Merzbow embodies freedom. I said this in my review of his album Aodron earlier this year, and it is certainly not a difficult conclusion to reach. With Masami Akita and the music he produces under his Merzbow pseudonym constantly drawing inspiration from concepts ranging from the sexual liberties of BDSM and Japanese bondage to veganism and animal liberation, freedom is engrained into his art form, which, itself, abandons any strictures that may hinder the musician’s ability to do as he pleases. Being the musical equivalent of an industrial conveyor belt, Merzbow’s brand of freely improvised, harsh noise sound collages have spanned across nearly 300 studio albums, with Akita releasing so much music so regularly that only the odd record of his, typically his collaborative projects, will receive a significant amount of recognition. Of course, recognition comes second to artistic expression and freedom for Merzbow, and the new record of his that I’ll be cutting open in this write-up, Muen, is more concerned with uncompromising freedom than any other release from the artist in recent memory, specifically as it concerns an often forgotten point in Japanese history.
Being hinged on the ideas of muen, kugai and raku, as presented in Marxist historian Yoshihiko Amino’s 1978 book Muen, Kugai, Raku: Liberty and Peace in Medieval Japan, all of which relate to the tactical freedoms of Medieval Japan, there’s a substantial amount of conceptual weight to unpack from the album’s thematic foundation alone, particularly regarding the way in which it relates to Merzbow’s legacy. Taking the record’s title first, “muen” refers to the state of being “unattached”, or without karmic ties and unable to be saved by the Buddha, according to the Buddhist scriptures. “Kugai”, in contrast, is the ability to uncouple oneself from secular ties and establish a connection with the spiritual, thus providing a source of counterbalance to muen. Moreover, in modern Japanese, “kugai” is an arcane word that refers to a life of prostitution, which, although not implied in the original meaning of the word, could certainly be intended by Akita as a double entendre, given his history of taking cues from concepts of sexual liberation. Lastly, with “raku” being paradise — or the “ideal realm” when contrasted against the secular and spiritual realms of muen and kugai — the triad comes together to form a unified conceptual framework of the facets of freedom in Medieval Japan; one which is now largely forgotten due to these three terms losing their positive connotations at the beginning of the Edo period, when Japan was unified under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and developed under the influence of neo-Confuscianism.
Being the musical maverick that he is, it can be left down to Akita to seek to preserve this forgotten concept of all-encompassing freedom in his music, and Muen, much like Aodron, finds a balance between the metallic walls of harsh noise associated with classic Merzbow material and the more recent additions of wavering instrumental distortion. With practically every project from Merzbow existing in complete isolation from all of the musician’s other recordings, however, the points of comparison between Aodron and Muen are somewhat limited outside of the self-evident, surface-level similarities. As one constant piece, during which the only semblance of respite offered to the listener comes in the form of flipping the record and putting on the second side, Muen sees Merzbow pit these two sides of his music against one another, with the cacophonous clangours occasionally overpowering the instrumental oscillations and vice versa. As such, there are also substantial sections wherein neither side in this great auditory battle retains control, making for an exceptionally vigorous sonic experience, as these two, separate sources of harsh noise are interlaced with one another. In usual Merzbow fashion, such a collision of sound sees a varied and vibrant array of rhythmic patterns and whiffs of melody emerge from the chaos. The very first breaths of Muen, for instance, which unfurls in medias res, quickly take shape into a call-and-response rhythmic structure between some gurgling throbs of bass and a swirling, siren-esque sound, establishing the feel of a 12/8 time beat, even amidst the walls of peeling noise. By the time this groove has given way to the searing static, a buzzing howl has installed a soaring melody within the walls of hissing dissonance, before an even more abrasive wail of droning distortion rips through the right ear and begins violently and erratically descending in pitch, only to tear back up into its initial, piercing register.
Amidst the gargled chaos of fuzzing, crackling and hissing, it’s Akita’s ability to command these waves of confrontational noise in such a way as to unleash their hidden ripples of rhythm and murmurs of melody abruptly and without warning that makes albums like Muen, from the listener’s perspective, so riveting and engaging, in that the responsibility partially lies on them to seek out these nuggets of sonic detail. This being said, there are a few motifs here and there, particularly at points towards the end of part one and the beginning of part two, wherein there is not as much to be found lurking in the corners of Akita’s punishing pulsations of static, leading to the occasional feeling of aimlessness, as opposed to the sturdy sense of direction and purpose that comes with the musician’s most potent material. Of course, with this being a Merzbow recording, such moments are only ever fleeting, as there is bound to be some semblance of sonic force to displace any instances of stagnation, and with Muen being the lively ocean of tones and textures that it is, a wave of frequencies and static will soon come along to wash away any languor. Whilst it may be one of many albums to be released under Merzbow’s name this year, Muen is another vital sign that Akita is an unyielding artist when it comes to freedom, and he will continue to explore the depths of electronic music as long as there are airwaves to exploit and frequencies to manipulate.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10