New music from Japan (Winter 2021 edition)

Notable new Japanese releases, in brief

Year-end list season is upon us, when I realise how much brilliant stuff I could’ve been listening to instead of the new Mono album. I’ll probably be posting a Top 10 later in the month, but in the meantime, here’s another bunch of Japanese music that you may or may not like as much as I did, or didn’t.

Phew – New Decade

Phew’s recent run of albums has been so consistently strong, it’s easy to take them for granted, as if it’s totally normal for an artist to be releasing her most engrossing music over 40 years into her career. New Decade (which—full disclosure—I wrote the press materials for) may be the best thing she’s done since going all-in with solo electronics. Phew adds some scrappy, detuned electric guitar to her arsenal of drones, rickety drum machines and fevered vocals, layering the elements into dense montages with a heightened sense of drama; epic centrepiece ‘Into the Stream’ is a journey in itself. The Japanese CD edition comes with a 21-minute bonus track that’s like getting sucked into a black hole.

Yuta Orisaka – 心理 / State of Mind

Orisakayuta/Less+ Project
The first time I listened to State of Mind, many of its songs already felt like old friends. Yuta Orisaka is rooted in the songwriting tradition that flourished during Japan’s 1970s New Music scene, but his touchstones are people like Yumi Matsutoya and Masashi Sada rather than the Happy End crew. His band on the album is first-rate, tackling each song with a lateral-thinking playfulness that suggests Orisaka might have taken a few pointers from Shugo Tokumaru, too. Sam Gendel and Lang Lee make memorable guest appearances without disrupting the vibe; the plaintive, Butaji-penned ‘Torch’, released as a single last year, is actually the least interesting thing here.

Kuunatic – Gate of Klüna

Entertaining prog-psych from this peripatetic three-piece, combining the talents of Yuko Araki and Shoko Yoshida—both formidable solo artists in their own right—and DJ/promoter Fumie Kikuchi. There’s an overarching concept about an imaginary planet called Kuurandia, which is all a bit Magma, though the music reminds me more of The Raincoats circa Odyshape, or OOIOO at their shaggiest. It’s full of sinuous bass/keyboard vamps and tribal refrains, and gets downright epic towards the end: if their stage show doesn’t feature an 18-inch model volcano during the bombastic ‘Lava Naksh’, it really should.

FUJI||||||||||TA – Noiseem

When he isn’t making asthmatic drones with his homemade pipe organ (as on last year’s wonderful iki), Yosuke Fujita likes to get busy with amplified water tanks. On Noiseem, he reworks a pair of live recordings into two side-long excursions in burble and squeak. Without the visual element, it’s sometimes hard to parse what the heck is going on, as recognisably aquatic sounds are transmuted into dizzying stereoscopic electronics, anchored in places by Fujita’s organ. A reference to Knud Viktor in the album’s press notes is a good indication of the exploratory spirit on display here, especially on the B-side’s ‘uzu’, which adds auto-tuned vocals to the mix just for good measure.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Candy Racer

KRK Lab/Nippon Columbia
Want to feel old? It’s been ten years since ‘Ponponpon’ came out. Now dubiously hailed as a hyperpop progenitor, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is still trapped in the stylistic strait jacket of working with whatever material producer Yasutaka Nakata has sitting around that isn’t mature enough for Perfume. Candy Racer opens with a pair of steroidal club bangers that suggest this might be her Berghain album, but what follows is more like a hybrid of post-YMO ’80s synthpop and Eurovision naffness. Which is to say that it’s fun, in carefully controlled doses. ‘Gentenkaihi’ will appeal to people who didn’t find Chai’s latest album hyper enough; when Kyary goes full retro on ‘Natsuiro Flower’, which sounds like something you could have heard playing in a Jusco shopping center in 1987, it’s actually one of the best tracks.

Mono – Pilgrimage of the Soul

Temporary Residence
Japan’s most celebrated post-rock bores are back with another clutch of epic tearjerkers, where no emotional signifier is too obvious, and irony is in short supply. Progress happens at a glacial rate in Mono’s world: Pilgrimage of the Soul is billed as their most “unexpected” album to date, which means they’ve introduced a few innovations (yay, synths!) that Mogwai tried about 20 years ago. They also take a stab at indie disco on ‘Imperfect Things’, though the less said about that the better.

Takashi Koike – Sabage

Pretty nice, this one. Sioka’s Takashi Koike recruits a band of fellow Nagoya musicians for his second solo album, and they tug his low-key indie-folk songs in some interesting directions. The album seems to get looser as it goes on, culminating in an eruption of freeform drumming on closer ‘Konchū (Insect)’. The muted tropicalia of ‘Koi no Manyuaru (The Manual of Love)’, featuring backing vocals by mmm, would be the perfect soundtrack for a sultry night of boozing under the stars, though I guess it’s the wrong time of year for that.

Prettybwoy – Tayutau

Prettybwoy featured on Big Dada’s Grime 2.0 comp way back in 2013, but it’s taken him this long to release a full-length. On Tayutau, he combines his longstanding affection for the UK bass scene with the kind of fractured futurism you’d expect from Shanghai’s SVBKVLT label. It isn’t as deliberately confounding as a lot of the deconstructed club music that’s out there (many of the tracks have a discernible pulse, for starters), but the glassy timbres and sudden fusillades of steel-tipped percussion mean it isn’t exactly cosy, either. Some great vocal features, too.

AAAMYYY – Annihilation

Warner Music Japan
I was holding out hope that Tempalay’s Amy Furuhara would get weirder on her second solo album, but she’s gone in the opposite direction. While her 2019 debut was mostly self-produced, Annihilation recruits a band of support musicians, and ends up sounding both more sophisticated and less distinctive. While lead single ‘After Life’ flaunts an unmistakeable Shiina Ringo influence, other songs owe a debt to 2000s-era Hikaru Utada—though she isn’t as singular a vocalist as either of them. The brooding ‘Tengu’, featuring Zo Zhit from Dos Monos, is a highlight. Available here.

Mikado Koko – Alice in Cryptoland

Mikado Koko keeps finding new ways to weird you the fuck out. For her second full-length of 2021, she enlists guest appearances by former Crass mainstays Penny Rimbaud and Eve Libertine for a 150th anniversary tribute to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and it’s freakier than a date with Johnny Depp. Some of the tracks are as out-there as anything off January’s Maza Gusu (check the nauseous saxophones and cut-up rhythms of ‘Jabberwocky’), but I was honestly more discombobulated by the detours into chiptune, as on ‘NFT’, which features speech synthesis vocals by Koko’s 3D alter ego, Alice Voxel.

Sugai Ken – Be Sure to Listen to This at Japanese Teatime

Ujikoen Co. Ltd.
Ujikoen’s ever-intriguing album series provides a subtly psychedelic soundtrack to the tea-drinking experience, and this contribution by Sugai Ken is no exception. It walks a fine line between irritating and sublime, with a central stretch of barely-there environmental sound that’s pure ASMR, and a bit boring. Elsewhere, Sugai turns a text by 15th century tea-ceremony originator Murata Juko into immaculate robo gibberish, and creates electronic simulacra of the natural world that recall Hugh Le Caine’s ‘Dripsody’. While it’s not quite as essential as last year’s Matsuo Ohno release, the immaculate ‘Reproducing the Twinkling of Stars with Hand Claps’ is worth the price of admission alone.

Isayahh Wuddha – Dawn

Maquis Records
Kyoto’s Isayahh Wuddha channels his groovy, lo-fi bedroom pop through a flamboyant stage persona that’s like a lounge performer singing in a language he doesn’t understand. His third album in short succession features more two-chord slow jams and woozy soul, but also a few curveballs that suggest he isn’t about to get stuck in a rut. Built around a heavily distorted hip-hop beat, lead track ‘Say’ recalls the noisy, genre-agnostic sounds of Tokyo’s Discipline collective, while ‘Higher’ reveals an unexpected drum’n’bass influence. Available here.

Hiroshi Minami/Eiko Ishibashi – GASPING_SIGHING_SOBBING

Veteran jazz pianist Hiroshi Minami cashes in on the current ambient boom in exquisite style, hooking up with Eiko Ishibashi for a collaboration that wouldn’t sound out of place on ECM. Like Bill Laswell if he had better taste, Ishibashi takes some low-key recordings by Minami and bassist Daisuke Ijichi—all lambent washes and languid sighs—and subjects them to a range of subtle electronic treatments, with occasional interjections of environmental sounds and shortwave radio. The mood is serene, but this music is in constant flux: refracting, folding in on itself, getting hypnotised by its own reflection. It’s gorgeous stuff, like dozing off at a cocktail jazz bar and having some seriously vivid dreams.

a0n0 – Calopteryx atrata
This has been a busy year for Sendai’s a0n0, aka Hirobumi Aono, who’s come seemingly out of nowhere to clock up releases on labels including Superpang, Imploding Sounds and his own Tokinogake. While he went long on the recent Summer Wars, this collection for is like a deluxe spread of very punchy amuse-gueules. Aono is a dab hand at the kind of fractured electronica and prismatic noise eruptions that Pita (RIP) used to do so well, though there are also tracks here that evoke the static-drenched reveries of Fennesz, plus a few palate-cleansing field recordings.

Lighters – Swim in the Milk

Later Youth Records
For all the talk of a ’90s revival in Japan, most bands here just don’t have the patience to replicate the sounds of grunge-era US indie: they’d barely make it through a song without succumbing to the urge to insert jazz chords and fancy drum breaks. Lighters make a virtue of their lack of chops, and guitarist/vocalist Rumi Nagasawa proves herself a capable songwriter, calling back memories of semi-forgotten acts like Velocity Girl, Frente! and, in the band’s poppier moments, compatriots Shonen Knife. The general rule of thumb with groups like this is that it’s all downhill after the debut LP; just ask fellow travellers DYGL, whose Kohei Kamoto helped produce the album. Available here.

Machìna – Compass Point

Yeohee Kim’s evolution from K-pop idol to modular electronics queen is ideal fodder for Red Bull documentaries, and it barely seems to matter whether her music is any good or not. Machìna’s lockdown album comes furnished in TED-talk twaddle (“During times when the world is looking in on itself, music needs to provide a response”) and features its fair share of cringey New Age lyrics, not to mention a truly brazen Rhythm & Sound rip-off. There’s the odd arresting moment here, but the whole thing feels a little too clean for its own good. It’s synth music for ad syncs.

Cokiyu – Kouya

Cokiyu will forever be associated in my mind with the sound of early-2010s Tokyo, when there seemed to a lot of people doing this gauzy dream-pop stuff. While contemporaries such as Cuushe have moved on to clubbier fare, Cokiyu’s first proper release since 2011’s Your Thorn—available as a pay-what-you-want download—keeps things gossamer-light, even when she’s riding a muted house rhythm on ‘Shiosai’. On closing track ‘Umi no hito to yuki’, multi-instrumentalist Ueda Takayasu draws her into a luscious, folk-inflected mode, and it feels like morning sun clearing the mist away.

Tatsuhisa Yamamoto – Aggro Pan

When I interviewed Tatsuhisa Yamamoto last year, he talked about his burgeoning interest in psychoacoustics, and finding how long people can listen to the same sound before they lose focus. The opening stretch of Aggro Pan seems to be trapped in blissful stasis, as delicate peals of steel pan leave a slowly accumulating cloud of vapour trails. But before you add this to your transcendental meditation playlist, be warned that things get gnarlier later on, as Yamamoto unleashes volleys of bitcrushed free-jazz drums, jump-cut segues to whimsical field recordings, and then hooks up with guitarist Riki Hidaka to create what sounds like a long-lost Can tape.

KO.DO.NA – riunione dell'uccello

Not a new release, per se: this originally came out on CD in 2015, but only recently popped up on Bandcamp. Kazutaka Kuroki is operating in an increasingly crowded market, but his music has a weird spectral quality that sets it apart from a lot of the wallpaper ambient being released at the moment. I’ve no idea how he’s making this—there may have been a reel-to-reel tape recorder involved, and his trademark trumpet is only occasionally evident. The whole thing has a degraded patina that should make fans of Abul Mogard or William Basinski feel right at home.

Tsushimamire – Sake Mamire

Space Shower Music/Mojor Records
Judging from recent media reports about how people in Japan are shunning the traditional year-end drinking parties, Tsushimamire may not have picked the best time to release an album consisting entirely of raucous paeans to boozing. But when have this three-piece ever been on-trend? The first half is a heck of a lot of fun, as they hurtle through jagged punk-pop odes to assorted tipples (‘Beer’, ‘Give Me Whiskey’, ‘Vodka War’), delivered with a conviction that borders on the deranged. The rest is as skippable as your office bonenkai.