The Japanese House: a band that have never been on my radar pops up in an email of new live shows up for reviewing. I conduct a quick Google search and find out that it is in fact the solo project of Buckingham’s Amber Bain. Who is Amber Bain? Turns out she’s collaborated with The 1975 and they’re now label buddies and help produce each other’s albums. I listen to track “Face Like Thunder” and I think that it’s pretty nice, if a little sparse. I agree to a live review.
Upon entering Gorilla, I am greeted with a wave of hot, damp air. It is boiling and it is full, which is not what I was expecting, purely because it wasn’t super easy to find a lot of information online about the band (or rather, Bain). As well as the humid and airless atmosphere, the second thing that strikes me about this gig is the age of the crowd. For a while, I fear I am amongst the oldest age-range here, but upon craning my neck around the sardined room of bodies I notice a few people 26+ speckled about. There appears to be quite a lot of equipment onstage for a solo artist with such a seemingly minimal set-up for her sound (mostly a drum sequencer, the odd guitar line and a lot of vocoder melodies on her vocals), but here there is a drum kit, a sample pad, a couple of keyboards, a bass guitar and some sort of nice synthesiser/drum machine looking thing. I’m intrigued. One by one, in near-darkness, three figures (two men, one woman) step onto the stage to a cheering crowd and settle at their instruments. After a few moments, a second woman (obviously Amber Bain) walks out towards the front of the stage and the crowd goes ballistic. I find myself abruptly charmed by her tousled, shoulder-length mop of beachy hair and her androgynous, plain look. She reminds me of Marika Hackman in looks and in her coy simplicity she is rather stunning. Before a note is played I am glad that a totally non-glamorous, men’s plain t-shirt-wearing, epicene front-woman is clearly a role model for this young crowd. She picks up her guitar, and she’s left-handed.
The first song (I later find out) is “Clean.” It has a nice ethereal intro with jingling bells, and I’m briefly reminded of Gold Panda, who’s music I adore. An Imogen Heap style vocal effect then comes through and my rose-tinted Gold Panda sunglasses fall off and smash. However, it’s nice and full-sounding and I find myself nodding slowly to the half-time trap-esque beat. The guitar sound is also full and warm and there are some really nice effects going on. I struggle to pin-point the genre and plump with “Triumphant, Slow Synth Pop” at this stage. I write this down. The air is getting thick due to the smoke machine and slow, white lights pierce through the haze; the whole experience is very dream-like and meditative. The second song is one I can’t place but it has some surprising heavy guitar stabs in it that I really dig, though the rest of it is very sparse and vocoder-heavy. After a few songs more, I’m really getting a “Chill Wave” vibe from the set; there’s a lot of half-time drum beats, a lot of space and again, a lot of vocoder-effect. It’s worth mentioning that the drummer is incredible. It was really strange to see a live drummer for this set-up but it worked so so well; making use of the sample pads and the live kit, the chap had impeccable timing and utilised some really nice syncopated fills and rhythms.
Bain, incredibly slight, jumps onto the drum kit mid-set to a whooping crowd and plays her guitar up there for a bit, behind a pretty constant strobe light at this point. At around the fifth song in the set, the guitar plays a more prominent part in the overall sound and there are admittedly some gorgeous, deep tremolo effects, but I find myself getting very bored with the vocoder-harmonies in Amber’s voice. For a few songs it works really well, but after a while it begins to grate on me and although it stylises The Japanese House’s sound, I wonder whether they could be more inventive with the seemingly formulaic song structures and samey vocal sounds; there are a lot of sections that are a bit dull and slow, which seem to rely on the vocoder effect and not a lot else. That said, I am a tad impressed with whatever she is using to create all of the harmonies around the note she sings – I find myself asking my friend how whatever she is using knows when she’s singing major or minor with just a melody line (her voice) as her input? Though perhaps this just reveals my technical inadequacy.
The final song appears to be ‘the hit’ “Face Like Thunder” and the crowd goes mad – there are a lot of screaming girls and people start to get up on the shoulders of their peers. One girl even manages to grapple over some bodies and drag herself onto the stage, belly first, only to be farcically chased off by a member of security. For the encore, Bain jokes “should we play some ambient music?” and all begin to play a note-for-note cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which is actually very good and, surprisingly, unstylised.
Regardless of the fact that my favourite moment of the evening was when a young lad in front of us, wearing a huge puffa jacket, attempted to flirt with a girl he’d clearly just met, or at least was very awkward around, by saying “I love all Japanese Houses: semi-detached; terraced; multi-storey…” I did enjoy myself. Besides feeling like once you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all, Bain is clearly an excellent instrumentalist and has some unique ideas about timbres and, importantly, about space within the music. There is so much more life in the live show than there is on record, and if you’re after seeing them soon, definitely watch the drummer; whether you love the music or not, something about The Japanese House’s live set is sure to charm you.