Category Archives: Guardian new music blog

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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Guardian Song of the Week: Hysteric Picnic, “Cult Pop”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a frantic rocker from an up-and-coming new-wave duo.

Hysteric Picnic are a two-piece new wave band who channel the sounds of 80s new-wave acts. Formed in 2011 by vocalist Sou Ouchi and guitarist Shigeki Yamashita, the drum-machine backed duo return with a new EP entitled Cult Pops, scheduled for release from Call and Response Records in early December.

The lead track, “Cult Pop”, is a frantic, forward-charging new wave rocker, complete with pulsing bass lines, industrial noises, handclaps, a deep feeling of dystopian isolation. Oouchi’s eerie, yet playful vocals sound like a more new-wave Jello Biafra, tumbling across the reverb-laden guitars and pre-programmed, repetitive drums. The overall sound is very much in the vein of 80s new-wave bands, however there is something distinctly unique about Hysteric Picnic that set them apart from other Joy Division facsimiles, whether it be the quirkiness of Ouchi’s vocals, the unconventional guitar riffs, or just how simple and catchy the melodies are. “Cult Pop” also shows off that the band aren’t all about the atmospheric doom and gloom of the industrial world, but that they can also rock out pretty good.

The track is as lo-fi as everything else the band has done, but it’s sonic traits are obviously a part of their aesthetic and charm. Past tracks with references to Nick Cave and Krautrock should assure anyone with doubts that the band very much know what they are doing.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Pop-Office, “Good Morning”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a beautifully crafted slice of old-school indie rock from Nagoya.

Discussion of Japanese music tends to automatically gravitate towards the twin fringes of avant-garde experimentalism and day-glo, candy-coloured pop excess and it’s natural that when looking for music from a country, the artists that stand out are the ones that seem to exhibit something distinct and unique about that place. Pop-Office, on the other hand, are a solid indie rock band like what they used to make in the 90s, and Good Morning, taken from the group’s new album Portraits in Sea, is an instantly familiar example of the form, the fuzzy guitars growling at you from the get-go like Yo La Tengo’s Sugarcube and vocalist Ryuhei Shimada’s melancholy baritone vocals revealing echoes of Pop-Office’s roots in Joy Division-influenced postpunk.

For all the undoubted similarities with 1990s US alt-rock, this is also a song with roots in Japan’s own indie culture. Pop-Office hail from a generation of kids who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s when the ultra-sophisticated but also clinical and style-obsessed Shibuya-kei movement was coming to a close and guitar bands like Number Girl and Supercar were taking imagination of Japanese youth by the scruff of the neck, and Supercar’s epic shoegaze debut album, 1998’s Three Out Change, is clearly a bible for Pop-Office, with the rough guitar textures, desultory vocals and wistful melody in particular recalling early single Cream Soda.

There are hints, especially in the shifting drum patterns, of a band equally comfortable exploring more progressive musical territory, but at heart Good Morning is the sort of straightforward indie rock that supports itself not on pushing back boundaries but on a core of solid musicianship and melodic songwriting. Pop-Office demonstrate a skill in tweaking those notes of familiarity at the back of your mind, which is something it’s rare to find done well in a music scene where the best and most interesting material is more often the music that pushes the hyperactive extremes than that which satisfies the simpler, more nostalgic rock needs.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Umez, “Rainbow”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a song from a noise-pop duo formed in London, who are now based in Tokyo.

Umez: Rainbow

Umez are a noise-pop Japanese duo consisting of vocalist/bassist Sachiko Fukuda and guitarist Koichi “Niiyan” Niizato. Originally formed in London in 2012, the group have since moved back to Japan, and have recently become active in Tokyo.

The pair’s music has just as much duality as their stage presence: Fukuda, hardly moves as she sings simple, but catchy melodies, while Niiyan wears a gas mask and goes all out, climbing on top of equipment and letting his guitar wail. Their music ranges from catchy, shoegaze-influenced pop to disgusting, chaotic, walls of noise. Many times they have both elements present in their songs.

“Rainbow” is featured on their compilation, “International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl) Vol. 1,” which was released in September. The compilation is released from Fukuda’s label, 14 Years Records, and features artists from around the world, such as Brutes from the U.K., and a solo track from Taigen Kawabe of Bo Ningen. “Rainbow” is a fine example of the duality found of Umez, with the lo-fi beats and Niyan’s soaring guitars, fronted by Fukuda’s calm vocals. The breakdown in the middle featuring a playful keyboard part, bookended by the main guitar riff and vocal melody. Not all their tracks sound like this of course, but it’s a good taste of the band condensed into a three minute pop song.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Sayuu, “Yellow Hate”

This week’s track for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a wonderfully eccentric nugget from Tokyo’s favourite new indie duo Sayuu.Sayuu: Yellow Hate

Confusing and delighting Tokyo indie audiences in pretty much equal measure this year, Sayuu are a decidedly offbeat duo with a distinctive line in deadpan postpunk eccentrica. With the stripped-down lineup necessitating a similarly minimalist approach to songwriting, the duo create spiky, catchy little songs that are both shamelessly childish and disarmingly intelligent, taunting you with the possibility that it might mean something, but never letting the mask slip enough to admit one way or the other.

Yellow Hate does pretty much what it says on the tin, working its way through a litany of hated yellow things, the grinding repetition punctuated by percussive stabs of guitar that break up the otherwise relentless, rhythmical loop that the song torments you with. Credit should also go to Sayuu here for reviving that most beloved of visual artforms, the music video that literally depicts what the song lyrics are describing.

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