Sometimes, perspective and a second chance can make all the difference. When the world was first introduced to Babymetal (Sony Music) in 2014, those parts of it that are likely to use the phrase “true Metal warrior” non-ironically exploded in a whirlwind of tears and finger-pointing, accusing the band and their fans of essentially betraying Metal in one of the most hysterical displays of Heavy Metal siege-mentality since… well, the last one. Even on the internet tantrums die down quickly, however, and with the benefit of a year’s distance and the vocal support of respected Metal figures like Kerry King and Jeff Walker, the hysterical crying has settled enough to allow us to ignore the controversy and look at the actual music.
Which is fortunate, because as it turns out the music on Babymetal is fantastic.
This is an unashamed Pop album that draws on elements of diverse Metal subgenres to create its own sound – it does not sound like To Mega Therion (Noise), and it would be foolish to expect it to. The argument that it is “not Metal” is equally silly, though – there is a solid core of accessible, polished, radio-friendly but still very “real” Metal running all the way through these songs. Big, tuneful and frequently very heavy riffs reference Melodic Death Metal, European Power Metal and the catchier side of Thrash with the confidence of musicians who very clearly understand those genres, and growled/screamed vocals interplay effectively with the three teenage singers.
Like all fusions, Pop-Metal only works if both elements are understood equally, and the triumph of Babymetal is that it marries the riffs and breakdowns of its Metal side with a flawless knack for how to write a Pop song. After the playfully pretentious intro, songs are paced with ruthless efficiency, structured around breathless choruses and cheeky key-changes lifted perfectly from the J-Pop side of their family tree. They’re also full to capacity with the quality that both Metal and Western Pop forget about too readily – joy. The elements of reggae, hip-hop and dance music (all translated through a J-Pop filter) are lacking the pretentious “wackiness” that such things often have, and feel like nothing less than the band having fun.
Looking back at Babymetal with the advantage of time and distance, most of the criticisms levelled at it are completely irrelevant. Critics made a big deal of the band’s “manufactured” nature, but while it is true that the band and their music were assembled by a professional agency, this collection of almost perfect songs – played by skilled musicians who can replicate the results live and are clearly into what they’re doing – make it hard to remember why it was supposed to be a bad thing that they didn’t meet backstage at a Bathtub Shitter gig.
Equally pointless but far more sinister was the “Paedo-Metal” accusation that’s still bandied around by some of the nastier online critics. In a genre which has always struggled with the representation of women probably the best non-musical thing about Babymetal is how entirely unsexualised the girls are, and how innocent the pleasure they’re obviously taking in their job is. If you think that the presence of young Japanese girls makes something inherently sexual that’s your prerogative, of course, but you might want to ask yourself some serious questions about why.
Babymetal is, all hyperbole and controversy aside, a brilliant Pop Metal album. It’s not for everyone – a quality that it shares with all “true Metal” – but it achieves what it sets out to do perfectly, and adds something truly worthwhile to the vocabulary of Metal.