AREA51 – Breaking Borders

By Carl Begai

A little over a year ago, Japan’s low-key neo-classical outfit Area51 released their third album, Goddess. By no means was it a runaway success, but that was never the goal. The album solidified the existence of Area51 outside of their native Japan, making some valuable inroads into the Western market even though the band supposedly had the odds stacked against them. Guitarist Yoichiro Ishino and vocalist Kate Cain – the partnership that defines the band – have every intention of using the exposure as leverage when it comes time to release a new record, and they look at Goddess as being a success story on several levels.

“You’re right, we have much more international responses compared to the last album,” says Ishino. “We’re very happy about this because we’ve always considered the world as our big target, ever since we started working on Goddess. There’s always room for improvement, but positive feedback from our fans gives us great confidence.”

Area51 owes its growing international popularity – however small for the moment – to the digital age. They issued two exclusive online singles before Goddess’ official release, and Ishino is an active presence on Twitter, keeping the buzz going as best he can. Given the opportunity, however, he would gladly sign with a European or North American label to really push things forward.

“Of course, we are always looking for foreign record labels, especially since we have great feedback from listeners in Europe. We actually tried pretty seriously with Goddess, but with every label we speak with, things don’t work out because all of our songs are in Japanese. That doesn’t mean we have given up; there are many ways to reach out with the internet, and we won’t stop approaching labels in the future.”

It’s worth noting that Goddess, being the crack in the ice that it was, had a much different vibe than its predecessors, Ankh (2005) and Daemonicus (2008). White it was still geared towards the neo-classical happy / power metal crowd, Ishino took his foot off the gas to create an album with reduced shred-til-yer-dead tendencies.

“There are more mid-tempo songs, and less speed metal,” Ishino agrees. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve really changed, though. I see it more as a reflection of our songwriting becoming deeper, with additional dimensions compared to the past. Fast used to be cool, but today that’s not always the case. We’re thinking the next album will have fast, mid-tempo song and ballads, but regardless they will all have that Area51 sound.”

The change in sound gave Kate more room to breathe, so to speak, whereas she seemed to be forced to compete with Ishino’s technical fireworks in the past.

“There was a lot of emphasis placed on her singing when composing for Goddess, definitely. On our previous album, Daemonicus, I think it was clear that Kate is a very capable singer, but we really wanted to give more depth to that. In reality I do everything from composing to recording, and Kate sings on top of that. However, there is a very natural balance, both of us don’t have to pressure one another. It’s great chemistry.”

Biting the bullet and filming a video for the song ‘Nightmare’ – with a script written by Kate – served to push Area51 further into the public eye in a big way. The band went from being an obscure entity to a recipient of touring requests – “Come and play (insert country here)! – via YouTube.

“I had the idea in my mind, although it was just a vague concept back then,” Ishino says of the clip. “The process of creating a music video was very challenging, but it’s absolutely effective for more exposure to potential listeners around the world, and it gave us a chance to explore how we should express ourselves. We’re very pleased with the way the video for ‘Nightmare’ came out. The video team was perfect, and we’d love to make the next one with them as soon as possible. That probably won’t happen until the next album, though. Our thoughts are already moving in that direction, and we already have several songs prepared.”

And with the new album, whenever it surfaces, comes Ishino’s hope that Area51 will finally be able to do more than the occasional show.

“There are no plans for live performances right now, unfortunately. I love working in the studio, so Area51 may appear to be a studio project, but I have no intentions of keeping it that way. Ultimately, we’d like to plan tours in both Japan and in foreign countries. Our current studio work is really meant to build the foundation towards this future vision.”

As the band’s founder, Ishino is the official spokesman for Area51, but Kate took time out to discuss her role and contributions to the music in a separate interview.

“Generally speaking, Yoichiro does all the composing including the melodies, and I do all the lyrics. I do make requests from time to time on what kind of song I would like to have, though. I tend to use abstract expressions to describe my feelings at a certain moment in the lyrics. There was a core theme when we were working on Daemonicus, but we didn’t really have something like that for Goddess, to be honest.”

“When I first heard Yoichiro’s music, my impression was that he is definitely a perfectionist,” she says of their creative teamwork. “His detailed yet edgy sound didn’t seem to be geared towards a wide audience. That’s when I thought, maybe I can help influence the songs to make them more accessible, and give them a more popular sound. I thought I could help change things for the better, help elevate the songs to a higher level. I wasn’t expecting this much positive reaction from overseas, though.”

No small feat given that Japanese bands who issue albums in their mother tongue outside Japan rarely make a serious mark in the Western world. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and as far as Kate there’s no reason why shouldn’t continue to write in Japanese.

“I don’t have any strong opinions about singing in English,” Kate admits. “I’m actually okay with the idea, but don’t feel pressured into having to sing in English, either. Guitars and pianos are universal, right? Why should languages be, to me they’re also sounds. That’s how I feel, anyway. Also, the Japanese can listen to songs in English and feel they are totally cool, or can shed tears even without fully understanding the meaning. I believe anyone can have the same feeling, regardless of language and country.”

Japan’s metal scene is a vibrant one, but the Western world remains oblivious for the most part to what it has to offer beyond big name veteran acts like Loudness, Dir En Grey, X Japan, and the bands that make up the Visual Kei movement. From Kate’s point of view, a Japanese band’s international success is based on focus rather than tooth-and-nail drive.

“The heavy metal scene is Japan is rather small, and won’t really reach the masses. Great Japanese bands that really made it out to the world have greater visions, meaning they are looking outwards, outside of Japan, too. That’s why I deliberately avoid focusing on narrow fields. There are tons of band trying to make it in a very small world, but I’m not really interested in that.”

As Area51 continues to develop, so too does Kate’s image. Rather than play the cheap eye-candy card for Goddess, however, she adopted several guises for the album’s visuals, seemingly inspired by the Japanese cosplay tradition that has been embraced outside the country by the Visual Kei crowd. She sets the record straight, making it clear that she alone inspires Kate rather than popular trends.

“One thing I should clarify is that cosplay, by definition, is secondary recreation of an existing character. What I do is completely original. They tend to get mixed up, but gothic lolita and cosplay are two completely different things. That doesn’t mean I don’t like anime or games, I love them and I’ve been influenced in many ways, but that doesn’t mean cosplay has influenced my style. I choose what I wear and how I express myself, simply as a fashion statement which best fits Area51’s songs and sound.”

Check out the official Area51 Facebook page here.