2021 Japan music roundup: INDIE ROCK

There’s inevitably going to be a fair amount of crossover between this section and things like punk, psychedelia and other leftfield rock, but this edition of the roundup is basically devoted to song-based guitar music based on more or less familiar pop or rock structures, albeit often with their own quirks or divergences. As usual, Bandcamp links are here where they exist; where not, you’ll either need to get a CD from the band themselves or find them on The Evil Streaming Websites.

Closh – Dokkyo Rojin
A few years ago, Closh had a fantastic band called Doodless (with a double-s) and more recently she’s a face around the scene as part of the indie-punk band Wetnap, but on this solo EP her frenzied, on-the-verge-of-collapse vocal hysteria in undiluted. It lands in the form of five short, subtly deranged early 1990s-style alt-rock tunes that keep teetering subtly away from the notes chords you’re expecting, recorded with the fuzzy lo-fi vibes of Westing (By Musket and Sextant)-period Pavement or pre-Matador Guided By Voices. It sounds like a mess, but it’s hypnotic.

DYGL – A Daze In A Haze
Over the past ten years, DYGL have become extremely rare breakthrough stars of the Tokyo indie scene. Over the years they’ve gone through jangly Cure-esque indiepop, Strokes-like indie-punk and a debut album (produced by Albert Hammond Jr.) that cast about among a variety of influences before arriving here with songs that initially hint at more of a soft American emo-alternative vibe. The autotuned vocals on the opening 7624 are a bit of a red herring for where the album is going, with Nobuki Akiyama’s subtly Anglo-inflected voice mostly coming through plain and intimate even as he cheerleads the audience through the band’s arms-in-the-air choruses. Meanwhile, DYGL’s UK rock influences still linger in hints of Noel Gallagher in Yosuke Shimonaka’s solos on Did We Forget How to Dream in the Daytime, while the intro to Banger (perhaps cheekily) calls back to My Bloody Valentine’s Soon. Coming as it did in the middle of a pandemic, it’s hard not to feel something of the era’s quiet unreality of semi-isolation in the title and the hazy, sun-dappled aura of the tunes and production, as well as the sense that occasionally filters through in the lyrics of someone alone in their room, writing songs about writing songs. How true this is and how much of the music pre-dates these times I don’t know, but it definitely connects with the moment in its own soft spoken way.

Goofy18 – Mistakes
There’s something reassuringly early-2000s about this Tokyo duo’s raw frenzy of drums and distorted bass, combined with assertively delivered J-pop melodies. Like a stripped down, rough-edged Tsushimamire or something you’d find lurking on the bill of a Sister/Benten event, it’s an often exhausting but fearsomely enthusiastic, energetically catchy, scuzzy punk bubblegum slumber party of an album.

Greg Snazz – Trashworld / Wrong Answers Only
In addition to playing live in Chiba folk-rock band Talent Show, Greg Snazz seems to have spent 2021 firing out micro-blasts of ultra-lo-fi (we’re talking early Royal Trux-grade fuzz) garage-punk on his own with these two releases, which arrived in September and December of the year. Not so much albums in the traditional sense, they feel more like musical sketchbooks, wandering from dirty-as-fuck noise in the mould of Jon Spencer at one extreme to rough-edged Neil Young-style country-folk balladry. Of the two, Trashworld feels happiest in joyously trashy 1970s surf-punk territory, while Wrong Answers Only pushes deeper into the extremes, with the deranged experimentalism of Sorry, Pigs bumping up against murkily sinister glam rock banger Little Killer and sonic fuck-uppery gleefully tormenting even the most upbeat country-rock jaunts. Especially on this latter of the two releases, there’s a joy here in using discord and lo-fi noise deliberately and creatively to make rock’n’roll with unsettling and interesting textures in a way that recallsBrainiac and Vampire on Titus-era Guided By Voices, as well as what acts Gallon Drunk were doing with the legacy of The Cramps in the 1990s.

Hijosen – Hatsuro
People who remember the oddball charms of noise-pop duo Umez will find themselves on familiar ground with this album by ex-member Niiyan’s (also of Screaming Tea Party) new band. There are some very similar dynamics at play in the music, with walls of euphoric noise, soaring guitar solos and simple, looping melodies that are very fond of the chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon in D — not to mention a couple of covers — and it’s a distinctive sound that brings elements of J-pop’s most foundational melodic tropes with guitar noise that flattens the peaks of the waveform and subdued moments of dreampop serenity.

Lillies and Remains – Greatest View / Falling
It’s been a long time since we last heard from Lillies and Remains around these parts, with their last album coming out in the impossibly distant past of 2014, so it was a surprise when these two singles dropped last spring/summer. And it was really like no time had passed at all, with the band’s reverb-heavy new wave guitar jangle still very much in effect on Greatest View, and Falling throwing smooth synths high up into the mix for added echoes of The Fixx.

Merry Ghosts – Pink Bloom
This Osaka/Kobe duo have already been walking the line between post-punk and indie rock in the Kansai area for a long time under the name Trespass, but this first full album under their new name turns out to be one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. The band’s angular side is still there in the sharp guitars and judiciously employed synth elements, but they all serve to give the music the edge it needs to keep it just on the wrong side of normal without undermining what are essentially just really nicely made, crunchy alt-rock tunes. There’s nothing groundbreaking in here: just a pair of musicians who’ve been playing together for a long time, doing what they love in just the right amounts. The album is only available as a physical CD, but they have a music video on that YouTube they have now.

Nehann – New Metropolis
Coming out swinging hard in this debut album, Tokyo’s Nehann open with a bold statement of intent in Nylon, an epic, gothic-tinted 1980s rocker with a vocalist who sounds exactly like Andrew Eldritch. Having struck that tone, they don’t back down, with second track Hollowed Hearts continuing in a similar vein and swinging for the fences with some soaring lyrical exploits including the glorious nugget of wisdom, “Your eyes / Remind me of a plastic toy I once swallowed / I remember it was a terrible mistake”. If it sounds like I’m making fun of them, well, maybe I am a bit, cynical old dweeb that I am, but (like their contemporaries Stram) the band’s sincere and unrelenting pursuit of the biggest sounds, the biggest emotions, the boldest delivery is also refreshing in a scene that so easily gets wrapped up in its own smallness. Pretentious is just another word for ambitious, and Nehann are very ambitious.

The Routes – Mesmerised
Based in Oita, western Japan, The Routes are these days mainly the recording project of songwriter Chris Jack, and by this point ten albums into his career crafting Nuggetsy garage rock tunes, he knows what he’s doing. And it’s that songwriting craftsmanship that sets The Routes apart from most of the Japanese garage rock scene, with top class recording and production, and melodies that surpass (at least in consistency) a lot of their influences and probably put them closer to second-wave punk-era garage rockers like The Three O’Clock than the original, covers-heavy 60s generation.

SiMoN – Steuben
Over the past couple of decades, Simon has popped up here and there around Japan, from Tokyo to Osaka to Sapporo and now Hiroshima, playing a variety of roles in one band or another, one venue or another, but his own solo line in delicate acoustic songsmithery has been a constant. It’s presented on Steuben with minimal decoration bar some reverb and echo here and there, his vocals up close to the mic to the point where his breathy near-whisper feels like it’s right up against your ear, in a way that will either induce ASMR heaven or wincing discomfort depending on your mileage.

So oouchi – Kikyu no Uta
This EP is a curious and typically oblique intervention from a musician initially known for the dark, noise-drenched post-punk of his old band Hysteric Picnic (later renamed Burgh). Oouchi has been quiet for the past five or six years, but a couple of recent archive releases from his post-punk days provoked a minor flurry of nostalgia among scene heads, so naturally he followed them up with five songs worth of delicate acoustic finger picking folk music. There’s a Nick Drake-like simplicity to it that belies the ways the songs skirt clear of Japanese singer-songwriter clichés, not only in the melodies but also in Oouchi’s fragile baritone vocals.

Tete+Shon – Silently Waiting
This is a project comprising half of the Tokyo alt-rock quartet Tropical Death (who have released a couple of cassette EPs via my Call And Response label) in which guitarist Takashi “Tete” Motegi and drummer Sean “Shon” McGee run free with their shared love of Ben Gibbard in a collection of nine tales of loneliness and lovelorn ennui. It kicks off with a wall of rock guitars in the instrumental M Eats J, but elsewhere plays with more Postal Service-like electronic textures on Trip, and enters almost ambient regions in the instrumental Quiet Neighbor. The heart of it, though, is subdued indie rock, touched by quiet sadness, that isn’t quite emo but definitely owns a lot of emo records.

Talent Show – Live at Anga
In addition to releasing two albums of raw, lo-fi experimental rock’n’roll, Greg Snazz also fronts this set of 1970s folk-rock tunes, sitting somewhere between… what, a more together Big Star and a more ragged Eagles? The songwriting is impeccable and while it’s a live album (with between-song banter and audience sounds occasionally filtering through), it’s a remarkably slick recording that fir the most part stands up with a lot of indie studio efforts. Bonus points for having a song about infamous and mysterious airline hijacker D. B. Cooper.

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One response to “2021 Japan music roundup: INDIE ROCK

  1. Pingback: 2021 Japan music roundup: PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS | Clear And Refreshing

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