Monthly Archives: January 2015

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.9 – Hangaku – Hangaku

Sneaking in right at the beginning of the year but still retaining its ability to thrill twelve months later, synth-junk duo Hangaku’s ferocious collision of quirky, new wave-influenced pop and outright sonic terror is in all the best possible ways a welcome throwback to the fucked-up sounds of early 80s postpunk pioneers like Phew and more recently the minor flurry of early-2000s noiseniks like Afrirampo. It’s all wilfully trashy, cheap and throwaway, with the drums and percussion deployed more to confuse and disorientate than out of any real function of keeping a rhythm that is only very vaguely defined to begin with. B vs A no Shihei perhaps best exemplifies this anarchic attitude, with the drums acting as a sort of clattering punctuation to a structure that the duo seem to define whimsically in the moment.

Uma to Crawl and Suna no Ana use the drums more conventionally, although with no greater precision, and commit their acts of sonic violence through the synths which hover on the edge between arty discord and bubblegum pop irritation in their shrieking insistence. Kamonohashi is perhaps the most fully-realised track on this mini-album, containing its most obviously pop moments as well as its most disturbing Suicide-on-a-merry-go-round drone’n’moan backdrop, the rush of electricity that pulses through what might be its chorus, and the sudden detour it takes into mindless nonsense chanting just before the end. It’s a song, and an album, that refuses to meet you even halfway, but it’s packed with trashy treasure nonetheless, and having a hell of a party on its own without you.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.10 – Under – Murmur

Enigmatic ambient lo-fi drone composer Under bombed the Web with a typically bewildering array of new material, putting out two volumes of archive material, three EPs (plus a fourth in the wonderful Loosen EP that appeared and disappeared practically overnight [Jan.1.2015 EDIT: Loosen has just re-emerged via Fire Talk, who seem to be releasing all Under’s stuff nowadays.]) and this mini-album through New York’s Fire Talk Records. Given the way her work tends to blur dreamily from one release to another and her habit of suddenly and inexplicably disappearing or rearranging stuff from her back catalogue, it could be said that everything she does is really part of one, amorphous, shifting, hallucinatory experience.

However, to pick one collection for this top twenty rundown, Murmur is the most ambitious, the subtle textural differences imbuing the otherwise ambiguously structured vocal and guitar harmonies with a sense of narrative, albeit one that pairs a track called Shirley Temple with the album’s harshest guitars and one called A W Mountain Cake with what sounds like ocean waves. From behind her veil of secrecy, Under seems to at least be gaining confidence with her vocals, allowing them to play greater part, in her music, if not always exactly a prominent one. Throughout the album they drift back and forth between the front and back of the mix, pushing up close on 17Japan and then immediately receding into the distance on the closing C, C & C (Good Night).

As I said before, there’s a tremendous amount of material that Under keeps putting out, and in many ways the best way to listen to it is to just get all of it at once and let yourself drown in it. Putting the microscope over one short EP can provide a different perspective, focussing your attention in on the details of just a few fragile minutes. Murmur is a sort of midway point between the two approaches, both short enough to let the details and varying textures show up, but just long enough to be an immersive experience and take you on a dream trip of its own. You should really get everything, but if you get only one thing, get this.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.11 – Oversleep Excuse – Slowly Better

Slowly Better

CD, Ricco Label, 2014

When I reviewed Oversleep Excuse’s Slowly Better last summer, I spent most of the review talking in a roundabout way about how diverse and difficult to define it is, and looking back on what I wrote then it’s hard for me not to read that as an admission of my failure as a writer. Writing in the heat of late July, Slowly had all the languid, shimmering, lazy charm of a slow summer day, but revisiting it on a brisk January morning, the chiming piano intro to the title track glistens like frozen dewdrops, and imbue the album from the opening chords with a crisp, wintery melancholy.Slowly Better

All of which is to say that even where I could bring myself to pin the album down, I managed to be wrong anyway, just as I’m also wrong now. The truth of Slowly Better is that it is musically rich enough that different facets reveal themselves on multiple listens and depending on what mood you approach it with. The themes that do crop up over and over again, of nostalgia and loss, are emotions that inhabit the moment in which they exist so thoroughly that they colour their surroundings in their own image, and Oversleep Excuse’s music has the power to do that in a way that turns with the seasons.Oyu no Hana

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.12 – Half Sports – Mild Elevation

Mild Elevation

CD, Drriill, 2014

Half Sports are one of the most fun, energetic and adventurous indiepop bands in Japan, and their debut mini-album Slice of our City was a raucous little bundle of joy. With Mild Elevation, the band opt to mature without compromising the essentially rough-and-ready approach that defined its predecessor.

Most of the songs on Mild Elevation are really two or three songs driven into each other at high speed, with songs like closing track The Pretend Girl and Streamers of Flames suddenly accelerating and shifting tempo from one moment to the next, and in Needle the actual song serving mostly as a set of bookends for the extended instrumental passage and none-more-indie guitar solo at its core. New and Unknown Kiss is a circa-1980 Soft Boys-alike psych-tinged new wave powerpop anthem with a decidedly Johnny Marr-esque guitar solo neatly slotted in, and would have sat comfortably on Slice of our City. Other tracks like the opening His Castle Staying in the Sky take the psychedelia a step further, cranking up the clatter from singing drummer Keita Kanamori’s kit and letting the guitar’s ring out in a lo-fi Jesus And Mary Chain proto-shoegaze wall of scuzz.New and Unknown Kiss (Live at Uguisudani What’s Up)

While Mild Elevation is a little more restrained than its propulsive, irrepressible predecessor, it’s every bit as rich in tunes, ideas and enthusiasm, and features a combination of energy, easygoing looseness and understated intelligence and imagination that ensures they still stand out in a scene that can often be prissy, reverential and sterile.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.13 – The Mornings – Idea Pattern

Idea Pattern

CD, Hariental, 2014

You can only make your debut album once. The Mornings were the young band on the scene for long past the time they could actually legitimately be called a “young band”. They built their reputation as a furiously energetic and hard-working live band, at times playing eight or more shows a month around Tokyo, and on occasion hospitalising themselves through their onstage acrobatics. With songs like Opening Act and Mad Dancer, their 2011 debut Save The Mornings was a document of that extended adolescence.

While Save The Mornings was, as with most bands in the Japanese alternative scene, essentially a 30-minute live set translated more or less directly onto an album, its delayed follow-up, Idea Pattern, is something designed much more as a coherent piece of music and then translated into the live environment afterwards. This means what while Save The Mornings was fizzy, fun and carefree, Idea Pattern carries a bit of extra weight: it still knows how to have fun, but there’s a gravity and sense of purpose to it now, where every note, every wail, every sheet-metal-cutting screech seems to have been placed there by design (the word “idea” in the title is intended in the sense of Plato’s theory of forms rather than the conventional English sense). The presence of electronic producer Goth-Trad behind the desk points towards a more precise and carefully constructed approach to their chaos, and in particular Idea Pattern treats the bass in a more programmed way rather than it sharing space, battling with the guitars in a sonic moshpit. On closing track Bass wa Mori, the bass throbs and bubbles beneath the surface of the song in an almost EDM-ish fashion.Kechangerion (live at Shimokitazawa Shelter)

Kechangerion (I have no idea what that word’s meant to be) and Green Metal employ insistent and even at times motorik rhythms that settle into grooves for longer than they would ever have permitted themselves before, the songs forming furiously zigzagging lines rather than indiscriminately (but nonetheless brilliantly) vomiting forth a hundred different colours all at the same time. Even on songs like Onaka no Itaiteki and Fuji, which are structured in a way that largely resembles their older material, there is a coldness and sense of space that wasn’t there in the white heat of their debut.

What this is all to say, basically, is that The Mornings are growing up, and Idea Pattern is a more mature work that the band have clearly slaved over. It is the sound of a band moving on from just trying to express themselves in a moment in time, and trying to put their skills to work tapping into the minds of their listeners as well. It’s a work not just of energy and passion but of curiosity and exploration.VSCOM

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.14 – Teashikuchibiru – Punch! Kick! Kiss!

Punch!Kick!Kiss!

CD, River Whale Age, 2014

While a lot of the music on this top twenty rundown is a representative of one scene or another, existing both as a discrete musical entity and as a marker in a wider musical context, Tochigi-based duo Teashikuchibiru are right out there on their own. They are original.Teashikuchibiru no Theme (live)

Using only acoustic guitar, violin and vocals, they make a little go a long way, and Punch! Kick! Kiss! is impressive not least for the diverse range of different ideas and sounds they’re able to express with their minimal setup. Magaru is probably the closest thing to shoegaze you can do with an acoustic guitar and violin, while O.W.W.O takes diversions alternately into chic Shibuya-kei-style pop and playfully annoying P-Model-style new wave. Some kind of distant relative of hip hop shares space on a track with haunting, Celtic folk melodies, and Shiroi Hikari/Shiroi Netsu pays sly tribute to The Velvet Underground (White Light/White Heat, geddit?)

The most obvious recurring musical motif and the one they seem to have the most fun with is the twin vocals, which overlap, engage in games of call and response, and sometimes simply battle for space in the music. New Error recalls some of the most wilfully eccentric, motormouthed, squealing vocal gymnastics of Ni Hao! Peri overlays both vocals one over the other, while Hada to Hada strips away everything except the vocals, using of layers of delay loops to build up a madly chattering musical collage. Elsewhere, Kimi ga Hakkashiteiru is a proper, straightforward, harmony-drenched love song.Teashikuchibiru: Peri

While sharing some elements in common with other offbeat, punkish acoustic bands like Suichuu Sore wa Kurushii and Folk Shock Fuckers, Punch! Kick! Kiss! sounds like nothing else released in 2014, and from start to finish it is packed with surprises and delights.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.15 – Macmanaman – Drunkendesignatedhitter

Macmanaman: Drunkendesignatedhitter

CD, Red Novel, 2014

Before I begin this review, I think I ought to make one thing clear: I dislike Toe. They represent a kind of music that I find boring and something about the music scene in Japan generally that I find annoying: something that values technique over spontaneity, professionalism over energy, earnestness over fun. They’re a band with a very large following both at home and overseas, and I shan’t dispute that they’re good at what they do, whatever that is, but as a kind of model band for contemporary Japanese post-rock they’re poster boys for a sort of po-faced, noodling tedium: give me an indiscriminate number of teenage girls hopping around to some half-assed pop chorus any day if this kind of thing is the alternative.Manga-gao (live at Fukuoka Utero)

Fortunately for me they aren’t the only alternative, because there is also Macmanaman, a quartet whose fifteen-minute instrumental guitar symphonies are delivered with all the immediacy and raw, fuck-you power of a hardcore band while retaining the virtuosity and complexity of the very best their post-rock contemporaries can offer. Those Toe fans who have made it as far as this second paragraph might be screaming inwardly that yes they do too have passion and energy, but not like this they don’t. If post-rock is prog for the modern era, Macmanaman are the genre’s bad boys: its Amon Düül II, its Hawkwind, constantly threatening to tilt over the edge into full-on Motörhead. Macmanaman are the savage underbelly that reveals the barbarian heart beating within even the most rarefied, cultivated gardens of rock, the tiger in the soup of even the most convoluted metaphor.Michael (live at Fukuoka Utero)

And live is where Macmanaman show their true colours – where their peacock feathers extend most proudly and majestically. 2012’s Drugorbaseball was a fine album and made my picks for that year, but the hour-long live set contained in Drunkendesignatedhitter is a rougher, rawer, but more honest and more powerful document of the band’s virtues. Of course the A or B choice I’ve set this up as between Macmanaman and Toe is a false binary and there are people who will like both (and in any case, Natsumen are a closer match to the band’s own ambitions), but it is still a worthwhile comparison to make, providing a lens that illuminates how Macmanaman are, if not necessarily better, at least in possession of a distinctive quality of their own relative to the genre’s main Japanese standard-bearers. And let’s face it, they’re better.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.16 – Crunch – Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto

Crunch are sometimes pitched in the Japanese media in terms of new wave and postpunk, which to someone unfamiliar with the loose way terms like those are bandied about by journalists in Japan might seem like a bit of an overstatement. What that misses is the extent to which J-pop in its 90s incarnation was indeed born out of new wave, with the influence of Elvis Costello on Mr. Children, the synthpop roots of Tetsuya Komuro and TM Network, the formative years with the Plastics of Glay/Judy And Mary producer Masahide Sakuma, and Judy And Mary themselves’ own punk roots. Shibuya-kei had its own roots in postpunk labels like Postcard and Él Records, and even the decidedly homegrown Ringo Shiina had roots in the Fukuoka punk scene with bands like Number Girl and Panicsmile, whose current drummer Geru Matsuishi produced this album.

Crunch are undoubtedly a J-pop band, but they’re a J-pop band from a parallel world where it retained its curiosity and still produced bands with ideas instead of them all having been squeezed out of existence by idol franchises. Instead of frantically casting about, trying on the clothes of every subculture or fad it can find in hope of finding a temporary host demographic from which to feed, Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto is pop music of what feels more and more like a vanishingly old-fashioned type. Crunch are obviously thoughtful and voracious listeners, with small-c-catholic musical tastes and a sensitivity and sense of craftsmanship to their songwriting that doesn’t reveal itself all on the first listen but rather unfolds gradually over time. This isn’t complex music of staggering technical virtuosity: rather it is music of careful consideration and quiet imagination.Awakening (live at Shinjuku Marz)

Awakening perhaps best exemplifies the combination of melodic immediacy and an offbeat approach that trips you up and sends you back for repeat listenings just to work out what they actually did there. With vocals that leap scales over a simple, descending chord sequence it seems straightforward enough, but in the breaks the rhythm begins to increasingly to drop in extra beats, interrupting the looping chord cycle just enough to make you think there’s something odd going on. In 2014 Crunch also released the short Simple Mind EP, suggesting that there is more to come from the trio, and when it arrived, hopefully the pop world still has a little place for them.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.17 – Jesse Ruins – Heartless

Heartless

CD, M/A/G/N/I/P/H, 2014

One of the most heartening things I noticed when compiling this rundown of the best of 2014 was how several of them were actually identifiably about something. This may seem like an obvious base line for any sort of art, but given how often indie musicians will deflect any questions about what they do with banalities along the lines of, “We just make music that gives us a good feeling and we hope others like it too,” and how often that flight from any sort of concrete underpinning framework leads to music that is itself wispy, insubstantial, unwilling to engage even with itself, it’s often quite noticeable when an artist has the backbone to give their work some kind of, well, backbone.

Jesse Ruins’ first full-length release A Film was shot through with, often cryptic, cinematic references, but the follow-up Heartless seems to be themed around the alienating effects of a digitally connected world. For a band like Jesse Ruins whose whole existence is predicated on the Internet – the group began as a solo project in Nobuyuki Sakuma’s bedroom and only formed itself into a recognisable live band after they blew up online – there may also be some level of self-reflection or irony involved as well. Whatever Sakuma may have been thinking himself, it’s certainly true that Jesse Ruins are part of a generation of musicians who have come of age creatively at a time when not just personal communication but specifically the transmission and dissemination of music is carried out primarily online. Titles like Scar Caused by Your Phone, Forgot Your Account and She Is in Photo SNS allude strongly to this, drawing your focus in on the dissonance, alienation and loneliness that pervades the music in a more abstract way.L for App

Developing on from some of the more industrial elements of the A Film, as well as Sakuma’s parallel Cold Name side project, Heartless sets out to disconcert rather than reassure, which serves to heighten to the impact of the more melodic moments when they do emerge while providing more space to experiment with beats. While coming from a rather different background, Heartless makes an interesting point of comparison with another electronic duo, Capsule, whose 2013 Caps Lock threatened to take electro in an interesting, more experimental direction. Judging from the preview clips the group have released, Capsule are set to rebound right back into EDM territory, but with Heartless, Jesse Ruins are continuing to point the way towards a more interesting, thoughtful direction for off-mainstream electronic pop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.18 – Free City Noise – Leaving

Leaving

CD, self-released, 2014

Free City Noise first came to my attention through their connection to the Nagoya indie scene, documented on Knew Noise Records’ wonderful Ripple compilation, to which they contributed the superb, Sonic Youth-esque Permanent Touches. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to note then that this distorted, doom-laden shriekfest has a lot of New York’s finest about it. The influence of fucked-up sounding American music from the ’80s on the Japanese underground scene is deeply rooted though, and the almost prog or jazz rhythms of VS (a Mission of Burma reference?) have a broad hinterland in Japanese bands like Panicsmile, Tacobonds, or closer to home in Nagoya other Ripple bands like Dororonica. The relentless march of minor chords and the way the band let the songs breathe, resisting the temptation to tighten up and hone the technique into finely tuned mathy perfection goes against the grain of much of the way the Japanese alternative and underground scene has been heading basically ever since about 2001 when Shutoku Mukai gave up on punk music.Golden River (live at Akihabara Club Goodman)

Leaving is as rough and raw as alt-rock gets, and is steeped in the sounds of the ’80s and ’90s. Despite the loose, seemingly freeform atmosphere, the songs are also intelligently and imaginatively structured, with noise and melody both playing a role, often at the same time, and the wash of distortion and feedback over songs like VS and Nun Falls providing a cover under which radical changes in the rhythm can take place without becoming jarring. The result is a tense, tortured, emotionally wrought mini-album, very much of another era, and all the more necessary for that very fact.Implicit Mirror (live at Akihabara Club Goodman)

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