Concert Review

Deeply Natural, and Unearthly Strange: Synesthesia and Sukekiyo

sukekiyo @ Tokyo International Forum Hall C
Live Tour: “Falling Moon”

Have you ever listened to a recording of wolves howling in the distance?  Wolf song is fascinating, because it is inherently contradictory.  It is undeniably beautiful, but it is also the quintessential cry of the predator in the untamed wild; it makes the hair on our arms stand on end, and reminds some small, primitive corner of our brains that we once were prey.  It is inherently lonely, but acts as a method of social communication between members of a united pack.  It is both deeply natural and unearthly strange, something our primal senses recognize and yet something which is alien and unusual to our minds.  For us, wolf song inhabits the grey area between relaxation CDs and slasher films  – meaning that it allows us to drop our guard while also making us naturally, instinctively afraid.

Now, try to imagine music which occupies that same grey sensory space.

That is precisely what listening to the Japanese rock band sukekiyo is like for me.  In regards to my synesthesia, sukekiyo is entirely abnormal; their blended instrumentals and unearthly, experimental vocals create an overwhelming sensory experience that is impossible to break down into mere color recognition or basic movement patterns, the way other music can be.  And, as I was thrilled to discover last month, their live performances are just as unique.

As with any concert in this genre, there were rules.  All of the audience members came dressed in black, as though they were attending a funeral, and everyone was expected to sit silently in their seat during the performance.  The band explained this on their website as an attempt to create a ‘classical music experience’ at a rock show, but really, the end result was eerie.  As with their counterparts elsewhere in the world, Japanese rock concerts tend to involve a certain amount of audience participation: dancing, calling out, singing along, and chanting.  Sitting at all, let alone sitting motionless, felt unnatural.  When the lights went down, this motionless sea of black-clad observers virtually disappeared.  This somehow intensified the overall voyeuristic aspect of the audience-performer relationship, and contributed to the overwhelming sense of disconnect which dominated the entire show.

In fact, the lack of tangible engagement between the audience and the musicians was the most striking thing about the concert.  The show was extremely meta, in that the conceit of the performance seemed to be that it wasn’t a performance at all.  The band acted as though they were unaware of the audience’s existence.  Most Japanese rock concerts begin with the musicians walking out onto the stage, giving the fans a chance to catcall for their favorite member.  Some groups even have choreographed furitsuke, or hand gestures, for the audience to use during this opening act.  But sukekiyo played their own intro music.  They were already onstage when the lights went down, essentially denying that customary period of call-and-response.  And there was nothing set up to replace it.  No MC breaks, no formal address; in fact, no one spoke to us at all.  There was barely even a pause between songs.   The vocalist, Kyo, sang with his back to us most of the time.  Even when he did face the auditorium, he often had his eyes closed, or else seemed to be focusing his attention on someone beside him who was not actually there.  He didn’t even interact with the other members of the band, all of whom barely glanced up from their instruments.  Ironically, it was one of the best performances I have ever seen.  Everything that Kyo did on stage, no matter how strange, felt natural, uninhibited, and entirely devoid of artifice.  As an audience, we expect a certain level of theatricality from these musicians, and are well aware that it is entirely for our benefit.  There’s no need to hide that fact; it’s part of the entertainment.  But because Kyo refused to acknowledge our presence in any way, nothing that he did appeared to be for our benefit at all.  I felt as though I was watching a closed circuit security broadcast of someone who had no idea that there were cameras in the room.

That sense of disconnect was unusual, and incredibly jarring.  But it also helped ensure that nothing got in the way of the music itself.  In fact, everything about the band’s presentation was apparently designed with that goal in mind.  The stage setup was minimal and bare, without any ornamentation or splash of color, save Kyo’s scarlet microphone cord.  There were images projected onto screens arranged behind the band, ranging from abstract designs to clips from the group’s music videos, and the stage lights were in full, strobing effect.  However, none of those elements felt at all connected to the music or to each other.  The lights didn’t appear to respond to any sort of musical cue.  There wasn’t any sort of narrative structure to the video clips, linear or otherwise.  All of these effects were happening simultaneously, but not necessarily in tandem with one another – with one notable exception.  They all combined to induce a trance-like state that was powerful and hypnotic, and which proved difficult to shake, even long after the concert had ended.  

All these layers of disconnect created a completely dissociative environment.  There was nothing to analyze.  There was barely anything to look at.  I was sitting in a comfortable chair in a warm, dark room, and as I felt my analytical powers backing away, my subconscious began taking over.  

Which means that I’m finally at the point in this article where I get to tell you about sukekiyo and my synesthesia.

First of all, let me be clear: sukekiyo affects my synesthesia in ways that no other musical group does.  It’s one of the reasons why I like the band.  Generally, it’s easy for me to break music down in terms of color.  Each instrument has one, along with all of its attendant sensations, and the overall impression of the music is created via an intricate layering of these colors and sensations.  But sukekiyo is different.  Rather than being a compilation of sensory experiences, their music is all one sensation.  The explanation for this may simply be based on genre.  I’m not good at assigning labels, but sukekiyo’s Wikipedia page categorizes the band as ‘Nu-gaze’.  I’m not very familiar with Shoegaze or any of its offshoots, but I understand that blended instrumentals are one characteristic of the genre.  And those blended instrumentals make it impossible to discuss sukekiyo in terms of color.

But even if genre is enough to account for the mechanics of this phenomenon, the sensation I feel when I listen to sukekiyo is entirely unique to the band itself.  I said before that their music is all one sensation, but that might have been misleading.  Better to say, perhaps, that their music paints one coherent picture made up of a myriad of sensations.  I’ve explained sukekiyo to friends in the past as the auditory equivalent of walking through an abandoned house in the middle of the woods during the height of Autumn.  It’s all there: the damp, sweet smell of decaying leaves; the cool, clear air; the mist rising off of a nearby lake and tangling with the half-naked trees.  It’s everything beautiful and distinct and melancholy about the season, coupled with the breathless trespass of wandering the faded halls of an abandoned house.  When I listen to sukekiyo, I can feel the rickety floorboards bowing beneath my feet, and see the dust motes drifting in the weak beams of light filtering in from behind the moth-eaten curtains.  It’s beautiful and a little frightening, like the way that the slow reclamation of nature can transform familiar household items into foreign and alien things.

Which brings me back to the comparison I made earlier to wolf song at twilight.  It’s the strange ache which comes with longing for something that makes you afraid.

Listening to sukekiyo is always like this for me.  But hearing them perform live was a very different experience.  I most often listen to music when I’m en route to somewhere, or when I’m in the process of doing something else.  It’s rare that I actually sit down with my eyes closed and focus exclusively on the sound.  As such, when I say ‘sensory experience’ in regards to music and my synesthesia, sight isn’t part of that equation.  I feel and smell things, and that inner third eye – the one I discussed in my first blog post – tracks any movement.  But I’m still seeing my actual surroundings.  However, that trance-like state induced during the live disconnected me from my physical environment.  And when it was no longer necessary to observe the physical world around me, my synesthesia engaged my sense of sight in a way that it never has before.  It was a little like lucid dreaming, in that I felt as though I had been transported to an entirely different place.  I don’t know whether the internal became the external, or if something brand new was internalized.  All I know for sure is that I felt like Kyo, with his voice like curled tendrils of silvery condensation, had gotten inside my head somehow and rearranged all of the furniture.

Kyo’s voice is unique, and not only from the perspective of a synesthete.  Where other rock singers might shriek or growl, Kyo is capable of producing sounds that are chillingly inhuman.  And even when he does sing, he has a voice like mist.  It’s ethereal and pervasive, colorless but distinct.  It smells like cold.  It makes me feel the way I do in the moments just before falling asleep with my cheek pressed against a car window at night, only vaguely aware of the damp chill burning against my skin or of the glitter of approaching headlights caught in the fringe of my eyelashes.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  And in the trance-like state induced by the performance, Kyo’s voice was like the fading stain of breath upon a dusty mirror inside that beautiful, terrifying house.

As the concert rounded on its final song, the lights along the apron of the stage came on and an opaque screen fell between the auditorium and the band.  Their blurred and distorted shadows were thrown up against the back wall in a way that made them seem like ghosts, appropriately tinged the washed-out autumnal yellow of a fading sun.  And really, that’s the way the entire performance made me feel: haunted.

Everyone clapped politely once the show came to an end, and then they gathered up their belongings and left, the way they would have done at the end of a movie.  The band played themselves out, without pausing to address the audience or to take their bows.  No one called out for an encore.  In fact, no one said anything at all.  Even though it was obvious that many of the fans knew one another and had come together, everyone was completely silent as they exited the hall.  It was eerie.  As we filed by the hundreds down six flights of metal stairs, not one voice interrupted the muted thunder of our footsteps.  I think we were all still caught up in that trance.  Our bodies were doing what they needed to do, setting about the task of taking us home, but our minds were still wandering the footpaths in that deep, unsettling forest.  I felt drugged.  I missed my train stop twice trying to get back, because I couldn’t seem to focus on my surroundings.  The sensations brought about by the music had been too real.  I was looking for the moon in the ceilings of subway cars, and listening for the wolves in the metallic clatter filling every darkened metro tunnel.  Thinking back on that trip home now is like trying to recall a dream.

My first time hearing sukekiyo live was an intensely internal experience, rather than an external one, and that alone sets it apart from every other show that I’ve ever attended.  I don’t know if this was a typical experience for their concerts.  But I hope very much that I have a chance someday to find out.

In the meantime, I have plenty more to say about sukekiyo and synesthesia that I couldn’t fit into this post.  If you’re at all curious, please keep an eye out for my review of their new album, Adoratio, coming soon.  


I’m in no way affiliated with any of the bands discussed here, but I’m always keen to spread awareness about the groups and projects that I love.  If I’ve managed to prick your interest, you can learn more about sukekkiyo here: Twitter | YouTube | Official Home Page