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J-Power: Will Americans Accept Aldious?

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Aldious seem to have “it,” the quality which pushes musicians past gimmickry. That badge is either innate or the quintet worked like hell for the award, but “it” is definitely pinned upon them. This quantum element is best observed by the promo video for “Spirit Black,” a track culled from the Osaka outfit’s 2011 release Determination. In the teaser, plenty of shots reach past scripted artifice, when all players look possessed by the energy of perfectly pitched and played power metal riffs. Close your eyes and the song itself is decent, able to present a concise case that modern metal will survive within this hybrid mecha, with armor crafted from pomp-y Euro heaviness, push-button NOS blasts of speed, and ferocious melo lines circulating antifreeze. Be that as it may, it’s Spirit Black‘s visual that truly sells “it.” There you catch the contagious-like-a-yawn joy creeping behind metal facial expressions, the close-ups of hands with the raised-veins of masters nailing nearly impossible patterns, and the undeniable expulsion of force emanating from skilled equals colliding at full speed. More simply, “it.” And, that two-letter qualifier will soon become an important modifier: Because, at first blush, American metalheads with blinders might only see Aldious as an all-female metal band, tinged with J-pop (Japanese Pop), dressed to the ballroom nines.

We Westerners have a right to be wary. For the obsessively nerdy metallum addict, the introduction to the unification of highly-stylized J-pop aesthetics with our favored art came courtesy of BABYMETAL, the “idol group” three-piece which used incongruity like a power plant does plutonium. In the ALL CAPS iteration, Chipmunks close-harmonies were punctuated by deathcore bork fests; a familiar two-finger response to riff density got rebooted as the sanitized “fox sign;” and charmingly polite line-dance posing accented downtuned pounding. It looked ridiculous, a possible Mr. Show sketch with the Bob & David preface edited out. Worse, it openly lampooned metal culture, making Dio’s disciples out to be nothing more than animals a pop safari could readily mock.

As first impressions go, BABYMETAL didn’t exactly build a bridge. While the failure was deserved, the collateral damage was a shame since the spit takes and involuntary recoiling common in most Western reactions might’ve accidentally slammed the door on Aldious and their like-minded peers. Yep, that’s right, peers. Aldious isn’t an anomaly. They swish couture frocks with a suddenly crowded field of matching companions. There’s Cyntia, Galmet, Destrose, Mary’s Blood, DOLL$BOXX, Gacharic Spin, and plenty others popping up in new releases lists every week, all offering a slightly different formula for the ultimate heaven/hell genre balance. The base metal bond may change in the space between the choruses (for example, Galmet, while no Shadow, leans harder on melodeath), nevertheless the general equation remains the same: One strike of metal lightning plus J-pop hooks plus J-pop looks equals a canny synthesis currently getting play on Japan’s Oricon pop charts.

That’s right, this stream is carving out valleys. But, what’s astounding is that when compared to the crass kiddie laughs of BABYMETAL or whatever “false” feculence farts up our Billboards, the metal variable in the sum above sounds, well, legit. Some of this is ability based: Aldious’s hands and feet can fly at speeds matching a Stratovarius LP spun like a 45. Some of this is respect for the form: Aldious’s eyes are clear, rarely winking. Though, really, why would they? Japan has long held metal in high regard, providing a sanctuary for bands the West sloughs off during the cyclical true metal dark times. Add in that native rockers like Loudness have carried the torch for just as long, if not longer, than their across-the-seas counterparts and the success appears less weird from their side. These days, the Japanese scene mirrors other metal-friendly locales such as Finland and Germany, places that move serious units of bombastic content with a frequency rarely seen in America. And, they’ve operated under that distinction for long enough to cycle through quite a few permutations. So, domestically, 30-odd years after Show-Ya, the exoticism of a stand-out, all-female Asian band has worn off, providing an unprejudiced stage for Aldious to showcase their stuff. Couple this with the international recognition of Japan’s fertile creative spirit and you may just start readying yourself for a new fad to come ashore.

So, consider the question pan-handled, then: Why aren’t we, the curious, High Fidelity American music dorks, gobbling this stuff up with the same gulping swallows as Sigh, Boris, or a thousand others? Hey, the tale of the tape is convincing. Aldious’s end product, in most respects, fits the bill for underground U.S. metal appreciation: it’s obscure, unique, and doesn’t musically denigrate held-strong virtues. With that in mind, one could trick themselves into thinking this as-yet unnamed subset, which we’ll now knight as J-power, could burn like crazy. However, although it certainly has an itty-bitty fanbase already, it’s not the propane tank you’d expect despite exceeding benchmarks and striking the it match. In fact, the general response has boarded on the hush reserved for the Helloween-y/Galneryus fromage Aldious adoringly reinterprets, the kind of sound people know yet rarely feel compelled to discuss. Not that this is much of a shock. No, the present intentional radio-silence will, unfortunately, continue to hold as long as J-power sets up a two-pin split Americans typically don’t care to bowl down.

Pin 1: Aldious dodges the DIY sensibilities ingrained in cult American metal culture, doing the majority of their word-spreading through the mouthpiece of the record company machine. They have videos, sponsors, supported tours; basically the moral-kryptonite and silver spoon to those trying to schedule basement dates around workdays. If this wasn’t enough to breed purebred cynicism, Aldious’s lyrical content too often boarders on positive pop tropes of self-empowerment and the dizzy spiral of new love. (You’ll notice Spirit Black begins with I’ll shine on with hope, not exactly the most metal-accepted philosophy unless you moonlight in a youth crew.) Since underground metal is a reaction against the mainstream, these populist, every-person motifs are a damn tough sell post The Sunset Strips’ hairspray days.

With that subterranean tunnel blocked, Aldious can only gain U.S. support by shooting through the pop chute. Problem: the above-ground isn’t stabilized to support them. The J-pop element of J-power is too up-front, pushing listeners into an uncanny deep-end before they can properly acclimate. Over the last few years, K-Pop (Korean Pop) has made in-roads into the American national consciousness, providing something of a frame of reference for the once-bewildering clatter. In contrast, J-pop is still largely unexplored by mainstream critics who filter information down to tastemaker readers. Therefore, the major chord dalliances with velcro K.I.S.S. hooks familiar to Japanese audiences could confuse first-time tourists. Plus, that goes double for J-power’s fashion-sense and web presence, both of which are concessions to and counters against the idol group dogma that shat out things such as BABYMETAL. In the end, there’s a ton of history mapping those choices, so it’s quite hard to spy the subtext since we’re just not fluent in the cultural intricacies. Think of it this way: Aldious comes without a set of instructions, like going to a football game and being flummoxed by seemingly-random outbursts of cheering. It’ll take some study to internalize motives, to conceptualize, and work/patience isn’t exactly this era of music-buyer’s strong suit. Especially when a larger, more radical circumvention of long-held gender roles needs to take place.

Pin 2: That’s the keystone that keeps falling out: Aldious don’t really fit into the male-created ideals of what a female metalhead should be, or, more damningly, what a metalhead should be. Aldious don’t pout with abridged passivity, instead they shred runs with aplomb and do so with acres of skin and suggestive flirtations. Then, further muddling things, there’s the attire, cut to suggest a post-modern Gaga-esque MOMA élan rather than come-hither boudoir method acting. Combined–the sporty instrument acuity with the Aphroditian allure–their sexuality ends up as kind of ambiguous. They’re neither real dolls or leather-bedecked wolves in sheep’s clothing; neither consumers, consumables, or curios. They sit somewhere in between, complicated if not complex, different if not subversive. Thus, it’s not clear whether the black and white vision of the aforementioned peripheral-lacking metalheads will be able to deal with such a comparably abstract shade. It’s why, initially, women decked-out in En Vogue duds while still consistently hitting the bullseye on the power metal board is bizarre. It sits outside what we consider to be normal: Women playing metal like contradictory “real” people instead of connect-the-dot generalizations.

Noted, that last point is playing with fire while wearing a gas-soaked suit. Where one sees progression, others may be bombarded by yet more omnipresent irritating ideals of oppression. (For instance, punks and other acolytes of styles with crumbling male-centric views, will think this entire discussion was transcribed from a cave wall.) After all, confirmation bias gets a green-light to run rampant with this sort of stuff: Art’s meaning is amorphous, therefore all art has the capacity to confirm. Even so, the point may still be worth discussing. Gender politics is the hot potato in the mitts of the 800-pound American metal gorilla. It’s getting better—more women are being admitted to the boy’s club. But, these women are still required to contort into forms guided by guy-supplied rules. Even then, they’re usually disparaged by “positive” descriptors chosen by men. (“You can’t tell!” or “She plays like a guy!” are particularly odious compliments, turning gender into a side-show attraction.) It’s discouraging, that to succeed, to be considered “normal,” means you still have to play like a dude, look like a dude, become a dude, or get dudes to like you. If Aldious could only get a foothold, it might spur on a shift. Of course, that would require us keeping focus: Aldious’s “it” is enticing. It’ll be nice when the surrounding factors fail to be.

Your turn: Is this an issue? Is this just another limp admonishing from a white male music writer acting as the armchair savior? What say you?

— Ian Chainey

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