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10 obscure but brilliant Japanese psych rock bands - including the original Ghost

Ghost (Japan) press pic
(Image credit: Ghost/Drag City/Minoru Tsuyuki)

While krautrock was taking on Germany’s tradition-bound music scene in the late 60s/early 90s, a similar, psychedelic revolution was taking place in Japan – diverse yet complementary, Utopian in spirit, but finding that sense of wonder in fabled, pastoral pasts as well as fabled futures. That exploratory urge has continued to this day, making Japan of the richest sources of psych rock in the world.

Drawing inspiration from that scene, as well as compatriots such as Motorpsycho, Norway’s Kanaan are marking their forthcoming, kaleidoscopic new album, Earthbound, as well as just released new single, Pink Riff, by tasking bass player Eskild Myrvoll to choose the best, and the weirdest, psych rock bands who have held up their prisms in the land of the Rising Sun.

Says Eskild: “Choosing only 10 bands for this feature was a struggle, but I’ve defined ‘psych’ in the broadest sense of the term to be able to include some of the bands who’ve inspired me the most and had the biggest influence on Kanaan in terms of musical boldness and pure sonic exploration. My interest in music from Japan began with my love for noise music many years ago, but in any genre the Japanese music scene is a constant source of excitement and discovery for me. I dare to say this stuff has been quite important for our band the past few years as well, both in our compositions and the mindset we’ve approached recording and improvising with, and certainly in the sound we had in mind when recording our newest single, Pink Riff.”

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1. Acid Mothers Temple

One of the definitive Japanese psychedelic rock bands of all time, which for the past 25 years and under the command of guitar wizard Kawabata Makoto have issued a multitude of recordings under several different aliases and with an almost endless range of collaborators, spanning from legendary Gong and Soft Machine founder Daevid Allen to cult Philadelphia psych rockers Bardo Pond. For me, their song-based extended improvisations and heavy references to both Western and Japanese rock culture were a portal to a whole new world of psychedelic music and a new inspiration for performing and recording psych rock. For Kanaan, they’re a strong influence in the way they’ve managed to cover so much musical ground while still staying true to the nature of the AMT project, something we’ve always aspired to do – be stylistically diverse, but always maintain the Kanaan spirit.


2. Les Rallizes Dénudés

Not a psych band in the true sense of the word, more like “the most insane psychedelic noise rock band with doo-wop basslines you’ll ever hear”. For a band whose only available material is live bootlegs and whose frontman hasn’t been seen since the 90’s, they’ve gained an extremely solid international following, and rightfully so. Once I understood the beauty of Les Rallizes and learned to appreciate the sheer weight of their lo-fi sonic attack I was destined never to return to the normal world again. For the ultimate aural overload, give a listen to Night of the Assassins from the fittingly titled Heavier Than A Death In The Family.


3. Flower Travellin’ Band

The striking cover photo of Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler book (and their own Anywhere debut album), where the band is seen riding naked on motorcycles along a Japanese highway was an eye-catcher for me, and immediately made me interested in the music of the band, which didn’t disappoint. Heavy psychedelic rock, with some seriously strong English inspiration early on (the aforementioned album contains covers of both Black Sabbath and King Crimson), before they managed to make the style their own on the much more adventurous and diverse Satori album.


4. High Rise

Aptly named Psychedelic Speed Freaks before they changed the band name to High Rise early on, their first name is possibly the best description you can get of the music contained here. Crazy psychedelic garage rock, delivered with relentless energy and at an ear-crushing volume, if their extremely lo-fi 80s recordings give the right impression of what it was like to be put through a show with this power trio. They’re one of the best musical discoveries I’ve made throughout the whole psych spectrum and it fills me with joy each time Munehiro Narita goes off into another freak-out guitar solo. The energy in these recordings was definitely an inspiration for our track Pink Riff, even if we aimed for a bit more of a hi-fi sound for our recordings!


5. Kikagaku Moyo

A more recent addition to this list, but this band has probably turned more people onto Japanese and eastern Asian music in the past five years than any other band on here. A cohesive discography which blends influences from psych, jazz, krautrock and traditional Japanese music in a very tasteful way, and a great live band which has been an inspiration for us as well. Kikagaku Moyo run a label called Guruguru Brain as well, which puts out quality psych from a diverse roster of Asian bands. We were supposed to share a stage with them in Norway this summer, and it’s easily one of the shows we’ve been most bummed about being cancelled throughout the whole pandemic.


6, Taj Mahal Travellers

In the truest sense of the word 'psychedelic, Taj Mahal Travellers might be the most psychedelic band on this list, as this really could be music to bring you into another dimension. Improvised drone music which has some ambient qualities, but the musicians know all about how to pull the performance into a darker and more unsettling place as well. This loosely gathered group of musicians toured the world playing in art galleries and doing outdoor shows in the early 70s, with some of the instruments including trumpet, double bass, synth and tree branches (!). Discovering that one of their most acclaimed live recordings is from a show in Sweden also brought the Japanese psych scene a little closer to home for me.


7. Far East Family Band

One of the most amazing discoveries I’ve made in Japanese music was Far East Family Band’s 1976 album Parallel World, produced by none other than krautrock godfather and synthesizer guru Klaus Schulze. Their early seventies albums are quite good as well, but on this record they really turned their music into an immersive and trippy listening experience in the best possible way. Ambient sections, proggy breaks, mesmerising drum grooves - this band has it all! As I usually do the synthesiser overdubs on Kanaan albums, the calmness and gracefulness of the synth work on this record (courtesy of Kitaro, who later made an international career in new age music) has also been an influence for adding that feel to some parts of our own studio work.


8. Ghost

Not to be confused with the image-conscious Swedish party rockers of the same name, this psychedelic folk band lead by Masaki Batoh has churned out a number of quality releases since their self-titled debut in 1991. Spanning from acoustic jams to full blown fuzz freak-outs and sometimes reminiscent of krautrock pioneers Amon Düül II, this band has something for everyone interested in psych. Their song I’ve Been Flying from the self-titled album is simply one of the most beautiful songs I know – a sweet gem of a psych folk track, as good as I’ve ever heard anyone do it.


9. Fushitsusha

Hearing this band for the first time a couple years ago was an eye-opener for me. The changing line-up  is mostly the vehicle of noise rock legend Keiji Haino for creating raw, unbridled noise rock from the 80s and up until now. Improvised, devastatingly loud and in some way always playing rock’n’roll in the most extreme sense of the word. Kaiji Haino is definitely an inspiration in the way that he has such a strongly defined musical character which comes through in all projects he’s involved with.


10. OOIOO

Another band following the classic “Create a fake band for a photo shoot and end up as an extremely diverse band delving into psych rock, tribal jams, chants and abstract sound painting” pipeline. Led by Yoshimi P-We, mostly known as the longest-lasting drummer in Boredoms, a very exciting band who always seems to keep a keen eye for new musical experiments.

Kanaan's Earthbound album is released on November 12 via Jansen Records. Pre-order it from the Kanaan bandcamp page. The Pink Riff single is out now.

Jonathan Selzer

Jonathan is the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.