Japan Suicide – ‘Santa Sangre’ reviewed

Gothic post-punk, referencing Jodorowsky, True Detective, 2666 and Dave Eggers.

ITALY. Terni, March 23, 2017. Japan Suicide. Photo © Luca Sola 2017

That particular form of gothic post-punk that originated around 1979-80 with early works by bands like The Cure and The Chameleons – heavy on guitar sustain, chorus and flange, held down by thudding bass and tribal drums – has had a few revivals over the years, most recently providing excellent releases by Eagulls, Savages and the new debut from Shame. It’s also given us Italy’s Japan Suicide, who sound nothing like either Japan or Suicide, and would likely sound more distinctive if they were. But no – their name is more likely a mordant reference either to Japan’s suicide rate or that country’s legendary Aokigahara Suicide Forest. It’s also the most confrontational and least anonymous thing about them.

[“Circle” video, influenced by The Wicker Man.]

Their sound and textures can’t be faulted, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be had simply from letting the guitar tones of Santa Sangre wash over you, but Stefano Bellerba’s tremulous vocals are largely indistinct in a genre where easily-heard lyrics of alienation and despair are crucial. There’s apparently a lot of literary and cinematic influence here – Santa Sangre is titled after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film of the same name, and Bellerba also namechecks Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 and Dave Eggers’ The Circle – but these influences unfortunately are really only expressed in the widescreen sound provided by the band’s adherence to this kind of post-punk’s tonal canvas.

The lyrics credited to writers such as novelist Cormac McCarthy, famed horror writer Thomas Ligotti, and True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto simply aren’t intelligible with Belleba’s vocals – although with a song title such as “Carcosa” and the credits for Ligotti and Pizzolatto, it seems like there’s some kind of Lovecraftian depth of alienation here that I’m missing. That’s very frustrating. And, frankly, I’d like to know more about Bellerba’s own despair, not his influences. The Cure got that out of their system pretty much straightaway with “Killing an Arab.”

Still – there’s a lot of comfort to be found in post-punk such as this that adheres so closely to prior templates. Everything here, from funereal tempos, to Bellerba’s sustained guitars, to ominous bass thrums, to icy washes of synths, is present and in its right place. I just found myself wishing that the vocals were more distinct, and that Japan Suicide would start breaking away from their influences and provide something truly new and breath-taking. As a nearly 40-year-old genre, gothic post-punk doesn’t have to be a destination in itself. It’s more interesting when it’s a starting place.

Japan Suicide – ‘Santa Sangre’ is released by Unknown Pleasures Records on 14 February 2018, with a self-released vinyl edition to follow, featuring a slightly different tracklist.

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❉ Japan Suicide has launched a crowdfunding campaign via MusicRaiser towards the vinyl release, which can be found at https://musicraiser.com/projects/9578. 

Japan Suicide will begin their first North American tour in May.

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