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Austin Ryan

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BABYMETAL.jpgCourtesy of BABYMETAL.

Did you hear about what Japan just did? The country‰’s most recent oddity was BABYMETAL, the fusion of cheery, upbeat J-Pop and Metal. Baby Metal works to fuse the genres in appearance ‰ÛÒ the band consists of three pretty girls in frilly, jet black dresses ‰ÛÒ and sound, slamming the super rapid synth of a Japanese pop song headlong into Speedmetal styled riffs and heavy drums. Their songs often switch gears between J-Pop or Metal, favoring one over the other.

This latest oddity might seem pretty radical, but Japan‰’s been doing these kinds of fusions for years. In fact, BABYMETAL was not the first band to fuse Pop and Metal. They might not even be the most famous band doing it. Maximum the Hormone‰’s breakthrough album Buiikikaesu started topping charts in Japan in 2006. They took the island by storm with their song, “Koi No Mega Lover”. Listen to it below. Does it seem familiar?

In some ways, it is almost a forbearer of BABYMETAL‰’s seemingly unprecedented antics. The band switches gears from a heavy, hard sound into a lighter shade of punk, until they finally peak into the happiest, danciest pop anthem around.

Maximum the Hormone‰’s been around for a while, releasing their first album in 1999. It definitely has a heavier punk influence, with most songs under 3 minutes long. Even in those early moments, they still liked to sharply slow down into very smooth and light rhythms. They are a band with as much character as creativity.

They toured while their drummer was pregnant, and did not call it off until she fell ill. They released a music video on their website, but made it so the URL would randomly change, so there was no guarantee you actually got to see it. Every music video is a little wacky and lots of songs are outright homages and deconstructions of Japan‰’s hyper obsessive Otaku culture.

Japan‰’s musical diversity does not end there, or just with metal. The Seatbelts, showed that same ever eager desire to experiment with all styles in the music the band made for an anime called Cowboy Bebop. While the project might have started off making a simple soundtrack, it has expanded to produce a diverse discography that can entertain for hours.

The Seatbelts, led by incredibly prolific composer Yoko Kanno, has dabbled in most genres. Metal ‰ÛÒ of course ‰ÛÒ made an appearance in their replete discography in their song LIVE in Baghdad”. But so did slow and steady big band ballads like “Walts for Zizi”, world music-esque folky ethnic music in “Space Lion”, hugely funky pieces powered by epic ensembles such as “What Planet is This”, and “Wo Qui Non Coin”, the sweetly soothing synthetic pop sounds sung in French. However, the Seatbelts did nothing else quite like blues and jazz.

The opening theme the band made for the anime Tank! neatly summed up what they did. The Seatbelts made what worked for the show, however, they were always cut short of their full glory. Cowboy Bebop thrived off sound to fill in wordless gaps during space ships chase scenes and sci-fi shoot outs. But even still the music accompanied, it did not lead. So it was that Tank! played for about a minute and a half while images preluding the show flashed on the screen, even though the band made three minutes of content, and the show‰’s intro cut out sax solos and explosive drum rolls.

It is hard to follow a band like the mysterious and prodigious Seatbelts. Any reasonable person would expect something crazy to come next. Yet, Japan does not go hard 24/7, pushing envelopes like they‰’re the world‰’s mailing room.

Mono shows Japan‰’s softer side. Mono, a post-rock band, sounds a bit like Mogwai. They pack their albums full of giant, sweeping songs led by carefully crafted, echoing guitar rhythms. Unlike Maximum the Hormone, Mono makes music as smooth as Belgians make chocolate. Unlike the Seatbelts, Mono makes reserved and structured songs. Yet like both bands, Mono puts an emotional energy in their music that has made their live shows legendary.

Despite being one of the steadier bands mentioned here, Mono‰’s songs can sometimes have the largest emotional impact. Every Mono album directs my moods without me noticing just how I came from sadness, to happiness, to anything else. In my mind, that‰’s the best thing a post-rock band can do. Again, the band‰’s character conforms to their style: heavily emotional and monstrously artsy. Mono‰’s website features unabashedly pretentious – though still fitting – descriptions of their new albums accompanied with beautifully strange black and white drawings.

At first glance, Japan‰’s BABYMETAL might seem like another one of their weirder moments. Not necessarily. In some ways it fits with music Japan‰’s already made. In other ways, it is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the water floats a world of fantastic music from the land of the Rising Sun. Check it out and ‰ÛÒ whatever your preferences – you won‰’t get bored.

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Feedback: Four Bands from the Land of the Rising Sun