Eclectic sounds and erratic looks, this is Japanese metal

Eclectic sounds and erratic looks, this is Japanese metal

Japan's metal bands are slowly but surely taking their goth/vampire/horror-inspired style to new neighborhoods, new cities, and potentially new countries
Asian rock, Asian music, heavy metal, tokyo rock bands
Osaka-based trance metal band Blood Stain Child.

They’ve got the same teased-out hair, the speedy, crunching riffs.

But Japanese metal bands are more than just the twisted sisters of Motley Crue and Kiss. 

From its earliest days, Japan’s metal scene has been tight-knit and willing to breed with other genres -- particularly Visual Kei. Today, raucous bars and a broadening live scene give fans plenty of places to bang their heads.

Asian rock, Asian music, heavy metal, tokyo rock bandsTatsu, guitarist of legendary Japanese metal band GASTUNK.'In ancient times…'

 Legendary guitarist Tatsu recalls that in the early 1980s, heavy metal was an alien concept in Japan.

Influenced by Western airwaves, his band GASTUNK shifted gears from hardcore punk to metal in 1984.

“When we had our major debut, we were labelled by the media as part of the heavy metal genre,” Tatsu says.

Shout it out loud: a Japanese musical movement was born.

The first generation of groups -- GASTUNK, Earthshaker, Anthem, Doom -- formed a close family.

Tatsu cites Loudness as an early leader, acknowledging “I’m influenced by the guitarist, Akira Takasaki.”

The support system has stayed strong: Tatsu now plays in a cover band, The Killing Red Addiction, with old friend Taiji (of X Japan).

Asian rock, Asian music, heavy metal, tokyo rock bandsFormed in 1983, Osaka metal band Aion was a forerunner of Visual Kei.

Let’s get Visual

Western metal stars are infamous for their “Welcome to the Jungle” hair styling. But the Japanese soon towered over them in spiked platforms and sky-high bouffants.

The flamboyant stage outfits of X Japan (formed in 1982) and Aion (established 1983) spawned the distinctly Japanese genre of Visual Kei.

Sophia, vocalist of young Osaka-based group Blood Stain Child, explains that not all Visual Kei bands have a metal sound -- some lean more towards rock or punk.

Moreover, the scene tends to focus on looks above all else.

“Visual perfection can be intoxicating, sometimes making people forget that being a musician is actually about playing music,” she laughs.

But the line between Visual Kei and Japanese metal can be hard to draw. Actor Avery Fane, a head-banger since high school, says, “Anyone who’s paid attention to the Japanese industry will notice a simple trend: here in dresses and makeup one day, and looking hard-ass metal the next.”

He cites Dir en Grey and Kuroyume as groups that changed their image, but at the end of the day, “It’s still the same band with the same metal sound,” he says.

Asian rock, Asian music, heavy metal, tokyo rock bandsRyu, guitarist of Blood Stain Child.Live houses and bars

 For Japanese metal musicians, mixing it up is the rule rather than the exception. Ryu, guitarist of Blood Stain Child, says, “I listen to metal, trance and electro. We have no specific genre. Our aim is to create a sound that cannot be categorized.”

Fane, who sometimes attends a dozen concerts a month, observes that musical styles have amalgamated in recent years.

“Metal bands are flooding into the previously Visual-only houses of Shibuya and Harajuku. Bands are even playing in Aoyama and Omotesando, which used to be reserved for fashion shows. It’s as if everyone has just decided to rock out together,” he says.

Japan’s metalheads also congregate at specialty bars, which are plastered with signed posters and blast concert videos.

Tokyo’s Kabuki-cho is home to Bar Zin, Gellonimo, Star Café and Gods. Here's a guide to Osaka’s best metal bars, which include Midian, Moonwalk and RockRock.

Asian rock, Asian music, heavy metal, tokyo rock bandsSophia, vocalist of Blood Stain Child.

Turn the page

The local metal community has remained relatively small and underground. But Blood Stain Child is determined to succeed internationally. 

Sophia says, “As long as there are good metal bands out there that also know how to promote their music, the scene will grow.” 

Fane says the “sempai” hierarchy encourages participants to support each other. 

He says, “Every up-and-coming band finds itself crossing paths with other X Japan ‘children,’ so the family feeling is kept intact as each band gets ahead.”

Tatsu, a father of the scene, shares this view. He promises, “Bands like Dir en Gray will penetrate the world step by step. And I will applaud them from the shadows.”

For more about the metal concert scene, check out this guide to Tokyo’s best live houses.