Tag Archives: 2015 Top 20

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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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.13– Yolz in the Sky – Hotel


CD, Felicity, 2015

Its peak may have passed ten years ago, but 2015 featured a number of reminders of just how vibrant and exciting the Kansai scene of the early-mid-2000s was, with Pika from Afrirampo’s solo album (No.14 in this rundown) and Fuji Rock performance, Oshiripenpenz also providing a live highlight at Fuji Rock, and Ni-Hao!’s chaotic, energetic No Respect! album. Yolz in the Sky were always a little bit to the fringes of that scene, emerging a little later and being far more minimal and tautly wired, and far less performance-driven and wild than their local contemporaries.

Nevertheless, they were one of the best and have proven one of the most enduring bands of that generation, despite losing half their membership in their transition from postpunk quartet to the minimal avant-disco duo that appears on Hotel.

A postpunk mindset still drives a lot of Hotel, with frequent moments of rhythmical and sonic dissonance interrupting the grinding repetition of the beats, and the hysterical vocal utterances, yelping out mantric, minimal nonsense. The line between guitar and synthesiser in Yolz in the Sky’s music is at this point nonexistent, the music’s organic input lost in a maze of effects and cables.

Yolz in the Sky treat every tool at their disposal like a rhythm instrument, and what makes the album a success is in the constantly, playfully shifting dynamic between those different rhythmical elements, the interplay between them, and the craft and imagination that ensures the journey they guide the listener along is both rewarding and makes the album effective if distinctly oddball dance music.


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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.14– Pika – Ryu no Sumika

Ryu no Sumika

CD, Telegraph Records, 2015

Another album that strictly speaking should have been on last year’s list was (the now at least temporarily reformed) Afrirampo drummer Pika’s Ryu no Sumika solo album, which sneaked out in December but only came to my attention a couple of months later. An eclectic collection of folk, psychedelia, avant-garde anti-music, wonky pop and spacerock, it was a charming record, if a little difficult-to-pin-down. At the time, I noted the apparently festival-ready nature of some of the songs, remarking that on the album it was the darker moments like Sen, in collaboration with Nanao Tavito, that made the album stand out.

In the summer, I encountered Pika again at Fuji Rock, where she was performing on a small stage as Moon Mama, with a backing band drawn from some of the long list of collaborators on this album. Experienced from a grassy bank, under the afternoon sun, the music from this album took on a fresh texture, its sunnier moments opening up to the sky and the darker corners peering in from the depths of the forest that surrounded us. OK, so only a couple of hundred people got to see that hidden festival highlight, but what it helped reveal of Ryu no Sumika is still there in the album for anyone to find – an exhuberant explosion of creative talent from not only its nominal star but also the raft of supremely talented performers with whom she collaborates.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.15– mmm – Safe Mode

mmm - safe mode lp

Vinyl LP, Enban, 2015

With this entry in the list, I’ll confess to cheating a bit. Originally released in October 2014, it would fall outside the scope of this countdown of 2015’s best Japanese music were it not for a 12-inch vinyl re-release courtesy of Tokyo underground record store Enban’s in-house label.

This is a marvellous development because it allows me to write about a collection of songs that would almost certainly have made last year’s countdown had I discovered it in time, and was an easy choice this time around. I wrote about the CD edition earlier in the year, so I shan’t go over the same ground in detail (read my earlier review here – the music’s basically the same) except to say that Safe Mode is an intimate little mini-album, recorded warm and up-close, both charming and disarming.

Combining subtle, intricately worked psychedelic elements with witty, sometimes surreal, simple yet intricately balanced folk and acoustic pop, Safe Mode‘s atmosphere is enhanced in all manner of little ways by tiny production choices and quirks of the recording process, from the ambient sounds of fingers sliding along guitar strings on Long Days with Television to the contrast between the wavering tone of the vintage pub piano and the highly compressed drum machine sound on The Return of Hamunaptra.

What’s most remarkable about this record is that for all its short runtime and the apparent simplicity and sparseness of its sound, there is just so much going on, both in the diversity of the songwriting and the imagination and/or serendipity that have gone into the recording and arrangement. While its appearance in this year’s rundown was only able to happen through a quirk of its release process, there should be no question that Safe Mode is a worthy inclusion and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.16– Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her – Eternal Adolescence

seagull screaming kiss her kiss her - eternal adolescence

CD, UK Project, 2015

In Jon Fine’s excellent Your Band Sucks, there is a section in which he discusses the joys of re-forming a much-loved older band and the limits to which such reunions can be pushed. Speaking to Aiha Higurashi in the summer, it was clear that she was herself wary about making too grand plans for the new Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her. However, the band’s current form – with bassist Kentaro Nakao (Crypt City, ex-Number Girl) producing and partly managing band logistics, leaving Higurashi free to drive the band’s agenda from the front – has an air of logical progression from Higurashi’s work with Nakao over the past decade or so that regardless of what name she chooses to call the band and the specific people involved, it’s easy to see it continuing in some form or other.

The name does mean something though, carrying with it a certain weight not only of nostalgia but also of a certain disarming rawness and authenticity that made the band stand out as something special even in their own time. Musicians love to say, “I just play and sing what I feel. I don’t analyse it very much,” when they’re often reflexively avoiding the kind of honest expression they claim to value, playing and singing only in superficial banalities. Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, on the other hand, were always brutally honest and direct, both emotionally and musically. Seeing their name again with the words “new album” next to it summons a roar of snarling garage rock guitars and petulant yet cocksure lyrics.

Opening track Damn It I Know What I Am delivers all that, amped up to eleven – Higurashi, a middle-aged mother with an adolescent daughter of her own, still engaged in a sometimes fractious conversation with her own teenage self.

Angrily asserting her identity at no one in particular, complaining about boys, and calling out the phoneys, insisting that she doesn’t give a damn, while obviously giving a massive damn with half a dozen fucks thrown in for good measure, Eternal Adolescence finds Higurashi’s inner teenager alive and screaming. It’s her own contradictions that she really seems to not give a damn about, and the celebratory way she seems to embrace her own ambiguities is part of what makes her so damn cool.

After the yeah, baby, we’re back! punk rock party of the forst three tracks, the album makes space for some more restrained moments in the shape of the Folk Implosion-esque Kiss and Make Up and the cascading harp and oboe of Beauty. The bluesy garage strut reasserts itself soon after though in a streak that builds to a climax with the fists-aloft torch song of Fuckin’ Blue before winding to a close with the scratchy, acoustic Ah~ha~ha~ha~(Jesus Never Mind).

All this never feels less than real, but compared to an almost painfully raw album like 1998’s 17, Eternal Adolescence is balanced by an assurance that can perhaps in part be attributed to the support and fuller sound provided by Higurashi’s more extensive backing band (featuring members of Crypt City, Kaisoku Tokyo and Miila & The Geeks, among others) but also surely a greater sense of perspective and confidence on Higurashi’s own part. At 28 minutes, the ten songs on Eternal Adolescence take you on triumphant whirlwind tour of past anxieties, leaving with a puff of smoke, a stubbed-out cigarette and a swagger rather than a strop and a slammed door.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.17– Praha Depart – Sweet Wave

When writing about synth duo Yokan System’s Whispering for the previous entry in this 2015 rundown, I mentioned that, in Tokyo at least, members Mai Yano and Tsukasa Kameya are perhaps better known for their work with a band called Praha Depart. These things are relative of course, and from any meaningful cultural perspective no one has heard of either band, especially since Praha Depart more or less abandoned playing live a few years ago.

Nevertheless, the band (the trio’s lineup is completed by Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots drummer Jumpei Yamamoto) still exist sporadically, with the roots of this album going back to studio sessions in Ljubljana three years ago, which they developed into complete recordings after returning to Japan and promptly left unreleased for almost a year.

At this point I should declare an interest: I released Praha Depart’s earlier Dot. EP/mini-album in 2012 via Call And Response Records and heard the initial recordings for Sweet Wave a long time before its release. This is an album that had the timing been right, and had the band theirselves been more active, I might have ended up releasing, thus disqualifying it from appearing here. As it is, time dragged on, the band moved on, and the album was at risk of being forgotten, and so Praha Depart seemed to dump it almost apologetically onto their Bandcamp, perhaps for any international fans driven there by the flutter of press Yokan System were by then receiving around the release of Whispering.

While there are a few similarities, mostly down to Yano’s voice, comparisons between the two bands are largely meaningless. Praha Depart are a power trio with a full band sound, developed from sparse postpunk roots into something far richer and more multilayered.

Opening track Rhumba has echoes the tribal postpunk of Pulsallama or Rip Rig & Panic, and in particular of Praha Depart’s own earlier Portrait Man, kicking the album off with a link to the group’s past, before moving into the more restrained, melodic title track whose wandering, stuttering bass line recalls the prog pop of Roxy Music’s Out of the Blue.

Elsewhere, Sweet Wave’s music ranges from the rhythmically complex Swan to the richly textured, emotionally wrought closing Dreamer. Praha Depart express some ambivalence about this album, being a work that to them expresses only their current state rather than pointing the way towards the future, and with this release they seem to hope to draw a line under this stage in their life as a band. Something of this shows in the music, which is so richly developed and finely honed, delivered with such confidence and familiarity by the band that it leaves a sense of something so thoroughly and comprehensively expressed that there is nowhere left for them to go along this particular route. Still, while the album may in spome ways feel like a coda, it is at least a triumphant one – perhaps more an exclamation mark than a full stop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.18– Yokan System – Whispering

yokan system - whispering

CD/Download, Ample Play, 2015

Released on Tjinder Singh’s UK-based Ample Play label, this album by a Japanese duo probably better known in Tokyo as two thirds of the sporatically active postpunk-influenced art rock band Praha Depart is something of a spectral presence in the Japanese music scene.

There are enough similarities to The Knife’s early work to make the comparison valid beyond the simple fact of the two duos’ boy-girl synthpop dynamics. Yokan System temper that glacial edge though, delivering their music from behind a misty, lo-fi veil, the vocals and synths both adding ambiguity to the sound with a layer of sonic whispers just beneath the music’s surface, while Mai Yano’s vocals lean more towards Cocteau Twins-esque 4AD etherea than Karin Dreijer Andersson’s tormented Kate Bush-like yowl.

In the songwriting, Yokan System are poppy while skirting clear of outright pop songwriting, building their tracks from hooks, drum and sequencer loops and repetitive, mantric vocals in a way that betrays some of Yano and Kameya’s postpunk and krautrock-influenced roots.

Hanging somewhere between dance music and ambient, without ever really committing to be pop music either leaves Yokan System in an odd place in terms of pinning down their sound. The title track’s cascading guitar evokes something of Kyoto-based Japanese chillwave pioneers Hotel Mexico’s breakout international track Its Twinkle, while the propulsive dreampop of the opening Kyo Kyo Ra kicks off the album powerfully. Each track contains within it the seed of something the band seem intent on never quite delivering, drifting dreamlike from one little sonic world to the next without ever resolving the puzzle of the last – like whispered promises that never fully reveal themselves, the promise of the unknown contains within its mystery a beauty of its own.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.19– z/nz – Nanka Festa

znz - nanka festa

CD, Headache Sounds, 2015

The key reference points that are most inescapable when confronted by Fukuoka avant-rock trio z/nz are This Heat and Sonic Youth. You can hear both within the first few seconds of Nanka Festa’s opening track Happy Dance, and they remain constant touchstones throughout, even if the band themselves claim ‘90s US post-hardcore as a more direct set of influences.

More than simply a collection of influences, however, the group’s own curious internal dynamic is what gives the music its own distinctive character, the juxtaposition of Toya’s complex and highly technically proficient drumming with the overlapping twin guitars of Sassy and Tori, whose unconventional and defiantly untechnical style nevertheless allows them to pick out unexpected harmonies with each other. The tension between harmony and discord extends to the rhythm as well, with the guitars and drums struggling to hold together, teetering on a precipice that they constantly threaten to tumble over, but always pulling back in the nick of time.

The title Nanka Festa means literally “something festival” and the song titles themselves are all cryptic with no obvious bearing on the music they describe, most likely assigned via a sort of, “Hey, shout out the first word that comes into your head on the count of three!” method. The overarching feeling Nanka Festa evokes is one of disorientation coupled with a hard-to-place sense of fun. “I’ve no idea what this is, but it’s setting off fireworks in my head and my feet want to move like a drunk goose on a speedboat,” – it’s that sort of album.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.20– Sayuu – Sukamu Left Sukamu Right

sayuu - sukamu left sukamu right

CD, Yellow Label, 2015

Happy music dominated the Japanese indie scene in 2015, from the mild-mannered garbage of city pop at one extreme to the performance-orientated comedy punk and indie-idol detritus that clogged up the other end of the scene. When viewed through this filter, Tokyo was a horrible place to be for a bitter old art-punker/pure-pop vigilante like me. However, the way the indie scene adopted the mainstream entertainment industry’s focus on character and charisma over music also allowed some genuinely music to slip through.

Sayuu are outliers among Tokyo’s “funny” bands in that they skirt clear of outright goofiness and produce music more considered than mere wackiness. Sukamu Left Sukamu Right succeeds by treading a knife-edge of caustic humour, brittle postpunk arrangements and hectoring vocals, all providing the most minimal embroidery to songs that through a mixture of occasional bursts of melody and persistent, finely honed rhythmical dynamics manages to be accessible borderline-pop and retain all its sharp edges.

Songs like Yellow Hate I’ve written about before, with the newer Yametekure running along similar lines. Meanwhile the kazoo-folk of Hako no Uta will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the band’s regular live set.

As with many smartly marketed Japanese underground acts, where they take it from here is a difficult question. It’s all so tightly honed and complete in itself that it suggests few avenues for further development that wouldn’t fatally undermine its finely balanced appeal. The whispered Heiwana no Ka against a backdrop of minimal percussion and xylophone points a possible direction for the duo to explore more sophisticated ideas without losing their sparse charm. Again, the scene’s focus on character over music can work in a band’s favour here, giving them freer rein to change fundamental aspects of their setup as long as the duo retain their dry, poker-faced wit.

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