Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.15 – tepPohseen – Some Speedy Kisses

teppohseen - Some Speedy Kisses

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2016

The music-of-last-year rundowns on this site invariably include a strong contingent from Fukuoka and Kyushu, and mostly this is a simple function of me having a lot of friends there and as a result getting more information about what’s going on. It’s also, however, because it’s a city that consistently has an unusually strong indie scene with a lot of distinctive and talented musicians. tepPohseen have been around forever, but this album on Osaka’s Gyuune Cassette label (it’s a CD — ignore the label name) is the first “proper” release that’s crossed my path. Some of these songs have been around in various forms since God was a boy, and — coupled with the fact that some of them hover around the eight-to-ten-minute range — this serves to add an unspoken caveat to the title Some Speedy Kisses of “but, y’know, also some really drawn-out, lingering ones”.

There is an interesting interplay between band leader Ryo Asada’s deadpan vocals and drummer Kumiko Shiga’s sweet yet matter-of-fact delivery. Long stretches of the album are instrumental though, and Asada certainly seems more comfortable letting his guitar do most of the singing. That’s also where he is at his most powerful in expressing himself, teasing out wails and fusillades both tortured and joyous, melodic and discordant, finicky and free.

There’s clearly a lot of something like Sonic Youth happening in the formative soup from which these songs emerged, not to mention odd little snatches of new wave (the bassline from Roka is straight out of New Order’s Blue Monday). It’s when they slow down and get into the serious songwriting that tepPohseen show their colours most strongly as children of the holy trinity of 2000s Japanese indie rock though, with Eisei / Yadorigi reflecting echoes of Supercar, Number Girl and Quruli, as well as drawing from the deeper well of Japanese rock songwriting dug by Happy End.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.16 – Transkam – Blueshade of the Omegasound

Transkam - Blueshade Of The Omegasound

CD, Zot Records, 2016

Opening with the punningly titled Trance Come, instrumental trio Transkam’s first proper release lays out the band’s intentions with pounding drums and a one-note bassline, overlaid by gradually building loops of guitar. It’s this technique of multiple layers of interacting rhythms that defines Transkam’s approach to constructing songs, and while somewhat similar groups like Nisennenmondai have been stripping their sound down to bare essentials and beyond, Transkam — despite their self-applied description as a “minimal junk three” — are increasingly maximalist in the way they pile metal riffs and wailing prog rock solos over disco and math rock beats.

Where the minimalism really is still appropriate is in the rhythm section, with drummer Yana (of Numbs) and bassist Yukiyo (from Tacobonds) never mistaking showboating for complexity. Both lay down patterns that anchor the centre of the music while guitarist Ryo Hisatsune (from Alan Smithee’s Mad Universe) embroiders the edges with loops and fragments of melodies. The results they manage to achieve with this approach range from the wilfully disruptive ⌘F to the almost-pop of the closing Fairchild, and it’s an often intoxicating experience.Transkam: Indicator (live)

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.17 – Soloist Apartment – untitled

soloist apartment - untitled

CD, Instant Tunes, 2016

One of the best bands of the 2000s Tokyo underground scene was synth-punk trio The Warm, and when they dissolved following 2006’s guitar-enhanced/tainted (delete as appropriate) full-length Fantastic Something, the Tokyo music world lost one of its most distinctive players. The return of The Warm’s Rikinari Hata in 2016 as Soloist Apartment is therefore a cause of some rejoicing to his old band’s tiny coterie of fans and admirers (including the band Code at No.18 in this countdown, who recruited Hata as a guest on their album). From the opening synth loop of Idiot Idiot, it’s clear that Hata is back in his early 80s minimal wave stamping grounds and every bit as comfortable there as he was ten years ago.

However, while Soloist Apartment is clearly playing amongst the same set of influences as The Warm (Liaisons Dangereuses, DAF, Cabaret Voltaire, early Mute Records) it is also clearly at the darker, more industrial end of that spectrum. From the start, it hits you with aggressively minimal beats and tetchy bursts of dentist’s drill synth noise, while Hata’s voice barks like an angry computer suffering from a bout of ennui. The only time this EP makes any sort of concession to prettiness is on the untitled third track, where the bass sequencer and soundscaping synth drones recall some of the more sublime moments of Cluster and Eno before fading away, replaced by the stuttering EBM of the closing Fu Tei.

More recently performing as a duo with guitarist A/D/M (a.k.a. Adam from The Oversleep Excuse) under the name Second Apartment (the excellent 7-inch Pulse Wave/Subhuman is already out on Hata’s own Instant Tunes label, with Soloist’s Soloist Anti Pop Totalisation EP following), Soloist/Second Apartment marks a welcome return to action for an artist who some of us always knew had more in the tank.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.18 – Code – Code

code - code

CD, Mangrove, 2016

The birth of Japanese punk was officially announced by a compilation album called Tokyo Rockers in 1979, and it’s the sound of “Rockers” bands like Friction and Lizard that Code are channeling with this album. To seal the link to that first generation of Japanese punk, the photograph adorning the cover was taken by Reck from Friction, while the album’s release through the Mangrove label (run out of punk record store Base in Tokyo’s former weird punk heartland of Koenji) anchors it in what counts as the genre’s present.

This site doesn’t really cover much in the way of straight-up punk, and there’s always going to be an element of “people-who-like-this-kind-of-thing-will-like-this-while-people-who-don’t-like-this-kind-of-thing-won’t” about music from a scene that has such little interest in the outside world. Nevertheless, Code get a mention here because, while this self-titled album doesn’t break any new ground, it inhabits old ground in such a comprehensive way. It’s also important that Code do this not as revivalism so much as as a continuation of a way of doing things that has carried on in its own hermetic way for nearly 40 unbroken years. The guitars buzz away in the background or solo away shrilly, the drums clatter, the vocals harangue, and the chords go through their motions in just the way you were expecting them to. This is Japanese punk wearing a leather jacket or tatty t-shirt (or some combination thereof) that rocks on and throws its shapes in earnest defiance of the speed and violence of hardcore, the pop-punk confections of the post-Blue Hearts era, the anarchic everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of junk — it is, simply, just what an old-school Japanese punk rock record should sound like and would be betraying itself if it ever tried to be more.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.19 – Asuna + Fumihito Taguchi – 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records

asuna + fumihito taguchi - 100 keyboards

CD, Enban, 2016

This is an album that I feel compelled to include here if only for the sheer, audacious, self-indulgent fact of its existence. 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records is a concept album in the sense that the concept is there in the title, and the two creators (Tokyo record store Enban owner Fumihito Taguchi and Kanazawa-based organiser and Aotoao label boss Asuna) then proceed to methodically deliver precisely what the title promises and nothing else. Once I’d figured out that “sea wave” wasn’t a hip new musical genre but rather literally refers to sound effects records of waves crashing against the shore — or rather what appears to be one hundred copies of the same record — I had a fair idea of what I was letting myself in for before even listening to it.

Asuna is no stranger to taking geekishly esoteric ideas and dragging them out to absurd extremes. One of his earlier ongoing projects has been the curation of a series of miniature 8cm CD compilations exclusively composed of one-minute songs made with Casiotone keyboards. His “one hundred keyboards” and “one hundred toys” performances are clearly extensions of the same mindset, exploring an overlapping zone between conceptual art and the comedy of the absurd. It’s also fascinating as a (possibly unintentional) study in obsession — of a networked, otaku-derived mode of thinking that increasingly permeates society, from the intricately interconnected universes of Marvel and DC to the ecosystems collectible character goods that surround idol groups.

Where projects like Asuna and Taguchi’s differ, however, is in the personal and direct nature of their networks. Asuna’s Casiotone compilations feature only artists he knows and has met in the flesh, while Taguchi travels the country with a portable record player, introducing obscure, kitsch vintage records in person to small crowds in bookstores and cafes. 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records was recorded live in a large room in Tokyo, with the various pieces of equipment arranged and triggered manually, recorded in large part with home-made microphones. It’s almost as if the artists are mocking us for our lack of commitment to our obsessions.

If it seems like I’m studiously ignoring discussing the music here, that’s because I am. 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records ends up as a drone record by default as a result of drone being the logical end result of the concept. There was probably some consideration between Taguchi and Asuna that the gradually rising and then ebbing away of the sounds these two hundred devices make would produce a pleasurable sensation in the ears of listeners, and yeah, it does. The removal of the “player” element of the performance also brings closer to the foreground the relationship between the sound waves generated by these machines and the physical space in which it occurs (in this case a hall in Tokyo’s Sangenjapa Carrot Tower), not to mention the effect the occupants of the room have on the sound. Its value, however, still mainly lies in the sheer, dadaist stupidity of the enterprise and the artists’ admirable dedication in seeing it through, and even if the result had been horrible, it would still have been brilliant.

There doesn’t appear to be any footage of the actual performance (which was a one-time-only thing), but here’s Asuna and his keyboards alone as a taster.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.20 – V/A – Provoke

va - Provoke

CD, Provoke Association, 2016

One of the most interesting developments in the younger, hipper end of the Japanese indie scene over the past year has been the way its recent trend towards dreamy “city pop” synths seems to have provoked a reaction towards louder, more discordant music at the other extreme. In Tokyo, the influence of Harajuku record store Big Love Records has undoubtedly been driving a sudden interest in noise among kids who would never normally have even known about such scenes in their usual haunts, while the popularity of bands like Burgh and Qujaku (both bands in former times known by the eerily similar names of Hysteric Picnic and The Piqnic) has succeeded in making postpunk and noise rock fashionable.

This compilation was put together by a consortium of these young, distortion-minded indie musicians, centred around the band Deviation in Tokyo and WBSBFK in Nagoya, and draws two songs each from seven bands — with the exception of Qujaku, who offer just the closing Metabolic. They and the remaining bands — Kobe-based Douglas, Tokyo’s Burgh and Klan Aileen, and Nagoya’s Sekaitekinaband — offer a scuzzy, doom-laden take on early-80s post-Joy Division rock.

One of the challenges of putting together a compilation album is how the curator balances the need to express each band’s individual sonic characteristics with the need for the album itself to project a consistent personality of its own. Provoke is clearly weighted towards consistency. Not only are nearly all the musicians young, skinny guys in black clothes (Qujaku’s bassist Hiromi is the only woman on the entire album) the bands themselves all share so many of the same influences that the album could easily be taken as the work of a single artist. That’s not top say it’s devoid of texture though. Klan Aileen’s Wire-soundalike Kunanan delivers some intense, one-note dugga-dugga-dugga for nearly eight minutes, while Sekaitekinaband’s Test is a three-minute burst of catchy bubblegum Krautrock. The grinding, minimalist basslines of Douglas contrast with the reverb-drenched psych-punk of WBSBFK and Burgh. The result is an undeniably rough-edged yet focused document of a not-quite-scene that, if the organisers have the commitment, may yet be willed into becoming one.

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Top 20 releases of 2016: Intro

As any readers this site has somehow managed to retain may have spotted, updates have dried up over the past couple of years. The main reasons for that have been down to my finishing writing, editing and promoting my book, Quit Your Band! – Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground (released late 2016 from Awai Books) and my decision to spend half a year travelling around Japan by bicycle, documenting the local music scenes in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (partially written up on my Burn Your Hometown blog).

The other thing that’s kept me occupied has been my Call And Response Records label, which has been getting more and more active over the past couple of years. Last year we put out four new albums/EPs:

Looprider’s Ascension was a hardcore- and noise-influenced collection of raw, fast sonic violence.

Nagasaki art-punk trio Mechaniphone’s Uholic was a collection of quirky, pop-inflected tunes that come at you from a variety of rhythmical angles.

Tropical Death’s Thunder Island EP was a Cassette Store Day special, combining a Japanese underground background with ’90s post-hardcore/alt-rock influences.

Finally, Nakigao Twintail’s Ichijiku was an eclectic explosion of pop, surreal humour and teen angst.

With Looprider’s third album, the post-rock/progressive Umi, and instrumental electronic/psychedelic duo Lo-shi’s new Ninjin already out in 2017 and at least four more new releases in the works, the label is picking up the pace still further this year.

Nevertheless, with the end of my Strange Boutique column in The Japan Times this March, I have had more time for writing, and I’ve spent the last couple of months belatedly introspecting over the best and most interesting Japanese music of 2016. Whether anyone apart from me still cares about the Japanese underground music of a year that ended nearly six months ago is up for debate, but I’m doing it anyway.

The usual caveats apply. These releases have been selected from EPs, mini-albums and fill albums. I include compilations, but not singles, which I loosely classify as a disc with two or fewer tracks. There are experimental and psychedelic releases that may only include a single track of immense length, so obviously I make exceptions for those. I exclude anything Call And Response released, since I’m too close to it to be able to assess it critically in the same way I would something I didn’t have a hand in the production of (although obviously all four of our releases if last year would be right up there if I were ranking the music purely on what I love). The order of the ranking is by no means scientific subject to all sorts of competing considerations. Some are simply interesting ideas or good representations of something I think deserves to be represented, others are albums that I found myself engaging with on a creative or intellectual level, others are simply fun collections of songs.

There are lots of albums I enjoyed or appreciated that I didn’t include here but which on another day I might have, and there are still more I didn’t get a chance to listen to but which may well be worthy of inclusion. However, this is the list I came up with, so this is what I stuck to when writing it up. I’ll post the 20 reviews individually in a flurry of updates over the next few days.

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