Slope Up Session Club started out as a regular party in Shibuya where musicians from around the Tokyo indie and underground scene would jam in a non-genre-specific (but basically jazz) sort of way. At the centre of the collective is Kim, vocalist and loopmeister of hip hop duo Uhnellys, and you can perhaps hear echoes of Uhnellys in the simple and insistent bass driving the opening song Background from this second album-form collection of the club’s music (the first was called Slope, this one’s called Up, so we can take a guess what the next one will be titled). That propulsive drive runs through the first couple of tracks on Up, providing a progressive rock-tinged counterpoint to later, more explicitly jazz tracks like Children are Leaving or Postman, the latter of which is given its own unique texture and charge by the spoken word poetry that the sparse musical explorations underscore. Generally sax-led, the different motifs brought in by the other instruments continue to colour the individual tracks as it works its way to its conclusion, with Start the Past bringing in an eerie violin backdrop and the closing Salt and Breakdown veering suspiciously close to disco with the four-to-the-floor beat it lays down, before layering in complications that gradually pile up into a climax. Born out of moments created live, Up is best understood as one stage in an ongoing process together with its predecessor and whatever comes next, but it nonetheless does an impressive job of conveying the loose party atmosphere in the fossilised form of a recording.
Tag Archives: Uhnellys
Released in May, Core was one of the first Japanese albums made specifically under the conditions of (and often in direct reference to) the coronavirus pandemic. Lyrically, the album opener Doku to Kusuri spins round amid the claustrophobia, uncertainty and panic of the early days of being in an uncharted zone of invisible infection, while images of panic and disorder recur throughout the album as vocalist Kim unfolds his cinematic fragments of narrative and abstract sloganeering.
The impact of the pandemic is more obvious, though, in the music itself, recorded at home with electronic beats and sequencers replacing the live drums that traditionally ride the grooves and delay loops of Uhnellys’ music. As I mentioned when commenting about this album for Undrcurrents in June, the album takes an interesting turn about halfway through, exploring darker, more experimental and more psychedelic territory on tracks like Hope with its overlapping vocals and the synth drone-centred Enter the Forest feat. Nozomi Nobody. Five months after it was initially released, a lot of the sense of impending panic that coloured the pandemic’s early days in Tokyo has retreated into a sort of low key but constant knot in the stomach, but there’s a tightly wound sense of discomfort and uncertainty running through Core that taps into something deeper than simply the scenery of its moment.
For the past couple of decades now, Uhnellys have been plotting a distinctive musical path between hip-hop, jazz and psychedelia, using a combination of drums and loop pedal layers. On this new single, they’re assisted by lively guest turntable scratcher DJ Oku (Funkcuts), but the band’s familiar interplay of laid-back grooves and 1970s cinematic menace is still at play at the heart of the track, as main vocalist Kim trips though an an acerbic narrative, appearing to take aim at everything oppressive and deadening about Japan’s social status quo. The band’s roots based on rhythm and loops means there’s something raw and stripped-down driving the track forward, but it still draws in a catchy, pop-tinted refrain and the odd wry aside throwing a splash of colour over the darkness.
This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.
Because this is a Japanese music site, as a rule I tend to avoid overseas artists on this page. In the case of non-Japanese musicians who are based in Japan of course I’ll write about them, and in the case of Japanese musicians based overseas I’ll usually write about them as long as there’s some sort of meaningful connection with the scene in Japan.
With Call And Response Records I have no strict principle about this, but as a result of the way I operate, it’s nigh impossible for me to do much with musicians from outside Japan. N’toko is one exception and this blog is really about the benefits and challenges of taking an artist like him and trying to help him find a place in the Japanese music scene.
I met N’toko (real name Miha Blažič) and his wife Zana (a.k.a. Kaki) at the monthly DJ party I run with a friend and fellow music writer James Hadfield. Fashion Crisis isn’t a club event in the sense of there being thronging crowds of people dancing into the small hours or anything: the name was a joke, loosely punning on a friend of mine’s event called “Style Band” and it’s a generally low-key party in a smallish music bar in Koenji where people can come and have a drink and listen to music after work. There’s no specific music policy although I play a lot of minimal wave, postpunk, EBM, new wave, synthpop and garagey guitar music, while James seems to play an esoteric selection of African and Middle-Eastern dance and folk, old American roots music and more, stitched together with various kinds of experimental and noise stuff. Guest DJs are mostly free to play whatever they want as long as it’s not Oasis or Coldplay or something equally vile. Anyway, the point is that it’s pretty easygoing within certain boundaries but certainly attracts a cult of oddballs in terms of its clientele.
Because of the kind of event it is, everyone there tends to know pretty much everyone else, so when new people show up, they’re easy to recognise. Seeing Miha and Zana there, I was naturally curious about how they’d even found out about it, so I had a chat with them. It turned out that they from Slovenia and were in Koenji for a couple of months and I came away from the event with a demo CD of some of his newest recordings. The working relationship that we built up came out of a number of very long stays in Japan that the two of them made, an enthusiastic interest and participation in the events that I was involved in and regular gigging and DJing at most of them.
One of the reasons Japanese indie labels will very rarely take an interest in overseas (or indeed most domestic) artists who contact them hoping to get released is because indie labels, lacking much access to wider media and certainly lacking big promotional budgets, rely on cultivating small, devoted fanbases or hooking into existing scenes with their own word of mouth networks. With anyone they sign they need to be able to plug them into that world.
Now while N’toko is known in Slovenia for his socially conscious lyrics and his opinions on all manner of social and political issues are much sought after, his English language material tends to be much more scattershot, nonsensical and fun, playing with hip hop clichés and undercutting them at the same time by dissolving into mischievous wordplay. It feels like an escape from the pressures of constantly having to mean something. Playing in Japan where no one understands it anyway means the focus is necessarily on the performance, the beats, and the energy and musicality of the words themselves rather than their portent. It works very specifically in the little crowd of punk and alternative types who hang out in Koenji (and particularly with the eclectic and musically knowledgeable Fashion Crisis crowd) but at the same time it makes it very difficult to sell outside that scene.
Japanese record stores divide domestic and overseas music into different sections, often on different floors, which means that someone like N’toko whose fanbase in Japan is really part of the alternative and underground scene, gets his music filed in all sorts of weird places. Tower Records in Shinjuku filed Ex Shanti / Future Shanti in “World Music”. On the other hand File-Under Records in Nagoya, which is much more in touch with the actual way the underground scene works, files his stuff together with other Call And Response releases, which makes much more sense in terms of N’toko’s likely listeners and a small shop like File-Under’s clientele. In any case, foreign and domestic artists tend to be segregated, which is problematic for small labels trying to promote them, especially when they’re people like N’toko who don’t easily fit into the standard set of genres.
On the surface, his music is hip hop, but break it down and there’s a lot of EBM and industrial going on, as well as bits of technopop and all of it coming together with this alternative sensibility that places him at an angular path from the hip hop scene both in Japan and in Slovenia. With Ex Shanti / Future Shanti, you can also hear elements of his time in Japan breaking through the gap. The song Fashion Crisis obviously takes its title from the event, and it is also a collaboration with Japanese rapper Kim from Uhnellys, who appeared on Call And Response’s 1-2-3-Go! compilation back in 2005 and who are another band who place hip hop in an alternative context.
In the sequencers and synths, there’s also something that feels like it falls between the grinding industrial synth brutality of DAF or Liaisons Dangereuses and the pumped-up electro anthems of Yasutaka Nakata, whose Flash!!! events we were obsessed with at the time. There was something in the contrast between the obvious extreme cleverness of a lot of what Nakata does musically and this knack he has for utter dumbness at the same time, which is what all great pop is, but he pitches the balance in a way that sometimes just makes you wonder what’s really going on inside his head. There were echoes of that Nakata obsession in Ex Shanti‘s title track and in elements of Masterplan, especially in the closing BeatMyth remix.N’toko: Superhuman (VHS-’82 Version)
The video for Superhuman was shot inside Koenji One, and the Version 1 edit was designed as a sort of parody of the Tokyo indie scene, where the room’s half empty and no one’s really listening to the band anyway. Most of the people in it are Fashion Crisis regulars, with James appearing as the frizzy haired Othello player and director Matt Schley as his opponent, Zana is at the bar smoking, my wife is reading, and a chubby-faced version of me is flicking through some records. The whole thing’s very in-jokey. The Version 2 edit (the “VHS-’82” version) took the same footage of N’toko, edited out all the other people, and then was dubbed over and over between two VHS players to make it look like an old DAF or Suicide video from the early 80s. It’s less slick, but it’s probably the better of the two videos truth be told. It’s just a simpler, smarter concept, and one that influenced some of the other even quicker and much stupider videos Call And Response subsequently made.
Anyway, the album Ex Shanti / Future Shanti is pretty important in that it was the first Call And Response release of the “Fashion Crisis Era” — the first product of the time when the label was actually starting to get its own hinterland outside of scenes that already existed. That was what gave me the freedom to release something outside my usual comfort zone and it got me looking at music in a looser, more fun way again after the stress of establishing the label and its identity.N’toko: Superhuman (Fashion Crisis Version)
This is the first part in a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.
Finding my way into the Japanese music scene was a slow process of trial and error. There was next to no information in English on what was going on, and precious little even in Japanese. Promotion was largely done through flyers either handed out personally at gigs or distributed by venues in packs at the door (which quickly made their ways, unread, into the bin), and bands were at a pretty primitive stage when it came to the Web, contacting fans via email, and spamming each others’ BBS pages. The advent of Myspace in 2003 provided the opportunity to check out bands’ music before listening, but it was mostly treated as just another BBS.
Anyway, the result of this was that I felt my way blindly through the live music scene, discovering bands by following other bands to their gigs and checking out who they played with. It was a habit I got into out of necessity but it’s still the main way I find stuff — the thought of spending hours scouring Soundcloud for music seems like such a joyless way of discovering music, not to mention the way Soundcloud’s format is inherently biased towards certain types of beedroom indietronica at the expense of bands with genuine stage presence and energy.
Anyway, 1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005 was the result of my first two or three years crawling through the live music scene. Listening back over it now, a very naive compilation, and I can feel my younger self’s dizzy and slightly confused enthusiasm in the way the track list barrels back and forth between all sorts of mad sounds. Something similar still exists in chaotically thrown-together free or CD/R projects like that Black Sabbath cover album I did recently, but anything I’d press professionally nowadays would probably be more poised and less giddy, or in a more critical way, more self-conscious.
You can also see some of my early conceptual idealism in there. The catalogue number is CAR-99 and right from the start, I had this idea, nicked from Sarah Records, that regardless of what happened, the label would end after 100 releases. After eight years, I’m only a quarter of the way towards that even with free downloads and stuff, but it’s a rule and I’m sticking to it. There’s also the way it’s divided into “phases”, which was copied (I think) from Julian Cope’s album Jehovahkill, and which was a nod to the distinction vinyl used to make between the two sides (for some reason something I associate very closely with Gordon Giltrap’s album Visionary). The decision to stick “2005” in the title was a deliberate piece of self-destructive inbuilt obsolescence. It was always intended to be a snapshot of a time and place, and I wanted that limitation embedded in the title even if it put people off buying it. I know it wasn’t smart, but sometimes it’s more important to be right than to be smart.
Anyway, “Phase 1” was mostly punk and underground stuff. Deracine were this amazing and still very original hardcore band from Fukuoka who had settled in Tokyo and made this hyperkinetic punk-noise racket with drums, bass and a table full of effects pedals, samplers and children’s toys, with these wonderfully camp, affected vocals. Uhnellys are one of only a few of the bands on 1-2-3-Go! who are still around (Call And Response compilations can be a kiss of death) and they’ve gone from strength to strenghth to the point where they’re really quite famous now. It’s a claim to fame of mine that Call And Response were the first label to release anything of theirs, although they’d self-released one or two CDs or CD/Rs before. Anyway, they’re a wonderful but hard to describe duo, based around a series of loops made on a delay pedal. They’re far more sophisticated than this nowadays, but there’s a rawness in the track they did here that I feel is still very appealing. Saladabar were a fake-Hawaiian punk-influenced jazz-prog band led by former Natsumen drummer Yuuki Yashiro, and Usagi Spiral A are still going, now augmented by guitarist Matsuoka, formerly of the brilliant no wave band Elevation. Usagi are basically this relentless, brutal wall of Krautrock/postpunk noise that just pummels you until they get tired, break all their equipment or get the plug pulled on them by the venue and thrown out. Meanwhile Drive to the Forest in a Japanese Car were a more straightforward and song-based postpunk band in a sort of Gang of Four style (although the name is a PiL reference).Deracine: Clap Your hands — Doesn’t feature on this compilation but gives a good sense of the kind of band they were. Also, if you look closely, you can see Ponta from The Mornings and probably a bunch of other Tokyo underground scene faces in the audience.
“Phase 2” was more new wave and technopop-influenced. Audipop were one of the bands on the cult classic compilation Tokyo New Wave of New Wave ’98 that alunched the career of Polysics, although they were always at heart more of a Weezer-ish college rock band, and you can see both influences on the track here. Mosquito were one of the most important bands for me in my early discovery of the Japanese live scene, and their unclassifiable jumble of influences did more than anything else to demolish my Anglo-American indie rock frame of reference when trying to understand Japanese bands. Lie Lie is a classic piece of oddball avant-pop, bringing together catchy and noisy elements in a way that’s joyous and celebratory in a way few bands I’ve discovered since have managed. The bass player used to bring a box onstage that he’d step up onto when he did the little funk bass solo in this song. The other song on here, Momoiro, is Mosquito at their epic best, sounding like three completely different songs jammed together. Frottage (named after the art style, not the sexual perversion) shared some members with Mosquito, but were more firmly musically rooted in Shibuya-kei, while Shoot My Disco’s track is a another genuine oddity, combining shoegaze and rap in a way I’d never heard before and never have since. That sort of willful eclecticism and battering together of genres is something people still do, but it’s something I mostly associate with the early 2000s: bands influenced by the mix-and-match approach of Shibuya-kei, but needing to rock out at the same time. The last track is by Miami, who were just one of the most original groups I’ve ever encountered in Japan. A sort of technopop/rap duo with violin, but that doesn’t really describe quite what a distinctive, bouncy proposition they were. They could have been huge but their first proper mini-album came too late and didn’t quite hang together the way their earlier self-released recordings had, so the momentum ebbed away and they split up. You can hear the version of their song Shiratama Disco I released above, but I was surprised to discover this idol group cover version of it from just a couple of months ago. It’s nowhere near as good as the original, but it shows how far idol music has come if they’re covering Call And Response releases!
I should also add about one band who appeared on both “phases”: Skyfisher. They were another Tokyo New Wave of New Wave ’98 band, and the two tracks on 1-2-3-Go! catch them on each side of a transition. The first, Musubetsu Bop, is them at the pinnacle of their Japanese new wave revivalist period, while the second, Nigotta Kanshoku, sees them moving more towards dance-punk. Leader Takashi Nakayama later formed a more improvisational collective called LABSiCK Man-Machine ReMiX, styled as a sort of !!!-style outfit, with music that was often wildly different from show to show.
Anyway, as I said, most of the bands split up in the eyars after this compilation, although a few remain going. Uhnellys became pretty famous, Usagi Spiral A are still going, Watanabe from Frottage is keeping the project going and seems to be doing lots of Vocaloid stuff at the moment. Nakayama from Skyfisher is still making music, and rumour has it that Korehiko Kazama of Deracine is making music again after quitting to become a philosopher for a few years. Audipop are still nominally a going concern, although with family concerns ensuring that their gigs are few and far between. For me, this album was a very steep learning curve and I did lots wrong with it, but it helped teach me which wrong things I should keep doing and which ones were just silly. It definitely helped streamline and simplify the process for subsequent releases, although it took a heavy toll on my personal life that I was lucky to recover from. As I said, it’s weird listening to it now, and quite bittersweet for me, but I think mostly sweet.
The second of my Fuji Rock articles is up on Nippon.com. With this one I focused primarily on the main festival, looking at the way Japanese and overseas music interacts. As I say in the article, it’s very rare to find Japanese music pitched up together with foreign stuff, so festivals like Fuji Rock (and the dreadful Summer Sonic) give a rare opportunity to see how they stack up against each other and how similar audiences react to each.
One point that I felt from the festival is that it would be very hard to imagine the bigger Japanese acts successfully making the return trip to a foreign festival. For all their popularity, Brahman are a thoroughly mediocre band by most Western standards. It’s clear that Japanese people listen to music in a slightly different way to Brits like myself, with the different musical traditions training our ears to expect different sounds, and as a foreigner, you tend to focus on the parts that sound familiar and tune out the bits that fall outside your experience. I’ve been here for twelve years now and spent more of my life as a music nerd in Japan than I did back in the UK, so I don’t think I do that so much anymore. However, that said, I think I sort of hang somewhere in the middle rather than really hear music as a Japanese person would. In any case, those caveats aside, I still think Brahman are rubbish. Japanese fans seem to treat them as a sort of lovable nostalgia trip that they kind of know suck and definitely know aren’t cool, but can’t help enjoying anyway.
The Japanese stuff that seemed like it would work best overseas was the stuff that came out of leftfield and didn’t really address any musical tradition in a direct way. Shugo Tokumaru has already gained some level of international attention, and Kenta Maeno was enjoyably eclectic. Uhnellys were just fucking intense, and there were a handful of bands on the Rookie A Go-Go stage (Homecomings for sure, and oddballs like that bloody prawns band and Oni no Migiude) that seemed like they’d be warmly received wherever they went. Chara I’m less sure about, but she was definitely good, displaying a power and charisma live that is only hinted at by her recorded work.
Looking a bit wider, one wonders where the more mainstream or popular Japanese acts who could bridge the gap with overseas bands are. Mostly playing at Rock in Japan I suspect, and it would be easy to imagine Sakanaction working in an international context. Capsule I have problems with. They’re really good, and Yasutaka Nakata is the closest thing mainstream Japanese music has to a genius, but Capsule’s music drifts too often into sounds that would be dismissed as goofy by electronic music fans in Europe (Americans made a star out of Skrillex so all bets are off as far as they’re concerned). Just to be clear, I’m not saying he should be trying to make cool European-style electro, just that I suspect he’d have his work cut out convincing music fans to take his work with Capsule seriously — his Perfume/Kyary stuff would have no such problems since as idol music, it forces listeners to check in their ideas of cool with their coats.
As for me, I was blown away by Mari Natsuki, and I don’t care that she’s in her sixties, I have a bit of a crush on her. It was music that needed to be played to a Japanese audience, and really wouldn’t work overseas, but it was all the more powerful for how specific its focus was. She knew her crowd and worked them with the confidence of a diva.
This Saturday, new Japanese indie music web site Kiwa Kiwa is organising a music festival at Club Asia and I previewed it for The Japan Times. Over on this blog I focus mostly on the leftfield extremes and the poppier idol music extremes and generally avoid the kinds of indie bands that are actually popular. The main reason for this isn’t that most of them are shit so much as that most of them are just OK. If I ever think of something interesting to say about Buffalo 3, I’ll say it, but that’s not going to happen until they stop sounding like a kind of dead-end Hoxton indie band circa 2004.
What’s interesting about this event is that I think it does do a good job of laying out a map of what the Tokyo indie scene sounds like in the year 2012 that’s free of the art-punk snobbery of people like me or the chillwave/beach pop fetishism of other aspects of the indie scene. That stuff maybe important creatively, but none of it is really that important to audiences at this time. There are good bands like Uhnellys, Africaemo, Vola & The Oriental Machine, Give Me Wallets and Nile Long at Kiwa Kiwa Festival, but more than that, it’s a good summation of what’s happening in the real world of Tokyo indie.
Several days later than promised, but here’s the top ten of my Japanese music of 2011 (No.11-20 is here). Again, I’m allowing some Korean stuff if it’s a proper Japanese release, and again I’m not being fussy about what counts as an EP, a mini-album or an album — it all goes in. Obviously, this is just a personal list of what interested me out of the limited range of what I actually heard this year and I didn’t include any of those bizarre “objective” measures that people keep moaning to the Japan Times complaints department that I don’t include. Anyway, on with the list:
10. She Talks Silence: Some Small Gifts
Precariously poised on the edge between the barely-produced lo-fi indie ethos of early 80s British DiY music and the kind of Tokyo hipster scene that’s well-connected enough to bypass the dirtier fringes of the live music circuit and parachute straight into the 3000yen a ticket, 700yen a beer range of venues, She Talks Silence are the sort of band that could be unbearable to an indie snob like me who generally requires years of slumming it in dives out of a band before I grant them my seal of approval. And if that sounds like a strange way to introduce a band I’m trying to convince you are in my top ten of the year, I apologise, but She Talks Silence’s position is at the heart of what I find frustrating about them. They’re like the beautiful, intelligent, talented girl who’s dating a jerk who doesn’t appreciate her [Disclaimer: their actual boyfriends are really cool]. Their music is delicate, sweet, lonely, charming, violent and tremendously affecting, with Fragment one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year and Dead Romance edged with a series of particularly sharp thorns, and yet there is a terrible and selfish sense that they belong to someone else, that they float in a fashion environment too superficial to understand what’s so great about them, and worst of all, the gnawing knowledge that the only real problem is my own snobbery. In any case, Some Small Gifts is a near flawless example of lo-fi indiepop melodymaking that also demonstrates flair and artistry with more awkward, off-centre song construction.
9. Tsumugine: Tsumugine
This three-song, EP by the performance art collective Tsumugine (a group with a curious penchant for live performances in isolated countryside road tunnels, among other places) is basically fifteen minutes of eerie “instrumental” vocal music, with the musical wing of the group’s a capella utterances creating distorted tones and monastic harmonies that I would have thought certainly the work of studio effects had I not seen them perform a lot of this stuff live with only a couple of microphones. Some harmonica is thrown into the mix on the eight-minute final track, but the range of tones and sounds of the vocal performers is so diverse that it’s utterly in keeping with the rest of this atmospheric little CD.
8. Hysteric Picnic: Hysteric Picnic EP
Like Pop Office, Hysteric Picnic are clearly influenced by 1980s British new wave bands — in this case Joy Division and maybe The Jesus and Mary Chain feature strongly, with something of Young Marble Giants in the tick-tock-tick-tock drum machine rhythms that underpin many of their songs. However, where Pop Office distinguish themselves with quirky embellishments or a slightly off-centre approach, Hysteric Picnic charge right in, glowing with conviction, dirty and lo-fi as you like, and bursting with great tunes. They don’t spend hours polishing their songs to a burnished sheen, but neither is the roughness an affectation: it’s integral to the band’s sound, present in the Wire-like slashes of guitar, explosions of feedback and anguished vocal yowls of Chinese Girl. The way they combine that with sublime melodies and harmonies, best displayed on Persona, is what makes this EP such an extraordinary debut.
7. Girls’ Generation: Girls’ Generation
Another Korean one, but as with 2NE1 in the previous post, I’m counting it since it’s a Japanese release, this time sung entirely in Japanese, that was released and promoted just like any J-Pop album.Girls’ Generation is quite simply the most accomplished, polished, catchy collection of three-minute pop gems I’ve heard in ages. You can read my review here, and I’d just add that the failure of both Perfume’s JPN and Girls’ Generation’s own The Boys to even come close sadly seems to drive home what a one-off combination of bubblegum pop fizz and modern electropop sophistication this album probably was.
6. Tacobonds: No Fiction
Boom! Badaboom-booooooom! Badabadabadabadabadabadabada-boooooom-bangbang-boom-B-P-M-4!-bangboombang-a-bang-ratatattatatatata-tat-Bang!-Skreeeeeeeee! FICTIOOOOOOOON! Read it here.
5. Uhnellys: To Too Two
Another one I’ve already reviewed, Uhnellys are a smart, funky, sophisticated, genre-hopping psychedelic jazz-hop duo and this was probably the album that combined technical accomplishment, energy, intelligence, invention and mainstream (admittedly in a fairly limited, indie sense) appeal better than any other I’ve heard this year.
4. Friends: Let’s Get Together Again
Reviewed this one too. This is an album that I wasn’t sure about at first, but especially since getting my hands on the vinyl release, it’s risen in my estimation. The duvet of feedback that envelops most of the melodies works for me, noisenik that I am, and once you get past the bristly exterior, there’s a juicy melodic centre that tastes of The Beach Boys and all the rest of your favourite summer guitar pop tunes. Apparently now renamed Teen Runnings, Friends are a prickly, awkward band, and this album captures that aspect of them with a perhaps unintentional degree of honesty.
3. Nisennenmondai: LIVE!!!
Another one I’ve reviewed. To date, the definitive recorded document of one of Tokyo’s most striking bands, LIVE!!! is instrumental Kraut-noise trio Nisennenmondai at their best. Fan is a magnificent example of how you can repeatedly bang away on a single note for fourteen minutes and somehow keep it exciting through dynamics alone, and along with fellow death disco masterpiece Mirrorball, it forms the centrepiece of the album. Ikkyokume is Stereolab’s Golden Ball at 3x speed and rippling with unhinged energy and Appointment might be a lost Daniel Miller instrumental from 1981. There are lots of bands in Tokyo who play drawn-out instrumental jams, but none as skilled at manipulating the dynamics of such minimal sounds in such an accessible and downright fun way.
2. Tyme. x Tujiko: Gyu
Not being tremendously familiar with Tujiko Noriko’s prior work, it’s hard for me to place this within her overall canon, but this album, sneaking in just at the end of the year is a simply stunning collection of avant-pop and electronic soundscapes. I’m going to be a twat here and compare it to Bjork and Kate Bush, and I admit I’m largely doing this because it’s a magnificent, weird pop album with ethereal sounding vocals by a woman with an odd voice. HNC tried a similar thing recently with her rather fine I Dream I Dead, but this album eschews HNC’s instagram faux-retro lo-fi flicker in favour of more confident, sophisticated multi-layered synth-artistry, which elevates it to another plane productionwise. As a general rule, the earlier tracks edge more popwise while the album begins to skew ambient as it progresses, but I’m not going to single out tracks since this is a rare album where absolutely every song is truly lovely.
1. The Mornings: Save The Mornings
Quite simply nothing this year could quite touch spazzpunk quartet The Mornings’ debut album for sheer, irrepressible energy. There are other bands making faintly similar kinds of music but The Mornings beat them all by being faster, more intense, just more full of wow. The first moment of Opening Act wakes you up, eyes saucers, mouth grinning with delight, and everything that happens from that moment onwards just makes your grin stretch wider. Amazon Surf is what Devo would have sounded like if they’d been a hardcore band, Mad Cheergirl pushes drummer Keika’s vocals to the front, while on Mad Dancer, synth/vocalist Ponta and guitarist Junya trade lines against a rhythmical backdrop that constantly threatens to collapse before leaping back to attention, Drug Me sees the group taking on the Dead Kennedys and winning, and so on and so on. It’s an exhausting listen, like gorging on a mixture of sherbet candy, raw chilli and hard liquor, and it leaves you similarly battered and physically defeated at the end, but 26 minutes of moment after moment of unbridled, explosive joy will do that to you. Give in.
Connect And Receive is a series of monthly Japanese indie music podcasts I’ve been making since the summer. I skipped last month because I was too busy with various bands’ tours but I’ve made the December one into a sort of end-of-year review focussing on some of my favourite bands and releases of the year, as well as a couple of things from previous years that I either only discovered recently or came back to in a big way this year. Anyway, here’s the pod:
And here’s the track list:
1. cynicalsmileisyourfavorite: Crazy Disco (self-released 2011 CD/R)
2. Kobayashi Dorori: Pickles (Yarukoto Yattara Kaette yo, 2011)
3. Hakoiri Kibun: Hakuchuu Sosou (Fudoutoku Pops Kouza, 2010)
4. Bossston Cruizing Mania: Low Down (Loaded Lowdead Rawdead, 2011)
5. Extruders: Vertical Point (Neuter, 2007)
6. Lihappiness: Eikoku ni Tsutawaru Dance (Drums & Lihappiness, 2011)
7. Hysteric Picnic: Persona (Hysteric Picnic EP, 2011)
8. She Talks Silence: Dead Romance (Some Small Gifts, 2011)
9. Uhnellys: Subliminal Orchestra (To Too Two, 2011)
10. Mothercoat: No Music Yes Life (Egobag, 2011)
11. Sloppy Joe: Still Be a Little Roof (With Kisses Four, 2011)