Tag Archives: tepPohseen

V/A: Life is Music


Cassette, Touch Records, 2018

Kicking off with Fukuoka alt-rock band tepPohseen’s sprawling, ten-minute Joukei (which accounts for a third of the whole cassette’s running time), this seven-song cassette compilation of ‘90s-influenced lo-fi alternative bands from around Japan is a piece out of time with a music scene increasingly characterised by hyperactive bedroom beatmakers, slick-sounding, commercially-ambitious “city pop” and quirky so-called alt-idols. Getting past the rather generic title, Life is Music features all new recordings, but is still a collection proudly of its time. And that time is about ten years ago, with bands like Nagoya’s Sonic Youth-esque Free City Noise, Tokyo-based instrumental noise-rock band Fukuro, and the more sweetly melodic Joshua Comeback. It’s not strictly a genre collection, with Kobe/Osaka’s Merry Ghosts (the band formerly known as Trespass) calling back to the late-‘70s/early-80s postpunk era and Osaka’s Shoki no And Young (presumably an early lineup of stalwart local crazy horses …And Young) winding a coil of ’90s guitar distortion around a core of ’70s rock. At the same time, though, it’s a compilation that, despite being released in 2018 was, forged in the Japanese music scene of the early 2000s, when the band scene was defined in large part by the mainstream success of acts like Number Girl and Shiina Ringo back when she was still interesting. This compilation doesn’t offer much in the way of a path forward for Japanese underground rock, but it’s nonetheless a welcome reminder that those days were a period that produced a lot of the most interesting underground rock bands still playing today (and a lot more now sadly vanished).



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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.3 – Narcolepsin – Mojo

Narcolepsin - MOJO

CD, Headache Sounds, 2016

The power of aggressive music to provoke has been a constant thread in the development of rock and various forms of electronic music and hip hop. The word “provoke” was the title of a Japanese postpunk-themed compilation album (No.20 in this list) this year, which, intentionally or not, raised an interesting question of what it means for music to be provocative in the 2010s.

Listen to a lot of early punk and, while you might understand on some intellectual level that this was shocking music in its original context, it rarely feels that way on a visceral level. The Clash might have bellowed, “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” but their music feels now far closer to those classic acts than it does to the kind of extreme music that followed fairly swiftly after them. Nowadays, even noise, which emerged in the ‘80s and remains through artists like Merzbow, Hijokaidan and Incapacitants some of the most sonically abrasive anti-music ever, is no longer really shocking as a stance: it’s simply a medium in which artists can operate, experimenting based on texture rather than melody and rhythm. The extremes of the noise path have now largely been charted. and if it doesn’t sound exactly conventional, it certainly has its conventions.

So what can a musician do nowadays to shake a listener out of their comfort zone if simply battering their ears with noise no longer works? One way is to irritate them, which is perhaps one of the reasons why many artists from the postpunk era who retain the greatest power to provoke are not those who used the raw power of sonic missiles but the insistent, needling irritation of a small child singing out of key as they repeatedly kick the back of your chair. The erratic, hysterical, amped-up fairground prog-psych of early Cardiacs annoyed the NME so much that they banned the group from their pages for ten years or more. The confrontational, droning, repetitive standup of punk-era comic Ted Chippington continues to be divisive even among the more esoteric fringes of the British comedy scene.

It’s that wilfully unbalanced, needling, insistent aural aggravation that is at the heart of what makes Narcolepsin such a silly, fun and challenging band. On stage, drummer Ami plays a minimal kit consisting of just a kick, snare and hi-hat, while synth player Popo Copy taps impassively away on a single note like an icier Ron Mael. In contrast, Naoki Sakata (formerly of tepPohseen — yes, this is another Fukuoka band) plays sax, two different guitars, and yaps away atonally like a confused, angry chihuahua.

Narcolepsin’s songs confound the traditional structures that some more nominally extreme music can at times unconsciously cling to, as in Equal, which teases you with the possibility that it has finished over and over again only to return laboriously to the start. Si builds layers of sax, scratchy guitar and playground taunt vocals over a relentlessly repetitive two-note synth part. The title track, meanwhile, takes delight in its rhythmical inconsistency, each instrument seeming to play along to an idiosyncratic beat of its own, Sakata’s vocals yowling incoherently in the distance.Equal (live)

While Narcolepsin employ many of the tools of progressive rock, with overlapping rhythms, deviations from standard rock chords and key, and an evident jazz influence, they are nonetheless distinctly postpunk in the way they present their chaos of sounds with the join still clearly on display, feeding a fractured, angular soundscape that plays out over the album’s short 21-minute runtime. It’s annoying as hell, but it’s also playful, silly and fun in how it teases you and mocks your expectations. Like all extreme music, it demands you step out of your comfort zone and approach it from their perspective, and like all extreme music, part of its appeal is the subsequent pleasure in being one of the ones who gets it.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.7 – Sea Level – Invisible Cities

Sea Level - Invisible Cities

Cassette/download, Collective Noun, 2016

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.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.15 – tepPohseen – Some Speedy Kisses

teppohseen - Some Speedy Kisses

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2016

The music-of-last-year rundowns on this site invariably include a strong contingent from Fukuoka and Kyushu, and mostly this is a simple function of me having a lot of friends there and as a result getting more information about what’s going on. It’s also, however, because it’s a city that consistently has an unusually strong indie scene with a lot of distinctive and talented musicians. tepPohseen have been around forever, but this album on Osaka’s Gyuune Cassette label (it’s a CD — ignore the label name) is the first “proper” release that’s crossed my path. Some of these songs have been around in various forms since God was a boy, and — coupled with the fact that some of them hover around the eight-to-ten-minute range — this serves to add an unspoken caveat to the title Some Speedy Kisses of “but, y’know, also some really drawn-out, lingering ones”.

There is an interesting interplay between band leader Ryo Asada’s deadpan vocals and drummer Kumiko Shiga’s sweet yet matter-of-fact delivery. Long stretches of the album are instrumental though, and Asada certainly seems more comfortable letting his guitar do most of the singing. That’s also where he is at his most powerful in expressing himself, teasing out wails and fusillades both tortured and joyous, melodic and discordant, finicky and free.

There’s clearly a lot of something like Sonic Youth happening in the formative soup from which these songs emerged, not to mention odd little snatches of new wave (the bassline from Roka is straight out of New Order’s Blue Monday). It’s when they slow down and get into the serious songwriting that tepPohseen show their colours most strongly as children of the holy trinity of 2000s Japanese indie rock though, with Eisei / Yadorigi reflecting echoes of Supercar, Number Girl and Quruli, as well as drawing from the deeper well of Japanese rock songwriting dug by Happy End.


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