Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.7 – Sea Level – Invisible Cities

Sea Level - Invisible Cities

Cassette/download, Collective Noun, 2016

Post-rock as practiced in the Japanese alternative scene tends towards two main poles, with the fiddly math-rock of Toe on one hand and the endlessly climaxing wall of sound of Mono on the other. As the bassist in Macmanaman, Takeshi Yamamoto has plenty of form in working to split that difference, but switching to guitar with the band Sea Level, he charts a different path altogether.

Running at less than half the length of Macmanaman’s New Wave Of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal (no.13 on this list), Sea Level’s Invisible Cities nevertheless adopts a far less hurried pace. It is also an album that pays far more attention to texture, with the three-part Kubilai e Polo interspersing its ambient, wandering guitar, synths and samples at intervals throughout the album. Sea Level’s roots as an improvisational band show through in the overlapping, freeform nature of much of their sonic explorations, with the composition more apparent in how it’s all stitched together. The title and structure taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name, the subdued Dorotea contrasting with Zaira’s building cacophony of overlapping sonic textures but both songs nevertheless reflecting the same metaphysical Venice of the mind viewed from a porch on a summer evening. Only the central Corpo really resembles a song in the conventional sense, although its fragile melody eventually gives way to freeform piano and the guitar’s distorted Robert Frippery — also, and perhaps tellingly, it’s the only track not named after part of Calvino’s book.

As the fourth Fukuoka band on this list so far, it’s tempting to view Sea Level as a further example of an extraordinary creative vibrancy in Japan’s southwestern extremities, and there’s some truth in that. However, the band are also evidence of the incestuous nature of much of that creativity. Yamamoto has already appeared on this list with Macmanaman, while he has also played with Sonotanotanpenz’ (no.9 on this list) Hitomi Itamura in the groups ruruxu/sinn and RIM and designed the cover art for tepPohseen’s album (no.15 on this list). Meanwhile Sea Level drummer Makoto Onuki has form as bassist in psychedelic rock band Semi and has also already made an appearance here with tepPohseen. Focusing so much on these acts populated by a tiny coterie of people certainly creates a skewed image of the city’s musical landscape, of which you are only seeing a peripheral corner here. However, combined with the fact that the city has a big enough scene to support their variegated explorations alongside a wealth of more conventional (and less interesting) pop and rock bands, that is also a big part part of why Fukuoka in 2017 remains such an interesting place for music.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.8 – Kuruucrew – Kuruucrew

Kuruucrew - Kuruucrew

CD, P-Vine, 2016

One of Tokyo’s prime purveyors of uncompromisingly raw, intense, and just plain loud noise-rock, Kuruucrew’s self-titled album brings its biggest surprise with the track Voyage, which finds the group sounding almost pop next to the relentless, pummelling krautrock-via-Red Transistor tank warfare that constitutes most of their music. Tracks like TKTTN and the tribal sounding P.L.S make it clear that the band’s growing comfort with disco-tinged accessibility has in no way dulled the jagged edges of their sound though.

Like contemporaries such as Nisennenmondai (whose sparse new album E also came out in 2016), Kuruucrew’s music is really all about rhythm, with the guitar providing texture and sax substituting for vocals while the drums and base get on with the real work. Like many Tokyo underground bands, the rhythms are often complex and interwoven, but they are never less than propulsive, working constantly to drive you forward, bouncing you towards the next explosion of tightly coiled energy.

This type of cosmic postpunk or no wave spacerock or whatever you want to call it is a well trodden side-route through the Tokyo music scene, but few bands are as accomplished as Kuruucrew, and this album is the definitive recorded document of an extraordinarily powerful band.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.9 – Sonotanotanpenz – Conga

sonotanotanpenz - Conga

CD/download, Noble, 2016

The third of five Fukuoka-based artists in this review of 2016, Sonotanotanpenz are an unclassifiable duo of two women called Hitomi, who make fragile, offbeat, largely acoustic music that always feels on the verge of falling apart, woven together with intricate yet powerful creative threads. They share some background with post-rockers Macmanaman thanks to Hitomi Itamura’s having played with Macmanaman bassist Takeshi Yamamoto in the now mostly defunct progressive pop band ruruxu/sinn. Nevertheless, Sonotanotanpenz could not be further apart from their ultra-amplified, maximalist contemporaries.

Instead, what Sonotanotanpenz produce exists at a nexus between folk, hip hop and a sort of naive, K Records-style indie psychedelia, these approaches brought together by the recurring device of the two Hitomis’ overlapping vocals. On tracks like Tea, Map and Bagpipe, the vocals stand almost entirely alone, with only the most minimal percussion or synth backdrops, with Moriwaki’s languid, disaffected rapping interweaving with Itamura’s looping melodic phrases. The opening Cave is much more of a conventional song, with a melody winding out from two simple, alternating acoustic guitar chords, with she closing A Farm and the Universe a similarly affecting, low-key acoustic escapade. The title track is the real standout though, starting out with a similarly minimal chord pattern that the duo complicate as the song progresses, their vocals slipping back and forth between countermelody and harmony. It sounds like almost nothing else out there, yet at the same time there’s an arresting, timeless sort of familiarity that suggests it might actually be an understated nascent classic.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.10 – Hijokaidan x Jun Togawa – Togawa Kaidan

Hijokaidan x Jun Togawa - Togawa Kaidan

CD/vinyl, Reveil, 2016

After emerging as a distinct genre in the 1980s and ‘90s, with all the codification and dangers of stagnation that entails, noise seems to have gained a second lease of life more recently as less a genre in itself than a filter applied to something else, or an element in a mix with another genre. Idol music is similar in a way. Despite having its own history and surrounding culture, it has in recent years increasingly played free and easy with many of the genre signifiers it appropriates. It’s not completely surprising, then, that idols and noise artists have found their way towards collaborations, with the likes of Jojo Hiroshige and and Toshiba Mikawa from Hijokaidan/Incapacitants collaborating with acts like “anti-idol” group BiS and avant-grade-themed idol trio Avandoned.

Jun Togawa, meanwhile, is a singer from a punk background who has toyed with idol imagery as far back as its heyday in the 1980s, often twisting idol culture’s ideology back on itself in socially critical ways. When Hijokaidan collaborated with BiS on their “BiS-Kaidan” project a couple of years back, it was a natural choice for them to lead with a cover of Togawa’s 1980s classic Suki Suki Daisuki, a song which turned the simpering neediness of the idol love song into something deranged and violent. Now, with this Togawa Kaidan album, the circle is complete with Hijokaidan teaming up with Togawa herself for forty minutes of ferocious discordant lunacy.

Given that the BiS collaboration was at least part of the impetus for this project and that both feature versions of Suki Suki Daisuki, comparisons are inevitable. The problem with the BiS-Kaidan album was that the songs were essentially just idol songs with a bit of noise over them — there was no real collaboration going on: it was just a gimmick. Here, the degree of integration between the pop and noise aspects of the album varies from track to track, but the album is basically in a way that alternates between the pop songs and pure noise tracks. Tellingly, though, Togawa carries herself quite convincingly on both the pop songs and those noise tracks on which she participates, her raw, tortured, twisted vocal utterances helping to bridge the gap between the melodic and discordant poles.

Some tracks are essentially solo noise outings for each member, with Junko to Junko is two minutes of Togawa screaming, God Hand Jojo is Hiroshige in full Metal Machine Music horrorshow mode and Mikawa the Mikawa is relentless, Incapacitants-style raw harsh noise, while the opening and closing Togawa Kaidan no Theme features all three members contributing to a cacophony of chaos.

In Suki Suki Daisuki, Togawa’s voice is ragged and raw, unlike the clear, crisp vocals of her original, with their forays into operatic melodrama, or the relatively flat BiS cover (if rather lost in the mix). In this way, the noise works from the outside and Togawa from the inside to sabotage the song’s clean pop facade. Whether this really makes a convincing case for the necessity of noise over something that already effectively conveyed a violence of its own is questionable, but it at least provides an interesting alternative take.

In Virus the elements come together more comprehensively, with the vocals finding their place in the mix and the sequencer treading the line between trance and industrial, the music and noise working towards the same goal. Ijime and Hysteria, on the other hand, use noise to play up the contrast between the superficially sweet melodies and the darker subtexts, presenting them as tattered, degraded facsimiles of pop.

Awkward and untidy, both conceptually and aesthetically, Togawa Kaidan nonetheless manages to make a virtue of its violence and mess, not least through the sheer power and force of personality of Togawa herself.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.11 – Foodman – Ez Minzoku

Foodman - Ez Minzoku

Vinyl/download, Orange Milk, 2016

One recurring theme of this rundown of 2016’s best albums is the rhetorical question “why the fuck not?” — the idea that no idea is to absurd to milk to its last lunatic essence. Enter the Foodman, with this pinging, clanging, buzzing pinball machine of an album. It’s all over the place, hyperactively ricocheting off glitches, between samples and bubblegum synth licks, never giving you time to pin it down to anything consistent beyond that it’s an album that revels in its inconsistency.

Ez Minzoku is for the most part a collection of, admittedly eclectic, instrumental electronic tracks, but it does feature guest vocals on a couple of tracks. The opening Beybey features the breathy “idol rap” of Taigen Kawabe from psychedelic rockers Bo Ningen. Mid Summer Night features vocals from Diskomargaux alongside washes of retro synths that plant the track loosely at the nexus between chillwave and City Pop (an increasingly densely populated pop junction in Japan these days). Elsewhere, tracks like Jazz and Rock label the sources of their musical acquisitions clearly, the former ending up sounding more like a collision between hip hop and the Canterbury scene psychedelia of Gong, and the latter throwing in a high-sugar dose of 8-bit video game chiptune for good measure. All these tracks, however, disrupt their diversions into genre with the same propensity for fractured beats and dispersed pops and bleeps that characterise the rest of the album.

If these descriptions seem to muddy rather than illuminate what’s going on with Ez Minzoku, that’s down to the playfully disruptive nature of the music itself, pulling pop sounds into a decidedly avant-garde process and spitting out something nonetheless accessible and fun at the end of it. Unclassifiable and magnificent for that.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.12 – V/A – Drriill Session

va - Drriill Session

CD, Drriill, 2016

When writing about the Provoke compilation (No.20 in this rundown) I mentioned the balance between consistency and diversity that anyone putting together a compilation like this has to navigate to make an interesting record. Provoke achieved consistency by drawing from a set of artists who all shared very similar musical (and visual) aesthetics with the result that the album felt very naturally a single piece.

Released later the same year and featuring one of the same bands in Burgh (who also graced the Rhyming Slang Tour Van indie compilation in 2016) Drriill Session is another postpunk compilation, this time put together by scene veterans You Got A Radio. Drriill Session aims for consistency by the more elaborate method of bringing most of its five bands together into the same studio and recording them with the same engineer (Jungo from Anisakis, who also released the fine Butsukari Ie no Akaritachi through Drriill in 2016), with the exception of Nagoya-based Vodovo, who recorded under basically the same conditions in their hometown. This No New York-esque approach gives the album a similar sound and weight while at the same time bridging the gap between the minimal synth hysteria of D.I.S. and the almost Britpoppy Black & White.

There’s a ragtag feel to the selection of songs, as if the bands poured whatever ideas they had to hand into the sessions rather than carefully honed and selected a polished, finished product, with the D.I.S. tracks in particular functioning more as intermissions dispersed throughout the album than as a finished collection of songs. That looseness is part of the album’s appeal though, making it sound like a creative process still partly underway.

Elsewhere, Vodovo are a relatively new band, although their roots in the older Nagoya band Zymotics are audible. With Zymotics already having been a heavily bass-led band, Vodovo literally double down on that sound with a grinding, doom-laden twin-bass-no-guitar relentlessness. It’s You Got A Radio themselves who are the real standout, however, in what seems like it will be their final recorded outing together as band. they contribute three songs, with the first two, Parsec and What I Need? showcasing the band’s emotionally taut, jagged art-punk side, while their fine sense of new wave pop craftsmanship is on display on I Can See The White Horse.
Drriill Session (2-minute digest)

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.13 – macmanaman – New Wave Of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal

macmanaman - New Wave of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal

CD, Red Novel, 2016

New Wave Of British Baseball Heavy Metal is a ludicrous album and Macmanaman are a ludicrous band. They start with the questionable premise that insanely fiddly prog rock/post-rock was ever a desirable thing for music to be in the first place, and then decide that it could be improved by removing all the quiet-loud and slow-fast dynamics from it in favour of playing it nonstop at maximum speed and volume, like a band who have three hours of material to get through but only an hour before last orders at the bar.

You’ve got to admire their dedication to the cause though, as they rampage through the six tracks that make up this album, averaging just over ten minutes apiece. The first wailing rock guitar solo comes in about three minutes into the opening AKIYAMAxBASEBALLxEXPLOSION and by five minutes there are two guitars going at it in tandem, full-bore Yngwie, stroking each other to the first in a seemingly endless splurge of climaxes. Meanwhile, the drums are clattering away according to a complex pattern of their own and the bass is a lonely pole of utter composure at the centre of the swirling, ecstatic prog bacchanalia around it.

And that’s a big part of what makes Macmanaman such an appealing band. They make music that is undoubtedly thoughtful and carefully composed but at no point let the complexity and intelligence that underscores what they do interfere with the blissful, unrelentingly joyous athletics of their performance. Yes, the whole conceit that drives the band is insane, but at the same time, why the fuck not?

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