Category Archives: Reviews

Phew – Vertigo KO

Over the past few years, Phew’s creative output has travelled a path from synth experiments on Light Sleep, through ghostly vocal distortions and layers on Voice Hardcore, collaborative experiments and linguistic games with Ana da Silva on Island, and earlier this year released the limited edition cassette Vertical Jamming of what could perhaps be described as psychic landscapes of Japan in the disorientating aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, to name but a few of her recent releases and projects. This run of releases each has its own thematic concerns and processes, but they also send out spectral threads, insinuating themselves into each other, drifting layers of misty drone and vocals that twist meanings out of incomprehensibility and vice-versa, underscored by the post-punk simplicity of the synth pulses and machine or sample loop rhythms.

Drawing on the sessions from many of those albums, Vertigo KO is the latest step on that journey, but one with echoes of its predecessors making their ghostly presence felt, each step forward haunted by the same journey’s past. The layers of vocal loops on Let’s Dance Let Go, the popcorn rhythmical patter running through All That Vertigo, the time-slip to Ana da Silva’s old band The Raincoats on the cover of The Void, the atmosphere of unease, words flitting back and forth from behind the veil of comprehension. In creating this “unconscious sound sketch” of what Phew describes as “a closed and obstructive time”, there’s a captivating tension between claustrophobic or oppressive elements and the expansive, liberating sonic space that she opens up at times, and the result is an album that feels both disconcerting and quite beautiful, wrapped up in an uneasy, occasionally chilling sort of intimacy.

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Various Artists – We Need Some DISCIPLINE Here.

There have been a lot of Japanese compilation albums this year, largely organised by and for live venues that had been forced by the pandemic to scale back their operations. This compilation by Tokyo’s Discipline event team is different in that its focus is more specifically around the organisers’ own event.

Pinning down exactly what sort of event Discipline is (and therefore what sort of album this is) is difficult using the normal diagnostic tools of genre — it blends hardcore, grindcore, post-punk, EBM, noise, techno, drone, experimental and various points between, but nonetheless it adds up to a coherent sonic universe. Many of the electronic tracks (Golpe Mortal) have a raw, rough-edged quality to them that plays well with the punk-influenced entries (Klonns), some of which themselves bleed seamlessly into experimental territory (Granule), while experimental and noise acts happily cross back over into rough-edged electronica (In The Sun).

A good compilation album takes you on a journey through different landscapes that are nonetheless recognisable as parts of the same world, and what makes this Discipline compilation so interesting is how it constructs that world itself with such little reliance on the shortcuts provided by external signifiers. Part of that is perhaps down to the way it has already established and honed its identity through its regular events. Part may also be down to the disregard towards genre among young audiences in Japan (the Rokoh label’s 2020 Songs for Our Space compilation dances around similar sounds with a similarly gloomy sense of cool to Discipline, with members of the bands Ms. Machine and Strip Joint appearing on both). In this sense, the attitude is feels like an update of the post-punk era’s marriage of funk, dub, electronic and experimental music to various strains of rock’n’roll, all with a similarly stripped-back and raw approach. All of which is to say that if Discipline is the future of underground music in Tokyo, it’s one with a lot of promise.

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Uhnellys – Core

Released in May, Core was one of the first Japanese albums made specifically under the conditions of (and often in direct reference to) the coronavirus pandemic. Lyrically, the album opener Doku to Kusuri spins round amid the claustrophobia, uncertainty and panic of the early days of being in an uncharted zone of invisible infection, while images of panic and disorder recur throughout the album as vocalist Kim unfolds his cinematic fragments of narrative and abstract sloganeering.

The impact of the pandemic is more obvious, though, in the music itself, recorded at home with electronic beats and sequencers replacing the live drums that traditionally ride the grooves and delay loops of Uhnellys’ music. As I mentioned when commenting about this album for Undrcurrents in June, the album takes an interesting turn about halfway through, exploring darker, more experimental and more psychedelic territory on tracks like Hope with its overlapping vocals and the synth drone-centred Enter the Forest feat. Nozomi Nobody. Five months after it was initially released, a lot of the sense of impending panic that coloured the pandemic’s early days in Tokyo has retreated into a sort of low key but constant knot in the stomach, but there’s a tightly wound sense of discomfort and uncertainty running through Core that taps into something deeper than simply the scenery of its moment.

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Golpe Mortal / Veleno Spina – Modern Barometz Vol. 1 // Veleno Spina – Manage Your Anger

Both Golpe Mortal and Veleno Spina trade in rhythms that you could call vaguely teutonic if “vague” didn’t seem like such an utterly inappropriate word for the relentless industrial jackhammer beats and sequencer pulses that characterise both artists’ work. Both artists’ tracks hover in the border zone between EBM and techno, a fantasy soundtrack to a lost low budget experimental sci-fi horror film set in an imagined Cold War Berlin warehouse party, with Golpe Mortal’s leaning more on the sequencer patterns on EP opener Engulfed in Truth and the Liaisons Dangereusesque Abuse Your Freedom, while Veleno Spina’s side of the EP is more brutally industrial, an engulfing percussive clatter of machinery running through the closing Ooze.

That combination of a relentless, heavy kick with the metallic, mechanic clatter of percussion also characterises Veleno Spina’s own EP, Manage Your Anger, released earlier in the year. The acidic synth squelches of early 1990s rave filtered through the minimal, monochrome claustrophobia of 1980s industrial mean that Veleno Spina (and Golpe Mortal in his own subtly different way) sits tentatively balanced on a pivot between utopia and dystopia.

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Aiha Higurashi – A

Flying solo, away from her band Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, Aiha Higurashi’s songwriting remains just as distinctively hers as ever on this new album, even as she takes the occasional detour from sparse, deceptively simple indie rock and spreads her electronic wings on tracks like Child, Song A and Wonk. The air of mournful weariness and ambivalence that Higurashi always seems to carry with her runs through much of the album. “I used to hate you,” she repeats on the opening Seven Seas, her past fury insistently colouring present need as the song hops its fragile way through different melodies, always ready to swing one way or another, a clattering drum pattern both holding down a consistent thread whose very constancy also helps emphasise the sharp turns the song is taking over it. A similar sense of some storm threatening to derail any moment runs through Heat, with a spare arrangement of just thundering drums and minimal guitar driving the song forward and a thunderclap of heavy rock noise striking and rolling for eight seconds before lifting as suddenly as it arrived. The most obvious pop moment is Shining All Over, which is present in two versions, the first as a duet with guest vocalist Gotch, best known as the singer of Asian Kung-Fu Generation, and then again solo to close the album. The album’s indecision over which version to lay its bets on is in many ways part of the dance it makes from the beginning, ricocheting back and forth between love and hate, loneliness and splendid isolation, and in the end, bittersweet, Aiha pared down to A and strictly solo.

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Various Artists – The Goup -The Noup Gorge Remixes-

The Noup’s 2018 album Flaming Psychic Heads was one of the most exciting Japanese noise-rock albums of the past few years, combining twisted, distorted guitar slashes with relentless panzer rhythms. This album of remixes (and what looks like one straight out cover) comes courtesy of the Gorge.In label, Japan’s premier and only merchants of gorge, the mountaineering-inspired, tom-heavy club music style that originated in the mountains of Nepal and definitely isn’t a made-up genre invented in Tokyo eight years ago (and who cares if it is: genres are just words, and all words had to be made up at some point). What matters here, in any case, is that the heavy, tribal beats that characterise gorge are a good match for the ferocious beats and shouting of The Noup’s music, these remixes retaining the originals’ energy while stripping back the guitars, loosening up the tightly wound rhythms and pushing drums and percussion to the fore. What this album also helps to highlight is the way Japan’s underground club subcultures and the noisier, experimental fringes of the punk and alternative rock scenes are becoming increasingly intertwined in a way that’s often rough-edged, raw, sometimes cheap and lo-fi sounding, and with a punkish energy of its own.

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Hanauo – Five Fold Finders For Flower Fish

Originally recorded about twenty years ago, but left unreleased until now, Five Fold Finders For Flower Fish is a beautiful album and a welcome exhumation from a long-gone band. There’s a dark, low-key psychedelic edge to the songs, trading in repetitive guitar lines and drawn out minimal grooves. Meanwhile, when vocals make an appearance, they press up quiet and close to the speaker, soft and intimate but delivered with a sort of cynical cat’s meow. That edge of cynicism, combined with the music’s understated sense of sonic space and comfort in its own pace, perhaps offers a clue at this album’s origins in the late 1990s, when the dying embers of Gen X rock and newly mature electronic music were exploring each other’s worlds with more sympathy and sensitivity than at perhaps any other time. On the surface, Hanauo are as rock as it comes, but they deploy acoustic instruments in ways reminiscent of electronic loops, while the use of samples and electronics tend to highlight the analogue, whether the hum of daily life or the babble, wriggle and squiggle of a synthesiser. All this comes together in a warm but understated atmosphere that taps into similar psychic ley lines to artists like Tortoise, the Beta Band and Mice Parade (whose Adam Pierce was originally lined up to be this album’s producer), not to mention the K Records vibe that for a long time around the turn of the millennium kept within finger’s reach of a segment of the Japanese indie scene.

Now that it’s finally seeing the light, Five Fold Finders For Flower Fish is all the more extraordinary a find for how fully formed the band come across, joyfully experimental without compromising their easy and accessible melodic sensibility. It sounds like very little else out there in the Japanese indie world right now, yet it manages to be at the same time immediately familiar and endlessly strange.

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Tamako Katsufuji – I Remember Only The Feeling I’ve Been Happy / I’ll Not Be In Your Time Tomorrow


Released simultaneously at the end of May, these two albums both take as their base field recordings or audio snapshots of quiet corners of daily life in Japan, occasionally distorted or treated with effects, and sometimes incorporating simple musical arrangements to one degree or another. I Remember… returning on more than one occasion to the sounds of children playing outside, while Umi yori mo sora yori mo fukai ao wo hito wa kaku koto ga dekirun yarou ka blue sets the nostalgic idyll of its melodica arrangement against the quiet rhythm of a train, seemingly recorded while travelling to the ocean. The title track that follows incorporates a passing train recorded from outside, which makes a far more disruptive, raucous rhythm as it rattles and crashes past, Katsufuji weaving disconcerting drones in and our of the found sounds, whether the rattle of the train or the sounds of children playing.

The second of the two albums, I’ll Not Be In Your Time Tomorrow, retains the focus on found sounds from daily life, focusing its interest on what Katsufuji describes as “twinkle sounds” — perhaps the jangle of cutlery, the chime of a bell, the spinning of a bicycle wheel, the flow of water over rocks, but often undecipherable, otherworldly, glistening on the border between organic and machine, offering no certainty as to which side they fall. These sounds are often intertwined with the more explicitly mechanical sounds, whether the roar of traffic and trains or Katsufuji’s own electronic manipulations, like man-made scrawls across a collage of the ambiguously natural. In both albums, the landscape Katsufuji creates is both familiar and touched with magic in the journey her shifting attention takes you.

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COVID compilation roundup (Summer 2020)

In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Japan, the situation has been tough for live music venues, with support from the government inconsistent, often poorly publicised, and generally either unavailable or difficult to obtain. As a result, many venues and artist collectives have produced compilations so that fans can contribute to keeping the infrastructure alive, even as the authorities give up on attempting to contain the pandemic. As with many compilations, the music is often scattershot and of variable quality, but this flood of releases is also bringing to light for the first time a lot of music that has been hidden in soundproofed boxes and known only to small word-of-mouth groups, leading to a paradoxical situation where the Japanese music scene is turning inwards into more specifically local- and scene-focused production at the same time that it is also turning much more openly outwards by making such vast quantities of music available online to anyone in the world who wants to explore it. I have personally been involved in a few of rough-and-ready projects of this type, which I have indulged myself by adding at the end of this feature for anyone who gets that far, but there is so much to cover in here that you will be listening for weeks to even dent this undoubtedly incomplete roundup of what’s been going on since this spring.

Navaro Compilation
Put together by the venue Navaro in Kumamoto, this compilation paints a quite extensive and wide-ranging portrait of the music scene in a part of Japan that doesn’t usually get a lot of attention except whenever a natural disaster sweeps through and wrecks everything (as an earthquake did to Navaro’s old location in 2016). The real standouts are the deranged live cuts from experimental rock bands Doit Science and Ishiatamazizo, but the album takes a fascinating trip through the feelgood pop-rock of The Heightz, the stripped down stoner hip-hop of Griner feat Blueprint, the grimy, sparse post-hardcore of Mul-Let-Ct2, the understated sweet-sour melancholy of Neuesanssouci and much more.


O2O2 the eyes behind the eyes
One of the releases picking up a lot of buzz this summer, this compilation seems to have been produced to raise money for a range of venues and stores around Japan — only available on CD directly from the participating businesses. It generally leans in a pop-rock/pop-punk direction but it’s the places where it deviates from that where it becomes most interesting, with Deride’s two raucous, ferocious hardcore tracks and the anarchic disorder of Office Voids’ Hatarakitakunai providing a much needed harsh edge, while Passing Truth Drive’s Dystopia is an interesting closing track, combining a simple, affecting electronic loop with what sound like the vocals of a closing time drunk, evoking a strangely touching combination of sweetness and disintegration.
(CD only – no digital version available.)

soko ni iru 1 / soko ni iru 2
These two compilations were put together by indie hub Give Me Little More in Matsumoto, centred around local acts from Nagano Prefecture but expanding its reach to include artists from around Japan and the world that have a connection with the venue. With these kinds of compilations, it’s always interesting to see what they reveal about the personality of the venue. Big city venues can afford to focus on one particular genre, while those in smaller towns generally need to be more open, but a mood or character often emerges nonetheless. In Give Me Little More’s case, it seems to be an atmosphere of restraint and slightly lonely distance, whether in the quirky bedroom new wave of Oshaberi Art, the fragile balladry of Nicholas Krgovich, the dislocated pop of Tangingugun (Give Me Little More owner Masashiro Nimi’s own band), Yumbo’s curious combination of spoken word and melancholy brass, Daborabo’s found-sound collage or the indiepop of Her Braids’ Forest, with its opening guitar that threatens to turn into The Stone Roses’ Made of Stone but then takes a turn in its own achingly lovely direction. Of the two collections, the first is perhaps the more wide-ranging in tone and the second the more subdued, but the tone across both albums is surprisingly consistent.

Songs For Our Space
This compilation put together by the Rokoh label was made in support of the Save Our Space campaign, which has been lobbying government agencies for support for the music scene since the beginning of the pandemic in Japan and offers its own lens on Tokyo’s impossibly chaotic and diverse underground music scene. Rokoh founders Daiki Kishioka and Seven both appear at different ends of the sonic spectrum, Kishioka in a stripped down acoustic version of his band Strip Joint, and Seven with the thump and hiss of the pragmatically titled Zatsuon Jikken_NoiseExperiment_2_01_live_premix, and this diversity is reflected across the album. This is perhaps a manifestation of the disinterest in genre among a lot of the young musicians in Tokyo right now, as well as the chaotic immediacy of the circumstances under which the album was created. And there’s a strong scent of lockdown about this release, with songs like TYO COVID-19 by Sai (from Ms. Machine) explicitly referencing the situation and Deathro’s contribution revelling in its home recording setup with its aggressively cheap sounding drum machine beat, meaning that just a few months after its release it already has the feeling of a historical document — a blurred snapshot of a music scene reacting in a moment of confusion.

#repartures for huckfinn health and empathy
Released to raise funds for Nagoya live venue Huck Finn, this compilation draws primarily from the Nagoya and Aichi indie and underground scene, with the low-key acoustic balladry of Gofish and the always excellent Yoshito Ishihara sitting alongside the dark or oblique post-punk shapes of The Act We Act and Vodovo. As with the Songs For Our Space compilation, Deathro makes a lo-fi appearance from his bedroom, while Fucker (Less Than TV label boss Jun Taniguchi) closes the album off with his own raw, tortured acoustic effort on an album that happily ricochets between punk, folk and anarchic nonsense with little regard for genre logic but clearly having fun in its own alternative community.

Namba Bears Omnibus “Nihon kaihō”
One of the Japanese underground scene’s most legendary live venues, Namba Bears in Osaka more than any album in this feature brought out the big hitters for this fundraiser compilation. Psych-rock druids Acid Mothers Temple, experimental shamans OOIOO, brevity-loving noisenik Masonna, avant-maniacs Oshiri Penpenz, the analogue glitches of YPY, and current Osaka breakout stars (and seemingly the main organisers this compilation) Gezan all make an appearance. That alone should be enough to demand attention, but a little deeper there are some gems too. KK manga and Yaho, the latter of whom also make an interesting appearance on #repartures, both deal out some truly demented noise-soaked gibbering hardcore. Metamyura Gunupiko aka Nakabayashi Kirara’s Shūchō no Musume is an extraordinary track, kicking off with an intro drawn straight from German EBM legends DAF’s Die Rauber und Die Prinz, it combines synth minimalism with traditional Japanese folk music, taking both down a number of unexpected diversions. There’s a lot going on over these eighteen tracks, and it’s all worth exploring.

From the Heart of Chiba – Anga Support Compilation
Chiba is in the uncomfortable position of being a big city that’s just close enough to Tokyo that a lot of its music culture tends to get absorbed by its larger neighbour to the west. Sen City Records is in part an attempt to create a small centre of musical gravity in Chiba City for local alternative music and occasionally drag some music back across the border, and this live compilation (all songs were recorded at Sen City events) makes for an interesting document of the scene they’re creating there. Tokyo punk and oddball bands like P-iple and Emily Likes Tennis make an appearance, but the core of the album is the Chiba-based acts. This contingent includes a strong core of non-Japanese residents (the straight-up Nick Lowe powerpop of Talent Show in particular stands out) who help bring the album a drunken pub rock atmosphere that plays well with the eccentric punk of Japanese acts like Katakana, who veer between ranting disorder and Jitterin’ Jinn-like ragged J-pop, and the anarchic new wave noise of Bunga Bunga. As a live album, it’s as rough-edged as you might expect and perhaps aimed more at recalling the raucous energy of event nights for those familiar with the scene Sen City have built up around the venue Chiba Anga than providing a polished introduction for casual listeners. As with many of these compilations, however, it is also celebratory in the specificity with which it pulls focus on the goings on in a particular neighbourhood and scene — something made all the more immediate by the live recorded format.

2021survive
One thing that the music scene’s response to the pandemic has brought into focus is which venues have really come to foster loyalty from the artistic communities around them. In Tokyo, venues like Bushbash in Koiwa and Soup in Ochiai have been the focus of a lot of support from artists they have helped support. Hatagaya Forestlimit seems to have a particularly diverse range of fans, and this album, produced over a 24-hour period in May, leans hard on autotune-heavy hip-hop trackmakers, with S亜TOH contributing to most tracks, while Andrew from Trekkie Traxx is perhaps the album’s most high profile contributor. Miru Shinoda x Sai’s Hej Då, meanwhile, provides the album’s sole punkish deviation with its scuzzy on-the-beat electro drive as it encourages someone to “Fuck off, you piece of shit”, offering a welcome souring to the album’s mellow.

Flowers in Concrete -Side Japan-
Ochiai Soup is probably the most essential spot in Tokyo for Japan’s experimental and noise scene, and this June compilation (released side by side with a compilation of international artists) draws from that community, making the album not just a fundraiser but a powerful statement of identity for the venue. There’s a thrilling variety on display here, even within the acts who take more of a pure noise approach — compare the low-end sonic landslide of P.I.G.S. with the liquid analogue squelches of Government Alpha — while tracks by GC Skull Electronics, Kazumoto Endo and Kazuma Kuboto build an unsettling atmosphere in the way they all, in varying ways, take slashes of ragged noise that dissolve into quietly sinister electronic throbs or moans. Endo’s track stands out in particular as a finely wrought, panic-inducing, electrifying album highlight, although Flowers in Concrete -Side Japan- is rich enough that repeat listens will surely shine fresh light on moments throughout the album.

2020,the Battle Continues
This monthly ongoing compilation series put together by the venue Earthdom in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo offers a daunting avalanche of punk, hardcore and noise-rock from an extraordinary array of artists — Volume 1 alone runs to two and a half hours, one third of which it taken up by two collaboration tracks between Sunn O))) and Merzbow — although that also means the series offers a deep and wide insight into the noisy extremities of contemporary Japanese underground rock. While Volume 1 is certainly the longest and features more of the most obviously well known names (Boris, The Genbaku Onanies and Struggle For Pride also make an appearance), each of the three currently existing collections provides a relentless, explosive barrage of earsplitting, brain-melting sonic terror in a spread of subgenres that generally have the root “core” in the name. Dive deep and you’ll start to find crossovers with other compilations in this list, with artists like Fucker and Deathro reappearing here, while Iron Lung’s entry was actually recorded at Nagoya Huck Finn, indicating that despite many of these compilations’ extreme local focus, there are nevertheless creative networks at play that extend throughout the country and which many of these venues play an important role in supporting.

Internal Meeting Compilation
Another Nagoya-based compilation, much of this album, compiled in support of the Venues KD Japon and Daytrip, takes far more of a mainline J-pop/rock approach, especially compared to the punk, folk and experimental anarchy of the same city’s #repartures compilation also covered on this page. This sort of music, which is modelled on the coat tails of more or less mainstream Japanese music (the Rock In Japan/Quruli vision), is a thread that this site rarely takes the time to cover, but which is perhaps inevitably the greater portion of what constitutes Japanese indie. That’s not to say there aren’t alternative ideas going on in a lot of these tracks though, and as the album progresses, so its palette widens with the hyperactive drums, shoegaze-tinted textures and Thom Yorke vocals of Muscle Soul’s Stand Alone, the post-rock sonic towers of Ulm’s Flood of Light or Ophill’s closing am5, the precise, intricate rhythmical interplay of Qulaque’s Kiló and the ultra sparse acoustic approach of Miyafuji Sakae. At its heart, though, Internal Meeting Compilation represents the pop-rock, singer-songwriter middle-ground of Japanese indie rather than its more experimental or progressive fringes, and in that makes for a pretty accurate image board of core playing field of Japanese pop and rock in the 21st century.

Drunk Ambient Moods 1
This is one of of a handful of compilation projects in this feature that I myself had a hand in, having contributed to one of the tracks and the money raised being donated to a campaign I  manage for a trio of small music bars in the Koenji neighbourhood of Tokyo. Pipo Records is defiantly its own thing though — a new Tokyo label, set up partly in opposition to what it sees as the reactionary tendencies of new age ambient, all nonetheless within a broadly ambient framework. To do this, the Pipo approach seems to be to fashion itself as a playground for artists from a variety of backgrounds to explore their own takes on the idea of ambient, and Drunk Ambient Moods 1 takes a slowly winding path through the resulting landscape. The first third of the album takes the form of a largely familiar-feeling pastoral lowland before the distorted sax loops of James Hadfield’s Cancellations (Upsets) brings the first disconcerting jolt, with Juliette Porée’s sinister Avmars setting the album more clearly on a dark course, compounded by the distant storm of guitar thunder that sees out the ominous drone of Looprider’s The Ghost Has Come For Me. By the time the album is moving towards its close, the notion of ambient is more of a ghost that haunts the background of Adam Sampler’s skittering disco beats. The work of musicians (and non-musicians) none of whom operate exclusively in the ambient field, Drunk Ambient Moods 1 staggers on an always slightly off-kilter but ultimately playful journey into ambient anarchy.

883km
This is an album I compiled myself for the venue Utero in Fukuoka, with tracks drawn from Kyushu-based artists that had previously appeared on albums or compilations from my own Call And Response label over the past fifteen years, so I can’t review this in the traditional sense. However, for anyone familiar with the output of Call And Response over the years, I think 883km shows up the extent to which the island of Kyushu has helped to define the label’s identity, staggering between post-punk and post-rock with a kind of playful, childlike anarchy and very little respect for the finer points of genre. Despite having 14 different bands and recordings spanning over a decade, some familiar faces reappear in multiple acts (and at least three musicians are staff members at Utero), which perhaps feeds into a sense of coherence amid the scrappy sensibility of many of the tracks. It also makes for a surprisingly widely drawn sketch of offbeat art-punk in 21st Century Kyushu.


Party in My Heart / Gold Star
These two covers compilations were also produced by me, so once again I make no claim to being able to review them objectively. Made up of home recordings in the early months of the pandemic, they both feature musicians (and non-musicians) from the community around Call And Response Records and a trio of music bars in our local neighbourhood. Like the Sen City compilation (earlier in this feature), these albums feature a strong contingent of Tokyo-based foreign musicians alongside Japanese, reflective of the parallel community that has grown up around Call And Response over the years and also of the way the albums drew not only from the label’s own artists but also friends and fans. Of the two albums, Party in My Heart is the more downbeat, drawing mostly from quite introspective indie acts for its covers, with Tete+Shon’s take on The Postal Service’s This Place is a Prison making a fairly bald statement on locked down life and Filipina artist Mariah Reodica’s cover of Silver Jews’ Random Rules channeling some of the sorrow many of us still felt over the 2019 death of David Berman. Gold Star, meanwhile, comes across as the first collection’s sunnier, sillier sibling with covers drawing from more mainstream, more uptempo sources, although with a similar mix of straight and deviant approaches to the original material.
(Albums can be downloaded for free, along with a variety of other material, from Call And Response’s Help Our Local Music Spots page, which also accepts donations that will be shared between the three spots we are focusing on.)

Call And Response Records · Gold Star

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Indiepop roundup (Summer 2020)

Tangingugun – Yasui Jumon
Matsumoto, Nagano-based Tangingugun typically trade in laid-back pop melodies delivered through a hazy filter of psychedelic-tinted guitar distortion, the male-female twin vocal interplay between Saori Nakamura and Masashiro Nimi adding an enriching layer of texture to the sound — sometimes trading lines, others intermingled as harmonies, and on Kiri wa Hagureta slipping easily between the two. While there are moments where things step up to a bouncier tempo, as on second track Koumi-machi, the prevailing atmosphere is one of quietly sophisticated, summery melancholy.

Puffyshoes – I Might Be In Love
I wrote about this EP for the Undrcurrents blog’s Bandcamp roundup in June, singling out the simple economy of Puffyshoes’ songwriting in how they create ultra-short lo-fi pop nuggets by focusing in on the hooks and rarely getting diverted once the point has been made. I Might Be in Love also sees the band playing around with other songwriters’ material, as on their joyously ragged-edged cover of The Strangeloves’ I Want Candy, and it’s testament to Puffyshoes’ own songwriting that they can flit between the two seamlessly.

Sloppy Joe – Waiting For The Night Begins
It feels strange to be writing about Sloppy Joe almost ten years after their first album, With Kisses Four, with the same mixture of irony and giddy joy and with almost the same words, but here I am and here is Waiting For The Night Begins. And really it’s like not a moment had passed, which is to say that from the bat it sounds like the meticulous and loving work of a passionately devoted Smiths tribute band. To leave it at that assessment alone would be more dismissive than Sloppy Joe deserve though, and they wear their jangly 1980s indiepop influences so proudly, their love for the sounds, the tone, the inflections and melodic habits of the era running far deeper than Morrissey and Marr — fans of Aztec Camera, The Pale Fountains, early Orange Juice, The Monochrome Set and plenty more will frequently find themselves in a familiar place. Above all, the craftsmanship underlying these songs and their attention to detail is spellbinding, sweeping the listener up in the band’s obvious love for the music — originality be damned.

Half Sports – Intelligence and Delicious
Intelligence and Delicious is Half Sports’ first album since 2014’s Mild Elevation, although a couple of 7-inches have appeared in the meantime, and the propulsive opening Missing the Piece of my Miseries shows the band still have their peculiar cocktail of energetic melancholy, combining punkish 1970s powerpop with shoegazey scuzz and distortion, with the album taking a turn towards the hazier end of that spectrum on Emperor Soy Sauce and leaning on the rockier end on Isolated Facts.

Morningwhim – Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes
The first of a couple of new releases by Aichi Prefecture’s Morningwhim, this cassette single is perhaps the more immediately striking of the two, with Talking To Myself in particular pushing all the right bittersweet buttons from its heartache chord changes to the slight rough edges of the vocals’ celestial 4AD harmonies. That’s not to diminish the other side, Smoke From Cigarettes, though, which carries a similar scuzzy, jangly garage-shoegaze energy with just as much assurance. The cover art suggests a lingering influence from Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but from the evidence of this, Morningwhim have plenty to offer in their own right.

Morningwhim – Most Of the Sun Shines
In addition to the wonderful Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes cassette single, Morningwhim also released this 7-inch this spring, with a cleaner, less fuzz-inflected sound, the title track setting an acoustic guitar groove against a haunting synth string backdrop, while B-side Wandering turns up the jangle and chime. This single makes for more of a low-key introduction to the band than the cassette, but demonstrates that their sweetly melodic guitar pop songwriting talents run deep.

Various Artists – Miles Apart Records presents “Moments”
Drenched in nostalgia for times of which most of the featured musicians are too young to have their own memories, this cassette compilation from Osaka-based Miles Apart Records sits somewhere between indiepop in its classic, jangly, Byrds-influenced British 1980s roots and the more recent smooth, soft-focus synth strain where the indiepop venn diagram crosses over with city pop. At the murkier, more garage-influenced end are the likes of Pale Beach and Superfriends, whose respective entries Deadbeat and Fake Flowers have a reassuringly cheap, indie or alt-rock edge to their own particular brand of nostalgia, while Pictured Resort lie at the other extreme, their song Comfortable bittersweet and bathed in soft neon. An interesting entry is Cairophenomenons’ Spring (Moments ver.), its jangly, reverb-soaked guitar pop base elements employed to ends that play out with the sort of VHS-haunted atmosphere that other bands here use synths to evoke, and in the end, the sharper edges this setup gives them to work with helps to offset the cloying mellow their more synthetic peers often veer into.

Chris Jack – Miles to Go
Based in Oita in Kyushu, Chris Jack has a certain low-key notoriety as the guitarist and vocalist of garage rock band The Routes, but in this solo album he trades in the explicitly retro for a sound better characterised as classic with music in a timeless singer-songwriter tradition that could have been from any decade in the past fifty or more years. There’s a refreshing sense of space and warmth to the recording, aided by understated arrangements that may subtly underscore a phrase with organ here and there but mainly work to give the vocals and guitar lines space to walk their gently affecting paths.

Letters To Annika – Letters To Annika EP
Letters to Annika is the name under which Azusa Suga, better known from Tokyo indie rock band For Tracy Hyde, records solo work from his room, with this EP being mostly born out of the semi-lockdown conditions of pandemic Tokyo. Perhaps because of the speed and lo-fi recording conditions under which most of these songs were written and produced, during those curious weeks in April where the pandemic-led disruption to life was as much an interesting shift in perspective as a source of fear, there’s a lightness to this EP that feels both refreshing and somehow restless. Manifesting not only in the faintly washed out, shoegaze-tinged sound but also in the almost panicked urgency of the cranked-up motorik rhythms of songs like Love Song, Tidal and Wavelength, Letters to Annika mixes its reverb-drenched polaroid indiepop nostalgia with an immediacy or even urgency. Also worth attention is the non-EP single Summercrush, released in July, which makes an interesting companion to Letters to Annika, taking the EP’s fuzz and jangle and bringing in an on-trend wash of almost vaporwavesque VHS synth.


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