Yakuza Heart Attack emerges from obscurity with a vinyl reissue

The second album from the long-defunct Ohio band, featuring Giant Claw's Keith Rankin, developed a cult following online and is now on vinyl for the first time

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Yakuza Heart Attack in the early days of the band.

Yakuza Heart Attack was Keith Rankin’s first real band. The group toured, released a couple of records. He was a teenager when the Ohio four-piece formed in the early 2000s, and it proved to be a formative experience for Rankin, paving the way for future projects, such as current electronic act Giant Claw.  

“We were music nerds. Music was what our life centered around,” Rankin said. "There was a lot of excitement about making a song that sounds like this obscure Japanese composer, or that sounds like Morton Subotnick or this early electronic music we were into. And prog-rock.” 

Yakuza Heart Attack, which initially consisted of Rankin and Matt Emmons on synthesizer and keyboards, Justin Baker on bass and Chris Mengerink on drums, blended all these sounds into a wild amalgam that often sounded like the crazed soundtrack to a sci-fi video game (and, in fact, was influenced by the “chiptune” genre, a brand of electronic music featuring sounds created using video game console sound chips).  

In 2007, when Rankin was in his early 20s, Yakuza Heart Attack issued its second album, II. The bandmates had a few years of performing under their belts at that point, and they went into the recording with confidence, though Rankin recalls the album landing with a bit of a thud. 

“There was barely any response,” he said. “We did a few tours, and we played a lot around Dayton, and it always felt like there was just a small group of kids who were super into it. It felt like we were their favorite band, but that was, like, 15 kids. Beyond that, no one [cared].” 

So it caught Rankin off guard last year when a record label, Ship to Shore, contacted Yakuza Heart Attack asking if it could reissue the band’s second album.  

“There's this chiptune community online, and I think [the album] started circulating around there a little bit,” Rankin said. “Justin, the bass player, he's on a bunch of these Facebook vinyl groups, and there's a big resurgence of video game soundtracks being reissued on vinyl. It's a huge thing now.” 

Ship to Shore caught wind of II in that online community and recently released the album on vinyl for the first time, describing it as “complex melodies [with] keyboard-driven art-rock, creating a new style that’s 8-bit meets Warp Records favorite Battles. It has to be heard to be believed!” 

Cover art for Yakuza Heart Attack's album, "II," painted by Ellen Thomas.

Leading up to the release, Rankin listened to the record for the first time in years. He heard a few things that made him cringe, but overall, the album held up. "I mostly hear the joy in music composition. There are a lot of idiosyncratic decisions musically that I associate with my youthful self, just veering off on a lot of musical tangents,” he said. “When I listened to it, I tried to be in that mindset of, ‘This is maybe the closest I'll ever come to hearing my own work from outside my own head.’ And in that light, it's like, this is fine. I like this. It's good.” 

After Emmons left the band, Yakuza Heart Attack paused, then restarted with Brian Baker (Brat Curse, Brian Damage) on guitar, but the new lineup never quite found its footing, fizzling out in a “slow death,” said Rankin, whose next project, Giant Claw, was formed in direct response to Yakuza.

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“With Yakuza Heart Attack, it was all about the composition. I'd sit at the piano and make songs that way, really hammering at the composition aspects. … I needed to totally get away from that, so when I started Giant Claw, I was like, ‘I'm just going to improvise,’” Rankin said. “It was leaving what you know behind to try to find something else that excites you musically.” 

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Over the years, though, Rankin has circled back to those early days, putting more of an emphasis on composition in Giant Claw. “It’s come back around, but you change a lot in 10 years,” he said. “Now, when I sit at a keyboard, I've lost a lot of the rigor and the skills I used to have. It’s a bit weird listening to the Yakuza Heart Attack album and being like, ‘I was a much more skilled composer and performer back then.’” 

Those revelations may not have surfaced without this recent reissue experience, which has been a welcome, if a bit bizarre, surprise. “It's like when rock bands like Pink Floyd break up and then reunite 20 years later,” he said. “It's like that, except we were never popular at all in the first place.”