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About ifmartin

Music journalist, author of Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground, owner of Call And Response Records and organiser of various live and DJ parties around the Tokyo indie music scene.

2021 Japan music roundup: PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS

Over the course of the last few posts, I’ve reviewed nearly every new release that came across my radar last year, which adds up to just a few shy of a hundred albums and EPs. While I tried to look at each release in terms of its virtues (rather than grabbing something unknown only to slag it off), I didn’t apply any particular critical filter in the selection process beyond the inherent filter built into the information bubble I inhabit. With that in mind, for those who trust my biases enough to find such a list useful I’ve created a short meta-roundup of my personal highlights from the releases covered in the earlier posts. Or if you’re a new arrival, you can use this as a jumping off point to explore a bit deeper into the themed deep dives.

Main features:
PUNK
DARK/INDUSTRIAL
EXPERIMENTAL
LEFTFIELD ROCK
INDIETRONICA
HYBRID POP/CLUB/HIP-HOP
INDIE ROCK
INDIEPOP/SHOEGAZE


HIGHLIGHTS OF THE YEAR
(alphabetical by artist)

Aya Gloomy – Tokyo Hakai
Fun pop music with a dystopian tilt.

BD1982 – Distance Vision
Beautiful and often eerie techno-organic sonic landscapes.

Dead Bitch – self-vandalism
Scary and cool.

Greg Snazz – Wrong Answers Only
Rock’n’roll with the guts ripped out and strewn around on the floor of a bombed out garage.

Her Braids – EP01
Simple, smart and beautiful DIY indiepop.

Jesus Weekend – Rudra no Namida
This just landed right with me for reasons I can’t put my finger on.

Kuunatic – Gate of Klüna
A bit silly but a lot of fun.

LeakLeek – Leak
I’m going to stop pretending that the stuff my label puts out isn’t the best stuff in Japan.

M.A.Z.E. – II
Cheap, scratchy sounding punk rock done right.

Merry Ghosts – Pink Bloom
Really well put-together alt-rock songwriting with some cool, sharp edges.

Mikado Koko – Alice in Cryptoland
There’s usually something I find insufferable about crypto or anyone who cares or even knows about it, but this is so deliriously fun and righteously anarchist that I can’t help but get swept up in it here.

Ms.Machine – Ms. Machine
Hot Tokyo band lands their debut with panache.

Otagiri – The Radiant
Ridiculously good, kaleidoscopically fun hip-hop album.

pervenche – quite small happiness
I’ve been waiting for this album practically since I started writing about music in Japan back in 2003, and it didn’t disappoint.

Phew – New Decade
A new Phew album is always going to be one of the year’s highlights.

re:lapse – re:lapse.ep
Subtly textured, dreamy shoegaze.

Softsurf – Returning Wave
Heart-surging, indie-rocking shoegaze.

Various Artists – Mitohos II / III
Two new parts in this increasingly detailed map of Japanese indie’s experimental and math rock back alleys.


ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Barbican Estate – Way Down East
I knew this was going to be good, but what delighted me about it so especially was that they found an extra gear that I didn’t know they had. This is an immense album and a fantastic debut.

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2021 Japan music roundup: INDIEPOP/SHOEGAZE

Obviously this section is another one with a lot of crossovers with earlier parts of the roundup, but I’ve gathered these acts together as two parts of the indie scene that often trade in dreamy or dreamlike atmospheres — they often intersect for this exact reason in the sort of music that often gets called dreampop, and there is often a shared foundational influence of The Velvet Underground. The acts here span from the guitar pop fringes of Shibuya-kei and neo acoustic, through lo-fi indiepop, dreampop, shoegaze and the guitar-heavy end of post-rock.

Boyish – Blue Rain
There’s a strange sort of disconnect on Blue Rain between the low-key understatement of the male-female vocal interplay and the extravagant, emotional thrashing about of the saxophone whenever it makes its presence felt, as if some intrusion from another genre has burst through a fold in reality. Squaring those two elements might say more about my expectations going into the album than what Boyish themselves are trying to do, and it gets easier as the album goes along in tracks like Pale Blue Lights, where neo acoustic and yacht rock snuggle up together and spoon in a way that feels quite natural. It’s towards the second half of the album where Boyish’s guitar pop side shines through a little more clearly, with quietly chiming guitars washing the songs in more neutral emotional tones, somewhere between Trembling Blue Stars type post-Sarah indiepop and 1990s J-pop of the My Little Lover strain.

concretetwin – “Re : encounter” sound source #04
The most immediately striking thing about this EP is the way Concretetwin combine their wall of heavy, distorted guitar and barely-distinct vocals with trip-hop-influenced beats. One effect of that is to reconnect shoegaze to a rhythmical thread originally spun out by A.R. Kane in the late-1980s, which is a welcome endeavour although one Concretetwin don’t fully commit to on here. Rather, opening track Nigella sounds like a band in the early 1990s caught between a shoegaze guitarist and a rhythm section tripping on Madchester vibes. The 90s is probably the best era to evoke with this sort of music though, and like that early wave of shoegaze, Concretetwin get that the music is meant to sound immense, employing all the tricks to whip up just the sort of storm-of-guitars in heaven that a lovelorn teen could use to burn their soul clean of heartbreak, if only for a moment.

The Florist – IN CVLT
There’s a bit at the beginning of second track Nocturne where the song seems about to lurch into The Flaming Lips’ Race for the Prize, and while certainly affiliated with the Japanese shoegaze scene, The Florist are really a band who operate in that broader indie rock space that pulls in influences from whichever (cult) sounds appeal to them — Cure-like ringing guitar lines here, emo-punk chords there, post-rock drum cascades at the back, a gothic post-punk bass rumble down the centre. The tunes themselves are in pretty familiar J-rock territory, and over the course of the whole album the guitar textures are where the most consistent care and attention reveals itself.

Her Braids – EP01
Four years after their charming and lo-fi demo cassette, the three songs on this EP by Matsumoto-based trio Her Braids follow on from their quite lovely song Forest from a 2020 fundraiser compilation put together by local venue Give Me Little More in the tighter sound and sense of growing cohesion as a band. That’s not to say there isn’t still a lot of instrument swapping going on, and the band’s willingness to just do what the song needs at any given moment is a key part of their easygoing charm, from the piano that anchors the opening Dream, through the subtle, Young Marble Giants post-punk guitar/bass interplay of Garden, to the washes of synth and dreampop vocals of the closing Midnight Blue. It all falls together beautifully, making EP01 a highlight of the year far beyond what its unassuming title promises.

The Moment of Nightfall – Light Is Beyond The Nostalgia
Formed by a supergroup of musicians associated with Nagoya-based indiepop label Galaxy Train, The Moment of Nightfall include parts of Pervenche, Red Go-Kart and H-Shallows, and the fact it all hangs together so well probably says a lot about the consistent atmosphere the label and the community around it has fostered over the years. Third track Well,Well,Well,Well is a good example of the musicians channeling their shared sound to powerful effect, with wisps of vocal drifting through a summery haze of guitar that recalls Yo La Tengo in particular, and that whole thread of distorted dreamlike psychedelia that runs back to The Velvet Underground.

Mono – Pilgrimage of the Soul
Twenty-two years and eleven albums in, there’s a thing Mono do and you’d be disappointed if they didn’t do it. Restrained moments, pregnant with portent, followed by big, cathartic swells of guitar — quiet and loud, in multiple but similar variations — they’ve been stewards of this dramatic landscape for a long time, and they rarely stray from its windswept crests and valleys. Step back for a moment and it might seem strange to see that amount of energy channeled into hitting so many of the same beats, but once immersed in it again, it’s perhaps more like sailors too in love with the churning waves of the icy ocean not to keep returning time after time.

pervenche – quite small happiness
Twenty years after their debut album, Subtle Song, Pervenche have finally come round to making a follow-up with this cassette album from the Galaxy Train label, and it bridges the decades like no time has passed at all with its quietly strummed, whisper-voiced, autumnal psych-pop sound lilting eternal. A cover of Bob Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine is decidedly Velvetsy in their hands, and Peter Ivers’ Miraculous Weekend replacing the quirky jaunt of the original with something far more breathy and intimate, spiralling into eerie Lynchian space as it goes on. After years of prayers to the music spirits, it’s a delight to have Pervenche back in the pop jingu.

Puffyshoes – Again
It’s always nice to have a new Puffyshoes EP, even if the songs are often gone before you’ve had time to even notice they’ve arrived. These nuggets of 60s girl group melodies and teen drama lyrics come in an ultra-compressed package that come across like brief, frustrated scrawls in a diary pulled out and set to music, usually with a single, simple sentiment ground into a catchy refrain through as much repetition as the one-minute runtimes of the songs permit. It’s been a long time since the duo last made an album, and I wonder if they’ve refined their art into such minimal sketches of songs now that the broader canvas of an album-length release would feel too cluttered to comfortably hold that much of Puffyshoes’ music, but with four songs in about four and a half minutes, Again leaves you hungering after more.

Pulsnug – Fanfare For Farewell
There’s an all-consuming live for the 1990s running through this album. There are little things scattered throughout the album, perhaps nodding to Blur’s It Could be You on the riff that opens Turn Off, maybe referencing Radiohead’s No Surprises in the melancholy guitar line that runs through Slow Starter. The overarching sense, though, is that Pulsnug somehow felt that Cornelius’ Fantasia simply hadn’t been made enough times or there weren’t enough Hideki Kajis running around Tokyo already. And if making giddily eclectic and optimistic pop music out of perky pieces of synth-smoothed indie is a crime, Pulsnug is joyously guilty.

Optloquat – From the shallow
Shoegaze in its early form was often about the edges and specifics being softened or simply blasted to oblivion by the noise and distortion of the music, but over time, it has become more a tool in the box of guitarists than a genre in itself, sharing space in the music with other, often more traditional approaches. On this album by Tokyo’s Optloquat, walls of guitar noise and distortion play apart, but at the same time the vocals ring out strongly and emotionally, while guitars grind out riffs or solo away, all the specifics and clear edges of the music intact. On Giver, the band dial up a snowstorm of distorted guitar that almost transports the song into the shoegaze dreamscape, while Imaginary Host cuts harder shapes, with echoes of forgotten futures of British rock like The Music or The Klaxons.

re:lapse – re:lapse.ep
The debut release from this Tokyo-based band, as well as from new Nagoya-based shoegaze label Dreamwaves, re:lapse’s first EP is a strong statement of intent, never really pushing the sonic limits of the style, but crafting rich and subtle textures nonetheless around icy-sweet melodies. Sitting comfortably in the dreamy centre of contemporary Japanese shoegaze, re:lapse have appeared as fully-formed masters of their craft.

Softsurf – Returning Wave
Dreamwaves’ second release comes courtesy of label hometown of Nagoya’s Softsurf, whose take on shoegaze follows in the indie rock footsteps of British forbears like Ride and especially Slowdive, the wall of noise (sometimes underscored by synths) bursting in to add a heart surge to the choruses, while one guitar is also free to cut shapes or solo, Britpop style, in the spaces. The band hit many of the joyous, floppy-haired surges of indie-kid emotion that wouldn’t shame their influences at all on songs like the anthemic one-two punch of It’s OK and Hello My Shadow marking a triumphant return for the band after what appears to have been a long hiatus, and making for a successful first year for Dreamwaves.

Sugardrop – Eventually
Despite the candy-sweet name, Sugardrop feel like a different sort of culinary treat in the Tokyo indie scene: more the happy, solid reassurance of comfort food than an insubstantial confection. The guitars crunch, the drums pound, the riffs cut their grooves, the choruses burrow their way into your ears, everything throwing all the right indie rock shapes at just the right moments, with a sense of urgency that makes each shift move in just a fraction of a beat ahead of when you’re expecting it. Eventually isn’t overflowing with originality, but it’s dense with stuff it knows works: not a drop of sugar so much as a well-packed kebab.

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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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2021 Japan music roundup: HYBRID POP/CLUB/HIP-HOP

In this blog, I nowadays mostly focus on indie, punk and underground music, and have never been even remotely plugged in to the club and hip-hop scenes. Since most pop nowadays is really a genre hybrid that touches on elements of traditional pop/rock, hip-hop and club music some way, I threw them together in this section of genre-fluid artists mainly for my own convenience. It’s probably the area of the roundup where you’ll find the music that feels most relevant to whatever the conversation around pop music is nowadays though, and perhaps to contemporary life in general, with these releases including many of the songs in this look back over the year that most directly address the life and concerns of the pandemic era.

AKURYO – Kuroi Hoodie
It feels strange to include this album in this section mostly populated by smooth, modern pop when it’s more ferociously punk than anything in the actual punk section of this roundup. The raw anger and energy of Akuryo uses some sandpaper punk guitar sounds as part of the earsplitting collage of samples that makes up his music, although if there’s a core to his sound, it’s the frenetic jungle rhythms and the haranguing flow of his MC, all linked by a scratchy and distorted sound like a cheaply recorded live take. What it’s all really about, though, is the lyrics, characterised by utter, seething disgust for the wealthy whose private jets are killing the planet, the racists and bootboys who turn the blame towards the marginalised, and again and again the cops who protect these villains. It’s a caustic listen, but relentlessly righteous.

Ann Murasato – Wavy
Hailing from Fukuoka, Ann Murasato has a background in the region’s scuzzy and eccentric underground and alternative scene, and while her solo material charts a poppier path, it’s one that evolved from the dadaist junk of her old band Tokotokotonntokos and others like it. This makes for a lively, frequently goofy pop/rap/dance party full of tunes to rock the elementary school disco.

Aya Gloomy – Tokyo Hakai
On this second album, Tokyo-based electropop scenester Aya Gloomy really seems to have grown into herself. The sounds here are still recognisable from the music she was making while popping about behind her synth and laptop in small clubs and music bars ten years ago, but she deploys them with more confidence, variation and creativity now. At times it echoes the sort of dark-edged pop made under the shadow of 1980s nuclear paranoia in a way that feels increasingly appropriate to the times we live in now, while at others there are distant blasts of a cyberpunk rave in an abandoned warehouse. It might not exactly be gloomy, but the sense of a party happening under a shadow is palpable.

Gasoline・Stand – NISSEKI blue
The face behind this hip-hop project is Osamu Osanai from Kyoto-based folk-rock group Kashikoi Ulysses, and there’s a no-frills quality to the blank delivery, simplistic melodies and minimal beats that’s probably an ideal accompaniment to being sad in your one-room apartment in Kyoto. The meat of the album is really in the synth washes that fill out the spaces, hovering between city pop’s plastic sheen and the slightly more affecting and disturbing qualities of true ambient music.

Greeen Linez – Secrets of Dawn
What is it that stops Greeen Linez from being just lushly produced supermarket music? I suppose one starting point would be that even when they lean into the smooth grooves territory beloved of the city pop set, they’re better than most at catching the melancholy edge that 80s synthpop always had at its best — a sense in tracks like Across the Heartland evoking (intentionally or not) the loneliness of the neon lights that still linger after dawn breaks. There’s an atmosphere of the chill out room that hangs over a lot of Secrets of Dawn too: ambient washes over the low key beats of Sagami Pulse, or the hazy echoes of Massive Attack’s Daydreaming running through Temple Moon. At more than 80 minutes in length, this album gives you plenty of time to sink into it and start to tease out the complexities.

Nii Mariko – The Parallax View
Already known among Tokyo indie scene heads as the guitar slinging vocalist in rock trio Homme, Nii Mariko has also done a sideline in acoustic solo shows. For this first solo album, though, she has created a much bigger sound combining indie rock and electronic pop with the help of a who’s-who of Tokyo indie faces that includes members of Klonns, Kumagusu, Strip Joint, Dotsuitarunen and Nehann, as well as the slightly more well known face of singer/composer Makoto Kawamoto. The broader sonic palette this approach brings probably benefits Nii’s songwriting, letting it be light when it needs to be, while retaining the tools to hit the heavier emotions when that’s where it wants to go.

NTsKi – Orca
One of the buzziest albums to come out of the Japanese indie scene this year, there’s a sort of tastefully restrained eccentricity to the pop music Ntski makes here that I can’t help wishing would go a little further into those eccentricities. Taken on its own terms, though, it’s obviously very nicely put together and keenly balanced. There are a couple of versions of the album knocking about, with the Orange Milk Records version (including a vinyl edition) including a cover of Parallélisme, originally by Miharu Koshi and producer Haruomi Hosono, while the Japanese CD edition lacks the cover but has a different remix of the On Division in Sleep single not available on the Orange Milk version (all the tracks feature on the evil Spotify version).

Otagiri – The Radiant
As someone who admittedly has never dug deep into the Japanese hip-hop world, take this with a grain of salt, but this album is one of the standout releases from that quarter of the local scene. Otagiri’s delivery is playful without being pretentious, veering between between fluid and percussive, flowing well with the kaleidoscope of hyperactive beats and old jazz, big band and crackly traditional song samples crafted by trackmaker DJ Mayaku (a veteran of Tokyo party collective LEF!!! CREW!!!)

Shin Kamijyo – Chitin EP / Lysemanium_ep
While some of his roots lie in the retro technopop scene that in places crosses over with idol music and the late remnants of Shibuya-kei, electronic producer Shin Kamijyo nowadays focuses on ominous, spacious sounding, dub-inflected techno. He put out a couple of EPs in 2021with the first Chitin EP a scratchy, caustic nightmare soundtrack of a release and the Lysemanium EP that followed employing slightly less dirty tools towards a sound that balances shimmering synths with a more subtly sinister underbelly.

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2021 Japan music roundup: INDIETRONICA

In this section, I’m taking a look at electronic (or including significant electronic elements) releases that don’t sit easily in the club music or pop fields. I know indietronica is a stupid word, but that’s what this is.

BD1982 – Distance Vision
One of the founders of the Tokyo-based Diskotopia label, BD1982 has been a regular feature in the label’s release lineup over the past ten years, but this 2021 album is really a standout. Still based firmly in electronic music, it nonetheless sketches out shapes and colours that echo shoegaze and krautrock, with the blurred boundaries of the vocals, the distorted washes of sound and the occasional dalliances with motorik rhythms. It recalls the less abrasive Hot on the Heels of Love side of Throbbing Gristle too in places, constructing an icy, crystalline dreamworld from glistening synthetic parts.

Buffalo Daughter – We are the Times
To see any sort of optimistic vision of the future, it seems like we have to look further and further back to the past. With We Are the Times, Buffalo Daughter are a band in the 2020s who sound like a band in the 1990s looking back at the 1970s, and even when the world songs like Global Warming Kills Us All describe is a grim one, the vantage point they’ve staked out allows the music itself to look forward with both the clean lines and smooth textures of still-new technology and the inquisitive playfulness of someone given all sorts of disco, math rock and technopop possibilities to explore.

former_airline – The Air Garden
Following on from his 2020 full length album Postcards From No Man’s Land (that I put out from my Call And Response label and which is excellent), this new EP by instrumental bedroom technopunk-krautgazer Former Airline is in familiar territory, touching on all the motorik beats, noisy urban clatter, hazy ambient textures and spacious dub workouts that those who’ve encountered is work before will recognise right away. It’s expertly assembled and makes for a concise calling card for this prolific artist’s larger body of work.

Her Ghost Friend – Itsuka no onshinre
Released as a farewell collection of loose or unreleased tracks to mark the dissolution of the group, this high-sugar dose of ferociously cute, pastel-coloured technopop is going to be too candy-sweet for some ears, but there’s a wonky charm to some of the arrangements and it’s all done in good humour by an act who know how silly they sound and revel in it.

Jesus Weekend – Rudra no Namida
In their first flurry of action back in the early 2010s, Jesus Weekend were always uncertain whether they were lo-fi indie-guitar songwriters or purveyors of quirky, abstract synth instrumentals, but this new incarnation (which seems to now be the instrumental solo project of former vocalist Seira) embraces the synth fully, turning out a sparse, atmospheric and affecting mini-album of ambient music that isn’t afraid to take eerie and unsettling turns.

Mikado Koko – Maza Gusu / Alice in Cryptoland
Mikado Koko is one of the most interesting artists currently firing out album after album of fractured electronic beats and eccentrically delivered poetry into the eager ears of those listeners who can keep up with her. The first of these two 2021 albums is Maza Gusu, a katakana rendering of “Mother Goose” that sets Japanese readings of the famous children’s stories against sinister synth textures and skittering beats. The second takes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as its starting point and relocates the action to the metaverse with the help of Penny Rimbaud and Eve Libertine from Crass. Obviously. Obnoxious as NFTs are, it’s hard to fault Mikado Koko her playful and good humoured enthusiasm for them, having gone as far as creating her own pixellated character Alice Voxel to cheerlead them on one song, and really the whole album is dizzy, kaleidoscopic fun throughout.

Susumu Hirasawa – Beacon
A lot of the attention this album by veteran new wave musician Susumu Hirasawa came from his striking performance at Fuji Rock, which due to its high profile YouTube live broadcast, not to mention the pandemic-necessitated all-Japanese lineup that boosted some eccentric acts to unusually high profile positions in the bill, meant the festival offered a fascinating, in-depth and widely accessible view into the Japanese music scene. Susumu Hirasawa has been farming pretty similar musical ground to this since the later days of his old band P-Model in the late-80s and early 90s, which means he knows what he’s doing as he continues refining his Southeast Asian-flavoured operatic synth-techno toolkit. Less easy is describing exactly what that thing is. There are echoes of No.1 in Heaven-era Sparks, but Hirasawa has made this territory his own over the years and there’s really no one like him.

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2021 Japan music roundup: LEFTFIELD ROCK

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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2021 Japan music roundup: EXPERIMENTAL

In this section, I’m looking at music in the general sphere of experimental and improvised music, covering a couple of different takes on free jazz, some minimal ambient and drone work, some raw sampling and found sounds junk, and other more or less adjacent approaches. As usual, if there’s no Bandcamp link available, you might be able to find it on the evil streaming sites, but I’m not going to link to them. Alternatively, it may only be available in physical form from the label or artists themselves.

estude by Takane Nakajima – diurnal delirium
This was a CD I picked up at the square on the north side of Koenji Station last summer, when the state of emergency meant that most bars and izakayas were closed and everyone was gathering in the square at night to drink and party. There were always people playing music there, but this quiet mix of ambient, electronic and acoustic sounds stood out just for how little it seemed to be trying to stand out in that space. Listening to the CD, I waver between finding some of its acoustic guitars and ambient washes of synth cheesy and finding them devastatingly effective. It works best in the tracks catechumen pt 1 and pt 2, as part of a collage of field recordings and samples, which fall together in a dreamlike journey through the night, not unlike The KLF’s Chill Out in that the very naïve obviousness of parts of it feels integral to its charm.

Kiyasu Orchestra – Discipline for Domination
Formed “under the influence of 60s free jazz”, Discipline for Domination bursts out of the traps with everything playing at once, as fast as humanly possible. In the sense that it ever lets up over the course of the 30 or so minutes of this album, it mostly does so in shifting waves of intensity of the boiling cauldron of skittering discord rather than any ebb in the frenetic pace, a cacophony of notes rising and subsiding according to the logic of ambient music.

Junji Ono a.k.a Noiseconcrete – sabotage#1
As part of the atmospheric, experimental pop duo Noiseconcrete x 3chi5, Junji Ono made a couple of appearances in the Dark/Industrial section of this roundup, and as a solo act, he made a ferocious and speedy response to the onset of the pandemic in 2020. With this 50-minute live mix, he channels his blasts of textured noise and industrial clang through breakbeats, but it’s characterised by a recognisable conversation between intensity and ambient as it works its way towards a close based around a beat that further blurs the boundaries with his other work by forming the core of the song Worth Living Hunter that Ono released later in the year in his work together with 3chi5.

OkadaTakeshita – Clattery Ooze
This project is a collaboration between Ryo Okada, best known as the guitarist with experimental rock band Extruders, and Yuma Takeshita, who specialises in improvised music using instruments he’s created or modified himself. Clattery Ooze is one of those titles that works tidily as a review of the album in its own right, and the sounds here flow slow and viscous, given jagged textures by percussive electronic distortions that swirl between the speakers. At times Clattery Ooze sounds like music made from editing together only the mistakes and sonic artefacts that get thrown up by the wiring in the studio, but there’s both method in how those sounds are deployed, beauty in how the textures and drones colour the canvas on which they play, and a detectable delight in how the two musicians play with the possibilities of both their equipment and the studio.

Phew – New Decade
Yet another fantastic new Phew album is starting to become a cliché when it comes to end-of-year reviews of Japanese music, but then there’s not really anyone else making such consistently great music at such a reliable pace as she has been over the past few years. Anyone who’s been following her releases since 2017’s Light Sleep and Voice Hardcore (including 2018’s intriguing Island with Ana Da Silva) will find it easy to fit New Decade into the texture and rhythm of the journey Phew has been on lately, with its disconnected voice fragments layered drones, its ghostly rhythms and electronics, and there’s something in the voice those elements add up to that makes her work such a fitting soundtrack to the uneasy low level panic of modern life, where creeping, invisible fears seem to constantly surround us, gnawing at the fragile comfort of our lives. Whatever the crisis of the week, Phew knows how we feel.

Riki Hidaka + Jim O’Rourke + Eiko Ishibashi – 置大石
Over the past few years, Riki Hidaka has been cutting an interesting and enigmatic path through the Japanese music landscape, from fragmented lo-fi prog-folk through ambient guitar improvisations into this piece of rural-psychedelic alien-organic machinery, made in collaboration with renowned scientists of new sounds Eiko Ishibashi and Jim O’Rourke. Divided into two tracks, one for each side of the LP, the first half of the album is as intangible as its obscure title (Tsutomu Noda of Japanese music magazine Ele-king hazards a guess at “Okiooishi” as the characters’ reading in his review), coming in fluid compressions and expansions of ambient drones, while the second side introduces more recognisable instruments, which peel away from the stream, working tranquil, uneasy, discordant and harmonious shapes on its surface, before sinking gradually back into its semi-transparent flow once more.

Sayozoku – Sayozoku Tanjo
Sayozoku aren’t so much a band as they are a playground: a collection of instruments and costumes that get picked up, played with, discarded, layered over each other sometimes in conversation with each other, but often dancing on their own, delighting in their own sounds. It isn’t until the fifth track, Hoshi, that Sayozoku give you something like a song, in the form of a raw, naïve folk song that gradually shares space with the by this point familiar howling flutes and other noises. This album is really all about the noises, the spaces between them, and the sense of play and childlike exploration.

Slope Up Session Club – Session / Club
Emerging out of a series of session events in Shibuya, Slope Up Session Club isn’t a band but rather a space where musicians get together. At the heart of it is Kim, vocalist/trumpeter/bassist/guitarist/loopmaster of jazz/prog/hip-hop duo Uhnellys, but he’s just part of a subtly shifting cast of musicians from the intersection zones between Tokyo’s indie, J-rock and jazz worlds. In 2019, they started releasing recorded documents of their project on Bandcamp with the album Slope, and they’ve been gradually spelling out their name with subsequent releases during the pandemic, culminating in January 2021’s Session and then Club following swiftly on its heels in May of the same year (no word as to whether they’ll start spelling out any new phrases now they’re done with this one). Musically, we’re in free jazz improv territory, and over the years, the cast of already supremely skilled individual musicians seem to have got more and more used to each other, laying down and exploring grooves, making space for each other, and able to create not only raucous jams but subtle and spacious pieces of beauty like the sublime Wola (from Session) with its affecting interplay between sax and violin. Of these most recent two releases, Session is the longer and covers a little broader territory, even detouring into classical territory on Flower, while Club leans a little more on rave-ups but both showcase a collection of musicians who interact wonderfully onstage.

yokoscum – Ibitsuna Shikaku
In the barrage of samples and found sounds that opens this mini-album, it hints at the harsh edges of ramshackle, naïve noise, but an equally important part of what Yokoscum does is in wrapping that clatter of found sounds into rhythmic loops over which eerie mantras or melancholy melodies play out. Over the course of its roughly 20 minute runtime, the clatter of broken machinery and those mournful spiritual cries dance in an awkward, frequently interrupted, and often fractious courtship. It makes for uncomfortable listening, but despite the many obstacles it throws in your path, it has a knack for drawing a sense of rhythm out of the chaos.

YPY – Fremde Füße
As the alias under which Koshiro Hino of Osaka minimal percussion group Goat operates solo, YPY is a name that’s been on a lot of people’s radar these past few years. This EP emerged out of what he describes as “weird version remixes for Yoshio Ootani’s album” (Jazz Modernism, also out in 2021 from Black Smoker Records). Its origins aside, Hino’s subtle ear for spartan but intricately interacting rhythms is on impressive display in here.

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2021 Japan music roundup: DARK/INDUSTRIAL

This section of my 2021 roundup is really a continuation of the punk roundup, bringing in releases with a darker, heavier or more gothic take on punk, as well as acts with dark electronic or industrial elements. A lot of these bands have connections with the Discipline event held at the venue Bushbash in Koiwa, while others are just here because their sense of sonic gloom sat well with the general vibe while offering something interesting of its own.

Dead Bitch – self-vandalism
The Discipline event crew come up a few times in this roundup, and this cassette EP by industrial/noise producer Dead Bitch is the first release on their new label. The fuzzed-out, distorted electronic sounds and angry, frightened, disaffected vocal samples give the music here the (I assume absolutely intentional) atmosphere of a dusty video cassette found in a forest shack near where a group of teenagers mysteriously vanished in the 1980s. The second side features remixes by dark electronic scene heads Golpe Mortal (who will be cropping up again here too) and Cemetery add nasty beats to the proceedings, but in the process lose a bit of the eerie, creeping sense of space that Dead Bitch imbues their own takes with.

Klonns – Amon / Gehenna
One of the key acts from the Discipline event, Klonns delight in pummelling the listener with a thick wall of guitar thrash and boneshaking landslide of drums. When you’ve got a sound as tightly honed as this, it’s the small things that give the songs their own identity, like the metal chords that break through one of the rare breathing spaces the assault leaves you, and in particular here the guest vocals each track brings in. On Amon that means Hate from grindcore fellows Moonscape, and on Gehenna that means Aisha from the more conventionally punk but no less frenetic Ignition Block M.

Klonns / Soiled Hate – Different Senses split
Here’s Klonns again, and with another collaboration release, this time a split cassette EP with fellow grind enthusiasts Soiled Hate. Both bands specialise in minute-long blasts of densely packed hardcore, although Soiled Hate mix up the atmosphere a bit with some kind of silly but fun samples. The thing that really makes this split stand out, though, is the two electronic covers, one of each of the title artists, by Zaiden (who also released an EP from the Discipline label in 2021), which take the frenetic hardcore energy of each band and squeeze it through manic cyberpunk chicanes of synth noise.

Moonscape – Monolith
We met Moonscape briefly earlier when their intimidatingly named “Prophet and Zouo” (and vocalist?) Hate guested on Klonns’ track Amon. He’s back again here in his native environment: a roiling, volcanic lava pit of hardcore punk aggression and absurd metal guitar acrobatics. Where Klonns’ music is by design packed tight for maximum uncompromising impact, Moonscape are sonically more flamboyant and expansive — they can certainly do devastatingly intense, but there’s also a giddy joy in the trills, wails and embroidery of metal guitar, more shifts in tempo, more wild, clattering, explosive, flailing drums.

Ms.Machine – Ms. Machine
One of the breakout stars of the Tokyo indie scene in 2021, this debut album by Ms. Machine was something a lot of us had been waiting for for a long time and it won them a few overseas plaudits and a spot in the new bands stage of the summer’s weird, covid-dampened Fuji Rock festival. Like Solvent Cobalt, the music hinges on a core dynamic of creative guitar noise over drum machine beats, although rather than the vocals being distant howls from behind the veil, here they are deadpan spoken word announcements. A big part of what makes Ms. Machine work so well in their current three piece incarnation is how each member has their own territory to work in within the songs and leaves the others the space to work their own thing with just enough connecting tissue to create a coherent hole. Sai’s vocals are drained of emotion, leaving small shifts in intensity to imply deep wells of feeling seething beneath the surface; Risako’s disarmingly simple bass lines draw their own geometric shapes, walking in and out of both the vocals and rhythm patterns; Mako’s guitar fires flurries of noise but also gives each song a character and shape that plants hooks in the listener’s brain that live far beyond the moment of listening.

Ms.Machine – Vår
Another release from Ms. Machine, Vår had already appeared on the band’s eponymous album at the start of 2021, but this 12-inch single is an interesting artefact that connects the band to several parts of the Tokyo indie landscape. Label Black Hole have already shown up on this list with the Klonns 7-inch, and like Klonns, Ms. Machine have strong connections to the Discipline punk and electro noise events at the venue Koiwa Bushbash. Another of that event’s regular participants, trackmaker Golpe Mortal shows up too plying his dark electro, gothic-industrial trade through one of two remixes of the title track, while the other remix is an eerie accentuation on the song’s sense of confusion and loss by upcoming trackmaker Ermhoi of the creative collective Millennium Parade. New song Sommer, meanwhile, was recorded by Yui Kimijima at Tsubame Studio, which is increasingly the place where upcoming Tokyo indie and underground bands go to make their first big sonic statements, and its propulsive, swirling melancholy is a powerful coda to a year that seems to be a keystone in Ms. Machine’s life as a band.

Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 – Best of 2015-2020 CD
If you’ve been following this site over the past few years, you can probably skip over this one, as it is really a primer of previously released songs for a band I’ve been a vocal supporter of ever since I first discovered them in Nagoya six years ago. If you haven’t heard of them before, however, this is a great place to dive into their atmospheric collage of ambient noise, trip-hop and industrial sounds, over which 3chi5’s vocals float, sensual yet alien.

Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 – Worth Living Hunter
In the meantime, if you’re already familiar with this duo’s oeuvre, this is the place to pick up your next fix. Where their two 2020 releases split their sound into its more abstract experimental and pop extremes, this five song EP/mini-album brings both facets back together, while at the same time letting them continue floating apart. In the drawn out spaces of the opening title track, 3chi5’s poetry dances and flows in blue lines over moody, ambient backdrops, while sharp blasts of noise cut harsh lines through the sound, and stands as a microcosm of the whole Nx3 experience in many ways. The remaining tracks then act as dissections and deconstructions of that core cluster of elements, letting noise rise to the fore on one track, 3chi5’s vocals skipping through slippery jazz beats on another, sinking into sparse ambience on another, vocals fluttering disassembled over a reluctant beat on another.

Soloist Anti Pop Totalization – 4 Songs on Extended Play
While most of the artists in this section of my 2021 roundup exist in a space where the intersection between hardcore, techno and experimental noise collide and intersect in a way that feels distinctly contemporary, Soloist Anti Pop Totalization crafts his dark, synth-based punktronic missives out of something rooted in a much more granular way in the 1980s. Minimal wave in the mould of The Normal and early Mute Records sits at the heart of what he does and guides the routes it takes. Not that that’s a problem, any more than the bass, drums and four chord guitar setup of a punk band is a problem: within the restrictions of the setup, Soloist Anti Pop Totalization weaves back and forth between pulsing new wave, experimental, ambient and quietly beautiful (and, yes, pop) moments on this EP in a way that never feels limited.

Solvent Cobalt – Private Gloam
What strikes you first, and then keeps washing over you throughout this album, is the tidal surge of scratchy Jesus and Mary Chain guitar static. Deliberately simple, minimal drum machine beats loop their way doggedly through each song, while the vocals are indistinct echoes from far away, singing melody lines that are more often than not simply whatever notes the bass is playing at that moment. This is music all about the noises, squalls, flurries and textures the guitars are playing around with inside that sea of static. And luckily Solvent Cobalt are really good at playing those games, making this album, for all its dedication to one particular sound, sustain a prickle with excitement throughout.

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2021 Japan music roundup: PUNK

This year, I didn’t really post any reviews aside from a couple of mixes of recommended tracks from the year’s releases. I did, however, spend the year keeping a running list of releases that looked interesting to me, so rather than just picking out and ranking (which always felt like a stupid and pointless thing to do anyway) twenty or so highlights of the year, I decided to go back over that list and try to write up pretty much everything released in 2021 that crossed my path. I’ve divided it into (sometimes very loose) genre themed sections to make it at least vaguely coherent. There are eight posts rounding up the year, and here’s the first one, focusing on music that’s more or less punk. I’ve embedded Bandcamp players where they exist. Where they don’t, you might find it on the evil Spotify, or else it means it’s only available in a physical format.

Born Shit Stirrers / Ledzepvietcong – Overworked Underfucked
Fukuoka-based punk troublemakers Born Shit Stirrers’ approach centres around warpspeed micro-songs that communicate whatever message they have more through the haranguing energy and snotty, often hilarious titles than the generally incomprehensible lyrics. The nuts and bolts of their songs are getting more distinct with every new release though, with individual elements here, like the way the band pingpong about between vocalists, standing out more clearly within the songs’ internal chaos. Over the side, Kumamoto-based Ledzepvietcong throw down some fuzzy, lo-fi nuggets, with a hint of a lonesome and liquored up Sebadoh to their take on punk rock, and after the fierce and frantic first side, the slurred looseness of their side is a welcome chaser.

HALF KILL / DAISEI STOCK HAUSEN – Split EP
The first side of this split cassette from Shizuoka Prefecture belongs to Half Kill, who trade in shouty, raucous punk with a scuzzy, 1990s alt-rock trash tilt. The interplay between the male and female vocalists gives the music a lively internal dynamic, while the shifts in tempo and layers of guitar distortion keep the songs on the Hüsker Dü side of punk convention. Over the side, Daisei Stock Hausen, whose members have past form dating back to the early 2000s in bands like Nemo and The Hasshin Telepathies, are still (post-)punk of sorts with their rambling, ranting vocals, but they channel the spirit through the sequencers, bleeps and madcap beats of techno and EBM and trashy, 80s Helios Creed guitars that sound like they’re being played underwater. It’s messy, which means it’s also unpredictable and kind of fun.

Kagami – Demo
This frenetic EP of short, sharp blasts of hardcore (the longest song is 1:12 long) might pitch itself as a demo, but if so, it sounds fantastic, the guitars scratchy blasts of foil-thin metallic tinnitus while the bass pummels the heart of the songs at you.

LeakLeek – Leak
This is a release my label Call And Response put out, so obviously I’m biased, but it seems pointlessly timid to leave CAR artists out of roundups like these at this point. LeakLeek are a band who are definitely punk, but of a proudly unconventional sort, dropping guitar from the lineup in favour of violin and musical saw (and an extra bassist). This gives the mini-album here a queasy sort of psychedelic take on no wave, with a cover of DNA’s Not Moving driving home that part of their, well, DNA I guess. There’s also hints of the sort of manic Japanese new wave of bands like P-Model and the Plastics in songs like the disconcertingly perky China Doll. A couple of members of LeakLeak crop up later in here too, as part of the also excellent band Nicfit.

LLRR – <=>
Another Call And Response release, this EP from mostly Kyoto-based LLRR (“lew-lew-low-low”) was originally released in 2020 exclusively on streaming services like Spotify, but I felt that was a waste for such a good collection of spiky, obliquely poppy, intelligent art-punk and talked the band into letting CAR do a limited cassette and Bandcamp release as well.

LRF – The Anti-Vax Punk Songs EP
The first of six Bandcamp releases from this Osaka punk act (some of which seem to be re-ups of old releases), this EP does exactly what it says on the tin, delivering four fuzzy, lo-fi punk anthems in the Sham 69 vein, railing against bio-fascism, Bill Gates, the “plandemic” and you, the zombie masses ruled by fear. It’s hard to tell how seriously this guy takes the conspiratorial specifics of what he’s singing or whether he’s just waving them as sloganeering banner images in his more general war on the genuinely unsettling and illiberal culture of restrictions, mandates and surveillance that the pandemic has ushered in in many places. A year on, it feels like a throwback to an impossibly ancient panic, at least here in Japan, but a bit of righteously angry paranoia isn’t always a bad thing for a music scene — like a vaccine in its own right against complacency.

M.A.Z.E. – II
This second mini-album picks up where this Tokyo band’s first one in 2019 (and their 2020 split EP with Nagoya no wave noise-punks Nicfit) left off, firing out micro-missives of jittery, authentically thin-sounding, offbeat punk that recalls the ramshackle early blasts of Kleenex. There’s an irrepressible sort of bounciness to the way these songs leap out of the traps that skirts just clear of being disco-punk but retains a lot of its toe-tapping energy.

Nicfit – Nicfit
This short album isn’t a new release exactly (the band’s 2022 album Fuse, from UK label Upset the Rhythm, is the one you want if you need the most up-to-date statement of where the band are now) but for anyone after a primer for one of Japan’s best purveyors of distorted art-punk, this release from French label Sorcerer gathers together the tracks from their Swell 7-inch as well as from their split EPs with M.A.Z.E. and Pinprick Punishment. The fantastic Creep off 2012’s Ripple Nagoya indie compilation would have been a nice addition too, but it’s still a solid starting place for some dark, dirty, twisty-turny guitar abuse.

Non Band – Non Band II
Forty years after they burst onto the Japanese early 80s punk scene with their wonderfully off-kilter self-titled debut album, Non Band finally decided to follow it up in 2021 with a collection of all new songs. The passage of time has weathered Non’s voice into something harsher and more ragged, and which fits in well with the scraping violin and delirious, whirling rhythms of tracks like Indepup 2018. The songs on this album’s idiosyncratic structures often leave you wondering what it’s even trying to do, but demanding a group like Non Band be more normal feels both petulant and futile. After four decades, they’ve earned the opportunity to cut loose.

Oops – out of pictures 7”ep
Hailing from Osaka, the home of punk that won’t do what it’s told, Oops officially dropped this EP at the end of December 2020, although it just sneaks into the 2021 roundup because the physical version didn’t materialise until the following month. In these four sharply curtailed songs, exasperated vocals ring out over tunes that draw on emotionally wrought alt-rock sounds one minute, sparsely arranged post-punk another, and scattergun spazzcore the next. The band went through a significant shift later in the year with the recruitment of a new vocalist (Minami from LLRR, fact-fans), but this EP is still a tantalising momentary snapshot of a band in motion.

The Questions – Koi no Yokan
Fizzy garage-punk from Okinawa that kicks off with a minute-long theme song for the band, before settling into a groove of lively, scuzzy garage/mod party music. Vocalist Chelio might be familiar to Japanese neo mod scene-watchers from her old band Six, and The Questions are very much in that vein. They followed this release up quite quickly with another EP, titled Beehive (presumably after the band’s hairstyles), in the summer.

The Smog – First Time, Last Chance
This 7-inch single revels in the tightly wired sounds and hurried rhythms of late-70s punk, with the sharp-edged and angular guitars jerking around like a heavily caffeinated Wilko Johnson on both tracks (and especially on B-side Noise Noise).

Worst Taste – Ultra Power EP
Worst Taste were one of the core bands in the scene of oblique punk/alternative acts that gathered around the venue Club Goodman in the early 2000s under the influence of groups like Panicsmile, and they’ve remained active ever since, being key figures in the Tokyo Boredom event organiser collective in addition to their own activities as a band. This three-song cassette EP is their first new release since 2014’s Live-ban live album, released in their slightly altered and electronically-augmented lineup of Worst Taste & Special Magic and it sees the band back to their raw rock trio roots. What that means is that you get three dizzy whirls around the dance floor by the demented ringmaster of a post-punk circus. Inevitably, your mileage will vary with that sort of thing, but there’s no one else who sounds quite like them. At the moment, it’s only available as a cassette from the band themselves, but it seems to be designed partly as a taster for more widely available things to come.

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Connect And Receive – Winter 2021 Japan underground picks

As a year-end answer to my earlier summer 2021 mix, I decided to make a follow-up of some of the other Japanese indie and underground music that interested me this year. In tune with the wintry times, this one mostly skirts punk, in favour of various eerie and melancholy shades of experimental music and a few indie bangers. I’ve added Bandcamp links where they exist, and you can listen to the mix here.

Phew – Snow and Pollen
Phew has been not only prolific in recent years, but in perhaps the best form of her career. This opening track off her latest album, New Decade, is a suitably sinister introduction to the album, the times and this wintery mix.

z/nz – Days
Always great to have some new material from this mathy yet always playful Fukuoka-based trio. Taken from the second volume of the Mitohos compilation series, put together by Loolowningen & the Far East Idiots and featuring a solid cross section of contemporary Japanese experimental indie.

Loolowningen & the Far East Idiots – Concorde
As well as their work on the Mitohos series, Loolowningen also put out another new album of their own new material in Pareidolias, which comes quite swiftly after 2020’s Anökumene and continues their journey through surreal landscapes of sparse, intricate arrangements and offbeat melodies.

LeakLeek – China Doll
This track comes from these Nagoya-based psychedelic punks’ new mini-album Leak, which came out from my own Call And Response label at the tail end of the year and sure to kick off a wave of hysterical violin- and saw-led no wave. Look out for members Charley and Kuwayama’s other band Nicfit in the January releases of UK label Upset the Rhythm.

Non Band – Ti’s Worq
Non Band’s 1982 debut has been gaining increasingly broad recognition as a hidden masterpiece of the Japanese punk canon, and they have been gradually becoming more active in recent years, culminating in this second album after nearly a 40 year wait, hanging idiosyncratically between punk, no wave, folk and psychedelia.

So Oouchi / 大内聡 – Niji / 虹
As the vocalist from noise-drenched post-punks Hysteric Picnic/Burg, you’d be forgiven for being surprised that So Oouchi’s first new release in years is an EP of Nick Drake-esque solo acoustic ballads, but as an artist who never had much regard for people’s expectations, it’s still somehow on-brand (and quite lovely).

mmm, Takako Minekawa – Hachigatsu no Mado / 八月の窓
Singer-songwriter mmm (pronounced “me-my-mow”) has been slowly working her way through a series of collaborations with other artists over the past couple of years, working with Shintaro Sakamoto and Oh Shu last year, and this year following it up with songs featuring Takefumi Tsujimura of Kicell and this immersive musical mystery with the wonderful Takako Minekawa.

re:lapse – f
The first of two tracks on this mix from the Dreamwaves shoegaze label, re:lapse released a debut EP this autumn, pushing the dreampop end of the shoegaze spectrum with, all gentle washes of guitar and synth (on this track synth arrangements courtesy of Azusa Suga from dreampop-tinted Tokyo pop band For Tracy Hyde.

softsurf – It’s OK
Also from the Dreamwaves label came Softsurf’s Returning Wave EP, with this song jumping out as what’s essentially a punchy indie-rock anthem, with just enough gliding and fuzz to remind you that it’s shoegaze.

Pulsnug – Turnoff
Given his troubles over the summer, 2021 was probably a bad year to be a massive fan of Cornelius and an even worse one to have built a huge part of your sonic identity around recreating the skittish avant-pop of Fantasma, but Tokyo’s Pulsnug came out with Fanfare for Farewell towards the end of the year anyway, packed with the shamelessly 1990s fun (am I imagining it or is the intro to this song a nod to Blur’s It Could be You?) and nary a scandal to be seen.

Susumu Hirasawa / 平沢進 – Yurei Ressha / 幽霊列車
Since the later days of P-Model, Susumu Hirasawa has been farming this grove of melodramatic synthetic grandeur, and the trees keep growing bigger. His epic appearance at the covid-limited Fuji Rock was one of the highlights for those of us watching at home.

former_airline – The Air Garden
Last year, Tokyo-based bedroom krautwave/dubgaze musician former_airline put out the full album Postcards from No Man’s Land, and he followed it up swiftly with a new self-released EP, with this song a motorik highlight.

Daisei Stockhausen – It’s too late
With roots in older punk-underground bands like The Hasshin Telepathies and Nemo, there’s a bit of Psychic TV to these weirdos, a bit of EBM, a bit of psych-rock, but hard to pin down. It appeared via a split cassette with the always enjoyable Shizuoka punk band Half Kill and it was intriguing stuff.

Buffalo Daughter – Times
There’s always something a bit oblique and out-of-time about Buffalo Daughter, like a band looking at the future from a half-dozen fragmented starting points at various points in the past. In some ways, this track, from their new album that dropped online in September, feels like something lost in the 1990s, but there’s also so much Kraftwerk in there that it starts drawing lines that place it not in a specific time so much as in a (paradoxical) tradition of looking forward. “We are the times” they sing, and sure, but which times?

Greeen Linez – The Call
If Buffalo Daughter’s music often seems to be looking to the future from a variety of starting points in the past, Greeen Linez can be seen as looking to the past of the 1980s from various starting points over the subsequent decades. There’s an affecting sort of romanticism to the duo’s hauntology on this track. Taken from the album Secrets of Dawn.

Seiichi Yamamoto / 山本精一 – Terminal Beach
In a way, a collection of experimental offcuts, underground legend Seiichi Yamamoto’s album Cavinet was a strangely warm and inviting album, like wandering through a series of misty, mysterious landscapes in an old videogame.

Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 – Monologue
Regular favourites of mine, Aichi duo Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 put out a couple of releases this year. One was a sort of hits compilation — a digest of early material — and the other a curious and understated EP on most of which 3chi5’s vocals take a low-key role, but which covered a lot of interesting musical ground.

Her Braids – Midnight Blue
Following on from the lovely song Forest from 2020’s Soko ni Iru indie compilation, this Matsumoto indie trio came out with an equally tender and touching three-song EP in 2021, with this the heartbreaking closing song.

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