[15 July 2008]
Nisennenmondai, which refers to the Y2K bug, is the name of one of a number of Japanese girl-group noise bands that forms something of a specialised niche at home, though it’s yet to be widely recognized in the U.S. The whole Japanese noise scene, to tell the truth, is still somewhat mystifying—OK, there was Boris, then there was OOIOO (another all-girl group), but turns out there are a bunch of other groups treading similar waters that are yet to be heard of at all over here. At least we have one more now, Nisennenmondai, a group that creates stoic architectural masses of instrumental sound treading somewhere between Lightning Bolt’s noise and Neu!’s Krautrock.
Himeno Sayaka, Zaikawa Yuri and Takada Masako met at a noise club while in university in 1999, but apart from a string of self-released EPs and various hand-pressed cassettes/CD-Rs, the group has not released a proper full-length, and has been difficult to source outside of Japan. Neji/Tori is a compilation of two previous EPs that serves as a good introduction to the band’s sound; the songs are stylistically similar enough that there’s no problem in sticking them alongside one another.
While the group’s early reputation was built off of the intensity of their live performances, that’s only occasionally illustrated in this recorded material. Or, maybe that’s just because I had the volume turned down low. The closest the group comes to illustrating their wild live side may be “Kyuukohan”. For 20 seconds two minutes in they lose it completely, pummeling drums and guitars in overdriven fury. The rest of the song is an extended build-up to the second freak-out, which lasts twice as long and is deepened and made even more satisfying with waves of distortion and fuzzy, wave-like effects. In general, though, Neji/Tori finds the drums/bass/guitar trio rumbling patiently away, often refusing to crescendo across a whole song. In this the group may be more interested in texture and atmosphere than in individual songs, which is to be expected for a noise group.
Though groups like No Age, Titus Andronicus and Battles form the noise-pop landscape into which Nisennenmondai will be placed, the Japanese group is more ascetic than any of these essentially pop-oriented groups. The band’s got a song on here called “Sonic Youth” and, OK, there’s that influence going on, especially with regard to Sonic Youth’s live material, messier and more passionate than some of the recordings. But remember, these songs are messy, repetitive instrumental jams. There’s little by way of melody, and melody’s hardly the point. The hardest-hitting songs are in the five- to eight-minute length, and they fill their length with 16th-note hi-hats and distorted fuzz. “Kyuukohan”, an easy disc highlight, opens with stately, bell-like guitar strums that quickly become rattling, off-the-rails chaos.
One constant of Nisennenmondai’s sound is Zaikawa Yuri’s understated but constant bass groove. It’s here that the group earns its Can and Neu! comparisons, These riffs are often obscured by the guitar noise over the top, but provide a foundation for these songs, which helps to explain how they come to feel so solid compositionally. Though the core of the group’s sound is built off repetition, the songs are easily differentiated; for example, “Ikkkyokume” separates itself from the opening of “Kyuukohan” (though both have similar mid-tempo drum attacks) through vocal “Ah”s and a bent guitar. The band gets it especially right on what was originally Tori—the aggression seems tighter-knit, more concentrated. On the other hand, that messiness at the start (on “Pop Group” and “This Heat”), where you’re not sure if a track is beginning or ending—or disintegrating—has its own attraction.
As an introduction to Nisennenmondai, and/or a step into the shadowy world of Japanese noise music, Neji/Tori is easily a success. It’s neither overly commercial nor overly cerebral. But I guess that the true measure of the group still requires a live setting, in which three diminutive Japanese women step up and pummel your innocent ears out. That would be something to see.