Picks of the Week #17

Kicking off 2017 with an anthemic number by J-rock group BUMP OF CHICKEN. GO’ from their 8th album Butterflies glides through the musical stratosphere with sparkling energy and purity in equal measure. The sumptuous mix of euphoric vocal melodies, jangling guitar riffs, radiant EDM synths and resonant stadium-rock vibe awakens a Coldplay-like character and shines their distinct alt-rock personality to full bloom, just as the Japanese audience like it. Find out more about BUMP OF CHICKEN in my blog post here.

  • 星野源 Hoshino Gen – 恋 ‘Koi’

Arguably one of the biggest hits by singer-songwriter星野源 Hoshino Gen, 恋 ‘Koi’ (‘Love’) excited the nation last year with its buoyant, retro-coloured J-pop vibes and infectious choreography. The song’s foot-tapping beats, sumptuous strings, caffeine-infused guitar riffs and Hoshino’s joyful vocals provided the perfect companion for the TV adaptation of the romance shojo manga series 逃げるは恥だが役に立つ Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu.

The rhythmic propulsion of rock and minimalism collides with the melodic intricacy of jazz in Fox Capture Plan’s new track ‘Acceleration’. Relentless drum and bass lines and perpetual piano riffs drive through the musical motorway at unstoppable pace, but the trio also experiments with hypnotic sample and timbral effects to immerse the listener in both familiar and different sonic realms. This track features in their latest mini album color and monochrome 2, in collaboration with fellow jazz group bohemianvoodoo. Find out more about Fox Capture Plan in my blog post here. 

© Isaku Takahashi

New Japanese Vibes (26) – Lullatone ‘A Photograph From The Day You Were Born’

The delicate and charming ‘pajama pop’ of Lullatone in 2016 is bound to be quite a busy one. The Japanese-American duo of 富田淑美 Tomita Yoshimi and Shawn James Seymour made a new years resolution to release a new track every Thursday in 2016, and ‘A Photograph From The Day You Were Born’ is their second track they have shared. You can expect their soundcloud page to get pretty vibrant.

This sweet little tune encapsulates Lullatone’s imaginative musical personality. Cute melodies, twinkling tuned percussion, serene sine-wave textures, electronic crafts, silky strings and gentle piano and guitar harmonies soothe and coat the listener’s ears in a transparent, honey-glazed ambience.

Other Info/Context

  • Check out my other post on Lullatone here.

© Isaku Takahashi

角銅真美 Kakudo Manami

角銅真実 Kakudo Manami’s compositional craft has a special power to take one’s audible senses into the unknown. A percussionist, composer and a keen eye for art and drawing manga, the Nagano prefecture born musician boasts an eccentric musical personality that shares traits from both contemporary and popular territories.

Kakudo’s music conveys a strong interest towards minimalist aesthetics. 小さなトラック ‘Chiisana Torakku’ (‘A Small Track’) is a strong example that embraces minimal approaches. Under the duo name 文角 Bunkaku (*taking a character from each name) Kakudo alongside BUN imai engage in a repetitive musical conversation based on a riff from the pianica and melodion which fluctuates between two chords and a sweet melodic motif from the sparkling glockenspiel, growing towards jarring distortion sounds and dwindling into more intimate solos. With minimal material (both instrumentally and musically), Bunkaku manage to brew a perpetual cycle of energy that speaks to the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

The poignant quality of わたしのすいか ‘Watashi no Suika’ (‘My Watermelon’) perhaps attests for a vision of cinematic musical portraits. The track consists of a solo piano for the most part unwinding at a gentle pace with a silky ascending melodic pattern and sonorous harmonies, like a serene flow of water. At sporadic moments, bursts of ornamentation and tonal dissonances are scattered like raindrops or impurities forming ripples on a lagoon. Shy vocal utterances from Kakudo reveal itself as the piece dies down to a faint conclusion.

Gamla stan’ is a personal favourite, perhaps because of the way it relieves my audible senses from any troubles and disturbances with simple musical and sonic ideas. Evocative of a Sigur Ros-like meditative sound world, the track wanders through like velvet with tranquil harmonic progressions and melodies from the electric piano and the hazy yet smooth vocals of Kakudo.

On the façade Kakudo Manami’s music appear simple, yet closer attention will immerse listeners in an exhibition of enchanting sonic experiences.

Other Listening:

  • Wine Song
  • Febuary 1
  • kaeru

© 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

TOE

TOE is a name that many post-rock and math-rock enthusiasts will be familiar with. The musical wizardry from this quartet not only just captures the rhythmically intense, mechanistic character of math-rock, but also has a keen eye for calm melodic ambiences that would perhaps draw resemblances to the nostalgic sound world of Sigur Ros.

Their debut album The Book About My Idle Plot on a Vague Anxiety absorbs the listener in a world where Steve Reich minimalism meets alternative rock. The most impressive thing is the way TOE manages to construct a body of music that is musically attractive, thought provoking and action-packed with only the bare necessities of a typical rock line-up. Listening to tracks like ‘I Do Still Wrong’, ‘Metronome’ and ‘Everything Means Nothing’ is enough to show off their exceptional performance abilities and manner in which they juggle with electrifying rhythms, irregular gear-and-piston structures and enchanting melodies to produce something that sounds epic but liberating in equal measures.

The camaraderie between each member is very special and unmatched by other post/math-rock artists. ‘New Sentimentality’ is a great example in which every player of the quartet is cast a spotlight; each instrument plays a significant role in the creative formula. The motoring force set by the rhythmically exciting drums and the groovy bass line stirs up the vitality of the song, while the rich chords and arpeggios from the acoustic and electric guitar and the charming sparkling tones from the Rhodes piano injects a ‘feel-good’ atmosphere to the track.

TOE’s latest album Hear You released in July 2015 is noted for its addition of vocal lines, in a plot to subvert their purely instrumental idiom. While the album itself, particularly with songs like ‘Song Silly’ and オトトタイミングキミ ‘Ototo Timing Kimi’ (literally translated as ‘The Sound and Timing You’) may have swung the musical pendulum towards a funky hip-hop or R&B style, perhaps it is effective in enhancing their musical palette. As a result, tracks like ‘Boyo’ maintain the band’s trademark musical identity, but also benefits from a slightly jazzy inflection to develop their sound.

TOE’s existence in the Japanese music scene is of great significance. Their dynamic musical identity and their appetite for precision and creative urgency will continue to serve them well.

Other Listening:

  • Two Moons
  • Commit Ballad
  • Ordinary Days

© 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