Performing in a Metal Band in Japan

In the autumn I posted about joining a heavy metal band in Japan and a few weeks ago we had our first gig together! Post is super late due to a trip to Kyoto with my family and several other significant occurrences which will no doubt be blogged about in due course.

My band’s name is Gjöll and we play melodic metal. I joined the band as part of a drastic line up change, which has resulted in a dramatic change in sound. They had one release before I joined and we’re currently in the process of recording another, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to blog about what it’s like to go into the studio in Japan!

Our gig was at the Crescendo Live House in Kichijoji and we were honoured to play alongside some amazing acts including the awesome Aresz from Osaka who have been playing together for over 20 years. We had our soundcheck and rehearsal then I went off to enjoy the nearby Studio Ghibli museum in the hours before the gig.

Sound-checking in Japanese is an anxiety button of mine. I don’t like doing it in the UK either because sound engineers rarely know what to do with the harp and there’s only so many times you can say, “I still need more in the monitors,” before you start to annoy people. But in Japanese it’s even worse, what with all of the specific vocabulary and because the distance between me and the sound engineers means that I can’t rely on my usual hand gestures and significant looks to make up for my poor language skills. But I got through it and I was very impressed with the professionalism of the Crescendo’s staff.

It’s less common to see foreigners in smaller music venues than in larger gigs (where sometimes we dominate the audience…) but if I’m the only non-Japanese in the room it doesn’t bother me at all, obviously. What I do find excruciatingly embarrassing is when the bands point it out… from the stage. Believe it or not, this happens almost every time I go to a concert in a small venue. The last visual kei gig I went to one of the bands said こんばんは to the audience and then looked directly at me to say ‘Good evening,’ causing everyone to turn around and stare. I know this is kindly meant but it makes me wish a trap door would open underneath me. So when Rumiko, the gorgeous singer from Aresz comments on the ‘international’ nature of the audience and apologised for not being able to speak English the Britishness in me could not handle it. “Please, please don’t apologise! You are not expected to change anything your amazing band does in any way on my account!”

We were on last and thankfully everyone stuck around so we played to a nice crowd. I was pretty nervous – not only was this my first gig with them it was the first time I had sung without the harp in front of an audience in ages. Even though singing with the harp is very complicated, I guess I feel I can hide behind it. But there was such a friendly atmosphere in the audience and we had been practicing really hard which gave me confidence. I really enjoyed performing and I can’t wait for the next one!

Gjöll Japan live
Maybe I was getting the gig confused with my yoga class with this backbend…. Photo credit: Gjöll

Gig review: Into the enchanted forest with Mushi Furu

I’ve been enchanted by Mushi Furuu Yoru Ni since watching the chilling video for their song Inu (犬) a couple of years ago. Since then their style has softened from emotive hard rock to alternative pop and, perhaps not un-relatedly, their following has increased exponentially. My boyfriend had first seen them live in Japan three years ago before they got big, in a small venue showing five bands for ¥1,000, so when we saw that they were playing a one off gig without support we were interested to see how their live sound had evolved.

moonThe gig took place at a venue near Omotesando called the Aoyama Moon Romantic. It was worth going just to see this place alone. Even though the venue had ‘moon’ in the name, I didn’t expect it to actually have a massive projection of the moon. It’s set up like an enchanted forest at night in a way that isn’t tacky but draws you into the venue’s romantic world. I presume that artists usually perform on the stage, but seeing as this was a 360° in-the-round performance, the band were set-up slightly below the stage. Being the the gig geeks we are, we got there early and nabbed one of the tables on the stage and enjoyed some organic white wine in an oh-so-trendy wide glass to the Moon Romantic’s gorgeous, gentle pre-gig playlist. They got extra points for including some harp music with electronic backing. Anywhere that plays harp goes up in my appreciations instantly.

Remember how I commented on the interesting toilet art at the Shinjuku Marble? Well this venue offered some fascinating foliage to enjoy whilst using the facilities...
Remember how I commented on the interesting toilet art at the Shinjuku Marble? Well this venue offered some fascinating foliage to enjoy whilst using the facilities…

The music faded into some sampling of water and cicadas from one of Mushi Furu’s releases, taking us even further into the enchanted forest. The band opened with two new songs and I found myself thinking something mushy about language having no barriers because, despite barely understanding a word of singer Ari’s stirring opening rap, I found my eyes misting up.

green lightThe in-the-round set-up really allowed the band to connect with their sold-out audience as they moved into more familiar territory. The four piece outfit was joined by a backing vocalist, a keyboardist and rapper Gomess adding depth and a welcome freshness to their sound. Between songs Ari told us that she viewed the gig as a journey through forest by moonlight, exciting but scary. The band’s friendly energy, as well as being able to look into their faces and the compelled faces of our fellow audience, did make it feel as if we were all going on a journey.

After a string of rockers, they switched to performing stripped down songs by candlelight, including Inu, my personal favourite. Pianist Harakanako’s almost saccharine piano inflections in this live rendition might have seemed almost jarringly sweet to anyone who has watched the gruesome music video, but were actually appropriate given the heart-rending double meaning behind the lyrics.

12059198_10153178927337916_184125013_oAfter drawing us in with these softer songs, Mushi Furu pressed on with the hits from their most recent mini-album スターシーカ (Star-seeker), a more positive album than their previous releases. I said in my review of the first gig I went to in Japan that there appeared to be a lack of ‘woo-ing’ at Japanese gigs. I take that back. During the upbeat anthem to self-love, わたしが愛すべきわたしへ (To the me I should love), the audience stood up and danced like crazy. I have hardly ever seen an audience so reactive, yet so respectful of the music. There was a wonderful communal feeling as the crowd danced along to the final few songs. The band’s high level of energy was juxtaposed with a surprisingly subdued Gomess, staring at the floor during his freestyle rap on  同じ空を見上げてた, but the contrast was haunting and effective.

dat cakeGasping for an encore after the band left the stage, we endured an agonisingly long wait. I learnt that ‘encore’ in Japanese is indeed ancōru and they do chant it at the end of decent gigs. The band surprised us by returning to the stage to present drummer Ikumi with a cake as apparently it was his birthday. N’aaawwww.

After Ikumi blew out his candles, Ari introduced the encore 明星, which means morning star. “As we play this final song I want you to think about something special to you. We began this night entering a dark forest. Now dawn is breaking.”

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Gigs in Japan vs Gigs in the UK

After arriving in Japan, it didn’t take long for my boyfriend and I to visit our spiritual home – a hipster den in a grotty part of town, hosting a gig of five local bands for not very much money. And so, last Monday night we headed to the Shinjuku Marble to get our fix of live music.

marble stairsThe Marble is a quirky venue with a bright cartoonesque theme, which we had to walk through Kabukicho, a red-light district, to get to. We mainly went to see Gaba, whose guitarist my boyfriend knows from his time at Leeds College of Music, funnily enough, but stayed for 4 out of 5 bands. I enjoyed the atmospheric openers Amanosagume, a heavy rock band fronted by a girl with impressive pink dip dyes and a lot of feelings. Picaro and GiGi both had an enjoyable but more conventional J-Rock style, and, interestingly, both had endearingly geeky stage presences with awkward audience chit chat about the weather.

Musically, I can say without bias that Gaba were the strongest act we saw, with tight harmonies and technically slick guitar solos, even though their Beatles inspired rock with English lyrics made me feel like Hermione in muggle studies class.

What can I say, Leeds people are taking over the world.

So, with my extensive experience of precisely one Japanese gig I felt qualified to write a comparison on how British and Japanese gigs compare.

Amanosagume frontwoman Natsumi preceeded one song with emotive speculation on whether humans are parasitic. Or that's what I think she was saying.
Amanosagume frontwoman Natsumi preceeded one song with emotive speculation on whether humans are parasitic. Or that’s what I think she was saying.
    1. It’s more expensive. You know what I said about ‘not very much money?’ Less true here. Last Monday night cost us ¥3,000, which my phone tells me is £16.26 (the yen is unusually weak at the moment). In the UK I would expect to get the same thing for less than a tenner and would push for around a fiver if I could. In Japan, you generally get one drink included in the entry fee. My boyfriend tells me that music is generally more expensive in Japan but that he thinks this goes with an attitude of valuing it more – illegal downloading, for example is rarer here. If this attitude and the higher price goes with paying the bands and sound engineers more I’m happy to pay extra, but I’m not sure that it does…

2. They smoke. Having come to gig-going age at around the time of of the UK smoking ban, smoking in a music venue seems very scandalous to me. So many people at this gig were lighting up that the basement was vaguely smoggy without needing a smoke machine.

3. They’re on their phones less. Japanese concert goers seem to side with my heroine Kate Bush in the battle between transcendence vs smartphones. I approve, but it made me guilty when I sneakily got these snaps in.

Gaba's first single 'Let's Enjoy Life' is available here
Gaba’s first single ‘Enjoy Life’ is available here

4. Less dancing, but also less dickheads. Although Japan lifted it’s bizarre ban on dancing after midnight last year, it seems that dancing at gigs is less common here. This is a shame because I enjoy throwing my body around vaguely in time to the bands but I have to admit less dancing came with less dickheads. Last Monday night was pretty dickhead free – no hairy 6’2 dude pushing me into the mosh pit whether I want to or not, or grinding up against me.

5. Lots of applause but no cheering. Without fail, there is applause when the bands come on and after every song, regardless of quality. However there is no ‘woo-ing’ or heckling. I am a prolific woo-er so it was difficult to reign it in, and I may have forgotten I was in Rome and let a small woo slip at my most enthusiastic moment.

6. Interesting toilet art. To be fair this may be unique to the Marble, but I was fascinated by the visual offering when I went for a pee. The toilet wall was plastered with fan artwork, set lists, lyrics and reviews of the bands who have played here. Including these scantily clad young ladies…

#boobies
#boobies

Tomorrow I am going to see the incredible Mushifuru Yoru Ni. Check back here for to see if my opinion on Japanese gigs drastically changes! (Spoiler alert: it probably won’t).