The 13 essential Japanese rock and metal albums you need to know
A history oozing with blood, phantasmic goth darkness, irresistible flamboyance, anime wizardry and French baroque lavishness, Japanese rock has been dominated by an aesthetic as quintessential to its existence as corpsepaint is to black metal. Unlike stereotypical heavy metal sensibilities, the subculture of visual kei flirts with colour, gender, and genre in a way entirely unique to Japan, with its cohorts opting to change their look and style not just across albums, but often within the same record.
But this kaleidoscopic vision of an artist’s self is just the tip of the J‑rock and metal iceberg. Here we present the 13 albums you need from the ever-evolving Japanese scene – from its skyscraper hair origins to its planet-dominating present…
X Japan – Blue Blood (1989)
Thirty years on and still the embodiment of Psychedelic Violence Crime Of Visual Shock. The Chiba metal militia’s outrageous use of kabuki colours, leather and colossal hairstyles would’ve turned more than a few heads in 1989 – a sight reinforced by the wild ferocity of their anthemic heavy metal attack. A marriage of roses and viscera, of tempestuous savagery and devastating beauty, Blue Blood was X Japan at their most dynamic and seductive – their desires at their most sadistic. Tokyo’s Dead End may have arguably been the first, but with their second record, X became the dominant force in Japanese music.
D’erlanger – Basilisk (1990)
Swapping speed metal sleaze for post-punk’s moody shadows, by 1990 D’erlanger had joined the ranks of Buck Tick and Zi:Kill as the forerunners of a new movement poised to consume the following decade. The truest incarnation of eroticism, Basilisk envelopes with shades of Joy Division goth euphoria, as vocalist Kyo lures his audience into a rousing lair full of darkened intrigue, entangling them in his David Sylvian-esque web until they can writhe no longer. These velveteen hymns engulfed a generation with a burgeoning erogenous intensity the scene has seldom seen since.
Luna Sea – Mother (1994)
In J‑rock circles, 1994 will forever be remembered as the year visual kei broke out of its aphrodisiacal pupa with ecstatic fervour. Alongside L’Arc-en-Ciel’s Tierra, Mother achieved huge success by blending the gothic romanticism of albums past with radiant vibrancy. Its rich sound dominates the vast spectrum of exuberant vitality at the heart of Luna Sea’s magnum opus with Rosier its emblematic anthem. Even at its most mainstream, Mother proved Japanese rock could revel in glorious heaviness.
Malice Mizer – Merveilles (1998)
Before the baroque goth of Moi dix Moix, before vocalist Gackt became a superstar, this quintessentially Rococo ensemble embarked on a quest to rewrite the rulebook. Pioneering the now archetypal union of classical European aesthetics with heavy metal, Malice Mizer transcended towards theatrical elegance, embracing antiquated piano and violin fanfare, resulting in symphonic ballads and avant-garde pomp heavier than anything on the airwaves at the time. What it lacks in riffs their highest-charting record more than makes up for in lyrical grace and divine extravagance.
Dir en Grey – Vulgar (2003)
A perverted nightmare of sadomasochistic proportions, Vulgar is Dir en Grey (and Japanese metal) at their most ero guro: a grotesque underworld so salacious that it’d make Cenobites jealous. A tome drenched in sinful odes, with darkness gushing from its arteries, Vulgar’s anguish is best felt in its contorted heaviness, wrenching out its slickly-produced cacophonies like chunks of its own flesh, packed with enough killer grooves and forlorn riffs to keep the despair alive.
Psycho le Cému – Frontiers (2003)
Roaming the outer reaches of an anime supernova, Psycho le Cému’s Frontiers dared to embody multiple personalities, bridging the scene’s triumphant past with an uncertain future. Taking stylistic reinvention to new extremes, this oft-ignored group embraced a drastic new look with every new single, moulding what ought to be a blasphemous concoction of metal, rock, pop, psychedelia, EDM and hip-hop with contagious results.
MUCC – Kuchiki no Tou (2004)
Dripping with insatiable angst and salivating their menace in guitarist Miya’s uncompromising tone, MUCC ripped their soul from their chests with their fourth outing. An unapologetically bleak tour-de-force of melancholia, Kuchiki no Tou tapped into an inner darkness, hellbent on implosion, and channelled it through Tatsurou’s tragically ravishing shrieks. An album of relentless catharsis, MUCC would later reach international success with a more optimistic outlook, but have rarely topped this emotional rollercoaster.
D’espairsRay – [Coll:set] (2005)
In the early 2000s, D’espairsRay’s [Coll:set] unleashed an an industrial metal carnage that Japan has yet to recreate. Addled with infectiously catchy melodies and monumental choruses like Tsuki no Kioku-Fallen, Garnet and Hai to Ame, with Hizumi’s striking voice – and an unsettling sense of foreboding – [Coll:set] captured the West’s attention as J‑rock started to take over the world.
Nightmare – The World Ruler (2007)
Striking a delicate balance between sentimental harmony and electrifying power, Nightmare’s fourth record feels like a modern-day Mother, bleeding Luna Sea’s gothic majesty with the perilous gloom and raucous punk of their contemporaries. It is surely no coincidence, then, that The World Ruler supplemented the runaway success of TV series Death Note, as its lead single – The World / Alumina – opened and closed the show for 19 episodes. A record that embodied the scene’s perfect storm, this should’ve catapulted the band into the stratosphere.
An Café – Gokutama Rock Cafe (2008)
Back in the mid-2000s, two bands were hot on everybody’s lips: Alice Nine and An Café. Love them or hate them, An Café proved the perfect antidote to visual kei’s brooding malevolence. The Harajuku dance rockers cultivated a mass oshare kei following with their inescapably upbeat music and brightly colourful apparel, and, by the time their third record was released, began climbing European charts. Ryuusei Rocket and Cherry Saku Yuki!! remain buckets of poppy fun to this day.
Versailles – Jubilee (2010)
Looking like they’ve strolled straight out of some extravagant baroque ball, exhibiting their neo-classical symphonic metal with sincere regality, you would be forgiven for mistaking Versailles as 18th century French aristocrats. Ratcheting up the royalty and grandiosity tenfold on their second album, Kamijo and his noblemen ascended the throne as maestros with odes fit for a monarch, mischievously welcoming them to their vampiric masquerade.
The GazettE – Dogma (2015)
Choosing Dogma over 2009’s Dim, the definitive record in the band’s arsenal that shaped a generation? There’s a method for this madness, for The GazettE’s eighth outing not only dragged the world deeper into a darkness unseen since their peak, but served as an astounding return to form. Ditching the electronic dalliances in favour of a threatening onslaught of brutality, Dogma boasts some of the band’s most elaborately crushing work to date, a vein-splitting reminder of their relevance as a new wave lurks in their shadows.
BABYMETAL – METAL RESISTANCE (2016)
If you honestly thought you could escape from BABYMETAL on a list such as this, you were wrong. The idol troupe woke the globe’s inner oni when they stormed the world stage with their eponymous debut in 2014, but it was METAL RESISTANCE – dominating the charts in a way no other Japanese band has achieved before or since – that catapulted KOBAMETAL’s ensemble to intergalactic stardom. A gauntlet of dance-crazed, neck-snapping hits blossomed in their pop-tastic heaviness, and even boasted Herman Li and Sam Totman blazing a trail on their path to victory. With 2019’s METAL GALAXY continuing their kawaii-metal conquest, resistance is still futile.
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