Babymetal – “Metal Resistance”

I’m not sure if there is a more polarizing metal band than Japan’s Babymetal. Sure, there are bigger bands whose fans and detractors can quickly escalate to studded metal glove fisticuffs – ask whether or not Metallica is still metal, and if not when they ceased being metal, on a message board and it’s like setting off a riot. But Babymetal brings a lot of different non-metal elements to the equation. They’re a manufactured band in the best J-pop sense of the word, they used to perform live to backing tracks with a fake band on stage (the music is all now performed live), their stage shows are mega-theatrical, and, well, the primary members are three girls, the oldest of who is 18.

They’re both the most overtly manufactured, and the most original, metal band that has ever existed.

The “band” is comprised of the three vocalists: Suzuka Nakamoto (Su-metal), Yui Mizuno (Yuimetal), and Moa Kikuchi (Moametal). When Babymetal was formed in 2010 as part of a side project of the female idol group Sakura Gakuin the oldest member was about 12, the youngest either 10 or 11. None had any familiarity with metal music prior to be packaged together as Babymetal. I’m no expert on the J-pop scene by any means, but this is pretty standard SOP – get a group of young girls together, dress them in costumes (often provocatively), and unleash them on the world. When in Tokyo a few years back we walked by the Tokyo Dome as the first young fans were arriving for a big idol show that night and the girls arriving were dressed up just like their favorite costumed performers. It’s hard to comprehend as an American.

So needless to say a lot of metal-heads hate the clearly manufactured nature of the band. And I get it. Hell, when I was younger I’d have probably resented their existence too. But now I’m middle aged and I can’t be bothered about getting all butt-sore about that kind of thing. Listen to the music, watch the band, and decide. If you like it, great. If not, don’t worry about what other people are liking and move on.

When down in LA last week I picked up a copy of Babymetal’s brand new release Metal Resistance, their first to get the vinyl treatment. Prior to putting this on the turntable my only experience with the band had been watching a few YouTube! videos and following them on Facebook, so I was pretty interested to see how I would react to the music when it’s stripped away from the oh-so-captivating visuals of their stage show.

Babymetal is certainly marketed around the three female performers, but let me just touch on the musical element first. While varying by subgenera, in general metal musicians tend to be very technically proficient and often intricate in their playing, and in fact more than a few writers have taken the position that metal is arguably the closest musical form to Western classical music. And Metal Resistance is no different. It’s slickly produced, but also highly musically competent. Whether or not you like it doesn’t take away from that. The one criticism I’d offer is that the drumming seems fairly similar across the majority of the songs, taking on that machine gun double bass sound with high BPMs. Was it recorded using a drum machine? I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem to vary a lot.

When separated from the visual component of Babymetal’s live performance the disconnect between the vocals and the music becomes even greater. On the one hand you have music that’s clearly metal, on the other somewhat modulated and seemingly young-girlish vocals. It’s almost hard to wrap your head around, and I can only think of a couple of things that it even remotely sounds like to me, perhaps most similarly the female-fronted Icelandic pop-punk band Pppönk (who I like very much). In fact pop-punk may be the closest analogy; I just can’t think of ever having heard anything like this on the metal side.

The vocals are all in Japanese with the exception of “THE ONE,” and though that may be off-putting to some, metal fans should be kind of used to that since there’s so much great metal coming out of all four corners of the globe. It’s more about the sound of the voices and how those fall well outside of what you’re expecting to accompany the music.

Some of the songs can’t help but sounding purely poppy, like “Amore” and “Meta Taro,” which have sort of singsongy deliveries that push the music off to the background of your hearing. Obviously the focus here is on the vocalists, as they are the band per se, so that makes some sense. There’s also a ballad later on the album called “No Rain, No Rainbow” that follows the metal ballad formula to a T, right down to the chord progression guitar solo.

My favorite part of Metal Resistance is side 3 of the vinyl release (it’s a double album). “From Dusk Till Dawn” has some electronic elements to it that remind me of some types of electro-hardcore; “GJ!” mixes up the vocal style a bit giving the ladies the opportunity to perform using a hip hop-esque delivery, nicely differentiating this from the rest of the album; and “Sis. Anger” has that abrasive disconnect that first caught my attention on Metallica’s St. Anger (♠) (coincidence given the song title??), that jarring quality of music and vocals that are pieced together in ways that seem to both fit and not fit. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with non-standard timing or what, but it creates a tension that you can feel.

So what’s the final verdict? Well, honestly Babymetal is more intriguing with the visuals of their live set or their music videos. But it’s something different and there’s a lot here to like, so I certainly have no regrets in putting down my hard earned dollars for Metal Resistance.

(♠) A much maligned album that I personally think is way better than most people give it credit for.