A revolution is underway in Japan’s metal world. In a scene long dominated by men, where even heavyweights like Loudness, X Japan and Anthem have struggled to find lasting success in the West, a new generation of all-female metal bands are turning the scene on its head. Leading the pack? Tokyo’s Lovebites: a band who burst onto the global metal scene last year with a self-titled EP and a richly received debut album, Awakening From Abyss, which earned critical acclaim and the attention of Lzzy Hale and Alice Cooper’s shred queen, Nita Strauss. Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes clear that this is a scene that has been bubbling under the surface for almost a decade.
Growing up playing classical piano, it was at 19 that Lovebites guitarist Mi-ya sought a new challenge and bought her first guitar. Armed with the evocatively titled textbook Mechanical Training Phrases From Hell, she discovered a world of music she’d never heard before. “In the centrefold of the book there was a CD which explained which riff came from which band,” she says today via translator, “so I learned riffs that came from AC/DC, ones from Judas Priest, ones from Iron Maiden. I took that list of band names, went to the CD shop and bought all the albums.”
Within two years Mi-ya went from playing covers with her friends to forming the all-female electro metalcore band A Drop Of Joker, who self-released three albums between 2013 and 2015. “Those girls were the same as me,” says Mi-ya. “They didn’t want to be really bubbly and cute, they wanted to be as heavy as any male band.” They achieved modest success before splitting in 2016, citing creative differences. At the same time, bassist Miho and drummer Haruna left the band Destrose, another all-female band. Destrose had a more ‘typical’ Japanese sound and image – all Gothic Lolita lace and frills – but Miho dreamt of forming a band that played European-style metal.
“Around the time A Drop Of Joker was breaking up, I was handed a demo of what was to become Lovebites,” says Mi-ya, who’d already met Miho, Haruna, vocalist Asami and guitarist Midori through playing at the same venues while in different bands. “They were doing really old-school traditional heavy metal, but because these days there aren’t many girls playing traditional heavy metal I thought it sounded new and refreshing.”
Mi-ya initially came onboard as a support member but proved invaluable as a songwriter with a style that perfectly matched Miho’s musical concept. “I was not really paying attention to Japanese artists,” she reveals. “I probably heard [veteran heavy metallers] Loudness and the other big bands playing metal in Japan, but that was it.” In fact, the guitarist namechecks Ettore Rigotti from Italian death metallers Disarmonia Mundi as her inspiration to start writing music. “Up until then I was not really thinking about writing songs, but once I found Ettore, I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t just play guitar; if you’re a musician, you should compose xsongs and arrange them.” Mi-ya went on to contribute five of the 12 songs on Awakening From Abyss, and the rest is history.
While there’s not a lot of Italian death metal in Lovebites, those ripping twin guitar harmonies speak to their love of Maiden, Priest and Helloween. It helps them stand out in a scene dominated by visual kei bands like X Japan, and even the idol metal phenomenon led by Babymetal. While Japan’s longest running all-female band, Show-Ya, formed in 1985, are perhaps cut from a similar cloth, Lovebites are more commonly associated with the likes of Osaka quintet Aldious, whose 2010 album spearheaded what the Japanese press dubbed the Girl Metal Band Boom, alongside groups like the now-defunct Tengusakura and Galmet. Despite being good friends with Aldious guitarist Toki, Mi-ya is ambivalent about being labelled according to her gender.
“Because Lovebites consists of five girls, we can’t avoid being put in that category,” she admits. “I don’t mind it, but I would say that Lovebites is a little different. We’re almost the only one of the Japanese girl metal bands singing everything in English. There is a particular Japanese metal sound, but when I’m writing I try to go more European.”
One of the ways they’ve achieved that sound is by bringing in Finland’s Mikko Karmila and Miko Jussila, who have worked with Nightwish, Amorphis and Stratovarius, for their debut’s mixing and mastering. “There are lots of talented sound engineers in Japan and I have my favourites, but if we want to have a European heavy metal sound, why don’t we just ask some European heavy metal engineers? So that’s what we did,” Mi-Ya reasons.
Last year brought Lovebites to the UK for a headline show at heartland London metal venue The Underworld, as well as two appearances at the Japanese pop culture expo Hyper Japan. “I was nervous before we went onstage in London, but what we do as a band is the same; it doesn’t really matter if we’re playing in Japan or in the UK, we do what we do,” says Mi-ya. “We did our best and the reaction from the audience was really… direct, compared to a Japanese audience, because Japanese audiences tend to be more reserved and a bit quiet. We must have played well, because we had a really good reaction and that made us really happy.”
As for appearing at Hyper Japan, Mi-ya was fascinated to get a taste of the West’s infatuation with her homeland. “Obviously, I live in Japan, so I know about cosplay and Japanese food, I’m surrounded by Japanese culture,” she points out. “But being on the aeroplane for 10 hours and arriving in a different country with a completely different culture where they are interested in Japanese culture – not just the food, not just anime, but pop culture – the scale was just so big that it was really overwhelming. But it was a nice feeling!”
The band are already recording a new four- track EP, Battle Against Domination, and Mi-ya hopes that the success of Lovebites will inspire more women to join Japan’s metal legions. “Ever since I started being a performer with A Drop Of Joker, everyone said to me that female musicians have less power, male players have more stamina, but I don’t care about that,” she says. “I just want to play what I want to play. If there’s a message I have for girls wanting to be in a band, I would say that you don’t have to drop your femininity and be as macho as a guy, and you don’t have to dress up and be pretty and cute. Just do what you want to do.”