Tag Archives: 2016 top 20

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.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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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.14 – Masami Akita & Eiko Ishibashi – Kouen Kyodai

Masami Akita + Eiko Ishibashi - Kouen Kyoudai

CD, Editions Mego, 2016

A lot of the most interesting albums of 2016 were ones that explored borderlands at the fringes of noise, and while purists may disagree vehemently, noise is at its most interesting when it’s not a genre in itself so much as a complicating element of something else, channeling different genres through a distorting prism even as it incorporates that change back into itself. The writer David Novak in his book Japanoise: Music on the Edge of Circulation repeatedly comes back to the theme of feedback not only as a reference to the sonic feedback that characterises noise but in the context of the feedback loops that channel influences back and forth between two poles.

In the case of Kouen Kyodai, the two poles are Masami Akita, known best as the man behind noise legend Merzbow, and Eiko Ishibashi, who is known primarily for being the stupendously talented multi-instrumentalist all-rounder and singer-songwriter Eiko Ishibashi. All of which is to say that they’re both artists who bring a certain gravitas to a project, although neither of them is apparently averse to a degree of playfulness. From its lame pun of a title (in addition to being the title of a manga, it’s also a play on the Japanese term for the Coen Brothers) to the way it themes itself around a children’s playground, they set the album up as being a space to mess around.

The most obvious factor differentiating the two tracks is the role Ishibashi takes, with the first track, Slide, seeing her skittering softly, loosely and subtly across the drums, while she takes more of a foreground position after switching to piano on the second, Junglegym. On both tracks, Akita is in relatively restrained “ambient” rather than harsh mode, although that doesn’t stop him building his layers of distorted tones into towering cathedrals of sound. Of Ishibashi’s contribution, it’s her drumming that is perhaps the most interesting. She’s a supremely talented pianist, but that’s also very much her comfort zone and one where the sounds she produces are most familiar, if no less dizzying in their interactions with Akita’s rumbling drones and arrhythmic pulses of noise. As a drummer, however, she brings a distinctly un-drummerlike musicality to her playing that throws unexpected twists and turns into Akita’s gradually building crescendo.

Both tracks fascinate and disorientate in equal measures, but it’s the feedback loop between the two musicians, playing off each other and constantly shifting roles in a harmony and discord that lies at the heart of its appeal.

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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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