For the past couple of decades now, Uhnellys have been plotting a distinctive musical path between hip-hop, jazz and psychedelia, using a combination of drums and loop pedal layers. On this new single, they’re assisted by lively guest turntable scratcher DJ Oku (Funkcuts), but the band’s familiar interplay of laid-back grooves and 1970s cinematic menace is still at play at the heart of the track, as main vocalist Kim trips though an an acerbic narrative, appearing to take aim at everything oppressive and deadening about Japan’s social status quo. The band’s roots based on rhythm and loops means there’s something raw and stripped-down driving the track forward, but it still draws in a catchy, pop-tinted refrain and the odd wry aside throwing a splash of colour over the darkness.
Originally from Kyoto but these days based in Tokyo, 5kai are a raw, taut, minimalist and decidedly Albini-esque alt-rock band who sit in a meandering but identifiable lineage of disconcerting rock that runs back through bands like Slint and This Heat. Their self-titled 2018 debut album was a strong statement of intent, and since then they seem to be on a course of releasing annual reports in the form of digital EPs that have seen them digging further into this vein of rough-edged post-hardcore and progressive rock. Despite the sparse instrumental setup, Untitled #2 covers a range of sonic ground with the tight drum sound and studio polish of second track Ato standing in contrast to the creatively deployed lo-fi aesthetics of the closing Jazz — a track that gnaws a groove of its own around your brain on repeat listens, with sounds that start out feeling like mistakes or accidental sonic artifacts becoming essential parts of the music through repetition. As with its equally-untitled 2019 predecessor, Untitled #2 carries a sense of exploration around the core of the sound 5kai established on their album, maintaining their identity as they prod with curiosity at the edges. They’re working towards something and even the band themselves seem uncertain but interested to discover what it is.
Takeshi Yamamoto is a seemingly omnipresent figure in the Fukuoka music scene, playing in bands like Macmanaman, Kelp, Sea Level and many more. He released his first solo album, Somewhere, last year, which was one of this site’s gorgeous ambient highlights of 2019, and at the start of 2020 he came back with a new collection of spacious soundscapes in collaboration with fellow Fukuoka-based musician Wolf of Acid Mothers Temple. Where Somewhere would occasionally use short tracks to focus in on small sonic details, Upsilon is more concerned with the big picture, divided into three movements — long tracks that give the album a wider, looser, more expansive feel. This perhaps reflects Upsilon’s origin as a live improvisation session, albeit one extensively worked on in the studio subsequently, and it retains the exploratory atmosphere of two musicians working around each other in the moment. Fundamentally an ambient record, Upsilon isn’t afraid of pushing into broad crescendos that seem to fill the sonic spectrum or disorientate with disjointed analogue samples and occasionally harsh psychedelic episodes, just as it is content and confident enough to settle back into its own luscious, gentle mindscapes for long periods. And it’s here perhaps that Upsilon really deviates from pure ambient music: despite its gentle pace, it has progressive rock’s constant need to push forward on a journey, drawing the listener through different sonic territory that toys with their sense of comfort — Upsilon is filled with beauty in which you could easily lose yourself, but it is nonetheless an album that wants your attention.
DJ Topgear is a British-born, Tokyo-based maker of experimental electronic mindfuckery with a true psychedelic’s paranoid compass for the spiralling chaos of a world falling apart. Dropping Mugen no Orokasa (Infinity of Stupidity) in early 2020, amid the infinitely idiotic sub-political theatrics of events like Brexit and whatever electoral idiocy the Americans are currently playing at, as the fragile time-sensitive supply lines that hold civilisation together begin to fray and come undone thanks to that virus everyone’s talking about, while through it all the internet boldly and inexorably screams its quarrelsome chorus of infantile nonsense and rage, the timing seems… appropriate? Because while Mugen no Orokasa is not explicitly about any of these themes, it feels like an album born out of the same world that gave us them, and — disturbingly — it seems to be having quite a lot of fun in there. Opening track Military Grade Viral Disinformation Network begins with a sample of Alan Moore expounding wisely on the theme of the transformative shamanic dance that underscores all art, before a drum’n’bass beat takes over and sets to work twisting the anarchic threads of the broken structures that fall around it and fashioning them into its own sort of grotesque metaphysical party soundsystem. This frenetic blast of beats and cut-up pop cultural transmissions, edged with portentous gilding of industrial menace, powers through pretty much the whole album, ensuring that the darkness never tilts the album over into a pure exercise in cynicism and giving it a righteous cosmic energy that can’t help but be essentially positive.
Tentative Four are a strange band, and this EP provides an interestingly distorted vision of them. On stage, they adopt a snotty, backs-to-the-crowd stance and chart a path that veers between 1990s US post-hardcore and gothic-tinged British post-punk along the lines of Magazine or Joy Division. That aspect of the band is on display here in the wilfully banally titled #1 and #4, but there are a couple of other sides to the band too. Vocalist Norihiro Takishita is also a DJ and underground event organiser who specialises in slowed down and distorted takes on old pop, but gathers together a variety of other oddball DJs and experimental electronic and noise musicians around him in his anarchic sonic laboratory. Those aspects of his work are also on display on this EP, with two post-punk tracks that more or less reflect the live experience of the band in their rock form, plus interjections from Takishita’s twisted oldie DJ excursions, while the other half of it is taken up with remixes (including one of his own, that sounds like him flushing the original track down a troubled toilet while hypnotised by a creepy horror movie music box). So while this EP certainly contains on it an introduction to the raw, doom-edged, Mancunian-touched hysteria of Tentative Four’s live experience, it takes you further and deeper, on a tour of a lot of the band’s surrounding ecosystem too. It’s an intriguing approach to the art of EP-making, and one that will likely be disorientating and confusing to listeners stumbling on it with no prior context, but it’s also scene-savvy in how it places the band in a context that actually reveals a lot about them and the anarchic alternate world in Tokyo that they’re part of.
Barbican Estate are new on the scene in Tokyo, but at least within the young, internationally-minded niche of the Japanese indie scene they look like gathering particular attention as Ones To Watch over the course of the next year or so. On this debut EP/mini-album cassette (four songs in 26 minutes), the trio give a powerful and impressively complete account of themselves, with the opening Angel combining ethereal, sweetly delivered vocals that sound like they’ve dropped straight off a 4AD sampler circa the early 1990s with psychedelic-tinged alt-rock guitar lines that chime menacingly, pregnant with the threat to unleash an arsenal of distortion pedals, holding off impressively for 70% of the song’s runtime. That combination of otherworldly vocals and indie-psychedelia guitar soundscapes is what defines the core of the Barbican Estate sound, but that still leaves them with a wide playground to explore, with the Indian-tinged melodies of the instrumental Gravity of the Sun striking out in their own distinctive direction, while the spoken-word vocals and sharp-edged guitar ruptures of the closing Successive Sliding of Pleasure recall hints of Movietone at their raw, early best. Barbican Estate are not only one to watch over the coming year but more importantly one to pay attention to right now.
Tokyo-based trio Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots have been creeping around and exploiting Japanese alt-rock’s unexplored corners and blind spots for the best part of the past decade, and on this sixth release of their career, they’re in particularly playful form. There’s a percussion-centred minimalism to their approach here, with the bass and guitars comfortable in taking frequent steps back to leave the eerie yet warm acoustics of Junpei Yamamoto’s sparse rhythmical utterances tapping out their coded messages in the foreground. As usual for the band, there’s a lot of vocal interplay and harmonies at work, which works in parallel with Loolowningen’s wilfully disconcerting rhythmical jitters to make a game out of deconstructing the habits that even alternative music tends to fall into, in a way that draws comparisons with bands like Hikashu, who are similarly playful with form but generally more organic, less sharp-edged than Loolowningen. Nevertheless, Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots’s music isn’t overwhelmed by their tightly wound structural gameplay, and when they open up space for vocalist Shigeru Akakura to simply sing a song, as on sixth track Coup, a melancholy warmth rises above the backdrop of the band’s complex rhythmical explorations. That combination of playfulness and melancholy, playing out over the often sparse musical set dressing that the band lay out is perhaps Anökumene’s defining emotional and atmospheric characteristic, and the results are compelling.