Monthly Archives: September 2013

Guardian Song of the Week: Melt-Banana, “The Hive”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is the triumphant comeback of one of the premier acts in the Japanese underground.

Melt-Banana: The Hive

Any connoisseur of Japanese underground music will be familiar with Melt-Banana. Going 20 years strong, they have managed to gather a cult-following around the world, thanks to touring Europe and the States relentlessly, with luminaries such as Mike Patton, John Peel, and Tool as part of their legion of loyal fans.

The band triumphantly return this week with Fetch, their eighth studio album. Now touring as a duo, they’ve come a long way from their Steve Albini-produced, tinnitus-inducing cacophony of their early days, with now a heavy emphasis on electronics and danceable beats (and still just as loud as ever).

“The Hive” is the lead track from Fetch, and has everything you would expect from a Melt-Banana track, and then some. Guitarist Agata’s sounds seem to be beamed down from space, the line between guitar riffs and samples becoming more blurred than ever – music pundits claiming the guitar to be dead should take a few notes. Vocalist Yako provides the searing track with a poppy, sing-along melody, until delivering the goods with the meticulous precision she’s become known for.

Fetch is a culmination of a band who has been through everything – from a constantly rotating roster of drummers, running over deer while on tour in America, and earthquakes and nuclear melt-downs. Don’t let the slimmed down line-up fool you; this is the tightest, most daring the band has ever been.


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Guardian Song of the Week: Puffyshoes, “Goodbye to You”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is from a much-loved duo who are leaving us with so much unfulfilled potential.Puffyshoes: Goodbye to You

The joy you get listening to Puffyshoes is always tinged with an edge of frustration at all the could’ve beens in their career. For all their fiercely lo-fi ethos, their songwriting has an undeniable power to make people swoon, lovestruck, and yet they’ve never quite been able to capitalise on the goodwill their charm and sweet, sweet tunes have brought them in the Tokyo indie scene through which they have for the past few years drifted like ghosts. The announcement that their newly released cassette album will be their last gives an extra bite to the 60s girl group melancholy of songs like Goodbye to You.

A lot of bands (the Vivian Girls have obvious parallels here) use the aesthetics of lo-fi and indie fanzine culture, and as mainstream pop music becomes ever more corporatised and alien, the appeal of something more wilfully down-to-earth in its production values and tunesmithery is obvious, but with Puffyshoes, you get the sense that it goes deeper: that the band exists as a kind of window into a faintly dysfunctional private world, like the “Fourth World” of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures”. In that sense, the goodbye that the duo bid in this song could be read as both a heartwrenching farewell to each other, and to a future that they deserved but never seemed to really want.

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Local Scenes: Akihabara, Shinjuku, Shimokitazawa, Koenji

There is a series of introductions/guides to local scenes that I’ve been contributing to for MTV 81 that I realise I haven’t been posting up here. The series started with Akihabara, because that was the easiest one for me to sell. For those who don’t know, it’s the otaku place, known for electronics, anime, maid cafés and child pornography. From a music point of view, it’s basically idol stuff, if you’re into that sort of thing, although Club Goodman, out the other side of the station from the worst of the weirdness, is a great indie/alternative venue.

Creepy dolls in Akihabara

Creepy dolls in Akihabara

The next one I did was Shinjuku, which is pretty much the best place for punk in Japan. It’s so overwhelming with its towers, vast department stores and bright lights that you can kind of forget that it has culture as well. I got some tips from a mate about jazz clubs, of which there are also many. Shinjuku is also home to the biggest and most shamelessly in-your-face red light district in Japan (which is going to be wiped out in time for the 2020 Olympics, along with all the cool culture that nestles in alongside it).

Shinjuku: All tastes catered to

Shinjuku: All tastes catered to

My friend and colleague James Hadfield did Shibuya, and another mate of mine, Mike Sunda, did Yokohama’s club scene, while my latest one just went up.

This most recent one was particularly close to my heart being as it dealt partly with Koenji, the most awesomest place on Earth, which has been my home for over nine years now. I also talked about Shimokitazawa, since my editor felt that doing two different articles on indie scene hangouts would break up the concept too much for readers, and he has a point.

Koenji Penguin House. Fact: I had my wedding party here. One of my favourite tiny venues.

Koenji Penguin House. Fact: I had my wedding party here. One of my favourite tiny venues.

Shimokitazawa is a really nice neighbourhood too, despite the ongoing plans of The Man to sanitise and homogenise it, and while I often slag it off as a teenage hipster theme park, I don’t really mean it. It’s probably a friendlier place for outsiders than Koenji, where you really have to know what you’re looking for, and really both towns are pretty similar.

There are differences in the sort of music they cater to, although two bit snoreballs indie bands sound the same wherever you go in Tokyo. Koenji is better for offbeat acoustic acts, off-their-head avant-garde weirdness, heavy psychedelia, fucked-up hardcore and artpunk, that sort of thing, while Shimokitazawa is actually useful as a stepping stone for bands who might go on to get reasonably popular. I think it was the writer Jun Miura who once said, when asked what advice he had for young bands trying to make it big, simply, “Get out of Koenji.”

No Nukes: Tit Cai in Shimokitazawa (left) and Salon de Vamp in Koenji (right)

No Nukes: Tit Cai in Shimokitazawa (left) and Salon de Vamp in Koenji (right)

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Guardian Song of the Week: BiS-Kaidan “Suki SukiDaisuki”

British newspaper The Guardian is starting a bloggers’ network introducing new music from around the world weekly. Ian and Ryotaro already do the “Quit Your Band!” Japanese indie zine together in addition to their pop culture blogging exploits, and they have teamed up to push Japan’s corner in this new project. Ryotaro has taken the lead with this first post, revisiting BiS-Kaidan’s ‘Suki Suki Daisuki’:BiS-Kaidan:

Suki Suki Daisuki Japan is currently in an “idol” boom, and they’re seemingly creating groups catering to every type of subculture imaginable. In the midst of it all is BiS. Branding themselves as the “anti-idol”, they’re the group tailor-made for fans of 80s hardcore punk, Einstürzende Neubauten, and David Lynch films. Here,
with Japanese noise rock legends Hijokaidan, they’re covering “Suki Suki Daisuki”, a song originally by 80s new wave icon Jun Togawa.

The track is another example of BiS’s recurring juxtaposition between underground aesthetics and a cute, “school girl” idol image. While the song choice and collaborator give BiS a lot of underground cred, the song loses the original’s subversive punk feminist message when an “idol group” sings it. Listening to the two back to back is a good look into how subculture — and society — in Japan has changed in the last 20 years.
Jun Togawa: Suki Suki Daisuki

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Hyacca: Telephone Number (2013 ver.)

As regular readers of this blog will already know, Hyacca are one of those bands I find it impossible to be objective about even if being objective were something music writers should particularly aspire towards anyway (it isn’t). Anyway, to reiterate: I love this band, I released both their albums through my label and regularly book their gigs when they visit Tokyo, so while I might tag this as “review”, all I’m really doing is telling you to go listen.

I wrote about Hyacca’s song Uneko a few months ago, which is a track I released and the cheap, tacky video to which I shot, but Telephone Number is a slightly different case. I had nothing to do with the video and while the original version of the song appeared on the band’s debut album Sashitai about seven years ago, this is a new recording that the band decided to do for no real reason as far as I can work out.Hyacca: Telephone Number

Anyway, in the absence of a new album from them, a new version of a great old song is nonetheless welcome. For many years, Telephone Number used to close out every Hyacca live set and frequently devolved into utter chaos and violence (that role is mostly taken by Hanazono now) and it’s one of the songs where the band lay aside the tricky rhythms and disorientating song structures that characterise some of their other work in favour of just pummelling you. The drums and bassline just drive into you from the start, and one of the guitars locks into a percussive loop. In Hyacca’s catalogue of songs, it’s also probably the track that makes most use of the call-and-response vocals that they often deploy to great effect and a rare song whose lyrics are entirely in English or some approximation of it, not that you’d know beneath the squall and squee of the feedback and fuzz.

So as I said, my feelings about this band and this song were carved out long ago, but since this new version just emerged, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to share this with y’all and do a bit of cheerleading for this brilliant group. As you were.


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Hitodama: Kujaku (Screwed & Chopped)

Hitodama is the solo project of Tokyo-based British experimental musician Dave McMahon, and occupies a position at the more ambient pole of a range that runs through the sometimes blistering soundscapes he creates with the band Jahiliyyah to the ferocious noise rants he co-creates as half of Shigai.

Kujaku (Screwed & Chopped) is a remix of a track originally recorded for Wigan-based On The Grind Records’ limited-edition Colours compilation cassette, with the original’s synth loop slowed down to about half speed, and gradually overwhelmed by echo, distortion and noise that eventually resolves itself into the recognisable sound of a guitar. This isn’t harsh, confrontational noise though: it’s far too romantic and nostalgic for that, coming at you in washes of melody and fuzz, like mist rolling in over hills or TV static in a dream. In fact, more than anything (apart from the obvious hat tip to DJ Screw) the way this track resolves itself reinforces in my mind the continuing relevance of frequent Clear And Refreshing reference points Flying Saucer Attack and their distinctive brand of rural psychedelia.

While Kujaku (Screwed & Chopped) is defiantly ambient, it’s when you turn up the volume that the richness of its layers and textures, as well as the care and attention McMahon lavishes on the mid, stands out. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and listen LOUD.

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Book update: 60s rock

One of the worst things in the world of blogging is blog posts apologising for the recent lack of blog posts: those short notes saying, “I’m still here, don’t leave me, I promise I’ll write more once these unspecified events pass over,” that always seem more like attempts by the writer to convince themselves than anything else.

In any case, this is one of those posts. After a productive May, posting has dropped off rather, firstly due to a series of live events I was organising, plus the release of the Quit Your Band! zine in July. The other thing that’s preying on my time is that I’ve started writing a book.

I’ve been nervous about mentioning it on here for fear of jinxing it, but the good people at Awai Books have been very encouraging and seem genuinely enthusiastic about the project, plus I’ve started making some meaningful progress with writing now, so it seems as good a time as any to mention it.

The content is primarily based around the same kind of stuff I write on here and in my Japan Times column, although I’m doing some additional research and trying to set up interviews with a few musicians and local specialists to fill in the gaps. A number of much more professional and respectable people than I have already written books in English on Japanese music so it’s going to be difficult to make my own offering stand out, but hopefully readers will find something of interest in it.

It won’t be ready for a long time yet (next year perhaps, and probably not early), but since the process of writing it is causing me to listen to all kinds of things, I’ll be posting updates with notes and comments on some of the bands I’ve been researching or writing about so the place doesn’t look too dead, and I’ll continue to try to post new stuff whenever it comes up.The Tempters: Tell Me More

I was looking at the 60s most recently, and thinking about Group Sounds. For those who don’t know, Group Sounds (“GS”) was the term applied to bands that sprung up in Japan in the wake of The Beatles’ legendary 1966 gig at the Nippon Budokan. The Tigers, The Tempters, The Spiders and The Mops were among the best known. There’s a lot of nice stuff, but for me, the only one that really stands out (and that really stands up to modern scrutiny) was The Golden Cups.The Golden Cups: This Bad Girl

The rough edged garage fuzz their recordings have really makes a lot of their contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Kenji Sawada) look like the weedy sellouts they were (check out the proto-Sonic Youth freakout in The Golden Cups’ version of Hey Joe). One thing I thought was interesting though, was how despite the way the progression of 60s rock’n’roll is usually presented as a shift from “eleki” (surf-style instrumental music influenced by The Ventures) to GS, there was a fair amount of overlap, and some of the leading practitioners of eleki, like Takeshi Terauchi, produced fascinating and brutal work, what I guess you’d call surfadelic music, in the late 60s.Takeshi Terauchi & The Bunnys: Tsugaru Eleki Bushi

I suppose the distinction I’d make though, is that I don’t think eleki and GS should really count as “Japanese rock”. The form is too deeply rooted in foreign forms and relies too much on cover versions, or else artists just allowed themselves to be coopted into mainstream Japanese pop. For me, The Jacks are where a distinctive Japanese rock music really starts. Their most famous song, Marianne, is an amazing achievement. Like if American rock’n’roll had gone straight from the Everly Brothers to The Velvet Underground, it really must have scared the shit out of people in 1968.The Jacks: Marianne

Anyway, I’m not really writing it in any kind of systematic order, so my next update might be on something completely unrelated and who knows when it’ll be, but this is my plan for now. Keep ’em peeled.


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