Issue #33: Sputnik
Discussing the new INSHOW-HA album and PASSPO's record-breaking single, plus a playlist exploring Japan's indie rock nostalgic for the early 2010s
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Here and there, I come across East and Southeast Asian rock bands whose music gives me strong, vivid flashbacks to a time around the year 2010—Dreams of the Year 2010, I’ve began to call it, and now I made a playlist collecting some of them. That summer about a decade ago was when I first began trawling the internet for new indie rock tracks—a perfect time with songs of many beach-perfect vibes—but the up-and-coming bands from that window of time also defined my early understanding of indie rock as a codified sound. This new crop of Asian bands brings my journey full circle, showing off influences also close to my own roots with the scene.
A lot of indie rock acts of 2010 in the West were already driven by nostalgia with aesthetics that echoed a variety of past decades. Many played with the pop melodies, jangling riffs and garage-rock roughness of the ‘60s. Others shaped their guitars to resemble liquid or steely post-punk textures of the ‘80s, or they shrouded their instruments with woozy feedback like the ‘90s. Rookie bands in 2021 styling their songs with these touchstones feels uniquely surreal, their throwback to a throwback further warping its own place within rock chronology.
The layering of indie rock’s past might obscure what exact influence each band is referencing. But bands influenced by albums put out from the early parts of the 2010s should not be shocking at this point. Debut albums by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart or Yuck are now 10 years old—can you believe it?—and chances are, these young musicians may have got in touch with indie rock through even later records, like Alvvays’ self-titled album or Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days. (I wish I can pick apart domestic rock influences, but I simply lack that knowledge. Besides, Pitchfork-friendly indie rock makes up a good portion of the listening diet for at least Japan’s young musicians today.)
I can’t quite say the music collected in this playlist hints at a revival when these aesthetics never truly went away. Sure, many bands prefer more glossy textures nowadays than the rough, blown-out music compiled here, but those acts still tap into this similar desire to recreate a vintage feel. Reverb generally has yet to fall out of fashion either as observed through the recent celebration of ‘90s nostalgia as well as the infallible popularity of shoegaze. Lo-fi hasn’t went away but rather evolved into something else.
The music in this playlist also represents not a dominant sound in a scene but just a slice of what’s available in a diverse pie. A separate playlist can be made of emo bands in Asia killing the indie circuit right now. There are a lot of other bands who prefer cleaner production while incorporating less post-punk influences. The chosen focus here stems more from a personal observation, the curation based on what sparks a flashback to my very early days as an indie rock fan.
I sequenced the playlist in a way to look at new tracks by Japanese bands side by side with a track from Western bands from the early half of the 2010s, so you can see what exact echo I hear from the former. I also included a few selections by bands from Thailand and South Korea just as further recommendations for cool music.
You can check out the playlist above or through this link here. Below are more in-depth discussions on some choice tracks from the playlist.
“Teddy Bear” by Subway Daydream [Rainbow, 2021]
I made a brief mention to the idea of the Dreams of the Year 2010 when I wrote about Subway Daydream in issue #31, and the band’s new Born EP remains a fine example of the sound and aesthetics. The bashful, slightly gossamer strums set up an almost twee vibe before the roaring, reverb-shot riff cracks the dreamy song open. The drums restlessly thump along, keeping alive the wide-eyed enthusiasm permeating the track. It’s tailor-made to soundtrack teenage romance and adventure as they do in the single’s music video, with a boy sneaking out to meet with his best friend and explore the late night.
Born EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
This issue will cover a lot more rock music. The Album of the Week features an eccentric pop duo known for delivering some big, punchy riffs. There’s a more sensitive but no less hard-hitting indie rock track in the Singles Club, slotted in between some synth-based stuff if you need a palate cleanser. The Oricon flashback highlights a pop group? Rock band? It all depends on what you’d like to call them, though their music is undeniably packed with mean riffs.
Oh, and I interviewed CHAI for Tone Glow! I talked to Mana and Yuuki from the group about their creative process, what defines their music, their influences and more. You can read that here.
Album of the Week
Sputnik by INSHOW-HA [Darkside of the Volcanic Girls / Space Shower Music]
Inshow Ha don’t hold back on flashiness for the opening track of Sputnik, their second album and first full-length record in four years. Rendered as animation, the duo are a band on the run in the video of “Wanna,” pursued by missile-firing helicopters and a koala-headed dictator armed with a rocket launcher. The song’s towering glam-rock riff emphasizes the over-the-top action scenes while the nonchalance demeanor of their vocals reflect their on-screen personas. If the brazen new-wave music failed to be loud and hooking enough for whatever reason, the heavily stylized visuals should leave a mark.
Like the growling electro-rock “Lemon” that began their previous LP, the flamboyance of “Wanna” follows their usual practice as far as opening statements go. But when it comes to portraying the overarching tone of Sputnik, the clip for “Magic” serves as a better, more accurate visual aid. An almost 180 to their cartoon adventure, the video shares behind-the-scenes footage of Mica and Miu on the road through a series of what resembles iPhone-quality video shots. Sputnik as a whole presents itself as more down to earth than their past projects, with the duo more collected and consequently more ruminative about what’s going on around them.
Inshow-Ha appear less showy with their once-frantic riffs smoothed out. The shift doesn’t figure as a product of restraint, though, than a tightening of their pop craft. The riffs are leaner, confident in its straightness without relying on bells and whistles as back-up if it fails. Any roundabout noodling would be a distraction anyway to the duo’s big hooks, clear harmonies and open melodies. Even when they do flex their guitar-playing as they do in “Suicide Girl,” the friskiness of the post-punk-ish riffs seems like a secondary concern once they drop the huge, glittery chorus overhead—that catchy vocal turn cuing said chorus notwithstanding.
If the bold, straightforward punches of Sputnik divert attention from anything, it’s the worries and mysteries Inshow Ha sing about as the duo jams along with ease. It’s funny to see the video of “Wanna” depict the two as tech-savvy agents when they sound so fed up by all this societal noise of data and hate comments in the next song, “Too Hot Peoples.” The slow, folksy number “Kaori” observes this Smartphone-centric culture with a bit more awe and curiosity but also with ironic distance: “Instagram viral, what kind of growth is that,” they crack wise as they ogle at crowds of young people flocking to the city under the influence of social media recommendations.
The duo’s interactions with their world speak less as critique than a show of self-awareness about them in relation to others around them. “Oh, I’m so fed up with the word ‘weird,’” they sing in the chorus of “Suicide Girl,” where they reckon with how they’re the odd ones out, unable to roll with how today’s world seems to work. While their exploration of that tension through equally knotty music makes for a highlight, the standout in Sputnik finds Inshow Ha fully embracing their own, self-defined oddball nature. More than half the lyrics of “Wanna” read like nonsense, though the duo are already aware of that: “You’re just saying that to say it,” they ad lib as they repeat their passe joke of a metaphor. What it all means literally seems besides the point once the glorious chorus arrives to shares what matters at the core of “Wanna” but also Inshow Ha as a whole: “I just want / all your attention.”
“Blast” by Dr. Anon [self-released]
“Why are you crying,” asks an anonymous voice in “Blast” before the zonked-out hyperpop beat kicks into overdrive to introduce the artist collective Dr. Anon. While “Blast” flirts with hip hop and whisper raps like Haru, e5 or Ponika’s respective solo works, the trio indulges in a more sugar-spiked high than any of their usual dalliances. They coolly ride a beat crushed by 8-bit bleep bloops and incessantly stomping four-on-the-floor kicks, like a more petite cousin of 4s4ki’s “35.5.” After the synths wind down, the track eventually reveals its soft, sweet center: “Watching you call out to an empty person like me fill my heart with love,” they sigh like for an idol song. Before the bummer can really settle in, that intro lyric returns to cue again the party-starting beat and the sugary, Auto-Tune-fried melody.
Listen to it on Soundcloud.
See also: “BANN!!” by e5; “unpresent” by Haku
“Kuuhaku” by snooty [Kuramae]
Snooty trudge along in “Kuuhaku” with a guitar riff that’s melancholy yet still breezy despite the malaise—the kind of sighing riff that carries indie-rock duo Yonige and their odes to ennui. Frontwoman Pota Fukahara, too, sings a melody as easy-going as the light guitars, sounding more bored than bothered by the hardships she’s faced with. “Kuuhaku” seems chill, that is until you properly digest the blunt lyrics: “If I can die, I wonder how relieved I would be,” Fukahara begins the chorus without a hint of millennial sarcasm. Her sober fatalism reflects its title—kuuhaku or emptiness—at face value, not entirely banal yet also not an all-consuming type of tragedy.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“NEW!!!” by YUKI [Sony]
Though the variety in production seems part of the point in YUKI’s new Terminal LP, I can’t help but wish for an entire album of songs like “NEW!!!” That hypothetical album would basically be YUKI turning in her take on Kylie Minogue’s Fever with a series of sleek synth-disco beats that moves her to get down and party. Fittingly, “NEW!!!” is all about feeling the music and letting it be the excuse to debut the brand new you. “Ah! With my forehead all for show,” she sings in the chorus without any shame in how she might look. “Standing out on the start line, there’s no time for crying.” For all that she tries to hide her tears with the glow of the beat, it’s the hints of sadness at its fringes that make “NEW!!!” into compelling disco.
Terminal is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 2011…
“Shoujo Hikou” by PASSPO☆ [Universal J, 2011]
“Shoujo Hikou” may not sound innovative, especially in the standards of idol in 2021, but its well-built pop engine is no less affecting. For their major-label debut, PASSPO grab at a tried-and-true formula: the peppy power-pop already shines like classic idol-pop a year after AKB48’s “Heavy Rotation.” Gleaming from the shiny studio polish, the big, bold guitar riffs soundtrack the arrival of the fresh stewardess idols. “Hurry, ride on time, flight to the future,” they sing while hauling prop suitcases on stage, doubling down on their concept right from the start.
PASSPO’s airline concept served as a necessary hook for the group to stand out in a scene starting to become increasingly crowded. The year “Shoujo Hikou” went number one already saw TV shows tout the phrase idol sengoku jidai in reference to a growing boom in female idols. Look in the singles charts of other weeks in 2011, and you can spot rookie idol groups like Idoling!!, SUPER GIRLS, Tokyo Girls’ Style, Momoiro Clover Z and S/mileage. That same year had Momo Clo Z’s Battle and Romance win the CD Shop Award. Not to mention, of course, the strong hold the AKB franchise had on the charts through the main group, its sibling groups like SKE48 and solo acts like Tomomi Itano.
While idols have been productive since the beginning of a new decade, it’s impressive, if not surprising to discover that “Shoujo Hikou” marks the first debut single by a female group to make it to number one since the late ‘90s. Oricon reports PASSPO’S major-label debut single to hold the record not observed since Kiroro’s 1998 debut “Nagai Aida,” not counting any subunits or other side projects of that nature. The 2000s were certainly dominated by solo artists when it came to pop hits by female acts, but it’s baffling to know that that decade produced virtually no number-one debuts by a female group.
Though PASSPO did not produce another number-one after “Shoujo Hikou,” several singles would hang out in the top 10 spot until they disbanded in 2018. Perhaps it was time for the group to call it a day after almost a decade in the idol scene: the airline concept ran its course as a novelty by their last album, 2018’s Cinema Trip, and they tweaked very little of their power-pop sound while their peers experimented more and more with genres outside of idol orthodoxy.
That said, PASSPO’s dissolution seems more of a result of an overcrowding scene than a stunt in individual growth. Sure, your mileage may vary when it comes to exactly how much you can enjoy those straightforward riffs and equally loud hooks in succession until you start to crave a bit more variety. But when it comes to power-pop firepower, the idol group’s music competes with proper bands like Silent Siren, who similarly pull obvious yet nevertheless effective guitar-pop tricks. PASSPO already arrived fully formed with “Shoujo Hikou.” Why fix what’s not broken?.
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