This is a beautiful collection of gentle, wistful ambient music. There are strong echoes of the ’80s, and to a less extent some ’90s chill out. At times it comes close to being a bit cheesy, but it always manages to stay on the right side of things. I’m particularly impressed with how strong the collection is – it’s 2LP and there are very few weak tracks on here, the whole release is excellent. This really is a great album for putting on when you are tired or having some quiet time. Well worth checking, one of my favourite releases of 2014 so far.
I get quite a few emails asking for tips about Tokyo / Japan. I’m getting tired of answering them, so I’m just going to write this post and ignore any more emails I receive. Please note this is not supposed to be in any way comprehensive. This is just the basics and something to get you started. If you want to find out more, then go digging.
Clubs / parties
If you are interested in checking out Dommune, they run Monday – Thursday nights, with music from 9pm – midnight. They normally announce their schedule for the upcoming week on Twitter at some point on Sunday. You need to register in advance if you want to attend. For full info and directions about Dommune in English, please check here: http://www.dommune.com/about/en/
Resident Advisor has a pretty comprehensive list of upcoming parties, and this is the best place to check if you want to find out what’s going on. You can also have a look at the events page on Clubberia.
Also keep an eye on the MNML SSGS Twitter, I will tweet about parties that I think look good or that I’m playing at.
Shibuya is the easiest place to go record shopping. There are a number of main stores all pretty close to each other:
Technique Records: Up to date range of techno and house, plus a very strong and well priced second hand collection.
Disk Union Shibuya: Unfortunately it is not as strong as it used to be, but still a good selection of new and second hand techno and house. You can sometimes find some real gems here at reasonable prices.
Lighthouse Records: Mainly new stuff, focus is primarily house music.
And if you are looking for gear, or want to look at gear, then you need to check out FiveG in Harajuku. From what I’ve been told, some of the stuff there is a bit expensive, but they have an amazing selection of stuff to check.
General tourist stuff
If you are planning on traveling around Japan at all, then it is probably worth investing in a JR rail pass. These are excellent value if you want to ride the bullet train.
Tokyo is an impressive city, and definitely worth checking and experiencing, but I would also suggest making sure you try to check out other parts of the country. Japan is a beautiful and amazing place, and Tokyo is just one side of it.
For everything else, buy a guide book.
“After25” is a special party happening next Saturday 1 March at Unit. This event is to mark 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and to celebrate connections between Berlin and Tokyo. The lineup they’ve put together is very impressive: Robert Henke / Monolake is presenting his new audio-visual performance, “Lumiere”, Burnt Friedman will be playing live, as will Guenter Schickert (from the Schulze-Schickert Sessions that was one of the best reissues of last year). To round out the mainfloor, the Japanese supporting artists will be DJ Nobu and myself. I’m very excited about having the chance to open the mainfloor of Unit, especially for an event like this with such a thoughtful lineup. I’m going to be taking full advantage of getting to play on such a nice system, and plan on playing a set that is very sonically powerful. Anyway, I’m just a small entree, Monolake’s new show, Friedman, Schickert and Nobu make for an impressive lineup of electronic music. Tokyo lacks the festivals you find in Europe – CTM, Unsound etc – so this is a pretty rare chance to catch some very interesting artists. Definitely worth checking.
Elaine Radigue can often be a bit too “minimal” to put it politely… But her best stuff is incredibly powerful. And this recent reissue on Important Records certainly is some of the most impressive works I’ve heard from her. 3 CDs, 3 very long drones. For it to really work, you need to hear on a good setup and be in the right headspace. But if you have that, you should find it to be a pretty special trip. Also this is perhaps the most accessible work I’ve heard of Radigue’s, so if you have heard her name and are curious, this is a good place to start. Deep, meditative music that feels like a very long and slow brain massage.
There is a new Kangding Ray album and it’s excellent. Yeah, that is not so surprising… But it is still very good news. Building on “OR” and a series of EPs and remixes, “Solens Arc” is the clearest statement of Kangding Ray’s interpretation of techno. The result is a remarkably self-contained album, which stands in stark contrast both to the glut of lo-fi house and techno, and the rather laboured attempts at techno from some of his Raster-Noton labelmates. While the album is split into four sections / arcs, it has a very clear and cohesive narrative. It also benefits greatly from its brevity – Kangding Ray does not overstay his welcome, with the album clocking in around the 50 minute mark.
The beauty of “Solens Arc” lies in the way it perfectly blends the existing KR aesthetic with music that is much more directly orientated for the dancefloor. It is a clear early highlight of 2014, and it reminded me that I am not bored of techno, it is just that there is a shitload of mediocre techno floating around these days. When techno sounds like KR, it’s impossible to be bored.
So “noise techno” (or “post-techno” as Dave the silent ssg bravely dubbed it) has become a lot more prominent in the last 12-18 months. And like many trends, what started with promise has quickly petered out into something pretty crap. Too often it has just been an excuse for flat out shitty music passing off as something acceptable (i.e. Pete Swanson). But listening to the new EP from Container – who has been one of the most pivotal artists in this trend – has made me reassess my opinion slightly. While I remain highly sceptical of most of what has been coming out (including the vastly over-rated and thoroughly mediocre “Feral Grind” comp), Container demonstrates that there are still interesting possibilities to be explored in this noise – techno crossover (I know this is a simplified way of putting it, but you know what I mean). The problem is more the ideas and the execution is lacking… I remain doubtful that much more interesting music will emerge from this trend, but at least Container is still pushing things. This EP is well worth checking.
Umm… I got busy and ran out of time to do this post earlier… But given that they are reissues, it shouldn’t matter this post is a bit late. I don’t have the time / motivation to say much about each of the releases, but just trust me, all are worth checking:
Palm Highway Chase – “Escape From New York” [Spectrum Spools]: This is only a few years old, but it is a reissue, so it gets included here. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just some throwaway 80s pastiche. There is a lot more going on here. It’s a perfectly structured and weighted record. So good.
Mike Ratledge – “Riddles of the Sphinx” [Mordant Music]: Just the right amount of weirdness on this one. An enchanting listen.
Klaus Schulze & Guenter Schickert – The Schulze-Schickert Session [Mirumir]: This record went largely unnoticed last year, which is a shame, because it is stunning. Perfect after a party or a late night. Beautiful, drifting kosmische. Essential.
Mammane Sani et son Orgue – “La Musique Electronique du Niger” [Sahel Sounds]: This is some dude jamming on shitty electronic organ in the 1970s, but he manages to create something pretty special. Simple but stunning.
Recollection GRM: These reissues have probably have a bigger influence on my listening over the last 1.5 years than anything else. Most of it may not be easy listening, but it is incredibly rewarding and powerful. If you have a bit of patience and want to learn more about the foundations of electronic music, I strongly suggest you spend some time with this label.
For those interested, this week’s Clubberia mix is from yours truly. It’s a recording of my warm up set for the Frue party a few weeks ago with Svreca. It was a Friday evening event at the cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, which also happens to be my favourite museum here. The organizers had made a real effort to transform the space, and it was really enjoyable to be at a different event – a new setting, not late at night, and more experimental music. The aim of my set was to start the night with music that was strong but balanced. Perhaps you could call it “power ambient” – there is force to the music, some of it has certain gravity, but it is not meant to be overpowering. I wanted to push the audience with some challenging moments, but never to go too far. In the end, I felt I had managed to achieve this.
Robert Turman – “Flux 1”
Alva Noto – “Xerrox Phaser Acat 1”
Ben Frost – “A Crude Awakening”
Bruce Gilbert – “Work For ‘Do You Me? I Did’ (1 & 2) / Swamp”
Robert Ashley – “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon”
Elaine Radigue – “Adnos I”
Ø – “Radio”
Ben Frost – “Killshot”
Barnett + Coloccia – “Harbour”
ANBB – “Bersteinzimmer”
Paul Jebanasam – “Rites II”
Coil – “Going Up”
Peter Rehberg – “Boxes Angels”
Kreng – “Snuff (part 2)”
Ø – “Takaisin”
Resident Advisor has just published its ‘Real Scenes’ documentary on Tokyo. It is impossible to tell a full story in such a short space of time and overall I think they did a good job with it. I was glad they dealt with the difficult challenge of Japan’s ageing population, and they focused on the inspirational work of Ukawa-san with Dommune. I know everyone involved in the project put a lot of effort into it, and I commend them for their good work.
Saying all of that, I do think too much emphasis was placed on the “no dancing” laws. I can understand why they did this – it is a good hook for the film, and it is an issue that has sparked interest internationally. As a result, however, the impression the movie provides is that these laws are having a much greater impact on the Tokyo scene than has actually been the case to date. I explained my perspective on the laws and the way they have been covered during my interview, but unfortunately none of this made it into the documentary, presumably because it didn’t match with their narrative. So I wanted to provide it here:
I go out to clubs in Tokyo on a very regular basis. I have never been at an event that was shut down by police. I have heard about it happening a few times, but it is not yet common in Tokyo, and often it seems like there were reasons for it happening (a party openly promoting / linking itself to drug use, another club had been subject to noise complaints, in other cases connected to criminal violence). But for those of us into techno , it is certainly not at the forefront of our minds when we go out or organize events. It has been a real issue in Osaka, but it is yet to translate into problems for Tokyo. This may change in the future, and anything that can be done to overturn the law is certainly worth supporting and pursuing. But I simply do not think it is the massive issue that it is often presented to be, and it problematic to overplay how significant it is.
Ultimately the biggest challenges Tokyo faces are much more mundane and similar to those elsewhere: finding a way to build a healthy, interesting scene without selling out or losing shitloads of money. This doesn’t make for the best hook for a documentary, but it is much closer to the truth.
Most of my interview didn’t make it into the final cut because much of what I said didn’t fit in with the way the documentary was constructed. That’s fine, I am not sure I gave a very good interview anyway! But I do think some of the issues I raised were important and might be of interest, so I am sharing them here. Below are some notes and answers I gave to some questions I was asked during the pre-production stage of the documentary, which I later revised slightly.
Thanks to RA, especially their Japan team, for inviting me to contribute. It was interesting, and also a good chance to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the Tokyo scene.
What are your views on the electronic music scene in Tokyo?
- The scene is struggling much more than people realise. Outside artists tend to have a very Orientalised / superficial view of the scene here – they come here for a few days, get treated well, eat sushi, live out their Blade Runner fantasies and decide this place is amazing without really knowing shit about how things really operate
- One of the biggest problems is that the economics don’t work (more below)
- Another major issue is connecting in with developments in scenes elsewhere. Major lag in sounds and artists hitting in Japan. Musically it can be pretty conservative
- There are some disconnects – the experimental scene *very* removed from techno / house / club scene, you don’t have that ‘in between’ zone you have in Europe, the kind of sound Boomkat pushes, and you see at festivals like Unsound, CTM etc.
- But despite the difficulties it faces, the Tokyo scene still has some real strengths:
- you can have amazingly open, trusting crowds
- standard of clubs are pretty good
- artists love to play here, they generally bring their A game
- there are some really excellent people involved in the scene here
- there are some good younger promoters who are committed to keeping the scene alive and are trying to build something interesting
What are the challenges?
- The economics don’t work
- Misperception by artists and agents overseas that there is still lots of money in Japan. This is not the case. It is not even possible to pay the same fees as Europe, let alone the crazy money people would get in the 90s
- Airfares are expensive, club rental is *very* expensive, yen is getting weak, all this means a comparatively high door price (around $30-40).
- And then you sometimes have Japanese bookers intervening and taking a cut on top of the standard booking agent fee, which only adds to the costs of putting on a party
- Plus wages are low in Japan, which means it is hard for people to afford to go out. And hard for smaller promoters to get the money to risk putting on parties
- One consequence of all of this is a reliance on the discount list system, where people can get on a cheaper list if they know one of the DJs. So DJs get booked not on whether they are the best choice, but if they’ll bring a big discount list or not. This also means side rooms (and often main rooms) have their timetables packed with DJs in order to increase the amount of people that might come. And this all impacts on the quality of the event, because choices are not based on what makes most sense in terms of the party itself
- Japan is getting old… Less young people and the older generation of clubbers are not being replaced. This raises difficult questions about the longer term viability of the scene (I was happy to see that this issue is covered in the documentary)
- The ‘no dancing’ laws are an issue BUT it is not as big as foreign media likes to report. It is more complicated than it is often portrayed to be. It has had a big impact on Osaka but hasn’t directly affected Tokyo much.
- Arguably the biggest impact on Tokyo has not been a crackdown, but now it is much more difficult to organize tours with multiple shows because the Osaka scene is much weaker you can’t rely on a second show there
- Underlying some / much of this discussion is a rather Orientalised way of viewing this – people want to see Japan as ‘weird’ ‘different’, but it is just the same old shit: cops and power. There was a similar situation in NYC but nobody uses the same kind of framing to discuss the problems they had
- Some good articles on the laws which put things in context and provide a pretty balanced account:
What is good about Tokyo?
- There are some excellent clubs – Unit and Liquid Room the best big spaces, there are also some really nice smaller bars
- Dommune is a very unique and special place
- Ukawa pushing things in a big way
- Dommune is definitely my favourite club in Tokyo
- There are still some good record shops and people still buy music
- There is a good gender balance at most parties and clubs are a very safe non-threatening environment
- There are still possibilities to try some different things –> like with our Sound Garden chill out parties
- When the stars and moon align and everything falls into place, a party here can be better than anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world. Most of my best experiences with techno have been in Tokyo or Japan
Ultimately the techno scene here is a microcosm of Japan as a whole, for good and bad. And Japan is in decline – the population is shrinking and aging, it is moving into a post-growth society. The techno scene will likely keep on shrinking. It’s glory days are behind it. There is not much you can do to change any of that. And so the big challenge is: how can we hold on to what is unique and valuable about parties here? There are some very special elements to the scene here, and internationally Tokyo plays an important role. It is one of the key cities that is part of techno’s psyche – Detroit, Berlin, New York, London, Tokyo – these cities really matter for techno as a whole. So we just have to keep pushing, keep trying things, and we can’t keep on doing the same old shit, and do our best to preserve and develop what makes Tokyo a special place to experience electronic music.
GNOD have been around for a while, but they only came to my attention last year through the excellent “GNOD presents… Dwellings & Druss” on Trensmat. After that, I started exploring a bit, and picked up some of the releases on their Tesla Tapes label, the digitals of which are ridiculously cheap through their bandcamp page. So despite not knowing too much by the collective, I was rather surprised when I first listened to their new LP on Aguirre. I was expecting something rough and raw, instead I got two 20 minute slabs of enchanting krautrock. Across the two sides of the record, a loose, messy, wonderful jam unfolds and meanders, pushed along by a loop that you could happily play forever. What is impressive is that while it is certainly very reminiscent of early krautrock acts this does not feel like a simple copy, far from it.
According to the press sheet this is an “early” recording from GNOD, so I don’t know exactly when they made it, but this is shaping up to be one of my favourite releases of 2014 so far. You can pick up the vinyl or digital direct through Aguirre’s bandcamp. Definitely check this, it’s a beauty.