Far Out – “Far Out” (1973)

February 2, 2009 at 1:36 pm (Julian Cope, Reviews & Articles)

An article by singer Julian Cope from the Head Heritage / Unsung website, April 2001, about this obscure Japanese rock band…

 

Arriving in a flurry of heartbeats and echo-chambers, formless monophonic Moog synthesizers and microphone feedback, Far Out’s eponymous 1973 album is an alien and exquisitely beautiful music embodying all the greatest aspects of rock’n’roll at once. Herein, there are beats to brain yourself with, howling banshee vocals, melancholy tunes, dive-bombing seagull guitars, overly hopeful utopian lyrics, and harmonies to live for. This, their one and only LP, is a place where tradition and novelty sit together side by side, a place where cheesy melody and hoary chord sequences rub shoulders with shockingly unbalanced sonic gimmicks – forget 0-60 in 3 seconds, here it’s silence to deafening in Nothing-flat. The whole effect creates a sense of total mystery and awe, as though we’ve eavesdropped on some long-planned pilgrimage and found ourselves along for the ride. Indeed, the only better name I could think of for this album would be have been Far Fucking Out!
Even the sleeve is as iconically superb as Faust copping Warhol. A child’s mitten hangs by a single peg from a washing line on an expansive and borderless cosmic blue background. Think of the Velvets’ Banana LP, the first Kraftwerk album, Neu 75 and La Dusseldorf’s Viva. That obvious, and that classic. Fucking hell! And in one album they were gone – blink and you missed it – not even released outside Japan!
Of course, musicians such as these don’t just disappear into the mists of time. Their skinny, long-haired leader was Fumio Miyashita, who went on to form the almost equally amazing and far more successful Far East Family Band. But even that lot didn’t get the success they so definitely deserved considering the beauty of their whole overall trip. Sure, their best albums (Nipponjin and Parallel World) were at least released in the West on Germany’s Vertigo label. But such great things had been expected of 1976′s epic Parallel World that the group had been courted by Richard Branson, invited to record at his Manor Studios in Oxfordshire, and given two Krautrock legends to produce and engineer for them – Klaus Schultze and Gunther Schickert! Yet they again failed to set the world on fire because Branson deemed their 30-minutes per side classic too long for release on Virgin Records. Of course, all three of these albums are now accepted by the underground as timeless Japanese space-rock classics, and their later synthesist Kitaro became very successful on his own. But it is to this LP Far Out, the first recorded statement by Fumio Miyashita, that we must return in order to grasp the significance of the uniquely lovely yet sabre-sharp vibration of the Japanese first discovering how to mix their never-lost shamanic arts with Euro-American rock’n’roll in order to create what Audion magazine once so rightly called “the first and last word in Oriental cosmic rock.”
Like the greatest Krautrock bands of the 1970s, Far Out offered a combination of easily graspable chords and sentiments set into a highly unlikely ambient frame. The musical introduction of the eighteen-minute beauty “Too Many People” descends from its premordial synthesized soup on slow picked-acoustic guitars which plot a chord sequence straight out of the “Safesurfer” handbook. Round and around go the simple descending chords as Fumio Miyashita declares the obvious with a lyrically mis-translated sadness that is as touching as Amon Duul 1&2′s “Sandoz in the Rain”. Too many people are not caring for one another, he tells us, holding on to each word as though they were a friend that he was terrified to lose. Four sketchy and brittle and exquisite chords repeat over and over, as Fumio hesitates and stutters and dwells longingly over each phrase. It’s all so simple on the printed page but so desperately meaningful within its rock’n’roll that you only can feel compassion for all those self-absorbed singer songwriters whose lyrics hit so wide of the mark – perhaps they should have simply translated their songs into some foreign language and then back again, in order to have delivered the true depth of their alienation.
Round and around goes the song, like that optical illusion staircase which keeps returning us to the same point. Single low bass guitar notes punctuate the rhythm, as leaden pumping drums introduce a lyrical and slightly-out-of-tune lead guitar, which starts weak and slowly gains authority before pushing clear out of the fog into crystal blue. Then a riffing menace envelopes the song which drags the whole band into a strange loping Japanese boogie raga. This featureless grind soon takes hold of the song – a slow single note skank driven by the tom-toms of Manami Arai and the Coral electric sitar of bass player Kei Ishikawa.
I pay particular attention to the make of the sitar because this was no gourd-shaped acoustic Indian instrument, but a fully-fledged solid-bodied rock axe fashioned out of Burgundy vinyl-covered masonite AKA hardboard by the American Danelectro company. Found on all the greatest 1960s pop-psychedelic raga moments, it’s impossible to play this thing like Ravi Shankar and cohorts – even the drone strings which run parallel to the fretboard tend to summon in the musician a need to Nigel Tufnell your Ace Frehley solo. And here on the Far Out LP, Kei turns into a kind of Samurai Tony Iommi, grinding and wailing his Coral axe into some whirlpool of meditational metal, as a cymbal-less leaden tom-tom rhythm free of any sonic top-end drives us relentlessly onwards and inwards and never upwards.
Two-thirds of the way into the piece, it comes to a dramatic and abrupt stop. The sitar picks up the descending rhythm again and an extra-unbalanced lead guitar screams from the speakers, before the song caravan trails off again across the desert, along the way picking up a following of beautiful harmony vocalists, another lead guitarist, and a solo astral castrato worthy of some John Lodgean In Search of the Lost Chord moment.
Side 2 begins in another rhythm-less flurry, this time full of gongs and reverbed guitars, sitars and tom-toms. This is the mighty “Nipponjin” which Far Out would later record for their first Far East Family Band LP. There it was to evolve into a masterwork of layered Mellotrons, twin monosynths and sweetly padded voices. But here in 1973, that reverbed soup of an intro soon evaporates to reveal a dry frame of melancholy minor chords and more lyrics of tragedy and loss. It’s truly one of those pieces that confounds the listener with its musical obviousness yet sparklingly emotional freshness. Eiichi Sayu is a lead guitarist of such confidence that he can inhabit the hoary territory of a J.J. Cale or even Hank B. Marvin without ever burning up in the way that one such as Eric Clapp would do. Indeed, the Far Out muse is so strong that it even reminds us how beautiful that sound could be before it was requisitioned by the Hope’n’Anchor crowd. Of the underground’s Guitar God pantheon, only Neu’s Michael Rother had similar abilities. And here, Eiichi Sayu straps back with a soaring wild rip-it-out which pushes this epic into a dazed and confused autobahn ride of supreme Krautrock’n’motorik. From here, Far Out take us off into the wild blue yonder with a rumbling vocal chant and steaming guitar ride from the other side of the sky, before terminating with the glorious sound of some wading piper knee-deep in the paddy fields below Mount Fuji. Babies, U-know how much I hate the dreaded prog – but here at moments such as “Nipponjin” I can only paw the earth and pound my temples into the soil that the word ‘progressive’ was taken away from the true magician such as these, only to be misappropriated by Genesis, Greenslade, Gentle Giant and other things that did creep.
For this music DID progress. And like the MC5 and Ash Ra Tempel and all those true progressives, the evolution of Far Out extended the humanity (both physical and cerebral) of the musicians themselves, without turning the crowd impassive and goggle-eyed at these guys’ dexterity. There could be no vicarious and puritan remove for a Far Out audience, for, historically, the shamanic traditions of the Japanese had never been cruelly curtailed by anti-female priest/eunuchs of the one God. And so, instead, the audience themselves could also be equally caught up in this Thorean maelstrom and pureed along with its shaman creators. It’s difficult to translate into Western cultural terms, so for those of you who are loose enough to grant me a continuing Scandinavian metaphor – Far Out was truly Uppsala.com.
Yup, so Odinist they was all REALLY hanging!

 

FOOTNOTES:

In August 1981, I hired and played the Coral sitar on one song by The Teardrop Explodes and hurriedly dropped the idea of buying one. It seemed to pull out of me some dreaded vestigial Ur-Hindu who could only have appeared hopelessly bogus in the pale grey of the early ’80s. It is probably lucky that the Coral sitar has never been seen as anything more than a fake phenomenon, but I’m beginning to think that a true 21st century wielder of such an axe could reconcile our Indo-European roots with a cross-Kelto-Saxon-meets-Greco-Italic raga’n’roll full-on-ness which would “Swallow all misery whole”, as Iggy once put it.

By their second album, the renamed Far East Family Band had definitely copped a cosmic lick or three from the Moody Blues. But, whereas groups like Nektar and Barclay Jim only managed to shackle its proto-AOR with still further bouquets of verdant cliché, this Japanese monster sound left its Moody Blues-roots croaking in their dust. 

Julian Cope

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