May 02

[live report] La’Mule – My '90s Visual Kei Fantasy Realized

If a magical visual kei genie appeared before me right now, granting me one wish, I know exactly what I would want: to travel back in time to the mid-90s. I can give up the instant intellectual gratification of Wikipedia and the oversharing aspect of Facebook for a couple of days just to do a massive concert hop of all the bands that were either at their prime then or have since vanished into the annals of obscure Japanese pop culture history.

La’Mule would be one of those bands.

I got my wish, brief as it may have been, on April 6th in Tokyo’s Shibuya REX. La’Mule was always one of those bands whose name you might come across in passing as part of that last-blast band boom that occurred in the late ’90s. Those bands always boasted hair that was unnaturally borrowing from different colors of the rainbow, the vocalists sang like angry goats, and music was more punk – and somehow more honest for it. These were the bands that were more directly influenced by some of my favorites (Kuroyume, to be more specific), and were untainted by the overexposure today’s internet produces. Looks were important, but it was more about the theatricality. Plus, there was no autotune back then.

The venue was tiny, but packed to the gills with surprisingly youngish fans sporting the cyberpunk gothic fashions popular in the late 90s. When the screen rose to reveal vocalist Kon tied in bloody rags to each side of the stage, the compact throng rushed forward. I hovered in the back, afraid to touch this scene out of my ’90s visual kei fantasy, for fear of tampering with it and somehow changing the course of history. You know, the whole time travel cliché. I had to remind myself that it is in fact 2012, and I needn’t worry.

Kon started out clean and clear, bringing a slightly nasal but solid tenor melody that took me by surprise. The La’Mule recordings I’d heard made him sound wane and with the occasional signature goat-bleat, but live, he was an entirely different beast. He ripped himself out of his binds and moved about the somewhat limiting stage like a mad, wounded bird. Beneath the shock of unnaturally red hair, he maintained good eye contact with the audience, which was probably hard not to do in a venue this small.

The instruments, on the other hand, were more or less what I expected. Static and shallow drum beats like a stick on cinderblocks kept the rhythm in the background, allowing the simple but tight guitars to take the lead. This is definitely not a bad thing, as any extra frills might have overcomplicated the music, making the fast-paced beats sloppy and hard to follow. La’Mule is skilled at the style they do, and I wouldn’t ask for much more.

Some songs did manage to surprise me as the guitars played Dorian scales (a.k.a. “that Middle Eastern kind of sound thingy”), adding a little flavor to the music. The tempo slowed down, allowing the audience to sway back and forth. Just as we were lulled into a hypnotic trance by Kon-monologueing, the mood flipped on the crazy switch. The guitars went wild as Kon chucked feathers at the audience like a mental patient ripping apart down pillows. This number was followed by the audience repeating, “Mienakutemo… Todokanakutemo…” (“If we can’t see it…If it can’t reach us…”), covering their eyes with the backs of their hands for the first part, and reaching out toward the stage for the second. It was creepy, but that was the mood they were going for.

The show ended with the band untying the dozens of bloody rags from the stage and rather unsuccessfully tossing them into the audience. The members were crying, embracing each other, and delaying the inevitable: pretty soon, we would all have to go back to the 21st century, with our smart phones and our Lady Gaga. But it was fun to live ’90s visual kei for a couple hours.

Official La’Mule website – http://lamule-official.com/

Apr 30

[review] Vivid Covers – A 20th Anniversary Tribute to L'arc~en~Ciel

As cover albums go, Vivid Covers chose a tough act to follow.  Twelve tracks of some of L’arc~en~Ciel’s most memorable songs covered by relatively unknown musicians.  Though Cleopatra Records is known for releasing compilations and cover albums, Vivid Covers is the first to cover a well known Japanese artist.

“Niji” was boring the first time around and it’s a snooze-fest as a cover.  At first, I didn’t realize this was a cover.  Keshiki plays the song with little to no variation from the original.  Even the vocalist sounds like Hyde.  Lemon Drop Kick chimes in on the second track, “New World.”  For a pop-punk band that normally plays with fun energy, their cover of “New World” is unenthusiastic and plodding.

It isn’t until Caffe-in’s refreshing take on “flower” that you get a track that’s unique while remaining true to the spirit of the song.  The flourishing keyboard bits have been converted to simple, punchier guitar bits that highlight their vocalist’s cute voice.  The musicianship is spot on and clean. Every slight change seems deliberate, enhancing rather than taking away from the original.  Caffe-in totally owns it.

There’s a pretty piano version of “Anata” sung by Kaoru Enjoji.  “Lies and Truth” is interesting up until Poel’s off-key singing starts. I’m hoping for a real gritty, metal version of “Dune” by Orochi, but it never wanders out of a safe zone of quasi goth-rock.

Since the song recordings were done at different studios, there’s no consistency in the production quality.  Some of the tracks sound like someone is singing karaoke while others are wonderfully mastered.  Vivid Covers is a laudable effort, highlighting a diverse group of artists that L’arc~en~Ciel has influenced.

Cleopatra Records website – http://www.cleorecs.com/
Official L’arc~en~Ciel website – http://www.larc-en-ciel.com/

Apr 09

[news] Head Phones President & Gelatine @ The Delancey NYC (April 13, 2012)

Very rare opportunity to see two dynamite girl singers of Japanese extreme rock!!

Seiko w/Gelatine and Anza w/Head Phones President (from Japan)

Friday, April 13th, 2012 @The Delancey
168 Delancey St. (bet. Clinton & Attorney) New York, NY 10002

$5 / 21+

Frank Wood Presents:
8pm Minor Cuts
8:45pm Skeletal Life
9:30pm The Cynz
10:15pm Head Phones President (Japan)
11pm Fame Junkies
11:45pm Gelatine
12:30am Slut Junkies
1:15am DJ Rob Nitro

HEAD PHONES PRESIDENT
Head Phones President is lead by Anza, who is a great singer and she is also a well known actress in Japan. It will be an interesting contrast with our own, Seiko…!

Official Head Phones President website – http://headphonespresident.com/
Official Gelatine website – http://www.gelatine5.com/

Apr 04

[live report] Versailles – Born in the 17th Century

There was a sketch back in the ‘90s, when Saturday Night Live was a respected comedy outlet, called “Goth Talk.” In one edition of this satirical talk show, Chris Kattan’s character mutters in a waif-like voice, “We should have been born in the 17th century.”

Every time I hear the band Versailles -Philharmonic Quintet- (formerly and much more simply known as Versailles), I can’t help but think of that overly romanticized picture of a faux pre-revolution France that goths around the globe so deeply yearn to live. The spectacular elegance,the vibrant extravagance, the frilly sleeves, the machinegun rapid-fire electric guitars… all these ring true to an era that never existed, but certainly should have.

That image didn’t fail to float into my head like a stray bouquet of roses when I saw Versailles on February 12 for Versailles World Tour 2012 – Holy Grail – Grand Final ~ Chateau de Versailles~. Even as the audience brandished the metal devil horns, between guitarist Hizaki’s bell-sleeved gown and vocalist Kamijo’s pirate captain coat, the band was one powdered wig away from a retelling of Les Miserables.

Grand costumes and bouffant hair are a given at these concerts, but the band did try to mix it a little with some human props. The show opened with fully cloaked, suspiciously feminine monks marching onto a platform behind the drums. These monks would later reveal themselves to be belly dancers for the song “Rhapsody.” Besides that piece of theatricality and the free-standing band members’ sporadic twirling, the stage set up seemed a bit bare. Even the obligatory audience hand movements were a tad lackluster. Without much of the visuals to concentrate on, I was forced to focus on the music.

Thankfully, Versailles is one of those visual bands that is surprisingly more complex in the music department than they are in the costume department, which – if you’ve seen any pictures of them – is saying something.

This band is power metal to the finger bleeding extreme. The guitars in songs like “Philia” duel with the utmost precision while Hizaki and Teru still make it look as effortless and delicate as sipping tea. While the band’s early body of work is heavily influenced by the technical complexity of classical music, the newer songs seemed to be less Mozart and more pop metal. “Thanatos” brought a mid-tempo pace that focused more on the beat rather than showcasing the guitarists’ otherwordly skill. Versailles even delved into a touch of pop rock with “Libido”’sprominent vocal melody.

But at their heart, Versailles are inarguably the musical speed demons less costumed men would be envious of. The guitars in “Threshold” go so fast, the band might have broken through time and space, traveled back to the real Versailles to have cake with Marie Antoinette, and returned before anyone in the audience could even blink.

With all of Versailles’ impressive and seemingly impossible skills, the costumes are still there, front and center. Granted, they’re gorgeous and I envy Hizaki’s tiny waist, but what would this band be like without the classical period extravaganza? They would probably garner a more proletariat than bourgeois crowd, but the music would still be utterly exciting and mind-boggling difficult. However, Versailles will always be part frilly sleeve, part maddening musical speeds that will make all their fans wish they were born in the 17th century.

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Official Website – http://versailles.syncl.jp/

Mar 20

[photo] exist†trace @ Hiro Ballroom – March 18, 2012

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