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.

Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.15 – The Neso – Obey

the neso - obey

Cassette, self-released, 2017

Like BLONDnewHALF, The Neso are a postpunk band very much in the old-skool sense, drawing from late-70s art-punk touchstones to give definition to music that is in essence straightforward garage rock. On the Obey cassette EP there’s the Keith Levine guitar sound, plus the snotty schoolgirl shouting of Delta 5 or Kleenex. This whole review could easily be a list of great bands who The Neso remind me of. Luckily for them, however, the band they remind me of most is The Au Pairs, and this is really down to their warped way with catchy songwriting. It’s the key to this EP’s success, with the title track in particular a short, sharp, bubblegum-punk classic.

All four songs on this EP are intelligently crafted, deceptively simple – if shamelessly retro – oddball punk nuggets, all spiky guitar lines, clattering beats and infectious harmonies. Importantly too, it never comes across as anything less than natural in The Neso’s hands.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.16 – te_ri – Kasugai Low Gravity

Guitar/drum duo te_ri’s second album is a surprisingly affecting piece of rhythmically unpredictable minimalist math rock. With the group’s members now based at opposite ends of the country in northeastern Iwate and southwestern Okayama, the chemistry between them is nevertheless still there – in fact it seems to have matured in some key ways since 2013’s Far East Debug, with a greater tenderness and emotion creeping into these instrumental songs.

The influence of Burmese music also seems to have affected the chords and melodies, the fruits of guitarist Kyuju Murakami’s travels to Burma. His clean guitar tones, unmolested by the batteries of effects pedals that serve as a crutch for experimental rock bands, tell complex stories through notes and rhythm alone. Takashi Katayama’s drums, meanwhile, function more as an answering voice to Murakami’s guitar than as a simple beat-keeper, slipping with a jazz-man’s combination of looseness and control through the music’s sonic spaces.

Coming in at around 26 minutes for the album’s nine songs, with most hovering around the 3-minute mark, Kasugai Low Gravity is also an economical album, never indulging any of its ideas for longer than necessary or falling back on jam band clichés. For all its complexity, then, it remains a fresh listening experience, and for all its sparseness, it remains densely packed with ideas.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.17 – BLONDnewHALF – Clean

blondnewhalf - clean

CD, Dan-Doh Records, 2017

The energy in this new album by Kobe-based garage/postpunk band BLONDnewHALF just doesn’t let up over the course of these sixteen tracks and 44 minutes. From the opening In Order to the closing Nie, it barrels forward driven by frenetic, babbling bass lines and drums that just couldn’t give a fuck, crisscrossed by psychotic slashes of discordant guitar, narrated via a series of unintelligable barks and yaps.

While the energy is relentless, the explosive pace isn’t uniform though, and especially towards the end of the album BLONDnewHALF switch gears, channeling their intensity into the tense krautpunk of Who, the mantric R40 and the scratchy, edgy and wilfully awkward 30nen.

The production on the album is constantly rasping like tortured metal along the recording equipment’s upper limits, like a bus screaming around a speedway track, scraping the crash barriers on every turn and tearing the heads off any waveforms that poke their heads out the windows. Whether you think this is a good thing or bad, it’s nevertheless utterly consistent with the amped-up, bug-eyed, buccaneering way BLONDnewHALF seem to approach everything else about Clean. This album is badass.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.18 – Bossston Cruizing Mania – Idea

bossston cruizing mania - idea

CD, cosmic jackson, 2017

With their first album since 2011’s Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead, Tokyo-based punk/underground veterans Bossston Cruizing Mania have taken a radical step back to basics with Idea.

Where previously they had traded in a combination of rhythmically complex postpunk and dub, sometimes drawing songs out to ten minutes or more, no track on Idea exceeds three minutes, with arrangements restrained by what seem at first glance to be straightforward punk rock rhythms and chords.

Confusing easy pigeonholing is the role of vocalist Esuhiro Kashima, who continues to rant, Mark E Smith-like, over the music no matter what it’s doing. As a result, even as the music hints at a more conventional structure, it functions more as a backdrop for their poet-savant frontman to deliver his missives – occasionally channeled by the music into something that sounds almost like singing, but nevertheless defiantly shunning anything as obvious as a chorus.

There’s a tension within Idea that feels like a fundamentally weird band trying very hard to make what they think pop music sounds like but only getting it half right. Coupled with the way they are clearly playing deep within their technical abilities, dialing back nearly all of the mathy sensibilities that had characterised earlier albums, there’s a disconcerting sense of a band holding something back.

That’s partly what makes it such an interesting album though. There are already bands in Tokyo like Triplefire who do the snap-tight rhythmical-postpunk-with-rambling-vocals thing about as well as it can be done, but to begin using recognisable chords and dipping their toes cautiously into melody starts to feel like the more radical thing for a band like Bossston Cruizing Mania to do.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.19 – WBSBFK – Open Your Eyes

wbsbfk - open your eyes

CD, Provoke, 2017

One of the most interesting developments of 2016 (for this site at least, with all its attendant biases) was the Provoke compilation of young, mostly male postpunk-influenced rock bands. While the compilation itself may not have had a massive impact in the grander scheme of things, it offered a reassuring corrective to Japanese indie’s dreary drift into City Pop Hell. One question it left unanswered at the time was where it could go next.

2017 saw a partial answer to that question with the simultaneous release in November of new albums by two of the Provoke bands, both released through the imprint that had begun with the compilation. Of those releases, Nagoya’s WBSBFK continue most closely in the same vein as the compilation, all spindly, atonal postpunk guitars, jittery rhythms and selfconsciously disaffected vocals.

However, where much of Provoke was drenched in distortion, WBSBFK here are confident enough in their own mastery of Wire-like postpunk dynamics that they seem to feel no need to hide within a tornado of effects. The result is a short album of ten songs in just over twenty minutes that trade in visceral energy for sparseness and sophistication, each song a jagged clockwork machine in monochrome. In an era where feelings are frequently taken as the alpha and omega of cultural import, it’s a special kind of pleasure that can be taken from music that is simply interesting.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.20 – Hanazono Distance – Hachi

hanazono distance - hachi

CD, cat&bonito,  2017

The follow-up to this Shikoku-born, Tokyo-based prog/post-rock trio’s 2016 debut Oni no Hao Team, Hanazono Distance show clear signs of development on Hachi while retaining the same playful balance of experimental rock and breezy, nursery rhyme-like, piano and melodica doodles.

There’s always something fundamentally simple anchoring Hanazono Distance’s songs, providing solid ground for usually the piano to perform some elaborate acrobatics. On Vanilla a single note on a squelchy synth bass plays that role, while on Shanai it’s a toy-soldier march on the drums while the 16-bit Final Fantasy-esque keyboard line descends into meowing distortion.

While the band use vocals on occasion to provide texture for their songs, it’s piano that really sings, with rich-toned synth-bass increasingly acting as a sonic foil to the more organic sounding (although still synthetic) piano melody lines. Within the dynamics of the music, however, it is more often the drums that challenge the piano for control of the listener’s attention, slipping with jazzy complexity through Gyaru and driving Charibu forward with frenetic energy.

While productionwise the recordings don’t pop as much as they perhaps could, the performances are uniformly exceptional and the combination of technical virtuosity and playful imagination Hanazono Distance bring to the table should be enough to recommend them under any circumstances. What makes Hachi an additionally happy experience is that it shows the band aren’t content to tread water, but rather they continue to experiment and explore.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: Afterword

If you’ve read through all of my 2016 top 20, congratulations. If not and/or it would be handy for you to have them all listed in one place, here is the full rundown with links. I’ll do my best to get a selection of these discs in stock in the distribution section of the Call And Response online store over the coming weeks, just in case anyone wants them shipped overseas.

20. V/A – Provoke
19. Asuna + Fumihito Taguchi – 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records
18. Code – Code
17. Soloist Apartment – untitled
16. Transkam – Blueshade of the Omegasound
15. tepPohseen – Some Speedy Kisses
14. Masami Akita & Eiko Ishibashi – Kouen Kyodai
13. macmanaman – New Wave Of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal
12. V/A – Drriill Session
11. Foodman – EZ Minzoku
10. Hijokaidan x Jun Togawa – Togawa Kaidan
9. Sonotanotanpenz – Conga
8. Kuruucrew – Kuruucrew
7. Sea Level – Invisible Cities
6. Limited Express (Has Gone?) – All Ages
5. Masami Takashima – Fake Night
4. Convex Level – Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth
3. Narcolepsin – Mojo
2. Kafka’s Ibiki – Nemutte
1. NOISECONCRETEx3CHI5 ‎– Sandglass/Suna-Ji-Kei

As I said in the intro, there’s a lot of good stuff I didn’t talk about in this top 20 rundown, either because of the inherent art-rock biases of my selection process, because I didn’t hear it, or that it just wasn’t in my mind at the time. I mentioned some of the same artists, along with a few others, in my Japan Times year-end indie review. I’m also not the only person coming up with these lists, and some other less tardy commentators have had their own rundowns available for months now.

If your taste leans more pop and electronic, Make Believe Melodies has a top 30 that will be rich in delights for you.

PART 1 (30-21)

PART 2 (20-11)

PART 3 (10-1)

Meanwhile, international music site Beehype produced their own Japanese music rundown, with more of an mainline J-indie tilt.

BEEHYPE TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016

Finally, if you’re the sort of person who hates reading and prefers to have their music reviews read to them by an American man with a beard, music vlogger Zach Reinhardt made a series of punk/noise-edged year-end review posts, which cover some of the same ground as mine, with the additional inclusion of basically all my own Call And Response label’s releases of last year (which I ban myself from including in this site’s year-end lists).

TOP 10 EPs OF 2016

TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016 (20-11)

TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016 (10-1)

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