In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Japan, the situation has been tough for live music venues, with support from the government inconsistent, often poorly publicised, and generally either unavailable or difficult to obtain. As a result, many venues and artist collectives have produced compilations so that fans can contribute to keeping the infrastructure alive, even as the authorities give up on attempting to contain the pandemic. As with many compilations, the music is often scattershot and of variable quality, but this flood of releases is also bringing to light for the first time a lot of music that has been hidden in soundproofed boxes and known only to small word-of-mouth groups, leading to a paradoxical situation where the Japanese music scene is turning inwards into more specifically local- and scene-focused production at the same time that it is also turning much more openly outwards by making such vast quantities of music available online to anyone in the world who wants to explore it. I have personally been involved in a few of rough-and-ready projects of this type, which I have indulged myself by adding at the end of this feature for anyone who gets that far, but there is so much to cover in here that you will be listening for weeks to even dent this undoubtedly incomplete roundup of what’s been going on since this spring.
Put together by the venue Navaro in Kumamoto, this compilation paints a quite extensive and wide-ranging portrait of the music scene in a part of Japan that doesn’t usually get a lot of attention except whenever a natural disaster sweeps through and wrecks everything (as an earthquake did to Navaro’s old location in 2016). The real standouts are the deranged live cuts from experimental rock bands Doit Science and Ishiatamazizo, but the album takes a fascinating trip through the feelgood pop-rock of The Heightz, the stripped down stoner hip-hop of Griner feat Blueprint, the grimy, sparse post-hardcore of Mul-Let-Ct2, the understated sweet-sour melancholy of Neuesanssouci and much more.
O2O2 the eyes behind the eyes
One of the releases picking up a lot of buzz this summer, this compilation seems to have been produced to raise money for a range of venues and stores around Japan — only available on CD directly from the participating businesses. It generally leans in a pop-rock/pop-punk direction but it’s the places where it deviates from that where it becomes most interesting, with Deride’s two raucous, ferocious hardcore tracks and the anarchic disorder of Office Voids’ Hatarakitakunai providing a much needed harsh edge, while Passing Truth Drive’s Dystopia is an interesting closing track, combining a simple, affecting electronic loop with what sound like the vocals of a closing time drunk, evoking a strangely touching combination of sweetness and disintegration.
(CD only – no digital version available.)
soko ni iru 1 / soko ni iru 2
These two compilations were put together by indie hub Give Me Little More in Matsumoto, centred around local acts from Nagano Prefecture but expanding its reach to include artists from around Japan and the world that have a connection with the venue. With these kinds of compilations, it’s always interesting to see what they reveal about the personality of the venue. Big city venues can afford to focus on one particular genre, while those in smaller towns generally need to be more open, but a mood or character often emerges nonetheless. In Give Me Little More’s case, it seems to be an atmosphere of restraint and slightly lonely distance, whether in the quirky bedroom new wave of Oshaberi Art, the fragile balladry of Nicholas Krgovich, the dislocated pop of Tangingugun (Give Me Little More owner Masashiro Nimi’s own band), Yumbo’s curious combination of spoken word and melancholy brass, Daborabo’s found-sound collage or the indiepop of Her Braids’ Forest, with its opening guitar that threatens to turn into The Stone Roses’ Made of Stone but then takes a turn in its own achingly lovely direction. Of the two collections, the first is perhaps the more wide-ranging in tone and the second the more subdued, but the tone across both albums is surprisingly consistent.
Songs For Our Space
This compilation put together by the Rokoh label was made in support of the Save Our Space campaign, which has been lobbying government agencies for support for the music scene since the beginning of the pandemic in Japan and offers its own lens on Tokyo’s impossibly chaotic and diverse underground music scene. Rokoh founders Daiki Kishioka and Seven both appear at different ends of the sonic spectrum, Kishioka in a stripped down acoustic version of his band Strip Joint, and Seven with the thump and hiss of the pragmatically titled Zatsuon Jikken_NoiseExperiment_2_01_live_premix, and this diversity is reflected across the album. This is perhaps a manifestation of the disinterest in genre among a lot of the young musicians in Tokyo right now, as well as the chaotic immediacy of the circumstances under which the album was created. And there’s a strong scent of lockdown about this release, with songs like TYO COVID-19 by Sai (from Ms. Machine) explicitly referencing the situation and Deathro’s contribution revelling in its home recording setup with its aggressively cheap sounding drum machine beat, meaning that just a few months after its release it already has the feeling of a historical document — a blurred snapshot of a music scene reacting in a moment of confusion.
#repartures for huckfinn health and empathy
Released to raise funds for Nagoya live venue Huck Finn, this compilation draws primarily from the Nagoya and Aichi indie and underground scene, with the low-key acoustic balladry of Gofish and the always excellent Yoshito Ishihara sitting alongside the dark or oblique post-punk shapes of The Act We Act and Vodovo. As with the Songs For Our Space compilation, Deathro makes a lo-fi appearance from his bedroom, while Fucker (Less Than TV label boss Jun Taniguchi) closes the album off with his own raw, tortured acoustic effort on an album that happily ricochets between punk, folk and anarchic nonsense with little regard for genre logic but clearly having fun in its own alternative community.
Namba Bears Omnibus “Nihon kaihō”
One of the Japanese underground scene’s most legendary live venues, Namba Bears in Osaka more than any album in this feature brought out the big hitters for this fundraiser compilation. Psych-rock druids Acid Mothers Temple, experimental shamans OOIOO, brevity-loving noisenik Masonna, avant-maniacs Oshiri Penpenz, the analogue glitches of YPY, and current Osaka breakout stars (and seemingly the main organisers this compilation) Gezan all make an appearance. That alone should be enough to demand attention, but a little deeper there are some gems too. KK manga and Yaho, the latter of whom also make an interesting appearance on #repartures, both deal out some truly demented noise-soaked gibbering hardcore. Metamyura Gunupiko aka Nakabayashi Kirara’s Shūchō no Musume is an extraordinary track, kicking off with an intro drawn straight from German EBM legends DAF’s Die Rauber und Die Prinz, it combines synth minimalism with traditional Japanese folk music, taking both down a number of unexpected diversions. There’s a lot going on over these eighteen tracks, and it’s all worth exploring.
From the Heart of Chiba – Anga Support Compilation
Chiba is in the uncomfortable position of being a big city that’s just close enough to Tokyo that a lot of its music culture tends to get absorbed by its larger neighbour to the west. Sen City Records is in part an attempt to create a small centre of musical gravity in Chiba City for local alternative music and occasionally drag some music back across the border, and this live compilation (all songs were recorded at Sen City events) makes for an interesting document of the scene they’re creating there. Tokyo punk and oddball bands like P-iple and Emily Likes Tennis make an appearance, but the core of the album is the Chiba-based acts. This contingent includes a strong core of non-Japanese residents (the straight-up Nick Lowe powerpop of Talent Show in particular stands out) who help bring the album a drunken pub rock atmosphere that plays well with the eccentric punk of Japanese acts like Katakana, who veer between ranting disorder and Jitterin’ Jinn-like ragged J-pop, and the anarchic new wave noise of Bunga Bunga. As a live album, it’s as rough-edged as you might expect and perhaps aimed more at recalling the raucous energy of event nights for those familiar with the scene Sen City have built up around the venue Chiba Anga than providing a polished introduction for casual listeners. As with many of these compilations, however, it is also celebratory in the specificity with which it pulls focus on the goings on in a particular neighbourhood and scene — something made all the more immediate by the live recorded format.
One thing that the music scene’s response to the pandemic has brought into focus is which venues have really come to foster loyalty from the artistic communities around them. In Tokyo, venues like Bushbash in Koiwa and Soup in Ochiai have been the focus of a lot of support from artists they have helped support. Hatagaya Forestlimit seems to have a particularly diverse range of fans, and this album, produced over a 24-hour period in May, leans hard on autotune-heavy hip-hop trackmakers, with S亜TOH contributing to most tracks, while Andrew from Trekkie Traxx is perhaps the album’s most high profile contributor. Miru Shinoda x Sai’s Hej Då, meanwhile, provides the album’s sole punkish deviation with its scuzzy on-the-beat electro drive as it encourages someone to “Fuck off, you piece of shit”, offering a welcome souring to the album’s mellow.
Flowers in Concrete -Side Japan-
Ochiai Soup is probably the most essential spot in Tokyo for Japan’s experimental and noise scene, and this June compilation (released side by side with a compilation of international artists) draws from that community, making the album not just a fundraiser but a powerful statement of identity for the venue. There’s a thrilling variety on display here, even within the acts who take more of a pure noise approach — compare the low-end sonic landslide of P.I.G.S. with the liquid analogue squelches of Government Alpha — while tracks by GC Skull Electronics, Kazumoto Endo and Kazuma Kuboto build an unsettling atmosphere in the way they all, in varying ways, take slashes of ragged noise that dissolve into quietly sinister electronic throbs or moans. Endo’s track stands out in particular as a finely wrought, panic-inducing, electrifying album highlight, although Flowers in Concrete -Side Japan- is rich enough that repeat listens will surely shine fresh light on moments throughout the album.
2020,the Battle Continues
This monthly ongoing compilation series put together by the venue Earthdom in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo offers a daunting avalanche of punk, hardcore and noise-rock from an extraordinary array of artists — Volume 1 alone runs to two and a half hours, one third of which it taken up by two collaboration tracks between Sunn O))) and Merzbow — although that also means the series offers a deep and wide insight into the noisy extremities of contemporary Japanese underground rock. While Volume 1 is certainly the longest and features more of the most obviously well known names (Boris, The Genbaku Onanies and Struggle For Pride also make an appearance), each of the three currently existing collections provides a relentless, explosive barrage of earsplitting, brain-melting sonic terror in a spread of subgenres that generally have the root “core” in the name. Dive deep and you’ll start to find crossovers with other compilations in this list, with artists like Fucker and Deathro reappearing here, while Iron Lung’s entry was actually recorded at Nagoya Huck Finn, indicating that despite many of these compilations’ extreme local focus, there are nevertheless creative networks at play that extend throughout the country and which many of these venues play an important role in supporting.
Internal Meeting Compilation
Another Nagoya-based compilation, much of this album, compiled in support of the Venues KD Japon and Daytrip, takes far more of a mainline J-pop/rock approach, especially compared to the punk, folk and experimental anarchy of the same city’s #repartures compilation also covered on this page. This sort of music, which is modelled on the coat tails of more or less mainstream Japanese music (the Rock In Japan/Quruli vision), is a thread that this site rarely takes the time to cover, but which is perhaps inevitably the greater portion of what constitutes Japanese indie. That’s not to say there aren’t alternative ideas going on in a lot of these tracks though, and as the album progresses, so its palette widens with the hyperactive drums, shoegaze-tinted textures and Thom Yorke vocals of Muscle Soul’s Stand Alone, the post-rock sonic towers of Ulm’s Flood of Light or Ophill’s closing am5, the precise, intricate rhythmical interplay of Qulaque’s Kiló and the ultra sparse acoustic approach of Miyafuji Sakae. At its heart, though, Internal Meeting Compilation represents the pop-rock, singer-songwriter middle-ground of Japanese indie rather than its more experimental or progressive fringes, and in that makes for a pretty accurate image board of core playing field of Japanese pop and rock in the 21st century.
Drunk Ambient Moods 1
This is one of of a handful of compilation projects in this feature that I myself had a hand in, having contributed to one of the tracks and the money raised being donated to a campaign I manage for a trio of small music bars in the Koenji neighbourhood of Tokyo. Pipo Records is defiantly its own thing though — a new Tokyo label, set up partly in opposition to what it sees as the reactionary tendencies of new age ambient, all nonetheless within a broadly ambient framework. To do this, the Pipo approach seems to be to fashion itself as a playground for artists from a variety of backgrounds to explore their own takes on the idea of ambient, and Drunk Ambient Moods 1 takes a slowly winding path through the resulting landscape. The first third of the album takes the form of a largely familiar-feeling pastoral lowland before the distorted sax loops of James Hadfield’s Cancellations (Upsets) brings the first disconcerting jolt, with Juliette Porée’s sinister Avmars setting the album more clearly on a dark course, compounded by the distant storm of guitar thunder that sees out the ominous drone of Looprider’s The Ghost Has Come For Me. By the time the album is moving towards its close, the notion of ambient is more of a ghost that haunts the background of Adam Sampler’s skittering disco beats. The work of musicians (and non-musicians) none of whom operate exclusively in the ambient field, Drunk Ambient Moods 1 staggers on an always slightly off-kilter but ultimately playful journey into ambient anarchy.
This is an album I compiled myself for the venue Utero in Fukuoka, with tracks drawn from Kyushu-based artists that had previously appeared on albums or compilations from my own Call And Response label over the past fifteen years, so I can’t review this in the traditional sense. However, for anyone familiar with the output of Call And Response over the years, I think 883km shows up the extent to which the island of Kyushu has helped to define the label’s identity, staggering between post-punk and post-rock with a kind of playful, childlike anarchy and very little respect for the finer points of genre. Despite having 14 different bands and recordings spanning over a decade, some familiar faces reappear in multiple acts (and at least three musicians are staff members at Utero), which perhaps feeds into a sense of coherence amid the scrappy sensibility of many of the tracks. It also makes for a surprisingly widely drawn sketch of offbeat art-punk in 21st Century Kyushu.
Party in My Heart / Gold Star
These two covers compilations were also produced by me, so once again I make no claim to being able to review them objectively. Made up of home recordings in the early months of the pandemic, they both feature musicians (and non-musicians) from the community around Call And Response Records and a trio of music bars in our local neighbourhood. Like the Sen City compilation (earlier in this feature), these albums feature a strong contingent of Tokyo-based foreign musicians alongside Japanese, reflective of the parallel community that has grown up around Call And Response over the years and also of the way the albums drew not only from the label’s own artists but also friends and fans. Of the two albums, Party in My Heart is the more downbeat, drawing mostly from quite introspective indie acts for its covers, with Tete+Shon’s take on The Postal Service’s This Place is a Prison making a fairly bald statement on locked down life and Filipina artist Mariah Reodica’s cover of Silver Jews’ Random Rules channeling some of the sorrow many of us still felt over the 2019 death of David Berman. Gold Star, meanwhile, comes across as the first collection’s sunnier, sillier sibling with covers drawing from more mainstream, more uptempo sources, although with a similar mix of straight and deviant approaches to the original material.
(Albums can be downloaded for free, along with a variety of other material, from Call And Response’s Help Our Local Music Spots page, which also accepts donations that will be shared between the three spots we are focusing on.)
Call And Response Records · Gold Star