The 2015 Arsies: January 22, 2015

January 22, 2015 JaPaBo

Listen to today's competitors on Spotify

And so it is here. The contest I have most dreaded: Swedish death metal legend At the Gates's comeback album At War with Reality versus Japanese J-Pop/metal fusion dance unit Babymetal's self-titled debut. Both works were long-anticipated: At War with Reality is the first At the Gates release in nineteen years; Babymetal is the band's first full-length album but centers around tracks that had been previously released as singles or b-sides in Japan beginning in 2011. Both albums have been seriously hyped in the metal press, lavished with much spilled ink and internet traffic. And both have proven polarizing in the metal community, with critics divided over the follow-up to At the Gate's seminal Slaughter of the Soul and critics and fans alike at odds over whether Babymetal is even metal at all. The judgment of The Arsies, of course, doesn't account for any of this. Two albums enter, one album leaves. Nor is any of this anticipation, attention or division the source of my dread. I have wanted to avoid this day because I believe these albums are the two best releases of the year and thus loathe having to eliminate one of them in the first round. Still further, the comparison is complicated by the fact that each work succeeds in its own way and on its own terms, making the choice that much harder. But enough of my yakking... ladies first, so Babymetal are up.
Formed in 2010 as an offshoot of Amuse Inc.'s popular girls idol group Sakura Gakuin, Babymetal feature the surprisingly strong (for the idol genre) lead vocals of Suzuka Nakamoto ("Su-metal") and the dancing and backing vocals of Yui Mizuno ("Yuimetal") and Moa Kikuchi ("Moametal"), all of whom are in their mid-to-upper teens. The front three are supported by a number of different players and songwriters, most notably their live band, the Kami ("God") band, which includes some of Japan's best metal musicians, including Ohmura Takayoshi, who also plays guitar in Marty Friedman's solo band. The goal of the band's sound is to combine Japanese idol pop with heavy metal ("baby metal," get it?) in an effort to create a unique sound that is more than the sum of its genre inputs. Similar to Gwar, the group has a fictional back story, this one based on the Shinto god Inarinokami, who is often associated with the fox ("kitsune"), and thus is the source of Babymetal's corruption of the maloik sign to make it more fox-like in appearance. In the group's mythology, the Fox God has sent Babymetal to spark a "metal resistance" designed to destroy J-Pop and unite the world in metal. This back story serves as the inspiration for the lyrics of many of their songs (Megitsune (Female Fox), Iine (Like), and Babymetal Death), in which the male death growls appear to represent the Fox God speaking directly to the world. Other lyrical themes include age-appropriate topics such as liking chocolate but being worried about gaining weight (Gimme Chocolate), daughters' begging their fathers to buy things for them (Onedari Daisakusen (Begging Operation)), playing a Japanese version of hide-and-seek (Catch Me If You Can), the joy of head-banging (Hedobangya (Headbanger)), and fighting bullying (Ijime Dame Zettai (No More Bullying)), which is a major problem in Japan's schools. Musically, Babymetal not only achieve their goal of combining J-Pop melodies with a variety of metal genres, including most notably power metal but also death and even rap metal, they also manage to incorporate hip-hop, EDM, and Japanese folk elements. The most refreshing thing about Babymetal is their fearless playfulness: They combine genres previously thought incompatible with a playful touch (witness the rapid transition from a hip-hop interlude to a metalcore breakdown to traditional metal harmony guitar and then back to an EDM passage in Iine). This playfulness extends to their lyrics, which are filled with puns and joking references to metal and Japanese culture. When they play it more straightforwardly metal (Akatsuki (Crimson Moon), Babymetal come off sounding somewhat like X Japan but luckily avoid the bland sameness of lesser visual kei acts. Whether Babymetal are here to stay or just a flash in the pan remains to be seen, but it is a rare thing for a debut album to point metal in such a polished and shiny new direction.
At the Gates succeed far more than they fail in an effort to update their sound without straying too far from the template that defined Swedish death metal and influenced countless metalcore and death metal followers. Many critics have commented on how At War with Reality sounds like an amalgamation of the band's earlier albums and their classic fourth album Slaughter of the Soul, but I find newer elements that show the growth of the Bjorler brothers' song-writing since that latter album, in particularly the influence of Opeth (Heroes and Tombs) and of their own work in The Haunted, especially on that band's high point The Dead Eye ({The Book of Sand (The Abomination)}). Song lengths range from the two-and-a-half minute scorcher Death and the Labyrinth to five-and-a-half minute closer The Night Eternal. The leads are thoughtful, lyrical and entertaining throughout, meshing with each song and carrying it forward. Lyrically, At War with Reality is a concept album inspired by the magic realism literary genre, especially the works of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In practice, each song provides a surreal and abstract reference to major images and themes of this literature, such as labyrinths, mirrors, death and the doubting of normal conceptions of reality. Throughout, Tomas Lindberg's growl roils just on the edge of excessive harshness, reminding fans of his unique vocal presence. The brief yet haunting instrumental City of Mirrors sets up the listener for the explosive last quarter of the album. All the way to The Night Eternal, the riffs remain huge and the digressions interesting. This is easily my second favorite At the Gates release and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.
With both trepidation and optimism, I select Babymetal to advance. However campy or disjointed one may find their music, it is wild invention itself. And it is this kind of joyous energy that metal needs right now. Although I see At War with Reality as a major achievement, it marks the maturing of an already established (and excessively imitated) sound. So here's one for new directions. Oh, and, in the interest of full disclosure, JaPaBo resides in Japan and is completely in the tank for Babymetal!
Put your kitsune up!
Come back tonight, and Arse will preside over the brief but furious war between Bastard Feast and Origin!

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