Originally from Kyoto but these days based in Tokyo, 5kai are a raw, taut, minimalist and decidedly Albini-esque alt-rock band who sit in a meandering but identifiable lineage of disconcerting rock that runs back through bands like Slint and This Heat. Their self-titled 2018 debut album was a strong statement of intent, and since then they seem to be on a course of releasing annual reports in the form of digital EPs that have seen them digging further into this vein of rough-edged post-hardcore and progressive rock. Despite the sparse instrumental setup, Untitled #2 covers a range of sonic ground with the tight drum sound and studio polish of second track Ato standing in contrast to the creatively deployed lo-fi aesthetics of the closing Jazz — a track that gnaws a groove of its own around your brain on repeat listens, with sounds that start out feeling like mistakes or accidental sonic artifacts becoming essential parts of the music through repetition. As with its equally-untitled 2019 predecessor, Untitled #2 carries a sense of exploration around the core of the sound 5kai established on their album, maintaining their identity as they prod with curiosity at the edges. They’re working towards something and even the band themselves seem uncertain but interested to discover what it is.
Category Archives: Albums
Takeshi Yamamoto is a seemingly omnipresent figure in the Fukuoka music scene, playing in bands like Macmanaman, Kelp, Sea Level and many more. He released his first solo album, Somewhere, last year, which was one of this site’s gorgeous ambient highlights of 2019, and at the start of 2020 he came back with a new collection of spacious soundscapes in collaboration with fellow Fukuoka-based musician Wolf of Acid Mothers Temple. Where Somewhere would occasionally use short tracks to focus in on small sonic details, Upsilon is more concerned with the big picture, divided into three movements — long tracks that give the album a wider, looser, more expansive feel. This perhaps reflects Upsilon’s origin as a live improvisation session, albeit one extensively worked on in the studio subsequently, and it retains the exploratory atmosphere of two musicians working around each other in the moment. Fundamentally an ambient record, Upsilon isn’t afraid of pushing into broad crescendos that seem to fill the sonic spectrum or disorientate with disjointed analogue samples and occasionally harsh psychedelic episodes, just as it is content and confident enough to settle back into its own luscious, gentle mindscapes for long periods. And it’s here perhaps that Upsilon really deviates from pure ambient music: despite its gentle pace, it has progressive rock’s constant need to push forward on a journey, drawing the listener through different sonic territory that toys with their sense of comfort — Upsilon is filled with beauty in which you could easily lose yourself, but it is nonetheless an album that wants your attention.
DJ Topgear is a British-born, Tokyo-based maker of experimental electronic mindfuckery with a true psychedelic’s paranoid compass for the spiralling chaos of a world falling apart. Dropping Mugen no Orokasa (Infinity of Stupidity) in early 2020, amid the infinitely idiotic sub-political theatrics of events like Brexit and whatever electoral idiocy the Americans are currently playing at, as the fragile time-sensitive supply lines that hold civilisation together begin to fray and come undone thanks to that virus everyone’s talking about, while through it all the internet boldly and inexorably screams its quarrelsome chorus of infantile nonsense and rage, the timing seems… appropriate? Because while Mugen no Orokasa is not explicitly about any of these themes, it feels like an album born out of the same world that gave us them, and — disturbingly — it seems to be having quite a lot of fun in there. Opening track Military Grade Viral Disinformation Network begins with a sample of Alan Moore expounding wisely on the theme of the transformative shamanic dance that underscores all art, before a drum’n’bass beat takes over and sets to work twisting the anarchic threads of the broken structures that fall around it and fashioning them into its own sort of grotesque metaphysical party soundsystem. This frenetic blast of beats and cut-up pop cultural transmissions, edged with portentous gilding of industrial menace, powers through pretty much the whole album, ensuring that the darkness never tilts the album over into a pure exercise in cynicism and giving it a righteous cosmic energy that can’t help but be essentially positive.
Tentative Four are a strange band, and this EP provides an interestingly distorted vision of them. On stage, they adopt a snotty, backs-to-the-crowd stance and chart a path that veers between 1990s US post-hardcore and gothic-tinged British post-punk along the lines of Magazine or Joy Division. That aspect of the band is on display here in the wilfully banally titled #1 and #4, but there are a couple of other sides to the band too. Vocalist Norihiro Takishita is also a DJ and underground event organiser who specialises in slowed down and distorted takes on old pop, but gathers together a variety of other oddball DJs and experimental electronic and noise musicians around him in his anarchic sonic laboratory. Those aspects of his work are also on display on this EP, with two post-punk tracks that more or less reflect the live experience of the band in their rock form, plus interjections from Takishita’s twisted oldie DJ excursions, while the other half of it is taken up with remixes (including one of his own, that sounds like him flushing the original track down a troubled toilet while hypnotised by a creepy horror movie music box). So while this EP certainly contains on it an introduction to the raw, doom-edged, Mancunian-touched hysteria of Tentative Four’s live experience, it takes you further and deeper, on a tour of a lot of the band’s surrounding ecosystem too. It’s an intriguing approach to the art of EP-making, and one that will likely be disorientating and confusing to listeners stumbling on it with no prior context, but it’s also scene-savvy in how it places the band in a context that actually reveals a lot about them and the anarchic alternate world in Tokyo that they’re part of.
Barbican Estate are new on the scene in Tokyo, but at least within the young, internationally-minded niche of the Japanese indie scene they look like gathering particular attention as Ones To Watch over the course of the next year or so. On this debut EP/mini-album cassette (four songs in 26 minutes), the trio give a powerful and impressively complete account of themselves, with the opening Angel combining ethereal, sweetly delivered vocals that sound like they’ve dropped straight off a 4AD sampler circa the early 1990s with psychedelic-tinged alt-rock guitar lines that chime menacingly, pregnant with the threat to unleash an arsenal of distortion pedals, holding off impressively for 70% of the song’s runtime. That combination of otherworldly vocals and indie-psychedelia guitar soundscapes is what defines the core of the Barbican Estate sound, but that still leaves them with a wide playground to explore, with the Indian-tinged melodies of the instrumental Gravity of the Sun striking out in their own distinctive direction, while the spoken-word vocals and sharp-edged guitar ruptures of the closing Successive Sliding of Pleasure recall hints of Movietone at their raw, early best. Barbican Estate are not only one to watch over the coming year but more importantly one to pay attention to right now.
Tokyo-based trio Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots have been creeping around and exploiting Japanese alt-rock’s unexplored corners and blind spots for the best part of the past decade, and on this sixth release of their career, they’re in particularly playful form. There’s a percussion-centred minimalism to their approach here, with the bass and guitars comfortable in taking frequent steps back to leave the eerie yet warm acoustics of Junpei Yamamoto’s sparse rhythmical utterances tapping out their coded messages in the foreground. As usual for the band, there’s a lot of vocal interplay and harmonies at work, which works in parallel with Loolowningen’s wilfully disconcerting rhythmical jitters to make a game out of deconstructing the habits that even alternative music tends to fall into, in a way that draws comparisons with bands like Hikashu, who are similarly playful with form but generally more organic, less sharp-edged than Loolowningen. Nevertheless, Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots’s music isn’t overwhelmed by their tightly wound structural gameplay, and when they open up space for vocalist Shigeru Akakura to simply sing a song, as on sixth track Coup, a melancholy warmth rises above the backdrop of the band’s complex rhythmical explorations. That combination of playfulness and melancholy, playing out over the often sparse musical set dressing that the band lay out is perhaps Anökumene’s defining emotional and atmospheric characteristic, and the results are compelling.
There was of course a lot of Japanese music in 2019 that I didn’t listen to or that otherwise got left out of my top 25 rundown. There were a couple of releases in particular that I liked a lot and on another day might have been included, so first up, here’s a look at a couple of my additional favourites.
Bulbs of Passion – Low Life
Tokyo indie rock band Bulbs of Passion have been plugging away in the background of the local scene for the best part of the past decade, with a solid catalogue of songs, although as far as I know the only available recording of them before this new EP was 2016’s The Very Best of Bulbs of Passion. For a band named after a Dinosaur Jr. song, Bulbs of Passion’s music has an unexpectedly light touch, the title track soaring out of the traps, kept aloft by billowing reverb, while Slap bounces along poppily on its off-beat. The closing Hurt, meanwhile nods to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey before once again being launched skyward, powered by the band’s seemingly endless reserves of giddy enthusiasm.
Yokoscum – Last Month’s Music
An incessant hiss of distortion that may have originated in a guitar, an eerie throbbing electronic pulse, some devotional wailing, metallic hints of a pop melody, occasional gasps of confused desperation. DJ, event organiser and experimental musician Yokoscum’s Last Month’s Music cassette EP is an intriguing little creation, combining lo-fi noise and industrial with vaguely religious sounding mantras and letting the repetitive, insistent nature of both feed each other. The five untitled tracks on this EP are more explorations of an idea than songs exactly, but the results are still interesting and not without a sense of playfulness and fun.
For my own Call And Response label, 2019 was a relatively low-key year, with three new releases (and a fourth that didn’t officially come out until January 2020). As usual, I don’t include releases I helped put out in my own best-of-the-year rundowns because it’s difficult to judge and rank something I was involved in pressing and promoting against other people’s music. Naturally, though, I think all these releases are great, so here’s a quick look at 2019 from Call And Response’s perspective.
First up, there was synth-punk trio Jebiotto’s split 7-inch single with the excellent UK-based post-punk band Treeboy & Arc, which we released in collaboration with British label Come Play With Me. In addition to the record, we also made an extremely silly short sci-fi film featuring the band battling robot doubles created by an evil live venue owner.
In May, we released another international split, this time a CD EP featuring Filipina riot grrrl band The Male Gaze and Tokyo noise-punks P-iPLE (who incidentally share a vocalist with Jebiotto). To promote this EP, we brought The Male Gaze over for an eventful and extremely fun one-week tour.
Then in October, Looprider came out with their fourth album and first full-length release, Ouroboros. From the start, Looprider have been combining shoegaze and noise-rock-influenced effects-pedal textures with metal and doom riffs, employing a wide variety of approaches from one release to the next. This album is perhaps the purest expression of this essence though, barging back and forth between lush, layered towers of textured rock and grinding garage-metal riffery.
2020 has already started off with some good new releases, and some very interesting stuff on the horizon from Panicsmile, Half Sports, Kasuppa, Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots among others. From Call And Response, we’ve just put out another split 7-inch featuring Tokyo post-hardcore band illMilliliter and Hokkaido’s TG.Atlas, with further releases planned. Whether it’s another year before I update this site again or if I somehow manage to keep on top of new releases a bit better remains to be seen. Hopefully, I’ll manage to be better.