Documenting the free sounds of Japan’s Heisei era: Japanese Leftfield Pop from the CD age (1989-1996)

Already on their second release of 2021, Music from Memory has this time teamed up with two renowned Osaka-based record store owners, bringing forth a selection of forgotten Japanese songs under the enticingly vague ‘leftfield pop’ umbrella. Due to the quality of the label’s previous compilation releases this one had big boots to fill, but, as always, it is what we could have hoped for and more.

Heisei No Oto – Japanese Left-field Pop From The CD Age (1989-1996)

Featuring prolific, influential artists such as Haroumi Hosono, Yasuaki Shimizu and J-Pop stalwart Yosui Inoue alongside lesser known but equally innovative musicians and producers, Heisei No Oto – Japanese Leftfield Pop from the CD age (1989-1996) assembles 16 tracks (with an added bonus track on the CD), tracing an integral but sadly often neglected part of the evolution of new wave, ambient, jazz and contemporary music in Japan. It captures an incredible insight into just how differently each artist worked towards shaping the term left-field pop, with so many individuals inadvertently creating their own visionary new sound along the way. 

These are unprecedented times for Japanese music from the post-war era. Consciously or not, many pioneering artists from Japan were attempting to fuse foreign Western influences with a distinctively Japanese sound, ultimately laying foundations that would endure for decades to come.

“To me, it feels as if we are in the midst of a wider global popularization of Japanese music” Chee Shimizu of Organic Music, Tokyo, explains in the album’s liner notes (check out his stunning NTS shows if you haven’t already got to know).

Organic Music, Tokyo w/Chee shimizu on NTS Radio

Indeed, with the help of reissues, YouTube algorithms and the vinyl resurgence, various incarnations of the Japanese underground have gained popular exposure throughout the world in recent years. However, increasing demand brings about diminishing supply, and before you know it you’re looking at Discogs only able to dream about owning these unaffordable gems. Thankfully, Music From Memory is here to help put a stop to these increasingly common disappointments. 

Two individuals close to the Music from Memory family unwittingly helped build up this level of exposure to Western listeners. Eiji Taniguchi [Revelation Time] and Norio Sato [Rare Groove] are familiar faces to those searching for as-yet unimagined sounds in their respective record stores.

In this compilation the two seasoned diggers turn their attention away from the vinyl crates and toward the dusty CD boxes, cracking open a treasure trove of discovery.

Norio Sato of Rare Groove swaps migrates from vinyl to CD in Heisei No Oto

All tracks in the compilation were originally released between 1989 and 1996, the former marking two significant changes. Firstly, it was the year the Compact Disc superseded vinyl as the dominant format across the globe; secondly, and perhaps more significantly for Japan as a whole, it marked the beginning of Emperor Akihito’s reign, designated the ‘Heisei’ (or ‘achieving peace’) era.

After hearing the expertly compiled obscurities reissued on this compilation, it is clear that the period was one of free-flowing ideas evolved from creative listening and a delight for mixing eclectic sounds and rhythms, to both dissonant and complementary effect.

Revelation Time record store, Osaka, where Eiji Taniguchi can be found

After commencing with a breezily uplifting track from Jun Sato that dabbles in the realms of new age, the 4 tracks that make up the A side take us steadily on an introductory journey of deep-breathing electronica, replete with delicately tasteful drum-machine programming, each track weaving a unique thread of otherworldliness.

Global Communications-esque pads and elevating sweeps lead us through ‘Miko’ by Fumihiro Murakami, a youthful voice inviting you to dance above the evolving sea of electronic flutes and vocals. Haroumi Hosono leads the voices of Love, Peace & Trance in ‘Yeleen’, sending you out on a spiritual meditation, guided by a calming higher force and enveloping you in the tribal essence of nightfall. Gathering your thoughts in the morning afterglow is ‘Stop Me’, an organic layering of percussive elements topped with a bubbling jacuzzi of playful scrapes and bells.

Monumental musician Haroumi Hosono inhabited fleeting 90s genre-bending band Love, Peace & Trance, flanked by Mimori Yusa, Miyako Koda, Mishio Ogawa

Ahead of her time, Ichiko Hashimoto’s track ‘L’ete’ (or ‘Summer’) brings a subtle element of divinity in a nostalgic moment of warmth, followed by another tasteful Hosono arrangement in Yosui Inoue’s catchy ‘Pi Po Pa’, where we are taken back to the pre-affordable Nokia days with fun vocalisations that represent ‘the phonetic sound of a push-button phone’.

‘Phlanged Vortex’ seems to pull you into a whirlwind as the title suggests, eventually climaxing with the help of a very well-disguised saxophone and its feathered friends. The very same saxophonist, Yasuaki Shimizu (of Mariah) produces the gentle voice of Kina Tomoko in the next track, where you can hear the traditional Japanese folk influence of her musical upbringing.

Ichiki Hashimoto is a Tokyo-born jazz pianist and composer

As with most of the tracks, you really do not know what ideas the selected artists will bring from one track to the next, and Disc 2 expands the scope of genres even further, beginning with a strong, theatrical piece of jazz fusion-cum-new age-cum-expansive storytelling masterpiece from Adi.

The next instrumental track ‘Night in Aracaju’ is a tightly woven ensemble of drums and glittery guitars, reflecting a night sky without a cloud in sight. However, there is something disconcerting about the surreal nature of POiSON GiRL FRiEND’s ‘Nobody’, and beneath the crystalline perfection of her breathy voice seems to lie some kind of paranoid dust. Meanwhile hallucinogenic inflections of warbling electronics sit playfully under Noriko’s love song. Moving somewhat closer to the realms of dance music, Dream Dolphin gifts us with a mood-boosting exotic house track.

Dream Dolphin’s Take No Michi

More fusion experiments follow from musician and dance music critic Keisuke Sakurai, stirring together funky basslines, ritualistic incantations, house elements and choral chanting. We then get a taste of something that could be described as poolside music from Hiroki Ishiguro. This soft-serve flavoured track, led by pitch bent chords that lap like waves on a shore, take inspiration from the sea during his stay in Thailand.

Hiroki Ishiguro‘s Unity

An indigenous chorus takes us into the penultimate song and the first sign of breaks in a world-infused song, ‘Mermaid’, as this journey through Japan’s CD era comes to an end. The final closing track, ‘Retro Electric’ leads us out the back door with an awe-inspiring fusion of traditional Japanese instruments and drums, celestial pads, and a fictional character portrayed by the lead violin. Extraordinary energy and beauty to close 16 very difficult to describe genre-bending tracks.

Although it seems the compilation takes us through one large and complex narrative, each cut tells a unique story of an artist consciously or subconsciously creating a totally unique world of their own.

Thank you Eiji and Norio.

Access the compilation via the Bandcamp link here.

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