Monthly Archives: January 2014

Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.18 – group A – Initiation

Group A only started in 2012 but the industrial duo have been eagerly documenting their developing sound with two albums released in 2013 demonstrating the group’s honing of their conceptual and musical aspects. While February’s A was a collection of the material they had been developing more or less on the fly for their early live sets, Initiation is more of a concept album, built around the image of a cult initiation (hence the title) and emphasising the repetitive and ritualistic elements of their music. The title track is built around a tinny drum machine and a mantric chant, but as the album progresses it builds in buzzing, rough-edged EBM synths, eerie, heavily effected violin, and washes and waves of distortion, climaxing with the kosmische brain-trip of Trance and the postpunk/no wave-influenced Sioux. Initiation is a milestone in an extraordinarily rapid period of burgeoning artistic maturity and growth for this duo and while the live performance still retains more visceral power, Group A are now grappling with the album format with a confidence and conceptual development that few of their peers ever reach.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.19 – Rebel One Excalibur – Rebel One Excalibur

Rebel One Excalibur

CD, self-released, 2013

This eponymous album by Fukushima post-hardcore band Rebel One Excalibur is a winner not only for having the best band name of the year but for the brutal power and energy captured superbly on record by Seb Roberts of Crypt City. Epic, ten minute-long opening track Zanpano does a fantastic job of encapsulating a sample the band’s precision, intelligence and tightly controlled fury in one package, but this is just a starting point for explorations that each subsequent track takes further. Mada Kimetenai is a ponderous, shouty art-punk grind of the kind that Panicsmile do so well, although with a heavier, more progressive, almost metallic edge, while Big Business makes its way through harsh, percussive intro before eventually entering almost dub territory. It’s intense and utterly relentless listening, but with the inventiveness of a skilled torturer Rebel One Excalibur consistently find ways to inflict new and thrilling kinds of discomfort, to the point where the massive release of tension delivered by the almost straightforward punk number that closes the album feels transformative at the end of an emotionally exhausting ride.Rebel One Excalibur: Zanpano

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.20 – Glow and the Forest – Pheromone Chemicals

I wrote about this album back in September so check that out for a more detailed rundown, but to summarise, Pheromone Chemicals is a top notch indie rock album by an Anglo-American expat power trio with a knack for a melody and a keen intelligence in the way they go about constructing their music. Opening track Suspension Bridge is a relatively straightforward jangly indie rocker, while Banker is a short, plaintive tale with a bitter closing observation and closing track Aliens is a more complex but no less powerful beast. Glow and the Forest are a talented band with what seems to be instinctive songwriting ability, and for the last few years have been one of the hidden gems of the Tokyo indie scene.

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Top 20 releases of 2013: Intro

I’ve put off doing this for plenty long enough, so before January ends, I’d like to get started on counting down my top releases by Japanese or Japan-based artists of 2013. As with previous years, I’m basically sticking to releases with three or more tracks, I’m not imposing any particular genre restrictions although given this blog’s focus, it’s obviously going to be more or less entirely indie-biased. In addition, it’s obviously limited to albums that I’ve had a good listen to, and finally, this list and ranking is entirely subject to my own whims and on a different day might look totally different.

This means that singles like Merpeoples’ excellent Silent Sleep and Miu Mau’s (last year’s top placed band) magnificent Monochrome/Spring 7-inch aren’t included. It also means that Hikashu, who released two albums this year if we include the one they did with Charan Po Rantan, don’t feature simply because I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of their new material yet. Likewise I can’t assess Fukuoka indie quartet the Hearsays who I’ve been very excited about for a long time, Yokohama postpunk weirdniks Sayuu, and Tokyo indiepopsters Boyish (who featured last year) because I haven’t copies of their albums.Sugardrop: Breeze Flower

Because I decided to keep this list as a strict Top 20, there were a few albums by bands I very much like that I didn’t have space to include. On another day they might have been in there, and they remain highly recommended, so Pop-Office’s Portraits in Sea is one well worth checking out, as is Ykiki Beat’s Tired of Dreams. Hotel Mexico’s Her Decorated Post Love was another fine album that didn’t make the cut but on another day likely would have and if you haven’t heard it, you should go out and do that right now, as you should Sugardrop’s superb, shoegazetastic Yeah Right. As I said earlier, there’s a strong indie bias to this list, and while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z both put out genuinely good and highly recommended albums, neither album really stuck with me enough to warrant a place among my top 20 of the year. Sakanaction also put out another very good album and remain consistently the best “mainstream” Japanese rock band, but somehow their stuff still doesn’t quite jive with me the way I feel it should. It’s a top notch album, brimming with creativity and thoroughly deserving of its massive sales and huge popularity, but I don’t know. It’s a model example of an album that does everything right and shows signs of maybe even being a classic, but doesn’t make my heart sing the way my real favourites did. It’s good so listen to it and a lot of you will feel it in a way I just can’t quite. It’s not you, Sakanaction, it’s me.Sakanaction: Yoru no Odoriko

Last of all, and again as with previous years, I’m obviously not including albums I released myself through my Call And Response label, which means the brilliant Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) by Mir and Hysteric Picnic’s fantastic Cult Pops are out of contention, although of course both would be right up near the top if I were honest about my feelings for them.

Anyway, now that you’re primed, I’ll be starting the countdown from tomorrow, so get ready.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Yoshihide Ōtomo, “Amachan Theme”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is an unlikely mainstream hit for one of the world’s finest experimental free jazz musicians.
Yoshihide Ōtomo and the Amachan Special Big Band: “Amachan Theme”

Yoshihide Ōtomo is a name which will ring a bell for anyone who has dabbled in experimental Japanese music from the ‘90s. A pioneer in noise and free jazz, Ōtomo’s name can be placed alongside other great titans of experimental and free jazz music, from John Zorn, Glenn Branca, and Derek Bailey.

So imagine my surprise when he appeared on “Kōhaku Uta Gassen”, the annual end of the year music program on Japan’s NHK channel. The program has been a long tradition of Japanese New Years Eve, bringing together the year’s most popular acts. Naturally, the show attracts a wide demographic; not a place you would expect to see an avant-garde noise artist.

The performance was a fantastic finale to an extraordinary year for Ōtomo, who received significant mainstream attention (perhaps the most attention he has had in his entire career) for providing the theme song and score for the extremely popular NHK daytime drama, “Amachan”. The show revolves around a school girl from Tokyo, who moves to the Tohoku region where she becomes a local idol. She returns to Tokyo to try for the big leagues, finally returning to Tohoku after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March, 2011 to help revitalize the area.

Anyone familiar with Ōtomo’s work, particularly his jazz compositions under the Otomo Yoshihide Jazz Quintet/Ensemble/Orchestra moniker, will recognize the “Amachan” theme song and score as being distinctly his music. While the score is definitely more playful and fun than his experimental work, it oozes with Ōtomo’s sensibilities, from the sweeping, breathtaking brass sections, to the dissonant freak-outs accompanied by his brittle and instantly recognizable guitar tone. After a career of more than 30 years, Ōtomo is finally in the spotlight.

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