Next Music From Tokyo, a tour that brings Japanese bands to Canada every year, is always the highlight of my musical year. The event, this time held at the Waldorf Hotel, seems to attract a growing number of Japanophiles everytime, and it was their unbridled enthusiasm that helped make this one of the best, if weirdest, shows in recent memory.
Praha Depart opened to a packed house. It’s not often that the Waldorf is so full so early on a Wednesday night, but music nerds were wedged shoulder-to-shoulder as the band launched into a crazy, psychedelic amalgamation of screeching shoegaze and tiki-metal. It’s an odd combination, with furious splintering guitar riffage leading into improv cowbell breakdowns, but bassist Mai Yano stole the show with her impressive vocal range. Even to an audience that couldn’t understand a word she was saying, Yano ran the spectrum from freakish chanting to spurious screaming match and back to droning, stoner-metal sing-along.
Returning to the sweltering Waldorf basement, I did a double-take to the next act: seven ladies in matching Girl Scout-esque outfits, armed with a full horn section, an accordion, and a beautiful singer clutching a stuffed pig. While Charan-Po-Rantan’s performance was nothing if not hilariously campy, it was hard to dismiss the amazing talent of the ensemble cast. The group played bizarre takes on Klezmer and gypsy tunes that wouldn’t sound out-of-place in a carnival tent in Fantasia, but they did so with such professionalism and grace that made the entire performance captivating. It’s not often that such amazing musicianship is paired with such bizarre, cabaret-entertainment lunacy, but Charan-Po-Rantan made it work.
Group_inou is a brilliant fusion of chiptune, IDM and hip-hop with a crazy amount of kinetic energy borrowed from the duo’s time in hardcore and post-punk bands. It was the perfect storm for a dance party, with the packed basement erupting right alongside emcee CP and beat-maker Imai, both of whom refused to stand still like their North American contemporaries. Whenever Imai wasn’t dialing in a chiptune beat his arms were flailing faster than the crowd’s, and it was rare to see a musician enjoying his own music so much. CP’s rapping was a little lost on the English-speaking audience, but his energy definitely wasn’t, as songs frequently veered off into “I’m doing the robot because I am having so much fun” territory. I’ve never had so much fun dancing to lyrics I couldn’t understand.
When ZAZEN BOYS, who are legendary overseas, started playing, it only took a few minutes for the crowd to realize that what they were watching was less music than it was musical genius, but if you asked the 300 people there what made ZAZEN BOYS one of the most important things they’d ever seen on a stage, you’d get 300 different answers. To say Mukai Shutoko (vocals, guitar, keyboard) led the band would be an understatement, as the other three musicians waited on him as a conductor, with the intense concentration of three hunters waiting to see which way a lion might jump. The extremely complicated funk/math/prog-pop experiment was wild and totally free of the constraints of modern music, like time signatures or tempo. Instead, the band was hinged on Shutoko’s every riff, and the musicians oftentimes were left staring at their conductor mid-stroke, waiting for the exact time to start the next piece of the puzzle. Yoshida Ichiro may be one of the best bassists I’ve ever seen, turning crazy slap-bass rhythms into something beautiful, scary, and intangible. ZAZEN BOYS’ performance was dharma in every sense of the word.