Author Archives: ifmartin

About ifmartin

Music journalist/columnist for The Japan Times, owner of Call And Response Records and organiser of various live and DJ parties around the Tokyo indie music scene.

Patrick St. Michel – 33 1/3 GAME

Towards the beginning of Patrick St. Michel’s 33 1/3 series entry on Perfume’s Game, there’s a section where he discusses the impact on him personally of hearing their music for the first time while living in a quiet town in rural Mie. He talks about how J-pop was really the only domestic music available, and how discovering this strikingly different act appearing right in the heart of the mainstream gave him a way to connect with people he knew and worked with.

This was interesting partly because it reminded me a throwaway line in my own book about the Japanese music scene, Quit Your Band!, about how music had been partly a way to connect with the alien culture I found myself living in. It wasn’t something I’d thought of much at the time, but a lot of readers picked up on it as a significant insight.

It’s also an interesting piece of context for someone like me, whose experience of life in Japan has always been at the opposite extreme, having been embedded in the Technicolor blur of Tokyo from the very start. As a result, the appearance of Perfume impacted us both in different ways. To St. Michel it gave a foothold in mainstream culture and a way to connect with students and coworkers. For me, it injected a plastic-electric speedball of icy pop cool into an underground music scene that could often be drearily earnest.

That difference in how we both received Perfume may go part of the way towards explaining the pains that St. Michel goes to to emphasise the humanity and emotion at the heart of Perfume’s music on Game, which is an aspect I’ve tended to skim over or dismiss in my own interactions with their music. More than that, his willingness to engage seriously with their music on that level is important in ensuring this book is a rounded discussion of the group.

After these personal reminiscences, the book kicks off in earnest with a brief history and analysis of synth- and electronic-based music in Japan, from Isao Tomita through YMO and new wave groups like P-Model and the Plastics. Crucially, it also draws explicit parallels between Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata (of post-Shibuya-kei duo Capsule) and ’90s mega-producer Tetsuya Komuro, who did similar work in introducing overseas dance music ideas into mainstream Japanese pop, albeit on an even larger scale. St. Michel makes the good point that for all that Perfume were trailed as a “technopop group”, their music was never really technopop in the historical sense. To interject my own thoughts here, what Perfume really inherited was a curious sense of nostalgia for the future that acts like YMO seemed to promise, and perhaps for the future that technology promised more broadly in postwar Japan. It’s partly from this nostalgia for lost futures that the melancholy that St. Michel astutely identifies in Perfume’s music derives.

The book also takes some time to put Perfume themselves in the context of Japan’s idol tradition, noting how pop singers would on occasion intersect with electronic pioneers like Haruomi Hosono of YMO in their careers. I think the Candies are a particularly important group to bring up in relation to Perfume, not only for the visual similarities between the two trios (a lot of people I know remarked at the time that Perfume seemed like “an electro Candies”), but also because of how the founder and chairman of Perfume’s talent agency, Amuse, had actually been the Candies’ manager back in the 1970s when working for their agency, Watanabe Productions. One key parallel not mentioned in the book might also have been the late-’80s/early ’90s duo Wink, whose flat emotional delivery and synthpop-based arrangements contain further early echoes of Perfume’s style and aesthetic.

St. Michel goes beyond the historical idol parallels, though, and lays out in some detail the extent to which Perfume were, especially in their early days, deeply embedded in the machinery of post-millennium idol production. Their origins in a stage school bootcamp, the handshake greeting events, handing out flyers on the street in Akihabara, the live video messages to fans from the basement of a shared house – all these gimmicks the group went through mark their early career as having been managed along typical idol lines.

All of which makes the distinctive form the group ended up taking the more striking. Two key points St. Michel brings up underscore this. The first is how he remarks on Nakata’s use of the word “cool” to describe the musical aesthetic he is reaching for. This is important in differentiating Perfume from other idols, because “cool” as a concept is largely non-existent in idol culture; icy reserve has no place in a world where all emotions must be on display to the maximum level. The other point is the extent to which Nakata’s decision to use an actual polyrhythm in the song Polyrhythm was considered controversial. So-called “underground idol” acts nowadays occasionally play around with ideas from indie or experimental music, but for a group in 2008 aiming for a big hit, the idea of including something so radical in a song gave record industry execs palpitations.

In discussing Perfume’s influence, St. Michel makes further good points, noting the way the copycat acts they inspired all failed to replicate their success and noting the way Nakata’s career as a producer was perhaps the most striking immediate domestic result of Perfume’s rise to fame, with the group’s lingering influence on the Vocaloid scene perhaps its most enduring. The subsequent appearance of AKB48 (and we could perhaps add K-pop, with the electro influences that coloured much of it) carved a path for pop music in Japan to follow in a way that ensured Perfume remained a one-off. What the book doesn’t discuss is the way Nakata’s success with Perfume may have helped open the door for more indie and indie-adjacent songwriters and producers wo be given more or less free rein with idol groups, with the success of Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada with groups like Momoiro Clover (Z) and Dempagumi inc. a notable example.

St. Michel’s discussion of Perfume’s (and in particular Nakata’s) overseas influence feels a bit overstated, but it’s nevertheless interesting. One part that stands out in particular is his discussion of Perfume’s much-touted performance at South By Southwest in 2015 from the perspective of someone in the hall at the time. The contrast the way parts of the performance were clearly designed for consumption on video outside of the venue (and presumably also in part for re-consumption back home in Japan) set against the more intimate experience of the audience of mostly hardcore fans inside the room felt like something worthy of more discussion.

In fact, if this slim volume (it’s a single comfortable afternoon’s read) is lacking, it’s that it raises interesting ideas that St. Michel doesn’t always pursue. There are many legitimate reasons why he may not have wanted to bore readers by spiralling into esoteric discussions of semiotics, but it nevertheless feels like he holds back at points. While the book analyses the music and lyrical themes of the album in an often illuminating way, the approach is never really critical. St. Michel acknowledges the influence, that Nakata typically elides, of Daft Punk (themselves pretty free with their influences) on Perfume’s sound, but not the extent to which some of their music directly references them (pre-Game songs like Linear Motor Girl and Electro World have direct parallels with Digital Love, while Nakata cribs liberally from One More Time all over the place). St. Michel alludes to but doesn’t deeply interrogate the relationship between Perfume’s music and commercials – in particular the way songs are written specifically for the commercials rather than simply being licensed for them post-fact. Meanwhile, his praise of the emotional complexity of Perfume’s songs perhaps overstates their sophistication, or else it understates the sophistication of a lot of other contemporary J-pop and idol songwriting.

The flipside of these criticisms, however, is that St. Michel writes about Perfume with a lot of affection, and it’s often infectious. Opening with a personal anecdote about his introduction to the group and the impact they had on him contextualises this affection and gives him a license to discuss the band in his own way, which he does all the while taking in a lot of broader context about the group’s origins and the history and environment of the Japanese music scene as a whole.

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Puffyshoes: Let’s Fall In Love


Puffyshoes stumbled chaotically through their messy career, shining with brilliance but regularly chucking it all in the trash in a fit of eternally teenage passion before re-emerging and doing it all over again, eventually splitting for what felt like the final time in 2014. For those of us who were wowed and frustrated by them in their initial incarnation, the appearance of this brand new song after four years away is an unexpected delight.

Let’s Fall In Love is drenched in ’60s girl group harmonies, underscored with fuzzy, chugging, reverb-edged guitars and naively clomping drums, which is to say it’s everything fans of the band already know and love about them. The years apart may have added a touch more sophistication to the songwriting, though, and they have fun playing about with a little bit of keyboard to fill out the sparse arrangement. The song lurches to an abrupt, almost cliffhanger conclusion at around one and a half minutes, but with the band hinting at a new album potentially on the way, Let’s Fall In Love offers up plenty of promise for what this more mature Puffyshoes might have to offer.

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The Doodless: Capture


This scratchy, lo-fi CD/R EP of fucked-up garage rock is one of those unexpected little delights that occasionally falls into my lap and immediately becomes one of my favourite bands. With five songs coming in at a pop-friendly fifteen minutes, the songs are concise enough, but with room to play around. Opening track Su_haku has one of those simple, wandering basslines that so many of the coolest weird, amateurish postpunk bands had – well, the Raincoats and Mo-dettes mostly – and the breathless way the vocals can’t settle on any sort of melody provides a mischievous bit of misdirection from what’s actually a strangely catchy song.

Elsewhere on the EP, the songs are built round more easy-to-pin-down structures, withthe playful You Are Living Through Your Eyes and the closing Shrimp is Good Food showcasing the band at their raucous, ramshackle best. The remaining songs, I’m Your Firstaid and Stack take a more sedate but no less rickety approach to their ‘60s-derived garage rock.

Part of the joy of bands like Doodless (not to be confused with the “s”-deficient but rather more famous Japanese band Doodles) lies in the way their essentially slapdash way of making music typically translates into a similarly carefree approach to the business of being in a band. The looseness feels liberating, but there’s also a fragility, a sense that the band’s own motivation might crumble at any moment, so these brief, joyous documents should be treasured.

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Luby Sparks: Luby Sparks

luby sparks - luby sparks

CD, AWDR/LR2, 2018

One of the most hotly tipped guitar bands in Japan at the moment, the hopefully ironically-named Luby Sparks seem with this eponymous full-length debut album to be making the leap from underground ones-to-watch into the world of radio rotation and summer festival respectability.

Thanks to the production work of Max Bloom from UK indie band Yuck (and the two bands’ earlier split cassette), a lot of the attention around this album has centred around that connection, and rightly so as there are definite sonic similarities. More broadly, there’s something recognisably and melancholically British about Luby Sparks’ sound, which stands in contrast to the perky, distinctly American-sounding punk-pop influence that runs through a lot of Japanese indiepop.

The air of melancholy that Luby Sparks is shot through with, along with its distorted, post-My Bloody Valentine guitars and boy/girl twin vocals, also recalls turn-of-the-millennium Japanese rock legends Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change, and the albums display a rare talent for maintaining that longing atmosphere without compromising the music’s essential energy and momentum.

That energy is sometimes more difficult to discern in the band’s rather static live performances, but on the album it comse across powerfully. Hateful Summer and Teenage Squash rattle forward with a rough-edged, punkish, Jesus And Mary Chain-esque distorted powerpop punch, while Tangerine sees the band channeling the richly textured cacophony of MBV most directly, with the addition of a propulsive kraut-tinged rhythm.

Luby Sparks is by no means an original album, but it’s a wistful, sweeping, confident and ultimately impressive one, featuring a rich line in beautiful melodies with an embroidery of shoegazey distortion.

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Ms. Machine: S.L.D.R.

ms machine - sldr

CD, self-released, 2018

If you didn’t get hold of the scuzzy demo CD/R that the band were selling at live performances a year or two back, S.L.D.R. is likely the first chance most people have to hear Tokyo-based noise-punk band Ms. Machine in recorded form. Occupying the more discordant end of the current wave of young, aloof, well-dressed Tokyo indie bands with icy, blank stares that don’t give a damn about your bullshit, they bring a shot of curiously taciturn aggression to a scene still dominated by the piss-end of City Pop and varyingly competent imitations of vaguely twee US and UK guitar pop.

With four tracks’ worth of snarling guitars, distortion, doom-laden chords and shrieking sloganeering coming in at around seven and a half minutes, this EP places the band in a lineage that encompasses both D.C. hardcore and New York no wave. Most of the songs on S.L.D.R. are built around a single, grinding guitar riff, over which the vocals repetitively intone their minimal message. Despite that minimalism, however, there’s a distinctly feminist slant to the lyrics, with the opening Break the Current System featuring just the phrase, “She gotta obey him to succeed in this world” one and a half times and Your Little Yardstick simply and repeatedly demanding, “Do not appraise me!” Meanwhile, whether intentional or not, instrumental closing track 3.11 is difficult to separate from the horror and unease of the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th 2011, the track unfolding beneath a shrieking toy siren, with guitar and bass alternating between the same two-note riff and percussively hammering away on one chord before the guitar dissolves into a Mission of Burma-esque distorted outro.

There’s an unfinished quality to Ms. Machine’s songwriting that contributes to its no-bullshit appeal, the songs starting, locking into a groove, and then never really finishing so much as just ending. Despite (or maybe partly because of) this, as well as the short length and the minimalism of the music within, S.L.D.R. is an EP that rewards repeat listenings with a brutal simplicity of its own.

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Falsettos: Falsettos

falsettos - falsettos

CD, P-Vine, 2018

The Falsettos have been around for more than ten years, but with the exception of a couple of self-produced CD/Rs and a brace of appearances on compilation albums, they’ve been rather coy until now about committing their lushly melodic but often weird-edged and angry indie rock to a full-length release.

This self-titled album features a handful of songs from those earlier releases, with older recordings of the romantic 6 and menacing Ink having first appeared ten years ago, and a version of raw, postpunk anthem Johnny having whooped its way into the world via their second EP in 2015. Elsewhere, however, some of the band’s more oddball older material (the deliciously demented Icecream Fatal and Le Poyo are sadly no longer present) has been sacrificed to make way for less manic, more expansive and richly melodic songs like Terrible Boy and Plane. Nevertheless, the album retains a balance between the band’s richer and rawer extremes as it builds to the anthemic twin climax of Hejira (a Joni Mitchell reference?) and perennial show-closer Newborn Baby.

Miuko Nakao is an unusual vocalist in the Japanese music scene. Partly a conversational non-singer in the tradition of Bernard Sumner, but also with the cracked quality of Marianne Faithful, her voice carries the songs with a distinct personality, ricocheting from vulnerability to rage to gushing romanticism. The sonic texture that fills out the songs, however, is to a large degree down to keyboard player Yukiko Nishii, who sketches meandering piano lines beneath the Yo La Tengo-esque distorted guitar solo on 6 and helps drive Dig forward with her sharp synth stabs. Drummer Fumie and bassist Ingel meanwhile ensure the album trips towards its conclusion with a consistently bouncy energy.

Perhaps reflecting its long gestation period, the songwriting on this debut album is uniformly strong, all catchy hooks, earworm choruses and the occasional sharp left turn. Leaning as it does rather more heavily on newer material, however, the signs for the future are good, as long as the band can keep it together and avoid the second-album inertia that so often sucks the life out of Tokyo indie bands. It may be early to talk about records of the year, but it’s hard to imagine a better indie rock album coming out in Japan this year, so keep an eye out for this one come recap season.

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (3) – What does the rest of the internet say?

This site isn’t the only place on the internet that attempts to rank the best Japanese music of the year, and depending on where you look, you can get a very different picture of the music scene. This is of course very right and proper, because the Japanese music scene is broad and diverse, covering every genre you know and dozens you don’t. I’m not going to include any J-Pop-focused sites here, since I don’t really follow any of them, or even know if any of them made year-end rankings, but here are what a few other writers have come up with.

Beehype (top 20)
Beehype gathers new music releases from all over the globe, but it has a discrete Japanese ranking covering the top 20 Japanese music releases of the year. Beehype is probably the best place to go to get a general sense of the kinds of Japanese music the Japanese music consensus is gathering around, with artists like Satoko Shibata, Oomori Seiko and Tricot all making an appearance, although it deviates into a few interesting oddities of its own, like the recent album by Osaka jazz-skronk trio Oshiripenpenz.

Make Believe Melodies (top 50)
part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5
Make Believe Melodies, written by Japan Times writer Patrick St. Michel, tends towards soft-edged dance music and the gentler strains of indiepop and singer-songwriter music, but as the most extensive list among all the Japanese music countdowns here, there’s a fair variety on display around that theme. This list touches on indie-branded idols Maison Book Girl, rapper Zombie-Chang, the manic synth-pop funk of Chai and the pachinko machine noise of Pachinko Machine Music, along with MBM regulars like Taquwami and LLLL.

Muso Japan (best shoegaze and dreampop)
This does exactly what it says on the tin, focusing on shoegaze and dreampop, and while these genres in Japan can encompass slightly different material to what they do in the West, Muso Japan doesn’t stray far from its remit. Having such a narrow focus means that they can dig a little deeper than another site might, singling out material by lo-fi acts like FogPark, and Nurse alongside shoegaze scene veterans like Cruyff in the Bedroom, Shelling and Caucus.

Tokyo Dross (unranked list of 16)
Another list by a Japan Times contributor, this time James Hadfield, whose preferences lean towards more experimental rock and electronic music. There are more crossovers with my list creeping in here, partly because as the Listing Season drew in, we spent some time frantically sharing and picking over each other’s recommendations in private. His decision to include Phew’s Voice Hardcore despite it not being officially released until 2018 is legitimised perhaps by The Wire’s earlier decision to do the same.

Zach Reinhardt
Top 10 EPs & mini-albums

Top 20 albums (20-11)

Top 20 albums (10-1)

Zach’s lists also tend to have a lot of crossover with mine, as I think we both have very similar biases towards skronky art-punk and oddball avant-pop. One key difference is in the appearance of a lot of Call And Response stuff in Zach’s list (P-iPLE, Tropical Death, Looprider and the Throw Away Your CDs… compilation, all of which were disqualified from mine), and perhaps a little more washed-out indiepop/dreampop. Basically, though, if I missed something, it’s highly likely Zach caught it, and vice-versa.

Summary:
For anyone looking for areas of consensus, the crossovers between these various lists throw up a few recurring names. Cornelius’ Mellow Waves appears several times, topping the  Beehype list and getting honourable mentions in a few others, while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Async, Phew’s Light Sleep, Endon’s Through The Mirror and For Tracy Hyde’s He(r)art were all rated very highly in more than one list. Miu Mau’s Drawing made appearances in most of the lists, while the Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show compilation that I produced made an appearance in every list except my own (disqualified because I made it) and the Muso Japan list (wrong genre), so I feel validated in saying that’s a great record. Elsewhere, She Talks Silence, Crunch, BLONDnewHALF, Hikashu, Tofubeats, Oshiripenpenz, Sapphire Slows, Suiyobi no Campanella, Mondo Grosso, Tricot, Oomori Seiko and Satellite Young all made multiple appearances.

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