Essential New Music: Toho Sara’s “Toho Sara”

Time sure can do a number on status and perspective. In 2020, Makoto Kawabata is the ringleader of the celebrated, ultra-prolific Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso, as well as the instigator of so many other projects that the internet can’t keep up. Asahito Nanjo is a mainly historical figure, best known as the founder and bassist of fondly remembered, legendarily in-the-red rockers High Rise; if he puts out a new recording, you’ll only know because you’re keeping close watch. But in 1995, Nanjo was not only the esteemed leader of High Rise, but also the ringleader of so many other projects that even the most clued-in Tokyo music aficionados couldn’t keep up; Kawabata was a barely known guitarist who played in some of them. 

Two of those endeavors, Mainliner and Musica Transonic, took the potential of the power-trio format to new extremes. But Toho Sara was something else. Nanjo and Kawabata, occasionally abetted by other musicians, infused 20th-century avant-garde music with the sensibilities of East Asian shamanism. On Toho Sara’s self-titled debut, which was released on CD in 1995 by the legendary P.S.F. label, the two men were joined by multi-instrumentalist Hisashi Yasuda to brew up seven murky instrumentals using gongs, electronics and stringed/reed instruments from both the East and the West.

Their preferred rock instruments were conspicuous by their absence. Toho Sara’s seven performances each take the listener to a different place. On “Eastern Most 1,” flutes and low brass call back and forth over some hand drums, sounding like the musical transcription of a scriptural debate between mountain-dwelling Tibetan and Japanese monks. “Eastern Most 6” sounds like a siren call from just below the horizon of some endless, grassy plain that’s suspended in a permanent state of dusk. “Eastern Most 4” is a maelstrom of snorting and rattling sounds, like something that Iannis Xenakis might’ve composed to soundtrack a one-way trip to a hell populated demons and dragons. 

Toho Sara lasted into the late 1990s, after which Kawabata and Nanjo parted ways. But the original artifact of their partnership has been reborn in this deluxe vinyl edition, with nearly 11 minutes of additional music from the original sessions, plus a gorgeous gatefold sleeve.

—Bill Meyer