Tag Archives: The Routes

2021 Japan music roundup: INDIE ROCK

There’s inevitably going to be a fair amount of crossover between this section and things like punk, psychedelia and other leftfield rock, but this edition of the roundup is basically devoted to song-based guitar music based on more or less familiar pop or rock structures, albeit often with their own quirks or divergences. As usual, Bandcamp links are here where they exist; where not, you’ll either need to get a CD from the band themselves or find them on The Evil Streaming Websites.

Closh – Dokkyo Rojin
A few years ago, Closh had a fantastic band called Doodless (with a double-s) and more recently she’s a face around the scene as part of the indie-punk band Wetnap, but on this solo EP her frenzied, on-the-verge-of-collapse vocal hysteria in undiluted. It lands in the form of five short, subtly deranged early 1990s-style alt-rock tunes that keep teetering subtly away from the notes chords you’re expecting, recorded with the fuzzy lo-fi vibes of Westing (By Musket and Sextant)-period Pavement or pre-Matador Guided By Voices. It sounds like a mess, but it’s hypnotic.

DYGL – A Daze In A Haze
Over the past ten years, DYGL have become extremely rare breakthrough stars of the Tokyo indie scene. Over the years they’ve gone through jangly Cure-esque indiepop, Strokes-like indie-punk and a debut album (produced by Albert Hammond Jr.) that cast about among a variety of influences before arriving here with songs that initially hint at more of a soft American emo-alternative vibe. The autotuned vocals on the opening 7624 are a bit of a red herring for where the album is going, with Nobuki Akiyama’s subtly Anglo-inflected voice mostly coming through plain and intimate even as he cheerleads the audience through the band’s arms-in-the-air choruses. Meanwhile, DYGL’s UK rock influences still linger in hints of Noel Gallagher in Yosuke Shimonaka’s solos on Did We Forget How to Dream in the Daytime, while the intro to Banger (perhaps cheekily) calls back to My Bloody Valentine’s Soon. Coming as it did in the middle of a pandemic, it’s hard not to feel something of the era’s quiet unreality of semi-isolation in the title and the hazy, sun-dappled aura of the tunes and production, as well as the sense that occasionally filters through in the lyrics of someone alone in their room, writing songs about writing songs. How true this is and how much of the music pre-dates these times I don’t know, but it definitely connects with the moment in its own soft spoken way.

Goofy18 – Mistakes
There’s something reassuringly early-2000s about this Tokyo duo’s raw frenzy of drums and distorted bass, combined with assertively delivered J-pop melodies. Like a stripped down, rough-edged Tsushimamire or something you’d find lurking on the bill of a Sister/Benten event, it’s an often exhausting but fearsomely enthusiastic, energetically catchy, scuzzy punk bubblegum slumber party of an album.

Greg Snazz – Trashworld / Wrong Answers Only
In addition to playing live in Chiba folk-rock band Talent Show, Greg Snazz seems to have spent 2021 firing out micro-blasts of ultra-lo-fi (we’re talking early Royal Trux-grade fuzz) garage-punk on his own with these two releases, which arrived in September and December of the year. Not so much albums in the traditional sense, they feel more like musical sketchbooks, wandering from dirty-as-fuck noise in the mould of Jon Spencer at one extreme to rough-edged Neil Young-style country-folk balladry. Of the two, Trashworld feels happiest in joyously trashy 1970s surf-punk territory, while Wrong Answers Only pushes deeper into the extremes, with the deranged experimentalism of Sorry, Pigs bumping up against murkily sinister glam rock banger Little Killer and sonic fuck-uppery gleefully tormenting even the most upbeat country-rock jaunts. Especially on this latter of the two releases, there’s a joy here in using discord and lo-fi noise deliberately and creatively to make rock’n’roll with unsettling and interesting textures in a way that recallsBrainiac and Vampire on Titus-era Guided By Voices, as well as what acts Gallon Drunk were doing with the legacy of The Cramps in the 1990s.

Hijosen – Hatsuro
People who remember the oddball charms of noise-pop duo Umez will find themselves on familiar ground with this album by ex-member Niiyan’s (also of Screaming Tea Party) new band. There are some very similar dynamics at play in the music, with walls of euphoric noise, soaring guitar solos and simple, looping melodies that are very fond of the chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon in D — not to mention a couple of covers — and it’s a distinctive sound that brings elements of J-pop’s most foundational melodic tropes with guitar noise that flattens the peaks of the waveform and subdued moments of dreampop serenity.

Lillies and Remains – Greatest View / Falling
It’s been a long time since we last heard from Lillies and Remains around these parts, with their last album coming out in the impossibly distant past of 2014, so it was a surprise when these two singles dropped last spring/summer. And it was really like no time had passed at all, with the band’s reverb-heavy new wave guitar jangle still very much in effect on Greatest View, and Falling throwing smooth synths high up into the mix for added echoes of The Fixx.

Merry Ghosts – Pink Bloom
This Osaka/Kobe duo have already been walking the line between post-punk and indie rock in the Kansai area for a long time under the name Trespass, but this first full album under their new name turns out to be one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. The band’s angular side is still there in the sharp guitars and judiciously employed synth elements, but they all serve to give the music the edge it needs to keep it just on the wrong side of normal without undermining what are essentially just really nicely made, crunchy alt-rock tunes. There’s nothing groundbreaking in here: just a pair of musicians who’ve been playing together for a long time, doing what they love in just the right amounts. The album is only available as a physical CD, but they have a music video on that YouTube they have now.

Nehann – New Metropolis
Coming out swinging hard in this debut album, Tokyo’s Nehann open with a bold statement of intent in Nylon, an epic, gothic-tinted 1980s rocker with a vocalist who sounds exactly like Andrew Eldritch. Having struck that tone, they don’t back down, with second track Hollowed Hearts continuing in a similar vein and swinging for the fences with some soaring lyrical exploits including the glorious nugget of wisdom, “Your eyes / Remind me of a plastic toy I once swallowed / I remember it was a terrible mistake”. If it sounds like I’m making fun of them, well, maybe I am a bit, cynical old dweeb that I am, but (like their contemporaries Stram) the band’s sincere and unrelenting pursuit of the biggest sounds, the biggest emotions, the boldest delivery is also refreshing in a scene that so easily gets wrapped up in its own smallness. Pretentious is just another word for ambitious, and Nehann are very ambitious.

The Routes – Mesmerised
Based in Oita, western Japan, The Routes are these days mainly the recording project of songwriter Chris Jack, and by this point ten albums into his career crafting Nuggetsy garage rock tunes, he knows what he’s doing. And it’s that songwriting craftsmanship that sets The Routes apart from most of the Japanese garage rock scene, with top class recording and production, and melodies that surpass (at least in consistency) a lot of their influences and probably put them closer to second-wave punk-era garage rockers like The Three O’Clock than the original, covers-heavy 60s generation.

SiMoN – Steuben
Over the past couple of decades, Simon has popped up here and there around Japan, from Tokyo to Osaka to Sapporo and now Hiroshima, playing a variety of roles in one band or another, one venue or another, but his own solo line in delicate acoustic songsmithery has been a constant. It’s presented on Steuben with minimal decoration bar some reverb and echo here and there, his vocals up close to the mic to the point where his breathy near-whisper feels like it’s right up against your ear, in a way that will either induce ASMR heaven or wincing discomfort depending on your mileage.

So oouchi – Kikyu no Uta
This EP is a curious and typically oblique intervention from a musician initially known for the dark, noise-drenched post-punk of his old band Hysteric Picnic (later renamed Burgh). Oouchi has been quiet for the past five or six years, but a couple of recent archive releases from his post-punk days provoked a minor flurry of nostalgia among scene heads, so naturally he followed them up with five songs worth of delicate acoustic finger picking folk music. There’s a Nick Drake-like simplicity to it that belies the ways the songs skirt clear of Japanese singer-songwriter clichés, not only in the melodies but also in Oouchi’s fragile baritone vocals.

Tete+Shon – Silently Waiting
This is a project comprising half of the Tokyo alt-rock quartet Tropical Death (who have released a couple of cassette EPs via my Call And Response label) in which guitarist Takashi “Tete” Motegi and drummer Sean “Shon” McGee run free with their shared love of Ben Gibbard in a collection of nine tales of loneliness and lovelorn ennui. It kicks off with a wall of rock guitars in the instrumental M Eats J, but elsewhere plays with more Postal Service-like electronic textures on Trip, and enters almost ambient regions in the instrumental Quiet Neighbor. The heart of it, though, is subdued indie rock, touched by quiet sadness, that isn’t quite emo but definitely owns a lot of emo records.

Talent Show – Live at Anga
In addition to releasing two albums of raw, lo-fi experimental rock’n’roll, Greg Snazz also fronts this set of 1970s folk-rock tunes, sitting somewhere between… what, a more together Big Star and a more ragged Eagles? The songwriting is impeccable and while it’s a live album (with between-song banter and audience sounds occasionally filtering through), it’s a remarkably slick recording that fir the most part stands up with a lot of indie studio efforts. Bonus points for having a song about infamous and mysterious airline hijacker D. B. Cooper.

1 Comment

Filed under Features

Indiepop roundup (Summer 2020)

Tangingugun – Yasui Jumon
Matsumoto, Nagano-based Tangingugun typically trade in laid-back pop melodies delivered through a hazy filter of psychedelic-tinted guitar distortion, the male-female twin vocal interplay between Saori Nakamura and Masashiro Nimi adding an enriching layer of texture to the sound — sometimes trading lines, others intermingled as harmonies, and on Kiri wa Hagureta slipping easily between the two. While there are moments where things step up to a bouncier tempo, as on second track Koumi-machi, the prevailing atmosphere is one of quietly sophisticated, summery melancholy.

Puffyshoes – I Might Be In Love
I wrote about this EP for the Undrcurrents blog’s Bandcamp roundup in June, singling out the simple economy of Puffyshoes’ songwriting in how they create ultra-short lo-fi pop nuggets by focusing in on the hooks and rarely getting diverted once the point has been made. I Might Be in Love also sees the band playing around with other songwriters’ material, as on their joyously ragged-edged cover of The Strangeloves’ I Want Candy, and it’s testament to Puffyshoes’ own songwriting that they can flit between the two seamlessly.

Sloppy Joe – Waiting For The Night Begins
It feels strange to be writing about Sloppy Joe almost ten years after their first album, With Kisses Four, with the same mixture of irony and giddy joy and with almost the same words, but here I am and here is Waiting For The Night Begins. And really it’s like not a moment had passed, which is to say that from the bat it sounds like the meticulous and loving work of a passionately devoted Smiths tribute band. To leave it at that assessment alone would be more dismissive than Sloppy Joe deserve though, and they wear their jangly 1980s indiepop influences so proudly, their love for the sounds, the tone, the inflections and melodic habits of the era running far deeper than Morrissey and Marr — fans of Aztec Camera, The Pale Fountains, early Orange Juice, The Monochrome Set and plenty more will frequently find themselves in a familiar place. Above all, the craftsmanship underlying these songs and their attention to detail is spellbinding, sweeping the listener up in the band’s obvious love for the music — originality be damned.

Half Sports – Intelligence and Delicious
Intelligence and Delicious is Half Sports’ first album since 2014’s Mild Elevation, although a couple of 7-inches have appeared in the meantime, and the propulsive opening Missing the Piece of my Miseries shows the band still have their peculiar cocktail of energetic melancholy, combining punkish 1970s powerpop with shoegazey scuzz and distortion, with the album taking a turn towards the hazier end of that spectrum on Emperor Soy Sauce and leaning on the rockier end on Isolated Facts.

Morningwhim – Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes
The first of a couple of new releases by Aichi Prefecture’s Morningwhim, this cassette single is perhaps the more immediately striking of the two, with Talking To Myself in particular pushing all the right bittersweet buttons from its heartache chord changes to the slight rough edges of the vocals’ celestial 4AD harmonies. That’s not to diminish the other side, Smoke From Cigarettes, though, which carries a similar scuzzy, jangly garage-shoegaze energy with just as much assurance. The cover art suggests a lingering influence from Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but from the evidence of this, Morningwhim have plenty to offer in their own right.

Morningwhim – Most Of the Sun Shines
In addition to the wonderful Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes cassette single, Morningwhim also released this 7-inch this spring, with a cleaner, less fuzz-inflected sound, the title track setting an acoustic guitar groove against a haunting synth string backdrop, while B-side Wandering turns up the jangle and chime. This single makes for more of a low-key introduction to the band than the cassette, but demonstrates that their sweetly melodic guitar pop songwriting talents run deep.

Various Artists – Miles Apart Records presents “Moments”
Drenched in nostalgia for times of which most of the featured musicians are too young to have their own memories, this cassette compilation from Osaka-based Miles Apart Records sits somewhere between indiepop in its classic, jangly, Byrds-influenced British 1980s roots and the more recent smooth, soft-focus synth strain where the indiepop venn diagram crosses over with city pop. At the murkier, more garage-influenced end are the likes of Pale Beach and Superfriends, whose respective entries Deadbeat and Fake Flowers have a reassuringly cheap, indie or alt-rock edge to their own particular brand of nostalgia, while Pictured Resort lie at the other extreme, their song Comfortable bittersweet and bathed in soft neon. An interesting entry is Cairophenomenons’ Spring (Moments ver.), its jangly, reverb-soaked guitar pop base elements employed to ends that play out with the sort of VHS-haunted atmosphere that other bands here use synths to evoke, and in the end, the sharper edges this setup gives them to work with helps to offset the cloying mellow their more synthetic peers often veer into.

Chris Jack – Miles to Go
Based in Oita in Kyushu, Chris Jack has a certain low-key notoriety as the guitarist and vocalist of garage rock band The Routes, but in this solo album he trades in the explicitly retro for a sound better characterised as classic with music in a timeless singer-songwriter tradition that could have been from any decade in the past fifty or more years. There’s a refreshing sense of space and warmth to the recording, aided by understated arrangements that may subtly underscore a phrase with organ here and there but mainly work to give the vocals and guitar lines space to walk their gently affecting paths.

Letters To Annika – Letters To Annika EP
Letters to Annika is the name under which Azusa Suga, better known from Tokyo indie rock band For Tracy Hyde, records solo work from his room, with this EP being mostly born out of the semi-lockdown conditions of pandemic Tokyo. Perhaps because of the speed and lo-fi recording conditions under which most of these songs were written and produced, during those curious weeks in April where the pandemic-led disruption to life was as much an interesting shift in perspective as a source of fear, there’s a lightness to this EP that feels both refreshing and somehow restless. Manifesting not only in the faintly washed out, shoegaze-tinged sound but also in the almost panicked urgency of the cranked-up motorik rhythms of songs like Love Song, Tidal and Wavelength, Letters to Annika mixes its reverb-drenched polaroid indiepop nostalgia with an immediacy or even urgency. Also worth attention is the non-EP single Summercrush, released in July, which makes an interesting companion to Letters to Annika, taking the EP’s fuzz and jangle and bringing in an on-trend wash of almost vaporwavesque VHS synth.


1 Comment

Filed under Albums, Features, Reviews, Track

Top 25 Releases of 2019: No. 20-16

V:A - Nicfit:MAZE

Vinyl, Episode Sounds, 2019

20. V/A – Nicfit/M.A.Z.E.
This split EP features two of Japan’s leading purveyors of energetic, darkly leftfield punk rock and both bands shine. With Nagoya quartet Nicfit’s contributions, the guitars yowl and scrape at your eardrums as the songs barrel breakneck towards their conclusion, bass pounding out an atmosphere of doom. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s M.A.Z.E. come in all scuzzy, slashing guitars and post-punk jitters, then just as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone. A breathless, electrifying seven and a half minutes.


Towel - 「」

CD, self-released, 2019

19. Towel – 「」
Hamamatsu-based avant-indie band Towel’s new EP crams six songs into ten minutes, blasting you alternately with bouncy melodicism, jagged post-punk guitars with atonal yowling, and off-kilter, Sebadoh-esque songsmithery. On some level, you can make out parallels with a band like Siamese Cats in the songwriting sensibility, but Towel have way more ragged edges that they seem to have no interest in sanding away. And rightly so, because on this EP the edges are what give it its charm.


Otoboke Beaver - Itekoma Hits

Vinyl/CD, Damnably, 2019

18. Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits
Kyoto garage-trash quartet Otoboke Beaver are currently the Japanese band that people overseas have heard of, and their growing status outside Japan is all the more remarkable for the fact that they’ve managed to do it all within the restrictive limitations of touring while apparently holding down jobs with typical Japanese holiday allowances. Itekoma Hits is half a compilation, gathering tracks from recent Japanese releases together with a handful of new and re-recordings, and if you’re already familiar with their particular style of breakneck garage-punk with hairpin rhythmical turns, you’ll be well prepared for this. But when they jettison the chatterbox vocal stream with shouted choruses and take a turn for the melodic, they reveal the songwriting heart of a J-pop group amid the crafted chaos, in a way reminiscent of Kansai-area forbears Midori. With 14 tracks in about 27 minutes, Itekoma Hits is dense with ferocious yet deftly structured oddball punk rock and packed with unexpected twists.


The Routes - Tune Out Switch Off Drop In

Vinyl, Groovie Records, 2019

17. The Routes – Tune Out Switch Off Drop In
Calling The Routes part of Japan’s garage rock scene isn’t quite accurate, as the band seem quite content sequestered away in Oita, rarely playing live and having very little to do with the core Back from the Grave/Garage Rockin’ Craze scene in Tokyo. And they stand out from most of that scene too, by having much stronger and more sophisticated songwriting. The opening The Ricochet might veer a little too close to Oasis for some tastes (let’s be charitable and say it has echoes of Ladies And Gentlemen…-era Spiritualized instead) but overall, the feeling recalls the sounds of the 1980s Nuggets revival, more along the lines of Chris Stamey, Dream Syndicate or the Fleshtones (maybe even a hint of Ian McNabb and The Icicle Works in there too in songs like Just How it Feels) gifting the music a lively, sharply-cut, hook-heavy energy.


Otori - Digitalized Human Nature

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2019

16. Otori – Digitalized Human Nature
Where Otori’s 2014 debut album I Wanna Be Your Noise was loosely themed around ideas of communication, many of the songs on their 2019 follow-up Digitalized Human Nature — from the opening Encode Jungle to the closing Neuromancer — are concerned in one way or another with being human in a digital world. The arrival of new bass player Tsuda (of psychedelic rock band Owarikara) has also seen a shift in sound from the propulsive post-punk of their early years to something more rhythmically hyperactive, with vocalist Sae working more quirky, squeaky melodies into the songs and the introduction of more synth sounds (at least in some cases seemingly being worked Robert Fripp-style through Hino’s guitar). Digitalized Human Nature is an extremely busy album that retains and expands on Otori’s post-punk roots but is also intent on causing discomfort, overloading you with contradictory sensory input to the point where you don’t know where the man ends and the machine begins.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Features, Reviews

Best of 2017 – More great sounds (1)

Every year when I write my top 20 Japanese music releases, there’s always a lot of good stuff that I leave out either because I didn’t hear it in time or because I just decided not to in the particular moment of compiling everything. And as always, I didn’t include any of my own Call And Response label’s releases, even though they were all excellent.

As well as my own releases and the other favourites that slipped through the net, there are a handful of other dedicated people out there cataloguing the best indie music Japan has to offer from their own particular perspectives Obviously their perspectives are all to varying degrees wrong (except where they agree with me, obviously), but if you’re wrong in the same way as them, you might find their 2017 rundowns of value.

In this first of three posts, I’ll be running quickly through some of the releases that missed out on my own top 20 but which might easily on another day have found their way in:

Born Shit Stirrers – I Hate Your Fucking Band

Based in Fukuoka and apparently on a sort of Wowbaggerian mission to slag off, one by one, everyone in the city, Born Shit Stirrers put out two albums in 2017, with Richard and Judy following in the summer. I’m singling out I Hate Your Fucking Band here mainly because of the title, but both albums are packed with fast, profane, utterly squalid, Anti-Nowhere League-esque punk rock smacks to the gob, featuring nothing in the way of subtlety, refinement or artistry.

V/A – Rhyming Slang Covers

The second Rhyming Slang compilation after 2016’s Rhyming Slang Tour Van compilation, this covers compilation sees some of the same bands, like DYGL, Yüksen Buyers House and Half Mile Beach Club, plus a host of new ones like the increasingly popular Luby Sparks and up-and-comers Tawings. With the exception of Nengu’s math rock take on Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, most of the tracks are pretty straightforward covers of vaguely hip classics from bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, New Order, Lou Reed and so on, but there’s a particular sort of value that can be gained from the peek they offer into the influences underscoring the younger end of the Tokyo indie scene.

Kuunatic – Kuurandia

Dropping right at the end of the year, this EP by Tokyo-based psychedelic trio Kuunatic is the ethnic transcendental music of a minimalist alien space tribe who worship Charles Hayward as a god.

The Routes – In This Perfect Hell

This site doesn’t cover a lot of garage rock because it’s a genre so rooted in the past and in its own retro revivalist scene that the usual tools I use to assess new music (what’s fresh about it? how does it stand out from its contemporaries?) would miss the point. It’s music that lives by its ability to sound the same as something else, to ape the past, to avoid challenging its contemporaries. So how can a garage rock band in 2017 Japan stand out? Basically by doing what The Routes did: writing a tonne of really good songs and playing them really well.

DYGL – Say Goodbye to Memory Den

The real superstars of the Tokyo indiepop scene, DYGL had a fantastic 2017, making it to one of the big stages at Fuji Rock, selling out a show at the Liquid Room, and releasing this fun, energetic full-length debut. The band are clearly deeply indebted to bands like The Libertines and The Strokes (Albert Hammond Jr. produced this album) but in the context of the Japanese music scene, the raucous, punkish energy that comes with those influences sets them apart from the soft-focus dreaminess of many of their peers.

In The Sun – El Energy

Coming out just at the end of 2016, this ferociously intense noise-rock album missed out on last year’s list simply because I didn’t get my hands on a copy until way too late. Like early Nisennenmondai performing from behind a battery of modular synths and effectors, In The Sun have all the krautrock and This Heat you could want, with all the sparseness replaced by a relentless barrage of joyous, angry noise.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Features, Reviews