5. tentative four – tentative four
The rush of releases that came out in 2020 as a result of the pandemic brought a lot of rough, unfinished-feeling material that worked more as a statement of defiance than a finished work of art. Coming out just before that panicked environment emerged, this self-titled cassette EP by Tokyo’s Tentative Four nonetheless felt like part of the same sort of torn picturebook creative world, bringing together scuzzy post-punk, chopped and screwed pop distortions and remixes in a way that shares a similar careless disregard for traditional genre as people like the Discipline crew (who share the venue Koiwa Bushbash as a home base with Tentative Four and whose compilation album was reviewed earlier in this rundown), albeit with slightly less stylish gloom and more of the anarchic spirit of early Boredoms. Listening back at the end of the year, it’s an EP that’s rough and viscerally tearing at the sinews of boredom, exploding with promise that makes a virtue of its fragmentation and mocks your expectations at every turn.
4. Phew – Vertigo KO
Given its origin among recordings made over a period of years and emerging from the sessions surrounding a few different albums, much of the talk around this album by punk-era experimental legend Phew has described it as an album of offcuts. This is understandable, and often a neat way of setting up a narrative twist into the review’s main business of praise (which is kind of what I’m sneakily doing here), but rather than offcuts, the way this album makes most sense is as a consolidation of the journey Phew’s music has taken over the uneasy decade since the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, reflecting the psychic landscape of the times as she works her way through various approaches (analogue synths, layers of ghostly vocal overdubs, confusion and dislocation, echoes of the post-punk era), moulding them into a singular vision that is both immediate and shrouded in echoes of another place and time. Rather than the fragmented image suggested by the word “offcuts”, Vertigo KO anchors a decade of Phew’s work in one coherent self.
3. Ai Aso – The Faintest Hint
Acoustic singer-songwriters in the Japanese indie scene rarely register much with me, but this album by Ai Aso — with able and admirably restrained assistance from Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley — is heartbreaking in its simple, sparse beauty. On tracks like Scene (one of two tracks featuring Boris as backing band) it recalls the most understated and minimal moments of Movietone circa The Sand and The Stars, leaving the listener to luxuriate in the moonlit pools of space between subtly distorted notes. A rare and precious record.
2. PUBLICS. – illusion zone
This collision of post-punk, industrial and EBM from Kyoto’s Publics was, like the in some ways similar Ziguezoy EP from earlier in the year, first and foremost an inspiring promise of parties to come, and what a party it promises! At the close of a year in which we lost DAF’s Gabi Delgado Lopez, the emergence of brutal, thumping electric body music like this out of the Japanese underground scene not only has a certain poignance but also an added urgency given the fragility the pandemic has revealed in our music and party infrastructure. It’s also music driven by an unmistakably diseased, dystopian sort of spastic panic, neon green electric splashes of colour and post-human shrieks over a relentless piledriving industrial throb. This is a strange sort of illusion zone, but at least some of us are holding on for it to become a reality.
1. Hanauo – Five Fold Finders For Flower Fish
A time capsule from the past, unearthed fresh and warm as the day it was first made, this long-lost album, recorded at the turn of the millennium and left unreleased for twenty years, emerged just as the sound that it had worn new was starting to become nostalgically fashionable once more and it was a delight. Gentle, warm, twin guitars cast an autumnal sepia glow over the unhurried melodies, carving out easygoing Television and Lou Reed hooks, riding them in softly mantric, repetitive, overlapping grooves. Vocals hang loose, making their presence felt with a close-up sonic intimacy delivered from a cool emotional distance. This mixture of cool warmth, sonic intimacy, and gently psychedelic repetition marks Hanauo as a close Japanese parallel to The Beta Band, touched by the evening glow of Yo La Tengo — all brought together most impressively on the beautiful Low Way. And if it all doesn’t sound ‘90s enough for you yet, there’s a Pavement cover on there.