For many people out there Japan seems like a very strange country, especially when it comes to music. The relationship between Prog and the land of the rising sun, however, is very deep.
Japan has embraced Prog in its early years, and one of the earliest artists who successfully mixed prog with psychedelia and blues was Flower Travellin’ Band, formed in 1967. The group was active until 1973, and then again from 2007 to 2011, when vocalist Joe Yamanaka passed away.
Kenso, who released a few great albums during the ‘80s, are also very important for furthering the Japanese prog scene.
Below is a list of 20 prog bands from Japan that, in our opinion, are the best representatives of the genre today.
Formed in 1987 at Tokyo’s University of Meiji, instrumental quartet Happy Family describe their music as chamber jazz-rock driven by the fast and heavy rhythms of hard rock. Reference points include Magma, Univers Zero, and Henry Cow, but Happy Family stake out their own turf with their stunning, sometimes furious, intensity. Founding members Kenichi Morimoto (keyboards), Shigeru Makino (guitar), and Tatsuya Miyano (electric fretless bass) were joined by drummer Keiichi Nagase in 1990. This lineup issued several tapes before releasing Happy Family on the Cuneiform label in 1995.
Progressive rock group KBB was formed in 1992. The members of the group are Akihisa Tsuboy (violin and guitar), Gregory Suzuki (keys and theremin), Toshimitsu Takahashi (keyboards), Dani (bass), and Shirou Sugano (drums). Their debut album, Lost and Found, was released in 2000. The band released four studio albums—the most recent being 2013’s Age of Pain.
Without a doubt, Tatsuya Yoshida was one of the most important drummers on the Japanese scene in the final decades of the 20th century, having spearheaded at least a half dozen of that country’s most important groups. Perhaps best-known among these would be Ruins, an ironic band name coming from a land in which most aspects of antiquity have been preserved rather than destroyed. This group’s unique basic instrumentation of drums and bass was no less than a palace revolt against the established role of the rhythm section. Although he has said his main influence was European progressive rock drummer Christian Vander, Tatsuya was still usually heard in the traditional drummer’s ensemble role. Having long since stepped beyond that, he has had an interesting development creating his own solo music; becoming a one-man band in the process and using elements of everything from sheer noise to disco and pop. Other band collaborations of his include Korekyojinn, Akaten, Koenji Hyakkei, Ybo2, and Gerogerigegege. He has recorded prolifically in every context.
Acid Mothers Temple
After performing with such bands as Toho Sara, Ohkami No Jikan, Musica Transonic, and Mainliner, Japanese guitarist Makoto Kawabata decided to continue his musical explorations by bringing together like-minded individuals to create trippy psychedelic freak-outs inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krautrock, and ’70s progressive hard rock. Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. (Underground Freak Out) were founded in 1996 as a “soul collective.” It’s not a commune in the full sense since the members don’t all live together, but it is based on communal values and has even been mistaken by some people for a religious cult. The group has put numerous studio albums under different monikers around Acid Mothers Temple.
Kikagaku Moyo (Japanese for “geometric patterns”) are a Tokyo-based psychedelic rock band whose sound incorporates elements of Krautrock, Indian ragas, and acid folk. They balance heavy, crushing jams with softer, more contemplative moments, recalling Japanese psych groups like Acid Mothers Temple and Ghost, as well as their predecessors such as Far East Family Band and the Flower Travellin’ Band. The group was founded during the summer of 2012 by drummer/vocalist Go Kurosawa and guitarist/vocalist Tomo Katsurada. Joined by bassist Kotsuguy, guitarist Daoud Popal, sitarist Ryu Kurosawa, and guest vocalist/theremin player Angie Gotopo, the group recorded its self-titled debut in 2013. Initially self-released digitally, the album was given a vinyl release by Greek label Cosmic Eye later in the year, followed by an American release by Captcha Records in 2014. The group released two more albums in 2014 (Mammatus Clouds and Forest of Lost Children), and became darlings of the international psychedelic scene, with appearances at Austin Psych Fest and L.A. Psych Fest, in addition to successful tours of America, the U.K., and Europe. In 2015, the group shared split 7″ singles with Moon Duo as well as Kinski and Acid Mothers Temple leader Makoto Kawabata. In 2016, the group’s fourth album, House in the Tall Grass, was released by Japanese label Guruguru Brain.
Baraka was formed in Tokyo in 1997 with three members, Shin (bass and vocals), Issei (guitar and vocals) and Max ( drums). The band defines their sound as “edge rock,” evolving around prog rock, jazz, funk, and blues. They create their own unique musical idiom in which an aggressive and thrilling presentation is combined with a freewheeling performance style made possible by the power trio setting.
LITE are a four-piece instrumental rock band formed in Japan in 2003. The band are known for their thrilling and emotional compositions, progressive, edgy riffs and complex rhythms. Their explosive live show and tireless touring in the US, Europe and Asia along with worldwide album releases have brought acclaim from all quarters. The band have released three full length albums and several EPs including Illuminate (2010 recorded by John McEntire) and 2012′s Past Present Future which featured Caroline from Mice Parade and appearances at Fuji Rock Festival and SummerSonic. The band are widely regarded as one of the most exciting to emerge from Japan in the last decade.
Minami Deutsch was formed by Kyotaro Miula (guitar, vocals, synthesizer) in Tokyo in 2014. Their sound is influenced by both their love for Krautrock legends such as Can and Neu!, and the band members being self-professed “repetition freaks” who heavily listen to minimal techno. The music proceeds straightforwardly with the Motorik beat (Hammer beat), devised by Klaus Dinger (Kraftwerk, Neu!), as its central axis. Humorous, yet bizarre Japanese lyrics are whispered over a hard, cold beat that is maniacally repeated, creating a pleasant ambience of electronic pulses drifting in space. Sharp guitar tones reminiscent of Michael Karoli (Can) occasionally explode into fuzz distortion, on the verge of collapse.
Experimental instrumental rock band Rovo were formed in 1996 around the central creative duo of guitarist Yamamoto Seiichi, formerly of the Boredoms, and violinist Katsui Yuji, who via his background in numerous bands was also well acquainted with the Japanese underground music scene. Completing the lineup are drummers Yoshigaki Yasuhiro and Okabe Yoichi, bassist Jin Harada, and keyboard player Masuko Tatsuki. The initial impetus of the band came from Katsui‘s desire to incorporate some of the atmosphere of rave music into Japanese underground rock, and as a result, much of Rovo‘s music is built around psychedelic, dance music-influenced grooves, albeit with frequent diversions into jazz, funk, Afro-beat, dub, Latin music, progressive rock, and Krautrock. Neu! is a frequent point of comparison thanks to both bands’ propensity for minimalist grooves and repetitive, propulsive drums and percussion. Over the course of the band’s numerous original albums and live releases, Rovo have developed an instantly recognizable sound, thanks largely to Katsui‘s distinctive electric violin sound and the competing rhythmical textures of the two drummers/percussionists.
Plenty of distinguishing characteristics separate OOIOO from the herd. First, you could mention the fluorescent body paint they wear on-stage. Or perhaps the demographics of their lineup: four Japanese women. Or their music, a furious amalgam of rhythmic guitars, patternless vocals, and energetic effects.
The frontwoman of the group is the irrepressible Yoshimi P-We, the talented and multifaceted percussionist from the Boredoms. In this incarnation, she sings and plays guitar, but not in the way John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, or even Kim Gordon would. Her role in the group is as the main energizer, the street light around which the other moth-like noises revolve, flutter, bump, and find themselves redirected in a million different ways. It’s next to impossible to describe “their sound,” because—by design—it rarely follows consistent patterns. Suffice to say they’re one of the most dynamic bands on the underground circuit—not in the way a mid-level purchasing director would be described as dynamic, but in the way a ballistic missile would. They’re bursting forth with excitement and vivacity in the way few humans, in few art forms, can. Plus, they’re fun with a capital PH.
Their self-titled debut album was released in the U.S. by Kill Rock Stars in 1998; their subsequent albums, Feather Float and Kila Kila Kila, were issued in the States by Birdman Records. Gold and Green was released domestically in the States by Thrill Jockey in 2005. Issued in 2006, Taiga, which means “big river” in Japanese and “forest” in Russian, was, aptly enough, inspired by nature. OOEYEOO, an album of remixes by Boredoms mastermind Eye, arrived in spring 2007. The same lineup that recorded Taiga—Yoshimi, guitarist Kayan, bassist Aya, and drummer Ai—regrouped for 2009′s Armonico Hewa, whose title was a mix of Spanish and Swahili words meaning “air in a harmonious state.” Their next studio outing would appear in 2014 with Gamel, an album loosely inspired by Javanese gamelan music.
about tess is an instrumental band consisting of two drummers, two bassists and two guitarists. Their music has endlessly repeated riffs overlapped with palatable rhythms. They add a layer of improvisation over these riffs which will go from nothing but silence to thunderous roars of sound. The band’s live shows are not about “listening” or “watching” but rather “experiencing.” The most recent album, Shining, was released in 2014.
Asturias (also using names Asturias Multi-Track Style, Acoustic Asturias and Electric Asturias) was formed in 1987 by multi-instrumentalist Yoh Ohama. Heralded as “a Japanese answer to Mike Oldfield,” Asturias has released several studio and live recordings in different settings (acoustic, electric and multi-track).
Show-Yen was formed in 1998, initially consisting of Yasuhiro Nishio (guitars), Naoki Itoi (drums) and Y.H. (bass). As with many bands, it has taken them some time to attain a stable line up. Y. H. left in 2000, initially replaced by K. Y. (bass). Show-Yen appears to first and foremost be a live unit, hitting the stage on regular occasions each year. They have had the chance to release material along the way too. Musea Records issued their self-titled, initial production in 2003 and their second disc II in 2005. The latter was also released in a Japanese version by Poseidon Records the same year. In 2014, they released their third album, III, on JaProg label.
Tricot is an experimental rock trio formed in historical and cultural city of Kyoto 2010. The band consists of three female founding members, Ikkyu Nakajima (vocals / guitar), Motoko “Motifour” Kida (guitar / backing vocals), and Hiromi “Hirohiro” Sagane (bass / backing vocals). The band releases music via their own label, Bakuretsu Records.
Tricot develops a very unique world with perfectly mixed elements of pure, fragile but strong vocals and unpredictable song transition. The band’s experimental music primarily consists of melodic post-rock-inspired sounds and complex rhythm reminiscent of math rock. The trio’s most recent release is this year’s full-length album titled 3.
Influenced by ELP and 1970s Italian progressive groups such as Goblin and Il Balletto di Bronzo, Ars Nova was formed in 1983 by keyboardist and composer Kyoko Kanazawa (bass), Yumiko Saito (drums), and Keiko Tsubata (keyboard), who met at a university in Tokyo. In 1985, Tsubata left and was replaced by Keiko Kumagai. Kumagai left the band not long after, the band broke up.
Reforming in the early ’90s at the instigation of Made in Japan producer, Numero Ueno, the all-female group produced Fear and Anxiety in 1992, which was acclaimed for its strong classical sound. After Saito left, Akiko Takahashi (drums, violin) joined the group in time for Transi, which was released in 1994 and sold reasonably well in Europe and Japan. The Goddess of Darkness followed in 1996. 1998 saw the release of Reu Nu Pert Em Hru, which was based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Without a bassist for the album, Ken Ishita was featured as a guest. Mika Nakajima made the group a trio again in 1999, playing keyboards and violin in addition to performing as vocalist. She appeared on the group’s album with Gerard (1999), Keyboard Triangle, a tribute album to progressive rock. The group’s next album, Android Domina, was released in 2001. By that point, Ars Nova were among the most respected groups in their field. The most recent record of the band is 2009’s Seventh Hell.
Bearing no relation to the short-lived Chicago-based group of the same name, Toe are a primarily instrumental rock quartet consisting of guitarists Mino Takaaki and Yamazaki Hirokazu, drummer Kashikura Takashi, and bassist Yamane Satoshi. Often categorized as post-rock or math rock, their free-flowing, highly melodic songs feature splashy yet tightly controlled drumming and dynamic guitar interplay, as well as occasional electronic elements and additional instruments such as vibraphone and Rhodes piano. Rather than having an expansive, cinematic, crescendo-heavy style similar to bands like Explosions in the Sky, Toe have more of an angular, guitar-driven sound reminiscent of bands such as Ghosts and Vodka and Euphone. Restless live performers, Toe have toured at home and abroad with bands such as the Album Leaf, Mogwai, and Envy, in addition to notable appearances at festivals such as Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival. Their latest studio album is 2015’s Hear You.
Since forming in the early ’90s, Envy have become one of Japan’s premier exports to the international post-hardcore scene. Their experimental, cinematic approach to heavy melodic rock has made them a favorite of post-rock and alternative metal fans, and their intense, emotionally direct vocals and lyrics have won them accolades in the emo/screamo worlds as well. Envy have toured with Mogwai, Isis, and Explosions in the Sky, and have released split EPs with Jesu, Thursday, and Yaphet Kotto. The group’s lineup has generally consisted of members Tetsuya Fukagawa (vocals/programming), Nobukata Kawai (guitar), Manabu Nakagawa (bass), Masahiro Tobita (guitar), and Dairoku Seki (drums), although other members played drums on the group’s earliest recordings. The group’s sixth album, Atheist’s Cornea, was released in 2015.
Yuukai Kenchiku were founded in 2009 as a promising symphonic “multi-dimensional” rock quintet by five Zeuhl followers—Nami Adachi (flute), Hidehito Tamba (guitar), Shintaro Kanda (bass), Kei Akita (drums), and Takenobu “Hassan” Takahashi (keyboards)—in Kyoto, Japan. With a light music club in Kyoto Univ., where Takenobu and Kei have belonged to, as a starting commune, they have played not with getting tied to traditional rock but with strong intention for flexibility of soundscape, gigged basically around Kyoto, Osaka or Kobe. In 2014, a new flutist, Raku Sakamoto, joined the band. Yuukain Kenchiku released six studio albums to date—the most recent recording is this year’s three-track Seibou.
Ling Tosite Sigure
Japanese indie rockers Ling Tosite Sigure (or “Rin Toshite Shigure” in the more commonly used Hepburn transliteration) play elaborate post-hardcore with alt-prog influences, showing a remarkable ability to mix tempo changes and emo screams by the two vocalists (male and female) with good melodies and strong emotional messages, and scoring on the Oricon charts despite their complex songwriting. The band was formed in Saitama in 2002 by guitarist/vocalist TK (Toru Kitajima), a buddy of Art-School‘s Masafumi Todaka, and bassist/vocalist Miyoko Nakamura, who went by the moniker 345; the drummer Pierre Nakano (real name Masatoshi Nakano) joined some time later, allowing Ling Tosite Sigure to start playing live. The group had four demos—#1, #2, #3, and Tosite—out in 2003-2004, and in 2005 released the debut album #4 on their own label, Nakano Records, promoting it with a nationwide tour, the first of many. The EP Feeling Your UFO came the next year, and the second album Inspiration Is Dead followed in 2007, when Ling Tosite Sigure also played the Countdown festival. LTS’ latest, fifth album I’mperfect was released in 2013.
Japanese experimental group Mono came together in 2000, choosing to forgo vocals and concentrate instead on atmospheric, classical-inspired rock music. The foursome, bassist Tamaki (the lone female in the group), drummer Yasunori Takada, and guitarists Takaakira “Taka” Goto and Yoda, released their first full-length record, Under the Pipal Tree, in 2001 on John Zorn‘s Tzadik label. In 2003, after switching to Arena Rock Recording Company, Mono issued One Step More and You Die, a remix version of which came out the following year as New York Soundtracks. That same year their fourth album, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined, recorded in Chicago with producer Steve Albini, was released on Temporary Residence. Albini also performed the same duties on Mono‘s April 2006 record, You Are There, and in September the band issued Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain, a mix between classical and rock that also featured a collaboration with World’s End Girlfriend, among others. Mono’s tenth studio album Requiem for Hell was released in 2016.