Though Korea hasn’t produced as steady a flow of shoegaze as continental counterparts such as Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia, its output with regard to the genre has been solid. Bands like Vidulgi OoyoO and UHF Seoul, and genre-adjacent acts such as Aseul and Say Sue Me have been notable representatives of Korean shoegaze and dream pop over the past decade-plus. However, beyond a small number of bands and a Korean Loveless tribute, delving into the dreamy realm of the domestic scene has been difficult.
At the start of 2019, there was a brief surge of Korean shoegaze acts on Bandcamp. The most impressive of these bands was FOG, whose “Shine/DreamingDreamingDreaming” single was an immediate attention grabber. The band went on to publish a number of songs including a previously released demo album and it was obvious that this Seoul-based quartet was something special. This week, they dropped their proper full-length debut, Fogesque, and introduced themselves as the new face of Korean shoegaze.
FOG’s strength is building incredible space using a cascade of guitars so deep and drenched in reverb that comparisons to Slowdive were immediate and perfectly understandable. Crafting within that vast space using dancing melodies and chilling, whispering vocals results in sheer bliss at a drugged-out stroll of a pace. Fogesque is a perfect showcase of that ability and more via a blend of new music and some beefed up versions of older songs.
Four of the tracks on Fogesque are new versions of songs that first appeared on the aforementioned demo album from 2018, The Harder We Push, The Faster Well All Get Outta Here. The standout of the callback portion of the album is “Dark Room”, which was hauntingly gorgeous in its demo form, but received a considerable amount of additional depth thanks to the production work of drummer Hwanho Lee (aka Bang9suk). Perhaps the most fun result of the uptick in production quality is “Dehumidifier”, which taps along before a very harsh turn into a squall of guitar noise. Admittedly, the dynamic change is a bit jarring at first, but there’s something wholly satisfying about such a violent eruption from the peaceful lull that leads up to it.
The new music on the album shows the band’s ability to continue writing fresh, strong shoegaze tunes using their usual formula. If there’s one single best moment on the entire album it’s the exhale into the chorus of lead single “Nocturne”. The burst of guitars and piercing melodic lead is tonal perfection. And while the fadeout at the end of the track feels like a bit of a premature come down, the dense, dreamy haze continues into “Listless” and on into “Acid Dream”.
Whether intentional or not, the placement of bouncy, whimsical dream pop tune “Dearest” smack in the middle of the album feels like a strategic palate cleanser before the wall of sound kicks back in on “Space Space Space Shuttle”. From there, the band dives into deep textural exploration en route to the absolutely stunning finale of “Dark Room”.
After almost two years of buildup, FOG’s new album is a statement that they are the band at the forefront of Korean shoegaze in this new decade. Whether or not there’s a new wave of domestic artists poised to follow their lead, the young foursome has a bright future ahead of them on the back of a beautiful, deep sound that should appeal to a wide audience far outside their home country. Fogesque is just the beginning.
The past few years have seen a steady flow of new and upcoming artists in the Japanese scene. In 2019, however, the story was more about big name returns and the domestic scene really holding steady with really strong releases from some of its best-known artists. Tokyo Shoegazer and Coaltar of the Deepers dominated the buzz, we saw a very consistent flow of releases, and the final year of the 2010s felt like a confirmation that few if any genres have been as consistently well-represented as shoegaze in Japanese indie music over the past decade. It was a really strong year.
Before getting into the best of 2019 lists, there are a couple notes. First off, once again, this was a really tough year to break down. Since I crunched the format of these lists into a “best 5” style, it’s been a real challenge. Sometimes that only applies to the EP portion, but this year all of them gave me trouble. Also, Tokyo Shoegazer had a massive year, and while their Crystallize reissue deserves all the love it got all over the world, it doesn’t qualify for the list. Nor does their stealthily released Moondiver album, which was sold on their China tour, but which will likely receive a proper release in 2020.
That about does it. Here are my best releases of 2019.
☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆
“Revive” by Tokyo Shoegazer
As I mentioned in the intro, the sudden and surprising return of Tokyo Shoegazer was pretty much the biggest story in Japanese shoegaze in 2019. Though the Crystallize reissue and Moondiver releases generated more buzz, their “Revive” single featured the band’s first new music in years. It was an emphatic announcement of their return to activity, highlighted by the epic seven-and-a-half-minute lead track, “Light”.
Indie legends Coaltar of the Deepers had a similar comeback in 2019, which marked the 25th anniversary of the band’s debut The Visitors from Deepspace album. Having released two new singles in 2018, Deepers’ return wasn’t as big a surprise, but the band teased a new single over the course of their anniversary tour. The track, titled “HALFLIFE” dropped on digital platforms in early December, and is very much a throwback to the band’s genre-bending shoegaze prime.
From two long-standing veterans of Japanese shoegaze to one of the finest of the latest crop of indie bands to pop up this decade, Luby Sparks followed up a fantastic 2018 with a brand new single in 2019. “Somewhere” is a gorgeous 4AD-style dream pop tune that jangles along into a super catchy, emotional chorus. It’s romantic, teenage nostalgia and it’s beautiful. The single’s B-side is a remix by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie that really piles on the feels.
Lost in all the big comeback announcements was maybe my personal highlight of 2019, which was Osaka’s Ether Feels getting back together two years after splitting. With a mostly fresh lineup around band leader Tomo Iwashita, Ether Feels put out its latest single titled “Kowloon Sunset” and got back to gigging. The band picked up right where it left off with its heart-wrenching brand of melancholic shoegaze pop.
The Earth Earth has been pretty quiet since releasing a single in 2016, gigging sporadically around their home base in Aomori, so their latest single was another pleasant surprise this past year. While nods to early My Bloody Valentine aren’t exactly rare among shoegaze bands around the world, The Earth Earth is one of the few Japanese bands to have consistently gone that route over the years and the results have been excellent. “Story is Wrong” is nothing new, but it hits the spot.
I’m taking liberties here by adding one more entry to my singles list. COLLAPSE‘s latest three-track release, “ENDOGENIC REBIRTHDAY”, was actually at the top of my EP list before I realized the band had labeled it a single. Their sound continues to sit at the heavier end of the Japanese shoegaze spectrum, and on “RITUAL”, they show off a nice blend of contrasting styles in hardcore and shoegaze that isn’t all that common in Japan.
★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★
“EASTOKLAB” by EASTOKLAB
As usual there were a number of EPs vying for the top spot on my year end list, but the one that I listened to and enjoyed the most was the self-titled debut EP from Nagoya’s EASTOKLAB. Their brand of dream pop is some of the most unique in a scene that has a lot of creative takes on the genre. From dreamy atmospheres, tight grooves, and the ability to seamlessly transition to big blurry guitar walls, EASTOKLAB possesses a diverse sonic arsenal, and frontman Hayato Hioki’s vocal style is uniquely his.
The Waterfalls’ 2016 self-titled release garnered a lot of attention in the Japanese indie scene, and this past year they put out a double EP release consisting of “In the Blue Lagoon” and “Youthlight”. There are some subtle differences in style between the two EPs, but overall over the eight tracks that they released they showed more of the outstanding songwriting that we saw on the debut.
My troubled relationship with idol music has been well-documented to this point, but I really enjoyed “Blue”, the debut EP from RAY. Shortly after ・・・・・・・・・ disbanded, RAY emerged as the new face of shoegaze idol music (under the same management as their predecessors) and promised a highly-anticipated collaboration with Ringo Deathstarr. They delivered just that on the new EP, the lead single of which, titled “Meteor”, was composed by the Austin shoegaze trio’s Elliot Frazier. With two more tracks composed by Azusa Suga of For Tracy Hyde and Yusuke Hata of cruyff in the bedroom, RAY’s focus on quality songwriting over gimmicks is a positive sign.
Formerly known simply as kano, Tokyo-based bedroom producer azsakano put out another EP full of whimsical dreamy pop tunes in 2019. Just like her previous works, “Romantics” features some really nice layering of textures and sweet vocal melodies soaked in reverb and sunken deep within the mix. Azsakano is an expert at crafting lo-fi dream pop that is simple on the surface but gives the listener a lot to dive into.
On their latest EP, “square”, Nagoya’s mishca do a lot more texturally than they have in the past, while staying true to their very mellow, straightforward approach to songwriting. If there was one knock on the band in the past it’s that they didn’t develop songs enough to really carry the slow, methodical backbone of their music. Musically, “square” offers considerably more dynamic range, and the male-female vocals complement each other really well.
★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★
“New Young City” by For Tracy Hyde
This can’t be much of a shock. For Tracy Hyde had a lot of competition this year, but their third full length album, New Young City, sits atop this list. Once again, For Tracy Hyde drew on western shoegaze and dream pop and Japanese pop influences and pieced together an album that is loaded with energy and emotion. As a body of work, its structure is similar to that of their successful sophomore effort, but New Young City shows the band going even bigger with its sound. It’s loaded with song of the year contenders.
SPOOL‘s self-titled full length debut seemed like a lock for the album of the year throughout most of 2019, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it actually was. It’s a powerful, well-produced album that demonstrates some really versatile songwriting. SPOOL goes from deep and dreamy to dark and edge, infusing their shoegaze sound with elements of 90s US alternative rock and playful dream pop. This was the breakout we were waiting for from the four-piece.
Monocism‘s Fukou album was the band’s first proper release since the end of the previous decade, and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Over the past few years, frontman Tomoya Shiono has been working on some wonderful solo material under the moniker 宗凛 (Sourin), and monocism’s new album plays like an extension of that with its stuttering, mathy beats blanketed in thick, dreamy layers of noise and fluttering guitar leads.
Taffy once again had a quietly solid year, highlighted by their fifth studio album, Deep Dark Creep Love. As is often the case with a Taffy release, there’s nothing groundbreaking about the album, but producing good shoegaze in 2019 is largely based on taking elements of the genre that have been done in the past and working them into something interesting. That is what Taffy do so well and it’s why their new record is an excellent listen. Their rendition of Bowie’s “Never Let Me Down” is gorgeous, too.
The final spot on this list was the hardest to decide on. Cattle, Smokebees, NOAH, and a lot of other bands put out really good albums, and Kiiro Records’ FOREVER SHOEGAZE double release was probably the label’s best compilation to date. But I’m going with Polly‘s latest release, Flowers. Produced by The Novembers’ Yusuke Kobayashi, Polly’s third album is gorgeously dark and dreamy with tremendous depth thanks to a combination of airy guitars and synths.
One of the most beloved Japanese alternative bands over the better part of the past decade has called it quits. Kinoko Teikoku announced today that bassist Shigeaki Taniguchi decided to leave the band and focus on taking over his family’s temple. Feeling that it wasn’t right to move on with a new bassist, the remaining three members went their own separate ways bringing an end to a twelve year run that saw the band go from indie darlings to major label signees, while also becoming one of the most identifiable Japanese shoegaze acts overseas.
Despite their status abroad as one of the most popular Japanese shoegaze acts – thanks in large part to their spot on Steven Tanaka’s Next Music from Tokyo tour in Canada in 2013 – Kinoko Teikoku was never truly a part of a Japanese shoegaze scene that was taking off on its third and most successful wave, despite a period of activity that aligned perfectly with the domestic shoegaze boom. Within a year of releasing demo EP, “Yoru ga Aketara”, they signed with Daizawa Records, a subsidiary of launchpad indie label UK Project, and released the best material they would ever put out in “Uzu ni Naru”. In 2013, the band released its defining debut album, “Eureka”, and fans of Japanese shoegaze had a new favorite artist. With regard to shoegaze, Kinoko Teikoku’s legacy is centered more around popularizing the domestic scene overseas than any impact they had domestically. They are often cited in shoegaze communities as the band that introduced people to the Japanese scene, but rarely mentioned within the country when talking about influential artists.
Following the release of the “Long Goodbye” EP in 2013, Kinoko Teikoku’s sound shifted from the harsh, 90s US alternative-infused shoegaze that fans had fallen in love with to a more major label friendly pop rock sound. It was shortly thereafter that Kinoko Teikoku was signed to EMI, after which they would release an EP and a handful of albums. The Kinoko Teikoku listening experience shifted from one of anticipation to the hope that the band might roll things back to their past sound. It was never fair, but it was always going to happen. The band’s popularity was finally soaring domestically, and, save for a few creative nods to earlier material, the major label transition was in full force. With each new release came more whiny nostalgia – I accept blame for being part of all of that – and that escalated further when frontwoman Chiaki Sato launched her solo project, which just felt like an extension of the whole change.
In a way, the news that Kinoko Teikoku is over provides a section of a fanbase that was never going to be happy with them again with a sense of relief. The longing for something that was never going to come back is gone. Now we can listen to those first few releases without obnoxiously using them as the standard for future material. And the good news for those devotees who stuck with the band until the very end is that things didn’t end on a sour note. Comments from the members on the band’s site were all very positive, though of course not without the sadness that is expected from a group of people who had been playing together for 12 years. A reunion may not be likely in the near future, but it’s not out of the question.
Kinoko Teikoku has also meant a lot to this site. The band was a big focus of Muso Japan when I started it up in late 2011, and has always been a source of fun and thoughtful discussions. I had the pleasure of seeing them for the first and only time in early 2012 at a small, empty venue in Nagoya, and it will always be one of the most satisfying live experiences in my time in Japan. At their peak, Kinoko Teikoku’s combination of a furious but gorgeous guitar assault and absolutely heavenly vocals resulted in some of the best shoegaze to ever come out of Japan. The band will be terribly missed, but their contribution to the Japanese music scene and the connection they were able to make with fans overseas will not be forgotten.
Tokyo-based shoegaze producer Otom is back with his first track of 2019, titled “You Lost Me”. The new song is a bit more upbeat than the billowy electronic shoegaze he wowed us with last year, though if it’s too poppy for your taste Otom included an edited version that’s more or less a glitchy remix showcasing the track’s textural backdrop. Otom sits atop a fairly long list of recording-only Japanese music projects that I wish would get a band together and take it to the stage. His style of music seems like it would translate better than a lot of the lo-fi bedroom pop that also populates my list, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem like that will be happening. In the meantime, we’re likely to get quite a few more singles this year, so at least we have that to look forward to.
While it’s true that the Nagoya scene has been a bit lacking over the years with regard to shoegaze bands with a reputation outside the city, there’s been a steady flow of alternative bands largely based around Tsurumai live house Daytrip and its sister venue Daytrive. That section of the Nagoya indie scene is extremely underrated, but it boasts real quality and considerable diversity. Gloomy post rock outfit, The Rainy, has been one of the bands at the center of the current wave of Nagoya shoegaze-adjacent artists, and they followed up an impressive 2018 with the release of their debut EP, “Film”, at the start of this year.
The Rainy is one of a number of Nagoya bands that identify to some degree as shoegaze, but the way in which they draw on the genre is extremely subtle. The band’s approach to songwriting is based largely on gradual crescendos from light, often acoustic, intros to deeper emotional finishes. “Film” is basically a showcase of that style of song development, highlighted by the heart-wrenching fan-favorite that is the EP’s title track. Though a lot of what The Rainy does is repetitive as a general process, they change it up by feinting and teasing the flows of songs, picking their shots and setting them up effectively. The placement of “Yulunohi” smack in the middle of the EP creates a nice change of pace with its the piqnic-esque moody intensity. It might be somewhat difficult to truly appreciate The Rainy without seeing their spectacular live performances, but “Film” is a nice introduction to what the band does.
You can listen to The Rainy’s “Film” EP on most streaming services and purchase it via iTunes. Physical copies are also available for purchase via File-Under Records.
Sudden announcements have apparently become a thing in the Japanese shoegaze scene. Late last night, polarizing Japanese shoegaze idol group Dots (・・・・・・・・・) announced via Twitter that its final one-man live will be held in March, eliciting a wide range of responses from its substantial fan base. The reasons for the breakup – or perhaps more appropriately, indefinite hiatus – aren’t totally clear at this point. Since forming a little less than three years ago, Dots has emerged as one of the most popular bands in Japanese shoegaze, thanks in large part to its over-the-top live performances.
「Tokyo in Natural Machine」
I first heard of Dots around the fall of 2016 when kiiro records boss Tsuji was getting ready for his first Chiba Shoegazer event. None of our group of event organizers had ever heard of them, and the mini festival would be their official launching point. The idea of a 9-person shoegaze idol group was a complicated one. One one hand idol music has a very deserving reputation as exploitative and creepy – the Maho Yamaguchi story is just the most recent reminder of the dark side of the industry. The idea of it infiltrating a scene that I had grown so close to was honestly a little troubling. Dots wasn’t the first idol group to cross over into the genre, but it was the first to make that crossover its central theme.
On the other hand, there was some intrigue as the group was getting ready to get rolling. The group was mysterious. Each member took the stage wearing a visor, dressed in white dresses, and dancing almost intentionally awkwardly over blaring gazey pop tunes. Again, the whole “alt idol” (eh…) thing was well-established by this point, but there was at least something consistent about what Dots was doing. And as if the whole concept of a shoegaze idol group wasn’t weird enough on its own, the stretches of harsh noise and random cutting and eating of cabbage mid-set gave Dots the “weird Japan” push that would attract a sizable crowd of Japanophiles overseas, making Dots possibly the most popular Japanese shoegaze act on the planet.
I’ve been able to see Dots live a few times, and there’s always been this sense of conflict. The music is actually pretty good, all things considered. For Tracy Hyde’s Azusa Suga, who for my money is one of the best songwriters in the Japanese indie music scene right now, has contributed a number of songs – not surprisingly, Dots’ best material. While there music is at times the sort of paper thin, overly cute stuff you might expect from an idol group, enough of their catalog is well-written and fun. The group’s live performances are outrageous and the energy is always high, credit for which is due to Dots’ loyal, seemingly entirely male fanbase that travels well and has each song’s choreography and call and response interjection’s down to a T. The performances are incredibly entertaining spectacles that make you forget momentarily that idol groups are essentially collections of cute, young girls controlled by men for the sake of men.
Despite my apprehension about idol culture, the industry is an important, albeit tragic, part of Japanese music culture. This has been the strongest half-decade in the history of Japanese shoegaze and Dots has been a significant part of the scene’s canon. The girls themselves have simply been doing what they want to do, and while we can look to deeper statements that may make about Japanese society, if we come at this from a purely musical or entertainment standpoint, the group has been a success and has gotten shoegaze gig-goers in the country to stop just standing there.
Whether this breakup is a long-term thing remains to be seen. The announcement was followed up by a super vague blog post that didn’t do much to shed any light on the situation. Dots has a Total Feedback appearance at the end of this month that will almost certainly be packed – Spool and Dots have been two of the event’s largest draws in recent years – and then the aforementioned final one-man in March. If I was interested in betting, I’d wager that we’ll see more from Dots in the future. The whole thing has gone way too well to this point, and even if Dots doesn’t eventually come back, they’ve shown that the idea of a shoegaze idol group can be successful.
2018 was an incredibly busy year in the Japanese shoegaze scene. There were exciting comebacks from beloved artists, brand new bands popping up all over the country, compilation albums galore, and lots of crossing over with international artists. It feels like this happens every time there’s news from MBV, but the year was incredibly active.
As a result, the “best of the year” list was an even bigger pain than it normally is. There was a good number of full length releases in 2018, and as usual the EP count was ridiculously high. There are a ton of omissions that I will certainly get panned for, but in particular the EPs from Nuit, Nurse, 17 Years Old and the Berlin Wall, tip top nap, and figure, among others were all really solid and could have easily made the list. On the album side, plant cell‘s Landscape release would have made it, but since the majority of the record is re-released material it didn’t feel right to include it. Also, the Total Feedback 2018 compilation was one of the best albums this year, but as a continent-wide shoegaze comp it didn’t qualify.
Now that that’s out of the way, here are my favorite releases of 2018:
☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆
“Without you” by Otom
Tokyo-based ambient shoegaze producer otom has been steadily releasing singles since his last full-length release five years ago. The first of his 2018 releases, “Without You”, was also his strongest. The 6-minute track is a beautiful, blurry dreamscape of sunken vocals and layers upon layers of guitar and electronics. Otom’s catchy rhythm gets the listener’s attention before a crescendo of hissing static opens a portal to his vast world of sounds. “Without You” is gazey ethereal escapism at its finest.
Perhaps the biggest news of the year in this realm was the sudden release of new material from legendary alternative outfit Coaltar of the Deepers, whose “SUMMER GAZER ’92” single was the band’s first new music in 7 years. Though the track itself was a preview of the “Rabbit EP” that would soon follow, it was the only new track on the CD. The dreamy, jazzy number was perhaps more subdued than expected, but it was a really strong return from NARASAKI and Deepers.
Kyoto’s Browned Butter was one of the most pleasant finds of 2018. The young band announced itself with its debut single “Fall”, which was also included on Ano(t)raks’ “Die in Pop” compilation and would later appear as the title track of the band’s debut EP. “Fall” follows the very familiar Japanese shoegaze formula of a blaring guitar lead and twin vocals, but the former isn’t overly relied on and the latter is done exceptionally well. It’s a lovely song that isn’t even the best song on Browned Butter’s EP, which speaks to the quality of the band in its first year of activity.
There isn’t much else to say about otom that I didn’t already say in this post, but his winter-themed “Snowfall” single was yet another of the best singles of the year. If I stretched this list a bit more, he’d have even more music included.
When I wrote about Tokyo newcomers Kiwi recently, I made the comparison to one of the all-time Japanese shoegaze greats, Ether Feels. It’s a small sample, but their debut single “Beautiful Back” was a bit of emotional nostalgia that hit me in a way that few other tracks did this year.
★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★
“(I’m) Lost in Sadness” by Luby Sparks
Not too long after the release of their full-length debut in January, Tokyo’s Luby Sparks announced the departure of their singer Emily. Given her role in helping the band establish itself over the past couple years and how seemingly perfect a fit she was for their sound, there might have been some concern moving forward. But new frontwoman Erika absolutely kills it on the new EP, matching up perfectly with the dreamy melancholy of the new music. Luby Sparks picked right up where they left off with another moody effort that fittingly wraps up with a heart-wrenching version of Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down From the Bridge”.
As is the case every year, the EP pool was extremely deep. While there are more releases than I can reasonably fit in this list, COLLAPSE‘s “Delirium Poetry” sat alongside Luby Sparks’ EP on a tier above the rest. COLLAPSE’s noise attack is relentless on both the EP’s slower, brooding numbers and its pacier tunes. “Meadow” is perhaps the best example of what COLLAPSE do as well as anyone with a beautiful balance of heavy, layered guitars and wispy vocals.
Nagano’s AND LORELEI created a gorgeous listening experience with their “And Lorelei 0.2” EP. The songwriting throughout is really good, and the band showed the ability to create deep, breathtaking songs using a variety of methods. “Umarekawaru” and “Himitsu” are two of my standout tracks of the year.
Yuragi took a massive step forward in 2018 with the release of their “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” EP. The young Shiga outfit has been consistently impressive over the past couple years, but the new music feels bigger and a bit darker than their previous work – you can especially hear this on the reworked version of “bedside”. I noted in my review that the flow of the EP as a whole feels a bit disjointed, but as a collection of individual tracks, “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” is as good as any release from last year.
I wish I could make this list longer, as it doesn’t feel right to omit some really really good EPs, but that’s just how it goes every year. Taking my final spot in this post was the debut demo EP “In Demonstrationem” from Tokyo’s Yukla Down. “Torture Me (With Your Kiss)” is a delightful nod to My Bloody Valentine, while “If You Only Knew” is an absolute banger.
★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★
“Luby Sparks” by Luby Sparks
So, yeah. 2018 was a pretty good year for Luby Sparks. This one was pretty much decided back in January when their self-titled album hit shelves. Luby Sparks is a warm and emotional yet dynamic collection of pop songs that range anywhere from jangly indie pop to lush dream pop to fuzzed-out gazey guitar rock that feels a lot like something off of Supercar’s iconic Three Out Change album. There’s a sort of gloomy nostalgia hanging over the whole record that is extremely satisfying. No album felt better to me in 2018.
While Coaltar of the Deepers and Sugar Plant got a lot of the comeback release attention this year, Lucy’s Drive‘s double CD release, pair of sounds, was arguably the best of the bunch. Split into a red and a blue version, pair of sounds as a whole is an effective nod to 90s UK shoegaze and britpop, with each of the discs having its own unique feel. The atmosphere ZEPPET STORE bassist Yuichi Nakamura creates in his solo project is consistently deep throughout.
Tokyo’s Once Grace Forever announced themselves in a big way, opting to forego the introductory single or short EP release and putting out a self-titled record that was shockingly good. The 8-track album is decently-produced for a self-produced debut effort and the songwriting is quite good. What really pushes this album to my best of the year list is the depth of sound from start to finish as the album drifts from post rock to more textural shoegaze. It’s not as refined as some of the other releases this year, but the quality of the content is really impressive.
Acidclank‘s Addiction album is another genre-hopping effort that once again shows the band’s affinity for 90s UK indie music. Just as on their 2015 debut, Inner, the band covers a lot of ground, but Addiction never manages to feel weird or inconsistent, thanks largely to more consistent production quality this time around. On the record, Acidclank is at their best when belting out textural psych tunes like “Overdose” and “This Time”. It’s another impressive, versatile release from the Osaka band.
Headlightswas the ultra-mellow, dreamy comeback release from Tokyo dream pop outfit Sugar Plant. The band’s first music in 18 years, Headlights throws it back to the band’s old sound, while also managing to keep things fresh on this tripped-out dream pop return.
While all the talk recently has been about the emergence of younger bands in the Japanese scene, 2018 has also been a pretty solid year for comeback releases as well. Sugar Plant returned with an impressive album before Coaltar of the Deepers put out a long-awaited EP. But LUCY’S DRIVE – better known as the solo project of ZEPPET STORE bassist Yuichi Nakamura – made perhaps the most dramatic return of the year with TWO new albums this month. Pair of Sounds marks the bands first proper release since it’s 2007 full-length debut, DEEP SEEKER. As the name implies, the release was split into a pair of 7-track CDs, unofficially titled “red” and “blue”.
While bits and pieces of Pair of Sounds have been released via limited edition singles over the past couple years, the final product sees all of the material effectively split to create two pretty different vibes. The red version offers a mellow dream pop feel with a more ethereal backdrop throughout. The second half is especially dreamy thanks to electronics-driven tracks like “Sometime I Think” and “Ebb Tide”. The album’s finale “Daybreake” is a really strong gazey pop number.
On the blue version of Pair of Sounds, Nakamura draws on a wide range of 90s UK shoegaze and britpop, from the Loveless-y lead track “Perfect” to the super danceable “Heavy Rain”. While the red version relies more on softer textures to create its atmosphere, the blue version is much more driven by guitar noise. “Shining Blue”, the latter’s closer, combines the two styles and could be the best song of the bunch. LUCY’S DRIVE may not get the love of its late-aughts shoegaze contemporaries, but the quality was there on DEEP SEEKER and eleven years later it might be even higher on Pair of Sounds.
Both versions of Pair of Sounds are available via distro/label Testcard records. Domestic purchase is available at their site, while international orders can be placed through their Bandcamp page. LUCY’S DRIVE also contributed a song to the recently released Total Feedback 2018 compilation, which you can also purchase through Testcard.
Below you can listen to the trailers for both red and blue versions of Pair of Sounds.
I regrettably missed the boat on the 2017 debut LP from Matsumoto, Nagano’s And Lorelei. In retrospect, it probably would have easily made it into my best of the year list. I’m only about five months late in discovering the band’s follow up EP, “And Lorelei 0.2”, which is yet another showcase of the band’s ability to write stunningly beautiful songs. The best shoegaze song is the one that you can get lost in, and that is just the sort of sound AND LORELEI consistently produces. Whether it’s via the sort of blissed out shoegaze you can hear on “Himitsu”, the slowly-evolving, dreamy haze of “Umarekawaru” or “Abraham”, or the minimalist ambient approach found in “Legi”, “And Lorelei 0.2” is a deeply immersive and emotional listening experience.
Both of AND LORELEI’s releases are currently available on iTunes and Apple Music. The physical release is also available for purchase domestically via TTOS. Here is a video for “Himitsu”.
It’s been sort of tough to keep up with all of the solid new shoegaze bands that have popped up in Japan in 2018, and the flurry of new releases from promising young artists over the last few months continues. It’s especially cool to see new representatives from outside the Tokyo area, as is the case with Hamamatsu’s plasmaclub who just released a debut two-track EP titled “14011”. Shizuoka prefecture’s largest city hasn’t yielded much in the way of shoegaze since the piqnic went more toward drony psych and post punk and changed its name to qujaku. On “14011” plasmaclub gives a bit of a nod to early piqnic with a heavily-layered dark, moody brand of shoegaze, and not surprisingly the release was also produced by qujaku guitarist Soushi Mizuno. The soaring guitar lead over hazy walls of guitar noise on lead track “dress” has the dramatic sound to it that was a lot more prominent in the Japanese scene in the early part of the decade. It’s a straightforward track that relies on heavy textures and dramatic vocal melodies over simple beats. “Veil of shine/(save me)” is similar, but a dreamier, wafting sort of track, highlighted by a sad, longing chorus. Both tracks feel like they would be tremendous live. Add plasmaclub to the ever-growing list of Japanese shoegaze bands to keep an eye out for.