Category Archives: Features

COVID compilation roundup (Summer 2020)

In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Japan, the situation has been tough for live music venues, with support from the government inconsistent, often poorly publicised, and generally either unavailable or difficult to obtain. As a result, many venues and artist collectives have produced compilations so that fans can contribute to keeping the infrastructure alive, even as the authorities give up on attempting to contain the pandemic. As with many compilations, the music is often scattershot and of variable quality, but this flood of releases is also bringing to light for the first time a lot of music that has been hidden in soundproofed boxes and known only to small word-of-mouth groups, leading to a paradoxical situation where the Japanese music scene is turning inwards into more specifically local- and scene-focused production at the same time that it is also turning much more openly outwards by making such vast quantities of music available online to anyone in the world who wants to explore it. I have personally been involved in a few of rough-and-ready projects of this type, which I have indulged myself by adding at the end of this feature for anyone who gets that far, but there is so much to cover in here that you will be listening for weeks to even dent this undoubtedly incomplete roundup of what’s been going on since this spring.

Navaro Compilation
Put together by the venue Navaro in Kumamoto, this compilation paints a quite extensive and wide-ranging portrait of the music scene in a part of Japan that doesn’t usually get a lot of attention except whenever a natural disaster sweeps through and wrecks everything (as an earthquake did to Navaro’s old location in 2016). The real standouts are the deranged live cuts from experimental rock bands Doit Science and Ishiatamazizo, but the album takes a fascinating trip through the feelgood pop-rock of The Heightz, the stripped down stoner hip-hop of Griner feat Blueprint, the grimy, sparse post-hardcore of Mul-Let-Ct2, the understated sweet-sour melancholy of Neuesanssouci and much more.


O2O2 the eyes behind the eyes
One of the releases picking up a lot of buzz this summer, this compilation seems to have been produced to raise money for a range of venues and stores around Japan — only available on CD directly from the participating businesses. It generally leans in a pop-rock/pop-punk direction but it’s the places where it deviates from that where it becomes most interesting, with Deride’s two raucous, ferocious hardcore tracks and the anarchic disorder of Office Voids’ Hatarakitakunai providing a much needed harsh edge, while Passing Truth Drive’s Dystopia is an interesting closing track, combining a simple, affecting electronic loop with what sound like the vocals of a closing time drunk, evoking a strangely touching combination of sweetness and disintegration.
(CD only – no digital version available.)

soko ni iru 1 / soko ni iru 2
These two compilations were put together by indie hub Give Me Little More in Matsumoto, centred around local acts from Nagano Prefecture but expanding its reach to include artists from around Japan and the world that have a connection with the venue. With these kinds of compilations, it’s always interesting to see what they reveal about the personality of the venue. Big city venues can afford to focus on one particular genre, while those in smaller towns generally need to be more open, but a mood or character often emerges nonetheless. In Give Me Little More’s case, it seems to be an atmosphere of restraint and slightly lonely distance, whether in the quirky bedroom new wave of Oshaberi Art, the fragile balladry of Nicholas Krgovich, the dislocated pop of Tangingugun (Give Me Little More owner Masashiro Nimi’s own band), Yumbo’s curious combination of spoken word and melancholy brass, Daborabo’s found-sound collage or the indiepop of Her Braids’ Forest, with its opening guitar that threatens to turn into The Stone Roses’ Made of Stone but then takes a turn in its own achingly lovely direction. Of the two collections, the first is perhaps the more wide-ranging in tone and the second the more subdued, but the tone across both albums is surprisingly consistent.

Songs For Our Space
This compilation put together by the Rokoh label was made in support of the Save Our Space campaign, which has been lobbying government agencies for support for the music scene since the beginning of the pandemic in Japan and offers its own lens on Tokyo’s impossibly chaotic and diverse underground music scene. Rokoh founders Daiki Kishioka and Seven both appear at different ends of the sonic spectrum, Kishioka in a stripped down acoustic version of his band Strip Joint, and Seven with the thump and hiss of the pragmatically titled Zatsuon Jikken_NoiseExperiment_2_01_live_premix, and this diversity is reflected across the album. This is perhaps a manifestation of the disinterest in genre among a lot of the young musicians in Tokyo right now, as well as the chaotic immediacy of the circumstances under which the album was created. And there’s a strong scent of lockdown about this release, with songs like TYO COVID-19 by Sai (from Ms. Machine) explicitly referencing the situation and Deathro’s contribution revelling in its home recording setup with its aggressively cheap sounding drum machine beat, meaning that just a few months after its release it already has the feeling of a historical document — a blurred snapshot of a music scene reacting in a moment of confusion.

#repartures for huckfinn health and empathy
Released to raise funds for Nagoya live venue Huck Finn, this compilation draws primarily from the Nagoya and Aichi indie and underground scene, with the low-key acoustic balladry of Gofish and the always excellent Yoshito Ishihara sitting alongside the dark or oblique post-punk shapes of The Act We Act and Vodovo. As with the Songs For Our Space compilation, Deathro makes a lo-fi appearance from his bedroom, while Fucker (Less Than TV label boss Jun Taniguchi) closes the album off with his own raw, tortured acoustic effort on an album that happily ricochets between punk, folk and anarchic nonsense with little regard for genre logic but clearly having fun in its own alternative community.

Namba Bears Omnibus “Nihon kaihō”
One of the Japanese underground scene’s most legendary live venues, Namba Bears in Osaka more than any album in this feature brought out the big hitters for this fundraiser compilation. Psych-rock druids Acid Mothers Temple, experimental shamans OOIOO, brevity-loving noisenik Masonna, avant-maniacs Oshiri Penpenz, the analogue glitches of YPY, and current Osaka breakout stars (and seemingly the main organisers this compilation) Gezan all make an appearance. That alone should be enough to demand attention, but a little deeper there are some gems too. KK manga and Yaho, the latter of whom also make an interesting appearance on #repartures, both deal out some truly demented noise-soaked gibbering hardcore. Metamyura Gunupiko aka Nakabayashi Kirara’s Shūchō no Musume is an extraordinary track, kicking off with an intro drawn straight from German EBM legends DAF’s Die Rauber und Die Prinz, it combines synth minimalism with traditional Japanese folk music, taking both down a number of unexpected diversions. There’s a lot going on over these eighteen tracks, and it’s all worth exploring.

From the Heart of Chiba – Anga Support Compilation
Chiba is in the uncomfortable position of being a big city that’s just close enough to Tokyo that a lot of its music culture tends to get absorbed by its larger neighbour to the west. Sen City Records is in part an attempt to create a small centre of musical gravity in Chiba City for local alternative music and occasionally drag some music back across the border, and this live compilation (all songs were recorded at Sen City events) makes for an interesting document of the scene they’re creating there. Tokyo punk and oddball bands like P-iple and Emily Likes Tennis make an appearance, but the core of the album is the Chiba-based acts. This contingent includes a strong core of non-Japanese residents (the straight-up Nick Lowe powerpop of Talent Show in particular stands out) who help bring the album a drunken pub rock atmosphere that plays well with the eccentric punk of Japanese acts like Katakana, who veer between ranting disorder and Jitterin’ Jinn-like ragged J-pop, and the anarchic new wave noise of Bunga Bunga. As a live album, it’s as rough-edged as you might expect and perhaps aimed more at recalling the raucous energy of event nights for those familiar with the scene Sen City have built up around the venue Chiba Anga than providing a polished introduction for casual listeners. As with many of these compilations, however, it is also celebratory in the specificity with which it pulls focus on the goings on in a particular neighbourhood and scene — something made all the more immediate by the live recorded format.

2021survive
One thing that the music scene’s response to the pandemic has brought into focus is which venues have really come to foster loyalty from the artistic communities around them. In Tokyo, venues like Bushbash in Koiwa and Soup in Ochiai have been the focus of a lot of support from artists they have helped support. Hatagaya Forestlimit seems to have a particularly diverse range of fans, and this album, produced over a 24-hour period in May, leans hard on autotune-heavy hip-hop trackmakers, with S亜TOH contributing to most tracks, while Andrew from Trekkie Traxx is perhaps the album’s most high profile contributor. Miru Shinoda x Sai’s Hej Då, meanwhile, provides the album’s sole punkish deviation with its scuzzy on-the-beat electro drive as it encourages someone to “Fuck off, you piece of shit”, offering a welcome souring to the album’s mellow.

Flowers in Concrete -Side Japan-
Ochiai Soup is probably the most essential spot in Tokyo for Japan’s experimental and noise scene, and this June compilation (released side by side with a compilation of international artists) draws from that community, making the album not just a fundraiser but a powerful statement of identity for the venue. There’s a thrilling variety on display here, even within the acts who take more of a pure noise approach — compare the low-end sonic landslide of P.I.G.S. with the liquid analogue squelches of Government Alpha — while tracks by GC Skull Electronics, Kazumoto Endo and Kazuma Kuboto build an unsettling atmosphere in the way they all, in varying ways, take slashes of ragged noise that dissolve into quietly sinister electronic throbs or moans. Endo’s track stands out in particular as a finely wrought, panic-inducing, electrifying album highlight, although Flowers in Concrete -Side Japan- is rich enough that repeat listens will surely shine fresh light on moments throughout the album.

2020,the Battle Continues
This monthly ongoing compilation series put together by the venue Earthdom in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo offers a daunting avalanche of punk, hardcore and noise-rock from an extraordinary array of artists — Volume 1 alone runs to two and a half hours, one third of which it taken up by two collaboration tracks between Sunn O))) and Merzbow — although that also means the series offers a deep and wide insight into the noisy extremities of contemporary Japanese underground rock. While Volume 1 is certainly the longest and features more of the most obviously well known names (Boris, The Genbaku Onanies and Struggle For Pride also make an appearance), each of the three currently existing collections provides a relentless, explosive barrage of earsplitting, brain-melting sonic terror in a spread of subgenres that generally have the root “core” in the name. Dive deep and you’ll start to find crossovers with other compilations in this list, with artists like Fucker and Deathro reappearing here, while Iron Lung’s entry was actually recorded at Nagoya Huck Finn, indicating that despite many of these compilations’ extreme local focus, there are nevertheless creative networks at play that extend throughout the country and which many of these venues play an important role in supporting.

Internal Meeting Compilation
Another Nagoya-based compilation, much of this album, compiled in support of the Venues KD Japon and Daytrip, takes far more of a mainline J-pop/rock approach, especially compared to the punk, folk and experimental anarchy of the same city’s #repartures compilation also covered on this page. This sort of music, which is modelled on the coat tails of more or less mainstream Japanese music (the Rock In Japan/Quruli vision), is a thread that this site rarely takes the time to cover, but which is perhaps inevitably the greater portion of what constitutes Japanese indie. That’s not to say there aren’t alternative ideas going on in a lot of these tracks though, and as the album progresses, so its palette widens with the hyperactive drums, shoegaze-tinted textures and Thom Yorke vocals of Muscle Soul’s Stand Alone, the post-rock sonic towers of Ulm’s Flood of Light or Ophill’s closing am5, the precise, intricate rhythmical interplay of Qulaque’s Kiló and the ultra sparse acoustic approach of Miyafuji Sakae. At its heart, though, Internal Meeting Compilation represents the pop-rock, singer-songwriter middle-ground of Japanese indie rather than its more experimental or progressive fringes, and in that makes for a pretty accurate image board of core playing field of Japanese pop and rock in the 21st century.

Drunk Ambient Moods 1
This is one of of a handful of compilation projects in this feature that I myself had a hand in, having contributed to one of the tracks and the money raised being donated to a campaign I  manage for a trio of small music bars in the Koenji neighbourhood of Tokyo. Pipo Records is defiantly its own thing though — a new Tokyo label, set up partly in opposition to what it sees as the reactionary tendencies of new age ambient, all nonetheless within a broadly ambient framework. To do this, the Pipo approach seems to be to fashion itself as a playground for artists from a variety of backgrounds to explore their own takes on the idea of ambient, and Drunk Ambient Moods 1 takes a slowly winding path through the resulting landscape. The first third of the album takes the form of a largely familiar-feeling pastoral lowland before the distorted sax loops of James Hadfield’s Cancellations (Upsets) brings the first disconcerting jolt, with Juliette Porée’s sinister Avmars setting the album more clearly on a dark course, compounded by the distant storm of guitar thunder that sees out the ominous drone of Looprider’s The Ghost Has Come For Me. By the time the album is moving towards its close, the notion of ambient is more of a ghost that haunts the background of Adam Sampler’s skittering disco beats. The work of musicians (and non-musicians) none of whom operate exclusively in the ambient field, Drunk Ambient Moods 1 staggers on an always slightly off-kilter but ultimately playful journey into ambient anarchy.

883km
This is an album I compiled myself for the venue Utero in Fukuoka, with tracks drawn from Kyushu-based artists that had previously appeared on albums or compilations from my own Call And Response label over the past fifteen years, so I can’t review this in the traditional sense. However, for anyone familiar with the output of Call And Response over the years, I think 883km shows up the extent to which the island of Kyushu has helped to define the label’s identity, staggering between post-punk and post-rock with a kind of playful, childlike anarchy and very little respect for the finer points of genre. Despite having 14 different bands and recordings spanning over a decade, some familiar faces reappear in multiple acts (and at least three musicians are staff members at Utero), which perhaps feeds into a sense of coherence amid the scrappy sensibility of many of the tracks. It also makes for a surprisingly widely drawn sketch of offbeat art-punk in 21st Century Kyushu.


Party in My Heart / Gold Star
These two covers compilations were also produced by me, so once again I make no claim to being able to review them objectively. Made up of home recordings in the early months of the pandemic, they both feature musicians (and non-musicians) from the community around Call And Response Records and a trio of music bars in our local neighbourhood. Like the Sen City compilation (earlier in this feature), these albums feature a strong contingent of Tokyo-based foreign musicians alongside Japanese, reflective of the parallel community that has grown up around Call And Response over the years and also of the way the albums drew not only from the label’s own artists but also friends and fans. Of the two albums, Party in My Heart is the more downbeat, drawing mostly from quite introspective indie acts for its covers, with Tete+Shon’s take on The Postal Service’s This Place is a Prison making a fairly bald statement on locked down life and Filipina artist Mariah Reodica’s cover of Silver Jews’ Random Rules channeling some of the sorrow many of us still felt over the 2019 death of David Berman. Gold Star, meanwhile, comes across as the first collection’s sunnier, sillier sibling with covers drawing from more mainstream, more uptempo sources, although with a similar mix of straight and deviant approaches to the original material.
(Albums can be downloaded for free, along with a variety of other material, from Call And Response’s Help Our Local Music Spots page, which also accepts donations that will be shared between the three spots we are focusing on.)

Call And Response Records · Gold Star

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Indiepop roundup (Summer 2020)

Tangingugun – Yasui Jumon
Matsumoto, Nagano-based Tangingugun typically trade in laid-back pop melodies delivered through a hazy filter of psychedelic-tinted guitar distortion, the male-female twin vocal interplay between Saori Nakamura and Masashiro Nimi adding an enriching layer of texture to the sound — sometimes trading lines, others intermingled as harmonies, and on Kiri wa Hagureta slipping easily between the two. While there are moments where things step up to a bouncier tempo, as on second track Koumi-machi, the prevailing atmosphere is one of quietly sophisticated, summery melancholy.

Puffyshoes – I Might Be In Love
I wrote about this EP for the Undrcurrents blog’s Bandcamp roundup in June, singling out the simple economy of Puffyshoes’ songwriting in how they create ultra-short lo-fi pop nuggets by focusing in on the hooks and rarely getting diverted once the point has been made. I Might Be in Love also sees the band playing around with other songwriters’ material, as on their joyously ragged-edged cover of The Strangeloves’ I Want Candy, and it’s testament to Puffyshoes’ own songwriting that they can flit between the two seamlessly.

Sloppy Joe – Waiting For The Night Begins
It feels strange to be writing about Sloppy Joe almost ten years after their first album, With Kisses Four, with the same mixture of irony and giddy joy and with almost the same words, but here I am and here is Waiting For The Night Begins. And really it’s like not a moment had passed, which is to say that from the bat it sounds like the meticulous and loving work of a passionately devoted Smiths tribute band. To leave it at that assessment alone would be more dismissive than Sloppy Joe deserve though, and they wear their jangly 1980s indiepop influences so proudly, their love for the sounds, the tone, the inflections and melodic habits of the era running far deeper than Morrissey and Marr — fans of Aztec Camera, The Pale Fountains, early Orange Juice, The Monochrome Set and plenty more will frequently find themselves in a familiar place. Above all, the craftsmanship underlying these songs and their attention to detail is spellbinding, sweeping the listener up in the band’s obvious love for the music — originality be damned.

Half Sports – Intelligence and Delicious
Intelligence and Delicious is Half Sports’ first album since 2014’s Mild Elevation, although a couple of 7-inches have appeared in the meantime, and the propulsive opening Missing the Piece of my Miseries shows the band still have their peculiar cocktail of energetic melancholy, combining punkish 1970s powerpop with shoegazey scuzz and distortion, with the album taking a turn towards the hazier end of that spectrum on Emperor Soy Sauce and leaning on the rockier end on Isolated Facts.

Morningwhim – Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes
The first of a couple of new releases by Aichi Prefecture’s Morningwhim, this cassette single is perhaps the more immediately striking of the two, with Talking To Myself in particular pushing all the right bittersweet buttons from its heartache chord changes to the slight rough edges of the vocals’ celestial 4AD harmonies. That’s not to diminish the other side, Smoke From Cigarettes, though, which carries a similar scuzzy, jangly garage-shoegaze energy with just as much assurance. The cover art suggests a lingering influence from Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but from the evidence of this, Morningwhim have plenty to offer in their own right.

Morningwhim – Most Of the Sun Shines
In addition to the wonderful Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes cassette single, Morningwhim also released this 7-inch this spring, with a cleaner, less fuzz-inflected sound, the title track setting an acoustic guitar groove against a haunting synth string backdrop, while B-side Wandering turns up the jangle and chime. This single makes for more of a low-key introduction to the band than the cassette, but demonstrates that their sweetly melodic guitar pop songwriting talents run deep.

Various Artists – Miles Apart Records presents “Moments”
Drenched in nostalgia for times of which most of the featured musicians are too young to have their own memories, this cassette compilation from Osaka-based Miles Apart Records sits somewhere between indiepop in its classic, jangly, Byrds-influenced British 1980s roots and the more recent smooth, soft-focus synth strain where the indiepop venn diagram crosses over with city pop. At the murkier, more garage-influenced end are the likes of Pale Beach and Superfriends, whose respective entries Deadbeat and Fake Flowers have a reassuringly cheap, indie or alt-rock edge to their own particular brand of nostalgia, while Pictured Resort lie at the other extreme, their song Comfortable bittersweet and bathed in soft neon. An interesting entry is Cairophenomenons’ Spring (Moments ver.), its jangly, reverb-soaked guitar pop base elements employed to ends that play out with the sort of VHS-haunted atmosphere that other bands here use synths to evoke, and in the end, the sharper edges this setup gives them to work with helps to offset the cloying mellow their more synthetic peers often veer into.

Chris Jack – Miles to Go
Based in Oita in Kyushu, Chris Jack has a certain low-key notoriety as the guitarist and vocalist of garage rock band The Routes, but in this solo album he trades in the explicitly retro for a sound better characterised as classic with music in a timeless singer-songwriter tradition that could have been from any decade in the past fifty or more years. There’s a refreshing sense of space and warmth to the recording, aided by understated arrangements that may subtly underscore a phrase with organ here and there but mainly work to give the vocals and guitar lines space to walk their gently affecting paths.

Letters To Annika – Letters To Annika EP
Letters to Annika is the name under which Azusa Suga, better known from Tokyo indie rock band For Tracy Hyde, records solo work from his room, with this EP being mostly born out of the semi-lockdown conditions of pandemic Tokyo. Perhaps because of the speed and lo-fi recording conditions under which most of these songs were written and produced, during those curious weeks in April where the pandemic-led disruption to life was as much an interesting shift in perspective as a source of fear, there’s a lightness to this EP that feels both refreshing and somehow restless. Manifesting not only in the faintly washed out, shoegaze-tinged sound but also in the almost panicked urgency of the cranked-up motorik rhythms of songs like Love Song, Tidal and Wavelength, Letters to Annika mixes its reverb-drenched polaroid indiepop nostalgia with an immediacy or even urgency. Also worth attention is the non-EP single Summercrush, released in July, which makes an interesting companion to Letters to Annika, taking the EP’s fuzz and jangle and bringing in an on-trend wash of almost vaporwavesque VHS synth.

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Punk roundup (Summer 2020)

With the remarkable increase in new music releases finding their way onto the web since the COVID-19 pandemic cut off or restricted live outlets for bands to get their music out to people, it’s been a struggle to keep on top of it all. Punk bands in particular thrive in a live environment, but there’s been a lot of new releases keeping things alive on the noisy side (including a couple from my own label, which I’m not going to be ashamed about sharing here too). With that in mind, here’s a roundup of some of the releases that from the first half (or two thirds or whatever) of this year.

The MSGS – Ghost
Based in Fukuoka, although with guitar/vocal “Mr. Paal” recently relocated to Korea, The MSGS specialise in three-minute blasts of pop-punk that find a neat balance between clean harmonies with razor-cut guitar buzz and just enough of a rough Get Up Kids edge to retain the natural feeling of a band playing the songs together in a room. This means that while songs like opener September Sky are as effective a shot-in-the-arm of hyper-efficient melodic punk as you’ll find anywhere, when the band ease off the gas and give the songs a bit more space to breathe, there’s a mature pop songwriting heart beating there, with third track Victoria in particular embodying the best of both worlds. (Album will be released on August 19th)

Daiei Spray – Behind the Wall
Raucous, punk rock in a Hüsker Dü vein, Daiei Spray’s Behind the Wall is a deliriously rough buggy ride through ramshackle harmonies, distortional detours and rebel yells, from (at least in part) Tokyo’s always reliable Debauch Mood label (who released the My Society Pissed 12-inch also featured on this page). The lyrics ricochet back and forth between Japanese and English anti-authoritarian sloganeering with a thread of almost self-help positive thinking for the rebel masses, while despite the music’s rough-and-ready delivery, there’s also a willingness on songs like Overdone to play with more complex or unpredictable dynamics.

getageta – EP + 7 songs & Hell
This collection of tracks originally recorded around 2013-2014 seems to represent the complete recorded output of this thrillingly unhinged, band. I already reviewed this album as part of the Undrcurrents blog’s second Bandcamp roundup in June, so have a look over there for more of my thoughts.

My Society Pissed – Stomach
Another release featured in my contribution to the Undrcurrents blog’s second Bandcamp roundup in June, this cassette EP by My Society Pissed helped make April a particularly productive month for the band, with their 12-inch also coming out around the same time. A short but versatile blast of off-kilter punk rock, it’s a powerful introduction to the band.

Born Shit Stirrers – Lester
From song titles like Old Punks Are All Cunts and Fuck My Fucking Life you wouldn’t think it, but Lester is in many ways a cheerier, more lighthearted, more functional version of Born Shit Stirrers than they’ve shown us on any of their previous albums. The short, incoherent punk punches to the face are all present and familiar to anyone who’s encountered the band before (despite the promise of its title, the song Two Minutes Back In Hartlepool doesn’t even make it to 40 seconds), but musically the palette is wider, making room for cheesy rock solos, laid-back interludes and even the treacherous territory of pop in places. This isn’t a retreat from the band’s hardcore principles though, so much as a more effective expression of what the band always were. The machine gun etiquette of Born Shit Stirrers’ rage was always self-mocking, with the band themselves as much the butt of the joke for their whirlwinds of impotent fury as the petty grievances of life that they railed against were. On Lester, the band are still losers and scumbags, but we’re all brought just a little bit more in on the joke — and as a result, maybe it’s a little easier to see the squalid Born Shit Stirrer in ourselves.

Sassya- / VACANT – Sassya- x VACANT split
Harsh post-hardcore abrasions juxtaposing explosions of effects-drenched guitar and panic-wrought vocals with tight, sparse, intricate rhythms define Sassya’s approach on the first two tracks of this split EP. Vacant bring a heavier, riff-driven grind to their two tracks, but nonetheless share some if the same mathematical repetition and angular dynamics with their disc-mates. The result is a brutal and caustic sounding EP with music underscored by intricacy and intelligence.

M.A.Z.E. – Tour Tape 2020
This cassette EP was initially meant to support a split tour with US post-punk/no wave band Warm Bodies, which was cancelled due to the onset of Covid chaos this spring. The EP, made of six one-minute shots of brittle, post-punk-tinged garage recordings, has the muddy, fleeting feel of a moment of live energy captured on tape, and looking back over past releases this “this is us, this is what you get” simplicity seems to be the space that the band feel most comfortable in.

LLRR – < = >
Kansai-based LLRR’s background pulls in connections to bands including Tokyo’s Otori, Kobe’s O’Summer Vacation among others, and listeners familiar with those bands will feel get a sense of where LLRR are coming from immediately from the hyperactive, jittery rhythms and Minami Yokota’s shrill chatter that kick off opening track Shūmatsu no Fool. This EP uses those familiar sharp post-punk slashes, wandering bass lines, effects-enriched guitar textures and unpredictable rhythms to carve its own path between the experimental and downright pop. All of which makes < = > an extremely impressive debut, albeit one currently with no physical release, means to purchase online, or full lineup to play live with. The whole EP is available on subscription services though, for those who have access to them.

My Society Pissed – Locked Room
In addition to their Stomach cassette EP, this April also saw My Society Pissed release this six-song EP which expands on the band’s tortured, deviant take on punk rock. Opening song Circle Dancing sets things up with its relentless, doom-laden bass line and scratchy, discordant guitars, while Volcanic Reaction kicks things into a more frenetic pace, while retaining some of the scratchy, disconcerting internal sonic disorder. Throughout the record, the band walk a line between arty post-punk deviation and a core of raw, Stooges-like 1970s rock’n’roll riffs and thrills.

illMilliliter / TG.Atlas – 900%
The first of a couple of releases that I’ve worked on through my Call And Response label here, so think of this less as a review than as just my own insider’s take. This split EP comes from a similar place to the Sassya-/Vacant split earlier on in this article, with both bands taking a post-hardcore approach, playing with the juxtaposition between intricately constructed arrangements and blasts of harsh guitar noise and distortion. Of the two, Tokyo’s illMillliliter take the more precise and minimal approach, the opening Short Sleeper building a menacing quiet/loud dynamic while Powerpoint is uncompromisingly fast and furious, if no less brutally sharp. Hokkaido band TG.Atlas slash their way across the canvas in a more expressionistic fashion, with a similar consciousness of and willing to play with the spaces inside the music, but less mathematical in how they unleash the storms of sonic violence across it all.

jailbird Y – Secret Code Y
Another release from my own Call And Response label, this single by Jailbird Y was originally recorded while on tour in Taiwan last year (the cover photo is of the entrance to Taipei underground record store Senko Issha) and released as a fundraiser for Tokyo live venue Moonstep. The opening Y War combines hyperactive almost bubblegum new wave delivery with hardcore energy, while the second track, Love Letter (a new recording of a song that the previous lineup of the band recorded for their 2017 Sex Trip EP) comes in darker and more portentous, before the band’s anarchic, frenzied approach to song arrangements takes over and wreaks its customary mayhem.

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Top 25 Releases of 2019: Extra

There was of course a lot of Japanese music in 2019 that I didn’t listen to or that otherwise got left out of my top 25 rundown. There were a couple of releases in particular that I liked a lot and on another day might have been included, so first up, here’s a look at a couple of my additional favourites.

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CD, Holiday Records, 2019

Bulbs of Passion – Low Life
Tokyo indie rock band Bulbs of Passion have been plugging away in the background of the local scene for the best part of the past decade, with a solid catalogue of songs, although as far as I know the only available recording of them before this new EP was 2016’s The Very Best of Bulbs of Passion. For a band named after a Dinosaur Jr. song, Bulbs of Passion’s music has an unexpectedly light touch, the title track soaring out of the traps, kept aloft by billowing reverb, while Slap bounces along poppily on its off-beat. The closing Hurt, meanwhile nods to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey before once again being launched skyward, powered by the band’s seemingly endless reserves of giddy enthusiasm.

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Cassette, Instant Tunes, 2019

Yokoscum – Last Month’s Music
An incessant hiss of distortion that may have originated in a guitar, an eerie throbbing electronic pulse, some devotional wailing, metallic hints of a pop melody, occasional gasps of confused desperation. DJ, event organiser and experimental musician Yokoscum’s Last Month’s Music cassette EP is an intriguing little creation, combining lo-fi noise and industrial with vaguely religious sounding mantras and letting the repetitive, insistent nature of both feed each other. The five untitled tracks on this EP are more explorations of an idea than songs exactly, but the results are still interesting and not without a sense of playfulness and fun.


For my own Call And Response label, 2019 was a relatively low-key year, with three new releases (and a fourth that didn’t officially come out until January 2020). As usual, I don’t include releases I helped put out in my own best-of-the-year rundowns because it’s difficult to judge and rank something I was involved in pressing and promoting against other people’s music. Naturally, though, I think all these releases are great, so here’s a quick look at 2019 from Call And Response’s perspective.

First up, there was synth-punk trio Jebiotto’s split 7-inch single with the excellent UK-based post-punk band Treeboy & Arc, which we released in collaboration with British label Come Play With Me. In addition to the record, we also made an extremely silly short sci-fi film featuring the band battling robot doubles created by an evil live venue owner.

In May, we released another international split, this time a CD EP featuring Filipina riot grrrl band The Male Gaze and Tokyo noise-punks P-iPLE (who incidentally share a vocalist with Jebiotto). To promote this EP, we brought The Male Gaze over for an eventful and extremely fun one-week tour.

Then in October, Looprider came out with their fourth album and first full-length release, Ouroboros. From the start, Looprider have been combining shoegaze and noise-rock-influenced effects-pedal textures with metal and doom riffs, employing a wide variety of approaches from one release to the next. This album is perhaps the purest expression of this essence though, barging back and forth between lush, layered towers of textured rock and grinding garage-metal riffery.


2020 has already started off with some good new releases, and some very interesting stuff on the horizon from Panicsmile, Half Sports, Kasuppa, Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots among others. From Call And Response, we’ve just put out another split 7-inch featuring Tokyo post-hardcore band illMilliliter and Hokkaido’s TG.Atlas, with further releases planned. Whether it’s another year before I update this site again or if I somehow manage to keep on top of new releases a bit better remains to be seen. Hopefully, I’ll manage to be better.

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Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 5-1

Puffyshoes - Flower

Cassette, self-released, 2019

5. Puffyshoes – Flower
Released together with a home made zine, this cassette collection of seven rough-edged 60s girl group-via-Ramones pop tunes (clocking in at a bit over nine minutes, with only the opening Let’s Fall in Love scraping past one and a half minutes in length) is maximum DIY in both its execution and its wider, thematic meta-nostalgia for the already nostalgic sounds of past generations of indie/twee-pop tape-dwellers. Puffyshoes inhabit their fantasy world so completely that it never feels less than completely real, and the devastatingly simple, infectiously catchy, tremblingly fragile pop tunes that make up this EP drive that point home more effectively than I ever could.

Groundcover. - ██████

CD, Less Than TV, 2019

4. Groundcover. – ██████
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Throughout their multiple shifting, contracting and expanding lineups, Groundcover have been one of Tokyo’s most consistently interesting noise-rock bands, combining roots in hardcore and post-Boredoms junk with a drift into expansive sonic territory. ██████ is the culmination of that evolution, retaining the raw riffs and explosive energy that characterised their hardcore days but wedding it to via the rhythmically tight, increasingly dub-influenced sound system band leader Ataraw Mochizuki has built up around him over the years. The result is an album that builds up immense, triumphant, richly layered walls of sound, deployed with impressive control.

OOIOO - Nijimusi

CD/vinyl, Shochy/Thrill Jockey, 2019

3. OOIOO – Nijimusi
Despite having been at it for the best part of the past 25 years, OOIOO remain as inventive and inspired as ever, lurching dementedly from one idea to another, linking the experimental extremes of post-punk and progressive rock with the sort of drunken fluidity that can only really come from total mastery of their oddball craft, with echoes of both Gong and the Raincoats in equal measures colouring this endlessly delightful album. It’s wild, fun, fundamentally dedicated to the unexpected, and overall a powerful and accessible exploration of completely unrestrained musical imagination.

 

Takeshi Yamamoto - Somewhere

Download, self-released, 2019

2. Takeshi Yamamoto – Somewhere
Sometimes it feels like Takeshi Yamamoto is singlehandedly holding the Fukuoka music scene together, playing in what seems to be at least half the bands in the city (Macmanaman, Sea Level, Kelp, Sacoyans and more), not to mention DJing, doing design work for fellow Kyushu scenesters and generally turning out an endless stream of new releases and collaborations. Despite all this, Somewhere is Yamamoto’s first solo release, and it’s gorgeous. Composed mostly of ambient and drone-based soundscapes, it carries a lot of similarities with some of Yamamoto’s work with post rock collective Sea Level, but where Sea Level endlessly circle eclectically around an implied but never quite described centre, Somewhere is far more comfortable in its sonic identity. Between tones and drones that shimmer like silk in the breeze, Yamamoto picks out gentle guitar melodies here, introduces rippling sequencer patterns there, builds rich or even dirty layers competing sounds, or pares them away to sparse near-nothing, water trickling quietly at the edge of hearing.

 

Former Airline - Rewritten Memories by the Future

Cassette, Moss Archive, 2019

1. Former Airline – Rewritten Memories by the Future
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Released as a limited edition cassette in February, Japanese artist Former Airline’s Rewritten Memories by Future is an album born out of a cauldron of 1980s experimental and underground influences but doesn’t remain bound by them. Crash and Learn recalls the claustrophobic rhythms of Liaisons Dangereuses, drawing out and developing the origins of acid house from its chatter of electronic bleeps. Meanwhile, the artist’s love of krautrock and shoegaze – ever present on the album – is expressed most strikingly on the gorgeous closing The Angel Between Two Walls. Through the album, analogue glitches, drones and intrusions of noise act as the cement holding this sonic structure together.

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Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 10-6

O’Summer Vacation - Wicked Heart

CD, self-released, 2019

10. O’Summer Vacation – Wicked Heart
Navigating multiple lineups over the past few years, 2019 finally saw the chronically unsteady O’Summer Vacation finally unleashed an album’s worth of their particular brand of brutally short, jagged nuggets of breakneck bass-led shrieking. If you’ve seen the band live, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Wicked Heart. There’s a clear parallel with Melt-Banana here, although it’s the sparser 1990s Melt-Banana that O’Summer Vacation recall more than the richly layered guitars, blast beats and electronics of their more recent material. With no guitar to thicken up the sound, it’s left to Hirofumi Miki’s bass to carry much of the sonic burden, coaxing all manner of unexpected sounds from his instrument with the help of an array of effects and loop pedals. The results are a fierce, frenetic and raw twenty minutes of propulsive, surf-tinged bubblegum hardcore.


Gotou - Gotou

CD, self-released, 2019

9. Gotou – Gotou
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Hailing from Hokkaido, Gotou did what so many promising Japanese underground bands do and released a marvellous album before immediately going on indefinite hiatus. It’s a shame, because this album really is something special. Drawing from the gloomier end of post-punk and German new wave, the vocals scrape the lower end of the singer’s range in a way that pays clear homage to Malaria! (the band declare this openly in their Twitter profile and even cover Malaria!’s song Your Turn to Run on the album) but while it may not be blessed with an overabundance of originality, this album stands out as something distinctive in the Japanese underground scene.

Soloist Anti Pop Totalization - S.A.P.T.

Vinyl, Debauch Mood, 2019

8. Soloist Anti Pop Totalization – S.A.P.T.
(Text taken from my personal blog)

This Tokyo-based artist takes his cues from the sound of early Mute Records artists like Fad Gadget and The Normal with his relentless machine rhythms, dentist drill synth intrusions and squirts of analogue electronic interference. About half the album is made up of experimental instrumental tracks, and where vocals emerge, they do so as a series of distant, lo-fi, Mark E Smith barks and utterances. There are moments too, on songs like Depression (Part 2) and Other, where the music slips into a more accessible and even pop groove, and this helps S.A.P.T. take the listener on a surprisingly diverse journey through its synthetic dystopia.


Folk Enough - Lover Ball

CD, Junk Lab, 2019

7. Folk Enough – Lover Ball
(Text taken from my personal blog)
This album by Fukuoka-based indie rockers Folk Enough is absolutely horrible to listen to, taking the lo-fi recording aesthetic to the sort of scuzzy extremes it hasn’t seen since Twin Infinitives-era Royal Trux. Swimming around in this sonic murk, however, are moments of fragile beauty that recall Lou Barlow at his most beaten-down, and moments of rock’n’roll swagger that hint at Jon Spencer at his most explosive. Across the whole album lies a sort of confused, alcoholic fug that means you’re never sure whether what you’re listening to is genius or a terrible mistake. Folk Enough’s secret is that it’s both.

Ignition Block M - Ignition Block M

Cassette, self-released,2019

6. Ignition Block M – Ignition Block M
One of vanishingly few new bands currently jolting underground audiences out of their jaded inertia, Ignition Block M share some roots with the excellent and sadly missed Pinprick Punishment (not to mention fellow Pinprick refugees My Society Pissed) and assault you from a similar position of ferociously energetic, riff-slashing punk rock with few complications but just enough jagged, art-swagger to keep keep the music from feeling to complacent in its genre. Add in a powerful, charismatic vocalist and a tight, propulsive rhythm section and you have the makings of potential breakout underground stars.


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Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 15-11

transkam - ep2

Casseette, Zot Redcords, 2018

15. Transkam – EP2
OK, so I’m cheating a bit with this one, as it’s a late-2018 release that I didn’t get my hands on until deep into 2019, but I didn’t want to let a new Transkam fall through the cracks. On this cassette EP, progressive/post-rock trio Transkam expand on the trancelike, metronomic sound of their 2016 album Blueshade of the Omegasound, starting out more or less where they left off with the track Gnosis, before pushing away with the swirling, shoegazey Ex, and then pulling back into something far sparser, subtler and more daring with the seven-minute Mathvoid. Between these three tracks, Transkam scope out fresh territory within their familiar instrumental setup, exploring not only richer sonic textures but also making more effective use of space.

As an additional note, not listed on the track listing, but somehow downloading together with the others as a fourth track in the version I bought was also the unexpected surprise of the band’s achingly romantic cover of the icy-sweet Ai no Kobune wa Uchikudakarenai by Japan’s greatest unknown band, Mir (full disclosure, an earlier mix of this song was released on a 2015 tribute album via my own Call And Response label). I’m not sure whether this additional download is exclusive to the cassette edition of the album, but in any case, hearing the song here in the context of Transkam’s more customary sound made for a disconcerting but charming swerve to the left at the end of the EP.


the neso - my world

CD, self-released, 2019

14. The Neso – My World
Despite almost completely changing their lineup since 2018’s New Me EP, The Neso are still rocking the same line in Au Pairs/Delta 5-style post-punk with no loss in quality. The xylophone that they had already introduced on a couple of songs now stands alongside all the other instruments on a more or less equal footing — never really feeling completely necessary, but at the same time adding a unique element to a sound that otherwise draws from a lot of familiar elements. Most importantly, The Neso’s core elements of blank, disaffected vocals combined with surprisingly catchy hooks, choruses and harmonies are here in force, and their streak of releasing top quality EPs on an annual basis is still going strong.


deracine - deracine

CD, Mistake Studio, 2019

13. Deracine – Deracine
The appearance of this third album from oddball hardcore punks Deracine (or “Delasine” as some places are now spelling their name) and their first in more than ten years last autumn was a welcome surprise and they don’t seem a day older than when they last left us. Eleven micro-bursts of camp, bass-led, sampling-assisted hardcore in nineteen minutes, containing a heady mixture of anti-consumerist, anti-establishment agit-prop and wilfully dumb shitposting nonsense, this album (which confusingly has the same eponymous title as the band’s first album) is the rush of joyous, dadaist, lo-fi, anarchist party energy we all need.


the omelettes - the omeelettes

CD, self-released, 2019

12. The Omelettes – The Omelettes
Originally from Oita in Kyushu, I initially had The Omelettes down as essentially an indiepop band, and the selections of songs they’ve chosen to represent themselves with online tends to lead the curious listener to that conclusion, but on this belated self-titled and self-released debut album they reveal themselves as something stranger than that. There is a rich seam of fairly straightforward 90s alt-rock in here, but it’s offset by something more experimental and rhythmically unpredictable — a dynamic that’s at work in the two competing sections of the song Mitsubachi, one part stop-start staccato guitars, the other a fuzz-laden indie rock chorus. In a music scene where pop-orientated acts tend to be very pop and experimental acts tend to be very experimental, it’s a rare delight to see a group like The Omelettes who treat the more offbeat aspects of their arrangements exactly the same way as they treat the moments of outright pop (even if they hesitate to share the former online). It’s interesting to note the role of Hajime Yoshida of Fukuoka-based avant-rock legends Panicsmile in recording the album, and the way his own band’s work often embodies a struggle between pop and experimental elements forms an interesting parallel with what The Omelettes are doing here (albeit from a far more experimental starting point), but on this album the precise recipe of their sound remains very much their own.


Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 - Trick Passport

CD, Dizcollage, 2019

11. Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 – Trick Passport
Squeaking over the line at the end of the year, Nagoya duo Noiseconcrete x 5chi5 released this fascinating remix album, in which a handful of beatmakers deliver their own takes on Nx3’s songs. This album could have been an exercise in unnecessary and untidy self-indulgence, but the results are uniformly intriguing, with 3chi5’s ghostly, witchy vocals working as a constant element around which a diverse range of rhythmical approaches — from skittering, minimal beats to industrial and EBM to drum’n’bass — work their necromancy. 


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Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 20-16

V:A - Nicfit:MAZE

Vinyl, Episode Sounds, 2019

20. V/A – Nicfit/M.A.Z.E.
This split EP features two of Japan’s leading purveyors of energetic, darkly leftfield punk rock and both bands shine. With Nagoya quartet Nicfit’s contributions, the guitars yowl and scrape at your eardrums as the songs barrel breakneck towards their conclusion, bass pounding out an atmosphere of doom. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s M.A.Z.E. come in all scuzzy, slashing guitars and post-punk jitters, then just as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone. A breathless, electrifying seven and a half minutes.


Towel - 「」

CD, self-released, 2019

19. Towel – 「」
Hamamatsu-based avant-indie band Towel’s new EP crams six songs into ten minutes, blasting you alternately with bouncy melodicism, jagged post-punk guitars with atonal yowling, and off-kilter, Sebadoh-esque songsmithery. On some level, you can make out parallels with a band like Siamese Cats in the songwriting sensibility, but Towel have way more ragged edges that they seem to have no interest in sanding away. And rightly so, because on this EP the edges are what give it its charm.


Otoboke Beaver - Itekoma Hits

Vinyl/CD, Damnably, 2019

18. Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits
Kyoto garage-trash quartet Otoboke Beaver are currently the Japanese band that people overseas have heard of, and their growing status outside Japan is all the more remarkable for the fact that they’ve managed to do it all within the restrictive limitations of touring while apparently holding down jobs with typical Japanese holiday allowances. Itekoma Hits is half a compilation, gathering tracks from recent Japanese releases together with a handful of new and re-recordings, and if you’re already familiar with their particular style of breakneck garage-punk with hairpin rhythmical turns, you’ll be well prepared for this. But when they jettison the chatterbox vocal stream with shouted choruses and take a turn for the melodic, they reveal the songwriting heart of a J-pop group amid the crafted chaos, in a way reminiscent of Kansai-area forbears Midori. With 14 tracks in about 27 minutes, Itekoma Hits is dense with ferocious yet deftly structured oddball punk rock and packed with unexpected twists.


The Routes - Tune Out Switch Off Drop In

Vinyl, Groovie Records, 2019

17. The Routes – Tune Out Switch Off Drop In
Calling The Routes part of Japan’s garage rock scene isn’t quite accurate, as the band seem quite content sequestered away in Oita, rarely playing live and having very little to do with the core Back from the Grave/Garage Rockin’ Craze scene in Tokyo. And they stand out from most of that scene too, by having much stronger and more sophisticated songwriting. The opening The Ricochet might veer a little too close to Oasis for some tastes (let’s be charitable and say it has echoes of Ladies And Gentlemen…-era Spiritualized instead) but overall, the feeling recalls the sounds of the 1980s Nuggets revival, more along the lines of Chris Stamey, Dream Syndicate or the Fleshtones (maybe even a hint of Ian McNabb and The Icicle Works in there too in songs like Just How it Feels) gifting the music a lively, sharply-cut, hook-heavy energy.


Otori - Digitalized Human Nature

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2019

16. Otori – Digitalized Human Nature
Where Otori’s 2014 debut album I Wanna Be Your Noise was loosely themed around ideas of communication, many of the songs on their 2019 follow-up Digitalized Human Nature — from the opening Encode Jungle to the closing Neuromancer — are concerned in one way or another with being human in a digital world. The arrival of new bass player Tsuda (of psychedelic rock band Owarikara) has also seen a shift in sound from the propulsive post-punk of their early years to something more rhythmically hyperactive, with vocalist Sae working more quirky, squeaky melodies into the songs and the introduction of more synth sounds (at least in some cases seemingly being worked Robert Fripp-style through Hino’s guitar). Digitalized Human Nature is an extremely busy album that retains and expands on Otori’s post-punk roots but is also intent on causing discomfort, overloading you with contradictory sensory input to the point where you don’t know where the man ends and the machine begins.

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Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 25-21

It’s always hard to tell if it’s the scene as a whole or just me as a listener, but it feels as if music in Japan is becoming ever more fragmented and compartmentalised. It goes through cycles, for sure, but the impression I get is that it’s at a particularly introverted point in one of those cycles at the moment. We see it going out to shows, where bands increasingly play in the same venues with the same kinds of lineups, and I can feel it happening to me too. Where, in the past, I would have paid some glancing attention to recent pop releases, the only J-pop album I listened to this year was Babymetal’s Metal Galaxy, which I couldn’t get through more than a minute of. In the past, it was interesting to look through similar year-end roundups by Make Believe Melodies and Beehype and see where some crossover might be, but this year neither of their lists made any impact on me; it feels like we’re all in our bubbles (although Tokyo Dross continues to listen quite widely). I’m pretty comfortable in my bubble though, and the nature of the Internet is that it’s often more useful if people know what they’re going to get. In this case, what you’re going to get is a view of 2019 from a pretty militantly underground/alternative perspective, with increasing numbers of limited-run cassette and CD-R EPs, but even within those limitations there were plenty of new Japanese releases that I enjoyed in 2019.

va - Noise Three City Story

Cassette, Instant Tunes, 2019

25. V/A – Noise Three City Story

Noise Three City Story is a compilation cassette EP featuring, as the title implies, one band each from three different cities. Tokyo act Soloist Anti Pop Totalization, whose Instant Tunes label released this, along with a couple more of this year’s most interesting releases, bookends the EP with his Daniel Miller-esque minimalist synths, while Nagoya’s Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 unleash five minutes of glorious industrial noise topped with 3chi5’s diving, twisting and swooping vocals. The third contributing act is Hernear from Sendai, an electronic project of Kamata from post-punk band Waikiki Champions, which channels DAF-style EBM through thumping techno. The whole EP is brutally lo-fi, but the raucous industrial pulse running through it gives it a fierce energy that can’t help but appeal.



Hazy Sour Cherry - Tour de Tokyo

CD/download, Hazy/Damnably,2019

24. Hazy Sour Cherry – Tour de Tokyo
On Tour de Tokyo, indiepopsters Hazy Sour Cherry deliver 25 minutes of extremely effective, bouncy Shimokitazawa-esque garage-twee that feels like bands in the 1990s imitating cassette indie acts of the 80s imitating beat music of the 1960s. Coming out from UK label Damnably, who were also behind Otoboke Beaver’s 2019 album Itekoma Hits, it’s representative of a growing trend of Japanese groups bypassing the moribund local indie market and connecting with fans via overseas labels (and presumably-re-importing whatever buzz they get and banking it with local audiences), and it’s easy to see how these sunny, energetic two-minute blasts of ramshackle guitar pop are well placed to appeal to audiences both at home and abroad.


Former Airline - Nu Creative Dreads

CD-R, self-released, 2019

23. Former Airline – Nu Creative Dreads
One of two excellent albums released in 2019 by sonic bedroom scientist Former Airline, Nu Creative Dreads is the artist’s take on a dub album, albeit filtered through his own particular setup, featuring banks of synthesisers and cassette loops. With its hyperactive basslines and beats against a background cacophony of psychedelic guitar and synth squiggles, this instrumental album is a disorientating listen at times, but a rich one nonetheless.

Demon Altar - Demon Altar

Cassette, Instant Tunes, 2019

22. Demon Altar – Demon Altar
Emerging from the cinders of Tokyo post-punk/new wave stalwarts You Got a Radio, Demon Altar trade in scuzzy, distortion-drenched, gothic post-punk that leans into the darker fringes of You Got A Radio’s later work and pushes it further into Birthday Party/Jesus & Mary Chain/Joy Division territory, assisted in this general darkening of tone by the insistent drum machine beats. There’s still a sort of melancholy romance to the melodies though, the guitars swirling around the baritone vocals as they intone their cryptic or just plain indistinct mantras. It’s wilfully rough, but there’s something infectious in the combination of the beats’ relentless, driving, robot energy and the music’s insistent, melodramatic air of gothic gloom.

tawings - tawings

CD, Space Shower, 2019

21. Tawings – Tawings
Tawings are one of the hot new things in Japanese indie right now, with a handful of singles to their name and a lot of the right people as fans (indie royalty DYGL and rising stars Luby Sparks among them), so this debut album from upper-tier indie label Space Shower puts them in a strong position going into 2020. The opening Statice will come as a bit oif a surprise to anyone familiar with their previous material’s shambling yet angular Delta 5-isms, coming in overglazed with Cranberries-does-dreampop synth-laden lushness, but the Devo-esque Poodles swiftly brings a much needed dose of nonsense to proceedings. Invisible still shamelessly rips off The Cramps’ Human Fly, but Tawings have been playing it long enough that it feels like it belongs to them by now (plus songs that end with explosions are always good). Recent single Suisen is another mainstream-ready tune drenched in washes of lush synth, and honestly it’s pretty good, but the band still sound most themselves when they’re charting a ragged, discord-scattered route through brittle post-punk melodies Like UTM, Listerine, Hamburg, and the closing Dad Cry.

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Top 25 Releases of 2018: Extra

In addition to the albums and EPs covered by my, admittedly selective and only vaguely ranked, top 25 list, there were of course plenty of other releases I listened to and enjoyed. Fukuoka insult-punks Born Shit Stirrers put out another extremely fun album, Depressed Fathers Club, which featured a song namechecking me, titled Ian Martin Thinks You’re Shit. Synthpop/technopop duo Motocompo re-released their fantastic 2008 Chiptop Lips album towards the end of the year, while their all-boy “ska-electro” successor band (M)otocompo released their daffy new Yokoshima Borderline EP at the same time. Fukuoka-based operatic jazz-prog trio Kelp put out the fascinating Intake album, while there were some interesting cassette compilations in the alt-rock-themed Life Is Music and Tokyo indie event Rhyming Slang’s collaboration compilation with Korean indie collective Freshalwayson. There was plenty more that I either didn’t get a chance to listen to or that I’ve somehow forgotten in the swirl of events and noise that usually makes up my year.

My own Call And Response label also put out a couple of new releases, which for obvious reasons I didn’t feel right including in my personal ranking of best releases. However, since this site seems to be the only place on the Internet that covers this sort of Japanese art-punk, underground and experimental rock music with any real affection, I’m going to make a point of recommending them here because (like all Call And Response releases, natch) they’re both excellent albums.

car-55 cover

CD, Call And Response, 2018

Sea Level – Dictionary (Handwritten) – BUY HERE
In a review by Ele-king magazine, Sea Level were described as “centreless music”, which is to say music that doesn’t have an obvious, easy-to-define core identity but rather defines itself through the fluid, free-floating and dreamlike way it dances from idea to idea, pulled outwards in various directions by the diverse creative talents in the band, but nonetheless linked in a stream of consciousness. Musically, it’s in the zone that we can comfortably call post-rock in that it combines electronic music with progressive rock, with diversions into various other genres where appropriate, but that doesn’t do justice to the beauty of this record — less a linear journey than a hallucinatory, melancholy landscape that you’re left to explore freely by yourself.

CAR-54 jacket

CD, Call And Response, 2018

Velvet Ants – Entomological Souvenirs I – BUY HERE
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in these year-end countdown posts that 2018 was a great year for the loose category of sonically or rhythmically distorted experimental rock and (post)punk music I like to classify as noise-rock, and Velvet Ants by all rights should be considered an important part of that wave of great music. Recorded and mixed by Shinji Masuko of DMBQ (whose monumental Keenly also featured in my top albums list), Entomological Souvenirs I combines jittery rhythms, heavy riffs and ferocious Sonic Youthian freakouts, delivered with a disarmingly loose sort of confidence.Velvet Ants – Cicada (single edit)

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