(Flipped) Issue #48: Truth?
A deep dive into SUGIZO's debut solo LP, Not Equal Me's latest no. 1, and wonderful guest selections from Japan's music past
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old! This issue is a Flipped edition, meaning we’re doing the opposite of the original format: we cover an older album and three older singles plus the newest entry in the Oricon. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
Hello! The beginning space of every issue—so, yes, this very space here—is usually dedicated for a free write before we get to the main sections of the newsletter. But format-wise, it makes better sense for me to delay that free write for after we discuss this issue’s Album of the Week. So apologize for the lack of a intro or a segue, we’ll just get rolling to the sections.
I interviewed Haru Nemuri for Tone Glow! I talked to her about her beginnings in music, her thoughts on live performances and more. You can read that here.
Oh! And per tradition with the Flipped issues, we have some fabulous guest writers sharing us their selections for the Singles Club portion of the newsletter. Look forward to it!
Album of the Week
TRUTH? by SUGIZO [Universal Music Japan, 1997]
The five musicians of LUNA SEA bowed out in 1996 and headed into a temporary leave when their band was still much in its prime as Japan’s marquee rock act. The commercial success of that year’s album, the Oricon-topping Style, only affirmed the progresses made from their booming creative period outlined in a trilogy of LPs, one of which remains a foundational classic for the then-burgeoning visual-kei scene. But their year-long, self-proclaimed “recharging period” seemed necessary in retrospect after accounting for the various solo projects to emerge during the band’s hiatus.
“We didn’t start [LUNA SEA] because we were the best of friends,” the band’s guitarist SUGIZO said in the 1996 documentary of the UNENDING STYLE tour, their last show before the hiatus. “But we relied on each other. We were all different in personality and the music we were interested in from the beginning, but we needed what each of us had.” The members tended to their own needs while putting the band on hold, and their individual personality and interests were revealing from what each released when left to his own devices. Frontman RYUICHI sang rather traditional pop and ballads under his birth name, Ryuichi Kawamura. Bassist J continued with rock as if nothing happened, albeit in a slightly more post-grunge route.
For his solo work, SUGIZO abandoned the rock idiom familiar to LUNA SEA almost completely. The first look of him as a solo artist, “Lucifer” sources drum breaks from jungle while the guitar lays down texture and not so much hooks or riffs, with it fragmented into jagged grunts or stretched into an exhausted drone. The music in the next single “A Prayer” operated in a similar manner, with the guitars shaped into squealing noise and drone. Horns let out a heavy, forlorn sigh while the Amen break restlessly pushes the stubborn song forward.
Despite the stark contrast in sound from his main band, SUGIZO’s debut LP, TRUTH?, is better defined as a deep stylistic exploration than a full-on departure. It’s just that the inspirations behind the record are tied wholly to the musician’s own roots and no one else’s. The music is a product exclusively born out of his influences and not just because his creative heroes directly participated in the making of it: he invited for the album, among others, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mick Karn from, respectively, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Japan—some of SUGIZO’s formative influences since he was a teen. The ambition of TRUTH? resembles a record like Beauty by Sakamoto or Earthling by David Bowie, another of his heroes: a deep self-introspection tapping into the foundational sounds of modern, contemporary pop as potential catalysts for personal epiphany.
This being a record made in 1997, the contemporary sounds that drew in SUGIZO were trip hop and jungle. “Kanon” repurposes the downcast soul pioneered by the likes of Portishead about some years prior; he further embraces hip hop in the alien boom-bap of “Beauty,” both in the production and his whispered, rap-inspired cadence. Speedier drum breaks propel the flowery trumpets and silvery guitars of “Kind of Blue,” a likely nod to another of his early love, Miles Davis. It grounds the spiritual bend of “Missing” as the track channels the euphoric jungle of Goldie. (More from the producer’s Metalheadz crew enter the world of SUGIZO, with Dillinja, Lemon D, Grooverider and Source Direct remixing various songs in TRUTH?)
The adoption of these non-rock genres establish some novelty to TRUTH? especially now given how much of these genres are so closely tied to its time. But SUGIZO envisions a purpose for these outside idioms beyond pure style or entertainment, inspecting all corners of these influences in hopes it can aid him to reach a spiritual breakthrough. The blunt, relentless thrust of the break beat driving the industrial-punk freak-out of “Chemical” gestures at a more obvious attempt. As lizard-brained as he may sound, SUGIZO counts on catharsis and the explosive mania of the music to take him into a higher plane.
Much of TRUTH?, however, doesn’t unfold so straightforwardly. The silvery guitars in “Europa” run in circles as SUGIZO examines the rosy timbre like he’s holding up a rare stone to the sun to observe its sparkle, but he ultimately lets it fade after a long simmer without the song taking much flight. He stumbles upon another fascinating sound in “Le Fou,” the guitars radiating with a shiny, metallic echo like the best sourced from the dream pop of Cocteau Twins. The elegant color alone strikes awe, though I can’t help but imagine SUGIZO also trying to squint and peek beyond the ethereal blur for something more.
When he does speak, SUGIZO calls out for ears that seem so far out of his reach. His vocals are often shriveled into a withered moan, timid but still yearning to be heard. “I was always praying / You can’t hear it,” he asks in the chorus of “A Prayer”; “Even this pain / will no one ever learn about it / and just fade away? / Can you hear me,” he implores in “Lucifer.” His voice, though, doesn’t often stand out front and center as the album scatters his lyric-driven songs in between such stark vacancy of sound and music. His words float around, lost as any of the fragmented horns or guitars slashing at the darkness. More than solid, tangible words, his presence comes through in the abstract music-playing and arranging as he restlessly ponders the shapes of possible answers.
As hinted by the punctuation of the album title, TRUTH? is defined by this constant state of questioning. The largely formless production provides the right atmosphere to foster deep investigation into the psyche. But while it’s easy get lost in its shadowy universe, the music hardly meanders as even the most oblique songs courses with a pressing momentum. The roaming trumpets of “Kind of Blue” doesn’t telegraph dread or hopelessness but rather curiosity as it coolly blankets the song. The brash abrasion of “Sperma” comes together not as an antagonistic force but a product resulting from an artist in the brink of a breakthrough. The pursuit is shrouded in mystery though it’s far from aimless.
SUGIZO’s quest has not stopped since the release of TRUTH? His deeply spiritual attitude towards music continues to guide his solo music. If TRUTH? nakedly bears the influences and ideas behind the creative identity of SUGIZO, the later works crystallize those elements into more coherent forms. But how he wears both his heart and interests on his sleeve in TRUTH? feels inimitably wholesome in a way that’s unique to a musician’s first attempt at communicating his ideas by consolidating his influences. While it’s admirable to observe his music grow more complete in form and intent, the innocence displayed in his debut record remains something to be missed. The answers elude TRUTH?, but what defines the album is the pure, sincere attempts from SUGIZO to reach a grand moment of clarity.
A Deeper Look into TRUTH?
In preparation for this issue, I took a dive into a lot of different records in order to grasp as much as possible the context and influences behind SUGIZO’s solo album, TRUTH? The more music I checked out, and the more I learned about him as a musician, the more fascinating his album became. The process brought an intriguing push and pull: the album felt polarizing as I deepened my knowledge of his main band LUNA SEA while it sounded clearer and more intimate the more I browsed through the music that interested him. Out of the many fascinating pieces of music in the orbit of SUGIZO, here are four essentials to further understand TRUTH?:
The Main Source
Mother by LUNA SEA [Universal J, 1994]
*Recommended track: “Rosier”
Mother represents a period of both commercial and creative breakthrough for LUNA SEA, the band which counts SUGIZO as its guitarist as well as one of its songwriters. The act’s fourth album sees their influences from British New Wave and post-punk as well as the country’s own metal scene all cohere into a singular style. The Romantic glam-metal of a hit like “Rosier” carves out the sound and aesthetic that will come to define the visual-kei scene in the ‘90s. SUGIZO’s contribution “Loveless” in particular hints at his pursuits in TRUTH?: he strikes upon a glossy timbre that resembles the ethereal shine of a track like “Europa” or “Le Fou.”
Sou by INORAN [Teichiku, 1997]
*Recommended track: “Monsoon Baby”
SUGIZO wasn’t the only member from LUNA SEA to venture outside of rock music during the hiatus. Guitarist INORAN displayed eerily similar influences as his band mate’s, exploring genres like trip hop, dream pop and rap in his solo LP, Sou. He introspects to a trip hop beat in vibe with The Cardigans circa Gran Turismo in the title track and crosses Cocteau Twins with boom bap for “Monsoon Baby”; former Roots member Malik B contributes verses for the earnest rap track “Obscenity.” INORAN’s project traffics in more accessible songs at the expense of mystique in comparison to TRUTH?, but it’s an equally endearing showcase of influences separate from the main music of LUNA SEA.
Brilliant Trees by David Sylvian [Virgin, 1984]
Though I got to very briefly mention Japan and their influence on a teenage SUGIZO, I couldn’t find space to mention his deep admiration for the band’s David Sylvian. “He is like a god to me,” he said in 2017 on KKBOX Presents 897 Selectors, a radio show in which the guest shares songs they hope to be remembered 100 years into the future. He picked Sylvian’s “Brilliant Trees” for the program when asked about the songs that defined his teens and 20s. and it’s not hard to hear how Sylvian’s eternal soul-searching, aided by trumpets played by the late Jon Hassell, lives on in the self-introspection of TRUTH?
The Popular Sound
Timeless by Goldie [FFRR, 1995]
One of the best finds from doing research for this issue was a series of scans from a feature of SUGIZO and Goldie from a issue of What’s In? magazine. (I unfortunately do not have access to the actual interview between them, but oh, would I love to read it!) Looking at the artists invited to remix his songs from TRUTH?, it’s very apparent that the guy loved the producer as well as his Metalheadz crew. Beyond the pure, visceral pleasure of the knocking Amen break, SUGIZO seems attracted to the spiritual, gospel-like aura in a classic like “Inner City Life” for his music. TRUTH? takes an inverse approach to jungle compared to Goldie’s Timeless: while the latter aspires to elevate jungle beyond its reputation as beat music by incorporating outside genres, the former looks to jungle to help forge a new way of thinking.
This Flipped issue’s song selections are picked by four wonderful guest writers, who each introduce a song of their choice from Japan’s past. Some are chart-toppers or fixtures of the mainstream, and others more niche—all very new to me! Enjoy!
“Desire” by Monta & Brothers [Philips, 1981]
Yoshinori Monta has a truly distinctive voice, and it is difficult to assay whether his raspy, crackling vocal tone was invented by him intentionally to serve his preferred subject matter—longing—or if his natural vocal tone suggested the subject matter. No matter how he got there, though, Yoshinori sounds as though every note he sings is pulled from his broken heart by force; he is compelled by torturous need to express his strong feelings. He communicates emotions so powerfully and sincerely that it appears he is spiritually obligated to his self-expression, so it’s no surprise that he would so tenaciously labor through 10 years of obscurity before the Monta & Brothers single “Dancing All Night” topped the Oricon chart in 1980.
“Dancing All Night” is an unlikely hit and a true gem, but my favorite of the Monta & Brothers has to be their 1981 single “Desire,” a precision-composed, disco-adjacent romp of a song. The guitars are by turns twinkling, then mimicking retro-futurist laser sounds, and there’s an absolutely rippin’ solo at the midway point—Yoshinori of course absolutely yowls through his narrative of various folks, including himself, being clouded by their desires. Yeah, you can dance to it, but there’s an emotional undercurrent pushing at your knees to threaten your balance the entire time. The vibe switches are on a knife’s edge, with a muted verse flipping over to a swirl of a chorus, and only Yoshinori's paper-tear vocals threading the whole together. He’s on the edge, but as a listener, I can't help but have a good time. —Anna Katrina Lockwood
…from Act3 (1981) Listen to the song on Spotify.
See Also: “Kono Ashi Hikichigiritai” by Yoshinori Monta (1971)
You can also find Anna’s writing on pop music at The Singles Jukebox.
“BIN KAN Rouge” by Takako Ohta [Tokuma Japan Communications, 1983]
Pierrot did not initially conceive of the anime series Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel (1983-1984) as a vehicle for promoting an idol singer. They actually developed it to help toy maker and series sponsor Bandai sell a line of toys. The idol thing came later, as Pierrot director, Yūji Nunokawa, explained in an interview with Patrick W. Galbraith for his book, The Moé Manifesto. “When we discussed the story with Bandai, we came up with the idea that we would make our main character transform into not just an adult woman, but an idol singer. This idea evolved into the story of a little girl who transforms into an idol and lives a double life in Japan’s showbiz world.”
Every idol singer needs music, even a fictional idol like Creamy Mami, who shared her music with newbie voice actress and real-life idol, Takako Ohta. This arrangement meant that for the show’s duration, Takako’s music was largely determined by the needs of Mami. Her songs would stick to themes appropriate to cute idols of the time, like a young girl’s feelings. In their shared debut song, “Delicate Ni Sukishite,” released a mere 10 days apart in July 1983, Takako sings about the special-ness of a girl’s heart. In her follow-up song released later that year, “BIN KAN Rouge,” she confesses to a lover her feelings, threatening to pinch them for not calling her: “Whenever it’s been two days since you called / I feel like it’s a license to pinch you / I’m sensitive, so I’ll get jealous.” This is, of course, an empty threat, betrayed in the line that follows where she pledges to love them forever: “We’re fated so even if you turn away / I’ll love you for 2,000 years.”
Despite the limits that came with Takako's association with Creamy Mami, she never publicly renounced her past work for the anime. To the contrary, even after the show wrapped in 1984 and she made a foray into city pop, she continued to “be” Creamy Mami. She served as her “voice” for a slew of OVAs as well as continuing to provide her music for both the show and related projects like the 2011 tribute album, MAGICAL ANGEL CREAMY MAMI. Last year, she even released an album that included self-covers of some of the songs she shared with Mami, fittingly titled, Voice of An Angel. —Melissa Johnson
…from CREAMY TAKAKO (1984)
“Frozen Dirt” by G.I.S.M. [Beast Arts, 1987]
Was G.I.S.M. a band or a war? You tell me, man.
On one side, you had the perennially fascinating Shigehisa Yokoyama or “Sakevi” (an alias that stood for shorthand of “She Killed Vicious!” (punk as fukk breh)); a classic punk l’enfant terrible who could make collage art like George Grosz and could sound like the death rattles of a black & mild-addicted dire wolf. He also allegedly held a rap sheet that may or may not have involved homemade flamethrowers being used on businessmen, attempted murder of fans and dirty work for the yakuza. Sakevi’s the kind of guy who urban legends are made for, a clear hero for the likes of future Luciferian hardcore provocateur Dwid Hellion of Integrity. Friends and collaborators of this embodiment of rascality may or may not include improvisational drummer Kaori Komura, Hijokaidan founder Jojo Hiroshige and the late Edo Akemi of confrontational new wavers Jagatara. Not to mention his main songwriting partner, the fallen guitar great who never was: Randy Uchiha.
Randy Uchiha is somehow a deeper enigma than Sakevi, not by comparable reputation but by the sheer contrast in nothingness. While Sakevi’s obviously a compelling cult figure, little is known about Randy besides being the other mainstay in G.I.S.M and his eventual demise from cancer in 2001 after the band’s third and final album, SoniCRIME. Despite an effortless ability to flip between the chaotic and sloppy proto-crust punk hardcore riffs and solo like his heroes K.K. Downing and (his presumed namesake) Randy Rhoads, Uchiha’s career seemed bound to G.I.S.M. save for a brief foray into hair-band/visual kei with the sparsely documented Randy Uchiha Group. While stylistically one can easily imagine Uchiha’s mawkish guitar stylings slotting in the ranks of his coulda-been kei peers like hide and Sugizo, fate would deem him unworthy of such a stature and instead slots him alongside obscure metal/hardcore alchemists like Bubba Dupree, Brian Egeness and fellow cancer victim Pig Champion.
So why “Frozen Dirt”? Why not anything from their beloved debut, Detestation, the record that would inspire generations of musicians who’d go on to pioneer crust, grindcore, metalcore? Because in a way, it’s symbolic of this inexplicable odd couple’s synergy: the extremist apocalyptic cryptid punkaloid and his foil in the rock star nobody recognized. The second track off their sophomore album, Militaly Affairs Neurotic, or M.A.N., “Frozen Dirt” sounds like Killers-era Iron Maiden getting brainwashed by whatever cult had Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke running off to Iceland. Surrounded by the industrial thrash pummel and faced with Sakevi’s necrotic rasp, Randy Uchiha’s guitar work somehow manages to tame the chaos around him into something approaching a pop song. Maybe to some it sounds ugly and amateurish, or incomplete. But though death has estranged the divide between these two collaborators even further, their brief moments of intertwining were endlessly fascinating.
Were they comrades, rivals, perhaps even enemies? I couldn’t tell you, because one man’s not talking. And the other man seems to only live through the echoes of his guitar. —Micha Valentine
…from Militaly Affairs Neurotic (1987)
Micha Valentine has many homes, all of which can't count until she remembers how to get there. Until then, follow her to your demise at @CrowleyHead on Twitter.
“An Expert Mountain” by Susumu Hirasawa [Chaos Union / TESLAKITE, 2000]
Faced with so little time and so many suitors for one’s attention, it's only natural that we reduce an artist to the most eye-catching elements of their resume, even if their best work resides just a few lines down. So if you’ve only been introduced to Susumu Hirasawa as the composer for films like Millennium Actress and Paprika, here’s your chance to hear what you’ve been missing.
In the same way that reducing Hirasawa’s work to his collaborations with filmmaker Satoshi Kon might entice someone to dig deeper into his catalog, I’m going to reduce “An Expert Mountain” to its flashiest feature in hopes that it will lure you into the rest of the song. “An Expert Mountain” has, hands down, the best guitar solo on a pop song that I’ve ever heard. Even decades removed from his time in the progressive rock band Mandrake, Hirasawa only needs a scant few bars to prove that his chops haven’t gone anywhere. But what stands out about the solo is its melodicism, the gentle arc of its phrasing, and its meticulously refined tone. These are Susumu Hirasawa and “An Expert Mountain”’s true strengths.
The guitar solo, as gorgeous as it is, would be little more than a technical showcase without the set and setting of the rest of the song. Cut up and reversed drum samples clatter against a glittering backdrop of synth arpeggios, while Hirasawa’s processed singing voice trades long lines with ominous strings. The context is what makes the music, and the musician, matter. —Ian Cory
…from Philosopher’s Propeller (2000).
This Week in 2022…
“Chocolate Melancholy” by Not Equal Me [King, 2022]
Sister groups often perform in contrast to their bigger siblings. For Not Equal Me, their presence seemed to provide a path back to a more traditional, post-AKB essence of idol while their seniors =LOVE widened their stylistic range in response to an ever-growing J-pop scene. The idols have put out their own attempts to venture out, but the little sisters mostly thrived being the more bubbly counterpart in last year’s (pretty great) album, Chou Tokkyu Not Equal Me Iki.
“Chocolate Melancholy” knowingly plays into this reputation of the group as well as the expectations of a Valentine’s Day single from bubbly idols like Not Equal Me. Rather than a kitchen full of smiling faces excited to make sweets for the boy they’re crushing on, the music video welcomes us to a funeral attended by the idols dressed in all black. The production of the song is dominated not by glimmering synths or power-pop guitars but macabre harpsichords. If the single had to be pinned to a holiday from its sound, “Chocolate Melancholy” much resides in the world of Halloween.
Not Equal Me further subverts in the lyrics. The group’s producer Rino Sashihara gives her idols dialogue so maudlin, it comes off threatening in its intensity: “The tears I melted are of my feelings / don’t be scared,” the idols sing about the ingredients of their chocolate, the latter lyric ringing so ironic from their deathly seriousness. But that intensity becomes the point as Sashihara illustrates for them a fatal attraction driving a rather cautionary tale. This is what you, the listener, wanted in a Valentine’s Day single from these idols: your favorite girls gifting you sweets, packed with their devotions. It’s just their feelings border on a murderous obsession.
“Chocolate Melancholy” stands out, though, without focusing on the juxtaposition at hand. It does help that the instrument cribs a vibe from a holiday from practically the other half of the calendar year, but the harpsichord also simply adds to Not Equal Me’s music a new color unlike a lot of what’s in their catalog. The idols’ commitment to the melodrama justifies a product partly driven by meta-textual irony. The details of their burning worship, and their conviction to every piece of it, carve out a new, exciting voice for Not Equal Me wholly separate from the shadows of their big sisters.
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