Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvy

CD/download, 2014

One of this web site’s top albums of last year was Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s eponymous debut, and it’s heartening that they’ve been able to follow it up so quickly (or at least what passes for quickly in the Japanese indie world). While a lot remains consistent with before, with the blues-inflected melodies combined with an obvious love of krautrock, and vocalist Xiroh’s habit of suddenly squeaking like a 1960s secretary who’s just been touched on the bottom by a roguish co-worker. However, the transition from the bands debut to Topsy Turvy is far from seamless, and it’s clear a lot’s been going on in the studio in the interim. While Buddy Girl and Mechanic was characterised by expansive, reverb-drenched sonic vistas, Topsy Turvy is a far more claustrophobic album, with the group’s “Mechanic” aspect expressing itself in the clockwork clinks, clanks, rattles and creaks of songs like Mechanic Nonsense and Cat’s Scratching, and the tightly compressed drums of the Circe’s Kitchen. Rather than all blending together into one sultry sunset soup as the 2013 model BGM did, the band’s 2014 incarnation sets each sound scrapping it out in a closet.

One effect of this more claustrophobic production is that where in the past Xiroh’s vocals have tended to be indistinct in the reverb and overdubs, here they are occasionally pushed closer to the surface, as on the title track. Language can often be a problem for Japanese acts as the needs, expectations and interpretations of domestic and overseas audiences can lead to very different responses. Most obviously this lies in comprehension, where Japanese is obviously easier to understand for Japanese audiences and English for those in many other places. Differences also lie in how exotic or fashionable a language can make something sound, and how the inflection the singer places on the words can affect the impression they make. The vocals on Topsy Turvy are in a mixture of English and Japanese, processed through a variety of effects, sometimes in the group’s familiar distant and abstract manner, sometimes right close up in the listener’s ear. Now where a group like Shonen Knife make a virtue out of the naïvety of their English pronunciation, Buddy Girl aren’t that sort of band. The persona Xiroh projects is more adult, more vampish, and this lends an odd sense of not-quite-rightness to the English language material, where the naturalistic and the obviously foreign grate against each other.

And yet break it down and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong going on in their either. Topsy Turvy kicks off with a song that purrs its desire to “make it nonsense” and is an album constructed entirely of sounds and ideas designed to clash against each other. Release the Fish sets what sounds like a sanshin, an instrument primarily associated with Okinawan folk music, against a song that’s comes over like one big sexual come-on, while closing track Nature/Property takes all the grinding gears, tensing wires and general “mechanic nonsense” that have clattered through the album and builds an ambient psychedelic crescendo around them before releasing it all into a throbbing, motorik conclusion that lasts for about a minute but could have gone on for about twenty.

So amid all this wilful chaos, does something coherent emerge? Well, firstly I’m not sure it really needs to, and secondly yes it does. Aside from the obvious point that the thematic clash of elements that runs through the album is in itself a point of consistency, the group also never let it sabotage the songs. “The melody, it’s my remedy,” is the opening track’s response to the “nonsense” it professes to promote, and while Buddy Girl and Mechanic play the mischief makers, they’re fundamentally a band very much like Can in that the fun and games is always set in service of the greater musical good.

1 Comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews

Hangaku: Hangaku

If Hangaku had appeared ten years ago, they would probably have been one of the hottest new underground bands in Japan, and on this self-titled, self-released CD they channel a lot of the same playful, ultra-lo-fi,  shrieking, call-and-response scuzzwave that propelled the likes of Afrirampo and Limited Express (Has Gone?) into the fringes of international indie notoriety in 2005. Through his work with another discordant underground duo 2up (pronounced “up-up”) Hangaku percussionist Tetsunori has been operating in related territory for over a decade now, but while 2up have gradually evolved into thundering riffmonsters, the almost entirely synth-based Hangaku joins his punk sensibility with co-vocalist Aoi (from Aoi Swimming)’s penchant for mischievous synth-oddity in a way that harks back to early 80s avant-garde artists like Phew and even bits of P-Model at their most experimental (think Potpourri/Perspective era), and their British and American equivalents.

On Patrol, the vocals come on like an angry religious chant, while on Kamonohashi they wail like something out of Noh theatre over chirpy synths before giving way to a rollicking chorus that might have been from a pop song once, before it discovered Jack Daniels and heroin. And for all its confrontational attitude, you’re left with the sense that Hangaku really just want to show you a good time. The beats may occasionally dissolve into incoherent clatter, as they continually do on Suna to Ana, but they spend far more time propelling the songs forward with dedicated punk rock momentum or patchwork no wave disco pep. In the current indie landscape of Very Serious prog-jazz bands, quirky artists slyly making eyes at idol music, and washed-out bedroom production, Hangaku’s defiantly 80s art-junk sounds curiously out of place, and is all the more refreshing and necessary for that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews

Oversleep Excuse: Slowly Better (album)

Slowly Better

CD, Ricco Label, 2014

Often classified under the twin labels of post-rock and electronica, Oversleep Excuse are an odd fit for their assigned category, with their songs tending to be relatively pop in their structure and the band producing most of their sounds live. With that in mind, this full length album and the band’s first on a “proper” label

Opening track and lead promotional video Slowly Better (which I wrote about last month) provides better preparation for what to expect with its insistent lead piano, shuffling drums and steel drum interludes. On songs like It’s Alright you can hear a bit more of where the electronica references are coming from, although the skittering beats and Mice Parade-esque layers of sound are still by and large being created by the band live and in many cases acoustically. It perhaps says something of the extent to which electronic music has sought to recreate the warmth of acoustic sounds that genuine acoustickery like this finds itself dragged back into the electronic category. In any case, what makes Oversleep Excuse hard to categorise for labels and record shops needn’t concern those of us enjoying it, and it rewards the listener with 45 minutes of placid, summery pop, led by chiming, cascading guitar and steel drum courtesy of vocalist Matthew Guay and underpinned by Adam Gyenes’ versatile, slippery drumming.

The album shows a lot of diversity over its fourteen tracks, with the band using those core elements providing a consistent mood but employing them in intelligent and varied ways. Again, a lot of the credit here has to go to Gyenes’ drumming and Guay’s multi-instrumental talents, but Oversleep Excuse are an ensemble and a look at the liner notes (or the video for Oyu no Hana for that matter) reveals a plethora of instrument swapping (keyboard player Mami Matsuzaka is a supremely skilled drummer in her own right, while Gyenes is an excellent guitarist), while bassist Kazumoto Shoji is a quietly remarkable background presence throughout.

Given how long Oversleep Excuse have been around, it feels strange to be calling Slowly Better a debut, and all that time spent playing together both live and in the studio shows in the confidence and musical richness on display. A highlight of the year so far and coming just in time for the height of summer, its release is perfectly timed.

EDIT: Adam from Oversleep Excuse pointed out to me yesterday that it was Matsuzaka who played drums on most of the album while he himself primarily played guitar. Again, this really reinforces the extent to which the members chop and change instruments (everyone except Shoji has a go on drums at some point in the album).

1 Comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews

Extruders: Fushigina Shishin / Zombie

I’ve been vocal in my support for Kanagawa psychedelic/postpunk trio Extruders for a long time now, rating their album Colors one of the best of last year and their self-released live album Pray one of the best of the previous year. This summer, they’re embarking on a new project to release fresh material every Sunday for eight weeks.

Starting on July 13th, the first fruits of this project are already available for picking. Of the two, Fushigina Shishin is in the more low-key, minimal style of their more recent work, albeit with a more fragmented structure than anyone used to the blissed-out drones of songs like Luna and Kimi no Hane would prepare you for, while Zombie is a re-recording of an old track from their debut mini-album Neuter, which does a fine job of exposing their roots as Wire-influenced purveyors of short-sharp bursts of minimal art-fury. With several weeks to go, Extruders’ Bandcamp page should be in everyone’s bookmarks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, Track

Nag Ar Juna: Doqu

Nag Ar Juna have probably been around for a bit too long to really count as “hotly tipped” nowadays, and are perhaps better described as well-regarded mainstays or journeymen of the indiepop scene. Their 2012 album, the melancholically tweely titled How Many Friends Can Die Happily, came out on HNC’s White Lily Records, one-time home of Sloppy Joe, and the video for Doqu is directed with characteristically monochrome instagram delicacy by She Talks Silence.

The title track of this 12-inch is the more interesting, switching disorientatingly between keys mid-song and employing a wealth of eerie, psychedelic effects in the interludes. Distant, deadpan vocals treated with heaps of echo are pretty much a given in the Japanese twee/indiepop scene, but rather than sounding like a coy, affected cop out as the so often do, they are far more of a piece with the spectral aura the song radiates. The other side of the disc features the more upbeat jangle of Sasage, which is a worthy foil to Doqu, if rather more conventionally structured and lacking the title track’s edge of mystery and darkness.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Track

Nhhmbase: Ichirin no Hana

Ten years after they burst onto the Tokyo indie scene in a flurry of strange time signatures and unclassifiable alt-rock/pop tunesmithery, Nhhmbase have been engaged in a slow but steady crawl towards mainstream acceptance that Ichirin no Hana seems well placed to continue.

A lot of their songs seem designed particularly to showcase Mamoru’s extraordinary vocal range and it’s the need to build everything around that instrument that has defined the band’s sound, allowing him to ditch at least one entire lineup and replace them with little obvious impact on their style. There is nevertheless a clear sense of evolution, and while Ichirin no Hana, as with its predecessor Mizube no Tsudumi from earlier this year, is very much about the vocals, both songs also suggest the band are moving ever further in pushing them to the fore. At the same time, where in the early days, Mamoru’s vocals varied not only in position in the musical scale, but also in texture and inflection, coming in note-perfect stacatto pinpricks and exuberant bursts of energy, the texture here retains a uniform smooth matt finish. The lingering remnants of post-hardcore that still hung around the edges of their early work have also now been pretty much thoroughly eliminated, leaving the music a technically immaculate exercise in octave-leaping jazz-pop nursing a sentimental, sweet bean paste centre. It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the band’s process of growing up, but as someone who remembers a bloodsoaked Mamoru leaving Akihabara Club Goodman in an ambulance after one of the most thrillingly intense performances I’ve ever seen, it’s hard to escape the sensation that they’ve lost something important in their drive towards professionalism.

11 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Track

Interview: Keiji Yamagishi and Saori Kobayashi

An interesting interview I did for The Japan Times recently about making music for video games. The two composers I spoke to, Keiji Yamagishi and Saori Kobayashi, both had very different musical backgrounds (Yamagishi was a rocker and Kobayashi is classically trained) but both their careers began more or less in the 8-bit era (Kobayashi only at the tail end with the Sega Game Gear) and went on from there, so they sort of bookend what I tend to think of as gaming’s “golden age”, with Yamagishi’s work on Ninja Gaiden at one end and Kobayashi’s on Panzer Dragoon Saga at the other.

The way the article came out in the end was a sort of breakdown of some of the key challenges and restrictions that make game music what it is, although it’s interesting to note how that seems to be changing now, with the growing need to make music more responsive in real time to what the player is doing. An interesting little side discussion that didn’t make the cut of the final article was when Yamagishi and I found out that we are both great admirers of the Commodore Amiga, which really was revolutionary in terms of game sound at the time. The Atari ST got all the plaudits for its sequencing software, but in terms of game sound, the Amiga’s “Paula” chip with its four sample-based audio channels (which you could double to eight if you were willing to accept a bit of slowdown and lower quality) made it revolutionary, even compared to machines like the Mega Drive that used the same Motorola 68000 central processor. The Amiga also had its own community of music creators, consisting it seemed primarily of Scandinavians making mad techno music. This parallels in some ways the current 8-bit community, although where the Amiga scene was trying to push the current technology beyond its limits, the current 8-bit crowd are resurrecting or trying to digitally recreate old technology that has already been long surpassed, purely for aesthetic reasons.

Anyway, I enjoyed doing the interview, so have a read of it on The Japan Times web site here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Features, Interviews