A personal appreciation of Repo and Incapacitants

My love for Japanese noise music obviously comes as no secret. In the early 1990s when I started making my own crude noise music on tape recorders, I was in tandem discovering a world of new music as fast as the postal service would allow, this was all done by tape trading with other people. Someone sent me tapes of Hijokaidan and Merzbow. This was my first exposure to Japanese noise music and I responded strongly to it. These artists seemed to go much further than the American and European industrial music that was more easily available at the time. The music was stripped from any conventional elements – no rhythm, no vocals, no lyrics, no drum machines, no samples, no heavy-handed conceptual themes – simply no distractions from the ecstatic enjoyment of total sound overload. It was both more abstract and direct at the same time. Noise that was about noise. Distortion as colour. 

Over the next years I tried to get anything I could get from this scene of music. The American magazine Bananafish provided a great source of information. Same with the catalogues of RRRecords, Artware Audio, and Old Europa Cafe. I also got in touch with several of the artists themselves, buying or trading tapes and records, and eventually starting to collaborate via mail with some of them. I discovered great artists that I’m a fan of to this day: Merzbow, Hijokaidan, Pain Jerk, C.C.C.C., Monde Bruits, Solmania, Masonna, Hanatarash, Gerogerigegege, S-Core, Aube, K2, Violent Onsen Geisha, Government Alpha, MSBR. To the 2023 noise connoisseur these are now well know names, you could say a canon, but at the time it was all new and fresh. It’s easy to think of Japanese noise as particular sound, but to me each of these projects had their own identity and individual style. And in this wave of artists one curiously named project gradually stood out: Incapacitants. 

I had some of their tapes, heard a few compilation tracks, and I liked it, but they sort of blurred with the other artists. The moment that segmented my special attention to was when I got a tenth generation copy of the Oh Moro! Volume 5 VHS compilation. The open video is five minutes of Incapacitants performing live, outdoors, daytime, in what looks like a rural setting in the town of Tajima in the Fukushima district. The two members of Incapacitants appear to be performing as in a deep trance, completely immersed in their sound world, oblivious to their surroundings. It was such a non-noise-like setting, they were not in the safe confines of a dimly lit music club, it was out in the open, completely exposed, and yet they were going at it full force. I then understood that Incapacitants was something truly special, and have been a fan ever since. I was not alone, over the years Incapacitants status has grown in the field of noise. Part of this appeal is because they never waivered in their style. To the untrained ear all Incapacitants can sound the same. Almost all of their CD releases feature three 20-25 minute long pieces. They all start immediately, always full-on, there’s very little variation in form – but choosing this framework allows for a deeper listening, you become hyper-aware of the details, the textures, the rich layers of the sound stage. It’s what Tony Conrad said about his long-form music: when you stop thinking about the form you start to listen deeper. You go inwards. Mikawa has expressed this as “No progress”, which I think is another way of describing a deep meditation.

My relationship to the Repo album started in 2003, when I came to Tokyo for the first time. I had invited Mikawa to a performance we did with Jazzkammer. Since it was a weeknight Mikawa came straight to the venue dressed in his work-clothes, suit and tie, working in a bank he looked like the many salary men you’d see on the streets of Tokyo. His posture did not betray this image, but then he reached into his suitcase and pulled out the newly released CD reissue of Repo on Jojo Hiroshige’s Alchemy Records. He said, “This is my first album. New CD edition.”. The original vinyl edition from 1989 was only done in 300 copies and was virtually impossible to get, there was no Discogs or Ebay in the ‘90s, and I imagine most copies sold in Japan around the time of release. It had become something of rarity. On my next trip to Japan I managed to find a second hand copy of the vinyl in Shinjuku at a Disk Union store. It is a much-cherished record, and as good as the CD sounds it’s an album that works really well on the LP format, two side-long tracks perfectly balanced, so I was pleased when I heard that Urashima 34 years later once again is making Repo available on vinyl. On a personal level I was even more excited when I was asked to master this new edition.   

Repo is a special album in the Incapacitants catalogue. Although Mikawa had started the project years before, it was only documented in tiny cassette editions on his own Pariah Tapes label. While he was performing and recording regularly as part of Hijokaidan, clearly finding his voice and preference for the sonic aspect of noise music, Incapacitants remained on the side-lines for a number of years. Repo was his first proper release. It also became the last album as a one-man project, as Fumio Kosakai soon after its release became a permanent member. From 1991’s Feedback of N.M.S. onwards Incapacitants operated as a duo. These days it’s hard to imagine the project as a single unit, so much of their iconic image is these two figures working in tandem. Yet Repo absolutely sounds like Incapacitants. It’s clear that Mikawa’s intentions for the project was defined at a very early stage (confirmed with the recent reissues of his old cassette works), and that the addition of Fumio Kosakai was an extension of this vision. And by great luck he found someone who matched his ideas perfectly. In that sense Repo is a both a debut as well as a transitional album. Both a first strong statement and a springboard to what was to follow. 

When compared to Feedback of N.M.S. and later albums, Repo is in no way a less dense listening experience, it washes over you just as hard, but it somehow has a more singular character to it. Perhaps this is because Mikawa’s use of voice is more clearly heard, in the absence of Kosakai it stands out more. 

In a historical perspective Repo is also special. There were very few noise records that sounded like it in 1989. Albums by other Japanese artists like Hanatarash, Merzbow, Gerogerigegege and Hijokaidan, who despite the more sonic approach of noise to their western contemporaries, all featured more stylistic aspects to their work – tape loops, collage techniques, the use/abuse of conventional instruments, satirical takes on popular music, references to visual art forms. Repo has none of that, it is full-on noise. In this sense this album – and Incapacitants’ overall oeuvre – has stood the test of time incredibly well. It does not feel dated. I remember William Bennett of Whitehouse once wrote that he considered Mikawa to be the first pure Japanese noise artist. He’s not alone in his appreciation. I have yet to meet someone in noise music who does not hold Incapacitants in the highest regard.  

Despite – or perhaps because of – this pure noise aesthetic, when I listen to Incapacitants I hear all kinds of different music inside the music. This is what good noise music does, if it’s done well it acts as a mirror to your own perception of music. In 2012 Kosakai described it as “A high-density amalgam of all the music and soul within me”, and goes on to list how he hears elements of Jimi Hendrix, David Tudor, Motorhead, Billie Holiday, Napalm Death, Jeff Mills, and many others inside the noise when he performs. The late Kelly Churko once described this view of noise as “All music at once”.  

For me the connection that often appears when I listen to Incapacitants is that of free-jazz improvisation, particularly the climatic heights of artists like Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Kaoru Abe, Peter Brötzmann, Akira Sakata, and even back to late stage John Coltrane. (To see what I mean listen to the version of My Favorite Things on The Olatunji Concert, his last live recording from 1967. That’s some way from the album version recorded six years earlier.) The way Mikawa and Kosakai play their electronics has a very human feel to it, it doesn’t sound like it’s performed by machines, you can hear them interacting with the sound, and their personalities shine through. The screeching Theremins and whaling feedback almost sounds like saxophones, and the low end rumble (they always perform with both a guitar and a bass amp to max out on the frequency spectrum) is like Ornette Coleman’s dual rhythm section gone wild. John Coltrane famously described his music as “sheets of sound” – extremely dense patterns of sound that overlap and creates unforseen new shapes. 

I’m not saying this is the intention of Mikawa and Kosakai, and jazz scholars surely would easily pluck my theory to pieces, but this is the image I often get when I listen to Incapacitants. I’m sure other people hear different things, there is no set meaning. But, in 2013 I was in Tokyo and took Joe McPhee to see Incapacitants at Club UFO. The small venue was packed, and Kosakai and Mikawa were on absolute fire. At the end of the performance Kosakai picks up his Roland JC120 amp, holds it towards the audience for a minute, then turns around and throws it on top of his table with all his gear, it all smashes to the ground, bringing the performance to an abrupt and explosive end. The already ecstatic audience erupts in a frenzy. I turn around to Joe, who is one huge smile. He grabs me and yells into my ear: “THAT. WAS. FUCKING. GREAT.” 

Lasse Marhaug – Sortland, March 2023

Incapacitants – Repo LP is available via our Bandcamp page here or drop us an email to the usual address if you’d like place an order.