Maybe the strength of this album is diluted if I actually talk about what it sounds like before you listen to it. Certainly some of the strongest reactions that people I know have given it come from the utter shock of its sound. So I will beseech you to fucking trust me on this and just get this bloody album.
Okay, that's not really enough for some people, and fair enough. So here are some pithy sonic comparisons to get you to listen to it: G.I.S.M. if they allied their searing solos with a forthright melodic sensibility rather than their lo-fi minatory drone; Motörhead if they covered the songs you generally get over the ending credits of Japanese beat-em-ups; Chinese Democracy if it was worth the wait.
I don't have a huge grounding in the history of Japanese punk, so there may be some factual errors here, but as I understand it, Paintbox were a Japanese hardcore band who traveled in a particular subgenre known as "burning spirits," apparently named after a certain tour in Japan, the characteristic sound of which is basically a defiantly uptempo punk thrasher featuring the sort of solos you haven't heard since the last time you stumbled across the "Beat It" video on a Sounds of the 80s marathon and listened to Eddie Van Halen make his guitar wail over the sight of a bunch of extras from The Warriors abandoning violence in favour of meticulously synchronised dance moves. The band that defined this style was Death Side, who existed from 1987 to 1994 before disbanding and all their members going on to further develop this style in the bands Judgement, Forward and Paintbox.
Out of those three bands, Paintbox are by far the easiest on the ears. On their albums Singing, Shouting, Crying (2001) and Earth Ball Sports Tournament (2000), they began to incorporate a myriad of other styles and sensibilities into the core of their burning spirits sound, but when I first came to Trip Trance & Travelling, I didn't know that. I had never heard of this band. All I knew was that I was listening to what I had been assured was a completely rocking album which began with a whole lot of mellow spacey guitar noodling, and then, almost two minutes in, the song burst into angry thrashing life and I found myself swept up in a current of an irresistible hardcore punk rhythm and rough, throaty vocals, marveling more with each seamless sonic development: a chugging guitar part; a rumbling wandering bassline; a huge, nonsensical chorus (one of the few bits of English on the album); a delirious guitar solo; keyboards; heraldic trumpets; a mellifluous lullaby of female vocals. After the first song, I was entranced, but I thought they surely couldn't keep up this intense and insane blend of styles for the whole album; there have been many bands where I've encountered a thrilling song only to find it to be the one moment when their talents and intentions transcended their limitations and they produce something amazing before collapsing into a generic same-y mush. That is not Paintbox. This entire album, from the first note to the last, is imbued with the same nutty thrill of the first track, even on the mellower songs which are perfectly placed throughout the album for breathing space in the galloping, onslaught punk rock that dominates the album. And this album lasts over 70 fucking minutes. Seventy!
Now when I listen to that first song I find the intro filled with tension, the bass swelling underneath, the soft guitar rising and falling, expanding and contracting, teasing you for the joyous moment when it rips into gear. It's one of those little bits of music, like the chorus in Dear Landlord's "Three to the Beach"; like the first time the backing vocals kicked in on the Vindictives' "Assembly Line", neither of which ever fail to elicit a completely shit-eating grin from me. The most effective use of establishing and then subverting the expectations of a tender aural caress since the Butthole Surfers shouted "SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!" at the start of Locust Abortion Technician and then ploughed into a massive blast of Black Sabbath's "Sweat Leaf", tastefully retitled "Sweat Loaf". There are far too many beautiful, giddy moments like that on this album to catalogue them all, and part of the joy of this album is being constantly surprised by it–constantly finding bits where if you were were going to describe them to someone, you would be constantly bookending your assessment of the sound with the panicky phrase "but good," but here are a couple of bits that stand out to me:
- the mariachi horns on "Mental Picnic"
- the whole of "Fields in the Moonlight", which, for large parts of its seven-minute duration, gives itself over to the more melodic influences of the album until the screaming inevitably kicks in and it's like you were listening to the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack on Winamp when someone linked you to a webpage which autoplayed Dangers. In fact, possibly the pithiest musical description of this entire beautiful mess to stand next to my previous comparisons would be four words: Yoko Kanno's hardcore album
- the way the riff (which bears an odd resemblance to Jona Lewie's "Stop the Cavalry") on the final track speeds up
- the Chemical Warfare-esque squealing madness at the end of "Raw Ore"
- the brief bass break in the middle of "Retribution"
- the little tinkle before the guitar solo at the start of "Praying"
Lyrically, I don't really have much to say about this album. I fell in love with it before I knew what the hell they were singing, which is fairly unusual for me. Even if a band's lyrics are completely dumb, I like to be able to sing along with them, but that's just another testament to the overwhelming power of the music. Since I first heard it, I've purchased the gorgeous gatefold double-LP, which comes complete with lyrical translations, and while it's a relief to know I haven't been madly besotted with a concept album endorsing the Rape of Nanking, I still don't really care about what they're singing. The lyrics are kind of clunky in translation, but are perfectly workable, fun, punk exhortations of freedom. They don't completely work on paper, but few punk lyrics do. It's always about the way they're sung–the force put into them. I'm sure if you were Japanese it would be a lot of fun to sing along to lines like "It's not enough. / Destroy all the rules. / You will strike a mine called shyness and explode yourself. / We are making preparations steadily," or "Going to the ends of the endless world. / Using every trick to coax my rickety body. / Swinging paralyzing gasoline. / Let's become ape-men with an engine and go," but for me they're sadly just a peripheral part of the whole experience.
I have utterly no problem with a band that just wants to play punk rock and never alter their style. I love the Copyrights more and more with each release and never expect them to change much. I'm enamoured with the Lillingtons, Guitar Wolf, and Threatener, and countless other bands that stick rigidly to a particular basic punk rock template, but there's such a complete feeling of delight to hear a band push the envelope of punk rock so far beyond its conventional bounds without ever losing the vim and fury that makes it so appealing. I've never been much of a metal fan, but this album is like everything I would always sort of want metal to sound like in its noise and bombast streamlined perfectly into happy bursts of infectious cacophony.
In the making of this album, Chelsea, the guitarist of Paintbox and before that, Death Side, died, as did Mayuko Sakai, the woman responsible for the beautiful ethereal female vocals that perfectly counterpoint the angry growl of the lead singer (whose name remains untranslated in the lyrics booklet). Now it would be jejune and probably offensive to speculate that the decade-long struggle to produce this album in all its epic scope contributed to their death (Chelsea by all accounts had a pretty big drug problem for a long time [online you can find a report of someone seeing him play a show with a heroin baggie hanging from the mic]) and died after, apparently spending several days getting drunk and not eating in a hot apartment without adequate air-conditioning). Instead, I'll say that in the searing beauty of this album, the glorious derangement of the whole endeavour, the way it makes the absurd-sounding mix of psychedelia and punk rock, J-pop and thrash, lounge jazz and metal, prog and hardcore sound like the most natural thing in the world and never get tired or boring over a running time about the same as Buster Keaton's The General, there exists a testament to the astounding skill and artistry of all involved in making this masterpiece, and to the assimilative powers of all punk rock, and ultimately to just the way that music itself is constantly evolving and constantly surprising and constantly finding strange and madcap new approaches to soundtrack the fractal delirium of the human condition.