Loud Park will go down this weekend at Saitama Super Arena, drawing fans excited to see mainstream metal acts such as Manowar, Dream Theater and veteran Japanese group Loudness, who was the first heavy metal band from this country signed to an American label and is halfway through its third decade of playing heavy metal.
Japan took to metal almost as quickly as the West did, and a core following has remained loyal to it since. Subgenres do well, too. It didn’t take long after early thrash metal acts Slayer and Megadeth hit the scene overseas for Japan to answer back with bands such as Sabbat and United, and 30 years later this trend hasn’t stopped. Neither has Sabbat, actually; I saw the group in April at Asakusa Extreme, still playing its brand of black-thrash metal and the bassist still rocking a studded leather thong instead of pants.
No matter how much metal as a genre has splintered — or in which esoteric direction it has evolved — Japanese acts have been around to add their voices to the cacophony. Sitting on every branch on the warped and mutated tree of modern metal, you’ll find a poisonous black lotus hailing from Japan.
However, you won’t see any of them at Loud Park this weekend. That’s because many blossomed in Tokyo’s underground. To fans of classic metal, many of the genres these acts are involved in will seem like a mix of guitars playing violently discordant passages with obscene levels of distortion over lyrics that are literally shrieked at the audience — production values range from crisp to completely fried. Average listeners might feel like they did something terrible to music in the past that is causing it to wreak revenge on them. Truth be told, that’s not necessarily an unfair assessment of the situation.
Take for instance grindcore, a genre that Japan has made notable contributions to — some bands of which will be on display at this weekend’s Grind Fest in Tokyo’s Trinity Skate Park. Grindcore is what happens when you take more abrasive musical genres — black metal, hardcore punk, noise (of which Osaka in particular hosts a fantastic heritage) and industrial — and then play the resulting mixture as loud and fast as humanly possible. If it gets even more chaotic, discordant and raw, you’ll have noisegrind. To call it “abrasive” is as much an understatement as calling a belt sander on your lap “uncomfortable,” but that’s exactly the appeal for fans and performers. Ryosuke Kiyasu of Tokyo band Sete Star Sept describes his band’s style of noisegrind as “the bands that play the fastest and loudest of any music genre.” He also calls it “musical destruction” and “f-ck-off music,” which I find both poetic and inescapably true.
Narutoshi Sekine, curator of the Galeria de Muerte in Tokyo’s Taito Ward and member of local goregrind band Butcher ABC (goregrind is the result of mixing grindcore with themes of gore and butchery), says his love of heavy and brutal music comes from a desire to “destroy stereotypes of music.” His label, Obliteration Records, has reached out to extreme metal acts overseas and hosts the Asasuka Extreme events at Kurawood. It was there I saw Sabbat and Japanese thrash group Evil, who this year released a split album with another of the event’s acts, Lurking Fear. (I immediately recognized the group from an earlier show, because a man in a tattered, white-collared shirt soaked in blood holding a guitar and screaming at you is hard to forget).
I’ve found thrash to be the most accessible of the extreme genres; I enjoyed End All shows in Tokyo before I even moved here and last April I also saw thrash-metal act Terror Squad at a different gig. Vocalist Kouichi Udagawa’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy likely comes from performing in a half-dozen bands across the city.
At the other end of the accessibility spectrum is black metal. Like any other genre, Japan does black metal very well and accomplished a bit of a coup in the early 1990s by getting its first black metal band, Sigh, signed to Norway’s infamous Deathlike Silence Productions — not long before founder Euronymous (Oystein Aarseth), himself a central figure in the scene as cofounder of pioneering band Mayhem, was stabbed to death by his bandmate Varg Vikernes. Black metal is likely the most deeply personal of these subgenres. Lyrics will reflect the artist’s complicated philosophical beliefs and, while it takes many musical cues from thrash metal, I found I had a hard time engaging in the genre in Japan until I found the right band to open the door. I used to find death metal similarly inaccessible, even with giants in the genre such as Coffins and Anatomia hailing from this country and performing regularly in Tokyo — this Friday, in fact, at Earthdom. Before pulling the plug on my death metal efforts, though, in the spring of 2013 I saw Intestine Baalism perform at Bush Bash in Edogawa Ward.
I once asked Ryo Yamada, former vocalist of Coffins and current frontman for Guevnna (a band that finally answers the question: “What if Nick Cave and the Birthday Party quit heroin in favor of red meat and beer?”) to describe death metal to me and his answer consisted solely of three words: jyaaku (wicked), kitanai (filthy) and omoi (heavy). Intestine Baalism is all these things, but guitarists Seiji Kakuzaki and Kenji Nonaka provide far more structured and complicated guitar work than typically found in death metal compositions. I was hooked before the first song of the group’s set was even finished. The members have been performing together since 1992 and have perfected a sound that is both dirty and polished, and although the band is recognized as one of Tokyo’s most talented extreme metal bands, it exhibits the same disregard for mainstream acclaim that is typical of the underground community. None of them court major labels, no one wants to be any kind of “idol” and they don’t need public approval.
By its very nature, extreme metal is ultimately transgressive. It will not and cannot ever be mainstream. This occasionally leads to charges of elitism, but I can say from experience that if you approach it without preconceptions or pretensions, the community will gladly welcome you to the sonic slaughter.
Anatomia, Coffins and Wormridden play with Denmark’s Undergang at Earthdom in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, on Oct. 17 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,000 at the door; 03-3205-4469). Loud Park takes place at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on Oct. 18 and 19 (10 a.m. starts; one-day tickets cost ¥14,500; 03-3499-6669). Grind Fest takes place at Trinity Skate Park in Itabashi-ku, Tokyo, on Oct. 19 (1 p.m. start; ¥2,800 in advance; www.ingrindwegrind.blogspot.jp).