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Concert Review: Next Music From Tokyo Vol. 10

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On May 22nd, I arrived at Divan Orange at 8:00 pm, just before the music was supposed to start, to find a room already packed to the brim with a horde of excited fans. The concert was a showcase of Japanese bands, part of an ongoing series called Next Music From Tokyo. I was planning on bringing a few friends along, but even at such an early hour, the show was – in the words of organizer Steven Tanaka – “beyond sold out.” From talking to a few people at the concert and record store clerks, I eventually gathered that this 10th edition of Next Music From Tokyo was the most popular one yet.

I ended up at the show after recently reading Ian Martin’s Quit Your Band!: Musical Notes From the Japanese Underground – a newly published, finely compiled compendium of the history and inner-workings of the Japanese underground music scene. As Martin takes the reader through the history of Japanese rock music and band politics, he opens one chapter with a short story about Canada, presenting the country as some sort of promised land for indie bands aspiring to greatness. Martin then goes on to discuss a mythical figure within the Canadian scene, someone who would regularly travel to Tokyo from his home in Toronto several times a year to scout out underground bands, hoping to enlist them in a series of concerts in Canada.

Martin eventually reveals this mythical figure to be Tanaka, an anesthesiologist working in Toronto who moonlights as a seminal figure in Tokyo’s underground music scene. Intrigued, I decided to dig further. I found Tanaka’s blog on the Next Music From Tokyo website, where he writes about seeing bands playing live, hanging out with the members, and the intricacies of the scene itself. Both the book and blog made the Next Music project sound like an amazingly genuine product of love for the music, and I knew there was no excuse for me not to be at the next instalment.

So I found myself alone at Divan Orange, where Tanaka’s love and excitement were on full display as he introduced each of the five bands playing that evening. He spoke so candidly and excitedly about the bands that you couldn’t help but feel the same sense of pure unadulterated glee. This enthusiasm was matched by the performers, too. Although a lot of words were lost in translation, each band emitted some seriously positive vibes. The combination of good energy from the organizers and bands created an experience that I won’t forget until I’m old and senile, and maybe not even then. Let me walk you through it.

The Taupe

After an outpouring of kind words by Tanaka, the first band, The Taupe, came on stage. From the very first tone emitted from their amplifier, I knew I was going to witness something truly special. Their music was akin to being driven around in a speeding van with a flat tire, the drivers cruising along the highway in erratic staccato rhythms that keep you on your toes. Once you thought you knew where things were going, they would slam on the accelerator at an unexpected turn, laying down heavy and distorted noises that were the equivalent of flipping the van over a cliff, flooring anyone in the audience who was expecting a gradual crescendo.

Adding to this musical joy ride was their unparalleled stage presence. The band members jolted their bodies around on stage, making exasperated faces to accompany pretty much every note they played. Early on in the set, the lead guitarist began swinging his instrument around from its straps as if it were some sort of motorized weapon, while the main vocalist jumped into the crowd and screamed into his microphone, as he dangled from a pipe in the middle of the room. Despite the early hour, this behavior was completely warranted. This was one of those sets where you could enter totally sober, and wind up audibly muttering ‘Holy shit!” totally earnestly throughout the entire thing. Next Music From Tokyo Vol. 10 was off to a very good start.

Bakyun the Everyday

Bakyun the Everyday played next. Before they started, Tanaka went on stage to announce the band, describing them as a straightforward punk band, but with a certain “je ne sais quoi.” In the past, straightforward punk bands have tended to leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed, so admittedly I didn’t have the highest expectations after the introduction.

The band were outfitted in loose t-shirts and exuded a decidedly less threatening vibe than The Taupe. They quickly established themselves as a tight and energetic act, jumping around on stage, yelling, exuding pure fun. As soon as they began playing, the light-on-their-toes boppers from the first set immediately descended into a big mosh pit.

While the first few songs seemed to be pretty straight ahead, the ‘je ne sais quoi’ started revealing itself more and more throughout the set. The thrashing chords were joined by heroic-sounding lead guitar riffs, the singer endearing herself more and more to the audience throughout every song, thanking the crowd in English and French.

Half an hour into the set, she seemed to be losing steam, downing a whole bottle of water while talking into the mic in Japanese. But just as I thought they might be calling it quits, Bakyun the Everyday swung back into action with an extra three songs, playing with just as much vigor as before the short break, if not more so. After the band’s last song, I felt that I’d witnessed them arrive at the end of a journey of some sorts, having watched their music grew more and more ferociously fun and their stage presence more and more compelling. By the end, I felt almost the same way I feel whenever I see friends perform – excited that they managed to pull off something so special.

Yukueshirezutsurezure

After Bakyun the Everyday, I went out to grab a bottle of water during the interact. I was only out for about 10 minutes, but I returned to the venue with the next band in mid-performance. By the looks of it, there hadn’t been much gear to set up.

Four women decked out in gothic-lolita outfits and elaborate hairstyles had taken the stage, singing and performing choreographed dance moves to an intense backing track. If I couldn’t hear the track, I’d have assumed I was at the wrong show, but the sounds confirmed that these performers were right at home.

This was Yukueshirezutsurezure, who fashion themselves as an ‘alt’-idol band. If I understand correctly, the ‘idol’ part of that label means that their specific image and overall presence is designed to cultivate an adoring legion of fans, which Yukueshirezutsurezure has plenty of. But idol bands are typically known for sweet pop; the ‘alt’ in alt-idol refers to the fact that Yukueshirezutsurezure’s music actually sounds good. The backing track was a high-BPM mixture of heavy metal chords drenched in drum blasts that would have been a good fit on a Venetian Snares album, while J-Pop and EDM-styled synths kept the crowd dancing and energetic. The band members sang with a mixture of higher-pitched, “cutesy” vocals and gut-clenching growls that would have alienated any typical idol band fan.  Yukueshirezutsurezure’s fans, on the other hand, are undeterred by the stylistic blend – a few hardcore supporters had even made the trek to Canada to see them perform, waving around the iconic blue glowsticks that are associated with the band’s image and showing the rest of the audience how to get down to this novel performance.

Hyacca

The fourth band was called Hyacca. Their members were quite a bit older than the other bands, and immediately set themselves apart when the bassist produced a flute and started the set by looping a hypnotic musical phrase with it. “Oh okay, that’s cool” I thought as I approached centre stage. The band then suddenly yelped, snapping the audience out of our flute-induced trance, only to begin a low, sludgy, droning rhythm, which started out slow and crept along as the song progressed from foreboding start to cathartic shoegazing finale.

I don’t know how they did it, but throughout the set they mixed psychedelic, high-energy fuzz with these funky rhythms that kept the audience on our feet. It’s hard to describe their style, since they cycled through so many during that performance. Amidst the psych, there were raga-esque flourishes to their riffs, some straightforward pop, and I think I even caught a highly-frantic ska section. Either way, they had full control over the audience members, a large portion of whom (including me) were clamoring over each other and gesticulating to the grooves. The crowd enjoyed it so much that they yelled and demanded an encore, lest this concert turn into an all-out riot. The band responded to the demands by laying down a three-minute long psychedelic freak-out, topping a meaty and balanced set with a fiery desert. Amazing stuff.

Yubisaki Nohaku

The last band was an all-girl rock band called Yubisaki Nohaku. I was up near the stage, practically face-to-face with the bassist who broke the silence of setting up with a riff that nearly shoved me to the ground. That warranted a few ‘holy fucks’ before I retreated to the back of the audience. I needed to stand back a little from the brunt of the action – after four amazing acts, my ears were ringing like a firetruck siren, and my body felt like it had been demolished by one. But don’t get me wrong, Yubisaki Nohaku were one of the tightest bands I’d ever seen. Their melodic range was through the roof – not content with any one style or mood, they switched seamlessly between ballads and distorted freak-out songs, all amazingly fun. And I will flat out admit it: their bass player might have been the best I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

They also laid out some of the catchiest songs I heard that night; even now I’m still thinking back to some of their melodies. The singer performed with such dramatic intensity it felt as if the band was sound-tracking a movie right there on the stage. The crowd was into it, I was into it, even the rest of the bands were into it – a bunch of members from The Taupe and Bakyun the Everyday took the stage again only to dive right back into the audience. Seeing their faces again made this last set feel the end of a movie, the band members all actors returning for the credits.

The symbiotic enthusiasm of the band members and the audience made this event something truly special. All the bands were really excited about playing in Canada, and the audience members were equally excited to hear these bands that they would have otherwise never been able to see live. Up until I saw this show, I’d only gotten glimpses into the Japanese music scene from Martin’s book, Tanaka’s blog and my own listening. Seeing it up front and personal made for a memory that is now permanently imprinted on my brain. There is probably no reasonable excuse that would justify not catching the next volume of Next Music From Tokyo the next time it stops by Montreal. This is an extremely well-curated series, put together with infectious enthusiasm.

During the show, Tanaka claimed that Volume 11 will take place sometime in October. I’ll definitely be there, and you should be too – but make sure to get there early.

– Review by Rudy Quinn