I never knew that a band--and their fans--could be at once bad-ass and adorable.
But that was the case with Suicide Ali, a Japanese "visual kei" band who made their U.S. debut last weekend at Pacific Media Expo. (And also, to a lesser extent, with L.A. J-rock band VAEIDOS, one of Ali's opening acts).
I've been to plenty hardcore/metal shows, and the sight of hundreds headbanging in unison is common. But after the PMX concert, I'm thinking my new favorite venue is going to be anime/manga/comic book conventions. There's an electricity in the air from fans giving off the vibe that no matter what, the bands onstage can do no wrong. Thus musicians are able to take risks and end up giving a performance that they might have been too timid to do otherwise. Even first-slot act Vamp Star found the audience instantly receptive to their energetic electronica-pop.
Take Suicide Ali, whose music can best be described as a mix of American metal and European goth--but Japanified in that certain je ne sais quois that has to be seen and heard to be understood. (Hint: It may be the uniquely Japanese sense of theatrics complete with insane makeup and costumes, or the lovely melodies juxtaposed over scary instruments.) They'd never played here before--and in their home country are more underground darlings than mainstream idols. But thanks to the love of Asian pop culture fans, and the hardcore Ali fans who flew in special for the convention, the visual kei cuties kicked ass. The first word I wrote in my reviewer's notebook? "Wow!"
I might not have understood the lyrics, but Suicide Ali's obsession with dark introspection was abundantly clear. (Indeed, it wasn't until the next day that I got to read some translated lyrics; surprisingly, it was like I already knew that there would be tales of demon takeovers and dead men's final thoughts.) Frontman Goshi's pretty, emotive vocals were underscored by Yuu's passionate guitar and Hiroshi and Sashi's speedy, steady rhythm section. What really won me over: During lulls between songs, Yuu and bassist Hiroshi tried real hard to talk to the crowd with their limited English, and also played an impromptu instrumental while Sashi fixed a drum. Kawaii!! And most touchingly, during the encore Goshi grabbed numerous fans' arms and pulled them close to the stage.
Most striking was the fans' behavior. Consider the Japanese girls who traveled across the Pacific just to watch their idols. One girl was dolled up Lolita style, and another was appropriate for a night out in Hollywood's music clubs--but two were dressed rather conservatively, and would never be pegged as metal or goth fans. But these ladies put even the craziest Ozzfest-goer to shame. They had synchronized arm movements and body-swaying to go with all the headbanging. They uttered death-metal Cookie Monster growls through otherwise cutesy female Japanese vocal chords. Most of all, they inspired Westerners such as myself, seeing Suicide Ali live for the first time, to do the same!
Perhaps part of our excitement came from VAEIDOS' performance right before. These guys are pegged as J-rock because, indeed, singer/songwriter Xion is from Japan and most of his lyrics are written in Japanese. But if I didn't know that, I would have called these guys hard rock. Over heavy instrumentation--Perry's meticulous (and I'm guessing classically-inspired) guitar lines and drummer Trevor's and bassist Gene's seasoned rhythms--Xion's beautiful tenor acts as a counter. The guy can hold a note as long as any opera singer, and wowed the crowd like any audience at the Met. (I heard at least one American girl exclaim, "You're hot!") My notes on their set are sparse because, well, I was too busy headbanging and gawking at the band to stop and write much. After VAEIDOS' set, I almost didn't need to see Suicide Ali.
But clearly, I'm stoked that I did. I was so impressed with both bands that I'll be featuring them in future posts. So stay tuned!