New music from Japan (Summer bonus edition)

Notable Japanese releases from 2020, in brief

With live music in Tokyo still mostly confined to smaller venues that can afford to put on shows with only a dozen-odd people in attendance, most of the action is still happening online. Trying to keep up with all the interesting stuff being released right now can make you feel like the protagonist of Woman in the Dunes, but here are a few of the things that have caught my ears recently, including new music from Nisennenmondai, Boris, Ai Aso and Sapphire Slows, the long-awaited return of You Ishihara, and some remarkable outsider sounds of very dubious providence.

You Ishihara – Formula (Deluxe Edition)

Zelone Records

Released in physical formats earlier this year, Ishihara’s first solo album in over two decades is now available in an expanded digital edition that’s likely to perplex listeners lured by the uncomplicated psych-rock pleasures of the recent White Heaven reissue. On the “original” version of the album, Ishihara’s loose songs are subsumed within collages of street sounds and electronic treatments, in a mix that erases any distinction between foreground and background. It’s a fascinating bit of deconstruction, though hard not to wonder if the songs would stand up to closer inspection. But rather than present them in their unadulterated form, the deluxe edition takes the opposite approach, stripping out the tunes and leaving just the noise. More surprising still, it’s the real keeper here.

Various – Namba Bears Omnibus “Nihon Kaihō”

Jusangatsu Records

As venues rush to Bandcamp to release fundraiser albums, trust Namba Bears to take the old-school approach. This compilation on Gezan’s Jusangatsu label more than justifies getting a physical release: as a survey of Japanese underground music, the hit rate is as high as the better Tokyo Flashback instalments, and nearly on par with the seminal Cosmic Kurushi Monsters. Opening with a chaotic bit of remixed Omoide Hatoba splatter, it hurtles from KK Manga’s noise-punk to a particularly ramshackle offering from Nagisa Ni Te and a 2003 live recording of Fushitsusha at their most ethereal. Gezan’s “Shomei” is as good as anything on their recent Klue album but sounds a bit out of place in this company, its apocalyptic post-hardcore clearly tooled for larger audiences.

Ena – Bubble Chamber

Patience Records

This is the longest thing producer Yu Asaeda has put out in quite a while, and even compared to earlier Ena releases it’s pretty abstract. Bubble Chamber is immersive in the literal sense – the opening stretch sounds like a hydrophone recording, which leads to a succession of aquatic throbs and morse code transmissions from the abyss. While tentative rhythmic elements emerge from time to time, there’s nothing as crass as a beat. It has the kind of inhuman quality I’d normally associate with cybernetic music, though I can only speculate how the heck he’s making this stuff.

7FO – Early Demo Tapes


It’s always nice to hear from Osaka’s 7FO. This rummage through the archives yields some low-key ambient psychedelia that’s on a similar wavelength to early Sun Araw, but with a lightness of touch that makes it all the more enticing. While his more recent productions have veered into a kind of cosmic digi-dub, 7FO’s guitar does most of the work here, though it’s often transformed into glowing squiggles. He describes it as an audio diary, and if these were written entries, they might read something like: “Watched drunken fireflies dance around the lava lamp.”

Warui Musuko – Hikikomori

Unknown Tone Records

If you believe the label (and let’s just say I have my reservations), these are the only surviving recordings by one Tsujiyoshi Fujimori, a former gagaku musician with Apserger’s who spent his final years as a recluse, before taking his life in 2000. Even if the backstory is bogus, the music itself is pretty neat, mixing gagaku instruments, new age electronics and guitar noise into a very outsider take on Fourth World music. Clouds of hichiriki reeds float through arrangements of fidgety synthetic percussion and feedback. The rhythms get more forceful later on: the loping “Ghost Wolves”which I’m tempted to describe as industrial chiptunemight even work in a DJ set, while the epic closer, “Aokigahara,” is an unusually lively funeral dirge.

Jim O’Rourke – Shutting Down Here

Portraits GRM

“Look at some of my first records: they were all things that could’ve come out—I’m not saying of the quality, but what kind of music they were—on INA-GRM,” Jim O’Rourke told me when I interviewed him a few years back. And now here he is: inaugurating a new series of contemporary work commissioned by the venerable electro-acoustic institution. Even by his usual, impossibly high standards, Shutting Down Here feels like a major work, its intricate, prismatic structure revealing something different each time you listen. More so than usual, the comparisons it invites are to film—not “cinematic” in the conventional sense, but in its jump-cuts, fades, montages and associative edits, it may be the closest he’s come to finding a musical analog to the non-linear narratives of Nicolas Roeg. Available here.

Dos Monos – Dos Siki


Dos Monos’ debut album was one of my highlights of 2019, and they’ve surpassed themselves with this EP-length follow-up. I reviewed Dos Siki for The Japan Times recently and don’t have much to add here, except to say that it’s absolutely worth 16 minutes of your time. Available here.

FEM – Light


A very welcome return for Cuushe, aka Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi, who’s been through some awful stuff over the past few years. This debut release by new project FEM is a return to form, though not format, as she swaps the gauzy synthpop of her regular alias for a (virtual?) guitar band lineup. Aided by the intricate drumming of Evian Dorrian, “Light” splits the difference between dream-pop and post-rock in a way that recalls the more ethereal moments of Spangle Call Lilli Line, and though she still delivers her lyrics in a near-whisper, there’s some real emotion there. Stick around for the lysergic Iglooghost remix, which thoroughly dismembers the original without disrespecting it.

Boris – NO


Out of necessity, a lot of the music that’s emerged from the pandemic so far has been small-scale and intimate, but Boris take the opposite approach on NO. Reconnecting with their crust punk and hardcore roots, the group unleashes a barrage of furious riffage and screamed refrains, most delightfully in a cover of Gudon’s “Fundamental Error” (the chorus of which sounds more like a repeated exhortation to, er, “fondle it”). Instrumental “Genesis” gets things off to a stodgy start, but after that it’s a glorious, sustained howl of an album, which drops suddenly to an eerie whisper on closing track “Interlude.” Though it was hastily recorded and self-released via the group’s Bandcamp page, NO is the most vital statement they’ve made in quite a while.

Ai Aso – The Faintest Hint

Ideologic Organ

The one time I saw Ai Aso live in Tokyo, she turned up dressed for the office—which was where she’d just come from. In a weird way, it was just as revelatory as discovering that the guys from Incapacitants are salarymen. For all the singularity of her craft, it’s her lack of affectation that sets Aso apart: her songs may be delicate, but you’d never call them dainty. On her first studio album since 2007’s Chamomile Pool, producers Stephen O’Malley and Atsuo are smart enough to keep things dialled down, adding subtle instrumental and a patina of ambient noise to Aso’s methodically stripped-back songs. It’s a testament to the careful composure of the record as a whole that even when Boris pop up on a couple of tracks, they don’t upset the balance.

Sapphire Slows – Emotion Still Remains


When Sapphire Slows revealed she was getting a Buchla synthesiser, I worried we might never hear from her again. No fear: returning to Mundus, which released her The Role of Purity EP in 2017, she delivers an equally engrossing follow-up that feels even more fecund than its predecessor. The crystalline tones of Purity have given way to a warmer, muzzier palette, which on closer “After Your Body Fades” becomes almost gelatinous. On the title track, synth arpeggiations bounce off each other with a liveliness that makes me think of Dustin Wong’s solo guitar explorations, warping and refracting the wordless vocals as they drift through the mix.

Kensuke Ide With His Mothership – Contact From Exne Kedy and the Poltergeists

P-Vine Records

There’s a certain style of music-making that I’ll forever associate with Fuji Rock’s Field of Heaven stage: rootsy, a bit retro, and best enjoyed with a beer in hand and your expectations kept solidly in check. Kensuke Ide is shooting for a mid-afternoon slot (no higher) on his second album, a pick-and-mix of quirkiness that entertained and irked me in fairly equal measure. Whether channeling Hunky Dory-era Bowie on “Russia no Heitai-san,” adopting the ragged vocal delivery of Kiyoshiro Imawano on “Poltergeist,” or hinting at the sinuous grooves of Shintaro Sakamoto on “Ningen ni Naritai,” he’s adept at slipping into other people’s voices without leaving much identifiable signature of his own—well, aside from how awfully clever he is. Credit where it’s due, though: the Silver Apples-inflected “Otemoyan” is quite the jam. Available here.

Nisennenmondai – S1 / S2


A suitably low-key comeback from a group who never much liked to call attention to themselves, S1 / S2 was released as a money-raiser for key underground music venue Soup. Nisennenmondai have so thoroughly deconstructed the language of the guitar trio at this point, they barely even sound like they’re playing in a room togetherhaunting it, more like. The oscillating frequencies of “S1” are closer to Alvin Lucier than the minimal techno influence that underpinned the group’s formidable 2010s output. On “S2,” the bass and drums stumble blindly through a nervous fog, which I’m guessing is coming from guitarist Masako Takada’s effects pedals. While not the most riveting thing the band has done, it’s pretty moreish.

Marihiko Hara – Passion

Beat Records

It’s surprising that Marihiko Hara has only recently branched out into soundtracking, as his stately mood pieces would have obvious appeal to filmmakers who can’t afford Ryuichi Sakamoto. On Passion, he mixes graceful piano etudes with (generally more interesting) pieces that blend electronics, field recordings and unorthodox instrumentation, including santur and shō. “Vibe” even takes an unexpected detour into vaporwave realms, but that’s an outlier. It’s frequently lovely: the submerged orchestral swells of “Midi,” the way “Meridian” so perfectly evokes the last glimmers of daylight receding on a summer’s evening. But in both its ingredients and the emotions it seeks to evoke, the album invites rather too easy comparison with Sakamoto’s late-career masterpiece, Async, and Hara can’t help coming up short. Available here.

Eiko Ishibashi – Hyakki Yagyō

Black Truffle

This will take you places. Eiko Ishibashi’s most fully realised release since her remarkable The Dreams My Bones Dream continues that album’s investigation of the distortions and prevarications of Japanese history, in music that’s as tangled and elusive as truth itself. As with her recent Bandcamp releases, it finds her working well outside the songwriting traditions of her earlier work, in two side-long pieces of phosphorescent synthesisers and audio collage. Everything is mutable here: like Ishibashi’s flute melodies, the constituent parts are constantly shifting, vanishing and turning inside out. Dancer Ryuichi Fujimura delivers a whispered refrain, in the words of 15th century Zen iconoclast Ikkyū: “So, why are we called saints after we die? / We neither complain nor get in the way, that’s why!

Minyo Crusaders & Frente Cumbiero – Minyo Cumbiero

Mais Um

It doesn’t get much more summery than this, a hook-up between Japan’s Minyo Crusaders and Colombia’s Frente Cumbiero. The four-song set features some concoctions every bit as unlikely as the tunes on the Crusaders’ well-received debut, Echoes of Japan. The opening track reworks the theme tune from Konami’s 1985 arcade game Yie Ar Kung-Fu, while the title of “Cumbia del Monte Fuji” speaks for itself. “Tora Joe” pairs “Freddy” Tsukamoto’s soaring minyo vocal with a frenetic carnival beat, before the EP concludes with the buoyant matsuri skank of “Opekepe.”

Aaron Choulai – Raw Denshi


Tokyo resident Aaron Choulai is one of those musicians who seems equally at home in the worlds of jazz and hip-hop, and he can bring them together in ways that make what used to pass for jazz rap look awfully flat-footed in comparison. On Raw Denshi, the influence of J Dilla is evident not just in his beatmaking, but in the stuttering piano solo he delivers on opener “Nido Mindset,” one of several tracks to feature Japanese MCs (including a very on-form Daichi Yamamoto). In a similar vein to Makaya McCraven, Choulai takes live sessions and then reconstitutes them with his MPC and SP-404, showing that it isn’t just drummers who can get busy with a sampler.

Zombie-Chang – Take Me Away From Tokyo

Roman Label/Bayon Production

Well, it’s certainly one of the best album titles of the summer. Take Me Away From Tokyo collects together the tracks Zombie-Chang has been releasing over the past few months (plus last year’s hilarious “Gold Trance”), swapping the new-wave band antics of 2018’s Petit Petit Petit for a very insouciant kind of club music. It’s all a bit electroclash, down to the way it constantly teeters on the brink between amusing and annoying. “Stay Home”—with its refrain of “Where’s my toilet paper?”—feels like the infuriating earworm the lockdown era deserved, while “Rock Scissors Paper” is basically “PPP” for club kids. Though you’d hardly call it retro, the production is less aggressively maximalist than most current EDM, and Meirin Yung’s obvious no-fucks attitude carries the day. Available here.