Tag Archives: MacManaman

Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.7 – Sea Level – Invisible Cities

Sea Level - Invisible Cities

Cassette/download, Collective Noun, 2016

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.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.13 – macmanaman – New Wave Of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal

macmanaman - New Wave of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal

CD, Red Novel, 2016

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?

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.15 – Macmanaman – Drunkendesignatedhitter

Macmanaman: Drunkendesignatedhitter

CD, Red Novel, 2014

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.

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Getting hold of indie CDs from Japan — Call And Response Distribution

In the course of writing this blog, I occasionally get messages asking where people can get hold of the music I review, and while Bandcamp has been a wonderful thing in facilitating distribution of indie music all over the world and giving listeners the opportunity to pay bands and labels the bare minimum they actually deserve for their work, there is still a lot of music where the answer is simply, “Japan. If you’re lucky.”

In the past there have been attempts by indie music entrepreneurs to set up online distribution systems for Japanese music in the form of music download stores, but from conversations I’ve had with they’ve tended to run into problems firstly with the fan community, as new releases instantly get shared over fan forums with sales dropping to zero within just a few days, and secondly with record labels, as especially major labels but also many indies, can be exceptionally fussy and controlling over their product, to the point where it becomes more of a hassle than it’s worth to work with them.

A third problem, at least from my subjective position, is that these stores have tried too hard to give fans what they want. From a business perspective of course this makes obvious sense, but honestly, fans of Japanese music as a collective group have pretty horrible taste. I’m utterly opposed to any music business model that involves following what the audience wants (as a non-coincidental adjunct to that, I’m also deeply suspicious of any music business model that makes money). People have got way to used to the notion that “the customer is always right” and are well on the way to embracing the Japanese notion that “the customer is God”. This is questionable at the best of times because it devalues the workers’ experience and rights, and it’s especially inappropriate in the world of the arts.

Now I love so much music in the Japanese indie and underground scenes, and I want people to hear it, so since I already have an online storefront for selling my own label’s CDs, it was easy enough to expand the store to include a Distribution section where I can make available some of the music I write about on this site. I shan’t be selling downloads — that’s up to bands to decide and set up for themselves — and I shan’t be dealing with any record labels that give me even the faintest hint of hassle. All music I make available will be from local Japanese artists and labels I’ve personally selected and recommend, so make sure to adjust your taste filters accordingly.

You can access the shop here.

Call And Response Records

There are currently four CDs available.

Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Buddy Girl and Mechanic

Buddy Girl and Mechanic

First up is Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s sexy, psychedelic, kraut-blues debut, which I raved about last year and was one of my top releases of 2013. Not much I can add to what I’ve already written about this other than that it’s great and that they’re an utterly singular and compelling band, unique in the Japanese indie music scene.

Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvy

Also available is Topsy TurvyBuddy Girl and Mechanic’s second mini album from this summer (which I wrote about here). A more intricate and claustrophobic record than the band’s eponymous debut, it expands the range of sounds they play with while retaining the interplay between organic and mechanical elements that is their signature sound.

Macmanaman: Drunkendesignatedhitter

Drunkendesignatedhitter

The third CD is Fukuoka-based instrumental post-rock band Macmanaman’s ferocious live album Drunkendesignatedhitter, with the live recording environment really capturing the band’s virtues in their best light. I interviewed them earlier in the year around the release of this album, and as we near the end of the year it’s still holding its own as one of the most impressive underground releases of the year.

Compact Club: Compact Club

Subete wa Template

Lastly, we have new wave art-popsters Compact Club’s Subete wa Template EP (review here). Drawing on influences like the Plastics, Devo  and especially P-Model, but with a skronky, postpunk edge, they’re one of my favourite new bands, this is their debut release, but there’s hopefully going to be great new stuff coming from them.

This store is never going to be anything other than a narrow, tightly curated fragment of everything that’s out there, filtered through my own particular taste, but it will grow gradually as I add more stuff. Some new stock arrived today and I shall be writing it up and updating the store over then next week or so, and I’ll ensure I post any new arrivals here as they come in.

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Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo: Autopsy

A short afterword on my ten year anniversary event this Saturday gone, and a big thank you to everyone who took part.

My band Voided By Geysers (west Tokyo’s finest Guided By Voices tribute band) took the stage at 3:15 with Carl playing Tobin Sprout for a version of Ticket to Hide, with Ryotaro donning Mitch Mitchell’s cloak in gradually building up a squall of feedback and noise as the song locked into its closing mantra of “It might get louder”. By the time we’d kicked into A Salty Salute, there were already people with their fingers in their ears, and the sound just got bigger as the night went on. Miu Mau’s refined, sophisticated pop boomed out of the PA, while Usagi Spiral A’s brutal kraut-noise panzer assault was one of the most heart-stoppingly joyous things I’ve heard in a long time. By the time Hyacca closed the show, the sound had reached a level of earsplitting intensity. 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu has a reputation as pretty much the loudest venue in Tokyo, but I’ve never seen it like this before – it means the engineers were excited.

Tropical Death Metal were fantastic on their stoner-prog-punk-metal debut, while Mir’s krautrock-sampling icy noise pop was expertly chilled. Macmanaman played a frenzied whirlwind of a set, Futtachi played out half an hour of eerily compelling psychedelic improvisation, Nakigao Twintail said their farewells in characteristically off-kilter and unhinged fashion, and Jebiotto proved themselves matchless in their capacity to make rooms bounce. The attendance was terrific and 20000V’s staff were brilliant as always. Next year, I’ll be trying to move on and get the next ten years rolling in a way that looks to the future.

Koenji vs. Kyushu Pop Festival 2014

Some blurry, lo-res camera phone pictures from the night (you want hi-res, you should have been there on the night!)

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Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo addendum: Planning an event and timetable

In my posts over the past ten days I’ve gone through all ten of the bands performing tomorrow (September 27th) at my party to celebrate ten years of doing events in Japan. However, booking the bands isn’t the whole picture. In between bands, there are a few DJs spinning tunes, which can sometimes be a thankless job in events like this where the sound of bands setting up and eking out what they can of a soundcheck can overwhelm most of what the DJs are playing, but it’s nevertheless an important job, helping to keep the mood of the event going and where possible linking one act to the next. DJing this time is James Hadfield, with whom I’ve been running the monthly party Fashion Crisis for more than five years now. Also commanding the decks will be eclectic DJ team 3TE1, a.k.a. Haru and Kaname (the name is a pun on K-pop group 2NE1 and is pronounced “thirty-one”), who will be joined by Kyushu-based friend Emix, who has herself DJed at a couple of my events in Fukuoka.

The other big consideration is the timetable. This is by far my least favourite part of any event, but here’s a bit of insight into how the process works. First up there’s the noise limitations of the venue, which means live music needs to be done by 10pm, and related to that, there’s the fact that no event ever stays on schedule, so there needs to be at least 30 minutes of slack built into it. Very few bands are ever really happy playing first, and the earlier the event starts, the more people there are who you’re going to disappoint. One of the big reasons I’ve had in forming my own band is to have someone to put on first, thus sparing the sad eyes and pointed expressions of, “Oh, that’s a bit early…” from bands. Thus, Voided By Geysers are opening the event, playing a short set right at the start. Since Tropical Death Metal are just starting out and finding their feet, and nearly all their members are also in VBG, they’re on next to minimise changeover of equipment. After that, I’ve tried to balance the louder and more low-key bands so the sound doesn’t become too repetitive, and I’ve tried to space out the Kyushu acts as much as possible. Considering the audience is another thing, and having a rough idea of how big a crowd each band will bring I’ve tried to space out the bands with the biggest followings too, to give the other bands the best chance of catching new listeners. Then there are individual issues. Jebiotto and Futtachi have new CDs out, and this event is at least in part a release party for them both, so I shifted them more towards the end of the bill; Hyacca are notoriously difficult to follow, being both devastatingly intense live and these days really quite popular, and singer Hiromi Kajiwara needs time to switch characters from her more refined role in Miu Mau, so they still play last; and then Nakigao Twintail will be completely new to most people, plus they’re playing their final show, so I tried to give them the best chance of playing to a packed room.

The big challenge for me as an organiser is to mitigate any disappointment the earlier bands might feel by making sure I personally get as many people along right from the start. It’s a good bill, and there’s been fantastic support from some of the participants, so I’m uncharacteristically optimistic in this instance. Anyway, here’s the timetable:

3:00 Open
3:20-3:35 Voided By Geysers
3:45-4:05 Tropical Death Metal
4:20-4:45 Miu Mau
5:00-5:25 Usagi Spiral A
5:40-6:05 Mir
6:20-6:45 Macmanaman
7:00-7:25 Futtachi
7:40-8:05 Nakigao Twintail
8:20-8:45 Jebiotto
9:00-9:30 Hyacca

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Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo Part 3: macmanaman

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.

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