Hentai Improvising Orchestra

While it's a loaded word, the ever-evolving Fort Worth experimental combo Hentai Improvising Orchestra claims a neutral and non-pornographic meaning for the Japanese word hentai: metamorphosis or transformation. With no bandleader, refusal to practice and a revolving cast of participants improvising on a wild range of instruments (some of which were actually manufactured for music use), the name is certainly appropriate. Especially on A Box of Hentai, an overwhelming six-CD, two-DVD set that comes in a handcrafted, hand-painted cardboard box along with a few stickers.

The cast of musicians (usually including Ken Shimamoto on guitar and Matt Hickey and Terry Horn on electronics, laptops and homemade instruments) isn't the only thing that changes. The music itself, from performance to performance and within each show, undergoes radical transformations. About the only constant from disc to disc is Shimamoto's funky, jazzy wah-guitar that wouldn't be out of place in a '70s progressive jazz recording or blaxploitation soundtrack. Yet even this drops out for minutes at a time, or reduces itself to a single-note drone. Violin, theremin, shortwave noise, tinnitus-simulating crackles, deep soft percussive noises and ghostly vocal wailing take turns competing for attention.

But while the result could be (and sometimes is) simple noise chaos, HIO often manages to create deep, hypnotic grooves. Clearly, as strange as the sounds they produce can be, these are musicians who actually listen and react to each other, rather than self-designated sound artists who show up at performances with an ego and an inflexible agenda. And, while the single-angle, sometimes-in-focus performance footage on the DVDs isn't much to look at, it is remarkable that they make metamorphosis look so easy.