Monthly Archives: October 2020

Phew – Vertigo KO

Over the past few years, Phew’s creative output has travelled a path from synth experiments on Light Sleep, through ghostly vocal distortions and layers on Voice Hardcore, collaborative experiments and linguistic games with Ana da Silva on Island, and earlier this year released the limited edition cassette Vertical Jamming of what could perhaps be described as psychic landscapes of Japan in the disorientating aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, to name but a few of her recent releases and projects. This run of releases each has its own thematic concerns and processes, but they also send out spectral threads, insinuating themselves into each other, drifting layers of misty drone and vocals that twist meanings out of incomprehensibility and vice-versa, underscored by the post-punk simplicity of the synth pulses and machine or sample loop rhythms.

Drawing on the sessions from many of those albums, Vertigo KO is the latest step on that journey, but one with echoes of its predecessors making their ghostly presence felt, each step forward haunted by the same journey’s past. The layers of vocal loops on Let’s Dance Let Go, the popcorn rhythmical patter running through All That Vertigo, the time-slip to Ana da Silva’s old band The Raincoats on the cover of The Void, the atmosphere of unease, words flitting back and forth from behind the veil of comprehension. In creating this “unconscious sound sketch” of what Phew describes as “a closed and obstructive time”, there’s a captivating tension between claustrophobic or oppressive elements and the expansive, liberating sonic space that she opens up at times, and the result is an album that feels both disconcerting and quite beautiful, wrapped up in an uneasy, occasionally chilling sort of intimacy.

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Various Artists – We Need Some DISCIPLINE Here.

There have been a lot of Japanese compilation albums this year, largely organised by and for live venues that had been forced by the pandemic to scale back their operations. This compilation by Tokyo’s Discipline event team is different in that its focus is more specifically around the organisers’ own event.

Pinning down exactly what sort of event Discipline is (and therefore what sort of album this is) is difficult using the normal diagnostic tools of genre — it blends hardcore, grindcore, post-punk, EBM, noise, techno, drone, experimental and various points between, but nonetheless it adds up to a coherent sonic universe. Many of the electronic tracks (Golpe Mortal) have a raw, rough-edged quality to them that plays well with the punk-influenced entries (Klonns), some of which themselves bleed seamlessly into experimental territory (Granule), while experimental and noise acts happily cross back over into rough-edged electronica (In The Sun).

A good compilation album takes you on a journey through different landscapes that are nonetheless recognisable as parts of the same world, and what makes this Discipline compilation so interesting is how it constructs that world itself with such little reliance on the shortcuts provided by external signifiers. Part of that is perhaps down to the way it has already established and honed its identity through its regular events. Part may also be down to the disregard towards genre among young audiences in Japan (the Rokoh label’s 2020 Songs for Our Space compilation dances around similar sounds with a similarly gloomy sense of cool to Discipline, with members of the bands Ms. Machine and Strip Joint appearing on both). In this sense, the attitude is feels like an update of the post-punk era’s marriage of funk, dub, electronic and experimental music to various strains of rock’n’roll, all with a similarly stripped-back and raw approach. All of which is to say that if Discipline is the future of underground music in Tokyo, it’s one with a lot of promise.

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Uhnellys – Core

Released in May, Core was one of the first Japanese albums made specifically under the conditions of (and often in direct reference to) the coronavirus pandemic. Lyrically, the album opener Doku to Kusuri spins round amid the claustrophobia, uncertainty and panic of the early days of being in an uncharted zone of invisible infection, while images of panic and disorder recur throughout the album as vocalist Kim unfolds his cinematic fragments of narrative and abstract sloganeering.

The impact of the pandemic is more obvious, though, in the music itself, recorded at home with electronic beats and sequencers replacing the live drums that traditionally ride the grooves and delay loops of Uhnellys’ music. As I mentioned when commenting about this album for Undrcurrents in June, the album takes an interesting turn about halfway through, exploring darker, more experimental and more psychedelic territory on tracks like Hope with its overlapping vocals and the synth drone-centred Enter the Forest feat. Nozomi Nobody. Five months after it was initially released, a lot of the sense of impending panic that coloured the pandemic’s early days in Tokyo has retreated into a sort of low key but constant knot in the stomach, but there’s a tightly wound sense of discomfort and uncertainty running through Core that taps into something deeper than simply the scenery of its moment.

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