Category: Industrial / Rock / Noise
Blurb: After over two decades, one of the ‘90s most revered and most peculiar musical collaborations returns with a much more focused and deliberate album that firmly establishes the band’s identity and sound.
Musicians of all genres, but especially in the genres of hard electro and industrial, tend to be a very international and creatively incestuous community. The very notion of a supergroup has almost become obsolete given the degrees to which experienced musicians from various outfits will join together in new formations to experiment in styles and sounds not customary to their better known bases, and with the advent of the digital age, multinational collaborations have become easier than ever to cultivate.
One such collaboration in the early ‘90s was Schaft – originally conceived as a one-off moniker for a compilation appearance by Japanese musicians Fujii Maki of Soft Ballet and Imai Hisashi of Buck-Tick, and then later famously released the Switchblade album in 1994. Now almost the stuff of legend, Switchblade featured guest appearances by artists as diverse as Coil with Danny Hyde, Meat Beat Manifesto, Autechre, All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, and most famously the lord of lard himself, PIG’s Raymond Watts. Despite the Switch Remix and Visual Cortex EPs, the Visual Mix video companion featuring live footage of Watts onstage with Schaft, and several compilation appearances, Schaft would not be heard from again after 1999… until now. Almost 22 years since the first album, Ultra finds Maki and Hisashi reviving the Schaft name and bringing the group back to their homeland with contributions from members of several fellow Japanese acts like Gari, Geek Sleep Sheep, and The Made Capsule Markets.
From start to finish, Ultra is a harsh and uncompromising record; the levels of volume and distortion in virtually every element – from the guitar riffs to the powerful (if obscure) vocals along with the drumbeats and synth passages, sometimes lush and ambient, sometimes throbbing with energy and speed – seems almost design to test the listener’s endurance and ability to filter through the sonic mire in search of the melodies that lie beneath the surface. Tracks like “AntiHedonist” with its strutting rhythm of steely bass and insidious but decidedly melodic to the point of catchy vocals, “Vice” with its chanting refrains too striking not to sing along with, “Swan Dive” with its gripping atonal synth arpeggios and anthemic chorus demonstrate a strong foundation in effective and emotive songwriting offset by the abrasiveness of the production. Some tracks are easier to tread, with “Drift” relying on a simple two-chord progression of resonant guitars and strident vocals that almost bears a resemblance to Mortiis, “魅” with its chiming guitars over a slow beat and J-pop worthy melodies, while songs like “ReVive” and “Sakashima” demonstrate a mild hip-hop influence with rapid fire rapping vocals atop an almost dizzying array of bombastic percussion in the former track and a slow pulsating groove in the latter.
Where Switchblade was a veritable assortment of divergent artists and musical styles, even under the umbrella of experimental industrial/rock, resulting in a schizophrenic and less-than-cohesive listening experience, Ultra is a far more coherent, consistent, and rather caustic affair. While not with its own contingent of guests and certainly just as noisy, the fluidity of Switchblade is replaced with a more rigid, more focused sense of establishing Schaft’s artistic identity on Ultra, free from the novelty of having such disparate styles clashing in hopes of some semblance of a unified whole. Sure, this may remove some of the appeal, especially among audiences who prefer the disparities or who perhaps are simply fans of Coil or PIG. However, somewhat ironically, Ultra makes a strong case for itself and for Schaft as an actual band with a definitive sound of its own and not just the aimless meanderings of a couple of crazed musicians too creative to constrain themselves. To quote the late existential psychologist Rollo May, “Creativity… requires limits, for the creative act rises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” So well does this describe what Maki and Hisashi have done, making Ultra well worth the two decades we’ve waited; welcome back, Schaft!
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Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)