Every month Tomáš Andel recommends an artist/album you may not be familiar with spanning all musical genres. This month, a set of artists from the land of the rising sun.
Having just returned from a month of shooting bullet trains across Japan in search of adventure, live shows, contemporary art galleries, and under ¥300 convenience store meals, I’ve taken to fashioning this month’s feature into a list of incredible Japanese musical acts! Because Tokyo is to my personality what a particle accelerator is to an electron (and the Tower Records in Shibuya has 9 floors), I’m gonna break format and give you as many as I can think of! Get ready for the 2x multiplier on this musical arcade claw game (for extra points, of course!)
“Everyone is cute in their own way,” Neo-Kawaii vigilantes CHAI claim as part of their “new cute” vision, playing with and against the tropes of Japanese kawaii culture. Have you ever noticed quartets are inherently cute? It’s no different with this Nagoya punk and dance music quartet; formed in 2012, CHAI consists of twin sisters Mana & Kana, and their schoolmates Yuna and Yuki. CHAI brings the pep and grit in equal measure, with dog’s fur fuzz guitar, catchy bass lines, some syncopated cowbell, and bold primary colors in complement to their palette-defining pink. On stage, they draw on the highly choreographed style of over-manufactured J-pop to make it really slap.
With two studio albums, Pink and Punk (two succinct self-descriptors), and a few extended plays, CHAI has already enjoyed some success on the North American and Japanese circuit, opening for Superorganism in the UK and Ireland, and playing Fuji Rock in 2017.
This art/avant rock quartet is true image-turned-real, originally a fictitious band conceived for a photo shoot, which quickly proved too alluring not to conjure—and we’re all luckier for it. OOIOO is led by Boredom’s drummer Yoshimi P-We, whose unusual guitar style within OOIOO includes tapping dead notes, coating everything in fuzz and phasers, and playing a sine wave generator affixed to her guitar.
OOIOO’s discography works out infinite variations on psychedelia. The sound palette consists of… well, everything and anything that you can put into trans-like polyrhythms and pepper with shrill vocalizations, including an entire album’s worth of Indonesian metallophones (now there’s a word that stirs the ear’s imagination), fusing the Gamelan tradition with art rock (the album in question is Gamel). The music of OOIOO is so free, surprising, and meticulous that it echoes the mind-bogglingly harmonious architectural infill of Tokyo, a city committed to constructing buildings of every shape imaginable.
Full disclosure; I bought advanced tickets to OOIOO at Club Contact in Tokyo. I committed to it well ahead of my trip. They were opening for Gezan, a band I never heard of, whose 2016 album Never End Roll gave me pretty typical, though definitely adventurous J-rock vibes. I couldn’t have been more misled.
It strikes me as fairly typical for Japanese acts to release albums that completely subvert the sounds they had established. Gezan’s live set consisted of everything I hadn’t heard yet, which played something like a collage of industrial, dystopian, frenetic, at times punk, at times noise, at times dub music (?!?), and at all times evading snug description.
After a night of DJs spinning incredible ambient and house music, non-stop from 10 PM until I assume, the following morning, Gezan’s set couldn’t have punched me in the face harder. It was the loudest show (with the most crystal clear mix I’ve ever heard), coming over four floor-to-ceiling speakers with cones the size of your dog’s neck brace. Gezan came on stage in oni masks (a type of demon in Japanese folklore), and laid down the heaviest, dirtiest music straight out of some dystopian Neo-Tokyo.
The effortless cool of jazz and neo-soul taken for a seaside ride in the bright and shiny droptop of J-pop—CRCK/LCKS marries mature elegance with wind-in-your-hair youth. This five-piece is fronted by the silky vocals of Tomomi Oda, and Ryo Konishi on sax and vocoder (reminiscent of Casey Benjamin), all while riding on top of neon-colored jazz progressions, and virtuosic bass and drums. Possible lineage includes Japanese city pop and fusion. The results span from soft and emotional J-pop to the dazzlingly bright, funky synthesizers, and “drunk” beats of neo-soul.
Kid Fresino is a rapper, beatmaker, and DJ from Saitama. He got his start with the rap trio FlashbackS, alongside JJJ and febb. He switches seamlessly from Japanese to English in the snap of a line, drawing rhymes across languages. Of course, the vast majority of the lyrics are inaccessible to me (which also makes it hard for me to vouch for Fresino on anything more than a musical level), but it foregrounds the sound, rhythm, and flow of language without distraction, which is an unusual and enlightening perspective to enjoy rap from. I never expected steel drums nor snow to complement the streets of Tokyo so well, but in this video for Coincidence, Fresino makes it look easy.
With 10 studio albums since 2001, a few splits, live albums, DVDs etcetera, MONO rank as veterans of the post-rock world. The long, ebbing structures are familiar, though MONO’s builds are glacial, always cresting, and too often shut the door on gratifying us with a full groove. They scratch up the sides of clouds with guitar overdrive like color noise, then sort of just cease, leaving you floating.
Tremolo lead guitar lines like fingers running over closed shop grating, sparks flying. Delay trails reminiscent of obstinate vapor trails in a summer sky. MONO’s sound captures the gaps between many tall buildings. Live, they stay seated while conjuring towers of sound. It is not uncommon for lead guitar Takaakira Goto to stoop over his pedalboard for minutes, defining the initial parameters for brand new constellations of noise to be born. MONO’s show has a narrative quality, not unlike some creation myth unfolding in a staged play.
High Score ボーナス! Honorable Mentions
In the process of writing this article, I discovered cero (that’s Tomomi from CRCK/LCKS on vocals and keys!) I may overstay my welcome if I start busting them open in detail, but I also can’t just keep them to myself. So please, check out cero, and keep branching out of this list and exploring all the incredible music coming out of Japan! Tricot has just released a new album, Soil Pimp Sessions are still going strong, and it pays to keep an eye on Uyama Hiroto, as he’s about due to release something soon! Help, I can’t stop Cornelius, Melraw, Fujimaru Yoshino, Elephant Gym, … [walks off into setting sun reciting URLs]