Spotlight On…Guitar Wolf

introduces us to the art of Japanese garage rock

Photo Credit: Aaron Butler

Photo Credit: Aaron Butler

“Warning: this is the loudest album ever recorded. Playing at normal volume may cause irreparable damage to stereo equipment. Use at your own risk.”  The sticker accompanying Guitar Wolf’s 1999 album Jet Generation does not invite the listener into 36 minutes of easy listening, nor should it. Since 1987 the Tokyo-based ‘jet rock’ trio have been smashing stages and eardrums on both sides of the Pacific.

Originally disheartened after many failed attempts at learning the guitar, lead singer/guitarist Seiji was inspired by Link Wray’s distorted blues track ‘Rumble’ to continue learning, eventually joining original bassist Billy and his colleague Narita, who was soon replaced by Toru, the current drummer. Billy died of a heart attack in 2002, and was replaced by the current bassist U.G. 15 studio albums, a graphic novel and a B-grade horror comedy movie (Wild Zero) later and the band is still going strong with nearly unparalleled energy and capacity for volume.

Despite the unique moniker of Jet Rock’n’Roll, there is clear influence from punk rock bands such as the Ramones (further evidenced by the taking of instrument-related nicknames, Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf), with a bit of wild rockabilly thrown in amid yet more distortion. The result is an eclectic thunderstorm of noise, fuzz and bilingually nonsensical shouting, lending it the rare quality of sounding rather more authentic through cheap, nasty headphones than a whole studio setup. If you can discern everything, you’re probably not doing it right.

Photo Credit: Aaron Butler

Photo Credit: Aaron Butler

Somewhere below the ear-splitting overdrive are a collection of songs which at first have seen little development over the band’s 28 years. Fans of obvious style progression have come to the wrong place — Guitar Wolf know their sound and they stick to it. Kaminari One and Let’s Get Hurt conjure up (entirely correct) images of leather-jacketed and sunglassed rockers leaping about in a tiny basement venue with all speakers turned up to 11. Screams, jet planes and gunshot-like slams punctuate the tidal wave of crunching guitars and cymbal-heavy drums. Blues tracks like Nagasaki Jet and All Through The Night offer some respite, and although technically laid-back, have molten energy bubbling just below the surface to make up for the surprising smoothness (relatively speaking) of the instruments.

Once one begins to listen to the newer albums, however, it seems clear that Guitar Wolf are ever so slowly making their way out of the garage and into the studio. Blues and even surf take a greater role in their 2011 release Spacebattleshiplove and their latest album Beat Vibrator takes a more mainstream approach to rock. This is not to say they’ve changed entirely — songs like Fire Eighteen and EARTH vs. ALIEN remind us that they’re still perfectly happy to get violent when the time arises.

Fans of the more adolescent sound still win out, it seems. Their live shows prove that, while they may have passed on their sound to acts like KING BROTHERS (who are apocryphally banned from every club in Osaka due to their tendency of destroying stages), this has not been a simple act of osmosis. Expect noise, violence, leather jackets and lots of sweat. While they can generally be found touring the cities of their homeland, multiple US trips and a recent tour of Europe gives hope to those closely bound to our own. Guitar Wolf is certainly best experienced in this form, but for now it seems your best bet is to turn out the lights, grab the crappiest earphones you’ve got and hope that you can lipread tomorrow’s lecture.

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