Nippon Riffin’: Japan’s Nastiest (and Best) Metal, Part I

This month’s Ragnarök is a two-part glimpse into the heart of Japan’s metal scene. In part one, the history of Japanese metal is explored, and in part two (to be published tomorrow), there’s a little enthusiastic exposition about some real Nippon riffin’ nastiness. However, before we begin with the story of Rising Sun riff-lords, we need to set the scene.

The arrival of rock ‘n’ roll in post-war Japan offered the nation’s youth a means of escaping the strictures of the past, and has resulted in the explosion of plenty of enthralling music over the decades since. Much like the Krautrock and proto-electronica scenes did for German artists in the ’60s and ’70s, the subsequent rise of Japan’s heavier music scenes saw artists reassess and regurgitate their own versions of revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll with the clash of traditional Japanese values and wild-eyed Western music eventually producing many fascinating albums. Initially, much of the music produced in the ’50s and early ’60s saw Japanese bands imitating the US and UK hit makers of the time, but as the late ’60s drifted into the ’70s, Japanese rock artists began to strip down the music that influenced them and filter it through a uniquely Japanese lens. The result was often extremely original and inventive tunes.

Psychedelic, proto-metal and heavy prog and blues bands such as Les Rallizes Denudes, Blues Creation, Speed, Glue & Shinki, Far East Family Band, and Flower Travellin’ Band were welcomed by overseas audiences, and it’s those pioneers that we have to thank for the breadth of Japan’s contemporary metal, punk, noise, post-rock, and experimental scenes. Diverse such as Acid Mothers Temple, Boris, Mono, Envy, Boredoms, Ruins, Guitar Wolf, Melt-Banana, Zeni Geva, Mainliner, Incapacitants and Merzbow owe their existence to artists who sought to reinterpret Western rock ‘n’ roll; they imbued their works with a distinct sonic accent that enunciated and modulated sounds to suit (or rail against) their own cultural climate. It was from that intermingling of societal pressures and aural pleasures that Japanese metal arose, the genre providing, as it does in every nation, a means to channel frustrations, transgress social norms, and, of course, simply cut loose.

Japanese Metal: 101

Japan has long been famed for its love of heavy metal, and the dedication of its fans. Legendary metal bands such as Deep Purple, Kiss, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden toured Japan early in their careers, building significant and diehard audiences along the way. There’s probably no clearer-cut evidence of Japan’s adoration of metal from its earliest days than the sheer number of live albums that have been recorded there. Releases such as Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East, and Iron Maiden’s Maiden Japan are classic live albums, and acts such as Riot, Accept, Nasum, Arch Enemy, Dokken, Ozzy Osbourne, Vader, Dream Theater, Ian Gillian, and the Michael Schenker Group have all taken advantage of enthusiastic Japanese crowds — with the famed Tokyo concert hall Budokan mentioned in many of their respective album titles. Correspondingly, the number of DVD and VHS concert recordings taped in Japanese concert halls and clubs is also mammoth, and Japan is home to many a sought-after bootleg recording, too — Napalm Death finding one so good that the band decided to release Bootlegged in Japan as an official live album.

Japan has also proved to be a safe haven for many Western metal bands that have struggled to find an audience in their homelands. For example, in the early stages of its career, Quiet Riot built its audience in Japan first, with album releases on a Japanese record label, and the band is far from alone in doing just that. It’s to Japan that many metal acts have also looked to sustain their careers when times were tough. Case in point: swashbuckling guitar-god Yngwie J. Malmsteen couldn’t sell out a club in the US for many years, but he sustained his career off the back of much Japanese support. Of course, Malmsteen is far from alone in recognizing the loyalty of Japanese metal fans. During metal’s toughest years, it was Japan that often granted Western metal bands a crucial touring market, enabling them to maintain momentum, and there has been many a Western metal band that has released Japanese-only albums, helping to fund their continuation.

Japanese metal fans have been rewarded for their support, with album releases on Japanese shores often coming with all manner of collectable and delectable extra tracks. However, while Japanese fans love the metal produced offshore, and the nation has proved time and again to be a successful market for Western bands, Japan has its own proud history of exporting some fantastic metal, and the country’s metal scene has a vibrant and thunderous history of its own.

Japanese bands had to negotiate language, customs, and homeland political hurdles to reach out to the world as its heavy rock and metal took off in the late ’70s and early ’80s — and it’s fair to say, to this day, that bands on the extreme end of Japan’s metal scene often still face the grimace of social disapproval. Much of the music produced in Japan’s burgeoning metal years was often a homage to the metal flowing into the country from Europe, the US and the UK, but there were some standout bands in the ’80s that put Japanese metal on the map. Vow Wow (also known as Bow Wow) formed in 1975 and was arguably the first true Japanese metal band to draw international attention, but bands such as Loudness, Anthem, 44 Magnum, Crowley, Saber Tiger, Ezo, Earthshaker and Dead End followed on, all finding a measure of international visibility.

Of those early groups, it was Loudness that found the most overseas success. The band was formed in Osaka in 1980 by guitarist Akira Takasaki and drummer Munetaka Higuchi, and played a mix of NWOBHM and early US power metal before slipping further into the slicker, LA-influenced metal of the day. The band was the first Japanese metal act to sign with a US label, and three of its ’80s albums, Thunder in the East, Lightning Strikes and Hurricane Eyes, appeared on the Billboard Top 200. Like many traditional early Japanese metal acts, Loudness had its share of turmoil in the ’90s with numerous line-up shifts (and changes in sound). The band was revived and continues to this day, having released 25 studio albums since its formation. The band’s ’80s material is well worth exploring.

Of course, you can’t really talk about Japanese metal without also discussing the flamboyancy of the visual kei scene. Much like the androgynous glam metal of the Western world, which took much from Japan’s Kabuki theater (see Japanese act Seikima-II), visual kei is defined by big hair, buckets of make-up, and elaborate costumes, although bands adhering to the visual kei aesthetic aren’t, by any means, always metal. Groups such as the GazettE, Sex Machineguns, Versailles, D’espairsRay and Girugamesh typified visual kei‘s over-the-top look and sound, although many a visual kei band has reduced the androgyny and glamorous costumes in recent years.

Most successful of all, and certainly a pioneer of the visual kei movement (along with Luna Sea), is X Japan. The band formed in the early ’80s, and has subsequently sold millions of albums, with 13 top-five singles featuring on the Japanese charts. The group disbanded in the late ’90s, but has since reformed, and commercial success aside, X Japan really epitomizes the sound of metallic-leaning visual kei artists. Power, symphonic, and hammering metal tunes are set alongside glam rock, punk, and the most syrupy, pop-friendly ballads imaginable. It often seems that no thought is given to sonic incongruity with visual kei, and that element of ignoring (or more accurately, reassessing) Western notions of incompatible musical styles defines much of the distinctiveness on the extravagant end of the Japanese hard rock and metal spectrum.

Japanese Metal: 102 (and 666)

Japanese extreme metal has found itself under the gaze of increasing numbers of Western metal fans over the years, as have the nation’s excellent crust, d-beat and hardcore punk scenes. With the underground black, death and thrash scenes being birthed in Europe and the US in the late ’80s and ’90s, Japan’s harder, heavier and dirtier metal initially played catch-up, much like everywhere else.

Bands such as Ground Zero, Shellshock, Jurassic Jade, Rose Rose, Bellzlleb, Outrage, Volcano, United, Eternal Elysium, Casbah, Sacrifice, Vomit Remnants, Necrophile, Terror Squad and Tyrant all put the death, speed, sludge and doom metal scenes on the boil in the ’80s and ’90s. And G.I.S.M, a band arguably more punk than metal, made a significant contribution to the Japanese metal scene during the era by encouraging bands to incorporate whatever heavy sounds were necessary to hammer the point home. G.I.S.M had no issue with adding all manner of weirdness and wildness to its sound (see the i>Detestation and M.A.N), and the band’s shows were legendary for their intensity, and the insanity of frontman Sakevi Yokoyama.

Two bands birthed during the same era, Doom and Sabbat, are particularly noteworthy too. Curiously, there are also two English groups named Doom and Sabbat that were equally important in heavy music’s ascendance in Europe. However, early in the ’80s the filthy thrash of Japan’s Doom was crucial in establishing the fact that the country’s best metal often hones sub-genres down to their primordial essence, before adding in its particular cultural inflection. Doom played a celebrated gig at New York’s CBGB in 1988, and has released a number of great Voivodian or Anacrusis(ish) albums — 1988’s Complicated Mind being a good starting point. Sadly, Doom founding member Koh drowned in 1999, putting an end to the band.

Sabbat’s legacy is even more important. The band formed in the early ’80s and was one of, if not, the first Japanese band to pick up the gauntlet of the first wave of black metal. That’s a notable point in Japan’s metal history, but it also illuminates a fascinating element of Japanese metal that bands incorporate avidly anti-Christian and/or pro-Pagan sentiments into their songs. Obviously, those are thematic positions that reinterpret Western religious and spiritual doctrine; Christianity is often a completely foreign concept to many Japanese band members’ spiritual upbringings. Also, frequent surveys of Japanese religious beliefs conclude that the majority of the population believes in no deities whatsoever. Still, while Japanese metal bands draw from their own nation’s mythic traditions for wicked entities to hail, many others don’t have an issue with appropriating Western philosophies of immortality, or bringing abundant Mephistophelian cackles. Much black-hearted diabolism is exhibited, evil being evil, no matter its spiritual origin.

Sabbat certainly never let reality get in the way of theatricality, with the band touting its dark mix of NWOBHM and Motörhead grunt meeting Venom and Bathroy’s bile on three essential early ’90s albums: Envenom, Evoke and Disembody. The group continues to this today, and you can safely pick up any of the band’s albums and be guaranteed a devilishly good time, but Sabbat bassist and vocalist Gezolucifer also founded über-metal cult titan Metalucifer in 1995. Metalucifer is a singularly reverential behemoth set on honoring all that is (un)holy about traditional meta. In fact, you’ll quickly lose count of the number of times “heavy metal” is used in lyrics and song titles. The band’s studio albums, Heavy Metal Drill, Heavy Metal Chainsaw and Heavy Metal Bulldozer (which was released in two versions, with Gezolucifer accompanied by Japanese and German line-ups), essentially underscore the ultra-exaggerated and fervent glorification of NWOBHM and power metal found in the sound of many Japanese metal bands.

With Japanese metal’s nastier neighborhoods mapped out in the ’90s, the nation’s metal scene now sees virtually every metal sub-genre represented, sayōnara, including cringe-worthy, twee-pop metal-lite; all manner of nu-metal tripe; and a raft of the same kind of second-rate metalcore you find elsewhere round the globe. On the plus side, although Japan’s metal scene is comparatively small and less visible than in Europe or the US (certainly on its extreme end), the country has a plethora of underground labels, umpteen thousands of metal fans dedicated to fueling the metal fervency, and many extreme metal bands that are well-known overseas.

Notable homegrown acts such as power and neo-classical metal champions Dragon Guardian, Concerto Moon, Light Bringer, (the late) Double Dealer and Galneryus, along with jazzy progressive metal act Gonin-Ish and folk-metal band Onmyo-za, have found success at home, and a lot of fans abroad. Dir En Grey is certainly a well-recognized band globally, with a sizable audience in Japan, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. The five-piece band originally leant hard on the visual kei aesthetic, although it has since reduced the extravagant attire, while stylistically traversing a range of genres. Alt-rock, metalcore, experimental and progressive metal, post-rock, and death metal have all featured in its sound, with commercially successful albums such as 2007’s The Marrow of the Bone, 2008’s Uroboros and 2011’s Dum Spiro Spero all exhibiting differing fusions of tone and technique. While some might find the band’s drifts into nu-metal a little cringeworthy, you certainly can’t fault Dir En Grey vocalist Kyo’s pipes — the singer has one of the most powerful and versatile voices in metal.

Not as commercially successful as Dir En Grey, but arguably more artistically interesting, is prolific Tokyo band Boris. Whether Boris falls under the banner of a metal band these days is obviously debatable, as it has shifted between doom, sludge, psychedelic and garage rock, noise, shoegaze and ambient drone throughout its career. However, the band’s early albums, including Absolutego, Amplifer Worship, and Akuma No Uta came with plenty of the crushing, low-end and stomach-wrenching might, and Boris’s catalogue is filled with heavy-ass guitar wigouts. And, of course, the band takes its name from track one of the Melvins’ seminal Bullhead album from 1991. Boris’s signing with US record label Southern Lord brought the band well-deserved recognition outside of Japan and, along with fantastically dynamic post-rock band Mono and post-hardcore colossus Envy (both well worth seeking out), Boris provides some of the most emotive, blissful, gritty, and often hulking guitar rock out there.

Extremities: 101

There’s no doubt that Japan is a nation of extremes. Teeming, neon-lit, futuristic metropolises are counterpointed by staggeringly beautiful natural scenery. Elegant and graceful customs, rituals and etiquettes exist, yet Japan is also a country with one of the world’s highest suicide rates due, in part, to career and family pressures. Plenty of bizarre sexual fetishes, misogynistic cartoons, and extremely gruesome films are indulged in popular media, but, on the flip side, Japan is also home to staggering amounts of mind-blowing cinema, dazzling animation and profound literature. What that mix says about the nature of Japan’s society, and the need to escape into often barbaric, beautiful, or cosplay-filled fantasy worlds, is a topic for altogether a different column than this. However, if there’s one thing the best underground metal from Japan does well, it’s reflecting the extreme duality and intensity of Japanese society.

Of course, it’s easy to locate dichotomies that stand out in Japanese society from my Western perspective, and any Japanese observer of Western nations will find just as many curious and/or problematic issues we face too. At the end of the day, what Japanese and Western metal fans share is a genre of music that helps deal with pressures of our cultural expections, and tackle the same emotional issues we all face.

Thankfully, on the extreme end of the metal spectrum, Japan has plenty of filth and fury, and flying, fiery riffs to offer a panacea to those problems. The nation isn’t lacking in bands of an ill-disposed nature that provide a sphere of purgative rather than authoritarian power. Magnificently grinding putrescence from the likes of Bathtub Shitter, Gore Beyond Necropsy, 324, and Gallhammer, as well as long-running grinders S.O.B, Butcher ABC, and Unholy Grave, provides concussive bursts of catharsis. So too does superlative blackened thrash from Barbatos, the untouchable brutal brilliance of GxSxD, and guttural, cavernous death metal churns from the likes of Hydrophobia, Gorevent, Infernal Revulsion, Defiled and Descravity. Anatomia provides classic old school death and doom, Gotsu Totsu Kotsu dispenses “Samurai metal”, and black metal is also healthily represented. Step back in time, and you’ll find primitive first-wave crypt dweller Gorugoth, or for more contemporary sorcery there’s SSORC, Fatal Desolution, Fenrisulf, and Juno Bloodlust, or self-proclaimed “unoriginal first wave black metal worship” from Infernal Necromancy.

Of course, the lists of bands above merely touches on Japan’s metal scene. I’ve never visited Japan, and my view into the Japanese metal scene comes via Western eyes, recommended albums, YouTube, research, and a lot of pestering questions put to my Japanese cousin (who is J-pop, not J-metal, friendly). Accordingly, please leave your lists of great Japanese metal bands in the comments section below.

You may have also read those above lists of bands and spotted some obvious groups missing. Well, in part two of this month’s Raganrök, I’ll be looking at a few of my favorite Japanese metal bands, and hopefully picking up some of those you might think I’ve mistakenly skipped. Part two sees Abigail, Sigh, Coffins, Church of Misery, and the best Japanese metal band ever, Corrupted, all appear. Until then, sayōnara.