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

TW music writer Ed Cunningham reviews the best albums by Japanese artists released this past month

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In the drowsy hustle of the post-summer slowdown, October saw some stellar autumnal picks but, lamentably, I haven’t found much that haunts or scares or jumps.

Just as rewarding as the following picks are Mekakushe’s Umareru, a lovely little left-field pop EP, and Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Slumbers 2, a mixture of soft city pop and dub electronics that manages to be really, really cool.

Ging Nang Boyz, ‘Hey Guys, We Love You’

(UK Project)

Ging Nang Boyz is a byword for some of the greatest Japanese noise rock this side of the millennium. The Boyz, a shifting lineup of musicians always led by Kazunobu Mineta, take the accessibility of pop punk, add influence from garage rock and surf punk, and gorge on noise rock in the vein of Japanese atmospheric influencers like Les Rallizes Dénudés and Fushitsusha.

Hey Guys, We Love You again shows Mineta’s uniquely approachable take on what can often be an exceptionally harsh genre. He uses the extremities of distortion as background for great arching tracks, the melodies of which spill out through the haze.

But to paint Hey Guys as purely a noisy punk album wouldn’t do justice to its many moments that don’t rely on extremes to enthral. There are tunes here grounded in alt-rock and folk rock or, as with YUKI’s appearance, that are in touch with J-pop. Mineta’s songwriting is great, unfazed (as usual) by extensive track times; while his vocals add more melody with a voice that, over two decades in practice, hasn’t faded a jot.

That mishmash of noise, pop punk and pop has made Ging Nang Boyz so popular both within and outside of Japan. Given the quality of Hey Guys in all three of those fields, Mineta’s cross-genre notoriety isn’t waning any time soon.

Sayohimebou, ‘Alien Galaxy Mail’

(P-VINE)

Alien Galaxy Mail sounds like Sayohimebou took some of the most intense electronic music styles of the past 30 years, threw them among elements of pop and sampling and decided it still wasn’t odd, pacey or disorientating enough.

It’s pitched as a collection of songs received via email from extra-terrestrial life forms in the year 2050 and, honestly, that sounds about right. Alien Galaxy Mail is sugary, wacky and mechanical; using elements of genres like IDM and glitch, chiptune and breakbeat and fusing them into some semblance of electropop.

The vocals, whether sampled or not, are digitally deformed, barely recognizable from their input form. They contribute to a trancing atmosphere, simply another layer of electronic instrumentation to Sayohimebou’s fluorescent hyperactivity.

That all likely makes Alien Galaxy Mail sound a bit weird – which it most certainly is. But it’s also really, really fascinating. Sayohimebou’s vision of the future isn’t always pleasant but it’s never dull. As their first release on a major Japanese label (P-VINE), it’s great to see this kind of experimentation normalized.

Tricot, ’10’

(Avex)

Tricot aren’t strangers to turning albums around pretty fast. Since 2013, they’ve averaged an album every other year, not including a slew of EPs and live recordings. 2020, however, marks the first time they’ve released two albums in a single year – 10 is the quartet’s fifth full-length studio record, a speedy follow-up to January’s Makkuro.

In many ways, 10 again contains everything that Tricot are known for. Math rock in its rhythms and gangly lead guitars, pop rock in its ease of access; 10 sees Tricot remain both catchy and melodic but complex and multifaceted, too.

Importantly, 10 differs enough from Makkuro to warrant such immediate release. Not only is it tighter, contained within a shorter run-time, but it’s rougher and noisier. With that added grit, it’s the closest Tricot has come to the kind of quality and consistency of T H E, their 2013 debut and masterpiece.

10 is therefore also remarkable enough to earn its celebratory title, which marks the band’s first decade. With Tricot at their most cohesive, expertly-performed and generally uplifting best, it’s difficult to think of a more fitting celebration.

Roth Bart Baron, Loud Color(s) and Silence Festival

(Space Shower Music)

Large-scale indie music features a lot in these picks, and Roth Bart Baron’s latest record exemplifies exactly why I frequently find the style so impressive. It typifies so much of the delicacy and skill required to effectively fashion such towering, colossal music.

Delivering drama through use of layering, vocal theatrics and annunciatory instrumental play is only half the battle. The rest lies in keeping tracks grounded and graspable. For RBB, that means keeping tracks rooted in the earthiness and warmness of indie folk.

Masaya Mifune, the brains behind RBB, manages these conflicts well. His songs are ominous and intense but they aren’t impersonal or gimmicky. Among themes of love, resolution and memory, it helps that his lyrics are very physical. They concern weathering storms, walking barefoot through forests, worlds crumbling and skies falling –  among lots of, as the title suggests, references to actual color.

Mifune snowballs the drama throughout Loud Color, utilizing all the features of a modern studio to add flourishes of vocal manipulation and synthesized textures to his folk grounding. A work of stamina, Loud Color is often exhausting but it’s worth it – breath-taking indie folk.

Tamanaramen, Future

(Connectune / JVCKENWOOD Victor)

Like Tricot, Tamanaramen is on her second release of the year but, that coincidence aside, they have little else in common. Tamanaramen makes music in the vein of some abstraction of hip hop, though with as much focus on soundscapes and futurism as lyrics and flow. Indeed, for much of Future, her latest EP and first major label work, one’s attention is captured almost entirely by the sound behind her voice.

Sour Cream, Tamanaramen’s first EP of 2020, differed mostly in its club beats. By comparison, Future is more atmospheric, subtle and, despite the omission of those beats, more engaging. In just over 12 minutes, she manages to achieve a swallowing, glowing serenity, within which her melodies are fragile but also intimidating, and slightly anxiety-inducing. The faintness of Tamanaramen’s voice, sunk beneath such rich, futuristic production, can be overwhelming.

Future therefore slots Tamanaramen in with a global crowd of musicians whose focus includes a very particular strain of experimental, futuristic pop. She’s no stranger among the likes of Björk, Arca and PC Music (to name very few) and, given that we’ve only had sub-15-minute hints of her work so far, she’s exceptionally promising.

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