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Sonar Tokyo: further excursions into the electronic underground

The Japanese edition of Sonar has showcased some up and coming live acts and talented DJs in search of the new thing

The latest edition of SonarSound took place this weekend at the Ageha venue in Tokyo, which offered a wide exposure of all what’s currently good in the electronic underground. We were there and that’s what we saw.

As we made our way across Tokyo on the Shuto Expressway Saturday night for the 2013 edition of SonarSound Tokyo, my friend jokingly asked for the “Blade Runner” soundtrack. Looking out of the window at the city’s landmarks coming hazily in and out of view through the torrential rain made the Japanese capital feel all the more like its most obvious science fiction stereotype. The weather might have potentially ruined the first night of the festival but it would have at least made the ride through town one of the best I’ve had so far.

Ageha Studio Coast is one of Tokyo’s biggest venues, a large sprawling space on the Shin Kiba waterfront, a reclaimed industrial district near Odaiba, an artificial island located in Tokyo Bay. All of which basically means it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere in terms of the city’s normal happening spaces, making any trip there for entertainment purposes somewhat of an effort. And when it rained like it did this past Saturday it’s an effort that perhaps a lot of people were ultimately against making as attendance seemed lower than I remember it two years ago, or even last year according to a journalist friend who lives here. Looking across Ageha’s main dance floor from one of the balconies seemed to confirm this, yet despite these seemingly lower numbers the weekend still felt well attended and at its peaks on both Saturday and Sunday the place appeared busy and vibing.

The Japanese leg of Barcelona's Sonar festival has been its most regular in its twenty-year history. A yearly occurrence since 2011, it is split into a Saturday night rave up and Sunday afternoon-into-evening sober up, a format that works quite well in providing an almost non-stop musical experience for close to 24 hours.

The weather torments of day one coupled with other issues conspired to make things a little grim as the festival kicked off. The Red Bull Music Academy stage had water pouring across its small entrance, with staff stuck in a loop of pushing the water away only to have it come back faster, while sound issues meant its volume was kept lower than hoped for; the outdoor smoking and eating areas became home to games of ‘huddle under the cover and avoid the rain rivers’; and the SonarLab stage, set on Ageha's open balcony overlooking the water, was suffering. Not the start you’d want, especially after hearing words that the previous night’s A Taste of Sonar in Osaka had also fallen prey to some logistical problems.

The main stage and SonarComplex area proved the safest bet in the first hours of the night with John Talabot in the former and visual works from Daito Manabe and others in the latter. Actress followed Talabot on the main stage and kicked things off, taking control of the giant space with his narcoleptic strain of dance music. Huddled behind the glow of his laptop, with blue lights flashing behind him and near complete darkness everywhere else, his music proved equally mesmerizing live as it does in a home context. While some of his music's subtleties may be lost in a space like this, they were replaced by the sort of feelings you don't often get from a live electronic music show, in my case a pleasant discomfort and thoughts of dark, creepy science fiction as the music droned on, becoming almost unbearable.

The RBMA stage kicked off soon after with the childlike chimes and hip hop booms of Kidsuke, the Japan-UK collaboration of Daisuke Tanabe and Kidkanevil - the latter adorned with a Totoro headpiece for the duration of their show. With the rain starting to subside outside they brought some much needed excitement to the dancing crowd, alternating between the more danceable album cuts, dreamy interludes and lashings of jungle breaks and 808s that underpin their more recent solo work. They set things up nicely for the following acts, Addisson Groove, xxxy and Cosmin TRG, who each ably represented various strains of dance music: footwork, jungle, house and techno. We may live in an age where there doesn't seem to be much ‘new’ in underground dance music but that doesn't seem to have stopped everyone from dancing their wet worries all night long.

Japan’s healthy electronic underground was perhaps best represented on day one by the Day Tripper Records showcase in the small SonarComplex stage. The Osaka-based label brought with them seven artists that spanned genres and styles in a surprisingly coherent way, from dreamy beats to in-your-face trap and juke via house. Despite being arguably the least well known of the acts on the night they kept the dance floor busy and the spirits high, showing that it's not always the big, obvious names you need to seek out at such events.

Hitting the main stage as the skies finally cleared outside, Sherwood & Pinch pushed the sound system to its fullest with a fine display of what makes Jamaican dub such an enduring, resilient and above all appealing aesthetic. They brought together the old and the new not just sonically but also physically as Sherwood manned his desk while Pinch oversaw a turntable and his laptop. The music was at times warm and hypnotic, pulling at the body to dance, and at other times cold and punishing, daring you to make a move.

Tokyo resident Submerse closed the SonarLab stage with a two-hour set that was by far my highlight of day one. With the rain no longer an issue the crowd started to amass around the pool at the centre of the balcony as the young British producer fed a selection of dreamy beats, ambient sounds and slow dance jams into his sampler and through the system. The moon even made a timely appearance about half way through his set, shining across the night sky and turning the whole affair into a sort of subdued ecstatic experience that proved the perfect antidote to the harder sounds emanating from all other stages by that point. Closing with some classic 90s hip hop jams and a rendition of “Singing In The Rain” he showed a flair for crowd control and mood setting that betrays his years.

Day two opened with clear blue skies that afforded some stunning views across Tokyo bay both on the way in and from the venue's various view points. The mood was a mix of quiet and energetic, no doubt a representation of those who’d weathered the previous night and had little sleep and those who hadn't chanced it and wanted to make the most of it.

Japanese acts stole the first half of the day with Yosi Horikawa bringing his unique blend of electronic and found sounds to the RBMA stage, Tofubeats doing a DJ set on SonarLab stage followed by the smooth grooves of Green Butter and Toe taking to the main stage.

With Tokyo Bay's Ferris Wheel shining in the distance, Pinch made a second appearance, turning the SonarLab pool area into a vibrant dance floor much to the appreciation of those seeking some sub frequency frills. Over at the RBMA stage Nguzunguzu delivered a vibrant set of worldly dub plates not unlike what I saw them do at Sonar Barcelona this past June while Space Dimension Controller proved that you can do a dance music concept album that works equally well live as it does in headphones, complete with hilarious vocoded skits. Where Actress felt like the soundtrack to a dark sci fi epic, SDC delivered intergalactic dance floor funk worthy of the Mos Eisley Cantina.

"The real excitement and interest (and even sweat) came from the local Japanese acts, and some of their underground international cohorts"

The RBMA stage closed with Om Unit and Illum Sphere, each representing the healthier undergrounds of their respective cities, namely London and Manchester. Om Unit followed Nguzunguzu's footsteps by delivering an impeccable hour of slow-fast dance floor pleasures much as he did in Barcelona while Illum Sphere did what he does best by sending everyone on a musical trip that spanned more genres, styles and classics that are worth mentioning in a review, confirming him as the latest in a long line of great DJs from the city capable of moving crowds thanks to a flair for selection and ear for quality, regardless of hype or exclusivity. The drunken shouts of 'one more' that lasted a good five minutes after the system was shut down were further proof should any have been needed.

If you're wondering about all the other major acts which also appeared and which I've so far not mentioned, well let's just say this writer wasn't particularly attracted to or impressed by any of them, even when I made the effort to check them out.

And that's perhaps the most striking lesson for me from this year's edition of SonarSound Tokyo. While the festival is understandably built around (primarily) Western headliners that also appear on the Barcelona bill, the real excitement and interest (and even sweat) came from the local Japanese acts, and some of their underground international cohorts.

The Japanese underground, electronic or not, is a thriving microcosm of genuinely exciting music. Sure the internet has helped to dull some of this excitement in recent years, making it easier for local Japanese acts to simply mime whatever's hot around the world, then again the same can be said of any scene in pretty much any country. We now live in a world where artists no longer find their voice in the privacy of their own bedrooms before sharing it with the world but rather a world where that process happens on the comment threads of Soundcloud and Youtube, the RTs of Twitter and the likes of Facebook. The biggest problem with this being its impact on our collective searches for the next ‘new’. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn't gold somewhere amid the noise and in that respect institutions like Red Bull Music Academy continue to act as a much needed filter for said gold, even if they don't always get it right in our own subjective opinions.

It should perhaps be time for the Japanese acts to be on an equal footing with their Western counterparts, rather than play what is arguably second fiddle to them. Sure it might not sell as many tickets, but going back to the smaller attendance of this year's event perhaps that's further case for a scaling down and refocus of such festivals. Some of the Japanese artists on this year's bill are often more popular abroad than at home, parlaying this into increasing trips for shows outside of their country, while others have healthy local and national following but haven't yet managed to break out of their borders. If Japanese festivals were to promote their artists in the same way they do foreign ones we might come to a situation where they would have a stronger base from which to expand across the globe. Western artists on the bill of SonarSound and other similar festivals most often enjoy the same sort of attention at home as they do abroad, something that is still missing in Japan, especially at a more underground or independent level.

You may argue there isn't a demand for it, that there is a breaking point in terms of popularity that needs to be reached before that's possible. Yet in my time living in Japan I've attended smaller daytime/weekend festivals featuring only or predominantly local indie acts and they did work, pulling in crowds and stirring excitement. However these events were focused inwards and what’s now needed is for an internationally recognized ‘someone’ to take a chance and spark that initial flame that can take things in new directions. And if that seems unjust or impossible to demand from an organization like Sonar, despite their track record and history, then we need something new, perhaps homegrown, that has the balls and ambition to be that platform a lot of us know is needed but which is sorely still missing. Someone who can become the Sonar of Japan, exporting the talent that exists here to other countries in the same way that Japan so eagerly imports foreign talent to its shores.

Until then events like SonarSound Tokyo will continue to bring to Japan a taste of what Europe has been enjoying for a while now. And that's no bad thing of course, but Japan has a lot more to offer the world than just a stop-over in an international performance circuit.

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