The advent of the millennium was a bizarre and innovative time for music across the globe. Aside from the standard commercial music that will likely remain forever, genre within the underground seemed to fizzle out and die in this period. Hard boundaries between genres disintegrated and new styles and subcultures were born and died in rapid speed during these tumultuous years. Music, now connected by the internet, seemed to explode outwards at warp speed, defying geographical barriers and bucking trends that shaped music for the past century.
One particularly interesting genre that occurred in Japan during the late 90s was “Shibuya-kei”, a genre defined by artists like Cornelius and Pizzicato Five, with a groundbreaking sound that combined electronic aspects, samples and callbacks to Western culture, and a heavy influence from lounge music, all remixed together to form one unique sound. The dissonance of combining unlike elements reflected the changing world that was happening around the music, as the world became more and more interconnected through technology like the Internet.
The name Shibuya-kei comes from the cultural capital in which most of this music was created and played, Shibuya, Japan, because pining down core tenets of the genre itself would prove difficult due to the inventive, almost postmodernist nature of its sound. The chaotic bustle of city life and youth culture provided a backdrop for most of the music under this umbrella.
However, like most of the changing sound of music, this era only lasted a few years. Artists like Fantastic Plastic Machine and Handsomeboy Technique would splinter off into more DJ-centric music, with heavier usage of sampling and more linear song structure, while other descendants of Shibuya-kei found themselves in the “picopop” movement, itself being a “remix” of its predecessor, Shibuya-kei.
Picopop, as it was tentatively known, was less interested in the matured, jazzy influences of Shibuya-kei, and instead doubled down on a more cutesy and futuristic electronic sound, with groups like Capsule and Strawberry Machine being prime examples. However, the textbook group for this sub-genre would have to be today’s subject, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box.
Plus-Tech Squeeze Box is a bit of an enigmatic project. The group released two LPs and dropped off the face of the earth, but not before landing songs in Coca-Cola and Powerade commercials, as well as a fitting surprise inclusion in the Spongebob Squarepants Movie soundtrack.
While the group started off as a trio, with founders Tomonori Hayashibe and Takeshi Wakiya joined by vocalist Junko Kamada for the first album, the second album sees Kamada leave the band and instead vocals are performed primarily by guests. They released two albums, Fakevox in 2000, and Cartooom! in 2004.
The name Plus-Tech Squeeze Box comes from The Who’s song “Squeeze Box”, as alluded to by Hayashibe.
Plus-Tech Squeeze Box’s sound differs between their two albums, with the first album being much more influenced by their Shibuya-kei roots, and the second album leaning entirely into the saccharine sounds of their own. One of the goals of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box seems to be to recapture the elation of being a child and watching cartoons, but in music form. This sounds simple, but is an incredibly complex and sugary presentation from the band. Almost every second of their run time is a high energy, joyful sprint through songs scored by numerous samples, sound effects, and masterful instrumentation. The listener is not just coming along for the ride, the listener is being strapped into a roller coaster and sent off at mach speed with the pull of a lever.
Fakevox is not an album that most would describe as “diminished”, but comparatively it is much more tame than their sophomore album. Fakevox retains a lot of the signature Plus-Tech Squeeze Box charm, with tons of sampling and cartoonish voices bouncing around within the songs, but songs follow a much more linear path with less abrupt changes — likely in part due to having the same vocalist present for the entire album.
The album opens with “Channel No.17”, which provides an excellent primer for the rest of the album. The song sounds more like a jingle, with only a quick sampled vocalization introducing the listener over bouncing percussion — the sound is charming and child-like.
One of Hayashibe’s biggest influences was actually music made for television, with all of its pomp and circumstance. This is a huge inspiration for the sounds of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box as a whole, both albums not only use samples from TV, but also tend to blend motifs and style in a way that makes the songs seem like they were originally designed for TV. This is truly unique, because usually music for TV becomes derivative of itself, art being reduced to a commercial asset, but this flips that relationship on its head and runs with it — a very common theme within the music of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box.
Songs like “early RISER” would help propel the sound of the group, with the abrupt shifts in sound that seemed to work for the band, driving guitar suddenly giving way to a gibberish bridge with backing pipe organ, and then halting to make way for a big band brass introduction to the song’s banjo section. Many similarities with this style could be found with Cornelius, one of the most prolific artists often co-opted into the Shibuya-kei legacy, whose 1997 album Fantasma would create a blueprint for this sort of sound.
Some listeners have called Plus-Tech Squeeze Box’s sound “maximalist”, as if every moment is filled with as much as possible on behalf of its producers to create a super dense and textured sound. This was partially on purpose, with many commentators of the album at its release drawing parallels with its pace to the hustle and bustle of life in Shibuya, once again underlining the importance of context with music like this.
While many songs keep the trademark ecstasy of the project, there are a few slower songs on the album, and instead of breaking up the momentum, these songs actually provide a breath of relief and prevent fatigue from dampening the excitement throughout Fakevox. In particular, “rocket coaster”, despite its name, is a ballad hidden amongst these high-energy jams, almost melancholic in comparison to the songs around it, and notably missing a lot of the more erratic aspects of the project. The song is played straightforward, sounding more like The Cymbals than the usual acts this band is compared to.
This is the song that got me into Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, it and “clover” stand out on Fakevox because the band never really slows down again outside of a few sparse moments on their follow-up album, so these are all we really get of the more stripped down sound from the group. While most songs have very mixed instrumentation, these songs are guitar-heavy without overpowering Kamada’s vocals. “clover” closes out Fakevox on a more quiet note, and perhaps the last moment of tranquility for the band, given their next album…
If you loved the more outlandish antics of Fakevox, then you will LOVE Cartooom! This is a rare occasion where the album art looks exactly how the album sounds. All of the chaotic and dissonant elements from their first project have been amped up even further, even faster, and even more frenzied. While some people may be turned off by the new level of extremity, there is something to be said for the producers behind Plus-Tech Squeeze Box being able to one-up themselves on an already insane debut.
The album opens with a similar introduction to their first album in “CartooomTV”, a stylistic jingle that greets the listener with “Welcome to this cartoon world!” over dissonant percussion before diving headfirst into the incoming wall of sound with “fiddle-dee-dee!!”, the only song featuring the return of Junko Kamada on vocals. This song reflects the evolved sound of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, with similar elements to their original album such as abrupt shifts in tone and pace, but also with a new more candied sound that seems to move even more quickly than before.
In keeping with the cartoon theme, the only real lull in the breakneck pace of the album is what I can only imagine to be a sort of commercial with “CM#&’($_?-!”, where guest vocalist Sakura Leon croons about her love of “Plus-Tech Whisky” and then the dial is turned by the ‘viewer’ as they channel surf to the next song.
The rest of the songs follow the theme of the album fairly consistently, until we reach “Hoky-Poky a.la.mode.”, which completely shifts into a more reduced, jazzy number with vocals by Chinatsu Furukawa, singer of fellow picopop band, Sonic Coaster Pop. This song procures a bit of a callback to earlier Shibuya-kei acts, whose own music was heavily inspired by lounge music. In addition to this, the more subdued nature of the song serves as a sort of ending credit to the album (excluding the bonus tracks), further establishing the parallel between this album and a TV program, with album closer “PAPA says” almost acting as a preview of the next episode.
While Plus-Tech Squeeze Box may never have achieved the same level of notoriety as some of their contemporaries, their body of work is still an incredible testament to the creativity of its creators and the changing world that it is a product of. Plus-Tech Squeeze Box is a project that looks back on nostalgic, simpler times fondly, while also embracing the rapidly accelerating new era the world arrives at.
The turn of the century was an incredible time for technology in music, with acts like DJ Shadow, The Avalanches, Handsomeboy Technique, and other artists reinventing the wheel with the advent of sampling accessibility and remix potential. Plus-Tech Squeeze Box is one of these pioneers as well, despite being lesser known, and ironically their sound is something that is incredibly popular right now, arguably more so than the aforementioned artists.
With a huge resurgence in breakcore and other genres that aim to push the limits of speed and energy within music, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box edges much closer to this line than most of the other, more electronic-focused acts of the early 2000s.
While there may be no direct correlation between Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and 100 gecs specifically, there is a lot of inspiration in today’s alternative electronic music from the groundbreaking sounds from Japan in the early 2000s. Music is passed down from generation to generation, and a lot of today’s popular sound can be seen as a passing of the torch from its predecessors to the current day artists. In the same way that The Who and television music inspired Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, all it takes is the right person listening to the right album at the right time to bring about the next innovation in sound.
Both albums are worth a listen, but if you’re unsure, try Fakevox. If you love the chaos in it, then you may ultimately prefer Cartooom!, but Fakevox is the one I enjoy the most, and one of my favorite albums of all time. What Plus-Tech Squeeze Box brings to the table is a truly unique experience that hasn’t really been captured since. With so much media about how technology is destroying us, and how TV creates mindless drones, it is refreshing to see works that reflect the good sides of media consumption and reinforce the most important principle — having fun.