DYGL are the best indiepop band in Japan, a feat made all the more impressive by the fine line they walk between the obvious influence of British and American indie rockers like The Strokes or The Cribs and the expression of their own inherent charm and energy.

It could so easily tip over into embarrassing pastiche, and you can hear wobbles on the tightrope in the affected estuarine glottal stops vocalist Nobuki Akiyama doesn’t quite nail in Just Say it Tonight. Akiyama and DYGL remain aloft though, largely through the way they barrel through the songs with such effortless good humour and sincerity.

I’ve written before about DYGL’s rare knack for delivering UK/US-influenced indiepop with the sort of passion and punch that many of their more delicately constituted peers can barely dream of, but it’s only recently that their recording has begun to catch up with the impact of their live performance. On EP #1 the lead guitar chimes clearly over the crunching rhythm guitar, while the drums clatter away beneath, giving the sound a thickness at its base to balance out the prettiness of the trebly high end. At the same time, with every passing year, Akiyama’s voice grows more and more into the cracked, angelic, lovelorn bad boy persona he seems to be writing the songs around.

The increasingly high profile of DYGL’s sister band Ykiki Beat, whose When the World is Wide album was absolutely everywhere this summer has set alarm bells quietly ringing among some of DYGL’s fans (myself included) but this EP is arguably the superior release and for now we can just hope that some of Ykiki Beat’s success bleeds through and ensures DYGL have the continued impetus to keep going and realise more of their apparently still enormous potential.

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Call And Response online store — new stock update

2015 has been a busy year for this blog’s sister label Call And Response Records, with new releases from the label itself as well as a couple of excellent new releases from bands and labels we like in the distribution section.


otori_i-wanna-be-your-noiseOtori: I Wanna Be Your Noise (CD)

This blog’s album of the year for 2014, Otori’s tightly-wired, laser-guided debut was a long time in coming, and turned out to be well worth the wait. These eight controlled explosions take earsplitting no wave ferocity and bottle it, deploying the fury with deadly precision and focus. (Gyuune Cassette, 1620yen)

yougotaradio_carnivalYou Got A Radio: Carnival (CD)

A follow-up to You Got A Radio’s 2010 self-titled debut, Carnival draws on similar postpunk and new wave influences to its predecessor, but synthesises them into a darker, more portentous sound that shares elements of similarity with Joy Division and Magazine. The songwriting revels in this darker palette, with melody and discord playing off each other to dynamic effect. (Drriill Records, 2160yen)


sharkk-smallSharkk: Sharkk (Cassette)

This five-song EP is the solo project of Sean McGee, who in addition to his own music plays drums with a number of bands in the wider Call And Response circle. Sharkk draws together a variety of alt-rock and punk influences with a clear, pop songwriting sensibility. (Call And Response, 500yen)

hakuchi_chindondingdongHakuchi: Chindon Ding Dong! ~ Minokurui March ~ (CD)

Saga-based spazzcore junk-punk trio Hakuchi’s debut album takes frenetic, lo-fi postpunk and crashes it headlong into a parade of children’s songs and 1970s Japanese pop, with this album the bloody, chaotic result. (Call And Response, 1300yen)

lo-shi_bakuLo-shi: Baku (12-inch vinyl)

Lo-shi are a Tokyo-based French instrumental duo, whose unsettling soundscapes combine electronic beats, samples and effects with ringing, reverb-heavy guitar. This album it themed around the nightmare-eating creature of Japanese legend, in a cathartic journey into a dark dream world. (Call And Response, 2000yen)

looprider_myelectricfantasyLooprider: My Electric Fantasy (CD)

Combining heavy metal, J-pop and shoegaze influences in one album, Looprider’s debut is a bold, brash statement of the band’s refusal to be tied down to specific genres and scenes, but it’s also a carefully crafted pop album that for all its eclecticism is never less than plain and direct in its accessibility. (Call And Response, 1500yen)

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Under: Under / Brinicle / It is like cumulonimbus. ((And me))

Keeping track of enigmatic drone/shoegaze artist Under’s output remains a task requiring constant attention, not only for the constant flow of new material, but also for its frequent Stalinesque erasure. 2015 began with the February release on the US Fire Talk label of Loosen, an EP that had appeared and then suddenly vanished the previous year. After that, a string of free releases emerged, with a self-titled EP in May followed by August’s Brinicle EP and most recently the lone track It is like cumulonimbus. ((And me)) – eccentric punctuation presumably integral to the effect.

The divisions between these releases are sonically meaningless to the outside observer, and really the whole appeal of Under’s work is the way her songs and noise pieces blend into one. It’s music that doesn’t need to progress because it draws from something timeless and pagan: eternal and ephemeral, like mist descending over long barrows.

There are perhaps two threads that run through Under’s music though, with it leaning one way or the other as whim takes it. One thread, perhaps best represented by the self-titled EP, deals in layers of primal, throbbing drone. The other, which Brinicle explores to a greater degree, especially in its gorgeous opening track Foehn, casts out minimal guitar and bass lines, reeling in ambient, psychedelic folk melodies. Layers of guitar effects and tape distortion link these two approaches together, but variations in the balance between them seem to form the core dynamic of Under’s music.

There’s still time for Under to drop another EP before the year’s out, so perhaps attempting this summary of her year’s output is a little premature, but even based on this handful of releases alone, it’s an impressive body of work for a tireless artist.

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Burn Your Hometown

Another prolonged bout of quiet over here may have had some of my few remaining readers wondering if this blog is dying out, although any longtime readers will probably have noticed by now that updates tend to come in fits and starts. In this case, however, there has been a bit more to it than that as for the past two months or so I have been travelling around northeastern Japan on a bicycle, researching the local music scenes in various places and just generally going mad from loneliness and isolation in the middle of the Japanese countryside. In the course of my travels I’ve been keeping another blog dedicated solely to this trip.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve made reference on a few occasions to a book I’ve been writing about my experiences in the Japanese music scene and some of the issues I discuss on here and in my Japan Times column. That book, Quit Your Band (subtitle as yet undecided) is with the publisher and due out spring or summer next year. It became pretty clear quite early on in the process of writing the book, however, that its focus was inevitably very much on Tokyo, and this new project, which I titled Burn Your Hometown as a sort of answer to my book’s title, was intended in part to remedy what I felt were some of my book’s limitations in scope.

The fourteen prefectures I visited over the course of this trip amounts to less than a third of the forty-seven that make up Japan, although they cover about half of its geographical area. I have a few places I want to visit over the winter (without my bicycle) before embarking on the epic final stage in the spring, covering everything from Kyushu back to Tokyo.

The blog as it currently stands begins in Sapporo and threads its way through Japan, back to Tokyo over the course of six weeks or so. A lot of the posts are long and many have very little directly to do with music, but they do develop a handful of increasingly interrelated themes over time, so if you want to read the whole thing in order, start here.

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mechaniphone: i ∞ u

Mechaniphone are a band I encountered when I was in Nagasaki back in May. They were one of those bands where the moment they started playing a ripple of electricity went around everyone who was seeing them for the first time. Little glances between me and my friends from Tokyo, those knowing looks that presage a torrent of effusive, excited praise waiting to be unleashed as soon as the final song finishes: “Who the fuck was that? They were fucking cool!”

This EP inevitably doesn’t quite have the raw, wired intensity of their live set, but there’s more than enough in the way of lo-fi thrills in here to give you a good sense of what they have to offer. In the combination of complex, stop-start post-hardcore rhythms and rough-edged garage rock, there’s something nostalgic about it for those of us who privately and not so privately mourn the passing of Afrirampo, the self-imposed hiatus of Tacobonds and the grindingly slow pace of new material from Hyacca.

Killkilli, with its pounding waves of scuzzy hooks, squeaks and shrieks, is the art-punk disco contender of the EP, while the closing instrumental Theme alternates between off-kilter melody and squalls of ferocious noise. The opening one-two of Maware Maware Maware and Pool shows a more inclusively and multi-layered side to the band’s song construction, with the former combining a hypnotic, cyclical vocal melody with some righteously heavy riffage and moments of sublime harmony. The latter, meanwhile, alternates between octave-leaping vocals and instrumental duels, with overlapping sonic layers and rhythms adding a layer of complexity to the simple loops that define the song’s surface.

This juxtaposition of superficial accessibility, playful musical contrarianism and a rather elegant touch of multilayered complixity marks Mechaniphone as a band well worth seeking out, and we can only hope that the small but creative and diverse underground scene around them in Nagasaki can support them long enough for them to get the breakout success that they deserve.

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Strange Boutique (August 2015) – Fuji Rock and making the audience work

My Japan Times column this August kind of follows on from what I was writing about in July, where I discussed some of the problems I have with Rockin’ On Japan magazine and the Rock in Japan festival. In this instance, I look at the same issue from the other side, focusing on Fuji Rock.

What I like about Fuji Rock is that it actively makes life difficult for you, forcing you out of your comfort zone. It can be annoying at first, but once you get past that wall of irritation and absorb yourself into the festival’s way of doing things, it opens out into a much more reqwarding experience. I shan’t go into the specifics of that here, since you can just read it for yourself in the actual article, but I’ll mention briefly that Moon♀Mama (Pika from Afrirampo’s solo work), Oshiripenpenz, Hysteric Picnic, Bombori and Jim O’Rourke all did a great job of representing the Japanese underground scene, while Manic Sheep flew the flag for Taiwan with pride.

Instead, it’s this idea about making the audience work that I think is interesting. I’ve mentioned this before, but the meaning behind the label name Call And Response (apart from retaining the same CAR initials as this site, Clear And Refreshing) is really about the relationship between music and audience. We will reach out to you, but we expect you to meet us part way – you have to do your part of the exchange as well: you have to contribute your half of the conversation. To put it another way, music is not a service industry.

Except of course that for most people music really is a service industry, which is really at the heart of my dislike of the philosophy behind Rock in Japan. It’s also an attitude that filters through into audiences and can lead to a particularly obnoxious sense of entitlement and incredibly lazy listening habits. “I paid money, so entertain me!” sounds like such a hard-nosed, sensible, bottom-line thing to say, but by even considering money as part of the transaction, you’re shifting the whole meaning of art onto commercial terms, which is something I don’t accept.

Exchanges of money happen all the time in the arts, but they are separate, parallel operations to the actual experience the artist and audience share – and the prices have pretty much nothing to do with the actual value of the work to which they are assigned. The really important transaction that’s happening in art is between the extended hand of communication that the artist offers and the open palm of acceptance that the audience extends in return. It’s a transaction that has more in common with sex than commerce.

Fuji Rock isn’t perfect, and anyone who would voluntarily have sex of even the most metaphorical kind with the vile Owl City should be sectioned as a menace to both themselves and to society at large, but it deserves praise as an event that recognises the importance of breaking down the traditional framework in which audiences consume music and constructing a fresh context of its own that you have to make an effort to enter. More generally, I think this process is important in recognising that music isn’t a “pure” thing, free of the sort of lifestyle-orientated branding that I often complain about, but at the same time, that lifestyle can be constructed in a way that is more amenable to a positive and openminded relationship with art and music.

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Strange Boutique (July 2015) – Rockin’ On and the eternal afternoon

My July column for The Japan Times talks about the Rock in Japan festival, but more generally what it’s about is the effect of Rock in Japan and its founder magazine Rockin’ On Japan on the music scene.

The idea of “a mid-afternoon slot at Rock in Japan” is a running joke among some of my friends, referring to the mediocre creative ambitions of a certain type of indie-ish band that stands for nothing, is happy to sell out in any way required of them, but hasn’t the balls to make real pop music either. This sort of polished, musically slick, blandly positive, utterly insubstantial faux rock music is basically what counts as Rockin’ On-kei right now.

And it’s popular, kind of. At Fuji Rock this year, it was notable how the organisers had brought in more of these Rockin’ On-type bands, and the attendance went up from last year as a result. It’s also notable how many of the very worst bands at Fuji Rock were bands who are also appearing at Rock in Japan – the risible [Alexandros] and the vile Gen Hoshino being the worst offenders, but Gesu no Kiwami Otome and Ringo Shiina frustrating in their own particular way, if only because of how much visible talent they seem to be wasting on such unambitious, MOR music.

So the “mid-afternoon at Rock in Japan” represents the middle of the middle of the road. The core, rich essence of mediocrity. The highest artistic ambition for the cronically artistically unambitious. And then I noticed that everyone at Rock in Japan is playing in the mid-afternoon. The whole festival is an eternal afternoon. There are no lows, no highs, no challenges, no discomfort. Rock in Japan is the slack, etherised smile of music euthanising itself.

In the article itself I’m more scrupulously fair than that, and I look into a bit more of the hows and whys, but what it all comes down to is the same thing: fuck Rockin’ On Japan.

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