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.

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 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)

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:

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:

Kinoko Teikoku – “Ai no Yukue”

Well, it’s finally arrived.  The new Kinoko Teikoku album – the second since signing their major label deal with EMI – is here, and fans finally get to find out if the band is continuing on their major label J-pop trajectory or veering back toward the noisy alt rock we fell in love with years ago.  While “Neko to Allergy” had listeners resigned to the former, there were a couple of encouraging signs leading up to “Ai no Yukue” that there might be a little more balance this time around.

Well, it’s finally arrived.  The new Kinoko Teikoku album – the second since signing their major label deal with EMI – is here, and fans finally get to find out if the band is continuing on their major label J-pop trajectory or veering back toward the noisy alt rock we fell in love with years ago.  While “Neko to Allergy” had listeners resigned to the former, there were a couple of encouraging signs leading up to “Ai no Yukue” that there might be a little more balance this time around.  There was the impressive lead single, “Crybaby”, a new version of a track from one of their earlier demo EPs, and a brief but impressive glimpse at the album’s title track in the trailer for a new Japanese film.  Small sample it may have been, but it was enough to get doubters interested again.

I’ll be honest.  I expected to have a lot to say about this album, but I really don’t.  It’s really good.  It’s not mind-blowing, and it’s certainly not a shoegaze album (some people will have stopped reading at this point).  Let’s be real, though.  Kinoko Teikoku is a handful of releases removed from that sound.  Their final release from UK Project’s Daizawa label, Fake World Wonderland, was the first step toward creative control of the band shifting toward those who favor clean pop tracks to harsh roaring guitars.  Well that was two years ago, so it should come as no surprise that Ai no Yukue as a whole is a pop record.  But what’s different this time is that they seem to have been willing to meet fans of the old stuff halfway.  

The title track is a really good start to the album.  It has it all:  a gloomy intro, an explosive lead-driven hook, and reverb soaked vocals.  It never quite takes off as massively as it feels like it will at times, but that’s sort of a theme for this release.  The album’s closer and lead single, “Crybaby” is similar, though a bit more toward the pop end of the spectrum.  These are the two best songs on the album, and each showcases an enjoyable balance between the old and the new.  

Not far behind them in terms of quality is “Moon Walk”.  Kinoko Teikoku haven’t completely strayed from the melancholy sound that works so perfectly with Chiaki Sato’s gorgeous vocals, but when they’ve gone that route recently it’s been far too clean for my taste.  “Moon Walk” muddies it up a little bit, specifically in the chorus, and about halfway in fades into a nice tripped out portion through to the finale.  

One big surprise when the album’s tracklist was first published was the inclusion of “Azemichi de”, which first appeared on the band’s second demo EP “Yoru ga Aketara”.  As expected we basically get a cleaner version of the original.  Some of the edge in the chorus has been toned down a bit, but otherwise it’s very similar.  

The rest of the album is fine.  “Natsu no Kage”, as I mentioned in my previous review, is a Fishmans-esque dubgaze track, while “Last Dance” and “Ame-agari” are both really catchy pop tunes.  “Shi ga futari wo wakatsu made” is the only track I couldn’t really get into on the album.  These songs are the ones that fans hoping for the old Kinoko Teikoku may scoff at, though percentage-wise it’s a lot less than in recent memory.  

I think Ai no Yukue has a lot of really good stuff going on.  I like feeling like A-chan is being given more creative freedom, whether or not that’s actually true.  We know that Kinoko Teikoku are far removed from their days as one of Japan’s finest alt rock bands, and dwelling on the fact that we’re not going to get another Uzu ni Naru is sort of pointless.  But the band taking a step back and mixing in a bit of the old stuff with the new is welcome, and the result is a positive one.  We get a very solid pop record with a little bit of the grit and emotion that made us fall in love with the band in the first place.  For whatever my opinion is worth, Ai no Yukue was a success.  

The Florist – “Blood Music”

After a stellar debut in 2014, Tokyo’s The Florist have returned with an even better sophomore effort.  With Dark Entries, my third favorite album from two years ago, the band burst onto the scene with its own unique sound.  In a year when the best shoegaze albums were infused with everything from grunge to post rock to indie pop, The Florist drew heavily on 90s American emo to put together a lush, dreamy record.

  Photo:  theflorist.info
Photo: theflorist.info

After a stellar debut in 2014, Tokyo’s The Florist have returned with an even better sophomore effort.  With Dark Entries, my third favorite album from two years ago, the band burst onto the scene with its own unique sound.  In a year when the best shoegaze albums were infused with everything from grunge to post rock to indie pop, The Florist drew heavily on 90s American emo to put together a lush, dreamy record.  Thanks to an addictive signature song in “Middle of Winter” and a strong push from a number of overseas media outlets, The Florist’s debut attracted a large international audience and thus a desire for more music.  This June, The Florist obliged with the release of Blood Music.

The day of the album’s release The Florist simultaneously released videos for co-lead singles “Disintegration” and “Halcyon”.  The former, which kicks off the record, picks up right where the band left off on Dark Entries.  The latter is a bit colder, though the jagged guitar line eventually makes way for the warm, thickly textured sound that fans of The Florist have come to expect.  

While the first half of the album is really solid – “Sadness Like Water Raining Down” is my personal favorite of the first five songs – it’s the portion of the album that comes after the beautiful instrumental interlude, “Untitled”, that really defines this album.  

“Marigold” is a flurry of squalling guitars and drums, the intensity of which balances so incredibly well with the high, harmonized vocals.  This is also the track where those guitar leads showcased on the first album really shine.  The emo influence really shows about halfway through when the bridge kicks in.  The song is a bit harsher than anything they’ve done to this point, but still incorporates familiar elements.  

If “Marigold” was a reintroduction of The Florist’s familiar guitar leads on the new album, “Ghosts” is where they really shine.  If I had to choose one song to make a lead single prior to Blood Music‘s release, it would have been this one.  The galloping first 45 seconds bursts into a blurry mass of guitar, highlighted by a bending lead reminiscent of the one that drove “Middle of Winter” so well.  Guitarist Yosuke Shiina’s ability to craft a gorgeous tone and weave it through each track is what really sets The Florist apart from other shoegaze bands in Japan.  “Ghosts” is the band’s best showcase of that fact to date.

The pace picks up and takes a bit of a danceable turn with two melodic tracks in “Sweet Decadence” and “Weird Dreams”.  At first listen it sort of felt like a poppy palate cleanser after a couple of emotional, harder-hitting songs, but both tracks really grew on me, especially “Weird Dreams” which, if I’m ranking the songs on the record, is right up there with “Ghosts”.  

The light atmosphere of closer “The Last Dance” nicely wraps up an album that, as a whole, tops their debut release.  While Dark Entries may have had higher peaks, Blood Music is a more consistent effort.  It’s a more tonally explorative record that manages to remain cohesive with a very natural flow to it.  As was the case with their debut, Blood Music figures to be on many a “Best of the Year” list when all is said and done.

Blood Music is available on iTunes and Apple Music, and physical copies can be purchased via Japanese Amazon (international shipping is available).

Here is the video for the album’s first single, “Disintegration”:

 

 

Kinoko Teikoku – “Natsuno Kage”

So after what I thought was a really successful single release in “Crybaby” this past June, Kinoko Teikoku have put out another track as they approach the release of their new album Ai no Yukue this November.  “Natsuno Kage” (or “Summer’s Shadow”) hit iTunes at midnight Japan time – I’m assuming it’s just going to be another limited digital-only release like “Crybaby” – and my fingers were crossed, as I prepared to hit the play button, that this would be yet another sign of a return to pre-major form.  

So after what I thought was a really successful single release in “Crybaby” this past June, Kinoko Teikoku have put out another track as they approach the release of their new album Ai no Yukue this November.  “Natsuno Kage” (or “Summer’s Shadow”) hit iTunes at midnight Japan time – I’m assuming it’s just going to be another limited digital-only release like “Crybaby” – and my fingers were crossed, as I prepared to hit the play button, that this would be yet another sign of a return to pre-major form.  

The first thing I noticed when I pulled the song up is that it’s seven and a half minutes long, making it the longest song they’ve released since “Flower Girl” on their 2013 Long Goodbye EP.  You don’t find a whole lot of pop songs drawing on this long, so my curiosity was further piqued.  I cleared my mind, got their entire back catalog out of my head, and finally hit play.

“Natsuno Kage” kicks off like a Fishmans-esque dreamy dub track, which is a lot more appealing than the light pop chorus that it transitions into.  Similar to “Chronostasis” following “Tokyo” as the second lead single going into Fake World Wonderland, “Natsuno Kage” really slows things down when compared to “Crybaby” (and for what it’s worth, I like it a lot more than “Chronostasis”).  

My opinion through the first half of the track is that it has a bunch of redeeming qualities.  The chorus didn’t wow me, but the chill-out reggae twist was really pleasant, and Sato’s voice has just been so consistently good that there’s no real need to say anything about that.  Once again Kinoko Teikoku show a remarkable ability to fill every ounce of space with sound, and the vocals are a major contributor there.  Just as on the previous single, A-chan really gets back to what she does best: creating depth with her guitar work.  Even if the track doesn’t quite get back to the early Kinoko Teikoku material that really showcased her ability and perhaps best reflected her own artistic influence, it sure sounds, as we draw nearer to the album release, that A-chan has more freedom than she did on the major debut.  

There’s a bit on the track about three minutes in that teases with a bout of rumbling guitars, before transitioning right into that catchy chorus that I didn’t really care about, but by this point in the song has embedded itself somewhere deep in my brain against my will.  Again at the four minute mark, things get a little heavier and the song has gone in a different direction…and we’re back to the chorus.  As far as I’m concerned, the track could have ended at this point.  When that last chorus kicks in, there’s the sense that it is going to crescendo into a big finale.  It does build up, but it never quite gets to the point that it feels like it should.  It does this for two minutes, actually.  I wouldn’t call this a deal-breaker, but the five-minute version of the song is preferred.

I don’t feel as strongly about “Natsuno Kage” as I did “Crybaby”, but after a handful of listens I remain optimistic heading into Ai no Yukue, based largely on the perception that Sato is sharing the reigns with A-chan a bit more.  The dream dub vibe worked pretty well, but when we finally get this new album, the hope is that there’ll be a bit more of an edge to it.  We’ll see.

There aren’t any links to the new song at the moment, but the title track from the upcoming album is the theme song for the upcoming film 湯を沸かすほどの熱い愛, and is featured in this trailer (starting at the one-minute mark):

Cigarette in your Bed – “Nothing E.P.”

When I came to Japan and started a blog about Japanese shoegaze music, I almost immediately found the Kansai scene to be the most accessible.  I have fond memories of a bunch of bands who were not only really welcoming but also supportive of the blog and zine, especially bands like Lemon’s Chair and Ether Feels.  The Japan Shoegazer Festival in Osaka was a very comfortable spot for me, and thanks to the bands and the community that grew around the event I was able to get to know some great folks and learn a lot about the Japanese shoegaze scene.

 photo from  http://cigaretteinyourbed.com/
photo from http://cigaretteinyourbed.com/

When I came to Japan and started a blog about Japanese shoegaze music, I almost immediately found the Kansai scene to be the most accessible.  I have fond memories of a bunch of bands who were not only really welcoming but also supportive of the blog and zine, especially bands like Lemon’s Chair and Ether Feels.  The Japan Shoegazer Festival in Osaka was a very comfortable spot for me, and thanks to the bands and the community that grew around the event I was able to get to know some great folks and learn a lot about the Japanese shoegaze scene. 

One of the bands who really helped me out was Cigarette in your Bed.  The band split time between Tokyo and Osaka, though around that time they seemingly played a bit more in Osaka.  They were a staple of not only the Japan Shoegazer Festival (in both cities), but the frequently held High Fader Night at Club Vijon in Kitahorie as well. 

In addition to being cool dudes, Cigarette in your Bed’s music resonated with me instantly.  Their style was really unique compared to a lot of what was going on in the Japanese shoegaze scene.  The name conjures the image of a My Bloody Valentine knock-off, but they were far from that.  They were far edgier than their peers, drawing as much influence from grunge and 90s alt rock as they did shoegaze.  Their live show was dynamic and brutally loud.  I’d made it a point to come down to Osaka to see them play whenever I could.

Cigarette in your Bed has come quite a long way since then, releasing their debut full-length Darkness in 2014 via High Fader and playing some big shows, including opening for Astrobrite in 2015, while also starting an event of their own called “THE FUZZ”.  The band’s since moved on from their previous scene and found a new home in the Koenji hard rock scene, but with the release of their new Nothing E.P. they’ve shown a dedication to their core sound.

The EP kicks off with “Nothing”, a track that plays like a straightforward rock song blanketed in quivering shoegaze guitars.  The verses are decent enough, paced by a steady beat and frontman Kazuya Saijo’s simple vocals, but the song really takes off at the explosive chorus.  The repetition of the vocals is pretty similar to “Let Me Out”, giving them an almost instrumental quality that’s secondary to the massive guitar buildup. 

“Ghost” is a three-phase track that cuts from a bendy guitar howl of an intro verse not too different from “Nothing” to an overdrive-heavy rehashing of the same.  The song feels like three different variations of the same basic line, with the first part being more “gazey” and the second a bit more grunge-y with super distorted vocals.  The track winds down in a sort of striped down version of the introduction.  It’s a short track, but interesting enough in that the band basically demonstrates its range while never really changing the parts too much.

Finally, “I Don’t Know” gets away from the intensity of the first few tracks, showing off the dreamier side of what Cigarette in your Bed can do.  The song basically goes back and forth between a sweet-sounding, reverb-soaked verse and a sort of disorienting few measures of a chorus.  The main part is really chilled out and comfy before the guitars spin out for a bit.  One other noticeable part of the song that’s a bit different from their previous work and consistent throughout the EP is the complexity of the basslines.  The band is showing some maturity with their new stuff, and it should sound even better once the production value picks up.

Overall I’ve enjoyed the EP.  It’s just three tracks and they’re pretty simple, but Cigarette in your Bed have always made some really great tracks with a simple approach.  Unfortunately for fans of the band overseas it’s going to be tough to get your hands on this, but if you happen to be in the Tokyo or Osaka areas for one of their gigs it’s totally worth it for the show and the goods. 

There aren’t even any samples of the music online apart from a few brief clips the band has posted on its Twitter account.  You can also buy some merch at their online store and purchase their debut album “Darkness” on Amazon.  Here is a video of a live performance of “I Don’t Know” uploaded by Club Kinoto.  The recorded version is better, but this will at least give you a bit of an idea.  Enjoy!