Monthly Archives: February 2014

CAR-99 – V/A: 1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005

1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005

CD, Call And Response, 2005

This is the first part in a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

Finding my way into the Japanese music scene was a slow process of trial and error. There was next to no information in English on what was going on, and precious little even in Japanese. Promotion was largely done through flyers either handed out personally at gigs or distributed by venues in packs at the door (which quickly made their ways, unread, into the bin), and bands were at a pretty primitive stage when it came to the Web, contacting fans via email, and spamming each others’ BBS pages. The advent of Myspace in 2003 provided the opportunity to check out bands’ music before listening, but it was mostly treated as just another BBS.

Anyway, the result of this was that I felt my way blindly through the live music scene, discovering bands by following other bands to their gigs and checking out who they played with. It was a habit I got into out of necessity but it’s still the main way I find stuff — the thought of spending hours scouring Soundcloud for music seems like such a joyless way of discovering music, not to mention the way Soundcloud’s format is inherently biased towards certain types of beedroom indietronica at the expense of bands with genuine stage presence and energy.

Anyway, 1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005 was the result of my first two or three years crawling through the live music scene. Listening back over it now, a very naive compilation, and I can feel my younger self’s dizzy and slightly confused enthusiasm in the way the track list barrels back and forth between all sorts of mad sounds. Something similar still exists in chaotically thrown-together free or CD/R projects like that Black Sabbath cover album I did recently, but anything I’d press professionally nowadays would probably be more poised and less giddy, or in a more critical way, more self-conscious.

You can also see some of my early conceptual idealism in there. The catalogue number is CAR-99 and right from the start, I had this idea, nicked from Sarah Records, that regardless of what happened, the label would end after 100 releases. After eight years, I’m only a quarter of the way towards that even with free downloads and stuff, but it’s a rule and I’m sticking to it. There’s also the way it’s divided into “phases”, which was copied (I think) from Julian Cope’s album Jehovahkill, and which was a nod to the distinction vinyl used to make between the two sides (for some reason something I associate very closely with Gordon Giltrap’s album Visionary). The decision to stick “2005” in the title was a deliberate piece of self-destructive inbuilt obsolescence. It was always intended to be a snapshot of a time and place, and I wanted that limitation embedded in the title even if it put people off buying it. I know it wasn’t smart, but sometimes it’s more important to be right than to be smart.

Anyway, “Phase 1” was mostly punk and underground stuff. Deracine were this amazing and still very original hardcore band from Fukuoka who had settled in Tokyo and made this hyperkinetic punk-noise racket with drums, bass and a table full of effects pedals, samplers and children’s toys, with these wonderfully camp, affected vocals. Uhnellys are one of only a few of the bands on 1-2-3-Go! who are still around (Call And Response compilations can be a kiss of death) and they’ve gone from strength to strenghth to the point where they’re really quite famous now. It’s a claim to fame of mine that Call And Response were the first label to release anything of theirs, although they’d self-released one or two CDs or CD/Rs before. Anyway, they’re a wonderful but hard to describe duo, based around a series of loops made on a delay pedal. They’re far more sophisticated than this nowadays, but there’s a rawness in the track they did here that I feel is still very appealing. Saladabar were a fake-Hawaiian punk-influenced jazz-prog band led by former Natsumen drummer Yuuki Yashiro, and Usagi Spiral A are still going, now augmented by guitarist Matsuoka, formerly of the brilliant no wave band Elevation. Usagi are basically this relentless, brutal wall of Krautrock/postpunk noise that just pummels you until they get tired, break all their equipment or get the plug pulled on them by the venue and thrown out. Meanwhile Drive to the Forest in a Japanese Car were a more straightforward and song-based postpunk band in a sort of Gang of Four style (although the name is a PiL reference).Deracine: Clap Your hands — Doesn’t feature on this compilation but gives a good sense of the kind of band they were. Also, if you look closely, you can see Ponta from The Mornings and probably a bunch of other Tokyo underground scene faces in the audience.

“Phase 2” was more new wave and technopop-influenced. Audipop were one of the bands on the cult classic compilation Tokyo New Wave of New Wave ’98 that alunched the career of Polysics, although they were always at heart more of a Weezer-ish college rock band, and you can see both influences on the track here. Mosquito were one of the most important bands for me in my early discovery of the Japanese live scene, and their unclassifiable jumble of influences did more than anything else to demolish my Anglo-American indie rock frame of reference when trying to understand Japanese bands. Lie Lie is a classic piece of oddball avant-pop, bringing together catchy and noisy elements in a way that’s joyous and celebratory in a way few bands I’ve discovered since have managed. The bass player used to bring a box onstage that he’d step up onto when he did the little funk bass solo in this song. The other song on here, Momoiro, is Mosquito at their epic best, sounding like three completely different songs jammed together. Frottage (named after the art style, not the sexual perversion) shared some members with Mosquito, but were more firmly musically rooted in Shibuya-kei, while Shoot My Disco’s track is a another genuine oddity, combining shoegaze and rap in a way I’d never heard before and never have since. That sort of willful eclecticism and battering together of genres is something people still do, but it’s something I mostly associate with the early 2000s: bands influenced by the mix-and-match approach of Shibuya-kei, but needing to rock out at the same time. The last track is by Miami, who were just one of the most original groups I’ve ever encountered in Japan. A sort of technopop/rap duo with violin, but that doesn’t really describe quite what a distinctive, bouncy proposition they were. They could have been huge but their first proper mini-album came too late and didn’t quite hang together the way their earlier self-released recordings had, so the momentum ebbed away and they split up. You can hear the version of their song Shiratama Disco I released above, but I was surprised to discover this idol group cover version of it from just a couple of months ago. It’s nowhere near as good as the original, but it shows how far idol music has come if they’re covering Call And Response releases!

I should also add about one band who appeared on both “phases”: Skyfisher. They were another Tokyo New Wave of New Wave ’98 band, and the two tracks on 1-2-3-Go! catch them on each side of a transition. The first, Musubetsu Bop, is them at the pinnacle of their Japanese new wave revivalist period, while the second, Nigotta Kanshoku, sees them moving more towards dance-punk. Leader Takashi Nakayama later formed a more improvisational collective called LABSiCK Man-Machine ReMiX, styled as a sort of !!!-style outfit, with music that was often wildly different from show to show.

Anyway, as I said, most of the bands split up in the eyars after this compilation, although a few remain going. Uhnellys became pretty famous, Usagi Spiral A are still going, Watanabe from Frottage is keeping the project going and seems to be doing lots of Vocaloid stuff at the moment. Nakayama from Skyfisher is still making music, and rumour has it that Korehiko Kazama of Deracine is making music again after quitting to become a philosopher for a few years. Audipop are still nominally a going concern, although with family concerns ensuring that their gigs are few and far between. For me, this album was a very steep learning curve and I did lots wrong with it, but it helped teach me which wrong things I should keep doing and which ones were just silly. It definitely helped streamline and simplify the process for subsequent releases, although it took a heavy toll on my personal life that I was lucky to recover from. As I said, it’s weird listening to it now, and quite bittersweet for me, but I think mostly sweet.

1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005 is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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A bit about Call And Response Records and some polite begging

I touched on this in the introduction to my Top 20 countdown of 2013’s best Japanese music, but let me just explain myself in a bit more detail. When evaluating and reviewing music, I try to be fair to the artists as well as personally honest, and then on top of that, I try to put everything into some sort of context. It’s a balancing act, but it’s a necessary one to try to make, even if it’s not always possible to carry it off perfectly. At the same time I am involved with a lot of different activities in the Japanese indie and underground scenes, including running my own small label, Call And Response Records. As a rule, I don’t write about Call And Response artists as often as and never in the same way I do other bands because obviously my relationship with the band means I’m compromised; however, there’s a paradox there because the fact that I poured so much of my own time, energy and money into these artists is directly down to how much I love them. That time, energy and money both compromises me and stands as testimony to my sincerity (although I realise that sincerity and honesty are by no means the same thing).

Anyway, I’m going to continue posting the usual pieces on new Japanese music, discussions around my other music writing work and musings on classic pop and rock, but I hope you’ll forgive me for getting a bit selfish. My income derives entirely from writing and music (in large part writing about music), and it probably won’t be that surprising to learn that it doesn’t amount to much. Now I’m going to spare you another one of those dreary navel-gazing posts from journalists or music industry types bemoaning how free content on the Web is destroying their industry and rather than resort to begging for donations (which in any case is illegal through PayPal Japan), I hope instead that over the past few years (more than ten years if we count the original site) of writing Clear And Refreshing I’ve enough credit in the bank to ask my readers to indulge me in a bit of self promotion.

While writing my 2013 Top 20 series, I didn’t include any of my own label’s releases because firstly it would have devalued the list, and secondly, I’d in any case have been unable to honestly assess what position they should go in the ranking. So instead, I’d like to separately do a rundown of key Call And Response releases, talking a little about each disc from a personal and involved stance rather than affecting any sort of journalistic distance. Obviously anyone wishing to buy the CD would be doing me, and I humbly suggest also themselves, a huge favour. Most of it will eventually make its way onto iTunes, and I will no doubt be posting suitably caveat- and apology-laden updates whenever that occurs, but the CDs are available now at this very moment.

The response I’ve had to the free Valentine’s compilation I posted on February 14th has been very generous, so if only a few people who enjoyed that album were to buy some of the official releases I’ve put out over the years, it would be a world of help and greatly appreciated. Yes, I know I’m sounding needy; I’ll stop there.

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A Valentine’s gift from Call And Response Records

Every couple of years or so, my label Call And Response Records likes to put together a compilation project for Valentine’s Day, usually themed around cover versions of one band or another. The idea is always to do something lo-fi and throw together all sorts of things, regardless of genre or recording quality and to release it only in a limited fashion, either as a CD/R or download. Bands are encouraged to spend as little time on it as possible and just to mess around and have fun, although this is usually a pretty futile thing to ask given the neurotic perfectionism of most musicians we know. In any case, the result is always going to be more or less lo-fi.

I’m not sure where the idea of asking every band to cover Black Sabbath’s Paranoid came from, but I’m pretty sure it was partly inspired by the compilation A Houseguest’s Wish, in which 19 bands took turns covering Wire’s Outdoor Miner (and indeed Wire’s own album The Drill, where the band did numerous covers of their own song). The decision to pick Paranoid as a song came out of an ongoing obsession with Black Sabbath that the Quit Your Band! zine’s editorial team developed (and which culminated in our decision to rate albums using a system called the “Sabbath Scale”). It’s a good choice of song I think because it’s so utterly, utterly stupid and simple that it leaves huge amounts of room for interpretation by expanding, elaborating, or honing it in various ways. A similarly well known song like War Pigs or Iron Man would have imposed itself a bit too much on the artist and been less flexible in its scope for interpretation.

I also think the idea of a whole load of different bands covering the same song is artistically incredibly interesting in its own right, with the similarity of the underlying song forcing you to be conscious of what the musicians are doing to it in terms of structure, arrangement and performance. Over the course of an album, the repetitiveness of the same theme, each time in a different iteration, has a curiously trancelike quality to it as well. Rather like the documentary film The Aristocrats (also perhaps an influence), where dozens of comedians tell the same filthy joke in all manner of different ways, each adding their own twist on the familiar theme, I think seeing the same song played by a lot of bands gives an interesting insight into the creative process.

In any case, the response to this project overwhelmed me. I recruited bands pretty indiscriminately over a period of several months, assuming that for such a low-key project, it wouldn’t be particularly high priority for most of them. As time went by, I realised that interest in the project was way greater than I’d anticipated, and I started happily telling people that there could be as many as 15 different artists taking part. The 21st track arrived in my inbox at 8:30 this morning and the finished album runs to almost one and a half hours.

The tracks cover as wide a range of genres as my taste allows. It features mostly Japanese or Japan-based artists, although a couple of tracks hail from overseas. The core of the album was recruited from among the underground music oddballs who hang out at Call And Response’s monthly Fashion Crisis event at Koenji One, and it’s the inclusive, eclectic, but passionately knowledgeable atmosphere of Fashion Crisis that I think defines the overall feeling of the album. Some bands took their tracks very seriously, and the album contains moments of quite staggering beauty, while others followed my initial advice and took it as an opportunity to have fun, creating some moments of laugh-out-loud silliness in the process. Every track approaches the song in an interesting way, and there’s also I think a joyousness that runs though it that’s partly from the inherent qualities of Sabbath’s original song and partly from the sheer scale and expression of human creativity that’s on display.「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」

DOWNLOAD 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 FREE HERE (114mb so might take a long time — sorry!)

(Alternate link here)

The album title is 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」which basically means, “Thanks for the chocolate… What’s your agenda!?!?” (I’m just going to refer to it as “Choco Kureru…” from now on) and here’s a rundown of the track list:

1. Fidel Villeneuve
Originally from Wolverhampton, Fidel is near enough a hometown brother of Sabbath themselves, although with a rather different musical background on Atari Teenage Riot’s Digital Hardcore label and in London powerpop band Applicants. Nonetheless, the same hot Bovril runs through both Fidel and Ozzy’s veins, and his sample-based approach gives early warning of the excesses to come.

2. ロア/Loa
I had to get these guys on the album. There’s so much Sabbath in what they do anyway that it would have been criminal not to have them involved, and their high-octane approach to the track plays it more or less straight, but with the emphasis on speed and shot through with a prog rocky virtuosity.

3. 経立/Futtachi
This psychedelic band from Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu are the latest band from Iguz Soseki of post-hardcore garage-punk band Zibanchinka and their approach sounds like early Captain Beefheart, or maybe Faust covering I Want Candy. Apparently their aim was to do “Sabbath in the jungle”.

4. Human Wife
Usually feedback-heavy riff merchants, Human Wife’s take on the track slows it down and draws out the emotional core of the song, turning it into this really quite affecting junkie’s confessional.

5. Client/Server:Q
With music where drone and sonic texture are more important than melody and songcraft, the cover naturally takes on a more abstract flavour. you see this a few times on Choco Kureru…, but this is the first, building up a wall of noise and feedback that ebbs and flows throughout the track.

6. Abikyokan
Abikyokan are a genre unto themselves, although “avant-pop” serves them well enough most of the time. Here, Paranoid acts as a distraction to them from their current obsession with the influence of early Christianity on the Roman Empire, and they swing at it with all their synthpop electro-funk bats at once. They’re also one of a few bands on here to break down the original song’s structure and reconstruct it around just the bits that they like.

7. うるせぇよ/Uruseeyo
This Tokyo post-punk band exemplify something that’s actually true of a lot of the bands on Choco Kureru… in that they’re a band who usually play in a genre of which guitar solos aren’t really an integral part, but at the same time, the solo in Paranoid plays such an integral role in the minimal structure of the song, that something has to go there. They dive eagerly into the challenge and pull off a spiky, dance-punk solo with aplomb.

8. Han Han Art, featuring Fukusuke (Owarythm/Nature Danger Gang)
Former Mornings bassist Shingo “Rally” Nakagawa has been on a Z Records tip for a long time now and with his new band Han Han Art brings his love of no wave/disco in spades. The decision to recruit guest sax player Fukusuke came from listening to too much Pigbag, and this was probably unintentional, but I keep hearing the intro to Duran Duran’s Girls on Film in the guitar intro. Also on guitar, this track has another excellent example of a postpunk solo.

9. Under
This mysterious artist does another abstract, instrumental, drone-based take on the song, but uses more ambient tones rather than noise. A good example of the extent to which sonic texture alone can influence the mood of a track, and the result is beautiful.

10. Artless Note
Clearly recorded on an MP3 recorder or something while messing around in the studio, this track sounds like it’s an edit culled from a much longer improvisation session with the band playing around with a couple of key themes from the song. There are moments where it sounds impossibly messy, and then they do something suddenly out of thin air that reminds you that this is a talented, musically intelligent band. This is actually one of the most interesting tracks on the album, because the studio improvisation setting has seen them jettison the entire structure of the song, all the lyrics, and just focus on the famous, catchy elements, which they return to every time the intervening bits of musical deconstruction seem to lose their way. In that way, it’s similar to The Muppets’ famous rendition of Mahna Mahna and really quite funny in a music nerdy kind of way.

11. Umez
When this arrived in my inbox the night before the album was supposed to be released, I was busy working on sequencing the track list and working out how to balance all the different genres and styles, working out what gaps there were that needed to be filled. When I listened to it, a bell rang in my head and I thought, “Drum’n’bass! That’s what I was missing!” So thanks, Umez.

12. スロウマリコ/Slow-Marico
Lo-fi indie duo Slow-Marico are heavily influenced by The Jesus & Mary Chain and that shows through in this rough-edged and noisy cover, although the way they play it over a cheap drum machine gives it something of The Vaselines’ indie charm rather than the rock swagger of the JAMC.

13. Trinitron (featuring Gloomy and Ryotaro Aoki)
This is one of the ones I worked on, so fair warning about that. I have this idea that as music is more and more easily globally accessible, it also emphasises our mutual incomprehensibility, and Trinitron sometimes play games with this. Trinitron’s members are a mix of British, Japanese and Slovenians, and we speak at least four languages between us, often switching between them mid-song or overdubbing them so as to bury the meaning. In this case we decided to do the whole song in a language that none of us understand either, so we had a friend translate the lyrics into Italian and had the girls read them out without preparation, just as they imagined they might be pronounced. So apologies to any Italian readers (which basically means Mark and Zio as far as I know) but it’s not a calculated insult to your language: it’s art! With the music, we were aiming for a sort of Flying Saucer Attack-style Kraut/shoegaze vibe, with Tokyo synthpop chanteuse Gloomy providing the cute “ba-ba-ba”s in tribute to Stereolab and Ryotaro Aoki on cataclysmic thunderstorm guitars in tribute to the gods of Valhalla.

14. Carl Freire
Carl’s background is in the 80s and 90s US alternative and punk scene, and his downbeat, minimal cover has echoes of that, particularly in the Velvetsy repetition and combination of punk and psychedelic elements.

15. Kaki
Kaki is the alter ego of Zana from Trinitron, so this downtempo electronic track is her second track on Choco Kureru…, providing a more sophisticated and musically and conceptually pure take on the original than the mishmash of approaches that Trinitron usually ends up being.

16. Loser & Ribbons
Indiepop/new wave duo Loser & Ribbons’ track has echoes of Shibuya-kei, particularly early Capsule, in its arrangement, with the introductory synth pattern reminding me of the music that plays when you get the invincibility star in Mario and giving it a technopop, video game music vibe. One of the interesting things about their approach is that they place much more emphasis on the “Can you help me / Occupy my brain?” line that only appears once in the original, rewriting the melody slightly and repeating it over and over until it becomes a proper chorus rather than the interlude it is in Sabbath’s version.

17. Oa (featuring Hatsune Miku)
Ryotaro Aoki makes his second appearance on the album with this piece of bubblegum hardcore, clearly influenced a lot by Melt Banana and featuring the vocals of Vocaloid voice synthesiser character Hatsune Miku. As with the Trinitron track, this one plays games with language. The latest version of Hatsune Miku, which this is, can sing in English, but this track uses the Japanese version anyway, phonetically approximating the sounds of the English words, but unable to do so completely because of the different, stricter rhythm of Japanese, meaning that some parts of the song descend into incomprehensible babble.

18. Jahiliyyah
The longest track by far on Choco Kureru…, and one of the most brutal and hard-hitting. Jahiliyyah are basically a noise group, but the drum machine and synth pulse that they incorporate into this track give it a lot of industrial and EBM too, taking a page right out of the Throbbing Gristle playbook. The results are fearsome and brilliant.

19. 人魂/Hitodama
Dave from Jahiliyyah making his second appearance with another noise track, although where Jahiliyyah are more about melding numerous layers into a single, rich wall of sound, Hitodama allows the layers to breathe, to exist as discrete elements in a salad bowl of sound, dropping in and out as necessary and leading to a track that is more ambient overall.

20. Voided By Geysers
Confession: this is another of my bands. VBG are a tribute band to US lo-fi rockers Guided By Voices (hence the name) and it amused us that our only recorded output would be a cover of a different band entirely. The take included here was the second time we’d ever played the song and so there are a lot of rough edges to the performance, but we felt it was the take that had the most heart. The idea here was to have just one straight garage rock take on Paranoid right near the end of the album as a reminder of the original after the excesses that have gone before, although when the Loa track came in doing a similar thing with greater technical virtuosity, that complicated the plan. I’m still proud of this track and it gets across something simple and stupid in the original in a way other tracks on this album don’t, but if I was making this as an album for professional release, I’d have used the Loa track here instead of VBG. However, I was working on a strict principle of “include everything that’s in my inbox come the morning of the 14th”, so Loa and VBG act as kinda-sorta bookends to the album instead. Ryotaro Aoki appears yet again on this track as the bassist, while Carl Freire makes his second appearance, on guitar. Tokyo indie bandspotters might be interested to know that drums are by Sean from Henrytennis.

21. Tiny Tide
Basically the solo project of prolific Italian indiepop singer-songwriter Mark Zonda, Tiny Tide’s simple, slowed down version of the song is classy where most tracks on Choco Kureru… fought for the extremes, as well as genuinely touching and quite beautiful. It was the first track I received in Autumn 2013, just after I’d first conceived of the idea, and even before I knew what else was going to be included it was always going to be the closing track. Mark also wrote the Italian lyrics that Trinitron so wilfully butchered earlier, so sorry to him for that.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Mothercoat, “Trickster”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new song from a completely DIY band dabbling in electronica and folk, with a decade-long history.


Mothercoat: Trickster

Tokyo’s independent music scene is rife with all types of bands. But when it comes to the truly original, independent artists, there are only a handful of acts. Mothercoat is definitely one of those bands.

Formed in 2002, Mothercoat have been combining elements of electronica, folk, rock, and hip-hop for more than a decade. The band are known in the Tokyo scene for constantly evolving their sound and also for being a truly DIY entity, producing and distributing their records exclusively by themselves at their private studio, Bonjin Studio, in Fukaya, Japan, where the members live together (complete with their own vegetable garden). Constantly touring, the band have also played in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They are scheduled to play at SXSW 2014 in Austin, Texas in March.

“Trickster” is the lead track from their new EP “5 – 1 + 1=“. The track is the first song the group have released since welcoming new guitarist, Fukunosuke Abe, into the band. The music video, also directed by Abe, displays the guitarist’s playful energy both visually and musically, adding a layer of whimsical youthfulness, complimenting vocalists Giga Dylan and Tokirock’s quirky call and response singing.

It’s amazing for any band to be around for more than a decade, but even more so when it has been done with the sheer determination and willpower Mothercoat have consistently displayed to do things their own way.

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Strange Boutique (January 2014): R.I.P. Masahide Sakuma

The topic of my first Japan Times column of 2014 was dictated by the death of Masahide Sakuma. I interviewed him in 2010 when he was working on a fundraising single for Mick Karn’s cancer appeal, and I was able to see him at work in the studio. He was relaxed, friendly, but utterly professional and his own death from the same disease just a few years later was cruel.Plastics: Top Secret Man

Obviously given my obsession with 70s/80s new wave, it was his work with the Plastics and his production work with P-Model that remains closest to me, but in a way that’s merely a footnote to a career that saw him working with some of the biggest names in pop and leaving his mark on nearly every big movement in Japanese music between 1980 and 2000. Less of an obvious superstar producer than the likes of Tetsuya Komuro TM Network, Globe, Tomomi Kahala, TRF, early Namie Amuro) and Takeshi Kobayashi (My Little Lover, Mr. Children), as producer of Glay and Judy And Mary, he was right up there with them as one of the top producers of the J-Pop era.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that his star clearly waned after the 90s came to a close, and he pretty much said as much himself when in 2012 he retired from music. The blog post I mention in the original column is well worth reading, even if you just run it through Google Translate, because it echoes what many people in the music industry are saying and he expresses it very well. Put simply, record companies just aren’t willing to pay what it costs for producers to do their job. Sakuma makes clear that he understands that people might just say that the 90s was a bubble and that that level of spending was unsustainable, but in any case, to achieve the level of quality he felt necessary, it took money and that money wasn’t being spent on producers anymore (marketing departments appear to have been less seriously affected).Judy And Mary: Motto

Now I’m not sure I completely agree with him on that point because the Plastics records were made for a pittance and they’re some of the best music that’s ever been made in Japanese music history, but then I’m a DIY music nerd who can quite happily flip out over a song made on an MP3 recorder in a rehearsal studio, and that’s not really what Sakuma was talking about. He was talking about his work, his craft, and the frustration he felt at not being able to fully use those skills to do justice to the music he was working with. This decline in the role of the producer has been one of the defining features of the past decade and a bit. Sakuma’s big 90s contemporaries have also declined in influence, with Komuro having suffered the most spectacular fall from grace, but Kobayashi increasingly sharing production duties with the band on Mr. Children records, and My Little Lover having split up and re-emerge as a bland Akko solo project. One of the few superstar producers of recent years Yasutaka Nakata once remarked to me that people in Japan just aren’t interested in producers. That’s certainly the professional environment Nakata has grown up with, but they used to be.

One thing I was unable to find a good way to work into the article was that Sakuma’s final “public” appearance relates to another big movement in Japanese music, with him appearing on the coupled DVD with idol group Nogizaka46’s 2013 single Barrette, performing a song with group member Erika Ikuta, to whom he is related through a cousin. Opinions of the state of idol music in Japan today aside, we can remark at least that as with so many other things, he was there. I should also add that despite his official retirement, he didn’t stop working on stuff that interested him, and 2014 is set to see one or two posthumous releases.

I was DJing at a show last night where new wave and technopop fans proliferated, and a few of the musicians, some of whom had known and played alongside him, joined together at the end to perform Aurora Tour, a song Sakuma made with Yuki (Judy And Mary) and Kate Pierson (The B-52’s) for the supergroup NiNa which also featured Mick Karn. It was a better tribute than anything I could write, and a fitting reminder of his influence across a range of genres and several musical generations.NiNa: Aurora Tour

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.1 – Melt Banana – Fetch

Fetch

CD, A-Zap, 2013

As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, Melt Banana won 2013 for me with this short, sweet thirty-minute rocket of an album. The group, now a duo, are able to use the newly electronic rhythm section to expand their blizzard of beats, effects and feedback into new territories and that freedom is apparent in the range of ideas they manage to incorporate into the otherwise limited form of the two-minute punk song. That Melt Banana are able to find anything new to say in the form after so many years is testament to their tireless capacity for invention and reinvention, their mastery of composition and structure, and Agata’s total command over the exhaustive range of sounds he is able to wrestle out of his guitar.Melt Banana: The Hive

Of the descriptors most often thrown at Melt Banana, bubblegum and hardcore are often inextricably linked, and it’s important to remember that in amongst their blast beats and layers of guitar noise, extremely catchy, poppy melodies often lurk. Schemes of the Tails is striking every bit as much for its melody as for its rhythmical structure, and The Hive is a joyously fun punk-pop nugget. Much has been made of their decision to throw a curveball at the end by closing with the disco-punk Zero, but from the opening shoegaze chords of Candy Gun and running through the entire album there’s a willingness to play around and incorporate any styles, ideas and effects that sound good in service of the greater spazzy musical delight, which is why from start to finish, Fetch fills you with joy and excitement, and why it’s 2013’s album of the year.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.2 – Extruders – Colors

Extruders: Mono

Another band about whose music I’ve run out of hyperbole to describe, just as Extruders’ self-released live album Pray was one of the best releases of 2012, their full-length studio album Colors is up there with the best of 2013. The first half basically covers the same material as Pray, with delicate, intricately structured melodies delivered with barely more than a murmur by bassist/vocalist Yohei Toriyama and embroidered by the spectral melodies and expertly deployed bursts of feedback and noise that Ryo Okada teases and caresses out of his guitar. The second half of the album sees the band exploring new territory, with the Velvetsy thirteen and a half-minute Luna and in a more tightly focussed form on Elder? Minor? in particular pushing the envelope both in terms of minimalism and expansiveness before cutting to a ruthless and sudden stop. Every sound on Colors seems to have been lovingly fashioned and placed with the utmost precision and care, and behind these 53 minutes clearly lie many hours of work as the group honed these songs down to the glittering, sculpted finished result we see here.Extruders: Elder? Minor?

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.3 – Deltas – Float in the Light

This electronic duo from Fukuoka came onto our radar in 2012 via a hypnotic live performance at Utero (Fukuoka’s finest live venue) and a CD/R mini-album cryptically titled √DL_TS 2. This full-length album revisits some of the same material, dialling back on the more brutal noise extremes for the most part, but at the same time retaining its avant-garde ethos and incorporating it into the more ambient, organic elements seamlessly and coherently (as a side note, if any readers here can get the term “glitchgaze” trending on Twitter, that would be just marvellous).

Images from nature abound in the songs, but they’re filtered through the prism of technology: synthesised, interrupted, chopped up and spliced so that the resulting music staggers like a Frankenstein’s monster, a digital-organic cyborg sound that lashes out in dissonant bursts of noise like the magnificent pls=152 or drifts through space in ambient nature sounds like for˧t Oƒ W▲Ter. These elements are combined in all manner of creative ways, with a great example being Xt/Qm, a Kyushu shipping forecast cut and manipulated electronically to a beat, the band incorporating the inconstant FM signal, itself influenced by the weather conditions the radio reports, into the music.

Float in the Light is a restlessly creative album but more than that it’s a coherent artistic statement by an inordinately talented duo and one of the most striking, original albums of not only last year but in a long long time.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.4 – Buddy Girl and Mechanic – Buddy Girl and Mechanic

I’ve already written so much about this band over the past couple of years that there’s really very little else I can add. This album came out at the beginning of 2013 and its seven tracks (three of which are available to listen on the band’s Bandcamp and Soundcloud pages) kept bringing my back over and over again. It’s breathy, bluesy and ambient, but with a motorik driving power that underlies it and gives propulsive force that prevents it from getting bogged down in the dreamy web it weaves. More recently the band made a cameo appearance in and contributed to the soundtrack of the Zellner Brothers’ forthcoming film Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, which will hopefully see them garner a wider following, and it’s easy to see how the Herzog-influenced, Austin-based filmmakers would be attracted to BGM’s spacious, dreamlike combination of intensely physical blues and out-of-this-world kosmische.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.5 – Church of Misery – Thy Kingdom Scum

Thy Kingdom Scum

CD/vinyl, Rise Above (UK)/Metal Blade (US), 2013

Let’s be clear about this before we start: There is no way that an album of dirty, riff-grinding, old-skool Sabbath-style heavy metal about serial killers wasn’t going to make this list somewhere, but it’s on the quality and execution of those grinding riffs that doom/stoner merchants Church of Misery come in so high. Thy Kingdom Scum is just raw, brutal, heavy like a collapsing cathedral roof in a thunderstorm. It’s also unashamedly epic, most of the songs hovering around the six-seven-minute mark with the notable exceptions of solo-shredding thirteen-minute closer Düsseldorf Monster and a relatively parsimonious, punkish cover of British 70s rockers Quatermass’ One Blind Mice, both of which underline Church of Misery’s prog credentials while simultaneously in their savage, remorseless implementation reminding us that they are here first and foremost to rock hard, harsh and heavy. Thy Kingdom Scum is sharp, intelligently constructed music, drenched in sweat, brood and who knows what other bodily secretions, that makes you feel like a god of Valhalla. It’s a beast of an album.Church of Misery: Brother Bishop (Gary Heidnik)

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