Hikashu: Ikitekoi Chinmoku

Ikitekoi ChinmokuOccupying a respectfully regarded but also somewhat at-a-distance position on the fringes of the Japanese music scene, Hikashu are in the midst of one of the most productive periods of a career that is rapidly approaching forty years, releasing material at a faster rate than the music scene can really process, imbued with a level of inventiveness, imagination and creative energy that few younger bands can match.

Hikashu are a band who were born out of Koichi Makigami’s need for music to soundtrack his theatre group in the late ‘70s, and there’s a theatricality running through Ikitekoi Chinmoku, both in the dramatic vocal delivery of songs like Iroha Moyo and Magma no Tonari, and in the song structures which rarely conform to the traditional pop format, instead painting winding musical narratives of their own. The album itself projects a semi-theatrical structure with the opening title track and closing Okitekoi Densetsu bookending the album with shared, and rather eerie, musical motifs.

Given that they are a band who coined the term ‘pataphysic rock to describe themselves, it should come as no surprise that it’s a particularly absurdist, Dadaist kind of theatricality too. Makigami’s vocal arsenal of squeaks, rattles, baritone drones, throat singing and other nonsensical interjections is engaged in a near constant dialogue with the brass, keyboards and Mita’s erratic guitar phrases. Tengri Kaeru and Melon wo Narase! Beluga in particular are alive with a broad cast of musical voices engaged in a furious if largely incomprehensible conversation.Hikashu: Naruhodo

The synthesiser that ricochets between the speakers in Konna Hito and the rhythm machine that underscores Naruhodo refer back to the band’s technopop roots, but Hikashu are a far looser, more jazz-influenced band – they always had more in common with Henry Cow than Kraftwerk. Despite the album’s New York recording, there are also echoes of the band’s recent Siberian tour experiences, as in the babbling scat of Altai Meiso, where Makigami’s vocal workouts express themselves to their (il)logical extreme – although who would bet against him finding a new border to push in time for the band’s next album.

What remains remarkable about Hikashu, however, is that through all their freeform rambling, they never completely lose the sense of themselves as a pop band. Shizuka na Shaboten is a fine sub-three-minute pop song, albeit with more theremin than the average Oricon chart topper, and even at its most avant-garde, Ikitekoi Chinmoku overflows with a joyful sense of childish fun.

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That’s A No No!: Damn It!

As a seemingly eternal fixture of the perpetual time loop that is Tokyo’s mod/garage scene, you don’t really imagine a band like That’s A No No! “progressing” in the way the word is commonly understood. It’s a world where a band’s creativity is harnessed more strictly than almost anywhere else into the service of an ideal laid down by the Motown prophets in the religious texts of aeons past. If the measure of a great chef can be said to be how she or he prepares a simple miso soup, the measure of a garage/mod band is how they do Cool Jerk. All this means that a band like That’s A No No! have had to develop their character and style within a much tighter framework than most bands.

One obvious feature that helps the band stand out is vocalist Kei Yoshida’s raw, husky delivery, like a punk Linda Yamamoto or Mari Natsuki. All those years playing the same basic chord progressions over and over again have honed them into a tighter and more propulsive unit as well, with Damn It! barrelling along at a furious pace. There’s a bit of Wilko Johnson too in the jagged rough-and-tumble of the guitars, and at a sweet two minutes long, it’s too short by exactly the right amount. Originality is so far away from the ideal bands like That’s A No No! are driving for that it’s pointless to judge them on it, but within the strict confines their genre allows, they’ve managed to both develop and retain some character of their own. Like a good chef, a good band shows through whatever ingredients they work with.

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Idol Music’s Garden of Forking Paths: Yurumerumo!’s “Hamidasumo!” and Perfume’s “Pick Me Up”

In this day and age where pretty much any musical or fashion subculture is ripe for co-option and exploitation by the idol scene, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at where it all kicked off.

The love affair between idol groups and indie/underground music, in its current form at least, started with Shibuya-kei and neo new wave – two genres that were already long on the road to convergence. The fading from the mainstream of Shibuya-kei around 1998 or so coincided with the brief bubble of retro new wave and technopop that grew up around the Tokyo Newwave of Newwave ’98 compilation album and bands like Polysics, Spoozys and Motocompo.

Gradually, some of the technopop remnants of the neo new wave scene coalesced with a sort of dead cat bounce of Shibuya-kei, around labels like Vroom Sound, Softly! And Usagi-Chang. Plus-tech Squeeze Box, Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Eel, Aprils, YMCK and others floated around in similar circles to the still extant Motocompo and Shibuya-kei revivalists like Capsule, sometimes guesting on each other’s records.

The emergence of Perfume in 2003-2004, produced by Capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata, set off a lot of light bulbs in the collective imagination of this post-neo-new-wave, post-post-Shibuya-kei scene and people started to realise that even as their own music had been sidelined by the music industry, the idol scene was musically malleable enough that they might be able to do something within its structures. More than that even, Perfume were a ray of light through the whole indie, underground and punk scenes who perhaps needed a splash of colour as they laboured under the receding shadow of brilliant but discordant and angry bands like Number Girl. Perfume were cute, colourful, cool and contemporary, but at the same time, there was a nostalgic sort of retro-futurism to them. They may have been heavily influenced by Daft Punk, but one of their earliest songs was a cover of the new wave classic Jenny wa Gokigen Naname by Juicy Fruits, and their path from technopop through electropop left echoes of beloved bands of eras past, particularly YMO.

Yurumerumo are an idol group very much in that tradition. Drawing from a songwriting and production talent pool rooted in new wave-influenced artists, they regularly work with lyricist Ai Kobayashi from technopop duo Miami (Yurumerumo often perform the Miami song Shiratama Disco, the original version of which appeared on my own Call And Response label’s 2005 debut compilation) and it should come as no surprise to see TNWONW98 alumnus Hayashi from Polysics taking charge of them for Hamidasumo! (side note: Dan Cervi, who plays the newsreader in the promotional video, is another figure I remember from the scene back in those days and man does it make me feel old seeing his face crop up again).Yurumerumo: Hamidasumo!

So namedropping aside, what does all this mean for the song? Well, for all their new wave gloss, Yurumerumo have until now always sounded pretty much like any other generic idol group (i.e. awful) but Hayashi stamps his identity over Hamidasumo! far more distinctively. It sounds like a Polysics song – which is really the whole point of getting in someone like Hayashi in the first place – with all the good and bad that entails. It’s a high-fructose explosion of colour with frenetic beats darting every which way and skronky guitar bits around the edges. It’s all handled with the utmost confidence and control, and well it should be since Hayashi’s been writing essentially the same song over and over for the best part of seventeen years.

Now it’s a solid track, but if I sound weary and cynical here, that’s because I am. The whole nexus of idol music and indie or underground musical subcultures is built around the novelty of “Ooh, it sounds underground… but it looks pop!” and those juxtapositions can only be reproduced as time goes by to diminishing returns. Take a bit of time and listen to Ryotaro Aoki over on the It Came From Japan podcast, talking about Dempagumi.inc’s Neo Japonism and you can hear the word “crazy” turn to ash in a person’s mouth. It’s not that there’s anything in particular wrong with this stuff – it’s just that it’s a musical approach that relies for its whole existence on its freshness, and it’s simply no longer fresh.

For a Japanese pop group to sound fresh right new, what they’d need to do is get back to making pure, unpretentious, shamelessly straightforward pop music, completely free from triangulating subcultural market niches, and there’s something satisfyingly circular about the fact that the group who do that most consistently and best right now is Perfume.Perfume: Pick Me Up

Pick Me Up is the most striking thing Yasutaka Nakata’s trio have done since 2012’s Spending All My Time, with its opening crash of synth chords and relentless ‘90s Hi-Nrg pulse. Nakata even lets the girls try singing properly, and while I’d normally be utterly opposed to such dangerous innovations, such are the joyous, anthemic, dancefloor good vibes of the song that they get away with it.

Talking about musical progression is an increasingly futile exercise in a world where evolving styles generally just means magpie-like hopping from one influence to another rather than any real development. With that in mind, it’s nonetheless interesting how just as so many 80s new wave musicians graduated from synthpop to techno (Dave Ball’s transition from Soft Cell to The Grid is a classic case study, and in Japan Tetsuya Komuro’s career took a comparable trajectory), Perfume have taken the same journey twenty years down the line. More importantly, however, Nakata and Perfume have navigated these shifts while remaining consistently and instantly recognisable as themselves.

There’s plenty to criticise about Pick Me Up, and a permanent bugbear of my music producer friends is Nakata’s dedication to “anti-music” brickwall mastering. Personally I can count the number of shits I give about that on no hands — it’s the sonic equivalent of the Hollywood summer action blockbuster and while there are undoubtedly plenty of people for whom this style is without exception an act of cruel violence against art, I take the view that it’s a tool that can be wielded for good (Marvel Studios) or evil (Michael Bay). In any case, those who find Nakata’s brickwalling tendencies annoying will hate this as much as everything else he does.

It’s also an elaborate advert for a department store chain, with a suitably confusing and pretentious video that may or may not be ripping off the closing scenes of classic 1980s Jim Henson fantasy adventure Labyrinth (sadly sans David Bowie – and a return cameo from OK Go doesn’t really make up for it) and seems to present the store as a malevolent nightmare hall of mirrors that sucks you in, terrorises you with armies of shopper-zombies and then spits you out complete with bags of shopping. Now delightful as it would be to paint this as somehow subversive, it’s still an advert masquerading as a pop video, and regardless of how ubiquitous that becomes, being annoyed by it is a bare minimum moral duty.

As I say though, and stupid video aside, it’s a marvellous song. It’s pop that only cares about being pop, and for all its frisson of EDM embellishments, it’s reassuringly old-school dance-pop with an earworm synth hook that digs in and never lets go. More Eurobeat than Asiatica, it diverges slightly from the formula Nakata has built up for Perfume songs since roundabout the time of Voice in 2010 (and which he perfected with Laser Beam the following year). A song it shares a lot in common with in fact is Korean idol group Kara’s 2011 hit Step, which remains one of the most outstanding songs of the K-pop boom for the same reason: its foregrounding of classic pop songwriting, melody and hooks ahead of fancy zeitgeist-grabbing studio fun.

Representing diverging paths from a common origin, both these songs have a lot going for them. For all that Yurumerumo’s transparent triangulations leave an icky feeling, it’s a solid and distinctive track within its field, and as with Nakata and Perfume, Hayashi’s own identity as a songwriter and producer stands out, which bodes well for the role of musicians behind the scenes in Japanese pop, even if it also underlines the depressing fact that they are simply unable to get the same level of attention without a cluster of girls in the roles of dancing marionettes in front of their music.

Even in that, there is something positive to be gleaned, in how in their own different ways Yurumerumo and Perfume both manage to avoid the creepy, sexually exploitative imagery that pervades the idol scene. If the growing convergence of indie subcultures and idol groups has done one good thing, it’s been to foster a less overtly regressive (if still highly infantilised) set of roles for girls in the idol scene.

Nevertheless, it’s the Perfume track I feel far more comfortable with. As someone whose interest and musical background lies firmly in the indie and underground scenes, I don’t need pop groups holding up a mirror to my tastes in an attempt to sucker me in as a customer. Pop music is at its best when it doesn’t try to be anything other than pop, and in Japan right now, no one does pop better than Perfume.

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Shallazurutaralli: Z:die Z:die

Z:die Z:die

CD/R, Pong Kong Records, 2014

If you like your retro 80s synthpop cheap, catchy and sparse, Shallazurutaralli is for you. It’s a musical space a lot of other groups have been before, certainly, but there’s a sincerity, melodic craftsmanship and minimalist purity in these six songs that ensures they claim a small part of that territory for themselves.

The male-female vocal harmonies are neatly handled, subtle enough not to leap out at you, but lending an understated texture to the music, and the arrangements to a lot with just a rhythm machine, a handful of toy synth drones and a few beeps. Z:die Z:die opens and closes with its catchiest pop hitters in Ningen Engine and Kimagure Tentai (Stella), but also tucked away in there is Higashi Nishi Minami Kita, in which synths and vocals engage in a sort of rambling musical conversation, like a sort of solar powered version of Taeko Onuki’s Metropolitan Museum climbing a hill as scudding clouds repeatedly block out its power source.

Z:die Z:die packs a lot of pop nous into 25 minutes, and extracts a disarming amount of sophistication from a limited musical palette. Cheap, cheerfull and thoroughly charming.

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mmm: Safe Mode

Safe Mode

CD/R, CGCG Publishing, 2014

One of those unexpected pleasures that you can only get from impulsively purchasing a CD because you liked the jacket, Mmm seems to be a singer-songwriter and participant in various bands and musical projects, but Safe Mode is a decidedly solo work and possessed of the sort of up-close intimacy you’d expect from that.

Sung in a mixture of Japanese and English, the music also refuses to sit obviously in any particular melodic tradition. Rabbit Hole, for instance, has a distinctly postpunkish, alt rock edge that offsets the whimsy that colours tracks like Monotone. Meanwhile, opening track Blue blossoms into a sort of pastoral psychedelia as it progresses, with the gradual introduction of flute and piano, and a rhythm disconcertingly at odds with the melody. A similar, faintly psychedelic breakdown occurs in The Return of Hamunaptra, while additional instruments subtly share space with less easily decipherable sounds on the Donovan-esque I’d Rather Be.

In fact, throughout Safe Mode, ambiguous sounds abound in its ambience, from the rattles and clicks that underscore Long Days with Television to the gentle rustle that might be tape hiss or simply the shifting of the musician’s clothes or duvet covers (this is an album that practically screams, “I was recorded in a bedroom!” at you). This low-key but nonetheless ever-present ambient sound only adds to the warm, organic feel that contrasts with the computer-derived title and artwork, reconceiving the “safe mode” as a psychological state, shut off from the screaming noise that tries to intrude on your peace.

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Pika: Ryu no Sumika

Ryu no Sumika

CD, Telegraph Records, 2015

Stepping out from behind the drumkit of one of the most celebrated and distinctive Japanese underground bands of the past fifteen years brings with it plenty of baggage and no small amount of expectation, but at the same time no particular agreement on what exactly that expectation is for. After the breakup of the magnificent avant-garage duo Afrirampo, Pika kept herself busy through participating in numerous other people’s projects, including a stint with Acid Mothers Temple and multiple one-off collaborations, all the while quietly developing her own material as a singer-songwriter. On Ryu no Sumika many of those collaborators return the favour, with eighteen different musicians adding their stamp to this record, ensuring that while Pika’s own songwriting and quite affecting vocals run through the album, there is also a broad palette of creative influences colouring the sound and arrangements.

The eight-and-a-half-minute title track is a writhing, serpentine psychedelic track that slowly uncoils through Hiromichi Sakamoto’s cello into a laser-guided streak of lo-fi spacerock before exploding in a clatter of drums. In its melancholy and brooding portent it’s also a slightly misleading introduction to the album, which quickly switches gears to the breezy, steel drum-tinged folk-pop of Mermaid, albeit while retaining a propensity to diverge into kosmische sound collages at a moment’s notice.Ryu no Sumika (video edit)

Of course quirky, whimsical, acoustic folk-pop has never been in particularly short supply in Japan, so how Pika distinguishes herself on this album will a long way toward revealing what she means beyond the good will she carries with her from her old band. The first and most obvious thing she does is stretch nearly everything out to around the seven-minute mark, which might set off warning flags. Perhaps thanks in part to a well-chosen series of collaborations, these arrangements generally make a good account of themselves though, filling out the often sparse melodies with sonic texture and as the album progresses weaving in threads of darkness. Reason is gifted an expansive, flowing jazz-edged rhythm by drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and pianist Eiko Ishibashi, while Sen, a duet with Nanao Tavito, is a standout moment towards the album’s close, with a menacing hiss of feedback and ambient atmospherics building up into a wall of noise as the song edges toward its climax, and the overlapping vocal collage of Nagi no Tsuki ~ Akaine ~ (featuring Pika’s former Afrirampo bandmate Mayumi “Oni” Saeki) is notable as the album’s one unambiguously avant-garde moment.

As songs like Utau Hito, Onnanoko Yura Yura and the anthemic closing Shiawase no Kashi provides ample testimony, Pika can write an effective 70s-style folk-pop tune in a festival singalong sort of way, but it’s the moments of darkness that exist in the cracks that are where Ryu no Sumika gains a particular, peculiar character of its own.

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Batman Winks: All Babies Sleeping

All Babies Sleeping

CD, self-released, 2015

If you spend a lot of time in the Tokyo indie scene, you’ll maybe have noticed that the limited range of stuff I cover here falls loosely into two categories. On the one hand, you have “Chuo Line bands”, who loosely trend more punk, more experimental, a more male audience, more likely to play in places like Koenji and Shinjuku, and more in a tradition that goes back to the 70s psychedelic and rock underground. On the other, we have “Setagaya bands”, who generally lean more indie, more pop, more international, a more female audience, more likely to play in places like Shimo-Kitazawa and Shibuya, and more in a tradition that includes 90s Shibuya-kei and neo-acoustic. These two worlds often overlap musically, but the fans and associated culture less so.

By the above definition, Batman Winks are roughly in the category of Setagaya bands. While strictly speaking the project of one guy, the live band draws on members who play or have played in melodic indiepop bands like DYGL and Groves, they collaborate with indietronic mellow disco princess Aya from Gloomy, and tend to play in a circle of bands, venues and events that marks them as decidedly Setagaya-type.

This may seem like pointless fussing over labels, but it matters. If Batman Winks were a Chuo Line band, the most striking point about them would be how pop they are, with an easy way with a melody and a pop hook running through the album in a way that would mark them out as a strange and rare fish in that more experimental and abrasive context. And the tunes on All Babies Sleeping are consistently top-drawer, from the frantic, bouncy, high pitched Smurfsong of Littlefag, through the murky, drowned melody of Celebration and Blind But the Brightest Light, to the soaring “ra-ra-ra-ra”s of the magnificent closing Strange Love.Blind But the Brightest Light

But in the context of their own background, the most striking thing about Batman Winks, and what marks them out from their particular crowd is how wild and experimental they are. The album opens with Intro, all chirping electronic wibbles and chirps, and droning, fuzz-soaked krautrock, like a condensed version of Yo La Tengo’s Spec Bebop, and the band constantly undermines and taunts its carefully constructed pop melodies with willfully out-of-tune vocals, sarcastic, Zappa-esque backing vocals, buzzsaw guitars that dive in from leftfield, and indecipherable distortion.

All of this is delivered with a mixture of shambling, lo-fi amateurishness and raw, swaggering confidence. On Strange Love, Batman Winks share with DYGL (Batman Winks’ song Nobody To Get Into My Car may very well be a self-pitying riposte to DYGL’s Let’s Get Into My Car) a yobbishly exuberant vocal delivery that stands in stark contrast to both the sissy mumbling that still characterises most Japanese indiepop and the tormented atonal yelling that prevails in the punk/alternative (Chuo Line) scene. In fact, what it reminds me of more than anything is the insistent, insurgent insouciance of The Stranglers’ 1979 hit Duchess in its combination of classic pop craftsmanship and punkish couldn’t-give-a-fuckery.

One of the most common touchstones for people describing Batman Winks is typically Ariel Pink, and there’s definitely something there. There’s also something of the anti-pop of 13/Think Tank-era Blur, but most importantly there’s absolutely nothing like it happening in Japan right now, and whatever you say, there is no doubt that Batman Winks are happening.

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