On Sunday I went to a Gothic Lolita live rock event, run by a la mode Tokyo, a gothic lolita night club organizer (they don’t seem to have any kind of web presence that I can find, though they seem to be connected to this group and can be found on Artism). This seems to be the central group offering live and club events connected to the Gothic Lolita scene, so obviously it’s going to be an interesting excursion, as well as potentially a very pretty one.
The event was held at the Live Inn Rosa in Ikebukuro, from 4pm to 10pm on Sunday the 8th January. There were a total of about 8 bands playing, with an MC who also sings and a couple of “mini-live” performances of 10 to 20 minutes each. There was also a collection of stalls selling goth-lolita goods but they were small and inobtrusive. Some of the bands had a table selling (or giving away) products. Admission was ¥3500 with a drink (about $40 including 1 drink). This may seem like a lot but it’s worth remembering a couple of things about Japanese live performances: you usually get to see a lot of bands, and the bands are usually extremely high quality. Japanese live performers are universally very very good, and so even if you don’t like the genre you’re not going to be subjected to that classic of the Aussie pub rock genre, a band whose music you just can’t understand because they’re sloppy and out of time and drunk. I didn’t stay for the last two bands, but what follows is a brief review of those I did see. Pictures were taken on candelight setting on my crappy cheapest-in-the-shop Olympus camera, but I hope they give a sense of the scene.
Billing themselves as a steampunk band (whatever that is), Strange Artifact were basically a bass-guitar / vocalist pair, with drums and guitar on backing tapes. Their music is close to Visual Kei in style, with a female singer and perhaps a little more electronic influence than the average Visual Kei performance. You can see a video of one of their songs from the weekend here or hear a studio song on track 9 of this compilation. The singer isn’t operatic (as you will see, this is relevant) and this performance was probably the closest to a rock/visual kei genre. It was fun and energetic and well presented, and I really enjoyed it.
I’m not sure how this band is steampunk and I should say right away that I don’t understand the lyrics of songs in Japanese, so I don’t know what they sing about. This Steampunk genre is a complete mystery to me!
Miyahi Aya was a sudden change in pace. A solo singer with all her backing music on tape, singing a strange blend of synthpop, J-pop and cabaret-style music. You can sample some of her songs at her Myspace page, where you can also find a slightly less blurry picture of her. In between her songs she maintained a fairly entertaining patter of banter with herself and the audience, most of it quite shy and self-deprecating and a bit silly. Again, I’m not sure about the content of her songs but the atmosphere for this 30 minutes was one of light-hearted silliness in between songs presented in a demure and slightly wistful physical performance. Good if you want your J-pop blended with gothic industrial themes and a dash of synthpop, in a lacy dress.
This was possibly my favorite performance of the night simply for the way it encapsulated a spirit of gothic elegance that I think has long since drained from the scene in other parts of the world. Tamamushi Naoki is one half of the duo “Pudding a la mode,” and you can hear one of their songs on their last.fm page. I don’t remember Tamamushi sounding anything like that, though: her songs were more powerful single vocal pieces, with a more gothic-rock backing style and a more sedate and solemn pace. For the duration of her performance she also had incense and that little lantern burning, and she performed in front of the visual screen rather than on the stage, giving it a more intimate feeling. Her make up and outfit were superbly gothic in the old style, and that dress was very splendid. She danced in the classic gothic mode (waving her arms and stepping backwards and forwards – it’s about all you can do in clothes like that) and gave a very self-conscious and simple performance without any of the artifice or posing that often accompanies modern live acts. She was, however, only on for 10 minutes, and her performance was slightly distracted from by the projection screen behind her, which was playing the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland over her face.
Perhaps the most outright entertaining of the acts, Kokushicho (Black Death Butterflies, in English) describe themselves as a “Symphonic Gothic Unit” and, true to their name, give a fairly robust metal/goth crossover performance involving a good amount of power chords, some (dainty) headbanging, and robust vocals of the girl-metal variety. They came on stage in pirate outfits, belted out an excellent symphonic metal job, then disappeared and returned to the stage in the more classic costumes you see above. I can’t see any of their music online but their site is here. This “Unit” told us after their first song that they are lovers, and they seemed to be riffing off of this a bit in their banter with each other in between songs – presenting a kind of light comedy teasing like a couple. Like most of the other bands playing today, all of their music was on backup tape like a J-pop band, and we only saw the vocal performance, but it was an energetic and exciting performance with an entertaining metal theme.
Elupia was perhaps the first of the “main” acts of the night, and also happen to be a band we have a connection to: The Delightful Miss E is friends with the keyboardist (not the one to the foreground in this picture, but the one tucked away in the furthest, darkest corner of the room). Elupia are operatic goth rock, like a Japanese Nightwish, with a little more Visual Kei influence. Apparently the singer actually has operatic training, and it certainly seemed that way during her performance. Their Myspace page includes a couple of samples and a promotional video, and I think it’s safe to say they’re a pretty impressive act. They’re all well-polished performers, and seemed very skilled and popular with the crowd. I’m not a huge fan of operatic metal (I’ve tried getting into bands like Nightwish and consistently fail) but as a live act these guys were awesome. Sadly, though, they were only on for half an hour.
Gurimo Rizumo regaled us initially with an introductory speech, very much in the manner of a woman telling a children’s story or narrating a wildlife documentary. Each of their songs is a story and comes with an initial narrative, presented in this faux-serious way. The music could probably best be described as burlesque/cabaret goth, which is also not a genre I’m particularly fascinated by (largely because of the enooooormous load of pretentious wank that associates with burlesque), but this band presented as a genuine performance, wank-free and very confidently theatrical. It’s a very interesting style, and you can see an example of it in this youtube video. The second video (about 6:23) is the song they presented first, about the murderous circus. I really like these kinds of performances, where the performers are putting in a real effort not just to sing a song but to build a whole image and performance style, even if (as in this case) the crowd is quite small and the venue very normal. Thirty or forty years ago bands like The Cure and Marillion were doing this sort of thing, with varying degrees of success, and if they hadn’t taken themselves seriously we would be a sadder world now. And one thing I certainly like about the Japanese music scene is its seriousness. As you can see from the shot below, the setting isn’t special, but this band were really giving it their all to take us to the circus …
The bands in this live event had quite a few things in common, which I guess are a property of the music attached to the gothic-lolita scene. All the singers – and in many cases, all the members – were women, and although the music ranged across a couple of genres, it had a general operatic/cabaret theme, with a strong goth/metal base. Of course, like most Japanese gothic rock it was heavily influenced by Visual Kei, but had a nice variety of the carnivalesque that suits the image this scene presents to the outside world. There was a heavy focus on performance and presentation, which is nice, and although much of the imagery in the costumes is very western the style of the performances was very Japanese. As always at a Japanese live event the performers were stylish, skilled and dedicated. They were also friendly and engaging both on and off stage.
This music scene also harks back to an era that I think has been lost in British and Australian goth: an era when the scene was focused around women and women’s voices, and privileged elegance over raunch, and creativity over aggro. Now in the goth scene we see a lot of emo and tattooed blokes thumping out whiny songs about their ex’s, and women’s clothing and presentation has been pornified in a way that I find disappointing. Sure, it’s nice that young women can come to goth clubs in essentially their underwear, but I liked all the corsetry and elaborate make-up, and the focus on beauty and elegance over tits ‘n arse. So it’s nice to see this scene in Japan preserving that old-fashioned gothic shyness and elegance, while simultaneously exploring new avenues of musical expression. It’s also nice to see cabaret/burlesque worked into a music scene without the inevitable explosion of poseurs and wankers that accompany it in the west. It’s a typical unassuming, humble approach to a music scene that really has gotten a little ahead of itself elsewhere.
In summary, even if you aren’t that into cabaret-style metal, this music scene is definitely worth exploring if you’re into goth music and in Tokyo.
fn1: Incidentally, I don’t know how to say this. It was recorded and played but do we still say “backup tape”? Is it “backup iPad” now?
fn2: Actually, to their credit, so were a couple of men