As heavy metal becomes increasingly globalized, the boundaries of its innumerable subgenres more universally accepted, it becomes less and less surprising that bands from areas as far-flung as Canberra, Jerusalem, or the Faroe Islands would choose to incorporate the instruments and styles of their native folk music into a metal framework. And yet for every fully integrated folk-metal fusion act like Ireland’s Primordial, there are dozens like Taiwan’s ChthoniC or Finland’s Ensiferum, who treat their ethnic elements as augmentations (at best) or novelties (at worst)–an erhu solo here, a Humppa rhythm there, and that’s the extent of it.
Birushanah’s staggering debut, Akai Yami, released in 2007 in Japan but only now available domestically, suffers from none of these problems of appropriation. The Osaka band melds traditional Japanese music with the heaviest strains of extreme metal, resulting in a bastard of exotic discomfort and good ol’ leadfoot crunch. Guitars crush in eerie Japanese scales, stacking wide-open chord chugs into uneven phrases and progressions that never feel resolved. A fretless bass adds to the slipperiness of Birushanah’s tonalities, and two additional percussionists clank through the herky-jerky doom riffing like imperial soldiers marching to battle. Most of the Japanese screaming on the title track sounds desperate and terrified, every bit as unhinged as the warbly noh singing that precedes it. A koto swoops in toward the end, an eye of grace and calm at the middle of the metallic typhoon that swirls around it.
The two main tracks on Akai Yami hover around the twenty-minute mark, and really they have to. Birushanah’s music evolves, gets faster and more convoluted, breaks down for bass solos and lockstep percussion lines. Like the courtly gagaku music that inspired it, each discrete section of “Kairai” feels like a separate gesture of a grand ceremony. Majestic, yes, and slightly unapproachable because of its foreignness. But doom metal proves a very capable lingua franca, and Birushanah use it to unlock the latent heaviness of traditional Japanese music, opening up some exciting new possibilities for metal in the process. Akai Yami is as brazenly original as heavy metal gets.