Tag Archives: Supercar

Suichu Zukan: Nami

What’s the timespan it takes for nostalgia to start making a tangible influence on the music scene? Apparently about 15 years judging from this short, fuzzy stab of alt-rock. Now I’m going to take a huge leap here and suggest that Suichu Zukan have listened to one or two songs by the the band Quruli, particularly from their early 2000s period. The band name is a portmanteau of the song Suichuu Motor (from 2002’s The World is Mine) and the album Zukan (released in the year 2000) and the most obvious tribute you could pay to the band’s best and most creative period. Dive deeper and their web site and video are littered with the sort of sketchy illustrations and paintings that characterised Shutoku Mukai’s Number Girl artwork, while the sounds on Nami also recall some of the shoegaze-inflected indie rock on Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change. Most bands hate being explicitly linked to the influence of other bands, but when they make it this obvious, they can have no complaints.

Instead, what this tells us is something of the nature of the music scene’s cycle of influence. The decade after Supercar, Quruli et al was characterised by their direct influence: artists from among their immediate contemporaries and those who grew up under the shadow of their immediate pop cultural influence. What seems to be happening now is that the music of that early 2000s generation is becoming seen as explicitly “old music” and something distanced enough to safely pay explicit tribute to. Their influence remains strong, but its nature seems to be changing, and Suichu Zukan seem to be an exemplar of that.Suichu Zukan: Nami

Of course musically those turn-of-the-millennium bands were themselves heavily influenced by US and UK alternative and indie rock, and that shows through in Nami too. This is a good thing, because 90s alt-rock was ace and hasn’t stopped being ace at any point in the interim. The song has a neat little break in the middle where the vocals and guitar dip into a decidedly Quruli-esque faux-Asiatic melodic lick before all the effects pedals kick back in again and it’s all Hüsker Dü tussling with Ride again all the way to the climax. Suichu Zukan are a band that are very hard to hear in any context other than that of their very obvious influences, but while there is absolutely nothing original about this song at any level of its creation — in the video they even do that thing of filming the band pretending to play their song on a beach, which has featured in every Japanese indie video of the past decade — the zone in which it places itself is one where they would be hard pressed to put a foot wrong, and they carry it off very successfully. The phrase “does exactly what it says on the tin” has rarely been more appropriate.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Pop-Office, “Good Morning”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a beautifully crafted slice of old-school indie rock from Nagoya.

Discussion of Japanese music tends to automatically gravitate towards the twin fringes of avant-garde experimentalism and day-glo, candy-coloured pop excess and it’s natural that when looking for music from a country, the artists that stand out are the ones that seem to exhibit something distinct and unique about that place. Pop-Office, on the other hand, are a solid indie rock band like what they used to make in the 90s, and Good Morning, taken from the group’s new album Portraits in Sea, is an instantly familiar example of the form, the fuzzy guitars growling at you from the get-go like Yo La Tengo’s Sugarcube and vocalist Ryuhei Shimada’s melancholy baritone vocals revealing echoes of Pop-Office’s roots in Joy Division-influenced postpunk.

For all the undoubted similarities with 1990s US alt-rock, this is also a song with roots in Japan’s own indie culture. Pop-Office hail from a generation of kids who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s when the ultra-sophisticated but also clinical and style-obsessed Shibuya-kei movement was coming to a close and guitar bands like Number Girl and Supercar were taking imagination of Japanese youth by the scruff of the neck, and Supercar’s epic shoegaze debut album, 1998’s Three Out Change, is clearly a bible for Pop-Office, with the rough guitar textures, desultory vocals and wistful melody in particular recalling early single Cream Soda.

There are hints, especially in the shifting drum patterns, of a band equally comfortable exploring more progressive musical territory, but at heart Good Morning is the sort of straightforward indie rock that supports itself not on pushing back boundaries but on a core of solid musicianship and melodic songwriting. Pop-Office demonstrate a skill in tweaking those notes of familiarity at the back of your mind, which is something it’s rare to find done well in a music scene where the best and most interesting material is more often the music that pushes the hyperactive extremes than that which satisfies the simpler, more nostalgic rock needs.

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Scratching the surface of music in Japan’s neglected northeast

One of the quirks of the music scene in Japan is that it seems to lean dramatically westward. Not in any cultural sense, you understand — if anything, Japanese music has been becoming more and more insular and isolated from overseas trends over the last twenty years or so — but in a geographical one. From the economic and cultural capital in Tokyo, the music scene tends to drift westward, with Nagoya the next major stop, then Kansai area nexus of Kyoto Osaka-Kobe, and then on a literal and figurative island of its own there’s the Kyushu scene, centred around the regional capital of Fukuoka. Eastwards and northwards, information is scarce.

One reason for this is that for touring bands, there’s just more to explore to the west so it makes economic sense to tour in that direction. Kansai or Kyushu can make a decent long weekend tour in a few cities, while Nagoya is a big city (2.2 million) on its own and an easy enough drive from both Tokyo and Kansai. All this gives the western tail of Japan a sense of greater vibrancy with more word-of-mouth information flowing back and forth among the little networks of bands that zip along Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines.

Northeast of Tokyo, there are of course towns with their own music scenes, but they tend to be smaller and more spaced out. Sapporo is the largest, but positioned in the middle if the northern island of Hokkaido it is also the most isolated. Aomori on the northern tip of the main island of Honshu gave Japan the legendary shoegaze-cum-electronic quartet Supercar, one of the bands who helped define the sound of Japanese rock music in the new millennium, and is also home to the Aomori Rock Festival, one of the more eclectic and interesting entries in the Japanese festival circuit.Supercar: Storywriter

But it’s in the earthquake and tsunami-battered eastern Tohoku coast in Sendai and Fukushima where the lazy Tokyoite has easiest access to the sounds of the icy north. Tying the art of this area in with the earthquake and the ongoing nuclear crisis is obviously a cheap thing to do, but for better or worse, those events do seem to have drawn (possibly guilty) eyes from the capital in that direction just a little bit more. The avant-garde musician and composer Yoshihide Otomo spoke eloquently on the role of culture in reclaiming the identity of Fukushima from the associations with the disaster (and through his soundtrack work on the insanely popular morning TV drama Amachan he may have succeeded in part of his aim), and so those of us living far away from Tohoku are in the paradoxical situation of having what we might call a duty to look east because of the 2011 disaster but a parallel duty to put the disaster to the back of our minds (how far back is a question open to debate) when considering its music.

In any case, triple-disaster aside, there is interesting music going on and there are a couple of bands I want to introduce here, one from Fukushima and one from Sendai. They’re both on the alternative or underground end of the spectrum because those are the kinds of bands that interest me, and they’re both well worth listening to.

The wonderfully named Rebel One Excalibur are a ferocious math rocky trio from Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture whose self-titled debut mini album is due out soon. There doesn’t seem to be any audio from the record up yet, so this live clip will have to suffice to give you a taste of what they’re about Rebel One Excalibur: Zanpano

Rather than walking a line between discipline and chaos, Rebel One Excalibur seem to see no contradiction between the two concepts, revelling in both equally. They love dark, doomy chords and the vocals range from strangled to lung-shreddingly tortured, but there’s a playfulness to their arrangements that suggests controlled fury rather than mere angst.

Further up the coast in Sendai, we can find Umiuma. A similary technically-minded trio, Umiuma nonetheless take a poppier track, with some tracks recalling the jazzy pop excursions of 90s Shibuya-kei and melodies delivered via the candy-sweet tones of singer Masumi Horiya.

The most interesting moments are where the band subvert their pop sensibilities, setting them off against more discordant sounds, hyperactive rhythms and offbeat arrangements. They released a full-length album titled Kaiba earlier in the year that does a solid job of encapsulating most of the range of their sound (although sadly it doesn’t include any of the wonderfully odd cover versions they occasionally come up with live).

There is plenty plenty more music to be uncovered from the area, which I am only now starting to get to grips with. The intriguing Redd Temple come recommended highly by people in the know and regularly share stages with Rebel One Excalibur, and similarly, Umiuma are by no means a lone musical voice among Sendai’s one million residents. Really, all I am doing here is much belatedly scratching at the surface of a region of Japan that is too often neglected by the westward-gazing eyes of Tokyo, but which deserves much greater attention.

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Strange Boutique (February 2013)

My latest column is up on The Japan Times’ web site now. It deals with the influence of shoegaze in general, and My Bloody Valentine in particular, on the Japanese indie music scene. Given that MBV have their first new album out in forever and have recently been on tour here, it’s perhaps understandable that people have been going mental for them lately. My Facebook feed for a week was full almost entirely of different photos of the same “Tonite: My Bloody Valentine” display board outside Studio Coast that all my friends were posting with tedious regularity, and there were several club events, a shoegaze festival and a tribute album all out at the same time.Supercar: Karma

There were a few little remarks I dropped in there knowing that people would get annoyed by them. It’s my little gift to idol fans that after aggravating them so much the other week, I thought I’d do the same to indie fans. Some people have already told me off for calling Chapterhouse, Ride, Lush and Slowdive “copycats”, but I hope most people will accept that as legitimate editorial hyperbole (I’m a huge fan of Lush and I’m sure Chapterhouse will one day merit an article all of their own where someone can do them proper justice, but that article isn’t this one and that writer won’t be me). I wondered if anyone would upbraid me for mentioning Stereolab and Flying Saucer Attack as well, since they’re not strictly shoegaze (if you cleave to a definition of shoegaze that means basically “exactly copying MBV”). Stereolab were definitely part of The Scene That Celebrates Itself though, and the guitar on the 18-minute album version of Jenny Ondioline is as shoegaze as anything ever made, while FSA’s whole first album is non-more-shoegaze. But yes, I stand by my assertion that FSA were better than MBV. If you disagree with me, your ears are wrong.

I mentioned Narasaki’s work with Momoiro Clover Z too, and to be honest there’s nothing really shoegaze about any of that. All it really means is that he’s a guy with a shoegaze background working with idols. In Lost Child, he uses synths and vocals in a vaguely shoegazing way, but where he employs guitars, it’s always metal. You need to listen to Coaltar of the Deepers to see where the two cross over really.

Shoegaze in Japan is interesting though. In the indie scene, it tends to be more of the lo-fi, 80s proto-shoegaze variety, and I think The Jesus and Mary Chain and well as MBV’s early, jangly stuff are probably bigger influences. You can hear that really strongly in stuff like Slow-Marico and Teen RunningsThere are also bands who probably take their influence more from the more vaguely defined neo-shoegaze coming out of the USA and to a lesser extent the UK in the past few years, which I feel is more where Jesse Ruins are.

In the alt-rock scene, which is where the really hardcore effects pedal geeks reside, the likes of Dinosaur Jr. are probably just as influential, and then there’s also the secondary influence of all the Japanese bands around the late 90s/early 2000s who were the first to really articulate the influence of shoegaze in the first place. Supercar were by far the most significant. Nagoya’s Pop-Office acknowledge the influence of Supercar as an important one for them. When I was in Fukuoka at the end of January, my boys Hyacca covered the track Lucky off the album Three Out Change and everyone over the age of thirty went mental. Hyacca themselves have some pretty heavily shoegazey tracks (guitarist Goshima is largely responsible) like Olympic, Skyline, Angel Fish, and Sashitai, although usually mixed in with something else, and that tends to be the way with most alternative bands. They love MBV pretty much uniformly, but few of them seem that tied down or restricted by the influence.Hyacca: Sashitai

The other thing that they tend not to have so much of is the sheer noise. Noise music in Japan tends to come from electronic, no wave or psychedelic traditions. The idea of an indie noise band is pretty unique here, so any band with MBV’s tunes would probably not really bring the noise, and any band with the noise would probably be a bit more prog rock and soundscapey with the songs. Cruyff in the Bedroom, the guitarist of whom I spoke to briefly for the article, are one of the best (that I’ve heard, at least) of the current crop of bands who can legitimately be called full-on shoegaze, although there are a lot of pretty good ones. My favourite are probably the Stereolab-esque, synth-laden Hour Musik, but some other key names are Lemon’s Chair, who organised the Yellow Loveless tribute album, Luminous Orange, who were perhaps the first Japanese shoegazers back in the 90s, Plastic Girl in Closet are another important one, and the list goes on.

 

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Strange Boutique (April 2012)

My April column goes back a bit to the early 2000s and takes another look at some of the classic alternative music that came out in Japan at that time. I remember not being particularly impressed by Supercar’s Highvision at the time, and falling between the mighty Futurama and the emotionally burned-out hymn to alienation that was Answer, it’s in a bit of an awkward position, but actually listening back, it stands up with the best of their oeuvre.

Supercar: Strobolights

The World is Mine, on the other hand, was always a striking piece of work, and Quruli’s subsequent career has only emphasised further how groundbreaking a piece of work it is. Similarly, Num Heavymetallic is an album whose significance was pretty clear even at the time.

Quruli: World’s End Supernova (live) (see the original here)

The most amazing thing listening to these albums ten years later is the sheer breadth of what these three bands thought they could get away with, and the extent to which their labels indulged them. Of course there are bands making similar things now, but that’s the point: they’re just following a trail already blazed by Supercar, Quruli and Number Girl. There’s a problem here too, which I didn’t have space to go into in the article, which is that the long shadow these bands cast could be catching Japanese alternative rock in a state of arrested development, crowding out new ideas from the mainstream.

Number Girl: Num Ami Dabutz

Another thought I didn’t have space to go into concerns the influence of Supercar. While there are plenty of bands in the alternative scene who sound like they’re following Number Girl and Quruli (although few who are following the mad, eclectic spazz-out of The World is Mine), Supercar don’t seem to have so many direct followers. Partly, this might be because this kind of indie/electronic crossover material is more difficult to copy, which would also explain why Quruli imitators tend to take after their folk-rock and emo influenced stuff than their electronic  material. Another thought I had was that Supercar’s popularity and influence seems to be more apparent in the “mature” noitaminA-type anime world and related music scene, where emotionally washed-out music that harks back to childhood continues to teeter on the brink of dreams that Supercar themselves may have woken up from long ago. Certainly the anime world was the first place Miki Furukawa and Koji Nakamura’s new band Lama stopped off at when they formed last year.

Lama: Spell (No.6 anime opening): 

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Pop Office: Wait for the Sun

A couple of people have already written about this new song by Nagoya newcomers Pop Office, and I don’t feel that I have much to add except to say that it develops the band’s sound subtly but effectively, with a less obvious 80s influence and more of a nod to shoegaze, while retaining Pop Office’s curious fascination with autotune. In Wait for the Sun, it’s used more as a spot effect with Ryuhei Shimada’s vocals raw and ragged through most of the song. The electronic and synth effects are used sparingly, but just enough that in combination with the shoegazey aesthetic and bittersweet, bleak-yet-uplifting melody and delivery they add up to something rather reminiscent of late-90s/early-2000s alt-rock legends Supercar, in particular that period round the release of Futurama when they were going through a fascinating period of transition from their more rock-orientated early material to their more experimental and electronic work. There’s no particular song I can put my finger on, but in the overall tone and dynamics I can hear echoes of Flava (the minimal, repetitive main melody) and Playstar Vista (the quiet/loud dynamic) and I’m willing to bet a more exhaustive trawl of Supercar’s excellent back catalogue would throw up other reference points. I’m sure Pop Office would deny any direct influence here, but in any case, I think they’ve found themselves at a similar place and really it’s no bad place to be.

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