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Thursday, April 26, 2012

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Three seminal albums hit the 10-year mark

Special to The Japan Times

We in the music press love a good birthday party. Whether it was last year's frenzy over the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's "Nevermind," or the collective swoon every 10 years surrounding The Sex Pistols' over-produced and overrated "Never Mind the Bollocks," it's about more than just drumming up sales for a re-release. It's an opportunity to take stock of influential bands' careers, changing trends, and debate whether they're over-produced or not.

Anniversaries also provide a chance for a temporary break from the Internet's frantic dash forward, with websites interrupting their endless flow of the latest YouTube clips to remind readers of classics that might otherwise get lost in the content turnover (recent revisits include Pavement's 1992 album "Slanted and Enchanted" and Wilco's 2002 album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.")

For Japan, the spring of 2002 is definitely worth a second look. Three albums: Quruli's "The World is Mine," Supercar's "Highvision" and Number Girl's "Num-Heavymetallic" were released within weeks of each other in what ended up being more than just a happy coincidence — it was a moment of independent-minded artists, major labels and the zeitgeist coming together in a way that has yet to be repeated to articulate the feelings of Japanese youth.

Starting out as emo-influenced punks in the late 1990s, Kyoto's Quruli had gone through a series of musical shifts, working with U.S. import Jim O'Rourke on 2000's "Zukan" and experimenting with dance music on 2001's "Team Rock" before coming up with one of the all-time great Japanese rock albums, "The World is Mine."

Hurtling through cosmic indie psychedelia, acoustic-folk balladry, pulsing disco funk, and, erm, bagpipe techno, it is not only a wonderful album but also one of the most forward-thinking musical statements ever to come out of a Japanese major label, crashing into the Oricon Top 5 back when it actually meant something.

It would be unfair to say that Quruli withdrew from musical experimentation after that, given the way it combined consistent chart success with a move into soundtracks and an orchestral diversion on 2008's "Philharmonic or Die," but its studio albums from then on were marked by a trend toward simpler rock and folk. The band never produced a work of such ambition and electronic grandeur again.

This wasn't the end of dance music's place alongside indie rock though, because just a month after "The World is Mine"came out, Aomori's Supercar gave us "Highvision."

There was a generation of Japanese whose image of cool music was formed in the '90s by British groups such as My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream and Underworld. Supercar combined elements from those bands in a way that allowed it to sit credibly alongside its idols. The group's lyrics also spoke to the underlying mood of social dislocation facing young people at the time: a constant wariness of the future and corresponding focus on the here and now of youth; the angst of fragile relationships; and frequent intrusions of childhood images.

Young people, feeling the stark contrast between the freedom and uncertainty of the world they were stepping into compared with the strict but dependable world of their parents no doubt felt a strong affinity with the dream world that Supercar painted, not to mention its sharp, dry, often socially critical sense of humor that stood in contrast to the sort of banal cheerfulness it ridiculed on 1998's "Happy Talking."

But by the time of "Highvision," the dream was starting to crumble. On "Aoharu Youth" the group bemoaned the meaninglessness of youth, and a weary, hopeless atmosphere creeps in with "Yumegiwa Last Boy" seeming to suggest that this life on the edge of a dream would soon be over.

Lastly, and perhaps most influentially, exactly 10 years ago today saw the release of "Num-Heavymetallic," the final album by Fukuoka punk quartet Number Girl.

Given how many bands over the past decade have tried to copy Number Girl's template, it's sometimes hard to appreciate how fresh the album sounded upon release. "Num-Heavymetallic" is probably the group's most polished album and it still sounds like a chain-saw massacre in the middle of a Bon festival. Like Supercar, it tapped into the underlying alienation felt by young Japanese after the turn of the century with a sharp, underlying wit, but Shutoku Mukai's lyrics are more furious, spitting disgust at both society and himself, using frequently violent and sexually explicit imagery.

Starting out taking cues from Sonic Youth, The Stooges and the Pixies as well as drawing inspiration from Fukuoka contemporaries Mo'some Tonebender and Panicsmile, by 2002 Mukai was eagerly incorporating Buddhist lyrical motifs and festival music into his songs, most obviously in his vocals and the vast, echoing drum sound that pervades the album, as well as bringing in elements of funk and '70s hard rock. The single "Num-Ami-Dabutz" takes the funk-punk of The Pop Group and The Clash's "The Magnificent Seven," adds some scathing, apocalyptic lyrics and a glorious, strangled solo from guitarist Hisako Tabuchi to make one of the decade's most unlikely hit singles.

The legacy of these albums is all around the Japanese music scene today. Number Girl and Supercar dissolved in 2002 and 2005 respectively, and both groups split off into various diverse projects.

Number Girl spawned the experimental funk rock of Mukai's Zazen Boys and more recently the new-wave-influenced Kimonos; drummer Ahito Inazawa formed Vola and the Oriental Machine; while Tabuchi joined Bloodthirsty Butchers and formed indie act Toddle. Bassist Kentaro Nakao has played with various bands including Sloth Love Chunks, Aiha Higurashi and Loves, and more recently Crypt City.

Supercar bassist Miki Furukawa launched a solo career and lent her voice to Vocaloid's "SF-A2 Miki" voice synthesiser, while vocalist Koji Nakamura continued to record as iLL, drummer Kodai Tazawa formed electronic group aM and guitarist Junji Ishiwatari made a name as a lyricist and producer for acts including punk-pop girl group Chatmonchy and punk/alternative band 9mm Parabellum Bullet. More recently, Furukawa and Nakamura have teamed up with Number Girl's Tabuchi to form the supergroup Lama.

"Highvision" also etched itself into pop-culture history by gifting the song "Storywriter" to hit anime series "Eureka seveN" as well as a number of tracks to the live-action manga adaptation "Ping Pong"; while songs like the fabulous single "Strobolights" remain landmarks in Japanese electronic/rock crossover music.

Although Quruli may have largely abandoned electronic music, Sakanaction's 2011 single "Bach no Senritsu wo Yoru ni Kiitasei Desu" is a direct descendent of Quruli's hit "World's End Supernova." Despite, or more likely because of, their caustic edge, Number Girl's influence is even deeper and wider. Bands like School Food Punishment and Mass of the Fermenting Dregs show clear influences, while bands such as Asian Kung-Fu Generation smoothed off Number Girl's edges and continued to make (admittedly rather dull) hit records in a similar style.

Young musicians now trying to move out from beneath the shadow of these three modern classics from that vintage era 10 years ago definitely have their work cut out for them.

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