I often feel that I’ve not fairly represented the whole world with these posts. For better or worse I have more to to say about musicians from South America, Europe, and Africa more often than Asia. I can comfort myself, however, by claiming that the Asian groups I do write about are among the most impressive that I feature. Such is the case with this week’s post about the Japanese ska-punk band Kemuri.
I have been a fan of ska music since I came to the realization that it isn’t just punk reggae music (ska actually predates reggae as a musical style). Especially in its recent incarnation as a punk-infused, fun-loving genre centered around positivity, ska music is just exciting to listen to. Much like reggae, ska has become a worldwide phenomenon stretching from its native Jamaica to the U.K., the U.S., and further still abroad. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Japanese ska is a vibrant sub-genre, and one that churns out no shortage of incredibly talented and polished bands. One of the headliners of this group was Kemuri.
Kemuri busted onto the Tokyo ska scene in 1995 with frenetic punk arrangements, a dedication to positive lyrics and content, and a really awesome logo. In 1997 the band released their recorded debut, Little Playmate, which remains a landmark both for the group and for the ska-punk genre in general. Riding Little Playmate’s success and an intense live show, Kemuri went on to tour heavily and record nine more full-length studio albums, thrice releasing multiple LPs per year. After the tenth-anniversary double release of Waiting for the Rain and Principle and a similar double-down two years later at the tenth anniversary of Little Playmate, the band released a statement thanking its fans for carrying the music farther than anyone had expected and announcing Kemuri’s amicable breakup. In keeping with their “Positive Mental Attitude” ethos, the band elected among themselves to stop at the height of their success to conclude in a positive way. The band has briefly re-formed, presciently enough, for the 2012 Air Jam music festival. So far there is no word on whether this will be a full-fledged reunion or a one-off. In any case, Kemuri’s original lineup (sans trumpet player Ryosuke Morimura, who passed away in 2003, drummer Shoki Hiraya, and saxophonist Mike Park, who hasn’t played with the band since 1998) will be together on stage once again this year.
Kemuri plays a hyper-precise brand of ska punk that honestly puts a good deal of the well-known American ska groups to shame. The punk rhythm section comprised of guitarist Hidenori Minami, drummer Shoji Hiraya, and bassist Noriaki Tsuda hammers away like a well-oiled machine. Tsuda’s bass parts are perhaps the most impressive part of the band, as the bassist shifts effortlessly between metallic picked bass lines that are so indicative of punk music to wild walking lines that fly up and down the range of the instrument. The band is rounded out by sax player Ken Kobayashi (formerly Park and Morimura lent their talents to an on-point horn section as well) and the constantly almost-yelling Fumio Ito on vocals. Ito sings the vast majority of his songs in English, which further helps to set Kemuri apart by the heavily-accented English lyrics the group screams over distorted guitars and staccato horns.
It should be pointed out that Kemuri is more than just a punk band with horns, as ska-punk groups occasionally devolve into. The band gets loud for certain, and the guitar, drums, and lyrical ethos are all soaked in late 1980s American punk music, but Kemuri also shows a great interest in the Caribbean ska roots of their primary style. As such, Kemuri joins with the top echelon of ska-punk bands in truly striking a balance between the component parts of their music. Also notable in looking at Kemuri’s music is the relative lack of change over time: in a career than spanned ten studio albums in as many years, songs from 1997’s Little Playmate would sound just as at home on 2007’s Blastin’ (and vice versa). It seems that Kemuri simply had dozens of songs they needed to put out from the beginning and needed ten years to finally record all of them.
Because of the lack of progression, it is easy to listen to all of Kemuri’s music as one work. From the rare Japanese-language slam of “Ato-Ichinen” to the band-defining “P.M.A.”, horns and gang vocals soar over a rhythm section that alternates between punk distortion and upbeat ska skanking. Standout tracks along the way include the Boston-stomp of “Go! Under the Sunshine”, the horn-driven instrumental “Sunset”, and the super-catchy singalong chorus of “Rainy Saturday”. While many of the songs are similar, instead of leading to boredom or disinterest each track just shows further the band members’ command of their instruments and the style they play.
With Kemuri reuniting this year after a five-year hiatus, it’s difficult to say what may be next for the band. As of this moment Kemuri has two websites: an outdated Universal Music page that has some fun graphics, but little helpful information, and an official website that features only a brief message about the group’s appearance at Air Jam 2012. The group has little presence on social networking sites, though in fairness they haven’t been a band during much of the development of that phenomenon. In any case, it is exciting that such a talented and productive ska-punk group is playing together again, and the chance that new music could be a reality in the not-so-distant future is encouraging. In the meantime, it is entirely worthwhile for listeners to reacquaint (or acquaint) themselves with Kemuri’s Japanese ska-punk music. Nobody is listening to Kemuri right now, but between the band’s dedication to positivity and positive attitudes and their blistering musicianship, the group definitely deserves another go.