Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My thoughts on Masonna

Considerating I concentrated on writing reviews for a site called "Metal Archives" for many years, it does not come as a surprise that this is the first time in over half a decade that I write something on a form of music that isn't some sub-type of heavy metal. For today's excursion into the beautiful broad field of contemporary music, I would like to share a few thoughts on an artist that I have come to hold quite dearly in recent months.

Masonna is an artist that I've known since very early in this century, and my first reaction, probably like pretty much everyone else's was something along the lines of "what the fuck is this shit?" You see, Masonna plays a type of, well, can't really call it "music", a type of audial art known as "harsh noise" of the Japanese variety - commonly contracted to "japanoise", and this artist strives to outdo its contemporary compatriots by a factor best left to professional mathematicians. Basically, it makes more widely known Japanese noise artists like Merzbow look like children's songs by comparison, and what the mainstream knows as noise - Sonic Youth, I guess - is so far removed from Masonna's level of harshness and dissonance that it does not even register as a blip on the radar.

It is hard to describe the type of audial assault Yamazaki Takushi, the artist behind Masonna, unleashes upon his listeners. The first key componant are truly insane levels of amplification and distortion. Everything is not only incredible loud but also incredibly abrasive. Everything is turned up to the maximum. The "these go to 11"-joke from the movie This is Spinal Tap, you remember that? Takushi really does that, except his distortion pedal that goes to 11 is plugged straight into another distortion pedal which also goes to 11, and then another for good measure, and the same goes for the amplifier. One thing one cannot accuse Takushi of is pursuing his vision ineffectually. He goes all the way, and you can probably hear him through half of Japan while he's doing it. Manowar may be the Guinness Book world record holders as loudest band playing in an arena in front of 30,000 people, but Masonna plays at a similar volume whereever he goes, be it in the studio or in a small club in front of 50 people, he'll crank it up and won't let up until he sees heads explode.

The second key component is that while half the time you cannot tell what the devil is being distorted and amplified there, Takushi's intense vocal performance dominates the audial onslaught. For those of you who discovered this blog through various heavy metal (and subgenres) outlets, I can wholeheartedly assure you that you have never heard vocals quite so extreme. I cannot even explain scientifically how that small, skinny guy takes all that lung capacity from that would be required for such freakishly loud, prolonged, near-constant and tortured-sounding high-pitched shrieking. This guy sounds like he has been whipped with a cat o' nine tails before each recording or show, then rolls in a pool of iodine during the performance. Ouch.

The third key component is just how disorganised Masonna's audial art is. This is true to a degree for almost all Japanese noise, including pioneer Merzbow, but Masonna took what Merzbow did and once again took it to levels unfathomable before. The is no rhythm, no structure, no common thread to latch on to, every fraction of a second is unexpected and takes you by surprise - if not shock. If he performed his music in an organised fashion, you would eventually come to expect each blow and know how to put up your guard to defend against it, but instead you are defenseless against Masonna's merciless battery because every time you think you can anticipate the next blow, he strikes from another direction you didn't see coming.

So going by my description from the previous three paragraph, it is easy to see how anyone's first reaction would be, as I mentioned earlier: "What the fuck is this shit?" Your first impulse is to turn it off after just a few seconds because not only is it intensely unpleasant, it also seems utterly pointless. I mean, why would you do such a thing to yourself? There seems no real reason you'd give Masonna the time of day and instead put on something nicer. Sometimes, however, I don't know about you guys, but as for myself, I feel like doing an experiment with myself and try something I wouldn't normally try. So a few months ago I decided to give this artist an extended listen after over a decade of dismissing it as pointless crap. I put a couple of albums into a playlist (about four hours), cranked the volume, and just let it run, to see what happens.

One major impression that forms quite soon is how much it puts you on alert. When I talked to a friend while listening to these albums, I described it as being like having a few cups of coffee too many. You find yourself with your eyes wide open, very wired, restless, always on the move. It actually gets you into quite a productive mindset. Not just physically but mentally as well, because while the music, pardon me, audial art, fires up your body, it also stimulates your brain in a way that has you coming up with all sorts of ideas and thoughts in rapid fire mode. I think this may have to do with the fact that Masonna's art has none of the hypnotic properties that most music has, so it does not put you at rest in any way, and it does not have a rhythm to distract you by getting you into a "dancy", bouncy mood, the message you receive from listening to Masonna is to stay alert, stay focused, don't keep calm, don't enjoy yourself, stay on the move, physically and mentally. And through its disorganised structures, it pummels your mind with many impressions it also leaves many gaps for your minds to fill, and it gets you into a thinking mood automatically. It is, in a way, similar to a Rorscach test where you see a random blob of ink, and your mind turns it into something. It is like a hundred or a thousand Rorschach tests fired at you in rapid succession, even, each not much by themselves, but your mind turns each one into an image, an idea, a thought. And as it keeps going, provided you listen to it long enough and don't turn it off after a few seconds, it keeps growing, because it is relentless, it doesn't let up, so the images, ideas and thoughts pile up, merge with each other, build up upon each other, creating bigger and more complex images, ideas and thoughts. It is a remarkable experience.

I would be lying if I didn't admit that there  is also a certain rock 'n' roll appeal to Masonna's art. Basically, Masonna is what people thought the Rolling Stones sounded like in the 60s. It has this extreme rebellious spirit of going against all conservative conventions and spitting in the face of the status quo. There is something cathartic about it in that aspect, something that stimulates this youthful feeling within you that tells you to raise your fist and go against the grain, no compromise, no retreat, no surrender. It may not be the most intellectually or philosophically valid feeling (or be considered such), but it is a good feeling to have every now and then and it can be quite invigorating. Combine this with the physical and cognitive stimulation described in the previous paragraph and the best way to put it in words is a well-known figure of speech: This makes you feel like a million bucks.

So try it. Or don't. Your experience may be entirely different from mine, don't take my words as universally true, because for you, this music might affect you negatively or not affect you at all. But if you want to spend a few hours of your life trying something new, going down new roads, and if you are already into some extreme or unusual music, why not give Masonna a shot? I don't regret trying it for one moment, as it improved my life and helped me grow as a person, and I have great respect for this artist and what he has accomplished.

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