I often write about musical trends on The Bias List, and it’s rarely in a positive light. But, today I want to zero in on one of my favorite trends to ever sweep pop music. We’re going back decades for this one, as I attempt to compose a love letter of sorts, written to one of the most exciting musical eras I can remember.
And although this is a K-pop site first and foremost, this time we’re heading to Japan in the late 1990’s. This post is going to look a little different than most featured on this site. It will most closely mirror my “legendary songs” series, but goes beyond one individual song.
2020 has been a mostly mediocre year for new music, and even worse when it comes to the goings-on around our world. As always, music has been a salve for me, but much of what I’ve been listening to is not remotely current. Over the past few months, I’ve often found myself dipping back to this late-90’s era for inspiration and energy.
So, what makes this era so special?
To be clear, there were many trends happening in Japan during these years. The visual kei movement was in full swing, and ballads were as popular as ever. But, the overriding force at this time was a hybrid genre I’m going to call “techno trance.” Technically, trance emerged from techno, but I often lump them together. In this case, the sound was characterized by repetitive, high energy electronic beats and the euphoric build-and-release structure of trance. J-pop took this template and bolstered it with a robust use of electric guitar, giving the style a more rock-influenced drive that feels unique to this era. It’s club music, but not as we know it now. Chorus was still king, and tempos were deliciously (and consistently!) upbeat.
Like with most global music markets, the late-90’s were a peak for record sales in Japan, right before the internet – and its ability to easily share and download music – brought the industry to its knees. Japan was less affected by this than other nations, and still is. It remains a leading market for physical cd sales, even as streaming and digital downloads have become the dominant means of music consumption almost everywhere else.
And, I’d like to begin this feature with a look at how the internet expanded my knowledge of global pop music.
I did not grow up with Asian pop music. I came of age in a small, alarmingly white town in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. And though music became a major part of my life from my teen years on, like most fans my taste was largely forged by what was available at the time. Then came the internet, and the whole world opened up. Being naturally drawn to music and curious about what the rest of the world was listening to, I spent an unhealthy amount of time trawling rudimentary websites, listening to audio samples and poring over slow-to-load cover art. Then one day in early 2001, I came across J-pop girl group Dream’s album Dear – and specifically, their epic single Private Wars.
Barring the occasional dip into anime, Private Wars was the first east Asian pop song I’d ever heard. I was instantly smitten. The sound was so immense, so layered and in-your-face. Compared with the skeletal Timbaland-style beats and lukewarm r&b that dominated American radio at the time, Private Wars felt like throwing open a door to an alternate reality. It was akin to discovering a sixth sense. Everything else felt small in comparison. And though lack of access would prevent me from following up on either J-pop or K-pop for years to come, this song (and accompanying album) left a deep impact on me.
Now, by 2001 Japan was at the very tail end of its late-90’s techno trance craze, but I mention Private Wars because it borrows many of the hallmarks from that era. Intense, high-energy production. Thundering percussion. Dramatic, stadium-ready guitar. Soaring vocals. Unknowingly, it was my entry to a style that would go on to dominate many a playlist for decades to come.
Travelling back in time, Japan’s techno trance trend had been a slow build for a number of years, peaking around 1998. It spawned legendary J-pop mainstays like Ayumi Hamasaki and Namie Amuro, as well as incredibly popular bands like Every Little Thing and Globe.
Many producers adhered to this sound at the time, but two names stand out most to me: Tetsuya Komuro and Daisuke Asakura. The former is considered to be one of the godfathers of modern J-pop, with an influence that can’t be overstated. But, I want to focus more on the latter.
Daisuke Asakura – and his prolific discography – is right on par with Sweetune for me. If you’ve read The Bias List for any amount of time, you’ll know what a big deal this statement is. I currently have almost three hundred Asakura-produced songs in my music library, and the vast majority of them are absolutely incredible. His music was everywhere throughout the 90’s, first within the context of synth-pop duo Access (of which Asakura was – and still is – one half of), and later as part of many acts’ discographies.
Asakura’s trademark sound is emblematic of this era in J-pop. He is a virtuoso on the keyboard, and that has always formed the root of his music. But all the other hallmarks are there, too. Electric guitar. Big, bold sounds and tempos. Mammoth pop choruses. If you enjoy one Asakaru song, you’re likely to love them all. He’s that consistent.
After Access went on hiatus in 1995, Asakura began writing and producing for other acts. This quickly snowballed until he had a long roster of exclusive collaborators, including another band of his own called Iceman. Acts like Kotani Kinya, Yuki Kimura, Lazy Knack and Fayray were all immensely charming, but my favorite is pop-techno duo Pool Bit Boys, who only released two albums in their short 1997-2000 career. But, boy are those albums perfect.
However, Asakura’s most prolific and influential collaboration came via his pairing with Takanori Nishikawa – better known by his stage name T.M. Revolution. This androgynous, alien-like powerhouse is my lord and savior of 90’s J-pop, and a dominating force within the era. Words can’t do justice to how much I adore him and his music.
Though T.M. Revolution’s 1997-2003 run is honestly flawless, I consider two of his early singles, Hot Limit and (especially) High Pressure, to be the kind of untouchable classics that go beyond “legendary” status – right up there with K-pop royalty like The Chaser and Rising Sun. T.M. Revolution often veered more closely to traditional (glam) rock, but his work within this period definitely took influence from the techno trance craze. Add to that a cosplay-friendly — almost visual kei – image, and you’ve got one of the most unique characters to emerge from the decade.
You know a J-pop trend was dominant when even Johnny’s Entertainment acts got in on it. The agency has long been known for sticking to its own musical guns, but rookies V6 emerged with a high-energy dancefloor sound that echoed the popularity of producers like Komuro and Asakura. Their early singles are miles away from the music they’re putting out now, with 1998’s excellent Be Yourself standing as their most techno trance offering.
As with all trends, this J-pop movement would eventually become replaced with new musical styles, but I’ve always felt that this insanely idiosyncratic era has continued to influence contemporary J-pop. In fact, dominant record label Avex Group has begun revisiting this nostalgic sound with newcomer Kalen Anzai, who just so happens to be starring in a (very odd and cheesy) drama that attempts to chronicle pioneering singer Ayumi Hamasaki’s late-90’s rise to fame.
If you’ve stuck with this lengthy feature until the bitter end, you might be wondering how (or if) this all relates to K-pop. For years now, I’ve been calling for techno to become the next global music trend. Obviously, it won’t sound the same as it did in the late 90’s, but the genre feels ripe for a reinvention.
I thought that K-pop’s occasional 2019 dip into psy-trance might offer a gateway to this resurgence, but we’ve yet to see it make any big waves in the industry. Personally, it’s one of my favorite genres – especially when taken as seriously as Japan did during its golden era. But, even if its bombastic, high-energy approach never finds its way back into fashion, I’m content to know that this brief but shining moment in time continues to bear musical fruit.
90’s techno-trance, I love you dearly.