget psych-rockers like Acid Mothers Temple and Keiji Haino, psych-folksters such as Ghost and Nagisa Ni Te, and the sonic terror of Merzbow and Masonna.
But standing head, shoulders, and pompadours over them all are the 3 leather-wearin’, hard-drinkin’, Joan Jett-lovin’ men of Guitar Wolf. On the one hand, you might think that the band is an obvious self-parody, a group that takes rock n’ roll so seriously they have to be joking. Thumbing through their CD booklet, which is filled with pictures of the trio striking one rock pose after another, their hair greased to a sheen and faces set in stone, it’s hard not to suppress a smirk and that smug feeling that you’re in on the punchline. But then again, we live in America, where unfortunately, a sense of irony seems mandatory in order to enjoy music.
Listening to UFO Romantics, however, and the way the band flails and throws themselves with reckless abandon into each song, it’s apparent that no such irony exists anywhere on this album. That’s the one thing I’ve always loved about Asian pop culture, the way that it can take American cliches and completely turn them on their heads, take them beyond any limits, and subsequently, breathe new life into them.
Guitar Wolf is obviously indebted to the likes of The Ramones and Joan Jett, and their three-chord punk rock is the stuff of high school basement bands everywhere. But they’re so darned committed and convicted that it’s downright inspiring. This is a band that’s so deadly serious about their rock n’ roll, it makes Andrew W.K.‘s proclamations about partying hard seem downright prudish.
Seiji (aka Guitar Wolf) doesn’t so much play his guitar as attempt to rip it apart string by string, while Billy (Bass Wolf) and Toru (Drum Wolf) pound away on the backbeat. Listening to Seiji’s vocals, you’d swear he’s trying to tear his larynx to shreds on purpose (after smoking a carton of Marlboros and downing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, of course). It’s snotty, gritty, rough, and completely unrefined, and stands in blessed contrast to the banal, polished mall-punk that sweeps America with each new MTV buzz clip.
Lyrically, I have no clue as to what the band is saying, though song titles like “Fire Ball Red,” “Jett Beer,” and “Alcohol Ace” give me a pretty good idea. But I think I prefer the fact that Guitar Wolf’s lyrics are left untranslated in the liner notes. I’d hate to think the band is singing about anything other than fast cars, hot chicks, explosions, back alley knife fights, zombies, and the joys of wearing black leather and sunglasses every day.
You can listen to UFO Romantic and think it sounds like crap, and you’d technically be right. The production is as messy as it comes, with the instruments stumbling over each other like drunken Sumo wrestlers, and the vocals are literally piercing at times. And it seems to get worse as the album continues, and rightfully so. But you can’t accuse Guitar Wolf of being unenthusiastic, of plying their punk rock trade half-heartedly.
Love it or hate it (and I doubt there’s much room in-between), you can’t deny Guitar Wolf the pleasure they obviously experience as they tear though UFO Romantics like a semi through a crowded sidewalk. Nor can you deny a listener the exhilaration that comes with hanging on for dear life.