There was something in the water in Nineties Scotland; a stellar wave of talent – ranging from Idlewild to Mogwai, the Delgados and Arab Strap – arrived onto the scene and the airwaves. Amidst it all stood Urusei Yatsura. To this day, one of those bands that inspires wide-eyed evangelising from hardcore believers, a band listed on innumerable “they shoulda been huge!” lists. Having called it quits in the early 2000s, Rocketgirl’s new compilation comprising eleven tracks from the band’s BBC sessions is a truly welcome surprise; personally I leapt out of my chair and howled “YES!” when this first appeared on the radar. I still remember, 1996, age sixteen, a friend’s bedroom as he waved a near-new but already battered CD case at me saying I had to hear it, that he’d not had the disc off in a month. He was right to rave about Urusei Yatsura and my love for the band has outlived that friendship by a long mile.
In terms of the band’s trajectory, they emerged with their key features near fully established. The 1994 six song release All Hail Urusei Yatsura was a winning blend of post-hardcore guitar riffs mixing one part noise to one part pop candy, with a slew of punchy sing-along sentiments stirred in. The cherry on the cocktail was the off-kilter humour one would expect from a band named after a cutesy Japanese cartoon. That translates as tracks called ‘Death 2 Everyone’ and ‘Teenage Dream (Proved Fucked & Wrong)’ and the synthesised voice of a toy busting into the mix. The band’s next two albums then revealed a common truth: many of the best lo-fi bands benefit from a touch of high-fidelity mixing. We Are Urusei Yatsura (1996) and Slain By Urusei Yatsura (1998) took, in essence, the formula unveiled on the EP but scrubbed away the audio murkiness. The result felt like the before/after of a washing powder commercial: every facet of the band’s work gleamed.
For that brief span of years Feagus Lawrie and Graham Kemp made a good case for being seen as the U.K. underground’s Lennon/McCartney: whatever competition existed between their aesthetics, the combination created relentlessly memorable lines. Their U.K. Top 40 hit ‘Hello Tiger’ deserved to reach that peak given the sharpness and originality of lines like “So then later, when you’re singing your theme, in the movie for your special scene – your director has a Seventies eye and he’s sorry that you’re super-fly” – and an all-pervasive exuberance and wild-eyed energy that sounded like instruments being beaten to shrapnel shards just to get a rhythm that bounded from the speakers. Like Oasis’ fabled run of outstanding single-only bonus tracks in the mid-Nineties, Urusei Yatsura’s 1994-1997 singles yielded sufficient rewards to justify a U.S.-only b-sides compilation, ¡Pulpo! showing a band tossing away songs – like ‘Down Home Kitty’ and ‘Nova Static’ – that others would have given eye-teeth for. The run continued with yet more glorious single tracks, 1999’s inspired Yon Kyoku Iri EP, a first single trailing a new album in 2000 and…
…Then everything simply deflated. Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura emerged and even its title seemed to sneer at the band’s own bullet-proof reputation: there was a suspicion that the band were taking aim at their own halo. Musically, the contents stripped away much of the chaotic cacophony that had given them their originality, drawing comparisons to Cast and other mid-ranking indie outfits for its relatively staid sound. The impression was of a band that didn’t want to be there anymore and it was no surprise when a breakup soon followed.
The past decade and a half has passed in relative silence. Lawrie released three volumes of screamingly loud ambient guitar drone with the trio Angel of Everyone Murder (on the always quixotic and intriguing Kovorox Sound label) while re-convening with Elaine and Ian Graham (bass and drums respectively in Urusei Yatsura) to form the chronically under-recorded Project A-Ko (another Japanese culture reference) which left behind the album Yoyodyne, a by-email-request-only song ‘Phosphorine’ plus abandoned plans for a second album in 2011.
So here we are in 2016 and it seems I wasn’t the only one wishing there was more to hear of this exceptional troupe. A decade and a half on from Urusei Yatsura’s last utterance comes You Are My Urusei Yatsura. John Peel’s untrammelled enthusiasm for the band resulted in them becoming a fixed presence on the BBC for a couple of years. What one hears on this release is a selection from sessions conducted for Peel in April 1996 and July 1997, for Evening Sessions in August 1996 and January 1998, plus an undated Radio Scotland track from 1996 – a pretty compressed timeframe covering a mere 21 months of the band’s existence. From first wayward sliding chord it’s a blissful return by an old friend. It’s amazing how undated the material sounds, these songs inhabited their own universe even then and there’s still not a band in the U.K. who followed up on this particular musical collision.
It’s surprising to realise how well-practised and precise the band’s flirtation with chaos was and how little the tracks deviate from the ever-so-slightly scrubbed up versions seen on the original albums. It’s often the way with bands who – even at their peak – are recording on low budgets: the gap between a Minor Threat demo compilation and an official Minor Threat release was roughly zero and the same is true here. The biggest audible changes are things like the vocal phrasing of ‘Kewpies Like Watermelon’ in the 20 second bridge just before the two minute mark of that song; a deeper guitar chug throughout the ever-awesome ‘Siamese’ plus a brief 20 second spray of feedback just before its conclusion. Even the feedback on ‘First Day On A New Planet’ follows the original almost tone-for-tone. What differs is more the attack, a yearning for intensity – there’s a get-up-and-go here driving the listener full-pelt across 40 minutes of pop-punk bliss.
There’s one track that didn’t make it onto an album but it’s ‘Dice/Nae Dice’ which already emerged on the ‘Hello Tiger’ singles. There’s not much wrong with it, but it’s mainly evidence of what a Urusei Yatsura song looked like before the band relentlessly tightened flabby running time and jams down to sub-four minute pop confections. It testifies, however, to the band’s firm grip of their key tricks: a wayward guitar aesthetic; a liking for cracking feedback all over each softer sentiment; an ability to vary dynamic without ever leading anyone to think it’s anything other than a pause before the next full-pelt assault. The highlights here aren’t significant revelations, there’s none of that. They’re more akin to revved up favourites: hearing songs the band had been playing for a couple years honed to perfection, or newbies they’re still excited to be showcasing.
On the other hand, it leaves me wishing someone took the band’s legacy in hand and created something a little less tame, something that expanded more on one or another facet of this band’s talents. One of Urusei Yatsura’s finest b-sides was an acoustic slow-mover called ‘Pampered Adolescent’ that scratches its head, shuffles awkwardly, confesses “Hey, I think that you’re just like me – a pampered adolescent. And you think that you’re the only one…But you’re no….!” With the final word lost to the final amped-up explosion. I’d like to hear more of this band with the volume turned down. Again, there’s a rough track called ‘Burriko Girl’ that plays like a home demo – all tin-pot drum machine and softly spoken words; I’d love to hear this band’s sketchy home demos. Then again, give me more noise! Give me a live disc with the band sounding like they’re bringing the roof down upon the stage! Gimme rugged rehearsals where the screaming guitars cackle on and on! Essentially a less carefully choreographed compilation would do this band no disservice, even as this one reminded me how much work this band must have put in to sound so louche.
As a suggestion from a fanatic to the (undoubted) fanatics who put this together: Urusei Yatsura’s back catalogue is already so laden with worthwhile b-sides and non-album tracks it would easily sustain a sequel compilation to iPulpo! The three b-sides to ‘Kewpies Like Watermelon’; one track leftovers from each of the ‘Plastic Ashtray’, ‘Phasers On Stun’ and ‘Siamese’ singles; the nine b-sides never reissued from the Slain By Urusei Yatsura-era singles; the three b-sides from the Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura singles, all crowned with the band’s last ineffable four tracks of genius, the Yon Kyoku Iri EP. Result? That’s a pretty stellar album of under-heard rarities all ready to go. Please! Someone! Anyone!
Still, no griping. Here’s to future possibilities and past glories. You Are My Urusei Yatsura re-kindles remembrance of one of the best U.K. bands of the period. If a smidgen of money made supports their ongoing efforts – great. This record sounds like fun turned up to eleven from start to finish. It’s energetic, it’s incandescent and it stands on its own two feet with no need for history, or familiarity, because this was a band that rarely played a bum note.
All hail Urusei Yatsura: you were something else.