Category Archives: Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach Reinhardt
Top 10 EPs & mini-albums

Top 20 albums (20-11)

Top 20 albums (10-1)

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

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

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (2) – Call And Response Records year in review

Among the top releases of 2017, I always avoid writing about anything on my own Call And Response label for obvious reasons. For equally obvious reasons, the music Call And Response puts out is also always among my favourite new music of the year (otherwise why would I go to the trouble of putting it out?) so I’m giving the label a page of its own to run through what was a very busy year in new releases:

Lo-shi – Ninjin

Lo-shi are an instrumental post-rock/electronic duo and Ninjin was the first of two albums they released in 2017 (the second was an equally excellent self-released CD/download called Moro-Q). Lo-shi’s music is characterised by eerie soundscapes and beats that range from skittering electronica to insistent, almost krautrock rhythms, while the melodies and tones combine washes of synth with theremin, Jew’s harp and Durutti Column-esque guitar.
(Buy the CD here)

Looprider – Umi

The second post-rock album Call And Response released in 2017 was this single 25-minute-long rock monster of a track by Looprider. Following on from the hardcore and noise-influenced Ascension and their pop/metal/shoegaze debut My Electric Fantasy, an instrumental prog rock epic may have seemed like another hard swerve in another direction, but it’s really a refinement of the same combination of sweet and heavy that the band have been exploring from the start.
(Buy the CD here)

P-iPLE – Do Do Do A Silly Travel By Bicycle Bicycle

This clumsily titled mini-album is a short-sharp-shock of scuzzy hardcore and no wave delivered with a playful and nonsensical sense of humour. The guitar sounds are tortured and glorious, the rhythms are breakneck, and vocalist Madca Kitabeppu (also of synth-punk trio Jebiotto) is a natural born rock star.
(Buy the CD here)

V/A – Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show

I don’t include Call And Response releases in my year-end rundowns, partly because no one would trust the lists if I did, and partly because I find it hard to assess music I’m this personally invested in against music I simply enjoy as a fan. This compilation, however, would definitely have been No.1 if I’d been including everything. It’s everything I love — skronky art-punk and noise-rock that channels the ragged creativity of the postpunk era while rarely resorting to direct pastiche. It also includes fantastic songs by most of my favourite bands in Japan, like Panicsmile, Melt-Banana, Hyacca, otori and more, so I’m not going to be ashamed in any way of saying that this is a fucking awesome album.
(Buy the CD here)

Sharkk – Be That Way

Sharkk is another way of saying Sean McGee, drummer from Looprider and Tropical Death. It’s also a convenient shorthand round these parts for a kind of sweetly sentimental, emo-tinged indie rock with gnarly, 90s alt-rock guitars. One of the few unashamedly melodic bands on the label at the moment, McGee deploys his tunesmithery in the service of a faintly self-effacing, rather ambivalent nostalgia for teen angst.
(Buy the cassette here)

Tropical Death – Modern Maze

Like Sharkk, there’s a sense of harking back to ‘90s indie rock in Tropical Death, although they take a more angular approach to their arrangements and a far more cynical approach to their lyrics. From the melodic title track to the post-hardcore rhythm workout Tribal, Tropical Death load their songs with hooks and little moments of invention that ensure every track takes you somewhere unexpected.
(Buy the cassette here)

Looprider – Ascension (cassette re-release)

Originally released as a limited edition CD in 2016, Ascension is Looprider’s take on hardcore and noise, a twenty-minute nuclear explosion of a record that starts and ends in squalls of pure noise but on the way takes you on a whirlwind tour of scratchy hardcore and the scuzzier fringes of Looprider’s more familiar metal-adjacent territory.
(Buy the cassette here)

illMilliliter – New Standard

The debut album by a Tokyo post-hardcore band featuring ex-members of Tacobonds and Imamon, dealing in frenetic, twisted guitars and tight, focussed, aggressive rhythms. illMilliliter are clearly influenced by bands like Shellac (Bob Weston worked on the album as mastering engineer), Slint and Fugazi, as well as Japanese acts like Panicsmile and possibly Number Girl/Zazen Boys, but there’s also an appreciation for sparseness and the spaces between sounds, which lifts New Standard above most Japanese punk and post-hardcore and makes them something worth playing special attention to.
(Buy the CD here)

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (1)

Every year when I write my top 20 Japanese music releases, there’s always a lot of good stuff that I leave out either because I didn’t hear it in time or because I just decided not to in the particular moment of compiling everything. And as always, I didn’t include any of my own Call And Response label’s releases, even though they were all excellent.

As well as my own releases and the other favourites that slipped through the net, there are a handful of other dedicated people out there cataloguing the best indie music Japan has to offer from their own particular perspectives Obviously their perspectives are all to varying degrees wrong (except where they agree with me, obviously), but if you’re wrong in the same way as them, you might find their 2017 rundowns of value.

In this first of three posts, I’ll be running quickly through some of the releases that missed out on my own top 20 but which might easily on another day have found their way in:

Born Shit Stirrers – I Hate Your Fucking Band

Based in Fukuoka and apparently on a sort of Wowbaggerian mission to slag off, one by one, everyone in the city, Born Shit Stirrers put out two albums in 2017, with Richard and Judy following in the summer. I’m singling out I Hate Your Fucking Band here mainly because of the title, but both albums are packed with fast, profane, utterly squalid, Anti-Nowhere League-esque punk rock smacks to the gob, featuring nothing in the way of subtlety, refinement or artistry.

V/A – Rhyming Slang Covers

The second Rhyming Slang compilation after 2016’s Rhyming Slang Tour Van compilation, this covers compilation sees some of the same bands, like DYGL, Yüksen Buyers House and Half Mile Beach Club, plus a host of new ones like the increasingly popular Luby Sparks and up-and-comers Tawings. With the exception of Nengu’s math rock take on Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, most of the tracks are pretty straightforward covers of vaguely hip classics from bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, New Order, Lou Reed and so on, but there’s a particular sort of value that can be gained from the peek they offer into the influences underscoring the younger end of the Tokyo indie scene.

Kuunatic – Kuurandia

Dropping right at the end of the year, this EP by Tokyo-based psychedelic trio Kuunatic is the ethnic transcendental music of a minimalist alien space tribe who worship Charles Hayward as a god.

The Routes – In This Perfect Hell

This site doesn’t cover a lot of garage rock because it’s a genre so rooted in the past and in its own retro revivalist scene that the usual tools I use to assess new music (what’s fresh about it? how does it stand out from its contemporaries?) would miss the point. It’s music that lives by its ability to sound the same as something else, to ape the past, to avoid challenging its contemporaries. So how can a garage rock band in 2017 Japan stand out? Basically by doing what The Routes did: writing a tonne of really good songs and playing them really well.

DYGL – Say Goodbye to Memory Den

The real superstars of the Tokyo indiepop scene, DYGL had a fantastic 2017, making it to one of the big stages at Fuji Rock, selling out a show at the Liquid Room, and releasing this fun, energetic full-length debut. The band are clearly deeply indebted to bands like The Libertines and The Strokes (Albert Hammond Jr. produced this album) but in the context of the Japanese music scene, the raucous, punkish energy that comes with those influences sets them apart from the soft-focus dreaminess of many of their peers.

In The Sun – El Energy

Coming out just at the end of 2016, this ferociously intense noise-rock album missed out on last year’s list simply because I didn’t get my hands on a copy until way too late. Like early Nisennenmondai performing from behind a battery of modular synths and effectors, In The Sun have all the krautrock and This Heat you could want, with all the sparseness replaced by a relentless barrage of joyous, angry noise.

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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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Top 20 releases of 2016: Intro

As any readers this site has somehow managed to retain may have spotted, updates have dried up over the past couple of years. The main reasons for that have been down to my finishing writing, editing and promoting my book, Quit Your Band! – Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground (released late 2016 from Awai Books) and my decision to spend half a year travelling around Japan by bicycle, documenting the local music scenes in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (partially written up on my Burn Your Hometown blog).

The other thing that’s kept me occupied has been my Call And Response Records label, which has been getting more and more active over the past couple of years. Last year we put out four new albums/EPs:

Looprider’s Ascension was a hardcore- and noise-influenced collection of raw, fast sonic violence.

Nagasaki art-punk trio Mechaniphone’s Uholic was a collection of quirky, pop-inflected tunes that come at you from a variety of rhythmical angles.

Tropical Death’s Thunder Island EP was a Cassette Store Day special, combining a Japanese underground background with ’90s post-hardcore/alt-rock influences.

Finally, Nakigao Twintail’s Ichijiku was an eclectic explosion of pop, surreal humour and teen angst.

With Looprider’s third album, the post-rock/progressive Umi, and instrumental electronic/psychedelic duo Lo-shi’s new Ninjin already out in 2017 and at least four more new releases in the works, the label is picking up the pace still further this year.

Nevertheless, with the end of my Strange Boutique column in The Japan Times this March, I have had more time for writing, and I’ve spent the last couple of months belatedly introspecting over the best and most interesting Japanese music of 2016. Whether anyone apart from me still cares about the Japanese underground music of a year that ended nearly six months ago is up for debate, but I’m doing it anyway.

The usual caveats apply. These releases have been selected from EPs, mini-albums and fill albums. I include compilations, but not singles, which I loosely classify as a disc with two or fewer tracks. There are experimental and psychedelic releases that may only include a single track of immense length, so obviously I make exceptions for those. I exclude anything Call And Response released, since I’m too close to it to be able to assess it critically in the same way I would something I didn’t have a hand in the production of (although obviously all four of our releases if last year would be right up there if I were ranking the music purely on what I love). The order of the ranking is by no means scientific subject to all sorts of competing considerations. Some are simply interesting ideas or good representations of something I think deserves to be represented, others are albums that I found myself engaging with on a creative or intellectual level, others are simply fun collections of songs.

There are lots of albums I enjoyed or appreciated that I didn’t include here but which on another day I might have, and there are still more I didn’t get a chance to listen to but which may well be worthy of inclusion. However, this is the list I came up with, so this is what I stuck to when writing it up. I’ll post the 20 reviews individually in a flurry of updates over the next few days.

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Interview: The Bathhouse Show

For those of you in Tokyo tomorrow (Saturday, February 13th), I recently did an interview with Ella Krivanek and Dorothy Siemens, who have put on this fascinating looking free art and music event at an abandoned bathhouse. The event features Melt-Banana and Hikashu, who are two of the best bands in Japan, as well as relative newcomers The Fin and The Boys Age, so get on down there early and check it out.

Here’s the interview in The Japan Times, so please check that out.

Because of the limited space, there was a lot of fascinating stuff that I just couldn’t include. Obviously as a music writer, the musical aspect of the event was the angle that I approach this from, although the event is clearly designed so that the art and music interact conceptually in various ways. As the person in charge of the music, I was particularly interested in some of what Siemens explained about how the music functions as art and how the borders artforms can be crossed, subverted or blurred.

“I was interested in getting bands that bridged a certain gap between art and music,” Siemens explained, “Koichi Makigami from Hikashu also works as a sound artist, and Melt-Banana have broken a lot of barriers – there’s a juxtaposition there in the whole descriptor of ‘noise music.’ Meanwhile Boys Age make music out of their bedroom – it’s very DIY and it’s very immediate.”

In the context of my travels around Japan and my interest in the relationship between music and the place in which it happens, this event touched on a lot of themes that I find interesting as well. I remarked on the way smaller towns and more remote areas push different kinds of stuff together that would never usually interact in Tokyo, and how this often leads to more interesting, unexpected or imaginative work as a virtue of necessity.

“The most exciting projects have taken place outside Tokyo,” agreed Krivanek, “There’s a side of it that says because there aren’t as many spaces, people have to make do with sharing space, but the other side is that they have the opportunity to do that because space isn’t nearly at such a premium, so you can rent physically bigger buildings. And people who are slightly weird in the countryside are drawn to one another regardless of whether they’re all fine artists or all musicians or whatever.”

There is also a sense that through this approach, it might be possible to point a way towards a new way of thinking about and doing music and art in Tokyo as well. In the music scene especially, I get the impression that some of the structures, like the live house system, are fraying at the edges, with people increasingly looking to alternative spaces to perform.

“There’s a need to look at new ways of doing things and beak out of these rigid structures of ‘this is how you become an artist or a musician’,” explained Siemens, “There are people who get sponsorship from galleries or sign to a major label, but that’s not the majority of people. It’s an opportunity to start a discussion in Tokyo about how we can do this in a new way, how we can create a new community of artists and musicians that support each other here in Tokyo.”

As Krivanek adds, “In terms of an intersection between fine art and music, I don’t think either that’s a new thing or something to be afraid of.”

This also brought to mind one of my pet concerns about music, which is the way that as it loses its value as a commercial product, it increasingly seems to be becoming subservient to lifestyle accessories and fashion, when really it deserves respect and consideration as an art in its own right. Perhaps aware of the near-Satanic position that one particular kind of goods holds in Call And Response Records demonology, this point kicked off a little exchange that made me chuckle:

SIEMENS: “There are so many of these lifestyle-branded bands that come with the pins, the t-shirts, the mechandise…”

KRIVANEK: “The tote bags!”

SIEMENS: “We have this opportunity to pull music back into this conversation of exploring it as a fine art”

All of which I absolutely agree with (even if they were taking the piss out of my irrational disdain for poor, innocent tote bags a bit).

Another related point we discussed was the way they decided to keep enough of a separation between between the musicians and fine artists, so that each has the space to be considered in their own right rather than as simply a soundtrack to the art or a visual accompaniment to the music. However, Krivanek and Siemens are intrigued by the possibilities this juxtaposition might open up in terms of what visitors take with them from the music into the art and vice versa when travelling between areas. In any case, like I say, if you get a chance, check out the show.

The event page on Facebook is here, or on Tokyo Gig Guide here.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: Afterword

With the end of this latest countdown of the past year’s top Japanese music, it’s worth drawing attention to what other writers did for their own rundowns. The other main English language sites that go deep enough to put these kinds of extensive lists together are Make Believe Melodies and Beehype. Neither list had anything in common with mine, and precious little in common with each other, which just goes to show how diverse the indie scene in Japan is. In any case, both lists are worth checking out in order to get a different perspective on what Japanese indie (and a bit of pop – Patrick at MBM remains inexplicably attached to E-Girls) music has to offer.

Make Believe Melodies: Best Japanese Albums of 2015
30-21
20-11
10-1

Beehype: Best of 2015 – Japan

As I said before embarking on this latest countdown, the fact that my own label’s releases were disqualified had a big influence on the makeup of this list. It’s always an issue, but it was a bigger one than usual this time round since we released so many albums and EPs featuring so many of our favourite bands in 2015.

Looking forward into the rest of 2016, I’ll be dealing with a similar situation next time round, with a lot of new Call And Response releases already in the pipeline. Looprider’s debut only came out six months ago, but they already have a second album recorded and ready to go this spring, and a third album written. Lo-shi have already recorded their third album and first CD release, with the album currently being mixed with a view to a summer release. Mechaniphone, whose first EP came in at No.4 in my best of 2015 countdown, have a new EP ready to go, which I’ll be helping them put out in a limited release very soon. Other bands in the wider Call And Response family have new material at varying stages of completion, including Han Han Art, Sharkk, Trinitron and Tropical Death.

More broadly, I’m (maybe hopefully) picking up vibes that indiepop may have peaked and that the cool kids are ready for something a bit more discordant. If there is even the faintest possibility of a postpunk/no wave revival, I’ll be doing everything I can to jolly it along and then report on it as if it’s some spontaneous thing I just discovered.

Basically, my theory is that the indie hipster cred Hysteric Picnic/Burgh have been building up over the past couple of years has now reached such a level that young, cool kids want to hang out with them and be in bands like them. There has always been a seam of arty, angular Japanese underground music scraping away metalically beneath the surface of the music scene, and the emergence of younger bands like Deviation and Ms. Machine, as well as the welcome return of the still ludicrously young and inspired Nakigao Twintail, suggests that at least in some limited sense Japanese skronk might be getting a shot of young blood.

Any look at stuff to look forward to should probably begin with Afrirampo’s spring reunion tour, followed by an appearance at the Taico Club festival in June. Whether any new recordings will emerge is still uncertain, and I’m not sure if that would even be a good idea at this stage. Pika already has a new album titled Sun Ra New, in collaboration with Yuji Katsui and Yoshihide Otomo, and quite what role Afrirampo could play in her ever-evolving musical explorations I don’t clearly see.

New releases I’ll be looking out for include Kyoto bubblegum hardcore/postpunk band O’Summer Vacation’s new 7 Minutes Order, which I’ve already heard and is awesome, and hopefully a full album by my favourite band in Tokyo right now, the wonderful Falsettos.

I’ll also be embarking soon on the second stage of my travels to every prefecture of Japan to research its indie music scene. Following my return to Tokyo, my long-promised book on the Japanese indie music scene is now back from the editor and pencilled in for a summer release, so keep your eyes open for more on that.

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