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.
Category Archives: Albums
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Among the top releases of 2017, I always avoid writing about anything on my own Call And Response label for obvious reasons. For equally obvious reasons, the music Call And Response puts out is also always among my favourite new music of the year (otherwise why would I go to the trouble of putting it out?) so I’m giving the label a page of its own to run through what was a very busy year in new releases:
Lo-shi – Ninjin
Lo-shi are an instrumental post-rock/electronic duo and Ninjin was the first of two albums they released in 2017 (the second was an equally excellent self-released CD/download called Moro-Q). Lo-shi’s music is characterised by eerie soundscapes and beats that range from skittering electronica to insistent, almost krautrock rhythms, while the melodies and tones combine washes of synth with theremin, Jew’s harp and Durutti Column-esque guitar.
(Buy the CD here)
Looprider – Umi
The second post-rock album Call And Response released in 2017 was this single 25-minute-long rock monster of a track by Looprider. Following on from the hardcore and noise-influenced Ascension and their pop/metal/shoegaze debut My Electric Fantasy, an instrumental prog rock epic may have seemed like another hard swerve in another direction, but it’s really a refinement of the same combination of sweet and heavy that the band have been exploring from the start.
(Buy the CD here)
P-iPLE – Do Do Do A Silly Travel By Bicycle Bicycle
This clumsily titled mini-album is a short-sharp-shock of scuzzy hardcore and no wave delivered with a playful and nonsensical sense of humour. The guitar sounds are tortured and glorious, the rhythms are breakneck, and vocalist Madca Kitabeppu (also of synth-punk trio Jebiotto) is a natural born rock star.
(Buy the CD here)
V/A – Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show
I don’t include Call And Response releases in my year-end rundowns, partly because no one would trust the lists if I did, and partly because I find it hard to assess music I’m this personally invested in against music I simply enjoy as a fan. This compilation, however, would definitely have been No.1 if I’d been including everything. It’s everything I love — skronky art-punk and noise-rock that channels the ragged creativity of the postpunk era while rarely resorting to direct pastiche. It also includes fantastic songs by most of my favourite bands in Japan, like Panicsmile, Melt-Banana, Hyacca, otori and more, so I’m not going to be ashamed in any way of saying that this is a fucking awesome album.
(Buy the CD here)
Sharkk – Be That Way
Sharkk is another way of saying Sean McGee, drummer from Looprider and Tropical Death. It’s also a convenient shorthand round these parts for a kind of sweetly sentimental, emo-tinged indie rock with gnarly, 90s alt-rock guitars. One of the few unashamedly melodic bands on the label at the moment, McGee deploys his tunesmithery in the service of a faintly self-effacing, rather ambivalent nostalgia for teen angst.
(Buy the cassette here)
Tropical Death – Modern Maze
Like Sharkk, there’s a sense of harking back to ‘90s indie rock in Tropical Death, although they take a more angular approach to their arrangements and a far more cynical approach to their lyrics. From the melodic title track to the post-hardcore rhythm workout Tribal, Tropical Death load their songs with hooks and little moments of invention that ensure every track takes you somewhere unexpected.
(Buy the cassette here)
Looprider – Ascension (cassette re-release)
Originally released as a limited edition CD in 2016, Ascension is Looprider’s take on hardcore and noise, a twenty-minute nuclear explosion of a record that starts and ends in squalls of pure noise but on the way takes you on a whirlwind tour of scratchy hardcore and the scuzzier fringes of Looprider’s more familiar metal-adjacent territory.
(Buy the cassette here)
illMilliliter – New Standard
The debut album by a Tokyo post-hardcore band featuring ex-members of Tacobonds and Imamon, dealing in frenetic, twisted guitars and tight, focussed, aggressive rhythms. illMilliliter are clearly influenced by bands like Shellac (Bob Weston worked on the album as mastering engineer), Slint and Fugazi, as well as Japanese acts like Panicsmile and possibly Number Girl/Zazen Boys, but there’s also an appreciation for sparseness and the spaces between sounds, which lifts New Standard above most Japanese punk and post-hardcore and makes them something worth playing special attention to.
(Buy the CD here)