Back in the Zone

My travels in search of Japan’s local music scenes went on hold in November as I arrived home after travelling from Sapporo, through every intervening prefecture, to Tokyo – 1,400km by bicycle, plus a couple of interludes by boat and train when confronted by obstacles like mountain ranges or oceans. With the next stage of the trip in Western Japan rapidly approaching with the spring, there were still a few places outside my planned cycle route that I wanted to visit, while I’m also keeping a constant eye open for opportunities to revisit prefectures I’ve already been in order to see bands or places I didn’t have time for the first time round.

Last autumn, I spent about a week in Saitama, although nearly all that time was spent holed up in the studio with the engineer, mastering a tribute album to a band no one’s ever heard of (the album came out at the end of December and obviously no one bought it, although y’all can remedy that any time you want, cheers!) However, one of the takeaways from that stage of the trip was that there seems to exist a sort of triangle or maybe rhomboid shaped pan-prefectural zone covering southern Gunma, western Tochigi, and northern Saitama. A key component of this musical district is the venue Ladderladder in the small, mountain town of Chichibu.

Chichibu really is a tiny rural town, and like most venues in such towns, it only hosts shows once or twice a week. It’s not the sort of place that you’d usually spend two hours each way on a train from Tokyo to see a show at, but on this occasion there were a couple of people who had helped me on my travels, but whose bands I had never seen, on the bill. It seemed like a great opportunity to recap some of the previous stage by seeing some music I had missed at a place I hadn’t had time to visit.

The town was quiet and icy cold when I arrived, with the one small shopping street utterly deserted under the dying glow of the sun and the remains of some heavy snowfall shoved to the roadsides and shadows all round. Ladderladder is a superb venue though, with a CD store and clothes shop in one corner of the bar, and a good sized live hall through a set of doors on the other side.

Namagomi, a solid local hardcore band, opened, followed by Förtvivlan, who Ladderladder’s manager Imai describes as “Japanese Scandinavian hardcore” and whose bass player was a pummeling dynamo of rock shapes.

In The Sun, who I’d seen before in Tokyo and been mightily impressed by, had to cancel because the flu that was slowly eating away at me had done for one of their members. As a result, the remaining two, Naoki and Kenta, provided a change from the frenetic pace of the rest of the event by producing a deep electronic jam from a bank of synthesisers, effectors and a CDJ.

From the northern borders of this informal musical state came Gunma’s Sarushibai. I’d hung out with vocalist Furukawa during the last stage of my trip, and onstage he’s such a tightly wound ball of furious energy it’s not really a surprise that all photos of him tend to come out looking kind of the same: a scrunched up, screaming face lurching towards the crowd.

Also on the bill were Chifs, who brought something a little more cerebral and mathy to the bill, but it was really closing act Rebel One Excalibur who embodied everything.

I’d met up with drummer Takahiro in Koriyama, in Fukushima Prefecture, and his band was another one I’d been wanting to see for ages. I’d enjoyed their album when it first came out, but seeing them finally they are a truly incredible live band. The combination of borderline emo explosions of tortured screams and moments of barely restrained, claustrophobic, krautish minimalism was electric, and the delivery was so tight, the performance so geekishly cool gave the whole thing the impression of a band just coming into full command of their powers. And they have the best band name in rock.

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