It’s a Saturday evening, and London’s 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena is almost full. The crowd holds their arms aloft as pyrotechnic explosions burst from the front of the stage, and a four-piece band clad in identical white robes play ear-splitting riffs. On a podium in the middle of the hall, three teenage girls in red and black tutus stand, their movements synchronised as they sing in high, nasal tones over the roar of the guitars. On a screen behind them, footage of an ecstatic crowd in Tokyo is played — the concert is being live-streamed to thousands of fans in Japan. This is Babymetal, a ‘metal idol’ group that fuses heavy music with the manufactured cuteness of Japan’s idol girl groups. In the two years since they were introduced to UK audiences, they’ve gone from a novelty act that confused, intrigued, and unsettled fans in equal measure, to a tour-de-force not just in Japanese metal, but in the wider metal genre as a whole.
Babymetal have been mentioned enough times in the mainstream music press to bring Japanese metal to an audience that might not have delved into it before, and they’re not the first act to have made such an impact. Ten years ago, Japanese metal act Dir en grey were experiencing a similarly swift rise in the UK metal scene, thanks to a dedicated underground fanbase that convened in a Camden rock pub, the Devonshire Arms, for monthly J-rock night Propaganda. In 2007, Adam Sagir had just started his music PR company, The Noise Cartel (who represent Babymetal and fellow Japanese rockers Crossfaith), and had tentatively taken on promotional duties for Dir en grey, who sung in Japanese, and were largely unknown outside of Japan at the time. “I thought, ‘This sounds like one of the most difficult things you could possibly be asked to PR, because who's going to be into that?’” he remembers. It was only by visiting Propaganda that he discovered an untapped subculture.
“A lot of the people at the night were fans of female-fronted metal bands, like Nightwish and Within Temptation,” says Sagir, “They also had a big interest in Japanese culture, and were sharing videos of [Japanese bands] on MySpace. There was a whole subculture I had no idea about.” The real power and size of the fanbase was revealed when Dir en grey sold out two consecutive nights at the Islington Academy, despite only passing mentions in the British music press. Two years later, in 2009, Sagir secured them a cover feature in Kerrang!, and they played the Kerrang! tour alongside Bring Me The Horizon and Mindless Self Indulgence. Japanese metal had begun to embed itself in the wider rock consciousness. Tom Smith, founder of UK-based Japanese metal label JPU Records, and a writer for English-language Japanese culture magazine NEO, agrees that its success has been on the up over the past decade. “I started writing about Japanese rock bands for NEO just over eight years ago, and things have been expanding ever since,” he says.
Testament to the impact Japanese metal has had outside of its homeland is the fact that We Are X, a documentary chronicling the career of one of Japan’s most famous metal bands, X Japan, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Best Editing. It was shown again at SXSW along with a live performance from co-founder and pianist/drummer Yoshiki. The band had been planning to release a new album — their first in 20 years — this year, but it was postponed when guitarist Pata developed a serious medical condition. Still, the fact that the documentary was covered in mainstream publications like Variety, Loudwire, and Paste shows that X Japan’s influence is on par with that of their Western counterparts and reaches far beyond their home country.
X Japan and Dir en grey were pioneers of ‘visual kei’, Japan’s answer to glam rock, but it would be unfair to only focus on them. Much like glam rock itself, visual kei is decidedly retro: Dir en grey actively distanced themselves from it later in their career, with guitarist Kaoru dismissing it as ‘a genre that appeals to teenage girls’ in a 2007 interview. The Japanese music scene had been looking to the West for inspiration before glam rock was even fashionable, as Naoko Yamano, lead singer of Japanese punk band Shonen Knife, explains. “When I was a teenager, many young people listened to American or British rock,” she says. “Our new album [Adventure, which was released on April 1] is inspired by 70s rock music, like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and Deep Purple.” Long before fans of Japanese metal were meeting in the Devonshire Arms, punk fans were discovering Shonen Knife, thanks to interest from American indie labels K Records and Sub Pop, and plays from John Peel in the mid-1980s. Support slots with Sonic Youth and Nirvana followed, and the band achieved cult status.
The conditions are perfect for interest in Japanese metal to grow in 2016. Babymetal turned fans’ gaze eastwards, and Japan’s current roster of heavy bands are making music with the perfect balance of familiarity and surprise. Like Yamano, they proudly wear their Western influences on their sleeve; Crossfaith’s latest album, Xeno, is sung in English, and features cameos from Beartooth’s Caleb Shomo and Skindred’s Benji Webbe, while metal duo Vamps still rock 80s glam styling, and supported Nikki Sixx’s Sixx:AM on their US tour last year. One OK Rock, who deal more in saccharine metalcore than metal, sing in English, and use Caucasian actors in their music videos. “Growing up, we didn’t listen to Japanese music,” says Crossfaith bassist Hiro Ikegawa. “My first record was [US pop-punk band] Yellowcard, and [vocalist Kenta Koie’s] was Aerosmith. It’s very natural to us.”
“When I first heard Crossfaith, it sounded so different and creative, but still familiar and appealing,” says Luke Logemann, head of Australian label UNFD and the man who signed Crossfaith. Adam Sagir adds that Japanese bands are also exciting in a scene where the music press can be afraid to take risks. “Music media nowadays is very reactive to what's already doing well. It’s not breaking bands, it’s just helping them along,” he says, “This can mean that the same acts — often those that are fashionable or have heritage appeal — dominate the metal media, and anything with a degree of exoticism sparks interest and debate in a way that European metal doesn’t.” Babymetal, despite their success, are still divisive. “They were repellent to some purist metalheads,” says Sagir, “Then people saw them at Sonisphere in 2014 and were like, ‘Shit, this is actually really good!’” Alternative music and Japanese culture often cross paths in other ways, and their relationship has been growing in recent years. Heavy label Metal Blade Records had a stand at last year’s New York Comic Con, and this year, all-girl Tokyo rock group Band-Maid are holding their first European gig at the MCM London Comic Con in May. “People find it intriguing to see metal infused with so much local culture,” says Logemann.
Both Naoko Yamano and Crossfaith say that metal is a minority genre in Japan, so it figures that metal bands would look overseas for a bigger fanbase (Hiro Ikegawa says the UK is Crossfaith’s “second biggest fanbase after Japan”). “In Japan, pop is bigger than any other music,” says Ikegawa. “All the Disney stuff — One Direction, 5 Seconds of Summer, Ariana Grande. But Babymetal are an entrance to metal. They break the barriers.” Crossfaith’s Kenta Koie agrees. “When they play at Japanese festivals, there are lots of young girls wearing the same costumes,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing. I feel like it’s their role [to introduce people to metal].”
The thousands gathered in London and Tokyo to watch Babymetal’s Wembley show suggests they’re succeeding in that goal. As they embark on a world tour, Japanese bands continue to embed themselves into the UK scene: last year, Vamps headlined Japan Night, a showcase of new Japanese bands at London’s Indigo2, and, having previously been picked to support Bullet For My Valentine and While She Sleeps on a European tour, metalcore outfit Coldrain have their first ever UK headline tour in May. The fact that there’s enough of a fanbase in the UK to legitimise bringing mid-level acts over from Japan to play in essential touring venues around the country shows just how much the interest in Japanese metal has grown. JPU Records are continuing to add to their roster, and last month, released Hello World — a documentary following Japanese all-girl rock band Scandal on their first solo world tour — in the UK. NEO Magazine is still going strong, but it’s no longer the only source of news on alternative Japanese culture. Babymetal’s Wembley show was previewed and reviewed everywhere from the NME and Metal Hammer to The Guardian, The Daily Star, and even the BBC. Japanese metal is no longer confined to metal’s more off-the-wall corners — its key acts are taking their place in the Western scene, and proving they can make just as loud a noise.