Must-Hear Japanese Bands, Vol. 1 (A to L)

Why does one, residing in 8522 km away from Japan, decide to put together a list on some alternative Japanese bands?

Here comes the first hint: “This is like nothing I have heard in quite some time.”

It’s the typical reaction I get every time I introduce some of the bands available on this list to my friends with a similar taste.

As far as instrumental/experimental/math/post-rock scenes are concerned, I can’t agree more with them and I’ll pull no punches here. The Japanese do almost everything musically so much better than their scene-mates in Europe and the Americas in various aspects: creativity in composition, diversification of sound, instrumental dexterity, or audio and video production skills. Many Japanese bands have for years not only been experimenting but creating guidelines for the future of music.
They need to be heard by more people and that is the utmost goal of this post.

And here is the second most common feedback that made me finally sit down and get to work on this: “Sounds great, but I can’t find much info on them”.

I can’t argue with that, unfortunately. Suffice to say that unless you live in Japan or the surrounding region, it is sometimes quite hard to get viable information on some of the Japanese bands, and more importantly, to find a place to stream or purchase their releases. That is why each band in the list has a bunch of links to their content in hopes to save some time in tracking down their music and supporting them in any way.

Bands you’ll see here come from a somewhat limited selection of musical genres. While the focus is primarily on math rock, experimental rock/metal,  instrumental post-rock/metal, and jazz fusion, you’ll also hear bits of some quality shoegaze, ambient and electronic. If those genres are up your alley, this list should keep you busy for a while.

Note that, given the large number of bands that will be covered, the post is split into two. This is the first part of of a two-volume list, and covers only bands whose names begin with the letter A to L.

Check out Volume 2 here for bands from the letter M to Z.

Finally, this is by no means an exhaustive list. With a wealth of musicians to choose from, I had to narrow it down to come up with a list of Japanese bands I dig the most.  So if you don’t see your favorite bands here,  do mention them in the comments below.

Here we go, presented in alphabetical order:

3ND

3nd (三度; sando) , meaning “three times” in Japanese, was a Tokyo-based instrumental math/post-rock band formed in 2001. Too bad they’ve been on hiatus since 2012, but their music is too notable to ignore for the purposes of this list. Lots of diversity, catchy guitar riffs, and pummeling drums, but above all, what sets 3nd apart from other Japanese instrumental math-rock bands is the pulsing bass work of Yuma Hiraizumi. Do you have friends who don’t appreciate how important the bass can be in a band? Introduce them to 3nd.

TAGS: Math rock, Post-rock, Instrumental, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Itunes || Bandcamp || Bandcamp (2) || Facebook

A PICTURE OF HER

Here is what the love child of American Football and Ghosts & Vodka would sound like. A four-piece band, formed in Tokyo in the year 2004, A Picture of Her are the perfect blend of math rock, post-rock and emo. They released an EP in 2009 and earned some local buzz, followed by an album in 2013 titled “C”, which was recorded, mixed and mastered by Takaaki Mino of the reputable Japanese band toe. Their music is laid out in a storytelling fashion and flows effortlessly—at times nostalgic and reflective, and at times colorful and expectant.

TAGS: Post-rock, Math rock, Emo, Indie rock, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Itunes || Merch || Facebook || Twitter

ABOUT TESS

A mind-boggling instrumental band with two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers. Although widely associated with math rock, it would be unjust to package this band’s sound into one category. Tasty djent-inspired guitar riffs, jazzy bass lines, and powerful drumming all mesh into something unique. Their boundless musical imagination and dynamic sound might leave you spellbound.

TAGS: Math rock, Post-rock, Experimental, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Soundcloud || Youtube || Itunes || Facebook || Twitter

ANOICE

Anoice is a Tokyo-based neoclassical/ambient band formed in 2004 by a bunch of multi-instrumentalists, who are also playing in some other projects like RiLF, Matryoshka and Films. Through a good number of albums and EPs, the band has consistently created a sound that is dense and heartfelt. Not your typical band to listen to in the shiny summer days, yet flawless company when you’re in a contemplative mood.

TAGS: Ambient, Piano, Neoclassical, Instrumental, Cinematic, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Soundcloud || Facebook || Twitter

ARCHAIQUE SMILE

I’ll go ahead and start with what needs to be said first: yes, they do sound like the Japanese post-rock titans, Mono. Pretty much so. But interestingly enough, they sound at least as good as, if not better than, Mono’s recent output. Their 2013 debut full-length “On the Eternal Boundary” is a roller coaster of deep emotions. The production is solid, and their orchestral composition is quite captivating. Archaique Smile isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but they still present one of the finest displays of the characteristic post-rock sound with their debut. I can’t wait to hear what’s next to come from them.

TAGS: Post-rock, Instrumental, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Facebook

BORIS

Unconventional is the closest word to accurately describe what Boris has been about. It’s been 20 years since this mindblowing experimental metal trio released their debut studio album “Absolutego”, and for all these years they’ve not settled for anything other than pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable in music.

Throughout their career, the band has played in so many different styles—mostly varieties of rock and metal (doom, sludge, stoner, noise, post), but also drone, ambient, shoegaze, and even electropop—which makes it difficult for newcomers to approach their vast catalog (Spend some time on the albums “Flood”, “Pink”, and “Attention Please” respectively and you’ll see). But, looking back on their musical decisions and journey, here is what Boris would probably have to say on that, and that is what I like about them.

With 22 studio albums, 6 live albums, 13 split recordings, and an equally long history of collaborations (notably with Japanese noise pioneer Merzbow, among others) to their name, you’ve probably heard of Boris at some point if you’re into metal or other heavy music. If they’ve slipped your mind or fell somewhere under your radar, this is another chance to hear some of the most alien, monstrous music created.

Hint

TAGS: Experimental, Progressive metal, Sludge, Drone, Stoner rock, Shoegaze, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Facebook || Twitter

CLOUD NINE(9)

Formed in 2014, Osaka-based instrumental math-rock band Cloud Nine(9) has so far released 3 EPs, as well as a 12-track LP this year. Their allure lies in transforming seemingly complex compositions into songs that are very organic, fresh and flow naturally. Their intricate guitar work needs a special mention. The chemistry and synchrony among their guitarists is one of a kind you won’t hear in most bands today.

TAGS: Math rock, Instrumental, Post-rock, Osaka
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Bandcamp (2) || Twitter

DECEMBER

Hailing from Tokyo, December is an instrumental post-rock band that has been around since 2008, with several line-up changes up until today. After releasing a LP and 2 EPs, the band released their first full-length album, “Alpha and Omega”, on 10th February, 2016. With December’s dreamy and mellow post-rock passages of clean guitars accompanied with beautiful layers of strings, you will easily find yourself reminiscing on distant nostalgic memories.

TAGS: Post-rock, Instrumental, Ambient, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Bandcamp || Soundcloud || Itunes || Youtube || Facebook

DOWNY (ダウニー)

Distortion-laden guitar walls, crashing drum cymbals, springy keyboard riffs, a healthy dose of electronic samples, and the haunting vocals of Robin Aoki all coalesce into a wonderful sound, leading to the band being dubbed as “Japan’s Radiohead” by many. Check them out and decide for yourselves.

TAGS: Progressive rock, Experimental, Post-rock
MORE INFO: Website || Youtube || Itunes || Facebook

ENVY

One of the most celebrated bands in the post-hardcore scene in Japan, and deservedly so, Envy has been around since 1992 and accomplished so much within their existence. Taking influence from bands like Agnostic Front, Sick Of It All, and Gauze in their early years, they delivered a solid hardcore sound led by raging vocals from Tetsuya Fukagawa. Over the years, they expanded their sound to include elements of post-rock/metal. The outcome was delightful, and played an important role in the international attention Envy garnered. The band released splits with bands like Jesu and This Machine Kills and also toured with Mogwai, Isis, Touché Amoré, And So I Watch You From Afar, and many more.

The band issued a statement on April 1 this year announcing that Fukugawa parted ways with the band, a decision understandably met with surprise and sorrow by many fans.

What astonishes me most about Envy is how they can combine aggression and vulnerability in such a perfect way. No kidding: these gentlemen are the masters of emotional music. If you still haven’t heard of them, start with the albums “Insomniac Doze” or “Abyssal” and be ready to go through all kinds of heart-wrenching emotions.

Trivia (for post-rock nerds)

TAGS: Hardcore, Post-hardcore, Progressive metal, Post-rock, Post-metal, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Bandcamp || Facebook || Twitter

FILMS

Films is a Tokyo-based dark neo-classical band, driven by the virtuosity of prolific composers Yuki Murata and Takahiro Kido. With ethereal vocals layered over beautiful piano and string arrangements, Films creates an absolutely otherworldly atmosphere. No wonder they are named Films, as they remind you of the kind of soundtracks that are way better than the movie.

TAGS: Ambient, Piano, Neoclassical, Cinematic, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Soundcloud || Facebook

FOX CAPTURE PLAN

This instrumental trio depicts the possibilities of piano, double bass and drums with their huge imaginations and splendid technicality. Their jazz fusion sound is simply incredible, even to ears with little familiarity with the label (tested and approved!). Every member is a master on their instrument, and the collaborative outcome is rhythmic, catchy and quirky. Given their prolific record of 4 albums, 2 EPs, and a split EP in only five years since their formation, expect bigger things from this band in the near future.

TAGS: Jazz fusion, Math rock, Instrumental, Piano, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Itunes || Youtube || Facebook || Twitter

HAISUINONASA (ハイスイノナサ)

I didn’t know how to feel about their sound the first time I listened to Haisuinonasa. After multiple listens to their work (which really grew on me in time), I came to suspect it was because the band’s sound draws influence from a vast array of genres—to the extent that it really took a while to absorb and acknowledge what I heard. This “wide range” remark , should really be reserved for bands like Haisuinonasa (and Boris covered above). When you delve into their discography, you’ll notice their knack of bringing in elements of prog-rock, jazz fusion, dream pop, math-y post-rock, electronica and more to their music.

The band has been around since 2004 and shared the stage with bands like Do Make Say Think and This Town Needs Guns. Offering seductive vocals sprinkled over syncopated rhythms and diverse instrumentation, Haisuinonasa takes you on one hell of a trip.

TAGS: Alternative, Progressive rock, Electronic, Math rock, Post-rock, Jazz fusion
MORE INFO: Website || Itunes || Facebook || Twitter

HEAVEN IN HER ARMS

Fans of Deafheaven and Envy should take note of this five-piece progressive hardcore band from Tokyo. Heaven in Her Arms’ incredibly heavy guitars and punchy drums polished with screeching vocals address the innermost of your raw emotions and animal instincts. If you’re a starter, the sophomore album “Paraselene” showcases every strength of the group.

TAGS: Hardcore, Post-hardcore, Post-metal, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Soundcloud || Facebook || Twitter

HOW TO COUNT ONE TO TEN

How To Count One To Ten is a Tokyo-based five-piece delivering intelligent and accessible math rock. Finding a math rock band in Japan is like stumbling upon a startup in Silicon Valley—no doubt about that. What makes this band stand out among its peers, though, is their exceptionally fresh sound using no effects. They pull off delivering this gentle, soothing, and upbeat sound without losing their creativity. Definitely worth checking out for any instrumental math and post-rock listener.

TAGS: Math rock, Post-rock, Instrumental, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Soundcloud || Itunes || Facebook

JIZUE

I hope more people will come across this miraculous band, and their holy sound will spread throughout the world, opening individuals and nations to the practice of wicked cool music. Amen.

Celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, this Kyoto-based quartet has always been dancing on the boundary between math/post-rock and jazz. The band now has five studio albums to their name, the last of which was released in June 2016. While every member of the band plays in top form, Kie Katagi’s piano work is a showcase in itself on just about every Jizue song, and gives a great air of extra character to their music. It is also hard not to appreciate how these guys maintain such a dazzling technicality without trading off any of their music’s emotional feel. 

Trivia

TAGS: Math rock, Instrumental, Jazz fusion, Post-rock, Piano, Kyoto
MORE INFO: Website || Itunes || Facebook || Twitter

KASHIWA DAISUKE

Kashiwa Daisuke is a Hiroshima-born composer and mixing & mastering engineer currently residing in Tokyo. Having started his solo career in 2004, he offers a delightful mix of neoclassical music, post-rock, ambient and electronica. This is much more than mere background music, as Daisuke constantly crafts new worlds and unexplored soundscapes requiring the full attention of the listener.

TAGS: Electronic, Instrumental, Ambient, Neoclassical, IDM, Glitch, Post-rock
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Bandcamp (2) || Facebook || Twitter

きのこ帝国 (KINOKO TEIKOKU)

Translated as “Mushroom Empire”, Kinoko Teikoku is a solid shoegaze/dream pop quartet. Featuring delicate female vocals floating around a wall of sound from distorted and passionately played guitars, the band creates creates an array of changing moods. With their last two albums released in 2014 and 2015, which I never could get into, Kinoko Teikoku has shifted to a much more poppy sound at the expense of the shoegazey elements. Therefore, my recommentation for a good starting point would be either their debut album “eureka” or “ロンググッドバイ” EP, both released in 2013.

TAGS: Shoegaze, Dream pop
MORE INFO: Website || Itunes || Facebook || Twitter

虚弱。(KYOJAKU.)

What a ridiculously stellar band Kyojaku. is! This Japanese all-female math/post-rock quartet was formed in November 2008, when all its members were around 20 years old. I’m not sure if they disbanded or are still in the business, as they shut down their website a while ago, and their last online presence on Twitter was in 2014.

The musicianship in this band is top notch. Umi’s piano work in Kyojaku. is similar in purpose to Dave Turncrantz’ drum work for Russian Circles, and Kyojaku. has an extraordinary ability to marry seesawing guitar riffs and rapid drumming to these frolicking piano motifs. The end result is a sonic parade to drag you out of any dark place—five stars all around.

TAGS: Instrumental, Math rock, Post-rock, Piano
MORE INFO: Itunes || Twitter

LITE

Experimental rock at its best, with a chaotic-yet-accessible instrumental layout. Founded in 2003, this quartet from Tokyo have enjoyed a rapid rise in the instrumental rock scene following their 2007 sophomore release, “Filmlets”, playing at major festivals like Fuji Rock, SXSW, ArcTanGent and more. They display incredible technicality and vision to match their Japanese scene-mates, to the extent of nearly playing tricks on your mind. Take a listen below and move on with the rest of their work if you enjoy this short mind-trip.

Spoiler (on the video for “Echolocation”)

TAGS: Math rock, Experimental, Post-rock, Instrumental, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Itunes || Facebook || Twitter

LOOP POOL

A lovely band which takes a minimalist approach mostly built around appealing folk guitar riffs, clean bass and subdued drums. Highly recommended to escape the daily routine.
(How much more fun and charm can you feel in a live show than what goes on here?)

TAGS: Acoustic, Folk, Jazz, Electronic, Instrumental, Tokyo
MORE INFO: Website || Soundcloud || Youtube || Facebook || Twitter

LOP ABUSE ON SOMEBODY

Lop Abuse on Somebody showcases some of the tightest drumming that you can hope to find in a post-rock band. Its loud and powerful guitars hit as hard as a brick to the face. And most notably, assertive bass lines don’t just stand out in the band setting but take an all-out assault on your ears. If you find modern post-rock too repetitive and relying too much on the same old formula, take Lop Abuse on Somebody’s challenge to you. You may not necessarily “win”, but it will be a most welcomed and satisfying loss.

TAGS: Post-rock, Instrumental, Kansai
MORE INFO: Website || Youtube || Itunes || Facebook || Twitter

LOW-PASS

Hailing from Kyoto, Low-Pass is an instrumental math rock band with a more accentuated punk and emo touch than most of its peers covered in this list. Despite its swiftly shifting and interplaying guitars and intense drums, the band maintains a naturally flowing sound.

TAGS: Post-rock, Math rock, Emo, Instrumental, Kyoto
MORE INFO: Website || Bandcamp || Facebook
Check out Volume 2 here for bands whose names begin with the letter M to Z.
See our other staff-pick posts here.

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4 Comments

  • What? No Toe? Toe is fantastic and I believe should be on this list, I am hoping they will make Vol 2. I enjoyed and found some new music on this article so I give it a thumbs up.

    • Was waiting for an article like this! Thank you.

      @Geoff I´m sure they’ll cover Toe on the second post, remember this is in alphabetical order.

  • Great list! Some of my favorite bands on here, and can already think of many that would be on a M-Z list.

    Though maybe not a perfect fit with the list I also really recommend Bloodthirsty Butchers. Classic post-hardcore/emo/indie that were a huge influence on a lot of these bands and the entire Japanese indie scene, probably only surpassed by Number Girl (who along with Zazen Boys better be on the next list).

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