Bassist Shizuo Uchida and guitarist Kyosuke Terada are commonly seen faces in the anarchic Tokyo experimental scene, each of them wandering a jittery yet fluid path between projects and one-off collaborations that trend heavy on the free improvisation. And that’s what you get with Mai Mao, recorded at underground-leaning Tokyo live venue Kagurane in early 2020, just as the pandemic state of emergency was falling over the city. In Three Directions, the duo create, and proceed to explore, a sparse, spacious sonic landscape of glistening, sharp edges, depthless yawning crevasses and uneasy creatures of shadows. The 18-minute track also comes in the form of a video by Yutsuki Suyama, whose liquid drop painting throws another eerie dimension on the music’s ghostly explorations.
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For the past couple of decades now, Uhnellys have been plotting a distinctive musical path between hip-hop, jazz and psychedelia, using a combination of drums and loop pedal layers. On this new single, they’re assisted by lively guest turntable scratcher DJ Oku (Funkcuts), but the band’s familiar interplay of laid-back grooves and 1970s cinematic menace is still at play at the heart of the track, as main vocalist Kim trips though an an acerbic narrative, appearing to take aim at everything oppressive and deadening about Japan’s social status quo. The band’s roots based on rhythm and loops means there’s something raw and stripped-down driving the track forward, but it still draws in a catchy, pop-tinted refrain and the odd wry aside throwing a splash of colour over the darkness.
Puffyshoes stumbled chaotically through their messy career, shining with brilliance but regularly chucking it all in the trash in a fit of eternally teenage passion before re-emerging and doing it all over again, eventually splitting for what felt like the final time in 2014. For those of us who were wowed and frustrated by them in their initial incarnation, the appearance of this brand new song after four years away is an unexpected delight.
Let’s Fall In Love is drenched in ’60s girl group harmonies, underscored with fuzzy, chugging, reverb-edged guitars and naively clomping drums, which is to say it’s everything fans of the band already know and love about them. The years apart may have added a touch more sophistication to the songwriting, though, and they have fun playing about with a little bit of keyboard to fill out the sparse arrangement. The song lurches to an abrupt, almost cliffhanger conclusion at around one and a half minutes, but with the band hinting at a new album potentially on the way, Let’s Fall In Love offers up plenty of promise for what this more mature Puffyshoes might have to offer.
Platskartny refers to the third class carriages on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which makes a curious but apt parallel with the wilfully rough, naive, lo-fi music on Dabai. There are also ramshackle parallels with shambling turn-of-the-millennium prog-pop acts like My Pal Foot Foot, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and bits of the Tenniscoats (playing for a year or so in the Tenniscoats is a sort of compulsory National Service for Japanese indie musicians, and members of Platskartny have dutifully done time themselves).
There’s a rougher-edged, more anarchic energy to Platskartny than those twee-as-fuck, Pastels-loving forebears though, and it hits you in the face at the get-go with the frantic postpunk Beefheart of minute-long opening track Despaigne. The desperately simple and insanely catchy I’m a Little Airplane is even more ludicrously enjoyable with its straghtforward four-chord rock’n’roll chopped and distorted playfully and once more delivered with a rough-and-ready mixture of innocence and yobbish insouciance, like, I dunno, The Modern Lovers being covered by Sham 69 via The Contortions.
The gentle melodica and stylophone-led reggae of Ryokou appears twice, being reprised as a coda to the mini-album in a more elaborate dub arrangement featuing a gloriously out-of-tune pub piano and the addition of brass that teeters throughout on the brink of total collapse. In between, Izu is a heartfelt ballad featuring a passionate and infectiously tuneless vocal tour de force, while Tekkaba starts and ends like a stop-start sequel to Despaigne via a diversion into almost louche, Pavement-esque lo-fi rambling.
While Dabai is a wilfully awkward collection of songs, its heart is pure pop and Platskartny deliver it with such energy and aplomb that you can’t help but get swept up in their enthusiasm. Beyond that, however, there’s a wealth of ideas, both simple and more oblique that make this mini-album not only a fun but also a deeply rewarding listen.
Keeping track of enigmatic drone/shoegaze artist Under’s output remains a task requiring constant attention, not only for the constant flow of new material, but also for its frequent Stalinesque erasure. 2015 began with the February release on the US Fire Talk label of Loosen, an EP that had appeared and then suddenly vanished the previous year. After that, a string of free releases emerged, with a self-titled EP in May followed by August’s Brinicle EP and most recently the lone track It is like cumulonimbus. ((And me)) – eccentric punctuation presumably integral to the effect.
The divisions between these releases are sonically meaningless to the outside observer, and really the whole appeal of Under’s work is the way her songs and noise pieces blend into one. It’s music that doesn’t need to progress because it draws from something timeless and pagan: eternal and ephemeral, like mist descending over long barrows.
There are perhaps two threads that run through Under’s music though, with it leaning one way or the other as whim takes it. One thread, perhaps best represented by the self-titled EP, deals in layers of primal, throbbing drone. The other, which Brinicle explores to a greater degree, especially in its gorgeous opening track Foehn, casts out minimal guitar and bass lines, reeling in ambient, psychedelic folk melodies. Layers of guitar effects and tape distortion link these two approaches together, but variations in the balance between them seem to form the core dynamic of Under’s music.
There’s still time for Under to drop another EP before the year’s out, so perhaps attempting this summary of her year’s output is a little premature, but even based on this handful of releases alone, it’s an impressive body of work for a tireless artist.
As a seemingly eternal fixture of the perpetual time loop that is Tokyo’s mod/garage scene, you don’t really imagine a band like That’s A No No! “progressing” in the way the word is commonly understood. It’s a world where a band’s creativity is harnessed more strictly than almost anywhere else into the service of an ideal laid down by the Motown prophets in the religious texts of aeons past. If the measure of a great chef can be said to be how she or he prepares a simple miso soup, the measure of a garage/mod band is how they do Cool Jerk. All this means that a band like That’s A No No! have had to develop their character and style within a much tighter framework than most bands.
One obvious feature that helps the band stand out is vocalist Kei Yoshida’s raw, husky delivery, like a punk Linda Yamamoto or Mari Natsuki. All those years playing the same basic chord progressions over and over again have honed them into a tighter and more propulsive unit as well, with Damn It! barrelling along at a furious pace. There’s a bit of Wilko Johnson too in the jagged rough-and-tumble of the guitars, and at a sweet two minutes long, it’s too short by exactly the right amount. Originality is so far away from the ideal bands like That’s A No No! are driving for that it’s pointless to judge them on it, but within the strict confines their genre allows, they’ve managed to both develop and retain some character of their own. Like a good chef, a good band shows through whatever ingredients they work with.
In this day and age where pretty much any musical or fashion subculture is ripe for co-option and exploitation by the idol scene, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at where it all kicked off.
The love affair between idol groups and indie/underground music, in its current form at least, started with Shibuya-kei and neo new wave – two genres that were already long on the road to convergence. The fading from the mainstream of Shibuya-kei around 1998 or so coincided with the brief bubble of retro new wave and technopop that grew up around the Tokyo Newwave of Newwave ’98 compilation album and bands like Polysics, Spoozys and Motocompo.
Gradually, some of the technopop remnants of the neo new wave scene coalesced with a sort of dead cat bounce of Shibuya-kei, around labels like Vroom Sound, Softly! And Usagi-Chang. Plus-tech Squeeze Box, Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Eel, Aprils, YMCK and others floated around in similar circles to the still extant Motocompo and Shibuya-kei revivalists like Capsule, sometimes guesting on each other’s records.
The emergence of Perfume in 2003-2004, produced by Capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata, set off a lot of light bulbs in the collective imagination of this post-neo-new-wave, post-post-Shibuya-kei scene and people started to realise that even as their own music had been sidelined by the music industry, the idol scene was musically malleable enough that they might be able to do something within its structures. More than that even, Perfume were a ray of light through the whole indie, underground and punk scenes who perhaps needed a splash of colour as they laboured under the receding shadow of brilliant but discordant and angry bands like Number Girl. Perfume were cute, colourful, cool and contemporary, but at the same time, there was a nostalgic sort of retro-futurism to them. They may have been heavily influenced by Daft Punk, but one of their earliest songs was a cover of the new wave classic Jenny wa Gokigen Naname by Juicy Fruits, and their path from technopop through electropop left echoes of beloved bands of eras past, particularly YMO.
Yurumerumo are an idol group very much in that tradition. Drawing from a songwriting and production talent pool rooted in new wave-influenced artists, they regularly work with lyricist Ai Kobayashi from technopop duo Miami (Yurumerumo often perform the Miami song Shiratama Disco, the original version of which appeared on my own Call And Response label’s 2005 debut compilation) and it should come as no surprise to see TNWONW98 alumnus Hayashi from Polysics taking charge of them for Hamidasumo! (side note: Dan Cervi, who plays the newsreader in the promotional video, is another figure I remember from the scene back in those days and man does it make me feel old seeing his face crop up again).Yurumerumo: Hamidasumo!
So namedropping aside, what does all this mean for the song? Well, for all their new wave gloss, Yurumerumo have until now always sounded pretty much like any other generic idol group (i.e. awful) but Hayashi stamps his identity over Hamidasumo! far more distinctively. It sounds like a Polysics song – which is really the whole point of getting in someone like Hayashi in the first place – with all the good and bad that entails. It’s a high-fructose explosion of colour with frenetic beats darting every which way and skronky guitar bits around the edges. It’s all handled with the utmost confidence and control, and well it should be since Hayashi’s been writing essentially the same song over and over for the best part of seventeen years.
Now it’s a solid track, but if I sound weary and cynical here, that’s because I am. The whole nexus of idol music and indie or underground musical subcultures is built around the novelty of “Ooh, it sounds underground… but it looks pop!” and those juxtapositions can only be reproduced as time goes by to diminishing returns. Take a bit of time and listen to Ryotaro Aoki over on the It Came From Japan podcast, talking about Dempagumi.inc’s Neo Japonism and you can hear the word “crazy” turn to ash in a person’s mouth. It’s not that there’s anything in particular wrong with this stuff – it’s just that it’s a musical approach that relies for its whole existence on its freshness, and it’s simply no longer fresh.
For a Japanese pop group to sound fresh right new, what they’d need to do is get back to making pure, unpretentious, shamelessly straightforward pop music, completely free from triangulating subcultural market niches, and there’s something satisfyingly circular about the fact that the group who do that most consistently and best right now is Perfume.Perfume: Pick Me Up
Pick Me Up is the most striking thing Yasutaka Nakata’s trio have done since 2012’s Spending All My Time, with its opening crash of synth chords and relentless ‘90s Hi-Nrg pulse. Nakata even lets the girls try singing properly, and while I’d normally be utterly opposed to such dangerous innovations, such are the joyous, anthemic, dancefloor good vibes of the song that they get away with it.
Talking about musical progression is an increasingly futile exercise in a world where evolving styles generally just means magpie-like hopping from one influence to another rather than any real development. With that in mind, it’s nonetheless interesting how just as so many 80s new wave musicians graduated from synthpop to techno (Dave Ball’s transition from Soft Cell to The Grid is a classic case study, and in Japan Tetsuya Komuro’s career took a comparable trajectory), Perfume have taken the same journey twenty years down the line. More importantly, however, Nakata and Perfume have navigated these shifts while remaining consistently and instantly recognisable as themselves.
There’s plenty to criticise about Pick Me Up, and a permanent bugbear of my music producer friends is Nakata’s dedication to “anti-music” brickwall mastering. Personally I can count the number of shits I give about that on no hands — it’s the sonic equivalent of the Hollywood summer action blockbuster and while there are undoubtedly plenty of people for whom this style is without exception an act of cruel violence against art, I take the view that it’s a tool that can be wielded for good (Marvel Studios) or evil (Michael Bay). In any case, those who find Nakata’s brickwalling tendencies annoying will hate this as much as everything else he does.
It’s also an elaborate advert for a department store chain, with a suitably confusing and pretentious video that may or may not be ripping off the closing scenes of classic 1980s Jim Henson fantasy adventure Labyrinth (sadly sans David Bowie – and a return cameo from OK Go doesn’t really make up for it) and seems to present the store as a malevolent nightmare hall of mirrors that sucks you in, terrorises you with armies of shopper-zombies and then spits you out complete with bags of shopping. Now delightful as it would be to paint this as somehow subversive, it’s still an advert masquerading as a pop video, and regardless of how ubiquitous that becomes, being annoyed by it is a bare minimum moral duty.
As I say though, and stupid video aside, it’s a marvellous song. It’s pop that only cares about being pop, and for all its frisson of EDM embellishments, it’s reassuringly old-school dance-pop with an earworm synth hook that digs in and never lets go. More Eurobeat than Asiatica, it diverges slightly from the formula Nakata has built up for Perfume songs since roundabout the time of Voice in 2010 (and which he perfected with Laser Beam the following year). A song it shares a lot in common with in fact is Korean idol group Kara’s 2011 hit Step, which remains one of the most outstanding songs of the K-pop boom for the same reason: its foregrounding of classic pop songwriting, melody and hooks ahead of fancy zeitgeist-grabbing studio fun.
Representing diverging paths from a common origin, both these songs have a lot going for them. For all that Yurumerumo’s transparent triangulations leave an icky feeling, it’s a solid and distinctive track within its field, and as with Nakata and Perfume, Hayashi’s own identity as a songwriter and producer stands out, which bodes well for the role of musicians behind the scenes in Japanese pop, even if it also underlines the depressing fact that they are simply unable to get the same level of attention without a cluster of girls in the roles of dancing marionettes in front of their music.
Even in that, there is something positive to be gleaned, in how in their own different ways Yurumerumo and Perfume both manage to avoid the creepy, sexually exploitative imagery that pervades the idol scene. If the growing convergence of indie subcultures and idol groups has done one good thing, it’s been to foster a less overtly regressive (if still highly infantilised) set of roles for girls in the idol scene.
Nevertheless, it’s the Perfume track I feel far more comfortable with. As someone whose interest and musical background lies firmly in the indie and underground scenes, I don’t need pop groups holding up a mirror to my tastes in an attempt to sucker me in as a customer. Pop music is at its best when it doesn’t try to be anything other than pop, and in Japan right now, no one does pop better than Perfume.
Whatever you think about The Horrors’ own music (and some people really hate it, or at least pretend to to make a point), you’ve got to admit they have impeccable taste in the music they like. Group A exist at a rawer, more avant-garde location in roughly the same postpunk/kraut/industrial taste spectrum that The Horrors seem to occupy, so despite the obvious differences in how the two groups sound, the sensibility that they share ensures that shifting things a little bit one way or another maintains a sort of thematic consistency.
Group A’s original Initiation is a stark, metallic, minimal Throbbing Gristle pastiche, but in this remix, Tom Furse of The Horrors softens that somewhat, making the vocals clearer and adding a bouncy, if still menacing, synth bass. To say that this remix is poppier than the original says more about Group A’s own version than it does about Furse’s take on the track, which is thicker but still functions as a relentless early 80s-style synth-EBM drone. With her voice emerging from the back of the cavern of reverb that it had previously occupied, Tommi is here present as a sort of sneering cockney punk. The overall function is to bring the song up closer to the listener, more insistent than insidious, but also with an obvious understanding of and respect for what the original was trying to achieve.
The track will be available to download for free for a few more days and there’s apparently more to come, so keep an eye out.
If there’s a better way to start a new year in Japanese music than with a new song from Tokyo’s best indiepop band, it’s probably not completely legal. For those of us who remain upstanding, law-abiding citizens and members of the public, DYGL have just put out All The Time. It’s another step in the band’s evolution from jangly twee pop pretty boys into a garage rocking, denim- and leather-clad Japanese Strokes, like they’re trying to do a condensed tribute to Lawrence Hayward’s career at ten-times speed.
It’s also cheering evidence of the developing quality of DYGL’s recordings, really capturing the electric energy of their live performances while remaining just on the right side of Pollardian lo-fi. It’s the sort of music that if it hits you when you’re still in your teens, it’ll stay with you for life: the soundtrack to nights jumping around in a circle with your mates as all the confusion of the world seems to burn away in the heat of the strangled but euphoric moment. In fact, even if you catch it late, it’ll remind you of all the songs from your youth that had that exact effect on you anyway so the result will be more or less the same. In any case, All The Time is a welcome reinforcement of DYGL’s status as one of the purest, most jubilant pleasures in the Tokyo music scene.
Girly culture is an odd thing, sitting at the nexus of old-school social conservatism, the grasping desperation of late-stage consumer capitalism, and punk-influenced DIY subculture. Maoist China went to great lengths to ensure the ubiquity of strong female images in its public art, but as soon as it opened its asshole to anything-goes capitalism, feminine beauty began to be ruthlessly exploited as a lever to open the wallets of consumers. Japan and the West have been at the same game for far longer, albeit coloured by differing regional quirks. The pathological way toy marketing separates out the boys’ stuff into the blue aisle and the girls’ stuff into the pink aisle is occasionally the subject of public debate, but in the end it comes down to the way marketing identifies, exaggerates and exploits the individual characteristics of consumer groups, separating them out, training them to understand and identify with their position in their market sector, and then exploiting that identification to sell them shit.
This is something born purely from the machinations of consumer capitalism, but it finds allies and supporters among those with socially conservative notions of femininity – those (men) who feel threatened by the idea of “aggressive” women. In Japan, hyper-stylised images of feminine cuteness often sit alongside socially conservative attitudes (although not always comfortably so) in the otaku world. In the West, feminist grievances with aggressively gendered marketing, especially to children, are one battleground in the culture wars of which things like Gamergate are also part.
On the surface, it’s easy to take the view that women in the West have more fight in them. In the UK, “a Bic for her” is an inherently ludicrous idea and the object of sarcasm and ridicule, while in Japan it’s hard to imagine any such resistance. That said, somewhere along the line, the idea of a pink ballpoint pen specially for women must have seemed like an idea that would work – at least, there must have been enough evidence from other marketing successes to suggest that it would. In Japan it is perhaps more extreme, but it’s also perhaps not surprising that when society has such prescriptive notions of how girls are supposed to be, and works so hard to ensure that, taken together, submitting to these rules constitutes an attractive lifestyle choice, that girls will embrace them rather than fight them.
Now this may seem like an unnecessarily long preamble for what is essentially one of those “Hey, look at this!” blog posts about a cute music video from a hip new band, but this is the background to where girly culture in Japan sits right now. Girls have been trained to identify in a certain way, and there are powerful social forces that are happy for things to stay that way. Fighting it makes you look like a feminist, which has been successfully coloured as terminally uncool, but at the same time, that doesn’t stop girls from consciously or otherwise asserting ownership over their identity as a group.
Girls Talk by The Pats Pats is steeped in the girliest of girly imagery, the lyrics running through a shopping list of girly activities and interests, reinforcing one stereotype after another, but at the same time celebrating this special time with their girlfriends and strictly no boys allowed. Having entered the consumer pen into which they have been shepherded, there isn’t really anything to stop them shutting the door behind them – thanks for the cute stuff: we’ll call you.
The Pats Pats are thoroughly DIY – the 2nd EP from which Girls Talk is the lead track is a homemade, self-released CD, and like a lot of similarly DIY groups, they have a line of homemade accessories and other goods that they and their friends have designed and made. This process of becoming an active rather than passive participant in the culture, while doing nothing for those girls who dream of an alternative to the pink, the frills and the flowers, still has the (again, conscious or otherwise) effect of turning the pink, frills and flowers into weapons of defence or markers of territory. In economic terms, they have taken control of the means of production, and when boys are allowed, they may enter only with the understanding of who owns the turf.
The song? It’s cute, catchy, fun and pop pop pop.