The Avex Apex: A Brief History of Trance-pop in Japan

Before the term “EDM” entered the mainstream, dance music has been an omnipresent fixture on the pop music panorama, ranging from Perfume precursors Candies and Triangle, to Yu Hayami’s transformation into an italo disco darling and up into the late 90s and early 00s, where house culture made its heavy crawl outside the club and onto the radio, becoming a Top 40 standard. But pop music is no stranger to the accusations of appropriation and it doesn’t take a Deadmau5-fueled rant on the cover of a mainstream magazine to complain about the mainstreaming of dance music to wonder what will happen when the fad cashes enough checks to move onto the next curiosity.

Japan had its own EDM mainstreaming in the late 90s and early 00s, when the import of trance music reached its eventual zenith, leaving behind a number of co-ed pop groups scrambling for relevance. In the 1990s, the mix-and-match of Shibuya-kei, a type of sound that embraced Continental retro-futurist styles, gained traction at the same time rising-star record label Avex Trax took one look at club culture and saw massive yen signs. While pushing their pop stars towards the then-popular freestyle genre, itself a kind of heir to italo disco, sub-label Rhythm Republic was established in 1994 to focus exclusively on dance music, beginning with the “SUPER EUROBEAT” series (that same year, they opened the nightclub Velfarre, one of the many hotspots Ayumi Hamasaki used to fritter away her teen years before being signed to the record label — to set the scene, she mentions German eurodancers Real McCoy receiving huge play).

While the name itself implies origins outside of Asia — and indeed, the sound itself was imported from Britian — the genre itself is mostly unique to Japan. Best described as a combination of house, happy hardcore, and Hi-NRG, the sound features lightening-fast BPM, electric guitars, and dizzying synths played on fast-forward. While the genre enjoyed its own unique labels and artists (a few J-pop groups included Two-Mix, Folder 5 and HINOI TEAM), the mass following of the series eventually found its way onto the reportoire of the label’s pop artists like Namie Amuro and her former backup dancers MAX. In the late 90s, it reached an even wider audience when artists received special remix compilations done in the style. By the time Ayumi Hamasaki was on the label, she received the deluxe “SUPER EUROBEAT” treatment herself.

One of the figures behind these developments was Tetsuya Komuro, who was then a music producer at Avex. If Yasutaka Nakata is credited as the modern-day genius who bridged the gap between Shibuya-kei and electro house, essentially bringing it to a Japanese audience, Tetsuya Komuro was the 90s equivalent to a much higher degree. In the mid-90s, Komuro abandoned his band TM Network to focus on producing a handful of other artists under the Avex Trax label, including Ami Suzuki (whose carer was later resurrected after collaborating with a roster of the most famous Japanese house producers, including RAM RIDER, STUDIO APARTMENT, and the aforementioned Yasutaka Nakata, who produced her album Supreme Show in its entirety). Instead of the pop music that constituted his new project globe, he was keen on exploring conventional dance narratives for the label. But globe (much like Nakata’s capsule) soon became Komuro’s creative and experimental outlet, eventually changing its style to reflect his newest obsession: trance.

Trance music originated in the 90s as a jumbled mess of house, techno, and classical music before its German roots took hold in Scandinavian countries and received the ultimate makeover. While the original style sounds very little like its modern day evolution, by the time godfathers Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten got their hands on it, trance music was ripe for entering the consciousness of an above-ground audience. While the sound still remained firmly underground for several years, Komuro was determined to be the face of Japan’s trance chapter. At the genre’s stylistic peak at the onset of the new millennium, van Buuren, Corsten, and groups like Above & Beyond, Marc et Claude, and Svenson & Gielen were commissioned to remix Avex artists like Ayumi Hamasaki and Every Little Thing under “SUPER EUROBEATS”‘s sister series “Cyber TRANCE.”

With globe, Komuro began releasing epically winding trance-inspired pop singles culminating in outernet, the group’s first true dance album and first spectacular bomb on the charts. Instead of taking a different approach, Komuro pressed forward, releasing fearless trance-pop songs like “try this shoot” that utilized the genre’s predilection for airy female vocals. However, unlike the traditional breakdowns of a trance song, Komuro fit the music into conventional pop structures and maintained his resident MC. He was also big on taking advantage of the maxi-single format to feature his own extended trance mixes that spanned 13+ minutes. In fact, the single’s move from the then-popular 3″ format allowed more space for karaoke versions and remixes, a trend that artists everywhere began taking advantage of. Before long it became impossible for even visual-kei bands like Dir en grey to forgo a remixed track of some blood-curdling song about death and dying — or else release whole remix albums (a couple era-defining remix albums at this time that employed the forgotten practice of wacky remix names like “Free Food Free Drink Mix” and “You’re Damm Touchable K-Mix” before DJ self-promotion became the norm: Tomoe Shinohara’s DEEP SOUND CHANNEL and T.M.Revolution’s DISCORdanza).

Of course, no one took as much advantage of the maxi-single format as Ayumi Hamasaki: from 1999’s Boys & Girls to 2002’s Daybreak, Hamasaki’s singles contained anywhere up to nine remixes from both domestic and foreign DJs, including Fantastic Plastic Machine, Izumi”D•M•X”Miyazaki, Junior Vasquez, and Hex Hector. While Hamasaki eventually dropped the maxi-single format, the “ayu-mi-x” series lives on to the present day, often including many of the same music producers alongside veterans. Nonetheless, it was her collaboration with trance artists like Above & Beyond (for single “M”) and Ferry Corsten (for “WHATEVER” and later on album I am… for “connected“) that eventually opened the doorway to recognition in Europe.

While Hamasaki represented a broad range of dance styles including trance, from minimal house to drum n’ bass, other artists took the globe route and attempted crafting their own trance makeovers. Label mates move, also featuring a co-ed group of two men and a lead female vocal, ditched their more eurodance sound to find a more trance-inspired influence on singles like 2001’s “FLY ME SO HIGH” and “come together“, resulting in album SYNERGY, which managed to chart at #10 on the Oricon. In addition, they also lent their songs to DJs like D-Z and 83key for their own numerous remix compilations in trance and eurobeat styles. In fact, the first few years of the 00s were turning out to be Japanese trance-pop’s most commodifying year, reaching an absurd peak in 2002 when former X Japan drummer and metal enthusiast Yoshiki joined globe, released a compilation of self-gratifying X Japan trance remixes (Trance X), and a charity compilation album for the 9/11 attacks entitled song+nation received a sprawling 2-disc trance makeover (song+nation 2 trance), peppered with Komuro’s own original material.

Then, in an astoundingly short period of time, globe’s albums dropped rapidly in sales until they ceased releasing altogether, move lost a member and began recording under the name m.o.v.e., Ayumi Hamasaki made a brief appearance at a Japanese Above & Beyond show before deciding she would no longer sing flighty, easily remixed pop songs, and Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule made the softer sound of trance seem quaint next to his compressed, chunky electro-house sound.

While trance has continued to evolve and flourish in other countries, its brief moment in the Japanese pop forefront has diminished, save for a remix on a AAA single here and a compilation there. Today, trance maintains a steady fan base, growing both in sound and popularity in the West, particularly North America, where artists like Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten, and Above & Beyond still record and draw large crowds. Whether or not trance in its pure form will ever be as popular as some of the other genres now falling under the brilliant marketing term “EDM,” its rise and fall atop Japan’s pop scene in the early 00s and its unceasing ability to move forward predicts a healthy future, even after its one-shot DJs and bandwagon enthusiasts leave it for newer horizons.

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The state of East Asian pop music can now be summed up in three words: South Korean. Dubstep. What once seemed a sort of hip novelty has quickly become the most irritating trend that refuses to die softly. It’s greatest example, Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop!” is a prime example of what can make it so difficult to care about: unlike miss A’s expert weave of electro house in album Touch, “Bubble Pop!” strives for at least three different genres without providing any glue. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve missed a lot. And I’m going to make up for it by talking about three or four of my favorite, least favorite, and most interesting musical moments of 2011, April onwards; blink and you’ll miss the Cut Copy reference.

Yasutaka Nakata, etc.

There are a couple of different ways to approach some of the best music that was released in 2011, and Yasutaka Nakata’s work is as good a place as any to start. Yes, Perfume’s JPN was annoying in all the ways it was the best: as long as you didn’t think too much about how it was mostly a singles collection with very little original material (and everyone did), it’s really a generous serving of everything Nakata does so well, without all the annoying self-involved navel-gazing that can happen on albums like STEREO WORXXX.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu also happened this year, in case you didn’t know. And though it’s a shame one of her songs ended up on JPN, she still brings something quintessentially Japanese to the mix. I guess I’d like to believe that everything she does is tongue-in-cheek, which makes what she has to say about being Harajuku’s fun house mirror that much more worthwhile. But even if it wasn’t, there is nothing ambiguous about what she, or Perfume are doing. The titles of the albums (JPN and Moshi Moshi Harajuku) are homages in themselves, proud labels that no Korean pop star wants to stick on themselves. Yes, Perfume is on a major label now and Kyary seems to have made some kind of inconsequential mark on Scandinavia, but these aren’t artists trying to do or be anything different than they already are. This is Japan. This is our pop music. Irrashaimase.

South Korean Pop Music

K-pop is everywhere: it’s on The Singles Jukebox, it’s being championed by rock critic Frank Kogan, it’s on David Letterman, it’s being analyzed and dissected in really awesome, really smart ways all around the web. And that 2NE1 video! Best pop song of the year? You don’t say! It’s amazing how much effort has been put into making K-pop a thing and how quickly it’s caught on when compared to the months and years and decades that Japanese pop/rock has tried to crawl into the market (J-pop could take a note here and there). Then again, it’s also amazing how long Korean pop music has actually been around, and how little anyone seems to think it existed pre-2NE1.

Yet I love how exuberant and free of burden all of the songs seem to be: they are unfettered by turmoil or angst or the general day to day shitstorm of life. In some ways, this creates quintessential pop narratives, even when it’s bizarre and sometimes tasteless. It’s the type of sound that practically begs you to feel guilty, and if I believed in guilty pleasures, I might feel somewhat paranoid about my enthusiasm for stuff that still kind of makes me cringe sometimes.

Still, for every Big Bang and 2NE1 and “Hot Summer” and “Oh! Honey,” we get “Bubble Pop!” and “FACE” and a neverending series of Japanese language crossovers. I like Korean pop, and as anything I really like, I want to see it grow and evolve and stop resorting to dubstep breakdowns or cliche representations of gender. I want to see it go beyond crafting brilliant dance singles to craft one, just one, slow song that doesn’t sound like it was written for Toni Braxton in 1994. One of my top ten albums of the year was a Korean pop album, but it wasn’t one you’ve probably heard much about: it’s Neon Bunny’s Seoulight and it was not performed on Inkigayo or accompanied by a career-defining music video. It has no trademark single easily recognizable by a syllable or phrase: it’s just a great album, made up of more than mostly filler. There’s a lot of debate about K-pop’s longevity, it’s ability to really go anywhere, but whether or not it continues to crop up on Pitchfork or simply recede into its own home field niche market, is irrelevant: we’ll always have 2011.

Group Therapy

2011 was also pretty great for EDM of any kind: if at some point you considered yourself a music fan this year, you probably heard it somewhere, even if what you heard was just pop music’s appropriation. My favorite song of the year was probably Above & Beyond’s “Sun & Moon.” But the most disappointing album of the year (besides Cut Copy’s Zonoscope) was Group Therapy, the album on which it was released. When you coin a defining phrase for a genre, practically renaming that genre in the process, there’s a type of pressure so immense it threatens to collapse on itself. Group Therapy wasn’t a terrible album, it just wasn’t as epic as it should have been. Or rather, it wasn’t as therapeutic as its live component was meant to be — enough that speaking about seeing the group live on the North American leg of their “Group Therapy Tour” makes me a bit uncomfortable.

There were a lot of albums this year that seemed to be just a little less ambitious than advertised: Shonen Knife’s Osaka Ramones was supposed to be a fun covers album, instead it was just another useless, mediocre version of songs that don’t need any improving, remixing, or alternate versions. Ayumi Hamasaki’s FIVE, “BRILLANTE” aside, is now that mini-album sandwiched between what are now two really interesting albums (whether they are conventionally bad or good is irrelevant). I liked Hunx and His Punx’s Too Young to Be in Love and Mind Spiders’ self-titled debut, but these are not albums I have given much thought to since the year ended. Yet I still think about Hamasaki’s impromptu marriage and her sincere belief in its grit, this album, Love songs, that is so clearly written for and about it, and then, last month, Party queen, and how quickly we are able to change our minds, and not bother to suffer over it.

In a way, trance music is the best place to tread this territory, as it’s probably some of the saddest music you’ll hear. There’s a lot of crossover between electro and prog right now, a lot of stuff like BT & Adam K’s “Tomahawk” that illuminates whole new corners that EDM has forgotten to scavenge, but there is still the “Never Let Me Go“s next to the “Let Go“s and the “Never Go Back“s with the “Start Again“s. It’s in this frame where it becomes visible that sometimes Group Therapy tries so hard to make a statement that it forgets to say anything. It also forgets its own purpose in the process: trance music is meant to be played to massive crowds and a sea of bodies so dense, one’s life is threatened by an enthusiastic groover’s elbow. For an album summing up what makes the genre so unique, so all-encompassing, there’s a lot of shuffling self-reflection, a lot of time spent alone among the aural equivalent, with minimal instrumentation and lyrics that sometimes border on the nonsensical. Though it succeeds in avoiding the sometimes too-literal weakness of vocal trance, it fails to capture what the lead singles so simply summed up in a few lines: I’m sorry. I’ll never get over you. I won’t forget about the people I love. This song is going to help me. That’s what music does.

Speaking of the Power of Music

Ayumi Hamasaki’s concerts haven’t exactly been the stuff of legend lately. They’ve just been a lot like what everyone else is doing with more useless dance interludes (really, it doesn’t take that long to change an outfit). But after the earthquake in March, she decided to nix the “~HOTEL Love songs~” thing (a full-blown concept based around the idea of her and at-the-time husband Manny, I’m guessing) and bring it back to the one thing she seems to be forgetting about lately: her music. The “POWER of MUSIC” live is Hamasaki at some of her finest diva moments (even though her vocals aren’t always up to the challenge). There’s a simple stage set up in what alternately resembles a roulette wheel and a giant record player with some moving pieces here and there, but that’s about it. Songs get whole new arrangements or take their cues from classical versions we’ve heard from previous remixes. There’s minimal monologuing, which is always appreciated. The song choice is a little dubious, but it’s more a chance to show off how lasting and epic Hamasaki’s back catalog is: it’s a huge pay-off for long-time fans who have context and experience to witness how thrilling it still is to hear “Boys & Girls” live or how huge “A Song is born”‘s leap can be from one continent’s tragedy to another. There were rumors a while back that this might be turned into a live album, and for Hamasaki’s first and only live album, I don’t think Avex could go with a better choice. It’s pretty seminal in its own way, complete without being overwhelming, stripped down without losing its lushness. And also, she looks like a goddess, so there’s that.

It’s the opposite from my other favorite concert released in 2011, Tomohisa Yamasahita’s “Asia Tour 2011 SUPER GOOD, SUPER BAD.” Where Hamasaki brings herself and the crowd to tears, choking up lyrics like they’re repressed memories, I’m fairly certain there is not a single song Yamashita actually sings live. It’s two hours of really incredible Japanese pop music, bereft of audience banter and any kind of actual emotion. I don’t know why this concert happens to work, but Yamashita is actually a fairly superb performer. No, not exactly the type of guy who will happily run through all the concert gimmicks while refusing a paycheck for the encore, but certainly a professional entertainer. The outfits are a bit Justin Timberlake circa N’Sync, yet I am still all about feeling this man in his jewelry or whatever the hell that line in that amazing song that has yet to have a studio release is (seriously, help me out): but he had an incredible dual album of the same name, a duet with Namie Amuro, and hasn’t been around for two decades, so he’s someone to look out for.

Finally, “Perfume Live @ Tokyo Dome” was more a victory lap, but it was still super fun. There’s some cool lasers and minimal fireworks at the end during “POLYRHYTHM” (which, if this doesn’t provoke some sort of welling up of emotions, either because you are a huge fan and seeing Perfume play the Dome is a sort of triumph you can share in, or because they hit those ‘works at just the right moment, when you’re exhausted from just watching all three of them sweat it out in dance routine after dance routine, and you’re forgetting how many songs there are in their discography but damn, “POLYRYTHM” is still one of the greatest pop songs ever put to sound system and it’s just so lovely), but it’s Perfume, and it’s still pretty amazing how far they have come and how far they can still go.

Oh and one more thing

“Born This Way” is a great album. Even after all that squawking about herself during endless concert monologues, and that annoying title track, there is something fundamentally wonderful about Lady Gaga’s album. There are open roads, confessional bar stools, heavy metal lovers, and a sheisse on top of it. Juggling Christian metaphors, big Broadway numbers, and teenage punks running around with their parents’ hard-earned money is almost more than one album can take, but Born This Way‘s single failure of trying on too many things at once is like saying that human beings are failures for doing the same. This is Gaga’s statement album, and beneath the ode to an ex-boyfriend that seems to choke every song, there is also some pretty fallible, ugly, and beautiful music.

Without further ado, here are my “best of” lists for 2011.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

01. Perfume: JPN
02. Lady Gaga: Born This Way
03. Neon Bunny: Seoulight
04. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Moshi Moshi Harajuku
05. Yelle: Safari Disco Club
06. Tomohisa Yamashita: SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD
07. Cults: Cults
08. Escort: Escort
09. Kaskade: Fire & Ice
10. Hunx and His Punx: Too Young to Be in Love

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Guess That Disco

Yasutaka Nakata is probably my favorite musician/producer/DJ/overall badass working in Japan right now and most of the J-pop world agrees: after seeing a slew of releases from his own work, side projects, and work with girl groups and female vocalists of all kinds, Nakata’s sound has been replicated, copied, bastardized, and inspired the world of Japanese pop desperate for a piece of the electro house pie. The following are seven songs paying homage to the wonderful world of disco (of course, not disco in the Western sense of disco) either written or produced by Yasutaka Nakata or one of his desperate doppelgangers. Can you spot the faux discos? Answers beneath the cut.

Perfume: ONE ROOM DISCO
Mitsuki Aira: CHINA DISCOTICA
80_pan: Disco Baby (song not featured on YouTube)
Ami Suzuki: can’t stop the DISCO
capsule: Robot Disco
Perfume: CHOCOLATE DISCO
pLumsonic!: Sentimental Disco (at 1:09)

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the Time is Now, my revolutionary Western music critics

Ian Martin recently interviewed Yasutaka Nakata, one of the most prolific Japanese producers, as well as song-writer, DJ, and overall badass, for The Japan Times Online, and what strikes me as most important about the advertorial for capsule’s upcoming greatest hits compilation is the things he has to say about music criticism:

“Especially in Tokyo, […] someone who knows a lot about music, they play something and people think, ‘OK, this must be popular now.'”

“The power of music critics is less in Japan now. […] And partly this is because they’ll talk about music saying that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is really fashionable, but the [sic] themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, ‘What? Why should we listen to this guy?'”

“In Japan, […] if something sells really well, the singers will be all over the TV and everywhere, but no one cares who made it. But overseas, when they hear the song, they think, ‘Who made it?’ not ‘Who’s singing it?’ Not just songwriters, but also the arrangers, the sound engineers — they respect all the people who are involved in making the music.”

I’ve been working on an essay this past week (it will be finished and posted eventually) about the (non-existent) state of  serious Japanese music criticism in the West, and this just reinforces all the points I’m making in three tiny blurbs: that Western style of music criticism/journalism is extremely respected, well-informed, and important, while the Japanese style is a joke and treated more like an almost pure hybrid of marketing and payola (and it’s no secret!), and that this respected, well-informed, and important style of music criticism has yet to be adapted to Japanese music (or East Asian pop in general). But I’ll save the rest for the essay.

Most profiles are generated with a desperate sense of summary and little original content, crafted to promote an artist and filtering sense or meaning out of what little a pop artist has to say, which is usually nothing about anything. But Yasutaka Nakata is addressing something that I think is fundamental to the English-speaking J-pop revolution.

Music critics of America, are you listening?