Contemporary Japanese music — or even the stuff from the not-all-that-distant past! — features many artists creating some of the most exciting songs going, from burgeoning rappers putting their spin on the genre to electronic creators pushing down sonic boundaries. It isn’t always easy to get familiar with them, though, thanks to a combination of label-born internet shyness that cuts them off from potential fans alongside the general noise of daily life on the internet.
In this feature, Otaquest aims to help introduce some of Japan’s best musicians to the world. Today, an artist who started out as one of the brightest stars in the universe of chiptune music, bringing an energy and eclecticism to her 8-bit creations. In the mid 2010s, she ventured into more pounding electronic fare built for clubs and festivals, without losing her sense of artistic independence.
It takes a certain kind of charisma to transform the act of playing a Game Boy into something that would seem natural for the main stage at Ultra. Scour Youtube for any footage of Toriena doing just that, though, and you’ll see how one person can turn a handheld gaming console into an instant partystarter. Thankfully, plenty of people have documented her appearances at festivals such as Blip Festival (below) and Square Sounds, among others. Her energy comes through in every upload.
Toriena’s power comes across in whatever music she chooses to follow. She started out primarily in the realm of chiptune, using Game Boys and music making software to create thumping dance music built around the nostalgic sounds of early gaming. As the years went on, she gave a more traditional run at pop a go, adding in EDM-appropriate elements into her sound and flexing her personality even more. This September she released Pure Fire, an album finding her lean into hardcore rave, revealing another new angle to her sound.
Whatever direction she goes in, Toriena stays true to her own artistic spirit, and has emerged as one of the most thrilling creators going out of Japan over the last decade. Here is our intro to her sonically diverse career.
Born in Sapporo in 1993, Toriena grew up with an interest in music, but she didn’t encounter chiptune until she was a college student in Kyoto. “I felt the sound of a Game Boy was like the sound of minimal techno, which I was really into back then, and found that very interesting,” she told me in 2016, adding that she was drawn to a sound of a system that she didn’t actually experience during her youth. While not part of her formative years, Toriena took to the tool quickly, creating her own songs centered around the sound and — perhaps owing to an outsider perspective allowing her to not get too bogged down by the nostalgia this sonic palette often presents — found a way to create hyperactive takes not far removed from the then on-trend sounds of EDM. That’s the case all over debut album Black Dance Hole, an all 8-bit affair that at its best captures the frantic energy of dance music through its chiptune sounds, while also finding clever new ways to warp the familiar. Listen to that one above.
Bolstered by performances at events like the final edition of the chiptune-centric Blip Festival, Toriena’s status in the chiptune community grew, and prompted her to launch her own label Madmilky Records, to showcase her own 8-bit creations and that of others. She put out her next few albums and EPs through her own imprint, further exploring the 8-bit sound (while also diving deeper into the pixel-heavy visual style that comes with it, see below) while finding ways to meld it further to the club sounds she came up on.
Life Is A Game
For the next few years, Toriena continued to refine her chiptune, with one of the biggest developments in her approach being a newfound utilization of her voice. While early works largely served as club tracks built around the sounds of early video gaming, releases like 2016’s POP NEGA POP EP spotlighted her singing and vocal contributions, adding a new instrument to her go-to sound. That year’s FAKEBIT built upon that, weaving Toriena’s voice into thumping numbers to lend them a slight pop catchiness. Listen to that one below.
This all leads up to a pivot of sorts for Toriena. Clues arose every once in awhile — she appeared on electronic artist Yunomi’s past-meets-present “Oedo Controller,” offering a bubbly and bright hook helping to make it one of 2017’s best cuts. A year later, she placed herself in the spotlight — while also moving away from her chiptune origins, at least for the most part (I see you “RAT RACE”) — on the riveting SIXTHSENSE RIOT. Here she let her entire history of interest in electronic music, from hardcore to rave to electro-pop, to craft her most immediate-facing release to date. Despite this shift, the songs on RIOT aren’t all giddy uplifters, but rather find Toriena embracing the full spectrum of her emotions, including outright anger. Listen below.
After RIOT, Toriena took her time for the followup, which saw her take a different kind of route sonically. A highlight from the start of 2020 came via the Brand New EDEN EP, featuring more skeletal and tender creations. Better still was PURE FIRE, released this past September, which saw her embrace the blown-out sound of ‘90s dance music, in particular hardcore. She’s always dabbled in the style, but here goes full time machine in reconstructing the sounds of pounding Euro noises — like, borderline gabber at moments — while using her voice as a frosting on top, adding a touch of sweetness without ever getting in the way of the mosh underneath. It’s her celebrating the music that made her, and putting her own spin on it.
Five Essential Songs
“Love bit” (2012)
An early example of how Toriena’s perspective reveals new details to chiptune — she creates a six-minute-long rave featuring some lovely strobing notes. While other numbers from this period have more of the defining elements of dance music from the period…drops, so many drops…this one carries an energy few songs have.
“POP NEGA POP” (2016)
This got an updated version on SIXTHSENSE RIOT, but the original EP version wins the day. The chiptune blips remain intact, while Toriena starts finding her voice…literally…over it all.
The perfect meeting point between Toriena’s chiptune origins and her more forward-facing material. The two sides of her artistic mind have never met like this after.
“SHIBUYA DAYDREAMER” (2018)
A good example of her shift to the more melodic on SIXTHSENSE RIOT, while not sacrificing her own voice. As the video also hints at, there is a touch of Eurobeat lurking withing it too, reflecting a recent embrace of the early ’90s style by younger Japanese creators (kind of like how Toriena gravitated to a video game system she didn’t actually play as a kid).
“Break Me Down” (2020)
OK, slight cheating here — part of PURE FIRE’s power lays in how it works best as a mix rather than an album separated by songs. It shines when played front to back…so why not start with the riff-roaring opener, featuring a particularly fiery Toriena rapping. It’s the gateway into her strongest album to date, and one that sets the character present on it right away.