Ed’s Picks: Top 5 Japanese Albums of February 2020

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One might expect the best Japanese music releases from February to be rather love-obsessed but, in truth, music’s always pretty romance-themed. We’ve already looked at the top singles from February, and here are five new Japanese albums that you will fall in love with.

Regal Lily, ‘Bedtime Story’

Ki/oon

It can often be difficult to properly appreciate some of the best modern indie rock simply because many of the genre’s avenues have already been so thoroughly explored. Relative to the masses of artists in the genre, few actively look to push it in fresh directions. On the face of it, Bedtime Story is another of those indie rock albums. It attempts nothing spectacular; no radical deconstructions or dramatic breakdowns, no obvious eccentricities or instances of brash genre-hopping.

Regal Lily rarely look further than the bass/guitar/drums combo so familiar to indie rock, but such is the calibre of their performances and songwriting that Bedtime Story – only their debut – is a tremendously enjoyable record. It captures the possibilities of unpretentious rock music with its far-reaching depth, still managing to surprise and entertain despite its comparative modesty. Vocalist Takahashi Honoka is especially impressive, her guitar providing little melodies that take precedence in every track, even through thick phases of distortion.

This three-piece, all-female indie rock band see themselves as peers among other incredible all-girl Japanese bands such as Shonen Knife, Tricot and Mass of the Fermenting Dregs, and it’s easy to see why. While they seem to actively avoid the same sort of spectacle as those bands, their writing and performances prove they’re just as capable. Bedtime Story is the full-length debut of a band with a lot of promise, a refreshing dose of unpretentious indie rock that proves that one can be boundary-pushing without overly trying to be so.

Eve, ‘Smile’

Toy’s Factory

Pop rock in the 2020s is about more than just catchy choruses, predictably loud dramatics and familiar chord progressions. It involves pinpointing exactly what defines current pop trends, taking note of the zeitgeist and tuning-in accordingly. Crucial too, however, is to keep some footing as an artist in one’s own right. On Smile, Eve manages these competing factors remarkably well, allowing his influences to weigh-in while maintaining some kind of distinctive sound.

Elements of hip hop, R&B, trap and electropop amount to the “pop” on Smile, while Eve works in bits of math rock, chamber pop and ambient pop to define his own sound. Ballads with hard-hitting hip hop beats, catchy hooks and ear-worming vocal melodies rub shoulders with delicate guitar plucking and sections of horns and strings, all fitted together with glossy production. He experiments with that production throughout in a way typical of a Vocaloid producer. The sonic warping and tweaking all makes for an engrossing listen and, though the synthetic vocals may take some getting used to, the quality and subtle breadth of all the sounds on here are immediately appealing.

Ill Japonia, ‘Ill’

Eastern Margins

Ill Japonia is the solo project of Taigen Kawabe, the bassist and vocalist of experimental psychedelic rock outfit Bo Ningen. Ill, his debut EP, opts for cloud rap instead of psych rock, seeing Kawabe turn his chops to a hip hop genre pioneered on Soundcloud and known for its relaxed, dreamlike, reverb-heavy beats. For the life of me, I can’t think of a single historical instance where such a bold stylistic switch has gone well (especially from rock to rap), yet Kawabe pulls it off. He holds just as good a grasp of the moodiness and distance of cloud rap as any of his younger peers (at 33, he’s comparatively old in the genre), while his hushed delivery, complete with understated autotune, fits traits typical of the style.

Ill isn’t, however, just another attempt at latching-on to popular trends. A short EP, the production of Ill is distinctly more impressive than most cloud rap offerings. There’s definitely something about Ill Japonia that hovers among the clouds, but it does so in a way that isn’t so much dreamy but solitary, cold and cavernous to the horizon. Here Kawabe offers his own interpretation of cloud rap, no doubt influenced by his outsider, experimental, psychedelic origins; showing himself to be a man whose many talents extend far further than many first thought.

Yui Onodera, ‘Moire ‘

Room40

The sho is a wind instrument central to gagaku, the origins of which date from the Nara Period (710-794). Self-coined creator of “ambient sound fields” (or “ambient music artist” to you and me) Yui Onodera has been learning the sho since 2016, Moire being the first work that showcases his use of the instrument. A piece in five parts, Moire appears at first to be a far simpler record than it actually is. Onodera’s use of the sho often makes it appear like the sole instrument; a solitary, beautiful, striking sound that drones from one note to another. This isn’t the first time instruments with such bleeding, winsome sounds have been used in drone music – Keiji Haino’s use of hurdy-gurdy on The 21st Century Hard-Y-Guide-Y Man (1995) and Tim Hecker’s pipe organ on Ravedeath, 1972 (2011) both come to mind – though this is the first time I’ve heard sho used as the principle instrument.

The real, rewarding depth of Moire, however, comes from Onodera’s intricate sound design, which swells deftly under his sho play. His experience as an ambient musician enables him to plump up what may otherwise be a rather stark sound, playing off the sho in a way that is barely noticeable but pivotal to the overall success of the project. It transforms these brief sketches into something gorgeous and effective; the piece manages to be transportive despite its under-twenty-minute runtime. Though the concept of Moire won’t cause any tremors in the worlds of ambient and drone music, it’s a remarkably pretty work and one of the more intriguing, contemplative EPs released so far this year.

BIM, ‘Not Busy’

Summit, Inc.

Rapper BIM, previously of The Otogibanashi’s, has followed-up to his 2018 album The Beam with Not Busy, another stellar, varied, and altogether rather joyous hip hop project. Lyrically, BIM doesn’t offer anything particularly profound. He does, however, contribute significantly to a pretty consistent feeling of elation throughout this short EP.

Produced by Rascal, previously known for his work with the likes of Chance the Rapper, Little Simz, Logic and Jay Rock (as well as on The Beam), there’s a contagious feeling of celebration throughout so much of Not Busy that one finds hard to avoid. There’s a lot to be said for this kind of particularly well-made, soul-and-jazz-sampling hip hop, and the six tracks here are easy to get caught-up in.

Feature image: Losev Artyom / Shutterstock.com

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