Monthly Archives: July 2012

Boyish: The Hidden Secrets EP

It’s a constant source of wonder to me the way so many Japanese indiepop bands seem to spend hours ensuring the reverb on their guitars is just so in order to create the scientifically optimum level of Cure/Smiths/Close Lobsters style jangle and then when it comes to recording and mixing the vocals, they suddenly discover that of all the bands they could be mimicking, Sonic Flower Groove-era Primal Scream (the second-worst period of this utterly horrible band, and largely because of the shuddering craptitude of the worst vocalist in British indie history, Bobby Gillespie) is the pinnacle of their aspiration.

I dig Boyish and there is a lot to love about them on this new EP. On title track The Hidden Secrets, they fashion a neat energy rush out of the little pause between each loop of the main guitar riff and on Quarrel, the xylophone that dances over the top of the guitars seems to be saying, “Want some jangle on top of your jangle? You got it!” while the repetitive chorus burns itself into your ears and the abrupt halt that closes the song is an enjoyably snotty way to end. Closing number, Crazy For You is the weakest of the collection, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the once that sees Boyish aping Primal Scream the most, with the vocals smeared blandly across the otherwise solid track, nailed down to no clear melody and expressing no particular character or personality.

I realise that this, more than many other things, is a matter of taste (I really do dislike Primal Scream a lot, and Bobby Gillespie in particular I can’t stand), and there is a certain sort of person who finds this sort of emotionally drained vocal style the peak of washed-out beauty. I also don’t want this to seem like I’m gunning after Boyish in particular, since they’re a band I very much like. It’s a general point about the mixing of vocals in Japanese indie records that I’ve touched on before when discussing Nagoya’s The Moments and which some people have mentioned as a criticism of Friends/Teen Runnings (I don’t strictly agree as far as Teen Runnings are concerned, since their music has a more abrasive, punk edge, but it was enough that they themselves decided to remix their album and clean up the vocals) but it really does seem to me that these bands are all missing a trick by neglecting the musical opportunities offered by such an important instrument as the vocals.

(More on this over at Make Believe Melodies)


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Strange Boutique (July 2012)

My Japan Times column this month is on the Fuji Rock Rookie A Go-Go stage, where indie bands (not necessarily “rookies” since many of them have been around for ages) get a chance to play and since last year to compete for a place on one of next year’s main stages. A bit of weird phrasing aside (I was super-late filing it and I’m still not entirely sure what “up-and-coming dadrockers” means), I say pretty much everything I wanted to in the article so not much to add here except to drop a few links to bands I recommended in the article.

First up there’s Gezan, from Osaka, whose violent onstage antics really lose something on record, so for heaven’s sake check them out live if you get a chance:

Also on Friday there’s The Keys, who are a fine example of the sort of jangly guitar pop that Japanese indie retronauts have been keeping on life support since the late 80s. I slag off old British guitar bands in the article (because they’re shit and they deserve it) but I have no particular problem with melodic guitar music when it’s done with charm and intimacy like this:

Another good Friday night band is Kanazawa’s Ningen OK, who seem to be rocketing up through the hipster-credometer with their fiddly brand of avant-garde postpunk/prog:

I mention Kettles, although I’m not quite sure about them yet. They just seem a bit too down-the-line J-indie, although they can definitely write a song when they put their mind to it, and they’re probably my pick from the more mainstream Saturday night lineup:

Sunday is mostly rock’n’roll stuff, but the best band by far is Fukuoka psychedelic postrock instrumental band MacManaman, who have rocked a few of my own events now, both in Tokyo and Kyushu, and who really stand out on Rookie A Go-Go’s third night:

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Dempa Gumi inc.: Kira Kira Tune / Sabotage

I spent a long time earlier this year talking about what makes some punk and experimental musicians so obsessed with idol music, and to a limited degree how a few idol singers have at least partially reciprocated that love. Primarily that seems to work via producers with indie backgrounds who have helped mould idols into more interesting musical shapes, although since appearing submissive and doll-like is such an essential part of an idol’s image, it’s hard to know and even harder to trust precisely what they say about themselves without the nagging image of some team of micromanaging handlers feeding them the lines.

One group I was able to talk to and gain firsthand answers from was Dempa Gumi inc., an otaku idol group apparently formed of former hikikomoris (social shut-ins) who had done a collaboration with UK-based psych-noise band Bo Ningen. Among their answers were a couple of pretty interesting points, but given that their main musical output was so firmly entrenched in a fairly predictable cheap-sounding, mid-range idol groove, it’s hard to know how seriously to take it. They seemed a bit wiser and sharper than the typical idol fare, but Bo Ningen aside, their musical output did little to live up to what their personalities hinted at.

Kira Kira Tune (or “Killer Killer Tune”, pun fans) isn’t going to change that for anyone. It’s a down-the-line idol pop confection with little to add musically to the conversation. It makes its mark rather more interestingly through the video, which spends half the song lingering over soft-focus images of the girls sleeping. This is almost certainly part of the moe-otaku habit of recycling and fetishising imagery of childish femininity at its most vulnerable, but it’s quite a bold and perhaps even original move for a music video given how dramatically at odds the placid images are with the peppy music. Perhaps less intentionally (although I don’t presume to know), the disconnect between the visual and audio messages being received creates an eerie, almost apocalyptic atmosphere. Are they sleeping or are they dead? Drugged? In particular the image midway through the video of all six girls sleeping in a circle on the grass is curiously similar to the disconcerting closing image of Satoshi Kon’s anime Paranoia Agent.

It’s really the other side of the single that’s got something to say musically, and it’s no surprise that it’s producer Hyadain of Momoiro Clover (Z) fame who’s behind it. As you might have gathered from the title, it’s a cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, and it’s the first thing I’ve really heard from this group that really goes for the guts.

As we should have come to expect from Hyadain’s work now, the arrangement is all over the place, with frantic 90s pachinkotronica beats trading places with fruit pastel rainbow synths, vocals popping out at you from all angles in a variety of registers, and running right through all this chaos, the rock solid original song with all its energy and power recognisable and undiminished. The almighty scream at bang on two minutes, such an important part of the original arrangement, is here and then some just in case anyone still disagrees with me that idol music’s anarchic childishness can rival almost anything that punk can throw at it for self-centred, shrieking energy — it’s a shame the version on YouTube cuts off so soon after, but even the short amount you can hear is enough to remind us that in the right hands, and apparently with the right cast, idol music can be radical.

It’s also an interesting step from Hyadain himself, whose earlier work with Dempa Gumi inc., Tsuyoi Kimochi, Tsuyou Ai, was pretty low key by his standards and whose work with Momoiro Clover Z was starting to, if not exactly get stale, at least to have settled into a familiar pattern, and it provides a good demonstration of his skill at finding the right music into which to channel the particular energy of a certain group or performer.

One last quick note on the cover image, featuring the group in the same pastel school uniforms but with added 70s shades and moustaches. Firstly, this is obviously a tribute to the original Beasties video, but it also locks in interestingly on another trend in Japanese girls’ fashion and pop culture. It’s hard to know exactly where it comes from, but Hazel Nuts Chocolate (HNC) played about with a fake moustache in the video for Hello from 2005, and the fake ‘tash is by now a pretty firmly established accessory in the arsenal of twee-cutester girls as a digital augmentation for Twitter profile pictures or similar. I could now get excited about its role in subverting both traditional notions of femininity and male notions of cuteness while retaining the punkish desire to remain a child by rejecting seriousness and embracing make-believe, or perhaps its place in the otaku/Harajuku playbook of taking jarring, oppositional images and finding cuteness in the disconnect, but I think that’s for someone else to get into. I’ll just end by stating that Dempa Gumi inc.’s Sabotage is a fantastic piece of work and that if the love affair between the punk/experimental and idol scenes is going to result in them going steady, on the evidence of this, the idols might be wearing the trousers.

EDIT: Full version of Sabotage here:

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Crowdsourcing Japanese indie with Electric Eel Shock and Fan-Bo

The lead feature on yesterday’s Japan Times music page was an interview with Kazuto Maekawa of bubblegum garage-metal power trio Electric Eel Shock about his new crowdsourcing web site Fan-Bo and it’s an interesting read so please check it out.

I wrote a piece a few years back on on EES’ earlier success in raising money via the site Sellaband, and it’s interesting that they’ve now decided to take it a step further by themselves. There are a few points that stand out for me.

Electric Eel Shock: Scream For Me

Firstly the emphasis on carefully selecting the bands and projects they choose to put up. The signal-to-noise ratio on those kinds of sites can make them impossible to navigate and so it’s often the work of a chaotic combination self-promotion and web buzz via a number of platforms that creates success. Having some process of filtering strikes me as a good thing and suggests that EES are in this for the music rather than just going all-out for the money.

Secondly, the people they have involved so far are an interesting crowd. Of course Daniel Robson (who wrote the article) and his It Came From Japan project have a lot of experience with promoting Japanese music abroad and more importantly have a musical identity established over years of promoting bubblegum pop-punk, new wave-influenced electronic quirk-pop and garage howlmeistery, but Hajime Yoshida of Panicsmile’s until recently dormant Headache Sounds label and the Tokyo Boredom event crew are equally important in bringing some Japan alternative/experimental scene gravitas to the project. Thus far, these are all people who have worked with EES for many years and have a close relationship with them, but hopefully as the site grows, they can get more other people plugged into other aspects of the contemporary Japanese indie/underground scene to fulfill a similar filtering/”curating” (sorry) role. Certainly connecting with overseas promoters like Canada’s Next Music From Tokyo would seem like a good idea.

Panicsmile: A Girl Supernova

Lastly, the plan to operate the site in English and Japanese is admirable. Sites like Natalie have tried this in the past but their English page crashed and burned early on. Time Out Tokyo operates bilingually but with very little crossover between the material published on the two languages’ sites. Already Fan-Bo’s content is weighted heavily towards Japanese language material and I can see that as business gravitates towards the Japanese version, the English page will be in danger of being neglected but for a handful of bands with pre-existing overseas fanbases. I really hope this doesn’t happen and that the owners continue to invest in the English page even if it doesn’t bring in much money, because over time and with some of the people they have involved, Fan-Bo could be a really useful portal into Japanese indie and underground music for overseas listeners.

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V/A: Ripple

There’s a review I wrote of Knew Noise Records’ excellent new Ripple compilation of contemporary Nagoya indie and postpunk music in The Japan Times now, so please pop over there and check it out.

Here, I’m just going to add a few things that there wasn’t really enough space to go into over on the JT piece. Firstly, to expand on the comparison with the 7586 Nagoya Rock series, I feel that Ripple is kind of being pitched as a sort of “export-ready” compilation, focussing on bands who are going to be, or at least sound, familiar to non-Nagoya audiences. These are the kinds of bands that could support a good, offbeat, John Peel style UK indie band on the Nagoya date of a small Japan tour or that could satisfy a small crowd of Tokyo indie hipsters. It generally avoids the really esoteric, psychedelic or quirky acoustic stuff and keeps centred on stuff that satisfies some wider, more generic kind of cool. A compilation that says, “Look, Nagoya can do this too!” rather than, “Look what Nagoya can do that you all can’t!”

This isn’t a criticism, and in fact it’s something that’s close to what I try to do with my own music promotion activities in Japan. There’s enough stuff that sells itself on its quirkiness and wackiness, and Japanese music is already cursed enough by the perception of its pop culture as mad and (ugh) inscrutable, so it’s good that there’s someone out there showing that Nagoya participate in national indie pop culture on a level playing field with Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kyoto etc. just as I would hope that Japan itself can compete with the UK, US etc. on those same terms. Sure, express your uniqueness, but don’t wall yourself in. This compilation is a small but important part of maintaining that balance.

One reason it all hangs together so well, I suspect, is that so many of the bands share musicians. There seems to be some kind of crossover between various members of Nicfit, Free City Noise, Sika Sika, 6eyes and Dororonika at least, and those bands are very much at the core of what makes this album tick.

There are some bands that I didn’t mention, so sorry Dororonica but your track was a great piece of raw, uncompromising, jazz-inflected prog-punk, reminding me a bit of fellow Aichi punk-noise types The Act We Act. Jubilee’s track was a solid piece of high-octane punk too.

I drew a contrast between the 80s UK-style indiepop of The Moments and the 70s Japanese-style folk music of Yoshito Ishihara. You can hear The Moments’ track on their Soundcloud, here:
And you can get some idea of Ishihara’s more rambling, freeform style in this rather distant live clip recorded at London’s Cafe Oto:

Possibly my two favourites from this were Freedom and Free City Noise, and I was able to track down some interesting clips of them. This one of Freedom doesn’t feature their track from Ripple, but it’s interesting in its own right. Experimental and imaginative, but still fun and approachable.

Freedom: Noise Disco

It’s certainly reminiscent of Kansai stuff like Afrirampo and particularly the kind of thing Ni-Hao! were doing six or seven years ago, but it’s carried off with aplomb and a lot of charm.

Free City Noise have a full half-hour set online and it really is very good, as long as you take “very good” as meaning “exactly the same as Sonic Youth”, which let’s face it, is as comprehensive a definition as you’ll ever need.

Free City Noise live at Bar Ripple (appropriately)

I say in the review that Ripple makes a good jumping-off point for some of the other bands in Nagoya and Aichi, and you can find out about some of them in a pair of articles I wrote for The Japan Times last year. I’ve also written about Pop Office on this blog twice, so check those out too.


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Strange Boutique (June 2012)

My Japan Times column last month was about the enduring influence of Can in particular and Krautrock in general. One of the points I made, and admittedly it’s a pretty sticky point because with music as diverse as Krautrock was to begin with and as wide-ranging in its influence, there are going to be bajillions of exceptions, was how generally, Japanese underground bands seem to prefer the complex rhythms that characterise a lot of Can’s output rather than the motorik beat most associated with Neu! and Kraftwerk (which to a lot of people in the UK is pretty much the definition of Krautrock). Naturally, given that Britain has traditionally been the biggest audience for German 70s rock and experimental music, this is a gross oversimplification, but I think it holds true as a general trend.

In this blog, however, it’s the exceptions I want to look at, and of course there is motorik Japanese indie. On Knew Noise Records’ forthcoming Ripple compilation (which I should have a review of being published soon) Sekaitekina Band swap their usual jittery disco-punk sound for a motorik beat, and as I mention in the column, Nisennenmondai favour driving beats rather than complex, overlapping rhythms, be it disco, tribal pounding or motorik.

Nisennenmondai: Destination Tokyo

Through my own Call And Response label, I’ve released a couple of tracks that follow the motorik pattern as well. Our first release, the 1-2-3-Go! compilation, featured a track called Neu! by a band called Usagi Spiral A (see if you can guess what that sounded like) and Klaus Dinger fanatics Mir did an excellent track called Yononaka, Minna Hihyoka on their mini-album This Tiny World that paid obvious tribute to Neu! and La Dusseldorf.

My own band, Trinitron, often play around with patterns nicked from Krautrock, albeit sometimes mixed in with some other things as on this cover of 1970s idol group the Candies’ Heart no Ace ga Detekonai.

Similarly, Yamanoi Yuzuru often play about with rhythms if not exactly motorik, certainly influenced by the style.

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She Talks Silence: Holy Hands, Holy Voices

The core of this new song sees She Talks Silence in pretty familiar territory, with half-murmured, half-sung vocals and fuzzy guitars over a tinny, motorik drum machine — there’s something fanatical, almost hardcore in the band’s devotion to mid. It’s embroidered with some neat touches though, such as the rather affecting moment when Minami starts reaching for notes right on the border of her vocal range and her voice trails away to a near whisper, or the overlapping semi-harmonies that close out the song. They even flirt with guitar solos at a couple of points, albeit with characteristically fuzzed-out minimalism. As the video helpfully informs us, this is mellow noise, and if it’s a sound that hasn’t moved on notably from where the band were on last year’s Some Small Gifts mini album, their songwriting is still clearly holding up admirably.

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