From the city of Hamamatsu near the western edge of Shizuoka Prefecture, Towel’s Haru Natsu Aki Fuyu EP is a charming riot of lo-fi indie rock. There’s a bit of Pavement to it, but it’s in a distinctly Japanese alternative tradition with its raucous, school festival energy and smartly weaponised off-key vocals. It’s a short EP, all four tracks getting in and out in six and a half minutes total, clattering and stumbling from bum note to scratchy postpunk non-chord and back in a way that resolves itself into a strangely appealing melodic sensibility of its own.
Self-Portrait by Odd Eyes is 25-minutes of breakneck hardcore punk, enlivened by skronky guitar deviations and rhythmical hiccups that make this Kyoto-based band one of the most interesting acts in the always lively Kansai scene right now. Odd Eyes are careful not to get stuck into a single groove for the duration of the the album though, and after a furious opening barrage that includes the albums two shortest songs, the sub-one-minute Just a Soul and Fictional Pause, they slow things down and draw things out long enough to unleash their inner Fugazi with the instrumental Microphone Justice and the emotionally fraught A One and a Two. Meanwhile, solo guitar instrumental, 0-do, throws in a curveball of a different sort, with its reverberating, icy textures, before the album veers back into its hardcore groove. It’s music that values energy over precision, but that’s also bubbling with ideas and invention. The copy I picked up from Jet Set Records in Kyoto also included a bonus CD-R featuring a 15-minute radio chat show with band members followed by a 50-minute DJ mix that throws Odd Eyes’ own music into some relief in how it leans so heavily towards folk, indiepop and lo-fi psychedelia rather than the punk influences you might expect.
Towards the beginning of Patrick St. Michel’s 33 1/3 series entry on Perfume’s Game, there’s a section where he discusses the impact on him personally of hearing their music for the first time while living in a quiet town in rural Mie. He talks about how J-pop was really the only domestic music available, and how discovering this strikingly different act appearing right in the heart of the mainstream gave him a way to connect with people he knew and worked with.
This was interesting partly because it reminded me a throwaway line in my own book about the Japanese music scene, Quit Your Band!, about how music had been partly a way to connect with the alien culture I found myself living in. It wasn’t something I’d thought of much at the time, but a lot of readers picked up on it as a significant insight.
It’s also an interesting piece of context for someone like me, whose experience of life in Japan has always been at the opposite extreme, having been embedded in the Technicolor blur of Tokyo from the very start. As a result, the appearance of Perfume impacted us both in different ways. To St. Michel it gave a foothold in mainstream culture and a way to connect with students and coworkers. For me, it injected a plastic-electric speedball of icy pop cool into an underground music scene that could often be drearily earnest.
That difference in how we both received Perfume may go part of the way towards explaining the pains that St. Michel goes to to emphasise the humanity and emotion at the heart of Perfume’s music on Game, which is an aspect I’ve tended to skim over or dismiss in my own interactions with their music. More than that, his willingness to engage seriously with their music on that level is important in ensuring this book is a rounded discussion of the group.
After these personal reminiscences, the book kicks off in earnest with a brief history and analysis of synth- and electronic-based music in Japan, from Isao Tomita through YMO and new wave groups like P-Model and the Plastics. Crucially, it also draws explicit parallels between Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata (of post-Shibuya-kei duo Capsule) and ’90s mega-producer Tetsuya Komuro, who did similar work in introducing overseas dance music ideas into mainstream Japanese pop, albeit on an even larger scale. St. Michel makes the good point that for all that Perfume were trailed as a “technopop group”, their music was never really technopop in the historical sense. To interject my own thoughts here, what Perfume really inherited was a curious sense of nostalgia for the future that acts like YMO seemed to promise, and perhaps for the future that technology promised more broadly in postwar Japan. It’s partly from this nostalgia for lost futures that the melancholy that St. Michel astutely identifies in Perfume’s music derives.
The book also takes some time to put Perfume themselves in the context of Japan’s idol tradition, noting how pop singers would on occasion intersect with electronic pioneers like Haruomi Hosono of YMO in their careers. I think the Candies are a particularly important group to bring up in relation to Perfume, not only for the visual similarities between the two trios (a lot of people I know remarked at the time that Perfume seemed like “an electro Candies”), but also because of how the founder and chairman of Perfume’s talent agency, Amuse, had actually been the Candies’ manager back in the 1970s when working for their agency, Watanabe Productions. One key parallel not mentioned in the book might also have been the late-’80s/early ’90s duo Wink, whose flat emotional delivery and synthpop-based arrangements contain further early echoes of Perfume’s style and aesthetic.
St. Michel goes beyond the historical idol parallels, though, and lays out in some detail the extent to which Perfume were, especially in their early days, deeply embedded in the machinery of post-millennium idol production. Their origins in a stage school bootcamp, the handshake greeting events, handing out flyers on the street in Akihabara, the live video messages to fans from the basement of a shared house – all these gimmicks the group went through mark their early career as having been managed along typical idol lines.
All of which makes the distinctive form the group ended up taking the more striking. Two key points St. Michel brings up underscore this. The first is how he remarks on Nakata’s use of the word “cool” to describe the musical aesthetic he is reaching for. This is important in differentiating Perfume from other idols, because “cool” as a concept is largely non-existent in idol culture; icy reserve has no place in a world where all emotions must be on display to the maximum level. The other point is the extent to which Nakata’s decision to use an actual polyrhythm in the song Polyrhythm was considered controversial. So-called “underground idol” acts nowadays occasionally play around with ideas from indie or experimental music, but for a group in 2008 aiming for a big hit, the idea of including something so radical in a song gave record industry execs palpitations.
In discussing Perfume’s influence, St. Michel makes further good points, noting the way the copycat acts they inspired all failed to replicate their success and noting the way Nakata’s career as a producer was perhaps the most striking immediate domestic result of Perfume’s rise to fame, with the group’s lingering influence on the Vocaloid scene perhaps its most enduring. The subsequent appearance of AKB48 (and we could perhaps add K-pop, with the electro influences that coloured much of it) carved a path for pop music in Japan to follow in a way that ensured Perfume remained a one-off. What the book doesn’t discuss is the way Nakata’s success with Perfume may have helped open the door for more indie and indie-adjacent songwriters and producers wo be given more or less free rein with idol groups, with the success of Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada with groups like Momoiro Clover (Z) and Dempagumi inc. a notable example.
St. Michel’s discussion of Perfume’s (and in particular Nakata’s) overseas influence feels a bit overstated, but it’s nevertheless interesting. One part that stands out in particular is his discussion of Perfume’s much-touted performance at South By Southwest in 2015 from the perspective of someone in the hall at the time. The contrast the way parts of the performance were clearly designed for consumption on video outside of the venue (and presumably also in part for re-consumption back home in Japan) set against the more intimate experience of the audience of mostly hardcore fans inside the room felt like something worthy of more discussion.
In fact, if this slim volume (it’s a single comfortable afternoon’s read) is lacking, it’s that it raises interesting ideas that St. Michel doesn’t always pursue. There are many legitimate reasons why he may not have wanted to bore readers by spiralling into esoteric discussions of semiotics, but it nevertheless feels like he holds back at points. While the book analyses the music and lyrical themes of the album in an often illuminating way, the approach is never really critical. St. Michel acknowledges the influence, that Nakata typically elides, of Daft Punk (themselves pretty free with their influences) on Perfume’s sound, but not the extent to which some of their music directly references them (pre-Game songs like Linear Motor Girl and Electro World have direct parallels with Digital Love, while Nakata cribs liberally from One More Time all over the place). St. Michel alludes to but doesn’t deeply interrogate the relationship between Perfume’s music and commercials – in particular the way songs are written specifically for the commercials rather than simply being licensed for them post-fact. Meanwhile, his praise of the emotional complexity of Perfume’s songs perhaps overstates their sophistication, or else it understates the sophistication of a lot of other contemporary J-pop and idol songwriting.
The flipside of these criticisms, however, is that St. Michel writes about Perfume with a lot of affection, and it’s often infectious. Opening with a personal anecdote about his introduction to the group and the impact they had on him contextualises this affection and gives him a license to discuss the band in his own way, which he does all the while taking in a lot of broader context about the group’s origins and the history and environment of the Japanese music scene as a whole.
Puffyshoes stumbled chaotically through their messy career, shining with brilliance but regularly chucking it all in the trash in a fit of eternally teenage passion before re-emerging and doing it all over again, eventually splitting for what felt like the final time in 2014. For those of us who were wowed and frustrated by them in their initial incarnation, the appearance of this brand new song after four years away is an unexpected delight.
Let’s Fall In Love is drenched in ’60s girl group harmonies, underscored with fuzzy, chugging, reverb-edged guitars and naively clomping drums, which is to say it’s everything fans of the band already know and love about them. The years apart may have added a touch more sophistication to the songwriting, though, and they have fun playing about with a little bit of keyboard to fill out the sparse arrangement. The song lurches to an abrupt, almost cliffhanger conclusion at around one and a half minutes, but with the band hinting at a new album potentially on the way, Let’s Fall In Love offers up plenty of promise for what this more mature Puffyshoes might have to offer.
This scratchy, lo-fi CD/R EP of fucked-up garage rock is one of those unexpected little delights that occasionally falls into my lap and immediately becomes one of my favourite bands. With five songs coming in at a pop-friendly fifteen minutes, the songs are concise enough, but with room to play around. Opening track Su_haku has one of those simple, wandering basslines that so many of the coolest weird, amateurish postpunk bands had – well, the Raincoats and Mo-dettes mostly – and the breathless way the vocals can’t settle on any sort of melody provides a mischievous bit of misdirection from what’s actually a strangely catchy song.
Elsewhere on the EP, the songs are built round more easy-to-pin-down structures, withthe playful You Are Living Through Your Eyes and the closing Shrimp is Good Food showcasing the band at their raucous, ramshackle best. The remaining songs, I’m Your Firstaid and Stack take a more sedate but no less rickety approach to their ‘60s-derived garage rock.
Part of the joy of bands like Doodless (not to be confused with the “s”-deficient but rather more famous Japanese band Doodles) lies in the way their essentially slapdash way of making music typically translates into a similarly carefree approach to the business of being in a band. The looseness feels liberating, but there’s also a fragility, a sense that the band’s own motivation might crumble at any moment, so these brief, joyous documents should be treasured.
One of the most hotly tipped guitar bands in Japan at the moment, the hopefully ironically-named Luby Sparks seem with this eponymous full-length debut album to be making the leap from underground ones-to-watch into the world of radio rotation and summer festival respectability.
Thanks to the production work of Max Bloom from UK indie band Yuck (and the two bands’ earlier split cassette), a lot of the attention around this album has centred around that connection, and rightly so as there are definite sonic similarities. More broadly, there’s something recognisably and melancholically British about Luby Sparks’ sound, which stands in contrast to the perky, distinctly American-sounding punk-pop influence that runs through a lot of Japanese indiepop.
The air of melancholy that Luby Sparks is shot through with, along with its distorted, post-My Bloody Valentine guitars and boy/girl twin vocals, also recalls turn-of-the-millennium Japanese rock legends Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change, and the albums display a rare talent for maintaining that longing atmosphere without compromising the music’s essential energy and momentum.
That energy is sometimes more difficult to discern in the band’s rather static live performances, but on the album it comse across powerfully. Hateful Summer and Teenage Squash rattle forward with a rough-edged, punkish, Jesus And Mary Chain-esque distorted powerpop punch, while Tangerine sees the band channeling the richly textured cacophony of MBV most directly, with the addition of a propulsive kraut-tinged rhythm.
Luby Sparks is by no means an original album, but it’s a wistful, sweeping, confident and ultimately impressive one, featuring a rich line in beautiful melodies with an embroidery of shoegazey distortion.
If you didn’t get hold of the scuzzy demo CD/R that the band were selling at live performances a year or two back, S.L.D.R. is likely the first chance most people have to hear Tokyo-based noise-punk band Ms. Machine in recorded form. Occupying the more discordant end of the current wave of young, aloof, well-dressed Tokyo indie bands with icy, blank stares that don’t give a damn about your bullshit, they bring a shot of curiously taciturn aggression to a scene still dominated by the piss-end of City Pop and varyingly competent imitations of vaguely twee US and UK guitar pop.
With four tracks’ worth of snarling guitars, distortion, doom-laden chords and shrieking sloganeering coming in at around seven and a half minutes, this EP places the band in a lineage that encompasses both D.C. hardcore and New York no wave. Most of the songs on S.L.D.R. are built around a single, grinding guitar riff, over which the vocals repetitively intone their minimal message. Despite that minimalism, however, there’s a distinctly feminist slant to the lyrics, with the opening Break the Current System featuring just the phrase, “She gotta obey him to succeed in this world” one and a half times and Your Little Yardstick simply and repeatedly demanding, “Do not appraise me!” Meanwhile, whether intentional or not, instrumental closing track 3.11 is difficult to separate from the horror and unease of the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th 2011, the track unfolding beneath a shrieking toy siren, with guitar and bass alternating between the same two-note riff and percussively hammering away on one chord before the guitar dissolves into a Mission of Burma-esque distorted outro.
There’s an unfinished quality to Ms. Machine’s songwriting that contributes to its no-bullshit appeal, the songs starting, locking into a groove, and then never really finishing so much as just ending. Despite (or maybe partly because of) this, as well as the short length and the minimalism of the music within, S.L.D.R. is an EP that rewards repeat listenings with a brutal simplicity of its own.