A Farewell to Kinoko Teikoku

One of the most beloved Japanese alternative bands over the better part of the past decade has called it quits.  Kinoko Teikoku announced today that bassist Shigeaki Taniguchi decided to leave the band and focus on taking over his family’s temple.  Feeling that it wasn’t right to move on with a new bassist, the remaining three members went their own separate ways bringing an end to a twelve year run that saw the band go from indie darlings to major label signees, while also becoming one of the most identifiable Japanese shoegaze acts overseas.

Despite their status abroad as one of the most popular Japanese shoegaze acts – thanks in large part to their spot on Steven Tanaka’s Next Music from Tokyo tour in Canada in 2013 – Kinoko Teikoku was never truly a part of a Japanese shoegaze scene that was taking off on its third and most successful wave, despite a period of activity that aligned perfectly with the domestic shoegaze boom.  Within a year of releasing demo EP, “Yoru ga Aketara”, they signed with Daizawa Records, a subsidiary of launchpad indie label UK Project, and released the best material they would ever put out in “Uzu ni Naru”.  In 2013, the band released its defining debut album, “Eureka”, and fans of Japanese shoegaze had a new favorite artist.  With regard to shoegaze, Kinoko Teikoku’s legacy is centered more around popularizing the domestic scene overseas than any impact they had domestically.  They are often cited in shoegaze communities as the band that introduced people to the Japanese scene, but rarely mentioned within the country when talking about influential artists.

Following the release of the “Long Goodbye” EP in 2013, Kinoko Teikoku’s sound shifted from the harsh, 90s US alternative-infused shoegaze that fans had fallen in love with to a more major label friendly pop rock sound.  It was shortly thereafter that Kinoko Teikoku was signed to EMI, after which they would release an EP and a handful of albums.  The Kinoko Teikoku listening experience shifted from one of anticipation to the hope that the band might roll things back to their past sound. It was never fair, but it was always going to happen.  The band’s popularity was finally soaring domestically, and, save for a few creative nods to earlier material, the major label transition was in full force.  With each new release came more whiny nostalgia – I accept blame for being part of all of that – and that escalated further when frontwoman Chiaki Sato launched her solo project, which just felt like an extension of the whole change.

In a way, the news that Kinoko Teikoku is over provides a section of a fanbase that was never going to be happy with them again with a sense of relief.  The longing for something that was never going to come back is gone. Now we can listen to those first few releases without obnoxiously using them as the standard for future material. And the good news for those devotees who stuck with the band until the very end is that things didn’t end on a sour note.  Comments from the members on the band’s site were all very positive, though of course not without the sadness that is expected from a group of people who had been playing together for 12 years. A reunion may not be likely in the near future, but it’s not out of the question.

Kinoko Teikoku has also meant a lot to this site.  The band was a big focus of Muso Japan when I started it up in late 2011, and has always been a source of fun and thoughtful discussions.  I had the pleasure of seeing them for the first and only time in early 2012 at a small, empty venue in Nagoya, and it will always be one of the most satisfying live experiences in my time in Japan.  At their peak, Kinoko Teikoku’s combination of a furious but gorgeous guitar assault and absolutely heavenly vocals resulted in some of the best shoegaze to ever come out of Japan.  The band will be terribly missed, but their contribution to the Japanese music scene and the connection they were able to make with fans overseas will not be forgotten.

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This is the video that made me fall in love with Kinoko Teikoku for the first time:

Otom – “You Lost Me”

Tokyo-based shoegaze producer Otom is back with his first track of 2019, titled “You Lost Me”.  The new song is a bit more upbeat than the billowy electronic shoegaze he wowed us with last year, though if it’s too poppy for your taste Otom included an edited version that’s more or less a glitchy remix showcasing the track’s textural backdrop.  Otom sits atop a fairly long list of recording-only Japanese music projects that I wish would get a band together and take it to the stage.  His style of music seems like it would translate better than a lot of the lo-fi bedroom pop that also populates my list, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem like that will be happening.  In the meantime, we’re likely to get quite a few more singles this year, so at least we have that to look forward to.

You can pick up all of Otom’s work via Bandcamp.

The Rainy – “Film”

While it’s true that the Nagoya scene has been a bit lacking over the years with regard to shoegaze bands with a reputation outside the city, there’s been a steady flow of alternative bands largely based around Tsurumai live house Daytrip and its sister venue Daytrive.  That section of the Nagoya indie scene is extremely underrated, but it boasts real quality and considerable diversity.  Gloomy post rock outfit, The Rainy, has been one of the bands at the center of the current wave of Nagoya shoegaze-adjacent artists, and they followed up an impressive 2018 with the release of their debut EP, “Film”, at the start of this year.

The Rainy is one of a number of Nagoya bands that identify to some degree as shoegaze, but the way in which they draw on the genre is extremely subtle.  The band’s approach to songwriting is based largely on gradual crescendos from light, often acoustic, intros to deeper emotional finishes.  “Film” is basically a showcase of that style of song development, highlighted by the heart-wrenching fan-favorite that is the EP’s title track.  Though a lot of what The Rainy does is repetitive as a general process, they change it up by feinting and teasing the flows of songs, picking their shots and setting them up effectively.  The placement of “Yulunohi” smack in the middle of the EP creates a nice change of pace with its the piqnic-esque moody intensity.  It might be somewhat difficult to truly appreciate The Rainy without seeing their spectacular live performances, but “Film” is a nice introduction to what the band does.

You can listen to The Rainy’s “Film” EP on most streaming services and purchase it via iTunes.  Physical copies are also available for purchase via File-Under Records.

You can hear the title track below:

A Eulogy to Dots

Sudden announcements have apparently become a thing in the Japanese shoegaze scene.  Late last night, polarizing Japanese shoegaze idol group Dots (・・・・・・・・・) announced via Twitter that its final one-man live will be held in March, eliciting a wide range of responses from its substantial fan base.  The reasons for the breakup – or perhaps more appropriately, indefinite hiatus – aren’t totally clear at this point.  Since forming a little less than three years ago, Dots has emerged as one of the most popular bands in Japanese shoegaze, thanks in large part to its over-the-top live performances.


I first heard of Dots around the fall of 2016 when kiiro records boss Tsuji was getting ready for his first Chiba Shoegazer event.  None of our group of event organizers had ever heard of them, and the mini festival would be their official launching point.  The idea of a 9-person shoegaze idol group was a complicated one.  One one hand idol music has a very deserving reputation as exploitative and creepy – the Maho Yamaguchi story is just the most recent reminder of the dark side of the industry.  The idea of it infiltrating a scene that I had grown so close to was honestly a little troubling.  Dots wasn’t the first idol group to cross over into the genre, but it was the first to make that crossover its central theme.

On the other hand, there was some intrigue as the group was getting ready to get rolling.  The group was mysterious.  Each member took the stage wearing a visor, dressed in white dresses, and dancing almost intentionally awkwardly over blaring gazey pop tunes.  Again, the whole “alt idol” (eh…) thing was well-established by this point, but there was at least something consistent about what Dots was doing.  And as if the whole concept of a shoegaze idol group wasn’t weird enough on its own, the stretches of harsh noise and random cutting and eating of cabbage mid-set gave Dots the “weird Japan” push that would attract a sizable crowd of Japanophiles overseas, making Dots possibly the most popular Japanese shoegaze act on the planet.

I’ve been able to see Dots live a few times, and there’s always been this sense of conflict.  The music is actually pretty good, all things considered.  For Tracy Hyde’s Azusa Suga, who for my money is one of the best songwriters in the Japanese indie music scene right now, has contributed a number of songs – not surprisingly, Dots’ best material.  While there music is at times the sort of paper thin, overly cute stuff you might expect from an idol group, enough of their catalog is well-written and fun.  The group’s live performances are outrageous and the energy is always high, credit for which is due to Dots’ loyal, seemingly entirely male fanbase that travels well and has each song’s choreography and call and response interjection’s down to a T.  The performances are incredibly entertaining spectacles that make you forget momentarily that idol groups are essentially collections of cute, young girls controlled by men for the sake of men.

Despite my apprehension about idol culture, the industry is an important, albeit tragic, part of Japanese music culture.  This has been the strongest half-decade in the history of Japanese shoegaze and Dots has been a significant part of the scene’s canon.  The girls themselves have simply been doing what they want to do, and while we can look to deeper statements that may make about Japanese society, if we come at this from a purely musical or entertainment standpoint, the group has been a success and has gotten shoegaze gig-goers in the country to stop just standing there.

Whether this breakup is a long-term thing remains to be seen.  The announcement was followed up by a super vague blog post that didn’t do much to shed any light on the situation.  Dots has a Total Feedback appearance at the end of this month that will almost certainly be packed – Spool and Dots have been two of the event’s largest draws in recent years – and then the aforementioned final one-man in March.  If I was interested in betting, I’d wager that we’ll see more from Dots in the future.  The whole thing has gone way too well to this point, and even if Dots doesn’t eventually come back, they’ve shown that the idea of a shoegaze idol group can be successful.

 

The Best Japanese Shoegaze and Dream Pop Releases of 2018

2018 was an incredibly busy year in the Japanese shoegaze scene.  There were exciting comebacks from beloved artists, brand new bands popping up all over the country, compilation albums galore, and lots of crossing over with international artists.  It feels like this happens every time there’s news from MBV, but the year was incredibly active.

As a result, the “best of the year” list was an even bigger pain than it normally is.  There was a good number of full length releases in 2018, and as usual the EP count was ridiculously high.  There are a ton of omissions that I will certainly get panned for, but in particular the EPs from NuitNurse17 Years Old and the Berlin Wall, tip top nap, and figure, among others were all really solid and could have easily made the list.  On the album side, plant cell‘s Landscape release would have made it, but since the majority of the record is re-released material it didn’t feel right to include it.  Also, the Total Feedback 2018 compilation was one of the best albums this year, but as a continent-wide shoegaze comp it didn’t qualify.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are my favorite releases of 2018:

 ☆ ★ BEST SINGLE ★ ☆

“Without you” by Otom

Tokyo-based ambient shoegaze producer otom has been steadily releasing singles since his last full-length release five years ago.  The first of his 2018 releases, “Without You”, was also his strongest.  The 6-minute track is a beautiful, blurry dreamscape of sunken vocals and layers upon layers of guitar and electronics.  Otom’s catchy rhythm gets the listener’s attention before a crescendo of hissing static opens a portal to his vast world of sounds.  “Without You” is gazey ethereal escapism at its finest.

Perhaps the biggest news of the year in this realm was the sudden release of new material from legendary alternative outfit Coaltar of the Deepers, whose “SUMMER GAZER ’92” single was the band’s first new music in 7 years.  Though the track itself was a preview of the “Rabbit EP” that would soon follow, it was the only new track on the CD.  The dreamy, jazzy number was perhaps more subdued than expected, but it was a really strong return from NARASAKI and Deepers.

Kyoto’s Browned Butter was one of the most pleasant finds of 2018.  The young band announced itself with its debut single “Fall”, which was also included on Ano(t)raks’ “Die in Pop” compilation and would later appear as the title track of the band’s debut EP.  “Fall” follows the very familiar Japanese shoegaze formula of a blaring guitar lead and twin vocals, but the former isn’t overly relied on and the latter is done exceptionally well.  It’s a lovely song that isn’t even the best song on Browned Butter’s EP, which speaks to the quality of the band in its first year of activity.

There isn’t much else to say about otom that I didn’t already say in this post, but his winter-themed “Snowfall” single was yet another of the best singles of the year.  If I stretched this list a bit more, he’d have even more music included.

When I wrote about Tokyo newcomers Kiwi recently, I made the comparison to one of the all-time Japanese shoegaze greats, Ether Feels.  It’s a small sample, but their debut single “Beautiful Back” was a bit of emotional nostalgia that hit me in a way that few other tracks did this year.


★ ☆ ★ BEST EP ★ ☆ ★

“(I’m) Lost in Sadness” by Luby Sparks

Not too long after the release of their full-length debut in January, Tokyo’s Luby Sparks announced the departure of their singer Emily.  Given her role in helping the band establish itself over the past couple years and how seemingly perfect a fit she was for their sound, there might have been some concern moving forward.  But new frontwoman Erika absolutely kills it on the new EP, matching up perfectly with the dreamy melancholy of the new music.  Luby Sparks picked right up where they left off with another moody effort that fittingly wraps up with a heart-wrenching version of Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down From the Bridge”.

As is the case every year, the EP pool was extremely deep.  While there are more releases than I can reasonably fit in this list, COLLAPSE‘s “Delirium Poetry” sat alongside Luby Sparks’ EP on a tier above the rest.  COLLAPSE’s noise attack is relentless on both the EP’s slower, brooding numbers and its pacier tunes.  “Meadow” is perhaps the best example of what COLLAPSE do as well as anyone with a beautiful balance of heavy, layered guitars and wispy vocals.

Nagano’s AND LORELEI created a gorgeous listening experience with their “And Lorelei 0.2” EP.  The songwriting throughout is really good, and the band showed the ability to create deep, breathtaking songs using a variety of methods.  “Umarekawaru” and “Himitsu” are two of my standout tracks of the year.

Yuragi took a massive step forward in 2018 with the release of their “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” EP.   The young Shiga outfit has been consistently impressive over the past couple years, but the new music feels bigger and a bit darker than their previous work – you can especially hear this on the reworked version of “bedside”.  I noted in my review that the flow of the EP as a whole feels a bit disjointed, but as a collection of individual tracks, “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” is as good as any release from last year.

I wish I could make this list longer, as it doesn’t feel right to omit some really really good EPs, but that’s just how it goes every year.  Taking my final spot in this post was the debut demo EP “In Demonstrationem” from Tokyo’s Yukla Down.  “Torture Me (With Your Kiss)” is a delightful nod to My Bloody Valentine, while “If You Only Knew” is an absolute banger.


★ ☆ ★ BEST ALBUM ★ ☆ ★

“Luby Sparks” by Luby Sparks

So, yeah.  2018 was a pretty good year for Luby Sparks.  This one was pretty much decided back in January when their self-titled album hit shelves.  Luby Sparks is a warm and emotional yet dynamic collection of pop songs that range anywhere from jangly indie pop to lush dream pop to fuzzed-out gazey guitar rock that feels a lot like something off of Supercar’s iconic Three Out Change album.  There’s a sort of gloomy nostalgia hanging over the whole record that is extremely satisfying.  No album felt better to me in 2018.

While Coaltar of the Deepers and Sugar Plant got a lot of the comeback release attention this year, Lucy’s Drive‘s double CD release, pair of sounds, was arguably the best of the bunch.  Split into a red and a blue version, pair of sounds as a whole is an effective nod to 90s UK shoegaze and britpop, with each of the discs having its own unique feel.  The atmosphere ZEPPET STORE bassist Yuichi Nakamura creates in his solo project is consistently deep throughout.

Tokyo’s Once Grace Forever announced themselves in a big way, opting to forego the introductory single or short EP release and putting out a self-titled record that was shockingly good.  The 8-track album is decently-produced for a self-produced debut effort and the songwriting is quite good.  What really pushes this album to my best of the year list is the depth of sound from start to finish as the album drifts from post rock to more textural shoegaze.  It’s not as refined as some of the other releases this year, but the quality of the content is really impressive.

Acidclank‘s Addiction album is another genre-hopping effort that once again shows the band’s affinity for 90s UK indie music.  Just as on their 2015 debut, Inner, the band covers a lot of ground, but Addiction never manages to feel weird or inconsistent, thanks largely to more consistent production quality this time around.  On the record, Acidclank is at their best when belting out textural psych tunes like “Overdose” and “This Time”.  It’s another impressive, versatile release from the Osaka band.

Headlightswas the ultra-mellow, dreamy comeback release from Tokyo dream pop outfit Sugar Plant.  The band’s first music in 18 years, Headlights throws it back to the band’s old sound, while also managing to keep things fresh on this tripped-out dream pop return.

LUCY’S DRIVE – “pair of sounds”

While all the talk recently has been about the emergence of younger bands in the Japanese scene, 2018 has also been a pretty solid year for comeback releases as well.  Sugar Plant returned with an impressive album before Coaltar of the Deepers put out a long-awaited EP.  But LUCY’S DRIVE – better known as the solo project of ZEPPET STORE bassist Yuichi Nakamura – made perhaps the most dramatic return of the year with TWO new albums this month.  Pair of Sounds marks the bands first proper release since it’s 2007 full-length debut, DEEP SEEKER.  As the name implies, the release was split into a pair of 7-track CDs, unofficially titled “red” and “blue”.

While bits and pieces of Pair of Sounds have been released via limited edition singles over the past couple years, the final product sees all of the material effectively split to create two pretty different vibes.  The red version offers a mellow dream pop feel with a more ethereal backdrop throughout.  The second half is especially dreamy thanks to electronics-driven tracks like “Sometime I Think” and “Ebb Tide”.  The album’s finale “Daybreake” is a really strong gazey pop number.

On the blue version of Pair of Sounds, Nakamura draws on a wide range of 90s UK shoegaze and britpop, from the Loveless-y lead track “Perfect” to the super danceable “Heavy Rain”.  While the red version relies more on softer textures to create its atmosphere, the blue version is much more driven by guitar noise.  “Shining Blue”, the latter’s closer, combines the two styles and could be the best song of the bunch.  LUCY’S DRIVE may not get the love of its late-aughts shoegaze contemporaries, but the quality was there on DEEP SEEKER and eleven years later it might be even higher on Pair of Sounds.

Both versions of Pair of Sounds are available via distro/label Testcard records.  Domestic purchase is available at their site, while international orders can be placed through their Bandcamp page.  LUCY’S DRIVE also contributed a song to the recently released Total Feedback 2018 compilation, which you can also purchase through Testcard.

Below you can listen to the trailers for both red and blue versions of Pair of Sounds.

AND LORELEI – “And Lorelei 0.2”

I regrettably missed the boat on the 2017 debut LP from Matsumoto, Nagano’s And Lorelei.  In retrospect, it probably would have easily made it into my best of the year list.  I’m only about five months late in discovering the band’s follow up EP, “And Lorelei 0.2”, which is yet another showcase of the band’s ability to write stunningly beautiful songs.  The best shoegaze song is the one that you can get lost in, and that is just the sort of sound AND LORELEI consistently produces.  Whether it’s via the sort of blissed out shoegaze you can hear on “Himitsu”, the slowly-evolving, dreamy haze of “Umarekawaru” or “Abraham”, or the minimalist ambient approach found in “Legi”, “And Lorelei 0.2” is a deeply immersive and emotional listening experience.

Both of AND LORELEI’s releases are currently available on iTunes and Apple Music.  The physical release is also available for purchase domestically via TTOS.  Here is a video for “Himitsu”.

plasmaclub – “14011”

It’s been sort of tough to keep up with all of the solid new shoegaze bands that have popped up in Japan in 2018, and the flurry of new releases from promising young artists over the last few months continues.  It’s especially cool to see new representatives from outside the Tokyo area, as is the case with Hamamatsu’s plasmaclub who just released a debut two-track EP titled “14011”.  Shizuoka prefecture’s largest city hasn’t yielded much in the way of shoegaze since the piqnic went more toward drony psych and post punk and changed its name to qujaku.  On “14011” plasmaclub gives a bit of a nod to early piqnic with a heavily-layered dark, moody brand of shoegaze, and not surprisingly the release was also produced by qujaku guitarist Soushi Mizuno.  The soaring guitar lead over hazy walls of guitar noise on lead track “dress” has the dramatic sound to it that was a lot more prominent in the Japanese scene in the early part of the decade.  It’s a straightforward track that relies on heavy textures and dramatic vocal melodies over simple beats.  “Veil of shine/(save me)” is similar, but a dreamier, wafting sort of track, highlighted by a sad, longing chorus.  Both tracks feel like they would be tremendous live.  Add plasmaclub to the ever-growing list of Japanese shoegaze bands to keep an eye out for.

The EP is currently available at Bandcamp.

figure – “Parakalein”

Figure, the solo project of Tottori-based musician Masanobu Hasebe, provided one of the more pleasant discoveries of the year, a new 6-track release titled “Parakalein”.  The EP, which was released in both digital and cassette formats by Kobe indie label, Sauna Cool, is the first release from figure in four years.  It’s a collection of washed out lo-fi indie pop tunes, spread out in layers over a backbone of snappy electronic drums.  “Parakalein” hits the sweet spot where indie pop and shoegaze combine – something that’s been both popular and perhaps a bit contentious among some bands but undoubtedly successful in the Japanese scene.  While there’s not a bad track on the EP, “True Bosom” is the highlight of the release – a blurry mishmash of jangly melodies, synths, and reverb-drenched blaring guitars.  The six-minute “Mary” is a more uptempo, melodic pop song with an ultra-catchy chorus.  It’s some well-written, charmingly-produced dreamy melancholy from an artist that will hopefully get some more attention from here on out.

You can pick up “Parakalein” via Sauna Cool’s Bandcamp page.  Cassettes are available, but limited to 100 copies.

Acidclank – “Addiction”

When Osaka indie-rock shoegaze band Acidclank popped up in 2015 with its debut album, Inner, the band showed a tremendous versatility in sound. The record essentially felt like a lo-fi exploration of 90s UK indie music, drifting from shoegaze to psych to pop.  On each of the two singles that followed, the band continued to give different looks into its wide range song-writing capabilities.  Acidclank’s latest full-length effort, Addiction, is more of the same, drawing on a variety of influences and styles, but featuring enough consistent elements that it never feels weird or disjointed.

There are some familiar titles in the track list, including a buffed up version of “Clever” from Inner and both of the singles that were released last year.  Just like the first album, Addiction features some very shoegazey tunes, highlighted by “Turning” and the very Loveless-inspired “Sleepwalk”.  On songs like “Wrong” and the aforementioned “Clever” Acidclank delivers some noisy but danceable indie rock, while “Disease” feels like a nod to Death Cab’s Transantlanticism.  Throughout the album, you get a lot of different but high-quality looks, as the band has shown a knack for consistently crafting catchy, well-written songs.  But Addiction really shines when it gets super trippy, particularly on “This Time” and “Overdose”.  The former has a very Dark Side of the Moon vibe to it with a slow-paced, steady groove setting the foundation for layers of spaced out guitars and reverb-soaked vocals.  “Overdose” is pacier, more of a free-form psych track with guitars, atmospheric synths, and harmonized vocals all blanketed over a droning bass line, waxing and waning in intensity.  While the album as a whole is consistently very good, these two tracks are the standouts.

Addiction CD versions can currently be found on Amazon is currently available on most streaming platforms.  You can purchase it via iTunes as well, and an LP version is due out at some point in the next month.  You can also check out some of their earlier work at Bandcamp.