It’s hard to imagine now, but like many of the young Japanese musicians who contributed to the turn-of-the-millennium Tokyo-based minimalist scene, Taku Sugimoto did not start his musical career with the restraint and patience for which he eventually became known. Sugimoto spent his early 20s playing in noisy psych- and blues-rock bands, of the type that flowered in the Japanese underground in the ’70s and ’80s. In 1988, he released the solo guitar LP Mienai Tenshi, which from available excerpts sounds like a dense, raw, incredibly loud slab of guitar pyrotechnics, poorly recorded and drenched in distortion – and frankly not very good. Sugimoto himself must not have been too satisfied with his direction, because by the early ’90s he’d given up the guitar altogether, and for the next several years would dedicate himself to the cello. The sole recorded result of this phase was Slub: Unaccompanied Violoncello Solo, the first release on Sugimoto’s own Slub Music imprint.
Recorded over the course of a year from 1993-1994, at the very end of Sugimoto’s cello phase, Slub is certainly very different from the guitar histrionics of Mienai Tenshi, but the general sensibility of Sugimoto’s rock music, with its carpets of noise, is still legible here. This is mostly very dense music, with Sugimoto rarely letting up. Though he does little to truly abstract his instrument’s sound, the barrage of scraping, droning, clattering sounds he unleashes is impressively varied. It also quickly becomes exhausting, especially since the album is jam-packed with 8 lengthy tracks adding up to over an hour of cello excess. It’s clear that this early in his career, Sugimoto was still very much trying to find his path, and there’s little trace of the interest in silence and space that would become so central to his later work.
The most obvious kinship here, rather, is to atonal modern composition and the European free improv scenes of the ’70s. This is busy music, always skittering about, with Sugimoto leaping between harsh upper-register squeals and pulsating low drones. There are passages that opt for more restrained dynamics, with little flutters teasing around a delicate central drone, but overall the samey textures and limited sound palette make it difficult to enjoy even the brief sections that aim for something a little different.
Maybe the only really notable moment is the brief fifth track, on which Sugimoto sharply plucks and twangs at the cello’s strings, making it sound almost like a shamisen. In contrast to much of the rest of the disc, this piece is spare and spacious, with each note clearly separated from the others by a hissy silence. Indeed, in the open space between each dry plucked tone, traffic noise can be heard faintly in the background: the whisper of a car passing by some distance away, the squeak of brakes. If anything here is a hint of where Sugimoto would be heading later in the decade and beyond, this, in its humble way, is it.
Other than that, Slub is at best a curiosity for Sugimoto’s admirers. It’s arguably the first step towards the far better LPs he’d be making within a few years, but it’s a small step indeed. Here, he abandons rock and starts his own label (still running to this day), but his first real musical breakthroughs were yet to come.