For my October column in The Japan Times, I wrote about skronk in Japan. There was a sort of twin focus, with the article functioning on two layers. The first was a sort of meta-discussion about the language we as writers use when talking about music. It was all very clever and interesting, so go over to The Japan Times web site and have a read now.
The second layer, as you should have noticed by now, was that there was a sort of freak confluence of albums by some of Japan’s skronkiest artists released over the period of about a week at the end of last month, which is kind of the hook I used to justify writing the column in the first place and the springboard for the whole discussion of skronk and language. Now if at this point you’re scratching your head and asking, “Yeah, but what’s skronk?” then you haven’t read the original article. Go do that now.
Those releases were Idea Pattern by The Mornings, the self-titled, self-released debut album by Halbach, and I Wanna Be Your Noise by Otori. Since the publication of my column, I’ve had time to listen properly to all of those albums, so as an addendum to the original piece, here’s a series of short reviews of each album.
The Mornings’ 2011 debut album Save The Mornings was a rocket powered rollercoaster of an album, but you can only make your debut album once and it’s clear that they’ve moved on in the three years it’s taken them to come up with Idea Pattern. It opens with Fuji, which is very much in the pattern of the first album, but as the album progresses, a growing preoccupation with sonic texture and the interplay between the three vocalists becomes clear. The tempos have been brought down and there is a greater emphasis on melodies, although the melodies are themselves employed more as a textural element to be dropped in and out at will than part of a coherent, classically structured song.
In fact the overwhelming impression of Idea Pattern is of music that has been written along the lines of electronic music rather than rock. To return to the theme of skronk that kicked this whole thing off, this is really an extension of something that is part of skronk’s nature. Because of the atonal nature of the guitar sound that characterises skronk, that causes a deliberate disruption to any attempts to make a classically melodic pop song in the mode of, say The Monkees or Sex Pistols. Most skronk isn’t completely freeform though, and so what the no wave and postpunk bands did to ensure their music was internally consistent was focus on the rhythm, incorporating influences from dance music.
What The Mornings and many other bands do is take this a step further and start fucking up and disrupting the rhythms as well, and combined with the way Idea Pattern brings the bass closer to the top of the mix, it’s easy to imagine that the group were influenced in some way by the beats and drops of dubstep, albeit filtered through a decidedly art-punk lens. It’s music that revels in its inconsistency, delighting in twisting the listener this way and that, but while Save The Mornings seemed set on doing this on sheer force of will alone, Idea Pattern seems to be attempting to tap into a more generalised kind of energy, letting itself be carried along on grooves, floating on airwaves. It still does this within a structure of mathematical precision, but it’s a fascinating attempt – a parallel in music of what Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie did in the visual arts – to reconcile the band’s distinctly non-organic style with a kind of natural rhythm they find around them.
Halbach’s eponymous debut album is a mess. This is fine, because Halbach themselves are a mess and anything else just wouldn’t be them. Collected together from a mixture of studio and live recordings spanning a couple of years and a number of member changes, this album may leave you a little confused about what sort of band they are, but at the same time it gives you a pretty accurate picture of what kind of band they are. I’m saying they’re a confusing band.
Like The Mornings, there’s an obvious influence of electronic music on their approach, filtered through some similar postpunk, avant-garde and hardcore influences, but while The Mornings are fastidiously mathematical, Halbach are more expressionist in their approach – if The Mornings are Mondrian, Halbach are Kandinsky. They lay out their intentions with the sprawling, distortion-laden psychedelic noise groove of Flux Capacitor, before launching into the growling, Stooges-with-turntable-scratching hardcore of Norway.
That sets the tone for most of the rest of the album, with flurries of junk noise that combine the devilish revelling in sonic vomit of early Boredoms with the bubblegum hardcore aesthetic of Melt Banana, shot threw with a meandering love of dance music and dirty garage rock riffs. The curveball comes at the end, with the live tracks Bass and Thara cap off the album with a series of spiralling NDW/EBM-style sequencer patterns that they then proceed to mutilate – but never completely destroy – with feedback. If this is where the band are now, it’s an intriguing place to be and could become a platform for something really special in the future.
Otori’s I Wanna Be Your Noise is another debut album, and like Halbach it collects material spanning several years – anyone with even a passing familiarity to their live performances, demos and compilation appearances over the past few years will be very much at home with the songs on this album. Where it really is the absolute opposite of Halbach is in how tightly honed and consistent in tone and overall sound it it all is. This is partly due to the way Otori recorded all the songs anew specifically for this release, but more than that it’s in how, just as Halbach’s chaotic mess of a record is a reflection of their own anarchic quality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is a product of Otori’s own laser-guided focus.
Unlike both The Mornings and Halbach, Otori are much more firmly rooted in the sonic vocabulary of the 1970s New York no wave and there is no obvious influence of dance music (at least of the electronic variety), but sonically it is every bit as skronky and atonal, and as a result, it still relies a lot on guitar texture and rhythm to give the songs their core dynamic. In fact through its own propulsive, singleminded rhythmical brutality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is probably the most purely dance-orientated album of the three albums under discussion here. In its guitar sound, it’s every bit as explosive and exploratory as The Mornings and Halbach, but where the former’s approach is layered and the latter’s is unhinged and anarchic, Otori’s guitar parts are a work of crisp, clear, almost surgical violence, deployed with a mixture of pinpoint precision and unashamed virtuosity.
All three albums are well worth checking out and showcase the depth of the talent pool that still exists in the underground and alternative scene of Tokyo. Taken together with a slew of other terrific new releases this year from Convex Level, Panicsmile, Buddy Girl and Mechanic, Hangaku and more, 2014 is shaping up to be a rather fine vintage for underground music in a postpunk/new wave vein.