Every couple of years or so, my label Call And Response Records likes to put together a compilation project for Valentine’s Day, usually themed around cover versions of one band or another. The idea is always to do something lo-fi and throw together all sorts of things, regardless of genre or recording quality and to release it only in a limited fashion, either as a CD/R or download. Bands are encouraged to spend as little time on it as possible and just to mess around and have fun, although this is usually a pretty futile thing to ask given the neurotic perfectionism of most musicians we know. In any case, the result is always going to be more or less lo-fi.
I’m not sure where the idea of asking every band to cover Black Sabbath’s Paranoid came from, but I’m pretty sure it was partly inspired by the compilation A Houseguest’s Wish, in which 19 bands took turns covering Wire’s Outdoor Miner (and indeed Wire’s own album The Drill, where the band did numerous covers of their own song). The decision to pick Paranoid as a song came out of an ongoing obsession with Black Sabbath that the Quit Your Band! zine’s editorial team developed (and which culminated in our decision to rate albums using a system called the “Sabbath Scale”). It’s a good choice of song I think because it’s so utterly, utterly stupid and simple that it leaves huge amounts of room for interpretation by expanding, elaborating, or honing it in various ways. A similarly well known song like War Pigs or Iron Man would have imposed itself a bit too much on the artist and been less flexible in its scope for interpretation.
I also think the idea of a whole load of different bands covering the same song is artistically incredibly interesting in its own right, with the similarity of the underlying song forcing you to be conscious of what the musicians are doing to it in terms of structure, arrangement and performance. Over the course of an album, the repetitiveness of the same theme, each time in a different iteration, has a curiously trancelike quality to it as well. Rather like the documentary film The Aristocrats (also perhaps an influence), where dozens of comedians tell the same filthy joke in all manner of different ways, each adding their own twist on the familiar theme, I think seeing the same song played by a lot of bands gives an interesting insight into the creative process.
In any case, the response to this project overwhelmed me. I recruited bands pretty indiscriminately over a period of several months, assuming that for such a low-key project, it wouldn’t be particularly high priority for most of them. As time went by, I realised that interest in the project was way greater than I’d anticipated, and I started happily telling people that there could be as many as 15 different artists taking part. The 21st track arrived in my inbox at 8:30 this morning and the finished album runs to almost one and a half hours.
The tracks cover as wide a range of genres as my taste allows. It features mostly Japanese or Japan-based artists, although a couple of tracks hail from overseas. The core of the album was recruited from among the underground music oddballs who hang out at Call And Response’s monthly Fashion Crisis event at Koenji One, and it’s the inclusive, eclectic, but passionately knowledgeable atmosphere of Fashion Crisis that I think defines the overall feeling of the album. Some bands took their tracks very seriously, and the album contains moments of quite staggering beauty, while others followed my initial advice and took it as an opportunity to have fun, creating some moments of laugh-out-loud silliness in the process. Every track approaches the song in an interesting way, and there’s also I think a joyousness that runs though it that’s partly from the inherent qualities of Sabbath’s original song and partly from the sheer scale and expression of human creativity that’s on display.
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The album title is 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ！？！？」which basically means, “Thanks for the chocolate… What’s your agenda!?!?” (I’m just going to refer to it as “Choco Kureru…” from now on) and here’s a rundown of the track list:
1. Fidel Villeneuve
Originally from Wolverhampton, Fidel is near enough a hometown brother of Sabbath themselves, although with a rather different musical background on Atari Teenage Riot’s Digital Hardcore label and in London powerpop band Applicants. Nonetheless, the same hot Bovril runs through both Fidel and Ozzy’s veins, and his sample-based approach gives early warning of the excesses to come.
I had to get these guys on the album. There’s so much Sabbath in what they do anyway that it would have been criminal not to have them involved, and their high-octane approach to the track plays it more or less straight, but with the emphasis on speed and shot through with a prog rocky virtuosity.
This psychedelic band from Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu are the latest band from Iguz Soseki of post-hardcore garage-punk band Zibanchinka and their approach sounds like early Captain Beefheart, or maybe Faust covering I Want Candy. Apparently their aim was to do “Sabbath in the jungle”.
4. Human Wife
Usually feedback-heavy riff merchants, Human Wife’s take on the track slows it down and draws out the emotional core of the song, turning it into this really quite affecting junkie’s confessional.
With music where drone and sonic texture are more important than melody and songcraft, the cover naturally takes on a more abstract flavour. you see this a few times on Choco Kureru…, but this is the first, building up a wall of noise and feedback that ebbs and flows throughout the track.
Abikyokan are a genre unto themselves, although “avant-pop” serves them well enough most of the time. Here, Paranoid acts as a distraction to them from their current obsession with the influence of early Christianity on the Roman Empire, and they swing at it with all their synthpop electro-funk bats at once. They’re also one of a few bands on here to break down the original song’s structure and reconstruct it around just the bits that they like.
This Tokyo post-punk band exemplify something that’s actually true of a lot of the bands on Choco Kureru… in that they’re a band who usually play in a genre of which guitar solos aren’t really an integral part, but at the same time, the solo in Paranoid plays such an integral role in the minimal structure of the song, that something has to go there. They dive eagerly into the challenge and pull off a spiky, dance-punk solo with aplomb.
8. Han Han Art, featuring Fukusuke (Owarythm/Nature Danger Gang)
Former Mornings bassist Shingo “Rally” Nakagawa has been on a Z Records tip for a long time now and with his new band Han Han Art brings his love of no wave/disco in spades. The decision to recruit guest sax player Fukusuke came from listening to too much Pigbag, and this was probably unintentional, but I keep hearing the intro to Duran Duran’s Girls on Film in the guitar intro. Also on guitar, this track has another excellent example of a postpunk solo.
This mysterious artist does another abstract, instrumental, drone-based take on the song, but uses more ambient tones rather than noise. A good example of the extent to which sonic texture alone can influence the mood of a track, and the result is beautiful.
10. Artless Note
Clearly recorded on an MP3 recorder or something while messing around in the studio, this track sounds like it’s an edit culled from a much longer improvisation session with the band playing around with a couple of key themes from the song. There are moments where it sounds impossibly messy, and then they do something suddenly out of thin air that reminds you that this is a talented, musically intelligent band. This is actually one of the most interesting tracks on the album, because the studio improvisation setting has seen them jettison the entire structure of the song, all the lyrics, and just focus on the famous, catchy elements, which they return to every time the intervening bits of musical deconstruction seem to lose their way. In that way, it’s similar to The Muppets’ famous rendition of Mahna Mahna and really quite funny in a music nerdy kind of way.
When this arrived in my inbox the night before the album was supposed to be released, I was busy working on sequencing the track list and working out how to balance all the different genres and styles, working out what gaps there were that needed to be filled. When I listened to it, a bell rang in my head and I thought, “Drum’n’bass! That’s what I was missing!” So thanks, Umez.
Lo-fi indie duo Slow-Marico are heavily influenced by The Jesus & Mary Chain and that shows through in this rough-edged and noisy cover, although the way they play it over a cheap drum machine gives it something of The Vaselines’ indie charm rather than the rock swagger of the JAMC.
13. Trinitron (featuring Gloomy and Ryotaro Aoki)
This is one of the ones I worked on, so fair warning about that. I have this idea that as music is more and more easily globally accessible, it also emphasises our mutual incomprehensibility, and Trinitron sometimes play games with this. Trinitron’s members are a mix of British, Japanese and Slovenians, and we speak at least four languages between us, often switching between them mid-song or overdubbing them so as to bury the meaning. In this case we decided to do the whole song in a language that none of us understand either, so we had a friend translate the lyrics into Italian and had the girls read them out without preparation, just as they imagined they might be pronounced. So apologies to any Italian readers (which basically means Mark and Zio as far as I know) but it’s not a calculated insult to your language: it’s art! With the music, we were aiming for a sort of Flying Saucer Attack-style Kraut/shoegaze vibe, with Tokyo synthpop chanteuse Gloomy providing the cute “ba-ba-ba”s in tribute to Stereolab and Ryotaro Aoki on cataclysmic thunderstorm guitars in tribute to the gods of Valhalla.
14. Carl Freire
Carl’s background is in the 80s and 90s US alternative and punk scene, and his downbeat, minimal cover has echoes of that, particularly in the Velvetsy repetition and combination of punk and psychedelic elements.
Kaki is the alter ego of Zana from Trinitron, so this downtempo electronic track is her second track on Choco Kureru…, providing a more sophisticated and musically and conceptually pure take on the original than the mishmash of approaches that Trinitron usually ends up being.
16. Loser & Ribbons
Indiepop/new wave duo Loser & Ribbons’ track has echoes of Shibuya-kei, particularly early Capsule, in its arrangement, with the introductory synth pattern reminding me of the music that plays when you get the invincibility star in Mario and giving it a technopop, video game music vibe. One of the interesting things about their approach is that they place much more emphasis on the “Can you help me / Occupy my brain?” line that only appears once in the original, rewriting the melody slightly and repeating it over and over until it becomes a proper chorus rather than the interlude it is in Sabbath’s version.
17. Oa (featuring Hatsune Miku)
Ryotaro Aoki makes his second appearance on the album with this piece of bubblegum hardcore, clearly influenced a lot by Melt Banana and featuring the vocals of Vocaloid voice synthesiser character Hatsune Miku. As with the Trinitron track, this one plays games with language. The latest version of Hatsune Miku, which this is, can sing in English, but this track uses the Japanese version anyway, phonetically approximating the sounds of the English words, but unable to do so completely because of the different, stricter rhythm of Japanese, meaning that some parts of the song descend into incomprehensible babble.
The longest track by far on Choco Kureru…, and one of the most brutal and hard-hitting. Jahiliyyah are basically a noise group, but the drum machine and synth pulse that they incorporate into this track give it a lot of industrial and EBM too, taking a page right out of the Throbbing Gristle playbook. The results are fearsome and brilliant.
Dave from Jahiliyyah making his second appearance with another noise track, although where Jahiliyyah are more about melding numerous layers into a single, rich wall of sound, Hitodama allows the layers to breathe, to exist as discrete elements in a salad bowl of sound, dropping in and out as necessary and leading to a track that is more ambient overall.
20. Voided By Geysers
Confession: this is another of my bands. VBG are a tribute band to US lo-fi rockers Guided By Voices (hence the name) and it amused us that our only recorded output would be a cover of a different band entirely. The take included here was the second time we’d ever played the song and so there are a lot of rough edges to the performance, but we felt it was the take that had the most heart. The idea here was to have just one straight garage rock take on Paranoid right near the end of the album as a reminder of the original after the excesses that have gone before, although when the Loa track came in doing a similar thing with greater technical virtuosity, that complicated the plan. I’m still proud of this track and it gets across something simple and stupid in the original in a way other tracks on this album don’t, but if I was making this as an album for professional release, I’d have used the Loa track here instead of VBG. However, I was working on a strict principle of “include everything that’s in my inbox come the morning of the 14th”, so Loa and VBG act as kinda-sorta bookends to the album instead. Ryotaro Aoki appears yet again on this track as the bassist, while Carl Freire makes his second appearance, on guitar. Tokyo indie bandspotters might be interested to know that drums are by Sean from Henrytennis.
21. Tiny Tide
Basically the solo project of prolific Italian indiepop singer-songwriter Mark Zonda, Tiny Tide’s simple, slowed down version of the song is classy where most tracks on Choco Kureru… fought for the extremes, as well as genuinely touching and quite beautiful. It was the first track I received in Autumn 2013, just after I’d first conceived of the idea, and even before I knew what else was going to be included it was always going to be the closing track. Mark also wrote the Italian lyrics that Trinitron so wilfully butchered earlier, so sorry to him for that.