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Punk roundup (Summer 2020)

With the remarkable increase in new music releases finding their way onto the web since the COVID-19 pandemic cut off or restricted live outlets for bands to get their music out to people, it’s been a struggle to keep on top of it all. Punk bands in particular thrive in a live environment, but there’s been a lot of new releases keeping things alive on the noisy side (including a couple from my own label, which I’m not going to be ashamed about sharing here too). With that in mind, here’s a roundup of some of the releases that from the first half (or two thirds or whatever) of this year.

The MSGS – Ghost
Based in Fukuoka, although with guitar/vocal “Mr. Paal” recently relocated to Korea, The MSGS specialise in three-minute blasts of pop-punk that find a neat balance between clean harmonies with razor-cut guitar buzz and just enough of a rough Get Up Kids edge to retain the natural feeling of a band playing the songs together in a room. This means that while songs like opener September Sky are as effective a shot-in-the-arm of hyper-efficient melodic punk as you’ll find anywhere, when the band ease off the gas and give the songs a bit more space to breathe, there’s a mature pop songwriting heart beating there, with third track Victoria in particular embodying the best of both worlds. (Album will be released on August 19th)

Daiei Spray – Behind the Wall
Raucous, punk rock in a Hüsker Dü vein, Daiei Spray’s Behind the Wall is a deliriously rough buggy ride through ramshackle harmonies, distortional detours and rebel yells, from (at least in part) Tokyo’s always reliable Debauch Mood label (who released the My Society Pissed 12-inch also featured on this page). The lyrics ricochet back and forth between Japanese and English anti-authoritarian sloganeering with a thread of almost self-help positive thinking for the rebel masses, while despite the music’s rough-and-ready delivery, there’s also a willingness on songs like Overdone to play with more complex or unpredictable dynamics.

getageta – EP + 7 songs & Hell
This collection of tracks originally recorded around 2013-2014 seems to represent the complete recorded output of this thrillingly unhinged, band. I already reviewed this album as part of the Undrcurrents blog’s second Bandcamp roundup in June, so have a look over there for more of my thoughts.

My Society Pissed – Stomach
Another release featured in my contribution to the Undrcurrents blog’s second Bandcamp roundup in June, this cassette EP by My Society Pissed helped make April a particularly productive month for the band, with their 12-inch also coming out around the same time. A short but versatile blast of off-kilter punk rock, it’s a powerful introduction to the band.

Born Shit Stirrers – Lester
From song titles like Old Punks Are All Cunts and Fuck My Fucking Life you wouldn’t think it, but Lester is in many ways a cheerier, more lighthearted, more functional version of Born Shit Stirrers than they’ve shown us on any of their previous albums. The short, incoherent punk punches to the face are all present and familiar to anyone who’s encountered the band before (despite the promise of its title, the song Two Minutes Back In Hartlepool doesn’t even make it to 40 seconds), but musically the palette is wider, making room for cheesy rock solos, laid-back interludes and even the treacherous territory of pop in places. This isn’t a retreat from the band’s hardcore principles though, so much as a more effective expression of what the band always were. The machine gun etiquette of Born Shit Stirrers’ rage was always self-mocking, with the band themselves as much the butt of the joke for their whirlwinds of impotent fury as the petty grievances of life that they railed against were. On Lester, the band are still losers and scumbags, but we’re all brought just a little bit more in on the joke — and as a result, maybe it’s a little easier to see the squalid Born Shit Stirrer in ourselves.

Sassya- / VACANT – Sassya- x VACANT split
Harsh post-hardcore abrasions juxtaposing explosions of effects-drenched guitar and panic-wrought vocals with tight, sparse, intricate rhythms define Sassya’s approach on the first two tracks of this split EP. Vacant bring a heavier, riff-driven grind to their two tracks, but nonetheless share some if the same mathematical repetition and angular dynamics with their disc-mates. The result is a brutal and caustic sounding EP with music underscored by intricacy and intelligence.

M.A.Z.E. – Tour Tape 2020
This cassette EP was initially meant to support a split tour with US post-punk/no wave band Warm Bodies, which was cancelled due to the onset of Covid chaos this spring. The EP, made of six one-minute shots of brittle, post-punk-tinged garage recordings, has the muddy, fleeting feel of a moment of live energy captured on tape, and looking back over past releases this “this is us, this is what you get” simplicity seems to be the space that the band feel most comfortable in.

LLRR – < = >
Kansai-based LLRR’s background pulls in connections to bands including Tokyo’s Otori, Kobe’s O’Summer Vacation among others, and listeners familiar with those bands will feel get a sense of where LLRR are coming from immediately from the hyperactive, jittery rhythms and Minami Yokota’s shrill chatter that kick off opening track Shūmatsu no Fool. This EP uses those familiar sharp post-punk slashes, wandering bass lines, effects-enriched guitar textures and unpredictable rhythms to carve its own path between the experimental and downright pop. All of which makes < = > an extremely impressive debut, albeit one currently with no physical release, means to purchase online, or full lineup to play live with. The whole EP is available on subscription services though, for those who have access to them.

My Society Pissed – Locked Room
In addition to their Stomach cassette EP, this April also saw My Society Pissed release this six-song EP which expands on the band’s tortured, deviant take on punk rock. Opening song Circle Dancing sets things up with its relentless, doom-laden bass line and scratchy, discordant guitars, while Volcanic Reaction kicks things into a more frenetic pace, while retaining some of the scratchy, disconcerting internal sonic disorder. Throughout the record, the band walk a line between arty post-punk deviation and a core of raw, Stooges-like 1970s rock’n’roll riffs and thrills.

illMilliliter / TG.Atlas – 900%
The first of a couple of releases that I’ve worked on through my Call And Response label here, so think of this less as a review than as just my own insider’s take. This split EP comes from a similar place to the Sassya-/Vacant split earlier on in this article, with both bands taking a post-hardcore approach, playing with the juxtaposition between intricately constructed arrangements and blasts of harsh guitar noise and distortion. Of the two, Tokyo’s illMillliliter take the more precise and minimal approach, the opening Short Sleeper building a menacing quiet/loud dynamic while Powerpoint is uncompromisingly fast and furious, if no less brutally sharp. Hokkaido band TG.Atlas slash their way across the canvas in a more expressionistic fashion, with a similar consciousness of and willing to play with the spaces inside the music, but less mathematical in how they unleash the storms of sonic violence across it all.

jailbird Y – Secret Code Y
Another release from my own Call And Response label, this single by Jailbird Y was originally recorded while on tour in Taiwan last year (the cover photo is of the entrance to Taipei underground record store Senko Issha) and released as a fundraiser for Tokyo live venue Moonstep. The opening Y War combines hyperactive almost bubblegum new wave delivery with hardcore energy, while the second track, Love Letter (a new recording of a song that the previous lineup of the band recorded for their 2017 Sex Trip EP) comes in darker and more portentous, before the band’s anarchic, frenzied approach to song arrangements takes over and wreaks its customary mayhem.

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Top 25 Releases of 2018: Extra

In addition to the albums and EPs covered by my, admittedly selective and only vaguely ranked, top 25 list, there were of course plenty of other releases I listened to and enjoyed. Fukuoka insult-punks Born Shit Stirrers put out another extremely fun album, Depressed Fathers Club, which featured a song namechecking me, titled Ian Martin Thinks You’re Shit. Synthpop/technopop duo Motocompo re-released their fantastic 2008 Chiptop Lips album towards the end of the year, while their all-boy “ska-electro” successor band (M)otocompo released their daffy new Yokoshima Borderline EP at the same time. Fukuoka-based operatic jazz-prog trio Kelp put out the fascinating Intake album, while there were some interesting cassette compilations in the alt-rock-themed Life Is Music and Tokyo indie event Rhyming Slang’s collaboration compilation with Korean indie collective Freshalwayson. There was plenty more that I either didn’t get a chance to listen to or that I’ve somehow forgotten in the swirl of events and noise that usually makes up my year.

My own Call And Response label also put out a couple of new releases, which for obvious reasons I didn’t feel right including in my personal ranking of best releases. However, since this site seems to be the only place on the Internet that covers this sort of Japanese art-punk, underground and experimental rock music with any real affection, I’m going to make a point of recommending them here because (like all Call And Response releases, natch) they’re both excellent albums.

car-55 cover

CD, Call And Response, 2018

Sea Level – Dictionary (Handwritten) – BUY HERE
In a review by Ele-king magazine, Sea Level were described as “centreless music”, which is to say music that doesn’t have an obvious, easy-to-define core identity but rather defines itself through the fluid, free-floating and dreamlike way it dances from idea to idea, pulled outwards in various directions by the diverse creative talents in the band, but nonetheless linked in a stream of consciousness. Musically, it’s in the zone that we can comfortably call post-rock in that it combines electronic music with progressive rock, with diversions into various other genres where appropriate, but that doesn’t do justice to the beauty of this record — less a linear journey than a hallucinatory, melancholy landscape that you’re left to explore freely by yourself.

CAR-54 jacket

CD, Call And Response, 2018

Velvet Ants – Entomological Souvenirs I – BUY HERE
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in these year-end countdown posts that 2018 was a great year for the loose category of sonically or rhythmically distorted experimental rock and (post)punk music I like to classify as noise-rock, and Velvet Ants by all rights should be considered an important part of that wave of great music. Recorded and mixed by Shinji Masuko of DMBQ (whose monumental Keenly also featured in my top albums list), Entomological Souvenirs I combines jittery rhythms, heavy riffs and ferocious Sonic Youthian freakouts, delivered with a disarmingly loose sort of confidence.Velvet Ants – Cicada (single edit)

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (1)

Every year when I write my top 20 Japanese music releases, there’s always a lot of good stuff that I leave out either because I didn’t hear it in time or because I just decided not to in the particular moment of compiling everything. And as always, I didn’t include any of my own Call And Response label’s releases, even though they were all excellent.

As well as my own releases and the other favourites that slipped through the net, there are a handful of other dedicated people out there cataloguing the best indie music Japan has to offer from their own particular perspectives Obviously their perspectives are all to varying degrees wrong (except where they agree with me, obviously), but if you’re wrong in the same way as them, you might find their 2017 rundowns of value.

In this first of three posts, I’ll be running quickly through some of the releases that missed out on my own top 20 but which might easily on another day have found their way in:

Born Shit Stirrers – I Hate Your Fucking Band

Based in Fukuoka and apparently on a sort of Wowbaggerian mission to slag off, one by one, everyone in the city, Born Shit Stirrers put out two albums in 2017, with Richard and Judy following in the summer. I’m singling out I Hate Your Fucking Band here mainly because of the title, but both albums are packed with fast, profane, utterly squalid, Anti-Nowhere League-esque punk rock smacks to the gob, featuring nothing in the way of subtlety, refinement or artistry.

V/A – Rhyming Slang Covers

The second Rhyming Slang compilation after 2016’s Rhyming Slang Tour Van compilation, this covers compilation sees some of the same bands, like DYGL, Yüksen Buyers House and Half Mile Beach Club, plus a host of new ones like the increasingly popular Luby Sparks and up-and-comers Tawings. With the exception of Nengu’s math rock take on Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, most of the tracks are pretty straightforward covers of vaguely hip classics from bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, New Order, Lou Reed and so on, but there’s a particular sort of value that can be gained from the peek they offer into the influences underscoring the younger end of the Tokyo indie scene.

Kuunatic – Kuurandia

Dropping right at the end of the year, this EP by Tokyo-based psychedelic trio Kuunatic is the ethnic transcendental music of a minimalist alien space tribe who worship Charles Hayward as a god.

The Routes – In This Perfect Hell

This site doesn’t cover a lot of garage rock because it’s a genre so rooted in the past and in its own retro revivalist scene that the usual tools I use to assess new music (what’s fresh about it? how does it stand out from its contemporaries?) would miss the point. It’s music that lives by its ability to sound the same as something else, to ape the past, to avoid challenging its contemporaries. So how can a garage rock band in 2017 Japan stand out? Basically by doing what The Routes did: writing a tonne of really good songs and playing them really well.

DYGL – Say Goodbye to Memory Den

The real superstars of the Tokyo indiepop scene, DYGL had a fantastic 2017, making it to one of the big stages at Fuji Rock, selling out a show at the Liquid Room, and releasing this fun, energetic full-length debut. The band are clearly deeply indebted to bands like The Libertines and The Strokes (Albert Hammond Jr. produced this album) but in the context of the Japanese music scene, the raucous, punkish energy that comes with those influences sets them apart from the soft-focus dreaminess of many of their peers.

In The Sun – El Energy

Coming out just at the end of 2016, this ferociously intense noise-rock album missed out on last year’s list simply because I didn’t get my hands on a copy until way too late. Like early Nisennenmondai performing from behind a battery of modular synths and effectors, In The Sun have all the krautrock and This Heat you could want, with all the sparseness replaced by a relentless barrage of joyous, angry noise.

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