Photo: Nino Ellison
Direction and retouch: Phil Boehm
Direction and retouch: Phil Boehm
Tentenko's first solo release outside of Japan is one of the most inventive, replayable, and mercurial pop records I've heard so far this year. The self-titled LP, premiering below ahead of its release via London-based Toothpaste Records on Friday, fizzles and spits and packs in a dozen choruses before throwing in glitchy synth sounds and off-time drums. I've spent the past week listening to it almost non-stop, and I still feel like I've eaten a handful of sugar packets every time the hypnotic Logic System collaboration "Hoshi No Densha" floats off into the neon-lit post-punk of "Hokago Sympathy." Tentenko, culled from the Japan-only releases of a 28-year-old, Hokkaido-born ex-"idol," is so good that I've found it confusing.
But then no amount of background really makes the record easy to comprehend. Tentenko rose to fame in Japan after joining the "alternative idol" group BiS (Brand-new Idol Society) in 2013. Unlike most idol groups—manufactured bands with a saccharine sound and a hyper-cutesy aesthetic—BiS were supposed to seem edgy. When Tentenko joined, they fully committed to that. Listen to their collaboration with the noise group Hijōkaidan, under the name BiS Kaidan, and you'll hear terrifying screams and screeching chaos all-but consuming the pop melodies. Then watch this video of BiS Kaidan, covered in blood and drinking "motor oil," performing the BiS song "nerve" at a show in Japan. They played "nerve" 13 times in a row that night. The record came out on a major label.The group disbanded in 2014 (at a show that featured an all-you-can-eat McDonald's buffet for fans), and Tentenko, who'd never written or recorded solo before, set out on her own. In an email to Noisey, translated from Japanese by Toothpaste co-founder and Sister Ray Records manager Johnny Hartford, Tentenko says that she didn't have any instruments after the break-up. She used her last paycheck from BiS to buy a Roland SP-404 sampler.A few months later, she released "Good Bye, Good Girl," a glistening 80s synth-pop song (co-written with a still-unidentified musician under the pseudonym Papico) that had an addictive chorus, reaching back to the poppier moments on Haruomi Hosono's Philharmony. (The song came out on VHS, appropriately, via her own Tenten Records.) It's a perfect set-up for Tentenko: bright, electric, and nowhere near as joy-filled as you'd guess without understanding a word of the lyrics, which call back to a horrifying unsolved murder. She doesn't need people to understand her lyrics ("I think that things that you can understand right away are not as interesting") but she naturally builds darkness into everything you hear on Tentenko. She says that the musicians she admires—The Residents, Throbbing Gristle, Bruce Haack—all do the same: "The world isn’t just made out of brightness, I am sad to say. Even if it’s fun, there's also some sadness."
One full-length, a couple of EPs, and a couple of singles, plus a slew of collaborations, have helped Tentenko to cement her position as an alt-pop master in Japan since then. Tentenko is a collection of their best songs, and it's sequenced perfectly. The closing stretch of "Kuruma," "Ryohyo No Kodomo," and the cover of Ikue Sakakibara's "Robot"—hyper-electric, blissful, then irresistibly upbeat—is flawless.But if you want to dig deeper into the darkness—or if you just want to spend an entire week discovering noise, dub, techno, and weird experiments—Tentenko's Soundcloud page is a marvel. There's even another collaboration with Hijōkaidan's Toshiji Mikawa, under the name MikaTen, which is every bit as twisted-up as the BiS Kaidan collaboration, but totally shorn of all pop fringes. "I can say for sure that I do not care about people’s expectations at all!" Tentenko says. "I think you just have to do what you want to do. So if there's a genre that I want to try, I wouldn't be uncomfortable about it." She's currently working on her second album with Atsuhiro Ito, who makes industrial noise music using fluorescent lights, under the name ZVIZMO. Every month, she puts out a 30-minute CD-R on Tenten Records: "This is for my own musical training and experimentation."Before you go in search of all that though, listen to Tentenko below.Tentenko is out on Friday, September 21, on Toothpaste Records. You can order it on vinyl via their website.Follow Alex Robert Ross on Twitter.