How much can a band change its sound while still being recognizable as itself? Today, I present Exhibit N: the rock group that rocked until it stopped.
University students Takada Masako, Zaikawa Yuri, and Himeno Sayaka met at a Tokyo club and decided to start a band. It being 1999, the Y2K bug was all the rage, and so it would be decided that they would name their group after it. And so, Nisennenmondai was born. Takada would play the guitar, Zaikawa the bass, and Himeno the drums.
Nisennenmondai released its first EP in 2004, Sorede Souzousuru Neji. It was made up of five loud, noisy, dirty, primal, and fairly repetitive instrumentals with titles such as “This Heat” and “Sonic Youth” to announce some of the band’s musical influences. The next EP, Tori, arrived the next year. It was more of the same, though with a few more descents into cacophony as well as…um…the occasional use of vocals. I put these two EPs together for two reasons. The first is that they were re-released as a combined album in 2008. The second is that the song below, Ikkkyokume, is featured on both EPs. The version on Nejihas no vocals, but the version on Tori is closer to the length of this performance, so it is unclear which version this is supposed to be. As I get further into the works of Nisennenmondai, that question will become less relevant. In any case, it has several sections, a break down, a vaguely swing-jazz bassline at one point, a noisy climax, and changes in tempo. I picked this track not just because it is one of my favorites from this era, but because it shows many of the musical elements that the band would eventually jettison.
Ikkkyokume – 6:59
The band released its first album, Rokuon, in 2006. It had the same foundations as Neji and Tori, but doubled down on the obnoxious noise parts and repetition. I picked two tracks from it because I wanted to show two facets of the band’s early works while also showing that the band did actually make music that was under 6 minutes long. The first track is the intro, which is a recording of the band members singing…the name of the band. It is pitched up and sped up…which I suppose is meant to make them sound cutie Kawaii, but also kind of makes them sound a little creepy. The second track, Marching, starts out with a chaotic drum solo drowned out by distorted guitar feedback and does not really begin its dissonant…uh…musical section…until over halfway through.
Nisennenmondai – 0:40
Marching – 2:12
The band began to change its sound a bit during the next couple of years. I cannot say whether it was noticeable or not at the time, but it is definitely noticeable now. 2008 saw the first release of Destination Tokyo. Off the bat, there were differences. The sound was slightly cleaner, not just in production, but also performances. The distortion and the noises were more controlled. The repetition was less a sign of a wild and primal moment and more one of focus within dreamlike melodies. The drumming was simpler, with a greater emphasis on 4 4 thumping. It tended to lean more on the Krautrock side of post-punk…if that was a thing…I am not sure whether that was a thing. In any case, the most obvious example for me would be the title track, which is quiet and relatively clean, based around a single chord played three times.
Destination Tokyo – 9:05
Before I go much further, I feel like I need to give some context to why I feel the way I feel about this band’s subsequent works. And to do that, I will have to go back to the years before they had even released any music. You can skip to the big bold
OKAY if you wish.
While I had sort of been into rock music since elementary school, it was not until I was 1997 that I bought my first rock album, One Hot Minute by California funk rock band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Great start, I know. In 2000, I was finally convinced to purchase OK Computer by Oxfordshire not-funk band Radiohead…and then soon bought up whatever I could. That was an interesting time to become a Radiohead fan. The band had become a symbol of rock’s cutting edge, but the new album Kid A was seen as a complete break from rock and an embrace of the dreaded electronica. Now, I had known a bit about the tension between fans of different musical styles, but I had grown partial to a couple of electronic acts after 1998, so I did not feel like this was a betrayal. Additionally, since the person who had introduced me to Radiohead did not come across as some hardcore music snob, I was unprepared for the phenomenon when I was exposed to the independent rock scene.
The turn of the millennium brought about another wave of what people dub real music. In other words, rock music. I had lived through the grunge-era and liked some grunge songs, but the hyperbolic hysteria (as well as the hair-metal vs grunge war and the post-grunge malaise) had passed me by. So this “real music” phase was new to me. And I did not understand it at all. The more I felt its presence, the sillier it appeared.
It was not just the fact that I saw an article where Avril Lavigne was called the anti-Britney Spears, or that some of these new acts just seemed like retreads of old stuff. It was how so many rock bands appeared to be playing their “real instruments” as if they were on autopilot. The drums sounded uninspired and mechanical, sometimes like a lumbering zombie. The guitars sounded like they were played by some guitar equivalent of a player-piano. The only thing really separating the sound of these bands from the fake music was that the vocalists sometimes sounded drunk. Even the production for bands like The Strokes made the music sound to me like it was all coming from a Casio keyboard. This did not apply to all of the bands, of course, and this style of rock had existed since at least the late 1970s, sucking the marrow out of the bones of disco’s fresh corpse. Still, this was the first that I had noticed so many of this type of band infecting both the indie scene and the mainstream. By the end of 2002, I could not help but view this “real music” hype with contempt. Maybe this was an unfair attitude to have, but the “intelligence” and “authenticity” of the rock snobs made it seem pointless to try to feel otherwise. So, when I started hearing cries of panic over the impending demise of rock music, I just shrugged and smirked.
There were a few acts that I enjoyed, even if this mechanical style did apply to them. The White Stripes came to my attention early on, and the quirks of the performances that sometimes drew scorn actually kept me aware that the people playing were actually alive. Acts like The Faint and Polysics melded electronic music and rock music in a way that allowed for that mechanical percussion to feel appropriate. Unfortunately, I did not feel that way about a lot of other bands; it was unfortunate that “Free” was my introduction to Cat Power and “Walking with the Ghost” was my introduction to Tegan and Sara; it took me much longer to get into either act than I would have if I had heard other songs first. In fact, I was often more interested in rock bands that incorporated electronic elements and into their music without sounding mechanical than in straight-ahead rock groups. At least the former could not be so easily trapped in some bastion of musical purity.
When I first heard Nisennenmondai in 2010, I felt the same aversion. I don’t exactly remember what I heard, but it was probably something off of Destination Tokyo. I eventually returned to the band, though and concluded that they were different from the mechanical “real music” acts that I had despised for most of the decade. At this point in the trio’s career, they were transitioning from a noise rock band to a kind of noise-dance band that used rock instruments. They were starting to distance themselves from the “real music” sound by making their sound sound less and less real; more like a computer program or a factory machine. The long and somewhat minimalist krautrock-y tracks rejected the song structure of both rock and pop. After Destination Tokyo the band, not known for using vocals, would ditch them entirely. With each subsequent recording and re-recording, the performances would be tighter, more disciplined, and more machine-like. Takada would strum less and hit the repeater pedal more, emphasizing the various tonal and unmelodic sounds that can emerge from an electric guitar. Sounding like a machine was not some sign of snobbish hypocrisy, but the entire point of the music. They do not need to flaunt a human touch like other rock bands or prove a human touch like EDM DJs. The fact that they are human should be enough.
Buy why do this? Why not just use a synthesizer or some DJ setup? It is here that the tension between real and fake comes in. “Real Music” supposedly allows for tiny accidents, placing heart over skill in the totem pole of talent. A track that is put together by an electronic music artist is deliberately pieced together, cutting and pasting over and over. Any imperfections can be seen as quirks of the artist or just sloppy work of an inferior producer. The members of Nisennenmondai are aware of the risk for mistakes that come with performing live with “real” instruments, and do it that way anyways. Their intense perfectionism tries to stamp out mistakes, but that just allows for the little ones that do make it through to add a hint of flavor to the rest of the track. You can dance to it if you want, but you can also listen intently to the soundscape…searching for the point where the noises become sounds and then become music. Others have called the band a rock band that makes techno. While the members don’t necessarily see it that way, they seem fine with that description.
So, now we reach what I consider the turning point of the band: Fan. Released in 2009, it is a single 35-minute track, where the first eight minutes or so is just a few loops of Masako Takada plucking the part of a guitar string where it might not be immediately obvious that it was a guitar. Yes, this goes on for eight minutes. I guess that the repetition may bore some listeners, but it also helps to adjust expectations. One should not just expect that the drums will kick in and there will be a guitar riff. So, after a point, one may just settle in, thinking that it will just be these clicky tones and THEN the drums come in, playing the simplest dance beat that one could play. There is no real build-up to the drums; it is just another sound to accompany the guitar loops that have sort of begun to play what could be considered notes. Yet, the context has changed from one of tin-clicks to a dance track; one that favors indulging in the moment as opposed to transitions and build-ups. And, while the track does introduce more and more elements, including the bass guitar about halfway through, it does not really go anywhere. It does not have break-downs or climaxes or leitmotifs; it just has elements and more elements and fewer elements and then it is over. It is easy to try to listen to something like this and think that it is boring for taking so long, but push through that and one could get lost in it in a way that one cannot really do with a track that is four minutes long.
Fan – 35:17
But, one may be able to do it for a track that is over eight minutes long. After releasing a few other works, including the excellent (but un-youtubed) Sounds Before Sleeping , the band began to focus on what has pretty much become its main project for the past few years: N. First released in 2013, N consisted of 3 tracks similar to Fan, though their combined length was just a few minutes longer. They would release another version of this album, called N’ in 2015, where they recorded it differently and pretty much got rid of all sections that were obviously guitar parts. Here is a performance of B-1. As you can hear, it is much cleaner, but more sterile. If you are looking for life in this track, just imagine a cave by a swamp or something.
B-1 – 9:11
2016 saw the release of the EP E, which took the sterile sound even further. If you want to claim that this is just bedroom electronica and that is not a guitar or percussion from a drumset, then I might as well believe you, as I have no idea what these sounds are.
E-130 – 8:35
So, that is pretty much where the band left off. Yes, there were a few things that I did not mention, such as other re-recordings and remixes, but this is pretty much the band in a nutshell. One interesting thing to note is that the band members no longer plays their old stuff, not because they hate it, but because they have changed so much that they would not be able to play the stuff with the necessary sincerity; a cover band might do a more proper job. The only things that they have in common are the basic instruments used, the repetition, and the employment of unmelodic sounds; but the context for each of those have changed significantly. Nisennenmondai has moved on. And may they continue to move, even if individual tracks do not.