Every year, when work has slowed down a bit, and Nina and I close out the year in Vermont, I always end up reconnecting to music I've loved but had on the shelf for a minute. With everything quieting down for a couple of weeks, instead of checking out new releases or playing catch-up on things I missed, I can focus on what I'm feeling without any compunction. In the waning days of 2022, it was Japanese hardcore. While I have a bunch of friends who are even more well-versed in it than I am—shouts to Ed for writing this primer for Bandcamp a couple of years back—I've just wanted to do this, and now I am doing just that.
A few caveats up top: One, this isn't exhaustive. I'm not Wikipedia. I'm just a dude who likes this stuff and feels like I don't see enough chatter about it online. Second: This is mostly going to be me sharing what, personally, I think is the cream of the crop. A lot of it will be bigger name bands, but that's because it's hard to argue with some of the classics—save for G.I.S.M., which I will happily argue about all day. My hope is that if you're fully unfamiliar with this music, you can get a sense of the vibe and maybe dive even deeper. Or if this stuff is really not for you, at least you've got a little more insight into the mega-nerd shit I keep myself occupied with.
Finally, since a lot of this music isn't readily available on streaming, I linked to YouTube rips of the albums in the little "recommended listening" section I dropped in at the end of each blurb. I wanted to keep it consistent, so apologies if that's not your preferred format, but sometimes we just have to make do with what we've got.
Part of my desire to share my love of Japanese hardcore was spurred by the news of Gauze breaking up back in November. For years, I'd not only have clocked them as my favorite Japanese hardcore band but likely one of my favorite hardcore bands, full stop. It's a bit of an obvious choice, as they are certainly a starter pack band for this style, but the reality is that they were utterly unmatched in their time. For 40 years they represented something so singular, with a vision so focused, and a sound so frenetic and visceral, that it's impossible to overstate the impact they had on me. I always hoped I'd get to see them play live one day, but even without that, I'll always carry Gauze close to my heart. "Without break with all power."
While Gauze has always been my favorite Japanese hardcore band, Bastard's Wind of Pain is probably my favorite Japanese hardcore album. This thing is so brutish and so perfectly compact that there's not a single second wasted. The amount of times I get the one-word hook to "Misery" stuck in my head is honestly alarming. There's something about the way Tokurow hits that word that feels so anguished and spiteful all at once. Couple it with riffs that are heavy and hooky, with ripping solos and galloping drums, you get a record that could level city blocks if it was played at a volume loud enough.
Turning to one of the earlier bands of this scene, there's The Stalin. I'd hesitate to call them hardcore per se, but if we're talking about Japanese punk albums, Stop Jap is perfect. I know I just described Wind of Pain as perfect, and really, how many perfect albums are there in the world? Well, guess what, here are two of them back to back.
On The Stalin's second album, you can see the band effectively laying out the template that so many other bands would pull from in their wake. The opening track "ロマンチスト" is so catchy it makes me sing along even though I have no idea what the actuals words are. This is proto-hardcore in a sense, as it's still very hook-laden, straightforward punk, but with a little more velocity behind it all. If you're looking for something less abrasive but no less vital, listen to Stop Jap.
Recommended Listening: 1982's Stop Jap
Turning it over to a band that featured three members of Bastard at various points, we have Judgement, a band that comes as close to feeling hard as any band on this list does. Bastard has moments that pushed up against the kind of New York hardcore elements that have kept the camo shorts industry booming, but Judgement indulges those even more. Though they never released a full-length, each of Judgement's 7-inches highlights a slightly different approach to their take on hardcore. No Reason Why is the consensus favorite, and for good reason, as it falls somewhere between Bastard and Hatebreed's Satisfaction Is the Death of Desire. But, for my money, I've always had a preference for Haunt in the Dark—there's something about that clean guitar tone in "The Mad Dog" that adds a subtle unease to the whole thing. It just works for me, I guess.
The death grunt. Or as you may know it: the "ough," the "ugh," or the "oof." Those primal noises that fill up the empty space in songs are often there for only a fleeting second, but sometimes they can be the thing that fully makes or breaks a song. Whether it's Tom G. Warrior or just some random dolt with a microphone, it's a simple trick that works every time. On Kuro's iconic 1984 Who The Helpless eight-inch (give it up for the eccentrics) about 25 seconds into the first song, there is one of the grossest, most painful-sounding grunts I've ever heard on record. Kuro's become iconic for a lot of reasons, and a single listen to Who The Helpless will tell you exactly why.
Recommended listening: 1984's Who The Helpless
While many of the bands I've featured here so far are absolutely ripping, the thing I've always loved about Death Side is the atmosphere captured in their recordings. While I've touched on a couple of other bands from the Burning Spirits subsection of Japanese hardcore—a scene that pulled touches from Motörhead and Iron Maiden and brought them into Japanese hardcore—unlike Bastard or Judgement, Death Side's songwriting has always felt a bit more triumphant to me. The riffs are so expressive you can get the full emotional range of the song just by focusing on how the chords are articulated. When the drums lock in and accentuate these moments, it gives Death Side a feeling that few imitators have ever captured.
Has this list been too listenable for you so far? Then allow me to up the ante with Disclose. The brainchild of the late Kawakami—a man that, if you told me he only listened to Discharge, I'd believe you—who took that classic Dis-core sound and blew it the fuck up and out. Disclose is one of the noisiest bands I can think of that still is able to anchor all that chaos with memorable, recognizable songs. Take "Wardead," the closer from 2004's Yesterday's Fairytale, Tomorrow's Nightmare, a nearly 10-minute exercise in repetition, distortion, and fuzzed-out production. It's a perfect encapsulation of Disclose's approach and would be a great way to torture the other people in your house if you ever need to do such a thing.
Sabotage Organized Barbarian a.k.a. S.O.B. a.k.a. SxOxB was one of the first bands from this scene I ever heard. I'm not sure how they jumped to the top of the pile, but I remember seeing the cover of Don't Be Swindle and something about it really imprinted on me. Though they'd eventually make a turn into overt Napalm Death worship, the band's early material was just a loose, fast take on American hardcore. The songs are short, energetic blasts often sung in their best attempt at English, leading to sing-alongs of "Let's go beach!" that are somehow both electrifying and utterly charming.
Everyone make way for Kourtney Kardashian's favorite punk band. One thing I've not really touched on here is the longevity of some of these bands. Gauze existed for 40 years, putting out records during that entire time period, and Death Side still plays shows, but Crow, despite having started in the mid-'80s, actually put out some of their best material in the 2000s. While Last Chaos is an unimpeachable classic, selling for thousands of dollars, 2005's 血涙 (also known as Bloody Tear) is the one for me. It's a little more dialed in, sounding a bit more singular than their early material, and featuring an all-time great scream just after the 20-minute mark.
One of the earliest bands in the scene, The Comes' No Side is an excellent example of first-wave hardcore. The guitar sound is thin, lacking distortion, and clearly not multi-tracked, but it's got that loose, urgent feel that makes this stuff appeal to me. It's full of parts that, technically speaking, make no real sense, but it all just comes together thanks to the band's conviction. That's the beauty of early punk and hardcore to me. No one really knew what they were doing, but they knew just enough to get their ideas across. You can't fake that.
Recommended listening: 1983's No Side
After The Comes ended, members formed Lip Cream. Early on, Lip Cream really sounded like it was figuring out what exactly the band was supposed to be, though, by the time of 1987's 9 Shocks Terror, they fully dialed it in. For my money, it's hard to beat a record that's under 14 minutes long, because every riff is essential with such limited time. It's why a short album is always much more impressive to me than an hour-long opus. With a long album, it's a given that a listener's attention will eventually wane, so the filler ends up serving a function in a sense. When you only have 15 minutes, any lull in the action feels that much more pronounced, so you really can't fuck it up. The only true sin of 9 Shocks Terror is how utterly abysmal the artwork is. Can't win them all, I guess.
I always thought this band's name sounded like someone saying Peter Frampton's name wrong. Regardless of that initial stumbling block in my stupid head, this is another entry in the D-beat style. It's easy to make fun of bands in this world, and I get it, but when it works it just really works, and Framtid works. The songs are ripping, and the guttural vocals create an atmosphere that actually evokes the subject matter they're singing about, which is such a rarity. Too often bands confuse singing about a subject with actually expressing that feeling through the music, and Framtid makes you feel like you're experiencing the horrors their lyrics describe. Absolutely top-tier stuff.
Yet another entry in "D-beat that's not boring" column, we have Confuse. A big part of what makes this band work is Isoda's vocals. He enunciates enough to where you can really catch the anger inside every syllable. Even when riding a groove, there are little flourishes—like those insane tom rolls in "Rebel and War"— that make you feel like the whole thing is going to come off the tracks at any moment. The sense that everyone in the band is playing to the absolute upper level of their ability and just barely holding on is what drew me to hardcore originally, and Confuse gives me that feeling every time I hear them.
If you've taken a cursory listen to any of this stuff so far, it's fairly obvious that some of this music was running a parallel path to the emerging black metal scenes of the mid-'80s. While I can hear touches of it in Death Side's guitar work, Ghoul is one of the few bands from this era I clock as sounding evil. With a few small tweaks, their song "Jerusalem" could have been on a Bathory album, as it captures that occult spirit without feeling the least bit forced. In the span of just about a year, Ghoul went from sounding like Motörhead to proto-Mayhem, and this release has always left me wondering where they'd have ended up if they kept on going.
Recommended listening: The 2004 collection, 1984-1989
I don't think Warhead gets enough love. Where a lot of Japanese punk and hardcore albums can set you back hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, Warhead's stuff has always remained relatively cheap. I'm not sure exactly why, though I imagine lacking the mythology that draws people to bands like G.I.S.M. is probably a contributing factor. Their 2014 self-titled album ranks among my favorite Warhead releases, proving that, unlike a lot of their American contemporaries, these bands don't lose their spark with age. Start buying those Warhead records before someone famous wears one of their shirts and then everything skyrockets in value. You've been warned.
In a sense, Think Again always felt a bit like a cross between the Burning Spirits sound of Japanese hardcore (the aforementioned Bastard, Judgement, and Death Side, plus loads more) with American youth crew. There's a twinge of melodicism running through the Never LP that gives it a fast-core feel instead of the galloping Motörcharged sound that so many people associate with Japanese bands. If any of the bands I've covered could have put out a record on Bridge Nine, it's Think Again. While that may read like a diss to certain people, I mean it in the best possible way.
Recommended listening: 2012's Never
With only two 7-inch EPs to their name, Nemesis was short-lived and largely forgotten, but their scant discography has always felt incredibly vital. Their nods to other bands mentioned here are fairly overt, but you can still hear them working in their own ideas and crafting memorable songs in the process. Nemesis wasn't reinventing the wheel at all, but they made the most out of their short time together.
Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I know it was a long one, but if I can make one other person walk around the world with Bastard's "Misery" stuck in their head, I'll have truly contributed something valuable to society.