Monday, April 11, 2016

album review: 'metal resistance' by babymetal

Have to be honest, even I am surprised that I'm covering this band, a group that blew up on the Internet and in their native country of Japan a few years back but only now are seeing a real explosion on this side of the Pacific, bound with all of the controversy that one would expect fusing idol j-pop with a hodgepodge of extreme metal.

And really, there shouldn't be a controversy about this. I heard about Babymetal around the time of their debut and really was not all that surprised or impressed by the novelty of the concept. Oh look, a bunch of cute j-pop singers in front of what otherwise would be synth-driven DDR music except with a full metal backing band - cute concept, but on my first few listens that's all it seemed to be: a bit of a gimmick, and not even a new one. Let's face it, as much as some hardcore metalheads will refuse to admit it, heavy metal can work in a pop-leaning context. As much people tend to dump on hair metal or nu metal, both genres have their standouts that can work, and I've always thought symphonic metal with a solid hook can play in the same arena, if only because their power ballads are on a different level compared to most. Hell, I don't even need to point to Nightwish or Within Temptation or - God help us - Evanescence for proof of that, Disturbed is now notching their biggest ever hit on the Hot 100 with a cover of 'The Sound Of Silence'. Now I'll concede the more extreme metal genres have always been a bit different, but I've also heard enough Devin Townsend to know if the melodic hook is strong enough, you can win over most audiences - it's not like the riffs are that much more abrasive than modern EDM synths or a dubstep breakdown.

As such, my issues with Babymetal have always been a little different, because as much as I dig a lot of the heavier riffs fused with pop hooks, there are real problems with that debut album. For one, many of the songs did try to do too much, including genre fusions of hip-hop, reggae, and dubstep that did not fit whatsoever. A more glaring problem came in the lyrics - I get that most people aren't going to bother translating them, but they do come across as a tad too cute to really mesh all the way with a metal sound, which didn't help dispel the image of the band being a gimmick. That said, when I heard their sophomore record was taking things a little more seriously with more cohesion, I figured this was probably worth my time: was I right?

 Here's the thing: if there's anything that Metal Resistance does that I do appreciate immensely, it's that it clarifies what niche Babymetal can occupy without sounding like a complete gimmick. That said, even though I'd argue this record is more cohesive, very slightly more mature, and ultimately a better record than their self-titled debut, I reckon to many fans it won't quite play that way because it does come across as a little less surprising. But this record, more than ever, convinced me that Babymetal might have more staying power than people think, especially if they play to their strengths.

So what are those strengths? Well, obviously a big part of it is the three girls - immediately distinctive voices that are given plenty of room to breathe in the mix and yet who have enough strident charisma to play in contrast to the pummeling riffs, explosive drumwork, and howling array of synths around them. And while they still play a little to the cuteness overload factor, one thing you do notice is that they can indeed play to a more serious or even aggressive metal backdrop without sounding out of place, either on the atmospheric and really quite gorgeous 'From Dusk Till Dawn' or the symphonic power ballad of 'No Rain, No Rainbow' to the Viking metal-esque stomp of 'Meta Taro', even if the hook does remind me a bit of a nursery rhyme cadence. 

Now one thing you'll notice deeper in the track listing that there are the occasional track in English, where you do get the sense it's a foreign language for the girls in terms of cadence but if often lands fine enough. But that also means the big excuse for avoiding conversation about the lyrics is slipping away, so let's talk about them. And honestly, they fall into a two sets: the defiantly cute, borderline plastic j-pop side; and the greater embrace of metal cliches where you could argue the girls' presence alone does plenty to redeem them. And they score hits and misses in both categories: on the one hand we have 'Awadama Fever', which is literally a song about bubblegum that seems to bend space and time and has one of the best hooks on the album, but the song right after that seems to play into being overwhelmed by so many choices and it doesn't really fit as well with their personas. And yet on the flip side, when you get a song like 'Sis. Anger' blasting all varieties of boys who can't measure up, the obnoxiousness doesn't exactly play to anyone's strengths. I honestly preferred more of the 'cliche metal' tracks in terms of content, mostly because of the way Babymetal frames the message of how it's okay and a ton of fun to find yourself and grow up through metal, presenting it as a unifying force that's all amounts of awesome and powerful. And since I know I'm a complete sucker for this sort of cheesiness, it tends to connect more often than not and it immediately solidified the best direction for Babymetal in the future: they're a power metal act, hands down. Maybe digging into some symphonic touches or progressive synths and electronics, but when this record soars on its best tracks, it does so in that genre, and it plays well to the pop sensibility in the melodies.

And it's frustrating that I'm not sure the band has completely grasped that yet. Now don't get me wrong, Babymetal has mostly toned down the wild instrumental shifts that hurt their debut in terms of writing more cohesive songs... somewhat. It doesn't stop the shifts from track to track, where after an opener that might as well be a cover of a pretty good Dragonforce song - mostly because there are two Dragonforce members on that song - it shifts gears into a darker, more groove-driven track with compressed, crunching riffs that feel like something out of a recent Lacuna Coil album, or maybe Rammstein. Follow that with a blast of scratchy electronics opening their third song that might as well have come from a Primal Scream track and you'd think cohesion was completely gone, but this record does settle itself, especially when the great solos - guitar and bass - and huge drums are allowed to get some space and support good hooks, especially if the production is spacious enough. Furthermore, it also gives Babymetal the chance to tackle experimentation in a way that can still fit within a pop framework, like the Viking metal-inspired 'Meta Talo' or the more ethereal 'From Dusk Till Dawn'... but the distinction here comes in letting the melodies have room to breathe, or at least balance against the riffs, which on tracks like 'YAVA!' or 'GJ!' or 'Sis. Anger' feel so overmixed with glitchy electronics and synth that any actual melody is suffocated at the very back. And that's before we get the ten-car pileup that is 'Tales Of The Destinies', where I can appreciate a stab at more technical, progressive song structures, but between the swing piano and organ interludes and multiple time signature changes, plus an attempt to ram three distinct hooks through it, feels a little overstuffed for its own good. Nifty idea, but I'm not sure Babymetal can believably pull this off, or that it plays to their strengths.

Because here's the thing: you could argue that Metal Resistance is a bit of a transitional record as the group begins to mature and craft a musical identity that's more than just a gimmick, but I'd prefer to describe it as experimental. More than ever I get the feeling that Babymetal have settled into an idea of how their formula can work, and as the group grows up and matures, they'll find the metal sounds and textures that work best for their pop style and brand of writing. And yet at the same time, they've got a workable formula that's only gotten more refined, and I have no qualms calling this a very good record, getting a solid 7/10 from me. Yeah, the label might have put them together, but they're sticking the landing, and if we get good music out of it, I'm not going to complain.

No comments:

Post a Comment