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Three out of 50 ain’t bad

by Steve McClure

Ska-core, that curious musical hybrid, seems to have finally come into its own in Japan. On the Oricon Top 50 album chart for the week ending Oct. 22, there were three Japanese ska-core albums.

Skad Missile

That’s pretty amazing, considering that, until now, ska-core has been a very underground, street-oriented musical trend, with next to no backing from the geinokai showbiz establishment.

At No. 7, holding steady from the previous week, was “Message,” by Mongol 800, a group from Okinawa. “Emotivation,” by ska-core scene stalwarts Kemuri, was in the No. 16 slot, and at No. 44 was “Go on as You Are,” also by Mongol 800. The latter dates from 1999, but the April re-release moved into the charts recently after “Anata Ni,” one of the tracks off “Message,” was used as the “tieup” theme song for a TV commercial for a popular brand of detergent.

A quick definition of ska-core: It’s basically a fusion between ska, that up-tempo version of reggae, and hardcore punk. Ska is traditionally dominated by the sound of horns, but the new generation of ska-core bands favor either a combined guitar-horn sound or eschew horns altogether.

Japan’s current ska-core scene got started back in the mid-’90s after the members of various punk bands, having exhausted punk’s limited creative potential, began casting about for new musical directions. Some musicians, such as the guys who formed bands like Hi-Standard and Brahman, went the “melo-core” (melodious hardcore) route, adding a patina of pop to the power of punk.

Other bands, such as Kemuri, Scafull King and Rude Bones, took their cue from American ska-core bands, which were all the rage for a couple of minutes a few years ago (remember Save Ferris?).

The three guys in Mongol 800 are typical of the thousands of kids around the country who heard the ska-core muse calling to them. They got together in ’98, when they were still in high school in Okinawa, and in December the following year released their first album, “Go on as You Are,” on the wackily named indie label Tissue Freak Records. “Message” is their second release.

Kemuri, the other band on last week’s Oricon album chart, is one of Japan’s best-known ska-core outfits, both in their home country and overseas, where they have toured extensively. “Emotivation,” their fourth full-length album, is a polished — perhaps, too polished — set, featuring well-written, solidly played songs that promulgate the band’s “P.M.A. (positive mental attitude)” philosophy.

Like many other Japanese ska-core vocalists, Kemuri’s Fumio Ito sings in English. Which is OK, as long as the emotion you feel (which to me is the sine qua non in any art form) comes across loud and clear. The problem is that Ito’s vocals strike me as lacking that kind of emotional oomph.

It’s interesting to note that many of Japan’s best ska-core bands come from outlying areas such as Okinawa, or western Japan — another sign of the healthily independent spirit that thrives in the various local music scenes outside of overly fashion-conscious Tokyo.

For example, No End Why, one of Japan’s better ska-core bands, has its roots in the surf-music scene of Kanagawa Prefecture’s Shonan Beach area, which perhaps explains its twangy, Ventures-esque sound.

The members of another crucial Japanese ska-core band, Skad Missile, got together while attending college in Kyoto in May 1999 and later signed with Tokyo-based indie label Run Run Run Records. Skad Missile’s first full-length album, “Asian Beauty,” was released Oct. 10, and it’s killer.

A great introduction to the Japanese ska-core scene is the compilation album “Japanese Homegrown Vol. 4,” which came out last year on Tower Records Japan’s Gianormous label. This album represents the full spectrum of Japanese ska-core, from the pop sound of bands like Skay Mate’s to the more metallic music of Bee’s Knees. The liner notes for this compilation are in Japanese and English, by the way.

I think it’s safe to say that ska-core isn’t just a passing fad. Clearly the music has put down roots and has a steady, loyal following. But despite last week’s impressive performance by these three albums, I don’t think we’re about to see the members of Mini-Moni doing a ska-core album or anything like that.

The thing is, for all its virtues — energy, danceability and general positivity — ska-core is an inherently limited musical form. It is fantastic music to dance to, especially in a hot, sweaty club, but on compact disc, it’s a different story. Too much of the music’s energy is simply lost when it’s recorded. In a funny way, ska-core reminds me of taiko drumming. Taiko is great when you’re outside at a summertime matsuri, drinking and dancing in the true Dionysian spirit, but most recordings of taiko are, more or less, unlistenable. Setting is vital.