Tag Archives: Umez

Strange Boutique (June 2015) – Is music in a slump? (No, it isn’t.)

My June column comes out of some of the thoughts that I had going through my head while I was in Kyushu in May, on tour with first Sayuu and later Umez.

The little dialogue I relate at the beginning is literally something I hear whenever I travel around Japan or meet an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long time. I hear similar complaints all the time, from people of all ages – it’s not just me getting old: there genuinely is a sense that music is in a slump.

But is it? It’s so big that it’s hard to say, but I’d be wary of people who say that these things all just go in cycles. Technology has completely removed many of the barriers to creating and distributing music that used to exist, and all art is to a very large extent defined by the constraints within which it has to operate. I don’t know to what extent technology is behind this perceived slump, but if it is, then its changes may be more permanent than some people think.

However, as I say in the article, a lot of it really is down to perception. If we just click a few of the links that whiz by us or even better actually get out to a show, (Hint: there’s an excellent show I’ve organised coming up VERY SOON!) there are loads of really good bands still out there.

What there isn’t, from what I can gather, is quite so much in the way of a scene these days. This makes it more difficult to perceive any sort of unified energy coursing through indie and alternative music as a whole, but on the other hand, it makes what value there is that much more eclectic and exciting.Falsettos: Dig

In the article I mention a handful of bands, mostly deliberately limited to ones I’d discovered in the previous month or so, although I made a point of mentioning the Falsettos who I’d known for rather longer simply because they’re so fucking awesome. My editor Shaun went through and sought out links to most of the bands, so you should check those out within the article itself. I’ll also probably be writing about some of them in more specific detail on here soon (Mechaniphone and Platskartny both have new Eps out, so they’re going to feature here for sure, while both Platskartny and Falsettos are also playing at my next event).

One band that doesn’t have a link in the article is Narcolepsin. They have been around for a long time, but only since they settled into their current three-piece lineup with a keyboard player have they really started to jump out as something really cool. A few scrappy YouTube clips are all that’s available online of them in this form.Narcolepsin

Missing out on Sonotanotanpenz is a source of terrible shame to me when not only did I find their name scrawled on a napkin two years ago by a Fukuoka-based friend of mine but also discovered that one of the members is someone I’ve known for years and has played several times at my own events, albeit in different bands.

Finally The Noup I picked up old-school on the recommendation of Takehiko Yamada from File-Under Records in Nagoya. It’s got to be said that having reliable curators of taste who can filter the information for you is invaluable. Every time you fail to follow up on a recommendation from someone like Yamada, you’re killing music.The Noup

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Strange Boutique (April 2015) – How to make a subversive tote bag

For my April column in The Japan Times, I tacked the important issue of indie bands making tote bags.

The indie tote bag is an interesting phenomenon, serving any number of functions. One of them is to divide the old-school underground/alternative scene from the cosmopolitan indie/fashionista scene which – in an era where everyone listens to the same basic kinds of bands – it does in a way far more effective than mere music ever could. How long underground tradition can resist the branded tote bag’s irresistable march, however, who can say?

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing though: Yeah, I know they’re just bags.

Secondly, I should also be clear about another thing: No, of course they’re not just bags.

I don’t object to bands making money, although I don’t think that should be in any way a matter of importance to them. What I object to in the article is the “boutiquing” of indie culture – the turning of the alternative into a miniaturised facsimile to the same homogenising capitalism that made the alternative necessary in the first place. This is a conflict or discourse between art and commercialism that has been going on since the dawn of pop, and however it manifests itself it ain’t going away.

On a personal aesthetic level though, there’s something else that bugs me about tote bags, in a way that t-shirts don’t, and which goes beyond the simple fact that t-shirts are established but tote bags are relative newcomers. There’s something pleasingly direct in the way a t-shirt dominates your ensemble and blares its message rudely and front-on, whereas the tote bag embodies the coyness and lack of conviction that characterises so much contemporary indie culture. You can have a Black Sabbath t-shirt, but a Black Sabbath tote bag only works either by adopting it as an ironic statement or by divorcing the band’s meaning from its superficial signifiers.

That’s not to say that no one should make tote bags. City Pop and post-Shibuya-kei bands already exist in a realm of commercialised faux-artisanal aestheticism, so there’s nothing there for the bags to to undermine in the first place. Other people get away with it thanks to their own particucular characteristics or creative virtues.

A bag. From Umez.

(Making tote bags, however, can be very expensive in Japan.)

Umez make tote bags, and they get away with it partly because their design sense is good and partly because as a band they carry their position on the fringes of the indie/fashionista scene with such awkward, occasionally brutal originality. They should have tote bags because they’re in the tote bag scene, but at the same time, they challenge the musical and creative boundaries of what a tote bag band can be.

Another side is the branding aspect of it. When I was in Nagasaki this past spring, I saw a girl from a band selling home made jewelry and accessories at a gig. I bought a brooch from her for my wife and very nice it was too. These weren’t band-related products that she was attempting to leverage as part of the band’s branding – they were simply imaginative, attractive pieces of design and craftsmanship that she made.

The way the article is framed raises the possibility, partly facetiously, of a “subversive tote bag”, and while the idea made me laugh, it also increasingly felt like a challenge. With that in mind, I came up with two possible approaches towards bringing out the radical potential in tote bags.

The first was to consider how the tote bag’s form and function differs from the blunt weapon of the sloganeering t-shirt. Hanging coyly at the side, a tote bag attracts attention in a different way, drawing your attention in sidelong, not requiring you to gawp directly at the wearer’s chest. A tote bag is a space for a more intricate message – one that would draw viewers in as they stand next to you on a train, or that would show people brief fragments as they pass you in a shop. You’d reach fewer people, but could perhaps affect those people more profoundly. A block of text or a design that offends, disturbs, challenges or confuses, even (or perhaps especially) in a fragmentary form could make the tote bag’s form work towards more subversive ends.

The other idea was to sell branded tote bags that are only available with a brick in them – perhaps even sewn into the body of the bag. You know, just in case you need to swing it at a cop. The sheer impracticality of it, both in terms of selling and wearing them, could neutralise the commercial nature of the bag and emphasise its radical purpose.

Naturally, I’m not going to start making tote bags now, and indeed, the tote bag-hating friends of mine I mention in the article actually responded with something like rage when I even suggested these ideas, unwilling to buy into it even as a theoretical exercise. What I mean with all this, silly though it may be when pursued to this extreme, is that – much like when I talked about making music for advertising earlier on in the year – musicians should consider the relationship between their commercial activities and their art, and how the former affects the meaning or value of the latter.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.5 – Umez – Umez


CD, 14 Years Records, 2014

With their combination of sweet, disarmingly simplistic pop melodies and frenzied fusillade of musical styles, Umez have been confusing and delighting live audiences in London and Tokyo for a long time now, but with this eponymous debut album, listeners can finally enjoy the disquieting pleasure of trying to figure out just what kind of band they are in the comfort of their own homes.

There have been a number of cases where ostensibly pop acts, primarily within the loose non-genre of idol music, have affected to wrap themselves in the accoutrements of underground music of one sort or another, and the results have tended to be at best interesting, and more often it just didn’t work. It’s not clear why, but it seems to be very difficult to make the transition in the direction from pop to comfortably incorporating underground elements – even when talented, seasoned underground musicians are brought in, as BiS did with Hijokaidan, the elements just didn’t quite mesh – the river of ideas only seems to easily flow one way, and it’s very hard to navigate upstream. Part of it might be that pop is like a Web-optimised JPEG image that, while perfectly suited to its particular place, resists much in the way of modification, losing detail as you zoom in or blow it up. To run with this photography metaphor a bit, what you would really need in this case would be a high resolution RAW file, that might require effort and processing in order to be accessible, but would contain far more data in the image. The broad strokes big picture is in there, but there is also a wealth of other information that can be drawn out or zoomed in on.

Umez are like that high resolution RAW file, in that even when they’re doing the poppiest of pop poppiness, they can also draw on all manner of sounds, from the industrial stomp of Z-Fighters II (the brutal album version, not the cute single version) to the garage-punk of Rainbow to the shoegaze/dreampop of Good Bye My Friend to the drum’n’bass of Lingering Dream, to the Merzbow-ish machine noise of II to the wild rock solos of almost everything. All that is already there inside them and they just need to summon it out of them, rather than painstakingly and awkwardly trying to fill it into a picture that simply doesn’t contain that information, music that just doesn’t have those ideas. It’s a fundamentally easier path for people like Umez to take from where they are into pop than it is to travel in the other direction.

Still, Umez wouldn’t be such a good album and Umez wouldn’t be such a good band if the pop elements of the music weren’t so accomplished. If some moments might sound a little familiar to fans of, say, Supercar or Smashing Pumpkins, those moments exist within a grand tradition of pop thievery. More important are those moments, chord changes, harmonies, melodies scattered throughout the album that sound dreadfully familiar without you being able to pin down exactly why, where, who. Those moments of familiarity combined with the endlessly inventive ways the duo find to present them are what make this album such an unrivalled joy.

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Umez: Umez


CD, 14 Years Records, 2014

Noise-pop duo Umez’ first album has been eagerly awaited around these parts, and while most of the material on display here should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been following the band’s online output over the past couple of years, to have it all ricocheting about in one place provides a great opportunity to take a look at the band’s confusion of drum’n’bass, lo-fi indie-punk, dreampop, noise and J-Pop as a (barely) unified package.

Opening with a clatter of beats and squalls of chainsaw noise, the album quickly launches into the Supercar-esque Good Bye My Friend followed by the garage-punk pop anthem Rainbow. Contained in both these otherwise pretty comfortably indie tracks, however, lie hints at Umez’ tendency to fuck things up, with strangled guitar solos occasionally emerging out of the murk in the former and the latter breaking down into a throbbing, electro-psychedelic interlude part way through. In Lingering Dream the drum’n’bass beat complicates things still further, and by the time we reach Z-Fighters II, we’re deep into Fad Gadget minimal electro territory, albeit with a melody that sounds like a Christmas carol.

In fact the two most jarring elements of Umez’ music which run throughout the album are the vocal melodies which, when the noise and lo-fi fuzz are stripped away, are always shamelessly pop in the way only J-Pop or children’s songs can really be, and the guitar parts which always threaten to launch into madly soloing stadium rock as they do on Black Cat. At every point, Umez refuse to conform to accepted standards of either indie cool or pop commercialism, which makes their music both unsettling as well as providing a thrilling tension between the various elements as they struggle together within the songs. We’ve seen this tendency to career back and forth between seemingly unrelated styles and moods in the way the band compiled their own 14 Years Records’ compilation album International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1 last year, and this self-titled debut album shows that this is reflected every bit as much in their own music.

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Call And Response Records — Appendix

As an appendix to the series of posts on the release history of my Call And Response Records label which started here, I’m just going to add a few more comments and thoughts.

First up, you’ll notice that the catalogue numbers often skip a few (and actually it doesn’t show here but in some cases are out of sequence). The reason for this is that some releases are free downloads or private CD/Rs and things that I chose to pass over in favour of the CDs I pressed and released professionally. They also sometimes fall out of sequence because I’m disorganised and sometimes things get delayed and something else slips into the gap. Anyway, this isn’t a big deal, but just in case anyone was wondering why the N’toko album was CAR-77 but the Black Sabbath Paranoid covers compilation was CAR-75, it’s because CAR-76 hasn’t been released yet die to production delays (next month, maybe?)Jebiotto (live at Kichijoji Planet K)

Looking forward, there’s a Jebiotto album (the much-delayed CAR-76) in the works, and a new issue of Quit Your Band! gradually taking shape, with Slow-Marico on the accompanying CD. There are friends of the label also working on new albums that even if they’re not on Call And Response, I’ll certainly be loudly cheering on, with Iguz Souseki’s psychedelic post-Zibanchinka band Futtachi foremost among these. September 27th 2014 will also mark the ten-year anniversary of the first Clear And Refreshing live event, so there’s going to be a big party to celebrate that.

Finally, in a purely hypothetical exercise (the last one was too recent for it to really be worth doing another one right now), I’m going to talk a bit about what a new Call And Response compilation in the Dancing After 1AM/1-2-3-Go! mould might look like if I were to make one now.

Firstly and obviously since it was only a year and a half ago, a lot of bands would be the same. Futtachi, Hysteric Picnic, Hyacca, Mir, Slow-Marico and Jebiotto would be right at the top of my list of people I’d be mailing. However, there are some bands who were on DA1AM who are probably a bit too famous or at least operate in a slightly more professional milieu now — bands who wouldn’t really benefit from being on the album and who I’m not really doing stuff at live events with these days. She Talks Silence, Extruders and The Mornings for example are bands I still very highly regard, but who are kind of above my level now, and while I’m not opposed to getting in popular bands who work musically with what Call And Response does, there is a balance between that and finding out new stuff that I feel should tilt more towards the latter than the former.Umez: Lingering Dream

Bands that have come onto my radar over the past year and a bit and who I’d definitely be trying to get something from for this hypothetical CD include indiepop jangleteers DYGL, noise-pop duo Umez, industrial/EBM duo group A, Fukuoka electronic glitchgaze duo Deltas, jittery Saga punk trio Hakuchi, Krautrock-kayoukyoku three-piece Fancy Numnum, new wave/artpunkers Compact Club, and Tokyo postpunk band illmilliliter. The marvellous Buddy Girl and Mechanic, who I missed out on with DA1AM, would be well up there among my priorities too, while it would please me greatly to get original 1-2-3-go! band Usagi Spiral A back to do something as well.Hakuchi: Suttokodokkoi

As I say, I’m in no hurry to make another compilation, but I’m not short of stuff I’m still excited enough by to do something with. Anyway, back to regular posting after this. Your attention has been greatly appreciated.


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A Valentine’s gift from Call And Response Records

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.「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」

DOWNLOAD 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 FREE HERE (114mb so might take a long time — sorry!)

(Alternate link here)

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.

2. ロア/Loa
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.

3. 経立/Futtachi
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.

5. Client/Server:Q
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.

6. Abikyokan
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.

7. うるせぇよ/Uruseeyo
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.

9. Under
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.

11. Umez
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.

12. スロウマリコ/Slow-Marico
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.

15. Kaki
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.

18. Jahiliyyah
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.

19. 人魂/Hitodama
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.


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Guardian Song of the Week: Umez, “Rainbow”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a song from a noise-pop duo formed in London, who are now based in Tokyo.

Umez: Rainbow

Umez are a noise-pop Japanese duo consisting of vocalist/bassist Sachiko Fukuda and guitarist Koichi “Niiyan” Niizato. Originally formed in London in 2012, the group have since moved back to Japan, and have recently become active in Tokyo.

The pair’s music has just as much duality as their stage presence: Fukuda, hardly moves as she sings simple, but catchy melodies, while Niiyan wears a gas mask and goes all out, climbing on top of equipment and letting his guitar wail. Their music ranges from catchy, shoegaze-influenced pop to disgusting, chaotic, walls of noise. Many times they have both elements present in their songs.

“Rainbow” is featured on their compilation, “International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl) Vol. 1,” which was released in September. The compilation is released from Fukuda’s label, 14 Years Records, and features artists from around the world, such as Brutes from the U.K., and a solo track from Taigen Kawabe of Bo Ningen. “Rainbow” is a fine example of the duality found of Umez, with the lo-fi beats and Niyan’s soaring guitars, fronted by Fukuda’s calm vocals. The breakdown in the middle featuring a playful keyboard part, bookended by the main guitar riff and vocal melody. Not all their tracks sound like this of course, but it’s a good taste of the band condensed into a three minute pop song.

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Interview: Umez

An interview I did with Sachiko from Umez is up on The Japan Times site. I reviewed the compilation that we discuss in this interview a few weeks ago and enjoyed it. The song they did for the compilation album, Rainbow, is a great piece of devastatingly simple scuzzy garage pop with weird bits and well worth checking out.

To be honest, I could do with a bit less of the J-pop covers from them, although I realise that’s a bit hypocritical considering how many pop covers my band have done over the years. I think no more than one cover per 30-minute live set should be kind of the limit though, especially now they’re back in Japan where everyone’s going to recognise all the songs they’re playing. They don’t want to get a reputation as, “Oh, they’re that covers band.”

That said, I think their cover of Aitakatta is interesting because it reveals AKB48 at their best and worst. One thing it demonstrates is that AKB48’s songwriting isn’t the seething mire of evil it sometimes seems. At heart, a lot of AKB48 songs are basically simplified versions of the sort of thing Judy And Mary used to do, just with the baroque edges filed off, and in the hands of a different band, it’s apparent that there is a fairly solid punk-pop songwriting core to it.

Which brings me to the next thing it reveals: that in the hands of AKB48, pretty mnuch anything sounds shite because AKB48’s whole setup is incapable of anything else. The nasty production and massed vocals just stomp any beauty or fun a song might have into oblivion. Umez’ version with its garage-punk guitar and Lush-esque vocals doesn’t exactly turn it into a masterpiece, but at least it helps the song breathe again and comes out really rather nice.

But noise-pop includes noise, and Umez can be fucking noisy when they choose to be, and the way they pinball between those extremes is part of what makes them so much fun.

Given that the band are split between Tokyo and Kobe, it’s heartening to see them getting invited to Tokyo pretty often, so hopefully things will start to take off for them. The London music scene is much more concentrated than Tokyo’s so it can take a long time to adapt to the various subcultures. Their next show at Koiwa Bushbash should be interesting because Bushbash is a decent venue run by proper music people, and the bands they’re playing with are the sort of people who could dig the sort of thing they do. Hopefully it’ll lead to more and bigger things.

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V/A: International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1

CD, 14 Years Records, 2013

CD, 14 Years Records, 2013

Rather than being focused on a particular scene, this forthcoming (September release) compilation, featuring artists from London to Japan via Italy, is more a statement of intent by Japanese noise-pop duo Umez: an announcement that primarily consists of, “So this is what we like, yeah?”

And on the basis of this collection of tracks, what Umez like seems to be a kind of ultra-lo-fi indie-noise sketchbook, often characterised by a kind of childlike nature that ranges from the stripped-down, whisper-voiced nostalgic jazz-pop whimsy of Teta Mona via the stupid-clever Fall/Half Man Half Biscuit/Art Brut nonsense-punk of Dog Chocolate to the angry, throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram, machine noise tantrum of Nananova.

Umez’ own track, the opening Rainbow, balances the noise and pop elements most finely and really forms the pivot on which the compilation is balanced, its looping garage-pop riff and distant, 4AD-esque vocals interrupted first by a perky synth solo and then by an unexpected interlude that sounds like a kind of electronic didgeridoo. Joey Fourr’s Play With Yrself pulls off a similar balance, marrying scratchy lo-fi garage pop production to a sweet melody, seemingly heavily indebted to the Pixies’ Velouria, albeit delivered with more of an air of bedroom-punk insouciance.

International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1 seems to delight in tossing the listener back and forth between extremes, with the aforementioned Nananova giving way to Taigen Kawabe, here eschewing the heavy psychedelia of his usual band Bo Ningen in favour of a kind of synth-based nursery rhyme pop that is perhaps a new expression of his well-known fixation on Japanese idol music, before lurching right back into the fierce scum noise of Brutes’ uncompromising Tear Jerk.

The closest thing to an ordinary pop-rock song on the album is Kobe band Stereo Future’s Eight-Beat Daydream and it comes as a relief after the chaotic pinball game of the first part of the album. It’s immediately followed by the more subtly disorientating Bastard Sword’s Open Up Your Heart, whose autotuned vocals give the otherwise mid-paced grind of the song the disconcerting air of a laid-back electro track, rather like those occasions (United, Hot on the Heels of Love) when Throbbing Gristle tried to pretend they were ordinary dance producers.

This unwillingness to ever let the listener settle down continues right to the end with Bakakuri gradually destroying a series of ambient chimes with walls of noise and feedback, followed by the looping, music box melody of Grimm Grimm’s Kazega Fuitara Sayonara with its vocals sounding distant amid the fuzzy guitar and lo-fi production, the simple, almost naive clockwork percussion mixed just a little too high, giving it a curiously mechanical forward momentum. Sgt’s untitled closing track then throws the whole album off in another direction with its technically accomplished instrumental postrock/prog delivered with dazzling intensity. The violin that wails through the music brings to mind instant comparisons with Rovo, but Sgt exhibit less of Rovo’s expansive spacerock tendencies, keeping the listener earthbound with off-kilter, jazz-influenced rhythms that disrupt your takeoff every time the music seems about to finally launch you skyward — in this aspect at least, embodying something of International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1’s own peculiar Janus-like tendencies.

So the album is a wild ride, with the European and Japanese acts sitting side by side with nary a crack between them even as they strive to rip each other, the album, and the unwitting listener’s brain apart. In the end, what all bands share is a playful creative imagination that helps link together the jumble of eclectic musical ideas into this thrilling whole.


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