The internet is a marvel for discovering new and strange things…
Kawaii (which is Japanese for “cute”) metal is a combination of J-pop and heavy metal that could be the gateway sub-genre that introduces a whole new generation to classic heavy metal music. It’s got everything: guitar riffs, theatrics, double-bass drumming à la Dave Lombardo, choreography, great hooks, and you can really shake your ass to it. If you can’t find at least one thing you like about kawaii metal, you’re being an obstinate purist.
From what I’ve been able to glean from the internet (which at times made me feel dangerously close to stumbling upon weird fetish porn), Japan’s pop groups are manufactured in a similar fashion as some boy bands and girl groups in the U.S. and the U.K.—a producer hand selects members through auditions, they stylize them for mass appeal, and then start cranking out the the radio friendly hits to titillate hormonal teens. Of course, we could get into arguments over the artistic authenticity of fabricated bands and their impact on the music industry, but super fucking yawn. Yes, I respect musicians who toil for their art, but I also don’t mind listening to overproduced music, even if only ironically. My different moods have different soundtracks.
Kawaii metal embraces the marketable, saccharine, stylings of popular music, but flips it on it’s head with the heavy distortion and amplified sound of heavy metal. There are quite a few kawaii metal bands out there, some far more metal influenced than others, but here are a few of the most well known in the U.S.:
No need to adjust your monitor. The trio is in fact comprised of two young teen girls and a giant hairy dude dressed like a kawaii idol. LADYBABY was my introduction to this genre when their video passed through my newsfeed. Their single Nippon Manju is the weirdest (or possibly greatest?) “Vacation in Japan” commercial you’ll ever see. Seriously. The song lyrics are a list of all the things that they think are great about Japan. (And don’t think I’m not learning this dance routine!)
Most of the kawaii metal bands I’ve watched tend to have young girls on vocals while adults are playing the instruments. However, there are a couple of bands like LADYBABY that have a male vocalist as well to provide the death growl (or Cookie Monster vocals, if you will) that would probably shred those girls’ vocal chords, or just be extremely comical, if they tried it. It’s a peculiar, but interesting juxtaposition of tones.
As of right now, LADYBABY has only released two singles: Nippon Manju and Ultra☆Lucky, which are decidedly different sounding songs—the latter has no metal influence whatsoever and is strictly synthpop. I found that disappointing, but I’m won over by their bizarre line up.
BAND-MAID® is comprised of five teen musicians whose song Thrill immediately made me think of Evanescence, which is a brooding rock sound rather than what I’d typically associate with metal, but hey, I don’t get to define this genre. The members wear maid costumes (which I guess is not unusual in kawaii fashion, but it’s kinda weird. I suppose that means they can make some Maid in Japan puns), but they really break the mold in this genre by playing their own instruments.
Their two other songs Love, Passion, Matador and Summer Drive lose the heavy guitar riff of Thrill giving them a far more poppy sound, which made me think of rock bands like Paramore. They’re super catchy songs, even if I don’t know what they’re singing about (I don’t let things like language barriers stop me from enjoying a good song).
BABYMETAL’s sound is more thrash metal influenced (though I’m pretty sure they’re not tackling any social issues with songs like Gimme Chocolate!!), but hands down, they are my favorite in this genre. They incorporate dark imagery in their costumes, performances, and band photos (their iTunes cover photo has the three girls posed in coffins doing their best Lydia Deetz impressions). Imagine if Slayer was fronted by the Powerpuff girls who were going through a goth phase. That’s BABYMETAL (except for the fact that they’re obviously not cartoons. I didn’t really have to explain that, right?).
But they don’t stop with pop and metal either; songs like line! include rap interludes, and they even use NERO-style electronic music in Uki Uki Midnight, which should indicate a band having an identity crisis. A musical dogmatist would probably take issue with this band for borrowing heavily from so many different genres while claiming to be metal, but it still works for me.
I can see how kawaii metal might be a divisive sub-genre of music. Purists don’t like their style being diluted by other influences and they loathe anything calling itself metal that’s not strictly death, thrash, power, black, symphonic, or classic. Truthfully, you can find these types of purists in just about any medium, and the internet is littered with forums in which these people can bitch about how their scene is being ruined by gimmickry. I, for one, don’t care. I’m past worrying about a scene and am content with listening to music that is different and fun, which is exactly what kawaii metal is.