Best of 2017 – More great sounds (1)

Every year when I write my top 20 Japanese music releases, there’s always a lot of good stuff that I leave out either because I didn’t hear it in time or because I just decided not to in the particular moment of compiling everything. And as always, I didn’t include any of my own Call And Response label’s releases, even though they were all excellent.

As well as my own releases and the other favourites that slipped through the net, there are a handful of other dedicated people out there cataloguing the best indie music Japan has to offer from their own particular perspectives Obviously their perspectives are all to varying degrees wrong (except where they agree with me, obviously), but if you’re wrong in the same way as them, you might find their 2017 rundowns of value.

In this first of three posts, I’ll be running quickly through some of the releases that missed out on my own top 20 but which might easily on another day have found their way in:

Born Shit Stirrers – I Hate Your Fucking Band

Based in Fukuoka and apparently on a sort of Wowbaggerian mission to slag off, one by one, everyone in the city, Born Shit Stirrers put out two albums in 2017, with Richard and Judy following in the summer. I’m singling out I Hate Your Fucking Band here mainly because of the title, but both albums are packed with fast, profane, utterly squalid, Anti-Nowhere League-esque punk rock smacks to the gob, featuring nothing in the way of subtlety, refinement or artistry.

V/A – Rhyming Slang Covers

The second Rhyming Slang compilation after 2016’s Rhyming Slang Tour Van compilation, this covers compilation sees some of the same bands, like DYGL, Yüksen Buyers House and Half Mile Beach Club, plus a host of new ones like the increasingly popular Luby Sparks and up-and-comers Tawings. With the exception of Nengu’s math rock take on Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, most of the tracks are pretty straightforward covers of vaguely hip classics from bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, New Order, Lou Reed and so on, but there’s a particular sort of value that can be gained from the peek they offer into the influences underscoring the younger end of the Tokyo indie scene.

Kuunatic – Kuurandia

Dropping right at the end of the year, this EP by Tokyo-based psychedelic trio Kuunatic is the ethnic transcendental music of a minimalist alien space tribe who worship Charles Hayward as a god.

The Routes – In This Perfect Hell

This site doesn’t cover a lot of garage rock because it’s a genre so rooted in the past and in its own retro revivalist scene that the usual tools I use to assess new music (what’s fresh about it? how does it stand out from its contemporaries?) would miss the point. It’s music that lives by its ability to sound the same as something else, to ape the past, to avoid challenging its contemporaries. So how can a garage rock band in 2017 Japan stand out? Basically by doing what The Routes did: writing a tonne of really good songs and playing them really well.

DYGL – Say Goodbye to Memory Den

The real superstars of the Tokyo indiepop scene, DYGL had a fantastic 2017, making it to one of the big stages at Fuji Rock, selling out a show at the Liquid Room, and releasing this fun, energetic full-length debut. The band are clearly deeply indebted to bands like The Libertines and The Strokes (Albert Hammond Jr. produced this album) but in the context of the Japanese music scene, the raucous, punkish energy that comes with those influences sets them apart from the soft-focus dreaminess of many of their peers.

In The Sun – El Energy

Coming out just at the end of 2016, this ferociously intense noise-rock album missed out on last year’s list simply because I didn’t get my hands on a copy until way too late. Like early Nisennenmondai performing from behind a battery of modular synths and effectors, In The Sun have all the krautrock and This Heat you could want, with all the sparseness replaced by a relentless barrage of joyous, angry noise.


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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.1 – Miu Mau – Drawing

miu mau - drawing

CD/download, VYBE Records, 2017

A full-length collection from Kyushu indie supergroup Miu Mau to follow up 2008’s Design was always going to be a contender for album of the year, and Drawing really is excellent, exceeding its now long-distant predecessor in both the range and depth of its songwriting.

Followers of the band will quickly recognise most of the material on Drawing, with the core of the album made up of a trio of singles and EPs that the band have put out over the past few years. The only brand new material comes in the form of new songs Ryuukou-iro no Pallette and Mishiranai no Basho de, while Monochrome appears in a new, mostly Japanese language version as well as a new remix at the end of the album. All that is to say that if you have been following Miu Mau over the past few years, you’ll already know that basically everything on this album is beautiful, sparse, sophisticated, melancholy, synth-led new wave pop.

Of the new material, Ryuukou-iro no Pallette is the most immediately striking, with the stabs of noise that interrupt the song’s sparse, piano-led melody and harmonies, making explicit the note of dissonance that subtly underscores much of the material on Drawing. The source of that dissonance is most usually Hiromi Kajiwara’s guitar, which is delivered with a harsh, metallic reverb that contrasts with Masami Takashima’s lush washes of synth and pristeen vocals. On the new wave Asiatica of Future Classic / Mirai no Classic and the minimalistic dance-pop News, Kajiwara’s guitar cuts throught he songs, the strokes of her plectrum scratching percussively against the sweet melodies, while on songs like Iro wo Matou the guitar adding texture to the music like an additional voice wandering through the background of the song.

There’s a sparseness to Miu Mau’s music that it would have been tempting to try to fill out in pursuit of a more commercially pleasing sound. Similar bands like the now departed Merpeoples have tried something like that and lost something of their own identity in the process, so it’s to Miu Mau’s credit that over the years they have always kept the spindly, dissonant aspects of their music in play, all recognisably within what the three members can comfortably reproduce live together.

Of the Monochrome remix, it’s a decent take on the song, but unnecessary and largely out of step with the atmosphere of the album, but it also feels unnecessarily querulous to complain about being given too much. The remix is there if you want it, but if you don’t, you can be more than satisfied with the collection of nine immaculate avant-pop songs that remains. Album of the year without a doubt.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.2 – Phew – Light Sleep

Phew has already staked a claim for one of 2018’s best with her latest release, Voice Hardcore, an album formed entirely of her own distorted vocalisations, but it was within a very different set of restrictions that she composed one of 2017’s finest albums, the analogue synthesiser-based Light Sleep.

The analogue electronic sounds inevitably draw comparisons with acts like Suicide, Laisons Dangereuses and the more electronic extremes of krautrock, as well (of course) with Phew’s own early ’80s work with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Conny Plank and members of Can. It’s also clear that she has a more sophisticated relationship with the technology now, manipulating waves and pulses with subtlety and assurance as she chants her eerie mantras over the chuntering rhythms of antique drum machines.

There is a kind of mirror structure to the album, with the opening New World and the closing Antenna both featuring drums that kick and splutter intermittently over a drone that gradually builds and fills out. In the former, it is accompanied by a pulsating synth bass that propels it forward, while the latter takes the form of a more ambient coda. The second and penultimate tracks, CQ Tokyo and Echo, also mirror each other, with insistent, Suicide-like rhythms underscoring Phew’s vocal incantations, hysterical and panicked on the former, dry and emotionless on the latter.

There’s an intimate sense of the bedroom recording to Light Sleep, but at the same time, it’s an undeniably expansive record. Throughout the record, Phew crafts a series of unforgiving yet entrancing alien landscapes from what seems to be a mountain of synthesisers, drum machines and effects. The emphasis on analogue equipment gives the otherwise icy music a kind of warmth, while the range of sonic textures she coaxes from her boxes of magical tricks is hypnotic and full of wonder.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.3 – Endon – Through the Mirror

One of the difficulties of producing a list like this of my top releases of the year is that nineteen other albums and EPs have to share space with something as brutal, powerful and beautiful as Endon’s Through the Mirror. Placed next to this roaring monstrosity of an album, anything else is doomed to look weak, finicky and ineffectual.

The opening Nerve Rain wastes now time with a buildup, exploding out of the speakers from the first moment in a storm of thundering dums and high-intensity, multilayered drone. Nerve Rain’s minor-key guitar soundscape incorporates increasingly frequent stop-starts as it progresses, which enables a transition into the even more explosive Your Ghost is Dead, where vocalist Taichi Nagura finally unleashes his guttural grindcore growl, giving a suitably satanic voice finally to the sonic hellscape. There’s more going on in Through the Mirror than simply blistering noise-metal intensity though. The vocals in Born in Limbo and Postsex are a frenetic cacophony of voices, and the riffs, while undoubtedly heavy, are buried in a tornado of violently swirling effects. Meanwhile the sonic textures are as rich as any dedicated noise act and the guitars are as capable of building shoegazey, post-rock cathedrals as they are at burning them down in black metal flames and crushing the stones to fine powder with crunching, colossal riffs. The ten-minute Perversion Til Death embodies all this and more, and while the title track occasionally taunts you that it might turn into My Bloody Valentine, it never seriously has any intention other than to kick you repeatedly in the eyeballs and scream at you. With the nine-minute closing Torch Your House, Endon finally make good on their promise to make a big old epic rock song, or at least as close to one as their constitution will allow them – like screamo being played by a thousand gargantuan and impossibly ancient robots as enemy armies flee in mindless terror. Writing this now, the idea that there could be two albums above it in this list feels insane or at least contrarian: Through the Mirror is exhausting and utterly extraordinary.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.4 – Ryuichi Sakamoto – async

ryuichi sakamoto - async

CD/LP/download, Milan, 2017

Like the towering building that you never notice from the narrow streets of your neighbourhood or the vast mountain that seems to become part of the sky itself, Ryuichi Sakamoto is an artist so legendary that it’s sometimes easy to forget he exists, so far removed is he from the daily to-and-fro of the music scene and pop landscape. He remains as active and creatively ambitious as ever though, and Async is an extraordinary record.

Broadly within the category of ambient music, I found myself listening to Async in the context of another master of the form, Brian Eno’s 2017 album Reflection, and the differences felt revealing. Where Reflection saw Eno stepping back from the nitty gritty of composition and performance, the album instead taking the form of a single, minimalist track excerpted from an endlessly generating iOS app, Async exists at the other end of the spectrum. Its fourteen tracks feature multiple collaborators and field recordings, each with a distinct identity, each revealing the hands of the composer and performers down to the last detail, from the lush synth washes of Solari to the atonal orchestral jitters of the album’s title track.

What both Async and Reflection share in common is an atmosphere of contemplation and retrospection, implied by the title Eno gave to his album and made explicit in some of the spoken word intrusions into Async – particularly in the multilingual babel of Full Moon. The vocal elements of the album recall other recent Eno projects, with the spoken word Arseny Tarkovsky poem of Life, Life recalling Eno’s The Ship (the line “wave after wave” is a probably coincidental but nonetheless key image in both pieces) and Eno’s work with poet Rick Holland on Drums Between The Bells.

The way Async maintains this atmosphere consistently throughout its diverse sonic explorations pays powerful testament to Sakamoto’s indefatigable creative imagination.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.5 – Sapphire Slows – Time

This sort of gauzy, ethereal electronic pop doesn’t get much play on this site, and one of the main reasons for that is that despite the vast amounts of it being made, it so rarely amounts to anything more than eminently tasteful elevator music – triumphs of atmosphere over imagination. For a long time, I held the deep suspicion that Sapphire Slows was one of those artists and could therefore be safely ignored, but Time tells a different story.

Time is richly textured but never excessively-layered, with the distorted pulses and wispy vocals of Reach Out Your Hand To Me demonstrating Sapphire Slows’ ability to create powerful effects from just a few well chosen elements. On The Edge of My Land the atmospheric effects go hand in hand with disarmingly chirpy, almost technopop synth loops, and this lightness of touch gives the music a lively internal dynamic.

It also help a lot that songs like Piece of You work on a very basic level simply as dance music – although it definitely helps if your idea of dancing is that writhing silhouette thing people do outside on the balconies of rich people’s parties in movies when a disaffected main character is having an existential crisis. What makes it such a lovely record, though, is the way you can concentrate on each simple-yet-intricately-arranged moving part and see it has a role to play, with nothing extraneous. The sum of those parts is atmospheric, melodic, dreamlike and affecting, but there’s a different and equal pleasure to be taken from dissecting them and luxuriating in the machinery.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.6 – TG.Atlas – Lost in Puzzle City

tg.atlas - lost in puzzle city

CD, Impulse Records, 2017

Hailing from the city of Asahikawa in Hokkaido, TG.Atlas are an interesting example of a phenomenon of a certain kind of environment that seems common to smaller cities in the northeast of Japan. Cities of around 300,000 people, with only perhaps three or four live venues, are unable to support a self-sustaining indie rock or art-punk scene, with the result that the punk scene (every town has one) ends up hosting a surprisingly diverse range of musical ideas.

If you had any illusions that TG.Atlas are a conventional punk or hardcore band, the opening track Broken Flower makes the contrary clear, with its electronic beats and mournful, pastoral guitar line. Maze of Acid, meanwhile, is a minimalistic exercise in synth drone and effects. The heart of what the band do, however, lies in their ability to deliver expansive, Slint-like walls of noise, harsh, ragged metal slashes of no wave guitars, and discordant, repetitive loops in a way that never becomes too fussy or loses the anarchic spirit that ignites their performance.

Unbound by the scene and genre structures that tend to channel Tokyo bands into ever more refined and narrow iterations of themselves, Lost in Puzzle City throws up oddities like the unexpectedly poppy, new wavey closing Different Universe, which dissolves around half way through its six-minute running time into frantic, scratching guitar discord, or the expansive post-shoegaze wall of sound of Gone Red. Holding it all together, though, is a powerful core of relentlessly propulsive, thoroughly unhinged punk rock. That it never lets you get comfortable is at the heart of the fun.

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