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A Primer on Japan's Strange, Fantastic Musical Exports

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This Friday, March 27, the Japan Nite! tour comes to the Hi-Dive featuring Tsushimamire, QUORUM, The fin. and mothercoat, representing a small sliver of what underground music in the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer. Over the years, several Japanese bands have found a larger following, or in the case of a few, a cult following long after the projects proper have disbanded, in the English speaking world. Not so long ago you could look for albums by many of these artists in a Japanese record store with no success, but in recent years Boris and Mono haven't been difficult to find on the shelves even on the island of Okinawa. What follows is by no means an exhaustive A to Z list of bands that have enjoyed popularity in the USA and elsewhere but who have also had their influence on American artists. Yoko Ono is not included here because most of her groundbreaking work was done while living outside of Japan.

30. Acid Mothers Temple
Clearly inspired by Hawkwind but also contributing fascinating refinements of that sound to the art form, these psychedelic travelers regularly tour the USA and will be playing at the Hi-Dive on Saturday, April 25th.

29. Babymetal
This all female metal band has garnered more than its fair share of Internet fame as a bit of a novelty act. Although combining metal with J-pop was inevitable, this band can shred with the best of them.

28. Boredoms / OOIOO / Yamataka Eye
In the beginning Boredoms might sound a bit like the Japanese Butthole Surfers but as the band has evolved it has explored different styles and sounds and has pushed the art of percussion into extreme directions. Toshimi P-we and Yamataka Eye have also pursued projects outside the band including OOIOO and all are worth checking out.

27. Boris
This band has pretty much most styles of heavy music across its career, but is perhaps most well-known for its truly unique blend of metal and psychedelia.

26. Cornelius.
America had Elephant 6 for a brilliant re-imagining of psychedelic pop with experimental flourishes, Japan gave us Cornelius.

25. Dir En Grey
Though it started as a visual kei band, these merchants of an impossibly to sub-classify metal band has since dropped the costumes and produced some of the more adventurous commercial metal out of Japan since 1997.

24. DMBQ
Dynamite Masters Blues Quartet was doing a strange version of heavy psychedelic blues rock in the late '80s and 1990s before it became popular again in the 2000s.

23. Flower Travellin' Band
Mixing metal, psych and prog in the late '60s, these guys became legends and an influence on most modern heavy psych bands. Though it broke up in 1973, FTB had a brief reunion run from 2007 to 2011 when charismatic lead vocalist Joe Yamanaka tragically died from lung cancer at age 64.

22. Fushitsusha / Keiji Haino
Influenced by krautrock, this psychedelic and noise band has been a major influence on Japanese bands as well as Western groups into the more forward thinking psychedelic music. Guitarist Haino has also been an active collaborator with artists across a wide spectrum of experimental music and is a living legend in his own right beyond the band.

21. Ghost
A perfect blend of psych, folk and space rock, Ghost were rebels in their home country living as drifters that performed in temple ruins and relatively inactive subway stations in the Tokyo area. Though disbanding after thirty years of existence, Ghost firmly established itself as one of the most influential of modern psychedelic bands.

20. Gito Gito Hustler
This ferocious all-female punk band started in 1995 and is often referenced as a riot grrrl group.

19. Guitar Wolf
The Ramones took the '60s girl group aesthetic and gave it more of a rock and roll edge. Guitar Wolf took that and the unbound menace of Link Wray and pushed the music into mutated extremes to the point it's difficult to tell if it's just a rock band or some kind of inspired performance art. Doesn't matter because its wildly unbound shows are too fun for such considerations.

18. Hanatarash
Before he co-founded Boredoms, Yamataka Eye was a member of this band whose early live shows were so fraught with potential violence and danger it was banned from performing at most venues. And the titles of some of its songs are so cartoonishly offensive that they need to be seen to be believed.

17. High Rise
Named after J.G. Ballard's notorious, dystopian novel, this noise rock/psych/free jazz band had a twenty year run in which it established itself as one of the most adventurous psych bands of the era.

16. Hijokaidan
This legendary noise and improvisational group started as a performance art troupe whose shows always included transgressive elements that were at odds with the kinds of behavior not acceptable in mainstream Japanese society.

15. Incapacitants
This duo, while originally aiming at creating the kind of sound that had no direct connection to music as such or conscious thought, have nevertheless created a body of work that is compelling and not just pure noise. Check out any of their live videos and while it's not for everyone there is something nevertheless musical about this influential noise project.

14. Les Rallizes Dénudés / Hadaka no Rallizes
Often called the Japanese Velvet Underground, this psychedelic band has no official releases and even after forming in 1967 and recording music the only semi-official albums are essentially bootlegs with no sanction from the band. The band broke up in 1996 its cult following is considerable.

13. Melt-Banana
A perfect fusion of hardcore, psychedelic rock, extreme metal and noise, Melt-Banana is so energetic and confrontational live you will never forget it.

12. Merzbow
Arguably Japan's most prolific and influential noise artist whose compositions run the full range of noise from the harsh variety to tape loop manipulation and dark ambient. With over four hundred releases, it's clear Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow, has a boundless ambition to explore the outer corners of his sonic and artistic imagination.

11. Mono
This instrumental rock band is often lumped in with post-rock because anything instrumental seems to be. However, there is a coherence and song-oriental composition style to the band's music that the title of post-rock doesn't fit as neatly in the modern context.

10. Pizzicato Five
Like a lot of the best Japanese bands, this group didn't stick with a distinct genre even as it had a distinct sound. In this case something in line with 60s pop, jazz and synth pop—called in Japan Shibuya-kei. While an established style, few did it as well as Pizzicato Five.

9. Ryuichi Sakamoto
While, like Yoko Ono, almost too famous for this list of cult bands, Sakamoto's sheer breadth of musical efforts has meant he's been influential far beyond what might be assumed even after he was a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

8. Shonen Knife
Brilliantly blending punk with a critique of commercial culture, Shonen Knife became the darlings of American underground rock in the '80s. These days Shonen Knife continues to push its own envelope by exploring '70s heavy rock in the way only Shonen Knife can and make it seem fresher than its younger contemporaries.

7. Sigh
How many bands outside of Norway and Scandinavia generally can be said to have been signed by Deathlike Silence Records because it is black metal enough? Sigh may indeed be black metal, but it is also grindcore and in the last two decades has become an avant-garde metal group.

6. Speed, Glue & Shinki
Shinki Chen was considered the Japanese Jimi Hendrix and while this band isn't necessarily in the same league as Hendrix, its music has left a major imprint on the development of psychedelic rock since the 1970s.

5. Taj Mahal Travellers
Though sometimes lumped in with psychedelic music, this group was more like an experimental, early ambient group whose penchant for playing outdoor settings gave it a cult-like quality from the beginning.

4. Teengenerate
Though only around from 1993 to 1996, Teengenerate made a major impact on garage punk in the '90s and had records issued on Estrus and Sympathy For the Record Industry.

3. Thee Michelle Gun Elephant
This blues punk band garnered a great deal of popularity in garage punk circles in the '90s.

2. Yellow Magic Orchestra
Pioneers of electronic pop music, the members of YMO were early adopters of technology in crafting and executing its songs including early incorporation of sampling and drum machines. The group has been back together since 2007.

1. Zeni Geva / KK Null
Zeni Geva is yet another great and influential noise rock band whose musical roots are too diverse yet fully-synthesized to merely fit a single genre term. Guitarist KK Null had been involved with playing with Merzbow and Hanatarash before forming this band with Tatsuya Yoshida (who played in an iteration of Acid Mothers Temple) and is a respected noise and ambient artist as well.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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