The Faces Behind Babymetal

babymetal

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Heavy metal idol group Babymetal have seemingly taken the world by storm this past week, with articles featuring them appearing in USA Today, the Huffington Post, and even The Guardian. It’s exciting whenever a Japanese artist gets picked up by Western media, however unfortunately there seems to be a recurring trend in every one of these pieces, especially when the artists are as eccentric and flamboyant as a group like Babymetal are:
“Those crazy Japs.”

And then of course there’s always the obligatory comments section, which in the case of Babymetal have been filled with everything from wide-eyed wonder to disgust, with commentary on how “this isn’t metal” or how “Slayer would hate this.” Claims that the three girls in the group don’t like metal only add fuel the fire (it doesn’t really matter though; they’re idols. Perfume didn’t like electro-pop when they first started.)

Babymetal – “Catch Me If You Can”

It’s easy to see why these reactions happen. Not only does this kind of music simply not exist in the West, most of these articles introducing Babymetal have only pointed out the strangeness or craziness of it, with not much cultural context or research done on the creative talent backing this project.

It’s important to take note of recent trends in Japanese pop music when talking about this group; “idol mania” has been a thing in Japan for at least the last five years, with groups like AKB48, Momoiro Clover Z, Dempa Gumi, Inc., BiS, and Bellring Shojo Heart proliferating nearly every layer of the music culture consciousness. Idols have been a thing in Japanese music since forever, but like everything else in the 21st century, there has been a complete over-saturation over the last couple of years.

It’s also important to consider how the music scene and industry works in Japan. Probably more so than any other country, the gap between mainstream popular music and underground music is massive. This has created a pop scene that’s very sugarcoated and manufactured, and an underground scene that’s very avant-garde and isolated. In this musical landscape, it’s difficult for underground musicians to break into the mainstream or make a living playing music. Some have bridged the gap for themselves by having their own band with a core but limited fan base, and at the same provide music for more famous pop singers and of course, idol groups.

Idol groups have benefited from this as well, since the trend now seems to be all about being cooler and wackier than everyone else. Idol groups like Momoiro Clover Z and BiS have succeeded by targeting a niche group of fans of a particular subculture and hiring musicians with street cred from that subculture to make the music and project feel more authentic and legitimate. So it’s actually kind of ironic when people accuse the “metalness” of a group like Babymetal; they’ve been genetically engineered specifically to appeal to meet certain criteria. Basically, they are so metal, at least musically and aesthetically (ideologically is a different story altogether, but fellow Japan Times contributor and Quit Your Band partner Ian Martin has covered the uneasiness of combining subculture and commercialized music, so I won’t really go there.)

Momoiro Clover – “Pinky Jones”

Which brings us to the creative team behind Babymetal. While there doesn’t seem to be a main producer the group keep going back to (like say Tsunku for Morning Musume) it’s clear that there is a tightly-knit team of musicians who work on the material.

One of the more obvious standouts is Narasaki of shoegaze/metal band Coaltar Of The Deepers. Narasaki has received recognition in the last couple of years for producing anime soundtracks as well as contributing some tracks to Momoiro Clover Z, like “Pinky Jones”, “Kuroi Shuumatsu”, and “Birth Ø Birth”.

Narasaki knows his metal. While his band rarely goes full-on metal, there have been fine examples of thrashing from Narasaki, from his cover of The Cure’s “Killing An Arab” to “Mars Attacks!” from the band’s second album. Listen to Momoiro Clover’s “Kuroishumatsu” and you’ll hear all sorts of Black Sabbath references.

Narasaki’s contributions to Babymetal so far have been the single “Headbanger” and the b-side “Catch Me If You Can.” The latter sounds much like Coaltar Of The Deepers; compare the track to the industrial metal-tinged “Dead By Dawn” from the Penguin EP and they sound like they came from the same sessions.

Coaltar Of The Deepers – “Dead By Dawn”

When put in this context the track suddenly goes from being a cute little song about playing hide and seek to being a Coaltar Of The Deepers outtake. You can say this with a lot of Japanese producers. Who’s to say that a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu single couldn’t have been on a Capsule album, or a Momoiro Clover Z song not be on a Hyadain record? (or even a Go! Team record.)

Idol music has become the sandbox for many musicians to play in. While have more interesting bands of their own, it’s difficult for these musicians to make a living from playing music because of the niche nature of their material, and just from the simple fact that support for these kinds of music just generally isn’t enough in Japan. It’s why you have people like AxSxE from post-rock band Natsumen write a song like “L. Drunk” for Kaela Kimura.

The other standout is Takeshi Ueda, who is best known for playing bass in the Mad Capsule Markets, as well as his solo project AA=. His track is “Gimme Choco,” one of the tracks making rounds on the interwebs, and definitely one of the highlights on the new album. “Gimme Choco” combines electro-pop with the metal but Ueda does it in a tasteful way with a catchy autotuned interlude and, well, effects you would hear on a Mad Capsule Markets record. The electronic elements never go into cheesy territory however (some of the other tracks on the album are more guilty of doing this) and it’s clear that Ueda is very much in familiar territory here.

AA= – “Working Class”

Other contributors have been Norimetal aka Norizo from the band Dugout, who wrote the single “Megitsune,” and Yuyoyuppe, a Vocaloid producer/DJ/rock musician. Dugout aren’t metal at all but was a part of the Hachioji scene alongside bands like Maximum The Hormone, who kind of paved the way for this J-pop/metal hybrid stuff in a way (vocalist Daisuke Tsuda of Maximum The Hormone also originally played drums in Dugout). Dugout originally wrote pop punk songs before moving onto a sort of 60s garage style. In any case, they wrote catchy little indie rock songs. ( “Megitsune” has the strongest chorus out of all the songs on the album I think and might just be my favorite track.)

Dugout – In The Car

Looking through the credits, Yuyoyuppe’s name comes up the most, and he seems to be hands on and bringing the metal arrangements to otherwise non-metal songwriters. He penned “Akumu no Wa kyoku” and arranged three other tracks, including “Babymetal Death” and “Megitsune.”

The mix of EDM and metal sounds just like Yuyoyuppe’s excellently christened band, My Eggplant Died Yesterday. While I’m not a big fan of Yuyoyuppe’s tracks to be honest (playing them back to back with Narasaki’s stuff just shows how much Narasaki gets metal more than Yuyoyuppe. Narasaki has been on the job way longer though, so the comparison might not exactly be fair), it’s clear that he has a grasp on heavy music, despite the rather cheesy Skrillex-y moments.

My Eggplant Died Yesterday – “What Is Liberty To You”

Another interesting name on the list is Tatsuo, who is the guitarist in the band Everset. He is also known for being responsible for producing/arranging the music of “air band” sensation Golden Bomber, who recently took the country by storm with their single “Memeshikute.” Since there’s only one member in Golden Bomber who actually plays instruments (the other three simple mime to the music), you could say that Tatsuo is Golden Bomber. The band is essentially a parody (I think they’re fun but awful), but they have strong ties with the visual-kei scene in Japan, playing in the scene for more than decade before becoming big. Tatsuo arranged two tracks on the album, “Onedari Daisakusen” and “4 No Uta” (which pretty much uses the “spider-riff” from Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets” note for note)

Golden Bomber – “Memeshikute”

The connection between Babymetal and visual-kei is important; some of the tracks like “Headbanger” and “Ijime, Dame, Zettai” have been accused of “not being metal,” but viewing these songs through a visual-kei lens and they suddenly make sense. Both sound more like X Japan songs than any Slayer track. Narasaki even admits in an interview that his inspiration for “Headbanger” was more visual-kei than heavy metal, says that the song purposefully sounds like a “metal song done by a Japanese visual key guy who doesn’t really understand metal.”

Listening to the new album in the context of this visual-kei/death metal hybrid puts it in a new light, and you get a sense of what the creators were actually going for. What you end up with is an album that’s probably the most tasteful mish-mashing of kayokyoku melodies and metal possible, which is what a lot of visual-kei bands were trying to do in the late 80s and early 90s. And just as a fan of Narasaki, it’s exciting just to hear him go full-on metal on these tracks, which is something he only rarely does on Coaltar Of The Deeper tracks. It’s also neat to hear the songs in the context of his overall discography that includes his idol and anime material (along with numerous side projects such as the electronica Sadesper Record.) You can start hearing the differences between an idol track produced by some guy in his bedroom who has never been in a band and a track that’s been produced by someone who has gone through the grind of touring and recording in the underground scene.

So while Dom Lawson of The Guardian may say that the group was formed by some ”Machiavellian genius who almost certainly had a sudden “Eureka!” moment in the middle of the night and realised that Japanese audiences were certain to unquestioningly embrace such a seemingly incongruous mish-mash of cutting-edge musical ideas,” he’s only scratching the surface; this mish-mash has been happening for a while now. It’s how idol music is being sold these days – pick a niche market, get people within the scene to produce songs, and then play up the disparate sides of the music. Frankly, it’s quite depressing that bands and musicians can’t get by with just their own bands, but if there’s anything to gain from all the commercialism it’s that some of these talented people get their work heard, and that groups like Babymetal may become the gateway drug for some kid out there into the world of metal and Japanese indie music.

Yes, it’s manufactured. Yes, it’s ridiculous. But that’s not the whole story. There are some cool bands behind all the cuteness and commercialism. You just have to dig a little deeper.

Babymetal – “Megitsune”

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25 comments

  1. I’d like to introduce to you Up Up Girls(仮)
    Their music stretches from Pop-Rock to Tecno-Pop, this group is on the raise.

    Hope you would give them a listen 🙂

  2. Forgot to mention that I like your article on BABYMETAL. Very informative and I like how you brought the music making process which usually stays in the background into focus.

    “Frankly, it’s quite depressing that bands and musicians can’t get by with just their own bands, but if there’s anything to gain from all the commercialism it’s that some of these talented people get their work heard, and that groups like Babymetal may become the gateway drug for some kid out there into the world of metal and Japanese indie music.”

    Look at the idols as an extension of the band’s instrument, its not that depressing if you look at it this way 🙂 But this is just the first stage. The next stage is “Band x Idol” collaboration. The band and idol on the same stage.

    1. ryotaroao · · Reply

      I’m familiar with Up Up Girls (仮). I actually ran into them on an elevator while going to Tower Records once!

      The idol + band thing has kinda been done. I mean, Babymetal already do it. And Momoiro Clover Z have recently having live bands in their sets for some of their more harder edge stuff (hearing “Saraba, Itoshiki Kanashimitachi Yo” done by a live band is pretty epic). A band fronted by idol members would be pretty new though (but considering the diversity of the Tokyo scene, there probably already is a band like that somewhere…)

      1. You ran into them in an elevator?! WOW! Have you been to any of their liveshows? I’m thinking of going to their concert this June 1st at Nakano Sunplaza. I’ve been hearing that their shows are bursting with energy and being a long time fan, I want to experience it.

        My encounter with BABYMETAL was accidental too. I heard about them but never checked out their music until that day at Anime Festival Asia 2012. I saw them in person at one of the entertainment booths. Heard their music over the loudspeakers and I thought it was interesting. After that I checked out their other songs. Too bad at that time, they already did their concert a day earlier. Otherwise I might had also gone for the BABYMETAL concert. I also met May’n for the first time in person there. Lucky enough to get into a handshake session. Shes so sweet ^_^

      2. ryotaroao · ·

        I’ve never been to an Up Up Girls show before. I haven’t been to many idols gig actually.

        I heard about Babymetal a little before “Headbanger” came out because I like to follow Narasaki’s musical output. He’s certainly the wildcard amidst all this idol music. I love his Momoiro Clover Z stuff.

  3. One of the best BM article ever, thank you for all those very interesting facts

  4. Terrific article. Having just come across Babymetal and started spending time trying to figure out where the heck something like this comes from and how it evolved, I appreciate the breakdown. It was pretty apparent that there are a lot of idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture, music, and the music scene in Japan at work, but I’d yet to come across anything that really went beyond “look at the weird J-Pop metal mashup that’s gone viral on the web…you’ll love it or hate it…those wacky Japanese” – even from sites and magazines that supposedly try to provide insight into music and music trends. Thanks!

    1. ryotaroao · · Reply

      Thanks. It’s frustrating when Western media picks up something like this and just treats it like this wacky, ridiculous thing, with no insight into the circumstances behind the music. Why is this being created? Who listens to it? Who makes the music? This isn’t a team of highly professional studio songwriters writing metal songs engineered in a lab to become Top 10 hits. At the same time, the management of these groups know who their market is and what they want.

      I see similarities with how Hollywood now hires legit, credible talent when handling geek properties. Studios know that purists of franchises will want people who know or are into whatever thing they’re adapting, and be “respectful” of the canon as much as possible. These idol groups are formed by people who see a niche market and tailor a group to fit their needs and standards. In a way it’s disgusting, but at the same time it provides artists with opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise, so it’s a double-edged sword. And much better than some other idol groups who cater to a more lowest-common-denominator audience (like AKB48).

      I think the only thing to be careful about is to make sure the lines between idol music and punk/underground music aren’t blurred too much. It’s like what Agata from Melt-Banana said in the interview we did with them: if people hear underground music and go, “That reminds me of this thing from this idol group,” that means it’s gone too far. If the original starts sounding like a parody of the idol music then I think something important is lost there.

  5. Do you think BM will open the way to a new wave of japanese band in the west? i’ve discover some pretty nice band recently mixing rock, kawaii look and idole such as Fruitpochette, HimeKyu, Death Rabbits and more real band such as Aldious, Doll$Boxx.Cyntia and many others. They could even open the way for more commercial such as perfrum, passpo or girlnation as well.

    BM is maybe only the tips of the iceberg.

  6. Japonaliya · · Reply

    WOW! you know your Japanese music scene. However, i wouldn’t just dismiss Babymetal as just a “gateway drug” If Megitsune is where they are headed, a little dose of maturity but not eliminating the kawaii factor will have Babymetal go where no Japanese group has gone before…

    BTW: Up Up Girls seem to be an exact clone of the current Morning Musume format. I used to love MM and saw them live 3X. But Tsunku’s direction is not the best for Momusu. Only one member from the post LOVE MACHINE “golden days” survives, and IMO 2009 was their last good year.

    UP UP Girls sound exactly what id terribly wrong with the current Morning Musume…..too bad.

    On the other hand…if the song writing is strong, and they start releasing material sooner, Babymetal will be the future.

    I am just curious how long it will take for knockoff bands to envade Babymetal’s niche.

  7. […] songs seems like the logical choice, and thanks to a great article about BABYMETAL on the blog Don’t Cross the Streams it is easy to do just […]

  8. Serenyty · · Reply

    Well put. One of the biggest reasons that I’ve stuck around as an idol fan for some years is because the music can get so interesting and weird; even when a single producer works on the music (Tsunku in Morning Musume) there is a real variety of sound that gets me excited. This isn’t always the case, but it’s part of why there’s a lot of musically minded people who are interested in the idol scene.

    I’m at the point where manufactured isn’t a label that deters me. Yes, idol groups are highly manufactured. However, there’s a lot of fantastic music going on behind that, which you really emphasized here. I’m personally a big fan of Hyadain’s, and it’s really interesting to see where he goes with his music, especially since he’s stated that he prefers working with a wide variety of artists/idol acts.

    But yeah, I really hate the whole “silly Japan” type of mentality that Western media tends to get when it comes to stuff like Babymetal.

  9. bselt2 · · Reply

    i came here trying to figure out who their touring skeletons are. lol

  10. Best Babymetal article written to date. Thank you.

  11. […] Do Not Cross The Streams WordPress The night shift : an undisciplined […]

  12. alberto · · Reply

    Hi Ryotaroao, superb article, more on the line i am looking for.
    I would like to know who Tsubometal is. His name is related in my two favorite songs of the band (Akatsuki and IDZ). I would love to find some other material from him.

  13. […] post which further delves into the creative team behind Babymetal and the music industry of Japan: The Faces Behind Babymetal | Don’t Cross The Streams. Well worth a read. I am an absolute newbie to this part of the music industry, I know very, very […]

  14. Someone posted on Facebook asking “what the hell is this”. It was the video of Babymetal “Gimme Chocolate”. At first I was Ok, I know anime and how weird and difficult it can be to understand, but I heard the underlying metal in the music. I was absolutely fascinated with the musicality being a die hard metal head. I started watching other songs on Youtube, notably Headbanger and Megitsune, and became more intrigued. I then watched a live performance video from Montreal, and I got hooked. Seeing that the band was completely into their performance and the girls had the entire crowd dancing at their fingertips made me hungry for more.

    In two days I have watched countless videos and interviews, but was always disappointed with a lot of the comments. I know this music isn’t for everyone but some people were just utterly hateful on them because they are manufactured and it’s just some executives brainchild to make money. Your article showed me where the music really came from, and I must say I have quite a few new bands to be looking at. There are some really inspiring musicians that collaborated in the making of BabyMetal. I am part of the Metal Resistance. Thank you for a very insightful article and opening my eyes to the Far East for some great metal.

  15. Thank you for this amazing post!
    I was pretty sure to hear a huge The Mad Capsule Markets influence in some songs and I’m so happy you confirmed that XD I really thought Takeshi Ueda was behind «Head Bangeeeeerrrrr!!!!!» though because of the verse guitar in «Midi Surf» (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIryVCutCM0, 0:49…) and how Capsule-like the whole arrangement is. I didn’t know Coaltar Of The Deepers yet, and of course the track «Dead By Dawn» sounds very similar too.
    It’s actually funny how both songs use those overdriven drum samples and those electronical sounds in the background ^ ^. Wouldn’t be surprised if those guys worked together a lot, when in the studio (;

  16. This article featuring former Megadeth guitarist is another insightful pov on the tremendous skill and dedication behind these ‘manufactured’ acts. Producing something brilliant is a talent just as being a bedroom songwriter is a talent. The key is in getting some bright ideas and the right people in place to deliver them. This is happening in Japan and there’s much we could learn and take inspiration from. A lot of good bands here in the US suffer, I believe, from poorly produced material that otherwise has a lot of potential brilliance in it. This applies to struggling garage bands as well as to big names.

  17. When I first heard the song “Gimme Chocolate” I thought for sure the Japanese band Balzac was involved. Thank you for clearing that up with this article.

  18. wow this article is amazing. I knew babymetal is too good to not be with a background.
    i already checked up up girls and the other band but for me they are not as good as babymetal. do you have any more recommendations?

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