We cover a lot of Japanese rock bands here at Rice Digital, but, just like western music, there are countless subgenres to figure out and understand when you get into JRock.
One that often catches people off guard is visual kei. With its flamboyant costumes, over the top visuals and diverse sounds, this scene might need a bit of explaining before you are able to dive in with confidence.
Fortunately, we’re here to give you the rundown on visual kei’s history and some of its top acts, both past and present.
What is visual kei?
It is more accurate to describe visual kei as a subculture within the Japanese music industry rather than a genre itself. Bands within visual kei play a wide variety of music, including rock, house, pop, and punk. They share a similarly over-the-top visual style rather than a specific sound. Its origins in the 1980s likely stem from contemporary glam rock acts from the US including Mötley Crüe and Poison.
Early visual kei acts such as the legendary X Japan and D’erlanger followed a lot of the distinctive trends established by Californian hair metal bands. Big hair, lots of make-up and elaborate costumes were the style of the day, but bands soon experimented with different looks ranging from gothic lolita to the brighter, more upbeat look and sound of bands like Baroque.
Today’s visual kei artists might not look or sound much like they did back in the 1980s, but the genre continues to thrive as a place for reckless, carefree self-expression. It is a place to experiment with roles, looks, and sounds without worrying about how others will react. Because of this, it has a strong overseas following, with bands in Sweden and other European countries identifying with the genre.
Visual kei acts to check out
To get a good idea of where visual kei started out, X Japan are a great group to explore. Since forming in the 80s, they have sold over 30 million records and launched multiple international tours. To get an idea of how popular they were at their height, over 50,000 people attended the funeral of guitarist Hideto Matsumoto when he died in 1998. The crowd was so large that it effectively shut down the small city it took place in and is considered an important moment in Japanese history, showcasing the passion and love that young people shared with their celebrity idols.
The GazettE are a more modern visual kei band, though even they have been in the spotlight for nearly two decades. They were at the forefront of a new wave of visual kei artists that achieved mainstream attention and success in the ’00s and remain one of the most popular acts in the scene today. With ten full studio albums released since 2004, the GazettE have been very busy. They are known for experimenting with different sounds and for their gothic, androgynous looks. Definitely worth checking out for the metal fans out there.
Another of the newer generation of visual kei artists is Exist Trace, an all-female band from Tokyo. They have a distinctly metal sound, with lead singer Jyou typically growling and shouting in their early records. Exist Trace are known for their dramatic and sweeping stage shows and lyrics, drawing from gothic themes and influences for both their look and sound.
There are countless visual kei acts out there to listen to and follow, so you’ll definitely be able to find one that strikes your fancy. And if you’re looking for new JRock music to get your teeth stuck into, be sure to check out the Rice Digital Spotify Playlist, updated monthly with new music from some of our favourite bands from Japan.
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