Of all the music released this year in support of Japanese live venues, the venue that has been at the centre of perhaps more (and more interesting) new material than any other is subterranean experimental hotspot Soup in the Tokyo suburb of Ochiai. Their twin Flowers in Concrete compilations were both intriguing and endlessly strange, while individual band releases have included a hypnotic and ghostly new EP by the wonderful Nisennenmondai. Inevitably, most of the material they have released, as with most of the new releases out of Japan this year, have been live recordings and offcuts, and that’s the case with this new, untitled track by noise-rock maniacs Kuruucrew. Originally recorded as a demo for their self-titled 2016 album but newly mixed for release in 2020, this seven-and-a-half-minute track channels the same combination of intensity and metronomic precision in the rhythm, with harsh infusions of anarchic skronk, looping guitar trances and cosmic howls. For all its orphaned status, it’s a powerful and welcome new release from one of Japan’s most exciting bands.
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With its simple, bouncing, forward-driving rhythm, reverb-heavy guitar chimes and repetitive vocal melody, Nehann’s TEC comes on with some slick, vaguely post-punk-influenced early-2000s indie rock vibes — perhaps a hint of Interpol. And if that’s all there was to it, TEC would be a decent enough track, albeit with a touch of wannabe-ism to it. There’s something else going on too though. With the vocals riding the song’s repetitive groove and not really deviating into anything as elaborate as a chorus, the dynamics of the song are instead broken up by targeted wailing, twirling guitar solo assaults, like teenage boys living out their Luna Sea rawk fantasies. B-side Ending Song, meanwhile, takes a more downbeat turn but still walks a line between stylish indie rock respectability and something more outright melodramatic, on this track recalling the theatrics of Dog Man Star-era Suede or perhaps their Japanese mirror Buck Tick. In this way, Nehann share some similarities with Tokyo contemporaries Stram, who also in their own way combine dark, early 2000s NME-esque, vaguely post-punk tendencies with something a bit more hysterical and glam. In bringing an emotional flourish into music that can easily get wrapped up in an icy sense of its own cool, bands like Nehann may have found the key to unlocking a new audience for music that had in the past often preferred to hold itself aloof.
In the earnest way they combine complexity with accessibility, Luminous101 sound like a flashback to the Tokyo alternative scene of ten to fifteen years ago — days when the great hope of the Tokyo underground were bands like Nhhmbase and Suiseinoboaz, and a suspiciously large number of new bands sounded like they had harnessed their ambitions to the legacy of The Dismemberment Plan. You can hear it in Namari with its mix of soft, almost easy-listening melodies with intricate structural and rhythmical transitions. The other side of this single, CLK, builds around the interplay between a funky groove and a metronomic, looping guitar line, balanced somewhere in the middle ground between post-punk and math rock, in a way that shares some (admittedly softer-edged) parallels to where Number Girl were positioned around the time of Num-Heavymetallic.
The time period this single evokes is starting to come into focus in the form of local scene history now, with its survivors beginning to contemplate what it meant and what made it special. One of the things that stands out is the optimism about the commercial possibilities of really quite unconventional musical ideas, purely on their own musical merits rather than sold as part of an image, and that’s the feeling Luminous101 leave on this single. As the places that fostered the early 2000s Tokyo alternative scene deal with the effects of major staff turnover (Shinjuku Motion) or the danger of COVID-driven closure (Akihabara Club Goodman), I have to wonder where this music now fits in, but hearing the echoes of that indie optimism in the context of now also feels strangely reassuring.
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.
Tokyo’s Music From The Mars have roots going back to the eclectic turn-of-the-century Tokyo alternative scene that produced bands like Boat, Natsumen and Mong Hang (Keitaimo from Mong Hang plays bass in Music From The Mars, Kiyoshi Sakai from Boat plays keyboards, while AxSxE from both Boat and Natsumen produced this new single). There’s still a playful prog-rock interplay between multiple elements, brass-buoyed pastoral frolicking one moment, intricate stop-start rhythmical games the next, harsh slashes of punk guitar another, all coming together in a celebratory fashion at the climax. The way Music From The Mars apply near-mathematical technical mastery to essentially easy listening ends means there’s something distinctly Steely Dan about their whole vibe and they don’t shy away from that at all on Every Day and Every Night.
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.
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.