Yasushi Ishii – Hellsing

Raid and Ruins, the two companion albums of the Hellsing TV soundtrack, epitomize the kind of music that I want to write this blog about.

Here we have extremely interesting, viscerally moving music that is totally obscure in America. The obscurity is understandable for several reasons: the music is from Japan, it’s attached thematically to an anime series (putting it squarely in “nerd culture” territory) and at this point it’s pretty old, dating from 2001.

None of these things are relevant to the musical content. Yasushi Ishii, the musician at work here, created what amounts to a vampire gothic blues-jazz-rock-noise concept album, soaked with gloomy atmospherics, ramshackle rhythm sections and irresistible melodies. Songs often morph several times before they end, plunging into reverb-filled stoner jam sessions or turning quiet, mournful, meditative tracks into strident, confident guitar-and-piano anthems. The technical skill and creative playfulness on display are consistently lush.

Raid, the first album of the two, kicks off with “World Without Logos,” the opening song of the TV show and what would have been the single representing the album, if it had one. The track has many of the elements that make Ishii’s work so idiosyncratic and interesting; a groovy bassline, a funky piano, and a loose drum beat seem to slide around like a snake in the sonic palette as Ishii’s voice drones along in a faded-out, sexy semi-whisper. The slithering “shooby dooby doo” vocal after the chorus on “Logos” sums up Ishii’s lyrical approach for the rest of the two albums: half of the words seem to be in English and half in Japanese, but it’s often hard to tell which, and it never really matters. It’s all about the vibe. The vocals sound beautifully far away and sleep-deprived, and the overall tone of grooviness mixed with gothiness seems comparable to the stuff Damon Albarn was churning out with Gorillaz at the time. There’s a similar aura of ghoulish coolness pervading the slower tracks on Raid, Ruins, and Gorillaz, a world-weary shuffling ambiance that leaves the listener feeling cooler and wiser, perhaps deservedly disaffected. Maybe the feeling is warranted, because this is pretty good music.

The second track on Raid, “Fool Cross Over Nirvana,” is a straight-ahead rocker that blasts out of the gate and doesn’t stop running until it’s over, and is perhaps best representative of Ishii’s hard rock aspirations. There’s merely a sprinkling of vocals—mostly “la la las” and indecipherable background chatter—until the song reaches a gloriously funky bridge and a distorted female chorus comes on strong. It’s the kind of freeing, cathartic moment that can give you tingles on the back of your neck.

It’s difficult to adequately discuss all of the songs on Ruins and Raid. There are too many highlights, and many of the songs are really multiple songs, mini-operas that transition through emotions and often build into stunning climaxes. “Ambiguous Drum’s Grief” starts out sounding like an on-edge theme from a 70s spy movie, with a flickering, indecisive synthesizer flitting back and forth like a moth around jangly guitar strumming, until suddenly the clouds of uncertainty break and clear piano comes in, slowly building inertia and culminating in a shimmering, pulsating chorus. The segue back into verse reintroduces the synthesizer, which sparkles with a fuzz that sounds delightfully worn, as if it were sampled from ancient vinyl.

“Fabricated Background” on Ruins strikes a similar emotional tone, with a solitary piano quietly meandering, sounding lost. Then, after plunging deep into despair, it slowly picks up a steady rhythm, grows in volume, and breaks into a righteously self-assured melody that glows with confidence, overcoming strife but still possessing the world-weary tone it held at the start of the piece. The song sounds unmistakably like someone surviving against tough odds. At only two and a half minutes long, it’s one of the clearest and simplest expressions of an additudinal transition I’ve ever heard in music.

On the funky side of things, “Severe Gun Fight at the Hill of Casualties” sounds distinctly like early Gorillaz, mostly due to the dubby bassline and the choice of guitar distortion. “Soul Rescuer” features the most obvious example of Ishii’s “what language is this” vocals, with Engrish-y rapping, organ, piano and funky bass building from a shambling verse to a soulfully sung chorus. “Secret Karma Serenade” features similar undecipherable rapping, but sounds more like trip-hop with Latin influences. All of these tracks are interesting, and memorable enough to be standouts on an average rock album, but on Ruins they just seem on par with the rest of the material.

And, of course, there are more rock songs. “I.B.C.J. Siege Rope” and “Echoing Truth” are both unrestrained, pedal-to-the-metal jams with Ishii’s particular brand of droning bass and wild, airy guitar distortion. “Truth” has a delicious funk breakdown in the middle, followed by a hyper-distorted scratchy choir and then a synthesizer solo that sounds like it’s from a lost Doors song. “When You Start the War, Fight With Arrows, Spears and Swords” is a slow-rocking heavily distorted beast that sounds like Led Zeppelin crashing into the Beach Boys, if both groups rose from the grave and were trotted out on the same stage in rotting zombie form.

The ingenuity on display here is partly something unique to Japan: a reflection and recycling of styles that Westerners have become jaded to, combined in a way that the Western ear and brain would be unlikely to create. This propensity for making something old into something new can be heard in a lot of Japanese music, but Ishii in particular shines on these two CDs. It feels like if they had been released by an American or British band in the past decade they would have been hailed as a genius revitalization of rock music. Someone would have used the word “seminal” to describe them. The language barrier and other factors prevent this kind of recognition from occurring, and it probably doesn’t matter much, since Ishii has undoubtedly gotten his due in the land of the rising sun, having recently been hired to score the second season of a show that had previously been handled by no less of a musician than Yoko Kanno.

Nevertheless, I feel obligated to proselytize. In an age where the trend in “indie” rock music in the West tends towards queasy melodrama and intentionally atonal songwriting, it’s incredibly refreshing to listen to Raid and Ruins. Here you’ll find music that manages to break the mold of convention without throwing away the things that made the music of the past so memorable.

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