3 whimsical Japanese shoegaze bands to check out

Shoegaze is a genre of music I have grown a newfound appreciation and love for after being unexpectedly exposed to its experimental sound during my explorations of J-music.

Since we have mentioned For Tracy Hyde and PLASTICZOOMS before, do not expect to see them here — because instead we have three more band recommendations that utilise the genre in some way or another, all for the pleasure of your ears!

First things first, though: what do we mean by “shoegaze”? The genre originated in the late 1980s within the UK, and is identifiable by the blurring and meshing of various sounds, such as increased volume, guitar distortion, vocal distortion, and purposely boosted feedback.

The primary words you need to identity shoegaze can be just two words: “distortion” and “blurring” of any and all sound effects. We’ll also see the idea of “dreampop” come up occasionally, as this is the softer, more atmospheric and poppy side to the otherwise loud and aggressive shoegaze sound.

Without further ado, let’s get into some recommendations of some distinctively Japanese takes on this genre!

Plastic Tree

Plastic Tree is an alternative rock and shoegaze band that formed back in 1993, but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at the eternal youth that is their vocalist, Ryutaro Arimura. Back in my heyday as a visual kei enthusiast, Plastic Tree were easily discoverable for how unique Ryutaro’s breathy and delicate vocals are. They were also immediately lovable for their tendency to theme their clothing, such as by dressing up as Tim Burton characters, or taking heavy inspiration from the circus and clowns in their early days.

But their consistent pull across the ages most definitely stems from Ryutaro’s distinctive vocals — they’re something of an acquired taste, but they make the already melodic and hypnotising music all the more enjoyable and memorable. The band are said to be influenced by Britpop outfits such as Radiohead and The Cure, and this idea is further backed up by them having covered a song of the former — their song Rira no Ki is very clearly the same melody as My Iron Lung, albeit with new lyrics.

The band have always said that they do not comfortably fit into a single type of music, and this is evident across their entire discography, as every single album combines different genres. In fact, Ryutaro has gone on record to say that he writes the songs first, and then thinks about how the music should accompany and compliment the lyrics.

While Plastic Tree have become more mainstream in recent years, they still manage to always deliver something unexpected and unusual in their new material. And the fact that they’ve managed to survive as a mostly intact lineup for well over twenty years — with the only changes being four different drummers — is particularly impressive, considering their origins as a visual kei band. Many of those groups were cursed to only function as a unit for a year or two at most — in many cases only a few months!

The band have managed to effectively evolve over time, but never lost the individuality that made them so effortlessly Pura-chan (as fans affectionally call them). This is especially helped by how poetic, imaginative and abstract their lyrics are; they’re almost always written by Ryutaro, and you should most definitely read them alongside their songs to fully understand and appreciate the emotional punches and intrigue of their works. It is thought-provoking to say the least.

And it goes without saying that their oldest works are timeless masterpieces. There’s a rough and unrefined sound to their music design during their early years as a band, with their albums “Puppet Show” (1998) and “Traumerei” (2002) really putting across a highly experimental and shoegazey sound across its tracklists. And as far as newer release recommendations go, the back-to-back album releases of “Chandelier” (2006) and “Nega to Poji” (2007) are, without a doubt, perfect albums.

Plastic Tree is a standout shoegaze band from Japan, and more should be giving their experimental sound a listen. And if you’re already familiar with the band, then I think we can all agree that even their most commercial/successful tie-in songs, such as the anime opener “Namida Drop” for Glass Fleet and opening song to the otome game Collar x Malice, “Silent Noise” are amazingly catchy, and I continue to be thankful that Plastic Tree’s reach is always expanding. They deserve every bit of attention and acclaim!

You can get a taster for their newer works on Spotify, otherwise YouTube is your friend on this one to discover almost every other bit of their discography. It’s a brilliant use of your time and energy.

The fin.

Shoegaze outfit The fin. have been around since 2012, and what originally started out as a four man band ended up being split in 2017 when its former bassist, Takayasu Taguchi left, resulting in its drummer, Kaoru Nakazawa, taking over the position as bassist. Then their guitarist, Ryosuke Odagaki, surprised everyone by leaving in 2019, leaving only Nakazawa and its lead vocalist Yuto Uchino as the remaining members of the unit. But half of its team going elsewhere did not mean that The fin. stopped succeeding. In fact, I’d say the duo unit has been thriving ever since!

“Night Time” above is probably their most well-known song, and it shows us exactly what the unit is all about: it’s an easily recognisable dance number with a heavenly, ethereal sound.

This is the first example on this list of what dream pop is, as there is a splendid meshing of melancholic joy in the soothing guitar riffs and emotionally vulnerable, craving lyrics. Their music can be best compared to that of Washed Out for their similarities in their chill synth/dream pop sound.

The band has so much international potential, as seen by their entire discography being sung in English and the fact that they’ve sold out tours in the past both inside and outside of Asia. They’ve written and recorded songs in London alongside music producers Bradley Spence and Alexander Beitzke, and with many of their latest works feature a variety of universal themes that are doubtless influenced by their frequent travel outside of Japan.

And for a band with such a strong and intriguing indie sound — once which these guys have managed to maintain and develop even after all these years — their popularity is simply not enough for my own liking.

You can catch more from them with their most recent single, Old Canvas, which was released last month, and tickets are still available for their online festival event next month.

polly

The farther we get down this list of shoegaze bands, the more obscure we go, with polly, a group who formed as a four-man band in 2012, being the most underappreciated of the lot.

I was delighted to randomly stumble across polly through their 2015 EP Blue, sometimes goodbye on iTunes years ago, and I have not looked back since. While the band’s focus was basically indie rock initially, polly have adopted a much more appealing and experimental shoegaze sound in more recent years to make them truly stand out from the indie crowd. And what a terrific move that was.

This new sound was first adopted back in 2018 with their single “Clean Clean Clean”. Their now very well established dreampop sound is completely captivating and whimsical, and their vocalist Ryoma Koshikumo’s delicate and lush tone further exudes their blissful change of pace. Not to mention the fact that Ryoma not only provides the vocal talent, but also produces some masterfully engineered remixes of their songs.

But quite possibly their strongest work is their mini-album “FLOWERS”, produced by none other than the insanely talented Yusuke Kobayashi, vocalist of the brilliant rock/shoegaze band, THE NOVEMBERS. The familiarity of many of its tracks is immediately noticeable considering Kobayashi’s own work, but it does not make the album any less special; it showcases what the band can truly achieve with the right influences, and such solid assistance in highlighting their true talent is a wonderful sight to see — and beautiful to hear!

They’re on the right track to attain something far greater than simple indie goodness at this rate. The band has the same mission as the previously mention The fin., creating music that sounds familiar to their Japanese fans while considering overseas genres to wider their universal appeal. I pray for the day that they receive the recognition that truly deserve.

And it’s safe to assume that since the band has shifted genres during their band’s lifetime, there’s something here for everyone to enjoy considering their earlier, more typical rock sound. Hear for yourself.

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Lilia Hellal
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