While the J-pop mainstream seemed in 2016 to have finally and irreversibly consummated the awkward courtship of streaming technology, the year was business as usual for the basement-dwellers of the indie and underground scenes. And as usual, the result was a raft of terrific records that hardly anyone will ever hear.
Tokyo’s burgeoning indie-pop scene has been a small but notable footnote to the story of Japanese music over the past few years, given energy in part by the overseas connections of a few outward-looking bands and promoters. Tokyo indie event Rhyming Slang’s “Rhyming Slang Tour Van” compilation gathered a mixture of local bands such as the ascendant DYGL and potential future indie stars such as SaToA, Batman Winks and Cairo, as well as overseas acts like Computer Magic and Peach Kelli Pop.
There are signs, however, that indiepop may be forking off in a couple of different directions now. Bands like Kyoto’s Homecomings took their fusion of Western indie guitar dynamics with J-pop songwriting further on the album “Sale of Broken Dreams,” with local contemporaries The Full Teenz pulling a similar trick on its debut, “Hello to Goodbye no March.” In Tokyo, For Tracy Hyde has been navigating a similar path, culminating in this year’s “Film Bleu.”
Taking the opposite path, there has also been a drift among some young indie musicians toward the noisier extremes, with the summer’s “Provoke” compilation featuring rising stars of dark art punk and psychedelic rock such as Burgh, Qujaku and Klan Aileen.
Many of the most impressive and powerful expressions of art punk and noise rock in 2016 came from more established practitioners. Limited Express (Has Gone?) delivered the excellent “All Ages” and Convex Level’s “Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth” was a riot of feel-good art rock. Elsewhere in Japan, Osaka’s Trespass released the spiky, danceable “Expanded Memories” and Fukuoka’s Narcolepsin released the jittery, wilfully irritating and utterly magnificent “Mojo.”
Fukuoka also marked itself as a home to some of the most expansive and progressive post-rock releases of the year. Sea Level’s “Invisible Cities” was an understated but intricately beautiful exercise on melody and atmospheric texture. Sea Level guitarist Takeshi Yamamoto also helped explore the opposite extreme of instrumental rock with his other band, Macmanaman, producing an hour-long, dizzying, chaotic blizzard of energy in its confusingly titled “New Wave of British Baseball Heavy Metal.” Back in Tokyo, propulsive instrumental quartet Kuruucrew delivered a ferocious self-titled album, while Transkam combined progressive rock with infectious dance rhythms on their debut “Blueshade of the Omegasound”.
While veterans of Japan’s noise scene have been amusing themselves lately with collaborations featuring idol groups, two of the most interesting noise-related projects to come out were rather more creatively balanced collaborations. Hijokaidan teamed up with 1980s avant-pop eccentric Jun Togawa on the uneven-but-never-less-than-fascinating “Togawa Kaidan” album, using noise to slash away at the already frayed edges of Togawa’s twisted pop. Meanwhile, Merzbow joined up with multi-instrumentalist Eiko Ishibashi to explore the interaction between organic and machine sounds on the eerie “Kouen Kyodai.”
A lot of the best releases of the year were from the artists who are most difficult to classify. Making his name as the frontman of psychedelic rock band Yura Yura Teikoku, Shintaro Sakamoto’s subsequent career as a folk-influenced singer-songwriter continued to take on a sometimes bewildering variety of influences and leftfield musical ideas on his album “Love If Possible.” Another singer-songwriter, Kagawa Prefecture’s Masami Takashima released her first solo album under her own name, “Fake Night,” combining piano balladry, hip-hop beats, and synth and electro sounds in a way that created a nonetheless consistent atmosphere.
Consistent primarily in his defiant rejection of consistency is DJ and trackmaker Foodman. His album “Ez Minzoku” was a joyously eclectic assault of cut-up rhythms, toy instrument sounds and synth farts that combined a child-like sense of exploration with a great deal of sonic sophistication. More wilfully naive, but also possessed of a disarmingly sophisticated musical sensibility is Fukuoka-based duo Sonotanotanpenz, who developed its unique mixture of Casiotone hip-hop, acoustic folk and complex vocal interplay on the mini-album “Conga.”
Finally, no discussion of Japan’s underground highlights in 2016 can be complete without mention of the magnificent “Nemutte” by experimental trio Kafka’s Ibiki. The prolific Eiko Ishibashi once again features on the album, along with drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and the Japanese underground’s favorite adopted son, Jim O’Rourke. Reassembled from numerous improv sessions to the point where even the group’s members couldn’t recognize themselves, “Nemutte” is the result of mastery not only of the musicians’ instruments but of the studio itself.