Music, Rob Smith Can't Say No
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Rob Smith Can’t Say No: J-Rock

Okay, first things first. Many thanks to all who submitted suggestions for my little adventure here (if you’ve stumbled upon this column without knowing its back story, please take a moment to read this). In just a few days, I received enough suggestions, ideas, and links to populate this column for the next several months—everything from demo tapes to avant-garde Christian hip-hop to Tsonga disco to a Shaun Cassidy live album (Reader Q.Q.: you and I need to talk) and more. I hereby, in print, promise to sample it all, as the rules of the column state. Might take a while, but I will get to it. And don’t let the volume of initial responses keep you from slinging more stuff my way. If you want to get in on the fun, give me a shout.

First up is J-Rock, or Japanese rock. Reader Geoviki extols the virtues of J-Rock bands and has traveled far and wide to see them play. She expresses a particular affinity for what are known as Visual kei bands, which extol a kind of flamboyant glam look, and who, for the most part, will rock your balls off, if given the chance. From what I’ve seen, some Visual kei acts have tempered their visual elements a bit as they’ve gotten older, they tend to break up and re-form at various intervals, and their influences are definitely recognizable, cuz we Americans have heard Ritchie Blackmore and Eddie Van Halen, too.

Now, my previous exposure to rock and roll, Japan style, has been limited more or less to the metal band Loudness and the girl group who plays before the Crazy 88’s segment of Kill Bill 2. Geoviki, though, was kind enough to let me rummage through her Box.net account to partake of some of the bountiful J-Rock within. I shall discuss my findings in order of least interesting (to me), to most interesting. Here goes.

Luna Sea

This crew didn’t really float my boat. Geoviki shared a number of live cuts with me, recorded in what sounded like a stadium the size of Okinawa. Two standouts were “Mother” and “In My Dream.” “Mother,” a mid-tempo ballad, sounds like something my mother would dig, if Kenny Loggins or Steve Perry were singing it. The track breaks down about midway through and the lead guitar player begins rubbing something across the pickups in a strange solo-like thing. Neal Schon has zilch to worry about.

“In My Dream” is a little cooler, possessing the propulsive rhythm “Mother” lacks. The drummer is gettin’ some, and the band and song are better for it. The keyboard in the back of the mix keeps things somewhat atmospheric, but in all, this one sounds like, for all its smoothness, it could fly off the rails if one of these dudes makes a wrong move. That’s kinda cool.

Buck-Tick

All but one of the four bands I sampled came off as somewhat schizophrenic, veering between progressive tendencies and more popish turns. Buck-Tick have apparently veered more than most, and the sampling I got proves that.

“Dress” starts with a serious backbeat/bass thing and keyboard, sorta like Duran Duran, circa Seven and the Ragged Tiger. The vocal is pure plastic soul; very little rock at all. This wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Top 40 station in the ’80s. Other tracks I heard—“Kodou” and “Muma – The Nightmare”—are cut from a similar cloth, and do not strike me as very interesting, though “Muma” could be the ultimate Phantom of the Opera song Andrew Lloyd Webber never wrote—it has that kind of atmosphere and sense of high drama.

This brings us to “Jonathan Jet-Coaster,” the up-tempo arena rock tune that caught my ear with its massive guitar work and strange mix of Japanese dialect and English. The first verse can be translated (according to jpopasia.com): as follows:

Super sonic speed bombing battlefield stealth Devil’s No. 1
I wanna be your fuckin’ baby fuckin’ baby.
I hope to die.
Low altitude at the edge mess you up shake you up drive you mad ecstasy
I wanna be your fuckin’ baby fuckin’ baby.
I hope to die.

“I wanna be your fuckin’ baby?” Fuckin’ sweet. It gets better in the next verse:

Oh I’m gonna come I’m gonna come I’m gonna come you’re a Jonathan Jet-coaster
I wanna be your fuckin’ baby fuckin’ baby.
I hope to die.
Ah my body my body’s a honeycomb gushing flowing virgin oil.
I wanna be your fuckin’ baby fuckin’ baby.
I hope to die.

Now, I don’t have U.N.-quality translators working for me, but I gotta say, I dig this and want to believe this is an accurate translation. Compare it to other songwriters who have waxed poetic about the male seed—say Sammy Hagar, or maybe Brian Johnson of AC/DC. Could either of them, on their best day, come up with a line like “Ah my body my body’s a honeycomb gushing flowing virgin oil?” I think not, and neither do you.

I want Buckcherry to cover this song immediately. I shall have my people contact their people.

Dir en grey

Dir en grey is the strangest band of the bunch I heard, as they possess the unique range to go from melodic metal to just the most guttural nonsense imaginable. “Ain’t Afraid to Die” is pretty awesome, the kind of commercial progressive rock you don’t hear much anymore, unless you go see Queensryche play Operation Mindcrime for the 8,000th time. The singer over-emotes, and that’s a little annoying, but you can grasp the compositional flair at work, the quiet-to-loud-to-quiet dynamic. Their song “Glass Skin” is similarly constructed, and I can imagine a time and place in which their ballad “Ware, Yami Tote” (which I believe means “Where’s Tammy’s Throat?”) could find its way into my Death by Power Ballad column.

Compare these varied, melodic tracks with “Agitated Screams of Maggots.” Shit, man. What could put a maggot in such a state of agitation? What do the Japanese DO to their maggots? I mean, I can see if you’re cooking them, perhaps on a really hot pan, with some “gushing flowing virgin oil” and some garlic, soon as they hit the surface, they could become really pissed. There they were, feeding on carrion, minding their own business, just grubbin’, being larvae, when some heavily mascaraed rock dude scoops them up and throws them in a pan. Yeah, I can see that. That would piss me off, and I consider myself pretty laid back at dinner.

X Japan

This, my friends, is the shit. These guys have been around since ’82, which I suppose makes them sort of like Japan’s Def Leppard or Bon Jovi, but twice as cool as the former (they live the Sparkle Lounge; they don’t just talk about it) and umpteen times cooler than the latter. They’ve disbanded and regrouped, pioneered Visual kei and moved on, scored hits and misses along the way, and come back for more.

I suggest starting with “X,” the propulsive metal track, from 1989’s Blue Blood album. Apparently the band’s statement of purpose, “X” motors along at a frantic clip, with a great chorus, from what I can gather. Toward the end of the song, as if to reward English-speaking folks like myself for sticking with him for the previous four minutes, vocalist Toshi screams the following:

X! You don’t have to hesitate!
Get yourself out!
You know you are the best!
Let’s get crazy!

Fucking clairvoyant and omniscient, that Toshi. How could he see I was standing on my desk, pumping my fist into the air? Yes, I know I am the best—absolutely. That’s true in any language, hoss. I did shed a brief tear for the late Kevin DuBrow, the first metal health professional who encouraged me to get crazy. I also dug “Kurenai (Crimson),” taken from Blue Blood, as well. This is prog metal of a exceedingly high quality. Again, they have the dynamics down, with ethereal keyboard layers giving way to chugging guitars.

It all comes together with the more recent “I.V.” Apparently, this was on the Saw IV soundtrack, though I wouldn’t know, cuz torture porn ain’t my thing, but I can definitely get into the distorted vocal in the verses, which gives way to melodic chorus, with waves of clean Toshis testifying like angels, before going right back into the heavier verses. Check out the soaring bridge, after the solo section, which cascades into the quiet piano and voice interlude before slamming back into chorus. It’s a totally cool song.

Will I listen further? Luna Sea and Buck-Tick didn’t do much for me, and I imagine Dir en grey is probably hit or miss. X Japan, though, is a monster, and I will be investigating their oeuvre further in the near future.

Thanks again to Reader Geoviki. I’ll return for a new adventure in listening in two weeks. ‘Til then, keep those suggestions coming. You can reach me here.