In this section, I’m looking at music in the general sphere of experimental and improvised music, covering a couple of different takes on free jazz, some minimal ambient and drone work, some raw sampling and found sounds junk, and other more or less adjacent approaches. As usual, if there’s no Bandcamp link available, you might be able to find it on the evil streaming sites, but I’m not going to link to them. Alternatively, it may only be available in physical form from the label or artists themselves.
estude by Takane Nakajima – diurnal delirium
This was a CD I picked up at the square on the north side of Koenji Station last summer, when the state of emergency meant that most bars and izakayas were closed and everyone was gathering in the square at night to drink and party. There were always people playing music there, but this quiet mix of ambient, electronic and acoustic sounds stood out just for how little it seemed to be trying to stand out in that space. Listening to the CD, I waver between finding some of its acoustic guitars and ambient washes of synth cheesy and finding them devastatingly effective. It works best in the tracks catechumen pt 1 and pt 2, as part of a collage of field recordings and samples, which fall together in a dreamlike journey through the night, not unlike The KLF’s Chill Out in that the very naïve obviousness of parts of it feels integral to its charm.
Kiyasu Orchestra – Discipline for Domination
Formed “under the influence of 60s free jazz”, Discipline for Domination bursts out of the traps with everything playing at once, as fast as humanly possible. In the sense that it ever lets up over the course of the 30 or so minutes of this album, it mostly does so in shifting waves of intensity of the boiling cauldron of skittering discord rather than any ebb in the frenetic pace, a cacophony of notes rising and subsiding according to the logic of ambient music.
Junji Ono a.k.a Noiseconcrete – sabotage#1
As part of the atmospheric, experimental pop duo Noiseconcrete x 3chi5, Junji Ono made a couple of appearances in the Dark/Industrial section of this roundup, and as a solo act, he made a ferocious and speedy response to the onset of the pandemic in 2020. With this 50-minute live mix, he channels his blasts of textured noise and industrial clang through breakbeats, but it’s characterised by a recognisable conversation between intensity and ambient as it works its way towards a close based around a beat that further blurs the boundaries with his other work by forming the core of the song Worth Living Hunter that Ono released later in the year in his work together with 3chi5.
OkadaTakeshita – Clattery Ooze
This project is a collaboration between Ryo Okada, best known as the guitarist with experimental rock band Extruders, and Yuma Takeshita, who specialises in improvised music using instruments he’s created or modified himself. Clattery Ooze is one of those titles that works tidily as a review of the album in its own right, and the sounds here flow slow and viscous, given jagged textures by percussive electronic distortions that swirl between the speakers. At times Clattery Ooze sounds like music made from editing together only the mistakes and sonic artefacts that get thrown up by the wiring in the studio, but there’s both method in how those sounds are deployed, beauty in how the textures and drones colour the canvas on which they play, and a detectable delight in how the two musicians play with the possibilities of both their equipment and the studio.
Phew – New Decade
Yet another fantastic new Phew album is starting to become a cliché when it comes to end-of-year reviews of Japanese music, but then there’s not really anyone else making such consistently great music at such a reliable pace as she has been over the past few years. Anyone who’s been following her releases since 2017’s Light Sleep and Voice Hardcore (including 2018’s intriguing Island with Ana Da Silva) will find it easy to fit New Decade into the texture and rhythm of the journey Phew has been on lately, with its disconnected voice fragments layered drones, its ghostly rhythms and electronics, and there’s something in the voice those elements add up to that makes her work such a fitting soundtrack to the uneasy low level panic of modern life, where creeping, invisible fears seem to constantly surround us, gnawing at the fragile comfort of our lives. Whatever the crisis of the week, Phew knows how we feel.
Riki Hidaka + Jim O’Rourke + Eiko Ishibashi – 置大石
Over the past few years, Riki Hidaka has been cutting an interesting and enigmatic path through the Japanese music landscape, from fragmented lo-fi prog-folk through ambient guitar improvisations into this piece of rural-psychedelic alien-organic machinery, made in collaboration with renowned scientists of new sounds Eiko Ishibashi and Jim O’Rourke. Divided into two tracks, one for each side of the LP, the first half of the album is as intangible as its obscure title (Tsutomu Noda of Japanese music magazine Ele-king hazards a guess at “Okiooishi” as the characters’ reading in his review), coming in fluid compressions and expansions of ambient drones, while the second side introduces more recognisable instruments, which peel away from the stream, working tranquil, uneasy, discordant and harmonious shapes on its surface, before sinking gradually back into its semi-transparent flow once more.
Sayozoku – Sayozoku Tanjo
Sayozoku aren’t so much a band as they are a playground: a collection of instruments and costumes that get picked up, played with, discarded, layered over each other sometimes in conversation with each other, but often dancing on their own, delighting in their own sounds. It isn’t until the fifth track, Hoshi, that Sayozoku give you something like a song, in the form of a raw, naïve folk song that gradually shares space with the by this point familiar howling flutes and other noises. This album is really all about the noises, the spaces between them, and the sense of play and childlike exploration.
Slope Up Session Club – Session / Club
Emerging out of a series of session events in Shibuya, Slope Up Session Club isn’t a band but rather a space where musicians get together. At the heart of it is Kim, vocalist/trumpeter/bassist/guitarist/loopmaster of jazz/prog/hip-hop duo Uhnellys, but he’s just part of a subtly shifting cast of musicians from the intersection zones between Tokyo’s indie, J-rock and jazz worlds. In 2019, they started releasing recorded documents of their project on Bandcamp with the album Slope, and they’ve been gradually spelling out their name with subsequent releases during the pandemic, culminating in January 2021’s Session and then Club following swiftly on its heels in May of the same year (no word as to whether they’ll start spelling out any new phrases now they’re done with this one). Musically, we’re in free jazz improv territory, and over the years, the cast of already supremely skilled individual musicians seem to have got more and more used to each other, laying down and exploring grooves, making space for each other, and able to create not only raucous jams but subtle and spacious pieces of beauty like the sublime Wola (from Session) with its affecting interplay between sax and violin. Of these most recent two releases, Session is the longer and covers a little broader territory, even detouring into classical territory on Flower, while Club leans a little more on rave-ups but both showcase a collection of musicians who interact wonderfully onstage.
yokoscum – Ibitsuna Shikaku
In the barrage of samples and found sounds that opens this mini-album, it hints at the harsh edges of ramshackle, naïve noise, but an equally important part of what Yokoscum does is in wrapping that clatter of found sounds into rhythmic loops over which eerie mantras or melancholy melodies play out. Over the course of its roughly 20 minute runtime, the clatter of broken machinery and those mournful spiritual cries dance in an awkward, frequently interrupted, and often fractious courtship. It makes for uncomfortable listening, but despite the many obstacles it throws in your path, it has a knack for drawing a sense of rhythm out of the chaos.
YPY – Fremde Füße
As the alias under which Koshiro Hino of Osaka minimal percussion group Goat operates solo, YPY is a name that’s been on a lot of people’s radar these past few years. This EP emerged out of what he describes as “weird version remixes for Yoshio Ootani’s album” (Jazz Modernism, also out in 2021 from Black Smoker Records). Its origins aside, Hino’s subtle ear for spartan but intricately interacting rhythms is on impressive display in here.