Category Archives: Reviews

Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.15 – The Neso – Obey

the neso - obey

Cassette, self-released, 2017

Like BLONDnewHALF, The Neso are a postpunk band very much in the old-skool sense, drawing from late-70s art-punk touchstones to give definition to music that is in essence straightforward garage rock. On the Obey cassette EP there’s the Keith Levine guitar sound, plus the snotty schoolgirl shouting of Delta 5 or Kleenex. This whole review could easily be a list of great bands who The Neso remind me of. Luckily for them, however, the band they remind me of most is The Au Pairs, and this is really down to their warped way with catchy songwriting. It’s the key to this EP’s success, with the title track in particular a short, sharp, bubblegum-punk classic.

All four songs on this EP are intelligently crafted, deceptively simple – if shamelessly retro – oddball punk nuggets, all spiky guitar lines, clattering beats and infectious harmonies. Importantly too, it never comes across as anything less than natural in The Neso’s hands.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.16 – te_ri – Kasugai Low Gravity

Guitar/drum duo te_ri’s second album is a surprisingly affecting piece of rhythmically unpredictable minimalist math rock. With the group’s members now based at opposite ends of the country in northeastern Iwate and southwestern Okayama, the chemistry between them is nevertheless still there – in fact it seems to have matured in some key ways since 2013’s Far East Debug, with a greater tenderness and emotion creeping into these instrumental songs.

The influence of Burmese music also seems to have affected the chords and melodies, the fruits of guitarist Kyuju Murakami’s travels to Burma. His clean guitar tones, unmolested by the batteries of effects pedals that serve as a crutch for experimental rock bands, tell complex stories through notes and rhythm alone. Takashi Katayama’s drums, meanwhile, function more as an answering voice to Murakami’s guitar than as a simple beat-keeper, slipping with a jazz-man’s combination of looseness and control through the music’s sonic spaces.

Coming in at around 26 minutes for the album’s nine songs, with most hovering around the 3-minute mark, Kasugai Low Gravity is also an economical album, never indulging any of its ideas for longer than necessary or falling back on jam band clichés. For all its complexity, then, it remains a fresh listening experience, and for all its sparseness, it remains densely packed with ideas.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.17 – BLONDnewHALF – Clean

blondnewhalf - clean

CD, Dan-Doh Records, 2017

The energy in this new album by Kobe-based garage/postpunk band BLONDnewHALF just doesn’t let up over the course of these sixteen tracks and 44 minutes. From the opening In Order to the closing Nie, it barrels forward driven by frenetic, babbling bass lines and drums that just couldn’t give a fuck, crisscrossed by psychotic slashes of discordant guitar, narrated via a series of unintelligable barks and yaps.

While the energy is relentless, the explosive pace isn’t uniform though, and especially towards the end of the album BLONDnewHALF switch gears, channeling their intensity into the tense krautpunk of Who, the mantric R40 and the scratchy, edgy and wilfully awkward 30nen.

The production on the album is constantly rasping like tortured metal along the recording equipment’s upper limits, like a bus screaming around a speedway track, scraping the crash barriers on every turn and tearing the heads off any waveforms that poke their heads out the windows. Whether you think this is a good thing or bad, it’s nevertheless utterly consistent with the amped-up, bug-eyed, buccaneering way BLONDnewHALF seem to approach everything else about Clean. This album is badass.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.18 – Bossston Cruizing Mania – Idea

bossston cruizing mania - idea

CD, cosmic jackson, 2017

With their first album since 2011’s Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead, Tokyo-based punk/underground veterans Bossston Cruizing Mania have taken a radical step back to basics with Idea.

Where previously they had traded in a combination of rhythmically complex postpunk and dub, sometimes drawing songs out to ten minutes or more, no track on Idea exceeds three minutes, with arrangements restrained by what seem at first glance to be straightforward punk rock rhythms and chords.

Confusing easy pigeonholing is the role of vocalist Esuhiro Kashima, who continues to rant, Mark E Smith-like, over the music no matter what it’s doing. As a result, even as the music hints at a more conventional structure, it functions more as a backdrop for their poet-savant frontman to deliver his missives – occasionally channeled by the music into something that sounds almost like singing, but nevertheless defiantly shunning anything as obvious as a chorus.

There’s a tension within Idea that feels like a fundamentally weird band trying very hard to make what they think pop music sounds like but only getting it half right. Coupled with the way they are clearly playing deep within their technical abilities, dialing back nearly all of the mathy sensibilities that had characterised earlier albums, there’s a disconcerting sense of a band holding something back.

That’s partly what makes it such an interesting album though. There are already bands in Tokyo like Triplefire who do the snap-tight rhythmical-postpunk-with-rambling-vocals thing about as well as it can be done, but to begin using recognisable chords and dipping their toes cautiously into melody starts to feel like the more radical thing for a band like Bossston Cruizing Mania to do.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.19 – WBSBFK – Open Your Eyes

wbsbfk - open your eyes

CD, Provoke, 2017

One of the most interesting developments of 2016 (for this site at least, with all its attendant biases) was the Provoke compilation of young, mostly male postpunk-influenced rock bands. While the compilation itself may not have had a massive impact in the grander scheme of things, it offered a reassuring corrective to Japanese indie’s dreary drift into City Pop Hell. One question it left unanswered at the time was where it could go next.

2017 saw a partial answer to that question with the simultaneous release in November of new albums by two of the Provoke bands, both released through the imprint that had begun with the compilation. Of those releases, Nagoya’s WBSBFK continue most closely in the same vein as the compilation, all spindly, atonal postpunk guitars, jittery rhythms and selfconsciously disaffected vocals.

However, where much of Provoke was drenched in distortion, WBSBFK here are confident enough in their own mastery of Wire-like postpunk dynamics that they seem to feel no need to hide within a tornado of effects. The result is a short album of ten songs in just over twenty minutes that trade in visceral energy for sparseness and sophistication, each song a jagged clockwork machine in monochrome. In an era where feelings are frequently taken as the alpha and omega of cultural import, it’s a special kind of pleasure that can be taken from music that is simply interesting.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.20 – Hanazono Distance – Hachi

hanazono distance - hachi

CD, cat&bonito,  2017

The follow-up to this Shikoku-born, Tokyo-based prog/post-rock trio’s 2016 debut Oni no Hao Team, Hanazono Distance show clear signs of development on Hachi while retaining the same playful balance of experimental rock and breezy, nursery rhyme-like, piano and melodica doodles.

There’s always something fundamentally simple anchoring Hanazono Distance’s songs, providing solid ground for usually the piano to perform some elaborate acrobatics. On Vanilla a single note on a squelchy synth bass plays that role, while on Shanai it’s a toy-soldier march on the drums while the 16-bit Final Fantasy-esque keyboard line descends into meowing distortion.

While the band use vocals on occasion to provide texture for their songs, it’s piano that really sings, with rich-toned synth-bass increasingly acting as a sonic foil to the more organic sounding (although still synthetic) piano melody lines. Within the dynamics of the music, however, it is more often the drums that challenge the piano for control of the listener’s attention, slipping with jazzy complexity through Gyaru and driving Charibu forward with frenetic energy.

While productionwise the recordings don’t pop as much as they perhaps could, the performances are uniformly exceptional and the combination of technical virtuosity and playful imagination Hanazono Distance bring to the table should be enough to recommend them under any circumstances. What makes Hachi an additionally happy experience is that it shows the band aren’t content to tread water, but rather they continue to experiment and explore.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.1 – NOISECONCRETEx3CHI5 – Sandglass/Suna-Ji-Kei

noiseconcrete x 3chi5 - suna-ji-kei

CD, sssm, 2016

Despite being one of Japan’s largest cities, despite lying neatly right in the centre between Japan’s two biggest metropolitan areas, Nagoya feels like a strangely isolated city. Perhaps it’s the curse of those freeways and Shinkasen lines, which make it a bit of a flyover city for bands playing the Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto areas that makes Nagoya such a cultural island. Bands who are hot names in every major city between Tokyo and Fukuoka mean nothing in Nagoya, while peripheral acts from elsewhere can sometimes command huge audiences. It is a city of over two million, with a gravity well encompassing nearby cities such as Gifu, Toyota and Yokkaichi, but it behaves like a small town, with a few key spots and scene figures seeming to exert a huge influence over the musical conversation the city has. And the reverse is true too: a band can grow up fully formed in Nagoya without even the most powerful indie music antennae in the rest of the country picking up even the faintest signal. When I visited Nagoya last year, I dropped by a couple of these key spots — File-Under Records and Bar Ripple — and both places were buzzing with the same recommendation: Noiseconcrete x 3chi5’s debut album Suna-Ji-Kei (or Sandglass as the band themselves call it in English).

On first glance, this duo fits into the growing format of noise guy + girl vocalist that seems to be have been gaining ground over the past couple of years as the fashion kids get hip to noise. We’ve visited this general territory before with Jun Togawa and Hijokaidan’s Togawa Kaidan project (No.10 on this list) and there are occasional similarities in how Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 play with the borders between voice and noise. On Don’t Hate Me!, 3chi5’s vocals are contorted and raw, entwined with the harsh slashes of noise, while on the closing Dake her breathy utterances alternate with vocalisations that blur the line between human and machine. Also like Togawa Kaidan there are moments of vocal-less pure noise that interrupt the proceedings, with the two-part Behemoth no Yume.

Nevertheless, while Togawa Kaidan (and many of the pop/noise crossover records that have sprung up playing off the subcultural appeal of idol music) is interested in the tension between pop and noise, Suna-Ji-Kei tends to treat melody and noise as two dimensions of the same thing that are fundamentally at home with each other. When the noise elements of Ernst no Gensou scream into the frame like angry rockets, and the vocals tilt towards them with an edge of distortion, but elsewhere 3chi5’s delivery rings out clear, delivering her abstract poetry through bluesy improvisations that oscillate portentously around a couple of core notes against a backdrop of sparse industrial beats, simple chimes, and drones.

While the most obvious musical touchstone on first listen might be a trip hop act like Portishead, an even sparser FKA Twigs might be a more appropriate comparison. Dig deeper, however, and there’s also a thread linking what Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 do back to postpunk. Just as the original trip hop scene shared some of its roots with the jazz- funk- and dub-influenced Bristol postpunk scene, there are perhaps echoes in Suna-Ji-Kei of the gothic-edged, Joy Division-influenced postpunk that Nagoya bands like Zymotics/Vodovo, Sekaitekina Band and most recently WBSBFK trade in, not to mention the more obvious noise and hardcore influences. This is reflected in the members’ own roots, with Noisconcrete sharing close connections with the Nagoya hardcore scene, and 3chi5 also performing as part of the postpunk/experimental rock band Ghilom.

What Noiseconcrete x 3chi5’s music shares most particularly with postpunk is the way it seems to be reconstructing the jagged shards of other musical genres in a way that still allows you to see the join. The resulting album is at once dark, minimal and harshly industrial, but also captivating, melodic and beautiful. Most of the people I spoke to in Nagoya were in no doubt what their album of 2016 was, and Suna-Ji-Kei makes a strong case for best thing released in the whole country.

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