Tag Archives: Jesse Ruins

Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.17 – Jesse Ruins – Heartless

Heartless

CD, M/A/G/N/I/P/H, 2014

One of the most heartening things I noticed when compiling this rundown of the best of 2014 was how several of them were actually identifiably about something. This may seem like an obvious base line for any sort of art, but given how often indie musicians will deflect any questions about what they do with banalities along the lines of, “We just make music that gives us a good feeling and we hope others like it too,” and how often that flight from any sort of concrete underpinning framework leads to music that is itself wispy, insubstantial, unwilling to engage even with itself, it’s often quite noticeable when an artist has the backbone to give their work some kind of, well, backbone.

Jesse Ruins’ first full-length release A Film was shot through with, often cryptic, cinematic references, but the follow-up Heartless seems to be themed around the alienating effects of a digitally connected world. For a band like Jesse Ruins whose whole existence is predicated on the Internet – the group began as a solo project in Nobuyuki Sakuma’s bedroom and only formed itself into a recognisable live band after they blew up online – there may also be some level of self-reflection or irony involved as well. Whatever Sakuma may have been thinking himself, it’s certainly true that Jesse Ruins are part of a generation of musicians who have come of age creatively at a time when not just personal communication but specifically the transmission and dissemination of music is carried out primarily online. Titles like Scar Caused by Your Phone, Forgot Your Account and She Is in Photo SNS allude strongly to this, drawing your focus in on the dissonance, alienation and loneliness that pervades the music in a more abstract way.L for App

Developing on from some of the more industrial elements of the A Film, as well as Sakuma’s parallel Cold Name side project, Heartless sets out to disconcert rather than reassure, which serves to heighten to the impact of the more melodic moments when they do emerge while providing more space to experiment with beats. While coming from a rather different background, Heartless makes an interesting point of comparison with another electronic duo, Capsule, whose 2013 Caps Lock threatened to take electro in an interesting, more experimental direction. Judging from the preview clips the group have released, Capsule are set to rebound right back into EDM territory, but with Heartless, Jesse Ruins are continuing to point the way towards a more interesting, thoughtful direction for off-mainstream electronic pop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.12 – Jesse Ruins – A Film

Since the breakout success of the sweeping, hallucinatory Dream Analysis, Jesse Ruins have been one of the hottest bands in the Japanese indie scene, and one of the few to make any real impact overseas. With Dream Analysis now a distant memory, the group, centred around main songwriter and producer Nobuyuki Sakuma, has come up with a full length album that shows a growing maturity, confidence and musical cohesion

Laura is Fading kicks the album off in a familiar way, with the driving rhythm, dreamlike vocals and waves of synths a sound that still anchors the group’s musical identity. But A Film is more than a honing of what we already know Jesse Ruins can do: it’s a development of that sound into an album context, drawing on Sakuma’s cinematic obsessions to work it into a wider, abstract musical narrative with ebbs, flows, a climax and a resolution.

One way Sakuma seems to have diversified the sound is by drawing on material from his darker, more industrial Cold Name side project. Sharon is Frozen is built around a brutal, monotonous EBM synth pulse like DAF at their most unforgiving, with Nah’s vocals emotionlessly intoning the indistinct lyrics. Echoes of an earlier generation of German electronic rock can be heard in the Kraftwerkian chimes that run through Fausta, and in more subtle ways, these more mechanical, industrial elements infuse more typically Jesse Ruins-style songs like Leonard’s Polaroid & Memo (Hera Type2).

And like a good film soundtrack, those familiar elements keep returning, in part or in whole, throughout the album: to soaring effect on the centrepiece track Sleepless in Tokyo, climactic effect on The Red Part of the Thin Line, disconcerting effect on Before Dawn, where the chiming synth melody os almost drowned out by the ruthless bass wobble. A Film closes with Valentine at 2am, either a sweet lullaby or the soundtrack to waking gently from a night of turbulent dreams, but in any case a perfect coda to a fine album from a band who keep growing in stature.

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Jesse Ruins: Laura is Fading

Laura is Fading has all the elements you’d expect to find in a Jesse Ruins song, including the insistent beat, the indistinct, repetitive vocals and the shrill, whistling synth that calls round like an old friend as the song moves towards closure. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — in fact it’s probably why it’s the single — and it’s certainly not to say that there’s nothing interesting about the song and production. The heavily compressed drums that come in just after the one minute mark give it a taut, claustrophobic energy that’s curiously at odds with the sweeping, expansive synth backdrop, and all in all it bodes well for the forthcoming album.

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Strange Boutique (February 2013)

My latest column is up on The Japan Times’ web site now. It deals with the influence of shoegaze in general, and My Bloody Valentine in particular, on the Japanese indie music scene. Given that MBV have their first new album out in forever and have recently been on tour here, it’s perhaps understandable that people have been going mental for them lately. My Facebook feed for a week was full almost entirely of different photos of the same “Tonite: My Bloody Valentine” display board outside Studio Coast that all my friends were posting with tedious regularity, and there were several club events, a shoegaze festival and a tribute album all out at the same time.Supercar: Karma

There were a few little remarks I dropped in there knowing that people would get annoyed by them. It’s my little gift to idol fans that after aggravating them so much the other week, I thought I’d do the same to indie fans. Some people have already told me off for calling Chapterhouse, Ride, Lush and Slowdive “copycats”, but I hope most people will accept that as legitimate editorial hyperbole (I’m a huge fan of Lush and I’m sure Chapterhouse will one day merit an article all of their own where someone can do them proper justice, but that article isn’t this one and that writer won’t be me). I wondered if anyone would upbraid me for mentioning Stereolab and Flying Saucer Attack as well, since they’re not strictly shoegaze (if you cleave to a definition of shoegaze that means basically “exactly copying MBV”). Stereolab were definitely part of The Scene That Celebrates Itself though, and the guitar on the 18-minute album version of Jenny Ondioline is as shoegaze as anything ever made, while FSA’s whole first album is non-more-shoegaze. But yes, I stand by my assertion that FSA were better than MBV. If you disagree with me, your ears are wrong.

I mentioned Narasaki’s work with Momoiro Clover Z too, and to be honest there’s nothing really shoegaze about any of that. All it really means is that he’s a guy with a shoegaze background working with idols. In Lost Child, he uses synths and vocals in a vaguely shoegazing way, but where he employs guitars, it’s always metal. You need to listen to Coaltar of the Deepers to see where the two cross over really.

Shoegaze in Japan is interesting though. In the indie scene, it tends to be more of the lo-fi, 80s proto-shoegaze variety, and I think The Jesus and Mary Chain and well as MBV’s early, jangly stuff are probably bigger influences. You can hear that really strongly in stuff like Slow-Marico and Teen RunningsThere are also bands who probably take their influence more from the more vaguely defined neo-shoegaze coming out of the USA and to a lesser extent the UK in the past few years, which I feel is more where Jesse Ruins are.

In the alt-rock scene, which is where the really hardcore effects pedal geeks reside, the likes of Dinosaur Jr. are probably just as influential, and then there’s also the secondary influence of all the Japanese bands around the late 90s/early 2000s who were the first to really articulate the influence of shoegaze in the first place. Supercar were by far the most significant. Nagoya’s Pop-Office acknowledge the influence of Supercar as an important one for them. When I was in Fukuoka at the end of January, my boys Hyacca covered the track Lucky off the album Three Out Change and everyone over the age of thirty went mental. Hyacca themselves have some pretty heavily shoegazey tracks (guitarist Goshima is largely responsible) like Olympic, Skyline, Angel Fish, and Sashitai, although usually mixed in with something else, and that tends to be the way with most alternative bands. They love MBV pretty much uniformly, but few of them seem that tied down or restricted by the influence.Hyacca: Sashitai

The other thing that they tend not to have so much of is the sheer noise. Noise music in Japan tends to come from electronic, no wave or psychedelic traditions. The idea of an indie noise band is pretty unique here, so any band with MBV’s tunes would probably not really bring the noise, and any band with the noise would probably be a bit more prog rock and soundscapey with the songs. Cruyff in the Bedroom, the guitarist of whom I spoke to briefly for the article, are one of the best (that I’ve heard, at least) of the current crop of bands who can legitimately be called full-on shoegaze, although there are a lot of pretty good ones. My favourite are probably the Stereolab-esque, synth-laden Hour Musik, but some other key names are Lemon’s Chair, who organised the Yellow Loveless tribute album, Luminous Orange, who were perhaps the first Japanese shoegazers back in the 90s, Plastic Girl in Closet are another important one, and the list goes on.

 

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: Afterword

As I said in the intro, this list was framed by my own fluctuating tastes and just what I happened to   have listened to this year. Jesse Ruins are a superb band who released their Dream Analysis EP via Captured tracks last February.I didn’t get a chance to hear it during the course of the year so it couldn’t make the list, but it’s probably a good record.

None-more-Kansai garage-noise extroverts Gezan also released an album that I didn’t get the chance to hear in 2012, but it was apparently good enough for Time Out Tokyo to rate it as one of the year’s best. Goth-Trad is another artist I didn’t get a proper chance to listen to, but many picked up. It features in the Time Out Tokyo list as well as Make Believe Melodies’ 2012 album roundup (along with other buzzed-about artists I still haven’t heard, like Taquwami)

And then there are albums that missed out on my Top 20 but which might have made it on another day. Sekaitekina Band’s debut album was good but I went for Underrated instead because I felt the musical development that had gone on between the two records instantly outdated the earlier release. Also there was a new album by capsule, Stereo Worxx, which had some very good stuff on it, but which by the end of the year I’d found I wasn’t really listening to.

I’m not going to do a “Top Tracks of 2012” series since most of my favourite tracks, especially in the indie and alternative spheres, are contained within the albums I’ve just written about, but there are a few excellent mainstream-ish pop tunes I’d like to flag up (all by girl groups, natch). As well as the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and the aforementioned capsule, Perfume’s Spending All My Time was really good.

Idol group Dempa Gumi inc.’s awesome, hyperactive cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage is also worth revisiting, especially after having seen them perform it live last weekend.

Also, Korean girl group 2NE1’s I Love You was a great example of pop at the more sophisticated extreme.

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Strange Boutique (March 2012)

I’ve been away from this blog for a bit over a month now because I was in Europe for three weeks only to come back and find my computer had died in my absence. As a result, there’s a bit of a backlog, starting with my Japan Times column from two months ago.

I started out with the idea of writing about how the kind of music that gets popular via the Web might be being influenced by the listening environment of people sitting at laptops and listening through tinny speakers as compared to the more traditional live environment with the band hitting you in the face with their music from the stage.

I talked to no wave noiseniks Otori as an example of the latter and current indie darlings Jesse Ruins as an example of the former, and it ended up being more about how live specialists can learn to come to terms with the potential of the Web and how Jesse Ruins and their like can move on to the next stage after their initial success.

For reference, here’s Otori:

And here’s Jesse Ruins:

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Strange Boutique (December 2012)

Here’s my Japan Times end-of-year roundup column. I’ve not much to add really other than that AKB48 are really the worst thing ever. I do think it’s worth mentioning (and this is my view, not that of the japan Times editorial section) that I really don’t think SMAP’s charity and fundraising work gives them license to use the Tohoku tragedy as a marketing hook off which to hang their new Greatest Hits album that they rushed out in time for their Beijing trip. Giving 5% off the sale price to charity is a fine gesture, but calling the album SMAP Aid, with that cutesy sticking plaster logo, is just cashing in on tragedy and they should be called out on it.

At the bottom of the article, there’s also a little box where I give my top five girl-group bubblegum pop tunes of the year. I’ve already posted one or two of the clips, so sorry for any repetition. Anyway, if you want to check them out, here they are:

1. Perfume: Laser BeamI’ve written about this extensively before, so I’ll just add here that I agree with Patrick from Make Believe Melodies that the single mix is better than the over-fussy album mix.

2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PonponponAgain, not much to say about this other than that it’s magnificently stupid, even without the video.

3. Girls’ Generation: Mr. TaxiThis is actually good for a lot of the same reasons as Ponponpon (i.e. the chorus is simple, catchy and features just them doing a silly dance and repeating the same couple of nonsense sounds over and over again), but it’s also  important for bringing a bit of modern electro polish, sex and glamour into the Japanese pop scene.

4. 2NE1: I Am the BestTotally stupid, but really quite musically radical when you pull it apart. 2NE1 are by far the most fun group out of the 2011 K-pop pack.

5. Momoiro Clover: Mirai BowlAnother let’s-chuck-everything-in-and-see-what-happens song. On its own, I don’t think I’d like any individual part of this song, but the way all these completely incompatible musical segments are chucked together makes it so much more than the sum of its constituents. Add in the cheesy theatrical drama section that goes with it and you have a minor idol pop-opera masterpiece. Also the last thing they did with the beautiful Akari Hayami (a.k.a. “Blue”) still in the group (chokes back sobs).

If I were to add some more, I’d say:

6. Seifuku Kojo Iinkai: Da! Da! Datsu genpatsu no Uta — Nothing special about the tune, but idol pop with an angry anti-nuclear message in 2011? Hell yeah.

7. Secret: Shy Boy — Infectiously happy pop tune that isn’t quite sure whether it’s trying to be a 50s doo-wop tune or a 60s bubblegum-Motown pastiche, and then remembers it’s a K-pop song and shoves in an absurdly incongruous rap segment. Wonder Girls pulled the same trick on Be My Baby, but they over-egged the production a bit so I’ll go for this bouncy number instead.

8. Nozomi Sasaki: Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu-po — Ridiculously annoying, stupidly catchy, gleefully, calculatedly nonsensical, Sasaki’s terrible singing voice gives it an air of almost punky couldn’t-give-a-fuckery, and those wonderfully cheap 80s synths just get me every time. Awful song. I love it.

9. Afterschool: Let’s Step Up — Not really a proper song so much as an album intro, but tapdancing electropop? The little Riverdance thing they do in the middle? Someone has clearly decided somewhere that the rules of pop don’t apply to them, and if there’s one thing that 2011 proved, it’s that whatever we thought the rules were, they’re not.

10. Momoiro Clover Z: Rodo Sanka — Showa Era nostalgia abounds in this worker’s anthem, written by Ian Parton of The Go! Team. After Girls’ Generation made an album almost entirely full of songs by Western songwriters, it’s interesting to see a Japanese idol group go the same path and come up with something completely different but no less striking. And yeah, I know I had another song by basically the same group earlier — so I cheated.

There are probably a few other’s I could put in — T-ara had one or two good songs, and 2NE1 and Perfume both had one or two more really good songs — but I’ll leave it at a clear ten.

[Edit: Added in Secret at No.7. and Nozomi Sasaki at No.8. Can’t believe I forgot such an adorable pair of little tunes.]

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