Aught (stylized “/\\Aught” or simply “/\\”) has been quietly releasing tapes since the middle of this year and has certainly done a good job of forging a consistent aesthetic across 4 tape releases so far. The transparent tapes and their clear ziplock packaging reveal nothing but the artist and release number, and the information provided online offers little more in terms of substantial background. Indeed the clear cassette and packaging draws most of its attention to the magnetic tape itself as if to say, “it’s about the music stupid.” Alright, fine, I’ll talk about the music.
Aught 04 seems to be by ACI_EDITS. I say seems to be, because I can find scant information about this artist. Throwing on the tape, you begin to see a pattern in the 5 tracks that make up this small but intriguing cassette. Each track is made up of more or less the same elements: short, simple loops of drums, synths and the occasional vocal sample, undulating in and out, lethargically competing for attention. Parts get squashed and accentuated seemingly without a larger structure. They are not so much songs as sketches or exercises with little development in any given track; they simply fade in at the beginning and fade out at the end. The simplicity and minimalism is alluring. There is just enough going on to draw you in and encourage you to pick everything apart in this strange, déjà-vu-familiar, uncanny music. Paradoxically, it feels like an enigma, but reveals itself to you willingly. This all is helped by a slightly lo-fi feel with just enough noise on every track. The first track’s beat is laid down by almost Caribbean-sounding drums, and a short but grooving bass line loop. Up top are a couple of brief, marginally intelligible vocal samples and an echoing synth stab or two. Track 2 follows a similar pattern with shuffling snares in the drums, and a more ambient low end. Track 3 is the brightest on the tape, foregoing the full low end of all the other tracks. The rhythm on this one is interesting with half-time, very noisy, midrange thumps driving it forward, while metallic sounding snares spice it up. It almost sounds like steel drums provide the “melody” (if you can even call it that). Track 4 breaks the mold a little bit. It’s the longest, starkest and most definitive statement of the release. Bass drums, hand claps and what very well may have once been a snare drum make up the most fleshed out beat on the tape. The rest is quiet but important noise that gives texture and fleshes out everything out to a needed fullness. A hypnotic, low-level ebb and flow sounds like a not-so-far away ocean, or perhaps the passing-by of cars over wet asphalt above ground or far below. The fifth and final track changes things slightly once again. What sounds like a track that could of fit comfortably on the tape in and of itself comes through with the most decisively lo-fi sound on the release. It sounds like a cell-phone recording out of a skeevy club in a basement somewhere. It’s the sound of a drunken haze; you can almost hear the tired feel shuffling, smell the stale alcohol and sweat, and see indistinct bodies move with end-of-the-night reluctance. It’s the cavernous sound of a near-empty club where the stragglers and DJ have been left to their lonely charade until everyone finally clears out. Certainly the most intriguing track. The final two tracks are my personal favorites, but I can’t decide if that is because the opening three are needed to build up to them. Perhaps the release is best taken as a whole.
As is obviously the intention, this tape leaves me with more questions than answers. Is this club music? Not really, but it’s indebted to club music. Okay, is this dance music? Certainly, but I can’t see myself putting this on at a party. Whatever it’s for, it worth a listen, coming out of out of left field and staying there but with a frankness and honesty I find lacking in a lot of other oblique tape releases of various genres. The cassette itself is pretty nice, but remember, it’s about the music stupid. You can find the tape or the digital files at Aught’s bandcamp here.
Just when I thought that I couldn’t get any more excited over vocaloid-free-improv collaborations from Japan, I got my hands on Vacant World, the new full-length album by Hatsune Kaidan (Hatsune Miku and Hijokaidan). My previous post goes over exactly who these two artists are, so read that if you want a little background. Vacant World is not a huge departure from the groundwork laid in the Hatsune Kaidan EP: Hatsune’s robo-singing and j-pop production is underlaid with Hijokaidan’s dead electronics and feedback. But these song choices are delicious. The covers are really the highlights of the album. There’s a rendition of “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” aka the theme from the seminal anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, and certainly more surprisingly a cover of the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Road.” You read that right. I can’t make this shit up. It’s a cover of a John Denver song, by an entirely digital J-Pop vocaloid software program Hatsune Miku, remixed and added to by Japanoise luminaries Hijokaidan. John Denver, Hatsune Miku, Hijokaidan, there must be some prize for having all three of these artists in the same sentence. And this is what I love about these Hatsune Kaidan collaborations, especially this album: they are emblematic of our current digital age. If this album isn’t Post-Modern, I don’t know what is. It’s a pastiche of incredibly disparate musics that (from a 20th Century perspective) have no business being mashed together across time and space. Yet, in the 21st Century, the Miku-Kaidan-Denver connection doesn’t seem all that odd in the end. The nature of the Internet necessitates this kind of free-associative logic as user hop effortlessly from article to video to newsfeed to music stream. In the end, I’m more surprised there hasn’t been more digitally-synthesized-John-Denver-cover-noise-remixes beforehand. I have to admit, the music itself is not something that I could listen to everyday. J-Pop and Noise are both abrasive in their own ways. But knowing the provenance of Vacant World and the songs therein, I had a stupid grin from ear to ear as I listened to this album. This kind of playfulness and experimentation is exactly what I love in contemporary music. Can we see an Aaron Dilloway-Lady Gaga collabo next?
These are a couple of collaborative releases to come of Japan featuring Japanoise heavyweights Hijokaidan. Both tap into particular and divergent currents of Japanese music and culture in surprising ways, and the results are delightfully strange. 初音階段 (that is “Hatsune Kaidan”) is a collaboration between Hijokaidan and Hatsune Miku, the vocaloid. That is to say that Miku is not a real person, but rather the blue-haired, anime-eyed, computer animated “face” for a japanese voice synthesis program (think autotune without anyone human having to sing the notes). Hatsune Miku may not be “real” in a physical sense, but her fans certainly are, and she has even charted in Japan. She has actual concerts with her dancing/”singing” image projected as a hologram, a la that wierd Tupac thing last year. Miku’s sound is typical J-Pop, but with an uncanny robo-timbre. That the noise/free improv giants (well, giants for noise) Hijokaidan collaborate with (umm) Ms. Miku brings together two of the strangest but also divergent strands of Japanese music: commercial and underground, pop and noise, human beings and digital. The result is as bizarre and beautiful as you might expect. The first two tracks of the EP tracks are typical Hatsune Miku, glossy digital production, poppy with her signature casio-meets-human-voice “singing,” but with Hijokaidans snarl and feedback laid underneath, like a monster creeping behind the smoke and mirrors of Miku’s hologram. The last two tracks are dominated more by Hijokaidan, and one could mistake them for any other of Hijokaidan’s work. I think, however, that these tracks are using the vocaloid software to the breaking point, seemingly processed into feedback-freakout through amps and electronics. The effect of the transition, from J-Pop-meets-noise to 16-min noise assault, is quite subversive. It’s like Hijokaidan, by breaking the vocaloid software and image down to their harsh style of noise, show the artifice of the Hatsune Miku phenomenon, and by extension the artifice of celebrity, in general. Miku is a distilled, pure form of celebrity, pure image, only persona, no pesky human being behind the anime mask. Hijokaidan smashes this image, her music, into harsh, squeally bits, and we are allowed to see Hatsune Miku as “she” really is, digital illusion. Much to my excitement, there is a full Hatsune Kaidan album coming out in Japan on September 18th.
With BiS階段 (that is, BiSKaidan), Hijokaidan and collaborators Brand-new Idol Society deconstruct another particularly Japanese form of celebrity: Idol Culture. Idols represent another kind of celebrity that seems distilled down to a pure essence, even compared to celebrity culture here in the States. Idols are young, attractive women that can be celebrities in an array of cultural products from music to movies to television to porn. What matters most is not the real person behind the idol, but the idealized idol persona and image. Idol bands will often switch out different people to play the same role within the band; the images and personae are more important than the real person. I could go on about the different particulars of idol culture, but it suffices to say that they drive a huge part of the Japanese mainstream culture industry. An idol band is about as mainstream as you can get. Brand-new Idol Society, or BiS, are marketed as an “alternative” idol band, and their image is darker and somewhat more subversive than your average idol band. However, they still work very much within the idol industry; think of the early-2000s pop-punk bands for an analogous mix of “rebellious” image and corporate control. Collaborating with Hijokaidan, we get something again pleasantly strange. The album consists of songs from BiS’s catalogue now remixed with Hijokaidan’s backing. The result, like the first two tracks of Hatsune Kaidan, feel like a basic sum of the two components. Punk-/Rock-inflected J-Pop with an undertow of gritty harsh noise and feedback squeals. Unfortunately, there aren’t any extended noise tracks, like on Hatsune Kaidan, but there is still something infinitely satisfying about hearing Hijokaidan’s harshness juxtaposed with nice, female, Japanese vocals. Again, it feels like a specter is hanging just below the overly-produced corporatized surface. There is a video for the track 好き好き大好き(Suki Suki Daisuki, or I Like I Like I Love You), a cover of a 1985 Jun Togawa song. It features BiS in bloody Japanese schoolgirl uniforms, fake intestines hanging out, destroying a generic-looking music video set with their noisy cohorts playing along with them. The imagery, it seems and again much like the Hatsune Kaidan EP, subverts the underpinnings of Idol Culture. The school uniforms evoke the simultaneous infantilization and sexualization of the female idol image (most idols are marketed as being teenage, though they are typically several years older), and the blood and the destruction of the set evoke the violence inherent in Idol Culture, the violence against the individual in favor of an idealized female image.
The CDs are import only, so it’s difficult to find a way to listen to these, but they really are extraordinary, at least in their novelty. They are beautifully strange diversions for any Japanoise fan, and perhaps an entry point to underground Japanese music for the J-Pop crowd. Great stuff.
A collaboration between two ex-Wolf Eyes heavyweights, Aaron Dilloway and Jason Lescalleet on Bill Kouligas’s PAN, both artists coming off very strong 2012 releases (Modern Jester and Songs About Nothing, respectively). As of late, the Berlin-based PAN has been standing with a series of challenging but extremely strong releases, from artists including John Wiese, Heatsick, and NHK’Koyxeи. The two side-long tracks on Grapes and Snakes don’t surprise much, considering the two artists, but for fans of Midwest Noise this is a good thing. The core is made from menacing, droning synths, which are peppered with Dilloway’s signature tape-loops and Lescalleet’s laptop flourishes. But it is the swirling and swelling synths that provide the meat of the tracks, and they recall the more restrained and patient moments in either artist’s earlier releases. Side B, “Burning Nest” is especially strong, building almost imperceptibly over 19 minutes from sustained analogue drone to a tape-loop-laptop-noise-detritus climax that is sure to satisfy any fan of sonic deconstruction. It’s simple and effective. Overall, Grapes and Snakes is quite strong, but it lacks a decisive edge to set it apart from the myriad of such noise collaborations. It’s worth checking out for fans of either artist, but if you are looking for a definitive statement, both of the two most recent solo releases from these artists pack more punch.