Live Report

J-acts Weather the Storm at SonarSound 2013

April 17, 2013

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The Japanese artists playing Tokyo’s SonarSound festival this year had a whole host of challenges to face during the two-day event.

An offshoot of Spain’s Sonar festival, celebrating its 20thyear of existence in 2013, SonarSound typically attracts big-name international acts, which was once again the case this year as veterans like LFO, Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot and Karl Hyde of Underworld joined rising acts Nicolas Jaar, Actress and John Talabot at the massive club ageHa. Yet they also had to content with the elements – the Saturday-night portion of the fest featured heavy winds and a deluge of rain. At one point, half the food court was flooded, making the simple task of buying a pita sandwich an endeavor.

Despite challenges, both sonic and Mother-Earth-related, most of the Japanese acts at SonarSound impressed by playing to their strengths. Some even benefitted from the weather, both the late-night rainstorm and Sunday’s sunny afternoon. More over, SonarSound showed how diverse Japan’s current wave of electronic musicians is, and just how strong this strain of music is in the country today.

DJ Sarasa

Many of the Japanese performers Saturday night performed at the SonarLab stage, an outdoor area complete with a pool. The rain, though, made it a less than desirable location, with those braving the elements huddled under awnings or inside (save for a few brave, poncho-clad souls dancing in the downpour). DJ Sarasa tried to get the party going with an upbeat set of hip-hop-leaning songs, and did an admirable job considering the conditions. Later, agraph and Madegg played headier sets, the latter’s clitter-clattering percussion sounded excellent, but wasn’t built for dancing in the rain.

Yet one Tokyo artist benefited from the storm. Sapphire Slows went on during the worst stretch of the storm, and played to a small crowd. But her music fit the mood perfectly – her set jumped between the dance-inspired tracks from her debut EP and new songs set to appear on her forthcoming LP, which sounded poppier and featured her voice more prominently. Yet all her tracks feature an unsettling edge provided by her synths, which swirl about and suck her vocals into the mix, turning them unintelligible. Her tune “Animal Dreams” with its menacing strut sounded like a natural fit for the rainy conditions.

Sapphire Slows

Things took a turn for the brighter Sunday afternoon, when Kobe’s tofubeats took to the SonarLab stage. The warmer weather bolstered his hip-hop-heavy set (vocal samples included a deep-voiced “with a cup of lean”) and helped him draw a sizeable crowd. His original tracks tended to either revolve around pre-recorded raps from various Japanese MCs or sliced-up vocals fired off in quick succession. “Killing Me Softly” won the crowd over via thinly sliced singing dashing alongside horn blurts.

Despite the previous night’s deluge, the second day did get a little bit too warm – Hiroaki OBA played the weekend’s first set inside the Red-Bull-sponsored SonarDome, and his music sounded perfectly pleasant, but the heat lamps inside the small space were turned up high enough to make the Dome feel like a sauna. Whoever manned the heat learned their lesson as SonarSound unfolded, as Sunday performances by Sauce81 and Yoshi Horikawa saw a better turnout. Horikawa especially did well, mixing hard-hitting beats with organic touches, such as sound effects incorporating birds and water.

Horikawa let his music get all the attention, but other acts Sunday placed equal emphasis on visuals. Shiro Takatani’s Chroma performance matched clamoring, and at times harsh, beats against an impressive rush of visuals projected against aheHa’s wall. Down the hall, fidgety producer Fragment teamed up with Keikoutou Band, a collective who operated four flashing poles while music plays, matching the lightshow to the sound.

Similarly relying on what people could see were the two Japanese bands playing the big stage Sunday afternoon. Toe seemed the most out of place at SonarSound, as they played tight rock music that didn’t match up sonically with the electronic music dominating the fest. The fans didn’t mind though, as they danced along to the intricately layered songs. Right after them were Tokyo trio Nisennenmondai, whose instrumental slowburners were more in touch with dance music – they relied on lots of repetition, slowly adding and altering elements as they blazed forward.

Shiro Takantani: Chroma

The highlight, though, of SonarSound 2013 was the Day Tripper Records showcase at the SonarComplex Saturday night. The fledgling Osaka-based label has released music from some of the most forward-thinking young artists in the country day, and the majority of them took the stage Saturday (Madegg also releases material on Day Tripper, but played a different stage). Stylistically, Day Tripper covers a lot of ground – openers doopiio played high-energy music bursting with chipmunked vocals, Artie Lange samples and what sounded like a mutated version of Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Ogiyy followed them up with a more chilled-out, hip-hop vibe, and then Osaka’s Magical Mistakes won the crowd over by bringing a psychedelic edge to his beat music, and also through his technique and the way he appeared to get lost in the sounds he was creating.

The two best acts came a little later, and were both displays of an artist expressing themselves through their sound. Kyoto’s Eadonmm initially cleared the dance floor with his music, a claustrophobic sound powered by bass less appropriate for dancing and more for opening up a portal to hell. Backed by images of fires burning and people wearing animal masks torturing a poor woman, Eadonmm crafted a set designed to give you nightmares. It was hypnotic, terrifying and fantastic, and eventually people were drawn back to be sucked into the vortex.

Osaka’s Seiho, meanwhile, played a far more uptempo set, loaded with digitally manipulated vocals and cartoon sound effects. Seiho was pure showman, throwing his hands up in the air and mouthing along to the snippets of words in his music, urging the enthusiastic crowd to join along. Whereas many of the DJs at SonarSound took a more toned-down approach to their showmanship, Seiho acted like a ringleader showcasing wonky and sexy electronic music. It culminated in the song “I Feel RAVE,” an ecstatic track that had most on the floor jumping all around. Nobody minded the bad weather outside any longer, and were free to just lose it.