Another year, another collection of music that challenges, reinvents, and glows from the forever musically restless Japan. Though it was defined primarily by the long overdue return of many of it’s greatest musicians, and works by it’s most prolific, 2017 has also seen the rise of some fresh faces, and some fresh sounds from Japan. Both have put out albums that deserve ears the world over.
Without further ado, here is Overblown’s top 10 albums from Japan in 2017 (so far).
Kikagaku Moyo – Stone Garden (Psychedelic Rock, Psychedelic Folk)
Recorded during a multi-day long jam session in Prague, Stone Garden is Kikagaku Moyo letting off the pressure of their perfectionist, always-make-it-bigger style. The songs feel much more eclectic and free flowing than the rigid perfectionism of their last few works, verging almost on formlessness. For many, that whimsical, carefree energy will make it an easy starting point for the band’s catalogue, for others, it may represent a regression for one of Japan’s boldest modern rock bands. In reality both are right.
On blissful jam band-y cuts like “Nobakitani”, Kikagaku Moyo shows the kind of power that formlessness can bring, locking into a mesmerizing groove and wringing it for all its worth, without having to worry about changing it up too severely. On tracks like the closer “Floating Leaf” however, the premise will test the listener’s patience for lack of composition. Sounds blend together aimlessly and then drop out in a very unsatisfying conclusion. As an album, it manages to shine as the work of one of the best psychedelic rock bands working today, in Japan or at large. Taking it a song at a time however, reveals its true nature, a nice distraction for a band with much bigger things to say.
Shelling – Waiting For Mint Shower!! (Dream Pop, Shoegaze)
After last year’s Star Cocktail, from Shelling frontwoman Aya (recording under the name fraqsea), it seemed up in the air what kind of direction Shelling was going to take. Shelling’s last album, Aquarium Sympathy, was the band’s most direct flirtation with electronica yet, and Star Cocktail saw Aya diving head first into the world of electropop. The board seemed set for Shelling to leave behind their definitive dream-pop sound forever. Waiting For Mint Shower!! however, is nothing of the sort.
Instead Shelling doubles down on the qualities that have defined their sound. The guitars are denser, and the soundscapes even deeper, pushing towards the sky as a continual mountain of sound. Non-stop, relentless euphoria cram packed into a short 30 minute package.
Hisato Higuchi – Kietsuzukeru Echo / 消え続けるエコー (Lo-Fi Folk, Ambient, Free Folk)
Kietsuzukuru Echo is not an album for the faint of heart. It will assuredly test the patience of even the most welcoming listener as Hisato stumbles his way through eight, almost entirely uneventful “songs” played at a whispers volume. Though, the word “song” comes with a lot of heavy implications, most of which don’t really apply here, these are more like… musical moods.
There isn’t much structure to them, and they play out rather repetitively for their generally five-ish minute run times. Sonically they sound a lot like Elliot Smith’s early lo-fi recordings, as gentle tape hiss looms over finger picked acoustic guitar, and pained whispers, but combined with a sort of Mark Hollis-type minimalism, and formlessness. For those willing to push through that natural aversion though, there’s a kind of rainy day perfection to this album. Working liberally in greys and lazy, melancholic moods. Hisato isn’t exactly reinventing himself here, but whatever he’s plugged into just keeps spinning gold, so it’s difficult to complain.
Cornelius – Mellow Waves (Indietronica, Ambient Pop)
Since Keigo Oyamada’s (aka Cornelius) exuberant, and genre defining magnum opus, 1997’s Fantasma, he has been on a trajectory away from the density, complexity, and restless energy that defined his work in the 90s. From the more sonically stripped-down follow-up, 2001’s Point, to his last album, the borderline sleepy Sensuous in 2006, Cornelius has been teasing a move towards more ambient and dreamy shores for almost two decades now. With Mellow Waves, his first album in eleven years, that promise is finally delivered upon.
Defined by minimalistic, bright synth tones, and crystal-clear guitar lines, Mellow Waves is the sonic equivalent of clean white linen hanging on a line during a breezy summer day. The sonic palette is immaculate, and warm (with a few notable exceptions), in a way that plays to both Keigo’s greatest strengths, and his greatest weaknesses. The clarity of Keigo’s production here proves once and for that he is one of the greatest musicians to have have touched the boards.
Keigo finds endless nooks and crannies to fit in little synthetic whizzes, or gently panned acoustic guitar notes, never once compromising the overall minimalistic aesthetic. The clarity of it all will no doubt amaze you, as complex soundscapes are reduced to their barest components in a way that still feels rich and fulfilling. The problem that arises however, is that on albums like Fantasma and Point, the sonic complexity was the songwriting in many ways. Songs developed with new layers of complexity, and explosions of color. Now Keigo has denied himself that option, leaving some of the songs on Mellow Waves feeling more like formless soundscapes than bonafide “songs”.
Where it works though, that sense of Cornelius bliss is unmatched, and even where it doesnt, it remains as some of the best produced music you’ll hear in years.
Phew – Light Sleep (Minimal Synth)
A full 36 years after the release of her self-titled debut album, arguably the best Japanese post-punk album ever recorded, Phew manages to surprise again. Light Sleep doesn’t gravitate too far from what people have come to expect from Phew, the monotone, chant-like vocal delivery, and the harsh synthetic tones, but in most other ways, it’s a consistently surprising listen. One which reestablishes her position as queenpin of the Japanese experimental underground.
She pushes the emotionless quality of her voice to it’s limit with heavily distorted vocals laid overtop relentless, and brittle synths on “CQ Tokyo”’, pulling out the latent industrial flavor of Phew’s early work. Something she does again with the heavily layered, menacing drones of “Mata Aimasho”, which extract the elements of dark ambient that have also long lingered in the background of her work. And while simpler, noisy tracks like those have a sort of immediate physical pleasure to them, just as much of the album is abstract and difficult, requiring repeated attentive listens. Tracks like “Usui Kuki”, where Phew chants dispassionately over a bed of disembodied voices, and a skeleton frame of brittle drum machines certainly won’t click on the first time around.
Even after a career spanning four decades, Phew has managed to release what may just be the most challenging, and experimental album to come out of Japan so far this year.
Shinichi Atobe – From The Heart, It’s a Start, a Work of Art (Dub Techno, Microhouse)
Shinchi Atobe is the kind of enigma that could only exist in the fringes of electronic music. After releasing his deeply beloved Ship-Scope EP in 2001, Shinichi disappeared. Not even his label, Chain Reaction, could track him down. It wasn’t until 2014, when Sean Canty of Demdike Stare tracked the man down, that anyone heard from Shinichi again. Through Sean’s label, DDS, Shinichi’s music began to be unearthed in collective albums, and remix works, not too unlike the process Aphex Twin has been embarking on in recent years.
From The Heart, It’s a Start, a Work of Art is the fourth post-return release from Shinichi, or at least, the fourth work compiled by DDS, and it’s without a doubt his best yet. The melting synthetic drones on top gentle drum knocks are not too different from his other work, but here he feels focused. The grooves are razor precise, despite their lackadaisical nature. Just listen to the infectious shuffle of “First Plate 2”, or the melodic drive of opening epic “Regret”.
Shinichi, like many of his great minimal techno, microhouse, and dub techno contemporaries (Herbert, Panthu Du Prince, The Field) is locked into something slight, and yet profound. Watch as he build emotional sculptures with synth washes, and body shaking grooves that sneak up from underneath the dreamy atmosphere. Here is a genuine master artisan, honing deeper and deeper into his craft.
Tricot – 3 (Math Rock, Post Hardcore)
3 is the sound of Tricot finding their groove. Since their conception they’ve been caught up in a great deal of tug-of-wars within their sound, trying to balance sweetness with roughness, blissful math rock with crunchy post-hardcore, pop sensibilities with a punk heart. With 3 the conflicts remain, but the fight isn’t as apparent from the outside, as the many elements of Tricot slowly begin clicking into place. On opener “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” they find a way to make crunchy post-hardcore blissful, and on the the following “Wabi-sabi” they sneak some crunch into their blissful, math-y numbers.
The joys of 3 are as readily apparent as on any of Tricot’s previous albums, those piercing and emotive vocals from Ikkyu, and the dense weave of drums and bass entwining around gargantuan guitars. In a lot of ways Tricot have a certain 80s hair band sensibility to them. They pull out complex emotions through front-and-center guitar leads that make you clench your teeth, in service of a vocal presence that feels confident, and powerful, but which belies a certain sincerity and softness. But Tricot are no hair metal band, on 3 they prove, as if anyone didn’t already believe it, that they’re one of the most visceral things happening in post-hardcore the world over.
Zombie-chang – Gang! (Synthpop)
Working under the Zombie-Chang moniker, Meirin released one of 2016’s oddest and most engrossing albums with Zombie Change. Blending synthpop, dream pop, and hip hop with a harsh, out-of-tune singing style. Zombie Change was an extended middle finger to everything about safe, overproduced electronic pop music in Japan. Coming from a punk background, Meirin approaches her music with a naturalistic attitude, refusing to work with collaborators and making most of her music on the fly, without too much concern for slight mistakes or imperfections. The result was very much the “anti-EDM” she claimed it was, a brand of electronic music that warranted comparisons to oddball western contemporaries like Grimes.
Imagine the surprise of a fan popping in her new album Gang! for the first time. The songs here feel richly layered, trading out-of-tune singing for something full-bodied and tuneful. On tracks like the opener “I Can’t Get To Sleep”, and ballads like “Kouraken”, the music seems suspended in place, with layers of instrumentation gliding over each other, crystal clear in the mix.
Meirin manages to keep her anti-commercial ethos, but it’s hidden itself below the surface of the music. These tracks build inward and explode through drum breaks and dreamy washed out synths, never indulging in anything over sugary, or emotions that are easy to digest. It’s an album that yells loudly but keeps its motivations close to its chest.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – async (Ambient, Modern Classical)
Back in 2014, a few months after his last “solo” album, Three, had been released, Ryuichi revealed to world he had been diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer. After a very short, year long break to receive treatment, Ryuichi returned to his usual, prolific self in 2015. He scored scored two films (including the hugely successful Revenant), created another collaborative album with Taylor Dupree, and even compiled a nice little retrospective compilation. But async is the very first genuine statement we’ve heard from Ryuichi since that diagnosis, and if it’s sounds are to be believed, Ryuichi’s world has become a great deal more bleak.
From the somber spoken word segments which linger on memory, and the end of it all, to the funeral dirge of “solari”, and the many other deeply melancholic sonic detours like it. async may just be the first time in which ambient music has been turned towards one’s own morality, and for that reason alone it would be an immensely interesting release. Combine that with the sparse synthetic soundscapes and somber field recordings, paired with what could be Ryuchi’s most desolate classical compositions ever, however, and it makes for an album which is powerful enough on it’s own two musical feet.
Wednesday Campanella – Superman (Electropop, Hip House)
Hip-House has had an endlessly disappointing history here in the west. From its explosive emergence in the late 80s, to it’s quick and merciless death at the hand of hardcore hip hop in the early 90s, it never really achieved the sort of artistic highs that most hip hop subgenres have been afforded. It’s resurgence in the the 2010s was no less disappointing, despite promising singles out of newcomers like Azealia Banks, and Vic Mensa, no one seemed to be able to string together a project that had any sort of consistency, or even fully embrace that hip-house sound. The balance of pop-sensibility, sugary electronics, and hip-hop viability just seemed to hard to work out.
Switch gears to Japan though, and a different history began to form, one where everything seemed pre-designed for Hip-house’s success. It was a scene that was free from America’s rigid and history laden hip-hop scene, and with a much deeper understanding of electropop and house, defined by their internationally renowned electronic scene. Over the past 4 or so years, a great deal of artists began to emerge with hip-house sounds, and influences.
The best of them all, far and way, was Wednesday Campanella. Since their 2013 debut they have been slowly building towards a sound that was intoxicating, and blissful in a way that no hip-house had been before. Here on Superman, that sound is more vibrant than ever, exploding open with great washes of color on singles like “Aladdin”, and “Ikkyu-San”. Not to neglect the vocals from the incomparable KOM_I, which stick in the brain harder than they ever have before, as well as flow over a beat like water. Perhaps it’s bold to say, but it may well be the greatest hip-house album ever, and hopefully, a shining sign of things to come.