Tag Archives: Nisennenmondai

Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.10– Nisennenmondai – N’

CD, bijin record, 2015

As I mentioned in my previous entry in this countdown, the growing use and mastery of the delay loop pedal feels like it’s had a crucial role in the fusion of rock and dance music, freeing up bands from the constraints of programmed beats and allowing an organic middle ground between a straighy-up band setup and the layered structures of techno.

In Japan, Uhnellys were the first band I ever saw to really make it work, and they remain the absolute masters of using delay pedals as instruments in their own right. However, after a shaky start, Nisennenmondai are now probably the most widely recognised loop-jockeys the country has on the world stage.

Nisennenmondai’s music over the past few years has really been a growing refinement of a single basic musical vision, each new release bringing them even closer to a single flat line, with the thrill emerging from the way they tease variation and texture out of ever more minimal raw material. On the two albums they released in 2015, however, there are hints that they may have taken their stripped-down death disco as far as it can go and through growing use of collaborators are looking for new routes down which to develop their sound.

N’ is basically a reworking of 2013’s N with the addition of two remixes by British producer Shackleton, while #N/A was made with legendary UK dub producer Adrian Sherwood. Of these the second is clearly the more ambitious, and probably the one that points the way most promisingly towards possible future developments for the band; however, it’s N’ that’s probably the more successful as a record, its place on the border between two phases of Nisennenmondai’s career benefitting from containing both the most refined, focused iteration of their one-note minimal disco, as well as from Shackleton’s relatively free hand in interpreting the tracks and taking them to new places.

As it stands, #N/A is an album interesting for the possibilities it hints at more than the destinations it actually reaches, and of the two records it could (should?) end up the more significant. However, as a powerful and finely honed document of where the band’s past few years of development have taken them, N’ rules the here and now.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.11 – Nisennenmondai – N

N

CD, Bijin Record, 2013

Nisennenmondai are in the admirable position of being both an intensely desirable band with numerous overseas tours behind them and support slots for a number of high profile touring bands (most recently the UK’s Savages), and also being able to do pretty much whatever they want, keeping close control over their own recording output and largely able to pick and choose which shows they play domestically. From their raucous, anarchic beginnings in the mid-2000s, new album N sees the trio’s sound honed down beyond the bare bones, right to the pulsating marrow.Nisennenmondai: A (live)

To the point actually where you could argue that all three tracks on N are essentially the same, but then given that the band have titled them simply A, B-1 and B-2, they’re obviously meant to be taken as part of a piece, with N really best considered a coherent whole rather than a collection of tracks. And N as a whole, is a relentless but strangely low-key spacerock disco, all tracks in the twelve-fourteen minute zone, giving them time to build up to something just short of a climax before fading away into something else. Guitarist Masako Takada is becoming more adept year by year at creating textures and soundscapes, while Yuri Zaikawa is a man-machine on bass, making more than you’d imagine possible out of her different ways of playing the same note over and over again.

It’s also the best job Nisennenmondai have ever done of making what they do work on record. Perhaps the way they have jettisoned the more explosive elements of their music and honed their sound down to this tense, taut, jittery trance beat (Can you have a jittery trance? Apparently yes!) creates fewer challenges than capturing the raw energy of the band’s earlier material. Instead N comes over as a piece of dance music, more level and consistent in the mix, less prone to wild changes in sound levels and tempo. Fans of the band’s blistering early material may miss some of that energy, but what they’ve left behind in that regard, they’ve gained in terms of focus.Nisennenmondai: B-2 (live)

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Interview: Nisennenmondai

Instrumental no wave/krautrock trio Nisennenmondai were playing at the Neutralnation festival this year so I took the opportunity to get an interview with them for The Japan Times, which you can read here.

Nisennenmondai: Mirrorball

What’s going on in this piece is a weird inversion of the usual interview feature process, where the writer supplies information to the reader, while the band members illuminate those facts with opinions, ideas and stories. However, where a band are cagey, introverted or unfamiliar/uncomfortable with interview scenarios (or more likely in this case where the questions are simply bad), there aren’t those killer quotes to hang an interview off, so we’re left with the situation where the quotes are delivering rather dry, biographical or factual information, while the writer is wringing enthusiasm out of the gaps.

Actually, that’s part of the job of a writer in a way: To work a musician’s comments into a narrative that explains and reveals aspects of what they’re about. It’s just that here I think the contrast between the content of their comments and mine lays that aspect of the process bare. Of course since the hook that I hung this narrative off in the first place was the inherent contradictions of the band, this contrast is at least appropriate if nothing else.

Actually, there were a couple of interesting comments that came out of the interview that had to be cut out because they diverged a bit from the story I was telling. On the subject of women in rock, Sayaka Himeno, the bassist, admitted that she felt the fact that Nisennenmondai were an all-female group might have helped them to get attention, but also that she felt this kind of attention and interest was kind of unacceptable in terms of the way they prefer to be perceived. She also suggested that the issue of women in rock seemed to be something that was more of a concern in Europe or America than in Japan, or at least that it was rarely if ever brought up as an issue here.

Now this might just be down to politeness and people not wanting to suggest, “people only like you ’cause you’re girls,” but it’s an obvious fact that while men are still a majority, women are far better represented in rock music in Japan than they are in the West. I think that saying Japan is more advanced in terms of rock equality is a bit of a dangerous conclusion to draw, because I’ve heard from some music people that when you get into the power dynamics within bands, the men may tend to assert themselves more, but generally I’d have to agree that it seems like less of an issue. You certainly find more female sound engineers at venues in Japan, although again, the power dynamic between band and engineer is more like that between customer and waiter in Japan, rather than the employee/boss relationship that exists in much of Europe, so again, that doesn’t necessarily mean women are getting more authority.

Of course for an all-female band like Nisennenmondai, that’s irrelevant, and in the end, I decided it would be pretty cheap and a bit insulting to the band to use that as a hook for the interview. It’s interesting as a general point for further investigation though, since it’s something that lots of people I know have observed bu that few people have really studied in much depth.

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Strange Boutique (June 2012)

My Japan Times column last month was about the enduring influence of Can in particular and Krautrock in general. One of the points I made, and admittedly it’s a pretty sticky point because with music as diverse as Krautrock was to begin with and as wide-ranging in its influence, there are going to be bajillions of exceptions, was how generally, Japanese underground bands seem to prefer the complex rhythms that characterise a lot of Can’s output rather than the motorik beat most associated with Neu! and Kraftwerk (which to a lot of people in the UK is pretty much the definition of Krautrock). Naturally, given that Britain has traditionally been the biggest audience for German 70s rock and experimental music, this is a gross oversimplification, but I think it holds true as a general trend.

In this blog, however, it’s the exceptions I want to look at, and of course there is motorik Japanese indie. On Knew Noise Records’ forthcoming Ripple compilation (which I should have a review of being published soon) Sekaitekina Band swap their usual jittery disco-punk sound for a motorik beat, and as I mention in the column, Nisennenmondai favour driving beats rather than complex, overlapping rhythms, be it disco, tribal pounding or motorik.

Nisennenmondai: Destination Tokyo

Through my own Call And Response label, I’ve released a couple of tracks that follow the motorik pattern as well. Our first release, the 1-2-3-Go! compilation, featured a track called Neu! by a band called Usagi Spiral A (see if you can guess what that sounded like) and Klaus Dinger fanatics Mir did an excellent track called Yononaka, Minna Hihyoka on their mini-album This Tiny World that paid obvious tribute to Neu! and La Dusseldorf.

My own band, Trinitron, often play around with patterns nicked from Krautrock, albeit sometimes mixed in with some other things as on this cover of 1970s idol group the Candies’ Heart no Ace ga Detekonai.

Similarly, Yamanoi Yuzuru often play about with rhythms if not exactly motorik, certainly influenced by the style.

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Top 20 albums/EPs of 2011 (numbers 1-10)

Several days later than promised, but here’s the top ten of my Japanese music of 2011 (No.11-20 is here). Again, I’m allowing some Korean stuff if it’s a proper Japanese release, and again I’m not being fussy about what counts as an EP, a mini-album or an album — it all goes in. Obviously, this is just a personal list of what interested me out of the limited range of what I actually heard this year and I didn’t include any of those bizarre “objective” measures that people keep moaning to the Japan Times complaints department that I don’t include. Anyway, on with the list:

Boundee, CD

10. She Talks Silence: Some Small Gifts

Precariously poised on the edge between the barely-produced lo-fi indie ethos of early 80s British DiY music and the kind of Tokyo hipster scene that’s well-connected enough to bypass the dirtier fringes of the live music circuit and parachute straight into the 3000yen a ticket, 700yen a beer range of venues, She Talks Silence are the sort of band that could be unbearable to an indie snob like me who generally requires years of slumming it in dives out of a band before I grant them my seal of approval. And if that sounds like a strange way to introduce a band I’m trying to convince you are in my top ten of the year, I apologise, but She Talks Silence’s position is at the heart of what I find frustrating about them. They’re like the beautiful, intelligent, talented girl who’s dating a jerk who doesn’t appreciate her [Disclaimer: their actual boyfriends are really cool]. Their music is delicate, sweet, lonely, charming, violent and tremendously affecting, with Fragment one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year and Dead Romance edged with a series of particularly sharp thorns, and yet there is a terrible and selfish sense that they belong to someone else, that they float in a fashion environment too superficial to understand what’s so great about them, and worst of all, the gnawing knowledge that the only real problem is my own snobbery. In any case, Some Small Gifts is a near flawless example of lo-fi indiepop melodymaking that also demonstrates flair and artistry with more awkward, off-centre song construction.

Self-released, CD/R

9. Tsumugine: Tsumugine

This three-song, EP by the performance art collective Tsumugine (a group with a curious penchant for live performances in isolated countryside road tunnels, among other places) is basically fifteen minutes of eerie “instrumental” vocal music, with the musical wing of the group’s a capella utterances creating distorted tones and monastic harmonies that I would have thought certainly the work of studio effects had I not seen them perform a lot of this stuff live with only a couple of microphones. Some harmonica is thrown into the mix on the eight-minute final track, but the range of tones and sounds of the vocal performers is so diverse that it’s utterly in keeping with the rest of this atmospheric little CD.

Self-released, CD/R

8. Hysteric Picnic: Hysteric Picnic EP

Like Pop Office, Hysteric Picnic are clearly influenced by 1980s British new wave bands — in this case Joy Division and maybe The Jesus and Mary Chain feature strongly, with something of Young Marble Giants in the tick-tock-tick-tock drum machine rhythms that underpin many of their songs. However, where Pop Office distinguish themselves with quirky embellishments or a slightly off-centre approach, Hysteric Picnic charge right in, glowing with conviction, dirty and lo-fi as you like, and bursting with great tunes. They don’t spend hours polishing their songs to a burnished sheen, but neither is the roughness an affectation: it’s integral to the band’s sound, present in the Wire-like slashes of guitar, explosions of feedback and anguished vocal yowls of Chinese Girl. The way they combine that with sublime melodies and harmonies, best displayed on Persona, is what makes this EP such an extraordinary debut.

Nayutawave, CD

7. Girls’ Generation: Girls’ Generation

Another Korean one, but as with 2NE1 in the previous post, I’m counting it since it’s a Japanese release, this time sung entirely in Japanese, that was released and promoted just like any J-Pop album.Girls’ Generation is quite simply the most accomplished, polished, catchy collection of three-minute pop gems I’ve heard in ages. You can read my review here, and I’d just add that the failure of both Perfume’s JPN and Girls’ Generation’s own The Boys to even come close sadly seems to drive home what a one-off combination of bubblegum pop fizz and modern electropop sophistication this album probably was.

Take a Shower Records, CD

6. Tacobonds: No Fiction

Boom! Badaboom-booooooom! Badabadabadabadabadabadabada-boooooom-bangbang-boom-B-P-M-4!-bangboombang-a-bang-ratatattatatatata-tat-Bang!-Skreeeeeeeee! FICTIOOOOOOOON! Read it here.


Penguinmarket, CD

5. Uhnellys: To Too Two

Another one I’ve already reviewed, Uhnellys are a smart, funky, sophisticated, genre-hopping psychedelic jazz-hop duo and this was probably the album that combined technical accomplishment, energy, intelligence, invention and mainstream (admittedly in a fairly limited, indie sense) appeal better than any other I’ve heard this year.

Second Royal, 10-inch Vinyl

4. Friends: Let’s Get Together Again

Reviewed this one too. This is an album that I wasn’t sure about at first, but especially since getting my hands on the vinyl release, it’s risen in my estimation. The duvet of feedback that envelops most of the melodies works for me, noisenik that I am, and once you get past the bristly exterior, there’s a juicy melodic centre that tastes of The Beach Boys and all the rest of your favourite summer guitar pop tunes. Apparently now renamed Teen Runnings, Friends are a prickly, awkward band, and this album captures that aspect of them with a perhaps unintentional degree of honesty.

Bijin Records, Double CD

3. Nisennenmondai: LIVE!!!

Another one I’ve reviewed. To date, the definitive recorded document of one of Tokyo’s most striking bands, LIVE!!! is instrumental Kraut-noise trio Nisennenmondai at their best. Fan is a magnificent example of how you can repeatedly bang away on a single note for fourteen minutes and somehow keep it exciting through dynamics alone, and along with fellow death disco masterpiece Mirrorball, it forms the centrepiece of the album. Ikkyokume is Stereolab’s Golden Ball at 3x speed and rippling with unhinged energy and Appointment might be a lost Daniel Miller instrumental from 1981. There are lots of bands in Tokyo who play drawn-out instrumental jams, but none as skilled at manipulating the dynamics of such minimal sounds in such an accessible and downright fun way.

Naturebliss, CD

2. Tyme. x Tujiko: Gyu

Not being tremendously familiar with Tujiko Noriko’s prior work, it’s hard for me to place this within her overall canon, but this album, sneaking in just at the end of the year is a simply stunning collection of avant-pop and electronic soundscapes. I’m going to be a twat here and compare it to Bjork and Kate Bush, and I admit I’m largely doing this because it’s a magnificent, weird pop album with ethereal sounding vocals by a woman with an odd voice. HNC tried a similar thing recently with her rather fine I Dream I Dead, but this album eschews HNC’s instagram faux-retro lo-fi flicker in favour of more confident, sophisticated multi-layered synth-artistry, which elevates it to another plane productionwise. As a general rule, the earlier tracks edge more popwise while the album begins to skew ambient as it progresses, but I’m not going to single out tracks since this is a rare album where absolutely every song is truly lovely.

CD, Take A Shower Records

1. The Mornings: Save The Mornings

Quite simply nothing this year could quite touch spazzpunk quartet The Mornings’ debut album for sheer, irrepressible energy. There are other bands making faintly similar kinds of music but The Mornings beat them all by being faster, more intense, just more full of wow. The first moment of Opening Act wakes you up, eyes saucers, mouth grinning with delight, and everything that happens from that moment onwards just makes your grin stretch wider. Amazon Surf is what Devo would have sounded like if they’d been a hardcore band, Mad Cheergirl pushes drummer Keika’s vocals to the front, while on Mad Dancer, synth/vocalist Ponta and guitarist Junya trade lines against a rhythmical backdrop that constantly threatens to collapse before leaping back to attention, Drug Me sees the group taking on the Dead Kennedys and winning, and so on and so on. It’s an exhausting listen, like gorging on a mixture of sherbet candy, raw chilli and hard liquor, and it leaves you similarly battered and physically defeated at the end, but 26 minutes of moment after moment of unbridled, explosive joy will do that to you. Give in.

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