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Core Values #2 – Japanese Hardcore and Burning Spirits

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A few months ago, a friend hopped in my car carrying an unmarked burned CD.

“This is for you,” he said.

“Who is it?”

“Tet-soo Arr-ray.” He mangled the name. “They’re from Japan. they sound like Motörhead, but, like, not fucking around.”

That burned CD, the first album by Tetsu Arrey, did not leave my car stereo for a month. So began my swan dive into the reclusive world of Japanese hardcore.

Japan’s hardcore scene ages back to 1980, but the most notable bands from the land of the rising sun seldom get recognition the way their peers from Finland or Sweden do. Like an exotic species growing unique in isolation, Japanese hardcore began with foreign influences—most notably Discharge—and took the sound in radical directions. Even in the information age, learning about Japanese hardcore was a headache. The vast majority of written material is either in Japanese, or authored by people for whom English is a second language. My best sources for this article turned out to be the spoken testimony of peer music aficionados: ex-Disconnected bassist Mahlon Orrin, and members of Nightbringer. (Thanks guys!) What appears through the static is cryptic: band members with bizarre stage names, rumors of yakuza connections, and the term Burning Spirits.

Burning Spirits is a term given to the most popular collection of Japanese hardcore bands. Named after a series of venues, the Burning Spirits bands fused crust punk with the instrumental ferocity of ’80s speed metal and upbeat self-empowering lyrics. Moreso than other Discharge-loving bands, Burning Spirits acts love flashy guitar solos. These bands hold a small but crucial niche in the international scene: Forward routinely plays Chaos in Tejas, and the Burning Spirits sound in general had a huge influence on Disfear, Tragedy, and by extension the entire Kurt Ballou-core movement. There is no Kvelertak without Paintbox.

The sound was more familiar than i expected, but the aesthetic was not. As much as hardcore typically shunned material culture, Japanese hardcore, and Burning Spirits in particular, flirts with glam rock, and often sports lavish fashion statements with bright colors. Burning Spirits bands had an impact on the early visual kei bands-that scene eventually spawned some of japan’s most commercially successful hard rock acts including X Japan. Indeed X Japan’s Blue Blood album breaks into D-beats often. Excuse the poor video quality and observe the huge, colorful hairdos Death Side used to sport:

The music speaks for itself without visual aid. From the beginning, Japanese hardcore had the chops to match any other scene, with just enough of the weirdness that makes the rest of japanese culture so fascinating to western audiences.

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Gauze – Equalizing Distort

The earliest example of hardcore I can find, Gauze formed in 1981. They bit onto the Discharge sound as hard as they could—a trend that every other band in this playlist shares. Gauze crossed over to an international audience in the late ’80s.

Disclose – “Mass Death and Destruction + Anguish of War”

Discharge’s music probably had the single largest appreciable impact on Japanese Hardcore as a whole, but even for a Japanese band, Disclose sound an awful lot like Discharge with one big exception: the fuzz. Disclose never wrote a riff that didn’t pass through a load of pedals before hitting a speaker. Seriously, this is a stupendous amount of distortion. Even the brief bass fill in “Mass Death and Destruction” sounds like a distant wind turbine revving up. Tragically, Disclose’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter, Kawakami, also passed away from alcohol abuse in 2007, the same year as Chelsea.

G.I.S.M. – “Endless Blockades for the Pussyfooter”

G.I.S.M. might be the most well-known Japanese hardcore band in America. Although they formed less than a year after Gauze, their brand of hardcore was much more experimental—and goofy—than their peers. Experimental noise and drone composed half of their first album. Where Gauze worshiped Discharge, G.I.S.M. worshipped Poison Idea, and it shows. Poison idea eventually recorded a cover of “Endless Blockades for the Pussyfooter”.

Death Side – “Burning Spirit”

The real fun starts here, with Death Side, performing this song. “Burning Spirit” opens with a tough-guy swagger before pieces of frightening horror-movie atmosphere creep in, then it explodes into a blistering guitar solo from Chelsea (no, I don’t think it’s his given name either). In honesty, I prefer Death Side’s second LP, Wasted Dream, to this one. Death Side split up, and its members formed three other bands. Together they form the backbone of Burning Spirits.

Judgement

Muka-Chin of Death Side drums in Judgement. No other Burning Spirits band except perhaps Bastard plays as rough as Judgment does—they prioritize moshable riffs over guitar solos, in general. Rumor has it that Judgment has strong yakuza ties, adding to their rough-play image. All five of their EPs are pretty much perfect from front-to-back.

Forward

Ishiya and You of Death Side play in Forward. Still highly active, Forward have gotten the most mileage out of the Burning Spirits sound. Check out this live set from Chaos in Tejas from 2006:

Paintbox – “Cry of the Sheeps”

And Chelsea, by many accounts the creative force behind Death Side, started Paintbox. And oh boy did he go off the rails. The self-empowerment aspect of the lyrics takes center stage in Paintbox, while Chelsea experiments with elements of alternative rock and pop punk. If you think this is cheesy, listen to the entire Paintbox discography. Chelsea died from complications of alcoholism in 2007. The body of work he left behind contains some of the most inventive guitar work i’ve ever heard in a hardcore band.

Crow – “The Death Is Singing With Wind”

Out of every band in this playlist, Crow sound the most western to me. Those start-stops at the beginning of “Death is Singing With Wind” scream Slayer! They carry a bit of second-wave thrash viciousness in their sound, and the riffs follow a more familiar chug-then-flourish pattern than some of their peers. And that brief finger-tapping solo almost sounds like something Nitro would do.

Slang

Slang formed in 1988, but unlike many of their peers, still record on a regular basis, and tour frequently, even in parts of the United States. Unlike many other Japanese hardcore bands, they’ve produced their fair share of albums, not just EPs, singles, and splits. We just covered their upcoming record, Glory Outshines Doom but at this point the Japanese hardcore influence has bled enough into the contemporary conversation that they simply sound modern. Glory Outshines Doom… a very Burning Spirits sentiment!

Lip Cream – “Ruteitsuku”

Listen carefully and this song sounds a bit like “Immigrant Song,” but with an even harsher rumble, before it explodes into an almost Suicidal Tendancies riff. Too thrashy to be a true Burning Spirits style band, Lip Cream is the most skater-friendly band on the list by my estimation. In that sense, I find them most similar to Crow, and often listen to their LPs back-to-back.

Tetsu Arrey – “Burning Spirits”

Tetsu Arrey started me on this journey, so finishing with them felt poetic. My first taste of Japanese hardcore will remain the standard I judge others by. At the end of the day, Tetsu Arrey also excel where other, more legendary bands do: they pull no punches, play with conviction and most of all write great songs.

— Joseph Schafer

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