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Neurotic Text: Japcore reviews, 2004

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Japcore reviews, 2004

WARNING: these two blog posts are old reviews I wrote last year. Newer content when I get a chance to sit down and write about some newer stuff...

Several unfortunate barriers—economic, geographic and linguistic—conspire to ensure that far too many great Japanese bands and records never receive a fraction of the recognition they deserve abroad, so it was refreshing to see Boston label Cadmium Sick collaborate with Dewa to release a fine 2002 debut EP by Niigata’s HEARTWORK, a record that turned many heads among North American punks. It’s a shame, then, that now Dewa alone have delivered the band’s sophomore EP, a ripping three-song set that deserves every bit as much attention as its predecessor. HEARTWORK’s music hasn’t changed a bit— quick, driving blasts of purist hardcore punk that recall classical US (Negative Approach, Minor Threat), Japanese (Lip Cream, Systematic Death) and even some early UK bands; current Japcore comparisons might include No Side or early Deride. The pace is set by a consistent galloping beat, fortified by prominent bass, accompanied by shouted vocals and all driven along by a non-stop buzzsaw guitar that occasionally leaps into tasteful leads but never loses the essential momentum. Definitely recommended to anyone into straight forward old school hardcore, and deserving of far greater availability outside Japan. (Dewa/89-11 Ishinada Tonojima/Tsuruoka Yamagata/997-0815 Japan)

Perhaps somewhat more easily found is the latest from Tokyo traditionalists WORM’S MEAT. Their “Four stupid brains” CDEP has recently been pressed on vinyl, albeit in a limited edition of 750 copies, on Stuart Scrader’s renowned Game of the Arseholes label, and it’s every bit the ripper one would expect from the label. Like Heartwork, WORM’S MEAT spurn “progression” in favour of a purist hardcore rooted firmly in the Japanese tradition. That means stinging leads, group choruses, scowling vocals and a relentless, charging metallic punk attack. While decidedly heavier than HEARTWORK on the Burning Spirits influence (ie lots of fret-scrubbing action), this is still more direct than, say, Paintbox or Crude, sounding most like the definitive late ‘80’s Selfish Records bands (Nightmare, So What etc). (GOTA/PO Box 511/Whippany, NJ/07981-0511 USA)

Last column, I sang the praises of another of Stuart’s releases, a cassette-only entry in DISCLOSE’s increasingly ridiculous discography. Entitled “The sound of disaster”, this has now hit vinyl courtesy of a Brazilian label (No Fashion/massiser@hotmail.com), in a small press of only 500 7” EPs. Needless to say, totally essential raw noise, as is the second DISCLOSE record we review this month, also an EP. Called “Neverending war” and released by the elusive Japanese Dan-Doh label, this three song rager is another uncompromising mess of smashing guitar distortion, anguished cries and the relentless, addictive d-beat drumming that makes each song seem to repeatedly collapse upon itself in torrents of noise and violence. Many hardcore punk fans will still turn their nose up at the horrendous windtunnel thrashing DISCLOSE never fail to subject us to—I recently decided that you know your tastes are fucked for life when you start craving such sonic abuse as is found on these records, even with the slightly more structured, primitively metallic Broken Bones influence the band have been displaying of late. As always, the music, lyrics and graphics are entirely recycled….so what? Definitely not recommended for fans of originality or creativity, but mandatory for raw hardcore freaks. (Dan-Doh c/o K-Club/2-1-26 Honmachi/Kochi City 780-0870/Japan)

Early accounts comparing the SPROUTS to an insane blend of Teengenerate and Larm intrigued me enough to warrant getting ahold of their debut EP on Kentucky’s Sound Pollution (PO Box 17742/Covington, KY/41017 USA), and the record’s 21 songs-on-a-45 RPM 7” format actually outdid the first DRI EP, but a few listens reveal this to be a moderately amusing novelty item, not an enduring hardcore rager or the long-awaited garage thrash breakthrough that had been suggested. Definitely high-energy stuff here, but the tinny, powerless sound and absence of any truly memorable songs make it unlikely I’ll be pulling this one out for too many repeat spins.

EXTERMINATE are an Aichi band, and I’d been hearing good things about their new “Find out” single on the long-running MCR label. It’s certainly a competent effort, with the standard strained vox and group choruses over a full, powerful mid-tempo hardcore sound, but something’s missing. Some serious bursts of speed, a particularly catchy hook or a bit of tasty melodic/metal guitar might well push “Find out” into the recommended pile, but for now it’s simply another decent little record. Nonetheless, I’d definitely be interested in hearing future material, because EXTERMINATE clearly have potential. (MCR/157 Kamiagu Maizuru/Kyoto 624-0913/Japan)

MCR’s second release this month is a four-song EP from Mie’s CONTRAST ATTITUDE. Bearing the typically Japanese (ie nonsensical but undeniably evocative) title “Sick brain extreme addict”, it’s a good slab of furious, distortion-drenched thrash in the tradition of Gloom, Disclose and the recent wave of d-beat crasher crust outfits. CONTRAST ATTITUDE kick up one hell of a din for a three piece, with rabid vocals and chainsaw guitars blazing over a rough and tumble rhythm section. Definitely dig the sick, atonal leads that sometimes erupt as if on “Why?”-template cue, so no problem at all giving this full generic hardcore approval.

I’ve never heard the first EP from Kumagaya City’s LITTLE BASTARDS, but if it’s anything like their second, “Greed slaves”, I really don’t need to. Pretty dreadful disposable chug/thrash from this self-proclaimed “grind crusty” act, with cookie monster vocals, a weak guitar sound, drums way too high in the mix and no actual songs to speak of. I guess someone out there likes this grindcore stuff, since the records keep getting released, but it sure ain’t me …next. (Dewa, address above)BATHTUB SHITTER fare a little better, since their grinding thrash has a full, clear recording and doesn’t skimp on the blasting speed, but any listenability is once again trumped by utterly pointless big dog/little dog crust vocals. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of their “Angels save us” EP is that it was released on a Cypriot label (Rusted Lock/PO Box 27620/2431 Nicosia/Cyprus)

LAST SURVIVORS are a young punk band from Yamato City, and they’ve released two killer singles; they’re not new but they deserve to be mentioned here. “Law of the land” b/w “Red danger” appeared quite awhile back on Crust War, but it’s not that label’s usual violent thrash fare, while the more recent “Hell’s corner EP” on Pogo 77 is a similar divergence for a label with a very specific focus. LAST SURVIVORS have a clear allegiance to the faster, wilder UK82 outfits, and these singles find them racing through some inspired purist hardcore punk along the lines of Ultraviolent, Abrasive Wheels, early Chaos UK and the first Partisans 45, as well as such (relatively) tuneful Finnish contemporaries as Lama and Appendix. Catchy, powerful and brimming with energy and enthusiasm, I can’t see LAST SURVIVORS failing to engage anyone with a taste for straight forward hardcore punk rock. Unfortunately, the Pogo 77 EP was a very limited edition of 300 copies sold only locally and is long gone, but Hardcore Holocaust should still have copies of the Crust War 45. Its heavy, textured sleeve is meant to resemble a leather jacket (punk enough for you yet?), so it’s an expensive record, but I still recommend it strongly. (Crust War/1-28-3A, Shikitsu-Nishi 2/Naniwa-Ku, Osaka-City/556-0017 Japan)

NO THINK’s “Straight to hell” EP on HG Fact didn’t interest me at all, unfortunately. Extremely fast, tight thrash verging on power violence with the alternating gruff/screechy vocals (not a style that appeals to me at all) and blasting speed, but there’s really nothing memorable here. If NO THINK married their speediest impulses to a nastier guitar sound and some more coherent vocals, they might really be onto something (ie Infest, No Comment, even Exclaim), but for now it’s another competent but forgettable entry in a very crowded field. (HG Fact 105 Nakano Shinbashi-M/2-7-15 Yayoi-Cho/Nakano, Tokyo/164-0013 Japan)

Much better is another recent HG Fact release, CROSSFACE’s “Red line cross” CD. This took a couple of listens to really grab me, but it’s a solid batch of totally doctrinaire Japanese hardcore circa 2004. Scathing vocals, group choruses and a skilled lead guitarist soloing over very well-produced, mid-to-fast tempo hardcore with metallic leanings and some really nice melodic flourishes in the leadwork…you know the score. Neither quite so rabid nor overly melodic as various other Burning Spirits bands, but well within the idiom, and it’s difficult to go wrong with this formula when performed by musicians as talented as those in CROSSFACE. I’m really digging this guitar playing the more I listen, in fact. Grab it if you like Forward, Judgement, Etae or Paintbox.

Perhaps my favourite record of the issue is “Absolute suspicion”, the new LP from Kumamoto City power trio SOULCRAFT. A few American bands have been heralded as groundbreaking lately by virtue of mixing in the occasional subpar wannabe AC/DC or Motorhead riff into their tame generic hardcore and claiming to like Thin Lizzy and Rose Tattoo. A couple have made it work (No Time Left definitely come to mind here, and they’re anything but tame), yet Japanese hardcore is virtually defined by this bastardization of hard rock flash and hardcore violence and has been since the mid ‘80’s, when bands like GISM and Gastunk first harnessed guitar pyrotechnics and big production to the raw power of serious punk rock. SOULCRAFT are just the latest to peddle this lethal combination of instrumental proficiency and reckless attack, but they do it exceedingly well. They’re less measured than the Burning Spirits heavyweights, thrashing out their songs with an abandon and ravenousness that recalls the best of Lip Cream or Gudon, but there’s no let-up on the wanking either. Masashi is a superb guitarist, constantly spinning off into full flight above the rhythm section’s barrelling rush, and his squealing leads provide dynamic and melody to an already impressive display of muscular thrash that might nonetheless appear one dimensional otherwise—the difference between a good record and a great one. Listen to the way “Left my thought” begins with a subdued classic rock intro before bursting into a blazing slice of vicious hardcore, only to be tempered by an exceptional, extended melodic lead break if you need the point illustrated. Ace Gastunk cover and typical Japcore demon drawings don’t hurt one bit. CD is on essential Hiroshima label Bloodsucker, but punks will want the licensed vinyl pressing on Sweden’s PFC. (PFC/Box 7092/200 42 Malmo/Sweden)

On the other end of the hardcore spectrum are FEROCIOUS X, who forego any hint of refinement or taste in favour of a non-stop onslaught of dirty thrash, apparently inspired by the early rawness of such Swedish noise merchants as Skitslickers, Absurd and Anti-Cimex but functionally more indebted to the hugely influential Osaka crust bands that took the kang style to such extremes in the ‘90’s. Screaming vocals, furious speed and a massive wall of howling noise entirely bereft of any hint of melody or distinction ensure that this will appeal to none but the diehards, which is just fine by me. Their “Vaga tanka sjalv” EP is a prime example of the non-metal strain of Japan’s thriving crust scene (ie starting with Discharge but taking the frantic early ‘80’s Skandi route over the Axegrinder/Amebix grind preferred by Effigy, Zoe etc). Noise not music, indeed… On a US label, so make a point of grabbing this if it sounds tasty. (Distort/Box 3400/Wallington, NJ/07057 USA)

Hailing from Kofu City, EXHALE debuted a few years back with a stellar EP on Throw Up, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see them showing up now with an American release, specifically a split with Connecticut’s Diallo. EXHALE continue to kick out some very powerful, anthemic purist Japcore— think the late ‘80’s Selfish greats with Roger Miret on vocals and you’re in the ballpark—although it’s not quite in the upper echelon of the genre. Still, definitely worth acquiring for any serious Japcore collector. Diallo, by the way, are excellent. Heavy but melodic hardcore with throaty vocals and some nice guitar work, this is obviously in the vein of the Memphis-by-way-of-Portland outfits but retains enough individuality and character to easily avoid sounding at all contrived or paint-by-numbers. A solid split all around. (Cries of Pain/PO Box 1004/Windsor, CT/06095 USA)

Completely removed from the very professional, rockist Burning Spirits scene that receives so much well-deserved praise in this column is the huge but much less hyped Japanese anarcho punk scene, so the overview provided by Forest’s recent “No hesitation to resist 2” EP (Forest c/o Hideyuki Okahara/Ceramica 2 #301, 2-1-37 Minami/Kokobunji, Tokyo/185-0021 Japan) is an appreciated glimpse of some lesser-known Japanese punk. Six bands on this 7” slab, with the prevailing sound being a fearsomely noise, bottom-heavy take on Disorder or early Extreme Noise Terror. DISCRIPT are a standout, providing some seriously pissed sounding d-beat that isn’t afraid to indulge in heavy, chugging mosh breaks, whereas CRIMINAL’s strange take on early Outo’s noisy thrash is less impressive. Why does every record on this label (run by Hideyuki of DISCRIPT and BEYOND DESCRIPTION) sport cover artwork featuring American soldiers in gas masks? Anyways, I think you know whether you need this or not, but I enjoyed it.

Not actually on Forest, but including Hideyuki (you can tell by the cover photo of a section of American infantrymen in NBC gear) is a new split EP from BEYOND DESCRIPTION and Italian crusties Kontatto. BD destroy here, ripping through a pair of brutal, well-produced thrashers with crunching breaks and a completely sick guitar sound. Kontatto’s raw, scrappy anarchist hardcore is solidly in the early ‘80’s tradition of Eu’s Arse, Wretched and Impact, especially with its frantic, simplistic drumming and distressed but it’s not quite in that league, and the thin recording undermines what might otherwise be some gripping hardcore punk. (Disastro Sonoro c/o Alessandro Castano/CP 162 – 54033/Carrara (MS)/Italy)

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