Tentative Four are a strange band, and this EP provides an interestingly distorted vision of them. On stage, they adopt a snotty, backs-to-the-crowd stance and chart a path that veers between 1990s US post-hardcore and gothic-tinged British post-punk along the lines of Magazine or Joy Division. That aspect of the band is on display here in the wilfully banally titled #1 and #4, but there are a couple of other sides to the band too. Vocalist Norihiro Takishita is also a DJ and underground event organiser who specialises in slowed down and distorted takes on old pop, but gathers together a variety of other oddball DJs and experimental electronic and noise musicians around him in his anarchic sonic laboratory. Those aspects of his work are also on display on this EP, with two post-punk tracks that more or less reflect the live experience of the band in their rock form, plus interjections from Takishita’s twisted oldie DJ excursions, while the other half of it is taken up with remixes (including one of his own, that sounds like him flushing the original track down a troubled toilet while hypnotised by a creepy horror movie music box). So while this EP certainly contains on it an introduction to the raw, doom-edged, Mancunian-touched hysteria of Tentative Four’s live experience, it takes you further and deeper, on a tour of a lot of the band’s surrounding ecosystem too. It’s an intriguing approach to the art of EP-making, and one that will likely be disorientating and confusing to listeners stumbling on it with no prior context, but it’s also scene-savvy in how it places the band in a context that actually reveals a lot about them and the anarchic alternate world in Tokyo that they’re part of.
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15. Transkam – EP2
OK, so I’m cheating a bit with this one, as it’s a late-2018 release that I didn’t get my hands on until deep into 2019, but I didn’t want to let a new Transkam fall through the cracks. On this cassette EP, progressive/post-rock trio Transkam expand on the trancelike, metronomic sound of their 2016 album Blueshade of the Omegasound, starting out more or less where they left off with the track Gnosis, before pushing away with the swirling, shoegazey Ex, and then pulling back into something far sparser, subtler and more daring with the seven-minute Mathvoid. Between these three tracks, Transkam scope out fresh territory within their familiar instrumental setup, exploring not only richer sonic textures but also making more effective use of space.
As an additional note, not listed on the track listing, but somehow downloading together with the others as a fourth track in the version I bought was also the unexpected surprise of the band’s achingly romantic cover of the icy-sweet Ai no Kobune wa Uchikudakarenai by Japan’s greatest unknown band, Mir (full disclosure, an earlier mix of this song was released on a 2015 tribute album via my own Call And Response label). I’m not sure whether this additional download is exclusive to the cassette edition of the album, but in any case, hearing the song here in the context of Transkam’s more customary sound made for a disconcerting but charming swerve to the left at the end of the EP.
14. The Neso – My World
Despite almost completely changing their lineup since 2018’s New Me EP, The Neso are still rocking the same line in Au Pairs/Delta 5-style post-punk with no loss in quality. The xylophone that they had already introduced on a couple of songs now stands alongside all the other instruments on a more or less equal footing — never really feeling completely necessary, but at the same time adding a unique element to a sound that otherwise draws from a lot of familiar elements. Most importantly, The Neso’s core elements of blank, disaffected vocals combined with surprisingly catchy hooks, choruses and harmonies are here in force, and their streak of releasing top quality EPs on an annual basis is still going strong.
13. Deracine – Deracine
The appearance of this third album from oddball hardcore punks Deracine (or “Delasine” as some places are now spelling their name) and their first in more than ten years last autumn was a welcome surprise and they don’t seem a day older than when they last left us. Eleven micro-bursts of camp, bass-led, sampling-assisted hardcore in nineteen minutes, containing a heady mixture of anti-consumerist, anti-establishment agit-prop and wilfully dumb shitposting nonsense, this album (which confusingly has the same eponymous title as the band’s first album) is the rush of joyous, dadaist, lo-fi, anarchist party energy we all need.
12. The Omelettes – The Omelettes
Originally from Oita in Kyushu, I initially had The Omelettes down as essentially an indiepop band, and the selections of songs they’ve chosen to represent themselves with online tends to lead the curious listener to that conclusion, but on this belated self-titled and self-released debut album they reveal themselves as something stranger than that. There is a rich seam of fairly straightforward 90s alt-rock in here, but it’s offset by something more experimental and rhythmically unpredictable — a dynamic that’s at work in the two competing sections of the song Mitsubachi, one part stop-start staccato guitars, the other a fuzz-laden indie rock chorus. In a music scene where pop-orientated acts tend to be very pop and experimental acts tend to be very experimental, it’s a rare delight to see a group like The Omelettes who treat the more offbeat aspects of their arrangements exactly the same way as they treat the moments of outright pop (even if they hesitate to share the former online). It’s interesting to note the role of Hajime Yoshida of Fukuoka-based avant-rock legends Panicsmile in recording the album, and the way his own band’s work often embodies a struggle between pop and experimental elements forms an interesting parallel with what The Omelettes are doing here (albeit from a far more experimental starting point), but on this album the precise recipe of their sound remains very much their own.
11. Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 – Trick Passport
Squeaking over the line at the end of the year, Nagoya duo Noiseconcrete x 5chi5 released this fascinating remix album, in which a handful of beatmakers deliver their own takes on Nx3’s songs. This album could have been an exercise in unnecessary and untidy self-indulgence, but the results are uniformly intriguing, with 3chi5’s ghostly, witchy vocals working as a constant element around which a diverse range of rhythmical approaches — from skittering, minimal beats to industrial and EBM to drum’n’bass — work their necromancy.
It’s always hard to tell if it’s the scene as a whole or just me as a listener, but it feels as if music in Japan is becoming ever more fragmented and compartmentalised. It goes through cycles, for sure, but the impression I get is that it’s at a particularly introverted point in one of those cycles at the moment. We see it going out to shows, where bands increasingly play in the same venues with the same kinds of lineups, and I can feel it happening to me too. Where, in the past, I would have paid some glancing attention to recent pop releases, the only J-pop album I listened to this year was Babymetal’s Metal Galaxy, which I couldn’t get through more than a minute of. In the past, it was interesting to look through similar year-end roundups by Make Believe Melodies and Beehype and see where some crossover might be, but this year neither of their lists made any impact on me; it feels like we’re all in our bubbles (although Tokyo Dross continues to listen quite widely). I’m pretty comfortable in my bubble though, and the nature of the Internet is that it’s often more useful if people know what they’re going to get. In this case, what you’re going to get is a view of 2019 from a pretty militantly underground/alternative perspective, with increasing numbers of limited-run cassette and CD-R EPs, but even within those limitations there were plenty of new Japanese releases that I enjoyed in 2019.
25. V/A – Noise Three City Story
Noise Three City Story is a compilation cassette EP featuring, as the title implies, one band each from three different cities. Tokyo act Soloist Anti Pop Totalization, whose Instant Tunes label released this, along with a couple more of this year’s most interesting releases, bookends the EP with his Daniel Miller-esque minimalist synths, while Nagoya’s Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 unleash five minutes of glorious industrial noise topped with 3chi5’s diving, twisting and swooping vocals. The third contributing act is Hernear from Sendai, an electronic project of Kamata from post-punk band Waikiki Champions, which channels DAF-style EBM through thumping techno. The whole EP is brutally lo-fi, but the raucous industrial pulse running through it gives it a fierce energy that can’t help but appeal.
24. Hazy Sour Cherry – Tour de Tokyo
On Tour de Tokyo, indiepopsters Hazy Sour Cherry deliver 25 minutes of extremely effective, bouncy Shimokitazawa-esque garage-twee that feels like bands in the 1990s imitating cassette indie acts of the 80s imitating beat music of the 1960s. Coming out from UK label Damnably, who were also behind Otoboke Beaver’s 2019 album Itekoma Hits, it’s representative of a growing trend of Japanese groups bypassing the moribund local indie market and connecting with fans via overseas labels (and presumably-re-importing whatever buzz they get and banking it with local audiences), and it’s easy to see how these sunny, energetic two-minute blasts of ramshackle guitar pop are well placed to appeal to audiences both at home and abroad.
23. Former Airline – Nu Creative Dreads
One of two excellent albums released in 2019 by sonic bedroom scientist Former Airline, Nu Creative Dreads is the artist’s take on a dub album, albeit filtered through his own particular setup, featuring banks of synthesisers and cassette loops. With its hyperactive basslines and beats against a background cacophony of psychedelic guitar and synth squiggles, this instrumental album is a disorientating listen at times, but a rich one nonetheless.
22. Demon Altar – Demon Altar
Emerging from the cinders of Tokyo post-punk/new wave stalwarts You Got a Radio, Demon Altar trade in scuzzy, distortion-drenched, gothic post-punk that leans into the darker fringes of You Got A Radio’s later work and pushes it further into Birthday Party/Jesus & Mary Chain/Joy Division territory, assisted in this general darkening of tone by the insistent drum machine beats. There’s still a sort of melancholy romance to the melodies though, the guitars swirling around the baritone vocals as they intone their cryptic or just plain indistinct mantras. It’s wilfully rough, but there’s something infectious in the combination of the beats’ relentless, driving, robot energy and the music’s insistent, melodramatic air of gothic gloom.
21. Tawings – Tawings
Tawings are one of the hot new things in Japanese indie right now, with a handful of singles to their name and a lot of the right people as fans (indie royalty DYGL and rising stars Luby Sparks among them), so this debut album from upper-tier indie label Space Shower puts them in a strong position going into 2020. The opening Statice will come as a bit oif a surprise to anyone familiar with their previous material’s shambling yet angular Delta 5-isms, coming in overglazed with Cranberries-does-dreampop synth-laden lushness, but the Devo-esque Poodles swiftly brings a much needed dose of nonsense to proceedings. Invisible still shamelessly rips off The Cramps’ Human Fly, but Tawings have been playing it long enough that it feels like it belongs to them by now (plus songs that end with explosions are always good). Recent single Suisen is another mainstream-ready tune drenched in washes of lush synth, and honestly it’s pretty good, but the band still sound most themselves when they’re charting a ragged, discord-scattered route through brittle post-punk melodies Like UTM, Listerine, Hamburg, and the closing Dad Cry.
There’s a lot of Japan Times stuff I’ve had published over the past couple of months that I’ve been too distracted to post here, so I’m going to start getting round to that now. First up, I have to talk about Panicsmile here, who are one of my favourite bands in Japan, have undergone a massive upheaval in their lineup, and come out with Japan’s best album of the year so far.
Obviously the kind of thing they do is an acquired taste, which is why they’re an underground band and not riding the Rockin’ On Japan gravy train all the way to a mid-afternoon summer festival slot, but as I say in the article, there’s a vibrancy to it that just hasn’t been there for a long time — not really since the sweet spot the band hit live midway between the releases of Miniatures and Best Education. Anyway, Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile is always an intelligent, interesting person to talk to and you can read the interview feature I did on the band on The Japan Times web site here.
Below, I’ll post a full transcript of the interview, although be wary of the imprecise and maybe a bit dodgy translation.Panicsmile: Nuclear Power Days
PANICSMILE, HAJIME YOSHIDA INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
There have been some big member changes since A Girl Supernova. Can you tell us the story behind how the band came to be in its current position?
Eiko Ishibashi (drums), Jason Shalton (guitar) and Kenichi Yasuda (bass) left Panicsmile at that time. However, I had been thinking about the new members before they left, so new members and I started sessions from April. Then, Yasuda got in contact and said he said he wanted to come back and play with us again, so he rejoined in our band as a guitarist. There was a period after that where we made twenty songs in two years, but none of those twenty songs made it onto in our new album. The concept of our sessions with new members was originally “back-to-basics” and we made loads of very orthodox rock’n roll tracks. However we felt a bit weird about them so we didn’t use them. Eventually all ten songs on the new album are fresh material.
Where are the members all based now? Does that make it difficult to run the band?
DJ Mistake (bass) and Yasuda (guitar) are still in Tokyo, while Geru Matsuishi (drums) lives in Toyota city, Aichi prefecture, and I’m in Fukuoka. At the point we started the new sessions in April 2010, our drummer was already living in Aichi, and no real problems happened even after I moved to Fukuoka. We don’t often hang out together outside of our band activity, I’m so used to going all the way somewhere to play. When we do band practice, we gather and stay over at Matsuishi’s house in Aichi prefecture. His house has converted into a recording studio, so I’ve never felt any difficulties about the situation.
What influence did the new members have on the sound?
DJ Mistake is pretty much a beginner, but she’s really active in sessions, while Matsuishi’s background is in jazz and R&B, so he brought some funk to the sound. Yasuda played guitar back in ’93 so that was a return to basics. Any session with me and Yasuda is going to come out weird, but the rhythm section helped put everything together. I’m always surprised at the way they approach things.
In some ways, it sounds a bit like a return to old style Panicsmile, with a simple, energetic, post-punk sound. How do you feel Informed Consent fits into Panicsmile’s catalogue?
When Eiko left the band, she said, “Why don’t you try to make new tracks with yourself in charge and a group of new members you want to play with?” I could take her suggestion in a positive sense, like “Aha! I see!” In a word, it was back-to-basics. Though we had already made seven albums over a twenty year period, I think we could say that we’ve done something new.
What does the title mean to you? “Informed Consent” is a medical phrase, but it feels to me like a phrase that describes a lot of politics now.
Right, it’s a medical term, but you can see this both in the political world and in your daily life. It’s like, “I’ve explained that to you!” It comes down to you, whether you get ripped off shopping, you fail at work or even if a nuclear power station has an accident. The important thing is I’m not warning or preaching though, because I’m always so careless in this regard myself.
Was the nuclear disaster important to you in this album? References to radioactivity appear in a couple of songs.
Hmm. Rather than thinking about the disaster itself, I got a terrible sense of regret, like, “I should have done things differently,” “I was just having an ordinary life, not thinking particularly deeply,” or “I guess I kind of knew, but I still didn’t do anything.” I’m still pursued by the balance of profit and loss, time and money, so this album is a kind of record of my regrets from 2010 to 2013.
You moved back to Fukuoka between the last album and this one. Did moving back home influence how the album developed?
Almost all of tracks were made when I was in Tokyo, but tracks 1 (Western Development2), 2 (Out of Focus, Everybody Else) and 4 (Antenna Team) were written when I was in Fukuoka. So yeah, I think I’d agree that the tracks suddenly become more aggressive. I’m working here as basically a salaryman so there are several kinds of pressure from my Fukuoka life that might be reflected in these tracks.
You also produced Headache Sounds Sample Vol.5 last year. Vol.4 was back in 2005, so why revive the series now?
The time gap between the previous instalment and the latest one wasn’t really the issue. It was really that bands between 2010 to 2012 were very interesting and fun. Bands I come to like tend to be bands that do something I can’t do. That’s my criteria when I choose.
What bands do you especially like from the compilation?
I love all of them! Like I said before, it’s because they are all tracks I couldn’t have thought up myself. This time there are some bands that have instrumental tracks, and I think tracks that don’t need vocals are great.
As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a simpler sort of energy on Informed Consent. Where does your energy come from, or what gives you energy to keep making aggressive new music?
Maybe it’s something like desire and despair: These things come from an attachment to life. There’s negativity and darkness in the lyrics, but there’s a bit of irony in there. Anger is what you feel when you have a strong desire to live, and that’s something that’s everywhere in our daily lives. It’s possible that these emotions came up after the earthquake. I think people’s minds changed a bit after seeing so many people die.
The final date of the tour was a show I had organised myself with the help of Tsuchi from synth-punk lunatics Jebiotto. As the final show, and as the official Tokyo release party, this was one I needed both to go off with a bang and bring in a properly big crowd. The shows leading up to it had all been good one way or another, most of them had been fantastic, and some of them — in particular the secret show at Koenji Ten, the Friday night in Fukuoka and the wonderful little show in Takamatsu — had been truly, truly sublime experiences. I was nervous.
Doing the opening night on a Wednesday in Tokyo and doing the only other Tokyo show as a secret gig had been in part an attempt to ensure that the greater part of N’toko’s audience was funnelled into this one show, and the decision to space out the two openly promoted shows at opposite ends of the tour was an attempt to avoid Slovenian rap fatigue in audiences and make sure as many people from the first date came back for the final one.
In terms of the bands, I had hoped to get a reasonably well-known name on the bill, but that’s a dangerous area. Once you start trying to book “name” acts, you’re paying the bands in addition to the venue — yes, I’m one of those shitty promoters who doesn’t always pay bands — which often means given the limited size of the venues and the limited reach of underground music anyway, you’re forced to increase the price for the people who do come rather than radically increase the audience. At best it’s a balancing act, where you have to book the right bands together with the “name” act because “name” acts rarely do anything to promote shows themselves, which means the way they bring benefit is more through acting as a booster to the other bands playing. Put simply, any audience Melt banana will bring themselves will likely be cancelled out by the cost of paying Melt Banana to play, but more Jebiotto fans will come if Melt Banana are on the bill. This can work, but it also means that you’re paying one band simply for being themselves, while you’re not able to pay other bands who are actually the ones whose fans are making the event such a success. I’ve been willing to do this in the past, but only for the right band, and this time round, I just couldn’t find the right band, so instead I went with people I liked and trusted, crossed my fingers and hoped.
The balance of artists was just about perfect for what I was trying to do though. Jebiotto were down from the start, and their brand of manic, synth-based punk/new wave was ideal, feeding into N’toko’s industrial side while at the same time anchoring the event in venue 20000V’s underground punk ethos. Tsuchi from Jebiotto brought in Dubideb, a techno-industrial noise duo featuring Ataraw Mochizuki from Groundcover. (also the manager of 20000V) and drummer Yana from Numbs, who also plays support drums with Jebiotto on occasion. It was the first time I’d seen them, but they blew the room apart from the get-go and were probably N’toko’s favourite band of the entire tour.Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu digest (intro by YMO)
Next was Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu, a postpunk/new wave orchestra in a definitively Japanese mould, taking cues from the Plastics and P-Model. The band’s leader Takashi Nakayama had worked with me before through his previous bands Skyfisher and Labsick Man-machine Remix, but Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu was him at his best, all hyperactive pop melodies delivered with fierce, postpunk intensity, with added balloon animals.
group A were one of the first bands I booked for the show, and they were nervous before going on. They have a tendency to strip half naked and paint themselves white onstage but both members had needed to rush to the venue from other engagements and in the process had forgotten some of their stage gear. They went on in pants and t-shirts like primary school kids who’d forgotten their gym kit, and put in the most furious, raw performance I’ve ever seen them do, vocalist Tommi Tokyo channelling Genesis P Orridge at his most intense. When a band relies on a constructed stage image, that image can often become armour behind which the band hides, and I think that’s what happens a bit with group A. Here, clothed, they felt more stripped bare than they ever had naked.Jebiotto: AxNxC
Jebiotto might have had a hard time following such a powerful set, but they always have something in reserve and threw themselves into their set with reckless abandon, getting things whipped into a frenzy that peaked during N’toko’s headlining set. Where he could easily have done an encore in Takamatsu but shied away from indulging himself, here he let it all out and sent the room wild in a way that compared with the tiny, cramped experience of Koenji Ten on the 16th but which he carried off this time with a much bigger crowd. Throughout the tour, he and I had been binging on standup videos by the British comedian Stewart Lee, and through his work, deconstructing the art of performance to the point that by the end of the tour, N’toko was eager to start incorporating Lee’s lessons into his own shows. You could see that a little in this show, where he started his set by pre-narrating what he was going to do with his set, trivialising and diminishing the tricks he was going to play before hitting you with them every bit as effectively as if they had been delivered to you blind. At the end of the set, he started a song using an unfamiliar beat before sighing and saying, “Oh, you all know what song this is going to be,” flicking a switch and letting it turn into his theme song of sorts N’toko ne Obstaja. There are a lot of themes in common between Lee’s comedy and N’toko’s most recent Mind Business album, in that both artists play this slightly confused-seeming satire of themselves, seeking to reject and place themselves above commercialism and mocking themselves for having this attitude, and in both their work, there’s a sort of carefully constructed desperation of someone frantically pursuing relevance but not quite being able to make it work.N’toko: Minor Celebrity
So it was a bigger success than I could ever have hoped for and despite all the amazing shows that had preceded it, it was the highlight of the tour and one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. There’s an enormous pleasure in setting up an event and then sort of hitting “play” and seeing it roll along on its own wheels, like seeing a child walk for the first time or watching a meticulously constructed arrangement of dominoes tumble in sequence. It left me exhausted though, not wanting to do another event for the forseeable future. It was so good, I just wanted to stop there.
It also meant time had come for counting out the costs and income of the tour. After taking into account all transport and hotel costs, deducting some of my wife’s and my costs in Kyushu that came under “family holiday” expenses, we had come out of the tour with a small profit. This is obviously absolutely nothing in commercial terms: my 50% share of that profit is what I might drink in one evening while on the road, and N’toko’s share accounted for perhaps 10% of his plane ticket, but there was something psychologically satisfying about having gone through eleven gigs in the Japanese live house system and taken out more than you put in, even if that figure can only be gleaned from calculations that operate within severely constrained parameters.
Still, that was for a three week tour with one solo musician and a tour manager. I occasionally get mails from bands wanting to tour or sell their music in Japan, and I used to politely explain to them that I wasn’t a big enough operation to help them. Now I just ignore them, and this is why. Take that modest, qualified success, make it a band of three people and that figure immediately becomes an enormous loss — all that we achieved on tour in March evaporates upon contact with anything resembling an actual band.
That doesn’t detract from the wonderful feeling of achievement that came from pulling it off though, and in particular from the incredible people who made it happen. Tomo from Style Band Tokyo, DJ Rally, Kouhei from Come To My Party/Servals, Joe from VVDBLK, Eric and Julien from Lo-shi/Tententen, Ryota from Kumamoto Navaro, Harajiri from Fukuoka Utero, Iguz from Futtachi, Yoshida from Rag-G, Masumi from Miu Mau/Coet Cocoeh, Tsuchi from Jebiotto and Mochizuki and Ishida from 20000V. To that list, we could add Ayako and many others who I don’t even know, who designed flyers and helped promote the shows, plus more than a hundred musicians, some of whom had their own staff and drivers, nearly all of whom worked unpaid or for minimal fees to do something simply because it was artistically valuable. I salute them all.
I’ve put off doing this for plenty long enough, so before January ends, I’d like to get started on counting down my top releases by Japanese or Japan-based artists of 2013. As with previous years, I’m basically sticking to releases with three or more tracks, I’m not imposing any particular genre restrictions although given this blog’s focus, it’s obviously going to be more or less entirely indie-biased. In addition, it’s obviously limited to albums that I’ve had a good listen to, and finally, this list and ranking is entirely subject to my own whims and on a different day might look totally different.
This means that singles like Merpeoples’ excellent Silent Sleep and Miu Mau’s (last year’s top placed band) magnificent Monochrome/Spring 7-inch aren’t included. It also means that Hikashu, who released two albums this year if we include the one they did with Charan Po Rantan, don’t feature simply because I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of their new material yet. Likewise I can’t assess Fukuoka indie quartet the Hearsays who I’ve been very excited about for a long time, Yokohama postpunk weirdniks Sayuu, and Tokyo indiepopsters Boyish (who featured last year) because I haven’t copies of their albums.Sugardrop: Breeze Flower
Because I decided to keep this list as a strict Top 20, there were a few albums by bands I very much like that I didn’t have space to include. On another day they might have been in there, and they remain highly recommended, so Pop-Office’s Portraits in Sea is one well worth checking out, as is Ykiki Beat’s Tired of Dreams. Hotel Mexico’s Her Decorated Post Love was another fine album that didn’t make the cut but on another day likely would have and if you haven’t heard it, you should go out and do that right now, as you should Sugardrop’s superb, shoegazetastic Yeah Right. As I said earlier, there’s a strong indie bias to this list, and while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z both put out genuinely good and highly recommended albums, neither album really stuck with me enough to warrant a place among my top 20 of the year. Sakanaction also put out another very good album and remain consistently the best “mainstream” Japanese rock band, but somehow their stuff still doesn’t quite jive with me the way I feel it should. It’s a top notch album, brimming with creativity and thoroughly deserving of its massive sales and huge popularity, but I don’t know. It’s a model example of an album that does everything right and shows signs of maybe even being a classic, but doesn’t make my heart sing the way my real favourites did. It’s good so listen to it and a lot of you will feel it in a way I just can’t quite. It’s not you, Sakanaction, it’s me.Sakanaction: Yoru no Odoriko
Last of all, and again as with previous years, I’m obviously not including albums I released myself through my Call And Response label, which means the brilliant Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) by Mir and Hysteric Picnic’s fantastic Cult Pops are out of contention, although of course both would be right up near the top if I were honest about my feelings for them.
Anyway, now that you’re primed, I’ll be starting the countdown from tomorrow, so get ready.
British newspaper The Guardian is starting a bloggers’ network introducing new music from around the world weekly. Ian and Ryotaro already do the “Quit Your Band!” Japanese indie zine together in addition to their pop culture blogging exploits, and they have teamed up to push Japan’s corner in this new project. Ryotaro has taken the lead with this first post, revisiting BiS-Kaidan’s ‘Suki Suki Daisuki’:BiS-Kaidan:
Suki Suki Daisuki Japan is currently in an “idol” boom, and they’re seemingly creating groups catering to every type of subculture imaginable. In the midst of it all is BiS. Branding themselves as the “anti-idol”, they’re the group tailor-made for fans of 80s hardcore punk, Einstürzende Neubauten, and David Lynch films. Here,
with Japanese noise rock legends Hijokaidan, they’re covering “Suki Suki Daisuki”, a song originally by 80s new wave icon Jun Togawa.
The track is another example of BiS’s recurring juxtaposition between underground aesthetics and a cute, “school girl” idol image. While the song choice and collaborator give BiS a lot of underground cred, the song loses the original’s subversive punk feminist message when an “idol group” sings it. Listening to the two back to back is a good look into how subculture — and society — in Japan has changed in the last 20 years.
Jun Togawa: Suki Suki Daisuki
Foreign musicians based in Tokyo exist in a peculiar sort of half-world. Not having done their time in the university band circles, dead Tuesday nights at pay-to-play live venues, and local music scene event ladder, they often appear disorientatingly context-free and difficult to pin down musically to musicians who have grown up in the local scene, which makes them hard to book. There’s also often a lingering suspicion that they might just up and leave at a moment’s notice, which can make organisers reluctant to invest the time in the gradual process of introducing them to and helping integrate them into the scene.
Perhaps partly as a result of this, a little micro-scene of bands based around a core of foreign musicians has built up, often playing at foreign-owned bars, to a more generally party-friendly crowd than the often gloomy but more dedicatedly music-orientated fans that populate the alternative scene. It’s a strange little bit of segregation and it’s hard to know whether it’s just a setup that’s grown up to everyone’s benefit (or at least to no one’s loss) out of different people wanting different things, just as how mod, punk, technopop etc. have all gravitated into their own exclusive scenes, or if it contains embedded in it a problem.
All this is really just to point out what a rarity a musician Matt Guay is in the Tokyo music scene in that through his band The Oversleep Excuse and now Glow And The Forest he’s managed to work himself over the years into a position in the Tokyo alternative scene where he’s seen just as a musician rather than as an American musician.
Pheromone Chemicals is Glow And The Forest’s second release and continues in a similar vein to their self-titled 2010 debut, both albums featuring nine tracks worth of falsetto-voiced jangly guitar rock delivered by a stripped-down power trio setup and with the emphasis on melodies and whimsical lyrics.
The opening one-two of the driving Suspension Bridge, with its heart-surge chorus, followed by the short, simple and lyrically fragile Banker is a powerful intro to the album, with the latter’s final line leaving the listener hanging poignantly in midair. Sometimes, however, Guay’s lyrics bring him to awkward places, and the line “Your smile makes me take my clothes off,” delivered with with a heart full of passion and earnestness might leave some wondering quite how seriously he means to be taken.
The third song, Monster, more or less establishes the range that Pheromone Chemicals is going to cover, with a more middling pace and a dynamic built around lulls and spine tingling climaxes, and it also sets the album’s outlier in terms of length, coming in at a bit over four minutes. For the most part, Glow And The Forest’s songs are admirably restrained, preferring to hover around two and a half minutes, which as any 1960s pop songwriter would have told you is how long songs should be.
Closing track Aliens performs the neat trick of bringing the whole album together in one song, combining poignance with propulsive, percussive guitar and a powerful sense of ebb and flow. With a low-key opening, it picks up pace and flowers into something poppier and more uptempo, whilst retaining a sense of when to switch a chord change one beat out of the rhythm or simply change and start playing what sounds like a completely different song altogether. It’s the album’s most complex song, but in many ways the most rewarding and a fitting closing track.
The music industry in Japan is afraid, that much is clear. Even behemoths like Sony Music Entertainment are being forced to admit that the Internet exists, industry figures are looking with greedy eyes at the attention their Korean neighbours have been gaining abroad, and artists deemed to have the potential for overseas appeal like kooky fashion icon Kyary Pamyupamyu and electro idol trio Perfume are being tentatively shipped out on carefully stage managed tours, playing tiny venues guaranteed to sell out. No one knows how things are going to play out, and they are worried. They are afraid.
And for music fans, it’s good that industry is afraid, because their fear comes from a lack of control, and the control the music business exerts over its product is bad for music. Troubled times create cracks in the system, through which unexpected things may pass. Idol music might not be everyone’s cup of heart-shaped latté, but the explosion of new acts incorporating a variety of increasingly bizarre musical and visual styles is at least something different, and is the direct result of an industry unsure of where to go. The aforementioned Ms. Pamyupamyu and Perfume are also artists who emerged from the cracks, propelled by subcultural appeal into unexpected success.Kyary Pamyupamyu: Invader Invader
And there are signs that the music industry might be starting to come to terms with its fears, finding a way to work with the still new (to them) technology of the web, and reconfiguring their marketing to deal with the way fan behaviour has changed over the past ten years. Needless to say, music fans will likely not be the first to benefit.
One way we can see these changes occurring is in music videos. Having traditionally enjoyed a healthy income from video cassette and DVD sales, the music industry’s initial reaction to video streaming sites like YouTube was one of abject horror, and they blamed them for everything from Hurricane Katrina to the Kennedy assassinations. The viral success of Kyary Pamyupamyu’s “Ponponpon” in 2011, however, did a lot to encourage them that maybe video streaming sites could be made to work for them. Nowadays, all major labels have a YouTube channel, and are raking in a smidgeon of cash from the advertising.
In terms of fans, there has been a clear decline in the amount of money what we can loosely call “mainstream” music fans are willing to spend, which leaves the industry with the option of either looking outwards like the Koreans, or consolidating inwards like, let’s say, the British Empire.
As someone who has spent the past nine years involved in indie promotion in Japan, insofar as I have any kind of strategy at all (something many who have had the misfortune to work with me may choose to strenuously doubt), it tends towards fostering a core group of fans who are genuinely into the music, and who are dedicated enough to come to the shows and buy the CDs. Everyone’s welcome, but some kinds of people are obviously going to be more receptive than others and it makes sense to give them more attention.
On the face of it, a popular, major label group is faced with a slightly different set of circumstances. If they’ve got this far, they most likely already have a core group of fans, and these fans are going to buy the records regardless, so their goal would seem to be to reach outside this core group and try to capture the stray dollars of people with a more casual interest in the band.
One thing that seems logical for both indies and majors here is the value of having a nice video, ready for people to share on YouTube. An indie video can be shared via specialist blogs or networks of genre aficionados on Twitter and Facebook, helping to introduce them to prospective fans; a major label video that goes viral shouldn’t impact on sales to core fans, and might bring in a few extra sales from elsewhere.
Not so for the Japanese music industry though, where companies seem to be even more aggressively than ever pursuing a core fan strategy. And this is where the issue of videos comes up again, because look once more at YouTube and while major labels are happy to take Google’s advertising crumbs and seed the ground with videos from smaller acts in the event of an unanticipated viral harvest, they are focusing ever harder on maintaining tight control over the image rights of their key properties.
“Gentleman”, Psy’s attempt to follow up the success of viral sensation “Gangnam Style”, racked up millions of YouTube views and posted U.S. sales of around 70,000 in its first week. For a song inevitably doomed to be seen by History as the first step in Psy’s inexorable slide back into relative international obscurity (I’ve still got money on him finally getting big in Japan about three years after everyone else has forgotten about him), those numbers aren’t too shabby. So why is the Japanese record industry running shy of these possibilities?Psy: Gentleman
Part of this is probably because they’ve decided that on balance, it isn’t worth it. My back of a fag packet calculation gives a viral video about one sale for every thousand YouTube views. I would imagine there’s a lot of variation from video to video depending on how viewers are engaging with it, and there’s probably some sort of curve involved depending on the level of saturation, but in any case, we need millions and millions of views to make any meaningful impact on a major label act’s sales figures.
So what countervailing advantages does pursuing a core fan strategy have for the Japanese music industry? Well, at one extreme, just look at mass idol collective AKB48 and their legions of obsessive fans, some willing to spend millions of yen on thousands of copies of a single in order to gain multiple voting rights in the group’s annual “senbatsu election” of the most popular members. Not only the CDs, but an ever growing pile of goods that the fans are encouraged to buy and buy again in order to show their devotion to the goddess of their particular sect within the AKB cult. AKB48 are an extreme example, but they’re the big success story in the domestic industry, and their success in monetising fans within a shrinking market has been noted with interest by their competitors.
One problem with the AKB method is that it is so reliant on CD sales, which in a marketplace increasingly having to come to terms with iTunes and similar legal download sites, and where streaming services like Sony Music Unlimited and soon Spotify are gradually carving out a place for themselves (several years too late, but well done anyway), this model is already an anachronism. AKB48’s enormous sales are the Tyrannosaurus Rex stalking the late Cretaceous of the CD format’s lifespan. One download buys you the song, and if you want to download it again, well it’s already yours. If a fan who spent ¥2,000,000 on over a thousand copies of the CD single wants to give them that ¥2,000,000 via Music Unlimited, he’s going to be busy.
So it’s not music, but goods that are the key to exploiting (and I do mean exploiting) the core fanbase, and the key to goods is image rights. Videos can also be monetised, not as promotional materials, but as commodities in their own rights, and by ruthlessly shutting out YouTube users from access to the videos, they can then sell exclusive broadcast rights to the videos to certain TV channels, to which the core fans must obediently turn, or flog them as video downloads to fans’ smartphones. This shift can be seen in the way the music industry in Japan now refuses to use the term PV (“promotional video”, i.e. for promotion) and has en masse adopted the term MV (“music video”, i.e. a discrete product whose value is intrinsic).
So a group like Perfume, having taken the big step by Japanese industry standards of making their music available to buy online internationally (still few of their J-pop peers have been willing to take the risk, whatever they imagine it might be), have been preparing to embark on an international tour with a new single and a clever, imaginative and quite charming video that their management company, Amuse, has until recently been vigorously battling to make sure none of their fans were able to see.
Yet Perfume are among the radicals, the trailblazers of modernity, and as a rule, they seem to be releasing the videos from captivity eventually, allowing them to roam their natural online environment after they have completed their terms of indenture to whatever broadcast organisation into whose service they were sold (Magic of Love finally appeared on Perfume’s official channel last week). The broader picture though, of an industry suspicious of the outside, not just of other countries but now of potential domestic fans from outside core fanbase groups, turning with ever greater cynicism towards the cultivation and exploitation of those fans devotion, is a profoundly depressing one.Perfume: Magic of Love
It’s inevitable in a way that once it begins to become accustomed to a new technology, an industry will first seek ways to retain control over it, and of course it’s natural that businesses will want to protect their profits before all else. It would be naive to attempt to deny this. At the moment, the Japanese music industry is still afraid, but what’s really dispiriting in all this is the way that in the midst of seismic changes in the marketplace, they are still channeling their resources into attempts to chart a path that turns the clock not forwards but backwards.
A bit of self-promotion this, as after a long break and some touring, I’m back to organising reasonably regular live events in Tokyo now. I tried a small show at the lovely Art Bar Ten last month, which went off so spiffingly that I’m planning to make it a regular monthly thing from August, so now I’m ready for something bigger and louder, at my favourite venue in Japan, Higashi-Koenji 20000V (Ni-man Den-Atsu).
There’s a bit of a story behind the venue. 20000V or 20000 Volt was a famous punk venue in the lower basement of a building on Koenji’s Pal shopping arcade. It catered to hardcore, alternative and noise bands, while the slightly smaller Gear on the upper basement floor was more orientated towards pop-punk and garage bands. The booking manager of 20000V was Hayakawa from punk legends Kirihito, and when he left, Ishida from Firebirdgass and Mochizuki from Groundcover. took over, maintaining the uncompromising spirit of the place. On the second floor of the same building there was an izakaya called Ishikari-tei which had the most awesome staff and stayed open until 10:00am every day, so that’s where you went after the gigs finished down in the basement.
The trouble came in October 2009, when a fire at Ishikari-tei gutted the building and killed four people, including two staff. It made national news and was a terrible blow to the local scene. I was friendly with one of the waitresses, but she was in Paris at the time with a dance performance group and I don’t know to this day who the people killed were. I don’t want to know.
Fortunately, apart from a small amount of water damage, 20000V wasn’t harmed, but the owners, SOS Group, decided to close it and Gear down anyway. One suspects they’d been looking for an excuse to shut it down for a long time, and this gave them the chance they’d been looking for. The team who ran the venue were a close-knit crowd, who worked together brilliantly. They were widely respected in the local scene and had a lot of loyal bands and events, but the decision was final, 20000V was shut down and they were out of their jobs.
So obviously, they did what any right thinking punks would do and they opened up a new venue just across town near Higashi-Koenji Station. They got a new sound system that was even louder than the one they’d had before, and this time they would run it themselves. SOS Group refused to let them use the name, so they called it Ni-man Den-Atsu (the four kanji literally mean “20000 Volt”) and lots of people who know the venue’s history still call it by its old name anyway, as they should. Anyway, it’s a venue I’m very close to and where whenever I can, I try to do shows there (the Penguin House on the north side of Koenji, where my wife and I had our wedding party, is the place it shares space in my heart with).
So this Saturday, June 15th, 20000V is where I’m organising my show, which I’ve put together in collaboration with the band Jebiotto, also veterans of the original venue. It’s named “Shinda Shinda Shinda” as a pun on the high school girl rock band movie Linda Linda Linda and the Japanese for “Dead Dead Dead”. I put the full details up on my label’s blog here, but here are some clips previewing the bands who are playing.
First up, there’s the brilliantly named I Know The Mouse, a young band who if they have any web presence at all, I’ve been unable to find it. They’re an instrumental guitar and synth-based band, whose demo shows elements of new wave and krautrock, but to find out more, you’ll just have to go and see them.
Then there’s Jebiotto, another synth-based band. Time Out Tokyo describe them as a “scrappy indie-disco trio“, but they’re heavily postpunk influenced too, with a sense of rhythm focused on dancing, but with an approach to playing that emphasises energy and enthusiasm over technical perfection. The vocalist Madoka has an alarming habit of screaming “Rape me!” at the audience at inopportune moments during the set (she’s a Nirvana fan) and making everyone in the room feel deeply uncomfortable, but she’s also a charismatic, brilliantly frazzled frontwoman.Jebiotto: Beat End
Probably the best-known band on the lineup is Kuruucrew. Mostly instrumental, although they have been known to yell stuff over the top of their music from time to time, their music falls into a couple of patterns, both characterised by extreme noise and a high level of technical skill. Firstly, there’s rhythmically diverse, stop-start avant-garde rock, and secondly, there’s repetitive, groove-orientated psychedelia, heavily influenced by krautrock and I suspect also by genre-defying 70s oddities like This Heat.Kuruucrew live
Mir were one of the reasons I started Call And Response Records in the first place. Their music is fragile and beautiful, but shot through with a kind of anger, intensity and desperation that carries over into their live performances, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. I’ve seen them play sublime sets, but I’ve also seen their gigs collapse into drunken incoherence, tears, violence or all of the above. Watching Mir live is like watching a man put his head into the mouth of a lion. If he survives, the joy is tempered by a huge sense of relief, and if he doesn’t, it’s horrible, but hey, you did just see a guy getting his head bitten off by a lion. It’s always an experience.Mir: Machiawase Basho wo Kimete Yokou
Mir used to be a more rock-orientated three-piece but they’re currently down to a synth-based core of the twin male and female vocalists, whose onstage relationship is often quite a fraught thing. The tension that often exists between them is reflected in the music, which often plays out in the form of duets that set Yoko’s sweet, glacial female voice against Kyohei’s emotional, often tortured, yowls of alienation.Mir: Ya Ne Mogu Bez Tebya
Finally, there’s Hyacca, who I’ve written a bit about recently, and who are another of the reasons I started Call And Response. They’re another band who make use of multiple vocalists, although they have a more obvious frontperson in Hiromi Kajiwara. One of their great talents is in taking something musically quite complex and making it into something that feels very natural and accessible, never losing sight of the fact that what they’re making is fundamentally dance music.Hyacca: Stress / Sick Girl
Sorry for using this space to big up my own projects at the moment, but in the end, this blog, my label and my events all come from the same place: the need for a forum to shout about bands I think are worth listening to (and since most of my readers are based in the United States, it’s probably only on this blog that most of you will be able to hear these bands anyway). There’s more of the same coming next month as well, with another five bands playing on July 13th, this time at the Penguin House, so forewarned is forearmed, as they say.