The Doodless: Capture


This scratchy, lo-fi CD/R EP of fucked-up garage rock is one of those unexpected little delights that occasionally falls into my lap and immediately becomes one of my favourite bands. With five songs coming in at a pop-friendly fifteen minutes, the songs are concise enough, but with room to play around. Opening track Su_haku has one of those simple, wandering basslines that so many of the coolest weird, amateurish postpunk bands had – well, the Raincoats and Mo-dettes mostly – and the breathless way the vocals can’t settle on any sort of melody provides a mischievous bit of misdirection from what’s actually a strangely catchy song.

Elsewhere on the EP, the songs are built round more easy-to-pin-down structures, withthe playful You Are Living Through Your Eyes and the closing Shrimp is Good Food showcasing the band at their raucous, ramshackle best. The remaining songs, I’m Your Firstaid and Stack take a more sedate but no less rickety approach to their ‘60s-derived garage rock.

Part of the joy of bands like Doodless (not to be confused with the “s”-deficient but rather more famous Japanese band Doodles) lies in the way their essentially slapdash way of making music typically translates into a similarly carefree approach to the business of being in a band. The looseness feels liberating, but there’s also a fragility, a sense that the band’s own motivation might crumble at any moment, so these brief, joyous documents should be treasured.

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Luby Sparks: Luby Sparks

luby sparks - luby sparks

CD, AWDR/LR2, 2018

One of the most hotly tipped guitar bands in Japan at the moment, the hopefully ironically-named Luby Sparks seem with this eponymous full-length debut album to be making the leap from underground ones-to-watch into the world of radio rotation and summer festival respectability.

Thanks to the production work of Max Bloom from UK indie band Yuck (and the two bands’ earlier split cassette), a lot of the attention around this album has centred around that connection, and rightly so as there are definite sonic similarities. More broadly, there’s something recognisably and melancholically British about Luby Sparks’ sound, which stands in contrast to the perky, distinctly American-sounding punk-pop influence that runs through a lot of Japanese indiepop.

The air of melancholy that Luby Sparks is shot through with, along with its distorted, post-My Bloody Valentine guitars and boy/girl twin vocals, also recalls turn-of-the-millennium Japanese rock legends Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change, and the albums display a rare talent for maintaining that longing atmosphere without compromising the music’s essential energy and momentum.

That energy is sometimes more difficult to discern in the band’s rather static live performances, but on the album it comse across powerfully. Hateful Summer and Teenage Squash rattle forward with a rough-edged, punkish, Jesus And Mary Chain-esque distorted powerpop punch, while Tangerine sees the band channeling the richly textured cacophony of MBV most directly, with the addition of a propulsive kraut-tinged rhythm.

Luby Sparks is by no means an original album, but it’s a wistful, sweeping, confident and ultimately impressive one, featuring a rich line in beautiful melodies with an embroidery of shoegazey distortion.

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Ms. Machine: S.L.D.R.

ms machine - sldr

CD, self-released, 2018

If you didn’t get hold of the scuzzy demo CD/R that the band were selling at live performances a year or two back, S.L.D.R. is likely the first chance most people have to hear Tokyo-based noise-punk band Ms. Machine in recorded form. Occupying the more discordant end of the current wave of young, aloof, well-dressed Tokyo indie bands with icy, blank stares that don’t give a damn about your bullshit, they bring a shot of curiously taciturn aggression to a scene still dominated by the piss-end of City Pop and varyingly competent imitations of vaguely twee US and UK guitar pop.

With four tracks’ worth of snarling guitars, distortion, doom-laden chords and shrieking sloganeering coming in at around seven and a half minutes, this EP places the band in a lineage that encompasses both D.C. hardcore and New York no wave. Most of the songs on S.L.D.R. are built around a single, grinding guitar riff, over which the vocals repetitively intone their minimal message. Despite that minimalism, however, there’s a distinctly feminist slant to the lyrics, with the opening Break the Current System featuring just the phrase, “She gotta obey him to succeed in this world” one and a half times and Your Little Yardstick simply and repeatedly demanding, “Do not appraise me!” Meanwhile, whether intentional or not, instrumental closing track 3.11 is difficult to separate from the horror and unease of the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th 2011, the track unfolding beneath a shrieking toy siren, with guitar and bass alternating between the same two-note riff and percussively hammering away on one chord before the guitar dissolves into a Mission of Burma-esque distorted outro.

There’s an unfinished quality to Ms. Machine’s songwriting that contributes to its no-bullshit appeal, the songs starting, locking into a groove, and then never really finishing so much as just ending. Despite (or maybe partly because of) this, as well as the short length and the minimalism of the music within, S.L.D.R. is an EP that rewards repeat listenings with a brutal simplicity of its own.

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Falsettos: Falsettos

falsettos - falsettos

CD, P-Vine, 2018

The Falsettos have been around for more than ten years, but with the exception of a couple of self-produced CD/Rs and a brace of appearances on compilation albums, they’ve been rather coy until now about committing their lushly melodic but often weird-edged and angry indie rock to a full-length release.

This self-titled album features a handful of songs from those earlier releases, with older recordings of the romantic 6 and menacing Ink having first appeared ten years ago, and a version of raw, postpunk anthem Johnny having whooped its way into the world via their second EP in 2015. Elsewhere, however, some of the band’s more oddball older material (the deliciously demented Icecream Fatal and Le Poyo are sadly no longer present) has been sacrificed to make way for less manic, more expansive and richly melodic songs like Terrible Boy and Plane. Nevertheless, the album retains a balance between the band’s richer and rawer extremes as it builds to the anthemic twin climax of Hejira (a Joni Mitchell reference?) and perennial show-closer Newborn Baby.

Miuko Nakao is an unusual vocalist in the Japanese music scene. Partly a conversational non-singer in the tradition of Bernard Sumner, but also with the cracked quality of Marianne Faithful, her voice carries the songs with a distinct personality, ricocheting from vulnerability to rage to gushing romanticism. The sonic texture that fills out the songs, however, is to a large degree down to keyboard player Yukiko Nishii, who sketches meandering piano lines beneath the Yo La Tengo-esque distorted guitar solo on 6 and helps drive Dig forward with her sharp synth stabs. Drummer Fumie and bassist Ingel meanwhile ensure the album trips towards its conclusion with a consistently bouncy energy.

Perhaps reflecting its long gestation period, the songwriting on this debut album is uniformly strong, all catchy hooks, earworm choruses and the occasional sharp left turn. Leaning as it does rather more heavily on newer material, however, the signs for the future are good, as long as the band can keep it together and avoid the second-album inertia that so often sucks the life out of Tokyo indie bands. It may be early to talk about records of the year, but it’s hard to imagine a better indie rock album coming out in Japan this year, so keep an eye out for this one come recap season.

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (3) – What does the rest of the internet say?

This site isn’t the only place on the internet that attempts to rank the best Japanese music of the year, and depending on where you look, you can get a very different picture of the music scene. This is of course very right and proper, because the Japanese music scene is broad and diverse, covering every genre you know and dozens you don’t. I’m not going to include any J-Pop-focused sites here, since I don’t really follow any of them, or even know if any of them made year-end rankings, but here are what a few other writers have come up with.

Beehype (top 20)
Beehype gathers new music releases from all over the globe, but it has a discrete Japanese ranking covering the top 20 Japanese music releases of the year. Beehype is probably the best place to go to get a general sense of the kinds of Japanese music the Japanese music consensus is gathering around, with artists like Satoko Shibata, Oomori Seiko and Tricot all making an appearance, although it deviates into a few interesting oddities of its own, like the recent album by Osaka jazz-skronk trio Oshiripenpenz.

Make Believe Melodies (top 50)
part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5
Make Believe Melodies, written by Japan Times writer Patrick St. Michel, tends towards soft-edged dance music and the gentler strains of indiepop and singer-songwriter music, but as the most extensive list among all the Japanese music countdowns here, there’s a fair variety on display around that theme. This list touches on indie-branded idols Maison Book Girl, rapper Zombie-Chang, the manic synth-pop funk of Chai and the pachinko machine noise of Pachinko Machine Music, along with MBM regulars like Taquwami and LLLL.

Muso Japan (best shoegaze and dreampop)
This does exactly what it says on the tin, focusing on shoegaze and dreampop, and while these genres in Japan can encompass slightly different material to what they do in the West, Muso Japan doesn’t stray far from its remit. Having such a narrow focus means that they can dig a little deeper than another site might, singling out material by lo-fi acts like FogPark, and Nurse alongside shoegaze scene veterans like Cruyff in the Bedroom, Shelling and Caucus.

Tokyo Dross (unranked list of 16)
Another list by a Japan Times contributor, this time James Hadfield, whose preferences lean towards more experimental rock and electronic music. There are more crossovers with my list creeping in here, partly because as the Listing Season drew in, we spent some time frantically sharing and picking over each other’s recommendations in private. His decision to include Phew’s Voice Hardcore despite it not being officially released until 2018 is legitimised perhaps by The Wire’s earlier decision to do the same.

Zach Reinhardt
Top 10 EPs & mini-albums

Top 20 albums (20-11)

Top 20 albums (10-1)

Zach’s lists also tend to have a lot of crossover with mine, as I think we both have very similar biases towards skronky art-punk and oddball avant-pop. One key difference is in the appearance of a lot of Call And Response stuff in Zach’s list (P-iPLE, Tropical Death, Looprider and the Throw Away Your CDs… compilation, all of which were disqualified from mine), and perhaps a little more washed-out indiepop/dreampop. Basically, though, if I missed something, it’s highly likely Zach caught it, and vice-versa.

Summary:
For anyone looking for areas of consensus, the crossovers between these various lists throw up a few recurring names. Cornelius’ Mellow Waves appears several times, topping the  Beehype list and getting honourable mentions in a few others, while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Async, Phew’s Light Sleep, Endon’s Through The Mirror and For Tracy Hyde’s He(r)art were all rated very highly in more than one list. Miu Mau’s Drawing made appearances in most of the lists, while the Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show compilation that I produced made an appearance in every list except my own (disqualified because I made it) and the Muso Japan list (wrong genre), so I feel validated in saying that’s a great record. Elsewhere, She Talks Silence, Crunch, BLONDnewHALF, Hikashu, Tofubeats, Oshiripenpenz, Sapphire Slows, Suiyobi no Campanella, Mondo Grosso, Tricot, Oomori Seiko and Satellite Young all made multiple appearances.

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (2) – Call And Response Records year in review

Among the top releases of 2017, I always avoid writing about anything on my own Call And Response label for obvious reasons. For equally obvious reasons, the music Call And Response puts out is also always among my favourite new music of the year (otherwise why would I go to the trouble of putting it out?) so I’m giving the label a page of its own to run through what was a very busy year in new releases:

Lo-shi – Ninjin

Lo-shi are an instrumental post-rock/electronic duo and Ninjin was the first of two albums they released in 2017 (the second was an equally excellent self-released CD/download called Moro-Q). Lo-shi’s music is characterised by eerie soundscapes and beats that range from skittering electronica to insistent, almost krautrock rhythms, while the melodies and tones combine washes of synth with theremin, Jew’s harp and Durutti Column-esque guitar.
(Buy the CD here)

Looprider – Umi

The second post-rock album Call And Response released in 2017 was this single 25-minute-long rock monster of a track by Looprider. Following on from the hardcore and noise-influenced Ascension and their pop/metal/shoegaze debut My Electric Fantasy, an instrumental prog rock epic may have seemed like another hard swerve in another direction, but it’s really a refinement of the same combination of sweet and heavy that the band have been exploring from the start.
(Buy the CD here)

P-iPLE – Do Do Do A Silly Travel By Bicycle Bicycle

This clumsily titled mini-album is a short-sharp-shock of scuzzy hardcore and no wave delivered with a playful and nonsensical sense of humour. The guitar sounds are tortured and glorious, the rhythms are breakneck, and vocalist Madca Kitabeppu (also of synth-punk trio Jebiotto) is a natural born rock star.
(Buy the CD here)

V/A – Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show

I don’t include Call And Response releases in my year-end rundowns, partly because no one would trust the lists if I did, and partly because I find it hard to assess music I’m this personally invested in against music I simply enjoy as a fan. This compilation, however, would definitely have been No.1 if I’d been including everything. It’s everything I love — skronky art-punk and noise-rock that channels the ragged creativity of the postpunk era while rarely resorting to direct pastiche. It also includes fantastic songs by most of my favourite bands in Japan, like Panicsmile, Melt-Banana, Hyacca, otori and more, so I’m not going to be ashamed in any way of saying that this is a fucking awesome album.
(Buy the CD here)

Sharkk – Be That Way

Sharkk is another way of saying Sean McGee, drummer from Looprider and Tropical Death. It’s also a convenient shorthand round these parts for a kind of sweetly sentimental, emo-tinged indie rock with gnarly, 90s alt-rock guitars. One of the few unashamedly melodic bands on the label at the moment, McGee deploys his tunesmithery in the service of a faintly self-effacing, rather ambivalent nostalgia for teen angst.
(Buy the cassette here)

Tropical Death – Modern Maze

Like Sharkk, there’s a sense of harking back to ‘90s indie rock in Tropical Death, although they take a more angular approach to their arrangements and a far more cynical approach to their lyrics. From the melodic title track to the post-hardcore rhythm workout Tribal, Tropical Death load their songs with hooks and little moments of invention that ensure every track takes you somewhere unexpected.
(Buy the cassette here)

Looprider – Ascension (cassette re-release)

Originally released as a limited edition CD in 2016, Ascension is Looprider’s take on hardcore and noise, a twenty-minute nuclear explosion of a record that starts and ends in squalls of pure noise but on the way takes you on a whirlwind tour of scratchy hardcore and the scuzzier fringes of Looprider’s more familiar metal-adjacent territory.
(Buy the cassette here)

illMilliliter – New Standard

The debut album by a Tokyo post-hardcore band featuring ex-members of Tacobonds and Imamon, dealing in frenetic, twisted guitars and tight, focussed, aggressive rhythms. illMilliliter are clearly influenced by bands like Shellac (Bob Weston worked on the album as mastering engineer), Slint and Fugazi, as well as Japanese acts like Panicsmile and possibly Number Girl/Zazen Boys, but there’s also an appreciation for sparseness and the spaces between sounds, which lifts New Standard above most Japanese punk and post-hardcore and makes them something worth playing special attention to.
(Buy the CD here)

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (1)

Every year when I write my top 20 Japanese music releases, there’s always a lot of good stuff that I leave out either because I didn’t hear it in time or because I just decided not to in the particular moment of compiling everything. And as always, I didn’t include any of my own Call And Response label’s releases, even though they were all excellent.

As well as my own releases and the other favourites that slipped through the net, there are a handful of other dedicated people out there cataloguing the best indie music Japan has to offer from their own particular perspectives Obviously their perspectives are all to varying degrees wrong (except where they agree with me, obviously), but if you’re wrong in the same way as them, you might find their 2017 rundowns of value.

In this first of three posts, I’ll be running quickly through some of the releases that missed out on my own top 20 but which might easily on another day have found their way in:

Born Shit Stirrers – I Hate Your Fucking Band

Based in Fukuoka and apparently on a sort of Wowbaggerian mission to slag off, one by one, everyone in the city, Born Shit Stirrers put out two albums in 2017, with Richard and Judy following in the summer. I’m singling out I Hate Your Fucking Band here mainly because of the title, but both albums are packed with fast, profane, utterly squalid, Anti-Nowhere League-esque punk rock smacks to the gob, featuring nothing in the way of subtlety, refinement or artistry.

V/A – Rhyming Slang Covers

The second Rhyming Slang compilation after 2016’s Rhyming Slang Tour Van compilation, this covers compilation sees some of the same bands, like DYGL, Yüksen Buyers House and Half Mile Beach Club, plus a host of new ones like the increasingly popular Luby Sparks and up-and-comers Tawings. With the exception of Nengu’s math rock take on Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, most of the tracks are pretty straightforward covers of vaguely hip classics from bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, New Order, Lou Reed and so on, but there’s a particular sort of value that can be gained from the peek they offer into the influences underscoring the younger end of the Tokyo indie scene.

Kuunatic – Kuurandia

Dropping right at the end of the year, this EP by Tokyo-based psychedelic trio Kuunatic is the ethnic transcendental music of a minimalist alien space tribe who worship Charles Hayward as a god.

The Routes – In This Perfect Hell

This site doesn’t cover a lot of garage rock because it’s a genre so rooted in the past and in its own retro revivalist scene that the usual tools I use to assess new music (what’s fresh about it? how does it stand out from its contemporaries?) would miss the point. It’s music that lives by its ability to sound the same as something else, to ape the past, to avoid challenging its contemporaries. So how can a garage rock band in 2017 Japan stand out? Basically by doing what The Routes did: writing a tonne of really good songs and playing them really well.

DYGL – Say Goodbye to Memory Den

The real superstars of the Tokyo indiepop scene, DYGL had a fantastic 2017, making it to one of the big stages at Fuji Rock, selling out a show at the Liquid Room, and releasing this fun, energetic full-length debut. The band are clearly deeply indebted to bands like The Libertines and The Strokes (Albert Hammond Jr. produced this album) but in the context of the Japanese music scene, the raucous, punkish energy that comes with those influences sets them apart from the soft-focus dreaminess of many of their peers.

In The Sun – El Energy

Coming out just at the end of 2016, this ferociously intense noise-rock album missed out on last year’s list simply because I didn’t get my hands on a copy until way too late. Like early Nisennenmondai performing from behind a battery of modular synths and effectors, In The Sun have all the krautrock and This Heat you could want, with all the sparseness replaced by a relentless barrage of joyous, angry noise.

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