Sitting down with Suicide Ali the day after their U.S. debut, I noticed something. Unlike most musicians I've known, these four guys from Osaka are larger-than-life when off the stage.
It's not the meticulous makeup, which lasted a long day of promo appearances at the Pacific Media Expo earlier this month. It's not the elaborate costumes and platform boots, which the band admitted are rather hard to move around in. It's because these guys really do live for their music--and that dedication is what Suicide Ali radiates, whether onstage or during an intimate face-to-face. During a fan Q&A session, when people asked about their favorite pasttimes singer/songwriter/band founder Goshi said one of his hobbies is photography--since it aids the creation of his music. "I'm hoping that it helps me understand the human psyche," he says through a translator.
No doubt it'll be the darker side of humanity that Goshi--as well as bassist and fellow band founder Hiroshi, guitarist/songwriter Yuu, and drummer Hisashi--will continue to explore. Most people call these guys industrial, though I like to describe Suicide Ali's music as a combination of American metal and European goth, Japan-ified with pretty vocals and immense sense of showmanship. Goshi's slow, deliberate moves onstage are mesmerizing; he pays attention to the tiniest flick of a wrist or finger. He reminds me of traditional Japanese performance, like that of a geisha or Kubuki actor, in which actions and music are carefully matched to evoke a mood or emotion, not just a character. I hear that this quality is pretty unique to Suicide Ali.
As is their music. Word is they are heavier than most "visual kei" bands. No doubt it's because of the influences the group cites: Ozzy, Metallica, Nirvana, and even underground metal like Dope and Murderdolls, which drummer Hisashi, who also digs Crue, tells me he likes because of Joey Jordison. Tempering brutal riffs and dark tales, however, is Goshi's voice: Smooth and super-emotive, and sometimes screamo too. It's no surprise that PJ Harvey is his favorite singer. There's also a lot of pre-recorded synth tracks that Suicide Ali utilizes both live and on their CDs, mimicing flutes, pianos, even a Theremin, but in an obviously manufactured way--much more effective than real instruments would be.
These guys could give Phil Spector a run for his money with their "wall of sound." There's so much layered into a Suicide Ali song that each time you listen to one, you'll hear something you didn't before. Perhaps a barely-there backing vocal, a sparse piano chord, or some un-placeable sound that adds just the right touch. Using an economic metaphor, their songs give you greater return-on-investment--each listening experience feels new.
Two of my favorite Suicide Ali songs are instantly recognizable when I listen to their latest CDs a few days after the show.
"Boku to Iu Yuugai na Youso", from Uketsugareta Yubiwa, has a mysterious power over me, compelling me to bang my head and do the song-specific arm movements I remember from the concert. It's at once catchy and a study in frenetic energy. In "Tadashii Mahou no Tsukurikata", title track of the new maxi-single released this month, Goshi's "na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-nas" are more infectious than Kylie Minogue's "la-la-las"--but don't dismiss the blast of power from Yuu, Hiroshi, and Hisashi! This song, to me, epitomizes the band's strengths--and makes me go nuts every time I hear it. Indeed, the three-song CD shows these guys can edit themselves and present only the best. "Hakozume no Doutai" is a syncopated number combining metal and jazz-blues-lounge, and entices me to swingdance and skank. "Ningen no Kaname" cements Hiroshi's place (in my mind, anyway) as a bass god, while Goshi easily switches between screamo and chanteur.
Other, unexpected influences creep into the music. Who'd have thought funk? Or pastoral interludes that one-up Beethoven, like the flamenco-guitar-inspired instrumental and happy synth that, respectively, open and close Uketsugareta. I'll admit, some of the tunes posted online are a little too computerized for me. The best Suicide Ali pieces are those in which Yuu is shredding like a madman ("Doumyaku"). Or when Hiroshi's speedy lines prove him that bass god ("This New Order"). Or when Goshi shows his creative composing chops, putting a "wah" synth to good use in "Ko o Egaku Yamai" and making a manufactured flute sound--so alien I didn't know what it was at first--the modest star in "Fuefuki Douji".
Goshi and Hiroshi started Suicide Ali in 2004, after being together in bands that Hiroshi says were "more metal" (a quick Google search brings up SARCAZM and Variable Messiah). They came up with a dark psychological theme, exploring the recesses of humanity, as well as a tale about characters who go together on that exploration. That's where the intense visuals, not to mention the creativity of all members, come in. Goshi's alter ego is the Divine Child called Bit el Bedi, leading everyone on the journey. Hiroshi is Ooe Shundei, the son of a human mother and fish-monster father, outcast by societies both land and sea. Guitarist Yuu--who brought his formidable playing and writing chops after polishing them in several bands including BLOOD and Majestic--portrays Joshua, an escaped prisoner accused of killing his mother. Drummer Hisashi--so talented he played the entire U.S. set with a broken kick drum, and nailed it!--is the demon child HIY, who suffers from a severed arm and the fact that he doesn't really belong in this world.
Tales include dying men's final thoughts; a demon conquering the world; a sad flute-playing boy "taking all the people away"; and what some might consider extreme S&M. Interestingly, many tunes have more mundane inspirations, such as how one feels when one's belongings are stolen, or when one's hot water kettle breaks. I learned firsthand though that you don't have to know all this to enjoy Suicide Ali's music. "Not all the story is told in the context of the songs," Goshi tells me. "So it's up to the individual listener to fill in the rest. That's why the story of Suicide Ali is different to each listener or audience member."
Humanity and emotion are what make Suicide Ali appeal across language and culture. But these esoteric themes might also keep them from mainstream success in their home country. All the guys nod seriously when I ask if it's harder in Japan for an industrial/metal band to get on a major label. I'm bummed after I say one of my favorite memories of Japan is the footbridge at the main railroad station in Osaka, where numerous bands busk on a Sunday, and ask if Ali has ever played there. They tell me that they're not appealing enough to the common person to do so.
Despite the difficulty of underground bands to be successful in Japan, Hiroshi tells me something that lifts my spirits and underscores the importance of music communities everywhere. "It's often the case that five or six bands get together and perform. It's rare to see one or two bands play by themselves. It used to be that concerts promoted by live houses were the most popular," he says. "Recently, the most popular shows are when a band organizes it."
DIY. It's something that goes against mainstream norms in Japan even more than it does in the United States. Yet because of this ethic, Suicide Ali is seeing overseas success. Not a lot, but it's happening nonetheless. The band has many plans to move itself forward. Goshi says he could envision a comic or manga featuring the band's characters. He also hopes that one or two of the group's songs becomes the theme for an anime movie or TV show--which makes sense, since licensing will pay the bills and the exposure would gain them more fans. The band even seems keen to play quasi-mainstream shows like Ozzfest or tours with American underground metal acts. More immediately, the guys hope for a U.S. tour sometime soon. (I see sponsorship opps for instrument companies, hint-hint: Hiroshi uses MusicMan and StingRay gear, while Yuu favors the Japanese guitar maker Zodiak Works.)
These guys gained success by posting free downloads of their songs on the Internet, which continue to flourish in the form of fans' homemade videos on Youtube. But nothing can prepare for Suicide Ali's live show. They sweep onto the stage and don't stop until well over an hour later--Goshi doing his thing, Hiroshi and Yuu casting poweful stares as they wail on their instruments, and Hisashi pounding his soul out seemingly without breaking a sweat. During the final encore at the U.S. debut, Goshi reaches out to fans and with all his strength, pulls them into the stage one by one. The audience becomes part of the show. In that moment, I'm convinced that Suicide Ali isn't playing just to be successful or famous rock stars. They're bound and determined that their songs touch the hearts of listeners who might not understand the lyrics, but grok their music all the same. It's the band's only reason to exist.
(To listen to Suicide Ali songs, or to learn more about the band, go to their MySpace page, http://www.myspace.com/suicidealirock; their official website, http://www.suicide-ali.com/; or their Vampire Freaks prcfile, http://vampirefreaks.com/suicideali.)
 "Harmful Element That I Am"
 "How To Cast The Perfect Spell"
 "Human Fuselage"
 "Cornerstone Of Humanity" or "Drunkenness Of Humanity" (there's a double entendre at work, methinks)
 "Arcing Syndrome"