Spool – “Spool”

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.

You can pick up Spool’s self-titled album via Testcard Records’ Bandcamp page (overseas) or domestically from the label’s online store.  It’s also available for streaming on Apple Music, though there are some issues due to another band called Spool having released an album called Spool in 1998.

Below you can find the videos for “Be My Valentine” and “Blooming in the Morning”.

Nuit – “Solitude”

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.

Once Grace Forever – “♭1”

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.

 

kiwi – “Beautiful Back”

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.

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.

Once Grace Forever

While 2018 has seen plenty of new bands introduce themselves with singles and EPs, Once Grace Forever came out of nowhere with a well-assembled 8-track self-titled debut last week.  The Tokyo trio shows a couple different looks on the album, starting off with some deliberately-paced, moody post rock.  On the latter half they pick up the tempo a bit, transitioning to some pretty shoegaze tracks before a chilled-out electronic finale.  The period of the album spanning “Summer”, “∞”, and “Melody” particularly hit the spot, but the entire thing from start to finish is quite impressive, all things considered.  Once Grace Forever decided to forego the requisite “roughly-produced two- to three-track demo” phase and go right to putting together a really nice first release.

You can pick up Once Grace Forever’s debut 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.

Luby Sparks – “(I’m) Lost in Sadness”

Tokyo’s Luby Sparks is back with its second release of the year, a four-track EP titled “(I’m) Lost in Sadness”.  The EP, which was produced by Yuck’s Max Bloom , is Luby Sparks’ first release since bringing in new vocalist Erika Murphy.  With the band’s sweet melancholy still present, the new music takes a turn toward a more shoegaze sound, something that was hinted at with the release of hazy lead single “Perfect” last week.  “Cherry Red Dress” is a stunning, moody dream pop tune and the title track is an epic seven minutes of layered guitars and well-harmonized twin vocals.  The EP wraps up with a heart-wrenching cover of haunting Mazzy Star number “Look On Down From The Bridge”.  While Luby Sparks’ self-titled debut full length effort from earlier this year is still sitting comfortably at the top of my 2018 release list, “(I’m) Lost in Sadness” hits home in a bit of a different way, showcasing the band’s ability to craft gloomy, nostalgic tunes using tremendous depth and texture.  And while the loss of original Luby Sparks singer Emily was sad news, Murphy has shown she’s a perfect match for what the band does.  These guys continue to show that they can write songs with the best of them with yet another top notch release to their name.

“(I’m) Lost in Sadness” is  available to stream on Apple Music and can be purchased on iTunes or via Amazon (JP).  Below is the video for “Perfect”.

Ulm – “After Dark”

Instrumental post rock/shoegaze four-piece Ulm has spent the last year or so establishing its place in the Nagoya scene thanks to impressive live performances alongside some of the bigger names in shoegaze and shoegaze-adjacent alt rock circles. At the end of July, the band released its first recorded material, an EP titled “After Dark”, which was recorded and mixed by Muscle Soul frontman Tomoaki Taguchi. Over the course of the EP’s three tracks, which span almost twenty-four minutes, Ulm offers a lot of what you’d expect from a post rock album with dreamy lulls crescendoing into huge guitar explosions. In each phase of an Ulm song, there is a wonderful harmony between the two guitar parts, whether it’s clean, mellow arpeggios woven tightly together or heavy, distorted leads soaring alongside one another. The EP’s title track in particular is a good example of what cinematic post rock should sound like, and the transitions between parts are smooth and tight. While a lot of the post rock segment of the Japanese shoegaze scene has gone away in recent years, Ulm have brought some of it back and done so really well.  It’s a good showing from yet another impressive young act from Nagoya.

The CD is currently available at Nagoya’s File-Under Records (which ships internationally). Below is a link to some sample audio from Soundcloud.