By Carl Begai
Anyone who has spent time trolling around the metal world in recent years is aware of the Visual Kei movement. Consult the know-it-all realm of Wikipedia for a detailed description of what it entails, but in a nutshell Visual Kei is a full-on music-meets-image subculture out of Japan. Call it the Asian answer to the North American ‘80s glam rock / metal scene, only darker yet somehow even more flamboyant, with a hell of a lot more staying power. Unlike the Western world’s short run of guys-with-guitars-will-be-girls, which was snuffed out with the rise of Seattle’s grunge scene, Visual Kei’s origins date back to the birth of a “little” band called X in 1982, taking root in earnest with their 1989 breakthrough. With the recent international rise of countrymen Dir En Grey, Visual Kei migrated from Japan, going from foreign oddity to audio/visual trend in only a few short years.
Admittedly, I had no intention of tackling the subject. Introduced to X in 1993, I was blown away by their music and image, and they became a regular spin on my stereo. There was also a certain amount of I-know-something-you-don’t-know elitist pride in that the band was a non-entity to the general metal population. Fellow metalhead / co-conspirator The Rev and I had several conversations about the band at the time, agreeing that if North American labels had been aware of X’s existence (better known these days as X Japan) the band would have been signed in a heartbeat. Not that they ever needed a foreign record label to gain an international fan following or lay claim to millions of units sold.
Fast forward to 2010 and the Japanese melodic death metal band Blood Stain Child. Four albums young and working on a fifth, they made the surprise move of adding a female vocalist by the name of Sophia to their line-up. Adding to the unexpected news, she hailed from Greece and had an in-your-face Visual Kei look about her. Curiosity led to correspondence, which eventually turned into the opportunity for some unique insight on what is widely regarded as a cultural phenomenon.
A resident of Japan since August 2010, Sophia reveals she’s always had a focus on her current home. Her ongoing love affair with Visual Kei took hold long before she made the move.
“I grew up with Japanese pop culture and I’ve had a strange attraction towards Japan ever since I was a kid,” she reveals. “My mom used to buy me lots of Japanese stuff, take me and my brothers to Asian cuisine restaurants, and encouraged us to start practicing martial arts. Hey, even my first LP was a My Melody song collection (laughs). Moving to Japan came as a natural thing for everybody who knows even a little about me. I’ve always wanted it. The reasons are many, but the catalytic factor was, of course, Blood Stain Child.”
“As far as my Japanese is concerned, it’s not up to par with my Greek ability. I can communicate with everybody almost perfectly, but comparing to the stuff that’s in my head, I’m still on a very modest level.”
Personal experience slammed the reality home that moving to another country comes with a laundry list of personal issues, guaranteed to make the transition harder than expected. Sophia admits she’s had to deal with obstacles other than a language barrier along the way, and there are some things her Western mentality hasn’t embraced within the Japanese culture. Yet.
“Well, to be honest, I’m attracted to certain aspects of Japanese culture, not Japanese lifestyle or culture as a whole. The things I like are the aesthetics, the scenery, the fashion, the music, the faces, the language. For a tourist, Japan is like a theme park; it’s like you’ve landed on a strange planet. I always try to keep the positives that attract me and overcome the negatives. With a million tiny, bright lights in your eyes and such a stimuli overdose you can overcome and forget many things.”
“My mentality is considerably different from several aspects of Japan,” she adds. “I understand why certain things exist here, but I don’t intend to change myself in order to fit in. I don’t fit in even in my own country (laughs). The one thing that strikes me hard is how people avoid speaking their mind, even about the simplest of things. The way I see it, this leads to isolation, loneliness and depression. I could never do that to myself; I’m a person that just can’t shut up if I don’t speak my mind.”
Immersed in the Visual Kei lifestyle, Sophia explains how she became hooked and gives due credit to the artists responsible for making it so attractive.
“Almost everything I’ve ever liked, and every type of music I’ve ever listened to, exists in Visual Kei. This is why I like it so much. My first contact was the image. My friend Gus G. (Firewind / Ozzy Osbourne guitarist) was showing me an ESP guitar magazine and we suddenly stopped and stared at the picture of what we thought was a cool goth girl with a strange guitar. It was Mana. After some time, I happened to randomly see more pictures of him on the net, so I researched and made the connection (laughs).”
“I agree with you about X-Japan,” she continues. “Their presence was vital and marked the start of a new music and fashion wave. The old Dir En Grey (circa 1999) had some aesthetic links to gothic, and also Visual Kei in general has been strongly influenced by gothic and the related sub-cultures, so I’m not impressed that so many fans of gothic music like Visual Kei. I was the same. Just before I discovered Visual Kei, I was mostly listening to EBM, industrial and synth pop.”
“This music contains bits and pieces of all my favourite genres, plus references to classical music, which I studied from an early age, plus the traditional Japanese element that I’ve always admired. I always research the music I like, so this led me to many musical paths throughout my life. I started off with ‘90s pop and techno, discovered Brit pop / alternative soon afterwards, then I found metal. I spent some years going to metal concerts every week and travelling around Europe for festivals. It was pretty wild. In the meantime, I had already gotten into industrial, so I started listening to all the related sub-genres while being a frequent in goth clubs. And then came Visual Kei. What else could I have wished for? My favourite music, in economy pack and the best possible wrapping I could ever imagine (laughs).”
Sophia isn’t shy about her taste in music and fashion. In fact, she was bold enough to go out on a limb and introduce Visual Kei to the Greek music scene; a daring single-handed blow that paid off over time.
“About Greece; before I did my first event, which was the official introduction of Visual Kei to the Greek audience, there were very, very few people listening to the music quietly in their homes, feeling lonely about the fact that there was nothing and no one to cater to their need for expression. We used to have a forum with maybe…30 active users? The fans weren’t the problem; I had a full house even from my first event because many anime lovers joined. The problem was the shop owners. They were being ironic about the term and explanation of ‘Japanese music party.’ Just because nobody had done it before they thought I would fail, so they avoided booking the places for me. After a couple of years, they all came back asking me to book their places for my events.”
Which brings up the question of how the Westernized version of Visual Kei compares, in Sophia’s opinion, to the Japanese scene. Any time a foreign element is added to something traditional there is a tendency for the authenticity to be diluted, regardless of where said tradition is rooted.
“I have to agree,” says Sophia. “The Visual Kei spirit started fading away as the West kept coming in, while the music started moving out of Japan. When something leaves its motherland, it’s natural to be influenced and changed by its surroundings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly changes the identity of the subject in question. I’ve talked with fans and people who experienced the Visual Kei boom in real time. The change is inevitable. It’s kind of ironic, though, because I’m a white person and heavily influenced by this music in many ways, but I believe I’m treating the scene with respect (laughs).”
We also agree that Visual Kei went from being a cultural phenomenon to a trend, and as a result the quality of the bands and music has degenerated to disposable paint-by-number tripe. Many of the Japanese bands that have surface over last few years come across as generic and uninspired, using twice the amount of hairspray and make-up but displaying zero in the way of original musical ideas. The exact same scenario played out after bands like Poison and Warrant broke big in the ‘80s, and is a reality within the increasingly stagnant goth rock / metal scene to this day.
On the other hand, Western bands and record labels have attempted to cash in with the flavour of the month approach. German posterboys Tokio Hotel are a fine example thanks to the Max Factor-meets-anime look of the big-haired kiddie fronting the band.
“Taking what you said as a given, I should point out that I’m rather concerned about the future of the scene,” says Sophia. “I go to many concerts and I always receive tons of flyers from new bands on my way home. As a VJ and event organiser, I ‘study’ a lot every day in order to keep my events fresh and top quality. I can’t say I’m impressed by the majority of the new bands; they seem to have lost the morals and the essence of Visual Kei and musicianship in general. As a matter of fact, I prefer going to indie concerts in order to check out new stuff, and also because I enjoy the relaxed, indie atmosphere. I’ve discovered many gems this way, but I’m also disappointed quite a lot.”
“The person I respect the most nowadays, because he stayed authentic through the years and still continues to make beautiful and heartfelt music, is Yukiya. His latest band is Kαin, but he used to be in D=sire and JILS. He didn’t sell out just to be more popular and his concerts are still emotionally intense. Another band I respect and admire is 9Goats Black Out. I’ve loved them ever since their first release and they’re still my favourite ‘new’ Visual Kei band.”
Sophia has set herself up for a round of “put your money where your mouth is” given her new membership in Blood Stain Child. She’s well aware people will be weighing her image against musical performance when the new album surfaces, but she remains unapologetic and is clearly confident in her own skin.
“Dressing up isn’t trouble, it’s an art,” she says of her look. “I always consider myself as a blank canvas and try to create images that portray my inner world and opinions. Looking at my clothes makes you understand a part of who I am. I’m not a person who will dress randomly, just because somebody said it’s hip or cool. If it doesn’t fulfill my personal requirements and aesthetic perception, I won’t wear it. I adore clothes and I believe in the things I’m wearing; they’re a precious means of my artistic expression. I’ve always adored Victorian and Rococo passionately, as well as other retro aesthetics. People those days had an incomparable elegance. I also love fairytales, fantasy and science fiction. I wear this fashion off stage as well, to the point that I’m having trouble deciding what to wear on stage, because you could easily see me wearing this kind of clothes on a usual afternoon outing.”
“I used to get so many stares and comments about my hair, back in the day. Half of it used to be dark green with purple and pink details. When I started wearing the fashion, people were shocked because there was nobody around wearing these kind of strange clothes while walking casually on the street. I never cared about the negative comments because I had confidence in my beliefs. I could sit and analyze the reasons for dressing the way I do, with valid arguments (laughs). I also think that people who take pleasure in offending others to their face just because they don’t approve of their appearance are too low to even spare a word on them.”
As for how she came to join Blood Stain Child, Sophia points the finger at guitarist / founder Ryu for taking a leap of faith. Given how much the band’s sound has changed since their inception, coupled with his own off-the-wall image, Sophia’s arrival shouldn’t come as a shock.
“Ryu is a guy full of surprises (laughs). I actually used to work for Blood Stain Child, doing promotion work for a couple of years, before I actually joined the band. On one of my Halloween trips to Japan, I met up with Ryu for a drink, and talking about music I mentioned that I’m a musician as well. He asked for my demo, and for lack of anything decent I just submitted a couple of covers I’d done on my guitar years ago. The sound quality was totally lame but Ryu saw a potential in me, so he replied in 30 minutes asking me to sing on the next album. Needless to say I was shocked.”
Dir En Grey went from being Visual Kei to something resembling a death metal Pink Floyd, yet some fans still turn up at the shows in full Visual Kei gear. It stands to reason that Blood Stain Child will end up with Visual Kei fans even though the music isn’t typical of the scene.
“Well, Visual Kei is a generic term, which contains various musical influences,” Sophia offers. “To me, there are bands which identify as pure Visual Kei, but practically, it’s mostly the image that puts them under a specific label, whereas the sound serves as a secondary means of categorisation. No matter how Dir En Grey has changed, people don’t forget their roots, which used to be deeply Visual. I also love the old Dir En Grey. Actually, I generally listen to old-school bands more than anything else. I would be really happy to see Visual Kei fans at our concerts. Also, Blood Stain Child love and respect the good old bands and some new ones. They even covered Luna Sea’s ‘True Blue’ a few years ago.”
Just how much Sophia’s presence will alter Blood Stain Child will come clear with the June release of the new album. The fear some fans have is that the band will start sounding like neo-classical glam-to-the-teeth favourites Versailles or something painfully cheesy.
“(Laughs) Well, ‘cheesy’ has a different meaning for everybody so I can’t generalise. The new album is different from the previous ones without the band losing its musical identity, but rather expanding it and focusing on its original elements. We’re not trying to be something we’re not and the guys respect their musical past, but at the same time they’re looking forward, towards a wider perspective. For people who dislike female melodic vocals, possible disappointment is inevitable, but the fans at our concerts up until now seem to love every bit of it.”
The band’s latest promo shot has caused something of a stir, however, thanks to Ryu’s new look. Looking back on Blood Stain Child’s career, he’s always stood out, but it’s easy to imagine Sophia being blamed for his latest transformation.
“Ryu used to dress like that even before the otaku culture made cross-dressing popular,” she says. “He loves beautiful clothes and cosplay, so he doesn’t intend to shock. People familiar with the Japanese pop culture aren’t shocked anyway.”
“People will blame me for anything and everything they possibly won’t like about the new Blood Stain Child,” she adds, “but the truth is that more or less, the new direction of the band was pre-decided even before I joined. Of course upon joining, I brought my character and my vision into the band, but this happened because it coincided with the aspirations the band had about its direction.”
– thanks to Sophia for providing the photos.
– X Japan and Dir En Grey promo photos courtesy of their respective Facebook and MySpace pages.