Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 20-16

V:A - Nicfit:MAZE

Vinyl, Episode Sounds, 2019

20. V/A – Nicfit/M.A.Z.E.
This split EP features two of Japan’s leading purveyors of energetic, darkly leftfield punk rock and both bands shine. With Nagoya quartet Nicfit’s contributions, the guitars yowl and scrape at your eardrums as the songs barrel breakneck towards their conclusion, bass pounding out an atmosphere of doom. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s M.A.Z.E. come in all scuzzy, slashing guitars and post-punk jitters, then just as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone. A breathless, electrifying seven and a half minutes.


Towel - 「」

CD, self-released, 2019

19. Towel – 「」
Hamamatsu-based avant-indie band Towel’s new EP crams six songs into ten minutes, blasting you alternately with bouncy melodicism, jagged post-punk guitars with atonal yowling, and off-kilter, Sebadoh-esque songsmithery. On some level, you can make out parallels with a band like Siamese Cats in the songwriting sensibility, but Towel have way more ragged edges that they seem to have no interest in sanding away. And rightly so, because on this EP the edges are what give it its charm.


Otoboke Beaver - Itekoma Hits

Vinyl/CD, Damnably, 2019

18. Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits
Kyoto garage-trash quartet Otoboke Beaver are currently the Japanese band that people overseas have heard of, and their growing status outside Japan is all the more remarkable for the fact that they’ve managed to do it all within the restrictive limitations of touring while apparently holding down jobs with typical Japanese holiday allowances. Itekoma Hits is half a compilation, gathering tracks from recent Japanese releases together with a handful of new and re-recordings, and if you’re already familiar with their particular style of breakneck garage-punk with hairpin rhythmical turns, you’ll be well prepared for this. But when they jettison the chatterbox vocal stream with shouted choruses and take a turn for the melodic, they reveal the songwriting heart of a J-pop group amid the crafted chaos, in a way reminiscent of Kansai-area forbears Midori. With 14 tracks in about 27 minutes, Itekoma Hits is dense with ferocious yet deftly structured oddball punk rock and packed with unexpected twists.


The Routes - Tune Out Switch Off Drop In

Vinyl, Groovie Records, 2019

17. The Routes – Tune Out Switch Off Drop In
Calling The Routes part of Japan’s garage rock scene isn’t quite accurate, as the band seem quite content sequestered away in Oita, rarely playing live and having very little to do with the core Back from the Grave/Garage Rockin’ Craze scene in Tokyo. And they stand out from most of that scene too, by having much stronger and more sophisticated songwriting. The opening The Ricochet might veer a little too close to Oasis for some tastes (let’s be charitable and say it has echoes of Ladies And Gentlemen…-era Spiritualized instead) but overall, the feeling recalls the sounds of the 1980s Nuggets revival, more along the lines of Chris Stamey, Dream Syndicate or the Fleshtones (maybe even a hint of Ian McNabb and The Icicle Works in there too in songs like Just How it Feels) gifting the music a lively, sharply-cut, hook-heavy energy.


Otori - Digitalized Human Nature

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2019

16. Otori – Digitalized Human Nature
Where Otori’s 2014 debut album I Wanna Be Your Noise was loosely themed around ideas of communication, many of the songs on their 2019 follow-up Digitalized Human Nature — from the opening Encode Jungle to the closing Neuromancer — are concerned in one way or another with being human in a digital world. The arrival of new bass player Tsuda (of psychedelic rock band Owarikara) has also seen a shift in sound from the propulsive post-punk of their early years to something more rhythmically hyperactive, with vocalist Sae working more quirky, squeaky melodies into the songs and the introduction of more synth sounds (at least in some cases seemingly being worked Robert Fripp-style through Hino’s guitar). Digitalized Human Nature is an extremely busy album that retains and expands on Otori’s post-punk roots but is also intent on causing discomfort, overloading you with contradictory sensory input to the point where you don’t know where the man ends and the machine begins.

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