Category Archives: Reviews

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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Top 25 Releases of 2018: No. 5 – 1

former airline - 2011 or so

CD-R, self-released, 2018

No.5 – Former Airline – 2011 or so…
Former Airline may have taken his name from a B-side by British postpunk band Wire, but his music is in a broader tradition of experimental rock music that runs from artists like the Silver Apples, through Eno and krautrock, into postpunk, EBM, industrial and beyond. He has been putting out DIY cassettes and suchlike for a while now and 2011 or so… is a collection of material spanning several years. It opens with the musique concréte noise collage Portrait of a City, but gradually dissolves into less sonically uncompromising but no less exciting and interesting territory, with cheap rhythm boxes merging with hazy, ambient synth drones taking over by the time An Incident at the Terminal Beach comes around, while later tracks increasingly incorporate distorted, washes of shoegaze guitar. Taken together, 2011 or so… is an intriguing and quite beautiful musical glimpse into the mind of a mad scientist.

the doodless - capture

CD-R, self-released, 2018

No.4 – The Doodless – Capture
This wonderful CD-R EP dropped into my lap out of what seemed like nowhere at a show early in the year and Doodless (with the double “s”, not to be confused with the more famous Japanese indie band Doodles) instantly became one of my favourite bands. A lot of other people in the music scene I recommended them to felt the same way, so of course what the band did was immediately stop all their activities and fail to capitalise on any momentum they might have got. What that means, however, is that this unashamedly lo-fi collection of off-kilter garage-punk postpunk whimsy is going to be something you and a very small group of others can claim as your own forever now. It’ll be something where you can meet someone and they mention “this Japanese band Doodless with a double-s” and you can say, “Oh, my God, you’re my friend for life!” and move in together and buy a labrador. Read my original review here.
(NOTE: The band’s Bandcamp page has Capture down as a 2017 release, but I suspect that’s a case of New Year forgetfulness, as their Twitter account announced it in January 2018.)

luby sparks - luby sparks

CD, Space Shower Music, 2018

No.3 – Luby Sparks – Luby Sparks
Sounding like it was transmitted directly from mid-90s Britain, there’s always a temptation to dismiss something like Luby Sparks as retro, but if you did, you’d be missing out on some of the most exuberantly lovelorn pop of the year. Read my full review here.Luby Sparks – Thursday

the noup - flaming psychic heads

CD, self-released, 2018

No.2 – The Noup – Flaming Psychic Heads
More a short, sweet mini-album accompanied by an unrelated single than an album outright, Flaming Psychic Heads is a fantastic and long-awaited debut album from Okayana noise-rock trio The Noup. Combining postpunk, post-hardcore and krautrock, the mini-album section is a fierce, driving set embellished with expansive guitar excursions onto almost spacerock territory, most notably on second track Utopia. The band are able to harness and rein in the ferocious energy at their core with thrilling restraint on the electric Monochrome Dead, but when they unleash it, as on the closing Impotents Anaaki, it’s explosive. An additional CD features Geodesic, a percussion-heavy ten-minute track that features echoes of drummer Takafumi Okada’s work with Kansai rhythm collective Goat, with the guitars taking on a sparser role. It’s an interesting track in its own right and a welcome addition to the album, although different enough from the five initial tracks that it’s easy to see why the band might have felt the need to include it as a separate item.The Noup – Impotents Anaaki (single version)

eiko ishibashi - the dream my bones dream

CD, Felicity, 2018

No.1 – Eiko Ishibashi – The Dream My Bones Dream
Images of railway lines run through multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Eiko Ishibashi’s beautiful, multilayered The Dream My Bones Dream, providing the album with a skeleton of sorts, as well as functioning as the means by which the listener is transported back through a series of faded photographs of unremembered memories. The spectre of Japan’s wartime occupation of parts of China hangs over Iron Veil, a half-imagined memory from Ishibashi’s father’s youth in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, but the patchwork of fragmented secondhand memories and dreams mostly takes more abstract shapes, with the album split about half and half between wispy vocal and richly textured instrumental tracks. Echoes of Ishibashi’s experimental work with Merzbow and Jim O’Rourke, there’s a collage-like structure to the way layers of sound intertwine, drifting in and out of focus, and at times Ishibashi seems to treat her own voice as just another of these ghostly elements, her own identity being lost in the series of scattered images flitting by the train window, but the The Dream My Bones Dream has a distinct personality of its own, melancholy but determined, and the journey it takes you on is a thing of extraordinary beauty.

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Top 25 Releases of 2018: No. 10 – 6

qujaku - qujaku

Vinyl, So I Buried, 2018

No.10 – Qujaku – Qujaku
Leading lights of Japan’s current wave of noise-rock, Hamamatsu-based Qujaku’s debut album is a powerful statement from a band who are now really starting to grow into their ambitions. In the past, there has often been a nagging sense that Qujaku were playing over the heads of their audience to some imagined stadium rock crowd that they were imagining just over the horizon. Recently, however, they’ve learned to modulate their performances better and channel their strengths to suit the spaces they’re in, without compromising their more expansive tendencies. On this self-titled debut they proudly peacock across its two discs with swaggering gothic elegance, from the frankly ludicrous 20-minute opener Shoku no Hakumei to the cracked, fragile closing Sweet Love of Mine.Qujaku – Yui, Hate No Romance

ryo asada - code

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2018

No.9 – Ryo Asada – Code
Veering from free jazz to acoustic balladry to a capella harmonising to minimalist synthpop (although mostly the former two to be honest), this “debut” album by Fukuoka artist Ryo Asada isn’t really a debut, as he has been playing and occasionally releasing with the band tepPohseen for years. It has the feeling of a debut though in the hyperactive, unfiltered way it tries to be everything, in love with every musical possibility it discovers. It’s one of the strangest Japanese releases of the year, and perhaps strangest in how much fun it is.Ryo Asada – Timetrial Again

jim o'rourke - sleep like its winter

CD, Newhere, 2018

No.8 – Jim O’Rourke – Sleep Like it’s Winter
In addition to the five releases in his Steamroom series that he put out over the course of 2018, Jim O’Rourke released this wonderfully eerie piece for new ambient/drone-focused electronic label Newhere Music, which in many ways feels like he took one of his Steamroom releases and then built on and refined it. Seeing him perform it live, it’s clear that the piece we hear on this record is really just a point in the evolution of O’Rourke’s experimental soundscapes. In the ever-shifting topography of O’Rourke’s music, however, this release stands as a significant landmark.

5kai - 5kai

CD, self-released, 2018

No.7 – 5kai – 5kai
Emerging in Kyoto out of the ashes of the short-lived Lego Chameleon, 5kai’s debut album is a stark mix of post-hardcore and math-rock that manages to be both icily, almost confrontationally reserved while at the same time allowing a sort of fragile, melancholy beauty to filter through in the sparse melodies and plaintive vocals. The intelligent, rhythmically complex arrangements ensure that the minimalist components keep leading the listener through fresh patterns and makes this album one of the year’s most accomplished debuts.

phew - voice hardcore

CD/Vinyl, Bereket/Mesh-Key, 2018

No.6 – Phew – Voice Hardcore
The release of this album by eclectic experimental former postpunk artist Phew straddles the edge of 2017 and 2018 (The Wire included it in their 2017 best) but is included here mainly because I wanted to include Phew’s also excellent analogue synth album Light Sleep in my top albums of 2017. Voice Hardcore might seem a misleading title depending on the associations the word “hardcore” has for you, being an album much of which is characterised by spectral ambient drones, but it’s nonetheless brutally uncompromising in its core creative premise, that every sound on the album is one created by Phew’s voice. The undulating choral tones she layers on many of the tracks sometimes stand alone, but on others they form the backdrop to disconcerting yelps, tortured utterances and simple phrases repeated, looped, overlapping. 2018 also saw Phew working with London-based Ana da Silva on the excellent Island, but Voice Hardcore stands as a singularly unique and fascinating record from one of Japan’s most reliably distinctive artists. (NOTE: The CD edition features 9 tracks, while the vinyl and download editions feature 6.)

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Top 25 Releases of 2018: No. 15 – 11

afrirampo - afriverse

CD, Supponpon Record, 2018

No.15 – Afrirampo – Afriverse
One of my most anticipated releases of the year, the comeback album of Osaka avant-garage duo Afrirampo following their return to the stage in 2016 was an instant re-encapsulation of everything that made them so thrilling and fresh — or everything that made them so mannered and irritating, depending on your mileage. Whatever your take, on Afriverse they are energetically and unapologetically themselves — even more so than in their original incarnation really, with the guitar-shredding rockisms cranked up further than ever before and the whimsical psychedelic pop of drummer Pika’s solo work edging in here and there in a sprawling one-hour-plus tapestry of childlike vocal nonsense and zigzagging prog-garage-punk energy.Afrirampo – Potsu Potsu

ms machine - sldr

CD, self-released, 2018

No.14 – Ms. Machine – S.L.D.R.
A short, sharp blast of shrieking noise-punk, S.L.D.R. made a small but significant impact on the Tokyo scene when it landed in spring 2018, attracting press attention not only for the band’s harsh sounds and sharp image, but also from their proudly political feminist stance in a cultural environment largely untouched by movements like #metoo. Live appearances have been sparse since its release, but S.L.D.R. promises great things for the future, should Ms. Machine choose to grasp them. You can read my original review here.

dmbq - keenly

Vinyl, Drag City, 2018

No.13 – DMBQ – Keenly
Massive, clattering drums, immense, stadium-filling bass, a swirling galaxy of noise and feedback, sustained drone advancing across the sonic landscape like a wall of death, riffs like granite blocks hurled from Mount Olympus, and howling guitar solos raining down, serpentine and electric — that’s what DMBQ do, and that’s what they do on Keenly. Magnificently.

the hatch - opaque age

CD, Jusangatsu, 2018

No.12 – The Hatch – Opaque Age
Fourteen tracks of gruff post-hardcore, enlivened by dynamic, shifting rhythms, jazz-tinged guitar lines and unexpectedly uplifting horns. There are moments where everything comes together with almost transcendent ferocity and others where the parts grate against and struggle with each other like the jittery dynamics of postpunk, but at all times, Opaque Age is intricately worked and delivered with fearsome conviction and a touch of sarcastic humour.The Hatch – Sexgame

sonotanotanpenz - new

CD, self-released, 2018

No.11 – Sonotanotanpenz – New
After collaborating with a variety of musicians on their previous 31 and promoting it with a series of shows backed by a full band, Sonotanotanpenz’ new New is for the most part an even more minimal affair than usual, although not one lacking in texture due the the fun the duo have with a diverse array of oddball synth sounds. The usual ‘tanpenz mixture of near-whispered tag team rap and overlapping vocal melodies is present and correct, although the stronger emphasis on synths brings means this short album presents sharper contrasts between its more plastic moments, like the squelchy Milovat’ and where their approach is more organic, as on the piano-led I Love You.

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Top 25 Releases of 2018: No. 20 – 16

half kill - half kill

CD, Too Circle Records, 2018

No.20 – Half Kill – Half Kill
This Shizuoka-based punk band produced one of the best punk albums I heard this year with this ferociously lo-fi album. The yobbish/snotty male-female vocal interplay gives a lot of songs a call-and-response dynamic, with the spindly guitar lines and occasional intrusions of synth edging many of these one-and-a-half-minute songs into postpunk territory. It all sounds like it was recorded in a bathtub, but that’s part of the charm.

struggle for pride - we struggle fgor all our pride

CD, WDSOUNDS / AWDR/ LR2, 2018

No.19 – Struggle For Pride – We Struggle For All Our Pride
One of the most unusual albums of the year, We Struggle For All Our Pride ricochets between the band’s familiar blasts of heavy, noise-drenched hardcore and breezy hip-hop instrumentals courtesy of DJ Highschool and Bushmind, interspersed with vocal interludes and covers featuring (among others) Kahimi Karie, Yoshie Nakano of jazz-pop ensemble Ego-Wrappin’, and folk-punk act Ohayo Mountain Road. I have no idea what the guiding creative impulse of this album was or what the band hoped to achieve with it beyond hanging out with their eclectic array of mates, but the result is wild and deeply entertaining.

klan aileen - milk

CD, Hostess Entertainment, 2018

No.18 – Klan Aileen – Milk
Noise-rock is a kind of music that Japanese bands have traditionally been great at but which has rarely made much of an impact on audiences. However, one of the interesting things in recent years has been the emergence of a small knot of young bands who have managed to make noise-rock a bit more fashionable. Of this new generation of noise-rockers, Klan Aileen are probably the post popular and on their new album, Milk, they stake their position with eight dark, sparse tracks that bring together motorik rhythms and reverb-drenched guitars, charting a course between mantric psychedelia and the oblique mysteries of Chairs Missing-era Wire.Klan Aileen – Datsugoku

minami deutsch - with dim light

CD/vinyl, Guruguru Brain, 2018

No.17 – Minami Deutsch – With Dim Light
In the past, Minami Deutsch have often come across as little more than a Neu! 2 tribute act, albeit a devastatingly effective one with a keen sense of structural dynamics that connects krautrock to its successors in postpunk and techno. That aspect of their music is still on display in parts of With Dim Light, but it’s a far more expansive album than that, with the band exploring dreamy psych-pop in Tangled Yarn and diverting their krautrophilia towards the likes of Ash Ra Tempel on the folk-tinged Bitter Moon. The looping rhythms and mantric repetition are still defining features of their music, and their influences are still firmly rooted in the 1970s, but now the band’s sound is far more rounded and the songwriting on display is becoming ever more sophisticated.

ann murasato - wan

CD, self-released, 2018

No.16 – Ann Murasato – Wan!
Hailing from a small town in the rural expanses between Fukuoka and Kumamoto, Ann Murasato has been active in the Kyushu underground scene since she was in her early-mid teens, having played with spazzcore trio Hakuchi, White Stripes-esque garage duo Kawaitesoro and her own chaotic avant-pop trio Tokotokotonntoko’s, among others. This debut album under her own name opens with a blast of cutesy bubblegum synthpop like a rawer, more lo-fi Chai, but this is defiantly Murasato’s sound, that she has been plugging away at here and there for years by drawing together dizzy fragments of punk, disco, retro children’s songs and pieces of the Japanese underground scene around her like collages in a teenager’s scrapbook.Ann Murasato – Go Turn!

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Top 25 Releases of 2018: No. 25 – 21

2018 was a good year for new music releases in Japan, although as usual very little of it received much attention beyond the usual underground word-of-mouth circles. There were a handful of releases that I was anticipating intensely, like the Falsettos’ full length debut, and some nice surprises like the Doodless EP, but the story that ended up colouring this list most strongly was a number of strong releases in that loose category at the intersection of postpunk, post-hardcore, psychedelia, krautrock, industrial and experimental rock that for the sake of convenience I’m increasingly just bracketing all together as noise-rock. There were a lot of releases I enjoyed this year, though, and no doubt past visitors to this site will recognise personal favourites who keep cropping up in my year-end reviews.

In past years, I’ve posted these reviews individually, but this time round I’m doing them in batches of five. Partly this is because a fair few of these are very short as I wrote longer reviews over the course of last year, partly this is to accommodate a slightly longer than usual list, and partly it’s because a busy calendar with my own musical activities and those with Call And Response Records means I don’t want to still be posting these updates a month from now.

the neso - new me

Cassette, self-released, 2018

No.25 – The Neso – New Me
Tokyo-based trio The Neso finished the year out by shedding two thirds of their members, but not before finishing this top-notch new cassette EP featuring four new jittery postpunk tunes in a Delta 5/Au Pairs/Kleenex mould. The songs Fasting and Dawn also serve as powerful reminders of what an effective instrument the xylophone can be in a postpunk or new wave song (see also Electricity by OMD, Gone Daddy Gone by Violent Femmes).
The Neso – Dawn (live)

milk - all about milk

CD, KILIKILIVILLA, 2018

No.24 – Milk – All About Milk
Tight yet raucous punk rock is Milk’s stock in trade, dashing through a dozen songs in seventeen and a half minutes characterised by shouty, fist-pumping choruses and knocked off kilter by some delightfully wonky guitar solos and unexpected mid-song rhythm changes. It’s performed with the frantic energy of hardcore, but Milk never quite cross the line into the sort of sonic claustrophobia hardcore can often produce. Instead, their guitars twang with a reassuring cheapness and and there’s a bouncy energy to the drumming. A seriously fun punk record with a touch of weirdness.

subarashika - nimaime

CD, P-Vine, 2018

No.23 – Subarashika – Nimaime
Taking its musical cues from 1970s American folk-rock, and in particular The Band, Tokyo folk rockers Subarashika are a young, infectiously enjoyable band who revel in their retro influences and are all the better for it. There are a lot of young Japanese indie bands drawing on folk-rock influences, but they rarely explore beyond Happy End, so a band like Subarashika are a welcome expansion of the scene’s sonic palette with the deep infusion of Americana they offer.
Subarashika – Kakusou to Shiteru dake! (live)

manon - teenage diary

CD, CATICORN, 2018

No.22 – Manon – Teenage Diary
Teenage Diary is an unexpectedly charming oddball pop album from sixteen year-old model Manon and producer Yuppa (a.k.a. HNC/Hazel Nuts Chocolate). Sonically it takes a lot of cues from the lo-fi beats, playful sampling and post-Shibuya-kei mix of scattershot rapping and whisper-voiced melody of HNC’s 2009 album Cult, albeit with a touch more electro polish, the occasional glaze of autotune and more self-conscious lyrical nods to teenage life in the Instagram age.
Manon – Beat the Bad Luck

falsettos - falsettos

CD, P-Vine, 2018

No.21 – Falsettos – Falsettos
When this album came out, towards the beginning of the year, it was a shoe-in for one of the year’s best, with its combination of slightly deranged postpunk or off-kilter new wave and baroque J-pop melodies. Read my original review here.
Falsettos – Six

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V/A: Life is Music

DuBJfZsVAAAfGe0.jpg-large

Cassette, Touch Records, 2018

Kicking off with Fukuoka alt-rock band tepPohseen’s sprawling, ten-minute Joukei (which accounts for a third of the whole cassette’s running time), this seven-song cassette compilation of ‘90s-influenced lo-fi alternative bands from around Japan is a piece out of time with a music scene increasingly characterised by hyperactive bedroom beatmakers, slick-sounding, commercially-ambitious “city pop” and quirky so-called alt-idols. Getting past the rather generic title, Life is Music features all new recordings, but is still a collection proudly of its time. And that time is about ten years ago, with bands like Nagoya’s Sonic Youth-esque Free City Noise, Tokyo-based instrumental noise-rock band Fukuro, and the more sweetly melodic Joshua Comeback. It’s not strictly a genre collection, with Kobe/Osaka’s Merry Ghosts (the band formerly known as Trespass) calling back to the late-‘70s/early-80s postpunk era and Osaka’s Shoki no And Young (presumably an early lineup of stalwart local crazy horses …And Young) winding a coil of ’90s guitar distortion around a core of ’70s rock. At the same time, though, it’s a compilation that, despite being released in 2018 was, forged in the Japanese music scene of the early 2000s, when the band scene was defined in large part by the mainstream success of acts like Number Girl and Shiina Ringo back when she was still interesting. This compilation doesn’t offer much in the way of a path forward for Japanese underground rock, but it’s nonetheless a welcome reminder that those days were a period that produced a lot of the most interesting underground rock bands still playing today (and a lot more now sadly vanished).

 

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