Takeshi Yamamoto is a seemingly omnipresent figure in the Fukuoka music scene, playing in bands like Macmanaman, Kelp, Sea Level and many more. He released his first solo album, Somewhere, last year, which was one of this site’s gorgeous ambient highlights of 2019, and at the start of 2020 he came back with a new collection of spacious soundscapes in collaboration with fellow Fukuoka-based musician Wolf of Acid Mothers Temple. Where Somewhere would occasionally use short tracks to focus in on small sonic details, Upsilon is more concerned with the big picture, divided into three movements — long tracks that give the album a wider, looser, more expansive feel. This perhaps reflects Upsilon’s origin as a live improvisation session, albeit one extensively worked on in the studio subsequently, and it retains the exploratory atmosphere of two musicians working around each other in the moment. Fundamentally an ambient record, Upsilon isn’t afraid of pushing into broad crescendos that seem to fill the sonic spectrum or disorientate with disjointed analogue samples and occasionally harsh psychedelic episodes, just as it is content and confident enough to settle back into its own luscious, gentle mindscapes for long periods. And it’s here perhaps that Upsilon really deviates from pure ambient music: despite its gentle pace, it has progressive rock’s constant need to push forward on a journey, drawing the listener through different sonic territory that toys with their sense of comfort — Upsilon is filled with beauty in which you could easily lose yourself, but it is nonetheless an album that wants your attention.
Tag Archives: MacManaman
5. Puffyshoes – Flower
Released together with a home made zine, this cassette collection of seven rough-edged 60s girl group-via-Ramones pop tunes (clocking in at a bit over nine minutes, with only the opening Let’s Fall in Love scraping past one and a half minutes in length) is maximum DIY in both its execution and its wider, thematic meta-nostalgia for the already nostalgic sounds of past generations of indie/twee-pop tape-dwellers. Puffyshoes inhabit their fantasy world so completely that it never feels less than completely real, and the devastatingly simple, infectiously catchy, tremblingly fragile pop tunes that make up this EP drive that point home more effectively than I ever could.
4. Groundcover. – ██████
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Throughout their multiple shifting, contracting and expanding lineups, Groundcover have been one of Tokyo’s most consistently interesting noise-rock bands, combining roots in hardcore and post-Boredoms junk with a drift into expansive sonic territory. ██████ is the culmination of that evolution, retaining the raw riffs and explosive energy that characterised their hardcore days but wedding it to via the rhythmically tight, increasingly dub-influenced sound system band leader Ataraw Mochizuki has built up around him over the years. The result is an album that builds up immense, triumphant, richly layered walls of sound, deployed with impressive control.
3. OOIOO – Nijimusi
Despite having been at it for the best part of the past 25 years, OOIOO remain as inventive and inspired as ever, lurching dementedly from one idea to another, linking the experimental extremes of post-punk and progressive rock with the sort of drunken fluidity that can only really come from total mastery of their oddball craft, with echoes of both Gong and the Raincoats in equal measures colouring this endlessly delightful album. It’s wild, fun, fundamentally dedicated to the unexpected, and overall a powerful and accessible exploration of completely unrestrained musical imagination.
2. Takeshi Yamamoto – Somewhere
Sometimes it feels like Takeshi Yamamoto is singlehandedly holding the Fukuoka music scene together, playing in what seems to be at least half the bands in the city (Macmanaman, Sea Level, Kelp, Sacoyans and more), not to mention DJing, doing design work for fellow Kyushu scenesters and generally turning out an endless stream of new releases and collaborations. Despite all this, Somewhere is Yamamoto’s first solo release, and it’s gorgeous. Composed mostly of ambient and drone-based soundscapes, it carries a lot of similarities with some of Yamamoto’s work with post rock collective Sea Level, but where Sea Level endlessly circle eclectically around an implied but never quite described centre, Somewhere is far more comfortable in its sonic identity. Between tones and drones that shimmer like silk in the breeze, Yamamoto picks out gentle guitar melodies here, introduces rippling sequencer patterns there, builds rich or even dirty layers competing sounds, or pares them away to sparse near-nothing, water trickling quietly at the edge of hearing.
1. Former Airline – Rewritten Memories by the Future
(Text taken from my personal blog)
Released as a limited edition cassette in February, Japanese artist Former Airline’s Rewritten Memories by Future is an album born out of a cauldron of 1980s experimental and underground influences but doesn’t remain bound by them. Crash and Learn recalls the claustrophobic rhythms of Liaisons Dangereuses, drawing out and developing the origins of acid house from its chatter of electronic bleeps. Meanwhile, the artist’s love of krautrock and shoegaze – ever present on the album – is expressed most strikingly on the gorgeous closing The Angel Between Two Walls. Through the album, analogue glitches, drones and intrusions of noise act as the cement holding this sonic structure together.
Post-rock as practiced in the Japanese alternative scene tends towards two main poles, with the fiddly math-rock of Toe on one hand and the endlessly climaxing wall of sound of Mono on the other. As the bassist in Macmanaman, Takeshi Yamamoto has plenty of form in working to split that difference, but switching to guitar with the band Sea Level, he charts a different path altogether.
Running at less than half the length of Macmanaman’s New Wave Of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal (no.13 on this list), Sea Level’s Invisible Cities nevertheless adopts a far less hurried pace. It is also an album that pays far more attention to texture, with the three-part Kubilai e Polo interspersing its ambient, wandering guitar, synths and samples at intervals throughout the album. Sea Level’s roots as an improvisational band show through in the overlapping, freeform nature of much of their sonic explorations, with the composition more apparent in how it’s all stitched together. The title and structure taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name, the subdued Dorotea contrasting with Zaira’s building cacophony of overlapping sonic textures but both songs nevertheless reflecting the same metaphysical Venice of the mind viewed from a porch on a summer evening. Only the central Corpo really resembles a song in the conventional sense, although its fragile melody eventually gives way to freeform piano and the guitar’s distorted Robert Frippery — also, and perhaps tellingly, it’s the only track not named after part of Calvino’s book.
As the fourth Fukuoka band on this list so far, it’s tempting to view Sea Level as a further example of an extraordinary creative vibrancy in Japan’s southwestern extremities, and there’s some truth in that. However, the band are also evidence of the incestuous nature of much of that creativity. Yamamoto has already appeared on this list with Macmanaman, while he has also played with Sonotanotanpenz’ (no.9 on this list) Hitomi Itamura in the groups ruruxu/sinn and RIM and designed the cover art for tepPohseen’s album (no.15 on this list). Meanwhile Sea Level drummer Makoto Onuki has form as bassist in psychedelic rock band Semi and has also already made an appearance here with tepPohseen. Focusing so much on these acts populated by a tiny coterie of people certainly creates a skewed image of the city’s musical landscape, of which you are only seeing a peripheral corner here. However, combined with the fact that the city has a big enough scene to support their variegated explorations alongside a wealth of more conventional (and less interesting) pop and rock bands, that is also a big part part of why Fukuoka in 2017 remains such an interesting place for music.
New Wave Of British Baseball Heavy Metal is a ludicrous album and Macmanaman are a ludicrous band. They start with the questionable premise that insanely fiddly prog rock/post-rock was ever a desirable thing for music to be in the first place, and then decide that it could be improved by removing all the quiet-loud and slow-fast dynamics from it in favour of playing it nonstop at maximum speed and volume, like a band who have three hours of material to get through but only an hour before last orders at the bar.
You’ve got to admire their dedication to the cause though, as they rampage through the six tracks that make up this album, averaging just over ten minutes apiece. The first wailing rock guitar solo comes in about three minutes into the opening AKIYAMAxBASEBALLxEXPLOSION and by five minutes there are two guitars going at it in tandem, full-bore Yngwie, stroking each other to the first in a seemingly endless splurge of climaxes. Meanwhile, the drums are clattering away according to a complex pattern of their own and the bass is a lonely pole of utter composure at the centre of the swirling, ecstatic prog bacchanalia around it.
And that’s a big part of what makes Macmanaman such an appealing band. They make music that is undoubtedly thoughtful and carefully composed but at no point let the complexity and intelligence that underscores what they do interfere with the blissful, unrelentingly joyous athletics of their performance. Yes, the whole conceit that drives the band is insane, but at the same time, why the fuck not?
Before I begin this review, I think I ought to make one thing clear: I dislike Toe. They represent a kind of music that I find boring and something about the music scene in Japan generally that I find annoying: something that values technique over spontaneity, professionalism over energy, earnestness over fun. They’re a band with a very large following both at home and overseas, and I shan’t dispute that they’re good at what they do, whatever that is, but as a kind of model band for contemporary Japanese post-rock they’re poster boys for a sort of po-faced, noodling tedium: give me an indiscriminate number of teenage girls hopping around to some half-assed pop chorus any day if this kind of thing is the alternative.Manga-gao (live at Fukuoka Utero)
Fortunately for me they aren’t the only alternative, because there is also Macmanaman, a quartet whose fifteen-minute instrumental guitar symphonies are delivered with all the immediacy and raw, fuck-you power of a hardcore band while retaining the virtuosity and complexity of the very best their post-rock contemporaries can offer. Those Toe fans who have made it as far as this second paragraph might be screaming inwardly that yes they do too have passion and energy, but not like this they don’t. If post-rock is prog for the modern era, Macmanaman are the genre’s bad boys: its Amon Düül II, its Hawkwind, constantly threatening to tilt over the edge into full-on Motörhead. Macmanaman are the savage underbelly that reveals the barbarian heart beating within even the most rarefied, cultivated gardens of rock, the tiger in the soup of even the most convoluted metaphor.Michael (live at Fukuoka Utero)
And live is where Macmanaman show their true colours – where their peacock feathers extend most proudly and majestically. 2012’s Drugorbaseball was a fine album and made my picks for that year, but the hour-long live set contained in Drunkendesignatedhitter is a rougher, rawer, but more honest and more powerful document of the band’s virtues. Of course the A or B choice I’ve set this up as between Macmanaman and Toe is a false binary and there are people who will like both (and in any case, Natsumen are a closer match to the band’s own ambitions), but it is still a worthwhile comparison to make, providing a lens that illuminates how Macmanaman are, if not necessarily better, at least in possession of a distinctive quality of their own relative to the genre’s main Japanese standard-bearers. And let’s face it, they’re better.
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.
There are currently four CDs available.
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.
Also available is Topsy Turvy, Buddy 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.
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.
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.
The part of Japan I have the strongest connections and know most about outside of Tokyo is Kyushu, particularly the city of Fukuoka, and one of the bands who exemplifies my experience of the Fukuoka music scene is Macmanaman.
Like yesterday’s band, Usagi Spiral A, Macmanaman are an instrumental band who deliver progressive or post-rock elements with a punk-influenced approach, with Usagi providing the sole live mix on Call And Response’s first compilation in 2005 and Macmanaman doing the same on the most recent compilation in 2012. However, where Usagi are all about pummelling you with brutal, pounding noise, Macmanaman come at you with music of frenetic, dizzying complexity, played at breakneck pace with a staggering level of technical skill. Both bands are equal in intensity, but their differing approaches are something I’m really excited to see together on the same bill at my ten year anniversary party on September 27th.
Another feature I had in The Japan Times recently was this interview with Fukuoka post-rock band macmanaman. There’s not much to add here, but it does feel relevant in relation to a little incident that happened recently.
I launched into a bitchy little rant on Facebook a few weeks ago about the quality of English language coverage of Japanese music, which was provoked by a mixture of annoyance at the fawning idol worship that comprises most of the J-Pop blogosphere and my own frustration at the limited range of places for me to pitch my own ideas. A lot of people seemed to agree with my sentiment but it was also pretty clear that they all agreed for different reasons. Everyone had their own frustrations with the media but they were all different frustrations born out of their own particular pet faves not getting coverage, which is of course all I was really complaining about as well — I can’t honestly claim any higher motive.
Anyway, one friend of mine commented that for ｈｉｍ The Japan Times was one of the worst because most of the bands featured were just groups that it felt like no one apart from the writer and a their friends cared about. Now I have strong doubts that many of my friends care about the bands I write about either, but I think this cuts to the core of the problem. Now I’ve had pitches to places rejected by editors because the band wasn’t big enough, and I get that. Media, especially on the web, runs on hits. Whenever I write about Babymetal or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu on this blog, my page view stats shoot through the roof, and in a media world where page views are money, it’s natural that media tends to naturally start skewing idol after a while. On the other hand, if music media isn’t about introducing new artists to people who’ve never heard of them before, what is the point at all? The fact that The Japan Times is the only place writing about so many of these bands is precisely the reason The Japan Times is valuable.
I’m lucky enough that I have an editor who trusts my writing to be interesting enough in its own right that I can write about bands like macmanaman and he’ll let it through without rigorously screening it for page view potential, and I daresay the fact that the JT still runs a paper edition helps too. Anyway, in my lonely little corner of the blogosphere, they’re an important band and they deserve every column inch they get.macmanaman: AxSxE-ken