Death Side: Unreleased Tracks & Video Archives 7” / DVD (Break The Records, 2021)
You may have heard about the new release from Japanese legends Death Side on Break The Records. Sorry State got a very small handful of copies, and after everyone who works here got to take one for themselves, there were only a few left for the website. As expected, they sold out within minutes. I wish we could have gotten enough copies for everyone who wanted one, but it just wasn’t possible. I try to avoid hyping hard-to-get releases in the newsletter, but I enjoyed this release so much that I wanted to write about it for my staff pick.
The major attraction when I heard about this record was the 7” containing four unreleased tracks Death Side recorded during the sessions for the Game of Death compilation LP in 1989. While I missed out on the very limited official vinyl pressing of Death Side’s split with Chaos UK that Break The Records released in 2016, my collection of Death Side vinyl is otherwise complete (even including compilations!) and I wanted to keep it that way.
While I anticipated this release for the 7” EP, it’s probably the least compelling element of the package. Death Side had a habit of recording extra songs at their recording sessions, and members would take turns adding vocal tracks to these extra songs. That is what this EP compiles, with one song each sang by Death Side’s four members at the time of this recording. Main vocalist Ishiya sings the first track, with drummer Muka-Chin, bassist You, and guitarist Chelsea providing vocals for the subsequent tracks. Chelsea gets an assist from Tokurow of Bastard in his track, which is pretty cool to hear.
The tracks on the 7” are, surprisingly, really good. My expectations were low given these are outtakes from a recording session for a compilation, but fuck… Death Side was so good and so prolific they left tons of gold on the cutting room floor. While the recording quality is rough (more gritty than lo-fi), the songs have so much going on… it’s amazing how much music flowed through Chelsea. There are great riffs, several of Chelsea’s trademark melodic leads, and some unexpected moments like the creepy-sounding, melodic chorus to “Sunshine Blind.” I won’t overstate my case by insisting this material is essential or that it holds a candle to any of the original-era Death Side releases, but these tracks are cool and worth hearing if you are a fan.
The physical package includes liner notes by Zigyaku from Gudon, Bastard, and Judgement, who was a close confidant of the band when they recorded these tracks and present for the session. He describes being locked in the studio all night, the band completing these half-finished tracks by writing lyrics and vocals on the spot. Death Side always seemed like superheroes to me, but Zigyaku’s liner notes humanize them and provide much-needed insight as to how the band worked.
Now onto the DVD, which is my favorite part of the package. I hadn’t played a DVD in years, so I had to unpack my ancient Xbox, which was covered in dust, still sitting in a moving box I hadn’t opened since moving into my current house two and a half years ago. After finding all the cables and replacing the batteries in the remote, I was relieved when the DVD’s menu popped up on my screen.
Some of the material on the DVD I had seen before. The 1989 footage has circulated online for years, and contributed to Death Side’s mystique as I was learning about them in the early 2000s. This footage is pro-shot in a live house with multiple camera angles and good sound, and while the venue seems small, the stage lighting and the band’s incredible style give them a larger-than-life appearance. Ishiya entering the stage with his giant, 3-foot mohawk is one of the most magical moments of punk ever captured on video. I remember downloading low-res clips of this footage from Soulseek and torrent sites twenty years ago, and it’s just as captivating to me now. I also remember the first time I saw Forward in the early 00s, thinking to myself “holy shit, two of these guys were in Death Side, and that’s the one with the giant mohawk!” It is the stuff of legends, and if seeing this doesn’t hook you on Japanese hardcore, then nothing will.
My favorite part of the DVD, though, are the tracks from a 1993 gig that I’d never seen before. The footage from live house gigs is of a piece with other video footage of legendary Japanese bands from the 80s and 90s, much of which was released commercially on VHS tapes. While you can see the crowd is going off, the atmosphere seems sinister and charged; you can even see fights break out as the band plays. However, the 1993 footage is from a different sort of gig. The first song from this gig on the DVD, “Stick & Hole,” begins, and the crowd is just going the fuck OFF. There are a ton of people on the stage (it reminds me of a packed 90s / 00s gig at St Stephen’s in DC or the First Unitarian Church in Philly), and a bunch of freaks wearing nothing but speedos dance around, lighting fireworks. Ishiya looks punk as hell with his arm set in a cast, but Chelsea has transitioned toward his Paintbox-era fashion with his loud Hawaiian-style shirt and his hair in a stringy, bleached-out surfer style like something out of Lords of Dogtown. One camera angle focuses on him and he’s just shredding the living fuck out of his guitar. It looks like there are a few hundred people at the gig and everyone is dancing, thrashing around, and crowding around the microphones during the gigantic choruses. While the recording isn’t professional, the DVD cuts between multiple camera angles, which keeps the energy level from stagnating. This gig seems so fun, and I gobbled up this footage with saucer-wide eyes and a giant smile plastered across my face.
The DVD cuts between several different gigs, and between the songs, there are interview segments with Ishiya, You, and Muka-Chin. Like Zigyaku’s liner notes, these interview segments humanize this larger-than-life band as they reminisce about touring, having no money, and how close their friendship was during the band’s original era. I’m so pleased they provided English subtitles for the interview, and my buddy Jesse Conway’s translations do so much to bring into focus what was before only discernible through the (interestingly) cracked prism of awkward translations. I’ve always wondered what Japanese hardcore bands think of their American fans, and in the interview, the members talk about how they dreamed of touring overseas during the band’s original era ,and how much it meant to them for the reformed version of the band to get such an incredible response at their gigs outside Japan. Those words, along with the care they took to make this release accessible for western audiences, make me feel like some of the love we westerners have for Japanese hardcore is getting through to them.
The DVD’s climax is an explosive version of “The Will Never Die” at that 1993 gig. Everyone is singing along, the band and audience are losing their shit, and the energy, which video often doesn’t capture, is electric. I can barely imagine what it must have been like to be there in person, but I feel so lucky to watch it now.
Once again, I’m sorry to tease everyone by writing about a release that will be very difficult for you to acquire. There has long been an annoying snootiness and exclusivity among the people who follow Japanese punk in the west, with many fans protective about information and skeptical of people who are comparatively new to this stuff. I hope it’s clear I’m not trying to cool guy anyone or brag. I just love this band and this music, and this release prompted so many thoughts that I felt compelled to share. If you can find a copy for yourself, then cool (it’ll be difficult, but not impossible), but if not, try your best to make something just as awesome happen right now in your part of the world.