New music from Japan (Winter edition)

Notable Japanese releases from 2020, in brief

You can tell that end-of-year lists don’t count for much in Japan from the volume of significant releases landing during late November and December, which would normally be considered the fag-end of the year. Before I try to cobble together a Top 10, here’s my final round-up of interesting sounds from this fine country, including a handful of things that I missed earlier in the year. As per usual, I’ve included Bandcamp links where available, and would encourage you to consider stumping up the cash if you hear something you like. Send any hate mail to the usual address.

Ichiko Aoba – Kaze no Adan (Windswept Adan)

Ichiko Aoba can do a mean rendition of Hibari Misora, but her own work doesn’t draw on such a deep reservoir of heartache: it’s closer in spirit to the sunlight-dappled reveries of Vashti Bunyan or early Joanna Newsom. Her latest album, inspired by a sojourn in Okinawa, makes that kinship more apparent. After 2018’s stripped-back qp (which I honestly prefer in chopped-and-screwed form), Adan no Kaze finds her working with multi-instrumentalist Taro Umebayashi—plus percussionist Manami Kakudo and a small string section—to weave rich, intricate arrangements that complement rather than smother her songs. It’s the album I’d always hoped she would make: spine-tinglingly beautiful in places, and she’s finally shed those childlike vocal inflections that were starting to sound like an affectation. Available here.

Cuushe – WAKEN

Cuushe’s first full-length since 2013’s Butterfly Case follows a well-trodden path for former bedroom producers, moving closer to clubland while upping the pop factor. This is no Art Angels-style bid for stardom, though: it’s closer in spirit to the sunny ’90s dance revivalism of The xx’s third album. Although Cuushe’s vocals are a little more forceful than before, she keeps one foot in the whispery dream-pop mode of her earlier work. It’s the strongest set of songs she’s done, and while tracks like closing anthem ‘Spread’ would have benefitted from crisper production, the slightly muzzy sonics are part of what makes this distinctive. She may have woken up, but she’s still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Aragaki Mutsumi – Another World of Okinawan Music

Ninuhai Recordings
Singer and sanshin player Aragaki Mutsumi has an interesting thing going here, though she almost ruins it with the clunky spoken-word interludes that bookend the album (“Welcome… to Okinawa,” etc.). When she lets the music speak for itself, it’s heady stuff: drifting, eerie soundscapes of traditional Rkyukyu folk song and field recordings, warped with a liberal dose of electronics. Aragaki’s voice is often even more arresting than her production tricks, seeming to slip freely between generations, and even genders. At its weirdest, like ‘Time Machines’, the music hits a similar wavelength to Meitei’s invocations of the ghosts of the past. Available here.

Geeker-Natsumi – Heloctro

Kirigirisu Recordings
Geeker-Natsumi swaps her Casiotone for Garageband on the follow-up to 2017’s Retire to Refire, but otherwise it’s business as usual across 10 tracks of determinedly lo-fi electro pop, covering lyrical themes from axolotls (‘Mexican Salamander’) to inherent goodness (‘Seizensetsu’). Given how easy it’s become now to produce pro-grade recordings in your bedroom, taking the opposite route instead definitely says something, though I’m still not quite sure what.

Tamaki Roy – Anyways

Based on what little I’ve heard, this seems to have been a good year for Japanese hip-hop, and Tamaki Roy brings it to a strong finish. Entirely self-produced, Anyways might be the most cohesive thing he’s done: a collection of vividly detailed miniatures, where his voice often takes a backseat to the music. The palette is bright and airy, all liquid synths and pitch-shifted samples, while the lyrics alternate between abstraction and slice-of-life realism. A few songs stick to a boom-bap template (‘I Know’, ‘Hajimari o Shiru’), and Roy has an undeniable knack for catchy hooks, but the most interesting moments are when he slips his moorings, as on the breakbeat-powered ‘Izumi Chuo-eki’, a two-part epic told in under two minutes. Available here.

SjQ – Torus

The debut release by new imprint Leftbrain suggests that the label’s name was particularly well chosen. SjQ’s first album in over a decade, Torus is the kind of enterprise that gets called “stoic” in Japanese, in acknowledgment of the ludicrous levels of focus and stamina required to pull it off. SjQ employ generative processes to create what sounds like sparse glitch electronica, but with live instrumentation. Whereas they once made extensive use of real-time processing, their approach seems to be more austere this time around (watching video of the recording sessions is making me think of that shredded version of ‘Get Lucky’). On half of the tracks, the drummer seat is now occupied by keyboardist/programmer Yuta Uozumi’s Gismo software, lending a unique cadence to the band’s forensic, atomised jazz. Truth told, it’s an album to admire more than enjoy, but it’s darn impressive all the same.

Toshihiko Mori – Jinen

Biophon Records
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s former keyboard player doesn’t exactly try to distance himself from his old boss on this EP, based around improvisations on the Prophet 5 synthesiser. Sakamoto, of course, has been using the same synth throughout his career, and there’s no mistaking those plush, billowing tones. ‘Sora’ is all celestial arpeggiations, while ‘NBYWRY’ repeatedly builds and then falls away into infinite space. As indicated by the title (the Japanese term for spontaneity), Jinen isn’t too fussed-over, and is all the better for it.

Meiteimahi – Aru Bakuhatsuteki na Nani ka

As reissue labels continue to explore the deepest recesses of the 1980s Japan underground, Tokyo duo Meiteimahi are keeping the spirit of that era alive. The group’s name is a fancy way of saying what we Brits would call “paralytic,” and vocalist Hi sounds like she’s three sheets to the wind on standout cut ‘Shin’, a lurching sea shanty of chugging guitar riffs and washes of noise. While the CD’s first half is the kind of dirgey proto-electro that might have appeared on Vanity Records (and genuinely sounds like it was recorded on a four-track), the closing stretch lets a bit of light in, and shows that they can do lo-fi psychedelia just as well.

Black Boboi – SILK

Black Boboi were smart to release their debut album just as winter was setting in. There’s a crepuscular quality to the trio’s work that’s perfect for this time of year. It’s bass music for hibernating to. The supergroup of singer/producers Utena Kobayashi, Ermhoi and Julia Shortreed have got better at combining their talents: their voices mesh so naturally here that it’s often hard to tell who’s doing what. But the sleek trip-hop of SILK—built from futurist synths, intricate programming and vocals so ethereal they’re practically Enya—is a little too consistent in mood and tempo for its own good. While there’s subtle drama to be found in tracks like ‘Postwar’ and ‘The Nomad’, something as punchy as last year’s ‘Red Mind’ wouldn’t have gone amiss. Available here.

Akira Uchida – Sasanami

Akira Uchida’s CV includes instrument making and “sound tuning,” and though Sasanami starts off like yet another slab of tasteful post-classical ambience, it quickly reveals greater depths. Uchida’s principal instruments are soprano saxophone and a self-made clavichord, while Miu Sakamoto (yes, that Sakamoto) lends vocals at various points, and the melodies are often redolent of early music. The distinctive timbres and incredible sense of space go some way to offsetting the rather cliched selection of environmental sounds (burbling water, waves, cicada song, etc.) that he weaves into the mix. Sasanami is the kind of album that leaves a rarified atmosphere in its wake.

Roth Bart Baron – Loud Color(s) & Silence Festival

Space Shower Music
Roth Bart Baron is now essentially the solo project of Masaya Mifune, following the departure of drummer and founder member Tetsuya Nakahara earlier this year. Loud Color(s) & Silence Festival is also notable as the first relatively “big” Japanese album I’ve heard that tries to formulate a response to the events of this year, but haunting opener ‘Voice(s)’—which adopts the weepy android soul of James Blake and Bon Iver—suggests a more radical departure than the rest of it actually delivers. Aside from the bit-crushed electronics of lead single ‘Never Forget,’ this mostly sticks to the orchestral indie-rock template of the group’s earlier work. Fans of Kishi Bashi and Beirut will feel right at home, and while I doubt I’ll be going back to this myself, I have to admit that it’s handsomely done.

Mikado Koko – Nekomata EP

Mikado Koko’s latest EP is a nice companion piece to the splendidly out-there album she released earlier in the year. The title track–named after a man-eating feline yōkai–is the real standout, Koko sounding like a woman possessed as she stalks a funhouse of lurching rhythms and wild dub panning. Meanwhile, the other tracks extend her application of Squarepusher beats to deeply inappropriate settings.

Nobuki Nishiyama – residue

edition zeroso
The last time I saw Nobuki Nishiyama play at Soup, he summoned a wall of sound so dense you could actually feel the air get thicker. Through his work as the venue’s in-house live engineer, he’s honed a sonic arsenal based around the kinds of effects—feedback, interference, phase distortion—that most PA techs try to avoid. Residue may not have the physical impact of Nishiyama’s live performances, but it’s still a meaty set of oscillations and drones that I imagine will appeal to fans of Phil Niblock or Kevin Drumm.

Kazumichi Komatsu – Emboss Star

Like a lot of music released on the Flau label, Kazumichi Komatsu’s latest feels awfully slight on first listen, but slowly reveals itself through repeat plays. Komatsu (who appears to have retired his Madegg alias) spent four years compiling these miniatures, and they have an ephemeral feel that’s reminding me of Space Afrika’s hybtwibt? for some reason. Emboss Star takes a similar pleasure in degraded textures and abrupt edits, aware that sometimes there’s no better punctuation mark than hitting stop on a cassette player.

Submerse – Get You Down

“Music to bump while playing Slam City with Scottie Pippen on your Sega CD” reads the description for Submerse’s latest EP—and if that reference makes sense to you, Get You Down is likely to have you purring with pleasure. At first blush, these tracks sound like a pitch-perfect imitation of something that Photek or Peshay might have released at the height of the mid-’90s jungle era, but they’re spliced with a clear footwork influence that betrays their more contemporary origin. It’s a shameless nostalgia fest, and absurdly enjoyable.

Hideki Umezawa & Andrew Pekler – Two Views of Amami Ōshima

Ediçōes CN
I had this playing on headphones while writing, and had to stop what I was doing because it was so engrossing. It’s a response to the work of the late Isson Tanaka, an obscure Nihonga artist who found posthumous acclaim for his depictions of the flora and fauna of the Amami Islands. Hideki Umezawa’s ‘Dokkyaku’ is particularly fine: working with field recordings from Amami Oshima, he creates a meticulously sculpted electro-acoustic piece that’s alive with intricate sonic detail. On ‘Amami Remote Extension’, Andrew Pekler turns Umezawa’s recordings into a fecund soundscape, summoning the atmosphere of a place he’s never visited with a vividness to rival Tanaka’s paintings. Also be sure to check Umezawa’s recent split with Shohei Amimori on the Ftarri label, which is pretty fine too.

Eiko Ishibashi – ORBIT

Capping off a strong year, Eiko Ishibashi’s contribution to the Superpang series sounds to my ears like an extension of the ideas on her Impulse of the Ribbon, released back in the spring. The opener is the closest thing she’s done to IDM, a succession of rhythmic switcheroos bound together by long, arcing metallic tones. The beats are never especially prominent, but they’re there. It finds its counterpart in the haunted closer, where garbled voices compete with ghostly ambience, before a scuttling rhythm tries to impose some order in the closing minutes. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d love to hear her try making a straight-up techno record.

Isayahh Wuddha – Inner city pop

maquis records
Kyoto-based bedroom bard Isayahh Wuddha is in a seductive mood on his second album, offering a libidinous lo-fi riposte to Tokyo’s slick city pop revivalists. Most of the songs are two-chord vamps, in which he croons (and occasionally raps) sweet nothings over a rickety backing of drum machine, Casio keyboard and guitar. I’m not sure it brings him any closer to achieving his goal of becoming a Michael Jackson-style King of Pop: more often, this sounds like a young Devendra Banhart working off his Prince obsession, though I can also hear hints of the vintage Southeast Asian pop that Sublime Frequencies used to traffic in. And I’ll be damned if ‘Celebration’ doesn’t remind me of Tokyo’s much-missed Mir.

Looprider – MOON

Looprider (who—full disclaimer—are friends of mine, and hence incapable of releasing cruddy music) go the full Electric Wizard on this sister album to last year’s Ouroboros. It’s a single, half-hour monolith of feedback and knuckle-dragging riffage, without any vocals to spoil the vibe, and sounds monumental even when played at moderate volume.

Campanella – AMULUE

I’d been looking forward to this album ever since the stupendous, Ramza-produced ‘Douglas Fir’ dropped last year. That track still sounds just as good now—a clattering banger with the nerviness of DJ Krush in his prime—and the songs on either side of it are just as taut. Too bad that Campanella opts to spend the latter half of AMULUE chilling with his mates (including Chinza Dopeness and Ego Wrappin’s Yoshie Nakano) rather than going in for the kill. He’s an inventive MC even when riding over nothing but a bossa nova guitar riff, but the urgency of the album’s opening gambit is missed. Available here.

SUGAI KEN – Tone River

Field Records
Sugai Ken isn’t afraid to goof around. His latest project was commissioned by the Dutch Embassy in Tokyo, and is ostensibly a meditation on Japan’s history of collaborating with the Netherlands on water management schemes. Using recordings captured at various points along the Tone River—the grandest of such projects—Sugai combines immersive soundscapes with the kind of hyper-vivid electronics you’d expect from the Orange Milk stable. It’s a fascinating contrast with the more straight-faced Two Views of Amami Ōshima mentioned earlier: this is electro-acoustic music with a Looney Tunes sensibility.

SPOOL – Cyan/Amber

spring records
It’s been a while since Luby Sparks released their last full-length, leaving the door open for Spool to steal the title of Japanese Shoegaze Band Most Likely to Become Mildly Popular. I’m not sure if the quartet are aiming for wider success or scenester cred—releasing this as a cassette on Indonesia’s Gerpfast Records might suggest the latter, but who knows? The MBV worship isn’t quite so blatant as on last year’s self-titled debut (which actually featured a song called ‘Be My Valentine’), and the melodies are more clearly defined. It’s downright alt rock in places: the angsty, minor-key ‘Ame’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Arrrepentimiento – Birth of Significance

This is the first physical release by this intangible psych-folk outfit, the latest project of former drawing4-5 mainstay Mcatm. Arrrepentimiento shares some of that group’s members, while their visual component bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ghost Box aesthetic. Birth of Significance may appeal to a similar audience, though this couldn’t be mistaken for hauntology. Relatively straightforward songs are plunged into a whirl of clashing instruments and sound collage—teetering, as they put it themselves, “between confusion and silence.”

FUJI||||||||||TA – KŌMORI

Boomkat Editions | Documenting Sound
I connected with FUJI||||||||||TA’s iki more than any other release this year, so I was already inclined to lose my marbles over his contribution to Boomkat’s Documenting Sound series. Still, this is potent stuff, not to mention a fascinating response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recording in a cave at the base of Mt. Fuji, he captures a duet between his wheezy self-built organ and the resident colony of bats—a species that’s in constant battle with coronaviruses. The sound of those bats—high-pitched whistles, swoops and oscillations—is revelatory, like something the Radiophonic Workshop might have cooked up for Doctor Who. Listening to this while wandering around my neighbourhood after dark has been a real trip. Available here.