It’s exciting whenever a Japanese artist gets picked up by Western media, however unfortunately there seems to be a recurring trend in every one of these pieces, especially when the artists are as eccentric and flamboyant as a group like BABYMETAL are:
And then of course there’s always the obligatory comments section, which in the case of Babymetal have been filled with everything from wide-eyed wonder to disgust, with commentary on how “this isn’t metal” or how “Slayer would hate this.” Claims that the three girls in the group don’t like metal only add fuel the fire (it doesn’t really matter though; they’re idols. Perfume didn’t like electro-pop when they first started.)
BABYMETAL – “Catch Me If You Can”
It’s easy to see why these reactions happen. Not only does this kind of music simply not exist in the West, most of these articles introducing BABYMETAL have only pointed out the strangeness or craziness of it, with not much cultural context or research done on the creative talent backing this project.
It’s important to take note of recent trends in Japanese pop music when talking about this group; “idol mania” has been a thing in Japan for at least the last five years, with groups like AKB48, Momoiro Clover Z, Dempa Gumi, Inc., BiS, and Bellring Shojo Heart proliferating nearly every layer of the music culture consciousness. Idols have been a thing in Japanese music since forever, but like everything else in the 21st century, there has been a complete over-saturation over the last couple of years.
It’s also important to consider how the music scene and industry works in Japan. Probably more so than any other country, the gap between mainstream popular music and underground music is massive. This has created a pop scene that’s very sugarcoated and manufactured, and an underground scene that’s very avant-garde and isolated. In this musical landscape, it’s difficult for underground musicians to break into the mainstream or make a living playing music. Some have bridged the gap for themselves by having their own band with a core but limited fan base, and at the same provide music for more famous pop singers and of course, idol groups.
Idol groups have benefited from this as well, since the trend now seems to be all about being cooler and wackier than everyone else. Idol groups like Momoiro Clover Z and BiS have succeeded by targeting a niche group of fans of a particular subculture and hiring musicians with street cred from that subculture to make the music and project feel more authentic and legitimate. So it’s actually kind of ironic when people accuse the “metalness” of a group like BABYMETAL; they’ve been genetically engineered specifically to appeal to meet certain criteria. Basically, they are so metal, at least musically and aesthetically (ideologically is a different story altogether, but fellow Japan Times contributor and Quit Your Band partner Ian Martin has covered the uneasiness of combining subculture and commercialized music, so I won’t really go there.)
Momoiro Clover – “Pinky Jones”
Which brings us to the creative team behind BABYMETAL. While there doesn’t seem to be a main producer the group keep going back to (like say Tsunku for Morning Musume) it’s clear that there is a tightly-knit team of musicians who work on the material.
One of the more obvious standouts is Narasaki of shoegaze/metal band Coaltar Of The Deepers. Narasaki has received recognition in the last couple of years for producing anime soundtracks as well as contributing some tracks to Momoiro Clover Z, like “Pinky Jones”, “Kuroi Shuumatsu”, and “Birth Ø Birth”.
Narasaki knows his metal. While his band rarely goes full-on metal, there have been fine examples of thrashing from Narasaki, from his cover of The Cure’s “Killing An Arab” to “Mars Attacks!” from the band’s second album. Listen to Momoiro Clover’s “Kuroishumatsu” and you’ll hear all sorts of Black Sabbath references.
Narasaki’s contributions to BABYMETAL so far have been the single “Headbanger” and the b-side “Catch Me If You Can.” The latter sounds much like Coaltar Of The Deepers; compare the track to the industrial metal-tinged “Dead By Dawn” from the Penguin EP and they sound like they came from the same sessions.
Coaltar Of The Deepers – “Dead By Dawn”
When put in this context the track suddenly goes from being a cute little song about playing hide and seek to being a Coaltar Of The Deepers outtake. You can say this with a lot of Japanese producers. Who’s to say that a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu single couldn’t have been on a Capsule album, or a Momoiro Clover Z song not be on a Hyadain record? (or even a Go! Team record.)
Idol music has become the sandbox for many musicians to play in. While have more interesting bands of their own, it’s difficult for these musicians to make a living from playing music because of the niche nature of their material, and just from the simple fact that support for these kinds of music just generally isn’t enough in Japan. It’s why you have people like AxSxE from post-rock band Natsumen write a song like “L. Drunk” for Kaela Kimura.
The other standout is Takeshi Ueda, who is best known for playing bass in the Mad Capsule Markets, as well as his solo project AA=. His track is “Gimme Choco,” one of the tracks making rounds on the interwebs, and definitely one of the highlights on the new album. “Gimme Choco” combines electro-pop with the metal but Ueda does it in a tasteful way with a catchy autotuned interlude and, well, effects you would hear on a Mad Capsule Markets record. The electronic elements never go into cheesy territory however (some of the other tracks on the album are more guilty of doing this) and it’s clear that Ueda is very much in familiar territory here.
AA= – “Working Class”
Other contributors have been Norimetal aka Norizo from the band Dugout, who wrote the single “Megitsune,” and Yuyoyuppe, a Vocaloid producer/DJ/rock musician. Dugout aren’t metal at all but was a part of the Hachioji scene alongside bands like Maximum The Hormone, who kind of paved the way for this J-pop/metal hybrid stuff in a way (vocalist Daisuke Tsuda of Maximum The Hormone also originally played drums in Dugout). Dugout originally wrote pop punk songs before moving onto a sort of 60s garage style. In any case, they wrote catchy little indie rock songs. ( “Megitsune” has the strongest chorus out of all the songs on the album I think and might just be my favorite track.)
Dugout – In The Car
Looking through the credits, Yuyoyuppe’s name comes up the most, and he seems to be hands on and bringing the metal arrangements to otherwise non-metal songwriters. He penned “Akumu no Wa kyoku” and arranged three other tracks, including “Babymetal Death” and “Megitsune.”
The mix of EDM and metal sounds just like Yuyoyuppe’s excellently christened band, My Eggplant Died Yesterday. While I’m not a big fan of Yuyoyuppe’s tracks to be honest (playing them back to back with Narasaki’s stuff just shows how much Narasaki gets metal more than Yuyoyuppe. Narasaki has been on the job way longer though, so the comparison might not exactly be fair), it’s clear that he has a grasp on heavy music, despite the rather cheesy Skrillex-y moments.
My Eggplant Died Yesterday – “What Is Liberty To You”
Another interesting name on the list is Tatsuo, who is the guitarist in the band Everset. He is also known for being responsible for producing/arranging the music of “air band” sensation Golden Bomber, who recently took the country by storm with their single “Memeshikute.” Since there’s only one member in Golden Bomber who actually plays instruments (the other three simple mime to the music), you could say that Tatsuo is Golden Bomber. The band is essentially a parody (I think they’re fun but awful), but they have strong ties with the visual-kei scene in Japan, playing in the scene for more than decade before becoming big. Tatsuo arranged two tracks on the album, “Onedari Daisakusen” and “4 No Uta” (which pretty much uses the “spider-riff” from Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets” note for note)
Golden Bomber – “Memeshikute”
The connection between BABYMETAL and visual-kei is important; some of the tracks like “Headbanger” and “Ijime, Dame, Zettai” have been accused of “not being metal,” but viewing these songs through a visual-kei lens and they suddenly make sense. Both sound more like X Japan songs than any Slayer track. Narasaki even admits in an interview that his inspiration for “Headbanger” was more visual-kei than heavy metal, says that the song purposefully sounds like a “metal song done by a Japanese visual key guy who doesn’t really understand metal.”
Listening to the new album in the context of this visual-kei/death metal hybrid puts it in a new light, and you get a sense of what the creators were actually going for. What you end up with is an album that’s probably the most tasteful mish-mashing of kayokyoku melodies and metal possible, which is what a lot of visual-kei bands were trying to do in the late 80s and early 90s. And just as a fan of Narasaki, it’s exciting just to hear him go full-on metal on these tracks, which is something he only rarely does on Coaltar Of The Deeper tracks. It’s also neat to hear the songs in the context of his overall discography that includes his idol and anime material (along with numerous side projects such as the electronica Sadesper Record.) You can start hearing the differences between an idol track produced by some guy in his bedroom who has never been in a band and a track that’s been produced by someone who has gone through the grind of touring and recording in the underground scene.
So while Dom Lawson of The Guardian may say that the group was formed by some ”Machiavellian genius who almost certainly had a sudden “Eureka!” moment in the middle of the night and realised that Japanese audiences were certain to unquestioningly embrace such a seemingly incongruous mish-mash of cutting-edge musical ideas,” he’s only scratching the surface; this mish-mash has been happening for a while now. It’s how idol music is being sold these days – pick a niche market, get people within the scene to produce songs, and then play up the disparate sides of the music. Frankly, it’s quite depressing that bands and musicians can’t get by with just their own bands, but if there’s anything to gain from all the commercialism it’s that some of these talented people get their work heard, and that groups like BABYMETAL may become the gateway drug for some kid out there into the world of metal and Japanese indie music.
Yes, it’s manufactured. Yes, it’s ridiculous. But that’s not the whole story. There are some cool bands behind all the cuteness and commercialism. You just have to dig a little deeper.