Metal In Japan: Part 2 of 3

October 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the first groups of Western heavy metal bands to take on the unique challenge of converting the people of Japan into lovers of the greatest music on earth.

I then talked about the aspects of metal that they picked up on best, the very first Japanese metal bands, and introduced the unique style known as visual kei.

It’s important to note that the term visual kei is not just applicable to rock and metal, but for pop, electronica, alternative and other music styles. For my purposes, I’m sticking with the metallic form of visual kei. Most of this is based on my own research and with inspiration from Sam Dunn’s excellent documentary, Global Metal if you want to check it out.

So, visual kei metal/rock…

In the 1990s, glam/hair/thrash metal that had so dominated the 80s fell out of favor with both mainstream and underground audiences in the West. Extreme metal was emerging. Bombastic glitz was out, minimalist fury was in. It seemed that audiences had moved on from the power ballads, palm muting and shredding…in the West, at least, glam was dead.

No one ever sent the Japanese the memo.

You see, around the last days of disco for the hair and thrash bands (late 1989), visual kei (which has elements of both) was just taking off. If you’ve read the rest of my Metal History series about hair metal and thrash metal, you already have an idea what those both might sound like. Although it is at its core a fusion of existing styles, visual kei made them both new again.

The result was that Japanese musical audiences spent much of the 90s as if the 80s had never ended. The late-90s saw the commercial peak of Japanese music of all kinds, and visual kei bands were part of the craze. It was a glorious time to be alive, with heady new-millennium optimism in full bloom all over the world. Chances are, around that time, a band might sound like this…

But we’ve jumped straight to the peak here. A band called X Japan were the originators of visual kei, not only of the sound but also the look. It was no accident–guitarist hide was a licensed beautician (seriously, went to school for it and everything). Drummer Yoshiki was such a wild man that he had to start wearing a neck brace to prevent injury while he played. Oh, and his first concert was Kiss. With his mom. 40 million records sold and a regular sellout at the Tokyo Dome (55,000 people), especially their New Year’s Eve shows, X Japan’s average set lasted over 3 hours.

Combine this flair with an epic band intro worthy of the 90s Chicago Bulls, and some lovely choreography by the audience, and you have….X. They sure knew how to put on a show.

The good times for X Japan came to a brutal end in 1998 when hide unexpectedly killed himself, leaving a stunned group of bands and admirers (many of whom were inspired by his band) to carry on the torch. One of those newer groups that stepped up to the plate was the band below.

You’ve heard of the Sex Pistols. They were the Sex Machine Guns. Lasted longer than the Pistols and outshot them to boot.

They were overall one of the fastest-playing bands to emerge from the period, and there was an element of comedy in their songwriting. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard a metal song about how awesome it is to bite into a satsuma fruit from Ehige prefecture. (Not “Peaches.” Oranges.)

Although the tried-and-true thrashing of traditional metal was a popular approach, other visual kei acts tried on more influences from alternative and industrial metal to go with their extravagant get-ups. Like D’EspairsRay, whose music always seems appropriate for the closing credits of a horror movie and just recently returned from a hiatus.

Or Versailles, who came to prominence a few years later with resplendent Rococo outfits and a symphonic-metal melodic force. Their first few songs gained large exposure and they seemed destined to become the next visual kei ambassadors to the world outside Japan. Songs like “Ascended Master,” for instance. Props to them to actually still being able to play their instruments dressed like that.

But then, like their heroes in X Japan, tragedy struck at an inopportune time when bassist Jasmine Yu was found dead for reasons still undisclosed. Very sad.

Though it’s been popular in Japan for over 25 years now, visual kei has yet to blow up or disappear the way hair metal did back in the West. It’s going pretty strong still, and bands are still interested in playing it. And if you play it, you might as well look good while doing it.

But, just like what happened here, there’s a smaller metal counter-movement in Japan as well. It’s led by musicians cut from the same cloth as Death, Morbid Angel, Bathory and other extreme metal acts who wanted no part of the glitz and makeup. More on some of them, as well as a final wrap-up, in Part 3 next time.

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