Category Archives: Albums

V/A: Life is Music

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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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Towel: Haru Natsu Aki Fuyu

towel - haru natsu aki fuyu

CD, self-released, 2018

From the city of Hamamatsu near the western edge of Shizuoka Prefecture, Towel’s Haru Natsu Aki Fuyu EP is a charming riot of lo-fi indie rock. There’s a bit of Pavement to it, but it’s in a distinctly Japanese alternative tradition with its raucous, school festival energy and smartly weaponised off-key vocals. It’s a short EP, all four tracks getting in and out in six and a half minutes total, clattering and stumbling from bum note to scratchy postpunk non-chord and back in a way that resolves itself into a strangely appealing melodic sensibility of its own.

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Odd Eyes: Self Portrait

odd eyes - self portrait

CD, KILIKILIVILLA, 2018

Self-Portrait by Odd Eyes is 25-minutes of breakneck hardcore punk, enlivened by skronky guitar deviations and rhythmical hiccups that make this Kyoto-based band one of the most interesting acts in the always lively Kansai scene right now. Odd Eyes are careful not to get stuck into a single groove for the duration of the the album though, and after a furious opening barrage that includes the albums two shortest songs, the sub-one-minute Just a Soul and Fictional Pause, they slow things down and draw things out long enough to unleash their inner Fugazi with the instrumental Microphone Justice and the emotionally fraught A One and a Two. Meanwhile, solo guitar instrumental, 0-do, throws in a curveball of a different sort, with its reverberating, icy textures, before the album veers back into its hardcore groove. It’s music that values energy over precision, but that’s also bubbling with ideas and invention. The copy I picked up from Jet Set Records in Kyoto also included a bonus CD-R featuring a 15-minute radio chat show with band members followed by a 50-minute DJ mix that throws Odd Eyes’ own music into some relief in how it leans so heavily towards folk, indiepop and lo-fi psychedelia rather than the punk influences you might expect.

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The Doodless: Capture


This scratchy, lo-fi CD/R EP of fucked-up garage rock is one of those unexpected little delights that occasionally falls into my lap and immediately becomes one of my favourite bands. With five songs coming in at a pop-friendly fifteen minutes, the songs are concise enough, but with room to play around. Opening track Su_haku has one of those simple, wandering basslines that so many of the coolest weird, amateurish postpunk bands had – well, the Raincoats and Mo-dettes mostly – and the breathless way the vocals can’t settle on any sort of melody provides a mischievous bit of misdirection from what’s actually a strangely catchy song.

Elsewhere on the EP, the songs are built round more easy-to-pin-down structures, withthe playful You Are Living Through Your Eyes and the closing Shrimp is Good Food showcasing the band at their raucous, ramshackle best. The remaining songs, I’m Your Firstaid and Stack take a more sedate but no less rickety approach to their ‘60s-derived garage rock.

Part of the joy of bands like Doodless (not to be confused with the “s”-deficient but rather more famous Japanese band Doodles) lies in the way their essentially slapdash way of making music typically translates into a similarly carefree approach to the business of being in a band. The looseness feels liberating, but there’s also a fragility, a sense that the band’s own motivation might crumble at any moment, so these brief, joyous documents should be treasured.

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Luby Sparks: Luby Sparks

luby sparks - luby sparks

CD, AWDR/LR2, 2018

One of the most hotly tipped guitar bands in Japan at the moment, the hopefully ironically-named Luby Sparks seem with this eponymous full-length debut album to be making the leap from underground ones-to-watch into the world of radio rotation and summer festival respectability.

Thanks to the production work of Max Bloom from UK indie band Yuck (and the two bands’ earlier split cassette), a lot of the attention around this album has centred around that connection, and rightly so as there are definite sonic similarities. More broadly, there’s something recognisably and melancholically British about Luby Sparks’ sound, which stands in contrast to the perky, distinctly American-sounding punk-pop influence that runs through a lot of Japanese indiepop.

The air of melancholy that Luby Sparks is shot through with, along with its distorted, post-My Bloody Valentine guitars and boy/girl twin vocals, also recalls turn-of-the-millennium Japanese rock legends Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change, and the albums display a rare talent for maintaining that longing atmosphere without compromising the music’s essential energy and momentum.

That energy is sometimes more difficult to discern in the band’s rather static live performances, but on the album it comse across powerfully. Hateful Summer and Teenage Squash rattle forward with a rough-edged, punkish, Jesus And Mary Chain-esque distorted powerpop punch, while Tangerine sees the band channeling the richly textured cacophony of MBV most directly, with the addition of a propulsive kraut-tinged rhythm.

Luby Sparks is by no means an original album, but it’s a wistful, sweeping, confident and ultimately impressive one, featuring a rich line in beautiful melodies with an embroidery of shoegazey distortion.

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Ms. Machine: S.L.D.R.

ms machine - sldr

CD, self-released, 2018

If you didn’t get hold of the scuzzy demo CD/R that the band were selling at live performances a year or two back, S.L.D.R. is likely the first chance most people have to hear Tokyo-based noise-punk band Ms. Machine in recorded form. Occupying the more discordant end of the current wave of young, aloof, well-dressed Tokyo indie bands with icy, blank stares that don’t give a damn about your bullshit, they bring a shot of curiously taciturn aggression to a scene still dominated by the piss-end of City Pop and varyingly competent imitations of vaguely twee US and UK guitar pop.

With four tracks’ worth of snarling guitars, distortion, doom-laden chords and shrieking sloganeering coming in at around seven and a half minutes, this EP places the band in a lineage that encompasses both D.C. hardcore and New York no wave. Most of the songs on S.L.D.R. are built around a single, grinding guitar riff, over which the vocals repetitively intone their minimal message. Despite that minimalism, however, there’s a distinctly feminist slant to the lyrics, with the opening Break the Current System featuring just the phrase, “She gotta obey him to succeed in this world” one and a half times and Your Little Yardstick simply and repeatedly demanding, “Do not appraise me!” Meanwhile, whether intentional or not, instrumental closing track 3.11 is difficult to separate from the horror and unease of the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th 2011, the track unfolding beneath a shrieking toy siren, with guitar and bass alternating between the same two-note riff and percussively hammering away on one chord before the guitar dissolves into a Mission of Burma-esque distorted outro.

There’s an unfinished quality to Ms. Machine’s songwriting that contributes to its no-bullshit appeal, the songs starting, locking into a groove, and then never really finishing so much as just ending. Despite (or maybe partly because of) this, as well as the short length and the minimalism of the music within, S.L.D.R. is an EP that rewards repeat listenings with a brutal simplicity of its own.

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Falsettos: Falsettos

falsettos - falsettos

CD, P-Vine, 2018

The Falsettos have been around for more than ten years, but with the exception of a couple of self-produced CD/Rs and a brace of appearances on compilation albums, they’ve been rather coy until now about committing their lushly melodic but often weird-edged and angry indie rock to a full-length release.

This self-titled album features a handful of songs from those earlier releases, with older recordings of the romantic 6 and menacing Ink having first appeared ten years ago, and a version of raw, postpunk anthem Johnny having whooped its way into the world via their second EP in 2015. Elsewhere, however, some of the band’s more oddball older material (the deliciously demented Icecream Fatal and Le Poyo are sadly no longer present) has been sacrificed to make way for less manic, more expansive and richly melodic songs like Terrible Boy and Plane. Nevertheless, the album retains a balance between the band’s richer and rawer extremes as it builds to the anthemic twin climax of Hejira (a Joni Mitchell reference?) and perennial show-closer Newborn Baby.

Miuko Nakao is an unusual vocalist in the Japanese music scene. Partly a conversational non-singer in the tradition of Bernard Sumner, but also with the cracked quality of Marianne Faithful, her voice carries the songs with a distinct personality, ricocheting from vulnerability to rage to gushing romanticism. The sonic texture that fills out the songs, however, is to a large degree down to keyboard player Yukiko Nishii, who sketches meandering piano lines beneath the Yo La Tengo-esque distorted guitar solo on 6 and helps drive Dig forward with her sharp synth stabs. Drummer Fumie and bassist Ingel meanwhile ensure the album trips towards its conclusion with a consistently bouncy energy.

Perhaps reflecting its long gestation period, the songwriting on this debut album is uniformly strong, all catchy hooks, earworm choruses and the occasional sharp left turn. Leaning as it does rather more heavily on newer material, however, the signs for the future are good, as long as the band can keep it together and avoid the second-album inertia that so often sucks the life out of Tokyo indie bands. It may be early to talk about records of the year, but it’s hard to imagine a better indie rock album coming out in Japan this year, so keep an eye out for this one come recap season.

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