Essential New Music: Shizuka’s “Heavenly Persona”

The appeals of the P.S.F. Records catalog are many and diverse, but they can be summed up rather simply this way: It presents an array of musicians who wrote their own rulebooks, yet were quite willing to tear out the pages and write new ones when the situation warranted. Shizuka’s Heavenly Persona, which was released on CD in 1994 and has just been reissued for the first time on vinyl by the U.S.-based Black Editions imprint, is a case in point. Guitarist Maki Miura and drummer Jun Kosugi were both members of Fushitsusha, Keiji Haino’s legendarily powerful trio. But while they enact a similarly all-enveloping sonic blast on Heavenly Persona’s first track (“+”), they seem to do so mainly to dispel it. After two minutes of hurricane-force noise, the volume drops like a rock to make way for a first brief appearance by the voice of the group’s titular member, Shizuka Miura.

The next song, “Pandora’s Box,” is as slow and delicate as its predecessor was turbulent. The singer weaves a hesitant path through a stark, patiently articulate lattice of clean-toned guitars and glockenspiel. Every sound is deployed precisely, which accentuates her uncertain pitch. You don’t need to understand a word of Japanese to recognize the apprehension being portrayed. She comes across as being as breakable as the dolls that adorn the album’s gorgeous gatefold sleeve and similarly reluctant to budge. Never mind getting off the shelf; Shizuka Miura sounds like she has a hard time getting out of her head.

An interview, the singer’s last before her death in 2010, gives some insight into the reasons for her fragility. She had already endured childhood poverty, family troubles and life-threatening illness before she began making music. Shizuka Miura’s songs, which proceed at a velocity as gradual as early Low, feel like expressions of a continuous struggle to escape her traumas. Their stark arrangements evoke a reach toward transcendence that was denied the singer. Only Maki gets to cut loose, and he does so sparingly. The music’s heaviness justifies the decision to spread it across three sides of vinyl, since you only need to hear a couple songs at a time. The fourth side, in keeping with Black Editions’ penchant for elaborate packaging, is etched with more doll images (which were made by Shizuka). If you go by production values alone, this may be the reissue to beat in 2023, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t spend some time with the sounds of Shizuka’s compelling emotional reality as well.

—Bill Meyer