Tag Archives: Call And Response Records

COVID compilation roundup (Summer 2020)

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.

Navaro Compilation
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.

2021survive
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.

883km
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

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June 2020 Bandcamp recommendations

Earlier this month, I wrote a rundown of ten recent Japanese Bandcamp releases over on the US-based Undrcurrents blog, covering punk, experimental, indiepop and a little bit of electronic and hip-hop, with releases by Barbican Estate (also covered on this site), a new Puffyshoes, My Society Pissed, Uhnellys, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto & Riki Hidaka, Phew, Yoshida Shoko and Getageta, plus compilations from Tokyo’s Discipline underground event and from the local music scene in Kumamoto, Kyushu. Check out my comments and links to the music here.

And if you’re still in the mood to explore, my own Call And Response label has been going through its back catalogue and uploading old releases to Bandcamp where the artists themselves haven’t already made them available. The page also has Call And Response’s new release, the Secret Code Y single from Hiroshima noise-punks Jailbird Y, so check that out if you only check out one new release today (all funds go to helping out one of our local live venues, Nakano Moonstep). All non-compilation releases are now available to listen/buy, with links to them all on the label’s top page here.

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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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Call And Response Records — Appendix

As an appendix to the series of posts on the release history of my Call And Response Records label which started here, I’m just going to add a few more comments and thoughts.

First up, you’ll notice that the catalogue numbers often skip a few (and actually it doesn’t show here but in some cases are out of sequence). The reason for this is that some releases are free downloads or private CD/Rs and things that I chose to pass over in favour of the CDs I pressed and released professionally. They also sometimes fall out of sequence because I’m disorganised and sometimes things get delayed and something else slips into the gap. Anyway, this isn’t a big deal, but just in case anyone was wondering why the N’toko album was CAR-77 but the Black Sabbath Paranoid covers compilation was CAR-75, it’s because CAR-76 hasn’t been released yet die to production delays (next month, maybe?)Jebiotto (live at Kichijoji Planet K)

Looking forward, there’s a Jebiotto album (the much-delayed CAR-76) in the works, and a new issue of Quit Your Band! gradually taking shape, with Slow-Marico on the accompanying CD. There are friends of the label also working on new albums that even if they’re not on Call And Response, I’ll certainly be loudly cheering on, with Iguz Souseki’s psychedelic post-Zibanchinka band Futtachi foremost among these. September 27th 2014 will also mark the ten-year anniversary of the first Clear And Refreshing live event, so there’s going to be a big party to celebrate that.

Finally, in a purely hypothetical exercise (the last one was too recent for it to really be worth doing another one right now), I’m going to talk a bit about what a new Call And Response compilation in the Dancing After 1AM/1-2-3-Go! mould might look like if I were to make one now.

Firstly and obviously since it was only a year and a half ago, a lot of bands would be the same. Futtachi, Hysteric Picnic, Hyacca, Mir, Slow-Marico and Jebiotto would be right at the top of my list of people I’d be mailing. However, there are some bands who were on DA1AM who are probably a bit too famous or at least operate in a slightly more professional milieu now — bands who wouldn’t really benefit from being on the album and who I’m not really doing stuff at live events with these days. She Talks Silence, Extruders and The Mornings for example are bands I still very highly regard, but who are kind of above my level now, and while I’m not opposed to getting in popular bands who work musically with what Call And Response does, there is a balance between that and finding out new stuff that I feel should tilt more towards the latter than the former.Umez: Lingering Dream

Bands that have come onto my radar over the past year and a bit and who I’d definitely be trying to get something from for this hypothetical CD include indiepop jangleteers DYGL, noise-pop duo Umez, industrial/EBM duo group A, Fukuoka electronic glitchgaze duo Deltas, jittery Saga punk trio Hakuchi, Krautrock-kayoukyoku three-piece Fancy Numnum, new wave/artpunkers Compact Club, and Tokyo postpunk band illmilliliter. The marvellous Buddy Girl and Mechanic, who I missed out on with DA1AM, would be well up there among my priorities too, while it would please me greatly to get original 1-2-3-go! band Usagi Spiral A back to do something as well.Hakuchi: Suttokodokkoi

As I say, I’m in no hurry to make another compilation, but I’m not short of stuff I’m still excited enough by to do something with. Anyway, back to regular posting after this. Your attention has been greatly appreciated.

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