2016 was a rather turbulent year.
The Grim Reaper showed no mercy, cutting down many beloved people; breaking hearts and checking names off his list; xenophobia and misinformation has become the norm, leading to an increase in hate crimes, intolerance and a very uncertain future; and once again there was another disappointing display from England in an international tournament.
In the music world though, things have been considerably different.
After the resurgence of heavy metal in 2015 (after the fantastic Book Of Souls by Iron Maiden turned the public eye back on this genre once more), 2016 continued the charge, churning out some spectacular and not so spectacular releases. Amongst all this musical madness lies an enigma which is becoming more and more noticeable, and becoming very, very divisive.
I refer to Babymetal.
The phenomenon known as Babymetal is a brainchild of Japan, a country famous for producing some notable acts across several genres of music ranging from the likes of Mad Capsule Markets, Dir En Grey, Church Of Misery and Sigh to name but some. I cannot remember a band as divisive as this though. The fusion of J-Pop with Metalcore has created a buzz, both positive and negative, ranging from the sound itself to the very nature of the band – a manufactured Japanese pop group with heavy metal backing music designed to target two demographics and exploit them mercilessly.
But the main question in all of this is simple – why did Babymetal suddenly become such a heated subject of debate?
Initially going viral (I detest that phrase but it is most apt to describe the situation) with the single ‘Gimmie Chocolate’ in late 2014/early 2015, the act took the world by storm. The harsh nature of the metalcore music behind three young teenage girls singing and dancing in perfect coordination (or miming, if you sit on the side of those who dislike them) like they were performing a pop song took everyone by surprise. It shouldn’t have worked on paper: two totally separate genres which had no business crossing over, merged together to create something strange, wonderful and brilliant…. Nevertheless, it did. The two extremes synchronise well, creating a rather unique sound which works on so many levels – infectiously catchy and melodic vocal lines, some killer guitar riffs and fretboard wizardry with plenty of heaviness backing it up.
It’s been impossible to escape the phenomenon known as Babymetal and this was proved earlier this year when Metal Resistance, their second full length release, broke into the higher echelons of album charts worldwide, sitting there in the middle of the multitude of lifeless, over-produced and mind-numbingly bland mainstream releases.
With success like this, it is no wonder the girls are in such high demand. Having recently finished a UK arena tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Babymetal have had their record breaking Wembley Arena show from earlier this year released, showing everyone that, whilst there is an element of pop marketing about their releases and formation, they can run with the metal crowd. 12,000 attended the show, breaking records associated with Japanese acts, and the band also recorded the highest ever merchandise takings for the venue! So without further delay, let us step into the record of that night and see just how it sounds for those of us who could not be a part of it.
The performance opens with a rather dramatic voiceover telling about the ‘spirit and legacy and history of heavy metal’ before the first wave of intensity hits in the form of “DEATH”. With the pounding bass, intense drums and crushing guitars, you would initially assume you were at a run of the mill metalcore gig, but the clear voices of the trio of Japanese teens turns that notion on its head. Whilst not delivered in your usual metal styling, sung clean and melodically instead of growled or rasped out with a throaty roar, it acts as a brilliant counterpoint, and for those who claim that the trio mime on stage you only have to listen closely to hear that this is a lie.
Suzuki Nakamoto (aka Su-Metal), the main vocalist and eldest of the three belts it out with plenty of passion and you can hear it in the delivery, the rawness and the slight wobbles when sustaining the long notes. With the slightly irritating but still infectiously catchy Yui Mizumo and Moa Kikuchi (Yu-Metal and Moa-Metal respectively) providing backing and accompaniment vocals in the call-and-response style, the two styled vocal approach over the blistering riffs work well and the backing growls from the crowd and the musicians aiding them adds that extra edge to the overall delivery.
From here on out…. Well, you would really have to listen to truly embrace it, but I will do my best to convey what I can with words.
“Awadama Fever” comes off like a Mad Capsule Markets track with the heavy techno-samples and dance friendly tempo. Crushing guitars reminiscent of the Japanese experimental-noise metal trio combined with catchy pop melodic hooks and vocals just ooze with energy. Footage from the evening shows just how much the crowd are lapping it all up. “YAVA” keeps this techno-metal-pop hybrid going. The clean guitars in the verse add a slight funky feel to it, but where it really comes alive is in the chorus. With a fantastic kick, it drives the track forwards with a sudden burst of distortion and intensity which no doubt sets those in the pits wild.
“GJ” which follows hot on its tails has a real groove metal undercurrent to it. The dirty sounding, harmonic laden riff and stomp friendly groove could easily be mistaken for southern metal in the style of Black Label Society, if you look past the female pop vocals. With a call and response spot with the crowd in the chorus and some serious neck working moments, the dynamic nature of Babymetal and their music is on full display to all. Yes, the girls may not be in charge of the musical delivery (that is in the hands of the band behind them) but it just shows how versatile this mixture of ‘Kawaii J-Pop’ is over a wide range of musical styles.
An older track but a firm fan favorite in the form of “Doki Doki Morning” gets one hell of a reception from the crowd, who cheer and shout along where required, and when there are no spots for them the customary ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ shouts can be heard. Following is one of my favourite tracks from the latest album (Metal Resistance); “META Taro”. The anthemic feel of the track with the catchy melodic nature of the vocals, mixed with the power metal delivery behind it (with elements of folk metal in some of the melodic leads) makes for an empowering musical experience, but it is in the main vocals of Miss Nakamoto where the real interest lies – more proof that she does not mime, as you can hear some of the slight dips and wavering in her sustained lines. All technicalities aside, this empowering pseudo-folk power metal track with an anthemic air serves its purpose, pumping the crowd up even more than the 12,000 in attendance already are.
“Amore” acts as a kind of ballad and slow-down track, giving some breathing space with its grandiose synth intro. Initially…. Those familiar with the track know that this is not the case. With what could best be described as ‘Dragonforce’ in terms of the sound and delivery, it explodes to life in a flurry of neo-classical fret wankery, resulting in what Pac-Man on PCP must sound like. Still, despite this explosive, high octane delivery, the vocal is still ballad like, placing a significant amount of emphasis on those sustained notes. Oh, it also has an insane bass solo into harmony fretboard meltdown spot that’s definitely worth mentioning.
With the crowd pumped from familiar and older tracks, the crushingly heavy “Megitsune”hits. With the crowd in full voice, giving the ‘Hey!’ shouts and an extended synth and chug intro, it really builds the suspense. When that iconic shamisen intro kicks in, it has the desired effect. With the crowd in full voice and the musical and vocal delivery spot on, the energetic and memorable musical assault does the job, delivered perfectly and a pang of jealousy hits me as I listen, given how circumstances dictated that I missed catching them live.
“KARATE!” gets the biggest cheer of the release (it was the current single at the time of this concert being recorded) and the mammoth riffs and tight musical delivery really hammer home just how good it is. Vocally the verse is as expected: slow, controlled and clear, but it’s the chorus where it all comes together. The melodic and empowering progression back the vocal delivery, the crowd joining in with Yui and Moa’s backing lines, it comes across as you would expect – a performance where both performers and the audience are on the same wavelength and getting lost in the moment.
“Iijme, Dame, Zettai” brings about another slowdown moment. With Su giving a poignant speech before the track in broken English before the spot of the night rears its head. “In a dream, the Fox-God told us… Wall Of Death… Show true courage…”. Despite the slow melodic piano accompaniment and the build, like before, you know this isn’t a ballad. Starting slow, Su and the piano line harmonise before the riff kicks in. In a moment which metallers can liken to the start of ‘Strike Of The Beast’ by Exodus or ‘Black Label’ by Lamb Of God, it has that suspense building intro which spells out what is coming next for those on the floor – total and utter chaos.
On the sustained high from Su, the crowd explodes to life and the harmony laden melodic power metal returns again, delivered cleanly and precisely – like the rest of the performance.
At this point, there are only three tracks left. “Gimmie Chocolate!”, the song which brought a massive amount of attention to the band initially, begins the home stretch. The air of anticipation is cut cleanly as the metal onslaught bisects it like a swing of the reaper’s scythe in 2016! Intense metal in the verses gives way to the catchy melodic chorus, and throughout the track the crowd is in full vocal force, pretty much what you would expect.
“The One (English Version)” acts as the penultimate track and finally brings that ballad moment the setlist has been teasing. Yes, English may not be Su’s strong point and you can tell she has practised her pronunciation and delivery as much as she can. The vocal delivery, all in English as the track suggests, is an impressive display, given how hard it must be for the young lass to sing in a language which is not her native tongue. Yes, there are some breakout metal moments, that is to be expected, but the way the piano and vocal delivery work in the calmer moments is somewhat soothing in parts, but once again, it points to evidence that she does not mime (a point I intend to reinforce as much as I can! They may be manufactured, but they aren’t X-Factor shite!)
Rounding things off is “Road Of Resistance” and it is an aptly named track given the trajectory of Babymetal’s career so far. Faced with criticism, opposition and negativity from people who do not like them or how they were formed, despite endorsements from the likes of Rob Halford, Rob Zombie and Kirk Wah-mett (Hammett, obvs), it’s just one of those things you have to put up with. Anyway, back to the track. Musically, it has that sing along melodic line in the intro and the empowering power metal feel once again, and the fast paced delivery really drives it home for the final minutes of the night. With the obligatory ‘stop playing and have the crowd sing the melody’ trope featuring in this track (and sounding impressive given the size of the crowd and the energy they have!) it’s a great end to what has been an intense live performance.
LIVE at Wembley is a solid live album. It shows a band who are growing in confidence and strength with each performance, and a strong and committed fan base who are eager to support them.
Love them or hate them, understand them or not, Babymetal can be compared to 2016. A year of sweeping changes and uncertainty, the music world too has seen much upheaval – legends passing on, massive shocks (TheTemples Festival debacle and the demise of Team Rock) and pleasant surprises (Guns ‘N’ Roses reunion, a full year with no mention of Mötley Crüe’s impending break up, or a musical release/tour from them!). It is a year people will look back on with mixed emotions and, much like with Babymetal, people will either accept it and move forwards, or vehemently attack.
At the end of the day, things happen which you may not like and the same can be said for music. Bands you don’t like get popular, and until their support wavers, you have to just get used to it.
Bring on 2017… Musically, Socially, Politically and most of all, Babymetal-ly!