Babymetal vs Bullet Belts: A Metalhead's Review of the Japanese Band's Manic Live Show
Babymetal is probably the most polarizing thing to hit heavy metal since the Is-Deathcore-Metal? debate of 2005-Ish. Since the Japanese vocal/dance group first bleeped onto North America’s musical radar in 2012, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth has invariably filled the comment sections whenever a metal site would deign to post about the trio and their goofy technicolor take on “heavy metal.” The problem, you see, is that their J-pop-meets-nu-metal approach isn’t REAL METAL(™) which is a thing that legitimately matters to a surprising number of adult human beings. It’s true: Babymetal is a manufactured pop group that was born out of Japan’s thriving Idol scene and only became “metal” at all when their producer decided it made a cute theme for a new girl band. The three girls (who were all born between 1997 and 1999 and oh my god I am a crone) do not play instruments and had never heard of heavy metal before becoming involved with the band, and now they’ve been photographed hob-knobbing with everyone from Slayer to Carcass. They even have their own cutesy take on metal’s holiest of holies that was handed down by Saint Dio himself, the sign of the horns.
So you know, I get it: Babymetal’s very existence could be seen as an affront to a subculture and genre of music that quite a lot of people take very seriously and love very much. Japan is home to so much fantastic, innovative, and batshit crazy metal, punk, and noise that ignoring outfits like Sabbat, Abigail, Corrupted, GISM, Gauze, and Merzbow in order to fixate on what is essentially a pop band seems absurd. Hell, Gallhammer cornered the market on Japanese all-female metal bands years ago, and did it toting a basketful of Hellhammer and Amebix riffs. Su-metal is a hypermodern, ultra sanitized, bubblegum pop version of Vivian Slaughter, and while it's unfair to pit these two very different bands against one another, I'd have loved to seen Gallhammer in their heyday pull in even a fifth of the attention Babymetal has gotten from their one full-length. There are so many killer underground metal bands who will never make a dime off of their hard work, while this glittery band is touring with Lady Gaga and selling out huge venues. Babymetal's music itself is...well, it’s J-pop mixed with nu-metal, dubstep, reggae, hip hop, and lots of noises you can make on a midpriced keyboard, yet it’s being trumpeted as the next evolutionary step in extreme metal. It’s all a bit ridiculous (Babymetal isn’t going to cut in on the sales figures for that new Barathrum reissue, you guys) but people get really fired up about them. As far as I’m concerned, if you like it, that’s fine (but kind of silly). If you think it’s stupid, that’s also fine. Up until tonight, I had managed to almost entirely ignore Babymetal’s purposeful frolic towards world domination, but then my editor thought it would be funny to send me down to their sold-out show at the Hammerstein Ballroom to have me soak in all 80 minutes of it. Thanks, Fred.
In theory, I really like the idea of Babymetal. They’re a hugely popular band led by three young Asian women who aim to spread the gospel of heavy metal far and wide. They serve as an ideal gateway band into metal’s more sulfuric corners, and they seem to be having a pretty good time up there. Their outfits are age-appropriate, they’re not writhing around trying to be sexy, and they went out of their way to flash an anti-bullying message in huge letters at the end of the show. Even though their image and output is surely tightly controlled, the girls are trying to use their powers for good. After spending an hour and twenty minutes trapped within Babymetal's world, I completely understand why people enjoy watching their performances. It’s bright, it’s flashy, it’s manic, it’s all over the place and there are fuckin’ lasers and it’s kind of like an anime came to life during the middle of a Britney Spears show in Vegas. I cannot, however, fathom why anyone would ever want to listen to their music. I went into tonight’s show with as open a mind as I could muster, and after my initial “What the fuck is happening?!”, I genuinely enjoyed the spectacle during the first couple songs. Then, it got real old, real fast...and it kept on going, and going, and going. The bros sitting behind me were on cloud nine, but they also had a lot of beer stashed away back there.
While a backing band comprised of an alien and three Joey Jordison clones with mismatched guitars (shout-out to pink guitar guy for looking ultra stoked the entire time) expertly navigated the sonic mishmash that makes up the actual music, Su-metal, Yuimetal, and Moametal capered about the stage in matching red tutus and shiny silver breastplates, matching ponytails bobbing merrily above their perma-smiling faces. They had a ton of energy and made no effort whatsoever to pretend they were actually involved in the music playing behind them, which I sort of appreciated. Su-metal is the only member of the group who seemed to actually be singing, and even with a backing track, the girl’s got one hell of a powerful voice for someone of her age and stature. She even busted out a cape at one point, so you know she takes this shit seriously. Her cohorts Yuimetal and Moametal were happy to ignore their own pre-recorded vocals and instead tumbled across the stage like puppies, only rarely in sync with one another. The choreography was a mess, and I found myself fretting that the girls’ grueling tour schedule was wearing them down and wondering when they got time to sleep (again, I am a crone). Despite the technical flaws, the light show was amazing, and the crowd was eating it all up like chocolate-covered crack.
The joint was packed to the gills and the whole crowd was pogoing, waving glowsticks and generally having a whale of the time. I passed by teenage girls in Sailor Moon costumes, young professional types, small children, groups of high school kids in anime shirts, a couple grandmas, and, unexpectedly, a lot of bald spots. I was taken aback to note how many middle-aged men were in attendance; we’re talking a significant percentage here. Given that Babymetal seems scientifically engineered to appeal to teenagers, it seemed kind of weird, but instead of dwelling on creepier alternatives, I decided that they were probably just drawn to the nostalgic tunes. Babymetal’s “metal” portions are straight late-2000s nu-metal, swirling in shards of Slipknot and Coal Chamber as well as Linkin Park and, occasionally, Lacuna Coil (and the guitar playing gets very shreddy and almost neoclassical at times, too - think Children of Bodom). There’s no age limit on fandom, and it’s not like typical metal gigs are a fountain of youth, either.
The one thing that everyone in the crowd (except me) had in common was that they were PUMPED to be there, stoked to be seeing Babymetal, and not even that mad about ponying up ten bucks for a piss-weak Jack and Coke. The guy stood up next to me mouthing the words to every song liked Babymetal more at that moment in time more than I have ever liked anything. Su-metal and the girls had the entire venue wrapped around their Lilliputian fingers from the moment they bounced onstage, and as I made my way out, I overheard tons of excited fans swearing tonight had been the best night of their lives. The line to get down to the merch area was a roiling mass of horror (I hope the merch folks slinging that shit made some solid tips tonight) and there was a healthy number of Babymetal shirts and hoodies sprinkled throughout the audience before the show even started. Some of the patrons looked young enough for this to have been their first concert, and you know, there are worse ways to start off. Hell, my first concert was NSYNC, and look how I turned out.
Whether Babymetal is real or worthwhile or respectable or whatever fool thing the internet’s worried about or not, it’s hard to deny that people fucking love them. No, they’re not heavy or extreme or really even metal, and yes, listening to them for over an hour made me want to poke out my eardrums, but if a couple cute teenage girls who like to sing about death and chocolate are what it takes to get younger generation on the eventual path to Motorhead and Morbid Angel, then fuck it - they can’t be all bad. You do you, Babymetal.
*Just maybe cool it with the reggae section and cut out that awkward hip hop thing entirely, that shit was awful.
Kim Kelly is recovering from her ordeal with high doses of Mortuary Drape on Twitter.