The question you’re probably asking your computer screen, me, right now is ‘can this really be done’? Is there really a right way of telling this story? There is the familiar canonical problem of genres: many bands pick and mix musical styles, inciting crossbreeding between ‘Japanese noise rock’, ‘Japanese post rock’ and ‘Japanese math rock’. Moreover, there is the simple fact that I am not a Japanese math rocker: I am a mere outside aficionado. I have never been to Japan and every time a Japanese math rock band comes to town (twice), I miss them. I don’t know what is considered ‘math rock’ from a Japanese perspective. I feel like I’m embarking on an overwhelming Japanese math rock odyssey to bring you the fruits of this attractive yet mysterious land and, admittedly, I feel far from being any Ulysses-like figure. Thankfully, I am writing this article alongside our faithful Japanese correspondent and all-round musical druid, Tak Yamamoto. I’ve also received some extra inspiration from Kyoto’s Uchu Conbini, Tokyo’s MOMA and Ichinoseki’s te_ri. I’m stepping into the deep end, but at least I have some floaties.
The musical range of what could be considered Japanese ‘math’ is vast: there are the angular grooves of bands like rega and LITE; the melodious guitar-tapped phrasings of toe, Uchu Conbini, and Low-pass; the disjointed jazz of Mouse On The Keys and Jizue; the frenzied rhythms of Yoso-wa-yoso, NINGEN OK and te_ri; and the more alt-rock/indie stylings of tricot and kyojaku. Stylistic innovation is typical across all these bands; an instinctual need to experiment and twist previously disparate wires together, and untwist others apart.
But there’s a bit more to it. There is an undisputable charm about Japanese math rock. Their innovation is commonly counterbalanced by delicious hooks, soothing reverb, and catchy rhythms (amidst the irregular ones). They generally discard the technical and noisy eccentricities pertinent to many US and UK math rock groups like Hella, Giraffes? Giraffes! and Piglet. And perhaps this is what draws us in: Japanese math rock bands invest more time crafting pop-leaning idyllic musical prose that invites the listener into a new world. “The genre in Japan has unique styles compared to overseas math rock/post rock,” says Uchu Conbini, “I think many Japanese bands have a unique sense of melody mixed with a high-strung rhythm pattern“. Toe are a great example of this; their overarching chaotically structured sound is buffered by gently rolling guitar melodies and sedating chord progressions, which overall invoke a sense of comfort. In similar fashion, Uchu Conbini can write structurally complex songs with frenzied guitar tapping, but their finished sound is a soothing pop harmony (have a listen to ‘Pyramid’ below). Japanese math rock bands always appear to know the glorious scenic routes for the disjointed musical journey you want to take.
Where this all started is really anyone’s guess. Some will nod their head to early metal bands like Ruins and Zeni Geva, who patched their riffs together with a range of off-kilter time signatures. There is also the avant-garde experimentalism of 90’s indie bands like Boredoms, OOIOO, and Tipographica. Long running noise rock band Melt Banana also brought in heavy experimentation, predominantly through the zany guitar effects of Ichirou Agata. Afrirampo, in a similar fashion, incorporated discordant guitar melodies and rhythm changes into their punky ethos. Tokyo’s Zazen Boys have also kept the spirit of math music alive from the 90’s through to the 00’s with their complex rhythm changes and dissonant electronics.
At the end of the day, whether one attributes these bands as precursors to the natural progression of Japanese ‘math rock’ or not is contentious. And an overarching contention is that the evolution of math rock may not be a simple straight forward, linear progression, let alone a cultural niche endemic to Japan. Many of the more renowned Japanese math rock bands took their influence from math rock bands coming out of the USA: LITE admit to being influenced by New York’s Battles; Toe were influenced by Ghosts and Vodka. “Outside Japan, we are inspired by the works of Owls and American Football,” says Uchu Conbini. And some math rock musicians look even further. Kyoju Murakami of te_ri tips his hat to the piano virtuosos of Central and South America: “I’m very influenced by the rhythm of Conlon Nancarrow and the melodies of Egberto Gismonti“.
As a culture, math rock is still small; part of the much larger umbrella of Japanese underground music. In recent years, math rock culture has started to appear in the more indie Tokyo suburbs of Shimokitazawa and Koenji. Here, venues such as ERA, Nine Spices, and Koenji High are havens for underground music. In Kyoto, venues like Growly typically showcase math rock and post rock bands. Mini-festivals and weekenders, such as the Dubai9-tieemo Festival in Tokyo, showcase many math rock and post rock greats, such as Haisuinonasa, Uchuu Conbini, and Mudy On The Sakuban. International touring bands appear to also keep the scene alive. “Nowadays, many Japanese bands invite their favourite overseas bands to Japan by themselves,” says Masafumi of MOMA, “They have a short tour together in Japan, play shows, and sell their merchandise. I think It’s great and it would be awesome if this movement becomes more popular.”
A number of key Japanese record labels distribute math rock releases within Japan, including Zankyo Records and No Big Deal Records. In addition, labels such as Stiff Slack Records distribute many international math rock releases, such as Enemies, Sleeping People and TTNG. In fact, many of the larger math Japanese rock bands have established their own record labels, allowing them to work at their own pace and under their own terms: toe formed Machu Picchu Industrias; tricot formed Bakuretsu Records.
So why do I have to resort to reddit forums and micro Facebook groups to share and discover Japan’s wonderful mathematical sound? Why are these bands seemingly out of the international limelight? Sure, there are many underground Japanese bands that have fended well in the global arena: Boris (sludge/doom/noise), United (thrash metal), envy (post-hardcore), Shonen Knife (indie), and Mono (post rock) have all received widespread critical and audience praise, and each have toured extensively. And, granted, Japanese math rock bands toe and LITE both tour internationally. Here in the United Kingdom, there are a number of dedicated promotional groups, such as Japan Underground, that support Japanese bands in planning international tours. “We’ve done shows in vans and we’ve done shows were we all took the train and shared instruments,” says Tom Smith of Japan Underground, “it all depends on the budget and how many people we reckon will come through the door. It’s always high risk though because the costs are so much.”
“I’d say most of the ‘underground’ bands people usually think of in Japan probably have a bigger fan base outside of their country,” says Tom, “Japan’s really fragmented. You have pop-culture, then you have what feels like a thousand sub-cultures against it. Yeah, there’s a math rock scene where bands like LITE and others blossom. The scene will be small, but the fans dedicated.” So why does this small but exciting scene seem so distant from us non-Japanese folk? Perhaps there just isn’t enough international journalism connecting us with the Japanese scene and allowing it to adequately creep into our eardrums. “Getting magazines and media to write about (bands) is anything but easy,” says Tom, “so a few years ago I decided to cut out the media and do it myself.”
And that’s what we’ve aspired to do here as well. To me, Japanese math rock seems like a rich ore of amazing and dynamic sound which, to date, has not been fully harvested. While the scene sometimes feels somewhat out of reach, I feel that old adage from Frank Zappa creeping into my brain once again: “the mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground“. This quote feels very relevant here. We’re drawn in by the grand hooks and comforting melodies of Japan math rock bands, who are much like Homer’s sirens, but we have to invest our energy into dredging a little more to get at them. The key tools are right in from us: the internet, the internet and the internet. So let’s carry on with the odyssey, shall we?