In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I spent a lot of time talking about visual kei, a commercially successful, stylish, aggressive and uniquely Japanese take on existing Western metal. Bands like X Japan hit it big, placing a few visual kei groups among the biggest-selling metal bands of all time (and that’s globally, not just for their home market). Although superstars in their own backyard, only a couple of these bands were able to replicate this success outside of Japan (although today, that may finally be changing…see my conclusion for that).
As with anything that gets popular, there would eventually be backlash. And in Japan’s case, this backlash would help fuel the development of an extreme metal underground scene.
If you haven’t read my introduction to extreme metal in the West, the basic gist is this: a group of metal musicians in the 80s were faced with playing mainstream glam or British-style metal (which they said they hated) or underground thrash metal (which they liked, but it wasn’t loud, fast or dark enough for them).
Rather than choose what they saw as the lesser of two evils, these musicians instead formed the earliest death, black and doom metal bands. In Japan, this was much the same, except the opponent was visual kei.
The first of the Japanese extreme metal bands has been around almost as long as glam metal itself: Sabbat. They were closely followed by Sigh, whose frontman bites off exactly what he thinks about visual kei in this clip from Global Metal:
Both Sabbat and Sigh were kindred spirits in the early 90s for being two of the few non-Scandinavian bands to attract attention from the burgeoning underground black metal community. Witness Scorn Defeat and Envenom, both released within a couple of years of each other:
But despite being extreme metal darlings of their nation, they each got the idea to avoid being exclusively black metal, and within a few years Sabbat had released an hour-long song. And Sigh has probably sampled almost every dish the music buffet has to offer at least once, most notably the brass orchestration and baroque infusions of “Me-Devil” off their 2007 album Hangman’s Hymn. So, it seems Sabbat and Sigh borrowed at least one thing from visual kei–the willingness and ability to fuse different styles. Nothing was off limits or too avant-garde for this new breed of Japanese metal musician, and the fans still agree.
Here’s a sample of some of those experiments…
Remember when I said that Japanese bands had a hard time replicating their success in the West? That’s not entirely true. There are plenty of reasons for that, but chief among them is probably the language barrier along with lack of serious promotional support outside Japan. Even today, the world’s second-biggest music market is dominated almost exclusively by homegrown talent.
It would be too easy (and tempting!) to just chalk it up to listeners not having any interest in foreign-language music or a general apathy towards proactively seeking out avant-garde metal. But anything’s possible, even with the Japanese-English barrier, and in the early 2000s, a very special band emerged that kicked down that wall to find some appeal among headbangers in the West with extreme, avant-garde metal…
Dir En Grey.
Beginning with their 2006 album, Withering to Death, Dir En Grey began making festival appearances alongside other alternative metal heavyweights like Korn and Deftones, widening their audience both critically and commercially in spite of their language barrier (they made both the Billboard charts and the Oricon charts). It’s one of the most unlikely success stories in recent metal history.
Dir En Grey inspired such loyalty in their fans that Loudwire even did an “Extreme Metal Olympics” based on voting…and Dir En Grey defeated Death for the gold medal. Frankly, I personally find that ridiculous–but the band’s showing is a testament to what an important influence they have become, as one of the most interesting extreme metal bands around. Not to mention the devotion of their fans.
In the more traditional death-doom vein, there’s also a band called Coffins, who lovingly celebrate the best of early death metal and the best of early doom metal, granting them cult status among the worldwide fanbase of both subgenres. On the more traditional doom metal side is Church of Misery, who have become Japan’s best-known export to the deeply underground but also deeply connected subgenre of doom metal. And almost every song of theirs tells the story of a real-life serial killer, some famous, some obscure, but all infamous.
Japan’s extreme metal underground is vibrant, alive and well. But the visual kei bands haven’t been sitting around idly either.
In closing, this is an interesting time to be a fan of Japanese metal. X Japan, finally moving past the death of Hide, embarked on a world tour, including stops in the West and an October 11 show at Madison Square Garden. A new studio album has been in the works for a few years now, and new song after new song continues to surface. So it’s my belief that this energetic push into a territory where X Japan is relatively unknown will result in renewed interest in them, and Japanese metal in general.
If any Japanese metal band can crack the global market wide open, it’s X Japan (unfortunately, those idiots posting “Remember Pearl Harbor!” on their event message boards are beyond help). I was at Madison Square Garden for that show, which they sold out, and the band was absolutely electric.
I’ll have a full writeup to come, but I think this was metal history in the making. More than 40 years after Deep Purple and Kiss showed Japan a new kind of music, the favor is finally being returned.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!
Written by Matt P