Scala, London 21 November 2018
When The Japanese House first caught wider attention back in 2015, when Zane Lowe chose ‘Still’ as his last ever Hottest Record before leaving BBC Radio 1, she did so from behind a veil of mystery.
Her debut EP ‘Pools To Bathe In’ was a mangled spin on pop, the vocals warped and pitch-shifted to take on a glitchy, androgynous quality. Listeners weren’t sure who they were listening to; some fans, spotting the Dirty Hit label association, suggested that it was a side-project from The 1975 frontman Matty Healy. With no photographs out there of the musician either, The Japanese House became heavily associated with ambiguity. Her earlier releases further backed this up, too, her love of watery imagery and poetic vignettes standing up alone. “I’m the scrapes allowing your skin to breathe,” Amber Bain sings on ‘Teeth, ”I could be anything.“
Though The Japanese House initially seemed like yet another secretive act, the barriers soon began to fall. Mystery was an unwanted side effect; instead, Bain was making an effort to find out who she was as an artist. “I didn’t want the mystery to become bigger than the music; I’m not wearing a balaclava,” she told DIY in her first press interview. “I’m not Daft Punk – they must have really sore shoulders by now.”
See, this is the thing about Amber Bain – set aside her accidentally cryptic introduction to the world, and she’s low-key hilarious. Her own real-name Twitter account, separate to The Japanese House is a gift to humanity, calling her fans ‘biddlers’ and complaining that our streets are “infested with straight males”. When I interviewed Bain two years ago, she spent majority of the time musing about how hay smells like gone-off hot chocolate. Bangers-in-waiting like ‘Cool Blue’ and ‘Face Like Thunder’ hinted towards an artist with anthems a-plenty up their sleeve, but her live shows have always been more like technical masterclasses. Impressive as they were, The Japanese House we saw onstage didn’t quite square up with Amber Bain. Tonight, at Scala, that all changes.
Backed by a suave live band – suited and booted to match their dapper ringleader – it’s revelatory to watch Amber Bain unleashed from sonic wizardry, free to dart around the stage and explore grungier climes. New material ahead of her long-awaited debut album ‘Good At Falling’ fits this extroverted mould, too – ‘Maybe You’re The Reason’ comes complete with a slapping great chorus hook, and ‘You Seemed So Happy’ balances tension brilliantly; smuggling pain and darkness into a chipper and upbeat Trojan Horse of a track.
It’s clearly part of a deliberate shift, and you suspect that Amber Bain has been further bolstered by her arena tour with The 1975. Three years ago, the prospect of The Japanese House releasing a song quite like ‘Lilo’ – which stars her actual IRL ex-girlfriend Marika Hackman in the video, acting out the end of their relationship, truly brutal stuff – would’ve been impossible to even imagine. Yet here she is tonight, breaking everyone’s hearts, and occasionally laughing at an inflatable lilo (pineapple shaped) crowd surfing around the packed room. And ‘Saw You In A Dream’ – which gets two airings, one straight-up, one stripped back album version – remains Amber Bain’s finest writing to date.
A hazy beauty of a song, capturing “the perfect hallucination” where everything seems idyllic and lovely again for a second – until you wake up, that is – when she released it last year, it struck as being The Japanese House’s bravest moment. On the evidence of tonight’s gig, and the new material we’ve heard in Kings Cross, that boldness is only set to continue, and amplify, for the debut. Bring it the fuck on.