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.
For years now, Tokyo’s Spool has been readying itself for a breakout. The all-female four-piece, which has become affectionately referred to as “Japan’s Warpaint”, has been a massive draw in its local scene, garnered attention from music fans overseas, and put out a handful of quality releases both in Japan and internationally. The announcement late last year of its self-titled debut full-length felt like a statement that Spool was ready to establish itself among the elite of the Japanese indie scene.
The Warpaint comparison almost feels lazy, but it makes sense. The shoegaze tag fits as well as the various comps to bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine, but each only to a certain extent. On the album Spool pulls a bit from the edgier side of 90s US alternative music as well as the dreamy UK melancholy and fuzzy guitar walls that have the band seated comfortably in the Japanese shoegaze scene. It’s a total throwback to everything that rules about 90s music. Spool has really keyed in on that general concept and written exceptional songs around it.
There are some familiar songs on the record, with “Springpool” and fan favorite “Sway, fadeaway” joining the stunningly shoegazey lead single “Be My Valentine” in getting beefed up new versions courtesy of producer and magic love drummer Kazuaki Kondo. Lead track “nightescape” is a dark, dreamy number turned absolute belter that, along with my personal favorite song on the album, “Let Me Down” really showcases frontwoman Ayumi Kobayashi’s range. The deep, breathy vocals in the verses on the latter, in particular, are teeming with attitude and there’s something quietly powerful about them as they trade off with the sad, raw chorus line.
Overall, the shoegaze influence on the album is perhaps stronger than expected, highlighted by gloomy, thickly textured tracks like “Winter” and “Morphine”. “Blooming in the Morning” adds a little dream pop into the mix as well, softening a bit of the album’s edge with some bouncy sweetness. The closer, “No, thank you”, which is a more cleanly mixed version than the one that appeared on last year’s Total Feedback 2018, wraps up the album with a blistering guitar attack and distorted vocals.
Expectations were high coming into the full length debut, and the band delivered. Though Spool’s influences are by no means unique in the current Japanese scene, the way in which they are able to put them together and really balance their sound over the course of the record is. The ability for a band to wear its influences on its sleeve without bottle-necking itself and at the same time maintaining some cohesiveness over the course of an album is something to appreciate. Spool has done it here.
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.
Since forming plant cell a few years back, Masaki Sato has shown an eagerness to infuse his music with some Chinese influence. Sato’s connection to China is one that is rooted in his own personal experiences in the country. In his new project, Misty Cure, his aim is to push that bond to the forefront.
Misty Cure formed toward the end of 2018 when Sato and concrete twin leader/plant cell support member Kazzuya Okada recruited Chinese frontwoman Riyo, on whom the band’s image has largely been centered. The trio immediately got to recording, quickly posting a couple tracks to Soundcloud. The songs are basically covers of Faye Wong covers, with the band doing Chinese-language renditions of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” and “Bluebeard” by Cocteau Twins. As Misty Cure begins working on its own original songs, the approach seems to be focused around making Chinese lyrics the feature that defines the band in the Japanese scene.
It’s hard to really get a good idea about a band when covers are all we have to work with, but based on Sato and Okada’s previous work and the quality of the vocals on the track, I’m looking forward to hearing what Misty Cure does next.
Tokyo shoegaze trio Nuit kicked off the new year with their latest track titled “Solitude”. The song, which was posted minutes after 2019 officially rang in, features frontman Yasuyuki Ota’s trademark dramatic vocals shrouded in billowing waves of hissing guitar. The stripped down verse is just there to set up for the explosion into the heartbreaking sway of the chorus. It’s a very Nuit-sounding song, feeling like something out of the early to mid 2000s. “Solitude” is the second single, not counting the band’s plant cell cover, that Nuit has released since their 2018 self-titled EP. Makes you wonder if we’ll see a follow up effort at some point in 2019.
Having just released a self-titled debut full-length last month, Tokyo’s Once Grace Forever wasted no time in putting out its follow-up single “♭1”. The single’s A-side, “Ao” is the more impressive track of the two, transitioning back and forth well between clean lulls and big, wailing choruses. “Flat” is a fuzzy guitar pop tune that doesn’t change much dynamically, relying instead on the vocal melody and melancholic chord progressions. The single is pretty solid, but might have come out a little too soon after the record, which is a tough act to follow. If you haven’t heard any of Once Grace Forever’s music, I recommend starting here and then moving on to the album.
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.
While going through the seemingly endless list of new bands who have release material this year, the debut demo single from Tokyo’s “Beautiful Back” really struck me. It was the first I’d heard of the band, which formed in 2017 and appears to have been quite actively gigging in its home city. “Beautiful Back” kicks off in a manner typical of gazey guitar pop, driven by a bouncy pop hook over a simple riff. It’s a pleasant, catchy start, and while the beat remains unchanged as it transitions to the verse, the mood surrounding the song drifts to something sadder. The vocal tone and melody create a dreamy melancholy pop sound that feels like a throwback to the late Ether Feels. It’s a simple song, created using a formula that is by no means unique, but the end result is some feel-good nostalgia from yet another talented young Japanese group.
You can hear “Beautiful Back” on Soundcloud. I also quite like the live version of a song called “Behind the Times” I found on the band’s YouTube channel, so I’ve included that below as well.
While 2018 has seen plenty of new bands introduce themselves with singles and EPs, Once Grace Forever came out of nowhere with a well-assembled 8-track self-titled debut last week. The Tokyo trio shows a couple different looks on the album, starting off with some deliberately-paced, moody post rock. On the latter half they pick up the tempo a bit, transitioning to some pretty shoegaze tracks before a chilled-out electronic finale. The period of the album spanning “Summer”, “∞”, and “Melody” particularly hit the spot, but the entire thing from start to finish is quite impressive, all things considered. Once Grace Forever decided to forego the requisite “roughly-produced two- to three-track demo” phase and go right to putting together a really nice first release.
You can pick up Once Grace Forever’s debut at Bandcamp.
Tokyo’s Luby Sparks is back with its second release of the year, a four-track EP titled “(I’m) Lost in Sadness”. The EP, which was produced by Yuck’s Max Bloom , is Luby Sparks’ first release since bringing in new vocalist Erika Murphy. With the band’s sweet melancholy still present, the new music takes a turn toward a more shoegaze sound, something that was hinted at with the release of hazy lead single “Perfect” last week. “Cherry Red Dress” is a stunning, moody dream pop tune and the title track is an epic seven minutes of layered guitars and well-harmonized twin vocals. The EP wraps up with a heart-wrenching cover of haunting Mazzy Star number “Look On Down From The Bridge”. While Luby Sparks’ self-titled debut full length effort from earlier this year is still sitting comfortably at the top of my 2018 release list, “(I’m) Lost in Sadness” hits home in a bit of a different way, showcasing the band’s ability to craft gloomy, nostalgic tunes using tremendous depth and texture. And while the loss of original Luby Sparks singer Emily was sad news, Murphy has shown she’s a perfect match for what the band does. These guys continue to show that they can write songs with the best of them with yet another top notch release to their name.
“(I’m) Lost in Sadness” is available to stream on Apple Music and can be purchased on iTunes or via Amazon (JP). Below is the video for “Perfect”.