Japanese musician Teruyuki Nobuchika has a job composing TV and movie soundtracks, but also performs his own non-commercial works, and has been building up a small discography. One such is Still Air (OKTAF 013), released by this German label and packaged with abstract cover art by the painter Mischa von Wegen. Eight short instrumentals which at first spin seemed to be situated too conveniently in the “ambient” drifty zones – pleasant sounds often bordering on the tasteful, framed in pieces which might be too diffuse to contain anything of any value. However, I rescind that view on today’s spin; there’s a lot of detail and ideas going on in these deceptively simple pieces, which are tautly structured to conceal their clever changes, and they make a small journey almost without us even noticing, arriving somewhere that’s interesting and ambiguous. Nobuchika does this with the subtle use of loops and repeated pulsing patterns, sometimes interrupting the flow with a judicious piano trill, an interjection which has earned him the “classical” tag from other reviewers. Still Air manages to suggest stories and forward movement, rather than simply settling for pleasant “atmospheres”, and Nobuchika has put a deal of compositional effort into constructing and polishing these ingenious miniatures. From 20th September 2016.
Japanese musician and singer Chihiro Butterfly has prepared her own personal response to the earthquake that struck eastern Japan in 2011, a disaster that “ravaged” her home town of Sendai. After five years of contemplation, she has produced After 3.11 (ACCRETIONS alp061), a record which at first spin may seem like an upbeat contemporary pop record – strong melodies, mechanical beats, and heavily processed vocals, including the ubiquitous autotune. However, it would clearly be incorrect to mistake these songs for good-time party anthems, and there’s an undercurrent of deep sadness informing each piece here, even if us Westerners can’t understand the Japanese lyrics. She does it in collaboration with a number of European, Korean, and Japanese artistes, including Yosuke Fukimoto, Experimental Feelings, Ruxpin, AYOTA, H. Wakabayashi, and more; every track appears to be a joint work. Maybe the theme of the record is pulling together to overcome these grand tragedies; titles like ‘With Our Hands / We Form Contact’ might confirm that sentiment. Likewise the image printed on the CD, rolls of camera film arranged into the shape of a heart, suggesting something about the documentation of an emotional truth. While this record seemed somewhat “twee” to me on early outings, I’m warming to the no-nonsense manner in which Chihiro sings her songs, an index of tragedy and personal pain nobly borne. She’s a pianist and jazz player, who has done film soundtracks and TV commercials; among her other talents, she boasts a four-octave vocal range. From 13 September 2016.
I’m amazed by the way contemporary guitar playing has evidently evolved to the point where we can get outstanding records like Tomorrow Outside Tomorrow (EDITIONS MEGO EMEGO 217) on our doorstep. A team-up between Tetuzi Akiyama and Alan Licht, joined by two guest players, where the sounds of the guitars are so heavily disguised and mutated that we might almost be listening to purely electronic music; and the strength of the improvised performances has evolved rapidly past all known attempts to categorise and pigeon-hole the work.
Tetuzi Akiyama has been associated with ultra-quiet “Onkyo” music, but this music is far from quiet. Licht’s recent efforts have not been sent to us, outside of the impressive Four Years Older (also on Mego and noted here). ‘Blues Deceiver’ is the first of two long pieces here, where the duo are joined by Oren Ambarchi, himself a foremost experimenter who is continuing to push the six-string electric guitar well past acceptable boundaries. I suppose we could describe this as a slow and torturous feedback dirge, filled with abstract groans and lengthy sustained notes, but then there’s strange detail lurking in some of the undefined corners of this nebulous bellow. Music and noise, distortion and clarity; the tension is sustained unfailingly for 20 minutes. There are at least two or even three conflicting moods at work; one of them is depressed and angry, another is trying to find some room for quiet contemplation. One voice negates the whole of man’s existence, another is attempting to piece together a philosophical argument in favour of the continuation of the human race. I seem to be describing a conversation among the Gods, a pretentious observation of the sort I was hoping to escape as I write these lines. Unhelpfully described as a “dank blues” piece by the press notes, ‘Blues Deceiver’ is really getting under my epidermis today, crawling like a living organism whose purpose may or may not be benign.
More of this metallic abrasiveness and strangulated feedback mangling can be thine on the title track, where for the first 6 mins of the piece Licht and Akiyama circle each other like ravenous lions sizing each other up. If the piercing stare of a hawk or hunting dog could be rendered as sound, chances are it would be a noise like this. It’s music that peels away your defences, strips the layers of safety, and does so in quite a painful fashion; at last you have no choice but to face up to the harsh truths that are presented here in guitar form. At this point the duo are joined by Rob Mazurek, the fab Chicago trumpet player who plays as one half of Chicago Underground Duo and whose Don Cherry fixations are very much in evidence on his contributions to ‘Tomorrow Outside Tomorrow’. His tone here is sweet and compassionate, and reminds us of Miles on ‘He Loved Him Madly’. Almost instantly, the two guitarists soften their approach, and to some degree even accompany the trumpeter’s exquisite figures, in so far as this open-ended and very abstract music will support such a conventional notion as “accompaniment”. This results in a deliciously astringent mix of sounds, temperaments and moods, the rough edges of still distorted and treated guitar noise rubbing up against the beautiful cloud-like tones of Mazurek. While this track doesn’t unsettle me as much as the first one, that’s probably a good thing, and contributes highly to the balance (the Yin and Yang) of this record. The work was recorded in Tokyo in 2014.
Yoko Naito did the cover art showing three human-like blobs of blue struggling to find common ground in a highly uncertain landscape, whose red background might indicate a sunset or more likely the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. A post modern visual update on Matisse, for sure, where the idyll of Luxe, Calme And Volupté is replaced by poverty, fear and discomfort. Essential purchase, highly recommended…from 10th March 2016.
Solo keyboard record by the Japanese performer Ytamo is called Mi Wo (SOMEONE GOOD RMSG014). She exhibits a real charm and allure in these unassuming and seemingly effortless concoctions, where the apparent simplicity and spontaneity conceals, I suspect, a tremendous amount of craft.
To begin with it’s clear that several layers and ideas have been compressed into each four-minute tune, and there’s an intricacy and density that makes for a satisfying listen; I think it would require a few spins before the listener can begin to grasp the slippery language and mildly perplexing logic by which they’re assembled. She appears to be whirling 3 or 4 ideas around in her head at once, without any foregone conclusions as to where her chain of thought will end up. Yet on the surface, the sounds and the melodies are saccharine and attractive, brightly coloured and delicate, like little plastic toys; a post-modernist update on Japanese pop-oriented elevator music, sequenced by experts for playback in some anonymous, high-rise shopping mall where the listener is surrounded by bright neon lights and all-artificial fixtures.
Besides being a trained pianist, Ytamo studied painting and ceramics, which doubtless accounts for her innate sense of tone colour and the very tactile nature of each piece here. She’s been releasing material since 2002, some of it as low-run CDRs on the Osaka label Okimi Records, home to many “eclectic breakbeats”. Australian label owner and musician Lawrence English saw her perform around 2005 when he was on tour in Japan, and responded favourably to the “songs that felt as if they were on the edge of consciousness”; he uses various water metaphors to capture the special qualities of Mi Wo, delighting in its “aquatic space” and “oceanic gravity”. On the other hand, he may simply be taking his cue from Ytamo herself, with her track titles such as ‘Human Ocean’ and ‘Colourful Waves’. From 11th February 2016.
Low-key DIY Japanese charm on Conga (NOBLE LABEL NBL-217), a short album of minimal songs by Sonotanotanpenz – a duo of two young Japanese women. They do it all with acoustic guitars playing simple circular figures, and an electronic box which plays basic rhythms and supplies even more basic keyboard riffs. On top of this barely-there structure, the pair chant, whisper and sing their delicate vocal raps, often breathlessly packing in as many syllables per square inch as the current exchange rate allows.
Although at least two of the songs resemble the kind of wispy introspective pseudo-emotional music that passes for singer-songwriter craft these days (and has often blighted my cup of tasteless overpriced coffee when waiting for a plane in Heathrow), I like about 5 of these 7 tracks…which strike me as ingenious, inconsequential pop with a vaguely futuristic, woman’s take on what the genre of hip hop might evolve into one day, if said genre were left to breed for a few weeks in a flower garden full of moss and frogs. There’s something so wonderfully unassuming about the vocals of Hitomi Itamura and Hitomi Moriwaki; it’s as though they’re got something important to tell you, but they’re also afraid of bothering you, so they stand in the doorway bowing while they bring you a cup of tea, and can’t wait to make their excuses and leave.
The track titles are a simple list that reads Cave, Tea, Map, Bagpipe (or Bug Pipe, which is a much better title), King, Conga, and A Farm And The Universe; they are exactly like titles for images in a children’s book, one which starts off with simple shape recognition and which ends with a deep meditation considering on our place in the world. Maybe this album follows a similar path, but that’s probably wishful thinking. The duo have made one album in 2014 for Kirgirisu Recordings (a tiny CDR label in Tokyo), and also appeared on a comp for that label. This, from 26 February 2016.
Herewith a round-up of a few Michel Henritzi related items and Junko too…
Descent to the Sun (BAM BALAM BBLP 021) LP sees Michel Henritzi pit his lapsteel guitar against the electronic violin of a regular sparring partner, the Japanese player Fukuoka Rinji; they produce nearly 43 minutes of continuous, noisy drone that appears to made from an alloy of solid metals. Very little variance across the two scrapey sides; a harsher, less psychedelic update on Vibracathedral Orchestra of yore. You’ll feel heroic just for enduring ten minutes of this squall, full of sleet and hail. Beautiful cover art by Wouter Vanhaelmeesch makes the outing appear profound, mystical, strange; wisdom may drop from the skies as you listen. From 10 Dec 2014, on a Bordeaux record label.
You can also hear the same two musicians paired up on Berlin (AFP 053), a cassette tape from Anarcho Freaks Production. This is described as “guitar n violin muddy blues”. We’ve had this here since 10 December 2014. This time the cover imagery is a black and white photographic print and depicts, in out of focus glory, a stroll down a Japanese street. Although it’s not raining, the music makes it feel that way. I’d like to think this photo was taken in the 1960s, but it wasn’t.
Michel Henritzi rejoins Junko, another old sparring partner, for Behind The Door (BLOSSOMING NOISE BN063CD) – a set of studio performances showcasing his twangiest Western-style Hark Marvin guitar, played in a free form style but still carrying traces of country and western echoes in each gloomy note; on top of these melodic backdrops, Junko squeals in her most insufferable tones, sounding like a wounded African parrot in its death throes. I really cannot abide to listen to this for longer than I need to. Of interest: they do a Suicide cover version (‘Cheree’), and the album has a vague film noir theme implied in the song titles and the keyhole image on the cover. Nice screenprinted cover is by Makeup Diaries. From 1st October 2015.
O’Death Jug is Michel’s duo project with Christophe Langlade who we last heard with The Ballad Of Sad Cafe. They both play guitars and lapsteel guitars on Dusted (DYIN’ GHOST RECORDS), and the cover art is intended to evoke a romanticised, idealised vision of the Old West through its monochrome charcoal sketches of Monument Valley. The tune titles on Dusted do likewise, with frequent references to the weather, the sky, horses, trains, and shadows. Like the cover images, the music is curiously empty; not a human soul in sight to disturb the isolated serenity of the landscape. You should be able to detect faint echoes of blues, country, rockabilly, folk, and other American guitar genres in the music, but their meandering improvisations stay mostly on the side of formless and impressionistic. From 27 May 2015.
Pictured, not yet heard: THE VØID (ERRATUM 011) by Junko. Two studio tracks recorded in Paris by Joachim Montessuis; it’s her second solo album since Sleeping Beauty. I think that front cover image alone tells you a lot about the woman and her music. The photo was taken by Alex Woodward, not in Paris but in Tramway at Glasgow. I think I have been to this venue and it’s every bit as claustrophobic as it looks; its clammy walls are guaranteed to make avant-garde music feel like a death sentence. From 2nd September 2015.
Long overdue notice for this fairly overpowering vinyl LP of psychedelic ultra-Techno drum’n’bass hip-hop material from Fallopian Disco Force, a “collective” of strangely-named Japanese players who do it in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo and have been busy burrowing away at their craft liked crazed termites since the late 1990s. If information provided with Black Larvenroller (ILL YACUMAMA RECORDS IYR-LP001) is correct, they were a trio at time of writing called H.S. Love Hennessey, DJ Memai and Moro; they combine fierce electronic eruptions with delirious turntabling technique and relentless live drumming. I was immediately struck by the resemblance to Boredoms, although FDF are straining hard to come over as even more demented and unhinged than the comparatively serene and trippy psych-drumming episodes of Vision Creation Newsun, Super Ae and other Boredoms records from that period…they also draw inspiration from hip-hop and modern ethnic musics (Turkish and Asian), and have played live with famed Japnoise bands such as Government Alpha, Ruins, and Melt Banana.
There’s a lot to love in these high-energy firebomb bursts…the live drumming of Moro is particularly strong and enables FDF to deliver more mileage per square root to their Napalm explosions than a drum machine or sequencer, and the electronic knob-twiddler Hennessey is having perpetual orgasms as he sprays analogue splurge over the arena like so much extinguisher foam…meanwhile all manner of exotic spice and stew ingredients leap forth from Memai’s diamond-encrusted wheels. The surreal, science-fantasy track titles are enough to send the reader’s mind spinning into another galaxy, and the intense colour collage sleeve art by Hennessey and Jamie Lee Reed is like an Electric Miles LP that never was, fully encapsulating all the mystical ceremonial elements they wish to invoke through its rampant, irresponsible use of symbols and textures. Like the music, it’s overcrowded; if anything, there’s far too much going on, and it’s extremely hard to disentangle the multiple strands of genres which they so clearly delight in toppling like so many statues and icons in the temple of musical history.
When you blow away the froth, I’m not sure how much substance there is to this “weird junk improv”, but it’s an enjoyable rollercoaster ride for sure. Be sure to seek out their previous albums on Soundispatch, such as Opening Craze Refrigerator, Handshakes and Handgrenades, and Eat Your Makeover. This release from 26 November 2014.
Great album of processed instrumental drones by Yui Onodera. His Semi Lattice (BASKARU karu:37) is full of quietly overwhelming tidal waves of slow-motion sound, which he creates by working guitar and piano lines in the computer with the obligatory field recording layers and additional treatments. He’s inspired on this occasion by the work of Christopher Alexander, an architect who has proposed an abstract structure by this name. I’d be happy to align Yui Onodera with a number of other genius Japanese solo creators such as Koji Asano or Ryoki Ikeda who are capable of creating fully-realised, self-sufficient universes in sound, then leaving them for others to explore and chart while they set off across the horizon in their strange sky-boats.
If it helps to orient you, Onodera is probably far more romantic than the hermetic sunset-gazing Koji Asano, a man who is fascinated by unremarkable details; and he creates a world more tolerant of human passions than the strictly-demarcated tones of Ryoki Ikeda, that ruthless architect of enormous sci-fi virtual palaces in digital sound. Now that I think of it, he might be more akin to Rafael Toral, that soaring guitar-droner from Portugal, except that the works on Semi Lattice are much more rigourous in their composition and arrangement. Even so he manages to leave open ends as he builds, not closing off the listener into a walled garden, and in effect generating so much imaginary space that we might wander off the edge of the earth if we walked too far.
Considerable variety of excited-ambient textures across these seven tracks, each of which opens up a new vista in this geographical impossibility. Only occasionally for me does he over-smoothen the edges and drift into the tasteful realms, but even so the sentiment remains honest and at times quite moving in a nostalgic way. Onodera has made about a dozen albums since 2005, some of them released on his own label Critical Path, and has worked with Celer, The Beautiful Schizophonic, and others. From 21 September 2015.
Another fine package from Kayaka, the Japanese creator whose delightful, distinctive and good-humoured work has endeared itself to use since 2011 and a run of obscure CDRs, some of them featuring her bass clarinet playing but most of them exhibiting her cut-and-paste skills in constructing new music out of old records, samples, and effects. Her new release has found a home on the London-based Adaadat label, one of the primary sources for imaginative weirdness and quirked-out genius in the UK just now. The nine tracks on Sonic Kitchen (ADAADAT ADA0040) were created in Berlin in 2013, and once again Kaya Kamijo produces a dense, foggy quagmire of overlaid sounds, adding as many layers and rhythms as she thinks she can get away with, before the production collapses under the weight of its own varnish. If indeed she was a cook in a “Sonic Kitchen”, she’d be the kind of baker who can produce an iced cake 30 feet high and covered with filigree icing, producing an impossibly tall and spindly balletic sculpture that apparently defies gravity. Or she’d build a replica of the Brooklyn bridge out of Porterhouse steaks, that you can only eat using a lawnmower. Either way I’d like to think she would serve something more imaginative and appetising than the split hot-dog sausage that appears on the cover.
All of these tunes proceed with the easy-going, walking-pace rhythm that I describe as a “clonking” beat – the opposite of high-speed Techno music or the like, and certainly Kayaka exhibits zero interest in a slick dancefloor production when she prefers calling attention to the mechanics of how each song is assembled. This strategy allows the listener a degree of instant familiarity and comfort, before we’re led gently into the realms of the surreal and the bizarre, as each new unlikely musical element is ushered in, doing battle with spoken-word samples or excerpts from movies. We’re required to follow at least three or more lines of continuous information – a good exercise for the noggin. This time around, one key note or recurring theme appears to be a nostalgia for the past, expressed as old 78 RPM records, including cabaret songs, classical music, and dance music, all cleverly repurposed so as to instantly transcend cliché.
Lesser talents attempting to do similar things with transmuting the history of music into new forms often come a cropper; for one, they use too many samples, perhaps in an effort to convince us of their encyclopedic knowledge, or simply because they have no idea when to stop. For another, they fall prey to the crime of irony, and can’t help sneering ever so slightly at the corny old music our forebears used to enjoy. Kayaka stands innocent of both charges; her sparing use of source material is guided by good taste and an unfailing instinct that tells her precisely when “enough is enough”; and there is genuine affection for the old music she dusts down from the shelves, and she gives it new life in the context of her wonderful concoctions. Enjoy these ‘Pickled Tangos’ and ‘Hungarian Rhapsodists’ today! From 27th August 2015.
We’ve been keen on Toshimaru Nakamura’s music for at least 15 years now, ever since the wonderful Japanorama events organised by Ed Baxter first graced the UK and presented his famed no-input mixing board in the context of Sachiko M and her empty synth, Otomo Yoshihide’s then-new reduced playing style, and many other futuristic musicians. Since then Nakamura has been well-represented in the so-called EAI sphere, evidence of which can be found in assorted group combinations on the Erstwhile and ErstLive labels. Quite a change perhaps to find him doing it with a rock group, as can be heard to great effect on Many Arms & Toshimaru Nakamura (PUBLIC EYESORE PE131), with four long recordings he made with Many Arms in Philadelphia in 2013.
Actually Many Arms – a trio of fellows from New York and Philly who play guitar, bass, and drums – are more than just a rock band, and make intelligent, single-minded forays into free-form playing to create highly energetic music which resembles free jazz as much as punk rock, and they play games with unexpected rhythms and melodies, besides all their inventive use of amplifier feedback and sustained guitar tones. This record would seem to represent a pretty ideal pairing, were it not for the fact that on first listen it’s a bit hard to make out Nakamura’s contributions. For the first two tracks, it feels as though the Americans pretty much dominate the pitch like Joe Namath to the power of three; on ‘I’, they’re raving like avant-garde frat-boys at a beer-keg party, and while on ‘II’ the hormonal power is more subdued, I can’t quite disentangle Toshi’s vibrant burr from the more aggressive feedback hums emanating out of Nick Millevoi’s guitar. No matter, as both of these are supremely exciting cuts, and may also indicate how the influence and lessons of Keiji Haino are still being digested and mutated in the USA.
‘III’ is more of a recognisable collaboration among the musicians, a fascinating and innovative sprawl where Toshimaru’s electronic eructations are nicely balanced by restrained free-form melancholic plucks and keening cries from the guitarist, while drummer Ricardo Legomasino is quietly running an express train in the background. The Onkyo purity of Japanorama becomes a distant memory when listening to this contemporary hybrid…there’s no space, no air, just a thick wodge of suffocating but multi-dimensional noise that does much to advance us beyond recognisable genres or categories. ‘IV’ is more or less in a similar place, but it goes on for 18 minutes and grows into terrifyingly manic proportions of hysteria, screaming and jangling effects that will guarantee to shatter the psyche of all who come near this poisonous cloud of horror.
An astonishing and exhausting collaboration; I’d like to learn how more concerning it came about, but apparently Toshimaru just flew over there for the express purpose of working with these three. For those with an appetite for more from Many Arms, be sure to look out for their two albums on Tzadik. From June 2015.