I recently learned of the existence of Kaala, a web community working to shed light on Japan’s underground talent when it comes to metal, punk, and everything in between. If you’re like me, most of your knowledge of Japan’s metal and punk scenes probably comes from bands that have been signed to well-known underground labels (Coffins, Abigail, Sabbat etc.) or that have come over to the U.S. to play festivals or do short tours. But aside from that, you don’t tend to hear about everything else going on in the country, and as a journalist I haven’t found a lot of bands from Japan pitching me for stories. They definitely seem to have a problem getting the word out internationally, and that’s where Kaala has stepped in with writers based in different parts of the country spreading the word about local gigs, noteworthy releases, and a lot more.
It’s a great resource, and they recently threw the idea around of putting together a guided tour of Japan’s extreme music scene and assisting potential fans from all over the world in getting there. There’s a Google questionnaire running (which you can check out here) to gauge interest and budgets for pulling something off, but it has the potential to bring even more exposure to bands that could use it. Writing about extreme music from parts of the world that don’t get that much press is something I will be focusing on more this year on Transcending Obscurity, and Japan is a definite area of interest.
I’ll be spotlighting Kaala more as the potential logistics of this guided tour prove to be feasible or not, as well as pouring through their wealth of content to find some worthy bands to bring to your attention on TO. But to start, I’m happy to have Kaala’s founder Matt Ketchum contribute a guest post spotlighting his three favorite albums from Japan released in 2016. These are groups you’re not going to want to sleep on! –Chris Dahlberg
As we never get tired of saying, there’s a wealth of excellent stuff coming out of Japan that tends to fly under the radar, and working to ensure that Japan’s scene gets its due is one of the main reasons why I formed Kaala. So, as a start, our members in Japan put together a few lists of our top 3 favorite albums of the year, and the below is an expanded version of what I listed on our own website.
Let it be said that I have known these guys for a while, so this isn’t a completely objective pick, but then again the members of GUEVNNA (All caps is the proper spelling, FYI) are great enough people that I would undoubtedly still be friends with them even if their music really sucked. Fortunately, it doesn’t! Quite the opposite, in fact.
Like a lot of bands in Japan, GUEVNNA could, if you chose to look at it this way, be considered a Super Group of sorts: members have also been part of Coffins, Gotsu Totsu Kotsu, Veiyadra, Unholy Grave, and Shikabane (I think that’s the whole list). Despite their pedigree in Death Metal and Grind, however, members of GUEVNNA have shelved the shredding and blasting for something a good bit groovier: Doom.
But part of the fun with Doom is that it is, without a doubt, the most ill-defined genre in the extreme music ecosystem: just within Japan, you can run the gamut from Eternal Elysium’s stoned grooves to Corrupted’s k-hole of contemplation, with bands like Zothique, Nepenthes, Magdalene Junen, and others filling in that very wide sonic gap between day-dreaming about ripping up the desert roads on a motorcycle and complete existential meltdown in the darkest corner of your mind.
And that is certainly part of the fun with GUEVNNA. A self-described “disco-doom” (yeah, wrap your mind around that) outfit, GUEVNNA bridges the gap between trudging through a lonely tar pit and getting down with your bad self on the dance floor and/or in the pit, almost inviting the audience to revel in the travesty that is modern life. And that rumination is, to be 95% sure, a theme amongst them, though it’s more suggested than stated outright.
GUEVNNA’s first documented experiment with catchy, even danceable Doom was on 2015’s EP ‘Conspiracies’, and with ‘Heart of Evil’ they’ve developed that sound much further, delivering 8 tracks that take in a whole swathe of the recognized iterations of Doom, seamlessly weaving them together into what I honestly want to call a sonic adventure from mired swamps to open highways. Call it “disco-doom” or whatever, if this is any indication of their intentions for albums to come (which I’m sure it is) I can’t wait to see what they’ll release next. But for now, ‘Heart of Evil’ will more than suffice.
There is one brand of Doom, however, that does deserve its own sub-sub genre (and I really don’t like the over-compartmentalization of music that I perceive these days, so that’s a pretty significant statement), and that is Funeral Doom. Speaking from my own understanding of things, it’s also one of the least popular forms of Doom, which probably makes it one of the least popular genres of music in general. And really, I’m not even much of a fan, though that’s slowly (pun!) changing with the help of specifically the Japanese scene, more specifically Weird Truth Productions, and really specifically Funeral Moth (and also Begrabnis, but I didn’t get their new release early enough to consider it for this list).
It’s hard to say this because Funeral Doom is such a slow, plodding, attention-demanding exercise in patience, but I consider ‘Transience’ to be a vast departure from Doom Dogma, and even from Funeral Moth’s own MO. Their previous works have fit the mold, as it were, of cavernous and malicious dirges that so typically characterize the genre, but with ‘Transience’ there is this really unexpected, albeit subtle, tinge of Hope to the gloom they’ve been casting since 2005. One glimpse at the album cover betrays as much, and at risk of sounding like a wvss, this is a really welcome progression.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all about using music to explore the deeper, darker, uglier recesses of the mind, but I think one reason why I’ve never been a huge fan of Funeral Doom is that it tends to be dense to the point of stasis. And that’s cool for a bit, but in the end I’ve never personally felt that it goes anywhere, thematically more than musically; it’s stuck in a rut, and maybe that’s the point, but that can get old sort of quickly for me.
Refreshingly, ‘Transience’ stands out because it goes a step further. Being Funeral Doom, it necessarily retains the crushing weight of remorse and loss, lulls you into soundscapes of woe, but at the same time it has an unmistakable lightness about it, and through this, movement. It’s a strange phenomenon, as I can’t be exactly sure from where it emanates, but ‘Transience’ introduces a dynamic to the sonic Underworld, and perhaps a bit of perspective, by letting you fall into the wastes of your worst fears, but then it asks, are you going to stay here, or will you take on the monumental task of moving yourself onward?
Ooooorrrrrr maybe it’s all meaningless. You decide. This album, I think, can help with that.
Sekien – S/T
Japan’s punk/crust scene is far-and-away the better established scene in comparison to Metal, though notably far less digital. That’s neither good nor bad, so don’t think I’m hating. While keeping in mind that most of my experience in Japan’s punk scene is limited to the Tokyo/Kanto region, one thing about it is that it’s got its OG bands, and then the other bands operating kind of under their shadow. Now, this isn’t really a bad thing, and I’ve had nothing but great experiences at shows and in booking punx to play my gigs, but it does seem to limit avenues for development.
Which is why I love Sekien’s dirty, incensed crust: its fresh, untamed, and from one of the last places on my list of places that I regularly pay attention to, Himeji. I say this because, for me, Himeji = LSD March and castles. Himeji ≠ guzzling beers on the sidewalk and break-neck crust. Good on them for bucking trends.
6 years is kind of a long time to wait for a 1st album, but better late than never. The entire thing is a fist-to-face slab of political and social commentary, and even if you can’t understand the language or can’t hear what they’re saying, there’s a very tangible sense of urgency and volatility in their shouts and instrumentations. In that sense, it’s quite primal: I don’t think many would disagree that even if you don’t see anything wrong with your surroundings, there’s certainly a sense that something’s amiss. Sekien channel that malaise into a shotgun blast of furious crust. Don’t know what to do? Doesn’t matter. Do something.
…And do something they did. They broke up late last year. What a shame, given the power they had on this inaugural release 🙁
So that’s that – my own personal Top 3 of 2016 for Japan’s extreme underground. That’s not to say there weren’t runner ups – there certainly were, with particular accolades going to Self Deconstruction. Hope you enjoy some if not all of these selections, but even if not don’t worry because Japan’s scene is massive – Keep a tabs on it over at Kaala.jp