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Patrick St. Michel – 33 1/3 GAME

Towards the beginning of Patrick St. Michel’s 33 1/3 series entry on Perfume’s Game, there’s a section where he discusses the impact on him personally of hearing their music for the first time while living in a quiet town in rural Mie. He talks about how J-pop was really the only domestic music available, and how discovering this strikingly different act appearing right in the heart of the mainstream gave him a way to connect with people he knew and worked with.

This was interesting partly because it reminded me a throwaway line in my own book about the Japanese music scene, Quit Your Band!, about how music had been partly a way to connect with the alien culture I found myself living in. It wasn’t something I’d thought of much at the time, but a lot of readers picked up on it as a significant insight.

It’s also an interesting piece of context for someone like me, whose experience of life in Japan has always been at the opposite extreme, having been embedded in the Technicolor blur of Tokyo from the very start. As a result, the appearance of Perfume impacted us both in different ways. To St. Michel it gave a foothold in mainstream culture and a way to connect with students and coworkers. For me, it injected a plastic-electric speedball of icy pop cool into an underground music scene that could often be drearily earnest.

That difference in how we both received Perfume may go part of the way towards explaining the pains that St. Michel goes to to emphasise the humanity and emotion at the heart of Perfume’s music on Game, which is an aspect I’ve tended to skim over or dismiss in my own interactions with their music. More than that, his willingness to engage seriously with their music on that level is important in ensuring this book is a rounded discussion of the group.

After these personal reminiscences, the book kicks off in earnest with a brief history and analysis of synth- and electronic-based music in Japan, from Isao Tomita through YMO and new wave groups like P-Model and the Plastics. Crucially, it also draws explicit parallels between Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata (of post-Shibuya-kei duo Capsule) and ’90s mega-producer Tetsuya Komuro, who did similar work in introducing overseas dance music ideas into mainstream Japanese pop, albeit on an even larger scale. St. Michel makes the good point that for all that Perfume were trailed as a “technopop group”, their music was never really technopop in the historical sense. To interject my own thoughts here, what Perfume really inherited was a curious sense of nostalgia for the future that acts like YMO seemed to promise, and perhaps for the future that technology promised more broadly in postwar Japan. It’s partly from this nostalgia for lost futures that the melancholy that St. Michel astutely identifies in Perfume’s music derives.

The book also takes some time to put Perfume themselves in the context of Japan’s idol tradition, noting how pop singers would on occasion intersect with electronic pioneers like Haruomi Hosono of YMO in their careers. I think the Candies are a particularly important group to bring up in relation to Perfume, not only for the visual similarities between the two trios (a lot of people I know remarked at the time that Perfume seemed like “an electro Candies”), but also because of how the founder and chairman of Perfume’s talent agency, Amuse, had actually been the Candies’ manager back in the 1970s when working for their agency, Watanabe Productions. One key parallel not mentioned in the book might also have been the late-’80s/early ’90s duo Wink, whose flat emotional delivery and synthpop-based arrangements contain further early echoes of Perfume’s style and aesthetic.

St. Michel goes beyond the historical idol parallels, though, and lays out in some detail the extent to which Perfume were, especially in their early days, deeply embedded in the machinery of post-millennium idol production. Their origins in a stage school bootcamp, the handshake greeting events, handing out flyers on the street in Akihabara, the live video messages to fans from the basement of a shared house – all these gimmicks the group went through mark their early career as having been managed along typical idol lines.

All of which makes the distinctive form the group ended up taking the more striking. Two key points St. Michel brings up underscore this. The first is how he remarks on Nakata’s use of the word “cool” to describe the musical aesthetic he is reaching for. This is important in differentiating Perfume from other idols, because “cool” as a concept is largely non-existent in idol culture; icy reserve has no place in a world where all emotions must be on display to the maximum level. The other point is the extent to which Nakata’s decision to use an actual polyrhythm in the song Polyrhythm was considered controversial. So-called “underground idol” acts nowadays occasionally play around with ideas from indie or experimental music, but for a group in 2008 aiming for a big hit, the idea of including something so radical in a song gave record industry execs palpitations.

In discussing Perfume’s influence, St. Michel makes further good points, noting the way the copycat acts they inspired all failed to replicate their success and noting the way Nakata’s career as a producer was perhaps the most striking immediate domestic result of Perfume’s rise to fame, with the group’s lingering influence on the Vocaloid scene perhaps its most enduring. The subsequent appearance of AKB48 (and we could perhaps add K-pop, with the electro influences that coloured much of it) carved a path for pop music in Japan to follow in a way that ensured Perfume remained a one-off. What the book doesn’t discuss is the way Nakata’s success with Perfume may have helped open the door for more indie and indie-adjacent songwriters and producers wo be given more or less free rein with idol groups, with the success of Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada with groups like Momoiro Clover (Z) and Dempagumi inc. a notable example.

St. Michel’s discussion of Perfume’s (and in particular Nakata’s) overseas influence feels a bit overstated, but it’s nevertheless interesting. One part that stands out in particular is his discussion of Perfume’s much-touted performance at South By Southwest in 2015 from the perspective of someone in the hall at the time. The contrast the way parts of the performance were clearly designed for consumption on video outside of the venue (and presumably also in part for re-consumption back home in Japan) set against the more intimate experience of the audience of mostly hardcore fans inside the room felt like something worthy of more discussion.

In fact, if this slim volume (it’s a single comfortable afternoon’s read) is lacking, it’s that it raises interesting ideas that St. Michel doesn’t always pursue. There are many legitimate reasons why he may not have wanted to bore readers by spiralling into esoteric discussions of semiotics, but it nevertheless feels like he holds back at points. While the book analyses the music and lyrical themes of the album in an often illuminating way, the approach is never really critical. St. Michel acknowledges the influence, that Nakata typically elides, of Daft Punk (themselves pretty free with their influences) on Perfume’s sound, but not the extent to which some of their music directly references them (pre-Game songs like Linear Motor Girl and Electro World have direct parallels with Digital Love, while Nakata cribs liberally from One More Time all over the place). St. Michel alludes to but doesn’t deeply interrogate the relationship between Perfume’s music and commercials – in particular the way songs are written specifically for the commercials rather than simply being licensed for them post-fact. Meanwhile, his praise of the emotional complexity of Perfume’s songs perhaps overstates their sophistication, or else it understates the sophistication of a lot of other contemporary J-pop and idol songwriting.

The flipside of these criticisms, however, is that St. Michel writes about Perfume with a lot of affection, and it’s often infectious. Opening with a personal anecdote about his introduction to the group and the impact they had on him contextualises this affection and gives him a license to discuss the band in his own way, which he does all the while taking in a lot of broader context about the group’s origins and the history and environment of the Japanese music scene as a whole.

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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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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.10 – Capsule – Caps Lock

Caps Lock

CD/Download, Warner Music Japan, 2013

I’ve already written a lot about this album, so regular readers will know that I love it and think it’s one of the most exciting things Yasutaka Nakata has done in a long time. To drop a genuinely experimental record like this in the middle of a year when his work with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume was scaling ever greater commercial and creative heights was a surprise and one that seems to have left a lot of fans scratching their heads or just outright disgusted. It was certainly a poke in the eye to those Capsule fans who seem to wish the group was just an idol project built around Toshiko Koshijima; it avoids obvious dance beats, instead exploring the possibilities of sampling and layered loops, cutting and splicing Toshiko’s vocals like a Vocaloid voice synth.

The key track to unlocking what Nakata is doing with Caps Lock is the six-minute 12345678, a track that sets itself up with a defiantly irritating klaxon loop and then challenges you to find musicality in the shifting layers of sounds underneath. Get that track and the whole rest of the album falls into place. Control and Shift are the closest things to traditional Capsule pop songs, while closing Return sounds like a cross between a Jo Hisaishi Ghibli soundtrack and a Ryuichi Sakamoto instrumental work, suggesting that there might be a high profile Hollywood film soundtrack in Nakata somewhere should the opportunity arise.

Caps Lock is also the most Shibuya-kei thing Nakata has done in years, with Cornelius an obvious point of comparison. It’s short at only about 35 minutes, but after the excesses of Perfume’s (also excellent) Level3, that economy makes a nice contrast, ensuring Caps Lock is a tight, fully-formed package in its own right. Clever, imaginative, fun and still at its heart pop, Caps Lock doesn’t so much take you on a journey as lay out a musical landscape before you and leave you to explore it by yourself, and the result is the best album released by a major label in 2013.

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Interview: Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule)

I did another interview with Yasutaka Nakata recently and you can read the feature I wrote in The Japan Times. I was pleased with the way this one went, and it was made easier by just how musically rich and interesting Capsule’s new album, Caps Lock, is.

It’s the weirdest thing Capsule have done since before Flash Back and it’s also the most Shibuya-kei, largely because it captures the experimental, eclectic spirit of Shibuya-kei’s best stuff rather than just pastiching that sort of bland, loungey boutique-pop sound that I still hold mostly responsible for killing it as a living scene. The track Control seems to be intended as the lead track but Warner have only put up a shortened “crippleware” version of the video, so I’m not going to link to it on here (this sort of behaviour must not be encouraged). It’s an obvious choice for the “single” though, being (along with Shift) one of the closest things to a pop song on the album, and also being representative of the creative way Nakata messes with Toshiko’s vocals.

It’s interesting that just as he takes Capsule’s club influences and pushes them over into Perfume, he’s also mashing up Toshiko’s vocals to an unprecidented extent just as he’s letting Perfume sing in their natural voices. It always makes sense to look at any of Nakata’s projects in the context of what he’s doing in his other projects.

Personally, it’s the track 12345678 that I think is the creative core of the album, with its layers of samples and synth-loops casually shifting up and down in the mix. It pushes each just to the point of being irritating before showing you that no, actually this is very musical, see? If Perfume’s Level3 is Nakata showing us what we already know he can do very well, Caps Lock is him showing us how great he can be when he’s exploring new ground. If he can manage to find a way of integrating some of these ideas into Perfume without compromising their essential poppiness, it could be truly wonderful.

I have another, shorter, piece on Capsule appearing (already appeared?) in Time Out Tokyo, who are apparently putting out a paper edition for the first time. It’ll go over the same basic ground as the JT piece, but with more Time Out editorial pizzazz (something I’m thoroughly opposed to: I’m only happy when my work’s tediously dry and intellectual), but in the meantime, here’s an edited transcript of the interview I did. Special thanks as usual to Ryotaro Aoki, who took on the always difficult task of translating Nakata and myself:

CAR: So how did you go about making the new album?

NAKATA: The way I made the new album was very much how when I started making music.

CAR: What do you mean?

NAKATA: Recently with Capsule and my other work, I’ve been making music for soundtracks, commercials and all these things that are pre-arranged. With this new album, none of these songs are tied up with commercials or movies, so it’s making music for music’s sake, very much like when I started out.

With my more recent work over the last couple of albums, I was making the songs specifically for a DJ setting or a club setting, whereas with this album, I didn’t really think about the situation or how the songs would be played, so in that sense too, it’s similar to the way we started out.

CAR: You’ve moved to a new label and management, changed the design motif and changed the sound, so is there a sense in which this new album is a reboot of the band?

NAKATA: I’ve had some changes in my life and now seemed like a good time to change everything. I’d wanted to change the logo to all caps for a long time, and now was an opportunity to do that. I don’t feel like I’ve changed the fundamentals of what Capsule do. I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I just made music freely and this is what came out.

CAR: Your last few albums were very club-orientated but recently that club sound is more apparent in your work with Perfume and to a lesser extent Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Caps Lock feels a bit like a reaction to or a shadow of that shift in your other projects.

NAKATA: It seems that way when you think of the other projects as the centrepiece, but when you think of Capsule as the centrepiece, what I’m doing is just doing the things that I can only do with each project and taking them to their limit. With Capsule, we don’t have to play shows or anything, so I can decide what I want to do pretty much on my own.

CAR: You’ve pushed some things a lot further on this album, especially the degree to which you’ve processed and manipulated Toshiko’s vocals.

NAKATA: The processed vocals stems from the fact that we don’t have to play live. If we were performing on stage, I’d have to think about how we’d be able to do them live, but we don’t have that responsibility now. With Capsule, we don’t have any rules, so it frees me up to do what I want to do.

CAR: How does your working relationship with Toshiko compare to the other singers you work with?

NAKATA: It feels like we’re playing one instrument together in the studio. She’s not singing things that are pre-determined by me. It’s more like we’re playing an instrument that we wouldn’t be able to play unless I had her with me. With Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, it’s more like a collaboration where we talk about it and work together. With Capsule, one way of looking at it might be if Toshiko was a pen and I’m using her to draw something, but because it’s that pen, it influences what sort of thing I draw.

CAR: The way the album uses the motif of a computer keyboard gives it almost the feeling of a concept album. Where did that idea come from?

NAKATA: The keyboard motif came out of the change in the album title and I used the keys as symbols. I had the logo and the title first, and then after making the music I came up with the titles, but at the same time, I wanted there to be a kind of story to it, so the I chose the words from the titles so they’d read together as a sort of story.

CAR: You’ve also done a lot more with samples this time round.

NAKATA: A lot of music these days is being made on machines that are built to make music, which is very easy, so I thought it would be interesting to make music from sounds that weren’t designed to make music. I had a library of samples that I used, but some of the samples I could make myself in the studio I made myself.

CAR: Do you have any thoughts on new directions you’d like to go in the future?

NAKATA: I’d be interested in doing film scores for different kinds of films. I like science fiction, so it would be interesting to do soundtracks for films about unknown worlds. It wouldn’t have to be sci-fi, it could be fantasy or something like that.

CAR: How about internationally?

NAKATA: Like I said earlier, I’d be interested in doing more soundtrack work. Maybe someone reading this will think, “Oh right, let’s do something together!” I don’t really see myself as performing on stage and travelling the world, but movies transcend nationalities and countries, so that might be a good way to get my music out there on a global scale.

CAR: With Caps Lock it feels like the album is a bit more “composerly” as it were, with more emphasis on the layers of sound rather than the impact of the sound hitting you in the face.

NAKATA: This time with the album, when you listen to it all the way through, there are moments and sounds that appear that you can only experience if you sit down with the album, take your time and listen to the album as a whole in one sitting.

CAR: Are there any particular moments that you’re really pleased with how they came out?

NAKATA: It’s hard to pick out particular moments. I took time over each individual sound this time round. There isn’t a person there in the sense of someone on stage performing it, but it sounds like there’s a person there. It’s like arranging dominoes, and all you do is flick a switch to make the first one topple over, and then something cool happens. The music itself is automated, but there’s a person behind it fundamentally. A lot of people think of computer music as being automated, but you need a person there, hammering out the details. I wanted to show the gears in the music and how it works together.

CAR: It feels like very much the opposite of the trend in “EDM” which seems so popular in the USA now.

NAKATA: The recent trend in how people consume music is that they don’t really spend much time listening to a whole song, but because of that, I wanted to make an album that’s very layered, that you have to listen to carefully.

CAR: Like people with their iPods constantly set on shuffle?

NAKATA: Not just like shuffle, but on YouTube, you can just go to a particular moment that you think is cool in a song or an album, and they have these digest versions where you have three-to-five seconds of songs lined up together, and the trend these days is that you have to make something where you can get people’s attention within that three or five, or even one second. The album I wanted to make this time, I wanted to do something more layered, with more density in the sound, and you can only really experience that density if you listen to it in full, because there are moments before that where there’s no sound. You can only pick up those feelings and those details by listening start to finish.

CAR: So you’d like people to listen to Capsule’s new album in a different way?

NAKATA: Lately the feeling of plunging into the unknown, of not knowing what’s going to happen next in music has become weakened these last couple of years. Personally, I want to take the idea of listening to music slowly, all the way through, and I’d like more people to be able to listen like that. Take the example of SoundCloud, where you can see the waveform visually, so you can see when the song gets really loud or dynamic. When you hear that part, you already knew it was coming, and you can play only the most exciting parts.

CAR: Soundcloud actually parodied that form of listening with their April Fool’s gag, where they inserted these markers into the waveforms of songs saying “Here’s the drop!” It got everyone really angry until they realised the joke.

NAKATA: Ah, but of course I do that as well. With Perfume, it’s all about making songs when people hear for the first time, they know when it’s going to be the big chorus or the dynamic. It’ll be as if they already know the song. With Capsule’s new album, if you skip to a certain point in a song, you won’t know what’s going on, but with my other projects, you can skip anywhere and it’ll be a cool moment. I can do that with them, so with Capsule I wanted to do something different.

Even with Capsule, I’ve made music like that, but since I’m doing that with my other projects, it seems like a good time to do something new with Capsule. If Capsule was the only project I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have made an album like this.

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Perfume: Level3

This isn’t going to be a review in the traditional sense because with two long features on Capsule recently written and currently going through the proofing process at The Japan Times and Time Out Tokyo, I’m feeling quite Nakata’d out. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of pieces other people have written about Perfume and hopefully add remarks of my own where relevant.

First up, there’s m’colleague Daniel Robson’s interview in this week’s Japan Times. The definition of the term “J-pop” is vague enough that he can get away with saying Level3 isn’t a J-pop album, although I think you have to take a pretty strict, 90s purist attitude to really hold that view. What Daniel means, I think, is that Level3 isn’t a normal J-pop album, which it isn’t. More so than any Perfume album before, it’s a dance record, bringing in lots of the ideas that Capsule took to self-parodic extremes on World of Fantasy and then started to refine into something more acceptably pop on Stereo Worxxx. With Capsule now pushing in a radically different tack (seriously, wait for their new album, it’s… well, it’s interesting), these electro-house elements seen quite at home with Perfume now.

The songwriting isn’t radically different from what we’re used to, but unlike 2011’s solid but still a little disappointing JPN, Level3 is full of little moments that jump out at you and make you go, “How the fuck did Nakata get away with that?” The dirty synths of opening track Enter the Sphere are just the first in a long line of these moments, and one of a number of places where the album reminds you of when you first heard Game. Daniel goes overboard a bit, I think, when he describes the new album mixes of Spring of Life and Magic of Love as “practically new songs altogether”, but the new mixes do work a lot better here than they did on JPN, with Spending All My Time perhaps a highlight, albeit hacked down extensively from the epic live version.Perfume: Spending All My Time (live mix)

Kashiyuka’s comment that she didn’t know about the new versions of the songs until she heard them says a lot about the girls’ role in relation to the production process, but then we already knew about that, right? Nakata pays attention to the people who will be performing the music he makes, but the end result is basically an interpretation by him of whatever the pre-stated requirements of the ad agencies and management companies are. All of which, of course, makes his achievement on Level3 that much more striking.

I’d also like to point you towards comrade Ryotaro Aoki’s detailed album review, which provides a more cool headed assessment of the album’s strengths and flaws, although basically I think he, Daniel and I are all more or less in agreement that it’s a fine record.Perfume: 1mm

Ryotaro singles out Mirai no Museum as a weak point, an unwelcome intrusion in a run of tracks that rips a chasm open between the rather fine single 1mm (which Ryotaro wrote about on this blog earlier in the week) and the delightfully over-the-top electro-house meltdown Party Maker. Like Ryotaro, I don’t have such a problem with Mirai no Museum, partly because everyone already hates it and I’m a contrary son of a bitch, but it’s a very so-what? sort of song, and there is absolutely nowhere on this album where it would fit in comfortably.

Personally, I think another weak moment is the horrendously misguided drum’n’bass track Point. I may have grown up in Bristol in the 90s, but I don’t think I’m a purist about that sort of thing (I was willing to allow My Bloody Valentine their weird, rockist take on the genre earlier this year), but Point just sounds wrong, wrong, wrong. Seriously, experiment, mix forms, genre is fluid, but some things are just in crappy taste. With the album reaching 65 minutes in length, these tracks would be ideal places to start trimming off the extra fat.

And it is too long. One of the commenters under Daniel’s Japan Times piece points out that it doesn’t feel like 65 minutes, and they’re right: it feels like 55 minutes, which is still about ten minutes too long. The forthcoming Capsule album, Caps Lock, is only 35 minutes and the pacing is perfectly pitched, but then Capsule operate under a very different set of restrictions (basically none on the new album) and Nakata was rather freer there to make an album to be listened to in just the way he wanted it to be and that was the exact length it needed to be.

So yes, Level3 is better than JPN, doing (with one or two rare exceptions) a much better job of integrating the singles into the overall context of the album. It also reaches closest to the shock and awe many of us felt upon first hearing Game, although in the end, I think it’s more or less on the same level as Triangle in the group’s canon. It’s still a J-pop album with all the commercial baggage that entails, but it’s also among the very best J-pop albums of the year.

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Fuji Rock: A rare chance to see Japanese and overseas artists rubbing shoulders

The second of my Fuji Rock articles is up on Nippon.com. With this one I focused primarily on the main festival, looking at the way Japanese and overseas music interacts. As I say in the article, it’s very rare to find Japanese music pitched up together with foreign stuff, so festivals like Fuji Rock (and the dreadful Summer Sonic) give a rare opportunity to see how they stack up against each other and how similar audiences react to each.

One point that I felt from the festival is that it would be very hard to imagine the bigger Japanese acts successfully making the return trip to a foreign festival. For all their popularity, Brahman are a thoroughly mediocre band by most Western standards. It’s clear that Japanese people listen to music in a slightly different way to Brits like myself, with the different musical traditions training our ears to expect different sounds, and as a foreigner, you tend to focus on the parts that sound familiar and tune out the bits that fall outside your experience. I’ve been here for twelve years now and spent more of my life as a music nerd in Japan than I did back in the UK, so I don’t think I do that so much anymore. However, that said, I think I sort of hang somewhere in the middle rather than really hear music as a Japanese person would. In any case, those caveats aside, I still think Brahman are rubbish. Japanese fans seem to treat them as a sort of lovable nostalgia trip that they kind of know suck and definitely know aren’t cool, but can’t help enjoying anyway.

The Japanese stuff that seemed like it would work best overseas was the stuff that came out of leftfield and didn’t really address any musical tradition in a direct way. Shugo Tokumaru has already gained some level of international attention, and Kenta Maeno was enjoyably eclectic. Uhnellys were just fucking intense, and there were a handful of bands on the Rookie A Go-Go stage (Homecomings for sure, and oddballs like that bloody prawns band and Oni no Migiude) that seemed like they’d be warmly received wherever they went. Chara I’m less sure about, but she was definitely good, displaying a power and charisma live that is only hinted at by her recorded work.

Looking a bit wider, one wonders where the more mainstream or popular Japanese acts who could bridge the gap with overseas bands are. Mostly playing at Rock in Japan I suspect, and it would be easy to imagine Sakanaction working in an international context. Capsule I have problems with. They’re really good, and Yasutaka Nakata is the closest thing mainstream Japanese music has to a genius, but Capsule’s music drifts too often into sounds that would be dismissed as goofy by electronic music fans in Europe (Americans made a star out of Skrillex so all bets are off as far as they’re concerned). Just to be clear, I’m not saying he should be trying to make cool European-style electro, just that I suspect he’d have his work cut out convincing music fans to take his work with Capsule seriously — his Perfume/Kyary stuff would have no such problems since as idol music, it forces listeners to check in their ideas of cool with their coats.

As for me, I was blown away by Mari Natsuki, and I don’t care that she’s in her sixties, I have a bit of a crush on her. It was music that needed to be played to a Japanese audience, and really wouldn’t work overseas, but it was all the more powerful for how specific its focus was. She knew her crowd and worked them with the confidence of a diva.

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Aprils: New Electric / High Flying Girl

The Aprils were part of the generation of bands that sprang up in the early 2000s heavily influenced by Shibuya-kei (their early stuff is pretty much a direct copy from Flipper’s Guitar) and which added the cheap, plastic synthetic sheen of the new wave revival that had sprung up a few years before around bands like Motocompo and Polysics. Artists from that scene have gone in various directions, with YMCK doubling down on their 8-bit jazz-pop schtick, Hazel Nuts Chocolate going from bright, sugar-coated nursery rhymes through frenetic breakbeat technopop hybrid to woozy, post-chillwave bedroom electronic pop. The closely related capsule, now officially “CAPSULE” since their switch of labels (and who I shall be calling Capsule in all subsequent uses) went on to become a huge influence on the mainstream through producer Yasutaka Nakata.

The Aprils took time off between 2005 and 2010, re-emerging with a brighter, more electropop sound that channeled some of the incessantly cheerful energy of idol music and worked in elements of pop culture nostalgia, particularly from the 80s. There are obviously elements of what Capsule did in reviving electropop with Perfume in that intervening 2005-2010 period, and you can hear various formerly Shibuya-kei-influenced groups settling on a similar sort of vocodered/autotuned pop around this time, with Candles and Sweet Vacation but two examples, and singers like Aira Mitsuki approaching the same sound from the idol direction.Aprils: New Electric

New Electric, off the January 2012 album Magical Girls, is atill a pretty accurate statement of where the band and a lot of their contemporaries remain musically. In a way, it’s sad to see music born from such an eclectic and musically adventurous ethos as Shibuya-kei (even if it was at times stultifyingly snobby) congeal around a sound as wishy washy and hollow as this. The Aprils are good at it and New Electric is a very accomplished example of the sound, but Motocompo have already been there and Yasutaka Nakata has already taken it way further than any of this generation of bands are even trying. it’s electric but it’s not really new.

The more recent High Flying Girl mixes things up a bit more, with the shouty chorus barging its way insistently to the fore and a more interesting combination of sounds competing for the listener’s attention in the background. It owes back more to the 80s than to anything really new, but more than that, it suggests that more than just genre merchants, the Aprils might have genuine mainstream pop songwriting appeal.Aprils: High Flying Girl

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