Monthly Archives: January 2015

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.6 – Luminous Orange – Soar, Kiss the Moon

When m’colleague Ryotaro Aoki and I were putting together our Quit Your Band! zine back in 2013, we developed a deliberately over-elaborate rating system for album reviews, marking them as an X on an inverted triangle that included Black Sabbath at the top-left, Stereolab at the top-right and latecomer 90s grunge wannabes Bush at the bottom. The semi-serious idea was that all good music can be placed on a scale somewhere between the raw, idiotic rock racket of some idealised, imaginary Sabbaff and the poised intellectualism of some extreme parody of the ‘Lab (and with the subsidiary point that who cares what rubbish music sounds like). It was a silly idea and one that we had a lot of fun taking way too far, but analysing music within such an abstract, arbitrary framework was interesting in how it forced you to look at it in ways that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious.

The reason I bring this up here is because Luminous Orange sit like a sort of indie rock Schrödinger’s Cat simultaneously at both extremes of the “Sabbath Scale”, with Soar, Kiss the Moon the quantum box that holds them. On one hand, it’s all ba ba ba this and la la la that – everything in the most tasteful way possible – but on the other it’s all ear-shredding guitars tearing strips out of each other.

Obviously in terms of the sound itself, Luminous Orange have more in common with Stereolab. One reference point that insists its way to the fore is the combination of densely layered, distorted guitars and breezy jazz-pop of Stereolab circa Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements. There’s far less emphasis on Neu! pastiche extended motorik krautrock workouts on Soar, Kiss the Moon, though, with Luminous Orange instead bringing in an almost hardcore brutality to some parts that bring a far earthier kind of grit to the likes of Nightwalking. It’s not just in the guitars, which are nonetheless beautifully captured on record by Luminous Orange’s Rie Takeuchi and engineer/mixer Yui Kimijima (and this is not just one of the best albums of the year in terms of the songs: the production is very much an equal partner in its terrific-ness), but in the drums, which retain a power and energy even on relatively poppy tracks like the gorgeous Kissing the Moon.

Luminous Orange still have a reputation as a bit of a shoegaze band (or solo project, really), and their 2002 album Drop You Vivid Colours is perhaps still the best Japanese shoegaze album ever made, but they’ve mostly transcended that by this point. Those influences still inform an important part of their sound though, and especially on the blissed-out closing Slaughterhouse, with its wall of distorted guitars and Cocteau Twins-esque melody feels like a love letter from a teenage crush who has only grown more beautiful with the years.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.7 – Lihappiness – 2nd Pattern

Part of the work of this blog and my writing about Japanese music in general involves mapping out the network of scenes and sub-scenes, navigating the internal politics and threads of musical and cultural influence, and even when I then dismiss or disregard them, understanding the vagaries and shifting trends of musical fashion – all in the service of putting the music I cover into some sort of context. These scenes can be hotbeds of cool ideas, and getting to grips with them can open up doors into whole fresh pools of talented artists and new sounds; however, there are rarely more than a handful of genuinely interesting people at work in any scene, and the deeper you dig, the more you tend to find the same ideas played out to diminishing returns.

It’s always a delight then when someone like bedroom producer Lihappiness, with apparently no regard to where it fits in, can up with something like this relentless assault of lo-fi techno, drawing heavily from Japanese new wave acts like P-Model and the pioneering electronic pop of Kraftwerk, and even the postpunk-influenced epic rock of early Simple Minds and moulding them together in such a distinctive way. This is the kind of music you play to other people in the music scene and they sort of get that it’s good, but they’re also wary of it. It doesn’t fit the template, and the way it fearlessly and obliviously blows through any accepted contemporary notions of cool makes it a difficult sell.

After the instrumental intro, A.K.A. Virtue sets the tone with its flurry of beats, atonal non-singing, growling bass and laser zapping breakdown, and this remains a thread that the album returns to climactically later on in Tetto. Meanwhile Fun Fun Fun is an 80s pop song gone horribly wrong, and the first in a trio of tracks that all showcase a pop sensibility with varying degrees of wonkiness. The closing B.P. 2 is a murky house track with its ambient, ethereal synth lines underscored with a sort of babbling robotic evil in the vocals, all driven forward by the insistent beat and wobbling bass throb. 2nd Pattern is an album that tries to do so many things, and if successful means creating a completely unique character of its own from them, then it is a resounding success.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.8 – Buddy Girl and Mechanic – Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvy

CD/download, Space Shower Music, 2014

A shifting collection of Tokyo psychedelic postpunkers of no fixed membership, Buddy Girl and Mechanic followed up their luxurious self-titled 2013 debut with this claustrophobic piece of clockwork mechanical nonsense, maintaining their position as one of the most distinctive and interesting bands in the Tokyo music scene.

Can are an obvious influence, most strongly on Circe’s Kitchen, but rather than Jaki Liebezeit’s slippery drumming, the rhythms of Topsy Turvy elsewhere employ more mechanical beats, either intricate, overlapping toy rhythms as on Release the Fish, direct and propulsive as on Mechanic Nonsense, or some combination of the two as on the closing Nature/Property.Mechanic Nonsense

Seemingly stitched together from a variety of home and studio recording fragments, Topsy Turvy is a patchwork of varied sonic textures, which added to the toybox of sounds that are poured into songs like Cats Scratching makes listening to the album feel like searching for a lost earring in an unruly but fearsomely imaginative child’s bedroom. It retains a fondness for bluesy vocal melodies though, which even the most eccentric parts of the arrangements is ensures there’s a branch to cling onto, if a wilfully unsteady one.

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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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