By Ron Anicich
What is Japanese idol culture?
For decades the Japanese popular music scene has been dominated by idol groups who have over-saturated the market with their bland, computer-driven pop music. Female fronted groups like AKB48 and Morning Musume, who no person with functioning ears should ever listen to, have obliterated conventional performers from the music charts. These idol groups generally consist of anywhere between one and 150 or more women, usually singing and dancing along with backing tracks. And they are young. Most idols are between 16 and 25 years old but occasionally can be as young as ten years old.
Somewhere around 2010 frustrated music producers who were not pop oriented began to create idol groups using different genres of music. While Babymetal are often credited with being the first idol group to perform listenable music, that is mainly because they were the first to attract an audience outside of Japan. In fact, this new wave of idol groups were mainly inspired by a self-described anti-idol group called BiS (Brand-new Idol Society) who performed very convincing pop punk which was very much at odds with the prevailing trend.
And it worked. Very well. So well that by 2016 there existed an idol group for every type of music imaginable. Today there are a variety of idol groups performing music inspired by an impressive array of heavy metal sub-genres.
Before we talk about these groups you’ll need a bit of a warning. There will be unusual sounding Japanese melodies. There will be completely inappropriate incorporation of other genres, sometimes electronic dance music. There will be choreography. There will be synthesizers. There will often be no musicians onstage. There will be moments where you won’t understand exactly what is happening or why. It is best to have an open mind.
At their core the bands I will be telling you about all use conventional metal as the basis for their work. There will be blast beats, ripping solos and screamed vocals. There will be dark imagery. There will be blood. There will be a mosh pit.
To get you started, I’m going to tell you about six underground idol groups whose music stands up to their non-idol peers.
14th Generation Hanako-San of the Toilet
There are many urban legends in Japan. A common one among school children involves the ghost of a young girl, Hanako, who dwells in school bathrooms awaiting her prey. In some versions of the story Hanako was killed during the World War Two bombing of Japan.
The solo idol known as 14th Generation Hanako-San of the Toilet plays pretty legit grindcore with some bizarre twists. Hanako-San appears onstage alone as the blood-drenched, eye-patched ghost of a schoolgirl who covers the audience in liquid, usually milk, which she spits from her mouth. At an average performance “lucky” audience members are invited onstage where they are subsequently covered in food and condiments. Hanako-San carries a landsale, a typical Japanese schoolkid’s backpack, filled with an assortment of tools including a blood drenched toilet brush, blood red toilet paper and a whiteboard which she uses to communicate. Evidently capable of screaming her lungs out while performing songs, Hanako-San is mute during interviews and public appearances. She is a ghost, after all. Her 2016 album Makkana Toire (in English, Bright Red Toilet) is as highly recommended introduction to idol metal as you are likely to find. Note: It is very difficult to find.
14th Generation Hanako-San of the Toilet will perform in the USA for the first time at the East Meets West Festival in Anaheim, California which takes place on August 18th and 19th. If you plan on checking this out you would be well advised to either stand at the back of the room or make sure you have a fresh change of clothing. It is going to be messy.
Rose Of Killer – 14th Generation Hanako-San of the Toilet:
Broken By The Scream
Broken By The Scream are built around a simple concept, combine two J-pop singers with two screamers, one high and one low death voice. The musical territory covers a number of different metal sub-genres and infuses them with more mainstream Japanese pop influences. The result is very listenable and tends to gravitate more towards metal than pop. In fact, some of their work, including the oddly named Do-Do-N-Pa, contain almost no pop elements. This is as close to Aggretsuko come to life as you are likely to come across at the moment.
Their 2017 debut album Screaming Rhapsody is a showcase of this band’s potential. The poppy vocals of Yae Kumanomido and Ayame Yabusame sometimes seem at odds with the high pitched screams of Kagura Uriin and the death growls of Io Nodukidaira, but no more at odds than hearing this sort of intense screaming coming from petit, young Japanese women in the first place. Broken By The Scream perform both with a band and without. However, their non-band performances are no less intense.
Do-Do-N-Pa – Broken By The Scream:
Imagine a world where most of the black has been taken out of metal only to be replaced with bright pastel colours and hair colouring which resembles a pride flag. You are imagining Candye Syrup, whose goal is to be as musically extreme as they are cute. In less than one year of existence they’ve managed to produce three releases of very solid music, the 2018 album Can Die Sick Rock being the best first listen. They’ve since released another EP, White Russian, in addition to their debut 2017 single.
It is not unusual in idol culture for groups to perform with no original members. This will likely be the case with Candye Syrup. Originally a five member group, they are now down to four. After their US debut on August 31 in Phoenix, the remaining four will also leave the group. Normally this would be the end of any group but in this case producer Iku plans to audition new members. Sadly, mere days after the remaining members announced their departure, Iku had a #MeToo moment. He’s been publicly accused of attempting to rape an underage girl a number of years ago. This will undoubtedly have an effect on his attempts to audition new women for Candye Syrup. August 31 might be your last chance to see this group…. ever.
The group’s music incorporates many diverse styles and creates some interesting musical juxtapositions. The song Idol Of Death begins as an 80’s style hardcore number with distorted vocals and moves into a heavy slow grind before becoming a surprisingly conventional pop song, seemingly out of nowhere. If Broken By The Scream made you think “WTF is this?” Candye Syrup will make your brain explode.
Idol Of Death – Candye Syrup:
Japan’s darkwave idols, Necronomidol, are the group on this list you are most likely to have come across. They’ve toured in the US and Europe recently and are planning a small tour of the US west coast beginning in August to coincide with their appearances at East Meets West in Anaheim, California, on August 18th and 19th. Like some of the other groups here, Necronomidol perform both with and without a live band.
While many idol groups perform along with backing tracks which include vocals, the members of this group perform all of the vocals you hear at their shows live. While this is a risky proposition for dancers who are frequently sound out of breath, this seems to work just fine for Necronomidol. These women are considerably above average vocalists, particularly for an idol group.
Their two most recent Eps, Dawnslayer (2017) and Strange Aeons (2018) both feature the current lineup and their 2017 LP Deathless is also worthy of a listen.
Dawnslayer – Necronomidol:
Guso Drop/Burst Girl
Guso Drop were a four to six member idol group who really gave their all in their high energy live performances. The women in Guso Drop preferred yelling to singing, which they often did while literally using the audience as a stage (when they weren’t busy flipping them off). The members of this group allowed their choreography to take a back seat while they spent a great deal of time crowd surfing. Their 2017 single Painfully Violent is a definite highlight as it demonstrates the group’s exuberance and vocal style.
Painfully Violent – Guso Drop:
I would love to tell you to check them out but they decided to call it quits at the end of 2017. Thankfully the tale doesn’t end there. Guso Drop alumni Rei, Miyako, Yura and Rin debuted their new project, Burst Girl in January 2018. These four women now focus more on hardcore punk, continuing the intense performances their past work was known for. There’s something else that separates Burst Girl from other idol groups. They’ve chosen to be self-managed and self-produced, possibly to avoid the demands placed on idol performers by their often corporate management agencies. And despite their short existence they’ve managed to release a single and a music video for the song Great Fxxking My World. A crowdfunding campaign to fund a national tour has already reached over 200% of their goal and will run until September 2, 2018.
Great Fxxking My World – Burst Girl:
PassCode have been hiding just below the surface since 2014. They’re the only band on this list to be based in Osaka rather than Tokyo and they have a unique sound that is roughly 50% metal and 50%J-pop. If you had a hard time deciding whether or not Babymetal were a metal group, PassCode will be equally, if not more, frustrating. Heavily pitch corrected vocals and breaks which include electronic beats and synthesizers can be heard throughout their music. It is polished and professionally produced. On the other hand, there is usually a live band, a pretty impressive stage show and the bone chilling screams of 4’8” Yuna Imada.
The current lineup, which also includes Nao Minami, Kaede Takashima and Hinako Ogami, has been solid for years and through both of Passcode’s last two albums, Zenith (2017) and Locus (2018). Since a common practice of idol groups is to repackage older material on new releases, these albums both also serve as a review of some of PassCode’s past material.
Trace – PassCode:
While it is easy to dismiss idol metal as less than genuine or too pop influenced a lot can be said in its defence. For one thing, these are real bands with real songs that are composed, performed and recorded by genuinely talented people, often with contributions from the idols themselves. And, for better or worse, if any genre of music is to have a future, artists are going to need to push the boundaries in any and every direction. The fact that these artists are all women is another bonus for a genre of music often criticized for its lack of female participation.
Idol culture has many elements which I haven’t enough space here to go into. Suffice it to say that it can be a highly fascinating journey of discovery. These days there are groups playing almost any genre of music imaginable, so feel free to indulge your tastes. The behaviour of the fans is also excruciatingly interesting but I don’t want to spoil that for you.
Here are five more metal influenced idol groups which you might find interesting if you’ve read this far.