#3. Man Mantis – Cities Without Houses (11 April 2011)
Man Mantis presents definite proof that the creative commons music scene encompasses more than just some bedroom producers uploading half-finished EP’s without much further thought. The enormous attention to detail in the design of his trademark style, the album cover and the sense of humour in page descriptions shows something I have seldom seen in music published online: a well thought-out strategy and brand. This at one point in time included Man Mantis stickers, signed posters, one-star rated Man Mantis logo ping-pong balls, T-Shirts, you name it. I absolutely love the enthusiasm with which Man Mantis released his first full album in 6 years, and the best part is that I don’t think he really needed any of it. ‘Cities Without Houses’ is an instant classic, and with its 12 tracks a hefty one at that. Seeing an artist having this much fun making music is an inspiration to the entire scene.
#2. Rain Dog – See Hear EP (12 September 2011)
The way Cut Records has been releasing gems this year, one of them was bound to end up in my top 3. Even so, Rain Dog pulled it off quite convincingly. ‘See Hear EP’s slow measures, interwoven with intricate drum programming, provide musical arrangements brought back to their essential core. Seldom have I heard that much emotion in a piece with so little instruments.
If Cut Records were only to publish one release in 2012, make it a Rain Dog one. Pretty please.
#1. Julien Mier & Daan Kars – Passenger (6 July 2011)
Difficult though I found it to select second and third place among this year’s releases, there was never any doubt in my mind about the one release to rule them all. Julien Mier and Daan Kaars 1up’ed the competition, and then decided to just make everything else pale in comparison instead.
Here’s what I had to say on ‘Passenger’ a few months back: “This release is so immensely good. The entire release is an ingeniously crafted piece of machinery, every 64th note is just beautifully placed, right where it should be. It’s a masterpiece of epic proportions. Compulsory listening material.” The release in its own right was good enough for the top spot, but Daan Kars’ visuals made sure the duo was untouchable. The best release of 2011. Period.
This review was originally published on netlabelism.com, an online music magazine covering netlabel culture and releases. I was editor for the magazine from January 2011 until December 2014.
The last weeks of December are marked by a typically Japanese phenomenon: the bōnenkai, or “end of year” party. As companies around the world no doubt do after the last day of work before the end of year holidays, members of a company go out together to have a drink. One can imagine this involves reminiscing about this year’s achievements, and looking forward to next year. Such a guess, though understandable, fails to grasp the slight twist the Japanese have appended to these proceedings: 忘年(bōnen) literally means “forgetting the hardships of the old year”.
Alcohol has the magical characteristic of making one forget almost anything when consumed in large enough quantities. The fact that the last two weeks of December turn Tōkyō businessmen into an army of mass vomitters suggests that there is quite a bit worth forgetting about Japanese corporate culture. Should you ever walk around Tōkyō between December 15th and December 31st, I suggest you invest in a decent pair of waterproof boots.
When night falls, Tōkyō’s streets become quiet. One assumes that the people who populate the city during the day have all gone home. Reality is quite different. A lot of people haven’t, either because they missed the last train from overworking and/or overdrinking, or because they simply don’t have a home to return to.
We all know the stereotypical image of a homeless person sleeping in the street, carrying his belongings around in plastic bags. Tōkyō has another type of homeless, though. These people often spend the night in one of the many 24/7 restaurants, coffee shops or another alternative: the manga kissa. This is short for manga kissaten, or manga (Japanese comic book) café. In the most strict sense, it’s a place where you can read comic books. Most have come to offer at least a (semi-) private cubicle with an executive-style desk chair, computer, fast internet and free unlimited drinks as well. Some even offer actual beds, showers and toothbrushes. All this can be yours for around 1000 yen for 5-6 hours, which is more than enough sleep for the average Tōkyōite, who catches up on sleep through cat naps on the subway. Multiply that by thirty, and you have a monthly rent that is less than 50% or even 33% of the average housing cost around here.
I decided to do a little researching myself, as I had heard these stories before, but found it hard to imagine fancy schmancy businessmen staying in a manga kissa. Was I ever wrong.
As I was planning to get to the bottom of this, I took the last train to Akihabara, and did a little tour of the McDonalds and Starbucks around the station. Sure enough, there were tons of people sprawled out over the tables, with no intention of leaving their sleeping places anytime soon. Could this have something to do with the holiday season? At around 1AM, I started looking for a manga kissa. That’s when I really started believing there was some substance to stories I’d heard. Every single manga kissa I found was fully occupied. After wandering about for almost an hour, I finally found one that still had some open seats.
I had scored a good one, with aforementioned executive-style desk chair, pc with internet, unlimited free drinks and tons of manga of course. I tried to sleep a little, but sleeping in a chair only works when you’re already exhausted. So I instead spent the night studying the clientele, reading the news, answering my email, etc. About an hour after I came in, there was a lot of movement and the floor I was staying on filled up really quickly.
After a few more hours, I gave up sleeping completely and thought I might as well do something with the internet as I was paying for it anyway. So I made a free NBA.TV account and watched the highlights of all NBA games played since December 26th.
Almost everyone left around 5:45 AM – 6:00 AM, right around the time when the first subway started running. When I made another round of the McDonalds around Akihabara station I made a startling discovery: the toilets were all filled with businessmen brushing their teeth, combing their hair and straightening their ties. Furthermore, they looked quite comfortable doing their thing in the toilet of a fast food chain.
Just before I wrote this entry, I took about an hour-long nap in a McDonalds. Wondering how disgusted the daytime population of Tōkyō would be when I lifted my head from the table, I found the person in front of me to be asleep as well. Nobody seems to even raise an eyebrow. Even though it’s 10AM now, I can see at least 3 people sleeping here. Welcome to Tōkyō, city of millions, where businessmen sleep among the homeless people.
What is better than watching sports on a holiday? Not much, except perhaps for watching sports on a holiday with nachos. Enter NBA TV!
Because of the ongoing discussions over (what else?) money and the resulting lockout, the basketball season in the USA has started embarrassingly late, though I’m sure fans are glad there’s even a season at all. Since December 25th, my favourite spectator sport (well, second favourite after StarCraft 2, but that’s a subject I’m not touching with an adamantium-coated stick) has kicked off again. Sean is quite the basketball fan himself and so we decided watching a game of hoops would be the perfect holiday activity.
As Sean is from California and fell in love with NBA in Sacramento where he went to high school, the game to watch was a no-brainer: the Kings’ revenge match against the LA Lakers, the team nobody likes yet is annoyingly consistent in posting good results (*cough* Anderlecht, Hannes?). The Lakers had stopped the Sacramento Kings in the semi-finals of the play-offs last year, so there was indeed quite a bit of revenge to be taken. On top of that, the Lakers had lost their first match the day before, and this match would be played in Sacramento. Enter second bag of nacho’s.
The game was awesome. The Kings quickly gained the lead in the first quarter, and even though LA came back to within 2 points, they never managed to overtake their Californian rivals. The Kings eventually won the game with 91-100. Tiny Lakers tears were shed, and all was well with the world again.
Christmas in Japan is not a holiday to spend with your family, but for going out on a date with your loved one. It’s the most romantic day of the year. Sean and Tomie uphold the true American meaning of Christmas, though, so I joined them for a cosy night at home with tons of food. As Christmas should be.
We started the evening with some grocery shopping, which quickly turned into a visit to Starbucks and Krispy Kreme donuts. As Sean put it: “These are no ordinary donuts. They’re more like crack on a sandwich. Can I have another one, now? Please?”
We reluctantly left our sugary paradise to search ingredients for tonight’s food. We found what we were looking for in some outrageously fancy and overpriced supermarkets. But they had cheese and Belgian beers, so that did the trick. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I discovered they even had Belgian olives.
Back home I barricaded myself in the kitchen, while Sean and Tomie burst out one of the more elaborate plastic Christmas trees I’ve seen so far. We had cherry tomatoes with Boursin and sliced olives, followed by toast with avocado, lime juice, pepper and salt and fried chicken and firmly cemented that in with a vegetable dish containing potatoes, red, orange and yellow peppers, zucchini and feta cheese. Stuffed as a turkey (I’m sorry I stooped to this level of Christmas puns. Not really, actually) we still managed to fit in some Häagen-Dazs ice cream, before passing out on the heated floor.
As today was my last day in Seoul, I really needed to visit the last of the five Grand palaces of the Joseon dynasty.
When I got there, the place was deserted. Not a handful of tourists, not one other person was there. I had the entire palace to myself, and was surrounded by the chirping of the birds, the howling of the wind and the creaking of the palace doors and gates.
It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. If you want to see the Joseon palaces, I highly recommend going to see them during the wintertime, because nobody is there and the winter light is beautiful for taking pictures.
I decided to spend my last couple of hours in Seoul as efficiently as possible, which translated to going the National Museum of Korea. Before entering the museum, I took a walk around the park in front of it. The ponds were all frozen solid, and I had a field day trying to catch some of the sunlight refracting of shards of broken ice on the water’s edge.
Upon entering I immediately realized just how huge Seoul’s National Museum of Korea actually is. A dome which dwarfs most basilica’s throughout the world acted as an impressive entrance hall. I made my way to the counter to get a ticket, but the people sitting behind it only looked at me as if I was a total weirdo. “There are no tickets, sir. This museum is free.” Again? I love Korea! In Japan, watching the tiniest of collections will make you 1000 JPY poorer, but here even the largest collection of Korean art is freely available to the public. Yet somehow, I got the feeling that most Koreans are not really interested in that heritage. Temples, palaces, museums, all were very scarcely populated, something which would not be true in Japan, even though entrance fees are much higher there.
The museum’s collection was truly astounding. It had a large collection of ceramics, weaponry and art from paleolithic times, the three kingdoms period, as well as my favourite: the Joseon dynasty. On top of that, there are some excellent examples of calligraphy to be found in these halls. I was surprised to find an ancient go board including stones among some of the cultural relics stored on the second floor.
That’s all folks. Well, for Korea at least. I will board a plane back to Tōkyō tomorrow morning.
As this Korea trip is turning into quite the study break, I decided to do some more battery recharging today. I slept in really late and then had breakfast in my coffee shop (it’s mine now, I’ve ordered too many cups of tea for somebody else to have any claims regarding its ownership). As I had some work to do for Netlabelism, I pulled out the netbook and hammered away at the keys for an hour or two, before getting on the subway to do some shopping in downtown Seoul. I stumbled upon Kyobo Books, which is Seoul’s largest bookstore. It was positively huge, comparable in size to Tōō’s Shinjuku branch of Kinokuniya. Inside I noticed another cultural difference. Koreans are apparently not that fond of standing. Littered around the store were Koreans, ranging in age from their early twenties to their late seventies, just sitting on the floor reading a book. When navigating small aisles, that means literally stepping over some old lady looking for a book. Well, at least I hope she was looking for a book, otherwise I just stepped over an old woman with a broken hip. In hindsight, I should have checked if she was still breathing. Yikes.
After my apparent disgracing of a dead Korean woman in a bookshop, I returned to the youth hostel to spend the evening with Alan, Annie and Justeen, as they would be taking a boat to Shanghai the next morning. We went out for dinner with two of Annie’s friends studying in Seoul, and I knew just the place to go, as I’d been there only 24 hours before with Henry.
About a two minutes’ walk from the youth hostel there’s a seafood place that has outdoor sea food tanks filled with fish, eel, clams and squid. If you choose to go with the squid, after about five minutes a waiter will rush past your table with a bucket. Depending on how feisty the contents are (in our case: very) the entire trajectory gets splashed with water from the squirming squid. When they serve the raw, chopped-up squid at your table just minutes later, the tentacles are still moving, and the suction pads have not yet registered the fact that they are no longer alive. Result: the tentacles suck on to the plate, wriggle while you bring them to your mouth, and even while you’re chewing on them they will try to escape, or suck onto your lips, tongue or whatever part they get a hold of. Annie and Alan were not too amused with the moving snacks, but Justeen and I dug in, just as I had done the night before. Mmm, moving squid. Highly recommended, if only for the stories.