Thursday, October 17, 2019

album review: 'METAL GALAXY' by BABYMETAL

So I'll be very honest: I find it really hard to gauge how much cultural weight BABYMETAL have. Part of this comes from the very real distance I have from j-pop as a genre, but part of it is also linked to the lingering feeling that despite BABYMETAL's easily recognized brand, I'm not sure how many people outside the cult fanbase have embraced more than just the meme of their existence.

And if all of that seems unfair... well, yeah, it completely is, and this is speaking as someone who liked both of BABYMETAL's previous albums beyond the meme. I've always been convinced that a metal sound can work with a pop-context, and on Metal Resistance the group might not have surprised audiences in the same way with a little more care and restraint in their genre fusion, but the songs were tighter and better composed, and while the project was transitional, it also reflected the core of a pretty decent power metal band at their core. And sure, all of it was a little ridiculous, but I hoped as the girls at the core grew up and stayed with the genre while maintaining enough of a pop touch, they could play in the same territory an act like Poppy is exploring so much now. So even with the departure of Yuimetal, one of their lead singers, I really wanted to like Metal Galaxy - did they deliver?

Okay, so remember when I said that Metal Resistance was really framed as a transitional album that touched into other genres but also showed the band starting to drill into a formula that works that was probably close to the poppier side of power metal, and that likely would demand more focus. Yeah, only a few listens to METAL GALAXY seems to show BABYMETAL hearing that advice and deciding to go in the exact opposite direction, with a sound that is all the more scattered and diffuse, spanning even more genres! And I wish I could tell you it was the sort of glorious of mess that somehow strikes gold every time... but sadly the problems with METAL GALAXY run deeper than that, into a lot of issues plaguing the current wave of pivots towards electronic experimentation and a bad focus on chugging riffs than actual tune - which you'd think for a j-pop/metal fusion would be the last thing they want to compromise, but here we are.

In fact, let's start there, because it's indicative of a huge, fundamental flaw with BABYMETAL's approach to this project: if this is reportedly a loose concept album showing the band exploring the stars and taking in all the sounds of the universe, maybe it seems a little tired to default to the same down-tuned chugging that places rhythm guitar riffs over your main melody that runs rampant in metal right now? I get that pop, even in metal, has a questionable responsibility to sound 'of the times', but for a band that likes to pride itself on quirk and huge sticky hooks, this seems like two huge steps back, especially when you can hear the lead guitar... just shoved midway to the back so it can't compliment the vocals consistently. And I'd argue this is all the more important with the departure of Yuimetal, because the harmonies lose some of that added colour she brought and thus that sort of compliment would be a great thing! Now some of this might be explained by an expansion and shift of their backing band to crank up that wall of sound - on the most colourful cuts like the Dragonforce pastiche 'Arkadia', the album closer and by far the best song here simply because it allows the band to cut loose and shred - but again, there's been a stylistic pivot that doesn't cater to BABYMETAL's strengths nor solve the band's lingering issues. As I mentioned before, electronic elements are crowbarred in with little cohesion and on cuts like 'Brand New Day' sound imported from a Zedd retread, or the spongy synths rammed across the overmixed 'Distortion' - and that's not counting we get the jingling trap hi-hat skitters on the opening track 'FUTURE METAL' or running through the weirdly muddy mixing on 'Kagerou' - they're almost distracting enough from the blatant kickdrum triggers smuggled in when they think I'm not listening. 

And of course, I have to bring up the genre experiments... and remember when Nightwish put out Dark Passion Play in 2007 and the entire midsection of that album shows the band venturing into different tones and progressions that clearly have their roots in other places worldwide and it sounded kind of awkward? Yeah, it's about the same case here - all the more exasperating because the Indian melodies and textured running through 'Shanti Shanti Shanti' are some of the more distinctive on the album! Certainly preferable to the utterly absurd sounding Latin synth horns on 'Night Night Burn!', or what I can only describe as polka metal on 'Oh! MAJINAI' complete with accordions and Joakim Broden from Sabaton doing an extended Cookie Monster impression - I think it's trying to be pirate metal, but compared to the stab at Viking metal on Metal Resistance, this is painfully goofy and more than a little embarrassing. Again, it leaves me wondering why the hell BABYMETAL weren't doubling down on the tones that consistently worked for them - for instance, we have 'IN THE NAME OF' that pushes the girls out of the picture entirely for underwhelming growls and a symphonic vibe that never seems to pay off well. And here's the utterly exasperating thing: when BABYMETAL gets out of their own damn way and makes the overblown DDR metal that's been their hallmark, there are good moments - it's one reason I'm more forgiving to the hip-hop flourishes like the rap cadence on the second verse of 'DA DA DANCE' or Thai rapper F.Hero's verse on 'PA PA YA!', or why the final three songs on the album playing as more of an exultant, multi-part suite to close off the adventure actually clicks decently well - even if the groaning down-tuned breakdown on 'Starlight' sounds ugly as hell. 

And here's the other problem: while BABYMETAL has never had great lyrics, they somehow feel even more disposable and forgettable than usual here - or in the case of their worldwide exploration, generally embarrassing as they try to bring up . Any pretense to a concept album goes out the window in record time and there's very little in the songwriting that implies much in the way of an arc from song to song - from what I could translate and the smatterings of English we get, most of this are vague affirmations of positivity in the face of a distorted, hostile universe. And yet I can't be the only one who can't help but compare this project to the more developed, self-contained flair of previous BABYMETAL projects and notice that not only has some of the humour disappeared, but the occasional splash of 'empowerment through metal' is gone too - and that was a key part of BABYMETAL's subversive appeal, that there was a universality in headbanging heaviness no matter who sung it, which leaves several of the songs here just feeling underwritten.

But as a whole... I've never dismissed BABYMETAL as just a gimmick or meme, but if there's an album that suggests that the evolving cultural intersection of j-pop, j-rock and metal might have passed them by, it is METAL GALAXY. Let's face it, as more Japanese rock and metal acts have seen cultural crossover in North America - and acts on this side of the water have sought to emulate the genre fusion - BABYMETAL has felt a little less special than when they took the internet by storm, and a lot about METAL GALAXY feels like a band grasping for ideas while neglecting the formula that broke them. In other words... yeah, they've unfortunately lost a lot of luster for me on this project, which is why I'm giving this a strong 5/10 and really just a recommendation for the fans, but I can see even them being underwhelmed by this. Not precisely a bad project, but absolutely their weakest and a sign that if they're traveling across the universe, they might want to be careful not to wind up lost in space.

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