This debut album by Sendai indie-jazz-prog trio Umiuma combines skittering drums, intricate, kaleidescopic guitar, and sweet, off-kilter vocal melodies, with arrangements that swing wildly between technical, tightly focussed, rhythmically complex instrumental segments, bursts of sheer rock-out energy and moments of sheer, blissful pop. At the poppiest extreme there’s Kangaroo, a quirky melody reminiscent of 1960s French pop, built around a fairly conventional chord pattern, with Masumi Horiya’s vocals coming on like Kahimi Karie. Kiiroi Michi and opening track Era see the band playing with more dissonant and dynamic elements, while most songs combine all these elements to varying degrees. For all their technical prowess, however, Umiuma are never self indulgent. Most of the songs on Kaiba hover around a restrained two or three minutes in length, but the group’s boundless, restless energy ensures that each of them is packed with ideas and sweet surprises. Guitarist Yuhi Kanda might rely a little too much on one particular, clean guitar sound where the use of a wider range of effects would serve the overall texture of the album better, and bringing the male band members for backing vocals at certain points would bring another element into the dynamic, but speculating about what else the band might include shouldn’t detract from the rich tapestry of sounds, musical ideas and melodies that is already here. Kaiba is a thrilling ride.
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One of the quirks of the music scene in Japan is that it seems to lean dramatically westward. Not in any cultural sense, you understand — if anything, Japanese music has been becoming more and more insular and isolated from overseas trends over the last twenty years or so — but in a geographical one. From the economic and cultural capital in Tokyo, the music scene tends to drift westward, with Nagoya the next major stop, then Kansai area nexus of Kyoto Osaka-Kobe, and then on a literal and figurative island of its own there’s the Kyushu scene, centred around the regional capital of Fukuoka. Eastwards and northwards, information is scarce.
One reason for this is that for touring bands, there’s just more to explore to the west so it makes economic sense to tour in that direction. Kansai or Kyushu can make a decent long weekend tour in a few cities, while Nagoya is a big city (2.2 million) on its own and an easy enough drive from both Tokyo and Kansai. All this gives the western tail of Japan a sense of greater vibrancy with more word-of-mouth information flowing back and forth among the little networks of bands that zip along Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines.
Northeast of Tokyo, there are of course towns with their own music scenes, but they tend to be smaller and more spaced out. Sapporo is the largest, but positioned in the middle if the northern island of Hokkaido it is also the most isolated. Aomori on the northern tip of the main island of Honshu gave Japan the legendary shoegaze-cum-electronic quartet Supercar, one of the bands who helped define the sound of Japanese rock music in the new millennium, and is also home to the Aomori Rock Festival, one of the more eclectic and interesting entries in the Japanese festival circuit.Supercar: Storywriter
But it’s in the earthquake and tsunami-battered eastern Tohoku coast in Sendai and Fukushima where the lazy Tokyoite has easiest access to the sounds of the icy north. Tying the art of this area in with the earthquake and the ongoing nuclear crisis is obviously a cheap thing to do, but for better or worse, those events do seem to have drawn (possibly guilty) eyes from the capital in that direction just a little bit more. The avant-garde musician and composer Yoshihide Otomo spoke eloquently on the role of culture in reclaiming the identity of Fukushima from the associations with the disaster (and through his soundtrack work on the insanely popular morning TV drama Amachan he may have succeeded in part of his aim), and so those of us living far away from Tohoku are in the paradoxical situation of having what we might call a duty to look east because of the 2011 disaster but a parallel duty to put the disaster to the back of our minds (how far back is a question open to debate) when considering its music.
In any case, triple-disaster aside, there is interesting music going on and there are a couple of bands I want to introduce here, one from Fukushima and one from Sendai. They’re both on the alternative or underground end of the spectrum because those are the kinds of bands that interest me, and they’re both well worth listening to.
The wonderfully named Rebel One Excalibur are a ferocious math rocky trio from Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture whose self-titled debut mini album is due out soon. There doesn’t seem to be any audio from the record up yet, so this live clip will have to suffice to give you a taste of what they’re about Rebel One Excalibur: Zanpano
Rather than walking a line between discipline and chaos, Rebel One Excalibur seem to see no contradiction between the two concepts, revelling in both equally. They love dark, doomy chords and the vocals range from strangled to lung-shreddingly tortured, but there’s a playfulness to their arrangements that suggests controlled fury rather than mere angst.
Further up the coast in Sendai, we can find Umiuma. A similary technically-minded trio, Umiuma nonetheless take a poppier track, with some tracks recalling the jazzy pop excursions of 90s Shibuya-kei and melodies delivered via the candy-sweet tones of singer Masumi Horiya.
The most interesting moments are where the band subvert their pop sensibilities, setting them off against more discordant sounds, hyperactive rhythms and offbeat arrangements. They released a full-length album titled Kaiba earlier in the year that does a solid job of encapsulating most of the range of their sound (although sadly it doesn’t include any of the wonderfully odd cover versions they occasionally come up with live).
There is plenty plenty more music to be uncovered from the area, which I am only now starting to get to grips with. The intriguing Redd Temple come recommended highly by people in the know and regularly share stages with Rebel One Excalibur, and similarly, Umiuma are by no means a lone musical voice among Sendai’s one million residents. Really, all I am doing here is much belatedly scratching at the surface of a region of Japan that is too often neglected by the westward-gazing eyes of Tokyo, but which deserves much greater attention.