Preview: Fuji Rock & Summer Sonic, 2010

Fuji, Sonic festivals ready to rumble

Summer's here and Japan's two big international music fests – Fuji and Sonic – are preparing to slug it out on succeeding weekends. Now in its second decade, Summer Sonic is hoping to provide something special with Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder leading alternating line-ups at venues in Osaka and Chiba; while, one week earlier Fuji Rock offers its usual eclectic mix headed by Muse, Roxy Music, and Massive Attack at its usual home at the Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture.

But while much attention focuses on the headliners, music festivals are about a lot more than who tops the bill. Strength in depth is also important, and, with audience members exposed to dozens of bands that they have probably never heard of before, festivals are also great showcases for new talent.

From the point of view of foreign bands, Fuji and Sonic present an ideal opportunity to test Japanese waters. If they do well, then they can expect future tours and distribution deals, while if they bomb, who is going to notice with so much else going on?

Japanese fans are some of the most open-minded in the world and are always on the lookout for the next big thing before it breaks. Discovering a great band far down the running order or playing one of the smaller stages is one of the great pleasures of music festivals. So, rather than focusing on the headliners and the usual repeaters, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting acts to debut at the two festivals this year.

At Fuji much attention will be on The XX and Detroit Social Club, both highly touted new groups from the UK. The XX's eponymous debut album, with its delicate, lo-fi indie-pop, won rave reviews when it was released last year, evoking comparisons to early Portishead. But, how this sound translates to the fresh, open spaces of Naeba remains to be seen.

Detroit Social Club – actually they are from Newcastle – describe their music on Facebook as "analogue experimentation of the modern kind" and "retro-big-beat-gospel-influenced junkie folk, made in 1970s New York." But more ready reference points are Oasis and groove rockers Kasabian. Like Kasabian, they create a claustrophobic wall of sound with a propulsive rock feel and a chilled-out vibe – the aural equivalent of the kind of energy drinks that mix alcohol and caffeine, relaxing while they stimulate.

Fuji's laid back vibe should provide an excellent setting for Yeasayer. The Brooklyn-based pop-rock trio's eclectic, organic sounds, underscored by cascading, Afro-pop influenced rhythms should go down well with the Fuji crowd. In fact, some of the songs off their latest album "Odd Blood," like the rollicking and mellow Ambling Alp and the ethereal and anthemic Madder Red, seem custom-made for Fuji.

While the unique Fuji Rock atmosphere can play a large role in whether a particular band hits it off or not, Summer Sonic, with its more straightforward approach, relying on concrete urban venues, provides a leveler playing field.

Bands to look out for here include Band of Skulls, protégés of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Like BRMC, who are also on the bill, Band of Skulls offer up an electrifying brand of bluesy garage rock. The classic retro rock references on songs like Death by Diamonds and Pearls should speedily break down any language barriers.

Impressive performances can also be expected from the similarly named Band of Horses, who weld shoegazing guitar textures and stadium rock influences to a country rock base, and Yes Giantess, a Boston-based foursome, who deliver up a pumping mix of retro, "poptastic" sounds that evoke Prince and Michael Jackson. However, singer Jan Rosenfeld's cheesy prep boy falsetto may grate with some listeners.

Last year's Summer Sonic provided an important platform in Japan for Manchester synth rockers and New Order revivalists Delphic, helping them to build support and a fan base in Japan. This year they are joined on the bill by Hurts, an electro pop duo from the same city with a sound that seems to have passed through the same time warp from mid-1980s Manchester. This shows that once a trail has been blazed in the music world it will be followed by others, and for foreign bands coming to Japan the majority of these trails now pass through Fuji and Sonic.

International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
25th of June, 2010
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