Monthly Archives: January 2013

Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.5 – Half Sports – Slice of Our City

I pitched my initial review of Half Sports’ Slice of Our City in terms of something I don’t really like about a lot of other indiepop bands (although as Boyish’s Supper Dream shows, when the music’s good enough, I’m happy to throw away any principles I have on that front). But of course what I really like about the album and what has kept me coming back to it throughout the year is what it does rather than what it doesn’t do. The noise freakout at the end of No Kids Have Seen, the punk rush followed by abrupt tempo shift in Break Away, the wall of feedback running through the background of Sad Eyes and We Got Along Right From The Start like a more upbeat Jesus And Mary Chain (a Jesus And Merry Chain?), the stuttering guitars of Knock Back Your Request, and most importantly the restlessly energetic drumming, soaring guitar, and surging, raggedly harmonic choruses — all these things and more besides are what make Slice of Our City such a rush of pure indie powerpop joy.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.6 – Fancy Num Num – No Now

 

No Now

CD, Fuji, 2012

Fancy Num Num, despite having a band name that sounds like the pinnacle of idol cutesyness, are actually something far richer and more musically satisfying. Starting in 2007, their self-released 2009 debut CD/R, Meikyo to Shite no Sekai, was a scuzzy, drum machine-driven take on Showa era rock’n’roll, but in the three years that elapsed between that and 2012’s No Now, the group evolved into something far more sophisticated.

It opens with On Fog, an ambient, krautrock-influenced, electronic-led instrumental (think Dieter Moebius/Roedelius/etc.), while Telephone Song packs in a sharper-edged, almost Talking Heads-like vibe. There are moments too, particularly on the more synth-led tracks, that are reminiscent of Air, and thanks to the reliance on relentless, rolling electronic beats, there’s a sense of implacable, slowly advancing menace that runs through many of the songs.

There’s sweetness to go with the encroaching dark, however, and Fancy Num Num also retain their tendency towards 1970s Showa Pop and kayoukyoku-esque melodies. Aoi Siam Neko is case in point, and Marino no Yoake combines elements of 80s synth-pop and some intense, expansive prog rock guitar soloing with a tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early-70s Chiyo Okumura record. Shinkai Uchu-ron has a similarly classic feel to the melody, sounding simultaneously catchy and upbeat as well as brooding and melancholy, while Tajigen no Gake Kara takes a melody that recalls some of the more complex and emotionally mature later material of Momoe Yamaguchi and turns it into something a bit more subtly funky.

Throughout No Now, Fancy Num Num’s secret weapon is guitarist Tomoyo Nishida. Even when soloing wildly, she never takes over the song completely, drifting in and out of the band’s repetitive machine rhythms while at the same time contributing in an understated but imaginative way to the music’s texture and overall sleepy-yet-tense atmosphere. Hitomi Harada’s bass wanders along inside the beats, spinning more minimalist lines, while Misa Haijima’s vocals are pitched immaculately at the intersection between despair, portent and lassitude. All these attributes come together on the closing, title track, the song building ominously in fits and starts for nine minutes before ultimately resolving itself into something rather pretty after all.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.7 – Doit Science – Information

 

Information

CD, &Records, 2012

While Fukuoka is undoubtedly the cultural capital of the southwestern island of Kyushu, the music scene in (relatively) nearby Kumamoto also produces more than its fair share of great music, and Doit Science are most talked about band in the city right now.

Quite what makes them so exciting is hard to pin down. Lo-fi alternative music with weird time signatures is an ever present feature of local scenes up and down the country, and yet Doit Science still stand out. There are perhaps some similarities with labelmates Nhhmbase in the combination of off-kilter arrangements and wide-eyed, impassioned vocals. Certainly one point that stands out about their music is the way that where most bands of this type feature vocals that yowl and scrape, Doit Science sing out clear and strong, like Nhhmbase often launching into a disarming falsetto, and making use of multiple vocalists to create a sort of Beefheartian barbershop vibe, awash with staccato interjections and sometimes deliberately landing off-key.

And despite the delight the band seem to take in throwing musical obstacles in the way of the melodies, the beauty of some of these songs still shines through. Toshi Keikaku (Delicate Mix ver.) in particular is probably the most melancholy and affecting song ever written about urban planning, but even the more uncompromisingly disruptive tracks like Tasogare (Sweet Death ver.) and Information is Just a Needle (Plan B) reveal a keen ear for unconventional hooks that nevertheless worm their way into your brain.

Listening to Information sometimes feels like the CD is skipping, but there’s also a clear grounding in accessible, blues-based chord progressions at the heart of a lot of the music. As well as Captain Beefheart, there’s also something of Syd Barrett in the combination of sweetness and sheer oddness. It may sound like rock music turned inside out, cut into pieces and reassembled by a hyperactive child, but it still is rock music, and it does a marvellous job of sounding great without compromising either its accessibility or its avant-garde principles.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.8 – Hikashu – Uragoe

This is another one where I’ve already said everything I really want to say about it in previous posts so please check those out if you haven’t seen them already. My Japan Times review of this album is online here and my brief additional comments are here.

Hikashu are pretty much my favourite band in Japan — certainly my favourite that I haven’t actually released myself via my label. On Uragoe, they spend about a third of the time on messed-up avant-pop and the rest is just completely fucked up avant-garde jazz weirdness. Koichi Makigami’s voice is such a versatile instrument, and he uses it to make some unbelievably odd sounds, but the sense of fun that pervades the album means that it never descends into navel gazing self absorption. I find them very difficult to describe or discuss because there just don’t seem to be the words to do justice to what a unique thing Hikashu are. Sadly, I couldn’t find any audio of video clips of the stuff on this album, so here’s a live clip of them from a couple of years back, deconstructing the hell out of their own song, Pike:

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.9 – 2NE1 – Collection

Japan’s relationship with K-Pop in 2012 was fraught with ambivalence, as the excitement of the new that washed through 2011 became complicated by politics in the shape of the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute, a growing sense of oversaturation, a backlash against the slickness and professionalism of Korean acts in favour of the fake ordinary-girl authenticity of Japanese idol groups, and perhaps a general sense that the Japanese market was being exploited as a cash cow by Koreans who were more interested in breaking America and whose country had no intention of returning the good will.

Girls’ Generation and Kara, the two big players in the scene (in the absence of new releases by boy bands Big Bang and TVXQ), sold well, but nowhere near as well as the previous year, while worldwide smash Gangnam Style made little to no impact in Japan. Japanese mainstream music in the meantime, slunk back into its comfort zone of late-90s style pop balladry, ephebophilic idol music and repackaged oldies. As a result, the appearance in the spring of 2NE1’s first full length Japanese language album was a ray of light in an otherwise grim year for pop.

I reviewed Collection for The Japan Times and wrote a bit more about it here, so check those out if you want to read what I had to say at the time. In the intervening period, it’s lost none of its swagger and sounds just as over-the-top and clever-stupid as it did when it first came out. Since its release, 2NE1 also came up with what might be the best pop single of the year in I Love You and put on a thrilling arena tour. They’ve been preparing to strike out towards the U.S. by working with will.i.am and all the dreary horrors that entails, so Japanese audiences can at least be satisfied that in 2012 they caught 2NE1 at their best.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.10 – Abikyokan – The Fear EP

I wrote most of what I want to say about Abikyokan’s The Fear in a review a few months back, but there are a few points that I can add after the extra time I’ve had to listen to it.

The first is just that: I still listen to The Fear EP. It’s carved an uncontested place in the corner of my iPod, and I keep coming back to it at pretty regular intervals, which given the amount of music that passes through these parts, that’s pretty rare. It’s always difficult to be honest, even with yourself, when reviewing music made by your friends (and me and Abikyokan go waaaay back), but the fact that this EP never got filed away and lost somewhere on my hard disk is a sign that its quality shines through.

There’s a lovely combination of the eerie, off-kilter music, the often obscure imagery, delivered by Jake Arntson with the wrought earnestness of a suspect trying to convince a magistrate that the voices in his head are real, which gives even in tracks like God (Bigfoot), where the song seems to be warning of the dangers of excessive cake consumption, an air of mystery and concealed profundity. The title and the fact that it follows tracks called In The Woods and Fear, are equally powerful factors in setting the atmosphere of surreal, edge-of-sanity, esoteric wisdom.

Also in 2012, Abikyokan released the more shambling and rock-orientated 24 Hours EP and the bizarre and wonderful alien invasion-themed Christmas single Rock Lights, but The Fear EP is the one that still holds me in the firmest grip.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.11 – Deltas – √DL_TS 2

√DL_TS 2

CD, self-released, 2012

Fukuoka is by far my favourite place in Japan to discover new bands, because you can guarantee that whenever you find something good there (and there is a lot of good stuff there, especially right now), you can pretty much guarantee that it’s good in a way that you didn’t expect, and that the people behind it will have sometimes subtly and sometimes extravagantly different approaches even to familiar genres and sounds compared to how things are done in Tokyo. In fact, perhaps due to its relative remoteness, the position that Fukuoka occupies in the Japanese music scene is similar to the position Japan has traditionally occupied in the world — the remote outpost where they do things differently.

Deltas are an electronic/noise guitar duo who combine noise, industrial, Warp Records-style ambient electronic music, and sweet, shoegaze-influenced melodies, and √DL_TS 2 is an awe-inspiring, dizzyingly inventive work that is at once defiantly avant-garde and shamelessly accessible, and sounds like absolutely nothing else in the country at this time.

ce3.50 is a snowstorm of harsh electronic noise interspersed with discordant bleeps and brutal arrhythmic beats, but it gives way quickly to the decidedly ambient, atmospheric and rather moving rain_/℃ without letting go of any of the elements that made the opener such a brutal assault on the senses. Deltas keep the beats, but slow them down and move the noise into the background, bringing gently chiming, harmonic elements to the fore, before, after waiting until half way through the track, vocals are introduced and it blooms into a sublime, My Bloody Valentine-esque melody.

xt/qm is seven minutes of eerie effects, samples and ambient noise, juxtaposing organic sounds like insects chirping and rainfall in the early segment with harsher, more mechanical sounds — TV static, distorted, automated vocal announcements and computer bleeps — like the soundtrack to a paranoid cyberpunk detective noir. pls_47 picks up where the opening track left off, ramping the effects back up to bleeding ears level, although employing it in the more structured framework of a thundering, industrial noise venture and even diverting into dance beats. Needless to say, both are beautiful pieces of music.

The final two tracks, 5-gatsu no [sakana]/// and 5-gatsu no [sakana]/// (Ichinose D Nozomi), are two different versions of the same song. Bearing notable similarities to Radiohead’s No Surprises, as well as recalling some of the more downbeat moments of Japanese alternative bands Supercar and Quruli’s early 2000s electronic explorations, the first version is the straighter of the two, with the latter incorporating more hyperactive, skittering underlying beats and electronic effects.

√DL_TS 2 should be the album you play to all potential friends, work colleagues and romantic partners as a way of pre-filtering their suitability. If they exhibit any response other than curling up into a quivering, foetal ball on the floor and weeping with joy, then you should have nothing to do with them.

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