Tag Archives: Call And Response Records

Top 20 releases of 2016: Intro

As any readers this site has somehow managed to retain may have spotted, updates have dried up over the past couple of years. The main reasons for that have been down to my finishing writing, editing and promoting my book, Quit Your Band! – Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground (released late 2016 from Awai Books) and my decision to spend half a year travelling around Japan by bicycle, documenting the local music scenes in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (partially written up on my Burn Your Hometown blog).

The other thing that’s kept me occupied has been my Call And Response Records label, which has been getting more and more active over the past couple of years. Last year we put out four new albums/EPs:

Looprider’s Ascension was a hardcore- and noise-influenced collection of raw, fast sonic violence.

Nagasaki art-punk trio Mechaniphone’s Uholic was a collection of quirky, pop-inflected tunes that come at you from a variety of rhythmical angles.

Tropical Death’s Thunder Island EP was a Cassette Store Day special, combining a Japanese underground background with ’90s post-hardcore/alt-rock influences.

Finally, Nakigao Twintail’s Ichijiku was an eclectic explosion of pop, surreal humour and teen angst.

With Looprider’s third album, the post-rock/progressive Umi, and instrumental electronic/psychedelic duo Lo-shi’s new Ninjin already out in 2017 and at least four more new releases in the works, the label is picking up the pace still further this year.

Nevertheless, with the end of my Strange Boutique column in The Japan Times this March, I have had more time for writing, and I’ve spent the last couple of months belatedly introspecting over the best and most interesting Japanese music of 2016. Whether anyone apart from me still cares about the Japanese underground music of a year that ended nearly six months ago is up for debate, but I’m doing it anyway.

The usual caveats apply. These releases have been selected from EPs, mini-albums and fill albums. I include compilations, but not singles, which I loosely classify as a disc with two or fewer tracks. There are experimental and psychedelic releases that may only include a single track of immense length, so obviously I make exceptions for those. I exclude anything Call And Response released, since I’m too close to it to be able to assess it critically in the same way I would something I didn’t have a hand in the production of (although obviously all four of our releases if last year would be right up there if I were ranking the music purely on what I love). The order of the ranking is by no means scientific subject to all sorts of competing considerations. Some are simply interesting ideas or good representations of something I think deserves to be represented, others are albums that I found myself engaging with on a creative or intellectual level, others are simply fun collections of songs.

There are lots of albums I enjoyed or appreciated that I didn’t include here but which on another day I might have, and there are still more I didn’t get a chance to listen to but which may well be worthy of inclusion. However, this is the list I came up with, so this is what I stuck to when writing it up. I’ll post the 20 reviews individually in a flurry of updates over the next few days.

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Top 20 releases of 2015: Intro

As is custom with the start of a new year, this blog is going to kick off 2016 with a month-long look back at the past year’s musical highlights. As usual, this task is complicated by a number of factors and naturally limited by my own prejudices and interests as a music fan. For longtime readers, this will perhaps be unnecessary, but I’ll ask you to bear with me as I go over the background against which this rundown will operate.

Firstly, it’s all Japanese music, which I’m defining here as music made either by Japan-based musicians or Japanese musicians based overseas but with some significant connection to the music scene here in Japan.

In theory, there’s no particular rule dictating major or underground music, but in practice that means it’s all indie and underground music, for at least as long as all J-Pop and idol music remains utter garbage. If you think that’s unfair, feel free to complain to your heart’s content in the comments but I’ve tried really hard to like Suiyobi no Campanella and they’re just not that good.

The kinds of releases I’m covering range from EPs to full albums, which generally means three tracks or more and upwards of ten minutes in total – naturally with some wiggle room to take into account things like psychedelic albums where one track can last an hour or hardcore albums where ten songs can go by in eight minutes.

I don’t include any releases from my own Call And Response label, which was doubly hard this year, because the compilation/tribute album Small Lights – A Tribute to Mir which came out on Call And Response’s December 27th ten-year anniversary is a release I’m more proud of than anything I’ve ever worked on and is in my honest (and naturally unbiased) opinion easily the best album released anywhere in the world in 2015 and making a mockery of the actual list.

With that in mind, I’ll beg your indulgence for a moment as I run down the various releases on Call And Response this year in which I had varying degrees of involvement:

Sharkk: Sharkk EP – Buy cassette HERE

sharkk-smallA distinctly poppy collection of alt-rock/emo/punk tunes, recorded by Tokyo-based American musician Sean McGee and a menagerie of collaborators. Self-released via Bandcamp and distributed in physical form via Call And Response as a limited edition cassette.

Hakuchi: Chindon DING DONG! ~ Minokurui March ~ – Buy CD HERE

hakuchi_chindondingdongThis frenetic collision of postpunk, grunge, 1970s Japanese pop and children’s songs, by a band from Saga in Kyushu that I have been keeping tabs on for a while, was an album I proudly shepherded through from early stages to release. Hakuchi are a rare band who embody the carefree attitude of much of what’s popular in the alternative scene at the moment, while retaining the breakneck energy, arty contrarianism and strong musical core that I demand of my favourite bands.

Lo-shi: Baku – Buy LP HERE

lo-shi_bakuCall And Response took a minor role in distributing this limited edition vinyl release of an album the band had self-released in 2014. A mixture of dark, nightmarish psychedelic soundscapes and skittering electronic beats, kept from falling into the abyss of ambient goo by a krautrock-ish sense of momentum that constantly drives it forward and gives it structure and shape.

Looprider: My Electric Fantasy – Buy CD HERE

looprider_myelectricfantasyThis mini-album that sometimes fuses and sometimes juxtaposes elements of metal, shoegaze, psychedelia and pop is just part one in an ambitious cycle of releases from this new band that will cover even more eclectic ground as it works its way over the next couple of years towards the completion of its first phase. The Tokyo indie scene was utterly baffled by Looprider’s failure to conform to any of its usual scene/genre boundaries. People from outside seemed to find it far less confusing.

V/A: Small Lights – A Tribute to Mir – Buy CD HERE

car69As I mentioned before, this compilation stands as the work I’m most proud of in my whole ten years of releasing music, and while — as an 80-minute tribute/concept album dedicated to an utterly unknown Tokyo indie band — its commercial potential even/especially in Japan is next to zero, it still to my mind stands alone as a coherent, singularly powerful and emotionally moving album. I know it’s ludicrous to say this about an album I helped produce myself, and I can’t possibly know whether I would love it quite so much if delivered from another’s hand, but I can at least say that this is as clear and coherent a statement of What I Like as has ever existed.

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Call And Response online store — new stock update

2015 has been a busy year for this blog’s sister label Call And Response Records, with new releases from the label itself as well as a couple of excellent new releases from bands and labels we like in the distribution section.


CALL AND RESPONSE DISTRIBUTION


otori_i-wanna-be-your-noiseOtori: I Wanna Be Your Noise (CD)

This blog’s album of the year for 2014, Otori’s tightly-wired, laser-guided debut was a long time in coming, and turned out to be well worth the wait. These eight controlled explosions take earsplitting no wave ferocity and bottle it, deploying the fury with deadly precision and focus. (Gyuune Cassette, 1620yen)


yougotaradio_carnivalYou Got A Radio: Carnival (CD)

A follow-up to You Got A Radio’s 2010 self-titled debut, Carnival draws on similar postpunk and new wave influences to its predecessor, but synthesises them into a darker, more portentous sound that shares elements of similarity with Joy Division and Magazine. The songwriting revels in this darker palette, with melody and discord playing off each other to dynamic effect. (Drriill Records, 2160yen)


CALL AND RESPONSE LABEL


sharkk-smallSharkk: Sharkk (Cassette)

This five-song EP is the solo project of Sean McGee, who in addition to his own music plays drums with a number of bands in the wider Call And Response circle. Sharkk draws together a variety of alt-rock and punk influences with a clear, pop songwriting sensibility. (Call And Response, 500yen)


hakuchi_chindondingdongHakuchi: Chindon Ding Dong! ~ Minokurui March ~ (CD)

Saga-based spazzcore junk-punk trio Hakuchi’s debut album takes frenetic, lo-fi postpunk and crashes it headlong into a parade of children’s songs and 1970s Japanese pop, with this album the bloody, chaotic result. (Call And Response, 1300yen)


lo-shi_bakuLo-shi: Baku (12-inch vinyl)

Lo-shi are a Tokyo-based French instrumental duo, whose unsettling soundscapes combine electronic beats, samples and effects with ringing, reverb-heavy guitar. This album it themed around the nightmare-eating creature of Japanese legend, in a cathartic journey into a dark dream world. (Call And Response, 2000yen)


looprider_myelectricfantasyLooprider: My Electric Fantasy (CD)

Combining heavy metal, J-pop and shoegaze influences in one album, Looprider’s debut is a bold, brash statement of the band’s refusal to be tied down to specific genres and scenes, but it’s also a carefully crafted pop album that for all its eclecticism is never less than plain and direct in its accessibility. (Call And Response, 1500yen)

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Strange Boutique (December 2014) – the year in music

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s end-of-year review time, and as usual my Japan Times column took on the task of trying to find new ways of describing the same stuff that happens every year. For those of you who’d rather not read the full 1500-word piece, it goes something like this:

  • Music industry still broadly in decline
  • Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
  • Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
  • Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
  • AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there

The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.

With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).

What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.

In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.

Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.

One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.

In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.

Of course indie music is the main purpose of this blog, and 2014 was a particularly fine vintage for music that no one either within Japan or without is ever going to care about. I wrote a bit about this for The Japan Times earlier in December as part of its albums-of-the-year roundup, and I repeated myself using slightly different words as a small part of Néojaponisme’s own year-end roundup. I shan’t go into detail here because I’ll be going into it in painstaking album-by-album depth next month in my personal 2014 top twenty countdown, but particularly for indiepop and fucked-up junk/postpunk/skronk there was a bumper harvest to the point where whittling it down to a mere twenty discs has proven a painful and difficult exercise.

One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.

This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.

In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.

Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.

Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi and Love Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.

There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.

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Call And Response Distribution: New arrivals from Half Sports and You Got A Radio

There are some new arrivals in the Call And Response online store now. As with the first batch of CDs I got in stock, they are all loosely in a postpunk/new wave sort of zone, but each offers something a bit different and again, all of them are bands I personally rate and am happy to recommend.

You can access the shop here.

Call And Response Records

The three new CDs are (click the photos to go to each CD’s page in the Call And Response Store):

You Got A Radio

You Got A Radio

New wave/postpunk band You Got A Radio’s self-titled 2010 debut album. You Got A Radio are mainstays of the Japanese postpunk/new wave scene and through their Tokyo Noise events have done a lot to support other bands in a similar vein. This album is pretty much the definitive recorded document of their sound, and it’s fun, spiky and energetic, striking a balance between art-punk and offbeat pop.

Slice Of Our City

Slice Of Our City

Half Sports’ debut Slice Of Our City was one of this site’s best albums of 2012 and it still with all the benefits of hindsight resonates with the same unbridled energy and outright tuneful joy. Released through You Got A Radio’s Drriill label, it’s also another example of the way one band’s support of their peers can produce creative dividends.

Mild Elevation

Mild Elevation

Mild Elevation is Half Sports’ 2014 follow-up to Slice Of Our City, and it retains the same confidence with a catchy melody and an anthemic chorus, but this time sees the band incorporating slightly more psychedelic pop elements.

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Getting hold of indie CDs from Japan — Call And Response Distribution

In the course of writing this blog, I occasionally get messages asking where people can get hold of the music I review, and while Bandcamp has been a wonderful thing in facilitating distribution of indie music all over the world and giving listeners the opportunity to pay bands and labels the bare minimum they actually deserve for their work, there is still a lot of music where the answer is simply, “Japan. If you’re lucky.”

In the past there have been attempts by indie music entrepreneurs to set up online distribution systems for Japanese music in the form of music download stores, but from conversations I’ve had with they’ve tended to run into problems firstly with the fan community, as new releases instantly get shared over fan forums with sales dropping to zero within just a few days, and secondly with record labels, as especially major labels but also many indies, can be exceptionally fussy and controlling over their product, to the point where it becomes more of a hassle than it’s worth to work with them.

A third problem, at least from my subjective position, is that these stores have tried too hard to give fans what they want. From a business perspective of course this makes obvious sense, but honestly, fans of Japanese music as a collective group have pretty horrible taste. I’m utterly opposed to any music business model that involves following what the audience wants (as a non-coincidental adjunct to that, I’m also deeply suspicious of any music business model that makes money). People have got way to used to the notion that “the customer is always right” and are well on the way to embracing the Japanese notion that “the customer is God”. This is questionable at the best of times because it devalues the workers’ experience and rights, and it’s especially inappropriate in the world of the arts.

Now I love so much music in the Japanese indie and underground scenes, and I want people to hear it, so since I already have an online storefront for selling my own label’s CDs, it was easy enough to expand the store to include a Distribution section where I can make available some of the music I write about on this site. I shan’t be selling downloads — that’s up to bands to decide and set up for themselves — and I shan’t be dealing with any record labels that give me even the faintest hint of hassle. All music I make available will be from local Japanese artists and labels I’ve personally selected and recommend, so make sure to adjust your taste filters accordingly.

You can access the shop here.

Call And Response Records

There are currently four CDs available.

Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Buddy Girl and Mechanic

Buddy Girl and Mechanic

First up is Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s sexy, psychedelic, kraut-blues debut, which I raved about last year and was one of my top releases of 2013. Not much I can add to what I’ve already written about this other than that it’s great and that they’re an utterly singular and compelling band, unique in the Japanese indie music scene.

Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvy

Also available is Topsy TurvyBuddy Girl and Mechanic’s second mini album from this summer (which I wrote about here). A more intricate and claustrophobic record than the band’s eponymous debut, it expands the range of sounds they play with while retaining the interplay between organic and mechanical elements that is their signature sound.

Macmanaman: Drunkendesignatedhitter

Drunkendesignatedhitter

The third CD is Fukuoka-based instrumental post-rock band Macmanaman’s ferocious live album Drunkendesignatedhitter, with the live recording environment really capturing the band’s virtues in their best light. I interviewed them earlier in the year around the release of this album, and as we near the end of the year it’s still holding its own as one of the most impressive underground releases of the year.

Compact Club: Compact Club

Subete wa Template

Lastly, we have new wave art-popsters Compact Club’s Subete wa Template EP (review here). Drawing on influences like the Plastics, Devo  and especially P-Model, but with a skronky, postpunk edge, they’re one of my favourite new bands, this is their debut release, but there’s hopefully going to be great new stuff coming from them.

This store is never going to be anything other than a narrow, tightly curated fragment of everything that’s out there, filtered through my own particular taste, but it will grow gradually as I add more stuff. Some new stock arrived today and I shall be writing it up and updating the store over then next week or so, and I’ll ensure I post any new arrivals here as they come in.

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Jebiotto documentary and U.S. tour

One of the bands who works with my Call And Response label, Jebiotto, have a short film now available to view online in advance of their new album (more on that later). It was made by Matt Schley with assistance from main man Ryotaro Aoki, and acts as a sort of rambling, vaguely coherent introduction to the band (if you know the band, you’ll know that “rambling and vaguely coherent” is the only accurate way to introduce them). It features snippets of live footage from Higashi Koenji 20000V (Ni-man Den-atsu), which remains both mine and the band’s favourite live venue in Japan.

Jebiotto are currently on tour in the U.S. and still have three more dates to go, so if you’re around New York, Newark or Baltimore over the next few days, check them out:

August 5th (Tue) Astoria, NY @ Shillelagh Tavern
August 6th (Wed) Newark, DE @ Blue Door (house show)
August 7th (Thu) Baltimore, MD @ Club K

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