Tour Ultra -The Loud Engine-
January 22nd at Club Citta' Kawasaki
January 24th at Yokohama Bay Hall
January 25th at Liquidroom Ebisu
January 27th at Akasaka Blitz
January 28th at Roppongi EX Theater
Live Report by Cayce
“I didn't go see Schaft. Did they put on a good show?”
Thus spoke Mr. Sakurai in his interview with the March 2016 Fish Tank newsletter. So, just in case you were wondering – as far as Mr. Sakurai is concerned, any activity Imai undertakes extracurricular to Buck-Tick still counts as adultery. No open marriages in Buck-Tickistan!
But for the rest of y'all, the answer is yes. Schaft did indeed put on a good show, and how.
The history of Schaft is a long one. Among all the side projects Imai has undertaken over the years, Schaft is the oldest, dating back to 1991 and the release of the first Dance2Noise omnibus album. The Dance2Noise collections served as a forum where the dark and experimental artists of the day could try out different concepts from the usual bands they were attached to. Hoshino Hidehiko participated, with the dark electronic trance song “Jarring Voice,” which remains the only song he has ever released under his own name, and the only song he has ever performed lead vocals for (if you can call that stuff “vocals.” Sorry, Hide.) Mr. Sakurai participated in the second volume of the compilation, releasing a track called “Yokan” with music by Ronny Moorings and Anka Wolbert of Dutch goth band Clan of Xymox. But for the first Dance2Noise album, Imai took the opportunity to fuck around in the studio with his friend Fujii Maki of electronic unit Soft Ballet, who were the second band after Buck-Tick to make their major debut with Victor from Sawaki Kazuo's independent label Taiyou Records. Signed to the same label and attracting a similar group of fans, Soft Ballet were like Buck-Tick's younger brother, so the collaboration between Imai and Fujii seemed only natural.
The track that Imai and Fujii released for Dance2Noise under the name Schaft was called “nicht-titel,” and appropriately so – the thing sounded less like music than like a whole bunch of sounds smashed together and rolled up in a fine sparkling mist of pure LSD.
"It sounded like glass plates and razorblade harmonies," said Fujii in issue 78 of the Fish Tank newsletter. "We went in the booth, and screeeeeech!"
"But that was what made the sound interesting," Imai added.
In December that year, a live event was held at Nishi-Azabu Club Yellow to commemorate the release of the Dance2Noise omnibus, and Fujii and Imai played a short set as Schaft, which appears to have mainly been a continuation of their screechy studio play.
However, three years later, Imai and Fujii decided to revisit the project more formally, this time with the addition of British industrial rocker Raymond Watts as a vocalist. Though Schaft retained their experimental quality, and dabbled in genres ranging from ambient noise to trip-hop, dream pop, and heavy industrial rock, Watts' vocals grounded the band and lent some consistency to the overall sound. Schaft's first album, Switchblade, still sounds more like an anthology than the work of a single unit, but the atmosphere and core themes remain consistent. The knife theme returns again and again, both in Watts' lyrics and in the sound itself, which never quite gives the listener the satisfaction of euphonic melody – the moments that approach catchiness are quickly slashed to ribbons by blades of harsh electronic noise. Much of the time, Switchblade sounds like a record that got dropped on the floor and patched back together with glue. Well out of line with the glam and pop of Buck-Tick and Soft Ballet, it's a record for serious industrial fans more than anyone else. It couldn't be considered easy listening under any circumstances, and though it probably makes more sense when listened to under the influence of a generous pile of drugs (if the band were sober for even a moment during the entire recording, I'll swallow my computer whole!) it's definitely a bad trip album, riddled with rot and bullet holes.
Much of the ugliness of the original Schaft aesthetic was probably the work of Watts – neither Fujii nor Imai dwell this much on blood, guts, and violence on their own. But at the same time, Schaft's hardboiled, gritty anti-romanticism gave both Imai and Fujii a chance to explore facets of their artistic personalities they had never had a chance to express anywhere else, and tinges of this aesthetic remained in their later work.
In 1994, With Watts on vocals and Motokatsu of The Mad Capsule Markets on drums, Schaft launched a national tour to support Switchblade, but the end of the tour marked the end of their activities for some years. The next side project Imai undertook involving Watts was Schwein, in which Sakurai Atsushi and KMFDM's Sascha Konietczko also participated, but Fujii was not involved – and the way he tells it now, he bitterly regrets it.
“Just as I was thinking it was too bad we couldn't do Schaft again, Buck-Tick started activities again, and I started Suilen, and then, when I had all but forgotten about it, I see this article in a magazine – 'Schwein starts activities'! I heard about it at the same time the fans heard about it,” Fujii told the Fish Tank newsletter in December 2015. “Raymond was involved, and Imai was involved, and what's this...Atsushi was involved, too? Oh man, oh man oh man oh man...I was sad. I thought, 'Imai, you're awful!' I was really sad about it. I had my tail between my legs for like three weeks. I thought damn, he didn't call me...did I change my phone number...nope, still the same!”
“Raymond wondered about it too,” said Imai. “When we were recording [with Schwein] he asked me, 'come to think of it, how's Maki doing?' Haha!”
“You should have contacted me!” Fujii replied. “I thought fine, there's nothing I can do, I give up...and then you went and played Schaft songs at the live tour! And I only found that out because I read it in a magazine! Okay, fine, it makes for a good memory.”
This wasn't enough to ruin Imai's friendship with Fujii, however. In 2008, Imai's third side project, Lucy (consisting of Imai and Kiyoshi of Madbeavers on guitar and vocal and former Guniw Tools support drummer Okazaki “Kacchan” Katsuhige on drums), performed a special show together with Acid Android (fronted by L'arc-en-Ciel drummer Awaji Yukihiro) and Suilen, Fujii Maki's project du jour. Thanks to the added publicity from this event, Suilen became a hot topic among Buck-Tick fans, but no sooner had they gained new popularity than they suddenly vanished. In fact, Fujii Maki all but dropped off the face of the music scene until 2014, when he reunited with former Soft Ballet keyboardist Morioka Ken to form the electronic unit minus (-) (read more about minus (-) here.)
So why did Schaft re-form in 2015? The way Imai tells it, it was because Fujii showed up on his doorstep. Perhaps he figured that since the Soft Ballet reunion had come off so well, it was time to try for Schaft, too – who knows. Either way, this time, they decided that rather than an international collaboration, it was time to try for an all-Japanese version of the group. Though this decision may have disappointed some foreign fans who were keen to see Imai do more work with overseas artists, it probably boils down more to logistics than xenophobia – Raymond Watts had just suffered a serious health crisis and was still in recovery, and with Buck-Tick's 30th anniversary on the horizon, Imai didn't have much time to make Schaft happen again, and it's a lot easier to pull things together on short notice if you're working with people who live in the same city.
For those in the know, the new Schaft lineup read like a who's who of Imai's friends list. Acid Android not only played alongside Suilen and Lucy in 2008, they also appeared at Buck-Tick's 25th anniversary festival in 21012, and played a special all-night event with minus (-) in 2014, so it seemed only natural that Awaji Yukihiro should become Schaft's drummer this time around. Ueda Takeshi, formerly of The Mad Capsule Markets, also performed at Buck-Tick's 25th anniversary festival with his band AA=, and though he normally plays guitar, playing bass in Schaft would not only give him something new and different to do, it would carry on the tradition, started by Motokatsu, of a Mad Capsule Markets member always playing in the Schaft rhythm section. GARI's Yow-Row (pronounced “Youichirou”) has been working with Buck-Tick for years now – among other things, Yow-Row produced the arrangement of “Ai no Sanka” for Sakurai's Ai no Wakusei project in 2004, and performed the synth parts for Buck-Tick's “Melancholia -Electria-”. If you didn't know he could also sing, well, neither did we.
But despite the all-Japanese lineup, the all-new Schaft has maintained their international outlook to an impressive extent. Continuing in the same vein as his work with minus (-), Fujii Maki penned his contributions to the new Schaft's lyrics entirely in English, and Imai and Yow-Row's Japanese lyrics are peppered heavily with English phrases. Beyond that, the music and styling draw so heavily on Western influences that if you didn't know the band were Japanese before attending the tour, you couldn't be blamed for assuming they'd teleported straight from Germany in the late 90's. While Switchblade-era Schaft leaned toward the experimental side of industrial and the likes of Coil and Throbbing Gristle, Schaft 2016 contains a much heavier dose of dance, guaranteed to appeal to fans of groups like Rammstein, Korn, and the later work of Skinny Puppy.
Overall, this new Schaft is sure to be a lot more palatable to a much wider variety of people. Though Schaft 2016's work is nowhere near as diverse or original as the work of the '94 lineup, it's far more propulsive, infectious, and easy on the ears. Leaving Watts' gory nightmares behind, Schaft 2016 embraces feeling over philosophy. If there's such a thing as feel-good industrial, this is it – it's dark and heavy enough to satisfy its target audience but that's really just a convenient disguise for the fact that underneath all that stylish black leather and guitar fuzz is some seriously catchy dance-pop. Fans who struggled with The Mortal's relentless dissonance and psychological intensity will doubtless find Schaft a more appealing prospect – the chord progressions feel simple and natural and the singalong hooks quickly get stuck in your head.
Perhaps partly for this reason, Schaft's live tour couldn't have been a more different experience from seeing The Mortal. Both Schaft and The Mortal may be hard and heavy bands featuring Buck-Tick members, but they attracted wildly different groups of people, resulting in a completely different tour atmosphere. Despite the fact that the other members of The Mortal had all made names for themselves prior to their association with dear Mr. Sakurai, most of the fans at The Mortal's shows were there for one thing and one thing only: Acchan-chan and his smexy body. By contrast, Schaft's members were each able to bring in members of their own fan followings, resulting in a far more diverse, far less starstruck crowd. As we predicted, very few of the same people who turned up for The Mortal also turned up for Schaft, and the intrepid few who did attend both tours seemed mutually surprised to see one another.
“But I thought you were an Acchan fan!” they exclaimed at one another by way of greeting.
At the same time, many fans didn't appear interested in greeting one another at all. As we expected, the ratio of male fans to female fans was much higher for Schaft than for Buck-Tick, let alone The Mortal, but many of the men in the crowd appeared distinctly introverted and stood quietly and somewhat self-consciously in the gloom before the shows, playing with their phones, or in a surprisingly large number of cases, reading actual honest-to-god paper books. (Bless you, book-reading people. Books are not dead yet!) On the other hand, other male fans saw the Schaft tour as the perfect occasion for a date – many had brought female companions with them, but if anything, we saw more men on dates with each other than on dates with women. At Liquidroom Ebisu in particular, the floor was filled with so many matching pairs of tall handsome, well-dressed men that an ignorant bystander could easily be forgiven for assuming that they had stumbled into an open casting call for the Boys Only Homoerotic Three-Legged Rock-n-Roll Race 2016.
Though large groups of Imai's fans mobbed the left side of the floor while large groups of Fujii Maki's fans mobbed the right, both Ueda Takeshi and Awaji Yukihiro seemed very nearly as popular. Since both are frontmen of their own bands, perhaps this is to be expected, but it was also extremely refreshing – the median age of the Schaft crowd seemed younger than that of either Buck-Tick or The Mortal, giving the whole occasion a sense of hushed vitality. None of the fans seemed resentful or jealous of one another. On the contrary, they appeared stoically excited, stowing their heavy coats in the coin lockers, unzipping their black sweatshirts and wrapping the black-and-silver tour towels around their necks in preparation for a good, hard session of rocking out. Most were clearly veteran concert-goers, longstanding fans of industrial music, and filled with reverent anticipation at seeing this new powerhouse supergroup take the stage at last. The few fangirls who had come to squeal over boys rather than dance to noise were quickly silenced by the complete indifference of the fans around them.
January in Japan is a cold, dark, windy season in which to kick off a tour, but Ultra is such a dark and heavy album that the forbidding weather suited the mood just perfectly. The sky was already black as night by the time the doors opened at Club Citta' on Friday, January 22nd – the first day of the tour – but the inside of the venue was little brighter. The crowd filed calmly into the hall under dim blue lights, sipping beer in near-complete silence under the de rigeur pre-show DJ set of mood music handpicked by Imai.
As usual, Imai had selected songs that showed the influences he was working with as he composed music for Ultra. Some were obvious classics such as Coil and Nitzer Ebb, while others were more surprising – the intellectual, electronic hip-hop of Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust figured prominently in the playlist, and though Imai has played with hip-hop sounds off and on since the mid 90's, it occurred to me that this is maybe the first time he's played hip-hop tracks before a show – yet it fit right in. Williams' work is unabashedly centered on themes of race in America, an issue which feels bizarrely out of context at a Japanese rock show, but even if you think you don't like hip-hop I urge you to give this album a listen – it's not what you might be expecting.
At last, the lights began dimming even further, and a cool Japanese voice echoed through the hall, advising fans that, as usual, unauthorized recording and photography were strictly prohibited. “Today's show will incorporate extremely loud noise,” the announcement continued politely. “Therefore, we recommend that guests with sensitive ears would be best advised to enjoy the show from the back of the hall.”
The crowd giggled loudly. Nobody had ever heard an announcement like this before, and surely they were all thinking what we were thinking – who in their right minds would pay 6500 yen to attend a tour entitled “The Loud Engine” if they couldn't handle loud noises?
A minute later, the lights went down completely, and the promised loud noises fairly erupted from the speakers. You could call it “stage entrance music” if you wanted to, I suppose, but to our ears it sounded less like music than like a freight train slamming into several jet engines next to the launch of the Space Shuttle. Loud engine indeed! A long, low LED marquee at the back of the stage sputtered with staticky color as the stage filled with green light and the band members stalked on one by one. To a man, they were dressed head to toe in forbidding black, and as they roared into the eponymous opening number “The Loud Engine,” the stage remained so dark that the band were visible as little more than silhouettes.
Club Citta' is a comparatively old venue, and its sound system seemed to be having trouble with the density of Schaft's sound. Beyond that, the band members were clearly still feeling their way as a unit. Though they put on a perfectly credible performance, they didn't seem to have much energy to spare for theatrics, and with the stage remaining relentlessly dark and Fujii Maki's face remaining relentlessly hidden behind his curtain of long black hair, Imai was left to entertain the crowd largely on his own. Yow-Row seemed to feel that even though he was the vocalist, he had no right to draw too much attention to himself, seeing as he wasn't the real star of the show, and though Imai tried valiantly to make up for it, radiating rock star attitude at high frequency, Schaft's opening show nonetheless fell somewhat flat – more like a warmup than the real deal. Knowing what these guys are capable of when they're on form, we knew we could expect better.
Two days later at Yokohama Bay Hall, however, they had improved markedly. Perhaps it was partially the intimate feel of the venue – unlike Citta', Bay Hall is a cozy little rock club with a low stage and low ceilings. Tonight, the band took the stage with more confidence. Yow-Row in particular gave a far more assertive performance than he had on Friday night, posturing up at the front of the stage and teasing the crowd as befitting a vocalist. Imai, too, spent almost as much time up at the edge of the stage as he did behind his microphone, shooting sidelong glances at the crowd of fans who pushed close up to the railing, dancing, jumping, and stretching out their hands in the universal rock-n-roll salute.
At Buck-Tick concerts, Imai's fans have a reputation for being extremely rowdy and violent, but either the violent fans were uninterested in Schaft, or they were never Imai fans to begin with. With a very few exceptions, none of the Schaft fans behaved violently toward one another. Though they danced and jostled enthusiastically, for the most part, no one tried to push past anyone else or attack anyone else in any way. Even the few fangirls who hadn't gotten the memo and tried to force themselves towards Imai, shrieking his name in high pitched yowls, once again quickly gave up as they noticed that the crowd around them was having none of it.
Things stayed even cooler over on Fujii's side – Fujii himself is better suited toward hiding behind a bank of keyboards and the low brim of a big hat than he is to standing up front playing guitar. Though he played guitar for the whole duration of each show, he seemed distinctly uncomfortable with being looked at too much, and rather than dancing and pulling faces like Imai, he largely chose to remain still and aloof, hiding behind his hair.
The tour continued in much the same fashion the following day at Liquidroom Ebisu, before moving on to Akasaka Blitz on Wednesday, January 27th – the tenth anniversary of This is NOT Greatest Site.
By now, the band was tight and on their game. Akasaka Blitz is a far larger venue than Liquidroom or Bay Hall, which made this show feel like the real deal in a whole new way. Fan reports of the tour so far had spread quickly, and the many new faces in the crowd on Wednesday were eagerly anticipating the show to come. Even the announcers had cottoned on to the fact that nobody who loves industrial hates loud noises, and had given up on their warning to people with sensitive ears.
As on the previous nights, the show opened with the roaring, atonal stage entrance noise number, the black-clad band members taking the stage and raising their hands to the crowd before launching straight into “The Loud Engine.” All the band members wore the same costumes they had at the first three shows – Yow-Row and Fujii in simple black leather jackets (Fujii's adorned with some strategically placed spike studs), Yukihiro with his long hair held out of his face by a headband, Ueda Takeshi in his oversized “Jiku” t-shirt and a black bandana tied bandit-style over his nose and mouth, and Imai looking far more goth than usual in a fringed black kilt, shiny black pants, and a black-on-black striped jacket over – you guessed it – a black shirt. Looking closely, we saw that the fingers of his right hand had been painted with intricate lotus petal tattoo designs, and that around his neck on a silver chain, he wore the silver plague doctor mask earrings (which had been sold as tour goods) as a double pendant.
Dressed in black on a dark stage, the band members seemed to melt into the shadows, and for the first few numbers, they were visible as little more than silhouettes. Overhead spotlights had been kept to a minimum, in favor of the LED backdrop behind the stage, which flashed in abstract patterns of white, red, and green as the band continued with “Vice” followed by “Drift.”
In keeping with the aggressive sound on the album, Imai had adopted a different stage persona from the funky style he's known for with Buck-Tick. Keeping dancing to a minimum, he indulged in a high kick or spin here and there, but on the whole kept his feet planted squarely on the floor – and yet, without Sakurai standing front and center and sucking up the attention, Imai's stage charisma burned hot. At Buck-Tick shows he may appear shy and aloof, but from the very start of the tour he made it clear that Schaft belongs to him more than it belongs to anyone else. Effortlessly drawing the eyes of the crowd, Imai played his guitar in a far more controlled, deliberate, minimalist style than he does with Buck-Tick. Indulging in little to none of his usual noodling and rambling, he played each riff with disciplined power, demonstrating thoroughly that he is in fact able to carry a band even in the absence of backup from Hoshino Hidehiko.
We also couldn't fail to notice that Imai was playing a lot more of the riffs than Fujii was – Fujii wrote half the music and was presumably responsible for most of the programming and electronics on the studio recording of Ultra, but he's primarily a synth player, not a guitarist, and at times it seemed that his presence on the stage was more symbolic than anything else – he played guitar because guitar looks better than synthesizer on stage, but most of the real work fell to Imai.
Following “drift,” the band made their first break from the Ultra track list by playing “Anti-Hedonist,” and things started to get more interesting. Pink bubbles bloomed to life on the backdrop screen as Imai returned to his microphone to join in on the vocal line, cooing “pleasure pleasure pleasure” in his scratchy voice as Fujii remained as impassive as ever. This song may bear striking resemblance to Schwein's “Porno,” which owed more than a little bit to Depeche Mode's “Barrel of a Gun” (which, incidentally, is the opening track on Depeche Mode's album Ultra), but it's hard to care too much about originality when you're dancing to a groove this good, and unlike some of the other tracks, Fujii's English lyrics for this number actually hold water. It's definitely one of the best songs on the album, and the fans who had been holding back up until this point quickly found themselves dancing almost without realizing it.
Next came “reVive,” which boasted the first really engaging visuals of the evening. At the beginning of the song, the backdrop showed a blasted landscape, grey and wasted and empty – but gradually, as the song continued, hints of green began appearing in the cracks. Like the apocalypse running in reverse, soon, the whole landscape had grown over with grass and buildings began appearing one by one, until the band stood before not a stretch of countryside, but a great city. Over the final chorus, lights began to come on in the windows, so that by the time the song ended, the whole city glowed.
The show continued with “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer's Apprentice”) under dim blue lights, followed by the infectious “Sakashima”. Up till this point, Imai had been using more minimalist guitars than he usually does, and hadn't once brought out Aka Maimai – clearly, he wanted to draw a contrast with Buck-Tick. But for a quintessentially Imai song, Imai needed to play a quintessentially Imai guitar. So when the band struck up “Sakashima,” it was no surprise to see that Imai had switched to playing The Dazzler. “Sakashima” is one of only two songs on the album with both lyrics and music by Imai, and it shows. Though this song is probably the furthest from the original 90's Schaft sound, that's not a bad thing – as I said earlier, what the original Schaft lacked was catchiness, and “Sakashima” makes up for that in spades. It's pure, undiluted Imai dancepop, complete with a call-and-response rap section, singalong chorus, and, of course, some references to angels and devils for good measure. What does it mean? Your guess is as good as mine – meaning isn't the point. Leave the heavy, existential stuff to Sakurai. Imai just wants to have fun.
Hot on the heels of “Sakashima” came Fujii Maki's industrial seduction song “Leidenschaft,” where Ueda Takeshi stole the scene by trading in his bass guitar for a large floor tom which he played with two sticks, taiko-style, raising his arms high in the air between each strike. This song is so heavily steeped in turn-of-the-millennium American nu-metal that it's hard to believe it's the work of a Japanese band. There's more than a bit of Korn in here, and recalling Dir en grey's first appearance on Korn's Family Values Tour ten years ago, I can't help but feel a little bit sorry that Schaft isn't a younger, less-encumbered band – if they took up the notion of touring overseas, surely they'd be welcomed with open arms. Of course, I had similar thoughts while watching The Mortal – European festivals like Wave Gotik Treffen would surely offer them much more enthusiastic, receptive audiences than the insular, idol-worshipping Japanese crowd. Luckily, Schaft's Japanese crowd seemed well aware of Schaft's cultural context.
Personally, I found I enjoyed this Japanese remix of American nu-metal far better than I ever enjoyed the work of the genre's progenitors. Unlike the bleedingly earnest teen angst of groups like Linkin Park, Schaft are adults, old hands at this game, and you can tell they don't take themselves very seriously. They're obviously well aware of the references they're playing with, to the point that at times, the whole thing comes across as a sort of deadpan costume party. They're having fun trying on different musical hats just to see how they look in them, but they don't quite mean it, and a good thing, too – singing lyrics like “I'm gonna bore down to your core, yeah/I want your love – and now I'm chowing down” while retaining any shred of manly dignity requires a generous level of self-irony.
By this point, the whole crowd were dancing vigorously, working up a good sweat – but why stop now? Rather than pulling back, the show grew harder than ever, as after a moment of tense blackout, the fans were assaulted by the familiar opening blast of “Arbor Vitae.”
“Arbor Vitae” was the most recognizable track on Switchblade, and though we had fully expected to hear it played on this tour, the expectation didn't detract from the excitement of hearing it live at last. The backdrop fizzled like the static on a dead TV channel while Imai finally lost his cool, shuffling and shaking his hips along the edge of the stage, tearing at the strings of a Flying V – not the sort of guitar we usually see him play, but a cheekily appropriate choice for this song, which, like “Leidenschaft,” toes the fine line between dead serious and abject parody. Few vocalists can growl quite like Raymond Watts, so it was no surprise that Yow-Row (who's a head shorter and about half as broad) couldn't quite manage to summon the same level of monstrous macho, but he did a credible enough job that we forgive him – especially since he didn't appear remotely stymied by the large volume of English lyrics. If his pronunciation was difficult to make out at times, well, so was Raymond's. Where Schaft is concerned, the lyrics have never really been the main point.
From here, the show continued with another old number, “Thirsty Fly,” rearranged to suit Schaft's new lineup, but with all the samples from the original Switchblade recording still intact. Yow-Row had seemed a bit hesitant here for the first few days of the tour, but each night he gained a little more confidence, and by Wednesday, he was able to deliver the song with enough originality that he'd largely escaped Raymond's shadow.
After this nostalgic interlude, it was back to the new material, now with bolder and brighter visuals. Judging by the montage of hands and lips that swarmed and writhed across the backdrop during “swan dive,” Buck-Tick's video graphics design team was hard at work here, too – the visuals for “swan dive” resembled nothing so much as a redux of the visuals for The Mortal's “Grotesque.” Following “swan dive” came the equally catchy “Adam's Rib,” and the fans kept on dancing, the crowd shifting to the point that no one in the whole front section was still in the same place they had been when the show began.
The main set ended on a cool, quite note with the introspective “Mi.” This is the other all-Imai song on Ultra, and again, Imai brought out a signature guitar for the occasion – only this time it was not the Dazzler but the Stabilizer, perfectly suited to the song's swooping, distorted chords. Imai is making it clear that in his middle age he can't help himself from including at least one cheesy ballad per album – if “Mi” isn't the green cheese of industrial, it's at the very least precipitously close. Yet when heard live, it rounded off the set nicely, managing to stop short of excess sentimentality and remain in the realm of moody down-tempo psychedelia where Imai excels. Here again, it felt like we were watching the Imai Hisashi show – the other members seemed to melt into the background while Imai improvised freely, shaking and swiveling the whammy bar with abandon. One by one, they left the stage, until only Imai remained, luxuriating in the last few tones before retiring into the wings himself.
By Buck-Tick's standards, the set had been quite short. The crowd were still full of energy and keen for the show to continue. They cheered enthusiastically for an encore, and the band soon provided. Since they had already played every track on Ultra during the main set, it seemed there was nothing left but to play either old songs or covers, and indeed, at first blush, the song they struck up upon returning to the stage sounded a whole hell of a lot like Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus” – only not quite enough to be a cover. Fans danced appreciatively, as if they knew what was going on, but as we later learned, they were as clueless as we were. In fact, what we were hearing was an all-new original Schaft song, “Deeper and Down,” though Yow-Row failed to announce this until the second night of the tour at Yokohama Bay Hall, and even then, he didn't go so far as to announce the titles of the new songs.
The next song, “H.N.A.”, also had the feel of a cover of some half-forgotten classic – early Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails, maybe? Judging by the intense catchiness of each, they were both written by Imai, no doubt because once he'd headed down into his rabbit hole of references and inspirations, he couldn't bring himself to stop at a mere seven songs. I doubt that at this point, he'd be able to get away with passing off this level of fanboy homage as Buck-Tick songs, so he's lucky that Schaft gave him the chance. Still, as with The Mortal's obvious references to The Mission, I see no reason to be too critical of these songs just because they make obvious references to music that came before – they're done more than well enough to be thoroughly enjoyable, which is the main point, especially at a live show. Though the chorus of “H.N.A.” included numerous singalong bits with English lyrics, nobody in the audience could sing along properly, as no one had a clue what the lyrics actually were.
Following the two new songs, the encore section of each show varied slightly depending on the night. For opening night at Club Citta', the band played an all-new arrangement of “Broken English,” which was so different to the Switchblade version as to be nearly unidentifiable as the same song. However, they left off playing this number for the next few shows, and only brought it back for the big shows at Blitz and EX Theater.
“Broken English” was probably our least favorite track on Switchblade, especially because it's not even an original song, it's a Marianne Faithfull cover - and though Marianne Faithfull has produced some stupendous work in her time, this song was perhaps not her greatest. The lyrics worked better when sung at the height of the Cold War, but in the hands of Schaft they just seem silly, and the vocalist who performed the song for Switchblade gave the whole thing far more of a cartoonish come-hither lilt than befit the theme. If you're going to get political as a band, cheesy sexpot female vocals are not the best way to do it – Fujii would have been better off sticking with “Virtual War.” However, the new Schaft was able to pull the song together far better than the old Schaft ever did, largely thanks to the fact that Yow-Row's English is actually broken enough that the lyrics were largely unintelligible, and therefore didn't matter. In addition, no doubt much to the amusement of the Buck-Tick fans in the audience, the new version of “Broken English” sounded nearly indistinguishable from “Melancholia -Electria,” right down to the graphics on the backdrop: Anarchy-style Constructivist triangles and circles in red and white. If we ever doubted that Buck-Tick's graphics team were working for Schaft, we didn't doubt anymore.
When the song ended, the band were offstage again, leaving the audience to cheer wildly for a second encore. This time, however, the band took a bit more time coming back out – there were t-shirts to advertise, after all, and therefore it was time for a quick change! When Imai and Fujii returned to the stage, both had changed into the long, tunic-style tour t-shirt, and Fujii held a new guitar, and a very unusual one at that. The body was made of a clear material, meaning we could see right through the guitar to Fujii's body, but not only that, it was fluorescent green, and shone brightly even in the near blackout.
The t-shirt, however, was less successful. Surely Schaft were inspired to create this particular design by the wild success of The Mortal's very similar t-shirt, but Schaft's design was less flattering overall – not only did the higher neckline of Schaft's shirt not display Imai Hisashi's hitherto unseen seductive collarbones to incite a critical level of fangirl arousal, but the white cross design over the wearer's hip looked awkward and out of place. We can't speak for Fujii, but we think Imai would have done better to go for some of his usual hideously clashing colors and patterns. The infamous galaxy-print tour hoodie from the Cosmic Dreamer tour may have looked good on exactly no one aside from Imai, but at least it allowed the fans who bought it to join in Imai's fashion ethos: if it doesn't look like it came out of a dumpster, it's no good. Start over.
Musically, though, the last encore was the hottest of the bunch. There were plenty of tracks from Switchblade that the band still hadn't played, so how could they waste the chance? After showing off their t-shirts to a satisfying degree, the lights went down good and dark again and a mysterious, Middle Eastern-sounding sample came up through the PA as the band started into “The Hero inSIDE”. After “Arbor Vitae” and “inFormation,” this was easily the catchiest song on Switchblade, and it was delightful to hear it again, especially since it gave Imai another opportunity to sing lead vocal. In the heat of the moment, Yow-Row threw modesty completely to the winds, in a metaphorical sense, at least – though he mustered up almost as much performance swagger as Raymond Watts, he, unlike Ray, kept his shirt on the entire time.
“Hero” ended abruptly, and the audience were once again plunged into darkness and confusion as a chaos of fractured noise broke through the blackout. Only when Yukihiro slammed into a new hard rhythm did it become clear what song this was: an all-new arrangement of “Slice.”
If any of the old songs sounded better this time around than last time, it was this one. The tense, drawn-out slasher-flick soundtrack style of the original Switchblade version quickly becomes tiring – it's not relaxing enough to be ambient but it doesn't have enough forward momentum to be industrial, either – and let's not even talk about the lyrics. If you can't bring yourself to criticize them for their misogyny, by all means criticize them for their juvenile and obvious rhymes. This time around, however, Schaft wisely dispensed with most of the opening sequence, and focused on the more rock-n-roll section at the end, where the lyrical content was impossible to pick up through Yow-Row's Japanese-accented growls. As the old adage goes, when you don't have anything nice to say, at least have the decency to say it in another language you don't speak very well.
If anyone wondered what the last song would be, the lights gave it away before the song even started. Icy and blue, they bathed the stage in an eerie glow while the band members paused for a beat, savoring a moment of silence in the cold light, before they started to play the song.
“Cold Light,” like “Slice,” worked at least as well with the new Schaft as with the old. True to its title, it isn't a very inviting song to end with – but unlike Buck-Tick (or minus, for that matter), Schaft is a band who cultivate coldness and distance. After two hours in their harsh dark world of flickering digital, it felt fitting to end the show on a hard and nihilistic note. And as with the other re-arrangements of old songs, the new arrangement of “Cold Light” pulled the number together into something danceable, stressing the driving beat and integration between the instruments over experimental noise.
When the song ended at last, the band members kept it brief. A few short bows and waves, and they were off the stage, though Imai, as usual, was the last one to leave. Perhaps he, like we, was regretting that the tour would soon be over.
The show at Akasaka Blitz had been by far the best on the tour so far, but there was one more show remaining in Tokyo before the band moved on to Osaka for the tour final, and this one would be filmed for posterity. The following night, squadrons of loyal fans trooped out to EX Theater Roppongi, to find the venue packed with cameras, lying in wait beneath the first balcony level, which had been roped off entirely for the use of VIPs. On Fujii's side of the theater, Morioka Ken's blond hair shone brightly through the gloom, while on Imai's side, Hoshino Hidehiko and Higuchi Yutaka packed eagerly into a pair of front row seats, alongside Die and Kaoru of Dir en grey. Messrs. Yagami and Sakurai, on the other hand, were conspicuous only by their absence.
Tonight's show proceeded in more or less the same manner as the previous day, but with added enthusiasm, fanned by the ever-panning cameras. EX Theater is one of the newest midsize concert venues in Tokyo, and its acoustics are rivaled only by those at Shinkiba Studio Coast. Larger than Akasaka Blitz but nowhere near as large as Zepp Tokyo, it feels both spacious and intimate – in short, the perfect location to film a concert video. The band members were all in top form, hamming it up for the crowd, and when the final encore rolled around, they couldn't pass up the chance to advertise the band's fashion one last time.
This time, when Imai and Fujii reappeared on the stage, they were dressed not in the Schaft tour t-shirts, but in the same “Jiku” t-shirt that Ueda Takeshi had been sporting all tour: an oversized black skater shirt emblazoned with the kanji 「軸」 (“axle”) all over in jagged white and grey. The shirt was designed by Hirosuke, vocalist of the veteran punk band Balzac, who covered “Moonlight” for Buck-Tick's first tribute album Parade: Respective Tracks of Buck-Tick, and also performed with Buck-Tick at the Osaka stop of the Parade Tour in 2007 (live report HERE), and at Buck-Tick's 20th anniversary festival later that year. Hirosuke himself has moonlighted (get it?) as a fashion designer for many years, and even operates a shop in Osaka, where his threads have long been coveted by punk and metal fans of many stripes. On Imai, the brash gaudiness of the Jiku shirt looked like homecoming to a native land of clashing dumpster fashion after two long weeks of massively out-of-character slim, slick and sexy black. Small wonder, then, that the shirt rapidly sold out from the Schaft web shop in the weeks following the tour, and had to be reordered multiple times to satisfy fan demand.
And then, with one last chorus of “Cold Light,” the tour was over. Well, not entirely – there was still one stop left in Osaka, but this time, we wouldn't be following. And since Imai had already promised in the Fish Tank newsletter that this would well and truly be the last Schaft tour ever, fans had no choice but to bow their heads and say a quiet requiem…or did they?
“Of course I'd love to do this again,” Imai told Fish Tank in March (issue 79.) “If the all the circumstances permit it, I wonder if we can do it again sometime with this lineup.It would be cool to play at a festival or something."
So if you're a Schaft fan, but you couldn't make it to the tour this time, you may yet have a chance! Say mortal all you like, but never say die.
01. The loud engine
06. Der Zauberlehrling
09. ARBOR VITAE
10. THIRSTY FLY
11. swan dive
12. Adam’s rib
14. Deeper and Down
16. Broken English
17. THE HERO INside
19. COLD LIGHT