Tag Archives: Japan

How Japan’s Landscape Inspired a New Kind of Electronic Music

japanese-landscapes-600-2

Nicole Ginelli

Japan’s ever-changing, contrasting landscapes have influenced its culture for centuries, through both technological advancement and natural phenomena. The awe-inspiring wonder of Mount Fuji is just a 90-minute train ride from the skyscrapers of Tokyo. New volcanic islands surrounding Japan have been formed as recently as 2013. The crashing seas of Kanagawa, in the southwest of Japan, became a muse for Hokusai famous 1830s woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

While Japan’s role in the evolution of contemporary music cannot be understated, much of the popular music we commonly associate with the country is created by machines. The Osaka-based Roland Corporation’s legendary line of synthesizers and drum machines have continued to reinvent everything from dub to DnB ever since its first release, the TR-77 rhythm box, in 1972. The hyperbolic madness of J-Pop is defined by the hi-NRG kicks and kaleidoscopic synth lines that soundtrack Tokyo’s neon-lit walkways and fill its arenas. And let’s not forget the massive contribution of 8-bit composers like Koji Kondo, and the video game music he and his contemporaries pioneered. But away from computer music or button-bashing classics, the natural sounds of Japan are equally encapsulating sources of inspiration for those who search them out.

Put simply, “field recording” is the act of capturing sound outside of a recording studio; it’s closer to being a method of production than any type of marketable music “genre.” Toshiya Tsunoda, Minoru Sato, and the late noise artist Akifumi Nakajima (aka Aube) are pioneering names in contemporary Japanese field recording. The 1996 collaborative Tsunoda/Sato LP Ful and Nakajima’s Water 1991 were largely slept-on at the time they were released, but have since become cult classics. Today, thanks to cheaper field recording technologies, what was once an endeavor available to those who could afford the expensive equipment has now been democratized. Anyone who owns an iPhone has a half-decent recording device in their hands, and because of that, bedroom beatmakers and electronic musicians can now bend field recordings of natural sound into whatever shape they like.

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NECRONOMIDOL and New Directions in Japanese Metal

Necronomidol

Necronomidol photos by Mari Kojima

In many ways, NECRONOMIDOL look a lot like other groups in the Japanese “female idol” genre, a corner of J-Pop in which groups of young women perform chirpy pop while dancing. The group consists of five members, ranging in age from late teens to early 20s, which is in keeping with the style’s emphasis on youth. But NECRONOMIDOL don’t perform the excessively upbeat, synth-driven numbers about friendship and crushes typical of the genre—NECRONOMIDOL are a metal group. They dabble in darkness; their associated imagery is heavy on skulls and ample violence, and their music makes ample space for industrial and the speedier varieties of metal.

But the group’s live shows are hardly typical of metal. For one thing, there are no guitars or drums on the stage; instead, a backing track plays while the five members dance in unison, sing, and occasionally deliver bloodcurdling screams. And while their presentation is atypical, they aren’t the only Japanese band seeking new sounds beyond the borders of heavy metal. They’re instead part of a scene that also includes the Osaka-based band Vampillia, Tokyo’s industrial and metal fusion rockers Legion of Andromeda, and many, many others.

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Japanese Experimental Pioneer Phew Is Back with Her First Solo Record in 20 Years

Phew

The last two years have been rewarding for fans of Japanese experimental artist Phew. She’s released a pair of full-lengths—2015’s A New World and the off-kilter Light Sleep, released this past March via New York label Mesh-Key. This is an especially welcome development, considering her last record before that was released in 1995.

It’s not that Phew—real name Hiromi Moritani—vanished, necessarily. Over the past 20 years, she’s collaborated with various musicians, fronted the punk-rock band Most, and played shows all across Japan. In recent years, local music media have begun affording Phew the critical respect she deserves; albums she created over the last 40 years have gone from record store rarities to being included on “best of” lists. She landed at number 35 on Japanese magazine Snoozer’s “150 Greatest Albums of Japanese Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and two of her albums were named Music Magazine’s best Japanese albums of the ‘90s list last year.

Yet despite the growing acclaim, Phew didn’t release any solo material until she started recording songs for Light Sleep in 2014.“I recorded at home casually,” she tells me. “My thoughts and feelings at the moment I made that music were reflected directly in the songs.”

This directness is readily apparent in Light Sleep, a six-song set featuring some of Phew’s most intimate songs to date. That closeness often feels tense; she’s constructed the music out of an assortment of analog synthesizers and vintage rhythm boxes, and the decades-old equipment creates an unnerving quality in the songs; as always, her voice, which is always unpredictable and commanding, is the central feature of her music. Here, it ranges from unsettlingly monotone on “New World” to frantic on “CQ Tokyo.”

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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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