Illustration for article titled Album Review: Babymetal Traverses the iMetal Galaxy/i

Babymetal is one of the more contentious groups in the modern metal scene. Ironically, given its rebellious origins, metal as a genre is often defined by fans not for what it is, but what it isn’t. More vocal fans tend to dominate internet discourse over new, innovative releases with discussions over whether the usage of electronic elements constitutes a violation of the “rules,” if “metal” can really apply to a track with soft vocals, or if an album written largely by producers can be considered genuine. Babymetal’s very existence breaks all those supposed rules. But in their latest release, the group move away from merely breaking the rules, instead setting out to establish their “metal galaxy” through numerous collaborations with artists from around the world. The result is a fantastic celebration of the inherent sonic diversity in metal and a record which seeks to find not what isn’t but what can be metal.

Babymetal is a genre-defying group now, but their origins were far humbler. Producers affiliated with the Sakura Gakuin school idol brand in Japan first envisioned Babymetal as one of the canonical “clubs” of the school that Sakura Gakuin idols attend. In short, it was a side project spin-off that served as the background lore of a Japanese pop music brand. One producer, known by their stage name Kobametal, was particularly enthusiastic about the vocal capabilities of Sakura Gakuin idol Suzuka Nakamoto. Kobametal created Babymetal in 2010 as a pop-metal fusion group with Nakamoto (hereafter Su-metal) at the center and accompanied by backup vocalist/dancers Moa-metal and Yui-metal. At the time, Su-metal was the oldest at only 12 years old. Soon after the “club” formed, the producers realized that Babymetal had potential to be even bigger than the Sakura Gakuin brand, and they hired several Japanese metal artists to participate in songwriting and perform guitar, bass, and drums on stage. These performers, known as the kami band, became a critical component of Babymetal’s later success.

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Babymetal’s appeal lies in their ability to meld contemporary Japanese pop with metal, a style that the group coined as kawaii (cute) metal. The premise is simple, but the execution is deceptively elaborate. Earlier songs in the group’s repertoire tended to haphazardly splice together different sounds. For example, one particularly (in?)famous track from their first album, “IINE!,” includes a hip-hop breakdown halfway through that suddenly switches to a deep-throated, growling, death-metal-style drop.

“Oh! MAJINAI” live. The dance really makes the song, you honestly gotta see it to believe it.

But in Metal Galaxy, Babymetal has moved light years away from those early days. Their latest album remains an eclectic mix, but individual tracks are much more stylistically consistent, each song committing to and effectively executing a given theme. The thematic consistency lends a sense of maturity to even the more bizarre tracks on the album. This is perhaps best exemplified by “Oh! MAJINAI,” which features Swedish power metal vocalist Joakim Broden from Sabaton. The song takes strong influence from Nordic Viking shanties and features heavy guitarwork, Swedish bagpipes, and Broden belting out a duet in Japanese with Su-metal. It’s an admittedly insane idea that is surprisingly well-polished and incredibly fun.

Broden is far from the only musician featured in Metal Galaxy. He is joined by a host of other talents, from American progressive rock musicians Tim Henson and Scott Lepage of Polyphia to Thai rapper F.HERO. Even tracks without featured guest musicians wear their influences on their sleeves. The track “Shanti Shanti Shanti” (which means “tranquility” in Hindi, according to Google-sensei) is heavily influenced by traditional Indian music and serves as another highlight of Su-metal’s extraordinary vocal talents.

“Shanti Shanti Shanti” features some of Su-metal”s best vocal work on the album.

Much like their genre-blending style, the premises behind many of Babymetal’s songs appear deceptively simple but give way to something subversive and wholly unique. The simplicity of the lyrics allow even foreign listeners to sing along with relative ease, but their purpose diverges from the standard role of lyrics in most metal songs. Lyrical content in metal (and much of Western music) often tells a story or conveys a specific message, but Babymetal’s lyrics regularly forgo storytelling, instead seek to create a particular image. One of my favorite tracks in Metal Galaxy, “Kagerou,” is a prime example of this imagery.

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Kagerou refers to the natural phenomenon of rising heat (usually in the summer) that creates a simmer in the air. It is often translated as “summer haze” or “heat haze.” Summer haze is a common image in modern Japanese literature and pop culture. Much as the simmering heat distorts the summer air, the literary kagerou tends to symbolize a state of confusion — perhaps an attempt to recall a fading memory warped by time, or a distraction that twists one’s perception of the physical and psychological.

“Kagerou” recreates this natural phenomenon in the form of song and dance to great effect. The lyrics make compelling use of the Japanese language’s many onomatopoeia to simulate the disorienting sway of a summer haze. “Yura yura yura, yura yura yureru/furiko no rizumu de,” Su-metal sings, “Swaying swaying swaying, swaying swaying, swinging back and forth, in the rhythm of a pendulum.” This image is developed further as the flickering and falling of “jealous flames” dance and burn in the sun. Su-metal’s highly controlled vocals and dance movements feel as though they, too, are undulating in the heat, mirroring the words themselves. The repetition of slightly varying sounds and hints of melancholic melody summon a vivid image of kagerou. The meaning you take from it is entirely up to you.

Babymetal concerts are the full package. Skip to about one minute in for the song proper, or enjoy the whole journey (recommended).

“Kagerou” is single-mindedly focused on an image conjured through Babymetal’s signature singing and dancing. The song combines pop-influenced metal instrumentation with Japanese-style lyricism to create a distinctive performance that one can feel even from watching/listening at home. The song is not a story; it’s an experience, and one of many in Metal Galaxy. Much like the fun variety of sound, the lyrical content of Babymetal’s latest effort is both easily approachable and rewards the listener for digging deeper.

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With the release of their second album, Metal Resistance, in 2016, Babymetal declared themselves leaders in a rebellion against the established norms of metal music. But in Metal Galaxy, Babymetal aspire for something greater; Metal Galaxy worries not about what isn’t metal, but instead asks what can be metal. All of Babymetal’s strengths, from strong vocal work, to clever instrumental combinations, to a varied group of producers and collaborators are back in force with their new release. The result is a celebration of the diversity within the genre and another success for a band that keeps on growing. Metal Galaxy’s continent-spanning collection truly feels like experiencing a journey through the metal galaxy.

Thanks to TheMamaLuigi for proofreading!


Title: Metal Galaxy

Artist: Babymetal

Producer: Kobametal

Label: Amuse

Release: October 9, 2019


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