Two years ago the Japan Shoegazer Festival made its first trip to Nagoya in addition to regular stops in Tokyo and Osaka. Despite being headlined by more nationally recognizable bands from the two larger citites – Lemon’s Chair and My Dead Girlfriend – the majority of the bill appropriately featured bands from Nagoya. There was some question as to how the annual event would draw in a new city and one with very little association with shoegaze. The question was answered in the form of a sold out show that had Tsurumai’s Daytrip packed tight, prompting the show’s organizer to book a follow up event with the venue almost as soon as the gig ended. Judging by the crowd’s reaction during the course of the night it became clear that they weren’t just there to see the bigger name acts. The night belonged to one local act in particular: Tokenai Namae.
As a resident of Nagoya who runs a blog centered around shoegaze music in Japan, it’s been a pleasure to see the kayou-shoegazers continuing to pick up steam both within their hometown and outside of it, and in the process putting Nagoya on the Japanese shoegaze map. They’ve moved a ton of their first two CD-R EPs throughout the country and have gigged increasingly outside of Nagoya, highlighted by appearances at Total Feedback and Japan Shoegazer Festival events in Tokyo. The band took the next big step in their development this year when they wrapped up their debut full-length effort “Time Machine ga Kowareru Mae ni” earlier this year.
For those unfamiliar with Tokenai Namae’s signature blend of shoegaze and kayou-kyoku (a brand of Japanese pop music which originated in the Showa period and the foundation of modern pop music in Japan), the first two tracks on the album are basically an introduction to what they do. “Koukotsu Kyoushitsu” (恍惚教室) and “Denki-shingou no Imooto” (電気信号の妹) are both catchy pop tracks showcasing the male and female twin vocals that ceaselessly shadow one another while bubbly synths bounce on top of subtle guitar noise. One of the knocks on their previously released material is that the synths are a little too prominent in the mix, and while they’re still pretty high up there on the new record, it feels like everything else has been turned up and blended a little better. One of my favorite aspects of the album is the filthy bass tone that contrasts the cheerful poppy vibe of the music really nicely, and they do well to showcase it from start to finish here.
The middle portion of “Time Machine ga Kowareru Mae Ni” is where Tokenai Namae really shines. Not surprisingly, this is where the two lead singles “√ni-hiki” (√2匹) and “Calpis-chan” (カルピスちゃん) sit in the track listing, but the song that follows them, “Shoujo no Kannouki” (少女の官能基), is probably my favorite on the album. For me the three-track block really showcases the band’s ability to write good songs. The general shoegaze formula is predicated on a balance between beauty and sheer noise, but in Tokenai Namae’s case there’s an element of ‘cute’ that is vital. Sure, there’s a fairly sizeable section of the Japanese shoegaze scene that leans heavily toward cute indie pop, but there seems to be an inverse correlation between said “cuteness” and shoegaze’s requisite volume and noise. Tokenai Namae manages to jam them all together really successfully.
The last three tracks on the album are a gradual come down from shoegaze back into a more pop-heavy finale. “Toumei Tsuushin” (透明通信) is sort of a perfect transition track here, while “Kanjiru Keisanki, 21sai” (感じる計算機、二十一歳) and “Suimin Shou”(睡眠抄) ease you out of what has been a largely pleasant listening experience.
For an overseas listener-base, Tokenai Namae’s new album, and their body of work in general, may take a little bit of getting used to. However while western shoegaze was born from western pop and the genre rode into Japan as well on the back of a Madchester craze, Tokenai Namae takes the principles of the shoegaze sound and reconstructs them around a uniquely Japanese foundation. It makes for some really intriguing music that, at very least, will latch onto your brain and not let go without a fight.
As an added bonus, their track listings are like a really, really difficult kanji quiz.