Given that many bands in Japan will take years between releases, it’s excellent to see so many of the bands behind last year’s highlights returning to the studio so soon, and it’s especially great when there’s obvious, clear progression in evidence. Recorded in Brooklyn with Jonathan Kreinik (Le Tigre, !!!, The Rapture are all relevant elements of his CV here), Magnetica opens with the tense, minimal instrumental DNA, which builds gradually into a guitar slashing fury that simply drops away before it can climax. Busy Bee sees the trio in more familiar, propulsive territory to their 2012 Prescription EP/mini album, although vocals are again restricted to gothic backing wails, the guitar shrieking over the top with a voice of its own. (A Man Looks Into) the Hole is the first track to really use vocals, but it nevertheless pushes its own way forward. Where the songs off Prescription were all somewhere in their core straightforward, devastatingly effective punk rock songs, wrapped up in the sonic acoutrements of experimental music, here we find the ZZZ’s tackling the songwriting and arrangements from right out of leftfield, combining no wave and psychedelia in a disorientatingly structured way, partly reminiscent of 154-era Wire. Final track Drippin’ sees the group taking on Pop Group-style funk-punk noise, with call and response vocals interspersed with guitar that sound like it’s being played with a circular saw rather than anything so mundane as mere human fingers, and it’s a thrilling close to an EP that, while undeniably raw, is nonetheless immaculately pitched sonically and sees the band breaking free of punk rock restrictions and primed to blossom into yet more fascinating and exciting things.
Monthly Archives: February 2013
Nothing new about this since the album came out in two years ago (actually not in 2010 as mistakenly claimed on the band’s Soundcloud) but The Mornings have put the whole of their debut album up online for anyone to hear in full. The main reason for them doing this is probably to give people going to South By Southwest a chance to hear them. It also draws a line under the material, which The Mornings are gradually replacing with new songs as they work on material for a new album, hopefully for release within the year. Anyway, This gives you a chance to hear why Save The Mornings was my top album of 2011 a year ago, and why Make Believe Melodies also had it in their top ten. Since The Mornings’ material doesn’t seem to allow embedding, you’ll have to go over to their Soundcloud page to listen to the album, but it’s well worth it for anyone who likes raw, fierce, stupendously silly, madly fun, loud, fast, messed-up skronk.
With 2012 fading in the rear mirror, it’s worth looking ahead to some of the things worth getting excited about over the next year. Some of my favourites from last year are already working on follow-ups, and doubtless more will have come out with new material by the time the year’s out. In addition, my own label, Call And Response, is looking to release in one form or another some of the bands I’m excited about at the moment. So here’s a few suggestions, largely drawn from Call And Response’s immediate circle of bands, of things to look out for over the course of 2013.
Miu Mau: No.1 in my best releases of 2012, Miu Mau have already finished recording two new songs, which they’re currently thinking of releasing as a vinyl single. They recorded it all on analogue equipment and vocalist Masami Takashima claims on her blog that it has more of a 60s sound than last year’s new wave-influenced News EP. Either way, I guarantee it will be super.
Hysteric Picnic: They’ve already put up a couple of new songs on Soundcloud that indicate a growing confidence in their songwriting if their enthusiasm for noise-inflected doom-laden postpunk remains undimmed, and they’re working on more. Hopefully there should be a new EP out by the summer. If no one else releases this, I will.
Jebiotto: This synth-punk trio claim to be hard at work writing new songs for a mini album or EP to be released some time this year. Their last release, Beat End, came out in 2010 so they’re long overdue a follow-up. They did an excellent song, Deacon Punk, for a compilation I released last year, so the new year looks promising. Again, if no one else releases this, I will.
Hyacca: Another band long overdue a new album, this Fukuoka postpunk band are one of the most intense and just plain brilliant bands out there, but their last mini album Hanazono came out in 2009 and apart from a couple of appearances on compilations, they’ve not released much since then. They debuted some new material when I saw them in Fukuoka last month and again, a new album by the end of the year is on the cards.
Extruders: Another of last year’s favourites, minimalist Kanagawa postpunk/psychedelic band Extruders have a new album entitled Colors coming out on Knew Noise Records on April 3rd. It’s likely that the core of the album will be studio recordings of material off last year’s Pray live album, but the release via the ultra-hip Knew Noise label should see them reaching a much wider audience.
Dorolys: Basically the project of one girl, Hazuki Togo, Kagoshima-based Dorolys is a brand new unit with a really nice line in Velvets-influenced lo-fi indie. I saw them for the first time at only their second ever gig, in Kagoshima recently, and they were ace. I’m currently nagging Hazuki to start recording so we can get a cassette or something out soon.
Mir: I’ve been sitting on two or three excellent unreleased recordings by Mir, some of them dating back nearly five years, but which were impossible to release in any form because the band kept splitting up and re-forming and never got the momentum together to put together a proper release. It might have to be a limited release, but the band and I are determined to get these tracks out in some form, hopefully by this summer. EDIT: And Kyohei Hiroki from Mir just informed me on Twitter that they’re busy recording new stuff as well, so there could be a mini-album in it. Fingers crossed.
A new single by Tommy February6 isn’t quite the same event to look forward to that it was in the early 2000s, but in a world where otherwise rational people are claiming with straight faces that Uza by AKB48 is interesting and different, even bad Tommy is usually better than nothing. Be My Valentine seems to be shooting for a sort of 60s girl group vibe, complete with a (typically dodgy) English language spoken word interlude and a cover featuring a scooter (as any Japanese pop fan knows, scooters are the ultimate symbol of the 60s). It’s built around The Supremes’ Can’t Hurry Love/Lust For Life/Town Called Malice beat, which should add to the bouncy, 60s vibe, but in combination with the smooth-edged 90s-style Takeshi Kobayashi-lite vocal production and the fact it’s six fucking minutes long (The Supremes did it in half that and Phil Collins in even less) means that it comes out sounding more like a late 90s J-Pop tune, an era in which many chart acts like My Little Lover (and even Tommy’s own band The Brilliant Green) would occasionally channel the sounds of the 60s into their MOR pop. That it still sounds like something a bit different is more a sign of the narrowing of the J-Pop field since the 90s than it is of any inherent qualities of Be My Valentine. The shift in sound from the sparkly 80s synthpop that defined Tommy’s early 2000s material towards something closer to her 90s roots is something that might work out in the future, but it’s going to need a bit more fizz than this if it’s going to succeed.
Based in London but partly hailing from Japan, punk-noiseniks Comanechi have gradually been (re-)adopted by Japanese audiences, thanks partly to some smart promotion and their association with Nagoya’s shrewd and indie-rooted Knew Noise Records label. Currently in Japan with former Japanese labelmates Bo Ningen (since moved to Sony), the group’s second album, You Owe Me Nothing But Love, arrives almost simultaneously in the UK via Tigertrap and in Japan through Knew Noise.
Drummer and vocalist Akiko Matsuura has a definite knack for self-absorbed, scattershot, bratpunk sloganeering. Individual phrases jump out and arrest you with imagery that pricks you with perfectly weighted incongruities even as any overarching meaning remains opaque. You could fill a review like this with quotes like “I’m not into fashion / I’m into punk!” and “I think I’m now mentally ill / I’ve never ever been so out of my mind!” but skip to any point in You Owe Me Nothing But Love and Matsuura will be screaming something similarly dislocated or just plain snotty at you.
There’s also a thread of ambiguous sexuality running through the album, and even where the lyrics do become explicit, as on Patsy, Matsuura’s rambling monologue pushes the imagery to surreal extremes. What she does is only half of the picture, however, because all this imagery bounces off (and plays off) the audience’s awareness that the vessel of delivery is a mad-looking Japanese woman. Like it or not (and for many people who live here, the answer is often “not”), modern Japan, and Japanese girls in particular, is often associated with a slightly batty and deviantly sexual image, and it’s the context of this deeply nested (and not strictly accurate) image that helps the listener to take Matsuura’s mixture of aggression, playfulness, surreal imagination and murky eroticism, and process it as something giddy and fun rather than annoying and pretentious. She’s a mad Japanese woman acting mad and Japanese, so it fits. PJ Harvey delivering the same lyrics would be seen as making a “statement” and Mark E Smith barking them out would be… intriguing but, well, different.
Some of the reviews of You Owe Me Nothing But Love are talking about it in the context of some kind of grunge revival. I sort of see it, especially on tracks like Out of My Mind or Dream of Dream, but if this is grunge, it’s a grunge that’s suspiciously similar to an ever-evolving but largely unbroken tradition of garage-punk going back to the 70s (was it ever anything else?) Comanechi have a knack for wringing an admirably broad range of music from their stripped-down sonic setup, with the caustic strut of Love is the Cure and the fizzy postpunk rollercoaster of 24hr Boyfriend occupying the catchy end of the spectrum.
The group’s confidence in their songwriting range allows them to take a winding route through the album, with the eight-minute rant of Patsy juxtaposed with the surprisingly pretty Into the Air. Comanechi can also be pretty fierce on the ears, verging on noise band, but on this album Death Threat is the only place where they really let loose with their full noisy potential. It caps a closing run of tracks through the aforementioned Out of My Mind and the punky Mad that grow in derangement, Simon Petrovich gradually unscrewing his guitar from mere dentist’s drill intensity to outright sonic headfuck, its shrieks and whistles sometimes mingling indistinguishably with Matsuura’s hysterical vocals.
Looking at Comanechi from the perspective of the Japanese music scene, they seem to be viewed by some with a mixture of familiarity and exoticism, as if Matsuura were the prodigal child, returned to show them a through-the-looking-glass image of the stylish, uninhibited London selves that they could be. And however they might be perceived in London (has London got over the idea of Japan as somewhere inexplicably weird and alien yet? Surely it has by now…) they definitely feel more a product of their environment and their own unique imaginations rather than a “Japanese band”. Where similarly noisy bands in the Japanese scene will tend to run off on more experimental and rhythmical tangents, Comanechi keep the core of their songs simple. Where eccentricities and abandon in the Japanese scene often push their more eye-opening extremes with a sense of performance and ritual, as if free expression is more comfortably achieved in the context of a delineated framework, Comanechi exude more of an arrogant self-assurance.
It’s easy to spend too much energy musing on such things though, and doubtless incredibly irritating for the band (who are just going to have to put up with it in this case), because in the end, You Owe Me Nothing But Love is a really good record on its own idiosyncratic, needling, goading terms and well worth checking out.
I did an interview with Taigen from Bo Ningen for MTV 81 in advance of their Japan tour, which starts in Osaka on Valentine’s Day. It went up over the weekend and you can have a read of it here.
The comment about “opening your third eye” that ended up in the headline was actually a bit sneaky, since I kind of fed him the line. We were chatting by text on Skype, which takes longer than speaking aloud but which reduces the chances for misinterpreting or misunderstanding something. The problem is that sometimes certain inflections get lost, so when Taigen talked about the six senses, he dropped the idea in so casually that I wasn’t sure if he’d just made a genuine error or if he was talking in psychedelic Juliancopespeak, like “Of course there are six senses… at least!” I pulled him up on it later and said something like, “Six senses?!? Is that like for opening the third eye or something?” and then he came back with the line that was published. Some readers may be shocked to hear that interview transcripts are not always faithful, word-for-word accounts of the exact conversation that occurred, but in this case, it seemed best to give him the benefit of the doubt rather than painstakingly recount a rather clumsy to-and-fro between interviewer and interviewee.
There’s a bit more stuff about idols in there. Bo Ningen have worked with Dempa Gumi inc. in the past, and they’re touring together with them and N’Shukugawa Boys in March, but I didn’t want to make too much of a deal about it this time. I think idol music brought something important and valuable to the indie/underground scene in that alternative musicians can sometimes take themselves a bit too seriously, and idol music does a good job of giving people a release from such self-imposed pressures, reminding people of what simple, anarchic fun can be. I think now though that idol music in the underground scene is kind of played out, or maybe it’s better to say that it’s done its job and that now it’s time for the indie scene to start remembering again what its own special points are.
That said, Taigen is one of the most articulate and insightful people in the alternative scene when it comes to discussing idol music, and while we don’t go into it in so much depth in the MTV interview, he’s one of the few proponents of idol music whose opinion I think is really worth listening to.
I got the impression that Bo Ningen are a bit ambivalent about their status in the fashion scene. He didn’t say anything directly, but I think their work ethic perhaps means that they tend to eagerly accept offers of work from a variety of sources, but that they’re aware that being too closely associated with the fashion scene can become a bit of an albatross for UK-based bands and so there was a kind of wariness when we talked about that aspect of the band’s work, as if he felt he needed to put a bit of distance between the band’s core identity and the way their image is being used by others.
It’s interesting that Sony Music Entertainment Japan have taken a punt on Bo Ningen, and we kind of joked about it in the interview. It’ll be interesting though, because on the one hand, Bo Ningen seem like fairly aware, independent-minded people, who are probably better-equipped temperamentally to deal with a major label than many Japanese underground types, but on the other hand, the clearer separation that exists in Japan between major and indie means that once a band is signed to someone like Sony, it becomes much more difficult for them to continue to play shows with some of the weirder and more interesting bands. This is a world where once a band signs to a major label, their earlier, indie releases get airbrushed out of their band history and their first major release becomes their official “debut”. Bo Ningen are in a slightly different position, since Sony are just licensing the album from their UK label, and their tours are still being organised by a guy with roots in the indie scene, but there will clearly be conflicting pressures on the group now, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
Another band that I tipped as ones to watch in 2012, and who I’ve subsequently tried to support via my label and events, was Hysteric Picnic, who have been working on new material lately and have recently come up with these two new tracks.
The group probably aren’t offering any prizes for those who can deduce the inspiration behind Birthday Party, and if the decidedly uncryptic title didn’t clue you in as to the influence of Nick Cave and co., the gothic, minor chord guitar clangs, wails and whistles of industrial noise, and doom-laden, monastic vocals should remove all doubt. That said, like pretty much everything Hysteric Picnic do, there’s a solid core of Joy Division to it as well, especially in the relentless, repetitive rhythm, delivered here in the form of the patient clatter of a drum machine.
On Chandelier, the group build around a synth loop that’s curiously, and almost certainly unintentionally, reminiscent of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by the Eurythmics. Like Birthday Party, the group approach it in a similarly doom-laden manner, although the guitars are happy to spend a lot of the time in the background, leaping to the fore every now and then in that particular reverb-heavy way that the band seem so fond of in order to punctuate moments of particular existential horror.
Compared to last year’s Abekobe (featured on my own label’s Dancing After 1AM compilation album), both songs adopt a more deliberate pace, employ noise more for atmosphere than impact, and bring melody to the fore, which suggests a group growing in confidence in their songwriting. It’s still all very lo-fi, which in this day and age is as much an aesthetic choice as anything else, but the less claustrophobic arrangements and increased willingness to let the music breath also hint at a group whose sound is growing in depth.
Not my writing, but my colleague Shawn Despres has a couple of features in today’s JT on interesting bands that I also recommend. The first is on Kyoto indie band Hotel Mexico, whose new album I think shows a growing maturity and some fine songwriting, and the second is on Kansai no wave trio the ZZZ’s (I hate the apostrophe, but the band are the ones who put it there), who were No.13 in my 2012 top 20, and whose gig at Club Asia I’ll actually be DJing at in just over a week. Both bands are ace, so please check them out.
Some people may have noticed that most of the links to Japan Times articles on here don’t work anymore. This is because the JT recently renewed its web site a couple of weeks ago, and while they seem to have imported all or most of the data from the old site to the new one, they don’t appear to have added any redirects for outside links, which means that everything you click just dumps you unceremoniously on the JT’s top page. Given that there are hundreds of JT links on this site as a result of my work for them, there’s no way I’m going to be able to go over this whole site fixing them. I’ve moaned about it to the web people, but I’m not holding out much hope. Sorry.
UPDATE: Have been checking with JT people and it seems to have been a glitch and all, or at least most, links seem to be functioning OK now. Hopefully things will stay this way now, but since it’s a new web site there may be future glitches, which will hopefully be sorted out similarly quickly.
Buddy Girl and Mechanic were a band who, off the back of a smart little demo CD and a couple of live performances, I tipped as ones to watch in 2012. Now my recommendations can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing, so it’s something of a relief that the guitar and synth-based quartet has survived long enough to present us with this self-titled debut album.
There’s something in the breathy, downtempo melodicism that’s a little reminiscent of Mazzy Star, although it’s really more like a Mazzy Star that’s having slow three-way sex with krautrock and psychedelic desert blues on a hot summer night, while the cracked neon sign flickers through the window of a cheap New Mexico motel room. Buddy Girl and Mechanic are sultry, sexy and hot, yet at the same time there’s something quite rigid, theoretical and European about how their music falls together. Fenix has a bit of Ege Bamyasi-era Can to it’s funky rattle and Satan’s Son recalls the laid-back confluence of blues and spacerock of early Spiritualized, while Ultra Witch Crafty Fab autobahns ahead ahead like a sexy Neu!
Yeah, I know I’m using the word “sexy” a lot in this review, but it’s a key word: there’s even a song on here called Sexy. And partly because of so much of the language of indie having been defined by socially awkward British 1980s outcasts and partly because of Japanese rock having its roots more in the theoretical and technical nature of jazz rather than the more primal forces at work in blues and R&B, the Japanese alternative scene has never really felt very comfortable with sex and never really been very good at articulating sexiness. As a result, Buddy Girl and Mechanic often seem like something being beamed in from another world rather than just a bunch of people performing on a stage a couple of feet away, and yet somehow it still works, which has a lot to do with the aforementioned krautrock influences, the mechanical and the sensual tussling for dominance in the songs, linked and made coherent by the languid psychedelia that overlays it all.
And yes, it’s very good. It’s atmospheric, the melodies are often spine-tingling, the arrangements are inventive, and most importantly, it sounds like nothing else in the Japanese indie and underground scene right now.