You’re most likely a fraud. Yes, you. Sitting at your keyboard. You’ve watched some amount of anime, and you think the term “J-Rock” holds some kind of meaning for you. Whether it brings back nostalgic memories of your favorite shojo theme song, or flashes of Shonen Knife music set to Power Puff Girls clips on Cartoon Network, chances are, you have a favorite. Or you think you do, anyway.
Well, its time to throw out those rose-tinted glasses and get real – most of that stuff is garbage. Complete ass. I bob my head to the Evangelion theme song just like everybody else, but I’d never pay money to see it performed live. Nor do I have any interest in buying an entire album by whoever wrote that syrupy nonsense.
But guess what? There’s actually a ton of J-Rock that’s totally relevant, substantial and genuinely excellent music that doesn’t need the crutch of anime to hold it up. We’ve got eight to start you off.
And no, I do not mean Gackt.
Let’s start off nice and easy…
DMBQ is kind of a big deal in Japan, and you can absolutely see why. They’re catchy, radio-ready rock n’ roll in the classic American tradition but, strangely enough, they’re doing it better than most contemporary US bands seem to be able. Try to imagine if Wolf Mother completely lost their shit and started writing the most bananas music they could manage.
This is pure rock vibrato. Strutting and lurching with soaring guitar lines and splashy drums that’re never content to stick with a simple beat. These guys are aggressive, but approachable, with the kind of over-the-top showmanship that’s impossible to resist.
Listen to “She Walks” here:
Of course, while the band’s still fairly small in America – usually playing small venues, basements, et cetera – they somehow don’t seem to realize it. DMBQ’s drummer is infamous for insane live antics that make Keith Moon look like a pansy. He’ll keep on playing even after passing his drums to the audience (when was the last time you saw a drummer crowd surf with his entire kit and still keep the beat?), or after he’s LIT HIS CYMBALS ON FIRE.
DMBQ are an experience not to be missed.
It’s tempting to describe MONO as “the Japanese Godspeed You! Black Emperor,” but that’s actually unfairly reductive (and let’s face it, a bit racist). MONO totally stands on their own as some epic-as-shit, sprawling post-rock. This is the sound of swirling clouds, starry skies and impossibly deep oceans… that occasionally birth out enormous, towering lizards of RAWK set on destruction.
MONO is the kind of music that makes you want to use worn out embarrassing phrases like “takes you on a journey” without any hint of irony.
Listen to “Yearning” here:
This is beautiful stuff, sometimes orchestral and sweet; other times towering and heavy. Swelling strings, restrained percussion and plucking guitar that give way to some climaxes that are god damn majestic, no way around it. If you have the patience, and the right scenery, MONO can make you feel things.
Okay, time to start getting weird…
Boredoms is an experimental rock outfit that influenced all kinds of awesome American noise bands like the Unstoppable Lightning Bolt. They’re known for setting up a whole circle of drummers on stage. That makes for a pretty huge sound, though not as thundering or abrasive as you might think. While the rhythm section of Boredoms does drive the music, it doesn’t usually demand your attention, got it?
Over the course of Boredoms’ (often quite long) songs, things start to kind of melt together. The drums become a chugging pulse, like the reliable rattle of a train speeding down the tracks. The electronic sounds, sparse vocals, hypnotic piano notes, and other bleeps and bloops, swing from the tranquil and serene to the cacophonous and explosive. Boredoms are capable of lulling you into a warm, trance-like state… and then completely flooring you with a wall of sound.
Listen to the epic “Seadrum” (things really start moving around the 4:30 mark):
And, of course, seeing Boredoms in a live setting is half the fun. All those drums fill the room and absolutely surround you. There’s just something totally hair-raising about watching drummers play completely in sync. And hell, between the coordinated light show, choreographed moves and performance art leanings, you can all but see the Boredoms eventually filling in for Blue Man Group whenever those big, bald Smurfs finally check out of Vegas.
Continuing into the realm of weird experimental stuff, Ruins absolutely annihilates. Are you familiar with weirdo American noise-rock like Hella? Well, these guys did it first.
Absolutely insane, wild drumming. Distorted bass (again, Lightning Bolt). Batshit crazy vocal wails. These are the components that define Ruins’ out-there sound. This is exciting, energetic music to get your heart pumping. They’re something like a controlled heart attack: just barely balanced on the edge of madness, somehow maintaining control over the swirling maelstrom of beats and riffs. No question, this music’s challenging; but it’s definitely rewarding, as well. You know, sort of like how Sun Ra can just sound like noise to a lot of people, but the people who do get it can’t get enough.
Listen to the manic “Outburn” here:
If you’re up for something strange, awesome, influential and exciting that just might put hair on your chest (if you’re lucky), Ruins might just be the band you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Fans of Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantomas, Mr.Bungle) may also notice a similar flair for insane vocal theatricality in Ruins. I’d be shocked if Mr.Patton weren’t a fan of this stuff.
5. Guitar Wolf
Alright, enough of that experimental, abstract “thinking man’s” music – Guitar Wolf is pure, loud, stupid, rock ‘n roll fun with extra emphasis on the loud and stupid. Decked out in 50’s greaser outfits, the members of Guitar Wolf are here to smash, sneer and party (and remind you of that at every opportunity).
This is a garage-noise-punk power trio of rough dudes with hilarious pseudonyms like Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf that walk the line between lazy and badass. Subtlety is not in this band’s vocabulary, and that’s just fine. Guitar Wolf is out to do one thing and do it loud. They’re kind of like Cubists, setting their sights on one approach to making art in order to funnel their vision with close-minded-but-precise, pinpoint focus. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.
Listen to “Invader Ace” here:
It should go without saying that Guitar Wolf live is an incredible experience. Non-stop sweat, feedback and posturing with inevitable shirtless-ness. When I saw these guys, they pulled a friend of mine on stage to “help” play their song. As it turned out, that mostly meant he was holding the guitar and not strumming anything until Guitar Wolf himself screamed “NOW!!!” and the whole room went apeshit.
Oh, and they also (kind of?) starred in a B-horror-zombie-alien-invasion film by the name of Wild Zero that’s just as insane and hilarious as you might imagine.
Envy is a criminally under-appreciated, post-hardcore band that seems to have found more success in Europe and America than in their hometown of Tokyo. Their blending of post-rock and more traditional hardcore is interesting, and often really beautiful.
Envy vocalist Tetsuya Fukagawa’s signature tortured howl is passionate and genuine. Unlike so many bands with screamy vocals, Fukagawa’s vocals bristle with tension and heart. It’s actually hard not to be moved by them – I swear! The music itself is usually airy and a bit spacey: drifting behind the vocals, with occasional splashes of light, punctuated by crunchy distortion. The effect is often pretty staggering, if a bit exhausting, at times.
Listen to “Further Ahead Of Warp” and don’t be ashamed if you tear up a little:
It’s a shame that Envy never really took off in a big way in the States. It’s not so hard to imagine them sharing the stage with post-hardcore greats like Neurosis (though it’s also not hard to assume that the language barrier had a lot to do with that).
7. Melt Banana
Ah… here we are. There’s so much to say about Melt Banana – weirdo, art-grind pioneers and batshit-awesome, spaz-out, techno-pop-rock champions that they are – but most important, above all else, is that they are all about making you smile.
At its core, Melt Banana is a two-piece act, just vocals and guitar. However, they’ve played with a full band for much of their career. Collaborators have included grind legends like Dave Witte on drums for a spell, and they’ve also worked with big names like John Zorn and Discordance Axis. Guitarist Agata’s style is firmly in the “noise” camp, creating some inventive squeals, but he wrangles it all into a sort of “harsh pop” sound complemented by the muppet-yips of singer Yasuko Onuki.
The thing that really sets these guys apart, though, is their enthusiasm for speed, color and pop. Their songs are always odd, often aggressive and, on recent albums, quite infectiously danceable. They’re a bubblegum plague that you can’t wait to catch. And since it’s impossible to truly understand Melt Banana’s majesty without hearing them, I’ll let the first track off their new album (first in 6 years!) do the talking for me…
Listen to “Candy Gun” (things really get started around 1:20):
If you don’t bob your head to this shit, you’ve got a heart made of stone.
Few bands have covered as much ground as the mighty Boris. This band has tried its hand at so many genres, and so successfully, that it’s hard to say which one they truly “belong” to. They’ve dabbled in sludge-y stoner metal, extremely minimal experimental noise, doom, drone, sun-bleached desert rock, and even an entire album of J-Pop tunes that lean uncomfortably close to the anime theme songs I was throwing such dickish disdain at earlier. What’s certain, though, is that Boris is damn good at what they do… and that’s building great songs.
If pressed, I’d have to say the best Boris tunes tend to be the huge and heavy stoner rock jams, with the sunny, warm, fuzzed-out tones and riffs that sound like kaiju bones baking in the desert sun. There’s something so fascinating – and, honestly, a bit strange – about a band from an island nailing the sound of the desert so completely.
Listen to “Korosu” and smoke’m if you got ’em:
That said… Boris’ magnum opus may, in fact, be their 2005 album Pink, which is nothing short of a rock masterpiece. It’s big in the right places, and punchy when it needs to be. It’s got memorable hooks, a wide variety of sounds, and an epic closer that’s about 18 minutes long (but flies by like it’s five, trust me). This album has everything that makes Boris amazing; and, dare I say, just about everything that’s great about rock music, as well.
Listen to the undeniable title track here:
This list was presented in no particular order, but it’s hard to argue that there’s a J-Rock band out there better than Boris.
If you think you know better, I’d love to hear about it. Prove me wrong in the comments section below.
Previously by Alex Eckman-Lawn: