DEAD FUNNY RECORDS (Part 3) – HEARSAYS

Japanese fascination towards Western popular music went to greater heights when the ‘Shibuya-kei’ trend hit Japanese popular culture. Its legacy may still be glistening, as it is the late 80s/early 90s British ‘Madchester’ scene that captures the inspiration for the band from Fukuoka prefecture, HEARSAYS.

Their music echoes the classic guitar-driven anthems of ‘Brit-pop’ bands (Oasis, Lush, Blur and Radiohead to name a few). The timeless appeal of simple, jangly guitar riffs launch tunes like ‘The Blind’ and ‘You Couldn’t Do So Much Better’ into a sound world that seems to occupy a place in indie rock’s golden generation, with whispers of surf-rock guitar nuances. To add to this, one could discern a subtle hint of shoegaze aesthetics from the introspective, non-confrontational nature of the vocals, in contrast to the rebellious character of British middle-class bands.

By stripping back the political actions that traditional British indie rock entails, the quartet focus on creating a musical atmosphere that invites the listener into meditation. ‘A Little Bird Told Me’ has plentiful to cleanse any audible space with delicate vocal lines and daydreaming guitar melodies that grace the comforting country vibe. While this track may resonate more towards American country rock, it still indulges in feelings of sentimentality, with lyrics like:

“Sometimes the sun is shining till I’m meant to be near you”

There is also a sense that HEARSAYS have the creative capacity to paint seasonal pictures with sonorities. As I listen to ‘When I’m Wrong’, the distorted groovy guitars scream Californian surf culture, and my audible perception instantly transforms the music into a visual landscape where cars would ride across a highway while embracing a warm and bright sunset slowly dipping into the beach.

HEARSAYS’ musical adventure is still in its infancy, but they are one to keep an eye on. Not only do they act as a tribute to their Western influences, but they also champion indie pop’s healthy existence in the present-day conversation of popular music in Japan.

Other Listening:

  • Missing
  • Stay
  • Before Too Long

© Isaku Takahashi

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DEAD FUNNY RECORDS (Part 2) – FANCY BOOKS

The next installment to this series focusing on DEAD FUNNY RECORDS features the duo FANCY BOOKS, a man and woman duo (Mitsuomi and Fumiko) from Saitama prefecture.

Their sonic palette is a renewal of retro synth pop sounds that take us back to the likes of Yellow Magic Orchestra, and glimpses of Kraftwerk or the Pet Shop Boys. ‘Sister Carry Stars’, from their EP Wisteria glorifies in vintage analogue-flavoured synth oscillations and drunken melodies, and a drum machine beat reminiscent of 70s/80s disco grooves. FANCY BOOKS subverts the overly mechanised nature of electronic dance music with ripples of heavy and eerie reverberating vocals that transports us to a futuristic chillwave/nu-disco landscape.

The comparison DEAD FUNNY RECORDS makes between FANCY BOOKS and artists like Au Revoir Simone and Memory Tapes is understandable when you hear tunes like ‘Sponge Boy’, brushed with dazzling synth colours and a head-bopping drum line. To permanently mark their artistic signature (throughout their EP), the duo goes about in adding pockets of tipsy, wobbly electronics that traverse through the stereo sphere, as a way to disorientate the listener’s navigation through this cosmic musical alleyway that is experimental in nature, but equally crammed with boldly kitsch details.

The duo takes a divergent path towards a new age flowing vibe with ‘Nephogram’, which features on the record label’s first compilation album. Celestial synths and samples that glisten through the stereo field accompany the lugubrious but spine-chilling vocal expressions that drift off into the audible universe, and spellbind the listener into reverie.

It’s dreamy and seductive music that could accompany an imagination of roaming around Tokyo at its nightlife glory full of glittering neon lights. The magical atmosphere that exudes from the musical universe of FANCY BOOKS that has the capacity to cocoon any listener’s sensual vision is a testament to their ability to craft out an array of absorbing sonic colours and environments.

Other Listening:

© Isaku Takahashi

DEAD FUNNY RECORDS (Part 1) – KENSEI OGATA, TALK

Taking a different approach for the next couple of posts.

In my spare time, I often engage in a bit of ‘SoundCloud surfing’, as it’s a great platform that allows us to discover hidden gems from a variety of cultures. My latest discovery comes from Fukuoka prefecture, an independent music label called DEAD FUNNY RECORDS.

Established in 2012, this record label is a catalyst for releasing some of the most breathtaking new music from various regions of Japan and parts of the globe (e.g. BEST FRIENDS and MAZES from the UK and TOPS from Canada). The next couple of posts will put the spotlight on a couple of Japanese artists that have emerged from the young music label.

Kensei Ogata, lead singer of the band Talk based in Kumamoto prefecture first captured my attention. He crafts a sensual ambience through blending post-rock aesthetics with dreamy vocal lines and tranquil synth drones evocative of dream-pop/shoegaze. His unique sonic landscape brings to mind the rhythmic pulsations of Coldplay ornamented with chillwave sonic textures of Tycho.

On the Beach’, the first track from his 2012 album Her Paperback is a euphonious overture to the record. The discotheque drumbeat that carries some rhythmic impetus is glazed with a tuneful little guitar riff, glittering and shimmering synth lines covering the stereo field and hazy, ethereal vocals, orchestrating an atmospheric yet infectious ‘wall of sound’ that immerses the listener in sonic bliss.

The sound world created by Ogata and his band has led to reviews interpreting him as:

「あらかじめポスト世代」 “Naturally Postmodern generation”

Tracks like ‘Golden Hair’ and ‘Tonight, Flight’ personify the statement above. The sepia-shaded vintage synth pads that navigate the musical journey amplify a sense of nostalgia, but Ogata remains a musician of today. His sleek dreamlike voice, and creative awareness and skill in varying instrumental, textural colour and arranging meticulous rhythmic and harmonic figures to create organic sonic narratives with moments of intimacy and sparks of anthemic crescendos, is exclusive to his contemporary artistic vision.

https://soundcloud.com/cuddlydominion/golden-hair

https://soundcloud.com/cuddlydominion/tonight-flight

Ogata’s defiantly indie musical details, like in ‘My Small Garden and ‘Happy Sunny March’ from Her Paperback transport listeners to glimpses of 90s British indie rock/pop: witty titles that speak for the ‘everyday life’ aesthetic, laid-back vocal exchanges and solid guitar driven vibes. However, hidden amongst this indie landscape is a sentimental nuance that is perhaps induced from his misty yet beautiful voice and the influence of ambient, shoegaze styles that has permeated Ogata’s musical voyage.

Starting my audible travels through the wonderful musical environment curated by Dead Funny Records has rejuvenated my quest to stumble across fresh and exciting musicians. From my perspective, the works of Kensei Ogata and Talk are influential in conducting the popular soundtrack to the present, and future generation.

Other Listening:

  • 涙 (‘Namida’, ‘Tears’) (Spitz cover)
  • A Certain Letter
  • In Refrain Rain (from the album Dead Funny Compilation Vol. 1)
  • Night Dance
  • Waltz for Feebee (Album)

© Isaku Takahashi

SEKAI NO OWARI

In a culture dominated by sickly sweet ‘idol’ pop, one is always quick to dismiss the Japanese music scene as exhaustive, lacklustre with little insistence towards creativity and innovation. Fortunately, SEKAI NO OWARI is here as the agent of change, peaking at just the right time to expose the audience in musical alchemy.

Initially launching their career as an indie pop band, the quartet from Tokyo were slowly finding their voice in the Japanese indie scene. They set a quirky first impression with their debut single ‘幻の命’ (‘Maboroshi no Inochi’, meaning ‘an imaginary life’). Their individual character is represented through Satoshi Fukase’s pleasant, down-to-earth vocal nature, a subtle injection of android textures and a witty mascot, in the form of a clown masked DJ.

Despite making a considerable move to the major label Toys Factory, they continue to assert their eccentric personality, not only through innovative music making, but also differentiating themselves from other bands with their extravagant, ‘fantasy-world’ themed music videos. ‘RPG’, a hit tune that instantly grabbed full attention of the Japanese cultural consciousness is a visual spectacle that enhances the irresistible jamboree groove, electronic embellishments on the vocals and the grand choral waves that elevate the chorus.

The youthful quartet is not only respected for their visually striking performances. With songs like スターライトパレード (‘Starlight Parade’), they have the ability to touch the emotions of listeners. The more intimate setting gives the Christmassy instrumental colour, the foot-tapping four-on-the-floor beat and Fukase’s charming voice the chance to sparkle and create a sense of camaraderie between the listener and himself.

SEKAI NO OWARI are four fearless musicians that have re-defined the Japanese music scene. The global interest they gained, partly from their recent collaboration with Owl City is a testament to their visionary musical flair. Their ambitious visual imagery, ability to arouse emotional resonance, and their imaginative sound world has transcended the expectation of J-Pop listeners for a breath of fresh air in the Japanese musical mainstream.

Other Listening:

  • Dragon Night
  • INORI
  • 炎と森のカーニバル (‘The Flame and Forest Carnival’)
  • Tokyo (Written by Owl City, featuring SEKAI NO OWARI)

© Isaku Takahashi

DJ Okawari

If you’ve heard of ‘trackmaker’ DJ Okawari, then you will be acquainted with his talent to produce lyrical and tranquil, yet vibrant and exciting tracks with technical finesse. Based in Shizuoka, he carries a motto that he stays faithful to in his creative enterprise:

「音楽と日常の共存」 “Coexistence of music and life”

He emphasises the strong influence of personal experiences and feelings that surround his music. Perhaps this is fundamental in any musician who wants to convey honest sentiments through musical language.

The sound world of his 2011 album Kaleidoscope is as the name suggests: ripples of instrumental colour, touching silky melodies and a signature modern hip-hop idiom, all coming together under an ambient sonic landscape.

The album opens with ‘Encounter’, a seductive number with a classic neo-soul drum line, layered with a lush, celestial synth pad and piano octave riff, refined acoustic guitar strumming, jazzy saxophone melody and an unknown singer with a warm, smoky voice. ‘Brown Eyes’ is another beautiful track where a ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto style’ meets polished RnB beats: the poignant and heavenly high piano riff and arpeggios embellishes a subdued hip-hop drum line and soulful, rich vocals from Brittany Campbell, to produce an effect that is both foot-tapping and crystalline. It is impressive how in most of his tracks DJ Okawari carefully exploits his heritage by crafting melodies throughout his sonic journeys that sound inherently ‘Japanese’ and exotic, but makes it a relevant puzzle piece in a contemporary, hip-hop beat soundscape.

Artists in this chilled, neo-soul lounge style often have the tendency to sound repetitious through an album, but DJ Okawari manages to pack a variety of musical backdrops and sonic flavours. ‘U’ gives you a chance to sway their head or body, with support from Stacy Epps’ sweet flowery vocals, while ‘Another Sky’ and ‘A Cup of Coffee’ are pleasant hip-hop sketches that you may well catch in a local café, decorated with authentic jazz piano, guitar and sax tunes.

The roster of vocal talent in Kaleidoscope is wholly enchanting. A particular highlight for me is ‘Brighter Side’, sung by Amanda Diva. Full of attitude, versatility and panache, she brings a touch of ‘Alicia Keys-style’ ambience with meaningful lyrics about conquering struggles in life, taking us back to aesthetics of traditional black music.

Okawari” is a phrase meaning ‘to ask for another helping’, often used during mealtime. In this context, “Okawari” could refer to his desire for new and enticing musical ideas. Rumour has it that 2015 will see his new album released. Let’s hope that DJ Okawari will live up to his name and immerse avid listeners in a galaxy of feel-good tunes.

Other Listening:

  • Diorama (Album)
  • Mirror (Album)

© Isaku Takahashi

Mouse on the Keys

A fusion of rhythmically pulsating minimalism evocative of Philip Glass and the hard-hitting dynamism of jazz, electronic and post-rock styles is perhaps a good way to describe Mouse on the Keys, an exciting and musically challenging nu-jazz trio from Tokyo.

One can draw similarities to them and the UK’s Neil Cowley Trio (for their exploration of colourful harmonies and continuously varying drum line), or the heavy groove of Achim Seifert Project from Germany. Despite sharing stylistic commonalities with other global groups, Mouse on the Keys are unparalleled for the sheer volume of effort and to an extent, muscle they put into their creative enterprise.

The ability to push and pull the harmony, texture, and rhythm is the most impressive thing about Mouse on the Keys. Their EP, Machinic Phylum is a 4-part musical drama that reflects their ability to command the pace and intensity of their sonic domain. ‘Aom’ and ‘Plateau’ radiate forces of rhythmic energy with cyclical piano phrases and their energetic trademark drum beats, while occasionally pulling back the propulsion to make way for ornate minimalist piano solos. ‘Clinamen’ is like an interlude that gives the occasional space for the bass and synths to take a more prominent role. Being the concluding act, and the least musically dynamic, ‘Memory’ is the unsung hero of this EP. The heavenly opening from the main piano riff and iridescent synth harmonies sets the tone for the other instruments. A rhythmically diluted drum and bass accompanies the enchanting, crystalline piano layer, only to end with a polyrhythmic Bach fugue-like phrase, which is perhaps a subtle reminder to the listener of what originally made them a force to be reckoned with.

This Japanese trio are recognised globally not only through their successful international tours, but through their reputation as an artist working with various art forms (e.g. visual installation, film projections, lighting work). This live version of ‘Completed Nihilism’ and ‘Spectres de mouse’ synthesises monochrome, but equally intense abstract imagery with merciless percussive and pianistic textures that fluctuate from gentle cymbal and arpeggio ripples to precision-engineered rhythmic complexity and mathematical harmonic progressions, in an effort to submerge the audience into musical and visual euphoria.

The above songs open their 2009 album An Anxious Object. Regardless of the fact that the titles of each track sounds very abstract and conceptual, the substance is overflowing with a myriad of sensations: groovy piano and percussion in ‘Forgotten Children’ and ‘Unflexible Grids’, sleek reverberant ambience of ‘Ouroboros’ and bright jazzy nuances from ‘Seiren’. From the opening sporadic chordal hits of ‘Dirty Realism’, it is evident that some influences of contemporary classical/post-minimalism have also slipped into the records’ tonal palette, as it sounds similar to Louis Andriessen’s piece Hoketus.

Mouse on the Keys are a musical powerhouse. Its relentless percussion line, varicoloured harmonies, mechanistic piano textures, jazzy but also dissonant and angular improvisatory melodies and rhythms, and their strong visual presence has the energy to sustain a common momentum, and invite the audience into total sonic and visual immersion.

Other Listening:

  • Sezession EP
  • The Arctic Fox
  • The Flowers of Romance (Album)

© Isaku Takahashi

大友義秀 – Otomo Yoshihide

Taking a slightly acute musical angle for this next post.

Otomo Yoshihide cropped up while cleaning up and organising the vast CD collection in my house, and I remember picking up one of his albums from my uncle’s office in Japan (he works for a local classical music record company and invited me to his office to take as many CDs from their ‘unwanted’ collection of records). Oblivious to what Otomo had in stall, I noticed it contained the word ‘jazz’, so thought it would be interesting to hear a Japanese perspective on the classic American genre.

I realise that this artist would perhaps not be generalised as ‘J-Pop’, but it would be worthwhile to talk about Otomo’s creative response in the Japanese music scene, as he is a true reflection of avant-garde practice and the idea of challenging the sonic boundaries of popular music in Japan.

Otomo, a multi-instrumentalist, has worked in an array of musical contexts, composing in jazz and electronic mediums to improvisation and contemporary classical aesthetics to form a vast bricolage of creative works and albums. I aim to examine just a small branch of his sonic expeditions.

The first Otomo record I stumbled upon was his album Tails Out by his group New Jazz Quintet. Not only does it assert the relevance and importance of jazz in the late 20th/21st century, but also this unique body of music throws a musical curveball, breaking the confines of what people associate as jazz music. The headline track of this album is arguably the fiery concluding number ‘Tails Out’. The meticulous balance between noise  and improvisatory explorations and jazzy melodic inflections, particularly from the trumpet and various saxophones makes this 13-minute musical labyrinth a compelling act to conclude the album.

To continue my venture into the weird and wonderful sound world of Otomo, I went back a year to listen to his 2002 album Dreams by his band New Jazz Ensemble. The tracks that stood out for me were ‘Years’ and ‘Good Morning’. The sonic language of both tracks was reminiscent of the free-flowing, minimalist nature of Sigur Ros (e.g. the perpetual electric guitar strumming and the slow gradual build-up in instrumental colour and texture). To counter the gentle harmonic waves and indolent nature of Phew’s vocals, the schizophrenic quality of the trumpet and sax surprises the listener with some riotous, discordant solo patterns. It’s breezy ballad accompaniment braided with distorted, atonal experimentation.

Otomo has also been heavily involved in composing music for films. The soundtrack to Blue is an example of his masterful handling of various stylistic traits and compositional tools to paint a musical scenery to the film. Predominantly based around the idyllic sweet melody from the recorder-like flute, Otomo expands the sonic palette to create a set of variations on the theme. The actual film contains very little of the soundtrack, so while this album can not only stand as a musical portrait of the film, but it can also act as an independent body of art that can stir emotion without the aid of a filmic narrative.

These are just a couple of musical directions Otomo has taken in his career. It is worth exploring this innovative artist in more detail if you want to be immersed in Otomo’s creative actions to full capacity.

Other Listening:

  • Cathode
  • Episome
  • New Jazz Orchestra – Out to Lunch

© Isaku Takahashi