Category Archives: Track

Quruli: Liberty & Gravity

It was around the time of their eighth album, 2005’s Nikki, that I gave up hope for Quruli. Shigeru Kishida had decided to try to make the band into this generation’s Happy End, leaving behind the experimentation and playfulness that had made The World is Mine such a glorious generational masterpiece in favour of earnest, wistful, sentimentally-tinted folk rock songs that just didn’t really seem to go anywhere. It was the perfect music for a generation whose greatest ambition appeared to be gently jogging on the spot and I hated it.

Which is why Liberty & Gravity feels like such a breath of fresh air. The folk influences remain but they take their place in a more eclectic mix. It’s still whimsical, but it’s also musically ambitious, playful and fun, rich in little musical nooks to explore without ever letting its complexity get the better of it.

The video is by award winning director Jun Tamukai (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Ponponpon), who is someone whose work I find unaccountably annoying – I think it’s got something to do with the choreography’s combination of ostentatious goofiness and self-consciously mannered presentation – but which people otherwise seem to insist on finding adorable so feel free to ignore grumpy old me on that point. Another gripe I have is with the way the YouTube clip’s accompanying text refers to the song’s parent album as the band’s eleventh, when it is in fact their thirteenth. This may seen like an insufferably nitpicky point, but it’s symptomatic of something I find quite poisonous in the Japanese music world: the way all indie releases are traditionally airbrushed from a band’s official history once they sign for a major label. So let’s just take a little moment here to say fuck you Victor Entertainment. Done that? Good.

Naturally none of that should be allowed to detract from the song itself, which is bright, catchy and brash enough that it even gets away with having a rap section. It’s also great to see that even this deep into their career, Quruli still retain the capacity to surprise, charm and delight. If only they showed it more often.

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cryv: K.O.B.E.

Cryv (pronounced “Cruyff” as in the Dutch footballing legend and not to be confused with the Japanese shoegaze band Cruyff in the Bedroom) are a synth-and-guitar-based unit who I first encountered about a decade ago. I then lost touch with what they were doing, their name occasionally making blips across my radar to remind me that they were still around, and this new video is the first music I’ve heard from them in a long time.

K.O.B.E. incorporates electronic, Shibuya-kei and post-rock elements, multiple stops, starts, chops and changes, into what turns out to have been a rather fine three-minute pop song all along. The rhythmical hiccups themselves quickly settle into a loop, with layers adding on top to the point where the organic and synthetic elements of the arrangement blend into each other to a point where they become almost impossible to separate. The video does rather highlight the dangers of Japanese bands putting their English lyrics up on too obvious display without rigorous, native-level proofreading, but it visually nails the band’s wistful early 2000s sonic aesthetic pretty damn well.

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Ykiki Beat: Forever

If Ykiki Beat appear familiar, it may be because the band shares a number of members with one of this site’s favourite young bands, the guitar pop quartet DYGL (who seem to have reverted to that name after briefly being known as Leather). There are certainly similarities between the two bands, but while both bands draw from 80s-influenced sounds, Ykiki Beat have tended to be more eclectic, pursuing and discarding multiple musical styles (their Soundcloud page regularly undergoes purges that would have made Stalin blush), perhaps indicating a greater need to find where they fit in the ever-changing contemporary indie rock scene.

Forever sounds like the sort of music that would play over the final scene of an episode of Veronica Mars, which is to say that it’s not at all the sort of thing I’d usually approve of. That said, it’s a kind of music Japanese rock just isn’t traditionally very good at and Ykiki Beat do it so, so well. The delivery is shamelessly euphoric, not just in Nobuki Akiyama’s vocals but also in the way the whole package is conceived. The insistent drums, the bass and rhythm guitar hammering away on roots, and the way it eagerly reaches for the most soaring, inspirational chord progressions, give Forever an intensity and immediacy that J-pop very rarely has and that stands in stark cobntrast to the dreary, washed-out delivery of most Japanese indie rock. While it may leave the too-clean sensation of someone extolling the joys of the Alpha Course or trying to sell you Apple products, Ykiki Beat also demonstrate talent and confidence to match their ambition.

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XXX of Wonder: Meiseki Yume Madonna

A recurring theme in my writing over the past couple of years and I think a key idea in understanding the layout of the Japanese music scene these days is the idolfication of the indie scene and the parallel indiefication of idol music. As subcultural scenes like anime and manga fandom, and indeed idol culture itself, have been led out of the shadows and into the mainstream by an entertainment industry attracted to the consumer patterns of otaku, elements of those subcultural roots have been caught up in the net and found themselves with a route out of obscurity by employing some of the same commercial practices.

Those subcultural figures are often the most appealing aspects of this new indie commercialism simply because the things they do in order to sell themselves are things they were already doing purely for the love of it anyway. Julie Watai could perhaps be seen as an example of such a figure, packaging and promoting herself in a distinctly idolesque way, but at the same time quite clearly a massive nerd in her own right. And this is where XXX of Wonder enters the picture. A collaboration between Watai (whose musical role in the group is rather ambiguous), pop singer Shiho Nanba, illustrator Mel Kishida, lyricist Frenesi and composer/producer Dr. Usui, it is a project born of people who all exist somewhere around the nexus between pop, otaku and indie culture.XXX of Wonder: Meiseki Yume Madonna

I have some issues with this kind of thing, in that by opening up this particular path towards commercial respectibility it reinforces a certain cutesy, idol-ish pop orthodoxy. A producer as talented as Dr. Usui could have put his skills to work in the service of something like The Knife, but there’s no established protocol in place for promoting something like that, so short of doing full-on idol or anime music (both of which he has also done), this sort of twee, pastel coloured pop is the only route on offer to people like Usui.

And it must be said that in this kind of thing Usui is a past master. Through his work with Motocompo in the late 90s and early 2000s he had a pioneering role in introducing Daft Punk-influenced electro into technopop and the moribund remains of Shibuya-kei — an idea later applied by Yasutaka Nakata to the idol trio Perfume to massive commercial success — and melodically, structurally and productionwise there’s a lot in Meiseki Yume Madonna that could easily be part of one of Motocompo’s later releases.

All of which is to say that it’s a rather fine pop song and refreshing to see Usui back doing what he does best. It does, however, leave me still dreaming of what kind of sounds he might produce were he able to really cut loose creatively. Also, while we’re in the realm of speculation, if this project is to continue long term, it would be fascinating to see what might result from Frenesi being given space to play around melodically as well as lyrically. A terrific composer in her own right with wonderfully eclectic taste (her DJ sets are superb journeys into both familiar and unknown places), XXX of Wonder could be a great canvas for her own songwriting.

In any case Meiseki Yume Madonna is a slick piece of synthpop that while it’s superficially very much a product of squeaky-voiced contemporary kawaii aesthetics, has a classic pop musical heart that reveals itself most clearly when the song sheds its cutesy eccentricities and leaps into its soaring dance-pop chorus. The music itself may be only part of a project that, in tune with current music industry trends, spans various media including visual arts and fashion, but it’s clear that XXX of Wonder has at least gathered people who are genuinely invested in the various niches they explore. If the future of music is as a relatively small component part of such multimedia projects, then Meiseki Yume Madonna demonstrates that music’s diminished status need not go hand in hand with a loss of craftsmanship.

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Looprider: Farewell

Looprider is the latest band/musical project of former Kulu Kulu Garden guitarist Ryotaro Aoki, who longtime readers may recognise as an occasional contributor to this blog and a frequent collaborator with various Call And Response Records projects. Writing about the musical output of someone you know very well is always a challenge, because of the difficulty in stepping back and hearing the music with fresh ears. On the other hand, it can also make it easier to see where a musician is coming from and put a song into context.

In Aoki’s case, a few key reference points it’s always worth bearing in mind with his music are Black Sabbath, My Bloody Valentine, Judy And Mary, Smashing Pumpkins and Melt Banana. More broadly, we can boil that down to a love of shoegaze and US alt-rock, an appreciation for pop, and an understanding of the value of dance beats, all underscored by a sense that whatever he does should rock.

Farewell is a contrary title for a debut, but as a distillation of the above ideas and influences that nevertheless stands apart from them all musically, it’s as good an introduction as you could hope for. The place it ends up lends it most obviously to comparisons with Futurama/Highvision-era Supercar, with the insistent underlying beat and the interplay between the dreampop-esque male and female vocals (the latter courtesy of Merpeoples’ Charlotte) recalling the 2000 single (and this song’s near namesake) Fairway. Farewell is rhythmically more intricate though, with drummer Sean McGee (of post-rock/prog band Henrytennis) working an almost Madchester-like shuffle around the strict 4/4 dance beat that remains the song’s rhythmical core — an organic mask that only slips briefly when the rhythm breaks down around the 3:30 mark and shows a glimpse of its cyborg soul.

Despite the dance thump that underpins the rhythm, Farewell is still a song that holds tightly to its rock influences, leaning heavily on Yujiro Imada’s bass, Aoki audibly throwing shapes on his guitar, and unashamed to tear into a desperately unfashionable hair metal guitar solo at the midway point. There is apparently more to come from these sessions, which can only be welcome in a Japanese indie scene that’s crying out for a propulsive, melodic and unpretentiously rocking band like this.

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Suichu Zukan: Nami

What’s the timespan it takes for nostalgia to start making a tangible influence on the music scene? Apparently about 15 years judging from this short, fuzzy stab of alt-rock. Now I’m going to take a huge leap here and suggest that Suichu Zukan have listened to one or two songs by the the band Quruli, particularly from their early 2000s period. The band name is a portmanteau of the song Suichuu Motor (from 2002’s The World is Mine) and the album Zukan (released in the year 2000) and the most obvious tribute you could pay to the band’s best and most creative period. Dive deeper and their web site and video are littered with the sort of sketchy illustrations and paintings that characterised Shutoku Mukai’s Number Girl artwork, while the sounds on Nami also recall some of the shoegaze-inflected indie rock on Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change. Most bands hate being explicitly linked to the influence of other bands, but when they make it this obvious, they can have no complaints.

Instead, what this tells us is something of the nature of the music scene’s cycle of influence. The decade after Supercar, Quruli et al was characterised by their direct influence: artists from among their immediate contemporaries and those who grew up under the shadow of their immediate pop cultural influence. What seems to be happening now is that the music of that early 2000s generation is becoming seen as explicitly “old music” and something distanced enough to safely pay explicit tribute to. Their influence remains strong, but its nature seems to be changing, and Suichu Zukan seem to be an exemplar of that.Suichu Zukan: Nami

Of course musically those turn-of-the-millennium bands were themselves heavily influenced by US and UK alternative and indie rock, and that shows through in Nami too. This is a good thing, because 90s alt-rock was ace and hasn’t stopped being ace at any point in the interim. The song has a neat little break in the middle where the vocals and guitar dip into a decidedly Quruli-esque faux-Asiatic melodic lick before all the effects pedals kick back in again and it’s all Hüsker Dü tussling with Ride again all the way to the climax. Suichu Zukan are a band that are very hard to hear in any context other than that of their very obvious influences, but while there is absolutely nothing original about this song at any level of its creation — in the video they even do that thing of filming the band pretending to play their song on a beach, which has featured in every Japanese indie video of the past decade — the zone in which it places itself is one where they would be hard pressed to put a foot wrong, and they carry it off very successfully. The phrase “does exactly what it says on the tin” has rarely been more appropriate.

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Extruders: Fushigina Shishin / Zombie

I’ve been vocal in my support for Kanagawa psychedelic/postpunk trio Extruders for a long time now, rating their album Colors one of the best of last year and their self-released live album Pray one of the best of the previous year. This summer, they’re embarking on a new project to release fresh material every Sunday for eight weeks.

Starting on July 13th, the first fruits of this project are already available for picking. Of the two, Fushigina Shishin is in the more low-key, minimal style of their more recent work, albeit with a more fragmented structure than anyone used to the blissed-out drones of songs like Luna and Kimi no Hane would prepare you for, while Zombie is a re-recording of an old track from their debut mini-album Neuter, which does a fine job of exposing their roots as Wire-influenced purveyors of short-sharp bursts of minimal art-fury. With several weeks to go, Extruders’ Bandcamp page should be in everyone’s bookmarks.

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Nag Ar Juna: Doqu

Nag Ar Juna have probably been around for a bit too long to really count as “hotly tipped” nowadays, and are perhaps better described as well-regarded mainstays or journeymen of the indiepop scene. Their 2012 album, the melancholically tweely titled How Many Friends Can Die Happily, came out on HNC’s White Lily Records, one-time home of Sloppy Joe, and the video for Doqu is directed with characteristically monochrome instagram delicacy by She Talks Silence.

The title track of this 12-inch is the more interesting, switching disorientatingly between keys mid-song and employing a wealth of eerie, psychedelic effects in the interludes. Distant, deadpan vocals treated with heaps of echo are pretty much a given in the Japanese twee/indiepop scene, but rather than sounding like a coy, affected cop out as the so often do, they are far more of a piece with the spectral aura the song radiates. The other side of the disc features the more upbeat jangle of Sasage, which is a worthy foil to Doqu, if rather more conventionally structured and lacking the title track’s edge of mystery and darkness.

 

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Nhhmbase: Ichirin no Hana

Ten years after they burst onto the Tokyo indie scene in a flurry of strange time signatures and unclassifiable alt-rock/pop tunesmithery, Nhhmbase have been engaged in a slow but steady crawl towards mainstream acceptance that Ichirin no Hana seems well placed to continue.

A lot of their songs seem designed particularly to showcase Mamoru’s extraordinary vocal range and it’s the need to build everything around that instrument that has defined the band’s sound, allowing him to ditch at least one entire lineup and replace them with little obvious impact on their style. There is nevertheless a clear sense of evolution, and while Ichirin no Hana, as with its predecessor Mizube no Tsudumi from earlier this year, is very much about the vocals, both songs also suggest the band are moving ever further in pushing them to the fore. At the same time, where in the early days, Mamoru’s vocals varied not only in position in the musical scale, but also in texture and inflection, coming in note-perfect stacatto pinpricks and exuberant bursts of energy, the texture here retains a uniform smooth matt finish. The lingering remnants of post-hardcore that still hung around the edges of their early work have also now been pretty much thoroughly eliminated, leaving the music a technically immaculate exercise in octave-leaping jazz-pop nursing a sentimental, sweet bean paste centre. It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the band’s process of growing up, but as someone who remembers a bloodsoaked Mamoru leaving Akihabara Club Goodman in an ambulance after one of the most thrillingly intense performances I’ve ever seen, it’s hard to escape the sensation that they’ve lost something important in their drive towards professionalism.

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Oversleep Excuse: Slowly Better

Tokyo-based indie quartet Oversleep Excuse might sound a bit familiar to regular readers of this blog, and if so, you can probably chalk that down to the presence of vocalist Matthew Guay, whose other band Glow and the Forest have graced these pages in the past, and who has over the years developed both a vocal style and a set of songwriting habits that mark his influence in quite a distinctive way. You get the sense that in its own purely melodic (and melancholic) terms, Slowly Better would serve perfectly well as a Glow in the Forest song, but at the same time, Oversleep Excuse are a band with four members, who each exert an influence over the group’s sound. The most obvious and distinctive characteristics that set the Oversleeps apart are the way the piano sits at the fore and the appearance of steel drum interludes. More subtly, but in a way perhaps more importantly, Adam Gyenes’ drumming lends a completely different texture to the song, not simply driving the song forward but rather stroking it, like waves lapping against the shore with the song riding their ebb and flow. The song is a taster from the band’s new album of the same title, which looks well worth checking out.

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