Monthly Archives: January 2016

Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.14– Pika – Ryu no Sumika

Ryu no Sumika

CD, Telegraph Records, 2015

Another album that strictly speaking should have been on last year’s list was (the now at least temporarily reformed) Afrirampo drummer Pika’s Ryu no Sumika solo album, which sneaked out in December but only came to my attention a couple of months later. An eclectic collection of folk, psychedelia, avant-garde anti-music, wonky pop and spacerock, it was a charming record, if a little difficult-to-pin-down. At the time, I noted the apparently festival-ready nature of some of the songs, remarking that on the album it was the darker moments like Sen, in collaboration with Nanao Tavito, that made the album stand out.

In the summer, I encountered Pika again at Fuji Rock, where she was performing on a small stage as Moon Mama, with a backing band drawn from some of the long list of collaborators on this album. Experienced from a grassy bank, under the afternoon sun, the music from this album took on a fresh texture, its sunnier moments opening up to the sky and the darker corners peering in from the depths of the forest that surrounded us. OK, so only a couple of hundred people got to see that hidden festival highlight, but what it helped reveal of Ryu no Sumika is still there in the album for anyone to find – an exhuberant explosion of creative talent from not only its nominal star but also the raft of supremely talented performers with whom she collaborates.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.15– mmm – Safe Mode

mmm - safe mode lp

Vinyl LP, Enban, 2015

With this entry in the list, I’ll confess to cheating a bit. Originally released in October 2014, it would fall outside the scope of this countdown of 2015’s best Japanese music were it not for a 12-inch vinyl re-release courtesy of Tokyo underground record store Enban’s in-house label.

This is a marvellous development because it allows me to write about a collection of songs that would almost certainly have made last year’s countdown had I discovered it in time, and was an easy choice this time around. I wrote about the CD edition earlier in the year, so I shan’t go over the same ground in detail (read my earlier review here – the music’s basically the same) except to say that Safe Mode is an intimate little mini-album, recorded warm and up-close, both charming and disarming.

Combining subtle, intricately worked psychedelic elements with witty, sometimes surreal, simple yet intricately balanced folk and acoustic pop, Safe Mode‘s atmosphere is enhanced in all manner of little ways by tiny production choices and quirks of the recording process, from the ambient sounds of fingers sliding along guitar strings on Long Days with Television to the contrast between the wavering tone of the vintage pub piano and the highly compressed drum machine sound on The Return of Hamunaptra.

What’s most remarkable about this record is that for all its short runtime and the apparent simplicity and sparseness of its sound, there is just so much going on, both in the diversity of the songwriting and the imagination and/or serendipity that have gone into the recording and arrangement. While its appearance in this year’s rundown was only able to happen through a quirk of its release process, there should be no question that Safe Mode is a worthy inclusion and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.16– Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her – Eternal Adolescence

seagull screaming kiss her kiss her - eternal adolescence

CD, UK Project, 2015

In Jon Fine’s excellent Your Band Sucks, there is a section in which he discusses the joys of re-forming a much-loved older band and the limits to which such reunions can be pushed. Speaking to Aiha Higurashi in the summer, it was clear that she was herself wary about making too grand plans for the new Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her. However, the band’s current form – with bassist Kentaro Nakao (Crypt City, ex-Number Girl) producing and partly managing band logistics, leaving Higurashi free to drive the band’s agenda from the front – has an air of logical progression from Higurashi’s work with Nakao over the past decade or so that regardless of what name she chooses to call the band and the specific people involved, it’s easy to see it continuing in some form or other.

The name does mean something though, carrying with it a certain weight not only of nostalgia but also of a certain disarming rawness and authenticity that made the band stand out as something special even in their own time. Musicians love to say, “I just play and sing what I feel. I don’t analyse it very much,” when they’re often reflexively avoiding the kind of honest expression they claim to value, playing and singing only in superficial banalities. Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, on the other hand, were always brutally honest and direct, both emotionally and musically. Seeing their name again with the words “new album” next to it summons a roar of snarling garage rock guitars and petulant yet cocksure lyrics.

Opening track Damn It I Know What I Am delivers all that, amped up to eleven – Higurashi, a middle-aged mother with an adolescent daughter of her own, still engaged in a sometimes fractious conversation with her own teenage self.

Angrily asserting her identity at no one in particular, complaining about boys, and calling out the phoneys, insisting that she doesn’t give a damn, while obviously giving a massive damn with half a dozen fucks thrown in for good measure, Eternal Adolescence finds Higurashi’s inner teenager alive and screaming. It’s her own contradictions that she really seems to not give a damn about, and the celebratory way she seems to embrace her own ambiguities is part of what makes her so damn cool.

After the yeah, baby, we’re back! punk rock party of the forst three tracks, the album makes space for some more restrained moments in the shape of the Folk Implosion-esque Kiss and Make Up and the cascading harp and oboe of Beauty. The bluesy garage strut reasserts itself soon after though in a streak that builds to a climax with the fists-aloft torch song of Fuckin’ Blue before winding to a close with the scratchy, acoustic Ah~ha~ha~ha~(Jesus Never Mind).

All this never feels less than real, but compared to an almost painfully raw album like 1998’s 17, Eternal Adolescence is balanced by an assurance that can perhaps in part be attributed to the support and fuller sound provided by Higurashi’s more extensive backing band (featuring members of Crypt City, Kaisoku Tokyo and Miila & The Geeks, among others) but also surely a greater sense of perspective and confidence on Higurashi’s own part. At 28 minutes, the ten songs on Eternal Adolescence take you on triumphant whirlwind tour of past anxieties, leaving with a puff of smoke, a stubbed-out cigarette and a swagger rather than a strop and a slammed door.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.17– Praha Depart – Sweet Wave

When writing about synth duo Yokan System’s Whispering for the previous entry in this 2015 rundown, I mentioned that, in Tokyo at least, members Mai Yano and Tsukasa Kameya are perhaps better known for their work with a band called Praha Depart. These things are relative of course, and from any meaningful cultural perspective no one has heard of either band, especially since Praha Depart more or less abandoned playing live a few years ago.

Nevertheless, the band (the trio’s lineup is completed by Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots drummer Jumpei Yamamoto) still exist sporadically, with the roots of this album going back to studio sessions in Ljubljana three years ago, which they developed into complete recordings after returning to Japan and promptly left unreleased for almost a year.

At this point I should declare an interest: I released Praha Depart’s earlier Dot. EP/mini-album in 2012 via Call And Response Records and heard the initial recordings for Sweet Wave a long time before its release. This is an album that had the timing been right, and had the band theirselves been more active, I might have ended up releasing, thus disqualifying it from appearing here. As it is, time dragged on, the band moved on, and the album was at risk of being forgotten, and so Praha Depart seemed to dump it almost apologetically onto their Bandcamp, perhaps for any international fans driven there by the flutter of press Yokan System were by then receiving around the release of Whispering.

While there are a few similarities, mostly down to Yano’s voice, comparisons between the two bands are largely meaningless. Praha Depart are a power trio with a full band sound, developed from sparse postpunk roots into something far richer and more multilayered.

Opening track Rhumba has echoes the tribal postpunk of Pulsallama or Rip Rig & Panic, and in particular of Praha Depart’s own earlier Portrait Man, kicking the album off with a link to the group’s past, before moving into the more restrained, melodic title track whose wandering, stuttering bass line recalls the prog pop of Roxy Music’s Out of the Blue.

Elsewhere, Sweet Wave’s music ranges from the rhythmically complex Swan to the richly textured, emotionally wrought closing Dreamer. Praha Depart express some ambivalence about this album, being a work that to them expresses only their current state rather than pointing the way towards the future, and with this release they seem to hope to draw a line under this stage in their life as a band. Something of this shows in the music, which is so richly developed and finely honed, delivered with such confidence and familiarity by the band that it leaves a sense of something so thoroughly and comprehensively expressed that there is nowhere left for them to go along this particular route. Still, while the album may in spome ways feel like a coda, it is at least a triumphant one – perhaps more an exclamation mark than a full stop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.18– Yokan System – Whispering

yokan system - whispering

CD/Download, Ample Play, 2015

Released on Tjinder Singh’s UK-based Ample Play label, this album by a Japanese duo probably better known in Tokyo as two thirds of the sporatically active postpunk-influenced art rock band Praha Depart is something of a spectral presence in the Japanese music scene.

There are enough similarities to The Knife’s early work to make the comparison valid beyond the simple fact of the two duos’ boy-girl synthpop dynamics. Yokan System temper that glacial edge though, delivering their music from behind a misty, lo-fi veil, the vocals and synths both adding ambiguity to the sound with a layer of sonic whispers just beneath the music’s surface, while Mai Yano’s vocals lean more towards Cocteau Twins-esque 4AD etherea than Karin Dreijer Andersson’s tormented Kate Bush-like yowl.

In the songwriting, Yokan System are poppy while skirting clear of outright pop songwriting, building their tracks from hooks, drum and sequencer loops and repetitive, mantric vocals in a way that betrays some of Yano and Kameya’s postpunk and krautrock-influenced roots.

Hanging somewhere between dance music and ambient, without ever really committing to be pop music either leaves Yokan System in an odd place in terms of pinning down their sound. The title track’s cascading guitar evokes something of Kyoto-based Japanese chillwave pioneers Hotel Mexico’s breakout international track Its Twinkle, while the propulsive dreampop of the opening Kyo Kyo Ra kicks off the album powerfully. Each track contains within it the seed of something the band seem intent on never quite delivering, drifting dreamlike from one little sonic world to the next without ever resolving the puzzle of the last – like whispered promises that never fully reveal themselves, the promise of the unknown contains within its mystery a beauty of its own.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.19– z/nz – Nanka Festa

znz - nanka festa

CD, Headache Sounds, 2015

The key reference points that are most inescapable when confronted by Fukuoka avant-rock trio z/nz are This Heat and Sonic Youth. You can hear both within the first few seconds of Nanka Festa’s opening track Happy Dance, and they remain constant touchstones throughout, even if the band themselves claim ‘90s US post-hardcore as a more direct set of influences.

More than simply a collection of influences, however, the group’s own curious internal dynamic is what gives the music its own distinctive character, the juxtaposition of Toya’s complex and highly technically proficient drumming with the overlapping twin guitars of Sassy and Tori, whose unconventional and defiantly untechnical style nevertheless allows them to pick out unexpected harmonies with each other. The tension between harmony and discord extends to the rhythm as well, with the guitars and drums struggling to hold together, teetering on a precipice that they constantly threaten to tumble over, but always pulling back in the nick of time.

The title Nanka Festa means literally “something festival” and the song titles themselves are all cryptic with no obvious bearing on the music they describe, most likely assigned via a sort of, “Hey, shout out the first word that comes into your head on the count of three!” method. The overarching feeling Nanka Festa evokes is one of disorientation coupled with a hard-to-place sense of fun. “I’ve no idea what this is, but it’s setting off fireworks in my head and my feet want to move like a drunk goose on a speedboat,” – it’s that sort of album.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.20– Sayuu – Sukamu Left Sukamu Right

sayuu - sukamu left sukamu right

CD, Yellow Label, 2015

Happy music dominated the Japanese indie scene in 2015, from the mild-mannered garbage of city pop at one extreme to the performance-orientated comedy punk and indie-idol detritus that clogged up the other end of the scene. When viewed through this filter, Tokyo was a horrible place to be for a bitter old art-punker/pure-pop vigilante like me. However, the way the indie scene adopted the mainstream entertainment industry’s focus on character and charisma over music also allowed some genuinely music to slip through.

Sayuu are outliers among Tokyo’s “funny” bands in that they skirt clear of outright goofiness and produce music more considered than mere wackiness. Sukamu Left Sukamu Right succeeds by treading a knife-edge of caustic humour, brittle postpunk arrangements and hectoring vocals, all providing the most minimal embroidery to songs that through a mixture of occasional bursts of melody and persistent, finely honed rhythmical dynamics manages to be accessible borderline-pop and retain all its sharp edges.

Songs like Yellow Hate I’ve written about before, with the newer Yametekure running along similar lines. Meanwhile the kazoo-folk of Hako no Uta will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the band’s regular live set.

As with many smartly marketed Japanese underground acts, where they take it from here is a difficult question. It’s all so tightly honed and complete in itself that it suggests few avenues for further development that wouldn’t fatally undermine its finely balanced appeal. The whispered Heiwana no Ka against a backdrop of minimal percussion and xylophone points a possible direction for the duo to explore more sophisticated ideas without losing their sparse charm. Again, the scene’s focus on character over music can work in a band’s favour here, giving them freer rein to change fundamental aspects of their setup as long as the duo retain their dry, poker-faced wit.

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Top 20 releases of 2015: Intro

As is custom with the start of a new year, this blog is going to kick off 2016 with a month-long look back at the past year’s musical highlights. As usual, this task is complicated by a number of factors and naturally limited by my own prejudices and interests as a music fan. For longtime readers, this will perhaps be unnecessary, but I’ll ask you to bear with me as I go over the background against which this rundown will operate.

Firstly, it’s all Japanese music, which I’m defining here as music made either by Japan-based musicians or Japanese musicians based overseas but with some significant connection to the music scene here in Japan.

In theory, there’s no particular rule dictating major or underground music, but in practice that means it’s all indie and underground music, for at least as long as all J-Pop and idol music remains utter garbage. If you think that’s unfair, feel free to complain to your heart’s content in the comments but I’ve tried really hard to like Suiyobi no Campanella and they’re just not that good.

The kinds of releases I’m covering range from EPs to full albums, which generally means three tracks or more and upwards of ten minutes in total – naturally with some wiggle room to take into account things like psychedelic albums where one track can last an hour or hardcore albums where ten songs can go by in eight minutes.

I don’t include any releases from my own Call And Response label, which was doubly hard this year, because the compilation/tribute album Small Lights – A Tribute to Mir which came out on Call And Response’s December 27th ten-year anniversary is a release I’m more proud of than anything I’ve ever worked on and is in my honest (and naturally unbiased) opinion easily the best album released anywhere in the world in 2015 and making a mockery of the actual list.

With that in mind, I’ll beg your indulgence for a moment as I run down the various releases on Call And Response this year in which I had varying degrees of involvement:

Sharkk: Sharkk EP – Buy cassette HERE

sharkk-smallA distinctly poppy collection of alt-rock/emo/punk tunes, recorded by Tokyo-based American musician Sean McGee and a menagerie of collaborators. Self-released via Bandcamp and distributed in physical form via Call And Response as a limited edition cassette.

Hakuchi: Chindon DING DONG! ~ Minokurui March ~ – Buy CD HERE

hakuchi_chindondingdongThis frenetic collision of postpunk, grunge, 1970s Japanese pop and children’s songs, by a band from Saga in Kyushu that I have been keeping tabs on for a while, was an album I proudly shepherded through from early stages to release. Hakuchi are a rare band who embody the carefree attitude of much of what’s popular in the alternative scene at the moment, while retaining the breakneck energy, arty contrarianism and strong musical core that I demand of my favourite bands.

Lo-shi: Baku – Buy LP HERE

lo-shi_bakuCall And Response took a minor role in distributing this limited edition vinyl release of an album the band had self-released in 2014. A mixture of dark, nightmarish psychedelic soundscapes and skittering electronic beats, kept from falling into the abyss of ambient goo by a krautrock-ish sense of momentum that constantly drives it forward and gives it structure and shape.

Looprider: My Electric Fantasy – Buy CD HERE

looprider_myelectricfantasyThis mini-album that sometimes fuses and sometimes juxtaposes elements of metal, shoegaze, psychedelia and pop is just part one in an ambitious cycle of releases from this new band that will cover even more eclectic ground as it works its way over the next couple of years towards the completion of its first phase. The Tokyo indie scene was utterly baffled by Looprider’s failure to conform to any of its usual scene/genre boundaries. People from outside seemed to find it far less confusing.

V/A: Small Lights – A Tribute to Mir – Buy CD HERE

car69As I mentioned before, this compilation stands as the work I’m most proud of in my whole ten years of releasing music, and while — as an 80-minute tribute/concept album dedicated to an utterly unknown Tokyo indie band — its commercial potential even/especially in Japan is next to zero, it still to my mind stands alone as a coherent, singularly powerful and emotionally moving album. I know it’s ludicrous to say this about an album I helped produce myself, and I can’t possibly know whether I would love it quite so much if delivered from another’s hand, but I can at least say that this is as clear and coherent a statement of What I Like as has ever existed.

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