What is metal?
In the 1980’s, metal was the most popular collection of music genres in the world. Today, much of Brazil, several Scandinavian and Western European nations, and Japan enjoy a large metal subculture. Here in America, metal is an ever-present genre, with a popular cartoon even spreading thick satire and heavy music across the Cartoon Network.
I suppose like all forms of communication, metal is subject to change. There are several subgenres of metal, each with certain defining elements, but they all share certain characteristics. Distorted guitar, furious rhythm work, “loudness” (sharp contrasts with varying amounts of atonality, such as with distortion or ever-present cymbal crashes), thick sound (either through layering or dense mixing), minor key tonality, and (for me at least) demanding musicianship and an emphasis on strong composition.
Metal is a genre of amalgamation, mixing jazz influences, classical influences, blues influences, and a lot of pedal point riffs! Defining what is and is not metal is difficult, but if you hear it enough, you can get the idea. Today I have assembled several metal bands for the evening playlist; all are fairly recent save for one or two. I did this because I feel like playing Loudness or X Japan for you all would be pleasant, for sure, but also a bit too lazy of me and sort of typical. Of course we can’t forget X, Loudness, Sex Machineguns, and all the other earlier Japanese groups, but I’d like to focus on recent Japanese metal and what defines it.
There is an emphasis on English lyrics, perhaps to garner favor amongst Western audiences, but there are also Japanese lyrics-oriented bands. I’ll try to present some of both, because I like both!
The musicianship in all these bands is top notch, as influenced by their peers, and most of these compositions utilize bass guitar more than most American or Scandinavian groups. This might be because of bands like Dream Theater playing a large influence, or neoclassicism from shred-metal of the 80’s like Moore, MacApine, Gilbert, and Malmsteen. The inclusion of bass guitar as a key instrument shows a more composition-oriented approach to writing music, where each instrument is important and has the opportunity to take lead. Again, neoclassicism in metal helped shape many young people into taking their musical education and applying it towards metal. Syu from Galnyerus and Katsu Ohta are great examples. Nobuo Uematsu has rendered his symphonic music in metal style, and the transition seems totally natural, a point I’ll catch up to in a moment.
I suppose a cultural reason for the classical and symhponic elements in these groups might be due to how many students in Japan take up musical instruments as well as learn piano from an early age, either in school or outside at music academies. Japan is a country where Gakushū juku (学習塾) and competition are commonplace, and there are many ways through such a system that accomplished musicians can emerge from an early age. This might be off-topic, but it is food for thought.
Melody is key in Japanese music, and this could be due to Japanese as being a tonal language. Studies have shown that early immersion in tonal languages leads to a better likelihood of having absolute and perfect pitch later in life, important for singing and songwriting. Japan gave rise to karaoke, and singing is an important cultural glue in Japan. Thus, almost every Japanese metal song will have some sort of strong or singable melody, or a lead guitar or keyboard. Lead guitar with metal techniques is even common in certain pop songs in Japan, something lamentably absent from American pop.
In video game music, with famous compositions of this style emerging in the 80’s and early 90’s, there are strong melodies and very metal-sounding riffs. See Castlevania, Street fighter, Hellfire, or a myriad of other titles. Dark, minor key melodies with strong rhythms set the stage for many games, and I take it to be the case that most of these young composers had to have been listening to metal at the time. Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy battle music is exemplary of this.
Another form of popular culture began to use the anthemic, strong melodies typical of metal songs to promote itself: Anime. Even today, there are many shows that use metal theme songs or metal-style instrumentation, such as Basilisk and Darker than Black. Animetal, a project of Sakamoto Eizo and Syu clearly showed that many of these themes were easily adaptable into metal anthems.
More recent phenomena, death metal and black metal, incorporate minor key melodies, symphonic elements, and screaming/growling vocals with metal conventions. This mixture of powerful melodies and gutteral vocals represents the visceral and expressive force of metal. Death metal has reached around the world, and perhaps the best way to describe it is disillusionment with current cultural norms, an obsession with the bleak and macabre, the desire to know the ephemeral world, as well as reflect over the unknowns. I’m actually not too surprised with this, as was it not tradition that a samurai would also write death poetry? Political unrest, social unrest, sorrows, all are fuel for death and black metal, and currently Japan has no shortage of social problems or depressed youth.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, metal in Japan seems to break the gender barrier. Why are there so many women in Japanese metal and hard rock? Perhaps it is due to singing talent. Perhaps it is a sort of escape from the patriarchy and gender inequality of Japan’s business world. What about influences in Shonen Knife and other female musicians? Either way, there is an abundance of great female Japanese metal musicians that most other countries cannot top.
Japanese metal is a cross-cultural phenomenon, drawing influences from Western predecessors, as well as from the musical culture of Japan and the Japanese language. There has been a lot of back and forth between early videogame music and Japanese metal, and even shows on TV have metal-style themes. Metal provides an expressive outlet for people unhappy with cultural norms, and as a style to apply musical education to. Metal has a huge subculture in Japan; Japanese companies even founded two popular guitar brands (ESP and Ibanez), and Young Guitar, a magazine that hosts lessons and interviews with the most talented metal musicians in the world.
A manga franchise, Detroit Metal City provides even more evidence for the burgeoning metal culture in Japan.
So what is Japanese metal? Listen and find out!
– Wes Smith
If that wasn’t enough, I’ve included this picture of Wes without a head to drive home his legitimacy as a guest DJ for the metal show.