This year, I didn’t really post any reviews aside from a couple of mixes of recommended tracks from the year’s releases. I did, however, spend the year keeping a running list of releases that looked interesting to me, so rather than just picking out and ranking (which always felt like a stupid and pointless thing to do anyway) twenty or so highlights of the year, I decided to go back over that list and try to write up pretty much everything released in 2021 that crossed my path. I’ve divided it into (sometimes very loose) genre themed sections to make it at least vaguely coherent. There are eight posts rounding up the year, and here’s the first one, focusing on music that’s more or less punk. I’ve embedded Bandcamp players where they exist. Where they don’t, you might find it on the evil Spotify, or else it means it’s only available in a physical format.
Born Shit Stirrers / Ledzepvietcong – Overworked Underfucked
Fukuoka-based punk troublemakers Born Shit Stirrers’ approach centres around warpspeed micro-songs that communicate whatever message they have more through the haranguing energy and snotty, often hilarious titles than the generally incomprehensible lyrics. The nuts and bolts of their songs are getting more distinct with every new release though, with individual elements here, like the way the band pingpong about between vocalists, standing out more clearly within the songs’ internal chaos. Over the side, Kumamoto-based Ledzepvietcong throw down some fuzzy, lo-fi nuggets, with a hint of a lonesome and liquored up Sebadoh to their take on punk rock, and after the fierce and frantic first side, the slurred looseness of their side is a welcome chaser.
HALF KILL / DAISEI STOCK HAUSEN – Split EP
The first side of this split cassette from Shizuoka Prefecture belongs to Half Kill, who trade in shouty, raucous punk with a scuzzy, 1990s alt-rock trash tilt. The interplay between the male and female vocalists gives the music a lively internal dynamic, while the shifts in tempo and layers of guitar distortion keep the songs on the Hüsker Dü side of punk convention. Over the side, Daisei Stock Hausen, whose members have past form dating back to the early 2000s in bands like Nemo and The Hasshin Telepathies, are still (post-)punk of sorts with their rambling, ranting vocals, but they channel the spirit through the sequencers, bleeps and madcap beats of techno and EBM and trashy, 80s Helios Creed guitars that sound like they’re being played underwater. It’s messy, which means it’s also unpredictable and kind of fun.
Kagami – Demo
This frenetic EP of short, sharp blasts of hardcore (the longest song is 1:12 long) might pitch itself as a demo, but if so, it sounds fantastic, the guitars scratchy blasts of foil-thin metallic tinnitus while the bass pummels the heart of the songs at you.
LeakLeek – Leak
This is a release my label Call And Response put out, so obviously I’m biased, but it seems pointlessly timid to leave CAR artists out of roundups like these at this point. LeakLeek are a band who are definitely punk, but of a proudly unconventional sort, dropping guitar from the lineup in favour of violin and musical saw (and an extra bassist). This gives the mini-album here a queasy sort of psychedelic take on no wave, with a cover of DNA’s Not Moving driving home that part of their, well, DNA I guess. There’s also hints of the sort of manic Japanese new wave of bands like P-Model and the Plastics in songs like the disconcertingly perky China Doll. A couple of members of LeakLeak crop up later in here too, as part of the also excellent band Nicfit.
LLRR – <=>
Another Call And Response release, this EP from mostly Kyoto-based LLRR (“lew-lew-low-low”) was originally released in 2020 exclusively on streaming services like Spotify, but I felt that was a waste for such a good collection of spiky, obliquely poppy, intelligent art-punk and talked the band into letting CAR do a limited cassette and Bandcamp release as well.
LRF – The Anti-Vax Punk Songs EP
The first of six Bandcamp releases from this Osaka punk act (some of which seem to be re-ups of old releases), this EP does exactly what it says on the tin, delivering four fuzzy, lo-fi punk anthems in the Sham 69 vein, railing against bio-fascism, Bill Gates, the “plandemic” and you, the zombie masses ruled by fear. It’s hard to tell how seriously this guy takes the conspiratorial specifics of what he’s singing or whether he’s just waving them as sloganeering banner images in his more general war on the genuinely unsettling and illiberal culture of restrictions, mandates and surveillance that the pandemic has ushered in in many places. A year on, it feels like a throwback to an impossibly ancient panic, at least here in Japan, but a bit of righteously angry paranoia isn’t always a bad thing for a music scene — like a vaccine in its own right against complacency.
M.A.Z.E. – II
This second mini-album picks up where this Tokyo band’s first one in 2019 (and their 2020 split EP with Nagoya no wave noise-punks Nicfit) left off, firing out micro-missives of jittery, authentically thin-sounding, offbeat punk that recalls the ramshackle early blasts of Kleenex. There’s an irrepressible sort of bounciness to the way these songs leap out of the traps that skirts just clear of being disco-punk but retains a lot of its toe-tapping energy.
Nicfit – Nicfit
This short album isn’t a new release exactly (the band’s 2022 album Fuse, from UK label Upset the Rhythm, is the one you want if you need the most up-to-date statement of where the band are now) but for anyone after a primer for one of Japan’s best purveyors of distorted art-punk, this release from French label Sorcerer gathers together the tracks from their Swell 7-inch as well as from their split EPs with M.A.Z.E. and Pinprick Punishment. The fantastic Creep off 2012’s Ripple Nagoya indie compilation would have been a nice addition too, but it’s still a solid starting place for some dark, dirty, twisty-turny guitar abuse.
Non Band – Non Band II
Forty years after they burst onto the Japanese early 80s punk scene with their wonderfully off-kilter self-titled debut album, Non Band finally decided to follow it up in 2021 with a collection of all new songs. The passage of time has weathered Non’s voice into something harsher and more ragged, and which fits in well with the scraping violin and delirious, whirling rhythms of tracks like Indepup 2018. The songs on this album’s idiosyncratic structures often leave you wondering what it’s even trying to do, but demanding a group like Non Band be more normal feels both petulant and futile. After four decades, they’ve earned the opportunity to cut loose.
Oops – out of pictures 7”ep
Hailing from Osaka, the home of punk that won’t do what it’s told, Oops officially dropped this EP at the end of December 2020, although it just sneaks into the 2021 roundup because the physical version didn’t materialise until the following month. In these four sharply curtailed songs, exasperated vocals ring out over tunes that draw on emotionally wrought alt-rock sounds one minute, sparsely arranged post-punk another, and scattergun spazzcore the next. The band went through a significant shift later in the year with the recruitment of a new vocalist (Minami from LLRR, fact-fans), but this EP is still a tantalising momentary snapshot of a band in motion.
The Questions – Koi no Yokan
Fizzy garage-punk from Okinawa that kicks off with a minute-long theme song for the band, before settling into a groove of lively, scuzzy garage/mod party music. Vocalist Chelio might be familiar to Japanese neo mod scene-watchers from her old band Six, and The Questions are very much in that vein. They followed this release up quite quickly with another EP, titled Beehive (presumably after the band’s hairstyles), in the summer.
The Smog – First Time, Last Chance
This 7-inch single revels in the tightly wired sounds and hurried rhythms of late-70s punk, with the sharp-edged and angular guitars jerking around like a heavily caffeinated Wilko Johnson on both tracks (and especially on B-side Noise Noise).
Worst Taste – Ultra Power EP
Worst Taste were one of the core bands in the scene of oblique punk/alternative acts that gathered around the venue Club Goodman in the early 2000s under the influence of groups like Panicsmile, and they’ve remained active ever since, being key figures in the Tokyo Boredom event organiser collective in addition to their own activities as a band. This three-song cassette EP is their first new release since 2014’s Live-ban live album, released in their slightly altered and electronically-augmented lineup of Worst Taste & Special Magic and it sees the band back to their raw rock trio roots. What that means is that you get three dizzy whirls around the dance floor by the demented ringmaster of a post-punk circus. Inevitably, your mileage will vary with that sort of thing, but there’s no one else who sounds quite like them. At the moment, it’s only available as a cassette from the band themselves, but it seems to be designed partly as a taster for more widely available things to come.