New music from Japan (Spring 2021 edition)

Notable new Japanese releases, in brief

My focus has been all over the place this year, and writing about music hasn’t exerted the same thrall that it did during 2020. There are at least a dozen albums that should also have been included here, but I wanted to get something out in time for this month’s Bandcamp Friday, on the off chance that anyone reading this fancies chucking a few yen in the direction of the artists mentioned here. Gig listings will return when Tokyo gets out of the latest state of emergency, possibly never.

Bisk – Vacation Package

Bisk had a run of albums on Sub Rosa in the late-90s before dropping off the radar around the turn of the millennium. His first label release in nearly a decade, Vacation Package is the work of a veteran artist who’s kept up with the times, blending familiar elements—IDM, footwork, synth-jazz—into something unexpectedly fresh. While there’s the odd track that sounds descended from Richard D. James-era Aphex Twin, the most arresting moments marry the rhythmic thrust and fragmented samples of footwork with delirious vocoder funk. The material was reworked from live performances at Tokyo’s Forestlimit, and Bisk uses his virtuoso keyboard playing to create an elastic framework for the tracks, while giving them a tactile quality that’s utterly distinctive. It’s physical music whose feet never seem to touch the ground.

Eiko Ishibashi – For McCoy


I swear that Eiko Ishibashi’s solo work just keeps getting better. The 35-minute ‘I can feel guilty about anything’ finds her in electro-acoustic mode, weaving contributions from regular collaborators including Daisuke Fujiwara and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto into a sublime, illusive montage that’s all fades, dissolves and dream logic. In a bravura touch, she appends this with a shorter jazz ensemble piece featuring many of the same motifs, which I suspect was the source material, but left me wondering what the heck I’d just been listening to. I’m sure Law & Order’s Jack McCoy, to whom the album is dedicated, could’ve figured it out.

Rob Noyes – Arc Minutes

Probably the person I’m most excited about seeing live once gigging becomes a regular thing again, Rob Noyes makes some of the most riveting solo guitar music this side of Tashi Dorji. Arc Minutes—which was actually recorded before the New Englander relocated to Tokyo—captures him in full flight. While he’s working in the fingerstyle tradition, there’s nothing dainty about these 12-string excursions, which blend a rich melodicism with complex interlocking rhythms and weirdo tunings that sometimes teeter on the brink of dissonance. It feels both timeless and bracingly new.

Goth-Trad – Psionics

Back To Chill
Goth-Trad has dropped some real goodies on Bandcamp this year, including a dubplate compilation and a stonking VIP version of ‘Airbreaker’, but this is the crown jewels. The follow-up to 2012’s New Epoch, Psionics had a tiny release of 100 advance copies in 2016, then just seemed to vanish. This remixed and remastered edition, which also includes collaborations with Dälek and Boris, reveals a crushing, cybernetic industrial dub that owes more to Techno Animal than the brostep crowd. This is what they should have used for the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack.

Ena – One Draw

Nullpunkt Records
Exercises in greyscale abstraction, teeming with uneasy static and half-rhythms that are good for twitching to. The title refers to the traditional Japanese art of drawing pictures in a single stroke, and it’s entirely conceivable that these tracks were captured in a similar fashion, with Ena hitting the record button at judicious moments during an extended studio session. There’s so little progression that they could almost be mistaken for locked grooves, but pay close attention and there’s a lot going on in the shadows.

Nana Yamamoto – Before Sunrise

Big Love

Not many Japanese bedroom pop artists get their debut albums reviewed on Pitchfork, and it’s easy to be cynical about the PR push behind Nana Yamato. On Before Sunrise, the 20-year-old parlays her years of lonely teen record-shopping into a set of songs that feel instantly familiar, with lyrics that speak to the ennui of pandemic-era Tokyo, and MIDI arrangements that can leave the tracks sounding like demos rather than a conscious aesthetic. Nonchalant lead single “If”—which has the kind of hook you can imagine Liam Gallagher sneering—and fuzz-drenched closer “The Day Song” are standouts.

Mikado Koko – Maza Gusu


Mikado Koko serves up a set of deformed nursery rhymes—using texts from Hakushu Kitahara’s 1921 translation of Mother Goose—that should appeal to the kinds of children who enjoy pulling legs off insects. Though she hasn’t completely shed the ’90s IDM influence heard on last year’s The Japanese Rimbaud, for the most part she favours a nauseous swirl of kosmiche synths that, on tracks like “Oranges and Lemons,” reminds me of Bernard Sjazner’s recently reissued Some Deaths Take Forever. It’s less jarring than some of her other work, but still as freaky as ever.

Satomimagae – Hanazono

Satomimagae’s music beams in from the same liminal zone inhabited by Grouper, Lau Nau or early Cat Power. Though it features some of her most layered music to date, Hanazono feels even more hushed and intimate than its 2017 predecessor, Kemri. Vocals are delivered in a near-whisper that turns the lyrics into an impressionistic smear, whether she’s singing in Japanese or English. Unlike some of the two-chord wunderkinds who inhabit this free-folk realm, her songs actually stand up to closer inspection, and I’ve been coming back to this a lot recently.

Yuko Araki – End Of Trilogy

Er... I guess I missed the first two instalments? Yuko Araki (also of Kuunatic, Concierto de la Familia and YobKiss) does the gnarly experimental synth thing with considerable elan on End of Trilogy. There’s plenty of sonic gristle in this set of pugnaciously playful miniatures: her tracks spurt and burble, offering tantalising glimpses of toxic landscapes and vast chiastic flows. Araki’s lightness of touch is evident in the track runtimes, none of which go over three minutes—and they’re all the better for it.

Otagiri – The Radiant

One of the editors from ele-king pointed me in the direction of this one, and it’s a corker: a ramshackle, dadaist hip-hop odyssey that’s forever teetering on the brink of collapse. It’s disjointed and obnoxious in the best way, with Otagiri’s nasal vocals (including some pretty credible English) often not so much vibing to the beats as providing an ironic commentary on them. Co-produced with DJ Mayaku, The Radiant’s chaotic bricolage sounds like the product of way too much time on YouTube, roping in everything from saxophone skronk (is that Kaoru Abe?) to Buddhist chants. The spirit of ECD floats through the proceedings with an approving smirk on his face.

Ms. Machine – Ms. Machine

It feels like Ms. Machine have been knocking around on the Tokyo scene for a while now, but this is their fullest statement to date. Pared down to a trio, with brittle drum machine backings, the group’s sound here owes as much to Sleigh Bells as to the no wave and DC hardcore that informed their earlier work (though you could still peel paint with some of Mako’s guitar tones). The relentlessly dour tone of Ms. Machine gets a bit much after a while, but closer “Girls Don’t Cry, too” delivers a solid sucker punch.

Shohei Amimori – Ex.Life

A fascinatingly mixed bag, this one—and that’s saying a lot, coming from the artist responsible for 2018’s whiplash-inducing PataMusic. Ex.Life flips from lush piano melodies worthy of a Joe Hisaishi soundtrack to dense, synaesthetic sound design, with one particularly loopy bit of audio mangling that was composed without even listening to the music. If its predecessor took irreverent inspiration from ’80s synthpop, this one reminds me more of the CD-era sounds heard on Music From Memory’s excellent Heisei no Oto comp, which I wrote about for The Japan Times a couple of months back.

Kukangendai – Tentei


Kukangendai’s Palm was one of my favourite albums of 2019, and didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. This follow-up, released on the band’s own Soto label, sounds like a refinement rather than a radical evolution of their meticulously deconstructed math-rock. There’s less sense of urgency, and at times you could almost be listening to mid-1990s Tortoise, though Tentei’s languid atmosphere is deceptive. The closer you listen, the more unnerving it gets.

Megumi Noguchi – improvisation

This one took me by surprise. Singer-songwriter Megumi Noguchi specialises in the kind of fragile acoustic whimsy that might appeal to Ichiko Aoba fans, but this collection of fragmentary solo instrumentals is considerably more engrossing. It’s full of hazy reveries, buoyed on clouds of reverb, though also makes a few unexpected detour: check the proto-krautrock synth pulse of “space.” While I get the feeling that Noguchi is still taking baby steps here, I hope there’s more where this came from.

Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks – Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks

For a while back there, I started to wonder if I’d merely imagined watching Keiji Haino fronting a classic rock covers band, but here’s the evidence. Sticking to wrenched vocals and wretched harmonica while the rest of the band trudge and stutter around him, he howls his way through staples such as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “My Generation,” performed with varying degrees of disrespect for the originals. This could easily have tipped over into self-parody, but Haino is such a law unto himself that the usual rules don’t apply. Available here.