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.
Von.E are a mysterious band. Apparently formed in 2018, their presence seems to consist entirely of live streaming a series of “rehearsals” from their hometown of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, with this album being a recording of the third. In that sense, Rehearsal 3 stands as a pretty much lone document and the sole context for the band’s existence, but it’s also a little misleading in its functional title and the general aura of jam session freshness it projects. For something supposedly recorded live in front of a few people in a rehearsal studio, the five drawn-out progressive rock epics that make up the album are surprisingly well recorded, while the songs themselves are intricately developed pieces, each passing through its own series of movements in a way that comes across as more or less composed (albeit with plenty of room for improvisational meandering too).
The ground that Von.E cover begins at the ponderous, spacious end of the spectrum on the opening Tansui, with the fourth track Hoodwink at the more driving, ferocious end. In this mix of motorik and virtuoso guitar abuse, there are as many echoes of Hawkwind as there are of the anti-solo distortion jams of a Yo La Tengo in the throes of a live climax, something reassuringly classic rock sitting alongside a 1990s noise-rock edge. The limitations of the live recording format mean that the sound never quite fills out in the way the music’s epic aspirations really want, but Rehearsal 3 is an unexpectedly rich statement of intent from a band otherwise shrouded in mystery.
There’s nothing particularly unexpected about what Forbear do on 10songs, but they navigate familiar channels of 1990s-influenced indie rock extremely deftly and deliver with a positive energy that infuses even the more melancholy moments like Birds and Walkaway with an extra spark of life. In the more explicitly up-in-your-face moments like Lily and album highlight Dull, the combination of simple, insistent, two-note guitar yowl, enthusiastic drum clatter and twin vocal seduction is electrifying. You can hear a hint of shoegaze in the honey-sweet male/female dream pop vocal harmonies, but the way the band package it in short, punkish, rough-diamond bursts often feels like a fuzz-tinted melodic detour off the back of late Hüsker Dü rather than dissolving the self in obsessive layers of ego death distortion a la My Bloody Valentine. With other touchstones including the rough-edged noise-pop of The Vaselines and the vocal interplay of early Supercar, 10songs fits reassuringly in an international tradition poised on the edge between scuzzy guitar rock and infectious melodies and hooks.
Slope Up Session Club started out as a regular party in Shibuya where musicians from around the Tokyo indie and underground scene would jam in a non-genre-specific (but basically jazz) sort of way. At the centre of the collective is Kim, vocalist and loopmeister of hip hop duo Uhnellys, and you can perhaps hear echoes of Uhnellys in the simple and insistent bass driving the opening song Background from this second album-form collection of the club’s music (the first was called Slope, this one’s called Up, so we can take a guess what the next one will be titled). That propulsive drive runs through the first couple of tracks on Up, providing a progressive rock-tinged counterpoint to later, more explicitly jazz tracks like Children are Leaving or Postman, the latter of which is given its own unique texture and charge by the spoken word poetry that the sparse musical explorations underscore. Generally sax-led, the different motifs brought in by the other instruments continue to colour the individual tracks as it works its way to its conclusion, with Start the Past bringing in an eerie violin backdrop and the closing Salt and Breakdown veering suspiciously close to disco with the four-to-the-floor beat it lays down, before layering in complications that gradually pile up into a climax. Born out of moments created live, Up is best understood as one stage in an ongoing process together with its predecessor and whatever comes next, but it nonetheless does an impressive job of conveying the loose party atmosphere in the fossilised form of a recording.
Huh are an improvised guitar and drum-based duo who blast out hyper-kinetic barrages of freeform avant-skronk with incoherent shouting, usually for short, intense periods of time in front of seedy audiences of punk and underground scene deadbeats. Which is to say they are great and the very heart and soul of what makes Tokyo such a terrific city to be a music fan in. Both of the two releases they’ve put out so far this year are composed of recordings dug out of sessions dating back a year or two, each bubbling, hissing, scratching and exploding with the band’s particular brand of broken jazz made out of mistakes and feedback. In fact, it’s a testament to how completely the anarchy of their live presence and their music are one that even without the raw physicality of the performance, both recordings still fizz with such energy. Of the two, Drive the Mode is the more straight-up ferocious, working its way in what’s as close as a band like Huh ever get to a linear fashion towards a frenetic climax. Enough, meanwhile, takes a slightly more picturesque route through moments of intensely charged quiet in the track Some Possibilities, while the following twelve-minute Through the Black Sea explodes right back into the heat of a riot before detouring through some of its own dystopian backroads — contrasts pushed even further in the closing Boys, We Don’t Stand with You. It’s an exhausting but rewarding listen.
Sacoyan is a singer-songwriter from Fukuoka, debuting in a band form here under the name Sacoyans with a hometown supergroup backing lineup featuring Miwako (Miu Mau) on drums, Seiji Harajiri (Hyacca) on bass and Takeshi Yamamoto (Sea Level, Macmanaman, various solo works and what sometimes seems like every other band in Fukuoka) on guitar. Sacoyan’s songs tend towards emotionally wrought balladry in an early Shiina Ringo vein, with the band lineup filling them out and pumping them up with some scuzzy 1990s alt-rock energy. It’s interesting being far enough away from the 1990s that its sounds have claimed a musical territory of their own distinct enough that an album like Yomosue can be confidently called retro. The guitar sounds lean a little bit Oasis in places, a bit Swervedriver in others, and the hard stop the final track JK pulls at the end of its closing feedback freakout is straight out of Supercar’s Three Out Change playbook. It stands on its own beyond the MTV2 nostalgia of its guitar fuzz thanks to the sort of solidly crafted pop-rock songwriting that would have been a crossover J-Pop hit had it only landed in an era when the planets were more favourably aligned for this sort of music.
Positioned as the first part of an ongoing project, TRD 1 features two songs by Tokyo-based singer-songwriter mmm (pronounced “me-my-mow”) written and produced in collaboration with different artists. The first, Beats for You, sees her pair up with Shintaro Sakamoto, formerly of Yura Yura Teikoku fame but now probably more famous as a solo artist, and its gently swinging folk-country lullaby trot forms a perfect backdrop for mmm’s voice at its softest ASMR near-whisper. The gentle pedal steel guitar melodic flourishes act as a second voice, commenting adjacent to mmm’s vocals, with the whole song falling back into sixteen bars of near-silence, broken only by the rhythmical brushwork on the drums.
The second track, Tōasa, brings in Japan-based Chinese musician Oh-shu and goes down a more electronic path, although mmm’s voice remains wavering on the edge of hearing, as fragile and intimate as the EP’s lockdown-inspired home recording concept suggests, crawling into and curling up in the music’s sparsest corners. The arrangement crafts contrasts with its more delicate moments, though, by veering into more strident colour splashes of beats and synth chimes.
As a concept set up to enable mmm to explore different musical territory, it manages in just two songs to succeed in offering an intriguing range of possibilities. If a TRD 2 ever emerges, it would be fascinating to see where else it takes her.
The Night the Night Fell staggers out of the starting blocks all shambling arrangements and multiple vocals that waver in and out of tune in creaky falsettos, all of which gradually asserts itself as how-we-do-things-round-here as the intricacy and intelligence guiding the songs along their the jittery, eclectic way becomes clearer. The songs are playful with structure, shifting pace mid-song as they hop from movement to movement, hook to hook, working more and more towards collective hands-in-the-air moments as the album winds its way towards a climax. In this sense, Merry Christmas’ songs are miniature lo-fi symphonies along the lines of a scrappy, bedroom New Pornographers, albeit with the rock edge blunted in favour of a campfire acoustic singalong atmosphere underscored by fragile xylophone chimes and the occasional intrusion of brass or melodica. A ragged collection of songs for sure, but with a lot going on under the hood.
In such strange times as this, it’s reassuring to be reminded that Sapphire Slows is still around and spinning her intricate dream mazes with such assurance. The title track and It Comes in Waves sit in the centre of this EP, two extended explorations of soft-edged yet glacial synth geometry, with ambient washes of texture providing a spectral commentary on this rhythmical journey from the background. These two longer tracks are bracketed by the EP’s shorter opening and closing acts, with Sapphire Slows’ vocals forming a clearer part of both Will Tell You a Story’s gradually building textural layers and the closing After Your Body Fades’ alien kaleidoscope of eerie, dispersed tones. The atmosphere that holds this EP’s narrative all together is complex yet simultaneously simple in its sparseness and space, like raindrops falling through leaves as clouds slowly evolve and disperse in the sky above.
Formerly based in Fukuoka but now in Tokyo, Marc Lowe is an often bewilderingly prolific musician with a vast catalogue of releases from a variety of projects, ever-muddled by deletions, repackagings and remixes, veering between Jeff Buckley-esque melodramatic guitar-led songsmithery and industrial soundscapes. Sitting somewhere between these poles, but leaning much more towards the soundscape end, Untitled (Expanded Edition) ostensibly deals with the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown situation of spring 2020, but in a way it’s really an album about itself. When Lowe sings about life in isolation and facing the uncertain future, it’s specifically about being a singer in that situation, the “Room” of the opening track (which appears again in an alternate version towards the end of the album) revealed as a studio in the following And From the Darkness.
In its own way, the title also turns its meaning back on itself. You can take it as a reflection of the endlessly expanding, uncertain half-life of the world the album has set out to depict, but it’s also a title that defines itself entirely in the language of the album’s own creation. The lower-case “untitled” hints at something spontaneous, raw and unpolished: an album that just flowed forth naturally and presented to us pure and as it is. Meanwhile, ”[Expanded Edition]” suggests an inability to accept incompleteness, the urge to revisit, remodel, add to. Where is the “unexpanded edition”? We don’t know, and the words sit there, communicating only the album’s relationship to some unknown other in the Marc Lowe Expanded Universe.
But while the title is a hall of mirrors, the music itself follows a clearer path, from darkness to some faint and qualified sort of light. While much of the album is instrumental, where Lowe’s vocals come in, there’s a repressed sense in the tense vibrato of his delivery that he’s just waiting to tear loose and just goddamn express himself. He lets his inner drama queen out in the early part of the fifteen-minute 2masks, but the album’s sonic world is defined more by a willingness to step back and let the music breathe. In the case of 2masks, that breath takes the raspy, FM-distorted texture of fierce winds, but elsewhere it take a gentler tone, with an absorbing sort of disquiet running through Forgiven. And it’s the synth drones and textures, the distant echoes of beats and fragmented rhythms, that really carry the emotional journey and it’s in those lonely moments that it feels most real.
In the earnest way they combine complexity with accessibility, Luminous101 sound like a flashback to the Tokyo alternative scene of ten to fifteen years ago — days when the great hope of the Tokyo underground were bands like Nhhmbase and Suiseinoboaz, and a suspiciously large number of new bands sounded like they had harnessed their ambitions to the legacy of The Dismemberment Plan. You can hear it in Namari with its mix of soft, almost easy-listening melodies with intricate structural and rhythmical transitions. The other side of this single, CLK, builds around the interplay between a funky groove and a metronomic, looping guitar line, balanced somewhere in the middle ground between post-punk and math rock, in a way that shares some (admittedly softer-edged) parallels to where Number Girl were positioned around the time of Num-Heavymetallic.
The time period this single evokes is starting to come into focus in the form of local scene history now, with its survivors beginning to contemplate what it meant and what made it special. One of the things that stands out is the optimism about the commercial possibilities of really quite unconventional musical ideas, purely on their own musical merits rather than sold as part of an image, and that’s the feeling Luminous101 leave on this single. As the places that fostered the early 2000s Tokyo alternative scene deal with the effects of major staff turnover (Shinjuku Motion) or the danger of COVID-driven closure (Akihabara Club Goodman), I have to wonder where this music now fits in, but hearing the echoes of that indie optimism in the context of now also feels strangely reassuring.