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Notes from the Japanese Underground

Glasgow and Monorail Music specifically have always had an instant affinity with the varied and inspired music that drifts across the Pacific from Japan. While we have established links with the core musicians based around the group Tenniscoats, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and their extended families, we’ve been spending some more time uncovering hitherto-unknown-to-us artists and their work. It would be foolish to try and link these artists in any way other than that they share geographical and for the most part temporal space, so we’ve just picked a few outstanding releases we’d love to share with you.

Forty years ago this summer, Joy Division released what became their only chart hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart.
December 1982, Tokyo. Kiyoaki Iwamoto has a guitar, a simple rhythm box, a friend with a bass guitar, and some stripped-down songs, brazen in their post-punk simplicity, irritation and controlled aggression, yet full of sadness and resignation. Five songs, including a rearranged version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are recorded and released on a now extremely rare 7” record. This release, available on 10” vinyl or CD, features those five songs, along with a previously unreleased 1980 live performance by his duo Birei.

An inspired enigma, Iwamoto's music is punk at its core. Stripping back punk rock to an incessant, hi-hat heavy pulse and gloriously primitive guitar slashing, there's elements of Wire, Metal Urbain, early goth tendancies, swathes of buried cassette atmosphere and a taut, aggressive frustration that threatens to boil up into the vocals. Even If You Can See Hell is brooding and stark while In The Sad Town is pure post-punk sub-dub charm. The obvious track here is Iwamoto's rendering of Love Will Tear Us Apart which is really worth the price of admission alone. It's great. More desperate than Curtis's rendition maybe, hammered into the tape heads with an intensity and near arrogance that maches the original before Iwamoto disappeared back into obscurity. Love love love this. Listen/Order here.

The legendary France demos from the best band that never released a record. How many versions of Strung Out Deeper Than The Night do you need? All of them. All. Of. Them. The I Will Follow bassline pummelled into a third of the tempo, blown up, stretched out, strung out, lithe, blistering, flaking off, like the deepest Crazy Horse jam but in hell hooked up into some eternal consciousness set free by the sort of distortion a guitar can make when it is truly liberated. The mysterious Takashi Mitzutani helmed Les Rallizes with a guitar style that let's be frank Keiji Haino based a lot of his work on, picking up groups on ill-fated tours that he would just blast away with his axe anyway. The Last One from France Demos takes the same chord change as Neil Young's Cowgirl In The Sand and plays it for 22 glorious, fractured, paint-stripped minutes that feels like bleach laced with ecstasy being poured into your ears. An Awful Eternity, which takes up the whole of Side B, feels more like a Velvets elongated, harmolodic jam that predates Acid Mothers Temple by a decade: a drawn out, trancey groove peppered with gongs or at least super-long decayed cymbal clashes fighting waves of feedback and a guitar lick that could have been ripped from the 13th Floor Elevators and then hammered out into, well, an awful eternity. No other band quite matches Les Rallizes intensity.

PORTRAY HEADS: Portray Heads
Last copies. Now THIS is the business. Obscure, weirdly forgotten synth wave industrial pop music from suburban Japan, how could music this good be buried under memory rubble? The compilation opens with the group's debut flexi double hitter, Elaborate Dummy / Watch Your Scope. The former bursts in with a robotically funky, arpeggiated analog synth and staccato vocal from Ayumi Tokunaga which makes this feel like an immediate classic, big Severed Heads, early Industrial funk vibes.The flip to original flexi features a heavy synth riff with an attitude-laden Tokunaga vocal, feeling like Suburban Lawns played on Korgs. The sound can also veer towards a more cold, Goth mood as on Industrial Eye with its ghostly synth lines and sampled bassline and alternate vocalist Yumi Ochi's desperation. So much of Portray Head's admittedly minimal output feels like it's ripped straight from the cold wave / industrial crossover of the early European 80s yet there's often more adventurous ideas, a slightly more dance-heavy groove, really it's bizarre it's taken Minimal Wave and Bitter Lake's intervention with this compilation to place Portray Heads in the company they deserve to be in. Absolutely essential oddity.

Like the Belgian symbolist paintings that served as inspiration during Tsuyoshi Kawabata’s musical process - the compositions featured on Mayu serve to elevate the nuanced elements of daily life, each sound intentionally crafted with a meticulous approach to best represent its objective nature. Sounds of the Japanese landscape in summertime parallel swirling synthesizers and noise; shimmering guitar sounds take the shape of a snowflake. In this way, Kawabata’s pure reflection on the objective nature of sounds evokes the deeper spiritual essence of their origins - taking on a symbolic role in order to elucidate a greater psychic nature… or as French poet Stéphane Mallarmé writes, “to depict not the thing but the effect it produces”. Pale Cocoon's sound is wrapped in layers and loops of chiming guitars, shimmering synths and quietly lulling basslines that recall Studio Gibli soundtracks recorded in early 80s Japan. Utterly charming with an uncanny feeling of strange peace that pervades recalling Durutti Column or a slightly more tattered Cocteau Twins set of lullabies. It's so dreamy and somnabulant in places but also feels like a wistful fake memory most notably on Flalorm which features a melancholy vocal performance that feels crushing, like a wall of emotion held barely at bay. Forlorn, reverb-soaked ballads hit a little like the group Shizuka or even the more abstract work by Felt with Maurice Deebank on guitar. Beautiful.