Monthly Archives: January 2014

Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.15 – Umiuma – Kaiba

This debut album by Sendai indie-jazz-prog trio Umiuma combines skittering drums, intricate, kaleidescopic guitar, and sweet, off-kilter vocal melodies, with arrangements that swing wildly between technical, tightly focussed, rhythmically complex instrumental segments, bursts of sheer rock-out energy and moments of sheer, blissful pop. At the poppiest extreme there’s Kangaroo, a quirky melody reminiscent of 1960s French pop, built around a fairly conventional chord pattern, with Masumi Horiya’s vocals coming on like Kahimi Karie. Kiiroi Michi and opening track Era see the band playing with more dissonant and dynamic elements, while most songs combine all these elements to varying degrees. For all their technical prowess, however, Umiuma are never self indulgent. Most of the songs on Kaiba hover around a restrained two or three minutes in length, but the group’s boundless, restless energy ensures that each of them is packed with ideas and sweet surprises. Guitarist Yuhi Kanda might rely a little too much on one particular, clean guitar sound where the use of a wider range of effects would serve the overall texture of the album better, and bringing the male band members for backing vocals at certain points would bring another element into the dynamic, but speculating about what else the band might include shouldn’t detract from the rich tapestry of sounds, musical ideas and melodies that is already here. Kaiba is a thrilling ride.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.16 – Jesus Weekend – Agleam

Agleam

CD, Fancy That!, 2013

One of the most fascinating and hard-to-categorise bands to emerge over the past year or so has been Osaka’s Jesus Weekend. Once I’d got over my disappointment that they weren’t a gospel-themed Vampire Weekend tribute group, what I discovered was a lo-fi band playing a mixture of fragile, low-key guitar pop songs and mysterious synth instrumentals. I’ve heard them compared to Stereolab, Broadcast and Laika, although given that the band’s members would have been in pre-school when those bands were making waves, a direct influence seems tenuous. At first glance it seems half-formed and untidy, but you find yourself coming back anyway as the depth and richness in ideas can’t help but filter through.

The two sides of Jesus Weekend’s sound are best illustrated by the sparkling, guitar-driven, whisper-voiced indiepop of Puberty Bell and the eerie John Carpenter soundtrack soundalike of Animal Suicides, with the opening Virgin acting as the nexus, the central node that demonstrates both sensibilities and spins them off in their respective directions. Agleam is a mysterious album and Jesus Weekend are a mysterious band. After listening you may be none the wiser about what lies beneath, but successive visits to their world are no less compelling for that.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.17 – Perfume – Level3

Level3

CD, Universal Japan, 2013

Perfume albums have for a while now been basically collections of singles strung together with a few filler tracks and B-sides without much sense of cohesion, and it’s easy to see with Level3 how this album’s length, track listing and timing were determined by the same set of commercial demands. Where Level3 stands out is in how despite these constraints, producer Yasutaka Nakata works the material together into a form that actually feels like a proper album. The last couple of albums have seen the increasing use of album mixes of older tracks, although on Level3’s predecessor JPN the mixes were largely unnecessary and on the earlier Triangle they were interesting more as discrete items than as part of the album’s larger context. Here, the three reworked tracks are cornerstones that dictate the pace and rhythm of the album, in particular the new versions of Spring of Life and Magic of Love that kick off a run of tracks that recalls the relentless dance party of Capsule’s World of Fantasy, climaxing in the monstrous monument to hedonism that is Party Maker, just one of many “how the hell did they get away with that?” moments that the album offers.Perfume: 1mm

There are missteps like the way the cutesy kids’ song Mirai no Museum kills the flow of the aforementioned run of party tracks, and Point is still a musical atrocity no matter what anyone says, although pairing it up with Furikaeru to Iru yo was a smart move that limits its damage to the album as a whole. These bum notes are far overwhelmed by the quality of the whole though. Like all the best albums, Level3 has two sides irrespective of its actual physical format (at 65 minutes it wouldn’t fit on a single piece of vinyl anyway) with the more subdued second side emphasising the kind of sophisticated pop with retro-futurist faux-Asiatic elements that have increasingly coloured much of Nakata’s pop songwriting and strongly recall the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto, particularly in album closer Dream Land. It’s too long but we all know how to use the programme and skip functions if we need to and in any case, that shouldn’t detract from this being the best J-Pop album by an easy margin in a year that, in the also Nakata-produced Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and strong albums by Momoiro Clover Z and Sakanaction, gave us a surprisingly strong field of mainstream records.

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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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