BABYMETAL juggles more genres on ‘METAL GALAXY’

Monday, October 21, 2019 - 4:44pm

BABYMETAL

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When I first volunteered to write about METAL GALAXY, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had a vague memory of BABYMETAL as a band with some sort of gimmick. My editor said it was right up my alley, which upon first listening to “Chocolate,” I understood that to mean BABYMETAL was in line with my taste for weird and unique. Later I would remember where I first heard the band: My JPop-superfan cousins were showing me videos of them performing on YouTube back in 2012. BABYMETAL might be kind of a meme, but their staying power is beyond any gimmick.

Somewhere at the intersection of anime and Death Grips, BABYMETAL has amassed an enormous international following for their hardcore-cute JPop-metal fusion. Its members, Su-Metal and Moa-Metal, are pulled straight from the Japanese idol industry, which reflects in the band’s focus on performance and theatrics. The core members sing and dance and scream at their shows, while a group of backing musicians (called Kami Band) provide the heavy metal instrumentation.

The band’s idol industry roots are crystal clear in their sound. Something to get comfortable with to properly enjoy this record is that most of the music sounds like it was concocted by record company executives spitballing ideas at a round table meeting. For “Shanti Shanti Shanti,” the men in suits said, “BABYMETAL, but make it ‘Aladdin.’” For “OH! Majinai,” they said the same, but fantasy-renaissance. This is a natural extension of how the band came to be in the first place — somebody said “Baby, but make it metal,” and now here we are.

While BABYMETAL’s existence is itself a left hook, the tracklist on METAL GALAXY rolls out surprise punch after surprise punch. The guests are unexpected and brilliant. Japanese music legend Tak Matsumoto plays guitar on “DA DA DANCE.” Tim Henson and Scott LePage of Polyphia fame help compose “Brand New Day.” Thai rapper F.Hero spits a verse on “PA PA YA!!” Sweden has multiple footprints on the album: Joakim Brodén, vocalist of Swedish power metal band Sabaton, singing and screaming on “OH! Majinai,” and Alissa White-Gluz, vocalist of Swedish death metal band Arch Enemy, growling on “Distortion.” Despite these features, nothing can eclipse the bizarre power of bubblegum vocals over aggressive heavy metal, so every track remains distinctly BABYMETAL.

Other than the novel JPop-metal mix, it’s hard to pinpoint what is distinctly BABYMETAL; they skillfully juggle so many different sounds in their music. “Da Da Dance” manages to smuggle a bit of electropop into the album. “Arkadia” oozes with Dragonforce energy. While “Elevator Girl,” “Shanti Shanti Shanti” and “OH! Majinai” are clearly contrived to have a certain aesthetic (just like everything about BABYMETAL), it all still kinda bangs.

All the global fame that BABYMETAL capitalizes on with their international sounds, however, complicates the issue of Western influence on Asian media. The current media talk about American studios altering their content to get through Chinese censorship makes me wonder how much Asian media producers are coloring their material to be Western-friendly. “Elevator Girl,” sung entirely in English, is a clear appeal to a Western audience. I can’t speak to the songwriting on the rest of METAL GALAXY — I can’t understand it — but based on the lyrics to “Elevator Girl,” I think I prefer to keep things a mystery. And yet, the track has been integral to the band’s international promotion, coinciding with the announcement of their most recent world tour.

For the purpose of providing tracks to perform live, METAL GALAXY is a great addition to BABYMETAL. While the band has an enormously talented support system — the backing band’s instrumentation is often skillful and flashy, and the guests are highly accomplished — the joy of BABYMETAL is in their music videos and live performances. More than anything else, listening to METAL GALAXY has had me on the lookout for BABYMETAL’s next stop in Detroit.