The Ambient Sounds of Arptranaus

Tokyo-based singer-songwriter Aya from Fraqsea and the now defunct Shelling has a new ambient project called Arptranaus. Aya’s music has always been characterized by its rich textures, whether used as the thick wash that defined Shelling’s hazy shoegaze sound or the atmosphere behind her solo work as Fraqsea. So it’s no surprise that she’s been able to create some more stunning ethereal tunes under this new name. Over the past few days, Aya has uploaded a series of cryptically named songs, from the light chime-laden “Noouclxz” to the darker, throbbing bass of “Dlivva”. And of course, her breathy vocals are also featured, echoing from deep in the background. Listening to Arptranaus’ music is sort of like listening to a very stripped down version of Shelling and Fraqsea. It’s a more intimate experience with the basic elements that are essential to the deep sounds of those other projects. Turn off the lights and pop your headphones on.

BLANCO – “A Place For Youthful Days”

I admittedly didn’t know a whole lot about Tokyo’s BLANCO prior to falling in love with their dreamy indie pop track “Paradise” on Ano(t)raks’ DIE IN POP comp from a couple months back.  The uptempo new wave pop track is super dancy and kind of messy, with bouts of tripped out wonky synths.  Today the band released it as the latter half of its new two-song single titled “A Place For Youthful Days”.  The lead track on the single is a slower-paced blurry psych tune called “Isolated City” that’s driven by some delightfully fuzzed-out bass.  Just like in “Paradise” this song has some pretty solid depth thanks to its synth backdrop, though in this case it’s used to create a bit more texture.  The male-female vocal harmonies are really solid, too.  Check it out for yourself at Bandcamp.

And here’s their video for “Paradise”.

Introducing Nagoya Supergroup I Like Birds

Looking at their lineup, one might expect newly-formed Nagoya quintet I Like Birds would appear to be a shoegaze supergroup.  The band’s lineup is stacked with veterans of the Nagoya shoegaze scene including Kosuke Tozuka (vocals & guitar, Apple Light), Yukie Kawaguchi (vocals & keys, me in grasshopper/mishca), Naoki Magota (guitar, Apple Light), Yutaka Mukouda (bass, softsurf), and Naoki Sogabe (drums, Tokenai Namae).  As if in premeditated response to any assumptions regarding their sound, I Like Birds introduced itself with a Tweet that started off with the words (roughly translated) “a not-shoegaze band by the Nagoya shoegaze team”.

The band’s first demo, “Bus Stop”, confirms its direction away from the gazey side of things, toward a gentler indie pop sound in the vein of Death Cab or perhaps slightly cleaned up Daisies of the Galaxy-era Eels – the latter is maybe more of a stretch based on where I’m assuming they got their name.  Of the bands represented by the individual members, Apple Light’s sound comes through the strongest.  It’s a pleasant track, with the sort of melancholy that feels just right alongside Tozuka’s voice.  Based on the lineup, the expectations are going to be pretty high from the get-go, but it’s hard to imagine this band not being good.  Give I Like Birds a follow on Twitter and stay tuned for more news and music.

The 5th Anniversary of Beatless

July 10th, 2018 marks the 5 year anniversary of Broken Little Sister’s popular shoegaze tribute to the Beatles.  The album, titled Beatless and released under the moniker Meeks, includes ten covers of famous Beatles tracks, but with a dreamy, reverb-drenched twist.

To celebrate the anniversary, Broken Little Sister released three extra tracks that didn’t make the original release.  They’re currently available at the band’s Bandcamp page for whatever you’d like to pay.

Yukla Down – “In Demonstrationem”

Tokyo’s Yukla Down put out their first record material in the form of a three-track demo EP titled “In Demonstrationem”.  The five-piece, whose lineup includes a member apiece from Si,Irene and Civic, offers a throwback 90s UK shoegaze sound that isn’t all that common in the Japanese scene.  It’s pleasantly scuzzy introduction, particularly on the first track, “Torture Me (With Your Kiss)” which sounds both nominally and tonally like something off of Isn’t Anything, but with a turn of the century American emo tinge to it that’s pretty cool.  “If You Only Knew” is another textural ripper of a song with more of a groove carrying along the cascade of harsh guitar noise, while “Borealis” is a chilled-out instrumental featuring droning guitars and a simple bongo-tapped beat.

While I don’t bemoan the lack of aggression in Japanese music nearly as much as I used to, I really appreciate Yukla Down’s noisy contributions.  The quality of the demo, in terms of both sound and composition, is really solid.  The band will be appearing at the July 29th Total Feedback event at Koenji High.  For more information you can follow Yukla Down on Facebook and Twitter.

Browned Butter – “Fall”

A couple months back, Kyoto newcomers Browned Butter released their first recorded material in the form of a single track titled “Fall”.  The song would be more formally introduced via net label Ano(t)raks’ DIE IN POP compilation album.  Just this past month the band released a debut 3-track EP of the same via the same label.

At first listen, the title track follows a pretty standard pattern for Japanese shoegaze with the blaring lead, somewhat subdued guitar backdrop, male-female twin vocals, and the stripped-down verse crescendoing into the bridge.  But while this format can be boring in some cases, Browned Butter’s sound has a really good balance to it.  The male and female vocal parts complement each other really well and sit really well in the mix.  The melodies are catchy and simple.

The album’s second track offers something a little different, playing a bit more like something inspired by “Three Out Change”.  It’s more of a deliberately paced guitar rock track, with those excellent breathy vocal harmonies really shining on top of another simple but fun guitar hook.

“Fever”, the third and final song, might be the best of the bunch.  Again, it’s pretty different from the previous two songs, featuring more of the elements of a shoegaze tune.  The vocals in the verse are chilling and when the song explodes into the chorus they just fit in there brilliantly.  It’s a powerful track.

Though a three-track EP is a pretty small sample, Browned Butter showed some good versatility on their debut.  The songwriting is really solid and the vocals are stunning.  “Fall” is a great start.  Let’s hope they keep it going.

softsurf – “Into the Dream”

In July of 2016, the Nagoya Shoegazer Expo was held at KD Japon and Daytrip, two venues in Nagoya’s Tsurumai area that have more or less been the stage for the emergence of the local shoegaze scene over the last few years.

In July of 2016, the Nagoya Shoegazer Expo was held at KD Japon and Daytrip, two venues in Nagoya’s Tsurumai area that have more or less been the stage for the emergence of the local shoegaze scene over the last few years.  To be honest, it wasn’t much of a shoegaze event at all, but more of an alternative rock showcase curated by a fan of the genre.  With the exception of mishca and Aysula, many of Nagoya’s more established shoegaze representatives were conspicuously absent from the lineup.  Little-known local newcomer softsurf was buried on the bill, scheduled to take the stage at 3:30 in the afternoon at the Monday event.  

It’s been a hell of a year since that event for softsurf.  They put out a 2-track demo single and absolutely packed the house at our Daydream event in Nagoya.  They stepped up their gigging schedule and earlier this year supported NIGHTS’ Jenna Fournier on her Japan tour.  They established themselves as one of the brightest new acts in Japan, and boast one of the best live shows I’ve seen in a long time.  And today softsurf has released its debut EP, “Into the Dream”.

I’m not the biggest fan of band comparisons, and I don’t really use them a whole lot when writing reviews.  But in softsurf’s case, given the overall tone of the Japanese shoegaze scene, it’s hard not to at least mention similarities to Slowdive – something that hasn’t really been done since Pastel Blue called it quits years ago.  You find a whole lot of Ride, Pale Saints, and My Bloody Valentine influence in Japan, but softsurf goes agains the grain, opting to bury melodies deep within hazy, billowy guitars.  You get a sense of it from the single they released, but the depth of softsurf’s sound absolutely blows you away when you see them on stage.  It’s impossible for a recording to capture the intensity and fill space like a live performance, but “Into the Dream” is as good a representation as one could hope for.  

Both of the tracks released on softsurf’s first demo, “Blue Swirl” and “Beautiful Day” appear on the EP in much more beefed-up forms.  There’s not much to be said that I haven’t already mentioned in previous reviews, other than the fact that the quality is, expectedly, much-improved.  The remaining three tracks are all new.  “Another Garden” is a sweet, whimsical dream pop track that follows more of the Japanese shoegaze model with its more prominent melodies.  It’s one of the catchier tunes on “Into the Dream”, injecting a bit more bounce into an EP that is otherwise based around texture-building.  

For me, the real strength of “Into the Dream” lies in the other two new tracks.  “Rainy Moon” sits smack in the middle of the five track EP and starts off with a gentle, lulling verse, crescendoing at points, but not quite fully taking off.  That is until about halfway through when the song explodes into a mass of big swirling guitars.  Frontwoman Yuki Udono’s vocals really shine on “Rainy Moon”, going from sweet and soft to powerful, matching each phase of the song.  It’s an intense track, and also my personal favorite in any softsurf live set.

If the first four tracks don’t sell you on the Slowdive comp, the finale, “Dawn of the Sun”, most definitely will.  There isn’t much in the way of subtle developments in this song, as it kicks right off with big screaming guitars.  There’s a heavy “When the Sun Hits” vibe, the way the song takes off and carries you through a thick atmosphere of layered guitars and reverb-soaked male-female twin vocals.  It’s not the most original of their tracks, but it’s a beast of a song that you just sort of get lost in.

There’s a good reason this was my most anticipated release of the year, and softsurf, with the help of some fine production work, delivered.  Softsurf has announced itself as one of Japan’s finest shoegaze bands, coming a long way since last year’s Nagoya Shoegaze Expo.  You can see them live at this year’s Daydream events in Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo.  And folks interested in buying “Into the Dream” can do so via Nagoya’s File Under Records (see the link and directions below).

File Under Records (Nagoya):  http://www.fileunderrecords.com/?pid=120872924

Directions for overseas customers:  Send an e-mail with the name of the title you would like to purchase to file-under.rec@nifty.com.  After confirming the total with shipping, payment can be made via PayPal.  

“Into the Dream” trailer:

Cruyff in the Bedroom – “HATE ME”

Not much remains of the “golden age” of Japanese shoegaze, which started on April 1, 1998 and lasted until some point in the early to mid 2000s.  Few of the bands from that era are still around, and only a handful of those have released anything.  But while most of their contemporaries have either disbanded or abandoned the genre, Cruyff in the Bedroom has remained an active and important member of the Japanese shoegaze scene.  Still going strong after almost two decades, the proclaimed “Japanese King of Shoegazer” is getting ready to release its 6th studio album, HATE ME, on May 10th.  

Not much remains of the “golden age” of Japanese shoegaze, which started on April 1, 1998 and lasted until some point in the early to mid 2000s.  Few of the bands from that era are still around, and only a handful of those have released anything.  But while most of their contemporaries have either disbanded or abandoned the genre, Cruyff in the Bedroom has remained an active and important member of the Japanese shoegaze scene.  Still going strong after almost two decades, the proclaimed “Japanese King of Shoegazer” is getting ready to release its 6th studio album, HATE ME, on May 10th.  

Five years removed from the release of their previous album, hacanatzkina, Cruyff in the Bedroom has picked up right where it left off.  Fans of their past work will be pleased to know that HATE ME is as Cruyff as can be.  There aren’t any curve balls thrown, and there aren’t any surprises.  It’s a Cruyff in the Bedroom album through and through, but without being a boring rehash of everything else that they’ve done.  

The build up to the new record started a couple years back, when Cruyff began releasing a series of new EPs.  “Laurelei”, “Fuzz Me!!!”, and “Tiny Dancer” featured identical cover art (colored blue, orange, and red, respectively) and the same formats – each had four songs including two original tracks and a remix of each.  The title track from each EP appears on the new record, which comprises eleven songs in total, and features the same lion and crest cover art, but colored black.

The album’s strength is its top-end quality.  HATE ME boasts a few tracks that instantly made my personal “Best of Cruyff” list.  In particular, “HATE”, the album’s lead track, hits hard with big swirling guitars and melancholic progressions, capped off by a belter of a chorus.  “Laurelei”, which was an instant hit when it was originally released, stands as one of the best tracks on the record, and it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be incredible to see them perform live.  “The Shade” is another moody gaze tune that has a very cool drone to it.  There’s a theme here.  These guys are at their best when they’re leaning hard and heavy on the shoegaze side of things.  

The album itself is hardly a straightforward shoegaze album, though.  Cruyff has always mixed things up, using shoegaze as a base for pop and rock songs.  “Ashtray in Snow”, “I’m Floating in Your Seventh Heaven” and “Tiny Dancer” are all quality examples of songs that incorporate persistent guitar noise as a back drop for catchy melodies and hooky choruses, with some big explosive moments here and there.  No Cruyff album is complete without one song that gets a bit more rough and aggressive.  “Die, die, die” fulfills that requirement this time around, starting off with a sludgy, stomping riff before making way for a dreamy, whimsical chorus.  And as always, the production quality on the album is top notch, really balancing things well.  

There are a couple tracks on the album that were misses for me, but as a whole I really liked it.  While it doesn’t offer anything fresh, it is a successful return by Cruyff in the Bedroom to what they do best.  The highs are really high, and the lows aren’t offensive.  Fans of the band’s catalog will definitely want to pick this up.

Cruyff in the Bedroom’s HATE ME comes out on May 10th, and can be purchased at the links below (international shipping is available).  Some versions of the release include a bonus CD featuring remixes by members of broken little sister, CQ, For Tracy Hyde, Cuicks, Zeppet Store, and more.

Amazon (JP)

Tower (JP)

Looprider – Umi

When they released their 2015 debut “My Electric Fantasy”, Tokyo-based rock outfit Looprider displayed some impressive versatility in creating a cohesive record that incorporated sludgy hooks and pop-infused shoegaze.  Released about nine months later, their second record “Ascension” took things in a quite different direction, drawing on hardcore and harsh noise, while steering clear of any pop influence from the first.  Through two albums the band had covered so much ground that predicting where they might go from there was both intriguing and impossible. 

When they released their 2015 debut “My Electric Fantasy”, Tokyo-based rock outfit Looprider displayed some impressive versatility in creating a cohesive record that incorporated sludgy hooks and pop-infused shoegaze.  Released about nine months later, their second record “Ascension” took things in a quite different direction, drawing on hardcore and harsh noise, while steering clear of any pop influence from the first.  Through two albums the band had covered so much ground that predicting where they might go from there was both intriguing and impossible. 

Today, the band put out their third album, “Umi”, which predictably veers in yet another new direction.  Initially promoted by the band as “an epic post rock concerto”, “Umi” goes beyond that.  The album is a single, mostly instrumental 25-minute track that organically flows from start to finish with massive crescendos and lulls.  

The opening 5 minutes, which the band uploaded as an album teaser a few weeks prior to the release, is a solid setup to the rest of the record.  If “My Electric Fantasy” was a showcase of Looprider’s ability to write catchy, hook-driven tunes, and “Ascension” their talent for tonal brutality, “Umi” brings to light the side of the band that expertly crafts intense music using layers and textures.  You get a feel for this in the album’s opening minutes where a number of simple parts are gradually woven together, building up to a dramatic peak where each of those parts explodes to create a beautiful sort of chaos.  At about the four and a half minute mark, the double drums really shine through, too.

Just as any good post rock has it’s big crescendos, a sudden come-down and reminder that you need to breathe is just as impactful.  While, at first listen, there might seem to be a logical track break – after all, it did make for a really nice standalone edit – the nosedive into the second part feels much more significant as a transition without interrupting the flow of the song. 

Over the next few minutes of the album there’s a delicate build-up, again starting very simple and gradually developing with multiple overlapping parts.  The lyrical portion of the album kicks in here, during which the origins of life are almost chanted over the course of another crescendo, this time to an epic bout of droning rock en route to a frenetic, solo-driven flurry.  The balance between calm and uptempo, soft and thunderous, and the organic, unpredictable flow from part to part does well to conjure the image of the album’s central theme: the ocean. 

The closing portion of the album brings everything down to a strong, steady march, before fading out with clean guitars, while the presence of thick, heavy guitars as the backdrop is a reminder of the strength of the album’s concept. 

As a listening experience, “Umi” is quite different from Looprider’s two previous releases.  However, there are familiar elements from the band’s previous two albums that appear throughout – the occasional grooves and “wall of sound” guitar textures found on “My Electric Fantasy” and the crushing noise of “Ascension” – that are brought together in a unique way, further stretching the boundaries of what Looprider are capable of producing.  With the addition of guest musicians to a lineup that’s already proven itself more than capable of generating huge depth in its sound, Looprider have once again succeeded in belting out a behemoth rock album, when few other bands in Japan are seemingly willing to do so. 

Looprider’s album release party will be taking place on Wednesday, March 29th at the band’s own Pop Sabbath event at Shindaita Fever in Tokyo, where they’ll be supported by moja and Japanese shoegaze legends Luminous Orange.  You can pick up a copy of the CD, which one again features some really nice art from Nasutakeo, at the following locations:

Softsurf – “Blue Swirl/Beautiful Day”

I get really excited any time I hear about a new shoegaze band popping up here in Nagoya.  Though Nagoya is a big city with its own rich music scene, there isn’t a whole lot going on in the way of shoegaze or even the dreamy indie pop that’s been taking over elsewhere. 

I get really excited any time I hear about a new shoegaze band popping up here in Nagoya.  Though Nagoya is a big city with its own rich music scene, there isn’t a whole lot going on in the way of shoegaze or even the dreamy indie pop that’s been taking over elsewhere.  Bands like Tokenai Namae and me in grasshopper are the flag bearers for the genre in the Tokai region, and there’s enough of a fanbase to support it – the 2013 Japan Shoegazer Festival in Nagoya sold out Tsurumai Day Trip – but even here the scene is mostly driven by bands from Japan’s two largest cities.  Occasionally, however, a new band does pop up, as was the case last year with the emergence of Anjo-based Haguki.  This year’s impressive newcomer to the Nagoya shoegaze scene goes by the name Softsurf.

Softsurf started up in January of 2016, and largely went unnoticed until July, when they took part in the Nagoya Shoegazer Expo event in Tsurumai.  Shortly thereafter, their two-track single “Blue Swirl/Beautiful Day”, was released for free.  Under founding member and band leader Kitamura, they underwent some lineup changes before settling in and focusing on gigging more.  Though the band’s members are each influenced by a number of genres and styles, Kitamura’s vision is largely focused on 90s shoegaze.  He does admit, however, that bands like Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys have naturally worked their way into his sound (and in the case of the latter, into the band’s name as well).  

Each track on Softsurf’s single offers something a little different, sound-wise.  “Beautiful Day” is more of a twinkling pop tune that floats along, whereas “Blue Swirl” hits hard with a blend of big guitars and airy synths.  “Blue Swirl” is the track that the band has chosen to push on their Soundcloud page, and based on Kitamura’s stated creative goals, it would seem to be more indicative of the band’s future direction.  “I like psychedelic and ambient songs with aggressive guitars and vocals that feel like they’re floating,” he explains.  “I want to take that and shape it in my own way.”

Reviews of Softsurf’s live performances to this point have been really positive, and the small sample of music made available thus far has been really encouraging.  The band will be taking the stage this coming January at Daydream Nagoya, and beyond that they are determined to have an impact on the shoegaze genre in Japan.  Next up for Softsurf is a slot on the upcoming Daydream Nagoya bill, and hopefully a lot more shows and music.

Have a listen to “Blue Swirl” on Soundcloud: