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.




  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Aw yeah. Welcome to the rest of your Popdose life, Rob!

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    Am unsurprised to see the Luna Sea, Dir en Grey, and Buck Tick here; seems like every time I run across somebody extolling the virtues of J-Rock, those three bands always come up – which makes me wonder just how big the visual-kei scene really is, if there are only a handful of bands carrying the torch.

    Anyway, J-Rock is so over anyway. Now K-Pop, baby – that's the stuff.

  • EightE1

    Geoviki suggested the genre, and I asked her where would be a good place to start. We corresponded a bit about visual kei, which seemed to be right up my alley, and she suggested those bands. It's not meant to be a survey of the genre, just a sampling from a reader's suggestion.

    I hesitate to ask what K-Pop is, but methinks you might send me an email, Meester Feerick? How bad can it be, right?

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Korean pop. Just a guess; I'll have to ask my brother who's going to teach in South Korea come February.

  • http://www.bastardradio.com steed

    I actually own the entire catalog of one J-Rock band – The Mad Capsule Markets. They no longer exist (though the singer moved to Wagdug Futuristic Unity) but they were a great example of the genre. Started out almost punk-ish, moved into rock and pop music in their mid period and by the time they broke up they were pretty much a rockin' electronic group. I wish I had known J-pop (rock) was up first, I would have sent you some killer tracks.

  • http://www.bastardradio.com steed

    Yeah – it's Korean Pop. Think boy bands (and girl bands) as ecstatic as they could possibly be at all times. It's Backstreet Boys and Spice girls X100 – and unlike here – it never faded out.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    About six years ago, I went to the Asbury Park Metal Meltdown at famed Convention Hall. There were all sorts of bands there, from Arch Enemy to Manowar, decked out in codpieces and looking really, really stupid. Earlier in the day, there was a death-thrash band from Japan which had a name that now escapes me.

    What's odd is that it shouldn't have escaped me. In-between every song, in terribly bloken Engrish, the lead singer growled, “We are (———–)”

  • Pingback: uberVU - social comments()

  • EightE1

    … Iron Men?”

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    No, that I would have never forgotten.

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    Steed's nailed it, yeah. Incredibly bright and shiny R&B pop from South Korea. There's a huge crossover market into Japan, and the biggest K-pop stars will record separate versions of their albums in Korean and Japanese—and occasionally English. I've only heard songs here and there, but it's wonderful stuff—unabashedly fun and hooky. I'm particularly fond of a singer called BoA, who sounds like Michael Jackson reincarnated as a teenaged Asian girl.

  • http://www.bastardradio.com steed

    You very well could be talking about Chthonic

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I particularly like the BoA track that was used for the Serial Experiments Lain series.

  • geoviki

    Oh, you did a great job discovering stuff! And the way you describe it is ace. Now I can admit that X Japan was my first J-Rock love, too. And I nearly got to see them in Paris in October and was there on the proper weekend, but they cancelled for health reasons.

    So you like the speed metal stuff, huh? Then follow links to hide (kinda pronounced hee-day), X Japan's deceased guitarist (that's his guitar they keep showing in 'I.V.', *sob*): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDWYESH-Fc0 – Rocket Dive.

    Nice PV of Buck-Tick's 'Dress'. Acchan, the vocalist, is so pretty. And I realize that I am a bit of a ballad-slow song fan, so my Box account is probably weighted in that direction. But I adore “Jonathan Jet-Coaster' too, which is from their newest CD, Memento Mori. That whole album is pretty good, BTW, and you'd probably like the title track, which they translate as “Remember to Die.” I'm also thinking “Umbrella” was the first single off that CD.

    Sugizo, the guitarist/violinist from Luna Sea, is currently replacing hide in X Japan's infrequent recent lives so you may end up learning more about him anyway.

    I just wanted to say, bravo!

    Geoviki

  • geoviki

    Nah, there are hundreds of newer VK bands, but Rob had to start somewhere, so I went for the big names. Although I think VK is bigger outside of Japan these days. You can check out the scene here, though: http://musicjapanplus.jp/

    And hey, K-Pop is pretty cool too, but I don't see it as either-or…when I can have both! Add J-Pop and C-Pop to the mix too. I don't get why it's not making it's way over to the US yet, although I think BoA is starting to be heard more here, amirite?

  • geoviki

    One last link for my newly minted X Japan fan:

    Forever Love – Last Live

    This was from their final show in 1997 at the Tokyo Dome, at the height of their popularity. Toshi wanted to leave the band, but Yoshiki felt horribly betrayed by that. At the beginning of this song, Yoshiki had just finished one of his trademark drum solos (worth watching in itself). He claimed later in an interview that he was so angry about the turn of events that his intent was to walk out on that catwalk and punch Toshi's lights out, but… How either one of them ever managed to finish the song is amazing. Meanwhile, hide is quietly weeping and playing. This was hide's last concert with X Japan; he committed suicide shortly after this (some say accidentally).

    It took these two nearly 10 years to even speak again, so X Japan reuniting is still pretty amazing to contemplate.

  • jay

    hey,what about the 80's/90's jap metal band EZO? their hit was “flashback heartattack”.and a couple other i can't remember.long out of print stuff.

  • jay

    hey,what about the 80's/90's jap metal band EZO? their hit was “flashback heartattack”.and a couple other i can't remember.long out of print stuff.

  • Pingback: Letterman - Kevin Spacey Tweets with Dave | twittersRus.info()