Yuragi – “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening”

When Yuragi appeared out of Shiga in 2016, it was as another impressive young Kansai act putting out some catchy, and surprisingly loud, poppy shoegaze.  Their debut single “bedside” fit in well with the pop-leaning tone of the local scene.  When the band released its first EP, “nightlife” just before the turn of that same year, there was something markedly different about its sound – leads were more sunken into the mix, the previously clean vocals were now echoing from whirlwinds of guitar noise.  Over the course of nine months and six tracks, Yuragi’s sound had changed  into something deeper and even a bit darker.

On its latest release, the six-track mini album “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening”, Yuragi shows us something totally new.  The CD kicks off with wailing clean guitars over a march-like cadence crescendoing into the post rock shoegaze explosion of “Horizon”.  On “Utopia” the band goes back to the uptempo, danceable sound of its previous releases, but doing so in a much more massive way.  The reworked version of “bedside” sits in the middle of the album, verifying the band’s transition to much bigger sound by keeping the poppy sweetness of the original but making the guitar wash much more prominent in the mix.  Lead single “Unreachable” returns to the melancholic post rock style of the openers, before the almost 11-minute “Path of the Moonlit Night” wraps things up in epic fashion, building from a dreamy lull to a raging outburst of swirling guitars before descending into a quiet marching snare that wraps it all up very comfortably.

If I have one issue with “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” as a whole body of work, it’s that the middle portion of the mini album almost disrupts the flow between the first and final thirds.  It’s hard to really complain too much, though, since each of those tracks is ridiculously good on its own.  From a songwriting standpoint, this is the most impressive music Yuragi has released to date, and production-wise it’s excellent.  The new generation of Japanese shoegaze is moving in a very cool, very loud direction, and Yuragi, along with bands like Collapse, Softsurf, and YURAGI LANDS, is among the most exciting contributors.

You can pick up a copy of “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” via Amazon (JP), though their previous releases have flown off the shelves so it’s best to do so quickly.

The Ambient Sounds of Arptranaus

Tokyo-based singer-songwriter Aya from Fraqsea and the now defunct Shelling has a new ambient project called Arptranaus. Aya’s music has always been characterized by its rich textures, whether used as the thick wash that defined Shelling’s hazy shoegaze sound or the atmosphere behind her solo work as Fraqsea. So it’s no surprise that she’s been able to create some more stunning ethereal tunes under this new name. Over the past few days, Aya has uploaded a series of cryptically named songs, from the light chime-laden “Noouclxz” to the darker, throbbing bass of “Dlivva”. And of course, her breathy vocals are also featured, echoing from deep in the background. Listening to Arptranaus’ music is sort of like listening to a very stripped down version of Shelling and Fraqsea. It’s a more intimate experience with the basic elements that are essential to the deep sounds of those other projects. Turn off the lights and pop your headphones on.

BLANCO – “A Place For Youthful Days”

I admittedly didn’t know a whole lot about Tokyo’s BLANCO prior to falling in love with their dreamy indie pop track “Paradise” on Ano(t)raks’ DIE IN POP comp from a couple months back.  The uptempo new wave pop track is super dancy and kind of messy, with bouts of tripped out wonky synths.  Today the band released it as the latter half of its new two-song single titled “A Place For Youthful Days”.  The lead track on the single is a slower-paced blurry psych tune called “Isolated City” that’s driven by some delightfully fuzzed-out bass.  Just like in “Paradise” this song has some pretty solid depth thanks to its synth backdrop, though in this case it’s used to create a bit more texture.  The male-female vocal harmonies are really solid, too.  Check it out for yourself at Bandcamp.

And here’s their video for “Paradise”.

Introducing Nagoya Supergroup I Like Birds

Looking at their lineup, one might expect newly-formed Nagoya quintet I Like Birds would appear to be a shoegaze supergroup.  The band’s lineup is stacked with veterans of the Nagoya shoegaze scene including Kosuke Tozuka (vocals & guitar, Apple Light), Yukie Kawaguchi (vocals & keys, me in grasshopper/mishca), Naoki Magota (guitar, Apple Light), Yutaka Mukouda (bass, softsurf), and Naoki Sogabe (drums, Tokenai Namae).  As if in premeditated response to any assumptions regarding their sound, I Like Birds introduced itself with a Tweet that started off with the words (roughly translated) “a not-shoegaze band by the Nagoya shoegaze team”.

The band’s first demo, “Bus Stop”, confirms its direction away from the gazey side of things, toward a gentler indie pop sound in the vein of Death Cab or perhaps slightly cleaned up Daisies of the Galaxy-era Eels – the latter is maybe more of a stretch based on where I’m assuming they got their name.  Of the bands represented by the individual members, Apple Light’s sound comes through the strongest.  It’s a pleasant track, with the sort of melancholy that feels just right alongside Tozuka’s voice.  Based on the lineup, the expectations are going to be pretty high from the get-go, but it’s hard to imagine this band not being good.  Give I Like Birds a follow on Twitter and stay tuned for more news and music.

The 5th Anniversary of Beatless

July 10th, 2018 marks the 5 year anniversary of Broken Little Sister’s popular shoegaze tribute to the Beatles.  The album, titled Beatless and released under the moniker Meeks, includes ten covers of famous Beatles tracks, but with a dreamy, reverb-drenched twist.

To celebrate the anniversary, Broken Little Sister released three extra tracks that didn’t make the original release.  They’re currently available at the band’s Bandcamp page for whatever you’d like to pay.

Yukla Down – “In Demonstrationem”

Tokyo’s Yukla Down put out their first record material in the form of a three-track demo EP titled “In Demonstrationem”.  The five-piece, whose lineup includes a member apiece from Si,Irene and Civic, offers a throwback 90s UK shoegaze sound that isn’t all that common in the Japanese scene.  It’s pleasantly scuzzy introduction, particularly on the first track, “Torture Me (With Your Kiss)” which sounds both nominally and tonally like something off of Isn’t Anything, but with a turn of the century American emo tinge to it that’s pretty cool.  “If You Only Knew” is another textural ripper of a song with more of a groove carrying along the cascade of harsh guitar noise, while “Borealis” is a chilled-out instrumental featuring droning guitars and a simple bongo-tapped beat.

While I don’t bemoan the lack of aggression in Japanese music nearly as much as I used to, I really appreciate Yukla Down’s noisy contributions.  The quality of the demo, in terms of both sound and composition, is really solid.  The band will be appearing at the July 29th Total Feedback event at Koenji High.  For more information you can follow Yukla Down on Facebook and Twitter.

Browned Butter – “Fall”

A couple months back, Kyoto newcomers Browned Butter released their first recorded material in the form of a single track titled “Fall”.  The song would be more formally introduced via net label Ano(t)raks’ DIE IN POP compilation album.  Just this past month the band released a debut 3-track EP of the same via the same label.

At first listen, the title track follows a pretty standard pattern for Japanese shoegaze with the blaring lead, somewhat subdued guitar backdrop, male-female twin vocals, and the stripped-down verse crescendoing into the bridge.  But while this format can be boring in some cases, Browned Butter’s sound has a really good balance to it.  The male and female vocal parts complement each other really well and sit really well in the mix.  The melodies are catchy and simple.

The album’s second track offers something a little different, playing a bit more like something inspired by “Three Out Change”.  It’s more of a deliberately paced guitar rock track, with those excellent breathy vocal harmonies really shining on top of another simple but fun guitar hook.

“Fever”, the third and final song, might be the best of the bunch.  Again, it’s pretty different from the previous two songs, featuring more of the elements of a shoegaze tune.  The vocals in the verse are chilling and when the song explodes into the chorus they just fit in there brilliantly.  It’s a powerful track.

Though a three-track EP is a pretty small sample, Browned Butter showed some good versatility on their debut.  The songwriting is really solid and the vocals are stunning.  “Fall” is a great start.  Let’s hope they keep it going.

The Return of Whisper Voice Riot

Roughly two years after unexpectedly disbanding, Osaka’s talented young shoegaze band Whisper Voice Riot recently announced out of nowhere that they’re starting it back up.  Despite having emerged as one of the really impressive young bands in the Japanese shoegaze scene, the then teen-aged Whisper Voice Riot decided to call it quits in 2016, with two of its members going on to form indie rock outfit Mississippi Khaki Hair almost immediately after.  

Roughly two years after unexpectedly disbanding, Osaka’s talented young shoegaze band Whisper Voice Riot recently announced out of nowhere that they’re starting it back up.  Despite having emerged as one of the really impressive young bands in the Japanese shoegaze scene, the then teen-aged Whisper Voice Riot decided to call it quits in 2016, with two of its members going on to form indie rock outfit Mississippi Khaki Hair almost immediately after.  

It surprised a lot of people when, on January 24th, WVR and MKH frontman Taito Kimura randomly posted “we’re back” with a link to Whisper Voice Riot’s sound cloud page and some photos of the defunct band.  The response was overwhelmingly positive, which doesn’t seem at all surprising given the band’s reputation prior to breaking up.  However, Taito and WVR guitarist/MKH bassist Usui didn’t intend to make that announcement that the time.

“Usui and I had been talking about wanting to start up WVR again for a while,” Taito explained. “I posted ‘we’re back’ on Twitter to mean ‘at some point we’ll be back’, and everyone mistook it as ‘we’re starting the band back up soon’.  The response exceeded our expectations.”  Believing it to be some kind of “fate”, Taito and Usui had to find members.  They brought back former WVR bassist, Shibata, and added a two new members to round out the band’s new lineup.  

When I talked to Taito after the breakup, he stated that he was simply no longer satisfied with Whisper Voice Riot.  Talking to him recently he clarified that the pace of the band was too slow, and there were some personal issues.  “We were a band that started in high school and broke up while we were teenagers.  A few of the problems were inevitable.”  When asked about what changed over the last two years, Taito responded, “I got the urge to be in a band that is personal and is active at a slower pace.  So I started WVR back up.”

While he mentioned that Whisper Voice Riot is here to stay for as long as possible, Taito also plans to keep Mississippi Khaki Hair going at the same time.  “I’m an egotist, so if I want to quit, I’ll quit.”  For now at least it seems that fans of both bands won’t have to worry about any more sudden breakups in the near future.

Since announcing its return, Whisper Voice Riot had its first gig on April 30th.  Things have been relatively quiet otherwise, perhaps just due to the slow pace that Taito has come to embrace.  Whisper Voice Riot seems very near and dear to his heart, and after talking to him I get the feeling that he never intended to let it go forever.  His current approach to and goals for the band seem much more laid back than before.  “I just want to write good songs.  My dream is to be singing songs I wrote as a teenager, even when I’m old.”

Here’s a link to their first EP “Before the Morning Cleaves Our Night” on Soundcloud:

The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2017

In 2017 things got pretty interesting in the Japanese scene.  The Daydream events took off this year, drawing some more of the focus away from Tokyo and further establishing Kyoto as Japanese shoegaze’s “second city”.  Elsewhere, Nagoya’s local scene got a big bump thanks in large part to releases from local bands and the emergence of some new, young bands.  There were also some long-awaited releases, a shoegaze idol group that blew everyone’s minds, and a couple of tragic break ups.  It was a busy year with a few intriguing storylines.  

In 2017 things got pretty interesting in the Japanese scene.  The Daydream events took off this year, drawing some more of the focus away from Tokyo and further establishing Kyoto as Japanese shoegaze’s “second city”.  Elsewhere, Nagoya’s local scene got a big bump thanks in large part to releases from local bands and the emergence of some new, young bands.  There were also some long-awaited releases, a shoegaze idol group that blew everyone’s minds, and a couple of tragic break ups.  It was a busy year with a few intriguing storylines.  

Release-wise, there was still the “not enough full length releases and too many EPs” problem, but it was more manageable.  The bigger issue this year was the closeness of the contenders.  At least for the LP and EP lists, the top spots were pretty obvious in my mind.  Below that I did a lot of shuffling throughout the year.  So, as is usually the case, I could very easily change this list around in a week or so.  

As is the case everywhere there will be some seemingly notable omissions on this list, but there’s a good reason for them.  The most obvious one would be Plant Cell, who re-released Flowergaze? in 2017.  As it’s just a re-worked version of a 2016 album, I left it off this year’s list.  Then there are bands like Apple Light and Crunch who both released really good music this year (the new Apple Light is seriously so good), but neither falls in the blurry realm of shoegaze or dream pop, even at its blurriest.  Cairophenomenons, Amsterdamned, Kill My 27, Acidclank, and Looprider all released good stuff this year that would have qualified on their own but ultimately didn’t feel right in this list.  

With that out of the way, here are my favorite releases of 2017:


★ ☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆ ★

“NEO TOKYO” BY YOUTHMEMORY

At first listen, Neo Tokyo sounds like a pretty big departure from youthmemory’s previous material.  This is true in the feel of the music with the usual bouncy rhythm and jangly guitar backdrop replaced by drum machine beats and dense synth pads.  However, the Tokyo band’s M.O. of crafting danceable, lush, dreamy pop music remains unchanged.  There’s something cold and even a bit gloomy about this release, but it was a great change of pace without ever straying from what had made youthmemory a really enjoyable band.  (Bandcamp)

If this list took live performances into account, Fog Park would be right at the top.  The Saitama-based newcomers put out two demo singles in 2017 – “cigarette punch” in January and then “sleeping cat” in May.  While neither of the demos demonstrates how brutally loud these guys are capable of being, the songs are still really good.  I’m looking forward to their recently announced debut mini album “beautiful blood”, that was released on 1/20.  (Currently only available at shows)

The Kansai region consistently produces some of the country’s best dream pop acts, and the best of the bunch in 2017 was Mariana in our Heads.  The five-piece put out a single an an EP this year, and while the latter received some consideration before ultimately falling to some strong competition, their “Anemone/Yarn” 7-inch was among my favorite singles.  While I generally favor harder-hitting, noisy chaos, I do occasionally have a soft spot for really warm synth-laden dream pop.  2017 was a good year for that, and Mariana in our Heads nailed it.  (Flake Records)

The most bittersweet entry on this whole list belongs to Ether Feels, whose “moonshine” single would be the last material they released before announcing all of the members would be going their separate ways.  The track actually starts off uncharacteristically peppy before transitioning into the sad but catchy melancholic pop sound that Ether Feels spent years doing so well.  (Bandcamp)

I have mixed feelings about Japan’s hottest shoegaze band, ・・・・・・・・・(pronounced “dots”).  The idol group’s surge in popularity is probably due more to their live gimmicks and cute-but-edgy idol shtick, but their debut single “CD” features some legitimately good music – particulary “Slide” which was written by For Tracy Hyde’s Natsu-bot.  I remain skeptical of “alt-idol” acts, but credit where credit is due here.  (Amazon)


★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★

“INTO THE DREAM” BY SOFTSURF

With all due respect to the rest of the bands who released EPs this year, this one was never going to be close.  It’s been fun watching softsurf’s rise over the last couple years, and “Into the Dream” helped solidify their status as the best shoegaze band going in Japan right now.  I’ve beaten the Slowdive/Pastel Blue comp into the ground to this point, but it’s pretty remarkable since that sound is so rare here.  With their first proper release and a three-city tour in support of it, Softsurf had an incredible year which saw them establish themselves within the national shoegaze scene.  And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better live band in that scene.  (Amazon)

Though Softsurf was in a league of its own in 2017, there were still some really good EP releases in the next tier.  17 Years Old And The Berlin Wall put out their second EP Reflect last year, following up their excellent 2015 debut.  17Berlin’s sound pretty much reflects the popular sound in the Japanese shoegaze scene, with male-female vocal harmonies and poppy guitar melodies.  What has set them apart, besides the fact that their songs are really catchy, is the fact that hit a bit harder they’re willing to muddy it up a bit and drown some of the sweetness in guitar noise.  (Flake Records)

My 2017 Rookie of the Year award goes to Kyoto-based newcomers Nurse, who released their debut EP ODD.  Nurse sort of spawned from the very short-lived Hakusen Shikatsu, who released a couple impressive demo tracks earlier in the year and then split.  But the new project is even better and way way noisier.  Hopefully these guys stick around for a bit. (Bandcamp)

Chiba’s plant cell may not have been qualified for the album of the year award, but they put out two really good EPs in 2017.  The first, titled Queen of the Nebula – Fairy Lurking In the Thundercloud, was a thematic departure from their usual nature/spirit-based content, but featured their usual dense, dreamy sound.  The second, Cyan, was a collection of new versions of songs previously released on CDs or as singles on Bandcamp.  To be clear, the rebuild version of Flowergaze? wasn’t included in the list because it was just a modified version of a previously released album.  Cyan, on the other hand, was recorded from scratch and marked plant cell’s first recording as a full band.  The result isn’t really all that different, but the live drums add a bit of warmth to some familiar tracks.  For a band that’s put out some of the same tracks more than a couple times now, plant cell always manages to keep things interesting.  (Disk Union)

Perhaps better known as half of Hachioji-based alternative band The Weddings, singer-songwriter, kano, has been writing some seriously good dream pop tunes over the last 2 years. Her second EP, Shochuu, is short and sweet, including three whimsical, feel-good tracks with some really pretty textures woven along with gentle, breathy vocals.  The release was fairly low-key, but the release really hits the spot and rose to the top of a very deep list of 2017 EPs.  (File-Under Records


★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★

“HE(R)ART” BY FOR TRACY HYDE

For Tracy Hyde outdid themselves and delivered the most enjoyable album of 2017.  While most bands are putting out singles and EPs, the Tokyo-based dreamy indie pop/shoegaze outfit released an incredibly well-written 17-track album (16 if you don’t want to include the intro) that draws on western indie pop influence while conjuring youthful imagery of life in Tokyo.  That imagery is key, as He(r)art is structured like a film, down to the movie poster album cover and “Opening Logo”.  It’s a nostalgic, playful, and emotional walk through a massive city and impactful relationships made there.  While He(r)art is an extremely cohesive album that is best consumed as presented from start to finish, the individual tracks stand well on their own as well.  “Leica Daydream”, “Houbutsusen”, and “Teen Flick” are among my personal favorites, while “Ghost Town Polaroids” might be my favorite track of the year.  There are some strong contenders below, but For Tracy Hyde owned 2017. (Amazon)

There’s not much to say about Shelling‘s latest album, Waiting for Mint Shower!!  The Tokyo-based duo gave us another gorgeous album based on the simple-but-effective formula of blanketing everything in a cascade of reverb-soaked guitars, warm synths, and Aya’s gentle, breathy vocals.  The way the tracks subtly evolve over the repetitive beats and lulling bass lines is hypnotic.  But you’ve heard all this before.  (Amazon)

Taffy is an interesting inclusion, because I almost have to remind myself that they’re a Japanese band.  More appreciated overseas than in their home country – which is crazy for a band of their quality – Taffy occasionally emerges in the Tokyo scene as they did in 2017 following the release of their Nyctophilia album.  Taffy pushes guitar texture to the foreground, making the deeper lying melodies more subtle and the overall tone of the tracks harsher.  The result is a much different album than most of the releases you find on these lists.  (Amazon)

One of the biggest surprises of the year was the announcement from Nagoya’s Tokenai Namae that they’d be returning from their fairly lengthy hiatus with a new album.  On Seifuku Kanro Kurabu the kayo-pop shoegaze band stayed true to their sound with a cute but chaotic blend of bubbly vocals, bouncy synths, crunchy bass, and ear-blasting guitars.  It’s pacier than the first, and everything below the synth leads feels like it’s been bumped in the mix, making things sound a bit messier.  A really solid release, which is remarkable considering the band was inactive for the better part of 2017.  (File-Under Records)

There are two albums dueling it out for the fifth spot on this best albums list, both of which were fairly long-awaited releases.  Cruyff in the Bedroom‘s first full-length album in almost 5 years, Hate Me, was probably the most highly-anticipated Japanese shoegaze release coming into 2017.  Caucus‘ first in four years, Sound of the Air, came later in the year and was fairly low-key in comparison.  Hate Me had higher highs with a few bangers including HATE and my personal favorite Laurelei, but got a bit too clean and rock n roll at times.  Caucus’ record had its own hot track in lead single, “What Have You Done”, but the album was more consistent start to finish, giving it the nod.  Caucus changes pace well on the album, going from fuzzy pop tunes to slower, more textural tracks like the almost 9-minute “Circles”.  Overall it was a more interesting listening experience. (Caucus on Amazon) (Cruyff in the Bedroom on Amazon)

A Fond Farewell to Ether Feels

A lot of bands come and go.  The Japanese shoegaze scene has seen so many really good bands just disappear out of nowhere or break up without notice that I’ve become desensitized to it.  Late last night, however, Kansai shoegaze legends Ether Feels announced that its October gig in Taiwan was its last.  The band’s members would be splitting up, and Ether Feels would be going on an indefinite hiatus.  The news really hit home (enough to get me to come back and post after a few months away).  

A lot of bands come and go.  The Japanese shoegaze scene has seen so many really good bands just disappear out of nowhere or break up without notice that I’ve become desensitized to it.  Late last night, however, Kansai shoegaze legends Ether Feels announced that its October gig in Taiwan was its last.  The band’s members would be splitting up, and Ether Feels would be going on an indefinite hiatus.  The news really hit home (enough to get me to come back and post after a few months away).  

On a personal level, Ether Feels was an extremely important band.  I had been to various gigs since moving to Japan in the spring of 2012, but my first ever venture into the heart of the Japanese shoegaze scene was in January of 2013 at the Osaka leg of the Japan Shoegazer Festival.  The bill was headlined by the likes of like Lemon’s Chair and Cruyff in the Bedroom, but the band that blew me away was the lesser-known Ether Feels – then a three-piece.  The performance was mesmerizing.  It says a lot that Ether Feels was the highlight of the night, when Lemon’s Chair also played.  Since that night, the band’s founder Tomo, has been one of the coolest, most supportive people I’ve known.  He’s one of the really good guys in a scene in which the veterans aren’t always the most pleasant or sincere.  

 Ether Feels at the 2013 Japan Shoegazer Festival Osaka
Ether Feels at the 2013 Japan Shoegazer Festival Osaka

Shoegaze in Japan in the early to mid 00s – unofficially referred to as the “golden age” of Japanese shoegaze – was strong but derivative.  Shoegaze in the current Japanese scene is often criticized for being too poppy and melodic, and not strong enough.  Ether Feels’ sound combines the best of each of these periods.  They borrow the requisite “wall of sound” guitar waves from the forefathers of the genre, using that element as a backdrop for their signature melancholy.  It’s powerful and sad and the vocal melodies will rip your heart to pieces.  Ether Feels’ sound is unique in a genre where pastiche is praised, and that’s helped to establish them as one of the best shoegaze bands on the planet.  

I will say that a fair criticism I’ve heard about the band is that their songs can be a bit repetitive.  It’s totally true, but I’ve never found it to be a bad thing in Ether Feels’ case.  The repetition almost hypnotic (think The Fleeting Joys’ “Kiss a Girl in Black”)  The song that stuck with me from the first time I heard it was “Annabelle”.  It’s basically just two and a half parts played over and over, but the song hit me hard and showcases the dreamy sadness that made me fall in love with them in the first place.  

I’m biased and a bit emotional in light of the news, but the love I have for this band is genuine.  It’s been a bit disappointing seeing Ether Feels somewhat underappreciated within the Japanese scene.  There’s the perception that the scene here runs through Tokyo, and in particular Koenji HIGH, but Ether Feels managed to forego that step of the process en route to playing all over the country as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong, while also being included on a massive international shoegaze compilation.  All the while, Ether Feels has also helped usher in a new wave of shoegaze bands in Japan, while encouraging the scene to continue to grow in the Kansai region.  

If there’s one bit of good news in all of this, it’s that Ether Feels technically isn’t over.  Some would argue that the most recent lineup was the band’s best ever, but the fact remains that Tomo is the brains of the operation and he still seems dedicated to continuing what he referred to as his “life work”.  It would appear that there is still hope for the future, but for now it’s a good opportunity to sit back and reflect on the career of one of the best Japanese bands in recent memory.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already familiar with Ether Feels’ catalog, but if by some chance you’re not, I recommend diving right in on their Bandcamp page and enjoying everything they’ve done.  Sadly, the Raindrop Sparkle CD – my personal favorite – isn’t up here, but the rest of their stuff is great as well.