Monthly Archives: January 2018

Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.10 – She Talks Silence – Sorry, I Am Not

she talks silence - sorry, i am not

Download, AWDR/LR2, 2017

Combining twee pop, whisper-voiced, Velvetsy punk, and what they describe as “mellow noise”, She Talks Silence has for many years now been one of the most quietly impressive bands (now a solo project, since the departure of drummer Ami to focus on Prince Graves) in the Tokyo indie scene, although since 2011’s Some Small Gifts their output has been sporadic. The appearance of this more or less full-length album (nine songs in just under half an hour) has the feeling of something long overdue. Fortunately, it was well worth the wait.

Taking 2014 vinyl mini-album When It Comes as its base, most of the songs on Sorry, I Am Not date back several years (full disclosure: Long Ways first appeared on a compilation album I released in 2012) but the songwriting is so instantly recognisable that the years melt away into a thoroughly consistent whole. Compared to predecessors like 2010’s Some Small Gifts and 2010’s Noise & Novels, this new album is more rhythmically playful, opening with a clattering jungle beat straight out of 1995, although simple, kraut-ish drum machine beats like that on Holy Hands, Holy Voices and Walk Away remain the platform from which many of the most melodic moments launch themselves.

She Talks Silence could easily trade on fragile indie cuteness, but it’s the willingness to explore noise and discord that helps Sorry, I Am Not stand out as one of the year’s best. More Anti-Yourself wavers uneasily between melody and discord, Just Like War is characterised by a doom-laden claustrophobic paranoia that falls somewhere between The Birthday Party and Mezzanine-era Massive Attack, and the scuzzy There’s No is as close to a full-on punk rocker as you’re ever going to get from an artist like She Talks Silence.

The album broadly maintains a lo-fi production aesthetic, but She Talks Silence’s sonic range has clearly widened, with the closing The Moon (originally released on a split 7-inch with Towa Tei) sounding expansive and quite gorgeous. With Japanese indiepop becoming increasingly clean-cut, the fuzzed-out edges of Sorry, I Am Not mean this album couldn’t be more timely.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.11 – jailbird Y – Sex Trip EP

jailbird y - sex trip ep

7-inch vinyl, Pexpox, 2017

Jailbird Y had a rough year in 2017, with the release of this EP of explosive noise-rock coinciding with the entire band quitting, leaving vocalist Anndoe to reconstruct the band anew from the ground up with each successive gig. This chaos in the band’s internal life can perhaps be viewed from afar as simply an extrusion into physical space of the hyperactive, swirling insanity of their music. In that sense, one has to admire their dedication to their art.

The Sex Trip EP consists of just two main songs, with the one-minute noise instrumental Chinboru rounding the vinyl EP out the three tracks in total. As squalls of machine noise overlaid with what sound like the the warbling oscillations of a 1960s sci-fi movie teleporter go, the instrumental is very much of a piece with the hyperactive, loosely hardcore-influenced junk of Jailbird Y’s typically playful songwriting.

Playful is the right word too, because in contrast to the posturing machismo and earnestness of much hardcore and hardcore-influenced music, Jailbird Y can be deliciously camp at times. The vocals on Goemon come across like tortured, demonic chipmunks, but when they bring the noise, it lands like a metric tonne of sheet metal. Love Letter, meanwhile, opens like a Teutonic nightmare, the stamping boots of a conquering robot army, before lurching into gear in a frenzied flurry of screams, twisted guitars and dubby effects.

The download retails, rather confusingly, for ¥100,000 on their Bandcamp, or ¥1000 for the vinyl. The EP also includes download-only remixes of Love Letter and Goemon by Shinji Masuko from DMBQ. Remixes are usually a pointless addition at best, but Masuko clearly gets what makes the original songs tick and takes them in his own, Love Letter From Berder Kingdom drawing out and expanding on the song’s dubby elements, and Goemon Had Formed a band in 2000s remaining true to the song’s – and the band’s – chaotic heart.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.12 – Cornelius – Mellow Waves

cornelius - mellow waves

CD, Warner Music, 2017

“Zealously precise” and “exactingly funky” have for a long time been useful terms in summarising the work of former Shibuya-kei godhead Cornelius, and with Mellow Waves we can add “scrupulously smooth”.

The album has been described by some reviewers as being warmer than its predecessors Sensuous and Point, and in terms of the sound production and overall more richly layered nature of the songs that’s perhaps true. The closing duo of Rain Song and Crépuscule make fine use of acoustic guitar, the sliding of fingers along the frets during the latter becoming a seamless element of the subtle soundscape that Cornelius builds around it. However, the album is no less clinical in terms of how it deploys the scientific principles of sonic warmth and calculates to a fraction of a degree the ideal angle to which it should be laid back.

That’s not to deny that there is a clear shift in approach though. On earlier albums, in particular on Point, Cornelius made a lot out of songs based around a single musical idea that he would then develop in subtle variations throughout the song in a way that nevertheless didn’t compromise the concept’s essential minimalism. Mellow Waves shifts the emphasis away from that mode of song construction, with most tracks taking the form of more or less conventionally structured pop songs containing a multitude of moving parts.

What sets Mellow Waves apart is that, where earlier albums thrived on the tension between organic elements (a live instrument, a drop of water) and technology, now Cornelius seems more interested in eliminating that tension, exploring the areas where the barrier between the organic and electronic becomes permeable. The gorgeous, Eno-esque Surfing on Mind Wave Pt.2 is a case in point, with strings that phase between organic and synthetic sounds, and then, as the electronic effects seem to be taking over, the sounds of voices, gulls and ocean waves start to creep into the mix.

Cornelius shares a lot in common with a band like Steely Dan, in that he pursues with scientific precision the emotional and sensual truths other artists simply feel their ways towards. Whether he gets closer here than on earlier albums is debatable, but his process has never been so richly developed.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.13 – Her Braids – Demo

A new band from Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture, Her Braids have the air of a band still discovering their sound, and cross this EP, as with their live performances, they switch instruments between the three members from track to track with the result that no two songs feature exactly the same combination.

The sound they’re looking for is pretty clear from one iteration to another though. The opening Tangled Ropes recalls the dreamlike post-Sarah indiepop of The Trembling Blue Stars, while the mix of drum machine and bittersweet melancholy that runs through much of the EP recalls the Young Marble Giants. With its live drums and violin, the more uptempo Moody Summer picks up some of the raw edge of The Raincoats, all the while inhabiting essentially the same world of twee record store romanticism as the rest of the album.

The creation of a coherent atmosphere, albeit one with many echoes in the indiepop world, is key to Her Braids’ appeal. The way they set off their raw edge and fragility against the clear, gentle ring of the guitar and the restrained wash of the synth creates a multidimensional sonic microverse for songs like the achingly beautiful New Moon Dream to play in. It also ensures that within the Japanese indiesphere there’s currently no one else quite like them.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.14 – Sekaitekina Band – NEW

sekaitekina band - new

CD, Provoke Association, 2017

Along with WBSBFK’s Open Your Eyes, this album by fellow Nagoya band Sekaitekina Band – their follow-up after a long hiatus to their self-titled 2012 debut – represents the first fresh fruits to emerge from 2016’s Provoke postpunk compilation. Like WBSBFK’s album, New is defined by a kind of restrained, low-key minimalism, but instead of spiky, intricate, Wire-esque puzzle-punk, Sekaitekina Band take a more melodic approach that draws as much from the atmosphere of ’90s indie rock acts like Yo La Tengo as is does from the early ’80s.

Despite the more tuneful and understated approach, Sekaitekina Band remain consistent with their minimalist krautpunk past as well, structuring their melodies into mantric loops, as on the the opening Love? where the phase pedal does as much talking as the sparse, curiously flat vocals, and the title track, where the vocals are reduced to vague humming in the background. The band’s more tightly-wired postpunk tendencies step to the fore occasionally, with Teorema introducing a touch of urgency to the rhythm and some expertly deployed cutting guitars. Evil, meanwhile, resembles nothing so much as Osaka’s masters of disco-punk minimalism Yolz In The Sky, albeit with Sekaitekina Band’s own particular brand of disaffected humming replacing Yolz In The Skies’ hyperactive, monosyllabic yelps.

In this combination of indie rock melodicism and a postpunk-influenced approach to structure, Sekaitekina Band may be taking cues from Tokyo’s Extruders, but despite their years away, they retain a clear identity of their own. While New does raise questions about whether the band can retain the propulsive energy of their live performances with this more subdued material, as an album in itself it is as fine a piece of stripped-down indie rock as Japan produced in 2017.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.15 – The Neso – Obey

the neso - obey

Cassette, self-released, 2017

Like BLONDnewHALF, The Neso are a postpunk band very much in the old-skool sense, drawing from late-70s art-punk touchstones to give definition to music that is in essence straightforward garage rock. On the Obey cassette EP there’s the Keith Levine guitar sound, plus the snotty schoolgirl shouting of Delta 5 or Kleenex. This whole review could easily be a list of great bands who The Neso remind me of. Luckily for them, however, the band they remind me of most is The Au Pairs, and this is really down to their warped way with catchy songwriting. It’s the key to this EP’s success, with the title track in particular a short, sharp, bubblegum-punk classic.

All four songs on this EP are intelligently crafted, deceptively simple – if shamelessly retro – oddball punk nuggets, all spiky guitar lines, clattering beats and infectious harmonies. Importantly too, it never comes across as anything less than natural in The Neso’s hands.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.16 – te_ri – Kasugai Low Gravity

Guitar/drum duo te_ri’s second album is a surprisingly affecting piece of rhythmically unpredictable minimalist math rock. With the group’s members now based at opposite ends of the country in northeastern Iwate and southwestern Okayama, the chemistry between them is nevertheless still there – in fact it seems to have matured in some key ways since 2013’s Far East Debug, with a greater tenderness and emotion creeping into these instrumental songs.

The influence of Burmese music also seems to have affected the chords and melodies, the fruits of guitarist Kyuju Murakami’s travels to Burma. His clean guitar tones, unmolested by the batteries of effects pedals that serve as a crutch for experimental rock bands, tell complex stories through notes and rhythm alone. Takashi Katayama’s drums, meanwhile, function more as an answering voice to Murakami’s guitar than as a simple beat-keeper, slipping with a jazz-man’s combination of looseness and control through the music’s sonic spaces.

Coming in at around 26 minutes for the album’s nine songs, with most hovering around the 3-minute mark, Kasugai Low Gravity is also an economical album, never indulging any of its ideas for longer than necessary or falling back on jam band clichés. For all its complexity, then, it remains a fresh listening experience, and for all its sparseness, it remains densely packed with ideas.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.17 – BLONDnewHALF – Clean

blondnewhalf - clean

CD, Dan-Doh Records, 2017

The energy in this new album by Kobe-based garage/postpunk band BLONDnewHALF just doesn’t let up over the course of these sixteen tracks and 44 minutes. From the opening In Order to the closing Nie, it barrels forward driven by frenetic, babbling bass lines and drums that just couldn’t give a fuck, crisscrossed by psychotic slashes of discordant guitar, narrated via a series of unintelligable barks and yaps.

While the energy is relentless, the explosive pace isn’t uniform though, and especially towards the end of the album BLONDnewHALF switch gears, channeling their intensity into the tense krautpunk of Who, the mantric R40 and the scratchy, edgy and wilfully awkward 30nen.

The production on the album is constantly rasping like tortured metal along the recording equipment’s upper limits, like a bus screaming around a speedway track, scraping the crash barriers on every turn and tearing the heads off any waveforms that poke their heads out the windows. Whether you think this is a good thing or bad, it’s nevertheless utterly consistent with the amped-up, bug-eyed, buccaneering way BLONDnewHALF seem to approach everything else about Clean. This album is badass.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.18 – Bossston Cruizing Mania – Idea

bossston cruizing mania - idea

CD, cosmic jackson, 2017

With their first album since 2011’s Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead, Tokyo-based punk/underground veterans Bossston Cruizing Mania have taken a radical step back to basics with Idea.

Where previously they had traded in a combination of rhythmically complex postpunk and dub, sometimes drawing songs out to ten minutes or more, no track on Idea exceeds three minutes, with arrangements restrained by what seem at first glance to be straightforward punk rock rhythms and chords.

Confusing easy pigeonholing is the role of vocalist Esuhiro Kashima, who continues to rant, Mark E Smith-like, over the music no matter what it’s doing. As a result, even as the music hints at a more conventional structure, it functions more as a backdrop for their poet-savant frontman to deliver his missives – occasionally channeled by the music into something that sounds almost like singing, but nevertheless defiantly shunning anything as obvious as a chorus.

There’s a tension within Idea that feels like a fundamentally weird band trying very hard to make what they think pop music sounds like but only getting it half right. Coupled with the way they are clearly playing deep within their technical abilities, dialing back nearly all of the mathy sensibilities that had characterised earlier albums, there’s a disconcerting sense of a band holding something back.

That’s partly what makes it such an interesting album though. There are already bands in Tokyo like Triplefire who do the snap-tight rhythmical-postpunk-with-rambling-vocals thing about as well as it can be done, but to begin using recognisable chords and dipping their toes cautiously into melody starts to feel like the more radical thing for a band like Bossston Cruizing Mania to do.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.19 – WBSBFK – Open Your Eyes

wbsbfk - open your eyes

CD, Provoke Association, 2017

One of the most interesting developments of 2016 (for this site at least, with all its attendant biases) was the Provoke compilation of young, mostly male postpunk-influenced rock bands. While the compilation itself may not have had a massive impact in the grander scheme of things, it offered a reassuring corrective to Japanese indie’s dreary drift into City Pop Hell. One question it left unanswered at the time was where it could go next.

2017 saw a partial answer to that question with the simultaneous release in November of new albums by two of the Provoke bands, both released through the imprint that had begun with the compilation. Of those releases, Nagoya’s WBSBFK continue most closely in the same vein as the compilation, all spindly, atonal postpunk guitars, jittery rhythms and selfconsciously disaffected vocals.

However, where much of Provoke was drenched in distortion, WBSBFK here are confident enough in their own mastery of Wire-like postpunk dynamics that they seem to feel no need to hide within a tornado of effects. The result is a short album of ten songs in just over twenty minutes that trade in visceral energy for sparseness and sophistication, each song a jagged clockwork machine in monochrome. In an era where feelings are frequently taken as the alpha and omega of cultural import, it’s a special kind of pleasure that can be taken from music that is simply interesting.

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