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.
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.
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.
「Tokyo in Natural Machine」
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.
After being inactive for the past 5 years, Tokyo Shoegazer came out of nowhere today with the announcement that the band is getting back together. The new lineup consists of three original members – guitarists Kiyomi Watanabe and Yoshitaka Sugahara, and drummer Hiroshi Sasabuchi – and vocalist Kiyomi Watanabe of pop unit Cuon. It’s not sure to what extent the band will be active, but news of the Tokyo Shoegazer revival was accompanied by an announcement of a one-man show in April, where downy’s Kazuhiro Nakamata will join them on bass.
It’s a lot to process and we’ll see how it plays out (and what it means for CQ). You can follow the band via the Twitter account linked below.
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.
Since forming plant cell a few years back, Masaki Sato has shown an eagerness to infuse his music with some Chinese influence. Sato’s connection to China is one that is rooted in his own personal experiences in the country. In his new project, Misty Cure, his aim is to push that bond to the forefront.
Misty Cure formed toward the end of 2018 when Sato and concrete twin leader/plant cell support member Kazzuya Okada recruited Chinese frontwoman Riyo, on whom the band’s image has largely been centered. The trio immediately got to recording, quickly posting a couple tracks to Soundcloud. The songs are basically covers of Faye Wong covers, with the band doing Chinese-language renditions of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” and “Bluebeard” by Cocteau Twins. As Misty Cure begins working on its own original songs, the approach seems to be focused around making Chinese lyrics the feature that defines the band in the Japanese scene.
It’s hard to really get a good idea about a band when covers are all we have to work with, but based on Sato and Okada’s previous work and the quality of the vocals on the track, I’m looking forward to hearing what Misty Cure does next.
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 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.