Friday, April 30, 2010

Land of the Rising Sound

The Great Riff War of 2010 has hastened into its indie phase, which means this Beagle has docked at the guitar Galapagos. As I mentioned before, most even vaguely indie bands that I enjoy don't really do riffs - at least in conventional terms. "I Can See It (But I Can't Feel It)"? Not a riff. "Kissability" or "Eric's Trip"? Not riffs. But Reynolds brought up the rusted barbed-wire stylings of Captain Beefheart fairly early in the conversation, and once Big Flame is in play, then fuck yes this is a goddamn riff!

In the interest of furthering Carl's (or perhaps ネッビルさん) cultural integration, there's plenty of good riffs that Japan has produced. It actually suffers a surfeit of riffs, thanks to an inherent insecurity that makes Japanese rock musicians feel the need to measure up to - and thus adopt - foreign (i.e. American) standards. Ergo, every imaginable subspecies & splinter cell of "lock 'n' loll" is present here in Japan, from the most brain-numbing, derivative banality to the borderline-unlistenable. (Well, for a lotta folks, but personally I think "Psycho Buddha" is Acid Mother Temple's absolute apex.)

Japan has been been accused over the past century of having "bought their entire civilization from other people's hand-me-downs," as A.A. Gill put it. And yes, as an island nation, Japan didn't just spontaneously self-generate; everything had to come from somewhere else. But when Gill argues that Japan's adoptive pastiche of an identity is essentially void, that "you can't put on the suit and not the beliefs that went into tailoring it," he's not only missing the point but clearly didn't spend enough time here to argue with anyone wearing an SS uniform "for fun" around Yoyogi park. Will Ferguson, tell 'em how it is:
Nothing has ever come out of Japan that has ever revolutionized the world, for better or for worse. ...It all depends on how you define creativity. In Japan, it's seen in terms of problem-solving, a new approach to an old puzzle. This type of creativity encourages group effort and fuzzy logic. For Westerners, it is the rugged individual with the sudden light of inspiration. The first is practical creativity; the other, romantic. Neither view is superior, but the one is often baffled by - or even contemptuous of - the other.
So rock music is essentially an unending Year Zero project in Japan. The difference is that in the west, what is ripped up is abandoned as we start again; in Japan, what is ripped up is then gathered & painstakingly pieced back together in a new form.

If it is indeed wearing the West's suit, Japan has custom-tailored the jacket to fit no one else. Everything is a step or two beyond. An American's hobby is a Japanese's lifestyle. If an American would set something on fire, a Japanese would strap C4 to it and blow it up. Pop appeal appears like a weed, almost by accident, amidst askew sonics, instead of the other way round. Occasionally the differences are merely sartorial, but just as often there's something genuinely baffling & unutterably subversive.

Lest I be accused of painting Japan (as it is too often painted) as irredeemably weird, there's actually a lot of solid rock bands. Post-hardcore is a particular area in which Japanese bands excel - perhaps since it requires above-average instrumental skill (and the Japanese are nothing if not technically studious) while providing the catharsis that is scarcely found in daily life. Bloodthirsty Butchers are probably the only O.G. post-hardcore band still currently active; they're too often laconically midtempo for my taste, but they've written a real barnburner or two. Mo'some Tonebender are better when they lean more towards the Jesus Lizard than AC/DC (as they did too much on their last couple of releases). More recently, I wasn't too taken with Lostage's first few releases, but having shed their second guitarist has made them lean & mean as anything by Drive Like Jehu or mid-period Fugazi.

(I've also got to admit a personal bias towards those guys. How could you not like any band with whom you can spend an evening drinking Scotch & listening to old Karp singles?)

But the best of the bunch has gotta be Number Girl. Though the band broke up eight years ago, I've yet to hear another Japanese band whose crowd-pleasing arena anthems could still strip the paint of your fuckin' car. Okay, so they steered too far into post-punk "reggae des blancs" on their last record, Num-heavymetallic, but up until that point their output was without blemish - especially Schoolgirl Distortional Addict. Every song on that album absolutely slays.

Oh, and before I wrap up: if Carl's a keen fan of the Ron Johnson catalogue, then there is only one band in Japan that he absolutely, desperately needs to hear: Oshiri Penpens (オシリペンペンズ, a.k.a. "The Ass-Slaps").

Addendum: Mr. Reynolds wants us to get more taxonomically specific - hey, yo, Simon, you link to my post but don't read it? What's up, man?

Well, to reiterate, I'm going with Carl's definition of a "lick": the minimum possible unit in a cunnilingual encounter, or as I rephrased, a quick tickle or cocktease. Meanwhile, chord progressions are easily the majority of all rock music (embarrassingly so). A vamp is something rock cribbed from funk & soul: too few chords to be called a progression, a harmonically minimal rhythmic mood-setter. Vamps can come slow or fast. Motifs or vibes are the most diffuse, amoebic structures rock can affect, a la doom or shoegaze.

As for the riff itself, for now I think we're all tacking to the ol' Supreme Court opinion on pornography: I know it when I hear it!


Anonymous said...

great stuff seb.. i shall check them all out immediately..

re A.A.Gill. well, he's a racist's a bit rich coming from the English innit, a nation that has basically turned itslef into a dreary, dog-shit smeared replica of the U.S. utterly dominated by huge chainstores, fast food franchises and Retail Parks..the alternative to which is to be found in Erzatz European Cafe culture...its Multiplex's completely dominated by Hollywood product,its music scene increasingly moribund..

what Gill also fails to recognize is of course that Britain has had 30 years totally in hock to Neo-Liberalism...on a deep structural level we've adopted far more of "another culture" than the Japanese have, irrespective of how many "styles" they borrow...

honestly, the English...this horrible combination of puffery and myopia.. who do we imagine we are to be pulling rank on anyone?

TV's David Caruso said...

If you have an understanding of the political and cultural climate of Japan, and understand the language, does the band you linked to under the "genuinely baffling & unutterably subversive" tag make any sense at all.

They're not bad, they make me think of Elvis for reasons that probably wouldn't make sense to anyone. But seem more weird than subversive.

Seb said...

Certainly, from a western standpoint, that band (Maria Kannon) seem safe if somewhat strange. But a band like that making it onto primetime TV in the late '80s would be something culturally akin to PiL or Joy Division's first appearances on Granada TV.

Disappointingly, Maria Kannon spun off into far more disappointing revivalist acts like DMBQ.

The beautiful thing about weirdness in Japan is that, of course, there's plenty that westerners find weird that are perfectly run-of-the-mill to the Japanese. But if something's weird to the Japanese, the odds are it doesn't make sense to anyone. I can't tell you how many times I've thought my misunderstanding was based on a cultural disconnect only to be told, "No, man, it's just kinda fucked up."