As the majority of UK music is stuck in a dull
Pop Idol / post-Radiohead vacuum, and likewise America sinks ever
deeper into a torpid, hateful nu-metal / nu-garage-rock quagmire,
it's up to other countries to take up the musical slack, and Japan
is way ahead of most others.
From the early 80's to today, the alternative
music scene in Japan has been a source of some incredible yet
often overlooked music. People there have taken Western rock music
and revitalised it, making it as fresh and weird and otherworldly
as Elvis or Little Richard must have sounded back in 1956. And
don't just sneer at that as mindless hyperbole - a quick listen
to someone like Melt Banana will disprove your received wisdom
that modern Japanese music is just a poor copy of Western rock.
During this article I'll attempt to cover most of the main bases
and point out the gems to look out for. (Please bear in mind that
it's not a complete a-z or anything, just a beginner's guide with
my some of my own personal favourites!) Righto, here we go...
First, BOREDOMS. (Note the lack of a "the".)
Boredoms are my favourite of all the Japanese bands, they've been
going since the eighties and are still producing incredible, mind
blowing records today.. They're a strange fractured churned up
combination of krautrock, punk, Parliament/Funkadelic-style funk,
and blissout pysch trance rock. I remember well my first exposure
to the Boredoms, and indeed underground Japanese rock in general
- a totally unexpected airing of a Boredoms promo video sometime
during the afternoon one fateful day on MTV Europe. It lasted
barely two or three minutes but changed my whole life. The song
seemed to lurch around drunkenly yet frantically, as if it had
been beaten around the head and had a thousand grade-A pills stuffed
down its neck. At the end of the video the music kept suddenly
fading in and out - I recall thinking, "You can't do that!"
But...while it sounded wrong - it also sounded totally right.
But it would be at least two years until I found more information
(thanks to getting access to the internet) or indeed managed to
listen to any more of their songs.
Boredoms began in the spring of 1986, formed
by Yamataka eYe (then Yamatsuka Eye) of frankly terrifying noise
band The Hanatarash (famous for cutting up a dead cat on stage
and half-demolishing a club by driving a mini-backhoe through
one of its walls). The music of Boredoms - at least in what turned
out to be the first stage in their career - is an utterly mental,
stop start, whirly-giddy ride through rock music. Imagine several
people suffering immense seizures while trying to play a rock
song, topped up with demented shrieks, screams, yells, hollering
and chattering babytalk. That was Boremusic, Mark I.
You need to know is that pretty much any album
they've made during 1988 - 1995 promises serious weird "shit"
- it's definitely not to everyone's tastes, being so utterly insane.
If you don't like the idea of a song ending on a two minute burping
demonstration (which occurs on their first record, Onanie Bomb
Meets The Sex Pistols) then it's a better bet to check out
their more recent stuff. Lately they've gone into an incredible,
beautiful krautrock/tribal rock groove. With stuff like 2000's
Vision Creation Newsun they've managed to retain the strangeness
of previous outings yet make it more accessible, turning out incredible
and immense bliss out music.
A lot of people tend to refer to Boredoms as
a "noise" band, and through they certainly can be very,
very abrasive they're not actually "proper" noise in the Japanoise
sense. A good example of Japanoise is MASONNA. A solo act
consisting of Maso Yamazaki, Masonna is an excellent summary of
the kind of thing you can expect from the genre of Japanoise -
intense, harsh and brutal feedback, white noise, and screaming.
There's no melodies or harmonies to be found here, no singing
or lyrics, not even a proper rhythm - just free form noise, the
agony of sound.
In Masonna's case, he adds a few extra things
to the mix. He uses "trippy" psychedelic effects such
as echo and phasing (The reason for this is that Maso himself
is very interested in the rock of the 60's and 70's), and sometimes
interrupts a track by cutting the screaming and fierce storm of
feedback and introducing strange looped samples - a quiet, jangling
guitar on Super Compact Disc's "Eat Maggot",
or what seems to be an immensely amplified car alarm on one of
the untitled tracks of Vestal Spacy Ritual. Now, all this
may sound like crap to most of you, but personally I love it.
The feeling of exhilaration I get from listening to it loud through
headphones can't be beaten. To be honest, even Anal Cunt seems
Like many of the Japanese noise artists, Masonna
is very low tech in his methods. Often his live performances are
just him screaming through a myriad of distortion pedals strapped
to his body, with (for example) a mic'ed up tin of 100 yen coins
for extra texture. Said live performances last about 15 mins or
so - with the amount of screaming and hurtling about the stage
he couldn't last much longer. Like all Japanoise it's not really
a suitable choice for your next record purchase if the most far
out discs in your collection are from Oasis or Limp Bizkit or
whoever. But if you fancy listening to the most extreme of the
extreme, then Masonna is definitely someone to look into.
If you're not convinced by that, then perhaps
something much more melodic in the form of THE PLASTICS
might be your bag. The Plastics are actually an extremely old
New Wave band from the late 70's / early 80's and haven't been
active for about 20 years, but I shall include them in this article
anyway! They're oft thought as a Japanese B-52's, but The Plastics
went deeper than you'd expect, critiquing modern society in a
bizarre yet always upbeat way. The Plastics' first single, double
A-side "Copy" / "Robot" was actually released in the West via
Rough Trade way back in 1979, but tragically made little impact.
A crying shame, as it's a superb bit of electro-pop, like many
of their songs seemingly idiotic but actually quite arch and sly
(the verses to "Robot" in particular sound like nonsense
until you realise they're reciting names of global corporations).
The dual vocals from female vocalist Chica Sato and male vocalist
and guitarist Toshio Nakanishi is delightful and demented, and
when you listen to a typical Plastics song you can imagine a large
group of giant android children high on chocolate and jelly and
ice cream jerkily bopping along in some kind of deranged parody
of a linedance.
The Plastics managed to avoid the boring "soulboy"
degeneration that occurred soon after the dawn of synth pop music,
evolving and (so often a word to be cautious of) maturing over
their brief life without doing a George Michael and hurriedly
dropping their sense of humour like a shitty stick. Though they
didn't last that long and their recorded output is small - just
two proper studio albums, the rest being compilations / live albums
of somekind (including a re-recorded Best Of intended to break
the American market which went for A Flock Of Seagulls instead,
the great fat idiots) - their music continues to echo down through
the years, clearly inspiring many of today's more interesting
And one such band that are obviously heavily
influenced by the style of The Plastics are THE SPOOZYS.
They combine the hopped-up-on-goofballs madness of Plasticmusic
with the more guitar orientated style of the aforementioned B-52's,
plus Devo, Nina Hagen, David Bowie, Gary Numan, some techno, a
little surf jangle and a whole heap of space/UFO related gubbins.
They claim they come down from another planet to Earth each time
before they perform live, and to prove it they wear their spacesuits
on stage. (Those of you who can remember back as far as 1993 may
be slightly concerned to learn that The Spoozys are the leading
lights of the "Tokyo New Wave Of New Wave", but there's
nothing like S*M*A*S*H here!) Needless to say, classic.
Taking their inspiration a little bit further
back than Spoozys, GUITAR WOLF are basically a Japanese
Ramones, only harder and noisier than Da Brudders. With only a
single name given to them at birth or something, Seiji on guitar,
Billy on bass and Toru on - no! but yes! - drums, these three
kick out the jams so hard that if you wanted to make a jam sandwich
afterwards, you'd just find a few bits of the jar out the window.
Basically what I'm trying to say is that they kick jams very hard
The average Guitar Wolf song is so heavy that
it's closer to a noise song rather than a straightforward rock
song - the levels of distortion are incredible. Take this story
from the Matador Records website: "When we sent the new GUITAR
WOLF record to the mastering lab for inclusion in our recent in-store
play sampler, the mastering engineer called back, mystified by
the volume level on the CD-R. The levels exceeded the theoretical
maximum possible on compact disk audio. In other words, JET GENERATION
[their 1999 album] is the loudest CD in history."
Live shows are chaotic, loud (of course) and
the spirit of ROCK personified - there are many tales such as
Seiji and Billy leaping into ceiling fans or hurling themselves
off of Marshall amps while still playing. Not only have they rocked
the Pacific Rim until it dropped, but a few years back they made
a movie, "Wild Zero" - zombies, big guns, gore, ear shredding
rock, spaceships, Elvis haircuts, sort of like Evil Dead in Japan
times a million. Which sort of sums the whole Guitar Wolf experience
More rock thrills of a grungier hip-hoppier
nature can be found with SUPER JUNKY MONKEY. Super Junky
Monkey were an incredible all female funk - metal band whose output
spanned most of the nineties, and I realise that the phrase "funk
metal" may bring some of you out into a cold sweat, but trust
me, they were fantastic. They seemed to effortlessly out class
the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers with songs such as "Parastic
People", combining quirky grooves with strange sound effects
and treated vocals. Earlier in their career they were a bit more
straightforward, but no less great - incredibly intense tracks
such as "Decide", where things seem to hurtle along
at a billion bpms a minute and vocalist Mutsumi "623"
Takahashi has her singing electronically altered so she sounds
like a man are super-intense.
They got weirder as the years went on - their
masterpiece is probably the album Super Junky Alien, which
almost could have been a transitory record between the Chocolate
Synthesiser and Super Are period Boredoms. Massive
sounding tribal drums and guitar riffs compete for attention with
digeridoos, "alien talk" (weird processed spoken word
parts that sound like early 80's computer game monsters chatting
away), spooky chanting and samples from MTV.
Sadly, that album was to be their last. Mutsumi
died on February 5, 1999. Super Junky Monkey disbanded soon afterwards.
OOIOO (pronounced oh-oh-eye-oh-oh) are
another all female Japrock band, still around today and fronted
by Yoshimi P-We, the drummer/singer/trumpeter of the Boredoms.
As is to be expected from a Boredoms offshoot, they're an incredible
band, exploring the dynamics of punk metal, pop, tribal prog rock
and funk then stretching them until they break into glorious chaos.
OOIOO apparently first formed up thanks to a mock fashion shoot
and were named by Boredoms' Eye - Yoshimi asked him to give a
suitable bandname, and at first he came up with "Pink Sabbath".
Yoshimi hated that and asked for another - and OOIOO was the result.
Groovy yet manic, one minute there'll be tweeting birds and deliberately
banal lyrics asking that we should "be sure to loop"... and the
next Yoshimi's screaming her head off (and no one can scream quite
like Yoshimi!), mixed with furious guitars and pounding tom-toms.
Merciless, soothing, invigorating, demonic, blissful, and slightly
we have some bananas
Similarly merciless and invigorating, though
maybe not soothing, blissful or slightly cute, are MELT BANANA.
Totally unique, the sound of rock smashed to pieces and haphazardly
reassembled by a near sighted man running at the speed of light.
If you can imagine that rather curious analogy... You've probably
already heard of this lot. They got their first exposure here
in the UK via a live session on John Peel's BBC Radio 1 show around
about 1997, which is where I first got to hear them - it was as
big a shock as my inadvertent stumbling across the Boredoms four
years previously. One of the Melt Banana websites out there describes
their sound as "No wave gone gonzo. DNA leaves the galaxy". I'd
like to just leave it there, but I can't. So: guitars sounding
like a laser gun going haywire, hyperactive drum and bass / thrash
metal rhythms and a very odd sounding woman spitting and shrieking
out fragments of what was once some lyrics - but that had to be
a long, long time ago, before her mouth shredded it all up for
us to enjoy.
The band got their break after supporting noise
musician K.K. Null's band Zeni Geva (who specialise in very, very
heavy metal). He was so impressed with them that he offered to
put out an album's worth of material on his NUX ORGANISATION label.
Shortly after releasing a live cassette and a few EP's, Null took
them to Chicago, and they recorded their first album, "Speak Squeak
Creak", at the home studio of Steve Albini. From then they went
hyperstellar, in the world of indie, anyway: tours with Zeni Geva,
Jim O' Rourke, UFO Or Die and Mr Bungle, and they collaborated
with Merzbow and Violent Onsen Geisha, the grandaddies of Japanoise,
under the names of Merz Banana and Onsen Banana respectively.
(Rather tragically, it appears that none of this material has
been released, though I'd be glad to be proved wrong!)
MxBx (as they call themselves for short) are
a truly wonderful band. Their music is one big splattery racket,
full of curious lyrics, weird noises and dementia. It's got an
intensity that simply no other Western band have managed to match.
You may laugh but I do think that this lot are the sound of the
future - this is what hardcore punk will probably sound like in
Finally, here are some very brief descriptions
of some interesting bands and artists which I haven't been able
to hear much of or get much info on:
YXIMALLOO, strange disconnected electronic
folk music type thing, very fragmented and childlike. The work
of one man in his late forties, put out lots of self produced
tapes on his Sakura Wrechords label, all called things like "The
Worst Of 1981", "The Worst Of 1982", etc. Praised
SUPERBALL, a very weird dadesque anti-band
who made a type of "music" known as "idiotcore"
during the early to mid nineties. Three teenage girls who lazily
strummed guitars, jumped rope, squeezed rubber ducks, bashed xylophones
and blew bubbles. Had a battery operated toy monkey for a drummer.
ROBOCHANMAN, an intense Japanoise solo
outfit that broke up his songs with bizarre taped chaos - one
of the tracks on his (now totally sold out!) self released tapes
from the early nineties is five minutes of a polite lady chatting
away on the phone with him screaming on top of it. More recently
produced an album, Strugglediver, which is a more "conventional"
noise record, and is available at the website of American record
KOREAN BUDDHIST GOD, a Butthole Surfers
/ early Boredoms style punk band. Very chaotic, uneven rock music.
Came up with my current favourite song title, "You Analogue
Weapon Ha Ha Ha".
So that's the world of the Japanese underground.
Hope you enjoyed reading this. If your interest has been piqued
and you end up buying a Boredoms record or two, do mail Kowz and
tell us what you think...
RECOMMENDED TRACKS, ALBUMS
There now follows a brief
list of recommended individual songs, albums and websites for
all the main bands/artists featured here. All links have been
updated from the original version of this article. All songs listed
should be available on file sharing systems such as Soulseek or
KaZaa. Most albums listed here are available via mail order companies
such as CD-Japan,
Overseas and Other
Music, and Amazons .com
Recommended Tracks & Albums: B For Boredoms (track from
"Chocolate Synthesizer"), Bubblebop Shot (track from "Soul
Discharge '99"), "circle" or just plain Track 1
(track from "Vision Creation Newsun"), Chocolate
Synthesizer (album, 1995), Vision Creation Newsun (album,
Recommended Websites: A very good place to start is the
eYe, Ear, Nose & Throat Page, with simply tons of info on
the band. Alternatively there's Gravy
Paste's Boredoms Temple, which has a wonderful looking discography
with all the scans from the myriad formats of the band's last
album, Vision Creation Newsun. A Japanese site, the psychedelic
BOREDOMS site, has all kinds of stuff, though only half of
it is in English. Finally there's the father of all Boredoms websites,
Though it's horrendously out of date and is no longer updated,
there's some useful articles on their early 90's recordings. I
also like the haphazard, garish web design.
Recommended Tracks & Albums:
Eat Maggot (track from Super Compact Disc), Frequency LSD
Recommended Websites: Maso
now has an official
site in English and Japanese, where you can get mp3s, a full
discography and dates of upcoming gigs around the world.
Recommended Tracks & Albums: Copy (A-side of 1979 single,
track on first album, "Welcome Plastics"), Robot
(AA-side of 1979 single, track on first album "Welcome
Plastics"), Mr. Diamond Head (track on second album,
"Origato Plastico"), Forever Plastico (Compilation, all
tracks from first album and six tracks from second album)
Recommended Websites: A
detailed discography at Rock Of Japan.
Recommended Tracks & Albums: Existence Of Super Earth (1998
album), Astral Astronauts (album, 2000; also individual
Recommended Links: What looks like a good site here,
though it's all in Japanese. Of more use to us gaijins is this
language official site from their American record label.
Recommended Tracks & Albums: Let's Get Hurt (track from
"Planet Of The Wolves", 1997 album), Midnight Violence Rock
'N' Roll (track from "Missile Me!", 1996 album), Jet Generation
Recommended Websites: GW
page at Matador Records' site. As well as all the usual stuff
you'd expect from an official site (videos, tour dates) it has
links to all the important GW places to go on the interweb.
Super Junky Monkey:
Recommended Tracks & Albums: Decide (track from "Screw
Up", 1994 album), Love & Peace Hard Core (track
from "Super Junky Alien", 1996 album), Super Junky
Alien (album, 1996), Songs Are Our Universe (best of
compilation album, 2001)
Not a lot - there's a fair amount of reviews scattered about but
hardly any proper devoted fan sites. What little there is: a detailed
and gig review at Rock Of Japan, a small
section at Musicwhore that includes audio samples and a bio,
and a page
operated by their management - in Japanese only.
Recommended Tracks & Albums: Right Hand Ponk (track from
"Eight", 1997 album), Gold & Green (album, 2000)
Recommended Websites: As is the case with Super Junky Monkey,
there doesn't seem to be a proper fansite devoted to them anywhere.
There are lots of little reviews and interviews scattered about
everywhere though, the best of which is this
Recommended Tracks & Albums:
Spathic!! (track from "Charlie", 1999 album), Surfin' USA
(Beach Boys cover, 1998?), Scratch Or Stitch (album,
Recommended Websites: An
official site here, though be warned it commits many web design
crimes (your browser window will be resized, and everything opens
up in separate windows - and it's all in Flash!). A somewhat more
conventional and useful site is here,
which has links to tons of reviews, interviews, and mp3s of various
tracks; it's absolutely riddled with pop up adverts, though, so
you may want to have an anti-pop up ad program installed. Also
worth examining is Southern
Records' also official site, which doesn't have a tremendous
amount of stuff there but there is a nice though short write up
of MxBx's first US tour and a great big promo video in Quicktime
you can download.