Shoegaze – it’s a relatively misunderstood genre of rock, reaching a high popularity in the U.K. and U.S. during the early ’90s, thanks to bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Slowdive, Ride and Catherine Wheel. These bands were well known for mixing layers and layers of guitars and distortion over melodic compositions and obscured vocals — the vocals actually serving as an instrument in and of themselves. The name of the genre itself comes from live performances where the bands would often be found playing with countless distortion pedals, so in effect, gazing at their shoes the whole night.
Unfortunately, Shoegaze’s reign didn’t last very long at all, as a new movement known as grunge toppled it quickly. Some bands folded while others went in other directions, and it seemed very few held on to their original identity. However, towards the end of the ’90s and into the new millennium, a good number of underground young rockers in Japan took up the legacy of the shoegazers before them, with quite a few rivaling the best of the early ’90s bands with their own unique sounds.
Here you’ll see just a small sampling of some of Japan’s top shoegazers, and while most of them haven’t yet broken into the mainstream, they’ve left their mark on the Japanese indie scene and some have even gotten record deals and toured in North America, leaving the future bright for bigger success.
In 2000, Hartfield was formed by vocalist/guitarist Takateru Kagawa and guitarist Yukari Tanaka. After selling out shows in small clubs around Tokyo, they were eventually signed to a label and appeared on a compilation CD put out by the label, which attracted a lot of buzz.
It wasn’t until 2003, however, that the band’s first full-length album “True Color, True Lie” debuted. The album is full of beautiful melodies with glittering guitars and psychedelic distortion accompanied by breathy vocals. Tanaka’s airy female backing vocals were a great contrast to Kagawa’s voice. However, the greatest part about this band was the swirling guitars. There was quite a level of musicianship present there, with the guitars seeming to duel often and some flawless guitar solos being added to the mix. Hartfield were masters at being able to blend pop sensibilities with the harsher edge of shoegaze, always having an upbeat feeling in their songs.
2004 saw the band release a more commercially successful EP, “L.I.B.R.A.,” featuring the band’s first (and only) two music videos. In the spring of 2005, the band’s drummer and bassist left, leaving only the two original members who continued to tour with support musicians, including a tour of the United States in 2006.
Upon returning to Japan that year, the band tried to move to a new label to release their future albums, but things appeared to fall through with the band deciding to go on hiatus, on which they remain to this day. Fans still hold out hope that one day the band will reunite to release another full length album.
Stand-out songs: She Bangs, Today Forever, True Color, Girl Like You
Often referred to as the “Radiohead of Japan,” it’s hard to put this band into any one specific genre. Supercar has dabbled in everything from power-pop anthems to electronica — and of course, shoegaze.
The band formed in 1995 after bassist Miki Furukawa placed an ad in a local newspaper seeking fellow musicians. Soon the remaining three members enlisted and in 1997, they released their debut album, “Three Out Change.”
During the early part of Supercar’s career, the band was very prolific, releasing four albums in three years. Those first few albums were where the band played rock before they switched to more experimental music making, following in the steps of Radiohead. This early time period featured walls of noise with fuzzy guitars and grooving bass with upbeat composition. Songwriter and lead vocalist Koji Nakamura had a penchant for writing catchy songs, which would often be drenched in the crunchiest of guitars, readily apparent on songs like “U”, where the vocals would be all but obscured.
However, even through the noise, beautiful melodies were still able to make themselves apparent. Again, this was another band featuring a male/female combo of vocals with Furukawa’s soothing voice lying beneath, the perfect complement to Nakamura’s more pronounced vocals. Supercar would go on to become gods of Japan’s indie rock scene before going their separate ways to pursue solo efforts in 2005. The band left a strong mark on many up-and-coming artists though with current popular acts like Asian Kung-Fu Generation and Base Ball Bear citing them as major influences.
Stand-out tracks: Skyphone Speaker, U, Desperado, Cream Soda
Hisako Tabuchi, the founder, guitarist, and vocalist of toddle, was no stranger to the Japanese music scene when she formed the band in 2002. An integral part of popular indie noise-rockers Number Girl, Tabuchi found herself without a musical outlet when the band broke up in 2002.
This period of inactivity was short lived, with toddle forming by the end of the year, and soon after that Tabuchi joined veteran indie band Bloodthirsty Butchers as their lead guitarist. This put plans for toddle on hold for a while, but the band released their first album, “I Dedicate D-Chord”, in 2005, and then a follow-up in 2007, featuring Luminous Orange’s interim bassist, Ezaki Noritoshi. The sound of the band was always rather raw, but the instrumentation was spot-on and exuded a masterful air. On the outside, Tabuchi looks like the most unassuming guitar player to ever take a stage — but the girl can shred with the best of them.
In addition to her technical prowess, Tabuchi writes sweet melodies to go along with the fluctuating guitar sounds; at times upbeat with a more poppy feel, and others with a wall of noise from several layers of guitars which would encompass the listener’s ears, a byproduct perhaps of her Number Girl days.
The best part is that this duality of sounds would often happen within the same song, switching back and forth, almost asking for the repeat button to be hit once the song ended, so as to let every note and chord change that blew by sink in. While Tabuchi has been focusing more on working with Bloodthirsty Butchers in recent years, she still makes time for toddle when she can, with the band visiting the U.S. for the SXSW (South by Southwest) festival in 2008 and 2009. .
Stand-out Songs: Sack Dress, Ode to Joy, Dawn Praise the World, Wanderlust
This is a band that truly embodies everything that is shoegaze; it stands at the forefront of the Japanese scene and has actually been around since the genre hit its peak in the early ’90s. They’re still making music today.
Luminous Orange was formed in 1992 by singer/songwriter/guitarist Rie Takeuchi, and after several line-up changes over the years, the Luminous Orange moniker was officially adopted as Takeuchi’s solo project in 2002. This has led to a number of high-profile guest musicians appearing on the band’s records, including ex-Number Girl and current Zazen Boys drummer Ahito Inazawa, and Ian Masters, former frontman for U.K. shoegaze giant, Pale Saints.
Takeuchi composes beautiful melodies and makes great use of layering the guitars to achieve the desired sound. Her shimmering vocals only add to the beauty with her songs never being depressing; they always are buoyant and full of life. Most times, her velvety voice is nearly indecipherable behind the wall of sound, but the melodies and harmonies still break through, leaving the listener entranced.
The band has released six full studio albums and several EPs with their latest album, “Songs of Innocence,” just released this past June. The new album only proved that Takeuchi is just as on top of her game as ever, with some of the best compositions of her career on the record, featuring myriads of guitars and enchanting distortions. Takeuchi has brought the band stateside several times, particularly SXSW several times in Austin, Texas, and released 2008’s “Sakura Swirl” on an American label as well as most of the band’s discography on the U.S. iTunes store.
Takeuchi and Luminous Orange show no signs of slowing down, with shows scheduled across Japan for the end of 2010, and it’s still Takeuchi’s hope that she’ll return to the United States to tour.
Stand-out songs: Untold, Walkblind, Starquake, How High
It is somewhat ironic that the only band in this article with a specifically Japanese name is based in New York. They still fit into the category of Japanese shoegazers though as they’re a very unique band in the indie rock world.
The band, formed in 2001, consists of vocalist and keyboardist Yuki Chikudate and guitarist James Hanna, with the rest of the band comprised of session and touring musicians. What makes the band unique is Chikudate singing in both English and Japanese, usually about the same amount of each language on each album.
Their first two albums are the epitome of shoegaze; dreamy, often obscured female vocals over countless layers of swirling, distorted guitars. Chikudate and Hanna write the sweetest of melodies, and the earlier records often make use of the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, seen on songs like “Sooner” and “Strawberries.”
Their second album, 2006’s “Citrus,” met much critical success, with three of the songs being used on British television show “Skins,” and the album was near the top of several indie music blogs and publications lists for the year’s best album.
Their follow-up, 2009’s Hush, saw a more calm and subdued side of the band, with the more aggressive guitars taking a bit of a backseat to a more dream pop feel, but the band never lost their excellent sense of melody. The band is still touring presently, and it was recently announced that their fourth studio album is in the works, entitled “Fluorescence.” The new album drops Feb. 15, 2011, and if the first single “Trails” is any indication, the album may be a return to the band’s earlier sound, with crunchy guitars and ethereal keyboards present front and center.
Stand-out songs: Strawberries, Thursday, Sooner, Me & Mary.
Article by: Nick L.