Category Archives: Guardian new music blog

Guardian Song of the Week: The Piqnic, “Saoirse”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a song from a “dark shoegaze” band hailing from Shizuoka.

With all the action happening in Tokyo, it’s some times easy to overlook other regions in Japan for quality music, especially if it’s not that far away.

Hailing from Shizuoka prefecture (which is only about an hour away from Tokyo by bullet train), The Piqnic perhaps have benefited from their isolation, melding traditional shoegaze sounds with a more gothic approach, creating a sound that’s unique from other bands in Tokyo.

“Saoirse” is the lead track off of their debut EP. Clocking in at seven minutes, the track goes from a quiet guitar drenched intro to a steady eight-beat, while vocalist Shuya’s androgynous vocals float throughout. The track may remind people of fellow countrymen Boris’s quieter moments (think “Rainbow” or “Präparat”)

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Guardian Song of the Week: Kenta Maeno, “Nee, Taxi”

For The Guardian’s new music from around the world blog, this is a loving recreation of classic 1970s style Japanese folk.Kenta Maeno: Nee, Taxi

Nee, Taxi is a textbook contemporary example of the style of the style of folk/singer-songwriter music that flooded Japan in the early 1970s, by one of this current generation’s most talented and versatile songwriters. Largely out of fashion now, Kenta Maeno nonetheless dives headfirst into the genre, recreating with the utmost sincerity and affection the bittersweet melodrama, with both his vocals and the music itself shifting in and out of its own rhythmical constraints. While the songwriting is deeply rooted in the 1970s Japanese folk tradition of artists — in particular the legendary Yosui Inoue — Maeno’s approach, aided by producer and musical collaborator Jim O’Rourke, also owes a great deal to contemporary alternative and alt-folk in its delivery.


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Guardian Song of the Week: Awesome City Club, “Lesson”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a song from a new band that unashamedly makes feel-good, mellow indie pop.

Awesome City Club: “Lesson”

The Tokyo underground is full of all sorts of unique, strange, and at times abrasive sounds. And there’s always that weird indie stigma that comes along with it. And mainstream Japanese music is so candy coated and manufactured, that while despite all the fun it does get a bit grating after a while. So it’s nice to occasionally find good pop music that’s as sincere and unironic as Awesome City Club.

Inspired by disco, soul and R&B, along with American indie and Britpop, Awesome City Club formed late last year. But don’t let any of that fool you; these guys have all honed their chops through various bands, such as Thatta and This Is Panic, and are anything but amateurs. They’ve only released two music videos so far, “Children” and the above “Lesson”, but it’s clear that with their clever, rhythmic arrangements and beautiful melodies that Awesome City Club are definitely a band to look out for.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Lemon’s Chair, “My Favorite”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is an epic explosion of modern shoegaze.Lemon’s Chair: My Favorite

One of the prime movers in the Japanese shoegaze scene that’s had such a lively twelve months riding the back of the My Bloody Valentine revival, Lemon’s Chair were key figures behind 2013’s Yellow Loveless MBV covers compilation as well as being organisers and promoters of the rapidly expanding Japan Shoegazer Festival. This March they release a new album of their own and if nothing else, you have to admire the balls of them putting out this twelve-and-a-half-minute monster as a teaser. It’s all atmosphere and chiming, reverb-laden chords for the first six minutes before appearing to stamp on all their effects pedals at once. The result is loud, overblown and absurdly epic, which is honestly as this kind of thing should be.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Mothercoat, “Trickster”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new song from a completely DIY band dabbling in electronica and folk, with a decade-long history.

Mothercoat: Trickster

Tokyo’s independent music scene is rife with all types of bands. But when it comes to the truly original, independent artists, there are only a handful of acts. Mothercoat is definitely one of those bands.

Formed in 2002, Mothercoat have been combining elements of electronica, folk, rock, and hip-hop for more than a decade. The band are known in the Tokyo scene for constantly evolving their sound and also for being a truly DIY entity, producing and distributing their records exclusively by themselves at their private studio, Bonjin Studio, in Fukaya, Japan, where the members live together (complete with their own vegetable garden). Constantly touring, the band have also played in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They are scheduled to play at SXSW 2014 in Austin, Texas in March.

“Trickster” is the lead track from their new EP “5 – 1 + 1=“. The track is the first song the group have released since welcoming new guitarist, Fukunosuke Abe, into the band. The music video, also directed by Abe, displays the guitarist’s playful energy both visually and musically, adding a layer of whimsical youthfulness, complimenting vocalists Giga Dylan and Tokirock’s quirky call and response singing.

It’s amazing for any band to be around for more than a decade, but even more so when it has been done with the sheer determination and willpower Mothercoat have consistently displayed to do things their own way.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Seiko Oomori, “Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new song by an artist who crosses boundaries between subcultures and is now starting to get mainstream attention too.Seiko Oomori: Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu

Between the dirty basements of the underground scene and the sparkly fantasyland of idol music there is a genuine area of crossover. Both are essentially subcultures, cut off in slightly different ways from the mainstream of Japanese pop culture, and there has been a growth in recent years of fans who are not into indie or idol music per se but are more accurately defined as fans of subculture in general. Perhaps recognising this, it’s become a common sight to find idol singers adopting elements of indie and underground culture, be it the noise collaborations of BiS, the indie covers of Dempagumi inc. or the proliferation of indie musicians working as songwriters and producers in the idol scene.

The rise of Seiko Oomori is evidence that the trade goes two ways. A singer-songwriter rooted deeply in the darkest, dirtiest depths of the underground scene in the Koenji district of Tokyo (the video for Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu sees her performing the song in Koenji’s legendary and legendarily weird Muryoku Muzenji live space), she has increasingly adopted the posture of an idol singer to deliver her off-kilter narratives, even going so far as performing at the 2013 Tokyo Idol Festival. Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu demonstrates her spanning of those two worlds, with the electronic, technopop-influenced arrangement replacing her previous acoustic guitar-orientated setup, but breaking down into squalls of noise as the song reaches its mid-point. Oomori’s fusion of sweet, bubblegum elements with occasionally tortured delivery emphasises the darkness and obsession that lurk under the candy-coloured surface, and in this way she has a lot in common with 80s singer Jun Togawa, who also appropriated elements of idol culture and contorted them to more dissonant ends. Whether Oomori has Togawa’s self-awareness and acuity remains to be seen, but with Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu she has finally marked herself as one to watch for audiences beyond the cramped basements and lofts of Koenji.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Yoshihide Ōtomo, “Amachan Theme”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is an unlikely mainstream hit for one of the world’s finest experimental free jazz musicians.
Yoshihide Ōtomo and the Amachan Special Big Band: “Amachan Theme”

Yoshihide Ōtomo is a name which will ring a bell for anyone who has dabbled in experimental Japanese music from the ‘90s. A pioneer in noise and free jazz, Ōtomo’s name can be placed alongside other great titans of experimental and free jazz music, from John Zorn, Glenn Branca, and Derek Bailey.

So imagine my surprise when he appeared on “Kōhaku Uta Gassen”, the annual end of the year music program on Japan’s NHK channel. The program has been a long tradition of Japanese New Years Eve, bringing together the year’s most popular acts. Naturally, the show attracts a wide demographic; not a place you would expect to see an avant-garde noise artist.

The performance was a fantastic finale to an extraordinary year for Ōtomo, who received significant mainstream attention (perhaps the most attention he has had in his entire career) for providing the theme song and score for the extremely popular NHK daytime drama, “Amachan”. The show revolves around a school girl from Tokyo, who moves to the Tohoku region where she becomes a local idol. She returns to Tokyo to try for the big leagues, finally returning to Tohoku after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March, 2011 to help revitalize the area.

Anyone familiar with Ōtomo’s work, particularly his jazz compositions under the Otomo Yoshihide Jazz Quintet/Ensemble/Orchestra moniker, will recognize the “Amachan” theme song and score as being distinctly his music. While the score is definitely more playful and fun than his experimental work, it oozes with Ōtomo’s sensibilities, from the sweeping, breathtaking brass sections, to the dissonant freak-outs accompanied by his brittle and instantly recognizable guitar tone. After a career of more than 30 years, Ōtomo is finally in the spotlight.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Buddy Girl and Mechanic, “A Very Ordinary Day”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is an ambient Kraut-blues psychedelic pop trip from one of Tokyo’s best new bands.

One of the best Japanese albums of the year was the self-titled debut by Buddy Girl and Mechanic, a Tokyo-based psychedelic pop quartet whose distinctive combination of Krautrock and sultry, ambient blues melodies has marked them at once as a band to watch but also served to hold them separate from any of the close-knit scenes that make up Tokyo’s Balkanised indie landscape.

Released as part of Japanese net label Ano(t)raks’ B.V.D.A. birthday compilation, Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s take on the birthday theme is typically dark and opaque with references to the atomic bomb and Hitler coming at you right from the get go. The group’s familiar musical motifs are also clearly on display, with a metronomic guitar and subtle but insistent drum pattern forming the song’s spine, embellished with occasional crashes of clattering guitar noise. The core dynamic that runs through both this song and the group’s whole catalogue is a tension between this mechanical rhythmical sense and the fluid melodies that float over the top. This juxtaposition of elements is embodied by frontwoman Xiroh herself, whose simple two-note keyboard threaten to give the song an almost technopop feel, while her sultry vocals insist on the organic.


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Guardian Song of the Week: Geek Sleep Sheep, “Hitsuji”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new dream-pop, shoegaze supergroup.

The relationship between visual-kei and shoegaze is something that has been hinted at since the early 90s, with bands like Luna Sea and Plastic Tree creating lush walls of guitars backing more solid and sophisticated pop melodies. Despite the make-up and theatricalities, it’s clear that many bands in the scene had an affinity for bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, and new wave acts like The Cure and The Smiths.

While the debate on whether L’Arc-en-Ciel are visual-kei is old and tired, it’s undeniable that drummer Yukihiro has a knack for shoegaze, and here he brings it to the fore as he’s joined by two other well-known musicians for Geek Sleep Sheep.

Geek Sleep Sheep are a supergroup consisting of Mo’some Tonebender’s Kazuhiro Momo, Miyoko Nakamura of Ling Tosite Sigure, and Yukihiro of L’arc-en-Ciel, one of the biggest arena rock bands in Japan. It’s intriguing that these three established musicians have come together at this point in their careers, to create what is essentially a throwback to early-Supercar, one of the most influential Japanese indie rock bands of the 2000s, who dabbled in shoegaze among other experimental genres. Complete with soft girl-boy vocal exchanges and swirling guitars washed in reverb in the chorus, the song has a dreamy, yearning quality for more simpler musical times; basically, the 90s.

The band is interesting in that they sound nothing like the respective musicians’ day jobs. It’s clear that this group is more a labor of love, and perhaps even a way to unleash suppressed musical desires. Considering that My Bloody Valentine played three shows in Japan this year, along with the release of their new album, there seems to be a revival of shoegaze going on in the country, and the appearance of this group perhaps confirms the extent of the genre’s appeal and influence.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Ringo Sheena, “Netsuai Hakkaku-chu”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a welcome reminder of an enduring talent and a fuck-you to the media’s puritanical side.

Netsuai Hakkaku-chu

Ringo Sheena is one of the most important Japanese music artists of the past fifteen years or so, so any new material of hers is worth paying attention to. From her early years as a teenage punk in Fukuoka hanging out at gigs by local alternative and avant-garde legends like Number Girl, Panicsmile and Mo’some Tonebender, through her precocious early songwriting career, creating songs for singers like Ryoko Hirosue (at that time, prior to her successful acting career, still more or less an idol singer), her early 2000s position as a generation-defining role model to thousands of wannabe rockstar schoolgirls, and her well-regarded career with the band Tokyo Jihen, she has been an ever-present figure helping to define the musical landscape of post-millennial Japan.

While Ringo Sheena’s best work, the album Kalk, Semen, Kuri no Hana, was a rich, multilayered, cinematic exploration of prewar decadence and Sgt. Pepper-esque psychedelic pop studio gymnastics and very much a work confident in its distinctive character, Netsuai Hakkaku-chu is a work much more in touch with the Japanese music world both of today and of Sheena’s formative years.

The melody recalls the Shibuya-kei style popularised by artists like Pizzicato Five and Karie Kahimi in the 1990s with its sweetly rendered vocals and restrained, sophisticated pop hooks that hark back to 1960s French pop, but the production, courtesy of omnipresent contemporary überproducer Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule, Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) gives the song a harder electro edge.

The combination isn’t so unusual, given Nakata’s own origins at the tail end of Shibuya-kei and his own career can itself be seen as charting the evolution of the style from its indiepop record-collector music nerd origins into the modern electro-dance age, but he is nevertheless sensitive to the original song, allowing the electro and pop elements to play off each other without one ever taking full precedence.

Also, no discussion of this track would be complete without a mention of the video. Pop artists making videos complaining about the press are always a little obnoxious, but in Ringo Sheena’s case, it’s revealing of something a bit wider. The video depicting the singer beating seven shades of crap out of a kung-fu army of paparazzi comes in the context of some particularly unpleasant press intrusion into her life after she refused to identify the father of her second child. The imagery depicting her dead body in glitter-encrusted retro-60s garb while a sexy black leather version of her takes revenge also reflects the contrast between the sweet, 60s pop-influenced Shibuya-kei aspect of the song and its darker electro edge.

While Netsuai Hakkaku-chu isn’t Sheena scaling the dizzying creative heights that her best work has revealed her as capable of, it’s a welcome reminder of an unflagging talent and lays down a confident, self-assured marker of an independent-minded star  with no time for the puritans and moral guardians who increasingly seek to define the role of women in Japanese media and pop culture.


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