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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Interview: Blonde Redhead

Yeah, they aren’t a Japanese band, but one of them is from Japan, they’re playing here tomorrow and more importantly it’s an article I wrote, so yah boo sucks to you. Anyway, I interviewed Amedeo from Blonde Redhead the other week and had a nice chat about their forthcoming album and touring Japan, which you can read all about in The Japan Times here.

Personally, I’m rather less of a fan of Penny Sparkle than I am of its predecessors, but I very much liked the alternate version of the title track that appeared on the We Are The Works In Progress compilation, so it was heartening to hear that they’re working with the same producer. It’s always very scary talking to musicians I’m genuinely a fan of, especially on the phone, a piece of technology of which a have a paralysing fear, so it was a relief to find Amedeo so accommodating as I gibbered incoherently through the static. Anyway, like I said, this article isn’t really fully within the remit of this blog so I shan’t bang on any further. Have a read if you think this is the sort of thing you might be interested in.

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Oversleep Excuse: Slowly Better

Tokyo-based indie quartet Oversleep Excuse might sound a bit familiar to regular readers of this blog, and if so, you can probably chalk that down to the presence of vocalist Matthew Guay, whose other band Glow and the Forest have graced these pages in the past, and who has over the years developed both a vocal style and a set of songwriting habits that mark his influence in quite a distinctive way. You get the sense that in its own purely melodic (and melancholic) terms, Slowly Better would serve perfectly well as a Glow in the Forest song, but at the same time, Oversleep Excuse are a band with four members, who each exert an influence over the group’s sound. The most obvious and distinctive characteristics that set the Oversleeps apart are the way the piano sits at the fore and the appearance of steel drum interludes. More subtly, but in a way perhaps more importantly, Adam Gyenes’ drumming lends a completely different texture to the song, not simply driving the song forward but rather stroking it, like waves lapping against the shore with the song riding their ebb and flow. The song is a taster from the band’s new album of the same title, which looks well worth checking out.

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emulsion: elephant shrews don’t nag you

An emulsion is a mixture of usually immiscible liquids (for example oil and water). Something that holds these substances together is called an emulsifier. Apply these principles to music, and you might end up with something like the band Emulsion (they don’t like using the capital “E” but this is my web site and as far as is humanly possible we use grammar here).

On Elephant Shrews Don’t Nag You, opening track Flyingdutchman lays out the substances for today’s experiment, setting up a clatter of electronic beats as a backdrop for the harsh, scratchy guitar that defines the album’s sound. Second track, The Last Blink of F, follows it up by stepping down to a simpler, less busy dance beat, the same scratchy guitar, and an off-key, new wave melody that occasionally disintegrates into postpunk discord. Insofar as there is an emulsifying agent for all this, it’s the group’s two members themselves, controlling the disparate elements’ phase shifts between the harmonic and discordant, rhythmic and arrhythmic. It’s clearly music that doesn’t like to be categorised, but there are enough of particles of postrock suspended in it that that genre makes good sense as a starting point when listening to the four tracks that make up the CD edition. It’s also energetic and fun in a way that clever music like this often fails to be, so well worth spending a bit of time with.

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She Talks Silence: Just Like War

It’s been far too long since we’ve heard anything from lo-fi indie-postpunk duo She Talks Silence, so the news that they have a fresh album coming out soon is welcome. If this cut from the album is anything to go by, Ami and Minami seem to be continuing to develop the more discordant, almost psychedelic strain of their sound that we saw on 2012′s Long Ways. Just Like War sees the duo in full-on 80s 4AD mode with a grinding, almost industrial, minimal synth bass, and vocals that sometimes sound like English but might as well be Martian so distant and etherial are they. There also feels like a sort of stripped down echo of Mezzanine-era Massive Attack in there somewhere, although that may just have been an image implanted subconsciously by the appearance of the word “Angel” in the video, written on one of the girls’ hands. In any case, it’s great to have She Talks Silence back, and especially great to find them in such fine, dark, moody and gothic form. The forthcoming When it Comes album looks set to be one of the year’s finest… when it comes.

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