Under: 4 girlls soooooon

Under is a difficult artist to write about because there is so little reason and rhyme in the prolific and seemingly indiscriminate way she releases her material that it’s hard to know what exactly to write about. The excellent short demo collection that was one of my picks of last year has already disappeared, absorbed anonymously into a pair of compilations that selectively round up a couple of years worth of work. That little act of house cleaning hasn’t stopped the flood of cryptically titled tracks from this enigmatic artist’s bedroom though, with this gorgeous collection of four songs the closest thing to a coherent EP or mini album to recently emerge from the clutter.

The atmosphere of misty rural sunrises that characterises almost everything Under records still dominates the sound, with the vocals this time buried so deeply in the pastoral drone that they are a barely distinct, yet still hypnotic presence, a Lady of the Lake singing hymns to Avalon from within her watery dwelling. The new material keeps emerging, but these are songs that work best sharing each other’s company rather than as discrete tracks and this little collection is all the more precious for its unity and shared context.

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Servals: /99

Servals are a relatively new band, formed as a spinoff from Yokohama’s still extant but recently less active Come to my Party and trading in a slightly harder, more driving take on the older band’s Supercar-influenced indietronic pop. /99 is a desultory dream pop disco, drenched in minor chords, with the same melancholy atmosphere of loss and longing, like someone at the moment of realising they are in a dream, desperately trying to stave off the morning. Just five more minutes, it seems to be saying from within the duvet of synth swirls, as the metallic blue-grey of the urban morning seeps through the curtains.

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Crunch: Simple Mind

Crunch have already released one of 2014’s most charming and melancholic pop-rock albums in January’s Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto, but they’ve already followed it up with this EP featuring two new songs and a remix, led by Simple Mind. While a towering, epic tribute to Jim Kerr and Glasgow’s finest would have been something to behold from the fragile Nagoya trio, Simple Mind follows on directly from where Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto left off, with a poppy, octave-straddling vocal melody over new wave-inflected guitars and a rhythm section that nods towards funk and dance music, but none of the constituent parts pull apart to the extent of compromising the essentially pop core.

Holiday is a more sparse affair, beginning with call-and-response vocals playing out over a lone guitar, the rest of the instruments gradually coming in to fill out the arrangement. Rather than being formed in a traditional verse-chorus structure, Holiday uses the interplay of the different layers to create its dynamic. The EP also features a remix by Nagoya electronic producer Fredricson that takes a similarly layered approach to reworking the title track, with the additional of a heavy, stripped-down beat and sparse synth loops and effects and cut-up vocal samples that on occasion reduce Noyiyo Hotta’s voice to more texture than words.

More an appendix to the band’s previous release than a next chapter, it’s nonetheless pleasing to see Crunch following Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto up so swiftly and Simple Mind suggests there’s more to come.

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Suiyoubi no Campanella: Mitsuko

As you might hope from a group who named a song on their first album Hikashu, Suiyoubi no Campanella seem to exist permanently at an angle slightly askew from the rest of the music scene in Japan. Other groups whose backing tracks were composed of similarly tastefully produced electronic pop would most likely do something wistful and dreamy with just a hint of weary disaffection over the top, while for groups with similarly charismatic vocal delivery (I’m not going to lie: I get a little thrill whenever vocalist Komuai says the words “call and response”) the default musical setting would these days most likely be something far more gaudy and brash.

So the combination of credibly sophisticated trackmaking and the offhand, offbeat half-rapping of the vocal performance is unusual and demands our further attention. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still cute — the Abe administration recently introduced prison sentences of up to ten years for any Japanese female-led vocal music that doesn’t meet at least a minimal standard of “Cool Japan”-approved kawaii — but the important thing is that it’s not idol-cute. Beneath the hood it conforms and then some to the standard “girls group” formula of pretty girl out up front and anonymous guys not only hidden at the back but fully locked away in a room somewhere making all the music. This is really only correct, since if there’s one thing worse than some dreary looking dude in a trucker cap directing all the music behind the scenes, it’s a dreary looking dude in a trucker cap up there onstage, pretending to rock out from behind his MacBook. The physical disconnect between the performance and production aspects of the group then mirrors the awkward way the vocals hang over the track, both conceptually in their subtly contrasting styles, and technically in the flat, weirdly close-sounding way the vocals are pasted over the richer, more spacious synth and rhythm backdrop.

If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t meant to be. With Mitsuko, Suiyoubi no Campanella manage to do two subtly contrasting things at once with the psychic abrasion they work on each other not only leaving both intact but also creating a playful dynamic of its own that lifts the track into becoming more than the sum of its already rather charming parts. 

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Quruli: Liberty & Gravity

It was around the time of their eighth album, 2005’s Nikki, that I gave up hope for Quruli. Shigeru Kishida had decided to try to make the band into this generation’s Happy End, leaving behind the experimentation and playfulness that had made The World is Mine such a glorious generational masterpiece in favour of earnest, wistful, sentimentally-tinted folk rock songs that just didn’t really seem to go anywhere. It was the perfect music for a generation whose greatest ambition appeared to be gently jogging on the spot and I hated it.

Which is why Liberty & Gravity feels like such a breath of fresh air. The folk influences remain but they take their place in a more eclectic mix. It’s still whimsical, but it’s also musically ambitious, playful and fun, rich in little musical nooks to explore without ever letting its complexity get the better of it.

The video is by award winning director Jun Tamukai (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Ponponpon), who is someone whose work I find unaccountably annoying – I think it’s got something to do with the choreography’s combination of ostentatious goofiness and self-consciously mannered presentation – but which people otherwise seem to insist on finding adorable so feel free to ignore grumpy old me on that point. Another gripe I have is with the way the YouTube clip’s accompanying text refers to the song’s parent album as the band’s eleventh, when it is in fact their thirteenth. This may seen like an insufferably nitpicky point, but it’s symptomatic of something I find quite poisonous in the Japanese music world: the way all indie releases are traditionally airbrushed from a band’s official history once they sign for a major label. So let’s just take a little moment here to say fuck you Victor Entertainment. Done that? Good.

Naturally none of that should be allowed to detract from the song itself, which is bright, catchy and brash enough that it even gets away with having a rap section. It’s also great to see that even this deep into their career, Quruli still retain the capacity to surprise, charm and delight. If only they showed it more often.

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cryv: K.O.B.E.

Cryv (pronounced “Cruyff” as in the Dutch footballing legend and not to be confused with the Japanese shoegaze band Cruyff in the Bedroom) are a synth-and-guitar-based unit who I first encountered about a decade ago. I then lost touch with what they were doing, their name occasionally making blips across my radar to remind me that they were still around, and this new video is the first music I’ve heard from them in a long time.

K.O.B.E. incorporates electronic, Shibuya-kei and post-rock elements, multiple stops, starts, chops and changes, into what turns out to have been a rather fine three-minute pop song all along. The rhythmical hiccups themselves quickly settle into a loop, with layers adding on top to the point where the organic and synthetic elements of the arrangement blend into each other to a point where they become almost impossible to separate. The video does rather highlight the dangers of Japanese bands putting their English lyrics up on too obvious display without rigorous, native-level proofreading, but it visually nails the band’s wistful early 2000s sonic aesthetic pretty damn well.

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Ykiki Beat: Forever

If Ykiki Beat appear familiar, it may be because the band shares a number of members with one of this site’s favourite young bands, the guitar pop quartet DYGL (who seem to have reverted to that name after briefly being known as Leather). There are certainly similarities between the two bands, but while both bands draw from 80s-influenced sounds, Ykiki Beat have tended to be more eclectic, pursuing and discarding multiple musical styles (their Soundcloud page regularly undergoes purges that would have made Stalin blush), perhaps indicating a greater need to find where they fit in the ever-changing contemporary indie rock scene.

Forever sounds like the sort of music that would play over the final scene of an episode of Veronica Mars, which is to say that it’s not at all the sort of thing I’d usually approve of. That said, it’s a kind of music Japanese rock just isn’t traditionally very good at and Ykiki Beat do it so, so well. The delivery is shamelessly euphoric, not just in Nobuki Akiyama’s vocals but also in the way the whole package is conceived. The insistent drums, the bass and rhythm guitar hammering away on roots, and the way it eagerly reaches for the most soaring, inspirational chord progressions, give Forever an intensity and immediacy that J-pop very rarely has and that stands in stark cobntrast to the dreary, washed-out delivery of most Japanese indie rock. While it may leave the too-clean sensation of someone extolling the joys of the Alpha Course or trying to sell you Apple products, Ykiki Beat also demonstrate talent and confidence to match their ambition.

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