Inside the Futuristic Artists of S.D.S. =Zero=
A breakdown of the musicians featured in the great compilation from Lil Soft Tennis, Valknee, Le Makeup and more
S.D.S. =Zero= (Subscription Double Suicide) by Various artists [EM]
Listen to it on Bandcamp
This is part of This Side of Japan issue #16. You can return to the main newsletter here.
Curated by producer CVN, S.D.S. =Zero= offers an amazing snapshot of Japan’s digital underground. Like the liner notes points out, the artists included in the compilation are not tied by a single label or scene but more through approach to genres and ideas. For this issue, instead of a general album write-up, we’ll dedicate this space to go over each featured artist and see what they’re about. But first, here’s the liner notes via Bandcamp:
Launched in an uncertain time, here are 12 tracks from 17 new independent Japanese artists, a physical release from a generation which has an online-release default setting. Not a scene document, not a label sampler, and not a showcase for a collective, this compilation features a selection of artists from all across Japan, selected by ex-Jesse Ruins producer CVN. These songs are snapshots of a sensibility shared by these artists: a love of contemporary electronic pop music, an awareness of melody, and an appreciation of the musical options provided by technology. Not techno or ambient, there is an emphasis on the human voice, with elements of hiphop, trap, EDM and bass music, all subsumed into multiple facets of a glowing electronic bedroom pop gem. Available on CD, vinyl and digital, with English liner notes, lyrics and artist information. These songs are seeds of hope for the coming post-pandemic parties.
► “Irrational” [Irrational, 2019]
While Dove drifted about in her debut single, the hypnagogic R&B “Femm,” the singer steps on to the stage to rock a punchy club beat in the title track to her latest Irrational EP. The music is still coated with drowsy, forlorn keys—a signature of sorts by her trusted producer-collaborator Le Makeup—but the song quickly awakens the body through the banging drums that sounds at home in a deconstructed club mix. Dove sways along, getting lost in the hypnotic shuffle.
Lil Soft Tennis
► “Feelin’ Love” [Feelin’ Love EP, 2019]
Lil Soft Tennis is loosely rooted in rap, his verses punctuated by hyped ad libs as he settles into a sing-song flow. But he frequently ditches the rapping to fully sing, and he likes to lay his voice over sounds of the non-hip-hop variety, looping punk riffs in “Skrr Skrr to Babylone” and a lo-fi garage-rock strum in “Lucky,” both from last year’s Feelin’ Love. The EP’s title track throws all the materials in his toolbox into a blender. He plays a chill hippie-rock riff while trap drums sputter about, and the metallic electronics distort his presence into digital dust. What ends up holding it all together is his croon that carves a sweet melody out of the sonic mess.
► “angelnumber” [single, 2019]
Tamanaramen burrows herself between the deep echoes of her music. As if the murky glow smeared over her insular lo-fi pop didn’t already force you to squint, her breathy murmur further makes her songs feel indecipherable. That said, she’s far from an introvert. Though her voice remains soft and meek, she eagerly throws herself into a wilder bass beat in “angelnumber.” With her also dancing to more straightforward, Factory Floor-esque techno in “mei mei” or remixing the violent rage of CVN’s “Seabed” into some chill house, she seems more than willing this year to branch out some more.
Karavi Roushi & Aquadab
► “Tokyoite - Val Kilmer (Love Her)” [S.D.S. =Zero= (Subscription Double Suicide), 2020]
Karavi Roushi’s laid down a lulling, melodic flow in his debut full-length, Kiyosumi Kurokawa, to match the glossy trap beats cut by his trusted producer Aquadab. The best moments of the album, though, found him channeling the alien croons of Young Thug, and some of those vocal outbursts also pop up in the two’s new track, “Tokyoite - Val Kilmer (Love Her),” exclusive to the compilation. “But isn’t it cold,” he inquires while pinching his voice to hit a slippery note. “Love is online, but isn’t it cold.”
Further listening: Kiyosumi Kurokawa (2019)
Valknee & ANTIC
► “The Best SSS in Life” [Fire Bae EP, 2019]
The brash, dial-tone melodies of ANTIC’s trap beats have played supporting act to Valknee’s bratty raps for now two EPs, and the video-game assault of “The Best SSS in Life” gets revamped with a new mix for S.D.S. Obnoxious as the sounds get, Valknee spits her rapid verses as in-your-face as the blaring sirens: “The best SSS in life: Sex, Saturday, Searching for new songs,” goes her shameless hook for this anti-9-to-5 anthem. A year after her music with ANTIC, she has rapped over even trickier production, like CVN’s blown-out “Henpou” or Bailefunk Kakeko’s stuffed-to-the-brim riddim “Boasting Baby,” and yet her personality cuts through every time.
► “Labyrinth of Summer” [single, 2018]
NTsKi understands the B-side as a clever way to compartmentalize her two creative halves. She favors sunny grooves for her more visible side, no more apparent than the light reggae of the original mix of “Labyrinth of Summer.” And she knows how to pick them, collaborating with a band like South Penguin to land herself a balmy tune. The flip side, meanwhile, showcases her oddball tastes when it comes to dance tracks. She invites producers like Foodman, this compilation’s own CVN, and KM for a series of more chaotic remixes.
► “Labyrinth of Summer (KM Remix)” [single, 2019]
The summertime reggae of NTsKI’s “Labyrinth of Summer” becomes unrecognizable in the hands of KM, who flips it into a ghastly EDM-bass track. While that trap influence creeps back in his single “i” with frequent collaborator Taeyoung Boy, he finds an unique niche in his emo-rap project with rapper (sic)boy that borrows from the books of Lil Peep. As if that wasn’t enough of a variety, he keeps himself a third lane with his moody R&B track “Aenaiya” with singer Lil’ Leise But Gold, another regular in the producer’s orbit. His refusal to be pinned down only makes his output more appealing.
► “Yoi” [Gion EP, 2019]
Fitting for an EP with songs titled by a series of unintelligible onomatopoeia, Seaketa’s Gion arranges fizzes and pops, clinks and clanks, and bleeps and bloops into bite-sized IDM. “Yoi” is the last head dunk into the record’s pool of sonic clatter, and dunk Seaketa does into a deep bath of hypnotic noise-ambient. Sirens bleed into the digital synth wash as the taiko drums bang out a repetitive beat to zone out to. The crowd of noise overwhelms, but the overwhelm is surprisingly entrancing.
► “Lucky Guess” [The FLASH, 2019]
Menace9 in The FLASH EP sounds like a string of iPhone voice memos gone rogue. While “Ms. Jealousy” relatively stays in the ballpark of what you’d imagine a pop-rap .mp3 love letter to be—melodic and slightly saccharine whispered pop rap, aided by heavy vocal filters—she enters a wild zone in the berserk “Lucky Guess,” the vocal after-effects altering the song to something more digitally bizarre. From the sound of her follow-up single this year, she sounds best when she’s locked into this more unhinged mode.
► “Nightmare” [single, 2019]
Lili first stepped into the scene as a DJ, mixing mostly heady techno and deconstructed club, but she quickly teased her potential as a musician with last year’s “Nightmare.” She offers a pop song as her first (and so far only) piece of solo music, albeit still largely informed by her dark dance sensibilities. The ethereal synth-pop gets shrouded in ghastly reverb and spectral background vocals of her own while doomed lyrics trail off into the void. “I just want to stay connected,” she sighs. “It eventually ends / that’s the reality.”
► “withoutu” ft. Itaq [S.D.S. =Zero= (Subscription Double Suicide), 2020]
As expected from the very producer who curated this compilation, CVN has already collaborated with more than a few artists featured in S.D.S. He introduced me to NTSKi through the dreamy “Seibun,” which opens last year’s solid I.C.; later on the album, you stumble across another team-up with Le Makeup and the instrumental to “Zekka” with Tamanaramen. He expands the range of his experimental bass music in his new Egg EP, melting it into languid, liquid pop with Dove or roughening it up into an austere, steely beat for Valknee to rap on. His music really is the center not just in proximity to these disparate artists but the musical reference points as well.
► “MLC” [single, 2019]
“MLC” runs about double the running time of SATOH’s new batch of minute-long songs of this year’s homo EP, and perhaps as expected from the length, their single from last fall is also their most self-indulgent. The duo’s Lingna croons ambiguous, heartbroken poetry over electronic haze, the dense smoke lingering much after he has shut off his mic. The cloudy moodiness has drifted over this year more to the dusky R&B of his project Yung Kiss in collaboration with Ken Truth, though the two is equally competent indulging in shinier pop-rap debauchery as seen in “Gabajanakya” from homo.
► “Ray” [Slight Fever, 2020]
As alluded by the lead single, “Sit Down in Reflection,” Le Makeup’s newest album, Slight Fever, collects a series of introspective bedroom daydreams sung to the tune of out-of-body guitar pop. The guitars buzz with heavy reverb in “Ray” while synths lay over a droning hum, conjuring an atmosphere as warm and surreal as his train of thought: “even now, I’m still trying to catch / the ray swimming atop the clouds,” he sings with sincerity, trying to capture the warm, elusive feeling.
The next issue is out August 19. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.