Posts By Patrick St. Michel

CRZKNY: GVVVV

An eclectic star of the Japanese beat scene tilts toward the aggressive spirit of gabber and hardcore, largely leaving behind the stylistic markers of footwork.

High Rise: High Rise II

Originally released in 1986, the reissue of *High Rise I*I shines a light on an important and fiery document of Japanese psych rock.

tofubeats: Fantasy Club

Yusuke Kawai could have settled into the J-Pop background. The Kobe producer became a breakout name in the country’s netlabel scene in the late 2000s, creating high-energy breakcore often centered around anime samples under the name DJ Newtown, before adopting the name tofubeats for wholly original compositions. His nervy, genre-skipping dance-pop songs featuring radio-friendly choruses made him an apt choice to bring the internet-centric sound to a major label. Since, tofubeats’ albums have mostly highlighted his songwriting and production, handing vocal duties off to pop heavyweights, comedians, models and more. It’s a common path for artists plucked from the underground who focus on building a sound for other voices.   

Fantasy Club, tofubeat’s third major-label album, breaks from that path. The guests are mostly absent, and instead Kawai’s Auto-Tune voice sits in the spotlight. It’s one of the stranger releases to get prominent space in the J-Pop section in recent memory—across its 13 songs, Fantasy Club channels Southern rap, house music, and lush orchestral pop. Compared to the generally upbeat tone of his compatriots, Kawai often sounds angry or tired here, his tracks full of unnerving sputters. Yet all these intricacies make it one of the best from Japan so far in 2017, a style-blurring affair showing what happens when a strong personality gets the chance to broadcast themselves fully through their music, regardless of how left-field they can get.

Kawai has discussed being introduced to the concept of post-truth, and feeling shaken by seeing the web he came up on turn sour. Early number “Shoppingmall” sets the album’s tone. Musically it’s simplistic, seasick synthesizer melodies and hi-hat skitters. But that emphasizes the vocals, which find Kawai gnashing outward (“What's real and what's not/Is just that exciting enough?”). It soon becomes clear he’s not angry at what’s around him, but grappling with his own confusion and anxiety.

The songs that follow are rarely stable, reflecting the unease that shapes the theme of Fantasy Club. “Lonely Nights” calls on rising rapper Young Juju to cooly rap through a digital mist before Kawai delivers a distorted hook full of stuttering syllables. “Callin” is melancholy electro R&B, underlined by Kawai’s mutated vocals, run through layers of effects to the point it sounds like a depressed burst of static. Dance numbers designed for the club feature warped details—the title track shuffles forward on house whistles and a galloping beat, but the edges of every sound quiver with echo, like they are wilting. Fantasy Club’s most outright floor-focused moment, “What You Got,” is crashed by a disorienting passage featuring a flurry of menacing Kawais tripping over each other.

Yet all these disruptions make the moments of release well-earned. Whereas older tofubeat’s albums played out as singles collections that could be played in basically any order, complete with tracklistings reading like J-Pop all-star squads, Fantasy Club is best listened to from start to finish. At its center is “This City,” which starts off like it’s malfunctioning—synthesizer notes going wobbly and electronic sounds chirping off over it like it’s on the verge of going haywire. But from this chaos tofubeats builds an ecstatic dance number, growing ever more upbeat as its seven minutes play on.

As tofubeats, Kawai has always been able to hopscotch across styles, but Fantasy Club marks the first time he’s been able to really explore the sounds he loves: minimalist wooze-pop (late comedown “Yuuki,” featuring singer/songwriter sugar me) or Houston rap (the outro to opener “Chant #1” serving as direct homage to DJ Screwsomething you don’t usually see in J-Pop) without having to worry about accommodating big names or scoring a hit. Given how much before it is shaped by anxiety about the world at large, it’s a bit funny that Fantasy Club’s climax is a simple love song called “Baby.” It’s anchored by a string sample sourced from a song by celebrated Japanese pop star Yumi Matsutoya. In the wrong hands, it could be treated like a building block, an obscure find waiting to be sped up in Garageband and be called an aesthetic. But tofubeats celebrates the sound and creates an original song showing its warmth. It makes one glad he stepped to the forefront for Fantasy Club.

Kikagaku Moyo: Stone Garden

Japanese underground artists possess a flair for myth-making, from Les Rallizes Dénudés shrouded history to eventual Boredoms founder Yamantaka Eye driving a bulldozer on stage for a gig. Tokyo’s Kikagaku Moyo have their fair share of good yarns since forming in 2012. The first song on their debut album was supposedly “written over a night spent jamming on a suspended footbridge in remote mountains,” while drummer Go Kurosawa took a significant period of time before starting the group living out of a backpack in Central America. Stone Garden, the band's latest release, was recorded in a Prague basement during several near-continuous days of improvising, and then pieced together back in their hometown. The real hook, though, is that the five-song album finds a band who's attracted attention for a folk approach to psychedelic rock showing off their experimental and often messy side.

It’s a deliberate pivot by a quintet that has found attention well beyond the cramped clubs of Tokyo. Whereas many Japanese experimental artists are celebrated for their loudness, Kikagaku Moyo often let noise and chaos linger on the edges of their music. They aren’t shy about a feedback-loaded electric guitar solo or 20-minute-plus sitar drone session, but recent full-lengths Forest of Lost Children and particularly last year’s House in the Tall Grass stood out for their organization of sound.

Stone Garden rejects structure in favor of improvisation, or at least jamming for hours on end and piecing the results together afterward. Album opener “Backlash” delivers over six minutes of distorted guitar and drums. It’s a rumbling cut nodding to Krautrock, and one content to barrel forward with slight variations and not much else. That’s followed up by “Nobakitani,” revealing the other big change between Stone Garden and Kikagaku Moyo’s last couple of albums: Each song on Stone Garden occupies its own stylistic universe. “Nobakitani” is a slow moving guitar-and-sitar haze featuring scattered vocals breaking through the trance-like tempo. It sounds like a House in the Tall Grass castoff and feels far removed from the maelstrom preceding it.

This showcases Kikagaku Moyo’s stylistic variety and experimental tendencies, but highlighting the latter makes them feel jarringly unfocused. Despite an immediate and forceful chug, “Backlash” sounds sludgy in a way that adds little to the song, while “Trilobites” garbled quality makes one think they should have just recorded the jam session from the other side of the basement wall. It’s this constant feeling of good ideas settling rather than pushing forward that hurts Stone Garden the most. It’s filled with great sonic bits—“Backlash’s” driving guitars, “Nobakitani’s” meditative atmosphere—but Kikagaku Moyo rush them, every song falling into a groove and then fading out rather than go off in some new direction. They show their experimental merits in frames too small to really let them shine, even if a lot of these songs feel like teasers better suited for live settings.

The highlights from their last two albums tower over the sketches here, while their psych-rock bona fides should never be in question after something like 2014’s Mammatus Clouds EP, boasting a 28-minute-long opening track slowly shapeshifting as it went along. Stone Garden features good ideas ending prematurely, but album highlight “In a Coil” shows everything that has made them the next buzzed-about psych outfit from Japan—guitar and sitar wrap around each other, charging the song forward while voices lock together, everything building in intensity before reaching a crescendo. It’s a reminder of how compelling Kikagaku Moyo’s story can be, even if Stone Garden is only a minor chapter.

Kikagaku Moyo: Stone Garden

Japanese underground artists possess a flair for myth-making, from Les Rallizes Dénudés shrouded history to eventual Boredoms founder Yamantaka Eye driving a bulldozer on stage for a gig. Tokyo’s Kikagaku Moyo have their fair share of good yarns since forming in 2012. The first song on their debut album was supposedly “written over a night spent jamming on a suspended footbridge in remote mountains,” while drummer Go Kurosawa took a significant period of time before starting the group living out of a backpack in Central America. Stone Garden, the band's latest release, was recorded in a Prague basement during several near-continuous days of improvising, and then pieced together back in their hometown. The real hook, though, is that the five-song album finds a band who's attracted attention for a folk approach to psychedelic rock showing off their experimental and often messy side.

It’s a deliberate pivot by a quintet that has found attention well beyond the cramped clubs of Tokyo. Whereas many Japanese experimental artists are celebrated for their loudness, Kikagaku Moyo often let noise and chaos linger on the edges of their music. They aren’t shy about a feedback-loaded electric guitar solo or 20-minute-plus sitar drone session, but recent full-lengths Forest of Lost Children and particularly last year’s House in the Tall Grass stood out for their organization of sound.

Stone Garden rejects structure in favor of improvisation, or at least jamming for hours on end and piecing the results together afterward. Album opener “Backlash” delivers over six minutes of distorted guitar and drums. It’s a rumbling cut nodding to Krautrock, and one content to barrel forward with slight variations and not much else. That’s followed up by “Nobakitani,” revealing the other big change between Stone Garden and Kikagaku Moyo’s last couple of albums: Each song on Stone Garden occupies its own stylistic universe. “Nobakitani” is a slow moving guitar-and-sitar haze featuring scattered vocals breaking through the trance-like tempo. It sounds like a House in the Tall Grass castoff and feels far removed from the maelstrom preceding it.

This showcases Kikagaku Moyo’s stylistic variety and experimental tendencies, but highlighting the latter makes them feel jarringly unfocused. Despite an immediate and forceful chug, “Backlash” sounds sludgy in a way that adds little to the song, while “Trilobites” garbled quality makes one think they should have just recorded the jam session from the other side of the basement wall. It’s this constant feeling of good ideas settling rather than pushing forward that hurts Stone Garden the most. It’s filled with great sonic bits—“Backlash’s” driving guitars, “Nobakitani’s” meditative atmosphere—but Kikagaku Moyo rush them, every song falling into a groove and then fading out rather than go off in some new direction. They show their experimental merits in frames too small to really let them shine, even if a lot of these songs feel like teasers better suited for live settings.

The highlights from their last two albums tower over the sketches here, while their psych-rock bona fides should never be in question after something like 2014’s Mammatus Clouds EP, boasting a 28-minute-long opening track slowly shapeshifting as it went along. Stone Garden features good ideas ending prematurely, but album highlight “In a Coil” shows everything that has made them the next buzzed-about psych outfit from Japan—guitar and sitar wrap around each other, charging the song forward while voices lock together, everything building in intensity before reaching a crescendo. It’s a reminder of how compelling Kikagaku Moyo’s story can be, even if Stone Garden is only a minor chapter.

Various Artists: Atomic Bomb Compilation Vol. 4

Nuclear energy produces anxiety in Japan. Long a controversial topic, it became a renewed source of worry following the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi power plant during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Fears stirred by the aftermath—and of similar incidents occurring—caused a nationwide furor in subsequent years, leading citizens across the nation to speak out about how little they trusted the government tasked with harnessing a nuclear program. Anger over Fukushima even drew out a group that isn’t always eager to get political in Japan—musicians. Long constrained by commercial commitments, performers such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Kazuyoshi Sato criticized the government’s handling of the situation online and appeared at protests against nuclear power. Still, many artists chose to express anger and worry through heavy metaphor rather than directly, if at all.

The Atomic Bomb Compilation series is direct with rage. Started in 2012 by Hiroshima juke producer CRZKNY, the project gathered dance songs around the theme of “the tragedy caused by abuse of nuclear energy.” The United States’ use of atomic weapons on CRZKNY’s hometown and Nagasaki at the end of World War II were remembered on these collections, both as memorial and reminder of nuclear energy's destructive past. The music, fittingly, is ominous and frequently chaotic. Although initially heavy on domestic artists and footwork, later releases brought in creators from around the world dabbling in a variety of styles. Vol. 4, released on the 71st anniversary of Japan’s surrender, is the best installment yet, featuring over a dozen electronic acts coming together to painfully reflect and highlight the paranoia of present-day nuclear power.

Protest sits at the center of Atomic Bomb Compilation Vol. 4, but it also offers a snapshot of how international artists have absorbed the Chicago-born juke sounds in the years since RP Boo, Traxman, and the Teklife crew started receiving increased attention. This set features contributions from Japanese producers, members of Polish Juke, creators in Mexico and beyond, each giving their own perspective on the high-energy style. Jakub Lemiszewski pushes “Exceeding” towards suffocating levels with rippling synths, while Argentina’s Aylu makes good use of space on compilation closer “Y_Y,” a cut where every breath and skittery drum hit lingers in the air.

Although most of the tracks here at dance-floor speeds, the mood permeating Atomic Bomb Compilation Vol. 4 is rarely joyful. Opening number “e_i_r,” courtesy of Hyogo’s jue6ons, is an eight-and-a-half-minute warning signal that slowly grows in intensity. The following songs unfold more swiftly but use the cornerstones of juke to create uneasy atmospheres. “Bakushinchi,” a team-up between Kyoto’s Gnyonpix and Melbourne’s DJ Innes, takes a steely drum machine and places them next to synth gurgles that highlight the stiffness of the beat, making for a disconcerting feel. Organizer CRZKNY takes it even further on his three contributions, embracing sharp metallic textures that give footwork-ready cuts such as “Vida” a dangerous edge. When the album deviates from juke during the gutter drone of Black OPS’ “Ruins Lining” or “Hiroshima’s A-Bell” by Polish creator Paide—featuring a field recording of chirping birds slowly folding into harsh white noise—the end result still feels unnerving.

The bulk of Vol. 4’s tracks don’t call out nuclear energy or accidents directly, opting instead to create a paranoid atmosphere mirroring the worries of the atomic age. Yet other instances are far more direct, whether referencing former prime ministers who helped bring Japan’s nuclear industry to peak prominence (producer Franz Snake’s “Yasuhiro Nakasone Said,” a jittery track featuring the former PM’s voice sliced and diced) or being very on the nose with what they are trying to recreate (lililL’s “Atomic Explosion,” the comp’s most cacophonous moment). Juke’s use of repetition, meanwhile, drives home deliberate messages sampled from familiar figures. Chicago’s bahnhof::zoo takes a snippet of Barack Obama's speech during his historic visit to Hiroshima earlier this year and makes it the center of “Fell From The Sky.” On the very next song, UK artist Count Vanderhoff centers the piece around a soundbite of Scottish Parliament member George Kerevan asking new UK prime minister Theresa May, “Is she personally prepared to authorize a nuclear strike that can kill a hundred thousand innocent men, women, and children?” (She said, “Yes.”)

At 25 songs, Atomic Bomb Compilation Vol. 4 is an overwhelming listen given its intentionally bleak vibe. But this series isn’t meant to be an escape. It memorializes immense human suffering brought on by nuclear weaponry and looms high as a cautionary tale for catastrophic misuse of nuclear energy. There’s very little fun to be found in exploring the concept of man-made Armageddon. Instead, this collection highlights the urgency of a highly politicized issue and soundtracks an uneasy, uncertain life in the atomic age. 

Yumi Zouma: Yoncalla

Distance has long defined Yumi Zouma. Two of the group’s founding members moved away from their native New Zealand after the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake, forcing them to piece together tracks across land and sea. It makes sense that gaps between people, both physical and emotional, served a central role across their first two dreamy, disco-accented rock EPs, which caught the attention of Lorde and Chet Faker.

The four members of Yumi Zouma recorded Yoncalla, their debut full-length, in the same place while on tour, marking the first time they’ve worked in a room together. Closing the ocean-sized distance works, not surprisingly, to their advantage; it’s a polished record on which their balmy dream-pop remains intact, sweetened by new intimacy. Their music has always sounded suited for warm climes, existing in the same sun-dappled terrain as JJ’s poppier cuts or Air France’s Balearic-tinged escapism (the latter of whom Yumi have covered), and Yoncalla features some of their brightest songs to date, from the dazzling synth-pop of “Short Truth” to the Fleetwood-Mac-indebted strut of “Yesterday.”  

Yumi Zouma also push their dance inclinations in more directions now, starting with the opener, “Barricade (Matter Of Fact).” It’s a delicate number built on airy keyboard notes and singer Christie Simpson’s rousing personal pep talk: “Just breathe/Just breathe/And then over the barricade,” she cajoles, the music beneath her building like an anticipatory deep breath. Beneath the breezy guitar playing and dance floor-ready rhythms, Yoncalla’s lyrics find Simpson in a contemplative mood; “Text From Sweden” is a woozy meditation on travel and how it affects relationships, while “Short Truth” embraces pessimism and frank talk to oneself. Many dream-pop numbers seek escape from the outside world, or at least foster a place to wallow, but Yumi Zouma have little time for either.

Yoncalla’s swift pacing ensures that moments of joy balance lurking regrets, and “Haji Awali,” the most guitar-centric inclusion here, finds Yumi Zouma pinpointing just where to start their recalibrations to optimism. Plus, Simpson has a great sense of humor about it, which lifts the tension a bit. (“I’m screaming in my dreams like it’s going in and out of fashion,” she drawls on “Yesterday”). Yoncalla highlights all the best elements of Yumi Zouma, wrapped up in some of the prettiest music they’ve made yet. Hopefully this leads to more face time together for them.

Yumi Zouma: Yoncalla

Distance has long defined Yumi Zouma. Two of the group’s founding members moved away from their native New Zealand after the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake, forcing them to piece together tracks across land and sea. It makes sense that gaps between people, both physical and emotional, served a central role across their first two dreamy, disco-accented rock EPs, which caught the attention of Lorde and Chet Faker.

The four members of Yumi Zouma recorded Yoncalla, their debut full-length, in the same place while on tour, marking the first time they’ve worked in a room together. Closing the ocean-sized distance works, not surprisingly, to their advantage; it’s a polished record on which their balmy dream-pop remains intact, sweetened by new intimacy. Their music has always sounded suited for warm climes, existing in the same sun-dappled terrain as JJ’s poppier cuts or Air France’s Balearic-tinged escapism (the latter of whom Yumi have covered), and Yoncalla features some of their brightest songs to date, from the dazzling synth-pop of “Short Truth” to the Fleetwood-Mac-indebted strut of “Yesterday.”  

Yumi Zouma also push their dance inclinations in more directions now, starting with the opener, “Barricade (Matter Of Fact).” It’s a delicate number built on airy keyboard notes and singer Christie Simpson’s rousing personal pep talk: “Just breathe/Just breathe/And then over the barricade,” she cajoles, the music beneath her building like an anticipatory deep breath. Beneath the breezy guitar playing and dance floor-ready rhythms, Yoncalla’s lyrics find Simpson in a contemplative mood; “Text From Sweden” is a woozy meditation on travel and how it affects relationships, while “Short Truth” embraces pessimism and frank talk to oneself. Many dream-pop numbers seek escape from the outside world, or at least foster a place to wallow, but Yumi Zouma have little time for either.

Yoncalla’s swift pacing ensures that moments of joy balance lurking regrets, and “Haji Awali,” the most guitar-centric inclusion here, finds Yumi Zouma pinpointing just where to start their recalibrations to optimism. Plus, Simpson has a great sense of humor about it, which lifts the tension a bit. (“I’m screaming in my dreams like it’s going in and out of fashion,” she drawls on “Yesterday”). Yoncalla highlights all the best elements of Yumi Zouma, wrapped up in some of the prettiest music they’ve made yet. Hopefully this leads to more face time together for them.