80KIDZ

80KIDZ, consisting of duo Ali and Jun (formerly a trio when Mayu left in 2009) have caught the attention of various global musical hubs with their exhilarating music that pertains both to the conventional principles of electro/dance/rave styles and the ever-growing interest and appetite for original and innovative musical personalities.

Their first album This Is My Shit back in 2009 is a seminal work of the Japanese duo, most notably for attracting the eye of Pete Tong from BBC Radio 1 leading to a segment of his radio show In New Music We Trust dedicated to a closer exploration of 80KIDZ’s music. ‘She’ and ‘Miss Mars’ were two of three tracks to feature in the segment. ‘She’, featuring the fluid vocals of AutoKratz is a piece of seductive electroclash, motored by a powerful four-on-the-floor drumbeat, recapitulating piano arpeggios and a dazzling array of synth patterns and textures. ‘Miss Mars’ induces a similar irresistible foot-tapping groove, but is tinged with shades of chiptune timbres in the choppy synth lines. Both of these tunes would be equally harmonious in a laser-filled rave atmosphere.

Weekend Warrior, their second album has a captivating quality that is equally impressive as their previous effort. Subtle contrasts in character between individual songs gives a fine variation when one is navigating through the musical labyrinth. As a comparison, ‘Prisma’ with its neon-tinged synths perpetuating through a bright melodic phrase coordinated with an equally infectious squelchy bass line and bustling drum rhythms and samples provoke a rhapsodic sensation. One track later, ‘I Wish’ intrudes the album with a much more contorted, dizzy affair with quirky vocal samples manipulated tonally and texturally stirring up a spectral undertone, and seesawing synth layers, bass lines and fluctuating drum patterns making the listener endure a more volatile sonic experience.

Some of 80KIDZ’s most recent material has seen the duo occasionally venture into introspective territories, such as ‘Apollo 80’. A ghostly ambience from the piano figure laced with quivering echoes in the backdrop introduces the track, and this sense of long-windedness stretches through the whole journey with a gentle propulsion hardly associated with the duo’s trademark electro-pop aesthetics. Perhaps this piece is emblematic of their different creative intentions surrounding the album TURBO TOWN, in which this piece features.

The appeal of 80KIDZ’s intoxicating music has not only enriched the Japanese electronic music landscape, but transcended cultural boundaries as audiences of various cultures look forward to the Japanese duo embarking on more fresh and exciting sonic adventures.

Other Listening:

  • Esquire
  • Flying Buttress
  • Nautilas
  • Red Star
  • Lightwaves

© Isaku Takahashi

アニソン – Anime Songs

My recent feature on Mizuki Nana has reinvigorated my interest towards anime culture, and the collaborative potentials between music and one of the most distinctive entertainment forms. Bearing in mind the never-ending list of awesome anime songs, here is just an introduction to some great anime songs (past and present) that have come to enlighten the popular consciousness.

  • Linked Horizon – 紅蓮の弓矢 ‘Guren no Yumiya’

The recent craze and popularity of Attack on Titan has propelled ‘fantasy band’ Sound Horizon/Linked Horizon to new heights. ‘Guren no Yumiya’ was written as the opening theme for the first thirteen episodes of the anime series. The epic nature of the song, where symphonic language meets progressive and metal rock encapsulates the energy and feelings of conflict and determination conveyed through the action-packed narrative.

  • 大野雄二 Ohno Yuji Lupin the Third

We have the mastermind of Ohno Yuji to thank for one of Japan’s most recognisable anime theme tunes. The turbo-geared vibe of the theme song for Lupin the Third is full of colourful harmonies, textures and melodies. The 1978 and ‘79 versions lob similar propulsion; echoing the classic funk idioms of Curtis Mayfield or Earth, Wind and Fire, with Mancini-style string melodies weaving through the ensemble. The addition of radiant synths distinguishes the ‘79 version to the former. On the other hand, the ’80 version propels a zestful big band sensation full of swing inflections and a spotlight on the vibraphone, expressing a rather brazen Pink Panther-esque personality. (The clip here is a comparison of the three different arrangements)

  • T.M. Revolution x Mizuki Nana – 革命デゥアリズム ‘Kakumei Dualism’

This tune is arguably the quintessence of modern anime song. Its high-speed breathtaking sonic atmosphere captures the futuristic atmosphere and action-packed story of the anime Valvrave the Liberator. A symphonic rock idiom forms the backdrop of the song: voltage-charged guitars meet grandiose string melodies, and the aggressive vocal behaviour of T.M. Revolution meets the operatic yet fierce vocal magnitude of Mizuki Nana.

  • 平野綾 Hirano Aya – ‘God Knows’

Featuring in the anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, this tune reverberates a high-octane exuberance emitted by the grumbling bass line, ferocious guitar virtuoso, bustling drum rhythms and a gust of fire from the penetrating vocals of Hirano Aya. While the song serves a particular purpose as part of the narrative, it has a catchy sensation that perhaps would attract attention as an autonomous piece of ‘J-Pop’ without the aid of the anime. (I for one haven’t followed the manga or anime, but feel comfortable or get along with the song without any knowledge of the story. Perhaps this is a clear example of how anime songs can play a role on the effect, but also act as a result of a particular anime).

  • 高橋洋子Takahashi Yuko – 残酷な天使のテーゼ ‘Zankoku na Tenshi no Tēze’

One of the most influential anime tunes to come out of the country, ‘Zankoku na Tenshi no Tēze’ has transcended generations and cultures, and is now recognised by audiences of many ages and cultures. The music is bursting with unapologetically kitsch dance/disco features, vintage sonic shades and timbres, pronounced heavily by the neon-tinged synths and drum machines. While director 庵野秀明 Anno Hideaki’s original idea to use Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances as the opening theme got dismissed, one cannot help but see subtle resemblances between the vocal melody of Takahashi and Borodin’s ‘orientalist’ idiom.

  • きただにひろし Kitadani Hiroshi – ウィーアー! ‘We Are!’

Alongside Evangelion and Lupin the Third, this is perhaps one of the most iconic tunes of today’s anime culture. Originally sung by Kitadani Hiroshi, this jolly tune has been covered by various J-Pop artists including pop group AAA (SKY-HI is also a member of the 7-piece unit), a testament to the song’s universal charm. Both versions listed here are brimming with an energy driven by fanfare trumpet stabs and electrifying guitar solos, and while the Kitadani version comprises of a classic band line-up, AAA embraces a wide scope of synths to enrich the heroic vibe and high spirit conveyed through the music and lyrics.

(AAA Version)

Realising that fact that this post has omitted many more unforgettable, iconic anime songs, this only gives us some perspective of the diversity in musical flavours to come out of the anime sphere. Throwing yourself in the eclectic mix of fantasies is the best way to grasp the weird and wonderful world of anime.

© Isaku Takahashi

New Japanese Vibes (6) – ゲスの極み乙女 Gesu No Kiwami Otome オトナチック ‘Otonachikku’

Formed by 川谷絵音 Kawatani Enon, frontman of the band Indigo La End, Gesu No Kiwami Otome released their new track オトナチック ‘Otonachikku’ that further accentuates the band’s creative intentions: To write J-rock that appeals to the musical mainstream but equally bold and daring in palette choices.

It’s quite difficult to categorise their sound in a convenient sentence. Describing themselves as a ‘hip-hop/progressive’ group, there is more in this tune that belies their simple stylistic description. A progressive rock idiom plays a prominent role in the opening exchanges between the driving drum rhythms and muscly bass groove. To counter that, the delicate piano chords in the first verse, the rippling guitar strums and neon-coloured synths in the pre-chorus act as a stylistic counterpoint, instantly taking the song to another avenue until the chorus nudges the musical narrative back to its playful rock setting. Wild neoclassical/post-minimalist harmonic progressions from the piano glisten the second verse as Kawatani’s muffled voice and lilting backing vocals stir up a slightly eerie ambience. Highly syncopated rhythmic exchanges trigger the middle instrumental section where prog rock solos and warped electronic embellishments meet one way and right through the final chorus.

Other Info/Context

  • Gesu No Kiwami Otome translates as ‘Girl at the height of rudeness’.

© Isaku Takahashi

きのこ帝国 – Kinoko Teikoku

The popularity of shoegaze and dream pop in Japan has translated in the growth and wonderful array of shoegaze practitioners (even a record label, DEAD FUNNY RECORDS, dedicated to numerous bands creating under the genre’s spotlight). We turn our attention back to the alternative rock genre with きのこ帝国 Kinoko Teikoku (meaning ‘Mushroom Empire’).

The rather peculiar name of the band parallels the band’s distinctive musical character. While their debut full album Eureka inclines towards a more indie-centric groove (some tracks perhaps drawing comparisons to bands like Vampire Weekend or The Kooks), there is a wealth of shoegaze characteristics penetrating their tracks: an interest for various textures highlighted by the piercing guitar overtones and clamouring distortion in 平行世界 ‘Heikou Sekai’ (‘Parallel World’), vivid expression of dream pop from the delicate and dreamy vocals of Chiaki Satou infused with reverberant surf rock guitar refrains in 風化する教室 ‘Fūka suru Kyoushitsu’ (‘Weathering Classroom’), and the cloudy, droning introduction and narcotic guitar effects in the chours of ‘Another Words’ conveying ‘wall of sound’ aesthetics.

夜が明けたら ‘Yoru ga Aketara’ (‘If It Dawns’) from their first ever record is Kinoko Teikoku at their most compelling. Brimming with melancholy and dazzling beauty, the most impressive thing about this particular track is the way the quartet manage to stir up a myriad of colours under great harmonic constraints (the song alternates between two chords). It opens with jangling guitar arpeggios gently simmering away, eventually throwing in meandering vocal melodies and blaring guitars and drums with crackling distortion, conducting intense fluctuations in dynamics and textures, and all comes crashing down with a brief high-octane noisy conclusion.

Songs like ‘Flower Girl’ and ‘You Outside My Window’ glorify in production work that is perhaps unrivaled by any other band in Japan. The slow-burning atmosphere of ‘Flower Girl’ is enriched by wispy reverberating vocals by Satou, minimal drum patterns, subdued guitar pulses, ethereal piano-like melodies and sporadic sonic samples, all coming together to paint a sparkling soundscape in the listener’s imaginary senses. The song culminates in a rich wall of harmonies from amplified guitars and shattering drums and eerie vocal samples gradually warped into hysteria. ‘You Outside My Window’ on the other hand is shoegaze with garage rock propulsion steering the treadmill. The way Satou’s vocals in the introduction are positioned within the stereo field enhances a sense of intimacy between her and the listener, and that interest towards panning renews energy like no other, a personal favourite being the final instrumental exchanges before the final chorus where the guitars and bass cluster towards the center and disperse back to their original position in the field.

Kinoko Teikoku have a creative instinct that only they can engineer to perfection, but they also have an infectious quality that makes them very appealing to the wider audience. To be able to find the balance between artistic integrity and commercial appeal is something very rewarding.

Other Listening:

  • 海と花束 Umi to Hanataba (‘The Sea and the Bouquet’)
  • 24
  • ロンググッドバイ Long Goodbye
  • WHIRLPOOL
  • 退屈しのぎ Taikutsu Shinogi (‘Killing Time’)

© Isaku Takahashi

New Japanese Vibes (5) – tofubeats ‘OPEN YOUR HEART’

The day after posting my feature on tofubeats, the man himself reveals his new killer of a track, ‘OPEN YOUR HEART’.

Like many of his tunes, ‘OPEN YOUR HEART’ is bursting with an array of colours and textures. A funky groove from the bass line and the thumping drumbeat activates the spark of the song, gradually making way for other sonic forces to enrich the audible space. Warm radiant synth pads spew out walls of harmonies, an inherently Japanese melodic riff from the koto-like sample adds a tinge of traditional influence and a seductive warped vocal sample stimulates the futuristic atmosphere.

This is just a small fraction of the track’s musical detail. A closer listen will immerse your audible senses, but the bristling energy of the song would be equally effective in invigorating your bodily sensations.

Other Info/Context

  • Check out my post on tofubeats here.

© Isaku Takahashi

Fox Capture Plan

Since the origins of jazz music in the West, various musical cultures showed a great interest towards the popular form and as a result seen the genre take on diverse musical routes and collaborations with other styles. My recent discovery and enthusiasm towards Mouse on the Keys has led me towards a similar band, Fox Capture Plan.

Similarly to Mouse on the Keys, one could make close comparisons to the Neil Cowley Trio. The classic jazz trio surface (consisting of piano, bass and drums) of Fox Capture Plan belies their music brimming with motoric rhythms, colourful harmonies and a prominent rock/pop buzz. ‘RISING’ captures this perfectly. The opening piano melody has a minimalist quality that sets the treadmill going, which is strengthened further by the bustling drums, bold bass line and also the rich left hand piano chords that provide harmonic substance. The track is full of musical colour from intricate jazzy melodies to extravagant syncopated chapters, progressing naturally at the trio’s desire (without the aid of clear-cut verse-chorus sections), stirring up an almost hypnotic ambience towards the end.

The clever detail about Fox Capture Plan’s sound world is the equilibrium between the infectious grooves of pulsating rock and their awareness for meticulous musical details. From an initial audible glance, 疾走する閃光 ‘Shissou suru Senkou’ (‘Dashing flash of light’) engages in a goal-oriented rock momentum decorated with melodies that perhaps evoke the qualities of Sakamoto Ryuichi. But with a closer listen and greater attention to detail, the song beholds a flurry of intricate rhythmic details, particularly the accents situated in the melody that create a similar effect to the repetitive and propulsive manner of minimalist music.

It is clear that the trio relish complexity, highlighted in tracks like ‘Primitive Mechanics’. While the simple drumbeat sustains a regular pulse, the piano plays a significant role as it engages in a predominantly syncopated affair. It opens with a neoclassical Fugue-like piano figure with ascending fifths marking out the offbeats. Some sonic interest is built up with faint stereo panning and what feels like subtle injections of EQ sweeps on the piano. With harmonic and melodic intricacies that perhaps evoke the urgency of free jazz married with the motoring force of progressive rock, this track leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

Fox Capture Plan finds a niche between creative tenacity and commercial appeal. The brand of music Fox Capture Plan and other similar bands have brought about in the Japanese music scene will continue to capture great interest from domestic and international audiences.

Other Listening:

  • Beyond the Beyond
  • Attack on fox
  • 衝動の粒子 Shoudou no Ryushi (‘The Particle of Impulse’)
  • Born Slippy (Cover of song by Underworld)

© Isaku Takahashi

トーフビーツ – tofubeats

From one unusual artist name to another, but this time we stumble across the electronic music world. tofubeats, a DJ/producer from Kobe prefecture occupies a place in the list of Japan’s newest and finest electronic musicians with his highly individual sound world and creative approach.

Right from the outset, tofubeats major debut with the album Lost Decade sees his sonic palette wander through a myriad of genres. The contrast in styles between ‘FRESH SALAD’ (ft. SKY-HI) and the title track ‘LOST DECADE’ (ft. 南波志帆 Namba Shiho) truly reflects tofubeats versatility and the way he plays to the featured artists’ strengths. On one hand we see SKY-HI with his aggressive and dexterous rapping in ‘FRESH SALAD’ played in balance with the utterly electrifying foundations laid out by tofubeats (e.g. retro laser-tinged synths in the chorus, a time-contorted middle section and a pulsating beat line with warped vocal samples weaving in and out the stereo field). To juxtapose this hip-hop number sees the feathery vocals of Namba Shiho leading the way in ‘LOST DECADE’, lightly accompanied by soft piano chords throughout and a chorus driven by the pulse of hand claps and twinkling bells ushering the cute melody.

His musical flair comes to full capacity in tracks like ‘Populuxe’ and ‘Content ID’, where his hip-hop and electronic heritage serves as an advantage in producing exhilarating tunes. The irregular chopping and snapping drumbeats that strike your audible senses behave in a disoriented abstract manner (perhaps drawing comparisons to electronic artists like Lapalux), yet they retain constant propulsion that makes it equally infectious. On top of that, the neon gazing synths throughout both tracks radiate a party atmosphere that would make sense in multiple generations.

From the abstract nature of his 2014 album First Album (which also happened to be his first major label album), ‘STAKEHOLDER’ shows yet another angle of tofubeatsmusical character. Built under a catchy R&B beat and drizzled with 8-bit style vintage synth melodies and vocal samples, the track has the energy to ignite an all-night rave in a vibrant cosmopolitan city.

For versatility, tofubeats is second to none. He has sparked a new life in the Japanese electronic music landscape with his eclectic mix of tracks and exciting collaborations.

Other Listening:

  • すてきなメゾン ft. 玉城ティナ Suteki na Maison ft. Tamashiro Tina (‘A Beautiful Maison’)
  • POSITIVE ft. Dream Ami
  • #eyezonu
  • way to yamate
  • No. 1 ft. G. RINA

© Isaku Takahashi