Tag Archives: M.A.Z.E.

2021 Japan music roundup: PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS

Over the course of the last few posts, I’ve reviewed nearly every new release that came across my radar last year, which adds up to just a few shy of a hundred albums and EPs. While I tried to look at each release in terms of its virtues (rather than grabbing something unknown only to slag it off), I didn’t apply any particular critical filter in the selection process beyond the inherent filter built into the information bubble I inhabit. With that in mind, for those who trust my biases enough to find such a list useful I’ve created a short meta-roundup of my personal highlights from the releases covered in the earlier posts. Or if you’re a new arrival, you can use this as a jumping off point to explore a bit deeper into the themed deep dives.

Main features:
PUNK
DARK/INDUSTRIAL
EXPERIMENTAL
LEFTFIELD ROCK
INDIETRONICA
HYBRID POP/CLUB/HIP-HOP
INDIE ROCK
INDIEPOP/SHOEGAZE


HIGHLIGHTS OF THE YEAR
(alphabetical by artist)

Aya Gloomy – Tokyo Hakai
Fun pop music with a dystopian tilt.

BD1982 – Distance Vision
Beautiful and often eerie techno-organic sonic landscapes.

Dead Bitch – self-vandalism
Scary and cool.

Greg Snazz – Wrong Answers Only
Rock’n’roll with the guts ripped out and strewn around on the floor of a bombed out garage.

Her Braids – EP01
Simple, smart and beautiful DIY indiepop.

Jesus Weekend – Rudra no Namida
This just landed right with me for reasons I can’t put my finger on.

Kuunatic – Gate of Klüna
A bit silly but a lot of fun.

LeakLeek – Leak
I’m going to stop pretending that the stuff my label puts out isn’t the best stuff in Japan.

M.A.Z.E. – II
Cheap, scratchy sounding punk rock done right.

Merry Ghosts – Pink Bloom
Really well put-together alt-rock songwriting with some cool, sharp edges.

Mikado Koko – Alice in Cryptoland
There’s usually something I find insufferable about crypto or anyone who cares or even knows about it, but this is so deliriously fun and righteously anarchist that I can’t help but get swept up in it here.

Ms.Machine – Ms. Machine
Hot Tokyo band lands their debut with panache.

Otagiri – The Radiant
Ridiculously good, kaleidoscopically fun hip-hop album.

pervenche – quite small happiness
I’ve been waiting for this album practically since I started writing about music in Japan back in 2003, and it didn’t disappoint.

Phew – New Decade
A new Phew album is always going to be one of the year’s highlights.

re:lapse – re:lapse.ep
Subtly textured, dreamy shoegaze.

Softsurf – Returning Wave
Heart-surging, indie-rocking shoegaze.

Various Artists – Mitohos II / III
Two new parts in this increasingly detailed map of Japanese indie’s experimental and math rock back alleys.


ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Barbican Estate – Way Down East
I knew this was going to be good, but what delighted me about it so especially was that they found an extra gear that I didn’t know they had. This is an immense album and a fantastic debut.

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2021 Japan music roundup: PUNK

This year, I didn’t really post any reviews aside from a couple of mixes of recommended tracks from the year’s releases. I did, however, spend the year keeping a running list of releases that looked interesting to me, so rather than just picking out and ranking (which always felt like a stupid and pointless thing to do anyway) twenty or so highlights of the year, I decided to go back over that list and try to write up pretty much everything released in 2021 that crossed my path. I’ve divided it into (sometimes very loose) genre themed sections to make it at least vaguely coherent. There are eight posts rounding up the year, and here’s the first one, focusing on music that’s more or less punk. I’ve embedded Bandcamp players where they exist. Where they don’t, you might find it on the evil Spotify, or else it means it’s only available in a physical format.

Born Shit Stirrers / Ledzepvietcong – Overworked Underfucked
Fukuoka-based punk troublemakers Born Shit Stirrers’ approach centres around warpspeed micro-songs that communicate whatever message they have more through the haranguing energy and snotty, often hilarious titles than the generally incomprehensible lyrics. The nuts and bolts of their songs are getting more distinct with every new release though, with individual elements here, like the way the band pingpong about between vocalists, standing out more clearly within the songs’ internal chaos. Over the side, Kumamoto-based Ledzepvietcong throw down some fuzzy, lo-fi nuggets, with a hint of a lonesome and liquored up Sebadoh to their take on punk rock, and after the fierce and frantic first side, the slurred looseness of their side is a welcome chaser.

HALF KILL / DAISEI STOCK HAUSEN – Split EP
The first side of this split cassette from Shizuoka Prefecture belongs to Half Kill, who trade in shouty, raucous punk with a scuzzy, 1990s alt-rock trash tilt. The interplay between the male and female vocalists gives the music a lively internal dynamic, while the shifts in tempo and layers of guitar distortion keep the songs on the Hüsker Dü side of punk convention. Over the side, Daisei Stock Hausen, whose members have past form dating back to the early 2000s in bands like Nemo and The Hasshin Telepathies, are still (post-)punk of sorts with their rambling, ranting vocals, but they channel the spirit through the sequencers, bleeps and madcap beats of techno and EBM and trashy, 80s Helios Creed guitars that sound like they’re being played underwater. It’s messy, which means it’s also unpredictable and kind of fun.

Kagami – Demo
This frenetic EP of short, sharp blasts of hardcore (the longest song is 1:12 long) might pitch itself as a demo, but if so, it sounds fantastic, the guitars scratchy blasts of foil-thin metallic tinnitus while the bass pummels the heart of the songs at you.

LeakLeek – Leak
This is a release my label Call And Response put out, so obviously I’m biased, but it seems pointlessly timid to leave CAR artists out of roundups like these at this point. LeakLeek are a band who are definitely punk, but of a proudly unconventional sort, dropping guitar from the lineup in favour of violin and musical saw (and an extra bassist). This gives the mini-album here a queasy sort of psychedelic take on no wave, with a cover of DNA’s Not Moving driving home that part of their, well, DNA I guess. There’s also hints of the sort of manic Japanese new wave of bands like P-Model and the Plastics in songs like the disconcertingly perky China Doll. A couple of members of LeakLeak crop up later in here too, as part of the also excellent band Nicfit.

LLRR – <=>
Another Call And Response release, this EP from mostly Kyoto-based LLRR (“lew-lew-low-low”) was originally released in 2020 exclusively on streaming services like Spotify, but I felt that was a waste for such a good collection of spiky, obliquely poppy, intelligent art-punk and talked the band into letting CAR do a limited cassette and Bandcamp release as well.

LRF – The Anti-Vax Punk Songs EP
The first of six Bandcamp releases from this Osaka punk act (some of which seem to be re-ups of old releases), this EP does exactly what it says on the tin, delivering four fuzzy, lo-fi punk anthems in the Sham 69 vein, railing against bio-fascism, Bill Gates, the “plandemic” and you, the zombie masses ruled by fear. It’s hard to tell how seriously this guy takes the conspiratorial specifics of what he’s singing or whether he’s just waving them as sloganeering banner images in his more general war on the genuinely unsettling and illiberal culture of restrictions, mandates and surveillance that the pandemic has ushered in in many places. A year on, it feels like a throwback to an impossibly ancient panic, at least here in Japan, but a bit of righteously angry paranoia isn’t always a bad thing for a music scene — like a vaccine in its own right against complacency.

M.A.Z.E. – II
This second mini-album picks up where this Tokyo band’s first one in 2019 (and their 2020 split EP with Nagoya no wave noise-punks Nicfit) left off, firing out micro-missives of jittery, authentically thin-sounding, offbeat punk that recalls the ramshackle early blasts of Kleenex. There’s an irrepressible sort of bounciness to the way these songs leap out of the traps that skirts just clear of being disco-punk but retains a lot of its toe-tapping energy.

Nicfit – Nicfit
This short album isn’t a new release exactly (the band’s 2022 album Fuse, from UK label Upset the Rhythm, is the one you want if you need the most up-to-date statement of where the band are now) but for anyone after a primer for one of Japan’s best purveyors of distorted art-punk, this release from French label Sorcerer gathers together the tracks from their Swell 7-inch as well as from their split EPs with M.A.Z.E. and Pinprick Punishment. The fantastic Creep off 2012’s Ripple Nagoya indie compilation would have been a nice addition too, but it’s still a solid starting place for some dark, dirty, twisty-turny guitar abuse.

Non Band – Non Band II
Forty years after they burst onto the Japanese early 80s punk scene with their wonderfully off-kilter self-titled debut album, Non Band finally decided to follow it up in 2021 with a collection of all new songs. The passage of time has weathered Non’s voice into something harsher and more ragged, and which fits in well with the scraping violin and delirious, whirling rhythms of tracks like Indepup 2018. The songs on this album’s idiosyncratic structures often leave you wondering what it’s even trying to do, but demanding a group like Non Band be more normal feels both petulant and futile. After four decades, they’ve earned the opportunity to cut loose.

Oops – out of pictures 7”ep
Hailing from Osaka, the home of punk that won’t do what it’s told, Oops officially dropped this EP at the end of December 2020, although it just sneaks into the 2021 roundup because the physical version didn’t materialise until the following month. In these four sharply curtailed songs, exasperated vocals ring out over tunes that draw on emotionally wrought alt-rock sounds one minute, sparsely arranged post-punk another, and scattergun spazzcore the next. The band went through a significant shift later in the year with the recruitment of a new vocalist (Minami from LLRR, fact-fans), but this EP is still a tantalising momentary snapshot of a band in motion.

The Questions – Koi no Yokan
Fizzy garage-punk from Okinawa that kicks off with a minute-long theme song for the band, before settling into a groove of lively, scuzzy garage/mod party music. Vocalist Chelio might be familiar to Japanese neo mod scene-watchers from her old band Six, and The Questions are very much in that vein. They followed this release up quite quickly with another EP, titled Beehive (presumably after the band’s hairstyles), in the summer.

The Smog – First Time, Last Chance
This 7-inch single revels in the tightly wired sounds and hurried rhythms of late-70s punk, with the sharp-edged and angular guitars jerking around like a heavily caffeinated Wilko Johnson on both tracks (and especially on B-side Noise Noise).

Worst Taste – Ultra Power EP
Worst Taste were one of the core bands in the scene of oblique punk/alternative acts that gathered around the venue Club Goodman in the early 2000s under the influence of groups like Panicsmile, and they’ve remained active ever since, being key figures in the Tokyo Boredom event organiser collective in addition to their own activities as a band. This three-song cassette EP is their first new release since 2014’s Live-ban live album, released in their slightly altered and electronically-augmented lineup of Worst Taste & Special Magic and it sees the band back to their raw rock trio roots. What that means is that you get three dizzy whirls around the dance floor by the demented ringmaster of a post-punk circus. Inevitably, your mileage will vary with that sort of thing, but there’s no one else who sounds quite like them. At the moment, it’s only available as a cassette from the band themselves, but it seems to be designed partly as a taster for more widely available things to come.

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Connect And Receive – Summer 2021 Japan underground picks

I’ve put this blog on hold while I’m trying to finish writing the terrible book I’ve been putting off working on for the past five years, but as a compromise, I made this mix of tracks from Japanese underground and weirdo punk releases that have come out during the first half or thereabouts of this year. You can listen to it here:

TRACK LIST:

OOPS – Riso no Morning / 理想のモーニング
An up-and-coming punk band from Osaka, taken from their Out of Pictures 7-inch single.

LLRR – Anonymous
Released on streaming sites last year, this Kyoto art-punk band’s debut < = > EP got a limited cassette release this spring (full disclosure: from my Call And Response label).

THE QUESTONS – I am I
This garage-punk trio from Okinawa have put out a couple of releases this year, with this track coming from their Koi no Yokan EP in February.

M.A.Z.E. – Spread the Germicide
Punk with oblique no wavey flourishes, from this reliably in-your-face band’s short, sharp, sub-15-minute 9-song collection II.

Ignition Block M – Houses of Fire
There’s a lot of buzz around this Tokyo punk band, with this song the title track of their recent Houses of Fire EP.

KLONNS – Gehenna
One of the core bands of the Discipline event, usually held at the great Koiwa Bushbash live venue, which combines punk, metal, psychedelic noise and intense techno, Klonns hold up the ferocious, gothic grindcore end of the spectrum on this single. The label Black Hole has also carved out a noteworthy space as a key hub for young, stylish, noisy artists in Tokyo. Aisha from Ignition Block M appears as a guest vocalist on this track.

Ms. Machine – 2020
Another young band with connections to the Discipline and Black Hole crews, Ms. Machine’s debut album was one of the few underground releases to really attract a buzz in Tokyo this year, combining simple hooks in swirling, gothic no wave squalls of noise.

Barbican Estate – White Jazz
Another hotly tipped Tokyo indie band, this 4AD-esque psychedelic swirl came out as part of the Rhyming Slang label’s Japan/China compilation cassette early this year.

yokujitsu – Just Vibes
This Tokyo psychedelic band released a live EP earlier in the year, followed up with this cassette single in the spring.

concrete twin – Nigella
Lo-fi shoegaze that builds up towering walls of distorted sound around its fragile melody in this track from their “Re​:​encounter” sound source #04 EP. The band claim a trip-hop influence, which is hinted at in the shuffling drums, although I get more of a Madchester vibe from it.

BD1982 – THEW3ST
One half of the team behind Tokyo’s fantastic Diskotopia label, this track hails off BD1982’s excellent Ryuichi Sakamoto-meets-Throbbing Gristle solo album Distance Vision.

Jesus Weekend – Forever Breeze
A welcome return from what was once a curiously meandering Osaka lo-fi band and is now a more ambient-focused Tokyo solo act, with this Eno-esque piece taken from the lovely Rudra no Namida cassette EP.

rima kato – today was so bad
This is an old track, from the Four Songs EP, originally released by the aotoao label in 2010 and just re-released this year. Rima Kato’s simple, melancholy melodies and gentle, warm delivery are always worth checking out.

Mitsuru Tabata – Nichijo Part 1 / 日常パート1
Another old song, re-released this year as part of eclectic underground legend Mitsuru Tabata’s (ex-Boredoms, Zeni Geva, Acid Mothers Temple and a billion other bands) large archive of tracks released for compilation albums over the years, Compilation Breakdown.

Closh – I don’t care bcz I’m just ????
A curious and always interesting presence in the Tokyo indie scene, Closh released a couple of mini-albums with the band Doodless before joining alt-rock band Wetnap. As far as I know, this is her first solo release but her exasperated vocal howls and catchy, lo-fi indie-punk guitars are instantly recognisable.

Merry Ghosts – Scotch Egg Struggle
Previously known as Trespass, Merry Ghosts are a post-punk-edged Osaka-based (I think originally from Kobe) alt-rock duo, with this track a deceptively catchy, scuzzy highlight of their very good new album Pink Bloom. It’s not available on Bandcamp, but there’s a CD out there if you can track it down.

Worst Taste – New creation
A mainstay of the Tokyo alt rock scene over the past 15 years or so, this piece of sparse yet intense art-punk comes from their recent Ultra Power EP, which seems to be available only as a cassette directly from the band at the moment.

PANICSMILE – Have You Seen The Bridge
Another album not available on Bandcamp, but the self-titled CD album it comes from is available pretty widely from label Like a Fool Records (and you can find it on the evil Spotify if you don’t want the band to get any money). Put together last year through a sort of pass-the-parcel remote recording process between Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka, this album revels in its fragmentation and unexpected turns, but comes together with an urgency that it’s amazing a band with such a long career can still summon.

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Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 20-16

V:A - Nicfit:MAZE

Vinyl, Episode Sounds, 2019

20. V/A – Nicfit/M.A.Z.E.
This split EP features two of Japan’s leading purveyors of energetic, darkly leftfield punk rock and both bands shine. With Nagoya quartet Nicfit’s contributions, the guitars yowl and scrape at your eardrums as the songs barrel breakneck towards their conclusion, bass pounding out an atmosphere of doom. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s M.A.Z.E. come in all scuzzy, slashing guitars and post-punk jitters, then just as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone. A breathless, electrifying seven and a half minutes.


Towel - 「」

CD, self-released, 2019

19. Towel – 「」
Hamamatsu-based avant-indie band Towel’s new EP crams six songs into ten minutes, blasting you alternately with bouncy melodicism, jagged post-punk guitars with atonal yowling, and off-kilter, Sebadoh-esque songsmithery. On some level, you can make out parallels with a band like Siamese Cats in the songwriting sensibility, but Towel have way more ragged edges that they seem to have no interest in sanding away. And rightly so, because on this EP the edges are what give it its charm.


Otoboke Beaver - Itekoma Hits

Vinyl/CD, Damnably, 2019

18. Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits
Kyoto garage-trash quartet Otoboke Beaver are currently the Japanese band that people overseas have heard of, and their growing status outside Japan is all the more remarkable for the fact that they’ve managed to do it all within the restrictive limitations of touring while apparently holding down jobs with typical Japanese holiday allowances. Itekoma Hits is half a compilation, gathering tracks from recent Japanese releases together with a handful of new and re-recordings, and if you’re already familiar with their particular style of breakneck garage-punk with hairpin rhythmical turns, you’ll be well prepared for this. But when they jettison the chatterbox vocal stream with shouted choruses and take a turn for the melodic, they reveal the songwriting heart of a J-pop group amid the crafted chaos, in a way reminiscent of Kansai-area forbears Midori. With 14 tracks in about 27 minutes, Itekoma Hits is dense with ferocious yet deftly structured oddball punk rock and packed with unexpected twists.


The Routes - Tune Out Switch Off Drop In

Vinyl, Groovie Records, 2019

17. The Routes – Tune Out Switch Off Drop In
Calling The Routes part of Japan’s garage rock scene isn’t quite accurate, as the band seem quite content sequestered away in Oita, rarely playing live and having very little to do with the core Back from the Grave/Garage Rockin’ Craze scene in Tokyo. And they stand out from most of that scene too, by having much stronger and more sophisticated songwriting. The opening The Ricochet might veer a little too close to Oasis for some tastes (let’s be charitable and say it has echoes of Ladies And Gentlemen…-era Spiritualized instead) but overall, the feeling recalls the sounds of the 1980s Nuggets revival, more along the lines of Chris Stamey, Dream Syndicate or the Fleshtones (maybe even a hint of Ian McNabb and The Icicle Works in there too in songs like Just How it Feels) gifting the music a lively, sharply-cut, hook-heavy energy.


Otori - Digitalized Human Nature

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2019

16. Otori – Digitalized Human Nature
Where Otori’s 2014 debut album I Wanna Be Your Noise was loosely themed around ideas of communication, many of the songs on their 2019 follow-up Digitalized Human Nature — from the opening Encode Jungle to the closing Neuromancer — are concerned in one way or another with being human in a digital world. The arrival of new bass player Tsuda (of psychedelic rock band Owarikara) has also seen a shift in sound from the propulsive post-punk of their early years to something more rhythmically hyperactive, with vocalist Sae working more quirky, squeaky melodies into the songs and the introduction of more synth sounds (at least in some cases seemingly being worked Robert Fripp-style through Hino’s guitar). Digitalized Human Nature is an extremely busy album that retains and expands on Otori’s post-punk roots but is also intent on causing discomfort, overloading you with contradictory sensory input to the point where you don’t know where the man ends and the machine begins.

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