RADWIMPS

We turn our attention back to the burgeoning Japanese rock scene by exploring the music of RADWIMPS, whose well-grounded musical entourage and their knack for straying away slightly from the conventions of commercial rock music has placed them at the summit of successful, memorable and distinctive bands in Japan.

While listening to songs like 有心論 ‘Yuushinron’ (‘Yuushin’ meaning ‘Determination’ and ‘ron’ meaning ‘theory’), one would find difficult to capture RADWIMPS’ sound world under one neat phrase. What initially sounds like a gentle acoustic guitar ballad quickly turns into a stadium rock atmosphere, an energy that brings to mind the likes of U2. Instead of conveying the emotional depth and passion that defines stadium rock, Yojiro Noda (vocalist) diverts expectations and goes into a surprise verse that is subtly charged with rap and hip-hop nuances. In spite of such a complicated sonic atmosphere, this song shares their enthusiasm for groove-based rock, but at the same time showcases their musical dexterity in handling sudden mood swings and shifts in style.

‘DADA’ is the band’s signature number, and is perhaps revolutionary in two senses. With their fresh take on fusing the verbal dexterity of rap/hip-hop and the aggressive rhythms and aesthetics of punk rock, musically it has put rap-rock (a relatively underexplored genre in the country) on the geography of Japanese music. On the other hand, the subversive nature of this track also prevails from RADWIMPS’ to use music as a vehicle for political expression. The lyrics (written by Noda) comprise of several verses of negative issues about life; e.g. how the time between birth and death is just a period of procrastination and “killing time”, how we are seduced to modern technology and how we should think more about ecology and protecting the planet.

Their versatility is measured by their shift in stylistic idiom in their most recent track 実況中継 ‘Jikkyou Chuukei’ (‘Live Coverage’). This particular tune reveals RADWIMPS’ fascination towards experimental and noise musical language (conveyed immediately through the opening jarring distorted sample). The song benefits from these sporadic reversed guitar exchanges and discordant riffs as it brings vitality to the pulsating alt-rock groove (further intensified with exotic Indian melodic inflections penetrating the rock backdrop).

RADWIMPS’ willingness to push boundaries in the musical mainstream makes them much more distinctive than other regular rock bands in Japan. It’s a frame of mind that any musicians should immerse themselves into, if they want to capture the attention of listeners and audiences.

Other Listening:

  • おしゃかしゃま Oshakashama *a play on the word ‘Oshakasama’ (‘Buddha’)
  • いえない Ienai (‘Cannot Say’)
  • ふたりごと Futarigoto (‘Talk between each other’)

© Isaku Takahashi

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UPDATE – New Japanese Vibes

So, I’ve decided to start a new corner for this blog. With the limited spare time I have nowadays I endeavour to seek out freshly released awesome tunes that capture my attention, and briefly explore the qualities behind these songs.

These posts will be compiled under the simple title ‘New Japanese Vibes’ in the right sidebar section.

Or alternatively, here:

https://jpopthroughmylookingglass.wordpress.com/category/new-japanese-vibes/

I’ve also took some time to categorise my posts under certain groups of genres. (Find them also in the sidebar!)

© Isaku Takahashi

New Japanese Vibes (1) – サカナクション Sakanaction 新宝島 ‘Shin Takarajima’

After a silent period, Sakanaction are back in the spotlight with 新宝島 ‘Shin Takarajima’ (‘New Treasure Island’), a song that is brimming with unapologetically retro, kitsch features. From the outset, a woozy synth pad fluctuates through the stereo field, the melody drawing influence from a Japanese pentatonic idiom, which returns later in the final chorus/outro, perhaps capturing the spirit of the influential Yellow Magic Orchestra.

The music is accompanied with a rather humorous music video, with an army of adrenalized cheerleaders dancing on a stage that reflects the visual entertainment style of the Showa Era, and Sakanaction themselves getting into a bit of choreography (perhaps for a witty touch, they purposefully express a lack of effort in their moves).

On reflection, this tune has all the ingredients of a powerful new wave dance anthem: a sonic narrative full of peaks and troughs, a foot-tapping drumbeat and infectious vocal and synth melodies. In the current Japanese musical climate, one may feel a sense of familiarity from the sounds, but it is also absolutely unique in equal measure.

Other Info/Context

  • This song was written as the soundtrack to the film adaptation of the popular manga バクマン ‘Bakuman’.
  • The title of this new single is taken from a manga by Tezuka Osamu (by the same name).
  • For more insight into Sakanaction, check out my blog post here.

© Isaku Takahashi

Daisuke Tanabe

Music is its own special world where innovative thinking and creative breakthrough is celebrated. The Red Bull Music Academy graduate Daisuke Tanabe exhibits a unique sound world that intertwines between the infectious beats of hip-hop and techno, the seductive melodies of jazz and the innovative and abusing sonic textures that is indebted to electronica and IDM.

The intricate details Tanabe feeds into his creative output in tracks like ‘Paper Planes‘ is enough to engross the audience in an exclusive, otherworldly realm. This particular track from his latest album Floating Underwater glorifies in glittering bell samples, a stumbling and stuttering beat line that somehow manages to keep a consistent momentum, and ripples of woozy, alien-like synths fluctuating through the stereo field at the end, giving an inconclusive effect to the tune.

While he is creatively engaged in the same periphery of the musical universe as similar artists like Lapalux, Shigeto or Shlohmo, Tanabe retains a keen eye for groovy energy in his tunes. ‘Night Fishing’ opens with an unwinding audio sample that rustles through the first minute, with the one-off interruption from a chirpy flute motif and interjecting distortion samples. The groove of the track kicks off suddenly with an array of enchanting synths, multi-layered samples with a subtle metallic quality, short, ethereal vocal utterances and a foot-tapping trip-hop drum beat.

His long-term relationship with the UK music scene (fostered by his time spent in London and at the RBMA) has made him a well-known figure in the UK electronic music environment, leading to collaborations with British producer Kidkanevil (Gerard Roberts). Kidsuke, the name of the project they created takes the listener through a journey where childhood recollections and a distorted ‘film noir’-esque setting run in parallel. There is the apparent use of a music box sample in ‘Frogs in a Well’ that meanders through the track, and is continuously disturbed with sonic reprimands (in the form of sporadic vocal breath and pixelated glitch samples and riffs). It’s trailblazing music that paints a childlike reflection voyaging across a mythical sound world with malformed sonic creatures.

The name Daisuke Tanabe is surely part of the modern-day canon of radical and challenging popular music in Japan. His highly individual sonic inventions embrace a variety of stylistic branches from hip-hop to electronica to avant-garde to create a unique blend of relentless, sedative and teasing music.

Other Listening:

  • Artificial Sweetener
  • Alice
  • Singing Grass
  • Vestige

© Isaku Takahashi

秦基博 – Hata Motohiro

Hata Motohiro is the Japanese equivalent of the likes of James Morrison, James Blunt or any other male singer-songwriter who sells himself with their warm and husky vocal tones and unwinding acoustic guitar backdrop. The Yokohama bred singer’s voice is like no other in the Japanese musical landscape. The mahogany, rusty character that blends well with the classic soft-rock arrangements infuses a new life in the genre itself and the audible consciousness of listeners.

The earthiness and emotional depth achieved by Hata transcends those of his contemporaries. 僕らをつなぐもの ‘Bokura wo Tsunagu mono’ (‘The thing that connects us’) is a true-to-form saccharine love song filled with waves of lush strings, a sepia-shaded acoustic guitar accompaniment and a lyrical vocal melody, all of which are ingredients that could cast one’s mind back to the ballads of Elton John.

To add to his already distinct musical personality, his alluring vocal range that extends to falsetto proportions plays a considerable role in subtly lifting the emotional stratosphere of songs like メトロフィルム ‘Metro Film’, and that warmth of feeling surely resonate around the listener’s heart.

Hata’s musical palette has a good variety that takes the listener through a gentle roller coaster, perhaps determined by the array of influences that Hata looks up to. キミ、メグル、ボク ‘Kimi, Meguru, Boku’ (‘You, Turn, Me’) and its rhythmic propulsion, colourful instrumentation (in particular the addition of an electric organ) and the emotionally amplified chorus melody captures the rock ‘n’ roll era of Rod Stewart to great potential. By contrast, ひまわりの約束 ‘Himawari no Yakusoku’ (‘Promise of a Sunflower’) is a mellow number, opening with a sweet guitar phrase that reverberates a John Mayer-like sensation that blankets the listener in an intimate and pleasant affair. The song gradually makes way for a cradle-rocking drum line, sumptuous melodic phrases from the violins. It also demonstrates Hata’s virtuous lyrical writing and his ability to encapsulate the narrative and morals of the movie it was written for (the movie ‘Stand by me Doraemon’).

Hata Motohiro has successfully engraved his name on the Japanese singer-songwriter ‘wall of sound’, as he manages to find a balance between the universal charm of guitar-driven soft rock arrangements and his efforts to bring a fresh perspective of the Japanese singer-songwriter tradition.

Other Listening:

  • Rain
  • 朝が来る前に Asa Ga Kuru Mae Ni (‘Before the Morning Comes’)
  • 水彩の月 Suisai no Tsuki (‘The Watercoloured Moon’)

© Isaku Takahashi

Nujabes

The hip-hop world suffered a huge shock in 2010 when the death of Jun Seba (aka Nujabes) was announced. Five years since his death, it would be fitting to reflect on and pay tribute to Nujabes’ sensational musical flair.

His music epitomised hip-hop’s core musical values: tasteful cool-jazz inflections, compelling rhythmic patterns and beautiful melodic riffs soaked through his sonic palette. While his sound is brimming with instantly recognisable styles (from smooth jazz, rap, even a slight hint of Japanese pentatonic flavours), his musical dexterity to blend many styles together to form spellbinding and catchy tunes makes him an eclectic and original figure in the Japanese music scene.

Nujabes launched his career with his debut album Metaphorical Music, introducing audiences to a refreshing sound world that nourishes the spirit of listeners. While retaining a consistent hip-hop beat idiom, he explores different stylistic avenues to create a potpourri of riveting tunes. ‘A Day by Atmosphere Supreme’ sees an elegant silky piano playing alongside a classic hip-hop beat, spiced up with sporadic bursts of glittering percussion that resemble a peaceful starry night. By contrast, ‘The Final View’ is much more lively affair, with a melodious riff from a tangy oboe-like instrument accompanied by a chordal piano line and reverberant woodblocks, not forgetting a surprise Ornette Coleman-like saxophone solo in the distance.

With the help of an entourage of other artists, his 2005 album Modal Soul is a hip-hop universe of a different kind, with tunes such as ‘Modal Soul’ and ‘Horizon’ taking the spotlight in my opinion. ‘Modal Soul’, featuring the close friend of Nujabes and collaborator Uyama Hiroto navigates the listener through a sonic alley that juxtaposes intricate jazz piano and sax ornaments and funky Samba rhythms with a blanket of ambient overtones and resonances. The album concludes with ‘Horizon’, a 7-minute coda led by some bright ‘Alicia Keys-style’ jazz piano playing seasoned with wispy synth pads.

Spiritual State, Nujabes’ posthumous album is a farewell gift sewn up by some of his close collaborators while preserving the spirit of Nujabes. Perhaps this record is the most musically inventive and radical of Jun Seba’s output, as this 14-chapter musical novel delves into genres and styles that have never before been encountered by him. From Eastern European accents in ‘Far Fowls’, classic bebop/cool jazz drum figures in ‘Sky is Tumbling’ and rejuvenating Latin and Mediterranean flavours over a Boyz II Men-esque beat in ‘Island’, Spiritual State is a salute to one of Japan’s most respected artists.

His refined musical craft, and the meticulous attention he gives to every tune has made Nujabes a universally loved figure. His music is life affirming, a voyage, and an experience.

Other Listening:

  • Light on the Land
  • Peaceland
  • Who’s Theme
  • Latitude

© Isaku Takahashi

ガリレオガリレイ – Galileo Galilei

Following conventions is a problem that is highlighted in the music mainstream and the manufactured nature of the majority of chart-topping artists and bands in Japan. Fortunately, Galileo Galilei, currently a three-piece band from Hokkaido prefecture (formerly a six-member group) has captured the attention of the Japanese consciousness with their refreshing musical offerings.

Their band name was decided by a rather casual roulette. Each member submitted two band names in a tissue box and it was bass guitarist Sako’s idea that got picked. While it makes it difficult for their profile to pop up easily in search engines, perhaps it is a verbal portrayal of their motivation: to succeed in bringing about change in the Japanese musical landscape, just like the real Galileo Galilei who revolutionised the world of science.

Galileo Galilei’s biggest hit up-to-date 青い栞 ‘Aoi Shiori’ (‘Blue Bookmark’) is a pleasant friendly-rock number that illustrates their youthful and refreshing personality that first brought people’s attention. While the driving force from the rhythm section retains a feel-good atmosphere, the charming, mellow vocal quality from Yuuki Ozaki invites the listener to an intimate affair with the band, making the overall track welcoming for any listener who wants to get into the Galileo Galilei bandwagon.

When exploring the body of music they have released so far, what’s evident is the idea that Galileo Galilei are still searching for their musical identity. Their latest album Alarms (from 2013) is perhaps their most stylistically progressive. ‘Jonathan’, one of the tracks from the album conveys a vitality punctuated by clearly defined vocoder processing and their traditional rock band set-up padded out with airy synth shades that disperse in a celestial manner.

Since their navigation through a new stylistic journey, their 2015 single 嵐のあとで ‘Arashi no atode’ (‘After the storm’), written for the short anime film 台風のノルダ Typhoon Noruda, takes us back to their rock foundations. Compared to their early musical output, this song prevails in an accentuated live aesthetic, a euphoric vocal melody and poetic lyrics that speak to the emotional depth expressed throughout the film, and an all-embracing stadium rock atmosphere that draw resemblances to bands like The Script or The Fray. Perhaps the progression towards a more anthemic idiom is a sign of their maturity and growing stature as a band that can resonate musically and emotionally at a ‘Coliseum’ level.

From such a young age, Galileo Galilei have blossomed in the Japanese music scene. Their musical journey is like a ‘Prelude and Fugue’: their youthful beginnings as a ‘back-to-basic’ rock personality have slowly wandered towards various musical potentials, measured by their versatility and their successful hits that cross over a range of styles.

Other Listening:

  • Cobalt Blue
  • Good Shoes
  • サークルゲーム Circle Game

© Isaku Takahashi