LABEL PROFILE Bitter Lake Recordings Brings Japanese Underground Obscurities to the World By Alex Deller · January 08, 2021

Running a reissue label in the digital era can be a challenge. Chart-busting genres like soul, punk, and rock ‘n’ roll have been combed through for decades, with little left behind for today’s archivists, while younger, more niche genres like hardcore or minimal synth produced slimmer bodies of work, and were born of a time when it was becoming easier to capture, reproduce, disseminate and archival achievements. If it seems like there’s nothing new left to discover, then it’s worth exploring the roster of Bitter Lake Recordings, who we first covered as they were getting off the ground in 2017—a label proving that returns don’t have to diminish if you have gumption, enthusiasm, and a network of friends to help you do the digging. Though the label’s focus is ostensibly narrow—owner Adam Abou-Heif will only reissue bona fide obscurities dredged from the Japanese underground—it has so far brought to light a staggering wealth of sounds and unearthed a treasure trove of hitherto lost recordings.

“I was doing another label [tastemaking hardcore/punk imprint Katorga Works] and getting a little bored of it,” says Abou-Heif of Bitter Lake’s origins. “I was on the verge of calling it quits, but I hadn’t really accepted that. Then a friend of mine asked if I wanted to help him reissue this flexi by Dendö Marionette. He asked if I was going to release it on my label and I was like ‘no, I doesn’t fit at all–why don’t I start a whole new label?’ From there it all spiraled out of control.”

If Bitter Lake’s first release occurred by relative happenstance, its zeroing-in on Japanese esoterica was perhaps inevitable. “I’m kind of a nerd, and I’ve always had an interest in Japanese cinema, manga, and anime,” he says. “It was only natural that when I was getting into punk and people told me I should check out more international hardcore, the Japanese bands would immediately speak to me. I started going to Japan six or seven years ago, and I try to go at least once a year, consuming everything, buying records blindly, meeting people and just learning.”

While Abou-Heif has an anything-goes approach to genre (the roster spans punk, heavy metal, industrial and new wave, while future releases are set to include power pop and children’s music) the underlying theme is that releases have to be either little-heard or entirely unknown, thus leaving well alone Japan’s endlessly bootlegged titans. “I’m just trying to release music that not everyone knows,” he says. “I mean, there aren’t millions of minimal synth bands to reissue anymore, or even discover. A reissue of an expensive record might come out, but everyone knows it–everyone has YouTube. Where are the artists that no one’s ever heard, that haven’t been digitized or discovered?”

While Katorga Works was undeniably a label punks looked up to, there’s certainly a sense that Bitter Lake is a more “serious” concern in terms of outlook, remit, and aesthetic. Abou-Heif quips that the main difference is that he’s able to pay the artists he works with now, rather than simply hand over a pile of records, but that in terms of operation, the two aren’t entirely dissimilar. Bitter Lake relies on grassroots connects, information shared between friends and the calling in of favors from the DIY community as much as any dyed-in-the-wool hardcore imprint. “While the label is technically ‘mine,’ I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of people,” he says. “Bitter Lake certainly wouldn’t exist or operate without the help of a bunch of different people and the knowledge they’re able to share with me. I’m very lucky that I’ve got a few Japanese friends who’ve been amazing private investigators and found these artists through the strangest means. One of the people who helps me is a man called Kazuki who lives in Japan. He’ll find a college classmate of one of these artists on Twitter who then directs us to a cousin… he really goes in in wild ways that I wouldn’t even think of.”

Dendö Marionette

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Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Apparel

A co-release with Japan’s Mouse Records (operated by Kazuhiko Sazanami, who also runs Osaka’s Punk And Destroy record shop), Bitter Lake’s debut release provided the blueprint for the label’s aesthetic and ideological output: a wild, icy slice of outlier synth-pop that combines tracks from an obscure flexi disc with music that was hitherto unheard. “As many cool records as I’ll hopefully release, that’s always going to be one of the top-tier coolest records I’ll ever be a part of,” says Abou-Heif. “To re-release this amazing flexi and then [to have] the band be ‘Oh, hey, here’s another EP we recorded that no one’s ever heard’ just made it a perfect LP. It just fell into my lap and I didn’t do anything, so a huge thanks to Kazu and to the band. It’s also one of the first times I started speaking to these artists. In my modern, internetted-out head I always wondered what cool, unique underground artists these artists were influenced by, but you realise they weren’t—I asked what bands Dendö Marionette were trying to emulate, and it was ‘Oh, David Bowie and T-Rex.’”

C. Memi + Neo Matisse
No Chocolate b/w Dream’s Dream

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7" Vinyl

The second Bitter Lake reissue to feature Kansai punk C. Memi is an oddity despite its relative brevity: B-side “Dream’s Dream” is a quiet, contemplative slice of whirring ambient pop that could easily have found a home on any experimental indie label from Blast First or Ecstatic Peace through to Load or later-period Touch and Go. The lead track, meanwhile, is a sharp burst of exuberant, punked-up new wave that owes more than a slight debt to a certain David Byrne megahit. “It’s funny, because I don’t like Talking Heads but I love C. Memi and Neo Matisse,” laughs Abou-Heif. “I bought her solo album in Disk Union and thought the title track was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. So I learned more about her, and while the Dendö Marionette record was in production I asked Kazu to help me find C. Memi—he was like ‘Oh yeah, she has a website. I just emailed her.’ Working with her has been my favorite experience, to the point where every time I’m in Japan we hang out. She’s the coolest person and there’s something really special about her music and her ethic.”

Selected Works

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2 x Vinyl LP

Compiling material from the six cassettes that filmmaker and experimental musician K. Yoshimatsu made for DD Records under the Juma moniker, Selected Works ripples and burbles its uncategorizable way from synth pop and minimalism through to ambient and luminous Krautrock mesmerism—a strange, diverse and utterly otherworldly concoction considering the material was directly inspired by Yes and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. The release saw Abou-Heif adopting a curatorial role as well as an archival one: “This specific record my friend Faye [Kahn] helped me with,” he says. “There are only six of these DD cassettes by Juma, but it still took us a long time to choose our favourite songs. I love working with K. Yoshimatsu. I’ve been taking a little too much time, but there’ll be another release next year. It’s kind of difficult, because there are over 25 full-length cassettes and I need to go through all of them.”

Total Steel

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2 x Vinyl LP

The most overtly metal Bitter Lake release to date, this vinyl edition of the Tokyo thrash act’s crunching second album came about after Abou-Heif booked a show for G.A.T.E.S., whose Shinji Tachi drummed on the album. “I love heavy metal so it was only a matter of time before I’d start getting into all these Japanese bands,” says Abou-Heif. “The first one I heard was Loudness, obviously, but then you start to get into more underground acts like Corrupted or Sabbat. Sacrifice’s Crest Of Black is one of my favourite Japanese heavy metal records, so I initially asked to reissue it and for Sacrifice to come and play some shows. Akira [Sugiuchi, frontman] said ‘You will reissue Total Steel.’ So I’m like, ‘Okay, you’re the boss!’ Even though it was incredibly stressful at the time—I ended up running a small accidental fest—the Sacrifice weekend when they played two shows in New York is one of my favorite memories.”

Grave New World
The Last Sanctuary

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T-Shirt/Apparel, Vinyl LP

Unleashed in 1992 to zero acclaim, Grave New World’s sole release remains a singular and bewildering record. While theoretically a crust punk album (members have served time in legendary acts like Last Bomb. Final Bombs and Crow), The Last Sanctuary takes elements of industrial, psych, and heavy metal and smashes them together in a way that shouldn’t work but somehow does. “This was another release that fell into my lap,” says Abou-Heif. “My friend April had been communicating with [vocalist] Crow and she suggested I reissue it. It just worked out. It was a supreme honour to work with Crow, he’s an absolute legend and I’m actually very intimidated by him—there are certain figures who are like the ‘rock gods’ of Japanese hardcore, like Sakevi [G.I.S.M.] or Michiro Endo [The Stalin], and I think Crow is one of them. The Last Sanctuary is a timeless album, and there will never be another record that sounds like it—I think the band just threw everything in there, which is incredibly fearless. I’ve never had so much feedback from a record, either, from people who never thought they’d own it to techno fans who don’t even listen to punk but love it.”

Portray Heads
Portray Heads

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2 x Vinyl LP

The prospect of a release compiling Portray Heads’ slender discography was an exciting one for fans of obscure minimal synth and electronic music, with standout track “Elaborate Dummy” an effortless, über-chilly earworm while “夢を夢に” injects strange croons and skewed angularity into the mix. This slight body of work, however, was not to be the end of the story. “Initially I was going to release a 12-inch 45—the flexi and the 7-inch—which was just five songs,” says Abou-Heif. “The artist originally said there was nothing else, then all of a sudden he’s like ‘Oh, I was wrong, I’m going to send you three demo tapes…’ It’s so exciting! I feel like I’m 14 years old again, going through the discount CD bin at my local record shop, except the music isn’t discount CD bin quality. It’s the same sort of excitement and sense of exploration.” While the excitement Adam feels at uncovering all this unheard or little-heard material is palpable, it’s not without certain responsibilities. As with having to bring his curatorial skills to bear on the Juma collection, this glut of new Portray Heads material meant certain creative choices fell to Adam. “My job was to sequence the records,” he says. “But since these demos had never been released there was no sequence so it’s all my interpretation–not only am I hoping I don’t blow it, but I also have this fear that I’m putting too much of myself into it, to the point where it might take away from the artist and the art. I’m always insecure when I do these particular tasks, that I’m somehow watering it down or cheapening it, just by being involved.”

Rocky And The Sweden
City Baby Attacked By Buds

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Vinyl LP

Rocky And The Sweden surprise-dropped their first recorded material in almost 20 years with a two-track teaser single for Break The Records. This was followed by the exhilarating City Baby Attacked By Buds LP for F.O.A.D.—an urgent, pogo-inducing slab of punk rock perfection that combined classic Burning Spirits hardcore with a gnarly, Motörcharged edge. “I broke my own rule for the label releasing this but technically I guess it is a reissue, because it came out first in Italy,” says Abou-Heif. Intended to chime with a coronavirus-thwarted US tour, the domestic release plugged an essential gap given how quickly the European pressing disappeared. Beyond the mystery of what the hell the band had been doing for 19 years, Adam openly queries just how a band called ‘Rocky And The Sweden’ who sing songs about weed are able to be so damn good. “Seeing it on paper should be something that I would completely dislike and totally discard,” he says. “Instead it’s an essential listen. That in itself is a tremendous feat: how has this band done this?! It’s incredible!”

Kyoufu Shinbun
Death Training

Merch for this release:
Vinyl Box Set

Bitter Lake’s first box set is typically ambitious: a triple LP collecting Proletariat Honma’s gruesome Death Training cassettes, each of which explores a different colorful way to die. A skewed, clattering industrial punk oddity that begs comparison to Chrome and Metal Urbain, there’s a definite wrongness to it all that’s hard to both process and stomach. “I think I’d heard the flexi online, and at a certain point the cassette on Vanilla rolled into the shop [Material World, the Brooklyn record store Abou-Heif owns and runs],” says Abou-Heif. “But my friend Michael [McGraw], who helps a lot with the label, told me ‘You have to check this out, these tapes are incredible.’ He sent them to me and it was nuts, and the whole package just blew me away. With the help of Kakuzi we found Proletariat Honma, and he’s just one of the nicest and easiest guys to work with. My friend Jesse [Balgley], who runs the Stygian Black Hand label and does most of my layouts, conceived how it would look, and the remastering job Josh Bonati did is incredible. I was only going to make 250 or 300 copies, but the amount of attention it got and the number of people who’ve contacted me was so surprising… I thought it was such crazy outsider music, but I guess I just underestimated how attractive that is to people.”


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