The History of Japanese Techno (w/ Top 10 Japanese Techno Albums)
Yes, the Japanese love their electronic music. Not surprising in the world of Yamaha, Korg and Roland (not to mention fantastic cyberpunk dystopia anime and videogames). On any given night in Tokyo or Osaka, there are dozens of clubs dedicating their space entirely to the monotonous electronic beat, and there’s a bit of history involved in pinning down just why that is. The best method is to look at the artists that have made the biggest impact. Sherman, set the Way-Back Machine for "Tokyo, 1978"…
yellow magic overlords
It’s doubtful that when Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi got together to make a novelty record combining Kraftwerk-esque keyboards and lounge exotica, they realized that they were about to become the godfathers of techno in Japan. Yes, both Yann Tomita and Kitaro had been using keyboards and electronic sounds before Yellow Magic Orchestra, but only YMO were able to successfully combine deceptively addictive pop melody with robotic rhythms and unusually edgy sounds. YMO hit popular gold with 1979’s Solid State Survivor, but their critical peak was arguably the 1981 release of Technodelic and BGM, surreal wordplay and mechanical samples showing a more seriously intellectual side of the band.
However, after 1983’s disappointing Naughty Boys, the trio’s most straightforward attempt at pop, the members basically went their separate ways. Sakamoto went off to become an Academy Award winning film composer. Hosono drifted into electro and played producer for the likes of new wave batty Togawa Jun before hitting ambient Eno territory. And Takahashi, well, he continued to mine in the techno-pop mountains. In 1993, there was an aborted attempt at a reunion and a damned decent new album (featuring the likes of Williams S. Burroughs), but there was a general consensus that the glory days were over.
Consensus, however, was wrong. In 2002, Takahashi and Hosono got together to work on their Sketch Show project, a sublimely chilled glitch-pop project which revealed that, far from mutating into a group of complacent oji-chan, these guys had been quietly assimilating the bleeding edge of electronic music and were ready to start making some serious trouble again. Sakamoto, too, who had been doing duets with Alva Noto and Fennesz, seemed to sense that their musical goals might have actually drifted back into sync, and first as HASYMO and now officially back to YMO, the boys are once again in business. Their double-CD LONDONYMO live album (released in 2008) actually sounds better than their heyday a full 28 years earlier, and they continue their reign as Japan’s benevolent techno-overlords and NHK-approved intellectual pop legends.
of ping pong and electric grooves
The late 80s was something of a rough patch for electronic music in Japan. Relatively obscure new wave and electro-pop acts like Yapoos and P-Model continued to put their own spin on the YMO sound, while electro-industrialists like Soft Ballet brought darker sounds and a more visual-kei feel to a genre that always a bit fruity to begin with.
Then, from out of obscurity and onto prime-time Japanese TV came Denki Groove, (Fumitoshi "Takkyu" Ishino, Masnori "Pierre" Taki, and Yoshinori Sunahara) an obnoxiously goofy techno-pop hybrid that wore funny clothes, sang in shouted raps and shit-talked with the best of geino comedians; a well-known controversy/rivalry even erupted when Ishino publicly bad-mouthed his sempai, infamous J-pop producer and tax evader Tetsuya Komuro.
But things began to slowly change as their own musical horizons expanded; much as YMO had spent time as a novelty act, Denki Groove began slowly bringing in more influences from the growing rave culture in Europe. By 1994’s DRAGON, they were mixing the jokes up with some rather serious beats. Denki Groove hit their peak in 1997 with A, a schizophrenic amalgamation of electro, hip-hop and trance that also happened to contain the disco-pop hit "Shangri-La", catapulting Denki Groove back into the charts after a long hiatus.
In 1998, Ishino released his seminal Berlin Trax, an album of hard, German-style techno that solidified his reputation as a serious producer. The opener, "Polynasia", remains one of the most propulsive minimal techno tracks, and the darkly comic PV (check YouTube) about a family blissfully unaware of their impending doom caused by a gas leak is pure genius. Ishino continued in this vein in his solo work, leaving Denki Groove to flounder for a bit while he concentrated on videogame soundtracks and DJ mixes. He also started up the now massively popular WIRE festivals in 1999, routinely bringing in the best techno DJs and artists from around the world.
Sunahara eventually left to follow his own critically acclaimed solo career, heading towards funkier realms [Sunahara’s Pan Am The Sound Of ’70s is my favorite album of airport lounge music. Yes, ever. – Ed]. Pierre became a regular feature on NHK children’s television (!) where he can still be seen quite often. However, Ishino has now given up solo work and a string of collaborations to return to Denki Groove work with Pierre. They continue to put out album after decent album on their Sony Ki/oon imprint, and show no sign of slowing down.
make way for the king…
In the early 90s Ken Ishii was an obscure ambient techno producer working for Belgian techno label R&S under the name of "Flare". That all changed with the 1995 release of Jelly Tones, a manic little album that garnered four-star reviews in the likes of Rolling Stone, and a Newsweek cover story. A single, "Extra", was also made into a disturbing and hallucinatory cyberpunk video by AKIRA/Memories animator Koji Morimoto. Suddenly, Ishii was Japan’s most in-demand techno artist/DJ. His follow-up, Metal Blue America, was even more aggressive, turning off some with an opening track that included oddly grunted Engrish lyrics about the American dream; luckily the rest of the album was much, much better.
Ken Ishii’s post-90s output has not been that stellar. Since 2000’s Flatspin, Ishii’s work has been getting more and more conventional and DJ-friendly (a typical pattern for artists who probably spend most of their waking hours in clubs). Ishii continues to spin tirelessly in clubs around Japan and the world, and his legendary Detroit-style sets are still popular, though his own music is nowhere near as cutting edge as it used to be.
holy booming breakbeats batman!
Another graduate of Belgium’s R&L, Boom Boom Satellites released Joyride, their first EP, in 1997. The timing was right: their breakbeat style was just what electronic junkies were hungering for, and they were soon lauded by Melody Maker and others as "the Japanese Chemical Brothers". By the time Out Loud was released in 1998, the pumps were primed for a BBS hit, and they did not disappoint. Less dancefloor-friendly than its predecessor, this new sound included haunting vocal refrains, rock guitars, throbbing bass, jazz drumming, drill ‘n’ bass freakouts, scratching, and breakbeats – a heady electronic soup that was admittedly a bigger hit with the critics than DJs.
Unfortunately for techno fans, BBS stopped being, well, techno. With Phaedra, the vocals and guitars came to the forefront, and gone were the frantic beats and jazzy style of Out Loud; they had entered the "digi-rock zone", never to return. Although they lost both the DJs and the critics at this point, they still had their fans, and BBS, perhaps because of their current Matrixy tastes, have begun showing up in movie soundtracks for flicks such as Appleseed, Vexille and, most recently, The Dark Knight.
the ambient weirdoes
If 1994’s Frankfurt Tokyo Connection were any indication, Susumu Yokota would probably have been relegated to the bargain bin next to the Ayumi Hamasaki Trance Mix collections. And granted, Yokota still exhibits a cheesy streak – his Zero album, for example, is embarrassingly straight-ahead house (which I must admit is still a guilty pleasure of mine). So just why, then, are his experimental ambient loops (on Skin Tone and Leaf records) probably the most hypnotic ambient grooves this side of Brian Eno and Philip Glass? Albums like the sublime Magic Thread and Grinning Cat are now hipster staples, garnering rave reviews from the whole more-avant-than-thou WIRE magazine clique.
Also up right up there when it comes to split personalities is Nobukazu Takemura. In the old days, DJ Takemura produced inoffensive but uninspiring acid jazz. Then, after being bitten on the hand by a radioactive spider (no, I actually don’t know what happened) he started to put out these deceptively charming and dreamy albums like Hoshi no Koe and 10th, that seemed to have dropped in from some sort of kindergarten of the subconscious. His newer works as Assembler have gone even further off the deep end, the way of improv noise, so I can safely say the downward spiral into insanity is ongoing.
brothers in romz
While Sony and the big boys were marketing to videogame and anime nerds, ROMZ Records occupied a slightly nauseous zone between respectable Warp records IDM and unlistenable digital hardcore a la Alec Empire. Their flagship artists are two brothers, Age and Tatsuya Yoshida (raised in Hong Kong and the U.S. – now in Tokyo), who, though they both worked together in their ROM=PARI project, are better known by their separate monikers: Com.A and Joseph Nothing. Com.A was heralded as the "Japanese Aphex Twin" after the release of his 2001 opus, Dream and Hope. Which is to say he was REALLY weird. Joseph, equally odd, was more interested in toy instruments and beautiful off-kilter electronics and arrangements.
ROMZ is still flourishing. They have several non-Japanese artists in their stable now (including DJ/Rupture and Kid 606) as well as local class-acts (Inner Science) and class clowns (dubsteppers Cycheouts G). Joseph Nothing seems to have gone inactive of late, but Com.A is still releasing intriguing stuff, and his new album, Coming of Age, drops the IDM and brings in funk, manic breakbeats and hip-hop samples as well as crazy guest vocals – a typical (and altogether welcome) wtf move from an artist and label built on being odd at just the wrong time.
the new electro: the good, the bad and the nocchi
Mention the word "techno" to most Japanese folks these days, and for good or ill, you’re likely going to hear, "Oh, like Perfume?" Oh you can nitpick as much as you want, music snobs, but to most people now, techno equals the poppy tunes of Yasutaka Nakata. Seems like only yesterday that Capsule, his primary "unit", was just another third-string Shibuya-kei Konishi Yasuharu wannabe. But then an epiphany (assumedly involving Daft Punk), and he released Fruits Clipper on his own Conte Monde label, a surprisingly driving, pounding electro-pico-pop hybrid that had DJs and fans alike paying rapt attention.
It also caught the ear of Hiroshima pop trio Perfume, who signed him up to produce two albums that have now since cemented their superstardom (of course their cutesy robot-porn choreography and charmingly brainless on-air personas helped). Then, as if to silence the naysayers, Nakata went back into the studio as Capsule – just to prove that he hadn’t totally sold out – and released More! More! More!, probably the most disgustingly catchy slab of electro ever inflicted on an unwitting populace.
If you love electro, but you’re not willing to sell your soul (or just hate Kylie Minogue worship), there are options. You can always try 80kidz, for example. They also have their own label (kidzrec), but they manage to hit the indie-to-electro respectability ratio just about dead on; sorta like a Justice that isn’t overrated. Their first full-length, This Is My Shit, is for my money the hottest electronic release by any artist this year.
the king is dead – long live the king…
You might notice that a lot of this article reads like an obituary. Does this mean that techno in Japan is dead? Well, yes, sort of. The techno of Takkyu Ishino’s Grinning Disco Cat and Ken Ishii’s Flatspin album is dead (or at least as stale, moldering and irrelevant as Mr. Big). But electronic music in Japan is alive and kicking, be it the current electro craze or any number of mini-scenes based around breakcore, chiptune, dubstep and dozens of other subgenres. So slip on your comfortable shoes and gulp down a few genki drinks, because the night is long, the trains will stop running, and they say the Japanese can rave all night without chemical "enhancement"…
top 10 japanese techno albums
1. Berlin Trax, by Takkyu Ishino
Hard. Uncompromising. And "Polynasia" is one intense bit of tiki drum tribalism.
2. A, by Denki Groove
Kind and soothing one minute (see "Wicked Jumper"), psychotic and screaming the next ("Volcanic Drumbeats"). A classic.
3. Metal Blue America, by Ken Ishii
Though Jelly Tones gets all the attention, this flawed but worthy follow-up is more intense.
4. Hoshi no Koe, by Nobukazu Takemura
If you like ambient, this one’s a knockout. Seriously. You’ll be asleep within ten minutes, and that’s high praise.
5. Out Loud, by Boom Boom Satellites
Whatever meds induced this amazing mutant techno-jazz-rock hybrid, I wish to hell BBS would get back on them.
6. UC YMO, by Yellow Magic Orchestra
This "Best Of" compiled by Ryuichi Sakamoto himself is a damn good place to start on this seminal unit.
7. Grinning Cat, by Susumu Yokota
Unusual, innovative loop-based ambience. Magic Thread is probably just is good [And Sakura is even better… IMO! – Ed].
8. More! More! More!, by Capsule
Yeah, you can barely call it techno, but whatever you call it, it’s damn addictive.
9. This Is My Shit, by 80kidz
I so want to see this crew live. These people will be HUGE.
10. Loophole, by Sketch Show
Sublime ambient glitch-pop. Still can’t believe the YMO geezers are responsible for this.
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