And for the 11th year in a row, I serve as your humble guide through the bands playing both the showcase at SXSW and the national tour that follows.
Our friends at Benten Tokyo return to SXSW for the 22nd (!) edition of Japan Nite, the Austin-based festival’s annual night celebrating the best and brightest Japan’s indie scene has to offer. And for the 11th year in a row, I serve as your humble guide through the bands playing both the showcase at SXSW and the national tour that follows. Complete tour dates are at the bottom, and more info at www.japan-nite.com. So who’s on the bill? Read on.
Making a one-night-only appearance at SXSW, ANALOGIX should get the Elysium’s dance floor bumping with an electronic music style they call “RI-MAN techno.” What is RI-MAN? Other than a computerized voice opening the band’s latest EP, 2016’s RI-MAN SKILL (a follow-up to their 2015 debut EP, RI-MAN TIMES), with the greeting “Hi, RI-MAN,” I’m not entirely sure, though what I do know is that it sounds an awful lot like trance in most places. Said opener has the icy synth stabs of a John Carpenter score, while “Delivering” uses several layers of clipped, 8-bit sounds that circle over each other over a skittering disco drumbeat. Hearing a song like the single “Typing,” with its simple two-note bass pulse and series of blipping electronic melodies, it’s easy to assume that the music of ANALOGIX is completely devoid of human touch, yet one look at the song’s video shows that the song is a collaboration between man and machine, Mars rocking both the guitar and a sequencer/computer as Harashin plays heavily, robotically filtered bass and Pantene rocks the block-rockin’ beat on a combo analog/digital drumkit. The human and mechanical elements come together nicely on “Destiny,” the only song with vocals (albeit simple ones) repeated until they become just another part of the beat. It’s also the lone song where guitar, bass, and drums actually sound like guitar, bass, and drums, a throbbing track that plays like Daft Punk’s “Crescendolls” slowed to a funky stroll.
Words start to fail me when it comes time to describe the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sound of CHAI, a four-piece girl group (or “New Excited Onna-Band,” in the band’s vernacular) from Nagoya. The songs on their debut EP, 2015’s Hottaraka Series, are the perfect blend of rhythmically solid and melodically preposterous, with elements piled on each other and stripped away at lightning speed as tempos shift and strain without ever reaching the breaking point. The best way I can describe the band’s eclectic sound is it’s like listening to a peak-era Talking Heads LP sped up to 45 RPM. Singer Mana’s voice is typically in high-pitched chirp mode, but can switch to a gentle coo, a passionate yell, an off-kilter bray, or a deep murmur at the drop of a hat, and the band’s four-part harmonies are pure ear candy. Instrumentally, all four of CHAI members are strong, but none more so than drummer Yuna; her tight control of the rhythmic shifts are what keeps the songs from careening out of control, and the recording gives her drums a cavernous crack that is pure percussion perfection.
Hanato Chiruran [website]
The longest tenured band of this year’s lineup, Hanato Chiruran have been spreading their radio ready J-rock across both Japan and Europe (opening for the likes of the Prodigy, the Hives, and Skunk Anansie) since 2008 before finally bringing it Stateside for Japan Nite. The foursome (whose name means “like a falling flower”) formed as the vehicle for singer-songwriter-guitarist Yumiho, whose powerful vibrato sounds like a cross between Gwen Stefani and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. Karuta’s nimble bass and Kokeshi’s clear and melodic guitar tone give songs like “C.A.N.D.Y.”—the lead track from their sophomore release, 2014’s SxM=—the funky strut of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, while “Dance” plays like No Doubt crossed with the Strokes and “Only Dissipating” and “The blossoms are falling” have a rawer punk rock punch akin to Sahara Hotnights. The band’s playing is tight and just a bit funky, with inventive arrangements that take what could have been straightforward alt-rock into all kinds of interesting asides. The songs on SxM= are so strong that even the presence of a straightforward cover of this author’s least favorite song of all time (that’d be “What’s Up” by 4 Non-Blondes) can’t hamper the proceedings.
The lineup at SXSW tends to lean towards the alternative/underground side, but 17-year-old singer RIRI has her eyes firmly set on the pop charts. Growing up idolizing R&B divas like Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey, RIRI brought her American influences to the forefront on her 2016 debut EP I Love to Sing, producing the mini-album in both Los Angeles and Japan. The resulting songs are so in tune with modern R&B production that they could easily slide onto Top 40 radio today with no indication of RIRI’s international origin. Opener/single “GOLD” finds RIRI trying to pull triple duty as all three members of Destiny’s Child, insisting in a Queen Bey-esque voice to “Just let me be me” over a clapping beat and an army of multi-tracked backing vocals, while on the mid-tempo “Next to You” she’s a dead ringer for Selena Gomez. RIRI shows off her full emotional range on “Yes Be Free,” a voice-and-piano torch ballad that feels tailor made to play over the ending credits of a teen romance tearjerker. The pop-wise songwriting and RIRI’s dramatic vocals are already grabbing attention in her native Japan, with both the “GOLD” single and I Love to Sing EP hitting #1 on the Japanese iTunes R&B charts. International domination seems sure to follow.
Tokyo Chaotic!!! (Srv.Vinci)
The brainchild of guitarist Daiki Tsuneta, Tokyo-based quartet Srv.Vinci offer up jammy indie rock where the funk-influenced drive of bassist Kazuki Arai and drummer You Seki provide the solid ground that Tsuneta’s ornate guitar playing and 191’s soulful croon soar above. The short yet complexly arranged songs on the band’s sophomore EP, last year’s Tokyo Chaotic, often conjure up My Morning Jacket, in feel if not necessarily in sonics. The most ear-pleasing song is the EP’s second track, where Tsuneta’s noodling guitar is paired with a guest female vocalist cooing/chanting “Dance, dance anyway/ Anyway” over and over to pleasantly hypnotic effect. Srv.Vinci’s music is ordered not chaotic, so the band performing under the nom de rock Tokyo Chaotic!!! for this tour confuses this reviewer, but rest assured, under either name, impressively nimble guitar playing will no doubt be the order of the day.
It’s too bad the band name “The Struts” is already taken, because “All-Era Rock” trio Walkings don’t so much walk as they saunter, swagger, and, yes, strut. “Flying Fly” finds guitarist/singer Fu Takada moaning over a classic blues boogie of a guitar riff that’s caked in modern fuzz, as if Sex Bob-Omb tried their hands at a ZZ Top cover, while “Good Bye Ending” pairs Takashi Takanashi’s driving click-clack drums with falsetto vocals and frequent short stabs of guitar solo for a sound akin to fellow strut-rockers Eagles of Death Metal. In addition to their rock solid originals, the band is also famous for their covers of rock classics like Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Given the lean, muscular intensity of the songs provided for preview (three songs that skate by in a scant six-and-a-half minutes), it’s easy to imagine Walkings reinventing each one of these covers in a way that’s sure to get feet moving, one way or another. | Jason Green
SXSW Japan Preview Day | 03.16.17
Valhalla, Austin, TX
with CHAI, Tokyo Chaotic!!!(Srv. Vinci), Walkings, and RIRI
SXSW Japan Nite | 03.17.17
Elysium, Austin, TX
with RIRI, ANALOGIX, Walkings, CHAI, Srv.Vinci, HANATO CHIRURAN
Japan Nite US Tour 2017
with CHAI, Srv.Vinci, and Walkings
03.19.17 | Knitting Factory, Brooklyn, NY
03.20.17 | TownShip, Chicago
03.22.17 | ChopSuey, Seattle
03.23.17 | Dante’s, Portland, OR
03.24.17 | The Merrow, San Diego
03.25.17 | The Hi-Hat, Los Angeles
03.26.17 | The Independent, San Francisco