Aside from the fact that they, for some inexplicable reason, have never done an anime theme song before, Babymetal doesn’t fit the usual prerequisites to be mentioned in a Jukebox post. They are most certainly yet another market scheme to make young males with questionable social skills buy a dozen different versions of the same CD single, and with their self-titled debut album skyrocketing up the charts faster than you can sacrifice a three-legged goat to the prince of darkness, they’re definitely not “indie” either. Yet Babymetal’s first album is a record that demands being written about, not because it’s particularly good, but because it is prime evidence of something so utterly ridiculous it defies any sort of conventional criticism. Listening to Babymetal is an experience rife with as much admiration and surprise as it is with pity and vicarious shame, but for some reason, even the staunchest and hairiest metalheads have a hard time hating these three girls.
In line with the decade old creed of the Japanese entertainment industry — you can sell anything as long as you make it cute — Babymetal was originally conceived of as a “sub-unit” of another bizarre idol group called Sakura Gakuin to be to metal what Momoiro Clover Z is to ADHD and Vocaloids are to the musical equivalent of DeviantArt. Overall not too wicked an idea, given the fact that metal is very likely the only music genre even nerdier and fuller of obsessive knobheads than idol pop is, but still a rather odd move in a world were fabricated cheerfulness and breezy pop songs are king. One that paid off considerably, however. Only a good four years after lead singer Suzuka Nakamoto and the seemingly-twins-but-not-really twerps that circle around her first exchanged their school uniforms for an ensemble of all black and red, Babymetal is already performing at the legendary Tokyo Budokan. Not too shabby for a group with the average age of fifteen.
Apparently though, the lyricists behind Babymetal think the girls to be even younger than that, if this debut is any indication. The first moment of cringeworthy hilarity comes at less than a minute into the album, when a choir of gruff vocals starts chanting “Babymetal dess” à la Dekomori from Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions. Luckily, the album only goes uphill after these six minutes (!) of repetitive agony, but the lyrics don’t. The entire album boasts the lyrical maturity of the average Chu2koi cast member, touching on such profound topics as getting out of bed (“Doki Doki Morning”), playing hide-and-seek (“Catch Me If You Can”), or acting cute so your dad will buy you stuff (“Onedari Daisakusen”). The band’s defining attempts to be as offensively metal as humanly possible clearly doesn’t extend to the lyrics, which serve as a nasty reminder of the fact that no matter how much these blast beats and drop-tuned guitars might remind you of Cannibal Corpse or whatever, you’re still listening to pre-teens yelping about how much they like chocolate because some guy in a cheap suit who hasn’t spoken to an actual teen girl in thirty years told them to.
The lyrics aren’t the only thing full of sugar rushed buffoonery, however. Most of the music on Babymetal is pot-and-kettle-clashing unstructured nonsense, too poppy to be metal, but too metal to be pop. This wouldn’t be such a problem if Babymetal weren’t so relentless. Because the record never calms down for quieter or simpler songs, or stops to catch some breath, any sense of pacing or structure is entirely lost. It’s like listening to Dragonforce and Slayer at the same time, and don’t be surprised if you never want to hear another blast beat again once you’re done with Babymetal. That doesn’t mean that the group’s entire back catalogue consists of derivative noise, however. In fact, the songs themselves are all rather different. The problem is that you cannot enjoy the large variety of influences Babymetal boasts, as every single second of every single song is stuffed to the brim with guitar flourishes, blast beats, weird samples, keyboards or backup singers Yui and Moa yelling something cute.
Continuous aural assault and horror vacui are nothing new in metal, but even the most chaotic arrangement have some sort of rhyme or reason, whereas most of the tracks on Babymetal shoot right back out of year ears as soon as they’re in. Nevertheless, there is something incredibly endearing about this group that sets it apart from the gazillion other idol groups sprouting up one after another. Be it the girls’ charismatic energy, the bombastic aesthetic, or simply the sheer insanity of it all, Babymetal is a phenomenon, and no matter how fake it may all be, the album does boast a very distinct sense of enthusiasm and levity, as evidenced by its wide variety of influences from all corners of the musical spectrum. “Uki Uki Midnight” shows that, for better or worse, dubstep and metal are a match made in heaven, “Ii ne?” pairs up heavy guitars with the sort of trance you’d find on a Dance Dance Revolution machine and “Catch Me If You Can”‘s mixture of industrial metal and drum-‘n-bass could almost be called endearing.
It is high points like these that save Babymetal from tiring you out with its incessant hyperactivity. Early singles “Headbanger”, “Ijime, Dame, Zettai” and especially “Doki Doki Morning” actually do manage to mash idol pop with heavy metal in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek manner. Only rarely do the catchy choruses and shredded guitars on Babymetal complement each other rather than being locked in a room and forced to sort something out, but when they do, the album gives rise to some standout guilty pleasures. Suzuka’s voice is enjoyably powerful and mature for her age, and the musicians frequently steal the show with their exceptional skills. Yet what I like the most about this album is the fact that, according to the credits at least, Yui and Moa even wrote and composed one of the songs all by themselves. While “4 no Uta” isn’t exactly a masterpiece, two fourteen-year-olds penning a wacky nu-metal reggae track with punny lyrics is something I can only admire — especially given the fact they knew nothing about metal when the band started out.
Even knowing that, the question whether or not Babymetal is “real” metal is entirely moot. While I will always prefer my music earnest and free of creepy implications regarding underaged performers, there is a sort of instantly likable charm to Babymetal, regardless of their music’s actual quality. It occupies the very borders of good taste, where genuine appreciation and “ironic” enjoyment of the silliness of it all sort of blends into one. While there are artists who could make a better crossover between catchy pop and all sorts of extreme metal with one hand on their back, the fact is that none of that really matters. Sure, it’s fake, but if everyone’s having fun, does that even matter? In many ways, Babymetal is like a good tokusatsu show. It may be fake, infantile, crazy, loud and specifically designed to plunder your wallet, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be some effort put into it.
Babymetal – “Babymetal”
℗ TOYBOX RECORDS
Available from iTunes
Verdict: The only group to mix idol pop with heavy metal may not exactly please the music snob in me, but I sure as hell am happy they even exist in the first place.