Style: Kawaii Metal
Release Date: 8 Oct 2019
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It's rare that when a band conjures its genre out of thin air, it's actually more accurate that anything else we can come up with. Case in point: Japan's imaginative export du jour, Babymetal, who call themselves "kawaii metal". I honestly can't come up with anything better, especially on this, their third album, because it's all over the musical map.
At heart, as you probably know by now, it's heavy metal meets Jpop, a weird combination but at times a very good one. However, this album aims to mimic their journey bringing kawaii metal to all corners of the earth by bringing local music into their own, so it's often a sort of folk metal, as indeed a favourite song like their debut single, Megitsune, kind of was. When this is successful, it's fascinating. When it isn't, on the other hand, it's pretty awful and that's why I have to give it only a 6/10 rating.
It's hard to come up with any defining logic around which songs succeed and which don't, except that the worst heavily feature autotune and the best are the most international in flavour. I wouldn't have expected Pa Pa Ya!! to be one of my favourites, given that it features Thai rapper F. Hero, but it's a wonderful song. Once again, it's unlikely genres merging in a way that works but I can't explain why.
Shanti Shanti Shanti is easily my choice for the best song on the album. It delves into Indian music enough that it sounds like it began as a Bollywood song, but it leaps into both metal crunch and pop cuteness, mixing all three elements well. The middle features traditional Japanese melodies over Indian drums. I'd absolutely watch the Bollywood movie this came from.
Oh! Majinai does the same with what sounds like half Russian and half Celtic music. The guest vocalist is Joakim Brodén, the voice of Swedish power metal band Sabaton and he drives much of the song. It could be more than it is but it's still a lot of fun, much of it in the vocal shenanigans.
These two remind that, for all the power the musicians generate behind them, Babymetal are a vocal band. Many of the songs here are pop songs with added crunch. Da Da Dance is a rave with guitars, like a kawaii Rob Zombie. Rarely do the songs seem to start out as metal but add pop vocals. Elevator Girl is certainly one and it works a little better for it. At points, the guitars seem to make the singers go faster.
What surprises the most is how varied those vocals get, even if we focus on the Japanese girls rather than the guests. BxMxC is really interesting with its chiptune voice effects and other vocal acrobatics. Sadly, it utilises a lot of autotune, which makes the whole thing sound artificial and false. It became really hard to not skip songs like Brand New Day and ↑↓←→BBAB when listening through again. The former features Tim Henson and Scott LePage of American math rockers Polyphia and serves mostly as a reason not to look at what they sound like normally.
How the whole album doesn't end up as an unholy mess, I have no idea. To me, some of it does. Brand New Day, for example, is an overproduced mess that I just can't stand. Future Metal is nothing but an intro with autotune. Fasten your neckbrace, it tells us, before taking us into a rave with Da Da Dance. Sometimes it works, like In the Name Of, which is choral until the Brazilian steel drums take over in time for the ethnic death growls. I have zero idea where this ends up. Which parallel universe am I in?
Night Night Burn! is the epitome of this. It starts out as electronica meets neo-classical metal and stays that way until it doesn't. Cuban rhythms play behind staccato nu metal riffage before leaping onto centre stage. Was that the James Bond theme in there? It's all over the musical map but, again, it's immersive and enticing and fascinating.
I either really liked or really disliked the first dozen songs but was never bored for a second. The biggest problem the album has isn't that it fails to be all things for all people but because it forgets what it is. After those dozen songs, there are four more but they're instantly forgettable because a key element, that wild and insane imagination, is missing from them all.
I won't diss them because I went back later and listened only to those four songs, finding that they're decent enough on their own merits. The girls go extra cute on Shine and Arkadia is a solid melodic death metal song of the sort that Abba might have made had they formed a quarter of a century later in Gothenburg. It's just that they should have been issued as a separate EP rather than buried under a dozen wild and varied musical explorations.
What's especially interesting is that my son, who saw them live a couple of weeks ago, roughly agreed with my takes but didn't match entirely. There are songs that I didn't like at all that pushed the right buttons for him. And I think that's the key here. You're not likely to enjoy everything here but it has enough tracks that deleting the half you don't still leaves half an hour of stuff that you dig and which you absolutely won't hear anywhere else.