J-Rock / feature / Dec 2002
 
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Darker in Osaka...
...calmer in Yokohama. Japan boasts a thriving new-wave art-rock scene as Chris Lyons illustrates...

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 tame afterwards.

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.

 

Fantastic Plastics

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 J-Pop bands.

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 indeed.

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 up, really.

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 cute.

 

Yes 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 2050...

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 by Momus.

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 label Ground Fault Recordings.

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 AND LINKS

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, Forced Exposure, Japan Overseas and Other Music, and Amazons .com and .co.uk.

Boredoms:

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, 2000)

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, BO-point. 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.

Masonna:

Recommended Tracks & Albums: Eat Maggot (track from Super Compact Disc), Frequency LSD (album, 1998)

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.


The Plastics:

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.


Spoozys:


Recommended Tracks & Albums:
Existence Of Super Earth (1998 album), Astral Astronauts (album, 2000; also individual song)

Recommended Links:
What looks like a good site here, though it's all in Japanese. Of more use to us gaijins is this English language official site from their American record label.


Guitar Wolf:


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 (album, 1999)

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)

Recommended Websites: 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 discography 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.


OOIOO:


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 here.


Melt Banana:

Recommended Tracks & Albums: Spathic!! (track from "Charlie", 1999 album), Surfin' USA (Beach Boys cover, 1998?), Scratch Or Stitch (album, 1995)

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.

Chris is Papua New Guinea's only man. He writes stories and things for the country's population of twenty year old women, all of whom are fans of Jesus Jones. This feature is a tribute to his young, pretty and long tongued wife, who died recently in a tragic flappy hand accident.

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