Hard rock, J-pop rule Summer Sonic

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Veteran Japanese rockers Mr. Children attracted so many fans to this year’s edition of the Summer Sonic music festival that they made Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan upset.

“Thank-you for the warm reception,” he said sarcastically in Osaka on Saturday, in response to the legions of Mr. Children fans who crowded the area just ahead of the Japanese group’s set. Ah, the trials of being an opening act.

Despite Corgan’s rage, Mr. Children’s supporters were one of the reasons the 14th Summer Sonic, held simultaneously in Chiba (representing Tokyo) and Osaka, sold out both legs of the event (as well as the pre-festival SonicMania night) for the first time ever. The festival’s decision to cater to the disparate fandoms of hard rock and J-pop made this happen, and resulted in some of the most impressive crowds Summer Sonic has ever seen.

Mr. Children laid claim to the largest fan turnout of the weekend during a Sunday night set at Chiba’s QVC Marine Field. The crowd filled every seat and open space in the ballpark, with late arrivals swarming the entrances to get a listen. The group stuck mostly with anthemic, mid-tempo rock, tunes that become boring fast to someone not interested in singing along. The crowd did sing along, though, resulting in Summer Sonic’s coolest moment when the sound cut off during one late song. The crowd simply belted out the rest of the tune by themselves.

It appeared the crowd for Sunday’s headliner, Muse, wouldn’t come close to matching Mr. Children’s. It turned out that the exodus of fans from the Mr. Children set delayed a lot of Muse supporters from getting in on time, but it was still an impressive draw. The British band has spent the past decade releasing music made for arenas, choked with massive choruses and guitar solos. It got slightly ridiculous — and that’s before the trio brought out a giant robot — but Muse has mastered this style, and the audience erupted for songs such as “Supremacy” and “Knights Of Cydonia.”

Those two Sunday acts packed Marine Field, but Summer Sonic’s biggest accomplishment was its Saturday lineup. Organizers put together a rock-heavy roster — this year saw an increase in tattoos and a decrease in shirts — culminating in a headlining set from Los Angeles’ Metallica. It was a blistering set featuring hard-hitting metal standards such as “Master Of Puppets” and “Enter Sandman,” delivered by a group unafraid to throw up devil horns and spit despite pushing 50.

It wasn’t just full for Metallica, though, the Marine Stage was crowded all day, despite temperatures nearing 40 degrees Celsius. Fans filed in early for two Japanese rock acts, One OK Rock and Maximum The Hormone, both of whom topped the Oricon Album Charts in 2013 for the first time. American outfits Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park rounded out the day, the prior delivering a thumping set and the latter screeching a lot.

This resulted in the curious sight of the Makuhari Messe convention center, which houses the other stages, being pretty spacious Saturday. There was plenty of room for early performances by youngsters such as Fidlar and Bastille. Mercury Prize winners Alt-J didn’t fare much better, their arty rock better suited for headphones than a festival. One of Saturday’s best sets came from Scottish electronic trio Chvrches. Their bouncy music charmed and so did lead singer Lauren Mayberry, who read a Japanese introduction and talked with the crowd during a technical malfunction.

“It’s so flipping hot, we have to restart our computer,” she said. “Well, this is our first time in Japan … we went to a cat cafe.”

Makuhari Messe was far more crowded for SonicMania, an all-night pre-event Friday. English artists The Stone Roses and Pet Shop Boys (the latter of which also played Sunday night to a similarly sized crowd on the Mountain Stage) attracted a large audience. So did a stage showcasing artists on French label Ed Banger, highlighted by the disco grooves of Breakbot and the more aggressive dance music of duo Justice.

Yet all those crowds were dwarfed by the turnout for three Japanese pop acts playing Friday, a trend that continued into the weekend. J-pop trio Perfume attracted a large, energetic crowd pumped to dance to songs such as “Polyrhythm” and “Spring Of Life.” Even bigger was Sakanaction’s 3 a.m. set, which hopped between dance music and call-and-response-rock. Virtual pop idol Hatsune Miku drew an impressive audience at the start of SonicMania, though many left after satisfying their curiosity with just a glimpse of the holographic singer (joined by a real band).

The convention center lacked a festival feel, a common complaint aimed at Summer Sonic. However, organizers seem set on changing that perception. New this year was the layout of the Island Stage, which showcased performers from other Asian countries. Last year the stage was an afterthought in the parking lot, but this year practically saw an Asia-centric theme park built around it, featuring food stalls, a mini Ferris Wheel and Thai massages. Not everybody came for solid sets from the likes of Thailand’s Yellow Fang or China’s Nikkilee, but plenty enjoyed the music while snacking or getting a backrub.

Sunday saw way more people inside Makuhari Messe as temperatures approached 40 C for the second day in a row. Electro-pop group Capital Cities started their set with a so-so crowd, but as they played catchy songs and entertained the crowd (“Tokyo, do you want to see us dance?”), the Sonic Stage became packed. Later, Johnny Marr drew a decent crowd on the same stage for a set featuring mostly new material, though punters were most excited to hear “How Soon Is Now?”

Other throwback acts drew well, highlighted by an enthusiastically received Cyndi Lauper set featuring the hits (“Time After Time,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”). And Billy Corgan had a far better time in Tokyo on Sunday. Word of what happened in Osaka spread across Twitter (it even trended at one point), so Mr. Children fans were far more engaged and also let Smashing Pumpkins supporters get some space at the front.

The highlight of Sunday came from young Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, who played the Mountain Stage. She plowed through most of her debut album, “Kiss.” She sounded great, and was funny, too. Before one breakup-themed song, she asked the audience members to picture an ex-lover’s face above them and, during the chorus, “to punch them right in the head, it feels great!” She closed with an energetic rendition of her hit “Call Me Maybe,” featuring four fans brought up on stage to dance amid a ton of confetti.

The biggest attraction at Makuhari Messe Sunday, though, was a morning performance by Momoiro Clover Z. Idol pop drew well again this year — Dempagumi.inc and an idol-centric sideshow in the food court pulled in die-hards and curious onlookers — but none touched Momoiro’s massive crowd, who began lining up at 5 a.m. and came prepared with glowsticks in hand. But the female five-piece lacked the visual insanity that defined its appearance on the Rainbow Stage last year, which featured dazzling lights and cannons. This year, the group just sang and danced, with the crowd serving as the real spectacle.

The best show of the weekend belonged to a trio merging the spectacle of idol pop with the spectacle of heavy metal. BabyMetal, a group that combines the cute with the fierce, attracted fans ready to mix glowsticks with circle pits Saturday afternoon at the Rainbow Stage. The members were energetic (non-stop headbanging and firing fire extinguishers into the crowd) and funny (it was all over the top, and they even spoofed a Metallica album cover). Yet they were also the only act at the festival with a compelling story — halfway through the show, a video played that explained how BabyMetal had played the food court at Summer Sonic the year before, and how the members had seen Momorio’s huge set. It motivated the group to try for a bigger stage, which worked. BabyMetal hit on the major trends that made Summer Sonic 2013 a success, and, unlike some other acts, had everyone on their feet for it.

Alisa Yamasaki contributed to this report.

  • Alberto Cea

    I need to go next year to the Summer Sonic

  • Amakudari

    Billy Corgan wasn’t mad that there were so many fans of another band. It’s because those fans crowded the front of the standing area and then sat during the show or stood stiff as boards. Those in the sitting area were terrible as well, reserving the best seats with towels and sometimes leaving the venue after that. I arrived right on time to see the Pumpkins and found that most of the seats had towels draped over them. Fans like that have no business at a music festival, and it was shocking that the organizers didn’t have or enforce policies against things like reserving seats or sitting at the front of the standing area.

  • Christopher Johnson

    Metallica are a San Francisco band. I hear the Beatles are from Manchester.