Monthly Archives: March 2013

Futtachi: Siam

I’ve been writing quite a lot about bands from Kagoshima recently, and part of the reason for that has to do with this band, Futtachi. Formed by Iguz from garage-punk lunatics Zibanchinka (whose album Hatsubai Chushi I released from my own Call And Response label) they’re my main contact in the Kagoshima music scene and as a result, they’ve been instrumental in introducing me to some of the best local bands. The band only formed in July 2012 and along with the song Kaiko no Oto, which they recorded for my Dancing After 1AM compilation, this new song is their first proper recording.

It’s one of those psychedelic tracks that crams about five different songs (one of which appears to be Creep by Radiohead) into one, chopping and changing at will between different melodies and rhythms, before just freaking the fuck out in a frenzy of wild soloing. The video also provides a great opportunity for Iguz to to what she does best, namely waving her arms about and glaring at the camera from behind a veil of jet black hair like she’s about to crawl out of the screen and murder you, but as a song in its own right Siam stands alone, powerfully marking the arrival of a distinctive new artist in a local scene that’s often overlooked in the wider Japanese indiesphere.

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Interview: SuiseiNoboAz

Another piece for MTV 81 that went up earlier this month was an interview I did with Tokyo indie rock trio SuiseiNoboAz (the headline of the article capitalises the wrong letter of the band name, but that should teach them for having weird capitalisation in the first place). There’s not much to say here other than that it was more interesting than I was expecting. Japanese indie bands don’t often have much to say for themselves, and can be infuriating in their insistence on answering every question in the vaguest possible way, but there were a couple of things that came out of this that surprised me with their frankness. The point about the album title and Ishihara’s explanation of the way he was feeling at the time was interesting, and if I’d been speaking to him directly rather than by email, or if there had been time for follow-up questions, I would have asked him whether it had anything to do with the 2011 earthquake — the album came out in June 2011, so it would have been coming together in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but at the same time, I think I agree with him that there was (and maybe still is) a lot of otaku-ish sentimentalism around the place (what I call “trauma porn”), and perhaps the immediate effect of a genuine disaster and tragedy it’s easy to see how real world events could show up the superficiality of that sort of thing. I don’t know if that’s where he was coming from, but at least, that’s how his comments chimed with me.

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Zokudams: Hana to Dokuro

Hana to Dokuro

CD, self-released, 2012

Another one of the handful of CDs I picked up in Kyushu earlier this year, this EP/mini-album by Kagoshima’s Zokudams was actually released about a year ago, but I’m writing about it here anyway because it’s a pretty confident collection of tight, well-produced songs that seem to fall somewhere between Number Girl-style 2000s alt-rock and quirky punk-pop new wave bubblegum. Singer and lead guitarist Witou’s occasionally tortured and meandering vocals are often set against the chirpy female backing vocals of the other members, best evidenced on the chirpy Chinoiserie of “O Ai Ni! Chugokugo” with the bouncy, ska-influenced chorus set against a more driving, punk-influenced verse, interspersed with some alt-rock guitar mangling. It’s well-recorded, and thoughout Hana to Dokuro, the songwriting is never less than highly commercial pop/rock, delivered with much more style, wit and imagination than you usually get from this kind of thing. Given the right kind of platform, (which, sadly, probably means somewhere far away from Kagoshima) Zokudams seem like the kind of band that could actually go somewhere.

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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Ninja Re Bang Bang

Over the past year or so, it seems that of Yasutaka Nakata’s two big mainstream producer/songwriter gigs, Perfume appear to have got the better deal on the singles, while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has tended to do better for herself on album tracks. Part of that might be down to him having spent more time with Perfume so he knows what kind of thing works with them, partly it might be something to do with them just being the bigger of the two artists from a commercial point of view, at least for now. Mostly though, I think it’s got something to do with the way that in contrast to Perfume’s modern and sophisticated image, Kyary’s appeal is based on her offbeat kookiness, and so her music works best when it’s a bit off the wall, whereas singles, especially ones designed for big ad campaigns, are naturally a bit wary of anything too odd.

Either her commercial backers are starting to feel more comfortable with the viability of Kyary’s weird side or Nakata’s getting better at working that aspect of her into a more mainstream context though, because since last Autumn’s Fashion Monster, things have been getting a bit more interesting on the singles front and Ninja Re Bang Bang might be her best single since her debut, Ponponpon.

Unlike some of the more intense moments of Plus-tech Squeeze Box-influenced sugar-rush mayhem on last year’s Pamyu Pamyu Revolution album, Ninja Re Bang Bang is a fairly straightforward piece of bubblegum pop with a formula diverging little from the one that Nakata seems to have established for the standard Kyary single — the bouncy rhythm with a bit of an off-beat and the cheap, early-2000s Mini-Moni synths — but while there’s superficially and structurally not that much different between this and some of her more mediocre singles like Candy Candy, Ninja Re Bang Bang has a bit more of a kick.Perfume: Voice

There’s a formula that Nakata seems to have hit upon with Perfume a while back, which involves taking the slick, modern electropop elements of their sound, feeding 70s/80s kayoukyoku and new wave melodies through it, and embellishing with toy technopop bleeps and bloops, with the end result of something both aggressively modern, recognisably classic, and retro-futurist all at the same time. It’s a sound early capsule flirted with too, but it’s most obvious in songs like Laser Beam, with its YMO-influenced Asiatica, or in the way the chorus of Voice is only a couple of notes shy of avant-pop weirdos Hikashu’s Pike.Hikashu: Pike

This combination of classic, modern and retro-futurist not only enriches the sound, but also hits buttons in audiences that are plugged directly into positive sensors in their brains, feeding the sensations of innocence, optimism and a burgeoning confidence in Japan’s own sophistication and global emergence that the late 70s and early 80s evoke. It’s a feeling that goes way beyond mere national nostalgia too: it’s a sound that hooks in neatly to a lot of the positive notions of Japanese pop culture that exist abroad, sidestepping the uncomfortable and infantile cryptosexual fantasies of otaku culture and painting an image of Japan as the colourful, ultra-modern Oriental utopia it still in many ways is (and which Korea is rapidly in the business of usurping).

So to come back to Ninja Re Bang Bang, it kicks off with a little 8-bit synth flourish and then dives straight into one of those YMO-ish choruses from the starting gun, it pulls on all the retro Asian pop clichés it can in the instrumental breaks and ties it all down to the established Kyary rhythmical formula. There’s something like a verse in there somewhere that does fuck all melodically, but the song dispenses with it as quickly as it can in order to get back to the crucial business of just repeating that insanely catchy chorus over and over again, and the result is an utterly straightforward and quite lovely piece of bubblegum pop.

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Lo-shi: Flasque

Flasque

Spice jar, self-released, 2013

In a world where Mos Def can release an album as a t-shirt and bands all over the place are releasing music in the form of tote bags and worse, the idea of releasing music in an unusual format is not without precedent, but there’s still something rather charming in the sheer, dadaist  pointlessness of Tokyo-based French electronic duo Lo-shi‘s decision to sell their debut album, Flasque, as a memory stick in a spice jar (with real spices).

The message-in-a-bottle delivery form is quite apposite as well, given the plaintive, drawn-out, alien drum’n’bass/krautrock (kraut’n’bass?) instrumentals that the album comprises. While the beats reveal Lo-shi as at least in part children of the 90s dance music revolution, the sweeping synths and reverb-heavy guitars of Piston also point to a duo of only partially closeted goths, and the distant telex of Calling Mir is a love letter to Tokyo’s loneliest synth-pop romantics (note to bands: If you want to get a good review on this blog, make a reference to Mir on your record). The music ranges from the grinding beats of the opening Rampant, through the propulsive Underworld-meets-The Shadows of Mother K, to the final, ambient docking of Yu-kaku, demonstrating familiarity and confidence with both electronic music and guitar pop without the two ever seeming to jar. Taken together, the six tracks and fifty-odd minutes of Flasque make for an atmospheric and curiously affecting transmission from a lost soul, an SOS from a deserted traffic island.


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The history of Japanese alternative music

Here’s a piece I did for MTV 81 on Japanese alternative music. Personally, I think this should have been about five different, shorter articles, but my brief was basically to cover the entire history of alternative music in Japan in the space of one piece, so the end result is both too long and too short really. Still, I’m glad I was able to do it, and while it’s a bit dense, I think I covered a lot of important stuff and it’s a good summary of what’s what in Japanese alternative music.

Also, anyone who’s familiar with my style of writing will know that the closing “Now you know your J-rock, so ROCK ON” sign-off is not the sort of thing I say. It’s an MTV-ish editorial insert that was stuck in there because my original draft fizzled out in a pretty lame way. Obviously I’d have rather worked around it in another way, but to be honest, given the stuff I got away with in the article (Hadaka no Rallizes’ terrorist hijackings, Jun Togawa’s wartime imagery), I can’t really complain.

The bit about the 70s rock generation is stuff anyone who’s read Julian Cope’s lovely Japrocksampler will be familiar with, and it’s not really my area. I had to be a bit careful there, because Cope is notoriously freewheeling with the truth when an interesting lie will do the job, so I focused on the music and the more widely-reported factoids. Hadaka no Rallizes/Les Rallizes Denudes came up in my last Japan Times piece as well, because Kentaro Nakao (ex. Number Girl) suggested that they prefigured shoegaze in a way, and it’s interesting the way that, partly perhaps due to Cope’s book and the renewed Western attention it focused on them, they have been gradually gaining status as an influence in the underground scene once more.

Punk and especially new wave are my main areas of interest in Japanese music, and I think I gave them a fair shout in the article without me needing to add much here. One bit I thought was interesting was the way new wave infiltrated the mainstream. Miharu Koshi was a full-on 70s “new music” type in the vein of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya, but the shift to technopop she made in the 80s clearly owes just as much to the Plastics as it does to more established and respectable pop statesmen like YMO.

It’s also worth briefly re-emphasising here the importance of Halmens, not only in being ace, but also for kickstarting the careers of Jun Togawa and Maki Nomiya, the latter of which leads on neatly to Shibuya-kei.

Now Shibuya-kei is an area I feel particularly uncomfortable writing about. It’s so vaguely defined musically and seems to have much more to do with these little networks of friends and various assorted hipsters who just used to hang out at galleries, fashion events, record stores and exclusive bars together in the early 90s. Someone like me attempting to write authoritatively about it is inviting ridicule upon myself, so all I could really give was an outsider’s view based on what it looks like with the distorting eye of history.

There are two key things about Shibuya-kei, I think. Firstly, there’s the way big record stores give a lot of leeway to individual store buyers. This was important in creating the buzz around Shibuya at that time, and it continues to this day. When I was in Nagoya the other week, I heard that the buyer from Tower Records in Sakae had put up a massive display for the new album by hardcore mentalists Gauze, right next to a similar sized display for Ayumi Hamasaki. When my own Dancing After 1AM compilation came out last year, Tsutaya in Kumamoto had a large, prominent display for the album, despite it being a limited run of only 500 copies with virtually no promotion.

The second thing about Shibuya-kei is that at the time, it encompassed all sorts of music, from minimalist, lo-fi garage-punk to heavy, psychedelic spacerock. This eclecticism, as well as the whole incestuous galleries-and-hipsters network is what still exists behind a lot of the Tokyo indie (rather than alternative rock, which I think is a slightly different thing) scene.

I’ve written before about the importance of the early 2000s triumvirate of Supercar/Quruli/Number Girl and the shadow they cast over alt-rock of the past decade. Just looking at old Number Girl clips  and comparing them to the kind of thing that passes for alternative music in the charts nowadays really drives home what an achievement it was that something as intense and raw as that could be so successful. It’s really a feature of the time — lots of money in the music industry, and with Shibuya-kei having largely dissolved, labels throwing the cash at all kinds of things in search of the next hit — and everything since then has been sanding off the edges without really moving that far forward.

Groups like Negoto are I think pretty decent bands, and it’s unfair to criticise them for not being Number Girl, but they’re obviously children of that generation, and the result is also clearly rather sanitised and poppified. In this sense, they too are a feature of their time — not much money in the music industry, and a greater fear on the part of even the major labels’ alternative imprints like Ki/oon of anything that might be inaccessible.

I wonder too if there’s also a difference in the record-buying public. The early 2000s kids were the ones who had grown up in the bubble and then come of age in the “lost decade” (or rather the first lost decade). They were facing insecurity and the collapse of what must have seemed a prosperous, secure future, and there was a genuine angst and anxiety. The generation coming through now have never known anything but this low-level, largely comfortable sense of decline, and the anguished yowls of insecurity have been replaced by whimsical reflection on their state.

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The Murder Case: Bobby Barrows / Yass

Bobby Barrows

CD, self-released, 2013

Yass

CD, self-released, 2013

The decision of Kagoshima garage-punk fuzzmaniacs The Murder Case to release two 15-to-20-minute mini-albums on the same day instead of one 35-minute full album is an odd one, but back to back listens to Bobby Barrows and Yass reveal that they really are two very different albums. Of the two, Bobby Barrows has more songs, is shorter, and more fun. The longest track, Bermuda Klaxon, is a perfect three pop minutes, while the shortest, Twist, is barely over one. The whole thing fizzes with fuzzy, scuzzy, distorted, high octane garage rock with vocals that sound like the result of a lifetime spent in indentured service to cheap whiskey and cheaper cigarettes.The Murder Case: Twist

Yass is where the band show what they maybe think of as their more sensitive side. The songs are slower, longer, and they flirt dangerously with the fringes of melody, although the distortion and grinding rock brutality are barely compromised a jot by this fuzzed-out introspection. If anything, the greater space the arrangements leave provides an arena for the band to throttle and abuse their instruments in new and different ways, as on Kill Me Baby. In a way, Bobby Barrows can be seen as the raucous, destructive all-night party with Yass as the following day’s throbbing hangover and whiskey breakfast.

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