If there’s one thing this trip has done to really push me out of my comfort zone, it’s been that travelling around Tohoku has got me listening to way more hardcore than I ever did back in Tokyo, and one reason for my hasty exit from Yamagata was a show back in Sendai at legendary punk venue Birdland.
The guys in Waikiki Champions had already recommended Spike Shoes as one of Sendai’s top bands, and members of the band run Birdland. Venues that are run by members of a cool, well-respected local band are often among the best venues in any town, being able to make their venue a desirable place to play for both bands from the local scene and from out of town. The smaller the town – or within a big town the smaller the scene – the greater the potential influence one or two people can have over how the scene shapes up, and on the evidence of this event, Birdland is doing a fine job.
The organisers tonight aren’t Birdland’s own staff though: it’s local hardcore band Tasmanian Devil Never Die, and they’ve brought in some top talent from out of town, as well as throwing the odd curveball.
The first band I see upon arrival is Tokyo’s Yen-2-Pao, whose deranged, contorted vocalist spat and writhed around the mic and his bass guitar, while the two guitarists battled ferociously on either side, one headbanging furiously and the other throwing ludicrous rock shapes. It’s way more than just a spectacle though, and musically they work with some wild, metallic dynamics that go way beyond the restraints of punk rock.
In the middle of a punk lineup, local guitar/drum duo Unspoken Word were straight out of leftfield, with their instrumental post-rock soundscapes playing out in near total darkness over an abstract video projection. These kind of booking choices always make me happy in a lineup, because not only do they break up the monotony of hearing the same basic genre over and over again, but they also serve as pointers towards the kind of things the organiser wants you to look out for in the rest of the lineup. The textures that Yen-2-Pao’s twin guitars layer within the band’s sound gain fresh significance after hearing Unspoken Word’s quiet-loud interplay of melody and symphonic guitar distortion.
Flex are a Sendai punk band, who since losing their lead vocalist have reverted to a trio with the guitarist and bass player taking on the vocal duties together, playing off each other call-and-response style. Their petroleum-laced dancefloor garage rock’n’roll is coiled up so taut that even the tiniest ripple of unleashed energy has the condensed power to shatter glass at twenty feet.
The only way you follow a band like that is by being Kallaqri. Kallaqri are one of the bands that everyone I spoke to in Aomori cited as one of the top local acts, and I was keen to meet them. Running into them at this show after cycling 370km was fortuitous in a sense, although the frequency with which the same band names have been coming up in my travels is as good an indicator of quality as any I’ve found so far. Lots of people like Kallaqri.
Taking the stage in silence, backlit and motionless as a gothic rock symphony swells up interminably over the PA, they wait for it to reach its climax before lurching into action, a jet black blur of raw sonic carnage over the blood-red glow of the stage. If the local Sendai acts and visiting Tokyo guests have an insouciant air of party rockers and arty fuckers, these monsters from the wastes of Aomori have The Hunger.
Hosts Tasmanian Devil Never Die set up the second Tokyo act Fredelica to knock it out of the park, but they also provide an efficient, uncomplicated palate cleanser after the frankly rather dirty experience of Kallaqri’s gothic hardcore chainsaw massacre. Fredelica are another band who approach hardcore from an oblique angle, and as a dedicated fan of British postpunk legends Wire, I couldn’t help noticing some serious (and seriously awesome) dugga in their spindly guitar chug.
By the time of the after-party, I had successfully made friends with the venue’s owner and about half the bands. I tell myself that this is just me being good at my job as a chronicler of my musical and travel experiences, but I wonder if really it’s not just because I’m a sociopath. So you didn’t offer to meet me in Aomori? Well then I will make you like me, whether you want to or not, you fuckers!
I would have liked Kallaqri whatever the circumstances though. They’re serious music people, real cool guys, and they drink like Russians. While the Sendai cohort was staggering back and forth, punching their air and sloshing their drinks in bawdy triumph, one guy dancing on the stage with one of his testicles punched through his open fly, Kallaqri just pounded shots of tequila the way a hunter shoots bears: dropping each one with an icy glare of respect.
What’s also notable about the crowd is that while they’re as wild and raucous as this kind of shit gets, there’s a level of awareness and respect that pervades the atmosphere. Someone doesn’t have food or a plate, someone else will make sure they’re supplied with one. The room is socially inclusive – simply by virtue of knowing about it and making the effort to come, you’ve proven yourself worthy of being there. People are hitting the bar hard, but a non-alcoholic drink in my hand doesn’t feel like a buzzkill. Like I say, people are cool.
I’m also starting to learn that when travelling around in Tohoku, that when people ask me what stuff I like in Tokyo, you get instant kudos for namechecking stuff connected to Less Than TV Records and the venue Koiwa Bushbash. That fact in itself reveals something about the stuff in Tokyo that does the best job of reaching out to the north.
While I remain a huge fan of Bushbash and everything it stands for, as a militant adopted child of the Koenji scene, I can’t help feeling my pride pricked a little by the universal respect accorded to this rival venue from across the city. Surely the geographical position, with Koiwa facing northeast while Koenji faces southwest couldn’t be that significant with the distances involved? Could it be more subliminal cultural factors at work, with the traditional difference between the more working class Shitamachi and more well-to-do Yamanote sides of Tokyo finding easier bedfellows in Japan’s northeastern and southwestern regions? Perhaps related to this, could it be that the cheaper rent in eastern Tokyo just makes it easier for people from the generally more economically depressed Tohoku area to move there, and these people form a bridge between the areas? Finally, could it simply be the coincidence that one or two people in Koiwa just happened to make the effort when no one else did?
I was pleased that Endo, Birdland’s owner, seemed to know a bit about Koenji though, and I was delighted at the way he politely corrected me when I made the punk faux pas of referring to the Ni-man Den-atsu live venue by its official name rather than its original name of 20000V. Never again, I promise.