A Brief Primer on The History of Metal in Asia
Metal is a global phenomenon. There are plenty of bands and media that remind metalheads of this ranging from Sam Dunn documentaries and academic studies, to local bar shows. Asia has an especially interesting output of metal. It’s a complicated history; to make sense of it, one should always start at the beginning.
Though psychedelic and spacey influences stand out as a trend in recent metal, psychedelic rock has always been deeply embedded in metal’s DNA from the earliest proto-metal and heavy psych beginnings like Blue Cheer, Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly. Japan’s The Flower Travelin’ Band fits nicely in this wave of bands making them one of the first Asian metal acts of all time. Though they may not be as heavy as Black Sabbath, their sinister, spaced-out jams could please Deep Purple fans on one track and Can fans on another. Listen to their first real album, Satori, for a interesting mix of improvisatory acid rock, proto-metal, and both traditional Japanese and Indian music.
Further listening: Blues Creation self-titled album and Strawberry Path’s When The Raven Has Come To Earth
During the early metal years, Asian bands were unfortunately overlooked even though all the Euro-giants were playing big shows (and cutting infamous live albums) in Japan. Flower Travelin’ Band had their audience but they weren’t a part of the early metal conversation until critics retroactively saw their influence. During the 70s, Eastern Asian bands simply weren’t on most Western heavy metal and rock listeners radar. Asia’s place at the metal table was finally claimed by another Japanese outfit, Loudness. While they weren’t the first Asian band to play in this style (that goes to Bow Wow whose debut album came in 1976), they were the first Asian metal band touring Europe, appearing on MTV, getting signing to a US label, and playing huge venues like Madison Square Garden. Their style is right in line with 80s metal conventions and not particularly special within itself, however, their breakthrough was incredibly important in opening Asia up to Western metal listeners and new developments. Once Loudness had their break, heavy metal spread rapidly creating a thriving army of fans in Japan.
Further listening: Bow Wow, Anthem, and Earthshaker
After this initial explosion, Japan was the sole Asian country that had a steady output of metal in the 70s and 80s. There are many reasons for this. First, Japan has a long history of adopting western culture (some say make it better) and this trend extends to music as well. The Meiji Restoration played a huge part in Japan being the most Westernized Asian country. As a result of this political movement, Japan adopted representational government and started to formally instruct western music in their churches, military and schools. Rock music became incredibly popular in the 60’s after the explosion of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, inspiring original Japanese acts like Happy End. From the 60s on, most of the genres that were popular in the West had equivalents in Japan including jazz, hip hop, electronic music, punk, even noise and reggae.
With the popularity of hair metal came a new fashion movement inspired by its glossy aesthetic, visual kei. While the movement is defined by its contributions to fashion, many musical acts adopted its signature look. Since the movement is about the look and not the music, the bands who fall under the category of visual kei tend to be eclectic in musical style, though most bands veer towards the direction of rock or metal. X-Japan is generally a good place to start with the genre and they mostly keep it metal and interesting especially in their earlier output. Their major label debut, Blue Blood, gives Helloween and Blind Guardian a run for their money with its speedy symphonic approach to metal.
Brewing under all the MTV metal and pomp was, just like in the West, a healthy counter-culture of extreme metal. Japan responded to Hellhammer with its own blackened thrash, cassette tape band, Sabbat. Unlike Hellhammer, their discography is incredibly vast. A good starting place is 1990’s Envenom, their debut full length. This album exemplifies their rougher style from their early tapes and EPs well while hinting at where they would go later with 1996’s The Dwelling and 1999’s Karisma.
Further listening: Intercourse and Lust by Abigail and Scorn Defeat by Sigh
Since the breakout of metal in Japan, many other Asian countries have joined the metal scene and they fit in perfectly. A few highlights include Israel’s Winterhorde who play formidable symphonic black metal with plenty of classical music and drama to spare, India’s Demonic Resurrection who play anti-theistic blackened death metal, and Singapore’s Wormrot who play crusty grindcore that found its way to many year-end lists in 2016..
There are Asian bands, though, who aren’t content to play the same brand of metal as their Western peers. While viking metal bands sing of distorted romanticizations of battles already fought, Israel’s Orphaned Land sing of the battle still ongoing between the Abrahamic religions. Their lyrics call for unity between eternal, bitter enemies while their music smoothly integrates Middle Eastern music into extreme and progressive metal. Listen to their 1994 debut for a rawer black/death approach and their 2004 progressive masterpiece for a good introduction. Going even further east, China's Nine Treasures and Tengger Cavalry soundcomparable to Korpiklaani or the lighter side of Finntroll. Instead of the cinematic, epic atmosphere many folk metal bands chose to use, these bands play groovy, danceable tunes and have a focus on authentic instrumentation. Tengger Cavalry are about to release an album composed of classic metal covers. Most recently, Japan’s Babymetal has found massive commercial success with their blend of Japanese pop idol music and modern metal.
Many Asian bands play in nearly identical styles as their western counterparts adding only small bits of their own culture here and there. Others chose to more fully incorporate their own folk music into their metal, basing their entire sound upon it. Others still, add regional pop music or craft new genres all together. For some western bands, “asianness” is used as, at best, an embellishment or, at worst, a novelty to supplement their music (that’s another story). Metal, like jazz and punk, is a malleable genre and leaves room for all these valid interpretations. That’s one reason why it has lasted for nearly half a century and is still going strong. This array of styles and sounds speaks to the talent of all the musicians, certainly, but there’s a bigger truth underneath all of that: the universal nature of metal music. Through the endless variation, metal finds new life in experimentation and cultural collision and never allows itself to be dated or regionalized.