CD, sssm, 2016
Despite being one of Japan’s largest cities, despite lying neatly right in the centre between Japan’s two biggest metropolitan areas, Nagoya feels like a strangely isolated city. Perhaps it’s the curse of those freeways and Shinkasen lines, which make it a bit of a flyover city for bands playing the Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto areas that makes Nagoya such a cultural island. Bands who are hot names in every major city between Tokyo and Fukuoka mean nothing in Nagoya, while peripheral acts from elsewhere can sometimes command huge audiences. It is a city of over two million, with a gravity well encompassing nearby cities such as Gifu, Toyota and Yokkaichi, but it behaves like a small town, with a few key spots and scene figures seeming to exert a huge influence over the musical conversation the city has. And the reverse is true too: a band can grow up fully formed in Nagoya without even the most powerful indie music antennae in the rest of the country picking up even the faintest signal. When I visited Nagoya last year, I dropped by a couple of these key spots — File-Under Records and Bar Ripple — and both places were buzzing with the same recommendation: Noiseconcrete x 3chi5’s debut album Suna-Ji-Kei (or Sandglass as the band themselves call it in English).
On first glance, this duo fits into the growing format of noise guy + girl vocalist that seems to be have been gaining ground over the past couple of years as the fashion kids get hip to noise. We’ve visited this general territory before with Jun Togawa and Hijokaidan’s Togawa Kaidan project (No.10 on this list) and there are occasional similarities in how Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 play with the borders between voice and noise. On Don’t Hate Me!, 3chi5’s vocals are contorted and raw, entwined with the harsh slashes of noise, while on the closing Dake her breathy utterances alternate with vocalisations that blur the line between human and machine. Also like Togawa Kaidan there are moments of vocal-less pure noise that interrupt the proceedings, with the two-part Behemoth no Yume.
Nevertheless, while Togawa Kaidan (and many of the pop/noise crossover records that have sprung up playing off the subcultural appeal of idol music) is interested in the tension between pop and noise, Suna-Ji-Kei tends to treat melody and noise as two dimensions of the same thing that are fundamentally at home with each other. When the noise elements of Ernst no Gensou scream into the frame like angry rockets, and the vocals tilt towards them with an edge of distortion, but elsewhere 3chi5’s delivery rings out clear, delivering her abstract poetry through bluesy improvisations that oscillate portentously around a couple of core notes against a backdrop of sparse industrial beats, simple chimes, and drones.
While the most obvious musical touchstone on first listen might be a trip hop act like Portishead, an even sparser FKA Twigs might be a more appropriate comparison. Dig deeper, however, and there’s also a thread linking what Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 do back to postpunk. Just as the original trip hop scene shared some of its roots with the jazz- funk- and dub-influenced Bristol postpunk scene, there are perhaps echoes in Suna-Ji-Kei of the gothic-edged, Joy Division-influenced postpunk that Nagoya bands like Zymotics/Vodovo, Sekaitekina Band and most recently WBSBFK trade in, not to mention the more obvious noise and hardcore influences. This is reflected in the members’ own roots, with Noisconcrete sharing close connections with the Nagoya hardcore scene, and 3chi5 also performing as part of the postpunk/experimental rock band Ghilom.
What Noiseconcrete x 3chi5’s music shares most particularly with postpunk is the way it seems to be reconstructing the jagged shards of other musical genres in a way that still allows you to see the join. The resulting album is at once dark, minimal and harshly industrial, but also captivating, melodic and beautiful. Most of the people I spoke to in Nagoya were in no doubt what their album of 2016 was, and Suna-Ji-Kei makes a strong case for best thing released in the whole country.