Guardians Of The Galaxy: Why BABYMETAL Are Stronger Than Ever
There’s one song in particular on BABYMETAL’s third album, METAL GALAXY, that the band’s singer SU-METAL says is very close to her heart. Shine, the record’s penultimate track, is a big-souled six-minute belter that still manages to be reasonably pared-down by the Japanese kawaii-metal group’s standards – “pared-down” insomuch as it only features the one guitar solo. She recalls clearly the emotion she put in while recording it in the studio, inspired by its message of light and hope, and says it has a power that she’s looking forward to sharing with fans.
“If someone is facing darkness, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” she says, referencing the song’s lyrics. “It’s actually really difficult to believe in yourself and believe in one thing, because there are so many obstacles that we go through. But if you believe in yourself, there’s a big light that’s always waiting for you. Every time I sing this song, it provides me with a lot of motivation.”
Given that the monumental saga that’s adjoined to BABYMETAL’s music – of the Fox God and its supporting cast of spirits – has grown so vast that its spilled out into its own spin-off graphic novel, released late last year, it’d be easy for such a simple, down-to-earth sentiment like this to get lost amid the band’s arcane mythos. But the singer’s connection to a song about overcoming tough times feels all the more profound, given the band’s journey since their last record, 2016’s breakout METAL RESISTANCE.
It’s been over a year since founding member YUIMETAL announced that she would be parting ways with BABYMETAL after eight years, leaving SU-METAL and her partner MOAMETAL to carry on as a duo. That news followed months of confusion and uncertainty, after the now ex-member had been absent without explanation from BABYMETAL’s 2018 world tour. Even for a band whose operations often border on the clandestine, the ins and outs of the scenario remained a mystery.
This means that METAL GALAXY is the first record that the band have created without YUIMETAL. Yet that’s not the only reason that this feels like a new era for BABYMETAL. Both remaining members are adults now – today SU-METAL is 22, and MOAMETAL just over a year younger, having both joined the band at the respective ages of 13 and 11 – and their days of balancing schoolwork and shows are long behind them. Each has their own visions and aspirations for what the band can be. And then there’s the music itself, with METAL GALAXY throwing open a toy box of ambitions and ideas, and making it clear that this is a band not only ready for the next level, but ready to create something new entirely for heavy music.
In a twist of fate, METAL GALAXY was released the same day that BABYMETAL play The Forum in Los Angeles, their first time headlining an arena in the land of opportunity. It seems the Americans are beginning to catch up on a live show that’s gloriously OTT – when Bring Me The Horizon played ahead of BABYMETAL at this year’s Summer Sonic festival in Tokyo, frontman Oli Sykes announced his band were merely in town to warm up the crowd for them.
Asked for a highlight of the band’s stateside trip, SU-METAL nominates fans in Philadelphia frantically spinning towels above their heads during new single PA PA YA!!.
“We just played a venue that we visited three years ago, and during that time most people didn’t know much about us, and they were just thinking, ‘What an interesting group of girls,’” she says. “But this year when we played that same venue, the reaction was more like the fans specifically came to see us, and so it made me really happy.”
“I know how hard Japanese is, so it’s amazing to see our fans memorising Japanese lyrics,” adds MOAMETAL of the US shows.
There are certain subjects that BABYMETAL are and aren’t happy to talk about. An igloo of secrecy surrounds Suzuka Nakamoto and Moa Kikuchi’s private lives and future plans, for fear that it might break the spell cast by their characters. In fact, sweetly shutting down questions that pry too intimately with the mantra ‘Only the Fox God knows’ has become something of a calling card – try to find an interview with the group that hasn’t had at least one question met with this answer and you’ll be in for a long night. Still, speaking to us today via a translator, it doesn’t take long before their individual personalities start to shine through.
Take, for example, the moment when Kerrang! asks both members what piece of advice they’d have given their younger selves as they started out in BABYMETAL. MOAMETAL jokes that she’d tell herself to stretch more before shows. “When I was younger, I didn’t have to warm up and I was able to dance and do my thing,” she says. “But now, as I’ve become older, I need to warm up.” SU-METAL, meanwhile, gives the far more pensive response that she’d tell herself to “trust her instincts”.
We talk about the artists and musicians they’ve encountered through touring – the internet is awash with snaps of the group with acts as diverse as Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, All Time Low and, most recently, alt.pop star Billie Eilish, all holding up those Fox God horns. MOAMETAL says that the band she’d still most like to meet is U.S. prog-metallers Dream Theater, whose sound specifically influenced BABYMETAL’s 2016 track Tales Of The Destinies. As for the best advice that anyone’s given them, that would be from Judas Priest legend Rob Halford, who told them to “always stay metal”.
“Rob Halford telling us to stay metal has always been within our hearts,” says SU-METAL. “It’s been something that we have always had in the back of our heads every time we are facing any obstacles or we receive bad reviews.”
The talk of obstacles brings us naturally on to the subject YUIMETAL’s exit. In October last year, she released a statement explaining to fans that she hadn’t been well, but also that she would not be returning to BABYMETAL, instead hoping to pursue a solo career.
“I had the strong desire to appear onstage again but my physical condition is not at its best even now,” the statement read, “and further I feel that I would like to pursue my dream, one that I have had from a long time ago, of going on my own as Mizuno Yui. It is these factors that led to my decision.”
A year on, it’s a subject the remaining pair still seem reluctant to dwell on for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
“YUIMETAL has been someone very special to us. So obviously it’s been very difficult, but we want to fully support what she wants to pursue,” is SU-METAL’s sombre-sounding response today. Since the start of the year, a rotating trio of back-up dancers, known as the Avengers, have alternated in filling YUIMETAL’s role onstage, but the pair state that there was never any talk about finding a permanent replacement.
“We wanted to continue BABYMETAL and continue the tradition,” says SU-METAL. “Also there’s just no-one like YUIMETAL, so it’s not an easy replacement. And that’s why we decided – SU-METAL and MOAMETAL – to form the core of BABYMETAL.”
Has it changed their relationship, being a duo?
“My bond with SU-METAL has become even stronger,” says MOAMETAL. “I feel that we can understand each other even more. We’ve been very close since the very beginning, and just to be a part of BABYMETAL with SU-METAL is something that I’m very grateful about. She is someone that I can rely on and trust.”
The band’s producer, KOBAMETAL, emphasises that it was SU-METAL and MOAMETAL’s drive and spirit that steered BABYMETAL through this uncertain period.
“Obviously YUIMETAL’s departure was something that they’d never experienced before,” he says. “It was a difficult moment for BABYMETAL, but it was more that SU-METAL and MOAMETAL had their strong desire to continue [the band]. They wanted to become the core of the group. I think it was a time where BABYMETAL continued to evolve.”
The mysterious KOBAMETAL – who makes most of his public appearances in a full-body skeleton outfit – is seen as the creative mastermind pulling the strings. Having assembled and launched BABYMETAL out of Tokyo nine years ago, every crunching breakdown, onstage explosion and Fox God “prophecy” has filtered through his brain. Still, the conception of METAL GALAXY may be his most expansive and complex achievement yet.
He admits that YUIMETAL’s departure played a part in the considerable three-and-a-half-year stretch since the band’s last full-length, METAL RESISTANCE, but adds that the wait also had a lot to do with the grand nature of what he was cooking up.
In order to explain METAL GALAXY, KOBAMETAL paints a picture of BABYMETAL travelling through space, visiting and learning from different metal galaxies as they go. In real life, he draws a comparison with the band’s constant touring around the world giving them unique opportunities to rub up against different cultures and styles of music. It was these experiences that he fed into the album, with an end goal of creating something entirely new.
“This is our first time to try a new genre of metal,” he says. “Before, we’ve explored subgenres of metal – we’ve explored Japanese metal, and European bass metal, and folk metal – and now we’re trying a different variety of metal, in which we’re trying out jazz and future bass sounds, as well as hip-hop, Indian sounds and Latin sounds. We’re exploring different territories of metal.”
For an understanding of just how diverse the influences that METAL GALAXY pulls from can be, take a look at some of the collaborators that appear throughout its 14 tracks. Thai rapper F.Hero crash-lands into The Prodigy-flavoured PA PA YA!! with a quick-fire verse, while Joakim Brodén of Swedish good-time metallers Sabaton barrels around the folk-infused Oh! MAJINAI. Perhaps most striking of all, though, is Arch Enemy’s Alissa White-Gluz serving as a deathly, snarling foil to SU-METAL’s lightness on the pulverising Distortion.
The producer describes these guest contributions, which were added after the tracks had already been written, as like “finding the missing piece of the puzzle”, while SU-METAL says she relished the chance to face-off against new and distinct vocalists. “With the opportunity to collaborate with so many various artists this time, I feel that we’ve widened the musical range of our genres,” she says. “BABYMETAL is constantly evolving, and I hope we’re changing into something new again.”
It’s an ambition that KOBAMETAL clearly shares, and he hopes that the kind of experimentation that BABYMETAL have shown on METAL GALAXY will, in time, single them out as a force all on their own, as they move out of the shadows of some of metal’s biggest idols.
“We want to do something that no other artist has ever done before,” he says. “In terms of the metal genre, there are legendary bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or Metallica, and BABYMETAL receives a lot of inspiration from these legendary artists. But we don’t want to do something the same as these legendary bands, because that’s their colour. We want to make sure that we pass down the beauty of metal music, but in a way that BABYMETAL feels metal music is all about.”
Of course, one thing that distinguishes BABYMETAL from others in their field is the presence of the Fox God and the colourful depth that the band’s storybook narrative brings. You wouldn’t expect KOBAMETAL to divulge a great deal of information on the plotline of METAL GALAXY, but he does explain that the notion of duality – something that has always been at the heart of BABYMETAL, he believes – is a key factor for this record.
“BABYMETAL has its light side and its dark sides – with the costumes, the colours are red and black – and we portray that through our performances, as well as the experience altogether,” he says. “This time around I think it’s really important to portray the light side and dark side, because these two opposing factors create a balance between each other.”
It can be tough keeping up with him when he’s in soothsayer mode, but he goes on to reveal that these opposing forces will also take on a celestial presence throughout METAL GALAXY – with SU-METAL representing the sun, and MOAMETAL portraying the moon.
“Both shed light,” he says, cryptically. “But it’s a different type of environment when each one sheds light.”
If the universe surrounding BABYMETAL seems to be expanding, then the producer is keen to point out that it would not have been possible had the abilities of SU-METAL and MOAMETAL not also grown with the ambitions of his vision. He sounds like a proud father as he remembers their first show at a small live house in Japan, comparing it to when they headlined two nights at the Tokyo Dome in 2016, playing to more than 100,000 people in total.
“They’ve gained so much experience and they’ve widened the range of their skill, as well as their depth,” he says. “They’ve matured in the way they perform and the way they show themselves onstage.
“This entire experience over the course of nine years is what has allowed them to really grow as members, as well as BABYMETAL. Every day has been a new experience and every day has been one thing that they’ve gained skill on. In the song Road Of Resistance [from METAL RESISTANCE], there’s a phrase in the lyrics where it says, ‘Today creates tomorrow,’ and I really believe in that, and I think it really portrays BABYMETAL.”
It’s a change that SU-METAL can also see in herself, with the conception of METAL GALAXY allowing her to push herself creatively.
“I was able to challenge myself into doing something that I’ve never done before,” she says. “I wanted to widen the range of my vocals. So I put a lot of effort and time into recording it. We wanted to make sure we were completely satisfied with [how it] sounded.”
Such growth mirrors the personal change that SU-METAL and MOAMETAL have seen in themselves in recent years. Growing up in the public eye could have seen them draw away from a life spent under a spotlight, but if anything it seems to have imbued them with resilience. SU-METAL in particular feels that she’s drawn strength from her adopted BABYMETAL persona.
“To meet my new inner self, which is SU-METAL, has been the high point in my career,” she says. “If I was just an ordinary person, I wouldn’t have been able to experience what I’ve experienced through BABYMETAL.”
She gives an example of what she means, recalling one of her earliest performances with the group in Japan, where those in the audience weren’t trying hard to hide their laughter at the three girls onstage, confused by their unusual blend of harsh metal and cutesy J‑pop. But SU-METAL describes how it filled her with nothing but steely determination.
“Usually people would shy away from that,” she says. “But when I was onstage as SU-METAL, I felt actually motivated when the audience was laughing at me – it was something that I wanted to pursue, so that I would be more well-accepted. I’ve been able to gain more confidence through my experiences as SU-METAL. To be able to do that has added more depth into BABYMETAL’s music.”
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There’s an added sense from the pair that, as they’ve grown older, this confidence has also allowed them to become more comfortable with their roles as people others look up to – both as individuals, and as ambassadors for heavy music.
“At first I had an image that metal music was a little bit on the scarier side, because we were so young,” says MOAMETAL. “But over the course of nine years and through BABYMETAL I’ve been able to really understand and realise how beautiful and amazing metal music is. It’s just so cool. For future generations and younger generations, I want to be that role model to communicate that.”
“We want to create a genre called ‘BABYMETAL’,” adds SU-METAL. “I hope that through our music we can be the bridge that can connect and allow more people to take interest in both Japanese music culture and metal music.”
Is that something that she’s already seen happening?
“I hope so,” she replies.
For now, there are plenty of opportunities to continue spreading the good word of BABYMETAL in the near future. Having just played some super-massive dates in their homeland, with Bring Me The Horizon (a band they’ve wanted to tour with for a long time, says MOAMETAL) as their chief support act, in February they’ll be back on a plane heading for Europe, as they embark on their first full headline tour round the continent. MOAMETAL states she is particularly excited to be visiting Scandinavia – “the birthplace of metal” – and Russia, but is concerned about the cold.
It brings into sharp focus just how much both of them have achieved so early into their careers. Strip back the mania of BABYMETAL, and you have two young singers who have performed on stages that most musicians will never get near in their entire lives. So, do they ever take a step back to appreciate everything going on around them?
“Not many people get to experience what I’ve experienced through BABYMETAL,” answers SU-METAL. “I’ve been able to hear new music and new sounds. I’ve been able to go to countries that not many people can go to. I’ve been travelling all over the world, meeting so many people. This entire experience has been surreal for me.”
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