Perfect Sound Forever

The Cosmic Boogie of Tetuzi Akiyama

By Mike Wood
(June 2011)

It is rare that early '70's boogie, that sludgy, funky, crunchy version of blues rock that morphed into Heavy Metal, is seen, or used as, a springboard for experimental improvisation. OK, it has probably never been done aside from guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama. One of the more accessible of avant-garde guitarists, Akiyama has long been able to reach people through boogie, and take the form well beyond its traditional scope. Folks who might not normally give improvisational guitar a chance can meet Akiyama halfway through his complete emersion in late '60's, early '70's blues-based rock. While he has taken the influence of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad into areas well beyond the scope of those legends, he has also retained an ability to fall back on funky rock licks to serve as bridges between experiments and silences, often within the same song. While his improvs draw from the same axis as most avant-garde guitarists (Derek Bailey, John Fahey, Masayuki Takayanagi, Keith Rowe, etc.), Akiyama's foundation in classic rock has given his music a soulful, playful tone that sets him apart from his contemporaries.

Born in 1964, Akiyama has packed a lot into his 46 years. Besides guitar, he also plays violin and makes many of his own instruments. He formed many projects, including the Hikyo Stroing Quartet, Madhar, an improvisational group, and a duo with another legendary Japanese guitarist, Taku Sugimoto, who is also adept at both classical and experimental sounds. He also briefly played with and for Haino (in Nijiumu), as well as in several other duos and trios.

Tone, that elusive but deeply personal sound that speaks like a recognizable voice for any artist, is one of the entryways into Akiyama's music. His tone alternately sounds like early ZZ Top or mid-period Meat Puppets, and a weird melding off the chugging but dark, spacey blues of both fellow countrymen Blues Creation and Muddy Waters' controversial 1968 Electric Mud record (which featured future Miles guitarist Pete Cosey, whose solos provided most of the controversy, at least to purists). Akiyama's tone is free and raw, but at its heart there is a simple, sweet and basic riff that he picks apart to explore additional depth. Akiyama has said that he wanted to focus on solo rock guitar as a way of creating a new genre similar to that work of jazz or classical guitarists. In an interview with Mike Sadgrove for Haki-Sou, Akiyama talked about what drew him to the guitar in his teens:

"My focus is much more on their tone they make, the sound of the beautifully distorted electric guitar. So some time, maybe twenty years ago, I came to an idea to make solo rock guitar work, to focus on the tone and wildness of the instrument. Also, I wanted to make a new genre, because no rock guitar players have not made this kind of totally solo guitar album which is more common in jazz, classic, avant-garde scene. I wanted to prove there can be "solo rock guitar" on very much bluesy manner. It is based on my ego, so for me, it is comfortable to do it."
From free to noise, blues and microtonal, Akiyama has used that playful approach to tone and improv that has made much of his work more accessible than that of other solo guitar improvisers like Bailey, Henry Flynt, Takayanagi and Keiji Haino. A profile by Michael Crumsho talks of Akiyama's approach as "(eschewing) linearity in extreme degrees, and when removed from familiar progressions, his playing evokes a distinct sense of discomfort. Melody and rhythm are left begging here, unrequited in the face of such slurred dynamics… Sometimes delicately and sometimes boldly, he controls sound volumes ranging from micro to macro, in an attempt to convert the body into an electronic entity."

In the world of experimental guitar, that is a good definition of accessible! Crumsho also notes Akiyama's use of "Negative space," in which silence, sustain and echo are as much a concrete part of his improvisations. Like many of his fellow Japanese improvisers, he uses minimalism for emotional impact as often as he uses noise.

Among his many solo, band and collaborative releases, I choose six songs that I think represent the diversity of his solo guitar style and achievements. From three of his more recent releases, Terrifying Street Trees (Esquilo Records, 2006), Striking Another Match (Utech, 2006), and Don't Forget to Boogie! (Idea Records, 2008) these songs feature a broad array of tones and tempos, and create various but powerful emotional spaces for his solo guitar.

The title track to Terrifying Street Trees is a thirty minute plus exploration of subtle ambient sounds that give way to a seedy, noir-ish industrial noise. Here Akiyama uses a "tape-delayed guitar," which gives the piece its beautiful but ominous drone. Recorded live in 2004, this was the first fruits of his solo guitar style and, as such, is one of the more abrasive and ragged, though he tends to be so live anyway. Listen deeper though and you will hear nice washes of chord progressions and well-placed scales.

A year later and also live in Tokyo, the first of two untitled songs off Striking Another Match is a gorgeous, meditative, building off several themes, some disappearing right off, others returning to be either woven or ground down into new patterns and arpeggios. Also checking in at over a half hour, "Doll House Shakin," along with "It's a Boogie Thing," from Don't Forget to Boogie!, feature the over-amped, distorted, fuzzy blues that has become his signature solo electric sound. They are perfect distillations of all Akiyama's American '70's rock studies, as well as his own jones to indulge in fully cranked amps and two well-grooved chords.

Also on Boogie! Are the minimalism of "Fast Machine," a tribute to Alan Licht, and the barely in-tune freeform Freakout of "Acid Highway." These two tracks express a depth of color and emotion that pushes that set far from most accusations of overindulgence in Cock Rock. "Fast Machine" features washes of emotional noise, a metallic groove that manages to be haunting as well as abrasive. "Acid Highway" boasts a variation on Bailey's "guitar as percussion instrument" experiments, here using noise and feedback as a kind of rhythm section, its chaos always bringing him back to a central theme and back out beyond it once more.

By unhooking boogie from its standard contexts in electric blues and in blues-based rock and using it as a foundation for freeform improvisation, Akiyama opens up new avenues for that classic two chord rumble. He also opens up discussion, in this age of mash-up, as to how older forms of music can not only be recycled into danceable, slightly kitschy remixes, but also as fodder for experimentation. This approach also highlights the tragic misuse by most rock bands of repetition. Instead of note for note copies of their catalog, bands could have plenty to explore within the strict chord structure of blues-based rock. Arguably, in a rock context, the only such adventurers to pull it off were the Duane-era Allman Brothers, and the 1969-71 Who (before the latter band became sadly the ultimate in predictable arrangements). Akiyama's explorations feel, though in a much less majestic and ambitious sense, the "electric" Miles Davis years of 1972-75, where Cosey built off of blues and funk improvisations that were the visionary equal of Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin in their prime. Akiyama's boogie deconstructions are admitted by the artist himself to be more driven by ego than vision, though the results often say otherwise.

Also from the Sadgrove interview, Akiyama gives a sort of thumbnail sketch of how his solo electric guitar ideas develop:

"I am more interested in the sound and resonance inside the instrument itself. Also, I am not afraid to make some melodic phrases even in the free-form session. I think the improvisers should have risk even if it makes sometimes the music bad. At least for me, the reason I do it is to get that moment full of tension…Don't respond [to] others, don't imitate others, forget immediately what you have just now done. Don't make any relation along with the time. Think the time does not exist."
The blues are an eternal reference for American and, long since exclusive, world music. Akiyama, in his solo electric guitar improvisations, uses one of the Blues' more simplistic but sonically satisfying children, the boogie riff, as a form of avant-garde foundation for deeper exploration. Even his more abrasive and confrontational work is accessible then for its homage to both classic rock and its potential well beyond the arena and the dope tune.

Akiyama brings a bluesman's trust in the power of the blues itself to provide a framework from which to add personal expression. Like a security blanket and stiff challenge at once.

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