Album Reviews

Issue 2023-076

Heretic / Hiro Kawahiro — Complete Works (Part 1)

Hiro Kawahara got in touch with to ask us to review his re-released back catalogue. I volunteered as I have an interest in electronic music and Japan. This is a brief introduction before working through the albums in their original release-date order.

Hiro Kawahara is a guitarist who became very interested in synthesizer sounds and temporal change of sound, without using the synthesizer's factory pre-set sounds. He spent time researching the use of sampling keyboards, and creating new sounds with digital synthesizers and various MIDI software packages. But what he really wanted to convey to listeners, through his guitar playing was an invitation to the spiritual world. He credits his friend DJ and writer Archie Patterson of the radio show Eurock who described Hiro-san's music as "Zen Electronics".

From 1979 to 1982, he worked as a solo artist under the name Osiris and also as Astral Tempel, producing music that was influenced by Komische rock, especially Ash Ra Tempel and their guitarist Manuel Gottsching, with whom Hiro-san became friends in the late 1990s. He was also influenced by the French trio Heldon, an experimental electronic and prog-rock group, who are closer to Magma, than say Jean-Michele Jarre.

After 15 years of recording as Heretic, work commitments (involving a move from his home in Arashiyama, near Kyoto, to Tokyo in 1999) meant his musical activities stopped. Then in 2022 he finally had time to check all his past musical works, and gradually remastered them. These have now been made available digitally by Cuneiform Records of Washington D.C.

The Complete Works are available as a single digital album from Bandcamp. The reviews below will be of the individual albums, with a rating per album.

Martin Burns

Heretic — Interface

1985 / 2023
Heretic - Interface
Interface (34:29), El Rayo De Luna (11:37); bonus tracks: Interface (Symphonic Version) (13:02), Interface (Rehearsal 1984-07-24) (11:56)
Martin Burns

In the early 1980s, Hiro Kawahara met a talented guitarist named Tohru Ohta with whom he formed a new group, Heretic. Soon after Takurou Moriyama (cello) and, though he doesn't appear on this release, Robbin Lloyd (percussion) also joined, and they continued Heretic's activities for about 15 years. Interface, recorded in 1984, was their first release. This remastered version includes two bonus tracks.

Interface is an album of textured synths, electronics, guitars and much more. Heretic's first incarnation features Tohru Ohta (electric guitar, synthesizers, electronic percussion), Hiro Kawahara (synthesizers, keyboards, electric-violin, electric-guitar, electronic and acoustic percussion, tape effects, and devices) and Takurou Moriyama (cello). On the opening track there is also Tomoko Nozaki (organ and synthesizer) and Yumiko Inoue (synthesizer on 1).

The title track is a lengthy exploration of, at times obscured, melodic ideas. Often rescued by unexpected twists and turns in the arrangement, Interface has at least four connected sections. It goes from electronic pulses and beeps, to sweeping synths, slowly building a rhythm into strings, electronic percussion, and guitar. Somewhat like Zeit-era Tangerine Dream. There is an Avant section of plucked and treated cello, some dark-wave synths, before a full-on guitar solo steams in. The end of this section feels a little random and disjointed. The ambient final section consists of serene water drops, gentle keys and a slow, developing melody.

As a calling-card track Interface demonstrates well where Heretic will go on further longer tracks. Hiro-san has a vision, and he follows it.

The second track, El Rayo De Luna, is a quietly-lovely piece of melodic electronica with bass synth lines, treated guitar and long Mellotron-like chords, over which a delicious cello tune slowly reveals itself. Picked guitar and a guitar solo lead on through a dense forest understory, finally emerging in a glade of light, running water, and birdsong. Uplifting Zen Electronics indeed.

The two bonus tracks are worth seeking out and show the choices recording artists must make before presenting their work to the listener. I prefer both extracts from the longer original track. Interface (Symphonic Version) is symphonic in terms of the way the synths are used. It has a sheen that brings to light more forcefully the melodies at play, reworking the original's second section with a great result. Interface (Rehearsal 1984-07-24) is more than just a working out of what they will do with the material. The melody pushes forward through whooshes of synth, to be taken up by the guitar. A pair of great bonus tracks.

Heretic's Interface is a good introduction to Heretic and Hiro Kawahara's music.

Heretic — Escape Sequence

1988 / 2023
Heretic - Escape Sequence
Do Heretick (21:44), Fail Safe Error (9:00), Anonymous (4:14), Tripping On Waves (5:13), m-a-f-o-r-o-b-a (2:03); bonus tracks: Do Heretick Original Version (1985-11-01) (38:44), Do Heretick Sound Idea (1987-10-11) (4:49), Do Heretick Session (with Taiqui Tomiie, 1987-10-18 at ZipGunn Studio, Kyoto) (18:32)
Martin Burns

Heretic's second album, Escape Sequence, is filled with bonus tracks, expanding the original release from a compact 43 mins, with another hour of music. The line-up remains from Interface, with Hiro Kawahara and Tohru Ohta on synths, guitars and all manner of stuff, Takurou Moriyama on synth and cello, and newbie Robbin Lloyd on acoustic-percussion and synth-bass.

The centrepiece of the album (and the bonus tracks) is Do Heretick a three-part suite of experimental electronica; No matter which way I tried to slice this, I hated it. Music can enchant, it can bore, it can change your mood. With this piece of music I felt a visceral dislike to it. Never has a piece of music made me hate it quite so fervently. Listening to it was a chore.

Along with the core members of Heretic, there is also Taiqui Tomiie (drums) from the band Ain Soph, Hiroshi Kanai (guitar) from Rose Band, and Minako Urasawa (voice). Unfortunately, none of them can help me make sense of this sprawling mess of a track. I admire that Heretic are not so much pushing the envelope, as shredding it, but it does nothing for me. It mixes Avant-garde guitar noises, strange grooves, accelerating tapes, silences and screams and shouts towards the end (although that might have just been me).

On the bonus material we get three slightly different versions of Do Heretick, a twenty-minute longer Original Version (you spoil me). None of which are worth bothering with as far as I'm concerned.

The shorter tracks are all together better. Fail Safe Error has a decent melody, explored with synth waves breaking on organ shores, sequenced synths, cello, electric violin, and vocals by Mizue Ikeuchi, from Duppi, who floats in and out of the mix. It closes with a fierce guitar solo.

Anonymous demonstrates that Heretic can do melody with this acoustic song that has a nice synth solo. The original album closes with a delightful acoustic piano and choral voices of m-a-f-o-r-o-b-a.

Heretic's Escape Sequence is an album of two halves, and for me, it would have made a decent EP. But have a listen to the main track and see what you think.

Heretic — 1984-88

1994 / 2023
Heretic - 1984-88
Excerpts From Interface Part 1 (6:36), Excerpts From Interface Part 2 (8:17), Excerpts From El Rayo De Luna (7:06), Do Heretick (21:44), Fail Safe Error (11:45), Anonymous (4:15), Tripping On Waves (5:13), m-a-f-o-r-o-b-a (2:03), Resource (9:00); bonus tracks: Excerpts From Interface Part 2 (from 2008 No Shibuya-Electro Dub & Breaks) (8:16), Hiro Kawahara Variation Part 1 - 3 (1987) (8:30)
Martin Burns

For Heretic's third release, Hiro-san compiled a best-of from the first two albums plus a few others. This was Heretic's first release on CD. Here the tracks are remastered along with three additional bonus tracks. The tracks, and excerpts from tracks, from both Interface and Escape Sequence are subtly different from the originals. It requires a close comparison listen to find the differences, and I won't go into them here. Overall, they sound more robust. However, it doesn't make Do Heretick any more palatable for me.

I will look at the bonus tracks and the one track, Resource, that didn't make it onto the first two albums.

Resource starts with jazzy electric guitar and cymbal crashes from drummer Ichirou Takesako, who soon moves on to the full kit, providing a syncopated rhythm for Hiro-san's guitar explorations. Keys soon join, along with bass from Chihiro S. This odd jazz-fusion track is an interesting listen, and at nine minutes doesn't outstay its welcome, even when the guitar goes on a mad wig-out.

The first of the bonus tracks revists the title track of the debut. Excerpts From Interface Part 2 (from 2008 No Shibuya-Electro Dub & Breaks) chugs along in a substantially different version from 2008, but remains true to the original. I like this version. I think 23 years more recording and mixing experience brings its rewards.

The last bonus track is the 17 minutes of Hiro Kawahara Variation Part 1-3, and what a terrific piece of synth-driven symphonic prog this is. It sounds like something produced by an unruly late teen in love with Vangelis and Klause Schulze with a great use of keyboard textures with treated piano, choral voices, and horn-like synth settings amongst others. With plenty of forward movement, this is a little gem.

Heretic's 1984-88 compilation for me is really the place to start if you want a whole album. Though I would be wary of Do Heretic's way-outside-the-box annoyances.

Heretic — Past In Future

1995 / 2023
Heretic - Past In Future
Yayoi Dream Demo (1991) (34:56), Drugging for M (studio live, August.12th 1995) (35:33); bonus tracks: In The Mist Of Time (for Peter Frohmader:2022 3D Remix) (16:33)
Martin Burns

Originally this was a very limited released on CD-R, so for fans of Heretic, Past In Future must be one of the more sought-after discs in this set of remasters. This three-track remaster contains demo and live-in-the-studio versions of pieces that would appear on the next two official releases, plus a bonus track. The tracks are influenced by Hiro-san's investigation in the early 1990s into MIDI modules and software with all the instruments played by Hiro. For the first two tracks, all music was recorded onto DAT directly, and hence there are no overdubs.

The album represents the past, the future and the present in its running order.

The demo opens his album. Yayoi Dream Demo (1991) is an eight-part series of sometimes strident avant-electronica. Some parts have more melody and structure. The sections are relatively short, so they never outstay their welcome. Like most modernist classical music, the melodic themes, once used, do not reappear. This gives Yayoi Dream Demo (1991) a pleasing forward momentum. Some of the sections pay homage to traditional Japanese harmonies. There are nice changes in tempo and layered synth sections (one of which is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream before they became enamoured of sequencers). It moves in and out of ambient moods, whilst also nodding its head to video game sounds, all leading to a sunny, open conclusion of strummed electric guitar that has an Iberian feel. Well worth a listen.

The live-in-the-studio Drugging for M (studio live, August.12th 1995) was recorded live on his own by Hiro-san. Another multi-sectioned long-form work, but one that has less of the Avant-electronica on it. We have sweeping, textured synth and guitar loops over which he plays lead guitar lines in increasingly engaging ways, moving from distortion to cleaner lines and back again. Melodies evolve at a leisurely pace. Here the sections are longer and more developed, with that repetitive rhythmic insistence found in systems music. One of Heretic's best tracks up to this point.

Finally, there is the bonus track, In The Mist Of Time (for Peter Frohmader:2022 3D Remix). The music is dedicated to German bass player and multi-instrumentalist Peter Frohmader who collaborated with Hiro-san on a few projects. Sadly, he passed away in May 2022, and this 3D remix music, positioned as 'present', was added as a bonus track.

This track benefits greatly from having Peter Frohmader's bass playing anchoring it and thickening the Heretic sound. Here the synths sparkle, lines cross-and-weave until the tension breaks on the halfway mark. Gentle synths and slow, funky bass support guitar soundscapes with loud/quiet changes. There is everything to like here.

So, Heretic's Past In Future shows them growing in sophistication, melody and general all-round goodness.

Heretic — Yayoi Dream

1996 / 2023
Heretic - Yayoi Dream
Yayoi Dream 2022 Remaster (36:34); bonus tracks: For Peter Frohmader (0:51)
Martin Burns

Following on from the demo release of Past In Future, the next release from Heretic is a single-track, band version of Yayoi Dream 2022 Remaster. It sounds better and is more controlled, benefitting from the input of Tohru Ohta (synthesiser and bouzouki) and Robbin Lloyd (electric percussion), with Hiro Kawahara (synths, samplers, electronics, devices and computer programming). It comes over as an impressively-subtle reworking, rather than anything radically different.

Like the demo version though, this is a great piece of music; sweeping, textured and forward moving. It is also stronger in terms of atmosphere than the demo.

The bonus track on this is a literal miniature, all 51 seconds of melancholic synth work. A superb but frustratingly short mix of synth washes and melody. Again, dedicated to Hiro-san's late friend Peter Frohmander.

Heretic's Yayoi Dream is well worth 40 minutes of your time. Have a listen.

Album Reviews