New music from Japan (Autumn edition)

Notable Japanese releases from 2020, in brief

Apologies to the half-dozen people who’ve been relying on this blog for Tokyo gig listings. I haven’t had much mindless downtime to fill recently, which is why the listings are looking a bit... bare. I’ll try to get things updated soon, but in the meantime, here’s another whistle-stop tour of some of the aural delights bubbling up from the Japanese underground.

YPY – Compact Disc

Black Smoker Records

It’s only been a few years since people were cooing about “Why CDs Are Still Big in Japan,” but domestic artists and labels have gone so all-in on streaming now, it takes a special stubbornness to release an album only on the least sexy of physical formats. YPY’s latest extends the concept across tracks with titles like China Dynamic’ and Collapse Dojo’ (geddit?). Monolithic opener Cool Do!’ establishes the palette for the rest of the album: maddeningly repetitive acid bass, 808 rhythm hits and tempos that are happy to wallow in the mire. This could do some damage on dance floors, and the steadily accelerating Cashout Dream would make a great DJ tool for when you’re looking to really screw up your set. Available here.

Sofheso – A RECORD

First Terrace Records

If YPY’s latest opus isn’t dirty enough for you, try this from the ever-productive Sofheso. Given that he’s been releasing a new track on Soundcloud every week since 2012, I’m not sure what it means to say that this is his first “proper” album, following the excellent Archive compilation in 2018. The 10-minute opener ‘ECSS’ is an epic banger, with blown-out bass, shards of what sounds like Konono No. 1, and twitching rhythms that never fall into a fixed pattern. Like a distant descendent of Leftfield’s ‘Phat Planet,’ ‘WRBB’ does all its damage with the bass rather than the beats. Sofheso’s music hovers a few notches below hi-fi, the sounds muzzy and oversaturated, and it has the hallmarks of something produced with a tracker rather than DAW. These rave mutations never stop mutating.

Tatsuhisa Yamamoto – Ashiato/Ashioto

Newhere Music/Black Truffle

This has been a busy year for Tatsuhisa Yamamoto. Hitherto best known as one of the finest drummers in Japan, he’s taken advantage of the enforced downtime during 2020 to cultivate a sizeable solo discography on Bandcamp. The complementary Ashiato and Ashioto have been gestating for longer, and they’re impressive works of electro-acoustic composition, both based on a shared “script” and sculpted through meticulous post-production. In addition to the expected drums and percussion, Yamamoto makes extensive use of electronics and field recordings, while displaying an editorial sensibility that isn’t afraid to deploy a sudden jump cut when you’re least expecting it. Slowly unfurling synth blooms and metallic percussion give way to uneasy drones and passages that recall Kafka’s Ibiki—yup, that’s Eiko Ishibashi on flute and piano—or a lost late-’70s ECM release.

Former_Airline – Postcards from No Man’s Land

Call And Response Records

Masaki Kubo’s latest cassette seems to pick up directly where last year’s Rewritten Memories by the Future left off, further refining the blend of rippling guitars, motorik rhythms and synthesiser swirl heard on that album’s final track. At various points, Postcards from No Man’s Land recalls La Düsseldorf, Manuel Göttsching and the first Martin Rev LP, and I’m not complaining (skip straight to the glorious ‘Insane Modernities’ if you’re looking for the single). Kubo’s frequent use of step sequencers hints at a dance music sensibility that comes to full fruition on the closer, S. Sontag in the Psykick Dancehall,’ which weaves samples of the intellectual icon into an monumental slab of Orb-style ambient techno. While I miss the grit of Former_Airline’s earlier work, these sleek kosmische excursions are nothing to sniff at.

Uami – Kinkajou

Sophori Field Company

Given that she’s already been snagged by Victor Entertainment, I suspect that iPhone producer Uami is being groomed for a Kenshi Yonezu-style crossover, but for now she’s well worth checking. Kinkajou is wildly imaginative, full of stacked harmonies, multi-part arrangements and some fascinating texture clashes, running the gamut from delicate Tujiko Noriko electronica to polyglot vocal gymnastics and what sounds like an android trying to recreate Heian-era court music. It was released alongside a couple of digital singles, neither of which sound like they’re going to get a lot of airplay. All music box chimes and crepitating rhythms, ‘Sand Storm’ is like an update on Vespertine-era Bjork, while the playful, jazz-inflected zoetrope of ‘Aiso Maita’ puts me in mind of Juana Molina. Available here.

Junkyard Shaman – 隠者 (The Hermit)


I think I’m right in saying that this was the 100th Bandcamp release by Osaka resident Jere Kilpinen under his Junkyard Shaman alias, and it’s a good entry point to his eldritch sound world. As with many of his more recent releases, shakuhachi features prominently, alongside junk percussion, mangled field recordings and what Kilpinen describes as “curses I wrote in Finnish.” Opener ‘Kutsu’ could work as an alternative soundtrack to Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, while the 13-minute Maailmanrepijä’ is a turbulent fever dream, in which mosquito swarms of multi-tracked shakuhachi float above an abyss of reverb-drenched percussion.

Carl Stone – Stolen Car

Unseen Worlds

After being coaxed into releasing some of his more recent work, Carl Stone has gone and made a pop album, or at least the closest he’s likely to get to one. Stolen Car was even preceded by a couple of digital singles—one of which, ‘Au Jus,’ might just be my tune of the year. Anyone who heard last year’s Baroo and Himalaya will be familiar with Stone’s techniques, which involve scrambling the elements of existing songs so thoroughly that even their parents might not recognise them anymore. “They’re basically anagrams of musical tracks,” he said in a recent interview, and his sources range from enka to US indie-rock, though good luck identifying any of them. ‘Bojuk’ could be a Kid 606 remix of The Field, ‘Pasloji’ is practically Muslimgauze, and ‘Xiomara’ sounds like one of Eye’s Rebore Boredoms reworks. At 70 minutes, it’s honestly exhausting to listen to the whole thing in one sitting, but there’s some real gold here.

Taku Sugimoto – vertical melodies 1


“The most important thing for me is to make something really vertical; something spiritual, like a tower,” Taku Sugimoto declared a few years back. I’m not sure if that does much to elucidate what’s happening on vertical melodies 1, wherein the guitarist delivers five renditions of an open-ended composition based on the same pentatonic scale, his clean, vibrato-free notes hanging in the air like phantom chords. The tracks all appear to have been captured outdoors, and Sugimoto lets his surroundings seep into the recordings, whether it’s the ebullient birdsong on ‘version 1’ or the sounds of an airplane, footsteps and a passing car that briefly ruffle the tranquility of version 5’. Though it’s a very different kind of environmental music, this beatific minimalism may appeal to fans of the 1980s kankyō ongaku movement.

Takuji Naka/Tim Olive – Minouragatake

Notice Recordings

I have a suspicion I saw this duo at Obake Yashiki, a long-running improv series organised by my pal Ezra Woolnough at a bar decorated with junk art and a patchwork of posters for B-movies and pro wrestling. It definitely has that vibe to it. Naka does some very NSFW things with tape recorders, while Olive gets busy with magnetic pickups and electronics, resulting in a rather appealing blend of hiss, hum and scuttle. The two sides of Minouragatake (which I can only imagine sounds even better on cassette) explore a succession of murky, semi-conscious states: evocative and uncanny, in a way that’s reminding me of both Philip Jeck and The Caretaker.

Sakan & Senju – Sakan & Senju

Les Editions Japonais

This fecund blend of organic/synthetic minimalism by former Boredoms drummer Muneomi Senju and electronic hypnotist Iku Sakan dates back to 2004, and has been resurrected for a vinyl reissue that seems... I dunno, a bit extravagant? Originally released in a CD-R edition of 15 copies—one of which Sakan gave to Stockhausen when he came to Japan—it’s a diverting, if not terribly essential, listen. Opener ‘Green Journey’ is a standout, Senju’s kalimba weaving through a tangled undergrowth of lo-fi electronic rhythms that point the way towards Sakan’s subsequent work (which you definitely need to listen to, if you haven’t already).

Phew – Vertical K.O.


Something not-quite-old and not-quite-new from everybody’s favourite punk survivor turned synth wrangler. Vertical K.O. is culled from the past few years of Phew’s work, including unreleased tracks from the Light Sleep and Voice Hardcore sessions, but smart curation and sequencing makes it as cohesive as either of those albums. Highlights include celestial opener ‘The Very Ears of Morning’ and a mordant cover of The Raincoats’ ‘The Void,’ built around a foreboding drone and stuttering, out-of-sync drum machines. It’s worth grabbing the physical release, which includes extensive liner notes by Phew herself (her description of the album’s hidden message—“What a terrible world we live in, but let’s survive”—is one for the ages). Better yet, get the Japanese CD edition, which comes bundled with Vertical Jamming, a collection of long, vocal-less pieces that capture the mesmeric quality of Phew’s live sets.

Kentaro Hayashi – Peculiar

Slowdawn Records

Kentaro Hayashi is at risk of getting upstaged by his remixers on this snappy debut. Peculiar straddles the line between abstracted industrial techno in the Andy Stott/Blackest Ever Black vein, and the kinds of pulverising sound design that Ben Frost goes in for. ‘Gargouille’ mixes eruptions of industrial noise with mournful choirs that sound like a distant echo of FSOL’s Dead Cities, which Merzbow’s remix turns into a slow-moving lava flow (with drums!). Jim O’Rourke’s remix of ‘Vakuum’ is the fiercest thing I’ve heard him do for a while, though the original track is no pussycat either. The rest of the album is a bit more floor-focused, and pretty feisty.

Risaripa – CORE


I only recently stumbled across the solo work of former Gallhammer drummer Risa Reaper, but she’s amassed quite a catalogue on Bandcamp over the past few years. While not quite as formidable as ex-bandmate (and frequent collaborator) Viviankrist’s modular synth stuff, Risaripa’s music has its own appeal, not least the way she manages to offset even her harshest moments with a cheeky sense of humour. Her latest release, CORE feels like a bit of a step up in terms of complexity, combining screeching, demonoid vocals with sparse industrial electronics. Good headphone music for a Halloween party in quarantine.

Meitei – Kofū


The final part of Meitei’s trilogy dedicated to “the lost Japanese mood” is also billed as a deconstruction of what came before, and it’s neither as new age as last year’s Komachi nor as downright eerie as Kwaidan. As a looped vocal on ‘Sadayakko’ declares, it’s about “Japanese people” this time. The tracks are titled after historical figures, both celebrated and marginalised, lending a sturdy conceptual framework to Meitei’s sonic archeology. He makes extensive use of sampled vocals—often pitch-shifted and degraded—and the beats are more pronounced than in his earlier work. A few of the tracks sound like The Avalanches doing hauntology (not a great look), but Meitei is at his best when he dials things back, as on the shimmering ‘Gen’ei,’ marking him out as the heir apparent to Susumu Yokota’s ambient work.



Formerly one half of Tadzio, A VIRGIN now does a solo guitar and drum machine thing that’s closer to electroclash than The Kills, though I don’t remember early-noughties hipsters ever rocking out quite so hard on the old six-string. The mood is generally snotty, marrying deadpan, sweary vocals with heavy riffage and some pointedly primitive drum programming. At 13 tracks, it’s a bit longer than it needed to be, though the album’s latter half tries a few new tricks: ‘Despair And 1% Hope’ is pure Jesus and Mary Chain, ‘Benjamin Button 2’ is a 7-minute experimental track you’ll only want to listen to once, and ‘Papa’ offers a surprisingly heartfelt closer.

Macaroom and Chiku Toshiaki – Kodomono Odoriko

Kiishi Bros. Entertainment

I missed this earlier in the year, and it’s rather fine. Chiku Toshiaki has been knocking around the underground since the early 1980s, first with Tama and later with Pascals. His ramshackle indie-folk schtick doesn’t seem the most obvious fit for Macaroom, purveyors of electro-pop at its most rococo, but somehow it works. All but one of the tracks are versions of Chiku’s songs, and his vocals inject some welcome acidity into Macaroom’s sometimes cloyingly sweet arrangements. The wistful title track is the lone original, and it’s a heck of an opener.

Hisato Higuchi – Ki, Que, Kien?

Ghost Disc

It looks like this is the last we’ll be hearing from Hisato Higuchi for the foreseeable future: the unearthly troubadour recently announced on his blog that he needed to take a break from recording albums. Ki, Que, Kien? rounds out a trilogy that started with 2017’s Kietsuzukeru Echo, and it’s more grounded than some of his other work, with songs that you could almost imagine a grunge-adjacent rock band doing as their token slow number. Of course, with Higuchi it’s nothing but slow numbers, and the beauty is in the delivery as much as the writing: vocals barely more than a whisper, and guitar chords shimmering in pools of near-infinite sustain.

Yoji Kurosawa – Huànjué


Judging by his Instagram presence, Osaka guitarist Yoji Kurosawa can be found noodling new age symphonies on street corners on a regular basis. This pay-what-you-want Bandcamp release is full of sparkly six-string psychedelics, like a slightly less virtuosic Dustin Wong with a stronger Ashra fixation, but there are stray dissonances that keep things interesting. Stick around for some increasingly unruly antics towards the end, as the tracks begin to spurt and boil over with fluorescent goo.

Eddie Marcon – Tenpinoma

Pong-Kong Records

Not your average lockdown record. During Japan’s state of emergency earlier this year, acid folk combo Eddie Marcon headed to the studio to record this bucolic four-track EP. I picked it up at Los Apson? in Koenji, based on their description that it “fits perfectly with the mood of 2020,” and that isn’t far off. While some of Eddie Marcon’s music can be gossamer-light, the songs here are more robust, grounded by steady backbeats and fleshed out with woodwinds and some mellotron-style keyboard. All the same, they have a habit of taking flight, no more so than on closing track Midnight Shower, which could almost be a Fishmans song.

Matsuo Ohno – Whisper of a Chanoki-Botoke

Ujikoen Co. Ltd.

This is the kind of corporate soundtrack I can get behind. Since 2015, Kyoto’s Ujikoen has been commissioning annual albums dedicated to exploring “the integration of tea, light and sound,” and the latest might be the headiest so far. 90-year-old sound designer Matsuo Ohno (of Astro Boy fame) turns his memories of an early-morning visit to the company’s tea plantation into a psychotropic voyage through time and space, full of the kinds of old-school effects that today’s milquetoast ambient explorers can’t touch. Available here.