There’s been such a torrent of Japanese reissues over the past few years, it was probably only a matter of time before the crate-diggers stopped rifling through records and turned their attention to the CD racks. The dawn of the Heisei Era (1989-2019) coincided with a definitive shift in the music industry from vinyl to compact disc, and there’s still a surprising amount of music from the time that’s only available in that format.
“Heisei no Oto” (“The Sound of Heisei”) revisits the glory days of the CD, when labels were so flush with cash that it seemed like almost anyone could land a deal. It’s compiled by Osaka record store owners Eiji Taniguchi and Norio Sato, who — together with Tokyo’s Chee Shimizu, who contributes liner notes — have played a crucial role in unearthing choice morsels from Japan’s musical past.
The compilation charts an alternative history to the early years of Heisei, covering a period from 1989 to 1996, just before CD sales hit their all-time peak. It sidesteps the commercial behemoth of J-pop and makes only glancing reference to the voguish Shibuya-kei scene, to say nothing of the Japanese acts that were making waves internationally at the time.
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Listeners who’ve enjoyed earlier reissues of 1980s Japanese ambient and new age music should feel right at home. Many of the tracks come swathed in balmy synthesisers and gentle percussion. This is utopian music for a digital age: bright, spacious and mesmerized by its own artificiality.
Like the best diggers, Taniguchi and Sato follow their ears rather than their preconceptions. One of their most inspired picks is from veteran singer Yosui Inoue’s 1990 album “Handsome Boy,” best remembered for supplying the enduring karaoke staple “Shonen Jidai.” But “Pi Po Pa” is a very different prospect, Inoue’s vocal dancing through a buoyant mix of marimbas, staccato accordion puffs and limpid synths.
Not surprisingly, former Yellow Magic Orchestra mainstay Haruomi Hosono had a hand in the song’s creation, and he pops up a few times here. His enthusiastic embrace of both computer technology and music outside the Western vernacular are guiding principles throughout “Heisei no Oto,” from the Brazilian grooves of Xacara’s “Night in Aracaju” to Keisuke Sakurai’s implausible blend of ritual incantations and dance-pop on “Harai.”
Fumihiro Murakami’s haunting “Miko” was originally selected for a Hosono-curated compilation of tracks by readers of Sound & Recording Magazine. While its use of an unidentified tribal vocal sample would be frowned upon today, it’s far more effective than the “ethnic electronica” that was being peddled at the time by the likes of France’s Deep Forest.
Where European producers at the time tended to smother their appropriations in gloopy synthesiser pads and sampled breakbeats, the music here provides more breathing room. Okinawan singer Tomoko Kina’s “Ink” — written and produced by saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu — bears all the stylistic hallmarks of the era, while possessing an eeriness that transcends it altogether.
“Heisei no Oto” may help rekindle interest in forgotten artists such as Dream Dolphin, who as a teenager released a flurry of albums on Hosono’s FOA Records label that ran from hard trance to healing music. Her “Take no Michi” (“Road of Bamboo”) pairs a languid house music pulse with iridescent swirls, like watching slow-motion footage of a foam party.
Spread over two discs, there’s a lot to get through here, and — in keeping with the excesses of the CD age — a few tracks go on longer than they need to. That some of this music could be found in the discount racks at used-goods store Book Off, rather than for exorbitant prices on Discogs, merely adds to the charm.
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