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”.

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:

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.

 

 

 

softsurf – “Into the Dream”

In July of 2016, the Nagoya Shoegazer Expo was held at KD Japon and Daytrip, two venues in Nagoya’s Tsurumai area that have more or less been the stage for the emergence of the local shoegaze scene over the last few years.

In July of 2016, the Nagoya Shoegazer Expo was held at KD Japon and Daytrip, two venues in Nagoya’s Tsurumai area that have more or less been the stage for the emergence of the local shoegaze scene over the last few years.  To be honest, it wasn’t much of a shoegaze event at all, but more of an alternative rock showcase curated by a fan of the genre.  With the exception of mishca and Aysula, many of Nagoya’s more established shoegaze representatives were conspicuously absent from the lineup.  Little-known local newcomer softsurf was buried on the bill, scheduled to take the stage at 3:30 in the afternoon at the Monday event.  

It’s been a hell of a year since that event for softsurf.  They put out a 2-track demo single and absolutely packed the house at our Daydream event in Nagoya.  They stepped up their gigging schedule and earlier this year supported NIGHTS’ Jenna Fournier on her Japan tour.  They established themselves as one of the brightest new acts in Japan, and boast one of the best live shows I’ve seen in a long time.  And today softsurf has released its debut EP, “Into the Dream”.

I’m not the biggest fan of band comparisons, and I don’t really use them a whole lot when writing reviews.  But in softsurf’s case, given the overall tone of the Japanese shoegaze scene, it’s hard not to at least mention similarities to Slowdive – something that hasn’t really been done since Pastel Blue called it quits years ago.  You find a whole lot of Ride, Pale Saints, and My Bloody Valentine influence in Japan, but softsurf goes agains the grain, opting to bury melodies deep within hazy, billowy guitars.  You get a sense of it from the single they released, but the depth of softsurf’s sound absolutely blows you away when you see them on stage.  It’s impossible for a recording to capture the intensity and fill space like a live performance, but “Into the Dream” is as good a representation as one could hope for.  

Both of the tracks released on softsurf’s first demo, “Blue Swirl” and “Beautiful Day” appear on the EP in much more beefed-up forms.  There’s not much to be said that I haven’t already mentioned in previous reviews, other than the fact that the quality is, expectedly, much-improved.  The remaining three tracks are all new.  “Another Garden” is a sweet, whimsical dream pop track that follows more of the Japanese shoegaze model with its more prominent melodies.  It’s one of the catchier tunes on “Into the Dream”, injecting a bit more bounce into an EP that is otherwise based around texture-building.  

For me, the real strength of “Into the Dream” lies in the other two new tracks.  “Rainy Moon” sits smack in the middle of the five track EP and starts off with a gentle, lulling verse, crescendoing at points, but not quite fully taking off.  That is until about halfway through when the song explodes into a mass of big swirling guitars.  Frontwoman Yuki Udono’s vocals really shine on “Rainy Moon”, going from sweet and soft to powerful, matching each phase of the song.  It’s an intense track, and also my personal favorite in any softsurf live set.

If the first four tracks don’t sell you on the Slowdive comp, the finale, “Dawn of the Sun”, most definitely will.  There isn’t much in the way of subtle developments in this song, as it kicks right off with big screaming guitars.  There’s a heavy “When the Sun Hits” vibe, the way the song takes off and carries you through a thick atmosphere of layered guitars and reverb-soaked male-female twin vocals.  It’s not the most original of their tracks, but it’s a beast of a song that you just sort of get lost in.

There’s a good reason this was my most anticipated release of the year, and softsurf, with the help of some fine production work, delivered.  Softsurf has announced itself as one of Japan’s finest shoegaze bands, coming a long way since last year’s Nagoya Shoegaze Expo.  You can see them live at this year’s Daydream events in Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo.  And folks interested in buying “Into the Dream” can do so via Nagoya’s File Under Records (see the link and directions below).

File Under Records (Nagoya):  http://www.fileunderrecords.com/?pid=120872924

Directions for overseas customers:  Send an e-mail with the name of the title you would like to purchase to file-under.rec@nifty.com.  After confirming the total with shipping, payment can be made via PayPal.  

“Into the Dream” trailer:

Cruyff in the Bedroom – “HATE ME”

Not much remains of the “golden age” of Japanese shoegaze, which started on April 1, 1998 and lasted until some point in the early to mid 2000s.  Few of the bands from that era are still around, and only a handful of those have released anything.  But while most of their contemporaries have either disbanded or abandoned the genre, Cruyff in the Bedroom has remained an active and important member of the Japanese shoegaze scene.  Still going strong after almost two decades, the proclaimed “Japanese King of Shoegazer” is getting ready to release its 6th studio album, HATE ME, on May 10th.  

Not much remains of the “golden age” of Japanese shoegaze, which started on April 1, 1998 and lasted until some point in the early to mid 2000s.  Few of the bands from that era are still around, and only a handful of those have released anything.  But while most of their contemporaries have either disbanded or abandoned the genre, Cruyff in the Bedroom has remained an active and important member of the Japanese shoegaze scene.  Still going strong after almost two decades, the proclaimed “Japanese King of Shoegazer” is getting ready to release its 6th studio album, HATE ME, on May 10th.  

Five years removed from the release of their previous album, hacanatzkina, Cruyff in the Bedroom has picked up right where it left off.  Fans of their past work will be pleased to know that HATE ME is as Cruyff as can be.  There aren’t any curve balls thrown, and there aren’t any surprises.  It’s a Cruyff in the Bedroom album through and through, but without being a boring rehash of everything else that they’ve done.  

The build up to the new record started a couple years back, when Cruyff began releasing a series of new EPs.  “Laurelei”, “Fuzz Me!!!”, and “Tiny Dancer” featured identical cover art (colored blue, orange, and red, respectively) and the same formats – each had four songs including two original tracks and a remix of each.  The title track from each EP appears on the new record, which comprises eleven songs in total, and features the same lion and crest cover art, but colored black.

The album’s strength is its top-end quality.  HATE ME boasts a few tracks that instantly made my personal “Best of Cruyff” list.  In particular, “HATE”, the album’s lead track, hits hard with big swirling guitars and melancholic progressions, capped off by a belter of a chorus.  “Laurelei”, which was an instant hit when it was originally released, stands as one of the best tracks on the record, and it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be incredible to see them perform live.  “The Shade” is another moody gaze tune that has a very cool drone to it.  There’s a theme here.  These guys are at their best when they’re leaning hard and heavy on the shoegaze side of things.  

The album itself is hardly a straightforward shoegaze album, though.  Cruyff has always mixed things up, using shoegaze as a base for pop and rock songs.  “Ashtray in Snow”, “I’m Floating in Your Seventh Heaven” and “Tiny Dancer” are all quality examples of songs that incorporate persistent guitar noise as a back drop for catchy melodies and hooky choruses, with some big explosive moments here and there.  No Cruyff album is complete without one song that gets a bit more rough and aggressive.  “Die, die, die” fulfills that requirement this time around, starting off with a sludgy, stomping riff before making way for a dreamy, whimsical chorus.  And as always, the production quality on the album is top notch, really balancing things well.  

There are a couple tracks on the album that were misses for me, but as a whole I really liked it.  While it doesn’t offer anything fresh, it is a successful return by Cruyff in the Bedroom to what they do best.  The highs are really high, and the lows aren’t offensive.  Fans of the band’s catalog will definitely want to pick this up.

Cruyff in the Bedroom’s HATE ME comes out on May 10th, and can be purchased at the links below (international shipping is available).  Some versions of the release include a bonus CD featuring remixes by members of broken little sister, CQ, For Tracy Hyde, Cuicks, Zeppet Store, and more.

Amazon (JP)

Tower (JP)

Looprider – Umi

When they released their 2015 debut “My Electric Fantasy”, Tokyo-based rock outfit Looprider displayed some impressive versatility in creating a cohesive record that incorporated sludgy hooks and pop-infused shoegaze.  Released about nine months later, their second record “Ascension” took things in a quite different direction, drawing on hardcore and harsh noise, while steering clear of any pop influence from the first.  Through two albums the band had covered so much ground that predicting where they might go from there was both intriguing and impossible. 

When they released their 2015 debut “My Electric Fantasy”, Tokyo-based rock outfit Looprider displayed some impressive versatility in creating a cohesive record that incorporated sludgy hooks and pop-infused shoegaze.  Released about nine months later, their second record “Ascension” took things in a quite different direction, drawing on hardcore and harsh noise, while steering clear of any pop influence from the first.  Through two albums the band had covered so much ground that predicting where they might go from there was both intriguing and impossible. 

Today, the band put out their third album, “Umi”, which predictably veers in yet another new direction.  Initially promoted by the band as “an epic post rock concerto”, “Umi” goes beyond that.  The album is a single, mostly instrumental 25-minute track that organically flows from start to finish with massive crescendos and lulls.  

The opening 5 minutes, which the band uploaded as an album teaser a few weeks prior to the release, is a solid setup to the rest of the record.  If “My Electric Fantasy” was a showcase of Looprider’s ability to write catchy, hook-driven tunes, and “Ascension” their talent for tonal brutality, “Umi” brings to light the side of the band that expertly crafts intense music using layers and textures.  You get a feel for this in the album’s opening minutes where a number of simple parts are gradually woven together, building up to a dramatic peak where each of those parts explodes to create a beautiful sort of chaos.  At about the four and a half minute mark, the double drums really shine through, too.

Just as any good post rock has it’s big crescendos, a sudden come-down and reminder that you need to breathe is just as impactful.  While, at first listen, there might seem to be a logical track break – after all, it did make for a really nice standalone edit – the nosedive into the second part feels much more significant as a transition without interrupting the flow of the song. 

Over the next few minutes of the album there’s a delicate build-up, again starting very simple and gradually developing with multiple overlapping parts.  The lyrical portion of the album kicks in here, during which the origins of life are almost chanted over the course of another crescendo, this time to an epic bout of droning rock en route to a frenetic, solo-driven flurry.  The balance between calm and uptempo, soft and thunderous, and the organic, unpredictable flow from part to part does well to conjure the image of the album’s central theme: the ocean. 

The closing portion of the album brings everything down to a strong, steady march, before fading out with clean guitars, while the presence of thick, heavy guitars as the backdrop is a reminder of the strength of the album’s concept. 

As a listening experience, “Umi” is quite different from Looprider’s two previous releases.  However, there are familiar elements from the band’s previous two albums that appear throughout – the occasional grooves and “wall of sound” guitar textures found on “My Electric Fantasy” and the crushing noise of “Ascension” – that are brought together in a unique way, further stretching the boundaries of what Looprider are capable of producing.  With the addition of guest musicians to a lineup that’s already proven itself more than capable of generating huge depth in its sound, Looprider have once again succeeded in belting out a behemoth rock album, when few other bands in Japan are seemingly willing to do so. 

Looprider’s album release party will be taking place on Wednesday, March 29th at the band’s own Pop Sabbath event at Shindaita Fever in Tokyo, where they’ll be supported by moja and Japanese shoegaze legends Luminous Orange.  You can pick up a copy of the CD, which one again features some really nice art from Nasutakeo, at the following locations: