Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.6 – Batman Winks – All Babies Sleeping

All Babies Sleeping

CD, self-released, 2015

In the indie world, band names are often fluid things as musicians’ ever shifting senses of their own identities find themselves at odds with a name they came up with in a fit of giggles, desperation or naïveté. Hysteric Picnic recently became Burgh, De Nada became DYGL, then Leather, then DYGL again, and Sanm recently became Cairo. Batman Winks used to be called Atlanta Girl. It’s a pretty standard process early on in a band’s career, but for those of us interested in the path along which these young bands choose to develop, the way these changing band names reflect the musical identities of the bands involved makes them worth a bit of attention.

Burgh reflects almost a retreat from identity, behind a band name that’s deliberately obscure and dry of meaning. DYGL’s case probably reflects the band’s own pursuit of a more rock’n’roll direction, away from the image of clean-cut indie pinup boys (and possibly a way of differentiating themselves from the same members’ smoother-edged work as Ykiki Beat) – and their return to the name DYGL I think shows more that the power of their music itself had made a name change unnecessary rather than any compromise on their part.

The name Cairo sounds like a city pop band and reflects the band’s own shift from jangly guitar pop towards more washed-out synth-based indiepop. Batman Winks, on the other hand, feels like the same journey in the opposite direction. When I first heard Atlanta Girl, the name instantly conjured up a sound similar to what a band like Cairo now actually does for real. The reality of the scrappy Atlanta Girl demo was something much weirder and felt completely at odds with the wishy-washy indie-twee sentimentality implied by the name. The change to the more obtuse Batman Winks then felt far more appropriate and satisfying, not least because it includes the classic combination of a comicbook reference and a verb in the indicative mood (this is always a cool thing – ask The Teardrop Explodes).

I’ve already written about All Babies Sleeping’s music in some detail, so rather than repeating myself here, check out my review from a year ago – everything in there still stands. I

Batman Winks’ music is often compared to Ariel Pink, which makes sense, and I’ve seen references to Psychic TV as well, which I’ll grant them too. I’m going to add another, less direct one in here and say there’s something of Robert Pollard in Batman Winks’ Naoya Takukawa. While the music and influences are coming from very different places, they are both prolific songwriters beloved by an indie scene they don’t quite fit into, who combine a lo-fi DIY aesthetic with an instinctive need to fuck up anything to smooth or “creamy” in their music.

You can hear it in the noise and disjointed rhythms of Celebration, the backing vocal squeaks of Blind But The Brightest Light and the album’s faintly out-of-tune title track. And yet behind it all the songwriting fundamentals are really strong, with the closing Strange Love a minor Tokyo indie anthem.

All Babies Sleeping was only the first of two albums Batman Winks released in 2015, with the second, Gud Pops, following in the autumn and also containing a strong collection of tunes. The band have already moved on from most of the material on this album (although the new material retains the same off-kilter, lo-fi approach to pop songwriting), but the year that has passed since then brings with it a bit of extra perspective on All Babies Sleeping, and the fact that this album still retains the capacity to surprise and delight suggests a strength at its core that only time has been able to reveal.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.7 – You Got A Radio! – Carnival

yougotaradio_carnival

CD, Drriill, 2015

You Got A Radio feel like they’ve been around forever, occupying a lonely new wave island somewhere in the no-man’s land between the larger alternative, punk and garage rock scenes, remaining relevant thanks to a revolving cast of tangentially related bands from the surrounding scenes but never quite being part of anything themselves.

They have staying power though, and where some bands and organisers have desperately hooked themselves onto every ridiculous new trend or gimmick that has become momentarily hip, You Got A Radio have remained admirably steadfast in their devotion to a particular kind of vaguely XTC-ish new wave/postpunk. As the cycles of fashion turn this way and that, it’s reassuring to know that a band like this is still there.

At the moment, there are faint hints that a minor cluster of new postpunk bands might be on the brink of emerging – largely thanks to Hysteric Picnic/Burgh (No.8 in this countdown) being young and handsome, not to mention brilliant – so the timing of Carnival couldn’t have been better.

It’s a slightly darker-tinged, more melancholy record than You Got A Radio’s eponymous 2010 debut, with influences of Joy Division and particularly Magazine shining through, alongside the quirkier, more playful echoes of Japanese forebears like the Plastics and P-Model in the boy-girl vocal dynamic and jittery arrangements respectively.

In tense, aggressive, propulsive tracks like Letter and Take Me Out, it’s easy to see how upcoming acts like Burgh might see kindred spirits , but there’s a benefit in You Got A Radio’s less tightly nailed-down sound too, allowing them to play around more freely within their postpunk sandbox, the shifts in tone coming across more natural and less like violent challenges to the audience’s expectations.

It also provides them with the sonic pallette to paint a more nuanced range of emotions, and for all You Got A Radio’s mastery of twitchy dance-punk there’s a sense of melancholy and loss running through the album that a young band just couldn’t pull off convincingly. You need to have lived a bit to sing a song like Summer Has Gone without sounding like a twat, and You Got A Radio deliver it with pathos that keeps them on just the right side of sentimentality.

The five-year gap between You Got A Radio’s first and second albums could have seen them swallowed up and lost in a spiral of “Oh, what’s the goddamn point?” and a lot of bands have perished in that way, so the fact that they have come back so strong is a huge boon not only to their fans, but also to the music scene as a whole.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.8 – Burgh – All About Techno Narcisse

burgh - all about techno narcisse

CD, P-Vine, 2015

If the towering wall of angry, scratchy, trebly sound Burgh assault you with on All About Techno Narcisse (or “Techno Narcisse no Subete” as it is alternatively referred sometimes) sounds familiar, then it might be because you’re one of the select group of people who knew the band under their old name of Hysteric Picnic.

Now first let me declare an interest here and point out that the second of the three EPs Hysteric Picnic released prior to this debut album came out via my Call And Response label in late 2013 (it’s called Cult Pops, it’s brilliant and you can buy it here), although the band have evolved in some significant ways since that point.

Firstly, where the band began as a duo playing along with backing tracks stored on a series of heavily overdubbed cassettes, they are now a full band and all their songs are about twice as fast. Shigeki Yamashita’s ringing, reverb-heavy guitar and Sou Oouchi’s barking Mark E Smith-meets-Jello Biafra non-singing are a constant though, and contribute towards a sound that, while retaining clear points of similarity with a number of ’80s postpunk bands (notably The Birthday Party), is now instantly recognisable as theirs — at least in the context of the Japanese indie scene.

Assisting them in this are producer Hajime Yoshida of avant-garde anti-rock band Panicsmile and engineer Ryo Hisatsune of disco-kraut band Transkam, who worked with Burgh over a hectic schedule to record the whole album in two days, and the sound of the album reflects this frantic atmosphere. There are also similarities with Yoshida’s work on z/nz (No.19 in this countdown) in the lo-fi approach, although the presence of a bassist in Burgh’s lineup adds more of a contrasting dynamic with the scuzzy ambience at the high end. This shows up most strongly on Womb, with its throbbing bass and chiming guitar battling for your attention in the musical foreground while the vocals deliver a weary lament from somewhere in the distance.

Despite the rough-edged, noisy approach to performing their music, Burgh are still recognisably a rock’n’roll band in the old fashioned sense, with melodic rather than rhythmical dynamics driving the songs, with big, bold, catchy riffs at the heart of songs like Cult Pop, Meitei and Tonight. An important part of Burgh’s appeal, however, is the mischief and contrarianism that lurks behind their immaculate indie fringes.

Aside from the decision to change their name to something incomprehensible just a few months after a potentially breakthrough performance at Japan’s biggest rock festival and then name their album after a musical genre that has nothing to do with the actual music they play, they also gift All About Techno Narcisse with the occasional sonic curveball. The avant-garde exercise in discord that is 950 welcomes you into the album’s more challenging second side, while Case Study does an excellent job of recreating DAF-style Teutonic EBM with the bass guitar doing a terrific impersonation of an early-‘80s sequencer. As with the way the synth-based Obecca Dance closed off the Cult Pops EP, this brief nod to electronic music may only be a subtle deviation from their core sound, but still gently taunts fans to make sure they’re paying attention in the right way.

All About Techno Narcisse is very much a debut album in that it’s all about nailing down the band’s sound rather than taking it anywhere in particular, but that’s also its strength, underlining Burgh’s position as a band who, even if they can’t keep their own name straight, have a musical identity that’s strong and distinctive.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.9 – Extruders – 8 Queens

Collecting together and reworking a series of songs originally released in bits and pieces and various formats over the course of two months during the summer of 2014, 8 Queens was an album I’d been anticipating for a while. As the follow-up to Colors, which had been a contender for album of the year in 2013, it’s an album with a lot to live up to as well.

For Extruders, 8 Queens is a case of something old, something new, plenty borrowed and everything tangled up in blue. Second track Zombie recalls the band’s early days as purveyors of short, sharp postpunk nuggets, like a sort of laid-back Wire, while I Wonder heads off in the new direction of highly compressed, minimal synthpop.

They still recall bands like Television and The Velvet Underground, although unlike the Heroin-style exercises in psychedelic tension in which they occasionally indulged on Colors, on 8 Queens they seem to have settled in somewhere closer to the Velvets of Pale Blue Eyes. These influences are also filtered through a sound more and more easily recognisable as Extruders’ own as time goes by, using the studio as an instrument in its own right and treating even the smallest hisses, squawks of feedback and other sonic quirks as essential elements of the overall arrangement, as in the intricately employed stabs and caresses of noise in the intro to Kinjirareta Asobi.

The air of delicately refined melancholy that has always hung over Extruders’ work is still here, except now they seem to have cut down even closer to its raw essence, with Chinese Fairy Tale perhaps the masterpiece in this regard, wilfully eschewing any obvious melodies until just the moment where it slips into the simplest and most gorgeous four-note guitar solo.

8 Queens is an album that revels in its own subtlety, revealing new layers with every repeat listen, displaying its beauty in discreet little flourishes rather than broad strokes. It’s none the worse for that though, and the result is that it’s an album that, once you let it start to work its magic, you can easily lose yourself in.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.10– Nisennenmondai – N’

CD, bijin record, 2015

As I mentioned in my previous entry in this countdown, the growing use and mastery of the delay loop pedal feels like it’s had a crucial role in the fusion of rock and dance music, freeing up bands from the constraints of programmed beats and allowing an organic middle ground between a straighy-up band setup and the layered structures of techno.

In Japan, Uhnellys were the first band I ever saw to really make it work, and they remain the absolute masters of using delay pedals as instruments in their own right. However, after a shaky start, Nisennenmondai are now probably the most widely recognised loop-jockeys the country has on the world stage.

Nisennenmondai’s music over the past few years has really been a growing refinement of a single basic musical vision, each new release bringing them even closer to a single flat line, with the thrill emerging from the way they tease variation and texture out of ever more minimal raw material. On the two albums they released in 2015, however, there are hints that they may have taken their stripped-down death disco as far as it can go and through growing use of collaborators are looking for new routes down which to develop their sound.

N’ is basically a reworking of 2013’s N with the addition of two remixes by British producer Shackleton, while #N/A was made with legendary UK dub producer Adrian Sherwood. Of these the second is clearly the more ambitious, and probably the one that points the way most promisingly towards possible future developments for the band; however, it’s N’ that’s probably the more successful as a record, its place on the border between two phases of Nisennenmondai’s career benefitting from containing both the most refined, focused iteration of their one-note minimal disco, as well as from Shackleton’s relatively free hand in interpreting the tracks and taking them to new places.

As it stands, #N/A is an album interesting for the possibilities it hints at more than the destinations it actually reaches, and of the two records it could (should?) end up the more significant. However, as a powerful and finely honed document of where the band’s past few years of development have taken them, N’ rules the here and now.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.11– In The Sun – Circlenation

in the sun - circlenation

CD, self-released, 2015

Travelling around northeastern Japan this autumn, I made a point when talking to musicians and music scene people of paying attention to what their reference points for Tokyo music were. One band whose name kept recurring was S-Explode (pronounced “explode”) – actually a Saitama band, although if my travels taught me anything, it’s that that distinction is meaningless to pretty much anyone outside Saitama itself.

S-Explode’s current status is either stopped or on hiatus, but one of their successor bands, In The Sun, have been making waves with their explosive brand of instrumental avant-garde rock. Consciously nodding to This Heat, there are also obvious comparisons with Nisennenmondai in the energetic, propulsive, insistent and repetitive rhythms and guitar loops, albeit with a far fuller sound and more prominent role for synths than Nisennenmondai currently employ.
In The Sun: Hot Spots (live)

And it’s in that fuller sound and willingness to let the music burst out of its tightly coiled container and slash jagged wounds through the air that In The Sun distinguish themselves as more than simple imitators. Opening track Hot Spots makes the group’s intentions clear from the start with its dirty, growling sequencer loop and frenetic drumming, and the EP/mini-album continues to push upwards and outwards from there, layering in guitar texture and feedback even as the drumming maintains its intensity through numerous rhythmical shifts.

Along with another relatively newcomer, Transkam, as well as Yolz in the Sky’s continuing evolution in a dancier direction, the borders between avant-garde rock and dance music seem to be dissolving, driven perhaps by the increasing ubiquity of loop pedals and musicians’ growing command of their use.

With such a limited number of artists, it’s too soon to declare a trend, but if such a thing were to emerge, it culd do a lot worst than have bands like In The Sun in its first rank.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.12– Lihappiness – Shiyo

One of the best things about Lihappiness is the way that he takes musical influences that fashion dictates should be processed and served back in a certain way, and uses them as the starting point for something utterly unique in the Japanese music scene.

Opening with One Sequence, like Cluster sped up to a breakneck industrial clatter, Shiyo leads straight into the high-speed new wave funk of the Pigbag-esque Coba, then into the dubbed-out hip hop-via-Kraftwerk of Walk & Scratch. If you’re the sort of person who finds the idea of a new wave geek in a bedroom somewhere in Kanagawa adding breakbeats to krautrock and rapping confusingly over it inherently appealing, I probably don’t need to do much more to sell this album to you. That would do this album a disservice, though: it’s good entirely on its own merits.

While the songs are by and large content to rattle along at their own pace and then stop, Shiyo is nonetheless overflowing with ideas that present themselves according to a logic that makes sense only after spending some time with the album. Until that point, however, Lihappiness ensures the confusion is at least an entertaining one, filling it with hooks and an insistent, forward momentum that’s infectious in its enthusiasm. Sanka Beat and Yang Acid both conceal legitimately wonderful pop songs somewhere inside them.

Taken as a whole with his broader body of work, it feels like Lihappiness is engaged here in an ambitious project to go back to the original source material and reconstruct techno from the ground up in his own peculiar way. On the evidence of Shiyo, Lihappiness is taking it to some exciting places.

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