When writing about synth duo Yokan System’s Whispering for the previous entry in this 2015 rundown, I mentioned that, in Tokyo at least, members Mai Yano and Tsukasa Kameya are perhaps better known for their work with a band called Praha Depart. These things are relative of course, and from any meaningful cultural perspective no one has heard of either band, especially since Praha Depart more or less abandoned playing live a few years ago.
Nevertheless, the band (the trio’s lineup is completed by Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots drummer Jumpei Yamamoto) still exist sporadically, with the roots of this album going back to studio sessions in Ljubljana three years ago, which they developed into complete recordings after returning to Japan and promptly left unreleased for almost a year.
At this point I should declare an interest: I released Praha Depart’s earlier Dot. EP/mini-album in 2012 via Call And Response Records and heard the initial recordings for Sweet Wave a long time before its release. This is an album that had the timing been right, and had the band theirselves been more active, I might have ended up releasing, thus disqualifying it from appearing here. As it is, time dragged on, the band moved on, and the album was at risk of being forgotten, and so Praha Depart seemed to dump it almost apologetically onto their Bandcamp, perhaps for any international fans driven there by the flutter of press Yokan System were by then receiving around the release of Whispering.
While there are a few similarities, mostly down to Yano’s voice, comparisons between the two bands are largely meaningless. Praha Depart are a power trio with a full band sound, developed from sparse postpunk roots into something far richer and more multilayered.
Opening track Rhumba has echoes the tribal postpunk of Pulsallama or Rip Rig & Panic, and in particular of Praha Depart’s own earlier Portrait Man, kicking the album off with a link to the group’s past, before moving into the more restrained, melodic title track whose wandering, stuttering bass line recalls the prog pop of Roxy Music’s Out of the Blue.
Elsewhere, Sweet Wave’s music ranges from the rhythmically complex Swan to the richly textured, emotionally wrought closing Dreamer. Praha Depart express some ambivalence about this album, being a work that to them expresses only their current state rather than pointing the way towards the future, and with this release they seem to hope to draw a line under this stage in their life as a band. Something of this shows in the music, which is so richly developed and finely honed, delivered with such confidence and familiarity by the band that it leaves a sense of something so thoroughly and comprehensively expressed that there is nowhere left for them to go along this particular route. Still, while the album may in spome ways feel like a coda, it is at least a triumphant one – perhaps more an exclamation mark than a full stop.
Released on Tjinder Singh’s UK-based Ample Play label, this album by a Japanese duo probably better known in Tokyo as two thirds of the sporatically active postpunk-influenced art rock band Praha Depart is something of a spectral presence in the Japanese music scene.
There are enough similarities to The Knife’s early work to make the comparison valid beyond the simple fact of the two duos’ boy-girl synthpop dynamics. Yokan System temper that glacial edge though, delivering their music from behind a misty, lo-fi veil, the vocals and synths both adding ambiguity to the sound with a layer of sonic whispers just beneath the music’s surface, while Mai Yano’s vocals lean more towards Cocteau Twins-esque 4AD etherea than Karin Dreijer Andersson’s tormented Kate Bush-like yowl.
In the songwriting, Yokan System are poppy while skirting clear of outright pop songwriting, building their tracks from hooks, drum and sequencer loops and repetitive, mantric vocals in a way that betrays some of Yano and Kameya’s postpunk and krautrock-influenced roots.
Hanging somewhere between dance music and ambient, without ever really committing to be pop music either leaves Yokan System in an odd place in terms of pinning down their sound. The title track’s cascading guitar evokes something of Kyoto-based Japanese chillwave pioneers Hotel Mexico’s breakout international track Its Twinkle, while the propulsive dreampop of the opening Kyo Kyo Ra kicks off the album powerfully. Each track contains within it the seed of something the band seem intent on never quite delivering, drifting dreamlike from one little sonic world to the next without ever resolving the puzzle of the last – like whispered promises that never fully reveal themselves, the promise of the unknown contains within its mystery a beauty of its own.
In advance of their early 2015 European tour, synth duo Yokan System have a new video for the tune A Dream You Never Wake Up From, out from UK label Ample Play Records (that’s Tjinder Singh from Cornershop’s label). It finds the duo reinforcing their identity as purveyors of sometimes brutally minimal synthpop, with a lot of the pop removed and a side order of eerie, electronic psychedelia added, like early Human League via the Cocteau Twins. It’s a short track at two minutes that builds and ebbs away through the addition and subtraction of mantric vocal layers rather than any sort of traditional pop structure, which only adds to its tantalising mystique. With the duo’s other project, the more rock orientated Praha Depart, on a pretty low-key tip lately, Yokan System’s current state of activity and forthcoming album is getting the full attention and focus of two of the finest indie talents in Tokyo right now.
Praha Depart were a band I first heard back in the early days. I think I first saw them at a studio gig organised by Drive to the Forest in a Japanese Car (who had appeared on Call And Response’s first 1-2-3-Go! compilation). At that time they were a simple drums, guitar and vocal trio, with no bass but a very cool, scratchy postpunk sound that had elements of The Slits and Maximum Joy to it and a singer who did this wonderful, mad gypsy dancing. I kept seeing them at shows on and off over the years and became more and more of a fan. At one stage the singer, Mai, took up bass and stopped her dancing, then they experimented with bringing in bassists (including one memorable spell with Takehito Kono of Mahiruno (now of Lagitagida), and then finally settling once more on Mai as bass/vocalist.
I’d been trying to book them more and more as time went by and they’d been rapidly rising in my estimation as (along with Tacobonds) one of the best bands in Tokyo. Their sound filled out, their music became less punk and more expansive, epic, psychedelic and contemporary. Their sound filled the small halls of the Tokyo underground circuit and seemed to be bursting at the seams, straining for bigger spaces. Zibanchinka loved them and N’toko thought they were marvellous — I think it’s very important to pay attention to the opinions of other Call And Response artists; not everyone’s going to like everything, but it helps massively if they get along — so I did my best to help them where I could.Praha Depart: Dreamer / Swan (Slovenian studio session part 1)
Praha Depart were a rare item in the Call And Response roster though, since they were a band who’d already been around for a while and were reasonably well known in the Tokyo underground scene. The Dot. EP was originally recorded as a free giveaway for a “one-man live” they did at at the beginning of 2011 (a “one-man live” just means a gig with no other bands performing and is a really big deal for Japanese bands for no good reason), then over the summer, Praha Depart and N’toko started talking about touring Europe together and decided having something new to sell on the tour would be a good idea. With that in mind, I suggested pressing up the EP properly and putting it out to coincide with Europe.
N’toko felt the recording as it stood wasn’t ready to be released, so we contacted Slovenian producer Igor Vuk (a.k.a. BeatMyth) to punch up the recording and give it a bit more energy and power. He had to cheat a bit with the remixing but I’d say he did a pretty bang up job of it. Iguz from Zibanchinka lent her graphic design talents to the album jacket for free, and due to time constrictions, we had it pressed in Slovenia so that the CDs would be waiting for Praha Depart when they arrived rather than risk having them delivered to Japan too late.
Now Praha Depart had made a decision to focus on overseas touring, and this was a big commitment from the band. They had to find jobs that would allow them to take large amounts of time off, which usually means low pay and makes it far more difficult to participate in the money-sucking enterprise of playing in Japan. It killed Praha Depart’s prospects for touring in Japan even though by working theirs and my connections, they could probably have made a Japan tour pay for itself. Instead though, they devoted their energies to Europe and America, and got what looked like some solid progress out of it in some areas. The progress was piecemeal though, and you can argue that they gave up too soon, but given how much they had already sacrificed, I don’t want to be the person to say how much time one should devote to such a quixotic goal. In any case, something happened and they started to sharply curtail their activities.Praha Depart: Sanzeila / Stone (Slovenian studio session part 2)
As far as the album was concerned, there were some serious problems, with most of the units arriving with me damaged, necessitating the removal and replacement of discs into new cases. Given the number of unsold CDs I had from the early days of the label, I wasn’t short of spare cases, but it was still time-consuming. Fortunately the discs themselves were beautifully done, with full colour labels and no problems with the audio quality. I still don’t know the cause (if it was the press themselves or the postage) but it has made me very suspicious of using overseas companies.
The limits of my own powers to help bands with overseas booking were also very clearly revealed by Praha Depart’s touring experience. I’d booked some UK gigs for Uhnellys and Deracine round the time of 1-2-3-Go! which had been a humbling and frankly dispiriting experience, and even with a few slightly more reliable connections under my belt, the sheer scale of a continental tour enterprise would have crushed me were I attempting to do it myself. I didn’t make a specific decision, but I think around this time, I drew a sort of mental red line around Japan and resolved to limit my ambitions to areas where I had face-to-face working relationships with people. I didn’t turn away from the rest of the world and I still help bands and overseas organisers who are interested in making connections or contact with bands where I can, but I became reactive rather than proactive. In that sense, I suppose I became part of that “Galapagos syndrome” that I myself have occasionally criticised Japanese music and pop culture of wallowing in. Anyway, bite me.
Anyway, back to Dot. There are only four tracks on it, but it’s as long as a lot of the mini-albums I’ve released. The ten-minute title track is one of the most powerful and exhausting pieces of music I’ve ever put out. The repetitive dot-dot-dot morse chime of the guitar is a deceptively minimalist opening given the contortions of twisted rock energy it explodes into, but it’s always there, an insistent, propulsive backbeat that the song keeps returning to, while Mai’s voice rips itself to shreds. As an opening track, it’s ambitious. Portrait Man is probably my favourite track though, and actually my favourite of any of the songs they’ve done. It’s the track that I think combines all the elements I associate with the group most powerfully: the off-kilter gypsy-punk, the Japanese festival drums, and the harsh, abrasive guitar squalls. Lesson is a bit more restrained but no worse for that (and it’s not saying much anyway with a band as expressive as Praha Depart could be), while the deliberate, plodding doom of Faust Class demonstrates why Praha Depart are one of the few bands whose slow emotional songs I can honestly claim to like.Praha Depart: Rhumba / Dot. (Slovenian studio session)
As I said, the band seem to have curtailed their activities a lot lately. Drummer Junpei Yamamoto also plays with Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots (along with Lagitagida, Sajjanu and Lailailai Team one of the several successor bands to Mahiruno) and as they have become more successful and busy, it has perhaps put limits on what he can do with his other bands. Also Mai and guitarist Tsukasa have formed the rather fine Yokan System, playing synthpop with elements of 80s kayoukyoku mixed with a sort of The Knife/Grimes-style offbeat pop sense. To watch Yokan System play shows alongside cutesy “girls group” acts at cavernous but three-quarters-empty venues is to watch the workings of a very different side to the music scene from the cramped clubs that Praha Depart’s immense sound seemed to be straining against. It feels weird and wrong to me, but then I’ve wilfully and arrogantly set myself up in opposition to the established promotion and booking model that the music scene tends to use. My notion of “right” and more objective measures of “effective” are often at odds. In any case, Praha Depart still exist, and this is by no means a story of failure. Like Zibanchinka though, there’s a nagging sense of what could have been.
Yokan System are a new electronic duo formed by Tsukasa and Mai from psychedelic postpunk/alternative band Praha Depart. They’ve been jamming and experimenting as a duo on and off for a long time now in between Praha Depart’s semi-regular jaunts to Europe and the United States but with Yokan System they seem to have formalised their project and these two tracks are the fruit.Sasurai Tutu Sasayaku
Both Sasurai Tutu Sasayaku and Tete are built around looping melodies, with the former track taking Tsukasa’s cascading guitar line, a repetitive synth chime and adding Mai’s overlapping, chanting vocals over the top of a stumbling beat. Tete forges ahead and builds relentlessly to the end where Sasarai allowed the beat to drop out for a moment before the climax, adding a more straightforward and insistent dance beat with bass synth straight out of the gloomiest days of the late 70s and early 80s (think The Human League’s Being Boiled). There are clear parallels with Liz Fraser’s layers of unearthly vocals in The Cocteau Twins (Yokan System would sit well on 4AD’s 80s roster, while Praha Depart would fit in better with its 90s lineup), as well as perhaps interesting echoes of Japanese composer Yoko Kanno’s 90s diversions into eastern European choral music, which stands in contrast to Mai’s emotionally raw delivery when singing with Praha Depart. In that sense, Yokan System are a side project in the very best sense of the word, complimenting the members’ other work and neither seeking to replace it nor contenting itself to sit in its shadow.Tete
Aside from being one of the hardest working and most self-motivated bands I know, Praha Depart are one of the most explosive live experiences there is. I saw them for the first time somewhere around 2007 performing as a bassless three-piece with Mai Yano singing and doing strange little Gypsy dances over this intense, propulsive, tribal dance-punk. The name “Praha Depart” means “Prague department store” and is I think an obscure reference to the group’s fashion sense (they think it looks like the kind of thing you’d buy in a department store in Prague) but there’s this curious Eastern European atmosphere that runs through their music. It’s not as explicit as a group like Gogol Bordello, and it’s hard to know if it’s even intentional (it may just as easily be the influence of Japanese festival music, which can sometimes sound similar).
Portrait Man (bassless version)
Mai eventually started playing bass — they have experimented with adding bassists to the band to free her up for dancing, but they have never lasted long — which filled out the sound, but it’s really the sheer, tribal intensity of Junpei’s drumming and Tsukasa’s multi-layered, almost psychedelic guitars that’s the group’s signature. There are echoes of the poppier moments of Rip Rig & Panic and possibly Bristol contemporaries Pigbag in their sound, primarily in the rhythm, but there are reference points scattered all over the place. What sets them apart from other rhythm-orientated Tokyo artpunk bands (apart from Junpei’s occasionally ludicrous drum solos) is that while many of their contemporaries treat melody as something alien, to be handled with suspicion, employed as a conceptual component and delivered with perhaps an apologetic layer of self-deprecating irony, Praha Depart embrace it, Mai’s vocals running the full range from deep and rich to piercing Lydia Lunch style shrieks and Tsukasa’s guitar picking up hook after hook.