Posts By Patrick St. Michel

Eiko Ishibashi: The Dream My Bones Dream

Again working with producer Jim O’Rourke, the Japanese singer/songwriter explores a peculiar family history in songs that pull her own musical past into the present.

Meuko! Meuko!: 鬼島 Ghost Island EP

Taiwanese artist Pon blends traditional mythology and instruments with electronic beats and cacophonous samples on a release inspired by life in—and the urge to escape from—her home city of Taipei.

Minami Deutsch: With Dim Light

Krautrock, psychedelia, and a DJ’s flair for track sequencing come together on an album that proves this Tokyo trio is more than just a revival act.

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.