Sapporo’s Nessie specialise in pastel-sweet avant-pop with a scientific devotion to finding pleasure spots outside the expected. They give you a quietly determined manifesto of what to expect in the opening Kugutsu, with no note ever landing where you expect it, no shift or melodic phrase falling into a familiar shape, the vocals barely on the human side of vocaloid, the faintest hint of melancholy sentiment permeating the emotionless matt plastic of the immaculate delivery. There’s something disconcerting in the way the delivery and production approach with the soft, edgeless tones of background smooth jazz, while the vocal and instrumental arrangements dance around each other disorientating and dreamlike, notes avoiding the music’s underlying chords, different rhythms overlapping, guitar solos spiralling through the middle, free from the distortion pedal mania that afflicts many of Nessie’s math rock contemporaries but discordant and sending you spinning off balance nonetheless. But while these seven songs never come close to doing anything as vulgar as the familiar, they do so in a way that is nonetheless hypnotic, with a precision and perfectionism that hints at something between Steely Dan and Stereolab at the peak of their Sound Dust softness. It comes with an otherworldliness that is all their own though, insinuating itself with a soothing, accessible demeanour, from a Lynchian alternate dimension where pop music is just done differently to here.
Category Archives: Reviews
Of all the music released this year in support of Japanese live venues, the venue that has been at the centre of perhaps more (and more interesting) new material than any other is subterranean experimental hotspot Soup in the Tokyo suburb of Ochiai. Their twin Flowers in Concrete compilations were both intriguing and endlessly strange, while individual band releases have included a hypnotic and ghostly new EP by the wonderful Nisennenmondai. Inevitably, most of the material they have released, as with most of the new releases out of Japan this year, have been live recordings and offcuts, and that’s the case with this new, untitled track by noise-rock maniacs Kuruucrew. Originally recorded as a demo for their self-titled 2016 album but newly mixed for release in 2020, this seven-and-a-half-minute track channels the same combination of intensity and metronomic precision in the rhythm, with harsh infusions of anarchic skronk, looping guitar trances and cosmic howls. For all its orphaned status, it’s a powerful and welcome new release from one of Japan’s most exciting bands.
I’ve for a long time felt that Japanese indie and underground music relies too much on a handful of highly-regarded artists from the 1980s and ’90s, and Boris number among those old legends propping up the country’s rock reputation. Boris stand out among their contemporaries in how, for all their broad experimental explorations, still retain the tight focus that enables them to produce singular standout albums like No. From the slow, heavy, crunching metallic footsteps of Genesis to the rat-a-tat hardcore rhythms of Fundamental Error, via the shoegaze-inflected celestial noise that rings through HxCxHxC -Perforation Line-, there’s a rich tapestry of scuzzed-out sounds that Boris are able to turn on a sixpence and charge headlong into with complete mastery. What makes Boris such an extraordinary band, though, is also their ability to pull a variety of these threads together seamlessly — something they do thrillingly on the album’s climactic Loveless, a densely packed six and a half minutes of raucous energy, anchored by the monumental stomp of towering shamanic gods. It’s testament to the ease with which Boris mix and transition between textures that they are able to drift from this moment of colossal guitar torment into the soft dreamscape of the confusingly titled closing Interlude without ever losing the sense that these extremes are natural parts of the same landscape.
With its simple, bouncing, forward-driving rhythm, reverb-heavy guitar chimes and repetitive vocal melody, Nehann’s TEC comes on with some slick, vaguely post-punk-influenced early-2000s indie rock vibes — perhaps a hint of Interpol. And if that’s all there was to it, TEC would be a decent enough track, albeit with a touch of wannabe-ism to it. There’s something else going on too though. With the vocals riding the song’s repetitive groove and not really deviating into anything as elaborate as a chorus, the dynamics of the song are instead broken up by targeted wailing, twirling guitar solo assaults, like teenage boys living out their Luna Sea rawk fantasies. B-side Ending Song, meanwhile, takes a more downbeat turn but still walks a line between stylish indie rock respectability and something more outright melodramatic, on this track recalling the theatrics of Dog Man Star-era Suede or perhaps their Japanese mirror Buck Tick. In this way, Nehann share some similarities with Tokyo contemporaries Stram, who also in their own way combine dark, early 2000s NME-esque, vaguely post-punk tendencies with something a bit more hysterical and glam. In bringing an emotional flourish into music that can easily get wrapped up in an icy sense of its own cool, bands like Nehann may have found the key to unlocking a new audience for music that had in the past often preferred to hold itself aloof.
Von.E are a mysterious band. Apparently formed in 2018, their presence seems to consist entirely of live streaming a series of “rehearsals” from their hometown of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, with this album being a recording of the third. In that sense, Rehearsal 3 stands as a pretty much lone document and the sole context for the band’s existence, but it’s also a little misleading in its functional title and the general aura of jam session freshness it projects. For something supposedly recorded live in front of a few people in a rehearsal studio, the five drawn-out progressive rock epics that make up the album are surprisingly well recorded, while the songs themselves are intricately developed pieces, each passing through its own series of movements in a way that comes across as more or less composed (albeit with plenty of room for improvisational meandering too).
The ground that Von.E cover begins at the ponderous, spacious end of the spectrum on the opening Tansui, with the fourth track Hoodwink at the more driving, ferocious end. In this mix of motorik and virtuoso guitar abuse, there are as many echoes of Hawkwind as there are of the anti-solo distortion jams of a Yo La Tengo in the throes of a live climax, something reassuringly classic rock sitting alongside a 1990s noise-rock edge. The limitations of the live recording format mean that the sound never quite fills out in the way the music’s epic aspirations really want, but Rehearsal 3 is an unexpectedly rich statement of intent from a band otherwise shrouded in mystery.
There’s nothing particularly unexpected about what Forbear do on 10songs, but they navigate familiar channels of 1990s-influenced indie rock extremely deftly and deliver with a positive energy that infuses even the more melancholy moments like Birds and Walkaway with an extra spark of life. In the more explicitly up-in-your-face moments like Lily and album highlight Dull, the combination of simple, insistent, two-note guitar yowl, enthusiastic drum clatter and twin vocal seduction is electrifying. You can hear a hint of shoegaze in the honey-sweet male/female dream pop vocal harmonies, but the way the band package it in short, punkish, rough-diamond bursts often feels like a fuzz-tinted melodic detour off the back of late Hüsker Dü rather than dissolving the self in obsessive layers of ego death distortion a la My Bloody Valentine. With other touchstones including the rough-edged noise-pop of The Vaselines and the vocal interplay of early Supercar, 10songs fits reassuringly in an international tradition poised on the edge between scuzzy guitar rock and infectious melodies and hooks.
Slope Up Session Club started out as a regular party in Shibuya where musicians from around the Tokyo indie and underground scene would jam in a non-genre-specific (but basically jazz) sort of way. At the centre of the collective is Kim, vocalist and loopmeister of hip hop duo Uhnellys, and you can perhaps hear echoes of Uhnellys in the simple and insistent bass driving the opening song Background from this second album-form collection of the club’s music (the first was called Slope, this one’s called Up, so we can take a guess what the next one will be titled). That propulsive drive runs through the first couple of tracks on Up, providing a progressive rock-tinged counterpoint to later, more explicitly jazz tracks like Children are Leaving or Postman, the latter of which is given its own unique texture and charge by the spoken word poetry that the sparse musical explorations underscore. Generally sax-led, the different motifs brought in by the other instruments continue to colour the individual tracks as it works its way to its conclusion, with Start the Past bringing in an eerie violin backdrop and the closing Salt and Breakdown veering suspiciously close to disco with the four-to-the-floor beat it lays down, before layering in complications that gradually pile up into a climax. Born out of moments created live, Up is best understood as one stage in an ongoing process together with its predecessor and whatever comes next, but it nonetheless does an impressive job of conveying the loose party atmosphere in the fossilised form of a recording.
Huh are an improvised guitar and drum-based duo who blast out hyper-kinetic barrages of freeform avant-skronk with incoherent shouting, usually for short, intense periods of time in front of seedy audiences of punk and underground scene deadbeats. Which is to say they are great and the very heart and soul of what makes Tokyo such a terrific city to be a music fan in. Both of the two releases they’ve put out so far this year are composed of recordings dug out of sessions dating back a year or two, each bubbling, hissing, scratching and exploding with the band’s particular brand of broken jazz made out of mistakes and feedback. In fact, it’s a testament to how completely the anarchy of their live presence and their music are one that even without the raw physicality of the performance, both recordings still fizz with such energy. Of the two, Drive the Mode is the more straight-up ferocious, working its way in what’s as close as a band like Huh ever get to a linear fashion towards a frenetic climax. Enough, meanwhile, takes a slightly more picturesque route through moments of intensely charged quiet in the track Some Possibilities, while the following twelve-minute Through the Black Sea explodes right back into the heat of a riot before detouring through some of its own dystopian backroads — contrasts pushed even further in the closing Boys, We Don’t Stand with You. It’s an exhausting but rewarding listen.
Sacoyan is a singer-songwriter from Fukuoka, debuting in a band form here under the name Sacoyans with a hometown supergroup backing lineup featuring Miwako (Miu Mau) on drums, Seiji Harajiri (Hyacca) on bass and Takeshi Yamamoto (Sea Level, Macmanaman, various solo works and what sometimes seems like every other band in Fukuoka) on guitar. Sacoyan’s songs tend towards emotionally wrought balladry in an early Shiina Ringo vein, with the band lineup filling them out and pumping them up with some scuzzy 1990s alt-rock energy. It’s interesting being far enough away from the 1990s that its sounds have claimed a musical territory of their own distinct enough that an album like Yomosue can be confidently called retro. The guitar sounds lean a little bit Oasis in places, a bit Swervedriver in others, and the hard stop the final track JK pulls at the end of its closing feedback freakout is straight out of Supercar’s Three Out Change playbook. It stands on its own beyond the MTV2 nostalgia of its guitar fuzz thanks to the sort of solidly crafted pop-rock songwriting that would have been a crossover J-Pop hit had it only landed in an era when the planets were more favourably aligned for this sort of music.
Positioned as the first part of an ongoing project, TRD 1 features two songs by Tokyo-based singer-songwriter mmm (pronounced “me-my-mow”) written and produced in collaboration with different artists. The first, Beats for You, sees her pair up with Shintaro Sakamoto, formerly of Yura Yura Teikoku fame but now probably more famous as a solo artist, and its gently swinging folk-country lullaby trot forms a perfect backdrop for mmm’s voice at its softest ASMR near-whisper. The gentle pedal steel guitar melodic flourishes act as a second voice, commenting adjacent to mmm’s vocals, with the whole song falling back into sixteen bars of near-silence, broken only by the rhythmical brushwork on the drums.
The second track, Tōasa, brings in Japan-based Chinese musician Oh-shu and goes down a more electronic path, although mmm’s voice remains wavering on the edge of hearing, as fragile and intimate as the EP’s lockdown-inspired home recording concept suggests, crawling into and curling up in the music’s sparsest corners. The arrangement crafts contrasts with its more delicate moments, though, by veering into more strident colour splashes of beats and synth chimes.
As a concept set up to enable mmm to explore different musical territory, it manages in just two songs to succeed in offering an intriguing range of possibilities. If a TRD 2 ever emerges, it would be fascinating to see where else it takes her.