Konichiwa - Japanese Rock explored (Pt1)

author ASH date 10/11/06

Phew, this took quite some time, but now I can proudly present my article about the many great artists from the often overlooked Japanese rock scene. Ranging from pop-punk to metal or from J-Rock to Visual Kei, Japan has spawned loads of bands who each posses their own unique sound and aren’t just mere copies of their Western counterparts as many might say. So if you're into this genre, read along, and if you're not, give it a chance anyways. I will be covering a reasonable amount of the of J-genres, along with some of my recommendations, so strap yourself to the seat and get ready to broaden your horizons. After all, you can never have too much music.

The very beginning and all that came with it.

Coming alive in the good ol’ 60s, Japanese rock saw the light through psychedelic rock created by the American and British anti-mainstream cultures, though in another way. Despite the drugged behavior which the genre was known for, J-Rock artists generally didn't follow that path, and some were even completely against drugs, like Keiji Haino of Lost Araaf and Fushitusha. Like any genre that is born through a band or two playing it as a part of their music style, psychedelic rock took form as the "Group Sounds" genre, where bands like The Tempters and Jacks were some of the first to take up the new sound and bring it to the masses. Of course, it was an imitation of the American/British style, but now rock had also set sails in the East.

Androgenic drama kings and the birth of Visual Kei.

Jumping twenty years into the future, the Japanese rock scene changed drastically imitating once again another genre. This time, glam metal became the great catalyst of these new and dramatic bands. One band rumored to be the father(s) of this trend was said to be "X Japan", a band consisting of five cross-dressing men who pleased the asian masses with their "KISS"-ish resemblance both in make-up and sound. Nevertheless they were said to be the most influential band in the history of Asian music, especially after their release of their second album "Blue Blood", which is still considered by some as one of the best albums in Japanese rock history.

Another remarkable ensemble of the Visual Kei genre is, to me, Malice Mizer. Since their debut in August 1992 to their seperation in December 2001, the highly gothic and classically influenced band had amused the Japanese as well as many other different nationalities. Being famous for both their music and especially their live shows, which involved theatrical elements along with dazzling costumes and stage sets, Malice Mizer kept a broad and loyal fanbase throughout their whole career.

What made the Malice so special to their audience would be their whole lifespan, so to say, since their musical career spanned over three whole eras, each taking its own, notable twist. The first era, the "Tetsu era" began in their birthyear of 1992, where Tetsu occupied the band's vocals. The era was a mixture of the early 1980s goth and classical influences, by which Malize Micer used to establish their trademark, the twin guitar sound that created the polyphony in the band's melodies. Releasing their demo tape "Sans Logique", which contained no vocals at all, the band quickly shifted to a more vocal approach with their "Brain Trash" album in 1993. The track "Speed of Desperate", marked the real beginning of their very first years in the Jap-Rock universe.

From here, the band changed style along with the coming of their new vocalists; Gackt Camui, or "Gackt" for short, who marked Malice's "Gackt Era" in 1995 to 1999 until he departed for a solo career, thus leaving "Malice Mizer" with choice of finishing of their career or recruit a new vocalist. Choosing the latter, the band's had their last years from 2000 to 2001 with Klaha (Masaki Haruna). With Klaha, the band abandoned the more pop-ish sound of Gackt in favour for a more dramatic approach to the classical genre.

Personally, I greatly recommend "Merveilles", the third album of Malice Mizer's career. With extraordinary tracks like "Syunikiss", "ILLUMINATI", "Au Revoir" and "Le Ciel", this release reigns over any previous, as well as future released compilations from the band. Since it set sails in March 18, 1998, the listener also gets to hear the voice of Gackt, though don't judge a book on its cover despite Camui Gackt's pop-ish influences.

Malize Micer - Merveilles

  • Released: March 18, 1998
  • Genre: Visual Kei
  • Length: 47:39
  • Label: Columbia Records
  • Listen: Myspace

Tracklisting:

  • 01. de merveilles
  • 02. Syunikiss
  • 03. Verte Aile/Bel Air
  • 04. ILLUMINATI
  • 05. Brise
  • 06. Egee
  • 07. au revoir
  • 08. Ju te veux
  • 09. S-CONSCIOUS
  • 10. Le ciel
  • 11. Gekka no Yasoukyoku
  • 12. Bois de merveilles

Offsprings of Visual Kei and a new branch in J-Rock

Also rooted from the 90s Visual Kei movement, the constantly genre changing quartet of Dir En Grey has been active since 1997 and still upholds their extreme energy to the pleasure of their fans, consisting of their poetic vocalist Tooru Nishimura or "Kyo", their lead guitarist and composer Kaoru Niikura, their rhytm guitarist and composer Daisuke "Die" Andou along with their bassist Toshimasa "Toshiya" Hara and their youngest member, the drummer Shinya Terachi.

Reaching the top ten of singles only a year after their debut release "Missa" in 1997, Dir En Grey gained quite some attention in Japan, especially from X Japan's drummer and composer Yoshiki Hayashi, who produced and arranged the band's singles of their subsequent album, "Gauze", which first appeared in the record stores in 1999. As the millenium came along, Dir En Grey began a new era of fame, where the only thing holding them temporarily back was the hospitalization of Kyo due to hearing troubles, thus postponing the release of their upcoming album ”Macabre”. After Kyo's recovery, the band toured the missed performances in early 2001 plus releasing their single ain't afraid to die. A year after, Dir En Grey released their third full-length album "Kisou" and toured, for the first time, outside Japan. The tour covered China, Taiwan and South Korea, which gave the band an even larger fanbase along with an even broader interest in playing in other locations than Asia.

Shortly after the tour, the band released their second EP, "Six Ugly", which I will comment on later. Lastly, before the band invaded Europe, they managed to release "Vulgar", the third album release in the period 2000 to 2004. Finally, since 2005, Dir En Grey has been playing in different locations all over the world. If anyone were in France and Germany at the time being, the band played in both Paris and Berlin, while also giving a show at Rock am Ring and Rock im Park. Later on, America also witnessed the power of Dir En Grey, as they toured through the continent visiting cities such as Austin, Texas, New York and Los Angeles. In addition to this, if someone were at the Korn's ”Family Values Tour", you would've spotted Dir En Grey in the band line-up.

Album wise, well, there's too many too choose from. I recommend them all actually, since their style dramatically changes all the time. From wall-crushing metal to some softer rock. Not soft like squishy-soft, just a little softer like a poisonous dart made of rubber. To put down my cards, I would actually recommend two great compositions from this great band. Both being EPs, the first being "Missa" from 1997, contains some very interesting tracks which I definitely urge people to try out, if they want to get to know the early Dir En Grey. From the EP, "Kiri To Mayu", ”Erode" and especially "Garden" stands out from the crowd. Secondly, I recommend "Six Ugly", their 2002 release which includes one of their best tracks, "Umbrella". A doubtful name, but taken in regard that the track is a master display of energy, you should really check it out.

Dir En Grey - Missa

  • Released: July 25, 1997.
  • Genre: Japanese Rock.
  • Length: 31:22
  • Label: FREE-WILL Co., Ltd.
  • Produced by: Dir En Grey.
  • Listen: Myspace

Tracklisting:

  • 01. KIRI TO MAYU
  • 02. 「S」
  • 03. Erode
  • 04. AOI TSUKI
  • 05. GARDEN
  • 06. Byou「」Shin

Dir en grey - six Ugly

  • Released: July 25, 1997.
  • Genre: Japanese Rock, J-Hard Rock
  • Length: 31:22
  • Label: FREE-WILL Co., Ltd.
  • Produced by: Dir en grey.
  • Listen: Myspace

Tracklisting:

  • 01. Mr.NEWSMAN
  • 02. Ugly
  • 03. HADES
  • 04. umbrella
  • 05. children
  • 06. Byou「」Shin (Re-release)

Like what you saw/read? The second half of the article will feature a couple of more bands from the more alternative, punkier side of Japan.

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