Words by Jhoni Jackson
The underground rock ‘n’ roll scene in Japan is colossal, legendary even. All the genre offshoots—hardcore, punk, power pop, garage and so forth—are accounted for in the country’s vast and varied landscape. And, as Eric Davidson writes in We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut 1988-2001, Japan is traditionally the country where those genres “go to have jumper cables attached to their nipples.” While seasoned bands like Teengenerate, Guitar Wolf and The 126.96.36.199′s might already be on your radar, there’s heaps of lesser-known acts just as deserving of acclaim. Some of these standouts are greener groups still gaining ground, while others are as established as the aforementioned legends. All of them are doing their part to keep the scene as uniquely raw and brilliantly hyperactive as it’s always been.
Maybe the most storied of the bunch is this newly reactivated group, who in 1978 acted as
the jump-off for the Kansai no wave scene. Founding frontman Hide and company can safely
claim several firsts, actually—the first improvisational noise-punk band in Japan, the first
independently released Kansai punk album (The Original Ultra Bide on Alchemy Records
in 1984). With grating guitar, gruff vocals and frantic beats, they’re like a turbulent geyser
of aggressive mania. After calling New York home for much of the ’90s and
releasing LPs on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles imprint, they returned to Japan about 10 years ago, and remain a singular sound among the rest of the country’s offerings. Last fall marked the release of DNA vs. DNA-c, which again comes courtesy of Biafra’s label.
This trio is akin to a rawer version of Suzi Quatro’s first band The Pleasure Seekers, but luckily for us they’ve stuck around longer and boast a significantly bigger catalog. Despite several lineup shifts, The Go-Devils have cranked out consistently groovy garage jams from ’93 onward. There’s been a slight lull since 2009’s Super Stuff 7-inch on Time Bomb Records, but the band’s definitely still kicking, regularly showing up on bills in their hometown of Osaka as well as other Japanese cities.
A few years after solidifying their roster—it’s still Momo, Angie and Ritz—they contributed four cuts to Time Bomb’s 2006 Demonic Freak Scene comp, and this hip-shakin’ number is undeniably a highlight.
One of Tokyo’s latest and greatest gifts to rock ‘n’ roll is Rangsteen, a freshly formed power-pop project with a glammy polish and a proclivity for anthem-worthy gang vocals. Fink from Teengenerate gets the credit for pointing these guys out to us, but it’s his bandmate, Fifi, who deserves the highest of high fives. His label, Stay Free Records, was responsible for the delivery of Roll, Rangsteen’s second LP, two years ago. The title track is an energetic, ball-of-fire number that’s built almost solely on the repetition of a couple hooks, making it an instant shout-along.
Your Pest Band
While these guys are admittedly big Hüsker Dü fans (they’re contributing to a forthcoming 7-inch tribute), their delivery is a lot sloppier—but in the most endearing way. Frontman Humito sings with a slobbery slur like he’s had a few, and they’ve been unapologetically spastic in focus, jumping around on the punk spectrum, going from a cruder ’70s sound to hyper pop to a pub rock-plus-garage blend. Last year’s In My Doom 10-inch (via HS!BF, the label helmed by Milwaukee hardcore band Holy Shit!) is an amalgam of all those inspirations, and then some. There’s the bluesy “She Said,” the ’50s sway of the title track and the super-melodic “How Do You Think.” Your Pest Band always retains one constant, though—a heaping handful of grime smeared over the whole shebang.
If The Damned played Gang of Four covers, they’d probably sound a lot like this Tokyo troupe. Another band bestowed with Fink’s seal of approval, Liquid Screen channels robust rock ‘n’ roll as much as prickly post-punk. Their 2007 debut allowed hardcore the upper hand, but melody took priority on their 2010 sophomore effort, Virginal Secretions. Staple Japanese label-slash-shop Time Bomb Records did the honors then, and Episode Sounds—a newer yet prolific imprint that tirelessly organizes shows in Tokyo—gifted us 2012’s All’s Fair in Love and War 7-inch.
Just like in the UK, Japan experienced an Oi! upswing in the ’90s. Its primary chieftains were The Discocks and Tom and Bootboys—they regularly conspired together on splits, comps and shows, and Nori, of the latter, started Pogo 77 Records. The label, also a proponent of hardcore and ’77-style punk, is still very much a central part of the movement, having just celebrated its 20th anniversary with a 3-day fest only weeks ago. On that bill was THE ERECTioNS, a fast-rising trio featuring the Discocks’ guitarist, and similarly modeled after the London sound of the ’70s and ’80s (think Cockney Rejects, The Business, Cock Sparrer). And, of course, the band’s infected with the same strain of rock ‘n’ roll rabies that courses through the veins of pretty much every Japanese group. Here’s a cut from their latest release, a 7-inch dubbed Oi! Oi! Real Now.
(Side note: I’d be remiss I didn’t squeeze in this rad clip of the Discocks from an old tour VHS put together by Jorge from the Casualties.)
A critical slice of the country’s super-sugary power pop sector, these guys were rambling around with a rare zeal during the largely dry 2000s, and haven’t really skipped a beat since. In fact, their catalog size is nearly on par with their elder statesmen—to date, they’ve put out three LPs and five 7-inches. Where to start a Beginner’s Guide to The Gimmies is a challenge, ‘cause nearly every song showcases a mastery of punchy melodies and syrupy snarls. On the still-fresh Kids and Neighbors EP, the group’s gone extra gritty. While it’s nevertheless a worthwhile listen, the 2012 eponymous single “Stuck Me” is a crystalline crude introduction to the gobs of jams The Gimmies have up for grabs.
Hardcore punk of the teeth-clenched ’80s type is perfectly patterned by Louder, which features Onacky, a renaissance rocker with his hands in various projects—Frantic Stuffs (another Fink-approved band), Stalemate and Erovis Brothers. He’s also in the power pop act Yaggies with his Louder bandmate, Toma. Naturally, his unflagging output makes him invaluable to the scene. But that also means he’s prone to being spread to thin, and there simply aren’t as many Louder recordings as we’d like. There are a few, though, and what Louder lacks in quantity they make up for in quality. Their initiation into the still-exclusive Episode Sounds club came in 2012 with the 7-inch “Get Out” b/w “Dub.” Brambly production and crude, curled-lip vocals make both cuts as rambunctious as they are brawny.
The Crawlin’ Kingsnakes
Crypt Records ringleader Tim Warren would likely applaud this trio, and not solely for sounding like a relic from the shadows of the ’60s from which his Back from the Grave comps cull. It’d please him to see that the group lives up to its name—taken from the Delta blues song—with an undeniably suave sense of rhythm, albeit with a nod toward British beat grooves. The Crawlin’ Kingsnakes’ proper debut is due late January via the longstanding local label Majestic Sound, which also brought a 7-inch from the likeminded Go-Devils in 2002. The album will include this dirty, swaying ditty.
The Akabane Vulgars on Strong Bypass
This blues-punk combo—sisters Miki and Yumi Uchizono and former schoolmate Kei Sofue—is often deceptively labeled. They’ve played the San Francisco J-Pop Summit, though their grim-and-gloomy aesthetic bears little likeness to the typical J-pop sound. Sometimes they’re pegged as rockabilly, but they don’t employ an upright bass. And while guttural vocals and heavy guitar might make one assume they’re a hard-rock group, swinging melodies belie that descriptor. The girls don’t seem to have a home in the Tokyo underground scene, either. But that’s likely because they’re hell-bent on frequent touring—during their 2012 trip to the US, they hit the 12,000 mile-mark. Somehow, despite the blitz of performances, they managed to find time to record their first full-length, Proclamation. The Akabane Vulgars on Strong Bypass seem to thrive on the intensity of a jam-packed itinerary, and even capsuled their love for touring by releasing a live album at the same time.