Tag Archives: Japan

On “Reassemblage,” Visible Cloaks Have the World at Their Fingertips

Visible Cloaks

Visible Cloaks by Jonathan Sielaff

As a genre, the phrase “world music” is as imprecise as it is historically fraught. It dates back to a much-storied meeting of music industry insiders in 1987, when a cabal of record label executives, musicians, and journalists gathered in a room above a pub in London. Discussing how to boost the popularity of non-Western artists with Western audiences, they decided on a catch-all term to help shops currently struggling to categorize the artists. As a pragmatic solution, it proved wildly successful, but it’s always implied an uncomfortable, imaginary divide. “World artists” are framed as “authentic examples” of a distant, exotic culture; it positions them outside the shifting musical currents that shape and re-purpose contemporary music.

On Reassemblage, Visible Cloaks attempt to do something like the opposite. A duo, made up of Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile, their music combines traditional instruments from all over the world. Taking cues from pioneering, Japanese synth meddlers—like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Ryuichi Sakamoto—the pair filter different sounds into a pin-sharp, hi-res clarity, seeking to bridge borders rather than reinforce them. The results sound like a product of everywhere and nowhere all at once.

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Attack The Music Brings Japanese Sounds to an International Audience 

Attack The Music

Video games have served as an entry point into Japanese music for many, especially those growing up in the 1990s in North America. Where conventional efforts to break Japanese artists usually fell flat, songs included as part of console releases or arcade machines often piqued the interest of younger players. Eddie Lehecka, who co-founded American music label Attack The Music with friends Matt Mirkovich and Corey Prasek, was one such person.

“The one that started my spiral was PaRappa The Rapper,” the Cleveland-born Lehecka says, speaking to us from a Mister Donut store in Tokyo on a late-December trip to Japan. “When it came out, that kind of opened the door to rhythm games. Then, [rhythm games] blew up in the States when Dance Dance Revolution came out. That’s when I started paying attention to Japanese music, thanks to all the songs being licensed to these games.”

Lehecka met Prasek when both of them were scrambling to secure the domain name “bemanistyle.com” (named after video game maker Konami’s music game division) in 2000. “Eddie registered it no more than 30 minutes prior to me trying to register it,” Prasek recalls (Lehecka thinks it was more “like… two minutes”). Briefly defeated, Prasek launched his own rhythm-game site, iidxstyle.net, before eventually joining forces with Lehecka. Their site Bemanistyle covers news related to rhythm games, and Lehecka says that in 2006, at the height of their popularity, they had 300,000 registered users.

Prasek knew Mirkovich from their native Californian dance game scene, and soon brought him into the fold. The three juggled various jobs: Mirkovich was in the gaming industry (eventually helping to port Rock Band, another famous rhythm game, to Playstation and Wii) and Prasek worked as a manager at an AT&T store.

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The New Faces of Japanese Chiptune

Pixel art from Breezesquad‘s artworks

Pixel art from Breezesquad’s albums.

It’s not exactly shocking that Japan, the country where the modern video game industry truly took form, is home to a vibrant music community devoted to the creation of 8-bit sounds. Yet it is a bit of surprise to realize that this new generation of chiptune composers aren’t exactly influenced by the past.

“My generation, and the generation under me, didn’t really experience the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era,” says Toriena, one of the rising stars at the forefront of Japan’s chiptune music community.  “So we aren’t really familiar. But it is fascinating how there are generations now who are more interested in these retro-game scenes than when I started.” A subgenre of electronic music, chiptune has long centered around the pixelated sounds generated by sound chips from older video game consoles, which are widely available in the game-centric shopping districts of Tokyo’s Akihabara or Osaka’s Den Den Town. In addition to creating frantic music using a repurposed Game Boy and the popular software Little Sound DJ, Toriena also co-runs the label Madmilky Records, which she co-founded; she also handles all the artwork for her releases, and still finds time to team up with various national chain stores and to sing on other artists tracks.

Toriena. Photo by Jeriaska.

Toriena. Photo by Jeriaska.

Toriena. Photos by Jeriaska.

Many early video games, such as Space Invaders (1978), were developed in Japan, as were their soundtracks. The now ubiquitous Super Mario Bros. soundtrack was composed by Koji Kondo for Nintendo in 1985. Pioneering Japanese electronic outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra included 8-bit bloops on their eponymous debut album in 1978, while that trio’s Haruomi Hosono would go on to release an album entitled Video Game Music, featuring various game themes reworked into proper songs. At the same time, the actual soundtracks to titles were becoming more complex, with composers making the most of available technology to create looping, enthralling songs that were jackhammered into the brains of thousands of kids.

Gradually, a devoted cluster of artists who were using these vintage sounds to create music began emerge, led by the pop outfit YMCK and Soichi Terada’s Omodaka project. Live shows and festivals devoted to chiptune began popping up all over the country. And even though the music itself is drawn from a very specific set of sounds, its style and format is constantly changing. “I think the Japanese chiptune scene is moving on to its next phase,” says Breezesquad, a chiptune maker from the western city of Fukuoka, a locale that has long housed a bustling 8-bit music scene.

“There’s already many Japanese chiptune youngsters, like Toriena and Gigandect, and some internet labels like Trekkie Trax and Maltine Records are really remarkable at connecting chiptune with other musical and cultural fields.”

Right now, Japan’s chiptune scene is an interesting mix of veterans and young guns, pushing the sound in all sorts of new directions. Here’s a list of some of the most notable names in the Japanese chiptune scene, artists who are molding the sound of what’s to come.

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