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: Sea Level
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.
In addition to the albums and EPs covered by my, admittedly selective and only vaguely ranked, top 25 list, there were of course plenty of other releases I listened to and enjoyed. Fukuoka insult-punks Born Shit Stirrers put out another extremely fun album, Depressed Fathers Club, which featured a song namechecking me, titled Ian Martin Thinks You’re Shit. Synthpop/technopop duo Motocompo re-released their fantastic 2008 Chiptop Lips album towards the end of the year, while their all-boy “ska-electro” successor band (M)otocompo released their daffy new Yokoshima Borderline EP at the same time. Fukuoka-based operatic jazz-prog trio Kelp put out the fascinating Intake album, while there were some interesting cassette compilations in the alt-rock-themed Life Is Music and Tokyo indie event Rhyming Slang’s collaboration compilation with Korean indie collective Freshalwayson. There was plenty more that I either didn’t get a chance to listen to or that I’ve somehow forgotten in the swirl of events and noise that usually makes up my year.
My own Call And Response label also put out a couple of new releases, which for obvious reasons I didn’t feel right including in my personal ranking of best releases. However, since this site seems to be the only place on the Internet that covers this sort of Japanese art-punk, underground and experimental rock music with any real affection, I’m going to make a point of recommending them here because (like all Call And Response releases, natch) they’re both excellent albums.
Sea Level – Dictionary (Handwritten) – BUY HERE
In a review by Ele-king magazine, Sea Level were described as “centreless music”, which is to say music that doesn’t have an obvious, easy-to-define core identity but rather defines itself through the fluid, free-floating and dreamlike way it dances from idea to idea, pulled outwards in various directions by the diverse creative talents in the band, but nonetheless linked in a stream of consciousness. Musically, it’s in the zone that we can comfortably call post-rock in that it combines electronic music with progressive rock, with diversions into various other genres where appropriate, but that doesn’t do justice to the beauty of this record — less a linear journey than a hallucinatory, melancholy landscape that you’re left to explore freely by yourself.
Velvet Ants – Entomological Souvenirs I – BUY HERE
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in these year-end countdown posts that 2018 was a great year for the loose category of sonically or rhythmically distorted experimental rock and (post)punk music I like to classify as noise-rock, and Velvet Ants by all rights should be considered an important part of that wave of great music. Recorded and mixed by Shinji Masuko of DMBQ (whose monumental Keenly also featured in my top albums list), Entomological Souvenirs I combines jittery rhythms, heavy riffs and ferocious Sonic Youthian freakouts, delivered with a disarmingly loose sort of confidence.Velvet Ants – Cicada (single edit)
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.