Exploring Britain’s first festival of Japanese heavy metal.
October 4th – 5th 2019 saw Metal Matsuri, the UK’s first metal festival devoted to Japanese acts. The Reprobate made it to the first day but sadly had to pass on the second. Nevertheless, we felt that we came away better informed than before about the highs and lows of such an event.
Japanese metal is still a niche interest.
Metal Matsuri took place at the O2 Academy in Islington, which is not the biggest venue in the world. It holds 800 people at the most, but there was far less than that on the Friday, even by 8pm – the event having started at 4pm, when some people might realistically be expected to still be working, even on a Friday. With the upstairs mainly taken up with merch stalls, downstairs was perhaps half full. There were five bands on the bill, so you might have hoped to see more people there. Perhaps the Saturday was fuller. But it seems that the Babymetal phenomenon has not developed into an interest in Japanese metal per se. A pity that.
There is such a thing as ‘too loud’.
At the risk of sounding like an old fart, “everything louder than everything else” is not always a good thing. Especially if the acoustics of the venue are not that hot and there are not enough people in attendance to absorb the sound. This was woefully loud, and the resulting sound was all too often a mush. The bands might have been better served by turning everything down a bit and having a better sound mix.
A little Ladybeard goes a long way.
The event was hosted by Ladybeard – the bearded Aussie bloke who used to be part of the eccentric kawaii metal band Ladybaby and who, it might be said, is an acquired taste. His bellowing to the crowd was (again) over loud and increasingly irritating – you just wanted the bands to appear and get on with it. But then, I don’t much like MCs generally. Some people obviously loved him, but I wasn’t one of them.
Japanese Metal is not all eccentric.
Openers Zeroshiki felt like a fairly generic metal act, most notable for the fact that they have been around for twenty years without ever previously entering my consciousness. I’ve no doubt that that says more about my lack on attention to the global metal scene than anything else, but still. They did not, it must be said, benefit from the muddy sound.
But some of it is…
Rie a.k.a. Suzaku is a female guitarist who has an all-female band, and plays what started out as prog rock and then slid into jazz fushion – all of it instrumental. This was not, I’ll confesss, what I’d expected (having decided not to check up on any of the bands in advance, all the more to enjoy the sense of discovery). I’m not quite sure what to make of it, even now. The all-female line-up did add a touch of novelty – neither prog or jazz fusion are really noted for their appeal to women, either as fans or performers – and there was plenty musical noodling on display. For fans of Joe Satriani and similar instrumentalists I imagine.
Japanese female glam metal has all the moves.
Lipstick are another all-girl band, and currently consist of two permanent members – Sakae on bass and Sally on guitar, with new vocalist Maiko and drummer Misaki. They are perhaps more what I expected and hoped for from Japanese metal, being musically all over the place – the opening number kicked off as though it was a Sweet track from 1973, later numbers went double bass drum crazy and everything seemed to lurch from idea to idea, often within the same song. Pinning them down musically was therefore a touch tricky, and I rather like that, even if the songs, truth be told, were rather hit and miss (often withing the same track). They certainly had the look down – Maiko was all Joan Jett hair and leather jackets, the guitar and bass straps were matching bullet-belt styles and their stage moves were nicely choreographed without looking rehearsed. And they’d recorded a new six-track CD that was given away to everyone who wanted one, featuring new recordings by the current line-up (and not, as the sleeve perhaps unnecessarily tells us “by other high-skilled players”). Which was nice.
Rock venues still treat punters with contempt.
OK, this is perhaps not so much a discovery as continual irritation, but when you are at a six hour event, it becomes all the more annoying. The Academy has a piss-poor selection of drinks – a generic cider, a couple of pissy lagers and Guiness in a can is your lot. For which you’ll be charged six quid or more for the pleasure of drinking it from a plastic glass. Which of course you have to pay because you’ll need a bit of liquid refreshment at a long event like this and you certainly can’t bring your own, the bouncers frisking you as though you arer someone from a terrorist watch-list trying to board a plane. Given the populrity of ale and craft beer among the sort of people who attend rock concerts, you’d think a bit more imagination could be shown in the selection of wildly overpriced beers. But of course, they don’t need to.
Tribute Bands are wildly popular.
At least I assume they are, given how many were listed on the Academy’s list of forthcoming events. I do wonder how a band like Wishbone Ash (playing on October 17th as part of their fiftieth anniversary tour) feel to be playing the same venues as Wrong Jovi and Motorheadache?
Not all venues are suited to festivals.
OK, a personal opinion. But a full day – or six hours, to be precise – feels too long to be crammed in a dark room with five bands and nowhere to really go to get a change of pace – especially true here as the Academy is essentially a single space with bars either side and a stage at the end. With the balcony colonised by merch desks, there was nowhere to escape, to sit down or to take a breather, and it all felt a bit much in the end. It’s why, against my better judgment and wishes, I had to skip final band Mary’s Blood, who I was keen to see. But backache and sound concerns won out I’m afraid. Of course, I’m an old fart who clearly can’t stand up for several hours at a time. Younger readers can feel free to discard this as a valid complaint.
Japanese metal definitely deserves a bigger audience.
But perhaps this was not the way to find it. I was very excited by the idea of Metal Matsuri – perhaps too excited – but I do wonder if it was an overly ambitious idea – too big and too expensive a concept to pull in the unconverted who might potentially turn up to a single gig out of curiosity. I’d love to have the chance to see some of these bands playing solo – or even paired – shows at somewhere like the Underworld, and if this event has helped pave the way for that, then all power to it. Promoters Orion have done a sterling job in trying to open up the UK market to Japanese acts – they were responsible for bringing Necronomidol over – and so I hope that this event has helped make that more possible for future acts. I feel bad focusing so much on the negatives of the event, because I’m aware that most people seemed to be having a jolly old time of it, and the bands themselves seemed genuinely pleased to be here and not at all put off to be playing to a half-empty room.
I really do want to encourage this sort of thing. Let’s put the negatives down to a learning experience, and I do hope that they get do this again somewhere next year.