While COVID has us all bunkered down now, of course, it’s never been more important to support your favourite local artists by picking up a shirt online or throwing down a few bucks on Bandcamp. Having said that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with supporting your favourite bands overseas, and maybe even finding a few new favourite artists while you whittle away the self-isolation hours on YouTube.
With that in mind – I’ve had this idea for a while about sharing with you some of my favourite Japanese rock and metal acts, especially given the fact that (pre-lockdown) Australia has been playing host to some successful tours of bands from that area – most recently ONE OK ROCK, but we also saw Crossfaith as special guests for The Amity Affliction’s recent tour, and Babymetal also finally made their way to Australia for Good Things Festival in 2018 (our Melb coverage here).
It really seems like Japan is starting to dominate the western stage in the world of both rock and heavy music. And in my opinion, this explosion, more commonly known to fans as J-Rock, has been long overdue. Not to get all hipster on you, but I was on this Shinkansen before Yui-Metal had started first grade. And, call me a ‘Weeb’ all you like, but it’s all thanks to anime.
Fullmetal Before Full Metal
I’ve been a diehard anime fan since the late 90’s, and with my growing interest in the culture of Japan it was only natural that I got curious about the music. My dive into in J-Rock (and…alright, J-Pop too – Ayu rocks) began in the early 2000’s with a simple desire to seek out the names behind some of the amazing music that accompanied my favorite anime, such as the opening a closing themes of the epic Fullmetal Alchemist, performed by some of Japan’s biggest rock acts of the time, L`Arc~en~Ciel and Asian Kung-Fu Generation.
This wasn’t exactly easy in the days when YouTube was but a seed in Google’s brain, but through a few official channels (and some…er…back alleys of the internet) I managed to be introduced to a few mainstream names, including Do As Infinity and Ayumi Hamasaki – Japan’s queen of pop.
A lack of local distribution meant that CD imports were mega expensive – and still are – so buying albums have been a rarity for me – I remember stuffing a money order (look it up, kids) into an envelope for my first Ayu album, which arrived about 8 weeks later. However, over the last decade with Spotify and YouTube access has become much easier, helping J-Rock bands to find a massive fanbase abroad.
Over the years I’ve found some gems in multiple genres, even the EDM scene has some incredible talent out there beyond the Vocaloid explosion – Snail’s House is worth a search if like a dose of positive electronica. I keep coming back to J-Rock though because I’m primarily a rock fan. And while I’ve yet to venture over to raid Akihabara and Tower Records, as well as try and knock out my growing list of bands to see live, my fascination with Japan’s music scene has remained constant, even if my grasp of the Japanese language needs work.
I should also mention the rabbit hole that’s known as Visual Kei – a thing that you’ll need to Google because it would take a separate article to explain.
So, why the attraction to J-Rock? I think it comes back to the knack of the Japanese to take existing elements and combine them to create their own unique thing. J-Rock can be heavy, it can rock like a mofo, but it can also be soulful and emotional, and there’s some awesome musicianship in the live performances as well.
I’d like to share with you a handful of – currently – my favourite acts, along with a few new ones that pop up for me on various feeds. This will be a mix of light rock through to hard metal, but again that’s the beauty of J-Rock. I hope you find a new favourite out of these.
Let’s start with probably my favourite band out of Japan right now, BAND-MAID are a group of insanely talented women who have combined the idea of maid cosplay with some of the most killer hard rock you’ll hear today. BAND-MAID burst out of the gate in 2014 with Maid In Japan and have built themselves a huge loyal following ever since, completing a successful tour of America and parts of Europe in 2019. With the release of Conqueror in 2020, they were due to play a spot on Knotfest in Mexico, but thanks to Corona that got shelved. However last week they decided to stream their set on YouTube from their rehearsal space, before releasing a teaser clip for their upcoming live release. Let’s hope when this is all over, they make it down here soon.
You probably have heard this band if you’ve seen one of Makoto Shinkai’s last two movies, Your Name and Weathering With You. RADWIMPS contributed the soundtrack to both, spawning awesome tracks like ‘Zenzenzense’ and ‘Is There Still Anything That Love Can Do?’
RADWIMPS have been a band since 2003, and have grown into an impressive live act. Have a hunt around on YouTube and you’ll see some amazing live clips where they just jam, and the whole world just seems to stop while they do it. Their last album, Anti Anti Generation, borders more on pop than rock, but that’s ok, it’s still a band that’s made my list to see live if I ever finally make it over to Japan.
A fusion of metal and traditional Japanese musical instruments (known as wagakki, hence the name,) WagakkiBand are a new discovery for me, but have been around since 2012 or so. Having played over in the states a few times, their most recent EP is called React, and is one to listen to if you like a more different combination of folk and metal.
Heading into metalcore territory, we come to Crystal Lake, who have been around since 2002, and recently signed to SharpTone Records in 2018. Having toured with some of our own metalcore outfits, including Parkway Drive, some of their earlier stuff (pre-2012) is a little hard to find, probably because it sounds very different to how they do now. I managed to find a few tracks from their first album Dimension, and it sounds a little more underground nu-metal as opposed to the more polished version today. Still a great band, though, and one to keep an eye on if they make it down here for a tour.
The Oral Cigarettes
Another one I’ve recently found, The Oral Cigarettes are gearing up for a new album release in 2020 called Suck My World, their 5th album since forming in 2010. More of an alternative rock style, they’ve reached a number 1 spot in the Japan charts with the album Kisses and Kills, and hopefully will make their way to western audiences for live shows when things get back to normal.
Another favourite of mine – while researching a few of these J-Rock bands I noticed many tend to be formed during school years for some reason. Scandal formed in 2006, and have come a long way, with their musical style ranging from pop-punk and hard rock to pop-rock. I recently got their new album, Kiss from The Darkness, on import and have been listening to it non-stop since. They’ve toured the US and Mexico, developing a worldwide fan base, along with establishing their own record label, ‘her’, and having multiple tracks featured as opening and closing themes for various anime series.
Here’s a newer group – consisting of musicians from a few existing metal acts in Japan, Nemophila comprises of some very talented women who know how to shred like there’s no tomorrow, and have fun while doing so. Their YouTube channel only consists of one original and an Iron Maiden cover for now, but it will be interesting to see them develop in the future. (‘Oiran´ even has a ‘blegh’ in there for you Architects fans.)
One more, KANA-BOON have made a name among western fans through theme songs for various anime series, and with good reason – some of the catchiest rock jams you’ll hear, and vocalist/guitarist Maguro Taniguchi has a good voice on him.
That’s just a handful, and I could do another ten articles at least on J-Rock bands, but the well is deep, friends. Aside from the YouTube rabbit hole, there’s a few channels on Twitch that are running J-music videos all day, along with countless websites and blogs (shoutout to ‘JRock News’ for turning me on to Nemophila) dedicated to the subject. It’s no surprise my Twitter goes bonkers whenever I post something revolving around J-Rock – the fanbase is loyal. Hopefully when the world is back to normal we not only see some more acts make it down here, but I plan on finally making that trek over to Japan with a big list of bands to see.
Along with a big wallet – I have an equally big shopping list for Akihabara.
Article by Simon Valentine (@SimonValentine)