In the wake of Babymetal’s triumphant Wembley gig, the time seems right to repost an article originally on Strange Things Are Happening, covering one of the more unlikely musical movements of recent years. I’m talking, of course, about the rise of Kawaii Metal.
Now, it’s true that this most unlikely of musical hybrids has been around for a few years, slowly bubbling away under the surface and noticed in the West by only the most adventurous (or lucky) of musical explorers, but I doubt anyone would deny that 2014 was the year that Kawaii Metal broke. It’s all down to one band – Babymetal – and one video – the 19 million plus viewed Gimme Chocolate. The impact of this track is hard to overestimate. The combination of J-pop and ridiculously intense heavy metal, the crazy video, the sheer catchiness of the track and the overwhelming lunacy of it all caught the world’s imagination at the start of the year, but anyone thinking this was a novelty flash-in-the-pan (a belief clung to with increasing desperation by some in the metal community) was proven wrong by a series of US and European gigs, culminating in a sold out show at the Brixton Academy in November in front of six thousand people who clearly hadn’t got the message that this was just supposed to be a joke.
The fascinating thing about this new sound – dubbed Kawaii (or ‘cute’) Metal by Babymetal – is how much sense it makes in retrospect. I’ve always loved J-pop, partly for its pureness of vision (this is music that makes no attempt to be ‘street’, unlike much British and American pop) and partly because it tends to be more complex than the average prog rock album. This is light, fluffy pop, but the tracks often run for six minutes or more, are packed with time changes and extraordinary musical complexity and actually seem tailor made to be combined with blisteringly fast metal. Ex-Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, now based in Japan, has long been a supporter of (and writer of) J-pop and gets the strange musical connection –here he is talking with Freddy of Taiwan metallers Chthonic about idol music (and here, just to make the heads of metal purists spin that much more, are Chthonic performing onstage with Babymetal back in February!).
And in truth, the hybrid of infectiously catchy pop and guitar rock is not a new thing in Japanese music. Ex-Girl were making decidedly kawaii collisions of pure pop, punk rock and avant garde experimentalism a decade ago while Puffy Ami Yumi had international success and a US cartoon series to their name with their brand of squeaky voiced pop punk. And let’s not forget The Mad Capsule Markets, who mashed metal, punk, industrial, electronica and pop into a glorious collision of sound. Gimme Chocolate makes a lot more sense musically when you know that it was written by MCM man Takeshi Ueda, having that same genre-bending style and relentlessness. Check out Pulse if you don’t believe me!
The international success of Babymetal has made a lot of people sit up and pay attention. It would be easy to see Babymetal as being number one in a field of one, but that’s not actually the case. Kawaii Metal is an actual thing, with several bands out there mashing up traditional idol pop sensibilities and catchy tunes with guitar driven rock. Some have been around for a few years, others have emerged in the wake of the Babymetal phenomenon. Some are going the full metal idol route, others taking a pop punk approach. This is not a complete guide by any means, but beginners might find it handy. Ironically, a handful of Babymetal fans, having learned nothing (or perhaps everything) from the behaviour of the more anal metal fans, are dismissive to the point of fury of all these acts, somehow believing that there can only be The One. Well, ignore them. None of these acts are as good as Babymetal, and of course none are even in the same stratosphere of popularity either at home or internationally – but all are great fun and entirely worthy of your attention.
We’ll start off with the most immediately Babymetal-alike bands. Both Death Rabbits and Pritz have emerged in the wake of Su, Moa and Yui’s success, and are pretty blatant imitations. Yet both are rather entertaining in their own way. Death Rabbits call themselves ‘Japanese Death Pop’, and are another three-girl combo, this time backed by Akira Death, who looks like a post-apocalypse soldier and provides the growly bits. The girls – Yuzu, Emi and Karin – range from 12 to 14, which is probably a couple of years too young to really pull this sort of thing off completely, but the science fiction obsessions, comic book visuals and chaotic musical hybrid style provide enough WTF moments to and the tunes are actually pretty good, especially this mad little effort, Love Season:
Pritz are a Korean Babymetal knock-off, and of course K-pop is just as gloriously weird as J-pop, so that’s not a problem. The band has proved controversial thanks to the… erm… dubious symbolism of the armbands featured in the video for Sorasora. Now, to me they look more like the Hammers symbol from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but I can certainly see how the black shirts and cross logo might suggest rather more sinister leanings. I’m pretty sure that this group of teenage girls are not Neo Nazis, but an image rethink might be in order. The track itself is great, of course, if a little slicker than most of the J-pop bands – and the skull headed drummer / teddy bear guitarists is a nice touch.
Fruitpochette are a duo consisting of 20 year olds Teratani Mina and Azumi Shiori – positively ancient by idol standards! They’ve been around since 2012, though their debut album is only now being released. Single Parasite is pretty excellent and they deserve more attention than they’ve so far had.
Fruitpochette are a spin off of Hime Kyun Fruit Can (aka Himekyun), who have been around since 2011. This five piece – each member assigned their own fruit nickname! – and offer a more sophisticated, less heavy take on idol rock, as can be seen in the video for Moratorium:
Passcode are currently one of my favourite kawaii metal acts, entirely thanks to Asterisk, which is as mad a slice of music and insane visuals as you’re ever likely to hear. This is very much what you would expect delirious Japanese pop to be and it’s all sorts of glorious!
Kamen Rider Girls were formed in 2011 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Kamen Rider series, and as you might expect are heavily influenced by comic book superhero action. They have a sexier image than the other acts featured here and are less metal than rock, but still pretty decent, as Just the Beginning shows.
They also have an altar ego as The Shocker Girls:
Oddest of all the kawaii metal acts are Necronomidol, who offer up a curious hybrid of darkwave and pop, seemingly with the intention of scaring the bejesus out of you. I have no idea what is going on here, but I doubt it’s very wholesome.
If this sort of thing floats your boat, you might also enjoy some of the more ‘authentic’ (i.e. instrument playing) female metal bands from Japan. In the tradition of the aforementioned Ex-Girl, Puffy Ami Yumi and of course Shonen Knife, you should check out Destrose and Aldious, both of whom mix actual rocking out with idol imagery.
There are those who might think my love of Babymetal is some sort of post-modern ironic statement. Sorry, but you are wrong. I genuinely do believe that this is the salvation of a genre that I grew up on but which has been moribund, insular and exhausted for too long. If you like your metal that way, it’s cool – no one is stopping you from enjoying the myriad of acts that do exactly the same thing that other bands have been doing for thirty years. But for any music to survive, it needs to evolve and it needs to attract new blood. Kawaii metal is the perfect entry point for kids who might otherwise go the One Direction route. And it’s fun – pure, unadulterated, exhilarating fun. Sometimes, you actually want music to be enjoyable and entertaining. Sometimes, middle-aged blokes feigning angst and anger isn’t what you want.
The kawaii metal revolutionaries might, in the end, really be the Guardians of Heavy Metal. And I for one welcome our new teenage overlords.