Tokyo art-punks Anisakis have a new EP available to listen or download and after a period that saw the group reduced to a drum machine-driven duo and subsequently shift their sound away from the Monks-like garage-punk of their earlier material and towards a more synthetic, new wave reminiscent sound, these new songs see them back as a three-piece.
Lead track Yoru no Yume Koso Makoto-san is very much in the mould of earlier songs like Rosas, with a grinding, Contortions-like bassline punctuated with ragged, reverb-heavy postpunk guitars and vocalist (and occasional She Talks Silence bass player) Jungo yelping out the often nonsensical vocals with wide-eyed seriousness and a disconcerting sense that he can see something that you the listener haven’t been hit on the correct bit of the head to be able to see.
It’s backed by Seoyogi no Senshu, which being a slow song at five minutes length is always going to have its work cut out making an impact round these caffeine-addled parts. With songs like this, I’m never sure what I’m supposed to be doing as a listener. Do they expect me to sway from side to side with my eyes closed, contemplating the hopeless, beautiful tragedy of it all? I hope not, because that’s the indie equivalent of raising your lighter at a Bon Jovi concert. Then again, given that this is the band of a guy who not only once painted his dick blue and used it to make a relief print, but then subsequently put the whole process on YouTube (might want to think twice before watching this at work), it’s probably best not to try to second-guess what he’s thinking.
In any case, Seoyogi no Senshu is a slow, emotionally driven song with guitar effects set to “shoegaze”, and a chorus with one of those undeniably effective chord sequences that tap into the angsty teenager in everyone, but lacks the wired delivery and teetering-on-the-edge jittery paranoia of the opener.
Several days later than promised, but here’s the top ten of my Japanese music of 2011 (No.11-20 is here). Again, I’m allowing some Korean stuff if it’s a proper Japanese release, and again I’m not being fussy about what counts as an EP, a mini-album or an album — it all goes in. Obviously, this is just a personal list of what interested me out of the limited range of what I actually heard this year and I didn’t include any of those bizarre “objective” measures that people keep moaning to the Japan Times complaints department that I don’t include. Anyway, on with the list:
10. She Talks Silence: Some Small Gifts
Precariously poised on the edge between the barely-produced lo-fi indie ethos of early 80s British DiY music and the kind of Tokyo hipster scene that’s well-connected enough to bypass the dirtier fringes of the live music circuit and parachute straight into the 3000yen a ticket, 700yen a beer range of venues, She Talks Silence are the sort of band that could be unbearable to an indie snob like me who generally requires years of slumming it in dives out of a band before I grant them my seal of approval. And if that sounds like a strange way to introduce a band I’m trying to convince you are in my top ten of the year, I apologise, but She Talks Silence’s position is at the heart of what I find frustrating about them. They’re like the beautiful, intelligent, talented girl who’s dating a jerk who doesn’t appreciate her [Disclaimer: their actual boyfriends are really cool]. Their music is delicate, sweet, lonely, charming, violent and tremendously affecting, with Fragment one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year and Dead Romance edged with a series of particularly sharp thorns, and yet there is a terrible and selfish sense that they belong to someone else, that they float in a fashion environment too superficial to understand what’s so great about them, and worst of all, the gnawing knowledge that the only real problem is my own snobbery. In any case, Some Small Gifts is a near flawless example of lo-fi indiepop melodymaking that also demonstrates flair and artistry with more awkward, off-centre song construction.
9. Tsumugine: Tsumugine
This three-song, EP by the performance art collective Tsumugine (a group with a curious penchant for live performances in isolated countryside road tunnels, among other places) is basically fifteen minutes of eerie “instrumental” vocal music, with the musical wing of the group’s a capella utterances creating distorted tones and monastic harmonies that I would have thought certainly the work of studio effects had I not seen them perform a lot of this stuff live with only a couple of microphones. Some harmonica is thrown into the mix on the eight-minute final track, but the range of tones and sounds of the vocal performers is so diverse that it’s utterly in keeping with the rest of this atmospheric little CD.
8. Hysteric Picnic: Hysteric Picnic EP
Like Pop Office, Hysteric Picnic are clearly influenced by 1980s British new wave bands — in this case Joy Division and maybe The Jesus and Mary Chain feature strongly, with something of Young Marble Giants in the tick-tock-tick-tock drum machine rhythms that underpin many of their songs. However, where Pop Office distinguish themselves with quirky embellishments or a slightly off-centre approach, Hysteric Picnic charge right in, glowing with conviction, dirty and lo-fi as you like, and bursting with great tunes. They don’t spend hours polishing their songs to a burnished sheen, but neither is the roughness an affectation: it’s integral to the band’s sound, present in the Wire-like slashes of guitar, explosions of feedback and anguished vocal yowls of Chinese Girl. The way they combine that with sublime melodies and harmonies, best displayed on Persona, is what makes this EP such an extraordinary debut.
7. Girls’ Generation: Girls’ Generation
Another Korean one, but as with 2NE1 in the previous post, I’m counting it since it’s a Japanese release, this time sung entirely in Japanese, that was released and promoted just like any J-Pop album.Girls’ Generation is quite simply the most accomplished, polished, catchy collection of three-minute pop gems I’ve heard in ages. You can read my review here, and I’d just add that the failure of both Perfume’s JPN and Girls’ Generation’s own The Boys to even come close sadly seems to drive home what a one-off combination of bubblegum pop fizz and modern electropop sophistication this album probably was.
Take a Shower Records, CD
6. Tacobonds: No Fiction
Boom! Badaboom-booooooom! Badabadabadabadabadabadabada-boooooom-bangbang-boom-B-P-M-4!-bangboombang-a-bang-ratatattatatatata-tat-Bang!-Skreeeeeeeee! FICTIOOOOOOOON! Read it here.
5. Uhnellys: To Too Two
Another one I’ve already reviewed, Uhnellys are a smart, funky, sophisticated, genre-hopping psychedelic jazz-hop duo and this was probably the album that combined technical accomplishment, energy, intelligence, invention and mainstream (admittedly in a fairly limited, indie sense) appeal better than any other I’ve heard this year.
Second Royal, 10-inch Vinyl
4. Friends: Let’s Get Together Again
Reviewed this one too. This is an album that I wasn’t sure about at first, but especially since getting my hands on the vinyl release, it’s risen in my estimation. The duvet of feedback that envelops most of the melodies works for me, noisenik that I am, and once you get past the bristly exterior, there’s a juicy melodic centre that tastes of The Beach Boys and all the rest of your favourite summer guitar pop tunes. Apparently now renamed Teen Runnings, Friends are a prickly, awkward band, and this album captures that aspect of them with a perhaps unintentional degree of honesty.
Bijin Records, Double CD
3. Nisennenmondai: LIVE!!!
Another one I’ve reviewed. To date, the definitive recorded document of one of Tokyo’s most striking bands, LIVE!!! is instrumental Kraut-noise trio Nisennenmondai at their best. Fan is a magnificent example of how you can repeatedly bang away on a single note for fourteen minutes and somehow keep it exciting through dynamics alone, and along with fellow death disco masterpiece Mirrorball, it forms the centrepiece of the album. Ikkyokume is Stereolab’s Golden Ball at 3x speed and rippling with unhinged energy and Appointment might be a lost Daniel Miller instrumental from 1981. There are lots of bands in Tokyo who play drawn-out instrumental jams, but none as skilled at manipulating the dynamics of such minimal sounds in such an accessible and downright fun way.
2. Tyme. x Tujiko: Gyu
Not being tremendously familiar with Tujiko Noriko’s prior work, it’s hard for me to place this within her overall canon, but this album, sneaking in just at the end of the year is a simply stunning collection of avant-pop and electronic soundscapes. I’m going to be a twat here and compare it to Bjork and Kate Bush, and I admit I’m largely doing this because it’s a magnificent, weird pop album with ethereal sounding vocals by a woman with an odd voice. HNC tried a similar thing recently with her rather fine I Dream I Dead, but this album eschews HNC’s instagram faux-retro lo-fi flicker in favour of more confident, sophisticated multi-layered synth-artistry, which elevates it to another plane productionwise. As a general rule, the earlier tracks edge more popwise while the album begins to skew ambient as it progresses, but I’m not going to single out tracks since this is a rare album where absolutely every song is truly lovely.
CD, Take A Shower Records
1. The Mornings: Save The Mornings
Quite simply nothing this year could quite touch spazzpunk quartet The Mornings’ debut album for sheer, irrepressible energy. There are other bands making faintly similar kinds of music but The Mornings beat them all by being faster, more intense, just more full of wow. The first moment of Opening Act wakes you up, eyes saucers, mouth grinning with delight, and everything that happens from that moment onwards just makes your grin stretch wider. Amazon Surf is what Devo would have sounded like if they’d been a hardcore band, Mad Cheergirl pushes drummer Keika’s vocals to the front, while on Mad Dancer, synth/vocalist Ponta and guitarist Junya trade lines against a rhythmical backdrop that constantly threatens to collapse before leaping back to attention, Drug Me sees the group taking on the Dead Kennedys and winning, and so on and so on. It’s an exhausting listen, like gorging on a mixture of sherbet candy, raw chilli and hard liquor, and it leaves you similarly battered and physically defeated at the end, but 26 minutes of moment after moment of unbridled, explosive joy will do that to you. Give in.
It’s taken me a while to get round to posting this, partly because there were a few CDs I heard only towards the end of the year and I needed time to digest them, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I spend so much time out at gigs that I don’t really listen to as many CDs as I thought I did. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list of what’s good in Japan — there were loads of albums this year that I didn’t hear — think of it more as a critically compiled list of what passed through my hearing range last year. I’ve included a few pop albums where I thought what was going on was particularly interesting, but despite my frequent writings on J-pop and K-pop over the last year or so, I don’t think there are many mainstream pop groups in Japan whose actual albums I rate. Kara’s album was appalling, perhaps even more so than AKB48, who at least have never shown any capacity to make music of even the most infinitesimal quality, the T-ara album was great for the first four tracks but sucked after that, Perfume’s album was half a good album but half meh, The Kyary Pamyupamyu mini-album was good and only just missed out. The Sakanaction album was good too, but again, I couldn’t quite justify to myself counting it as a particular favourite. It’s a personal list and therefore subject to all my usual biases and musical prejudices.
I’ve counted both EPs, albums and mini-albums in here since defining the boundaries between them can be difficult at the best of times and Japanese underground bands make it impossible (Pq’s Hausdorff has ten tracks and comes in at eight minutes, another CD in the list has three songs at double that length, and so on). Obviously I’ve not included albums from Call And Response Records since I run the label, so Zibanchinka’s (excellent, natch) Hatsubai Chushi has to sit this one out.
I’ll post the top ten when I get back from Kyushu on Monday, but here’s the countdown from numbers 20 to 11:
20. Kobayashi Dorori: Yarukoto Yattara Kaette yo
Notable for the way the group released this EP with an accompanying erotic manga drawn by the guitarist, Kobayashi Dorori strike an appealing balance between an undoubted tendency towards pop culture geekery that occasionally manifests itself through eccentric lyrical diversions and poker-faced erotic imagery, spiky, Gang of Four-influenced postpunk guitar, and melodies that sometimes nod towards the girly punk-pop of Chatmonchy and their ilk (apologies, but there are practically no decent recordings of them on YouTube or elsewhere on the Web) without compromising the songs’ essentially stripped down natures. The delivery is so dry that it’s hard to tell how serious they’re being throughout most of it (my guess: not very) but that only adds another layer of intrigue to a band that’s already ambiguous on plenty of levels.
19. Siamese Cats: Gum
First up, I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of melodic Japanese indie rock bands. I tend to find them simultaneously not poppy enough to make good, shameless bubblegum pop fun and not aggressive and experimental enough to satisfy on a more harsh and physical level. Nevertheless, this debut mini-album by Tokyo’s Siamese Cats genuinely did impress me with its sometimes Dylanesque melodies, freewheeling approach to rhythm patterns and occasional diversions into the outlying foothills of psychedelia.
18. 2NE1: Nolza/2nd Mini-Album
Yes, they’re a Korean group, but they had an official Japanese release this year (that differed from the Korean version only through the omission of Park Bom vocal showcase Don’t Cry, which was a ballad and therefore doesn’t count) and in any case, Korean music is promoted and sold as an adjunct to J-Pop rather than as “foreign music” (check which floor the K-Pop is displayed on in Shinjuku or Shibuya Tower Records). This mini-album would have made it onto the list thanks to the bonkers Dutch-electro-Bollyhouse-whatever of I Am the Best alone, although Hate You is a fine piece of synthpop in its own right and even annoyingly earnest pop-rock singalongs like Ugly have either an arresting lyrical bite or some interesting synth bleeps and bloops or both. The acoustic guitar-led Lonely is complete crap, but let’s just pretend that never happened.
17. Miila and The Geeks: New Age
Miila and The Geeks’ first full album had a struggle on its hands extending their sparse guitar/drums/sax sound over fourteen tracks and keeping it interesting, but they make a little go a long way, building each song around a single idea and then clinging to it for the whole two minute running time before moving onto the next one. This, along with the minimal, repetitive lyrics, means that while the sound is deliberately scuzzy and uncompromising, there’s always a easily graspable hook to snare the listener. It’s also hugely indebted to bands like Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, and the problem with this kind of music is that when it so obviously harks back to the postpunk era, it sets itself up for potentially unflattering comparisons with genuinely the revolutionary bands of the past. So yeah, while New Age is no Pink Flag and vocalist Moe’s playful, apolitical lyrics lack any of Lydia Lunch’s politically charged rage and gravitas (she has a lot of fun running through the alphabet on Alphabed but it’s hard to imagine her singing lines like “Suburban wealth and middle class wellbeing / All it did was strip my feelings” or “I woke up bleeding / You are my razor”), musically it stands up pretty well on its own, and certainly among those at the forefront of the group’s peers.
16. Pop Office: I Was Killed Here
I’ve written about this here and haven’t much to add. Pop Office do the 80s new wave revival thing that is the stock in trade of bands like Lillies and Remains and Plasticzooms, but they never sound like they’re trying to be anything other than themselves. I like.
15. Pq: Hausdorff
With ten songs in eight minutes, this self-released CD/R album by Tokyo experimental collective Pq typically dives straight into a song, rattles through a dozen New-York-no-wave-meets-late-Canterbury-scene-psych-punk-with-mumbling musical non sequiturs in the space of about 42 seconds, pauses for a second, and then does it again. On one level, it’s a jangling jumble of disconnected sounds, and yet… and yet… And yet step back and it’s gloriously coherent, sprightly, sparkling with fun and humour. This is what experimental music should be.
I’ve written extensively about this album too, so again there’s not much to add. Bossston Cruizing Mania are fierce, aggressive, cynical, funky, occasionally self-indulgent but often devastatingly effective. They make messy, lo-fi postpunk not in tribute to their idols but out of having absorbed, played and lived loud, dirty, uncompromising music for most of their adult lives. This is real, baby.
13. capsule: World of Fantasy
Fans are divided over this album, but the critics are wrong. World of Fantasy was fabulous at the time, coming in a blast of club-ready, hedonistic fun just as post-quake Tokyo was looking for escapism, and after nearly a year, it’s still a gloriously stupid, often comically silly record. Nakata told me last year that he’s able to get away with more complex, multilayered ideas with capsule than his work with Perfume which he said needed to have one big idea. Now this may be true as far as his remit goes, but the fact is that World of Fantasy was his big dumb blast of riffs and catchy-yet-meaningless slogans, while JPN was all fiddly (although often interesting) production, and many of the songs’ melodies meandered aimlessly, idly and vainly looking for the big chorus or catchy hook that they needed.
CD, White Lily Records
12. Sloppy Joe: With Kisses Four
Another one that I reviewed last year. Utterly unoriginal, but so shameless about it that it gets a big balls-of-steel award for bravado. Also Still Be a Little Roof is possibly the indiepop song of the year.
11. Buddy Girl and Mechanic: 4 Songs Demo
Another self-released CD that did the rounds of the Tokyo indie scene last year. I’m not sure if it was ever even made available on sale or if it was just a promo, but it’s really quite lovely. Brooding, ambient, Lynchian Kraut-blues, with breathy, almost whispered vocals. Opening track Satan’s Son sounds like early Spiritualized or some of Jason Pierce’s material with Spacemen 3, but its when they dive into Can territory, as on the skittering, repetitive, motorik UltraWitchCraftyFab and the abstract funk of Fenix Drops that it really takes off.
No one could accuse Tokyo alternative/postpunk band Bossston Cruizing Mania of being wastefully prolific. “Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead” emerges more than seven years after their third album, 2004’s “Comic/Saisei/Cynicism”, and coming up to twenty years since the band formed in the 1990s. Nevertheless, as lynchpins of the Tokyo underground live music scene they have been a constant fixture, so whatever you do, don’t call it a comeback.
Bossston Cruizing Mania share something in common with jazz/progressive/hip hop/alternative duo Uhnellys, with Esuhiro Kashima’s lyrics forming rambling narratives that snake in and out of the music. However, while Uhnellys’ Kim prefers the snappy, cinematic cut, cut, cut of a Martin Scorsese movie, the stories Kashima tells are more abstract and discursive, taking in topics as diverse as YouTube, socialism and Super Mario Brothers and employing a looser delivery, like a Japanese version of Mark E. Smith.
There are also similarities with Shutoku Mukai’s early Zazen Boys-era spoken word rants, although given that Bossston Cruizing Mania pre-date both Zazen Boys and Number Girl, it’s likely that any influence that there might be flowed from Kashima to Mukai rather than the other way round. In fact, rather than Mukai, it’s another late-90s Fukuoka scene figure, Panicsmile’s Hajime Yoshida, who exerts a more direct influence on “Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead”.
Yoshida produced the album, and it was his band’s arrival in Tokyo that together with Bossston Cruizing Mania formed the core af a particular corner of the Tokyo music scene that emerged in the late 1990s and influenced a generation of bands, mostly centred around Akihabara Club Goodman (where first Yoshida and now Kashima have driven the booking policy) and latterly around Disk Union’s Take A Shower Records. Without Bossston Cruizing Mania and Panicsmile, bands like Tacobonds (also produced by Yoshida), The Mornings and more would probably not exist in their present form.
This is music that combines the sonic sensibility of British postpunk, U.S. no wave and 90s alternative rock with a mindset that forms part of a distinct Japanese rock lineage going back through 80s weirdos like Aburadako to the disenchanted post-hippy 1970s underground scene that eventually melded with the nascent punk scene. There are parallels with Pere Ubu, particularly in the first half of the album, for example the repetitive minimalism of “Low Down”, there are echoes of the postpunk dub of Jah Wobble and Public Image Limited on “Who is Next” and “Citibank”, as well as the brutal, uncompromising funk-punk of The Pop Group as on “Go On to Be Child”.
Nevertheless, these are sounds that are so worn into the Tokyo alternative scene that they have become part of the fabric of the city; at least partially divorced from 70s Cleveland, London or Bristol, but rather than a fashion-conscious affectation, they have found a new home tattooed into the concrete of venues along Tokyo’s Chuo Line and beyond, buzzing with urban frustration, alienation and paranoia.
The jerky skittishness and sparse production are powerfully discomfiting but also relentless, which makes it a difficult album to swallow in one gulp. Contemporaries like Panicsmile would often find ways to break up the harshness of their more experimental and raw moments with, admittedly self-mocking and deconstructive, approximations of the occasional pop song, while the 25-to-30-minute mini-album is becoming the delivery medium of choice for many current underground bands.
Who is Next
Especially given the long gap since “Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead”‘s predecessor, one wonders if Bossston Cruizing mania might be better off releasing their material more frequently in more easily digestible chunks. On the other hand, and perhaps decisively, it’s difficult not to respect the band’s uncompromising commitment to the ideal, and with the carnivalesque “It’s 4AM in Lynch” they even indulge the listener by rounding the album off with something that sounds almost happy.
I’ve always had rather mixed feelings about Tetsuya Komuro. On the one hand, I blame him for in the late 80s and early 90s killing kayoukyoku and creating the ugly, lumbering beast that is J-Pop; his thin, tinny beats and digital synths drilling out a relentless pitter patter of cheap Eurobeat and inspiring even cheaper knockoffs that can still be heard today in some of the musical atrocities being churned out by AKB48.
But fundamentally, Komuro was and is a music guy to his core. He’d come up out of the new wave movement of the 80s and like most of the key figures in the birth of J-Pop (notably Takeshi Kobayashi and Judy And Mary), he really knew and cared about his music, even when the stuff he was making sucked huge logs.
Also, for anyone still looking for reasons behind the rise of Korean pop in Japan, Komuro’s work demonstrates a number of precedents with its localised repackaging of contemporary dance music coupled with obligatory rap segment pretty much defining the core K-Pop songwriting formula. More than that though, he would occasionally imbue his work with some elements that were if not exactly inventive, at least striking in terms of the Japanese pop music scene. From 1997, at the swaggering peak of the 90s, just before the sun started to go down on J-Pop, here’s one of Komuro’s finest moments as a songwriter and producer.
Namie Amuro: How to Be a Girl
The idea that Korean pop is not a strange and alien thing to Japan is one that I keep coming back to, and I’m convinced that getting to grips with its own musical heritage is something that Japanese pop would benefit a lot from in terms of firstly understanding the Korean invasion and secondly in terms of fashioning its own response.
Japanese pop’s fear of the schaffel beat is something I wrote about last year, and while there are maybe historical reasons why that kind of R&B influenced rhythm never took hold here, I think it’s also symptomatic of a contemporary fear of anything that differs from the formula that J-Pop has come to understand as being the sound of its greatest age, the boom years of 1997/98.
However, listen to How to Be a Girl, a number one hit single released at the height of the boom as the follow-up to the record-shattering smash hit ballad Can You Celebrate (with well over two million sales, it makes AKB48’s recent efforts look like chicken feed), and Komuro is doing far crazier things with the rhythm. Lennonistas will recognise it as the backline from The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, although 1990s pop fans would perhaps have been more familiar with it from The Chemical Brothers’ 1996 UK hit Setting Sun (yeah, the one with Noel Gallagher on it). He’s being true to his own formula of watering down contemporary dance hits, but he’s also using the hotly anticipated follow-up to the best-selling single of all time ever by a female singer and pushing out the boundaries of Japanese pop in a way that would be unthinkable for anti-musicians like Yasushi Akimoto.
The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows (I just had to embed this clip)
Couple that beat with a riff appropriated from Gary Numan’s Cars/Wire’s Men 2nd (all Numan’s best stuff was nicked from his more talented contemporaries) and some neat distortion on the vocals and you have a piece of mainstream pop music from one of the nation’s biggest selling and most iconic artists that breaks all the rules of what J-Pop now thinks popular music can be.
Amuro herself is another crucially important part of the song’s appeal, and here’s where Japanese pop differentiates itself from its Korean rivals. Her dancing is more of an offhand shuffle, coming across effortlessly cool rather than simply naive and amateurish, her hair flops down insolently over her face, her costume takes China-dress chic and reconfigures it as a plain, matt black casual suit. Amuro, at that time still only nineteen years old (one year younger than Atsuko Maeda of AKB48 is at the time of writing this), is mature, stylish, sexy and cool, but she’s also casual and easygoing, without the baby-doll lolicon posturing of contemporary Japanese idols, without the militaristically drilled, aggressive sexuality of Girls’ Generation and their followers and without the cartoonish yankii bad girl schtick of 2NE1. Her image is attractive but at the same time attainable for young women.
Sure, How to Be a Girl never reached the sales of its predecessor, but then nothing since then has, and those kinds of crazy figures are never coming back. Amuro’s eclipse by Ayumi Hamasaki and Komuro’s spectacular fall from grace are stories for another piece, but the popularity of 1997-model Namie Amuro should stand as a lesson that Japanese pop fans can handle musical ideas that go beyond the expected, and that at least in theory (of course, given the technicolor extremes that pop imagery is exploring at the moment, one wonders who would even notice an artist as understated as Amuro comes across in that clip) female sexuality can be mature and post-pubescent without aping the glistening artificiality of K-Pop.
Just to leave you with, here’s Seo Yeon’s Korean language cover of Amuro’s biggest hit: