For years now, Tokyo’s Spool has been readying itself for a breakout. The all-female four-piece, which has become affectionately referred to as “Japan’s Warpaint”, has been a massive draw in its local scene, garnered attention from music fans overseas, and put out a handful of quality releases both in Japan and internationally. The announcement late last year of its self-titled debut full-length felt like a statement that Spool was ready to establish itself among the elite of the Japanese indie scene.
The Warpaint comparison almost feels lazy, but it makes sense. The shoegaze tag fits as well as the various comps to bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine, but each only to a certain extent. On the album Spool pulls a bit from the edgier side of 90s US alternative music as well as the dreamy UK melancholy and fuzzy guitar walls that have the band seated comfortably in the Japanese shoegaze scene. It’s a total throwback to everything that rules about 90s music. Spool has really keyed in on that general concept and written exceptional songs around it.
There are some familiar songs on the record, with “Springpool” and fan favorite “Sway, fadeaway” joining the stunningly shoegazey lead single “Be My Valentine” in getting beefed up new versions courtesy of producer and magic love drummer Kazuaki Kondo. Lead track “nightescape” is a dark, dreamy number turned absolute belter that, along with my personal favorite song on the album, “Let Me Down” really showcases frontwoman Ayumi Kobayashi’s range. The deep, breathy vocals in the verses on the latter, in particular, are teeming with attitude and there’s something quietly powerful about them as they trade off with the sad, raw chorus line.
Overall, the shoegaze influence on the album is perhaps stronger than expected, highlighted by gloomy, thickly textured tracks like “Winter” and “Morphine”. “Blooming in the Morning” adds a little dream pop into the mix as well, softening a bit of the album’s edge with some bouncy sweetness. The closer, “No, thank you”, which is a more cleanly mixed version than the one that appeared on last year’s Total Feedback 2018, wraps up the album with a blistering guitar attack and distorted vocals.
Expectations were high coming into the full length debut, and the band delivered. Though Spool’s influences are by no means unique in the current Japanese scene, the way in which they are able to put them together and really balance their sound over the course of the record is. The ability for a band to wear its influences on its sleeve without bottle-necking itself and at the same time maintaining some cohesiveness over the course of an album is something to appreciate. Spool has done it here.
Less than six months after releasing its debut full length, “Addiction”, Osaka’s Acidclank is back with a suddenly released follow up titled Apache Sound. The album, which was released via indie label Ano(t)raks, is the first recorded material since frontman Yota Mori announced that Acidclank will return to being a solo project after a couple years of operating as a full band.
While the majority of Acidclank’s catalog has been a nod to 90s UK indie music, the new record takes a pretty sudden turn into chilled-out electro pop. True to Mori’s M.O. as a songwriter, Apache Sound is not a straightforward dive into a specific sound, but an exploration of it providing a lot of different looks. The title track has a mellow city pop vibe to it, with auto-tuned vocals that make the occasional appearance throughout the album. There’s some hip-hop and R&B infused pop on “Ghost Record” and “Shy”, respectively, while “Funeral” and “Downtime Acid Jam” are more textural electronic pop instrumentals. “Dubs” is a warm synth track with a super catchy chorus that feels like it could fit comfortably anywhere in Acidclank’s catalog.
From the blippy, ambient lead track “Riot”, though, Apache Sound is an obvious departure from Acidclank’s previous releases. That is until you get to the album’s closer, “Addict of Daydreaming”. Perhaps the track’s title is telling of some personal need to go back to hazy, dreamy shoegaze, but when I got to the song I thought I had accidentally queued up an entirely different album. To be honest, this song’s inclusion is pretty disrupting to the flow of the overall album. That being said, though, it also might be the best shoegaze song that Mori has written yet.
You can pick up the new album for free via the link to Ano(t)raks’ Bandcamp page below.
Kobe’s Doyoubi to Jinchou to Kohi (which very awkwardly roughly translates to “Saturday and Penguin and Coffee”) has been a low key fixture of the Kansai shoegaze scene for the past decade. The three-piece, which has seen a few different member changes around frontman and founding member Yuki Yoshimura, has released a bunch of material and appeared at some of the Kansai area’s largest shoegaze events. Their latest, a single titled “Parameer 02” – the follow-up to last year’s “Parameer 01” – features more of the dark post rock sound that the band has stuck to over the years. The lead track, “Meltdown”, slowly evolves from cleanly picked guitars to an explosion of guitar noise, while Yoshimura’s falsettos eventually escalated to emotional moans. The recording doesn’t quite belt at the level of the band’s live performances, but this is a signature song from the band. “Ymir” on the other hand doesn’t waste any time building up, kicking off with a blgtz-esque uptempo hook and some very Shota Tamura-esque screams in the chorus. It feels quite clear where the inspiration for this track came from. I like the change of pace here.
Since early 2014, Chiba prefecture-based indie net label kiiro records has been releasing music for free via Bandcamp. In June of that year, the label put out its first FOREVER SHOEGAZE compilation. Since then there have been two more FOREVER SHOEGAZE releases in addition to a handful of collaborations with the Japan Shoegazer Festival. Just recently, kiiro announced the next installment in the compilation series, a double release of FOREVER SHOEGAZE volumes 4 & 5 that is set to drop on January 26th.
It’s been three years since volume 3 came out, and that long space between releases coupled with the large number of bands interested in submitting music for the project led label owner Tsuji to go the double release route. What kiiro has done in the past is add another layer to the evolving Japanese shoegaze soundscape, curating these comps largely around bands whose sounds reflect the label’s tendency toward intimate bedroom pop. There’s been a healthy blend of established bands and new and obscure artists. That’s once again the case here. You’ll find familiar names like Float Down the Liffey, Nuit, 土曜日と人鳥とコーヒ, and Happypills in the track list alongside a whole bunch of artists I’ve never heard of. But kiiro records’ catalog has long been a place to spot impressive new bands before they take off – the label also notably gave Dots their proper debut in 2016 at its Chiba Shoegazer event.
The lineup across both albums offers some very cool, very fresh new music for you to check out. I think that across the 24 total tracks, this is the most consistently strong FOREVER SHOEGAZE record to date. Bands like Suisou No Kikyuu, Fuyufuyuu, and Juutaku Danchi are just a few of the really solid under-the-radar contributors to the comp, in addition to gaze//he’s me, whose submission, “mavorosi”, was basically presented as the lead single to the releases. The track list has yet to be presented, so I don’t want to get too into the music itself here, but suffice to say that this release is loaded with shoegaze gems and there’s really no excuse not to grab it once it hits Bandcamp on the 26th.
Kiiro records did post the lineups on Twitter, which you can find below. Here is the video for the aforementioned track from gaze//he’s me.
Tokyo shoegaze trio Nuit kicked off the new year with their latest track titled “Solitude”. The song, which was posted minutes after 2019 officially rang in, features frontman Yasuyuki Ota’s trademark dramatic vocals shrouded in billowing waves of hissing guitar. The stripped down verse is just there to set up for the explosion into the heartbreaking sway of the chorus. It’s a very Nuit-sounding song, feeling like something out of the early to mid 2000s. “Solitude” is the second single, not counting the band’s plant cell cover, that Nuit has released since their 2018 self-titled EP. Makes you wonder if we’ll see a follow up effort at some point in 2019.
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 Nuit, Nurse, 17 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.
Having just released a self-titled debut full-length last month, Tokyo’s Once Grace Forever wasted no time in putting out its follow-up single “♭1”. The single’s A-side, “Ao” is the more impressive track of the two, transitioning back and forth well between clean lulls and big, wailing choruses. “Flat” is a fuzzy guitar pop tune that doesn’t change much dynamically, relying instead on the vocal melody and melancholic chord progressions. The single is pretty solid, but might have come out a little too soon after the record, which is a tough act to follow. If you haven’t heard any of Once Grace Forever’s music, I recommend starting here and then moving on to the album.
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.
While going through the seemingly endless list of new bands who have release material this year, the debut demo single from Tokyo’s “Beautiful Back” really struck me. It was the first I’d heard of the band, which formed in 2017 and appears to have been quite actively gigging in its home city. “Beautiful Back” kicks off in a manner typical of gazey guitar pop, driven by a bouncy pop hook over a simple riff. It’s a pleasant, catchy start, and while the beat remains unchanged as it transitions to the verse, the mood surrounding the song drifts to something sadder. The vocal tone and melody create a dreamy melancholy pop sound that feels like a throwback to the late Ether Feels. It’s a simple song, created using a formula that is by no means unique, but the end result is some feel-good nostalgia from yet another talented young Japanese group.
You can hear “Beautiful Back” on Soundcloud. I also quite like the live version of a song called “Behind the Times” I found on the band’s YouTube channel, so I’ve included that below as well.
Nagoya’s Hitori Pale flew under even the local radar this summer when the young three-piece released its debut track “SPiRAL” on Soundcloud. An introductory track, “SPiRAL” is a bit rough around the edges in terms of sound quality, but the song has really grown on me since I first gave it a listen. Musically, this is another track that feels like it would have held up well in the early 2010s, reminding me a bit of former Osaka shoegaze mainstays EUPHRATES with the dramatic, soaring chorus. The vocals are the most unique bit, and while I am not the biggest fan of vocals being so present in the mix, there’s something really dramatic about the vibrating melancholic wailing in this track that combines well with the warm, fuzzy textures and gloomy chord progressions to really hit the spot.