Babymetal: Spirited Away

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The Saitama Super Arena is a hive of activity this afternoon, as hordes of eager youngsters babble excitably around it. A breathtakingly vast, 30,000-capacity dome that recently hosted One Direction and will, in one month’s time, feature a performance from the unnervingly named Mr Children, the crowd that snakes around the venue right now are, indeed, much the same demographic that you might see at a 1D gig. They aren’t queuing to get in, either; there are still four hours before doors open and, with an interesting two-items-per-customer rule in place, some of them will hand over their money, circle round and join the back of this particular queue again. It’s a queue for merchandise; t-shirts, masks, scarfs and towels, all of which come emblazoned with one name: BABYMETAL.

That’s the same Babymetal that we at Metal Hammer have proclaimed, after hearing their truly unique mix of J-pop and thrashing guitars and witnessing some genuinely crazy live shows at Sonisphere, The Forum and Brixton Academy last summer, as the most bonkers and polarising breakthrough band in heavy music in the last year.

Today we’ve come to their homeland, and their biggest-ever headline show, to prove our point, but if anything, we’re starting to feel a bit… worried. Save for the tiny smattering of denim and patch-sporting Japanese metal fans, this is very obviously a very young, very pop audience. Which begs the question: have we made some kind of fuck-up here? Should adult metalheads really be flocking towards this band at all? Have we backed the wrong horse?/o:p

The seeds of doubt were sown 12 hours earlier. Having arrived in Tokyo desperate to experience as much, ahem, culture as possible, Team Hammer come across Japan’s premier metal bar, Godz, while trawling the flashing, multi-coloured streets of the Shinjuku district. Inside, a group of middle-aged, suit-wearing gents bang their heads to Carcass; two young, heavily made-up and fashionable young ladies squeal with glee as Iron Maiden’s The Trooper damages the stereo; and we bond with our barman, damaging our vertebrae to a live video of Cannibal Corpse’s Make Them Suffer from Bloodstock 2010. He enquires what brings us to Japan, and when we tell him it’s to see Babymetal, a look creeps across his face that is part amusement and part resignation.

This appears to be true. Back outside the gig, we talk to the growing queue and find only two people that obviously identify as metal fans. The rest give us the same look we saw from our barman last night when we enquire if they are fans of Slayer or Metallica.

“Iron Maiden? No. Not at all. This is the heaviest thing we like,” offers one young lady. “I bet your readers are going to hate us!” laughs another. Needless to say, it’s not the kind of crowd you’d find hanging outside London’s Underworld at 9pm on a Wednesday night.

“I get it, because if I saw this band when I was first into metal, I would probably feel the same,” offers Kobametal, the mastermind and producer behind the Babymetal phenomenom, later on in the afternoon. A quiet and friendly man, he becomes quite withdrawn when we grab him in a corridor backstage in the Super Arena. He only came to give us a present of a frankly brilliant Babymetal t-shirt that features cartoon likenesses of Ozzy, Corey Taylor, Rob Halford, James Hetfield and others dressed in traditional Japanese Samurai attire. We’ve taken the opportunity to ask him about Babymetal’s divisive nature back in the UK, and he’s well aware of it, but feels that metal-heads need to be challenged. “I saw the music I grew up loving becoming more and more generic and boring. So I thought about what I could do that was original,” he reminds us.

So, which audiences did he expect to find, exactly? Because they’re evidently very different here to the people we saw at those European shows. “It’s very unusual that you go to Europe and get your ideal audience,” he smiles. “I didn’t expect that. We were all very surprised by the reaction at Sonisphere, The Forum and Brixton. Because over here, yes, it is a very different crowd. It was magical to see that when we were in the UK.” /o:p

For all the cartoonish qualities of Babymetal it’s glaringly obvious that their Oz-like leader is a true music fan; that he definitely sees the band as a part of our world and that he is telling the truth when he speaks about how much it means to him. But is that true of the girls themselves? Much has been made by the naysayers of their lack of knowledge of heavy metal culture. Do they share the same core musical ethics?

We don’t have to wait long to find out. Three-quarters of an hour before they are due onstage, Su-Metal, Yuimetal and Moametal walk in to greet us, as polite, friendly and smiley as you would expect any well-polished Japanese pop star to be. They aren’t alone, either; even as Metal Hammer’s questions are unfolded we can detect the unmistakable feeling of 20 pairs of eyes on the back of our necks. Babymetal are as big as Godzilla, and have an entourage to reflect it.

“Yes!” says an excitable Yuimetal when asked if Babymetal even care about exposing their fanbase here to the world of heavy music. “I would like more people to enjoy metal. To tell you the truth, when I joined Babymetal I had no idea what metal music was, but now I know what’s great in metal and I’ve learned a lot from it.”

Still, this is quite a different crowd to the ones she will have seen in the UK. That must have been quite a shock?

“It varies in every country,” she continues. “And because of that, the atmosphere of the concert also changes a bit. But that doesn’t change the fact that the concerts are fun.”

Su-Metal’s eyes widen as she recalls Sonisphere: “Many people were seeing us for the first time. In fact, the moment we walked off at the end of our set we had people chanting, ‘We want more!’ That would never happen at a festival in Japan.”

It’s bizarre to think that these three sweet young girls inspire so much hatred from metal fans, and it’s a backlash you’d almost hope the band themselves don’t register. Sadly, that isn’t the case, but predictably, they seem to take it in their stride.

“We are aware of the mixed feedback from people,” says Su-Metal. “Some love what we do and some…don’t. But we aim to create a new, one-only genre called Babymetal.”

“Everyone is entitled to their thoughts,” adds Moametal. “But that’s not going to stop us believing in what we do and continue pushing down our own path.”

Stage time is approaching fast for the girls, but before they’re ushered off, there’s a chance to ask about the future. How many people will Babymetal be playing to in 10 years’ time?

All of Babymetal, in English, reply in unison: “Only the Fox God knows!” And just like that, they’re gone. Hustled out to play their biggest-ever show./o:p

And what a show it is. There is a crackle of excitement in the air as Kobametal’s own personal playlist of Anthrax, Judas Priest and Pantera booms over the PA pre-show. A Mexican wave flows, typically efficient, around the arena. If Babymetal’s fans don’t like metal, they are happily putting up with it. Then the lights dim and 30,000 people erupt. The first thing you notice is the breathtaking gothic stage set: a cathedral from which the three girls are lowered from coffins onto the stage. The second is the sonics: musically speaking, this is brutal. And not just brutal for a pop band; this would be brutal for Gojira. The sound is crystal and the riff to opener Megitsune sounds like a volcanic eruption. The third thing you notice is that everyone, literally everyone, is dancing along with the girl’s stage moves. The juxtaposition of these two extremes is almost too much to comprehend, like dancing Agadoo to a Napalm Death record. It continues almost constantly throughout the show, a production that features fire, a moving platform that Babymetal walk out onto above the crowd, fireworks, lasers and two different solo spots for backing musicians the Kami Band. Which, you’ve got to admit, all sounds very metal. And that’s because it is; the only thing that isn’t obviously inspired by traditional rock shows is the three ladies out front, who continue to smile, wave and laugh while singing and dancing these most unusual of songs. It’s odd, but it’s impossible not to be swept up in the spectacle, the excitement, the joy of it all. After 90 minutes, and with not a second of attention wandering, Babymetal end with Road Of Resistance, the recorded version of which features Sam Totman and Herman Li from Dragonforce, and the giant video screens encourage the crowd to form a wall of death. That they do shows not only their commitment to Babymetal, but that this band are fully steeped in the aesthetics of heavy metal culture, whether they even truly realise it or not. By the end of the song we count, not one or two, but 12 circle pits on the floor, all of which would make Dez Fafara wince. These people might not be metal fans yet, but, good god, are they learning fast. At the very back of the arena, there is, however, one solitary figure of note. Kobametal is surveying the damage his charges are causing. He wanted to change metal, but it looks like he’s helped change pop, too. He slips out before the end, undetected, obviously satisfied with what he’s seen, like a fox in the night. Meanwhile, Babymetal wrap up, take a final bow and then scuttle off the stage themselves, seemingly delighted with another job well done on a truly epic scale. Where their journey takes them from here remains to be seen, but regardless of your stance on this madly brilliant band, one thing is for sure: metal’s shape is shifting once more, and its reins may well just be in the hands of three young girls from the Far East. Consider this horse well and truly backed.

Tiny Dancers

Wanna know all the key moves from our favourite tiny triumvirate? Here’s our guide to bopping along with Babymetal…

THE SHH!

From right to left, just nod along, ‘shh-ing’ with one finger at your lips. We don’t get it either, but it works.

THE FOX EARS

Inspired by Babymetal’s Fox God, you put both hands upon the top of your head as if they were ears and flip them to the music. Strangely challenging.

THE ‘WACKY’ HEAD POINT

You know, the old ‘You so CRAZY!’ twiddly finger against the temple. But with a twist; you use both hands at once! That’s a step up, innit?

THE BIG JUMP-UP

A bit like the Corey Taylor-perfected JUMPDAFUCKUP, but instead of getting right down and staying there for ages, you just squat a bit and bounce up, like, loads of times… and we mean loads. You’ll get a sweat on for this one.

THE WALL OF DEATH

Hang on! Sick Of It All invented this one years ago! Cheeky little scamps!/o:p