In this section, I’m going to be dealing with another loosely defined collection of releases, this one encompassing psychedelic, progressive rock and the more experimental ends of the indie/alternative sphere. At its core, this is song-based guitar music, but of a sort that pushes sound or structure beyond rock or indie music conventions in some ways.
Barbican Estate – Way Down East
In the Tokyo indie scene, Barbican Estate have had a buzz around them for a while now as one of the most promising up and comers, helped by their terrific debut EP (courtesy of the Rhyming Slang label’s finely tuned antenna) and a string of singles. There’s a tendency among hotly tipped Tokyo indie bands to put so much time and work into building their brand that when a full length album eventually arrives, it already smells of the past. With that in mind, it’s good that Barbican Estate moved with relative speed to put out this album and that the music it contains continues to push at the limits of their sound. The vaguely gothic, psychedelic-tinted 4AD-esque indie vibes of their early releases are still here, but taken way further, heavier, richer in texture in songs with bombastic titles like Oblivion, Elysium, The Divine Image and the wonderfully shamanic ten-minute Morphine, And The Realm Of Ouroboros where the guitars scratch, bellow and rail at the limits of the speakers. That this album still has the capacity to surprise means that Barbican Estate are still a band in motion, and clearly on a path that’s leading them away from the tidy politeness of the Tokyo indie scene, into darker, louder, more sonically uncompromising territory.
Blasting Rod – III
I don’t need to review this album when I can just write out a list of the song titles. Nagoya-based psychedelic riff-abusers Blasting Rod’s third album opens with a track called Weedgrown Rocks (Space Rainbows in 7256 A.D. ver.) feat. Monolithic Chorale for Freakout in X, runs through Switchblade Cars, Black Elk Crying for a Vision (Hanblecheyapi) and Nubbinz on its way to closer Now I See (Archetypal Projections), and it sounds exactly like what you imagine an album made of songs with those titles would sound like: Hawkwind, basically. Well, OK, not exactly: Blasting Rod are dirtier, bluesier, riffier, stoned in a desert with a pantheon of earth gods rather than speeding through the stellar clouds on a cosmic motorbike powered by German science and myth, but definitely in some sort of conversation with the busy skies.
inochi / Honou – Inu no nioi
Structured as a split album with the two acts mostly alternating tracks one by one rather than taking a side each, this makes for an interesting listen experience. The Honou tracks are all blasts of noise, tape hiss, discord and random domestic field recordings, which punctuate the more conventional but still off-kilter songwriting of Inochi. The constant ricocheting back and forward between both artists ensures you never get too comfortable, but there’s a curious coherence between the raw, lo-fi sound quality and sense of intimate space both convey, and deep within the unsteady tuning, rough edged brass section and intrusions of kitchen utensil percussion, there are some quietly appealing pop songs shambling about in this album.
Isayahh Wuddha – Dawn
Kyoto-based bedroom musician and self-described “phenomenon” Isayahh Wuddha seemed to appear fully formed in the hazy public imagination around the time the pandemic began, and it immediately felt as if he has always been here. There’s something very of the moment yet also deeply familiar about the soft, plastic synth stabs and mellow, quietly funky rhythms that hark back to the smooth pop of the 1970s and 80s, but he approaches it through a distorting lens that often twists the city pop utopia into something a bit dirtier, more discordant and dystopian, and far more interesting.
Kuunatic – Gate of Klüna
Concept albums about alien cultures are something we probably don’t have enough of. Trying to imagine another world, another society, means taking the time to picture something different from what we’re in now, and even if it’s inevitably going to be formed from broken pieces of our current reality, it’s a utopian endeavour. The world Kuunatic build on this album is a faintly Middle Eastern desert land, albeit one also under the influence of Japanese festival music, which gives the desert mystery a lively sense of fun, dancing to a friendly, if still decidedly eccentric, communal rhythm. Kuunatic don’t tangle themselves up in displays of ostentatious virtuosity, painting the landscape in broad splashes, ideas to the fore rather than the intricacy of the embroidery, leaving spaces within the music for the songs to breathe and express themselves through simple ideas delivered through the sounds and logic of an alien world.
Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots – Pareidolas
Reliably eccentric Tokyo avant-rock trio Loolowlingen & The Far East Idiots follow up their 2020 album Anökumene with a fresh set of rhythmically playful offbeat indie oddities. For all their deliberate quirkiness, Loolowningen never rely on noise and discord in how they derail the listener’s expectations, preferring to keep things deviant using melody, rhythm and more or less clean instrument sounds. That’s still their approach here, although Pareidolas isn’t farming exactly the same ground as its predecessor, the songs less sparse, less structured around conceptual games, and more, well, rock in the sounds they use and the spaces between the elements they deploy. The manner of that deployment remains as oblique as ever though.
mmm – TRD 2
The TRD project sees Tokyo-based singer-songwriter mmm (“me-my-moe”) collaborating with artists from a range of backgrounds, with this second instalment featuring the Shibuya-kei scene’s greatest gift to the Japanese music world Takako Minekawa as well as Takefumi Tsujimura of indie-folk duo Kicell. It’s Tsujimura’s track that sees mmm in more or less familiar territory lending her breathy vocals to its jaunty rhythm. Minekawa’s track is a far more mysterious creature, harsh strings echoing among percussion that builds menacingly before dropping out completely as the track takes an experimental new direction, the vocals playing a more subtle role in the atmospheric space the track creates.
Netanoyoi – gettousou
Originally released in 2006, this vinyl reissue is interesting partly for the relationship it has to its place. Netanoyoi are a Koenji band to the extent that they feel like they’ve been peeled off the walls of the buildings, still covered in cryptic stickers and graffiti, clutching a bottle of wine, guitar strapped to their back, and this release from a new label set up by Koenji music bar and general subcultural space Substore reaffirms that marriage between the band and their ’hood. What being a Koenji band means is a vague thing where the key point is mostly just “do your thing, whatever it is”, but in Netanoyoi’s case, it means defiantly retro 1970s psych-rock. It’s a sound that recalls the birth screams of Japanese underground rock in acts like Flower Travellin’ Band or Speed, Glue & Shinki and which has been simmering in the heart of places like Koenji, at the loosely defined nexus point between hippy, punk and anarchist subculture ever since. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it’s doing its thing, whatever it is.
Santa Sprees – Fanfare for Tonsils
This Anglo-Japanese duo make pop songs that don’t so much confront and challenge the rules of pop songwriting as simply exist happily outside of them. Notes follow their own paths around the scale, rhythms breathe at their own pace, structures expand and contract around the often poignant lyrical surrealism, moving from one place to another and pulling to a halt when they’re good and ready, not according to any external mathematics. There’s a quality of loose, rolling, nautical drunkenness to how a lot of these songs and musical sketches stumble out of the speakers, but even if they sometimes get a bit up-close and uncomfortable, like all good pop music, they sincerely want to be your friend.
Tabata Mitsuru – Compilation Breakdown
If you have any familiarity with Japanese underground music, you’ve probably encountered Mitsuru Tabata in one form or another thanks to his roles as part of the Boredoms, Acid Mothers Temple, Zeni Geva and all manner of other bands. He’s also released a sizeable body of work under his own name, with this album a sort of meta-compilation composed of remastered tracks originally recorded for various compilations over the years 1997-2018. It covers a pretty wide range of mind-expanding sonic territory, from raw textured noise to Manuel Göttsching-like electronic prog explorations to psychedelic folk rock. It’s an unpredictable and frequently abrasive ride, but it’s a thrilling one too.
Tabata Mitsuru – Musica Degenerada
In addition to uploading a lot of old music, Tabata also dropped this album of new songs towards the end of 2021. As someone best known as a partner or side-man for another project, Tabata isn’t always good at anchoring himself when creating music alone, but while Musica Degenerada mostly serves as an expansive canvas for his vast palette of guitar noise, the handful of folk-tinted rock songs does a good job of tying the spiralling psychedelia and ambient kraut jams back to an identifiable recurring theme without ever seeming to really place limits on his cosmic journey.
Various Artists – Mitohos II / III
These second and third instalments of the Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots-curated compilation series further the first’s admirable vocation of documenting the under-appreciated and little-known underbelly of the Japanese alternative scene, with an emphasis on avant-pop and mathy experimental rock music. With more than fifty different bands now featured in the series, it’s hard to see where there is left for the series to go without repeating itself or diverging into the fully experimental or improvisational basement scenes, which is to say that this is a pretty comprehensive introduction to a world of sometimes infuriating but often extraordinary contemporary Japanese music.
Yokujitsu – Exploit/Just vibes EP / Live at Bushbash
Mean, moody, scuzzy psychedelic rock from Tokyo. There are songs in here, but Yokujitsu’s modus operandi is typically to dial the vocals down to a distant, distorted, disaffected mantra in the background of the swirling guitars. With the two studio recordings on the Exploit/Just Vibes EP, there’s a sort of grinding momentum to the music, while the live tracks come across looser, the rhythm lurching forward and leaning back as the guitar wails its languid way through the solos that are the music’s true centrepiece.
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