A Brief Dive Into the Japanese Psychedelic Rabbit Hole

By Tony Hjelle (DJ Titus)

Psychedelic rock, also called psychedelia, is the lovechild of the mid 60s psychedelic counterculture in Britain and America and rock music. Often meant to emulate and enhance the reality-altering effects of psychedelic drugs, psychedelia is characterized by extended instrumental segments, avant-garde sound and studio effects, and surrealist lyrics. Western psychedelia can be divided into two main forms; British psychedelia and American psychedelia, each with unique characteristics. British psychedelia was, for the most part, far more eccentric and surrealist, juxtaposing the heavier acid rock feel of its American counterpart. Japanese psychedelic rock follows the heavier, more effects-driven American style more closely, while still feeling distinct from both forms. The most critically acclaimed psychedelia of Japan falls under a form of psychedelic noise rock, creating highly complex and chaotic sonic soundscapes meant to be “extreme trip music” that is, for lack of a better way to put it, totally bonkers and completely head-melting. How did Japanese artists get from the comparatively tame sounds of Hendrix and Cream to bands like Acid Mothers Temple? In order to understand, it is important to take a look at the history of Japanese psychedelia.

The introduction of true psychedelic rock to Japan is often credited to one man – Yuya Uchida. After visiting his friend John Lennon in England sometime in the 1960s, he was exposed to the then up-and-coming pioneer and champion of psychedelic rock, Jimi Hendrix. Uchida sought to bring a similar sound back to Japan. Initially, a side project for Uchida, Yuya Uchida and the Flowers (later renamed to Flower Travellin’ Band) was born, and with it, the roots of Japanese psychedelic rock. Their first album, Challenge!, featured covers of western psychedelic artists such as Cream and Hendrix, with influences of popular Japanese rock genre of the time, group sounds. 

Yuya Uchida and the Flowers – Challenge!

Early Japanese psychedelic rock not only took influences from western psychedelia, but also from the Japanese pop of the time, kayōkyoku (literally translated to “Pop tune”). This immediately drove the Japanese variant of the psychedelic genre in a different direction than its western origins. While the two genres have many sonic commonalities, the philosophy of Japanese psychedelic songwriting is vastly different from any western psychedelic. The jam band known as Taj Mahal Travellers is a perfect example of this philosophy in songwriting. Taj Mahal Travellers were characterized by long, improvised, psychedelic jams, avant-garde instrumentation and vocals (almost like gregorian chanting), and intense, semi mathematical electronic processing and overlapping of frequencies used in the recordings. The band aligned itself to the principle of the Eastern approach to music – being a living organism. Altogether, this amounts to incredible drone music that had an undeniably living pulse and cadence to it.

The most critically acclaimed of Japanese psychedelia lies in the noise rock side of the genre, and no article about Japanese psych-rock would be complete without discussing one of the weirder (and borderline mythical) bands of the genre, Les Rallizes Dénudés. Not a lot is known about the band, and what we do know is messy, to say the least. The frontman is all but a complete mystery, the bassist was involved in a hijacking of a Japanese Airlines Flight in 1970, and almost all of their discography are either bootlegs of live performances or released archives. The sound of Les Rallizes Dénudés can only be described as assault and battery on your ears. It is characterized by simple, melodic bass passages juxtaposing shrieking, cacophonous feedback made using a guitar, adding up to some of the most sonically pleasing, albeit weird as hell, noise rock you can find. 

On the topic of weirdness, Acid Mothers Temple offers some of the most uncanny and downright bizarre Japanese psychedelia out there. Formed in 1995, Acid Mothers Temple, self-described as a “freak out group for the 21st century”, sought out to make your bad trip even worse through an extremely complex noise-rock sound. An absolute fever dream cover to cover, their first album, Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O will knock your socks into the next state and turn your brain into jelly. With an unrelenting backbeat, completely brutal and heavy guitars, and sounds that tested the limits of their recording equipment, the chaotic sound of the album lent itself perfectly to the psychedelic noise rock sound that Japanese psychedelia was known for, even if it was on the fringes of the genre. 

Acid Mothers Temple later teamed up with the utterly wacky, always amazing, gnome-hat-wearing, Gong to create Acid Mothers Gong. Gong, known for their Canterbury sound, mixed with the sounds of Japanese psychedelia’s fringes combine to a thrill ride of sounds. On the one hand, you have Acid Mothers Temple trying their absolute hardest to completely assault your ears, and on the other, Gong’s groove and strange tangential segments. Together, these sounds add to a highly enjoyable, yet at points, overwhelmingly potent listen. Perhaps it was foretold by the fates, perhaps it was divine intervention, but no matter what, Acid Mothers Gong is one of the most legendary and uncanny team-ups in music history, and I highly recommend it to anyone willing to listen to it. Just don’t feel bad if you can’t bring yourself to sit through it in one sitting. I couldn’t.

Acid Mothers Gong – Live in Tokyo, 2006

If you refer to the title, this is only a very brief dive into the wonderful, wacky, and often bizarre world of Japanese psychedelia. The rabbit hole, as always, goes so much deeper. However, this article is a good starting point for anyone who wishes to get their feet wet with an honestly amazing genre that has so much to offer for every type of psychedelic listener. For your classic Hendrix-type sound, check out Shinki Chen. If you’re more into experimental ambient psych, check out Taj Mahal Travellers. If that’s not quite up your alley, and you want some harder rock with very experimental flavors, give Les Rallizes Dénudés a listen. And if you want your ears to be completely assaulted (in the best way possible), check out Acid Mothers Temple, or better yet, Acid Mothers Gong. Once you find your Japanese psychedelia niche, I recommend following the rabbit hole and seeing how deep it goes. You might be surprised. Just try not to lose your head. Happy listening, everyone.

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