New music from Japan (Autumn 2021 edition)

Notable new Japanese releases, in brief

As the latest state of emergency lifts in Tokyo—no doubt to return again soon—I figured it would be as good a time as any to resurrect the gig listings here. Even with the emergency measures gone, venues in Tokyo are still having to limit attendance and close early for the time being. Actually, that’s not entirely true: events can operate at 100% capacity if the audience is likely to stay quiet, suggesting that an onkyo revival may be just around the corner. Anyway, here’s a belated roundup of some of the music from Japan that’s caught my attention over the past few months.

Takuma Watanabe – Last Afternoon

SN Variations
People with long memories or access to Google may know Takuma Watanabe by his now-defunct Combopiano alias, but he’s gone all-in as a composer recently. Billed as his first full-length album (which it isn’t, but never mind), Last Afternoon has a caress so gentle, it’s almost imperceptible. Watanabe combines gossamer electronics and inscrutable field recordings with a string ensemble that’s all sighs and shivers. It’s like he took the most weightless moments of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async as a starting point and went from there. The great Joan La Barbara pops up on one track and Akira Rabelais is credited for “wabi sabi,” as you do.

Jap Kasai – OWN ˚C


Kyoto’s Jap Kasai (aka Daisuke Iijima) is part of a recent crop of electronic producers who are splicing Japanese folk traditions into their work, but he’s perhaps alone in following the peculiar rhythmic logic of matsuri music, rather than just dropping samples over a straight 4/4 groove. More so than his earlier productions, the tracks on OWN ˚C lope along like a drunken mikoshi procession, pausing from time to time to stifle a yawn and gaze off into negative space. Much like Foodman (with whom he shares an affection for plasticky MIDI sounds), Iijima has absorbed the ethos of footwork without getting too attached to the particulars, giving his music a wonderfully open-ended feel.

Rommel – Sexy Smile b/w Amai Kiss

Bitter Lake Recordings
This is a change of pace from New York’s Bitter Lake Recordings label, which has so far focused its efforts on unearthing forgotten gems from Japan’s 1980s hardcore and minimal synth scenes. ‘Sexy Smile’ was the 1978 debut single by the unfortunately named Rommel, whose 50s-inflected power pop isn’t so different from what Haruo Chikada was doing at the time. I dunno about “sexy,” but I defy you to keep a straight face while listening to this.

Koeosaeme – Annulus

Orange Milk Records
Ryu Yoshizawa’s latest for Orange Milk is less intense than 2019’s brain-bending Obanikeshi, adopting a palette that veers surprisingly close to Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass. Reichian marimbas and pellucid pad synths dominate during the first half, and there are a few tracks you could probably slip into a ’Japanese ambient to study to’ playlist without most listeners noticing. Things get a bit spikier later on, as fragments of concrète hurtle across the stereo field, and Yoshizawa conjures eldritch vibes with fue flutes, taiko and chthonic growls, like he’s summoning the spirits of the Yotsuya Kaidan.

Eiko Ishibashi – Tokyo Variantic 2021

Another humdinger from Eiko Ishibashi, which to my ears sounds like a natural successor to last year’s Orbit and Impulse of the Ribbon. It’s the most Autechre-ish thing I’ve heard from her to date, thanks to a fizzing, lopsided beat that keeps stumbling into earshot at various points during the half-hour piece. Tokyo Variantic 2021 is a palimpsest of garbled transmissions: cut-up news broadcasts, malfunctioning arpeggiations, tendrils of processed flute, and an Indonesian angklung purchased at Hard Off. Everything is mutable here: the moment you think you can grasp what’s going on, it slips through your fingers.

Blackphone666 – PTN.YLW / HARM

Murder Channel
Nakano’s finest comes out blazing on this cassette release for Murder Channel, a label I’d associate with accelerated rave mutations more than straight-up noise. Sure enough, PTN.YLW / HARM finds Blackphone666 embracing beats for the first time—specifically, an overdriven gabber/hard techno mode that complements his finely honed aural assaults like chips and gravy. It’s both precision tooled and joyously noxious, like something the characters out of Mad Max: Fury Road might stick on the stereo while refueling their war rigs.

Foodman – Yasuragi Land

The lockdown era forced many people to develop a newfound appreciation for the quotidian, but Takahide Higuchi was already way ahead of us. Yasuragi Land is a hymn to the landscape of Japanese suburbia, as indicated by track titles like ‘Food Court’ and ‘Shiboritate’ (‘Freshly Squeezed’). ‘Michi No Eki,’ featuring breathy vocals by Bo Ningen’s Taigen Kawabe, recalls the intricate structures of Cornelius circa Sensuous, but Foodman is working with earthier ingredients. Wood percussion dominates throughout, complemented by woodwinds, electric piano and an arsenal of comedy effects. If anything, the album is a little too consistent, and a late detour into relaxation-spa pop on ‘Sanhashi,’ featuring Cotto Center, makes a welcome palate cleanser.

Yumbo – The Fruit of Errata

Moor Music
This follow-up to last year’s Minna Miteru comp introduces overseas listeners—and, er, me—to the fragile charms of Sendai’s Yumbo. Presented roughly in chronological order, The Fruit of Errata charts the group’s evolution over a couple of decades, from ramshackle lo-fi indie pop to marginally more polished songs that seem to be quietly fraying at the seams. You wouldn’t need to know Koji Shibuya is a massive Maher Shalal Hash Baz fan to spot the influence, and Yumbo’s music has the same ability to deliver hits of pure pop goodness in the most bedraggled, gloriously imperfect raiments. If you like what you hear, there’s a trove of live recordings and rarities to explore on Yumbo’s Bandcamp page, so dig in.

Okinawa Noise Girl Saya x AX – White

Terminal Explosion
While 2019’s Chastity was one of the better things I’ve heard from Okinawa Electric Girl Saya, her subsequent collaborations with producer AX have played like conceptual gambits that barely warrant a shrug, let alone a CD release. On White, the duo serve up a selection of 15 flavours of white noise, starting thin and getting a little chunkier as they go along, bookended with a brief spoken-word intro and outro that underscore the archness of the whole thing. It’s the definition of pointlessness, though I honestly found it more listenable than some of Saya’s more pop-leaning efforts.

Junya Tokuda – Anemic Cinema


I wouldn’t look to dub techno for radical innovation any more than I would to Dixieland jazz, and Osaka’s Junya Tokuda is working in some familiar idioms on Anemic Cinema. The stuttering rhythms, muffled percussion hits and snatches of half-remembered vocals on the opening tracks are very post-Burial, the heat-warped trance of ‘Parallax View’ is closer to The Field or an unusually chipper Actress, while the gauzy, billowing textures of the title track are putting me in mind of Pop-era GAS. Plenty of ear candy for ASMR fiends and Modern Love devotees, and with none of the tracks going past the 5-minute mark, it’s commendably to-the-point.

Unknown Me – Bishintai

Not Not Fun
This ambient supergroup—uniting the talents of H. Takahashi, Yakenohara, P-RUFF and Osawa Yudai—are practically a tribute act to the sounds of Japan’s 1980s environmental music movement, but they’re pretty great too. Bishintai is mood music for space-age beauty spas, interweaving pillowy synths and electronic glitches with wellness directives delivered by robotic voices. ‘Aroma Oxygen’ is a late standout, with an almost danceable rhythm that’s reminding me of Yasuaki Shimizu’s work. They’ve brought along some guests for the ride, too, and while it’s anyone’s guess what Jim O’Rourke is doing on ‘Have a Noble Meal,’ there’s no mistaking Foodman’s warped rhythmic sensibility on ‘Breathing Wave.’

Chai – Wink

Sub Pop

Sub Pop is a natural fit for Japan’s hottest musical export since Babymetal, but Chai don’t do the obvious thing on Wink. The band’s Garageband-recorded lockdown album is stuffed with slow jams, and while the reference points they cite in the press materials are all international, it sounds more closely aligned with what’s happening in the Japanese pop scene than either of their previous full-lengths did. You could imagine Sirup or Tendre crooning over some of these bedroom grooves, although Mana’s less virtuoso delivery is an asset. A Ric Wilson guest verse on ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’ is a bit incongruous and the clunky YMCK collab ‘Ping Pong!’ breaks the mood, but Mndsgn seems to know just what’s needed from him on G-funk standout ‘In Pink.’

Utena Kobayashi – 6 Roads

While she’s now perhaps better known as one third of trip-hop revivalists Black Boboi, Utena Kobayashi continues to do more interesting things when she’s left to her own devices. 6 Roads melds weightless vocals with glassy synthesisers, string pads and a whole lotta percussion. I’m hearing shades of Severant-era Kuedo and Kenji Kawai’s Ghost in the Shell soundtrack, though the album’s blend of ethereal lushness and EDM dynamics wouldn’t sound out of place in a Cirque du Soleil show (and no, that isn’t meant as an insult). The CD edition comes packaged with a hardback picture book that doesn’t make a lick of sense, though I guess that’s one of the perks of running your own label. Available here.

Hoshina Anniversary – Jomon

ESP Institute

Suemori – Maebashi

Osàre! Editions
When an artist releases two albums in quick succession under different aliases, it’s hard to resist doing a compare-and-contrast. In his first outing as Suemori, Yoshinobu Hoshina sounds like he’s had his drink spiked by Foodman, filtering lopsided rhythms and pentatonic melodies through brittle, haunted dub. Jomon, released under his Hoshina Anniversary moniker, draws on the sounds of early Detroit techno and Chicago house, but gives equal weight to traditional Japanese influences and the ravenous spirit of Chick Corea-style jazz fusion. ‘Kegon’ is all creeping dread, ‘Yamatouta’ comes on like a lost Haruomi Hosono synth cut, and the carnivalesque ‘Tanabata Monogatari’ could’ve soundtracked a Satoshi Kon film. At nearly 80 minutes, it’s a lot to take in: Hoshina’s talents are impressive, but they’re exhausting too.

Seiichiro Yamamoto – Cavinet

This instrumental companion piece to Seiichi Yamamoto’s “alternative-AOR” excursion, Selfy, is the kind of throwaway that most artists would just sling up on their Bandcamp page, but it’s a diverting listen. The Rovo mainstay turns his guitar into a sickly, pitch-shifted squelch or layers it into vivid kaleidoscopes, while drum machines fizz and stumble towards obsolescence. Maybe it’s all that time spent hanging out with Phew, but there are moments here that recall the experimental fervour of the 1980s DIY electronics scene. Available here.

Atsuko Hatano – Cells #5

You may have heard Atsuko Hatano’s contributions to albums by pals including Eiko Ishibashi and Jim O’Rourke, though Cells #5 shows she’s a formidable composer in her own right. A big step up from 2018’s Cells #2, it fleshes out her febrile string arrangements into a virtual orchestra, with contributions from Ishibashi, Yuko Ikoma, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and others. The Penderecki-esque flourish at the start of ‘Tidal Curtain’ sets the tone for the album’s restless mood, where harmonies are constantly smearing and dissolving at the touch. On the stunning ‘Her Parade,’ Ishibashi’s piano plays a trudging melody as Hatano’s strings swarm around it. If this doesn’t land her some juicy soundtrack gigs, there’s no justice.

NTsKi – Orca

EM Records/Orange Milk Records

Kyoto’s NTsKi has been teasing big things for a while now. I wish I could say that her debut album—jointly released by Orange Milk and EM Records—is a knockout, but Orca mostly just feels like a distillation of styles that other artists have done with more personality. There’s a spot of stereoscopic hyperpop (‘Kung Fu’), some Cuushe-style dreaminess (‘H S K’), and a dead-on evocation of 80s Fairlight pop (‘Plate Song’). She shows her hand with an extremely faithful cover of Miharu Koshi’s 1984 synthpop staple, ‘Parallelisme,’ which manages to be both superfluous and one of the best things here.

Susumu Hirasawa – Beacon


Prog-futurist Susumu Hirasawa seems to be having a bit of a moment, at least judging from the online response to his performance at this year’s Fuji Rock. Beacon is every bit as loopy as you’d expect from an album featuring a song titled ‘The Cognitive Another World of the Logical Coterie.’ It’s a grandiose space opera with an aesthetic stuck in the mid-90s, full of ebulliently OTT arrangements and Hirasawa’s joyous, yodelling vocals. There's a version of Purcell’s ‘The Cold Song’ which is almost as good as Klaus Nomi’s, while some of the vocal hooks are catchier than O-Zone. I’m not enough of a connoisseur to say how it compares to his previous 13 albums, but in its dedication to a deeply idiosyncratic vision, it feels worth celebrating.

Japan Theremin Old School – Renaissance and Evolution

Mandarin Records
Theremin interpretations of the classical canon are never going to be my thing, but there’s no disputing the skill and sensitivity of Masami Takeuchi’s playing. The quartet pieces on this comp, released to mark the instrument’s centennial, have a wonderful shimmering quality to them. But if you really want to turn your brain to mush, skip to the album’s second half, featuring the 100-strong Matryomin ensemble (who play Takeuchi’s signature creation, a theremin shaped like a Matryoshka doll). As the cover proclaims, there was no pitch correction involved, and the mass ensemble turns kitsch melodies into dense clouds of microtones, to sickly and wonderfully weird effect.

Tim Olive – Spot of the Foul (total mass retain)

845 Audio
Tim Olive is a prolific bugger, so I was surprised to discover this is only the second solo album he’s released. The Kobe resident deploys his usual grab-bag of magnetic pickups and noise-making knickknacks here, but subjects them to a lot more editing and mixing than he does when he’s collaborating with others. The result is an enjoyable set of lower-case industrial that rewards repeat listens, full of uncanny groans, drones and bumps in the night. It’s like taking a bath in a jacuzzi full of rusted metal, or going for a late-night stroll through the city in Eraserhead. Pretty peachy, in other words.