Of all the times I’ve thrown myself into the deep end inadequately prepared this has to be… well, it’s probably not the most overly ambitious, but that probably says more about my life and my choices than anything else.
I have joined a metal band. In Tokyo. With Japanese people. Who can’t speak English.
Putting the harp in places where it shouldn’t be has long been my thing. Aside from my own songwriting, I’ve played on electro-jazz and pop punk tracks, at anime conventions and fashion shows. What I’ve always wanted to do but have never gotten the chance to is play in a band. See, people often want a bit of harp for that one quirky song but they don’t want to keep you around as an actual permanent member. I wanted to continue playing the harp in Tokyo, but the band bit was not something I intended.
So there’s this website oursounds, which is a kind of social networking for Japanese musicians. Starting a band in Tokyo was something my boyfriend always intended (seeing as his Japanese is far better than mine, this isn’t going in over his head so much), so he was using the site to find bandmates. I thought, “Why not, lets make a profile and see what happens?” I got a number of messages. I perhaps made a mistake in including a photo and some of the messages… didn’t seem like music was their primary concern. Some were for projects I wasn’t that interested in but one stood out. A singer (or rather death vocalist) for a symphonic metal band was looking for a female singer and instrumentalist. His band had been going for a while but several people had left to they were looking to rebuild it with a new lineup. He had seen my profile and he liked that I could play the harp and sing in English. He was really complementary and it seemed interesting so I thought I would give it a shot.
I was pretty nervous when I went to the first rehearsal, in a studio in Shinjuku. Studio hire is cheap and commonplace in Japan – probably because strict landlords restrict practice of even classical instruments or ban them altogether. This particular studio was super trendy, with tonnes of posters of Japanese and Western rock bands on the wall. After I clumsily introduced myself, we ‘warmed up’ by playing through some symphonic metal favorites.
My bandmates are great people, and excellent musicians. Seriously I have lucked out with the level of technical ability and musicality they all possess; to be honest I feel a little inferior. None of them, however, know any significant English. This means that rehearsals are difficult. Really difficult. Interestingly, I find my bandmates far harder to understand than my colleagues at my school, despite their best intentions. I think this is because they speak mostly in plain form, whereas the teachers at school use polite form. For those who don’t know, Japanese language varies a lot depending on the level of formality of the situation. Foreigners are almost always taught basic polite form first, then plain form, and then the super scary keigo (honorific speech) for advanced learners. I only really started getting to grips with plain form this year, whereas I’m much more comfortable with polite form. This means that I can cope in the staff room, a work situation. However, in a rehearsal with my bandmates (men in their 20s – men usually speak less politely than women) I’m pretty lost most of the time.
It’s all very well to say that music is a universal language there’s also slight cultural differences in ‘the way music is done’ that are difficult to understand that I really should have been more aware of. For example, even in metal songs, Japanese tunes tend to follow a pretty set structure. When I played them a song of mine I was hoping we could add to our repertoire, what raised eyebrows was not the lyrics in English (singing in English is pretty standard for Japanese metal bands, which I think is a shame) but the structure. What I considered a variation on simple verse/chorus with a couple of time sig changes was really pushing the boat out to them. Also, my bandmates seem to place a greater emphasis on ‘influences’ than I’m used to. In my limited experience of collaborative writing, we mostly jammed or did our own thing and fix it as we went along. Before my band tried my song, they wanted me to link me examples of songs I wanted to sound like to find its ‘image.’ This was really hard for me to do, one because of the language barrier, two because the concept of ‘do your own thing and we’ll see how it goes,’ seems foreign to them as well.
I realise this is all very vague but I don’t want to name the band or my band mates yet because it’s still early days but we will be gigging next year, possibly when my parents come to visit. I’m not sure who will be more scared, my whiter than white parents and my 6’1 blonde brother or my bandmates…
In the mean time, I’ll be dutifully learning my music related vocab sheet, schooling myself on Japanese metal, enjoying myself and terrified at the same time. Peace.
HexaGlaM, Velvet Eden, Die Milch, Lapis Light and Rose Noire: a review of a four hour visual kei marathon
4.45pm Saturday 21 November, just starting to get dark, and long-suffering boyfriend and I are wondering around the ‘dodgy’ (aka. many love hotels) section of Ikebukuro. We’re 15 minutes late to the gig, but Google maps manages to direct us to the venue, Ruido K3. We walk down the stairs and pay, then are directed to what I can only describe as a black walled ‘air lock’ kind of entrance. I’m claustrophobic at the best of times so this alone would be enough to get my heart rate up, but we are also greeted by an extremely loud blast of music. We look nervously at each other, hurriedly put in our ear-plugs, and draw back the black curtain.
The sight of HexaGlaM’s set in full swing is enough to make me wonder if I’ve entered wonderland. With wigs and hair every colour of the rainbow, the tremendous amount of energy in the performance of their brand of melodic hard rock really does make them seem larger than life. Singer Sella puts a spell on us with his ‘prince’ character, telling us with a hint of humour that it was ‘fate’ that lead us to meet in downtown Ikebukuro tonight. His powerful voice is equally effective on the band’s catchy melodies and the occasional screaming sections. All five band-members were big personalities but I especially enjoyed watching guitarist Koro. She was jumping around the stage with the air of a kick-ass pixie and I loved her yukata inspired outfit and the way her purple hair extensions clashed with her green sparkly guitar.
After the high energy visual-spectacle that was HexaGlaM, two-piece Velvet Eden seemed like a big contrast, with their more somber electronic music. Because I’m a visual kei novice I didn’t realise this, but Velvet Eden are a veteran unit that have been going since 1998, with one line up or another. On Saturday, the charismatic cross-dressing, vocalist DADA, (the only remaining original member) was joined by current guitarist Chro. Decked out in black lace, they created a gothic feel, assisted by blue lighting and generous use of the smoke machine. Dada’s deep sonorous vocals over drum machine focused electronics brings to mind 80s British Goth.
No denying it, Die Milch were the band I wanted to see. Their July concert in North London was the first music review I wrote for this blog and the last gig I saw before leaving the UK. I fell in love with them there, so seeing them from my new home in Tokyo was really special for me. The three-piece unit did not disappoint, with their fusion of electro neo-classical music and Lolita fashion making for the ultimate audio-visual treat. As usual, they seemed impeccably rehearsed, playing their instruments and their living doll personas to perfection. Only Coco (vocals and keys) and Mocha (violin) performed at the London gig so it was great to see additional violinist Yui perform at Saturday’s show. She adds a lot to unit both sonically; playing off Mocha’s violin parts in delicious call and response duets, and visually; two brunette violinists flanking blonde Coco works very well for the band’s cutesy clockwork choreography.
It was interesting to see how their performance style varied slightly from London to Tokyo. In London they favoured catchy, vocal-centric songs such as ‘Operette’ and ‘Go! Lolita’ whereas Saturday’s gig featured more instrumental, neo-classical repertoire. Either works for me and it was great to hear tracks from their newest album ‘Imperial’ alongside older hits such as ‘Rosaria.’ In their performance of ‘We R D.M’ (We are Die Milch) in London, as well as encouraging their audience to participate in the dance moves, they passed the microphone round almost the entire room so everyone could introduce themselves. They skipped this part this time, perhaps due to the sometimes shyer nature of Tokyoites than Londoners.
All in all their set exceeded my already high expectations and I didn’t want it to end. I’m hoping I can catch their January gig, which is on Coco’s birthday I hear, but it’s in Shizouka… Well I have been needing an excuse to visit that area of Japan!
The lights are low and and the silhouette of a beautiful girl walks elegantly to her violin. Lapis Light certainly like their theatrics. It gets brighter and we can see that singer/violinst Rei (零) has certainly won the prize for best hair and make-up of the night. What seems to be her natural hair is complimented by flowing extensions and a gorgeous autumnal leaves head dress. She has impressive false eyelashes and red glitter under her eyes that compliments her red themed outfit.
After a brief tranquil violin solo, the tempo goes up. And stays up. The best way to describe Lapis Light’s sound is heavy metal meets baroque pop meets video game music. On steroids. Seriously, the energy of this band was relentless – almost too much for my taste at times – and so gentler passages with prominent violin and occasional vocal narration were welcome. I really enjoyed how Lapis Light incorporate traditional Japanese imagery and sounds into their visuals and music – from the autumn leaves in their banner and Rei’s kimono inspired outfit to flurries of pentatontic, ‘koto like’ electronic music decorating their music.
First off, these guys get points for playing an electro-industrial version of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana to open. That’s something I’ve always wanted to hear and I can think of nothing better to get an audience pumped up.
The red curtains rose to reveal Rose Noire, of which violin duo Jill and Louie, who may or may not be siblings, are the core members. On Saturday they were joined by bassist tAk and a drummer whose name may be Ebisumaru. Or not. Come back to me in a few years when I’m fluent in Japanese.
Louie does electric violin and lead vocals while Jill plays acoustic violin. I’ve never seen this kind of combination before but it works, chiefly due to Jill’s impressively strong tone on the violin. She was one of the best instrumentalists of the night; her playing really sung and she spun and moved across the stage in a way that had lots of personality but was not overdone.
A few songs into their violin-centric brand of melodic gothic rock, there was a bit of a surprise when Louie started singing counter-tenor. Yes, you heard me right, counter-tenor. At a visual kei concert. A pretty decent one too, and it worked with the more classical theme in these songs, complete with harpsichord electronics. Seriously, these guys make Emilie Autumn look like an amateur.
Bassist tAk had a wonderfully quirky stage presence. You can’t really see it in this photo because his face is covered by the mic stand but his make-up genuinely scared me and he was doing this creepy eye thing to a fangirl at the front who was loving it. At one point he stacked it over the monitors. Even though this cracked the gothic veneer somewhat, he recovered really well which made me warm to him even more. As he smiled apologetically, revealing his teeth for the first time, I heard my boyfriend murmur, “So he’s not scary really…” He gave the cutest little awkward wave when he went off stage, next to Jill and Louie’s flamboyant bows.
Rose Noire seems to have very dedicated fans who rightly demanded an encore. The night finished with their hit FEED, a wonderfully crafted track which favours both Jill’s violin and Louie’s vocals and really shows this genre at its finest. I really recommend listening as an introduction to the band, the yearning violin line will charm its way into your dreams.
A friend who is a fan of old school visual kei said he wanted to go to a visual kei gig when he visits me in Tokyo next year, but expressed concerns that the scene was either dead or the fans were entirely fourteen year-old girls. I’m no visual kei expert, but this afternoon of excellent music and spectacular outfits showed me that the scene is very much alive, even if it has changed markedly from its original form. I was impressed by the age range at the concert actually; there seemed to be a mix of people from about 18 to fans in their fifties, some in gothic, Lolita or visual-kei style outfits but also a fair few in ‘civilian’ dress.
For a visual kei virgin like myself, the event was a sensory overload in the best possible way. I’ve never known a non-classical gig to start at 4.30, but I guess if it’s going to be four hours long I can see the wisdom in it. I definitely needed a lie down afterwards, thanks to such intense music and brightly coloured outfits as well as being on my feet for so long (granny alert). Looking forward to having my mind blown again, bring on the next one!
So until now, this blog has been all Tokyo and not much harp.
I suppose that isn’t surprising – I arrived in Tokyo overwhelmed by everything and skint to boot. My first couple of months were spent soaking it all in, as well as making enough money to stay afloat. Once I surfaced from ‘survival mode,’ I could start to think about a vital part of my identity – my musical one.
We haven’t always been easy bedfellows, but for better or for worse the harp is an integral part of my personality. If I don’t play for a while, I feel lost. After looking into hiring a harp I discovered that the Japanese rental market is pretty unforgiving and began to look into second hand celtic harps. I found my new baby in Yahoo auctions of all places. He’s a beautiful second-hand Aoyama lever harp and I got him for far less than he’s worth (and less than it would cost to rent his peer for a year) thanks to the guy not knowing what he was selling. He was out of practice when I brought him home but that’s ok – so am I. Regular tuning, playing and general TLC has improved his tone and tuning, as well as my mental well-being. It felt so good to be able to be play again after so long without a harp.
It’s no secret that I am hugely insecure about my harp playing ability. I know I’m not amazing, and thanks to some bad experiences and an anxious personality sometimes I’ve been tempted to quit all together as I feel I’ll never be able to play the way I want to. Because of this, in a way, the pain of separation between me and the harp world was a good thing. Knowing that it hurt not to be able to play confirmed to me that I am a harpist, even if I don’t play ‘good music,’ even if I have double jointed fingers and muscle tension that cripples my technique, even if I lack the self-discipline to practice properly, even though I started playing ‘too late to ever really be any good.’ The most important thing is that when I play I feel like me. Perhaps it took an enforced break to make me realise that.
For my first cover in Japan and my first online upload ever on a lever harp (excluding my covers on my purple harpsicle), I chose Yumi Arai’s Hikoukigumo, ‘vapour trail,’ the theme song for my favourite Hayao Miyazaki film The Wind Rises. It was originally written by Arai decades earlier as a requiem for a deceased childhood friend. The lyrics to Hikoukigumo are a masterpiece of Japanese vagueness and English is just too much of a blunt instrument to do them justice, although my boyfriend had a good try at a translation. Though the song title is often translated as ‘vapour trails,’ Hikoukigumo literally means ‘airplane clouds,’ and the text gently compares our lives to the ephemeral clouds produces by airplanes. The tension between the imaginative, artistic potential of airplanes and their huge destructive potential is central to the The Wind Rises, which focuses on the life of World War Two aeronautical engineer Jiro Hirikoshi. This is what makes Hikoukigumo a perfect soundtrack for the film, as well as its romantic, meditative sound which I tried to capture in my cover.
I found the juxtaposition of Jiro’s life – an unworldly boy who dreams of flying planes and designs them with the care and love of a master painter, but his beloved creations turn into the killing machines of World War Two – extremely compelling and I fell in love with the song and the film. I have been playing around with it for months and actually performed it live at London Anime Con in July but I chickened out and got Arthur Rei to accompany me on the guitar because playing harp and singing in Japanese was too much at the time. I’m very happy for it to be my first upload of my Japanese life. I’ve been dabbling in mindfulness and Japanese thought since arriving here and so letting go of my attachments to the self, as if my life is a hikoukigumo, resonates with me.
I have several ideas for covers in the pipeline as well as an original release, and I’m hopefully doing a gig in a cafe in Harajuku in the next couple of weeks. But mostly importantly, I’m practicing regularly and enjoying it. Still the same amount of Tokyo, but with more harp. We’ll see what happens.
In the mean time,
“Le vent se lève! . . . Il faut tenter de vivre!”
What is it with Lolita ladies and hot beverages? Comprising of Mocha on violin and Coco on keyboards and vocals, the Japanese duo Die Milch put a spell on the crowd at The Islington on Sunday night.
As far as I could make out with my shaky Japanese, I learned from their website that Coco is actually a doll made by a magician, who is allowed to become animated for a limited time to perform… Along with a description of the band as ‘gothic baroque pop’ by the friend from the Lolita community I went along with, that was all I knew about Die Milch. It turns out, the duo characterise most good things that I associate with Lolita fashion – an eclectic but stylish mixture of old and new, a sense of irony and just a splash of magic. The stage is a visual treat with the keyboard decked in roses and white lace and two impeccable gothic Lolita ‘coords.’ Sonically, Mocha’s soaring violin solos over industrial style beats suggests a more tasteful Emilie Autumn, though Coco’s harpsichord keyboard gymnastics also bring to mind Malice Mizer.
An unfortunate by-product of doing a music degree is that I have become snobby about string players in pop. All too often it seems that all it takes is the bassist dusting off the violin he hasn’t played since he was 14 and shoving in some long notes in a couple of songs for a mediocre band to get their ‘classy classical’ points. Thanks to my snobbishness, I was nervous when Mocha, clad in a little-bo-peep style white dress, picked up her bow. Please, please be good.
I needn’t have worried. It couldn’t be clearer from the moment her bow touches her strings that she can play. Really play, with classical flair and technical mastery. Though she doesn’t feel the need to jump around the stage a la Lindsay Stirling, her bowing is extrovert and expressive in manner which belies her diminutive statue and adorable bonnet.
To be sure, there is nothing unique about Coco’s understated vocals, but there is a lot to be said for a clear soprano who doesn’t fluff a single note, which is pretty rare in touring pop musicians. Moreover, a more conspicuous vocalist would draw attention from the complex instrumental parts. What Coco lacks in vocal individuality she makes up for in stage presence. Instead of letting her limited English restrict her, Coco’s stage chat was knowing and often hilarious. “It is hot here. But if you go to Japan in summer, you will die.” As a recovering Essex girl, I appreciated her nod to estuary English: “I know real Engrish. Bread an bu-er. Wa-er.” Both performers use rigid, stylised dance moves to maintain their clockwork doll persona. The overall choreography of the set was slick and seemed impeccably rehearsed, leaving me in no doubt as to the clarity of Die Milch’s creative vision.
Support Scarlett Young, whose singing and dancing won her the title ‘UK Kawaii Star for HYPER JAPAN,’ gave an energetic performance. Indeed, it’s difficult to believe that so much kawaii can fit into one person. Though her syrupy, unironic cuteness seemed a little incongruous to Die Milch’s gothic tones and complex musicality, there can be no doubt that her programme of J-Pop favourites was a crowd-pleaser for the Japanophile audience. Young’s choreography was tight and her vocals strong but I felt that her reliance on karaoke style backing tracks held back her obvious musicality – though this is probably less of an issue on the convention stage, which is where she usually performs. I would be interested to see how she fares with a live band.
Promoted by the music journalism website and J-Pop club night J-Pop Go, the evening was a thoroughly enjoyable celebration of Japanese music and the Lolita community in London and beyond.
You can get yourself a copy of Die Milch’s latest album IMPERIAL here.