Metal In Japan: Part 1 of 3

September 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

There’s a certain mystique about Japan that gives you a unique thrill when your band gets its first chance to play there. Once you’ve cracked the island nation’s music market, there’s the impression that you’re REALLY getting somewhere (and that’s true for mainstream rock, pop and all other music types besides metal).

The stereotype of Japanese society is that it’s extremely group-oriented, orderly and harmonious. How could metal (or even straight-up rock and roll, for that matter), find appeal there? And even if the Japanese loved this foreign music, would they be inspired to create their own?

Well, someone had to do it. And that task fell to one of the most dynamic live bands of the 1970s.

Deep Purple.

By the time Ritchie Blackmore and company’s Machine Head tour hit Japanese shores in August 1972, Deep Purple fans had a healthy tape trade of live shows going on. There was demand for an official live document of these proto-metal giants in their prime. The music world finally got it with Made In Japan, one of the most lauded live albums of all time (not just for metal, but normal classic rock too).

“Blackmore was waving his guitar everywhere…everyone rushed to the front of the stage,” recalls Masa Itoh in Global Metal. “We had never seen that before. That was the night Deep Purple became legends.”

Unleashed In the East by Judas Priest came out a few years later and continued the trend of furious but precisely-controlled live shows released with minimal editing and overdubbing. A live recording in front of a Japanese audience now carries an implicit seal of quality to it. Iron Maiden, Arch Enemy, The Scorpions and Dream Theater have all had their catalog boosted by “Live In Japan” releases, and Deep Purple is acknowledged for being the first to bring this live Japanese experience to the masses.

Long before “Lost In Translation,” these records provided a transcendental soundtrack of a nation’s awakening love for the greatest music on earth.

Having been treated to one stellar live show after another from the West’s finest, it was only a matter of time before the Japanese (caricatured as “the world’s best students”) would launch their own metal bands. Some would compose music in English to appeal to a broader market; others would stick with Japanese exclusively or use a bilingual approach.

The first of these native Japanese bands is difficult to discover unless you’re searching for the rapper of the same name: Bow Wow.

Kiss fans were the first to notice them as an opening act for their favorite band (and they relocated to Britain for the purpose). Though only a blip on the map to Western audiences, they were credited as an inspiration to Japan’s emerging crop of bands. We’re in the late 70’s/early 80’s now, by the way.

Japan’s next metal heavyweight was Loudness.

Inspired by Bow Wow’s heroics, fleet-fingered Akira Takasaki formed Loudness with 3 friends and actually achieved minor success in the USA in the mid-80s. Songs like “Crazy Nights” were radio-friendly, but there was a degree of aggressive musicianship there (especially also from drummer Manetaka Haguchi) to make headbangers take notice. Some would argue that Loudness’ US success was only due to its novelty appeal, and they were unable to sustain it (also a thinly-veiled swipe at its quality).

Um…make up your own mind:

Perhaps as a function of who they were opening for, Japanese bands like Bow-Wow and Loudness never had a problem embracing the West’s glam-metal image (if not always the exact sound of it). As the 80s progressed, Japanese metal musicians picked up on a combination of two unlikely bedfellows: the polish, extravagant outfits and pop hooks of glam metal and the shred-tastic drive of thrash metal. It also caught on with some of the military servicemen stationed in Japan, who wanted some music that reminded them of home.

Think of it as a function of the bands that came to Japan to inspire this new generation of musicians (many of which had grown up seeing them live). The progressive intensity of Deep Purple and the big stadium choruses of Kiss. By these powers combined, visual kei was born and became Japan’s biggest, homegrown contribution to heavy metal.

But don’t just take my word for it. Ask Marty Friedman of Megadeth.

We’ll delve more into what he’s talking about here next time in Part 2. But in case you can’t wait, here’s a taste. Thanks for reading!

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