Mack’s Top Ten Favorite Japanese Music Artists

I’ll always love the classic rock of yesteryear more than anything. But over the last several years of my life, I’ve realized the greatness of contemporary Japanese music, and want to spread the awareness of these artists as wide as possible. In this blog I’ll discuss my favorite Japanese music artists… for the second time, since things have changed a bit. In fact, there’s so many that I wanted to talk about that I had to double the length of the list! 

10) Kenshi Yonezu

One immediate difference between this list and the previous one is that Dempagumi.inc is not on here anymore. I still stand by everything I said originally; they are definitely the best idol group and one of the best examples of mainstream pop out there. However, I am biased toward rock and innovation (plus, Dempa’s newest album was pretty lackluster). As a result, someone else has snuck onto the list: Kenshi Yonezu.

Yonezu is a strange case. He seems to be one of the most popular singers in Japan… and only in Japan. I have no idea how someone as famous as he is has not gone global at this point, but that’s just Japanese marketing I guess! Anyways, while I’d normally be against someone so popular, the reason that I like him is that he’s not as mainstream as you would think. In fact, his music is very abstract and strange.

Why is his music strange? Er… it just is. Yonezu’s music falls into a weird, Beatles-esque prog-soft-pop-rock style (confused?), and it’s something you just gotta try. You never know what he will pull out of his eccentric butt. 

While I don’t love ALL of his songs (hence his position at the bottom of the list), he’s definitely a man who seems to care about quality over quantity. Since his 2012 record label debut, the man has only put out three studio albums. And it’s not like he’s an anime singer, like- say- Konomi Suzuki, who can only put out singles when they’re hired for an anime. He clearly invests all of his brain meats into his music, and I commend the guy for it. Yonezu’s music has been getting better and better over time. While I find his first album, Diorama, to be hit-or-miss, his second album, Bootleg is all-around great, and his newest album, Stray Sheep, is utter “Wow”. I put him on here in anticipation that he’ll evolve to levels beyond what anyone can predict (and maybe go global?). 

9) Hysteric Panic

Hysteric Panic is a very underrated J-rock group that I love because of their simple, primal energy. Songs fall within the hard rock category, but border on metal after their fourth album, Hypnotic Poison. For some reason, I want to describe their style as “memey” because of how nonsensical they sound at times. 

They also have a wide range of vocals, from a high-pitched, Axl Rose-sounding guy, to a guy who sounds like a constipated alligator (and on occasion, what sounds like a choir of Japanese school girls). Regardless of if it’s multiple guys or the same guy, this wide range of screams makes Hysteric Panic stand out as a thrash band. At present, their original guitarist has left (I think?), and they haven’t shown any signs of a new release. I’m concerned with how they will move from here, but if they’ve truly been acknowledged by the spirit of rock, they’ll party till they’re purple!

8) Gacharic Spin

I had a debate over Gacharic Spin or RAISE A SUILEN from Bang! Dream (which I discussed in my review of the latter’s first album). But in the end, I chose Gachapin. But even then, I was hesitant. I am fully aware that they have changed a lot since their initial formation, especially after their original drummer tragically passed away. The problem in my case is that Apple Music didn’t exactly HAVE the band’s older stuff, and as a result, I’m ONLY familiar with their newer, more electronic sound (side note: I’ve also just started listening to Galneryus, and they will probably replace Gachapin in a third version of this post).

But you know what, sometimes that’s them apples. Why would I not be qualified as a fan just because I never heard the original lineup? In any case, the Gachapin I know has garage-style jams featuring various auto-tuning and synth effects for style. 

The one problem I have with them is that they are pretty inconsistent. When they go full-on, they are fricking serious electronic metal. However, a lot of their stuff feels like typical rock and kind of… there. I get that not all songs can be bangers, but that really shows at times in Gachapin. But you know what, the great thing about rock bands is that if you don’t like them, then they can just say “Eff you!” and go about their day. Anyway, if you like rock with punch, then check out Gachapin.

7) Crossfaith

I dropped MIYAVI after two albums, Hikaru Utada after one and a half, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu after just half of a compilation album. I’ve made my peace with them, but there’s always the classic counterargument for any critic who doesn’t finish a thing: “It gets way better later!” As much as you can argue about that defense until the cows come home, it is partially true, and Crossfaith is such a case.

I royally disliked them at first. I started from the very beginning: 2009’s The Artificial Theory of Dramatic Beauty. I loved the idea of thrash with a techno atmosphere, but it sounded bad. They only used one or two synth effects, and the singing was awful. Kenta Koie sings entirely through the type of throaty scream that I only previously heard as backing vocals (like Hysteric Panic), and in English. Oof. 

But hey, Crossfaith wouldn’t be on here without a reason. I was about to give up on them after 2011’s The Dream, the Space. However, I gave them one more chance on their 2012 EP, Zion. It ended up being a marginal improvement, and enough of one for me to try their 2013 album, Apocalyze. That album instantly changed my views of the band. As soon as I heard the intro track, ‘Prelude’, followed by ‘We Are the Future’, I went from a critic of Crossfaith to a fan in the span of a single song. I can’t describe exactly what it was, but they seemed to have a better sense of how to combine metal and synth to make a truly futuristic metal band THAT SHOULD’VE DONE THE BOSS MUSIC IN XENOBLADE X *grumble grumble*. 

As good as Apocalyze was, they kept growing. Koie’s singing goes from bearable to straight-up good, and they start experimenting with songs like Wildfire, a groovy fusion of disco and metal featuring the band Skindred (whom I know nothing about other than that song). Their 2018 concept album, EX_MACHINA, and 2020 EP, SPECIES, are great showcases of how much they’ve grown over the years. My only issue with them (besides their first two albums) is that they don’t really do guitar solos. Normally, I’d find that disgraceful, but when I’m listening to their raw cyberpunk rage, it never bothers me.

6) Wagakki Band

Before I start talking about these guys, I shall have you know that I was an avid fan of this group well before their collaboration with Evanescence. That being said, onto the actual discussion!

I know I shouldn’t make a post about “how wild and weird Japan is”, but Wagakki Band is something that could only be formed in Japan. And I’m saying that because their… equipment is much more accessible in Japan than anywhere else.

Wagakki Band is a massive group, and that’s because there’s a LOT of instruments (and yet Slipknot somehow has more members). Along with the usual rock instruments, such as guitars and drums, they also have some very vintage instruments. Specifically, wagakki instruments (which literally means traditional Japanese instruments). They are a true East Meets West rock band! But of course, I do not want to give them credit where it isn’t due; I’m pretty sure at least two bands have done the same thing way earlier. However, those bands are old, and older Japanese bands are shaky at best when it comes to licensing in my region, so… I’m gonna stick with Wagakki Band for pretty much forever.

In any case, the way they combine the two styles of music is so good it’s almost creepy. My favorite aspect is how well the *insert name of old-timey Japanese drum here* works for hard rock. What’s even weirder is the fact that their vocalist, Yuko Suzuhana, sings in an old-timey style, and it also doesn’t feel like it clashes. Whether it’s a head-banger or a power ballad, Wagakki Band delivers. Japan has always had a knack for seamlessly integrating its modem culture with its traditional culture, and Wagakki Band is one such integration.

5) MYTH & ROID

Led by TomH@ck of OxT, MYTH & ROID was originally my favorite Japanese band, and was in 1st on early drafts of the original post. Although they are a solid prog-rock band that has more of an identity than most people in the ainsong industry, I realized that I find the artists in the Top 3 more irreplaceable. I don’t know if it’s because MYTH & ROID has way less discography or what, but them’s the brakes.

But hey, they’re still in Top Five for a reason. MYTH & ROID has managed to craft a distinct style that basically allows them to do whatever they want, as long as they maintain one consistency: MAKE. IT. AWESOME. Out of all the artists on this list, I have always exclaimed “WTF?!” with every song of theirs the first time I heard it.

At the time, I remember when I threw on ‘Styx Helix’ because it was a Re:ZERO song, and thought it was decent techno-chill. I later noticed that they also did OP 2 of the same show. I put on that song, ‘Paradisus Paradoxim’, and it completely blew me away with how different it was. I fell in love with MYTH & ROID right then and there, making them the first Japanese rock band I ever seriously tried to get into. While they are no longer my favorite, they are still a great band that stands out from the rest. I recommend giving them a listen if you’re tired of that mainstream crap.

4) BAND-MAID

This is a band I literally found out of nowhere. Although they’ve grown substantially more popular with their most recent album, I was a fan since summer 2019- snug within the range of “before it was cool.” When I made the life-changing decision of subscribing to Apple Music, one of the first bands I got into was- no, not BAND-MAID- but Passcode. Passocde’s great and all, but in the similar artists tab, I couldn’t help but notice BAND-MAID. And the rest is history.

BAND-MAID, whose claim to fame comes from their maid cafe-like attire, is a hard rock band that skirts the line of metal. And they’re a damn powerful one at  that. One distinct vibe I get from their music is something I rarely feel in any other J-Rock bands: Classic Rock. It’s not as prevalent as a certain other band on this list, but they definitely have an old-school, garage-y style reminiscent of stuff like AC/DC. “You only like them because they’re mimicking Western culture, you traitorous lech!” you exclaim. Well… I don’t define rock by any nationality. Sorry, bub.

I had some concerns when I first started listening to their breakthrough 2019 album, CONQUEROR, but it has definitely grown on me in the latter half. In conclusion, BAND-MAID is a ludicrously good group. Apple Music doesn’t have their very first album, but it has everything else. I personally started with their third studio album, Brand-New Maid, but you can honestly start anywhere.

3) nano

I can’t believe nano is not in first anymore. It was already surprising when I docked her to second place, but as you can see, she’s actually in third now. But why? After all, she is one of the few people in the anisong industry who really has a true style that is entirely her own. But hey, she’s still great, and here’s why…

nano generally does very aggressive hard rock and metal tracks, but also throws in electronic, or even in the case of one particular song, combines rock with traditional Japanese instruments. I find her older stuff to be rough around the edges, but from her third album, Rock On, and onwards, she’s gotten better and louder. Her albums are one of the best showcases of the evolution of an artist that I’ve ever heard. A lot of credit goes to whoever produces and mixes the music in order to bring out the best of her powerful voice and the instruments that her buddies play.

nano’s music is divided into two distinct types: Regular J-rock that’s used as assets for anime and such, and straight up Western-influenced hard rock, complete with English singing. The latter is typically used in albums, as the designated deep cuts. However, I find those to be some of the best filler, and oftentimes among nano’s best songs. I recommend going through all of her albums, or at least starting with Rock On and going chronologically from there.

2) Mili

I never liked pop music. I always associated the pop genre with mainstream. But out of nowhere, a pop band took my heart and almost sniped first place on this list. I present to you: Mili.

I have never been surprised by a 21st Century artist more than Mili. The idea of pop not having to be mainstream was legitimately mind-blowing to me. Normally, I can compare an artist to someone else; you saw that in this post. But I can’t compare Mili to anyone. They are unlike anything I’ve ever heard in my life. 

Their music is otherworldly. They use a combination of piano and synth that just has an air of uniqueness to it. While all their albums are great, they get better and better, to the point where it outclasses their older stuff by a lot. 2018’s Millennium Mother is such a good album I haven’t actually gone back to their first album, Mag Mell.

I can’t praise Mili without giving kudos to their vocalist, Cassie Wei (a.k.a. momocashew). Her voice is just absolutely phenomenal. Her English, along with the lyrics she sings, are great. Her voice can be both soothing and terrifying depending on the mood of the song. She’s truly one of the best Asian singers I’ve ever heard.

1) Lovebites

Mili was originally first on this list until just earlier this week. While they are definitely the most unique band I’ve heard from Japan, it’s still technically pop (or soft rock?). I like the heavy stuff, and that’s why Lovebites took first place.

If BAND-MAID is classic rock, then Lovebites is classic metal. They aren’t just my current favorite J-Metal band of all time; they’re among my favorite metal bands of all time. Underrated doesn’t even begin to describe them. They deserve way more than their puny five-digit amount of followers, that’s for sure.

Immediately, Lovebites comes off as similar to DragonForce, with their orchestral synth in a lot of their songs, and their multi-minute guitar solos. However, they have much more variety in terms of tempos and melodies, which- IMO- makes them better than DragonForce in a way. They have a venomous and aggressive aura that reminds me of none other than Judas Priest, and they ALSO have a level of simplicity that’s similar to Iron Maiden. This is no coincidence, because (unless they’re faking it), at least one of the members is a classic metal fanatic. And by the way, their vocalist, Asami, is amazing…. For the most part. Like Crossfaith’s Kenta Koie, she sings in Engrish, and I admit she doesn’t sound too great. However, it’s still easy to tell that she has amazing talent when it comes to singing itself. It took Koie a decade to sound good in English, and it’ll probably take Asami about as long to do the same.

If there’s any remaining issue, it’s that Lovebites needs a bit of experimentation. While their fast-paced music is about as good as similar songs from Priest and Maiden, that isn’t all that those two bands can do. In Lovebites’ case, that kind of music makes up the bulk of their career, and I know that they are more capable. But hey, they’ve pretty much just started. 2020’s album, Electric Pentagram, already sets a new standard of quality for them. It took Priest and Rush a decade to cement themselves into rock history. Where will Lovebites go in 2030? I can’t wait to find out.

Conclusion

I feel pretty safe saying that this is my definitive list for Japanese music artists. The only one I see changing the list is Galneryus, but I don’t know if it’d be worth making a third, identical post just for them. Japan might come off as a country full of dainty, yukata-wearing tea-sippers, but rock is a language that anyone can learn. And hopefully with this, you can see that Japan has a genuine sense of metal that isn’t fake and superficial like BABYMETAL. If you have a hankering for this stuff, give it a try (and follow the artists’ on social media because you’re not going to have any other source of news from them because Japan doesn’t want you to know they exist).

Putting the “Bang!” in BanG! Dream: RAISE A SUILEN – ERA Album Review

I’m not even sure if this counts as an album review; I’ve been following RAS since their debut in 2018, and literally every song they’ve released leading up to their first album, ERA, is on said album. This post is also more so of a discussion on the band itself than a review of the album, and I was indecisive as to whether or not I wanted to post it at all. Basically, I’ve been working on an updated version of my Top Japanese Music Artists list from the tail end of the last decade, which now features ten people, and I was debating between RAS and Gacharic Spin for 8th place. While I ultimately decided to go for the latter, I still wanted to bring up RAS, hence this post!

If you’re not familiar with the BanG! Dream franchise, then… you’re not alone. From what I understand (i.e. Wikipedia), BanG! Dream started as a manga and expanded into all mediums- from anime adaptation to a mobile game- featuring in-universe all-girl bands based on real life all-girl bands who actually put out the music. Confused? Don’t worry; so am I. I don’t get the point of the mobile game (other than money of course), but I feel like that Bushiroad could’ve done just as well with the ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS working for them. And if this music is supposed to advertise the mobile game and anime, I don’t get how it’s even supposed to do that. Why follow a fake version of a band when there’s, like I said before, ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS?

Bang! Dream has covered lots of genres, but they haven’t even remotely dabbled in metal (Roselia is hard rock). But that changed with RAISE A SUILEN. With their first single, R●I●O●T (I tried my best with the hovering dots in the title, okay?!), the band presented a new sense of angst for the franchise. With their combination of synth, aggressive guitar playing, and dubstep, they’re poppier than Crossfaith, but heavier than Passcode. Furthermore, this is the first BanG! Dream release to feature the real life band on the cover art!

The music has great consistency and energy. They’re fast and loud, while also catchy enough to be played on the radio. The brand new songs on the album are very enjoyable (even if a couple of them are my least favorite RAS songs released thus far). One thing that I’m surprised by is that they haven’t done any power ballads, which is good, because I don’t find BanG! Dream’s ballads to be that spectacular. In terms of percentage of songs enjoyed, RAISE A SUILEN should’ve placed on my Top Ten over Gacharic Spin.

And yet… Why didn’t they? This is going to sound stupid, but for a “rock band-themed franchise”, I hesitate to consider RAS- and the others for that matter- actual rock bands. First off, if you look up any of their songs, you won’t see any of the band members credited for actual song composition. While I do understand that the producer for a band is just about as important as the members themselves, I still expect the band members to write their own stuff. And speaking of production, RAS sounds a bit too polished and refined for a metal band. Part of why I like Gacharic Spin better is because the production for them has the crunch that I expect from a bona fide rock band. And compared to other rock bands, the members don’t seem to have that much talent. While they definitely play their respective instruments, you’d be disappointed if you expected them to be on par with- say- Kanami Tono or Midori Tatematsu.

Following that last paragraph up is an even stupider reason: RAS isn’t anti-status quo enough. While not straight-up pop, they definitely put emphasis on trying to gain mass appeal with how they’re marketed. This is readily apparent in various ways, such as the fact that all BanG! Dream band members are obligated to Tweet at nauseum about every episode of the BanG! Dream anime as it airs just to force it to Japan’s trending tab. Another the reason that I enjoy Gacharic Spin more- even if I do find some songs to be not too great- is because of the fact that they convey the feeling of hanging out in the house of whoever has the biggest garage and just jamming together for fun. I’m sorry, but a band embracing the spirit of rock, like Gacharic Spin does, is very important for me to like them.

Yeah, I’m aware that I’m the ONLY one who cares about that crap. But if you look at the music in a vacuum, RAISE A SUILEN’s first album is a “HELL YEAH!” in all caps. While the members don’t do any of the songwriting (as I prefer), there is at least some talent behind the scenes. If you think that BanG! Dream is too idol-y, give RAS a chance to prove you wrong. Leave me a comment on your thoughts of RAS, and BanG! Dream as a franchise!

Making Metal Marketable: My Conflicting Feelings with BABYMETAL

I’m a big fan of J-Pop, and I’m a seriously big fan of metal. So, it stands to reason that I’d LOVE the kawaii metal group, BABYMETAAAAAAAAAAAAL! Heh-heh, you saw the title of this post; it’s not that simple, not even remotely. In fact, I only started listening to them over the course of Feb. 2020! Just keep in mind that no matter how critical I get, I don’t straight up dislike the group; otherwise they would’ve been on my Top Five Least Favorite Japanese Music Artists post.

So, what is BABYMETAL? Well, you probably should know, for they seem to be one of the few Japanese music artists that have become known even among those who don’t follow Japanese culture. Formed about a decade ago, they have grown incredibly popular, with performances all over the world. They even have a full bio for themselves and each of their studio albums on Apple Music. That’s how you know they’re a big deal! Their claim to fame is the unusual combination of cutesy idol J-pop and angtsy metal. 

With such a brilliant idea, BABYMETAL should’ve been right up my alley. But in execution, it’s nothing more than the same catchy beats of idol pop, but with an edgy paint job. They’re mainstream in disguise. “Well, you cur, you seem to like risky and eccentric groups,” you point out (Assuming that you’ve read my other music posts up to this point), “BABYMETAL is an incredibly brilliant and ballsy band. You’re having the same reaction as the old farts who hated Elvis Presley and the Beatles because it was different from the crap they grew up with. You’re no different.” 

BABYMETAL is ballsy? Actually, I think the exact opposite is true. My problem with them isn’t that they’re too eccentric for me. On the contrary, BABYMETAL is mainstream to the max. It sounds like an idea that couldn’t possibly fail; by combining catchy, “radio-friendly” tunes with metal’s angry vibes, they are able to appeal to both pop and metal fans at once. And that bothers me to no end. It’s kind of like how a lot of young adult novels are marketed as dark and brooding, but have the same romance tropes as a Disney movie. I suppose what I’m saying is that BABYMETAL is the YA novel of music.

“Well, hang on a second,” you argue once more, “you’re saying that the problem with BABYMETAL is that their songs are catchy, which is typical of most mainstream artists. But isn’t that, you know, THE POINT?!” You cross your arms in defiance. “If BABYMETAL tried to do stuff like- say- prog rock, then they wouldn’t be BABYMETAL. The POINT of BABYMETAL is to BE catchy, because that’s how idol music IS. Are you claiming that a rock or metal band cannot be a rock or metal band without taking some kind of creative risk?! You know, Rob Zombie- an ACTUAL rock artist- loves this band, and I’m willing to bet that he knows more about music than you, bub!” You’re probably correct for the most part. If BABYMETAL has succeeded at anything for me, it’s challenging the very definition of a “rock band”. Like you (or rather, my personification of you) mentioned earlier, they honestly are a challenge to the stuff I liked when I first got into music, such as Rush and Queen, with their continuously changing musical styles and experimental ideas. Despite how “open-minded” I claim to be when it comes to some of the weird music I like (including Queensryche and Genesis to boot), I ended up becoming alienated from mainstream music. It’s funny how the human mind works. However, at this juncture, I have no authority to objectively define “rock”, and honestly, with how much it’s changed since Presley, I doubt ANYONE has that authority. It’s pretty much a matter of subjective perspective at this point; it all depends on how me, you, or Zombie have come to understand “rock” based on our own different experiences.

In the end, though, I do like a guilty pleasure. I’ll admit that some of their songs are pretty darn succulent. Maybe, once in a while, I’ll put on a BABYMETAL song and rock out. But even then, I have to immediately follow-up with a REAL group, like BAND-MAID or Crossfaith. Maybe if they had the same manager as, say, Dempagumi.inc, they’re music would’ve been more varied and better. Heck, some Dempagumi songs, like Precious Summer, are already kawaii metal as it is.

But because I listen to too much music, I’m inevitably going to have to axe BABYMETAL from my life. They aren’t the worst thing ever, but to me, they are severely overrated. I honestly can’t recommend this group to anyone, especially dedicated metal fans. If you want a better version of the same general idea, try Passcode. Or, if you want a different unusual combination of styles that organically mesh together as if it was the most natural thing in the world, try Wagakki Band.