Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Which I Talk Babymetal

I am about to say a lot about Babymetal, and about their concert I attended last night.

The Bizarre History of Babymetal

First, I want to give some insight into Babymetal, for those that are unfamiliar, which will give context to many of my thoughts on the show itself. Babymetal consists of three members, Su-Metal, Moa-Metal, and Yui-Metal (who I will refer to as Su, Moa, and Yui from here on, to make this easier). Originally, the group was an experimental extension of the Sakura Gakuin idol group. Sakura Gakuin is built around a school concept, with age 16 being graduation, and the end of their time in the group. They would then cycle out and be replaced. Babymetal was originally formed as a “heavy music club” in Sakura Gakuin’s school setting. During Babymetal’s first few years, this would carry through, and their first album, Babymetal reflected their roots as an idol group.

Their first album was primarily a J-Pop idol album with jarringly different music, mostly. It was different from traditional J-Pop, but not enough to alienate, instead expanding to reach more fans and influencing existing J-Pop fans to experience a different kind of music. All the while, the three founding members were still considered to be art of Sakura Gakuin, all the way until Yui and Moa’s “graduation” in 2015.

They were shockingly popular, both in Japan and abroad, and it quickly became clear they would survive as their own entity after Sakura Gakuin. And their second album, Metal Resistance, strongly reflected this change in attitude. Released after all three members had graduated from Sakura Gakuin, it is a musically different album, with stronger metal music, and a different vocal style to match it. They became a heavier band overall, moving away from their idol roots. This is also when they began to expand their story into a mythology.

I’m not going to try to explain the Babymetal mythology, because it’s written poorly in vague and sometimes silly terms, and makes almost no sense. It makes a nice setting for their unique style, while it can frequently induce some serious eye-rolls, but that’s fine for me. Su, Moa, and Yui are weird Metal Spirits doing the Fox God’s work, and because METAL everything is in weird semi-religious and apocalyptic terms. Because why not.

Anyway, each tour, and especially their large event concerts, become these weird concept performances, expanding and furthering the “storyline” of their mythology a little bit each time. Their last big performance in December was “Legend ‘S’ Baptism XX”, and signified something of an ending. It’s hard for me to watch, because Yui was really sick at the time, so it was the first performance without all three members. It didn’t look right without all three of them.

On April 1st, they released a cryptic as hell video expanding their mythos a little, and explaining absolutely nothing. It said there were the three members we new that were the “Light Side”, but a “Dark Side” exists consisting of the Chosen Seven, seven metal spirits blah blah blah. Fans didn’t know what to make of this. Some believed that the Chosen Seven were just the existing three members and the four members of the Kami Band, the musicians backing them, though the video ended with ten hooded figures, strongly implying that there would just be seven more people added in some capacity. I assumed it would be like a second group, but wasn’t sure at all.

The day the 2018 world tour started, an in-universe cryptic post was made on Twitter saying that you never know when, or who, of the Chosen Seven will show up. Also, a surprise music video was dropped for a new song, and the video, while clearing using Su for vocals, showed only the new Chosen Seven in weird fantastical costumes. I still don’t really know what any of them look like. What most clearly set this new aspect of Babymetal apart from its Sakura Gakuin origins is the fact that several of the Chosen Seven are male. Sakura Gakuin is a girl group, and thus so was Babymetal. With these additions, that’s no longer the case.

When the world tour began, the weird post was reflected on stage, as the stage lineup was notably different than expected. Su and Moa were present, as well as two other, new people, members of the Chosen Seven. Yui was notable absent. For fans of the band as a band and not followers of the bizarre storyline, this was jarring and met with controversy. This was not helped by the fact that nothing was ever said online about where Yui was. Finally, the management company replied to a press inquiry (days later) that Yui was not on this US tour but still a member, and that this was part of a “new narrative.”

And this is the show that I went to last night.

The Show

Next time I spring for VIP seating, for a couple of reasons. Since this was general admission, it was kind of every man for himself as far as seating goes, with the VIP seating being better yet reserved. We finished eating a little later than the line would want us to, so we did not get optimal seats. This means that a very tall and wide fellow was sitting in front of me. I could see okay when he was sitting, but I knew if he stood then I would have to just go somewhere else. As the Babymetal set began, some lady in the middle seats in front of us decided she wanted to stand for the whole set, blocking his view. So he stood up, the guy next to him stood up, and I went and stood behind someone else’s seat so I could see the stage at all.

Also, a Babymetal concert is an experience of sorts. I was at the back, with a wall behind me, after I moved. I want to get VIP seats not just for a better and clearer view of the stage, but also so I can be in the middle instead of behind. Being among the screaming people makes it easier to be one of them.

The floor was jammed. I didn’t want to go there because I am not cut out for a mosh pit, and didn’t want to be even near it. As the show progressed, I saw that the floor was a very… intimate setting. I would have gotten super claustrophobic. And yes, there was an active mosh pit, with bodysurfing as well.

The set started with essentially all the cryptic Chosen Seven text from the video and tweet being narrated as it was projected onto a screen. Then the screen dropped and there was Babymetal. Su and Moa in the center with two as yet unnamed members of the Chosen Seven, one male and one female, flanking them behind the Kami Band.

The first thing setting this new era of Babymetal apart is the way they dressed. Gone was Moa's iconic cutesy dress and pigtails. Now they wore these weird headdress things, with Moa's hair being worn long underneath. The Chosen were entirely dancers, not having microphones at all. Su, Yui, and Moa are always mic’ed up, and Yui and Moa have several songs that are theirs alone, with Su taking a break off-stage for those.

I was curious how that would be handled with Yui absent. In December’s Baptism show, Su and Moa performed as they normally would, and when Yui’s parts came up, they basically pretended she was there, letting the track playing underneath handle her vocals and not covering her dance parts at all. She was just visibly absent. For this show, the Chosen filled in much of the dancing, expanding it in some ways. Of the entire set, only two songs were played that directly involved Yui as an individual, sort of, and they were handled… oddly?

GJ! Is one of my favorite Babymetal songs. The vocals are entirely Yui and Moa singing in unison, though, so Moa just sang while the Chosen accompanied the dance. This prevented the super awkward scene of Moa dancing alone on stage, which is what happened in December. GJ! worked very well.

Gimme Chocolate, though, felt wrong. This is a song that the girls have clear and distinct parts for on stage, each with a vocal bit. For this stage version, Moa just handled both, which looked odd with her doing them in rapid succession. It looked like she was trying to make up for Yui’s absence rather than fitting seamlessly. But Gimme Chocolate is their breakaway/gateway hit, and they have to play it. At least 30% of the people in the audience have only heard that one song. They have to do it. So they did.

There are many more songs that are purely Yui and Moa, or where they have distinct parts. These were wisely not included in the set. GJ! worked because it is a unison song and not split into clear parts. Gimme Chocolate did not work because it is not.

That said, the Chosen were so into this, and their joy and energy was clearly reflected by Moa. It’s hard to read Su, because she is the lead, and is thus separate. What dance parts she has are half-versions of what Yui and Moa do, or her own thing while they do something more active. The Chosen were mostly mirroring Moa’s dance, and they were having so much fun it was infectious. Professional smiles are a thing, and I get it, but then there’s the smile the female Chosen had during Gimme Chocolate that could not have been faked. I never had a clear view of the male.

The first three songs in the set were new. The first was Distortion, the one they released last week as a single, so I at least was familiar with that. The others are entirely new, from the as-yet unreleased new album (which I would later learn are called Elevator Girl and Tattoo). This was odd. Debuting new songs at a loud concert always seems wasteful to me, and this was no exception, if worse. First, it’s in Japanese, so it’s not like I was catching any of those lyrics anyway. I just get to experience how the syllables sound with the music. Of course, the music is metal music, and loud. I was unable to choose a specific avenue to follow, the music or the dance, and thus recall very little of either. Elevator Girl was a full group song, and it seemed like Moa had a significant vocal part, which was good to see. Tattoo was a Su-Metal solo song, and I generally don’t like those. This was less of a ballad, so it was more engaging.

Speaking of Su solos, she performed Akatsuki, which I generally dislike, at least partially because Moa is my bias and when she’s not on stage, everything is less fun. But instead of it just being Su on stage while Yui and Moa take a break, the Chosen danced as well, and this filled a notable gap in the song nicely. It allowed them to display their own skill, and is way better than just Su running with flames shooting in the air. I still don’t like the song, but this was a much better version than before.

I’m not going to go into every song, so I’ll just end it with this. The last song of the set was The One. In the many concert videos I’ve seen, this is reminiscent of a religious revival. The people are super into it, despite it being a ballad, and it feels like Su is leading her constituency rather than just performing. In person, it is eery how much it feels like that. I don’t much like this song, so I was not as drawn into the crowd response as I was for many of the previous songs, so I was able to observe how creepy it was. Looking at it from that vantage, Babymetal fandom feels less like a fandom and more like a cult. It’s creepy.

I am really looking forward to seeing the professionally filmed version of this concert. I own several of the previous ones and those are fascinating, as well as giving a much better view of the performers. With the Chosen not yet having names as far as I can tell, and them being so distant from where I was sitting, they are not yet actual entities to me. I’m looking forward to seeing their how they emote on stage in one of these videos. It was Moa’s facial expressions, her weird excitement and kinda flirty demeanor, that made her my particular bias, and I am curious to see the same of the new folk.

I’m also dying to see where they’re going with this expansion. Will Yui join them when they get to Europe? Will she replace Moa or just join them? Will they switch out the Chosen on stage between venues? I don’t think they have in the US tour so far. I suppose I’m really excited about the shows in Tokyo in October, because that’s where they go all out with production and might actually include the entire group. By then the new album should have been released and maybe the new Babymetal concept will be more clear.

Overall, I enjoyed the hell out of the show. Other people were irritating, and a couple of moments in the show felt wrong, but it was awesome to experience it, especially in such an intimate venue. Would see again (with better seats).

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