Monthly Archives: January 2015

DYGL: All The Time

If there’s a better way to start a new year in Japanese music than with a new song from Tokyo’s best indiepop band, it’s probably not completely legal. For those of us who remain upstanding, law-abiding citizens and members of the public, DYGL have just put out All The Time. It’s another step in the band’s evolution from jangly twee pop pretty boys into a garage rocking, denim- and leather-clad Japanese Strokes, like they’re trying to do a condensed tribute to Lawrence Hayward’s career at ten-times speed.

It’s also cheering evidence of the developing quality of DYGL’s recordings, really capturing the electric energy of their live performances while remaining just on the right side of Pollardian lo-fi. It’s the sort of music that if it hits you when you’re still in your teens, it’ll stay with you for life: the soundtrack to nights jumping around in a circle with your mates as all the confusion of the world seems to burn away in the heat of the strangled but euphoric moment. In fact, even if you catch it late, it’ll remind you of all the songs from your youth that had that exact effect on you anyway so the result will be more or less the same. In any case, All The Time is a welcome reinforcement of DYGL’s status as one of the purest, most jubilant pleasures in the Tokyo music scene.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews, Track

Top 20 releases of 2014: Afterword

As I said before posting this series, there’s also a lot of stuff that I didn’t hear, and this brings me to a couple of the other English language album rundowns there are out there. Firstly, m’colleague Patrick St. Michel over at Make Believe Melodies has his own top twenty which you can read here (20-11), here (10-6) and here (5-1). Secondly, Toyokazu Mori and Satoru Matsuura have compiled a top fifty over on Beehype. Both lists are well worth a look in their own right, but taken together (and in conjunction with my own forthcoming list) they show up some phenomena I find interesting.

Firstly, what I find most striking is how little crossover there is between the three, and I think that reveals something not just about the various writers’ personal tastes but also about the situation Japanese indie music finds itself in generally. Put simply, there’s no broad national conversation about music in the indie scene that provides everyone, even dedicated nerds like us, with a common frame of reference. This isn’t necessarily a problem, and if there were such a thing, I’d probably reject it with a dismissive flick of the wrist and a barely concealed sneer (something I’m going to about other things do later in this post, so watch out for that). It does underline the difficulty that exists, even within the indie world, in finding out just what’s going on.Mitsume: Sasayaki

First then, let’s look at where crossovers do exist. Both MBM and Beehype include the Mitsume album in their lists, who are a band I largely agree are a good choice. My list shares with Beehype the Crunch and Luminous Orange albums, and with MBM it shares the Jesse Ruins album. Beehype also includes the Homecomings album, which snuck in at the end of the year and I suspect was a contender for both mine and Patrick’s lists. By and large, these are all albums that combine a pop sensibility (and in many cases a specifically J-pop sensibility) with something a bit darker and/or dirtier. That general area seems to me like a fairly safe meeting place where pretty much any writers focusing on specifically Japanese alternative music could agree.

The differences are also important though. I’ve been through everything on both the MBM and Beehype lists and while the sheer, deadening tweeness of some artists made me want to stab myself in the ears with kitchen knives, I found myself mostly nodding with agreement that while they might not be exactly my bag, it was generally pretty good stuff in its own terms. So why the difference and what does each list represent?

Well, with Patrick’s list, I don’t think he will be too upset if I suggest that generally speaking he tends to discover music online, and that to a certain degree what the MBM top twenty represents is a web-skewed vision of the Japanese music scene. The Yuki, Especia and E-Girls selections, not to mention the kinda-sorta idol pop of Seiko Oomori at No.1 show he’s perhaps the only one of us still really giving J-pop a chance – and all of them are worthy selections, even (I reluctantly admit) the E-girls one. Patrick’s choices also demonstrate a crossover with some of the wispy, lo-fi indietronica and washed-out synthy stuff that’s currently or recently popular overseas (hot tip: if you ever wat to get disgracefully drunk while reading Make Believe Melodies, do a shot of tequila every time you see the words “dreamy” or “woozy”). So what MBM’s 2014 roundup provides is a sort of web-optimised entry to Japanese music that hooks into sounds that might be familiar to people coming from the international blog music scene, and remains somewhat in touch with the fringes of mainstream J-pop.mus.hiba: Magical Fizzy Drink

Of the writers at Beehype, Toyokazu Mori is a friend of mine and I think I can guess several of the choices that he will have agitated most strongly for, but looking at the list as a whole, I think it is perhaps broadly the most in-tune with what the “average” Japanese indie music listener is like right now – essentially nice music by sensitive young people (this list by a group of self-proclaimed Japanese music nerds backs this up, duplicating many of Mori and Matsuura’s choices). The only even remotely punk track on the list is Kelly Muff at No.50, and even that is a particularly J-poppified kind of garage punk not a billion miles from stuff like Superfly. Suspicious as I am of the sort of media talk you often get in Japan of “herbivore youth” and suchlike, spend some time with the music on Beehype’s top fifty and the sheer, soft-edged, un-confrontational, sexless fragility and homeliness of it all suggests that those commentators are at least part right. Inoffensive though most choices are, none of it’s not really mainstream pop though, with a lot of creatively and intricately developed, offbeat arrangements and approaches. While MBM looks at J-pop straight on, the Japanese writers at Beehype are obviously enamoured with more subtly rooted Japanese pop traditions, with the influence of Happy End and Eiichi Ohtaki forming a strong thread linking much of the songwriting, emphasised most strongly by the way they push so much contemporary city pop. The inclusion of Quruli, Shintaro Sakamoto and Sunny Day Service I think reflects a similar mindset, and the preponderance of professionally made music videos on their list suggests that insofar as a consensus view of “what Japanese indie people like” can be established, I think Mori and Matsuura are in that general zone.My Letter: America

So to analyse my own choices in this context, I think the most obvious one is that there’s far more punk-related music, and close behind that is that my choices are far less popular generally (which you can see pretty clearly from the numbers of hits and comments on the YouTube and Soundcloud links). One reason for that is just that I’m a horrible person and consequently I like horrible sounding music. Another is that I spend a lot of time at live venues and therefore my affections for bands is often first formed by seeing bands live – I rate the 2014 Macmanaman live album higher than their 2013 studio album, and all things considered, I probably prefer The Mornings’ more live-orientated debut album to their more sophisticated, studio follow-up (although it’s still excellent). Essentially what you get from me is a filter ideologically orientated more towards this more aggressive, 1970s/80s, punk/new wave-influenced vision of rock and pop music. I think it still closely aligns with a Japanese musical tradition, but it’s the underground tradition of Les Rallizes Dénudés and Friction rather than Happy End.Panicsmile: The Song About Black Towers (live)

Like I said, there are meeting points (for a start Shintaro Sakamoto’s underground cred is beyond question) and if we were to zoom out further, I think there would be more visible crossover but they also reveal three broad types of indie scene that can be loosely divided by the medium of delivery: internationally-minded fans who hear and make music on their laptops; sensitive “artisan-musicians” who represent something like the core young Japanese indie kid and who get written about in the Japanese music press; and the live house-orientated successors to the old-school underground scene.

Now I think that in some ways the trend is more towards some degree of convergence of these crowds, as the various media and delivery mechanisms converge, but that’s a discussion for another time. Anyway, that’s enough navel gazing over 2014: we’re balls-deep in 2015 now and already awash in noise, desperate to be documented. There are already several contenders for next year’s list, so I’ll be on them soon. Thanks for bearing with me.

4 Comments

Filed under Features

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.1 – Otori – I Wanna Be Your Noise

I Wanna Be Your Noise

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2014

A few years ago I wrote a column for The Japan Times on the way technology and changing channels of distribution and development for bands were influencing the music they made. I focussed firstly on the way bands were able to grow through online channels, with the example of Jesse Ruins who became very hip very quickly after their song Dream Analysis was picked up by overseas music blogs and how becoming a live band had become a secondary challenge for them. I then looked at bands working through the traditional live circuit, who were first and foremost live acts, picking up fans one by one and building a reputation by word of mouth. As an example of that second route, I chose Otori.

It’s been a source of tremendous satisfaction to me personally this year to see both those bands still in the game, still developing, and producing such top notch albums.

And this long-awaited, long- belated debut album is the culmination of all those years of plugging away. It’s a powerful, tightly wound series of explosions, with not a moment wasted, not a beat, bass pulse, dot or dash of morse code guitar, or squall of earsplitting feedback and distortion out of place. It’s a ferocious, homicidal discord disco: it’s no wave with the dirt and grime of 70s New York replaced with the gleaming, clean surfaces of contemporary Tokyo but all the violence, anger and despair still there, bottled up, concentrated and looking to lash out – at something at least, but at what it doesn’t even know itself.

Hankaishaku can be translated as “anti-interpretation” and one of the things bands hate more than anything is people trying to interpret their work. And yet the very problem of communication, interpretation and connection is something that runs through every song on I Wanna Be Your Noise. Suru Communication is a grinding, mantric expression of the failure of communication itself; in Gakushu and Atarisawaritai the language we use to understand and describe becomes the noise that makes understanding impossible. Meta and Kaitai/Saikochiku scream in isolated confusion and introspection, while the repeated distinction the closing Hanten makes of, “I want to love you / Don’t want to be in love,” suggests a mindset that feels comfortable only in a state of movement and action rather than a state of being. Xxx shuns communication to the degree that it has neither a title nor lyric. What relationships and interactions are, as far as this album is concerned, is noise, both sonic and psychic. It’s an album that openly proclaims that it’s about nothing, but it says it so loud, so often, and with such intensity that that becomes its message.

In this sense, I Wanna Be Your Noise is the twin of Otori’s cosmic opposites Jesse Ruins, whose 2014 album Heartless was itself concerned with isolation, alienation and the limits of communication. Where the fundamentally wired Jesse Ruins explored these problems through the filter of the Web, the brutally physical Otori scream them in your face through raw, electric body pulses of noise.

And that’s another of the most heartening things about the 2014 musical cohort: just how many really good albums there were that were actually either by design or inspiration actually about something. Otori may not have been working to a conscious concept but there was nonetheless a coherent theme of the limits of communication expressed by their album; Jesse Ruins looked at human relationships through the filter of communication technology; Panicsmile expressed a broad theme of how we look at the world through personal reflection; while The Mornings worked through a more abstract, artistic concept in how they approached their art.

The big challenge for Otori now is going to be how they follow this album up. The eight songs on I Wanna Be Your Noise have been five years in coming together, and they have been honed to perfection over that time. Regular faces in the Tokyo alternative scene are so familiar with these songs that they feel as part of the environment as the dog-eared posters clinging to the walls of Higashi-Koenji 20000V or the old backstage passes that wallpaper the dressing room of Shinjuku Motion. There are still places they can take this music where it will be new and fresh, but sooner or later, they’re going to have to start the cycle all over again, and that’s where we’ll see their true mettle.

For now though, I Wanna Be Your Noise is a thrilling, perfectly pitched, devastatingly intense, adrenaline rush that’s both consistent in its quality and coherent as an artistic statement, so Otori deserve to be able to rest on their laurels for a while.

1 Comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.2 – Panicsmile – Informed Consent

Informed Consent

CD, Headache Sounds, 2014

Panicsmile reached a point towards the end of their previous lineup where their sound had become so finely honed, so technically refined that their anything-but-rock sensibility was in danger of getting stuck at the end of a route they had by now fully explored. Some time away, a new lineup and a re-connection with rock’n’roll seems to have cleared Hajime Yoshida’s head, because Panicsmile’s kinda-sorta comeback album sees the retooled band joyfully ripping rock music apart once more like the postpunk Beefheart they really are.

Throughout most of the album, the band shun anything resembling a simple rhythm, preferring to chop and change from one moment to the next, keeping the listener on the back foot even when the song taunts you with something like a melody. It makes Nuclear Power Days sound like Television unspooling through a broken tape recorder, but it also makes the final minute of closing track Cider Girl all the more of an ironic pleasure when the fractured elements of the music finally come together in a sort of krautrock Beach Boys outro.Nuclear Power Days, live at Akihabara Club Goodman

The album cover tells us that, “we live in the basis of informed consent”, a point of broad ongoing relevance as the government and nuclear industry in Japan continue to collude in ensuring the public are as uninformed and unable to give meaningful consent as possible. References to nuclear paranoia dot the album, but Yoshida’s point is wider: you should never have to say, “If only I’d known that!” – you should make sure you know.

In a musical generation that seems to find it harder and harder to really say anything through their music beyond a sort of meta-commentary on the music or performance itself, it’s telling that it takes comparative veterans like Panicsmile to personalise the big picture like this. That they do it with such sustained invention, such musical intelligence and such renewed energy consolidates that satisfaction and makes it an outright joy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.3 – Convex Level – donotcl

donotcl

CD, Convex Level, 2014

Convex Level are still a band I know very little about. They’ve been around on and off for years but their releases have been sporadic, they’re friends with Extruders, one of the smartest and best bands currently operating in Japan, all of whom have cameos in Convex Level’s 2013 video Traffic, their web site is cool looking but nigh unnavigable, and they have a surprisingly cheerful stage manner given the sometimes brooding nature of their music. Where things become less ambiguous is in what Donotcl reveals about just how good they are.

On Donotcl Convex Level stake a convincing claim as a sort of Japanese Talking Heads, navigating a path through new wave, pop and art rock that is is diverse in its songwriting as it is consistent in its quality. From the tight, often thoroughly funky bass to the ringing reverb of the guitars, there’s a terrific sense of space (Donotcl shares a recording studio and engineer with Luminous Orange, whose Soar, Kiss the Moon is another standout in terms of audio production on this list). That sense of space extends not only to the sound within the recordings, but also to the way the band feel comfortable letting them breathe, drawing them out through expansive instrumental passages while retaining a focussed structural integrity, exemplified by songs like Dice and Slider, the latter of which is Convex Level’s Marquee Moon, clocking in at eleven minutes without ever losing sight of the song at its core.Human Receiver, live at Akihabara Club Goodman

At the other end of the spectrum, Maria is a straight-up new wave pop tune with all the fun and fizz of early XTC, while Human Receiver is all Gang of Four-esque rhythmic jitters before blossoming into an anthemic rock chorus. The English language That’s Always Fantasy takes the band’s obvious weakness for lighters-aloft stadium rock to its greatest extreme, seeming to stray dangerously into aspirational ad-speak platitudes like “You can become what you want to be,” although the lyric as a whole is ambiguous enough that it might be saying the exact opposite.Ashy Sleep, live at Akihabara Club Goodman

What runs through all of Donotcl is a pitch-perfect balance of pop accessibility and arty experimentation, with the gorgeous, funky and intricate Ashy Sleep – an instant classic and possibly this site’s favourite song of the year – representing that balance best. At over an hour in length, this collection of thirteen songs is easily the longest album in this top twenty countdown, but Convex Level nonetheless make every moment count.

[The songs Ashy Sleep and State of Things are available to download for free from the band’s web site]

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.4 – Hearsays – In Our Time

 In Our Time

CD, Dead Funny Records, 2014

While most of this album was released as a cassette in 2013 as the A Little Bird Told Me EP, this 2014 CD re-release with one extra track qualifies for inclusion here because it just does. Having missed out on the now sold-out 2013 EP but found their song The Blind to be the standout highlight of the Dead Funny Compilation Vol.1 label sampler, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to catch up with Hearsays this time.

It’s a curious irony that on In Our Time the Hearsays seem so busy with occupying every time except their own. There are echoes of the 60s, 70s and 80s throughout the mini-album, but it’s the 90s that it’s really about – in particular the way the 90s’ obsession with the past ended up recycling and reproducing influences spanning several decades of rock into a sound that is now recognisable as a distinct era of its own. Opening track When I’m Wrong is a 2010s take on a 90s take on an 80s take on 60s guitar pop, with the Byrdsian jangle underscored by distinctly post-80s rhythm guitar scuzz and lead vocalist Zebra’s disconcertingly Miki Berenyi-ish intonation – in fact if there’s one band that Hearsays really resemble on this track, it’s Lovelife-era Lush.When I’m Wrong

The Blind is still present and correct, and still a gorgeous song. The guitar riff is what stands out, echoing the melody of Happy End’s iconic Kaze wo Atsumete, but what really makes the song is the series of descending chords playing out just beneath the surface. The new song, You Couldn’t Do So Much Better, is like a greatest hits of all your favourite 90s indie rock songs distilled into one concentrated burst, with its opening riff that threatens to explode into Radiohead’s Just, although once it gets going the band settle back into the sort of mid-90s 4AD, Throwing Muses-esque sound that seems to be their sound.You Coudn’t Do So Much Better

I don’t deny that a lot of my reaction to this album is personal. With twenty years having now passed since the mid-90s, it’s a curious feeling for those of us who came of age musically in that era to find the same amount of time has passed since then as had passed between Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and Suede’s Dog Man Star, or The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and The Smiths’ eponymous debut. Listening to the Hearsays feels at once incredibly familiar and also strangely alienating, its present-day context emphasising the distance between the sounds we are hearing and the memories they evoke.

Whether any of this is intentional or whether the band have even heard any of the music I’m referencing here I don’t know and don’t really care (I really find it so dreary when bands feel the need to protest ignorance as defence against influence, as if the latter were somehow the more shameful option) but at the end of this particular twenty-year cycle, the sounds of 1990s indie rock are something that have undoubtedly formed a core part of the Hearsays’ sound. More importantly, the quality of songwriting matches up to the best of their sonic forbears.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.5 – Umez – Umez

Umez

CD, 14 Years Records, 2014

With their combination of sweet, disarmingly simplistic pop melodies and frenzied fusillade of musical styles, Umez have been confusing and delighting live audiences in London and Tokyo for a long time now, but with this eponymous debut album, listeners can finally enjoy the disquieting pleasure of trying to figure out just what kind of band they are in the comfort of their own homes.

There have been a number of cases where ostensibly pop acts, primarily within the loose non-genre of idol music, have affected to wrap themselves in the accoutrements of underground music of one sort or another, and the results have tended to be at best interesting, and more often it just didn’t work. It’s not clear why, but it seems to be very difficult to make the transition in the direction from pop to comfortably incorporating underground elements – even when talented, seasoned underground musicians are brought in, as BiS did with Hijokaidan, the elements just didn’t quite mesh – the river of ideas only seems to easily flow one way, and it’s very hard to navigate upstream. Part of it might be that pop is like a Web-optimised JPEG image that, while perfectly suited to its particular place, resists much in the way of modification, losing detail as you zoom in or blow it up. To run with this photography metaphor a bit, what you would really need in this case would be a high resolution RAW file, that might require effort and processing in order to be accessible, but would contain far more data in the image. The broad strokes big picture is in there, but there is also a wealth of other information that can be drawn out or zoomed in on.

Umez are like that high resolution RAW file, in that even when they’re doing the poppiest of pop poppiness, they can also draw on all manner of sounds, from the industrial stomp of Z-Fighters II (the brutal album version, not the cute single version) to the garage-punk of Rainbow to the shoegaze/dreampop of Good Bye My Friend to the drum’n’bass of Lingering Dream, to the Merzbow-ish machine noise of II to the wild rock solos of almost everything. All that is already there inside them and they just need to summon it out of them, rather than painstakingly and awkwardly trying to fill it into a picture that simply doesn’t contain that information, music that just doesn’t have those ideas. It’s a fundamentally easier path for people like Umez to take from where they are into pop than it is to travel in the other direction.

Still, Umez wouldn’t be such a good album and Umez wouldn’t be such a good band if the pop elements of the music weren’t so accomplished. If some moments might sound a little familiar to fans of, say, Supercar or Smashing Pumpkins, those moments exist within a grand tradition of pop thievery. More important are those moments, chord changes, harmonies, melodies scattered throughout the album that sound dreadfully familiar without you being able to pin down exactly why, where, who. Those moments of familiarity combined with the endlessly inventive ways the duo find to present them are what make this album such an unrivalled joy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Reviews