Tokyo-based trio Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots have been creeping around and exploiting Japanese alt-rock’s unexplored corners and blind spots for the best part of the past decade, and on this sixth release of their career, they’re in particularly playful form. There’s a percussion-centred minimalism to their approach here, with the bass and guitars comfortable in taking frequent steps back to leave the eerie yet warm acoustics of Junpei Yamamoto’s sparse rhythmical utterances tapping out their coded messages in the foreground. As usual for the band, there’s a lot of vocal interplay and harmonies at work, which works in parallel with Loolowningen’s wilfully disconcerting rhythmical jitters to make a game out of deconstructing the habits that even alternative music tends to fall into, in a way that draws comparisons with bands like Hikashu, who are similarly playful with form but generally more organic, less sharp-edged than Loolowningen. Nevertheless, Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots’s music isn’t overwhelmed by their tightly wound structural gameplay, and when they open up space for vocalist Shigeru Akakura to simply sing a song, as on sixth track Coup, a melancholy warmth rises above the backdrop of the band’s complex rhythmical explorations. That combination of playfulness and melancholy, playing out over the often sparse musical set dressing that the band lay out is perhaps Anökumene’s defining emotional and atmospheric characteristic, and the results are compelling.
There was of course a lot of Japanese music in 2019 that I didn’t listen to or that otherwise got left out of my top 25 rundown. There were a couple of releases in particular that I liked a lot and on another day might have been included, so first up, here’s a look at a couple of my additional favourites.
Bulbs of Passion – Low Life
Tokyo indie rock band Bulbs of Passion have been plugging away in the background of the local scene for the best part of the past decade, with a solid catalogue of songs, although as far as I know the only available recording of them before this new EP was 2016’s The Very Best of Bulbs of Passion. For a band named after a Dinosaur Jr. song, Bulbs of Passion’s music has an unexpectedly light touch, the title track soaring out of the traps, kept aloft by billowing reverb, while Slap bounces along poppily on its off-beat. The closing Hurt, meanwhile nods to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey before once again being launched skyward, powered by the band’s seemingly endless reserves of giddy enthusiasm.
Yokoscum – Last Month’s Music
An incessant hiss of distortion that may have originated in a guitar, an eerie throbbing electronic pulse, some devotional wailing, metallic hints of a pop melody, occasional gasps of confused desperation. DJ, event organiser and experimental musician Yokoscum’s Last Month’s Music cassette EP is an intriguing little creation, combining lo-fi noise and industrial with vaguely religious sounding mantras and letting the repetitive, insistent nature of both feed each other. The five untitled tracks on this EP are more explorations of an idea than songs exactly, but the results are still interesting and not without a sense of playfulness and fun.
For my own Call And Response label, 2019 was a relatively low-key year, with three new releases (and a fourth that didn’t officially come out until January 2020). As usual, I don’t include releases I helped put out in my own best-of-the-year rundowns because it’s difficult to judge and rank something I was involved in pressing and promoting against other people’s music. Naturally, though, I think all these releases are great, so here’s a quick look at 2019 from Call And Response’s perspective.
First up, there was synth-punk trio Jebiotto’s split 7-inch single with the excellent UK-based post-punk band Treeboy & Arc, which we released in collaboration with British label Come Play With Me. In addition to the record, we also made an extremely silly short sci-fi film featuring the band battling robot doubles created by an evil live venue owner.
In May, we released another international split, this time a CD EP featuring Filipina riot grrrl band The Male Gaze and Tokyo noise-punks P-iPLE (who incidentally share a vocalist with Jebiotto). To promote this EP, we brought The Male Gaze over for an eventful and extremely fun one-week tour.
Then in October, Looprider came out with their fourth album and first full-length release, Ouroboros. From the start, Looprider have been combining shoegaze and noise-rock-influenced effects-pedal textures with metal and doom riffs, employing a wide variety of approaches from one release to the next. This album is perhaps the purest expression of this essence though, barging back and forth between lush, layered towers of textured rock and grinding garage-metal riffery.
2020 has already started off with some good new releases, and some very interesting stuff on the horizon from Panicsmile, Half Sports, Kasuppa, Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots among others. From Call And Response, we’ve just put out another split 7-inch featuring Tokyo post-hardcore band illMilliliter and Hokkaido’s TG.Atlas, with further releases planned. Whether it’s another year before I update this site again or if I somehow manage to keep on top of new releases a bit better remains to be seen. Hopefully, I’ll manage to be better.
5. Puffyshoes – Flower
Released together with a home made zine, this cassette collection of seven rough-edged 60s girl group-via-Ramones pop tunes (clocking in at a bit over nine minutes, with only the opening Let’s Fall in Love scraping past one and a half minutes in length) is maximum DIY in both its execution and its wider, thematic meta-nostalgia for the already nostalgic sounds of past generations of indie/twee-pop tape-dwellers. Puffyshoes inhabit their fantasy world so completely that it never feels less than completely real, and the devastatingly simple, infectiously catchy, tremblingly fragile pop tunes that make up this EP drive that point home more effectively than I ever could.
4. Groundcover. – ██████
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Throughout their multiple shifting, contracting and expanding lineups, Groundcover have been one of Tokyo’s most consistently interesting noise-rock bands, combining roots in hardcore and post-Boredoms junk with a drift into expansive sonic territory. ██████ is the culmination of that evolution, retaining the raw riffs and explosive energy that characterised their hardcore days but wedding it to via the rhythmically tight, increasingly dub-influenced sound system band leader Ataraw Mochizuki has built up around him over the years. The result is an album that builds up immense, triumphant, richly layered walls of sound, deployed with impressive control.
3. OOIOO – Nijimusi
Despite having been at it for the best part of the past 25 years, OOIOO remain as inventive and inspired as ever, lurching dementedly from one idea to another, linking the experimental extremes of post-punk and progressive rock with the sort of drunken fluidity that can only really come from total mastery of their oddball craft, with echoes of both Gong and the Raincoats in equal measures colouring this endlessly delightful album. It’s wild, fun, fundamentally dedicated to the unexpected, and overall a powerful and accessible exploration of completely unrestrained musical imagination.
2. Takeshi Yamamoto – Somewhere
Sometimes it feels like Takeshi Yamamoto is singlehandedly holding the Fukuoka music scene together, playing in what seems to be at least half the bands in the city (Macmanaman, Sea Level, Kelp, Sacoyans and more), not to mention DJing, doing design work for fellow Kyushu scenesters and generally turning out an endless stream of new releases and collaborations. Despite all this, Somewhere is Yamamoto’s first solo release, and it’s gorgeous. Composed mostly of ambient and drone-based soundscapes, it carries a lot of similarities with some of Yamamoto’s work with post rock collective Sea Level, but where Sea Level endlessly circle eclectically around an implied but never quite described centre, Somewhere is far more comfortable in its sonic identity. Between tones and drones that shimmer like silk in the breeze, Yamamoto picks out gentle guitar melodies here, introduces rippling sequencer patterns there, builds rich or even dirty layers competing sounds, or pares them away to sparse near-nothing, water trickling quietly at the edge of hearing.
1. Former Airline – Rewritten Memories by the Future
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Released as a limited edition cassette in February, Japanese artist Former Airline’s Rewritten Memories by Future is an album born out of a cauldron of 1980s experimental and underground influences but doesn’t remain bound by them. Crash and Learn recalls the claustrophobic rhythms of Liaisons Dangereuses, drawing out and developing the origins of acid house from its chatter of electronic bleeps. Meanwhile, the artist’s love of krautrock and shoegaze – ever present on the album – is expressed most strikingly on the gorgeous closing The Angel Between Two Walls. Through the album, analogue glitches, drones and intrusions of noise act as the cement holding this sonic structure together.
10. O’Summer Vacation – Wicked Heart
Navigating multiple lineups over the past few years, 2019 finally saw the chronically unsteady O’Summer Vacation finally unleashed an album’s worth of their particular brand of brutally short, jagged nuggets of breakneck bass-led shrieking. If you’ve seen the band live, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Wicked Heart. There’s a clear parallel with Melt-Banana here, although it’s the sparser 1990s Melt-Banana that O’Summer Vacation recall more than the richly layered guitars, blast beats and electronics of their more recent material. With no guitar to thicken up the sound, it’s left to Hirofumi Miki’s bass to carry much of the sonic burden, coaxing all manner of unexpected sounds from his instrument with the help of an array of effects and loop pedals. The results are a fierce, frenetic and raw twenty minutes of propulsive, surf-tinged bubblegum hardcore.
9. Gotou – Gotou
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Hailing from Hokkaido, Gotou did what so many promising Japanese underground bands do and released a marvellous album before immediately going on indefinite hiatus. It’s a shame, because this album really is something special. Drawing from the gloomier end of post-punk and German new wave, the vocals scrape the lower end of the singer’s range in a way that pays clear homage to Malaria! (the band declare this openly in their Twitter profile and even cover Malaria!’s song Your Turn to Run on the album) but while it may not be blessed with an overabundance of originality, this album stands out as something distinctive in the Japanese underground scene.
8. Soloist Anti Pop Totalization – S.A.P.T.
(Text taken from my personal blog)
This Tokyo-based artist takes his cues from the sound of early Mute Records artists like Fad Gadget and The Normal with his relentless machine rhythms, dentist drill synth intrusions and squirts of analogue electronic interference. About half the album is made up of experimental instrumental tracks, and where vocals emerge, they do so as a series of distant, lo-fi, Mark E Smith barks and utterances. There are moments too, on songs like Depression (Part 2) and Other, where the music slips into a more accessible and even pop groove, and this helps S.A.P.T. take the listener on a surprisingly diverse journey through its synthetic dystopia.
7. Folk Enough – Lover Ball
(Text taken from my personal blog)
This album by Fukuoka-based indie rockers Folk Enough is absolutely horrible to listen to, taking the lo-fi recording aesthetic to the sort of scuzzy extremes it hasn’t seen since Twin Infinitives-era Royal Trux. Swimming around in this sonic murk, however, are moments of fragile beauty that recall Lou Barlow at his most beaten-down, and moments of rock’n’roll swagger that hint at Jon Spencer at his most explosive. Across the whole album lies a sort of confused, alcoholic fug that means you’re never sure whether what you’re listening to is genius or a terrible mistake. Folk Enough’s secret is that it’s both.
6. Ignition Block M – Ignition Block M
One of vanishingly few new bands currently jolting underground audiences out of their jaded inertia, Ignition Block M share some roots with the excellent and sadly missed Pinprick Punishment (not to mention fellow Pinprick refugees My Society Pissed) and assault you from a similar position of ferociously energetic, riff-slashing punk rock with few complications but just enough jagged, art-swagger to keep keep the music from feeling to complacent in its genre. Add in a powerful, charismatic vocalist and a tight, propulsive rhythm section and you have the makings of potential breakout underground stars.
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.
20. V/A – Nicfit/M.A.Z.E.
This split EP features two of Japan’s leading purveyors of energetic, darkly leftfield punk rock and both bands shine. With Nagoya quartet Nicfit’s contributions, the guitars yowl and scrape at your eardrums as the songs barrel breakneck towards their conclusion, bass pounding out an atmosphere of doom. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s M.A.Z.E. come in all scuzzy, slashing guitars and post-punk jitters, then just as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone. A breathless, electrifying seven and a half minutes.
19. Towel – 「」
Hamamatsu-based avant-indie band Towel’s new EP crams six songs into ten minutes, blasting you alternately with bouncy melodicism, jagged post-punk guitars with atonal yowling, and off-kilter, Sebadoh-esque songsmithery. On some level, you can make out parallels with a band like Siamese Cats in the songwriting sensibility, but Towel have way more ragged edges that they seem to have no interest in sanding away. And rightly so, because on this EP the edges are what give it its charm.
18. Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits
Kyoto garage-trash quartet Otoboke Beaver are currently the Japanese band that people overseas have heard of, and their growing status outside Japan is all the more remarkable for the fact that they’ve managed to do it all within the restrictive limitations of touring while apparently holding down jobs with typical Japanese holiday allowances. Itekoma Hits is half a compilation, gathering tracks from recent Japanese releases together with a handful of new and re-recordings, and if you’re already familiar with their particular style of breakneck garage-punk with hairpin rhythmical turns, you’ll be well prepared for this. But when they jettison the chatterbox vocal stream with shouted choruses and take a turn for the melodic, they reveal the songwriting heart of a J-pop group amid the crafted chaos, in a way reminiscent of Kansai-area forbears Midori. With 14 tracks in about 27 minutes, Itekoma Hits is dense with ferocious yet deftly structured oddball punk rock and packed with unexpected twists.
17. The Routes – Tune Out Switch Off Drop In
Calling The Routes part of Japan’s garage rock scene isn’t quite accurate, as the band seem quite content sequestered away in Oita, rarely playing live and having very little to do with the core Back from the Grave/Garage Rockin’ Craze scene in Tokyo. And they stand out from most of that scene too, by having much stronger and more sophisticated songwriting. The opening The Ricochet might veer a little too close to Oasis for some tastes (let’s be charitable and say it has echoes of Ladies And Gentlemen…-era Spiritualized instead) but overall, the feeling recalls the sounds of the 1980s Nuggets revival, more along the lines of Chris Stamey, Dream Syndicate or the Fleshtones (maybe even a hint of Ian McNabb and The Icicle Works in there too in songs like Just How it Feels) gifting the music a lively, sharply-cut, hook-heavy energy.
16. Otori – Digitalized Human Nature
Where Otori’s 2014 debut album I Wanna Be Your Noise was loosely themed around ideas of communication, many of the songs on their 2019 follow-up Digitalized Human Nature — from the opening Encode Jungle to the closing Neuromancer — are concerned in one way or another with being human in a digital world. The arrival of new bass player Tsuda (of psychedelic rock band Owarikara) has also seen a shift in sound from the propulsive post-punk of their early years to something more rhythmically hyperactive, with vocalist Sae working more quirky, squeaky melodies into the songs and the introduction of more synth sounds (at least in some cases seemingly being worked Robert Fripp-style through Hino’s guitar). Digitalized Human Nature is an extremely busy album that retains and expands on Otori’s post-punk roots but is also intent on causing discomfort, overloading you with contradictory sensory input to the point where you don’t know where the man ends and the machine begins.
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.
In addition to the albums and EPs covered by my, admittedly selective and only vaguely ranked, top 25 list, there were of course plenty of other releases I listened to and enjoyed. Fukuoka insult-punks Born Shit Stirrers put out another extremely fun album, Depressed Fathers Club, which featured a song namechecking me, titled Ian Martin Thinks You’re Shit. Synthpop/technopop duo Motocompo re-released their fantastic 2008 Chiptop Lips album towards the end of the year, while their all-boy “ska-electro” successor band (M)otocompo released their daffy new Yokoshima Borderline EP at the same time. Fukuoka-based operatic jazz-prog trio Kelp put out the fascinating Intake album, while there were some interesting cassette compilations in the alt-rock-themed Life Is Music and Tokyo indie event Rhyming Slang’s collaboration compilation with Korean indie collective Freshalwayson. There was plenty more that I either didn’t get a chance to listen to or that I’ve somehow forgotten in the swirl of events and noise that usually makes up my year.
My own Call And Response label also put out a couple of new releases, which for obvious reasons I didn’t feel right including in my personal ranking of best releases. However, since this site seems to be the only place on the Internet that covers this sort of Japanese art-punk, underground and experimental rock music with any real affection, I’m going to make a point of recommending them here because (like all Call And Response releases, natch) they’re both excellent albums.
Sea Level – Dictionary (Handwritten) – BUY HERE
In a review by Ele-king magazine, Sea Level were described as “centreless music”, which is to say music that doesn’t have an obvious, easy-to-define core identity but rather defines itself through the fluid, free-floating and dreamlike way it dances from idea to idea, pulled outwards in various directions by the diverse creative talents in the band, but nonetheless linked in a stream of consciousness. Musically, it’s in the zone that we can comfortably call post-rock in that it combines electronic music with progressive rock, with diversions into various other genres where appropriate, but that doesn’t do justice to the beauty of this record — less a linear journey than a hallucinatory, melancholy landscape that you’re left to explore freely by yourself.
Velvet Ants – Entomological Souvenirs I – BUY HERE
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in these year-end countdown posts that 2018 was a great year for the loose category of sonically or rhythmically distorted experimental rock and (post)punk music I like to classify as noise-rock, and Velvet Ants by all rights should be considered an important part of that wave of great music. Recorded and mixed by Shinji Masuko of DMBQ (whose monumental Keenly also featured in my top albums list), Entomological Souvenirs I combines jittery rhythms, heavy riffs and ferocious Sonic Youthian freakouts, delivered with a disarmingly loose sort of confidence.Velvet Ants – Cicada (single edit)
No.5 – Former Airline – 2011 or so…
Former Airline may have taken his name from a B-side by British postpunk band Wire, but his music is in a broader tradition of experimental rock music that runs from artists like the Silver Apples, through Eno and krautrock, into postpunk, EBM, industrial and beyond. He has been putting out DIY cassettes and suchlike for a while now and 2011 or so… is a collection of material spanning several years. It opens with the musique concréte noise collage Portrait of a City, but gradually dissolves into less sonically uncompromising but no less exciting and interesting territory, with cheap rhythm boxes merging with hazy, ambient synth drones taking over by the time An Incident at the Terminal Beach comes around, while later tracks increasingly incorporate distorted, washes of shoegaze guitar. Taken together, 2011 or so… is an intriguing and quite beautiful musical glimpse into the mind of a mad scientist.
No.4 – The Doodless – Capture
This wonderful CD-R EP dropped into my lap out of what seemed like nowhere at a show early in the year and Doodless (with the double “s”, not to be confused with the more famous Japanese indie band Doodles) instantly became one of my favourite bands. A lot of other people in the music scene I recommended them to felt the same way, so of course what the band did was immediately stop all their activities and fail to capitalise on any momentum they might have got. What that means, however, is that this unashamedly lo-fi collection of off-kilter garage-punk postpunk whimsy is going to be something you and a very small group of others can claim as your own forever now. It’ll be something where you can meet someone and they mention “this Japanese band Doodless with a double-s” and you can say, “Oh, my God, you’re my friend for life!” and move in together and buy a labrador. Read my original review here.
(NOTE: The band’s Bandcamp page has Capture down as a 2017 release, but I suspect that’s a case of New Year forgetfulness, as their Twitter account announced it in January 2018.)
No.3 – Luby Sparks – Luby Sparks
Sounding like it was transmitted directly from mid-90s Britain, there’s always a temptation to dismiss something like Luby Sparks as retro, but if you did, you’d be missing out on some of the most exuberantly lovelorn pop of the year. Read my full review here.Luby Sparks – Thursday
No.2 – The Noup – Flaming Psychic Heads
More a short, sweet mini-album accompanied by an unrelated single than an album outright, Flaming Psychic Heads is a fantastic and long-awaited debut album from Okayana noise-rock trio The Noup. Combining postpunk, post-hardcore and krautrock, the mini-album section is a fierce, driving set embellished with expansive guitar excursions onto almost spacerock territory, most notably on second track Utopia. The band are able to harness and rein in the ferocious energy at their core with thrilling restraint on the electric Monochrome Dead, but when they unleash it, as on the closing Impotents Anaaki, it’s explosive. An additional CD features Geodesic, a percussion-heavy ten-minute track that features echoes of drummer Takafumi Okada’s work with Kansai rhythm collective Goat, with the guitars taking on a sparser role. It’s an interesting track in its own right and a welcome addition to the album, although different enough from the five initial tracks that it’s easy to see why the band might have felt the need to include it as a separate item.The Noup – Impotents Anaaki (single version)
No.1 – Eiko Ishibashi – The Dream My Bones Dream
Images of railway lines run through multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Eiko Ishibashi’s beautiful, multilayered The Dream My Bones Dream, providing the album with a skeleton of sorts, as well as functioning as the means by which the listener is transported back through a series of faded photographs of unremembered memories. The spectre of Japan’s wartime occupation of parts of China hangs over Iron Veil, a half-imagined memory from Ishibashi’s father’s youth in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, but the patchwork of fragmented secondhand memories and dreams mostly takes more abstract shapes, with the album split about half and half between wispy vocal and richly textured instrumental tracks. Echoes of Ishibashi’s experimental work with Merzbow and Jim O’Rourke, there’s a collage-like structure to the way layers of sound intertwine, drifting in and out of focus, and at times Ishibashi seems to treat her own voice as just another of these ghostly elements, her own identity being lost in the series of scattered images flitting by the train window, but the The Dream My Bones Dream has a distinct personality of its own, melancholy but determined, and the journey it takes you on is a thing of extraordinary beauty.
No.10 – Qujaku – Qujaku
Leading lights of Japan’s current wave of noise-rock, Hamamatsu-based Qujaku’s debut album is a powerful statement from a band who are now really starting to grow into their ambitions. In the past, there has often been a nagging sense that Qujaku were playing over the heads of their audience to some imagined stadium rock crowd that they were imagining just over the horizon. Recently, however, they’ve learned to modulate their performances better and channel their strengths to suit the spaces they’re in, without compromising their more expansive tendencies. On this self-titled debut they proudly peacock across its two discs with swaggering gothic elegance, from the frankly ludicrous 20-minute opener Shoku no Hakumei to the cracked, fragile closing Sweet Love of Mine.Qujaku – Yui, Hate No Romance
No.9 – Ryo Asada – Code
Veering from free jazz to acoustic balladry to a capella harmonising to minimalist synthpop (although mostly the former two to be honest), this “debut” album by Fukuoka artist Ryo Asada isn’t really a debut, as he has been playing and occasionally releasing with the band tepPohseen for years. It has the feeling of a debut though in the hyperactive, unfiltered way it tries to be everything, in love with every musical possibility it discovers. It’s one of the strangest Japanese releases of the year, and perhaps strangest in how much fun it is.Ryo Asada – Timetrial Again
No.8 – Jim O’Rourke – Sleep Like it’s Winter
In addition to the five releases in his Steamroom series that he put out over the course of 2018, Jim O’Rourke released this wonderfully eerie piece for new ambient/drone-focused electronic label Newhere Music, which in many ways feels like he took one of his Steamroom releases and then built on and refined it. Seeing him perform it live, it’s clear that the piece we hear on this record is really just a point in the evolution of O’Rourke’s experimental soundscapes. In the ever-shifting topography of O’Rourke’s music, however, this release stands as a significant landmark.
No.7 – 5kai – 5kai
Emerging in Kyoto out of the ashes of the short-lived Lego Chameleon, 5kai’s debut album is a stark mix of post-hardcore and math-rock that manages to be both icily, almost confrontationally reserved while at the same time allowing a sort of fragile, melancholy beauty to filter through in the sparse melodies and plaintive vocals. The intelligent, rhythmically complex arrangements ensure that the minimalist components keep leading the listener through fresh patterns and makes this album one of the year’s most accomplished debuts.
No.6 – Phew – Voice Hardcore
The release of this album by eclectic experimental former postpunk artist Phew straddles the edge of 2017 and 2018 (The Wire included it in their 2017 best) but is included here mainly because I wanted to include Phew’s also excellent analogue synth album Light Sleep in my top albums of 2017. Voice Hardcore might seem a misleading title depending on the associations the word “hardcore” has for you, being an album much of which is characterised by spectral ambient drones, but it’s nonetheless brutally uncompromising in its core creative premise, that every sound on the album is one created by Phew’s voice. The undulating choral tones she layers on many of the tracks sometimes stand alone, but on others they form the backdrop to disconcerting yelps, tortured utterances and simple phrases repeated, looped, overlapping. 2018 also saw Phew working with London-based Ana da Silva on the excellent Island, but Voice Hardcore stands as a singularly unique and fascinating record from one of Japan’s most reliably distinctive artists. (NOTE: The CD edition features 9 tracks, while the vinyl and download editions feature 6.)