The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra must be up there with one of the most fun bands I’ve ever shot. The 11-piece group mix wacky and individual costuming with quirky covers of classics songs – from traditional Maori love songs to modern pop. Combined with non-stop on-stage antics including Hawaiian dancing, flashing shoes, mobile disco balls and plenty of audience interaction, the music and performance made for a hilarious, charming, and thoroughly entertaining night in Shibuya last week.
The band will be performing in the US later this month, so go check out their website for locations and dates.
I last covered Inside Neon a couple of years ago when they had just reformed after a hiatus, which then became another hiatus and a change in line-up. However, the band are back and have been working on their latest EP “Drinking with Witches” which will be celebrating its’ release with a party at Shibuya’s Ruby Room on Friday night.
Rich actually got in touch with me at the end of last year and was talking about doing a photo shoot for the new EP, but it wasn’t until the beginning of May this year that we all got together to shoot before I left Japan for the summer. Brainstorming beforehand, Rich and I had pretty much the same ideas for the type of image we wanted for the photographs, and when I showed him the location I had stumbled upon one rain-slick night in Hammatsucho the ideas for the shoot fell into place.
Hanging around in an underpass just after sunset was quite a lot of fun, and was challenging in that I was working with pedestrians, one speed light on a flex-cable connected to my one umbrella, and with some quite fearsomely strong orange fluorescent lighting to contend with from the sides of the underpass. The walls of the underpass came out wonderfully grimy in the editing process, and gave the shoot a nice moody feel. I’d been inspired by photos I had seen of Crosses (†††), and whilst things came out a little different from that, hopefully we captured something of the gloom I was aiming for.
Check out the band’s site here: http://www.reverbnation.com/insideneon and head down to the Ruby Room this Friday night to catch them in action.
The EP will be available to download for FREE from September 26th, so be sure to check their Facebook page out as well!
For about 3 days last week I had an earworm I couldn’t get rid of. It was the guitar riff from Tyrant of Mary’s “Hate” and it refused to be dislodged by anything – not even Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” or “Let It Go” could remove it. As it happened, Tyrant of Mary were playing in Shibuya on Saturday, so I took the earworm as a sign from the universe that it was about time I got round to shooting the Tokyo-based thrash metallers.
I’ve seen Tyrant of Mary a fair few times over the past year or two, mostly when they’ve been playing with Vorchaos at Kichijoji’s Crescendo. They’re thrash style sits somewhere in 80s-90s death/thrash/speed metal to my ears and they follow the death metal habit of naming every song something dark – “Hate”, “Cockroach”, “Go to Hell”, all liberally doused with some satanic imagery . They’re everything I like about heavy metal – catchy crushing riffs, guttural screams, interminable drum assaults, and plenty of long flying hair and devil horns.
Check them out at their forthcoming shows, which you can find out more about on their website.
The first time I came across Takeshi Nakatsuka was last year when he was celebrating his Beat Communist 10th anniversary at Shibuya’s O-West with a host of other acts including Izumi Ookawara and Iga-Bang BB (see that report here) behind a huge grand piano. As opposed to that huge show, last week’s performance was an intimate and relaxed affair with about 40 or 50 people squeezing into a live space above the Batica bar in Ebisu to enjoy an evening of bossa-nova inspired tunes from Izumi, some amazing saxophone-led jazz from Shunosuke Ishikawa, and Takeshi Nakatsuka’s own brand of jazzy, swing-pop. The three acts rotated musicians in and out, each taking on a slightly different wardrobe for the sets. Takeshi-san’s own personal choice of Doraemon t-shirt was inspired by the robot-cat’s -98th birthday (the futuristic cat was/will be born on Sept. 3, 2112).
The evening ended with a big group photo downstairs in the bar:
Check out the following sets from the evening at the links below:
Thanks for the fun night!
Home Page – http://www.nakatsukatakeshi.com
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/NAKATSUKATAKESHI
Always a pleasure to shoot, and always such a variety of places to shoot in, Izumi likes to give me a little break from the rock ‘n roll and slow things down a bit. Her last show at Kichijoji’s Star Pines Cafe was very different to last week’s, with a smaller venue and warm lighting making for some nice colours.
Izumi now has a Facebook page which you can check out here: https://www.facebook.com/ookawaraizumi?fref=ts
Check out the other acts from the evening:
Shu Ishikawa had previously made an appearance earlier in the night with Takeshi Nakatsuka, dressed in a slightly French-looking blue striped top, but for the final set of the evening donned a rather dapper suit accented with a tiny gold saxophone on his lapel as the evening took a turn for the jazzier.
Backed up with a cast of talented musicians, the set was one of those where each solo was met with a round of applause from the audience and what can be only described as “jazz-face” – that little “oh!” look when someone reaches the crescendo of their solo and the rest of the band love it. I loved it.
He’s just released an album, which you can check out on his homepage (http://shumusic.net/shumusic/Home.html).
Check out the other acts from the evening:
Boomtown Fair kicked off on Friday afternoon with a slow start (it was the Friday morning after the Thursday night before after all) before things kicked up a notch or two for Gypstep bringers of fun and sunshine Molotov Jukebox on the Town Centre stage. The band’s mixture of accordion, violin, a Latin wind section and a barrel-load of energy mixed up with sultry summery vocals made for a great pick-me-up. As colourful on the eye as they are in sound, the London-based 6-piece put on a energetic show which had the crowd boogying about to tunes from their debut album “Carnival Flower” (which reached No.1 on the Amazon Latin chart).
It was the first time I’d come across them and I thoroughly enjoyed their set after I finished with my 3-song photo shoot.
They’ve not been to Japan yet, as far as I know, but maybe we can persuade them to bring some musical sunshine with them sometime?
Check out their website here: http://www.molotov-jukebox.co.uk
My apologies to bassist Tom who is missing from the gallery. You had your eyes closed in every single shot! Next time, eh?
Anyone who grew up in the UK or US during the 1990s, or was anywhere near a radio or TV for that matter, will be aware of Shaggy. The Grammy award-winning reggae dancehall singer is most famous for his early hits “Boombastic”, “It Wasn’t Me” and “Oh, Carolina”, the latter of which rates highly on the ear worm scale in my family. During the run up to his set at Boomtown, tents we walked past were full of anticipation for his show on the Friday night; “Boombastic” could be heard playing in camper vans and the general vibe suggested that at least half the festival would be there to see him perform.
Things looked a bit different that evening when the rain had created a boot-suckingly thick sludge to wade through and a lot of people were getting pretty cold and wet waiting for the show to start, but the place was still packed. I trudged through mud, ditches and hoards of expectant people to get down to the stage and stood primed for action, my camera safe under my plastic poncho as the rain battered down. I’ve never shot in the rain, so I tried wrapping my camera in a spare poncho but gave up in the end and shot through the torrent.
After the show people seemed to be quite divided about the set. The energy during the first three songs I shot was great down the front but I’m not sure how much the crowd, or Shaggy for that fact, were feeling it after that – the rain literally did put a dampener on things as both singer and crowd slipped around in the rain.
He does make for some nice photos though;)
Check out the gallery from the show below:
“There are a lot of bands who do this as a hobby,” Vorchaos guitarist Kaz says, sipping on a beer, “but we want to be famous; we want be professional.”
I’m sitting with 4 out of 5 members of Tokyo-based metal band Vorchaos in their rehearsal studio one Saturday afternoon (Fuji sent me his answers via email). We’re seated on the floor around my recorder drinking beers and discussing what the band have been up to recently, their view of the Tokyo music scene, and their recent Japan tour, which has seen them finally branch out beyond their Tokyo stomping ground. That they’ve managed to play a succession of shows as comparative unknowns and come away from them triumphant is testimony to their unique sound and unparalleled stage presence, and certainly promises bigger things for the future.
Vorchaos formed back in 2008, with guitarists Kaz and Yuzo as original members along with vocalist Jun.
“They found me while I was playing with my previous band,” says their singer who sports a shock of black hair streaked purple and white. “It was kind of the same style as Vorchaos, but with a bit more singing,” continues Jun, who cites L’Arc~en~Ciel as an early influence, and sports a vocal range veering from purgatorial growling to a rounded and powerful clean voice. Bassist Fuji and drummer Ushi complete the line-up; Ushi telling me about how they had once met through a session his dentist had invited him to and later met again while working for Geki-rock. I ask Ushi about the first gig they played together.
“It was a bit over 2 years ago at Shibuya AUBE,” he says. “We played “Ao kagirinaku”, which was in it’s ‘prototype’ phase at the time, and so at the show we ended up jamming for 7 or 8 minutes.”
“The ending was my guitar solo,” adds Kaz. “It took a pretty long time…”
“Ao kagirinaku” is one of the standout tracks on Vorchaos’ debut album “Vortex of Chaos”. Used as a prolonged jazzy interlude at live shows, the song starts off with an easy-going drum intro and builds up with warm summery-sounding guitar tones with clean vocals throughout from Jun, backed by harmonies from the rest of the band. The song builds into an upbeat and multi-layered, guitar-driven power-ballad that makes you want to wave your lighter around above your head and sway from side to side.
“Vortex of Chaos” was released last November to a sold out show at Harajuku Astro Hall. With an ambitious 15 tracks on the album, one might expect it to be a little flabby, but the album makes for a cohesive whole (glued together by Fuji’s SE’s) in which every song earns its’ place on the CD. I asked the band to tell me about some of their favorite tracks, but before that I asked Jun about the lyrics. Being a heavier band, it is easy to make the assumption that their lyrical content is doused in rivers of blood, cataclysms, and gloom, but much in keeping with metalcore bands like Killswitch Engage, Jun claims quite the opposite:
“Songs like ’Gensou DIMENSION’ are very forward-looking. It depends on the song, but in this case it was based on past experiences and how those have influenced me. There’s no war or fighting in my lyrics. Our songs are about living.”
“My favorite is ‘Chaoscore’,” Kaz replies when we move on to talk songs, speaking of the album’s opening track – an unrelenting number that brings in elements of thrash, mixed up with prolonged solos and a brilliant vocal performance from Jun, who makes his vocal lunges seem effortless. “It was the first song I wrote for the band and it’s full of hope, because at the time I was wondering who I was going to play this song with in the future”.
“’Monster’ is my favourite,” says Fuji, choosing the tribal-edged, anthemic and feisty fifth track on the album. “I like the narrative in the lyrics, and the laughing at the beginning. The song started from the title and the lyrics and song came after that. It was an interesting way of making music.”
Yuzo talks about “Technobreak”, one of my particular favourites, and a firm crowd-pleaser at live shows. It’s amped-up, anarchic and makes you want to start a circle-pit which, at 153cm, is something this writer prefers to do mentally whilst observing the carnage from afar.
“The song started from a riff I wrote,” says the band’s guitarist and visual artist. “Kaz picked up on it and the song built from there.”
“It’s thanks to him,” Kaz says, insistently pointing at Yuzo, “that the song got made.”
“Ahh, that’s so sweet and well put,” Yuzo replies, comically batting eyelids at Kaz. “Is this some kind of bromance?”
“Ha ha,” laughs Kaz. “No homo.”
Jesting aside, what does make Vorchaos’ alchemy so potent is that these 5 on-stage rock beasts get along so well. With massive onstage personas, it can feel a little at odds to find them so self-effacing and well mannered off of it, but it’s quite clear that they have a very close bond with each other and Yuzo’s artwork for the album cover reflects this by pulling in 5 strands that reflects the members and the different elements in the band. The only person who maintains that confidence off-stage is Ushi, whose time studying music in the USA cured him of the Japanese predisposition for reticence, a much needed trait for a band with their sights set high. I asked the band what they’d learned about each other from being out on the road during their tour. Ushi points at Kaz:
“He gets really talkative when he’s driving so he doesn’t fall asleep. Fuji doesn’t have a license so he’s mostly sleeping.”
“Sleeping all the time,” adds Kaz.
How’s the tour going so far?
“Our first show was in Aomori,” says Yuzo, speaking of his hometown, “and we played a metal event at a live house there. Every time I play there the show’s named ‘Volume 1’ or ‘Volume 2’, so this show was ‘Volume 44’. A lot of my guitarist friends came down to see us. We had a bit of equipment trouble but we chatted while things got sorted out. It was a really warm atmosphere.”
“Our last show was in Yokkaichi,” adds Ushi. “The show was full of new punters, as well as fans from Tokyo, so we had a good time there. Every show has been so much fun.”
I move on to talk about the band as a whole, and their place in the music scene in Tokyo. To me, Vorchaos pull in elements of prog in their timing, thrash in their guitar driven songs and lengthy solos, as well as a bit of 80s metal (Kaz cites Loudness as an influence) in their more bombastic moments, yet none of it sounds derivative. I’d say they were a heavy metal band unlike anything the current crop of more popular bands has to offer. They stick out in the scene for not trying to emulate their musical influences but by going beyond them instead. Vorchaos, however, seem a little less certain how to define themselves:
“We’re metal but we’re not metal,” says Ushi. “ We might be pop, but we’re not. We’re rock…but we’re not.”
“I feel we’re a little confused on that point, though,” Kaz adds. “I think the most important thing is to express ourselves through our atmosphere. We like to be loud, but we don’t aim to be “metal”, per se. I don’t think we need to be defined by a genre.”
The alternative music scene in Japan is woefully lacking in mainstream representation, save for bands like One OK Rock who pander MOR alt rock to packed stadium audiences. I have a feeling that this is why many “harder” bands I’ve come across seem unwilling to be defined by one genre of music for fear that this may prevent them from getting the attention they would like from prospective fans, and from the music industry. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, the Japanese pop-factory continues churning out pre-fab idol bands that cater to pedophilic peccadillos and tweenage hormones that can only thrive in the Japanese market. It’s the musical equivalent of Galapagos syndrome and as far as I can see, the only way to get ahead in rock is to allow a record company to take you and shape you to something they consider more fitting. Not a model that would suit Vorchaos, I feel.
The metal scene, meanwhile, is so underground that despite it’s size and the number of passionate people within it, it is a surprisingly disparate place to be a music fan and even more so to be a band.
“It is difficult,” agrees Kaz. “The metal scene is not so popular and there are only 3 or 4 dedicated live houses in Tokyo.”
“The metal scene is small: though there are a lot of bands, a lot of them are amateur projects,” adds Ushi. “As for the people in the scene, there are a lot of little groups, and people tend not to socialize so much at gigs.”
“Most bands bring their friends,” continues Kaz, “and they [the fans] are not really interested in meeting new people. They gather at big gigs like Loud Park, for example, when big bands come to Japan, but there’s no close relationship between fans.”
So, what’s in the works for Vorchaos? The band have long had plans to play outside of Japan, and with one Korean show under their belts they’ve had some opportunities, but just how are they going to get there? Attracting western audiences by singing in English?
“I’d always thought I’d have to write lyrics in English since we started because we want to play abroad in the future,” says Kaz. “But, we’re a Japanese band and there are some things that can only be expressed in Japanese. We’ve made the album all in Japanese, but depending on the situation [in the future] we might sing in both.”
With bands like Crossfaith and Coldrain making huge waves outside of Japan (as well as the curious rise of pop-metal princesses Babymetal), the global rock community is looking to Japan to see what else is going to come out of a country that could be defined as the weird foreign student of the music scene – seemingly awkward and unpopular, but most likely to do something that will be the talk of the town for days. Vorchaos are a band quite unlike their contemporaries, and have a great deal of potential to take their own unique sound way beyond the confines of their home country. To do that, they need to keep up the momentum, widen their fanbase, and keep making music. When I ask about future albums (I could certainly do with another fix), Ushi smiles knowingly and says: “We’re working on it.”
Vorchaos finish their tour on July 11th at Harajuku’s Astrohall. Go check ‘em out!
Check out photos from their rehearsal in the gallery below:
You can pick up “Vortex of Choas” at Tower Records, HMV and Disk Union in Japan, as well as at live shows. For outside Japan, check out iTunes, where the album is available “earth-wide”.
Thanks to Vorchaos for always being great guys to work with, Andy Levicky and Miho Tohmatsu for help with translations, and Kate Havas for proof-reading.