PopRockMetal Gods: A Look at Visual Kei

Versailles

It’s not easy to pin down a musical movement without referring to a genre of sound. Be it pop, rock or metal, visual kei has at one point or another been involved in all of these yet at the same time can be defined by none of them. This stems from the fact that visual kei – literally ‘visual style’ or ‘visual system’ – is as the name suggests not a musical genre but rather an aesthetic one. Even then, the style can be incredibly diverse, making it notoriously difficult to define.

Although a uniquely Japanese movement, visual kei was at least partially inspired by Western glam metal bands of the 1970s onwards such as KISS and Twisted Sister. However, what they inspired in visual kei was not any single particular sound but rather the importance of appearance as an essential element – one which is arguably even more significant than the music itself. In very broad terms, the majority of visual kei bands can therefore be best summarised in terms of the physical: ethereally dark, glamorously androgynous, and elaborately punk are all phrases that immediately spring to mind. Many artists are especially effeminate in style, and it isn’t uncommon for some to pose entirely as female, wearing dresses reminiscent of Regency, Rococo, and Victorian fashion. To the general public, visual kei bands are perhaps less known for their actual music and more for their eye-popping wardrobe and make-up. Belying their appearance, vocals tend to be anything but gender ambiguous and often lean towards the dramatically deep.

X Japan

Pioneered by bands such as Buck-Tick, D’erlanger, and X Japan, visual kei emerged during the early 1980s primarily as a series of independent and underground projects. It was not until the later 1980s and early 1990s that visual kei began earning significant mainstream coverage, with album sales seeing a notable rise and stage shows receiving increasing amounts of media attention. X Japan, LUNA SEA, Malice Mizer and GLAY saw a particularly large fanbase during these years, with GLAY at one point being one of Japan’s best-selling musical acts. Malice Mizer, while not as commercially successful, became especially famous for their live performances featuring extremely lavish historical costumes and stage sets.

The mainstream popularity of visual kei was relatively short-lived, with many bands peaking in popularity in the mid to late 1990s. X Japan disbanded in 1997 followed by LUNA SEA in 2000, and in 2001 Malice Mizer announced an indefinite hiatus.

However, visual kei has also seen several new bursts of popularity over recent years. Malice Mizer co-founder Mana would go on to create his own clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, in 1999, coining the terms ‘Elegant Gothic Lolita’ and ‘Elegant Gothic Aristocrat’. He is regularly featured modelling his own designs in the quarterly Gothic & Lolita Bible, the top publication of the lolita fashion scene, and in 2001 he founded new gothic metal and visual kei band Moi dix Mois.Gackt, who abruptly left Malice Mizer at the height of the band’s success in 1999, began pursuing a career as a solo artist and today has successfully released eight studio albums, as well as being involved in film, television, and even video games and the theatre.

Gackt

In 2007, visual kei was revitalized with LUNA SEA reuniting for a concert that was sold out within five minutes of tickets going on sale. X Japan officially reunited the same year with a new single and a world tour announced for 2011. Also in 2007, music project S.K.I.N was founded by X Japan’s Yoshiki, Malice Mizer’s Gackt, LUNA SEAS’s Sugizo, and Dué le quartz’s Miyavi, with the project’s live concert in Long Beach, California being described as the “Japanese rock concert of the century.” Meanwhile, post-millennium visual kei bands such as Nightmare, the GazettE,Antic Cafe, Girugämesh, SID, Alice Nine, and Golden Bomber have all achieved moderate to high mainstream popularity, with many of these acts performing overseas.

Where visual kei will go from here is anybody’s guess. In an interview in 2010, LUNA SEA’s Sugizo expressed concern that newer visual kei bands “cannot make good sounds and music is more like a hobby … I cannot feel their soul in the music.” However, with an ever-expanding diversity of sound, be it pop punk, progressive rock, darkwave electronica or gothic metal, visual kei is undoubtedly still one of the most interesting and dynamic musical movements of contemporary Japan.

Golden Bomber

Question of the post: Do you have a favourite visual kei band, and if so, what makes them stand out more to you than others? If you don’t listen to visual kei, is it primarily the sound or the aesthetic style that makes it unappealing?

Quick note: I will be away on vacation for the next two weeks. I will still be reading and replying to all comments, but this will be my final post until September 7th/8th.

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16 thoughts on “PopRockMetal Gods: A Look at Visual Kei

  1. Geat article! My favourite visual kei band would have to be Versailles. I don’t like their power metal songs as much, but when they’re doing songs a bit slower they produce some pretty good stuff. They’re also really good musicians, maybe their vocalist not quite as much, and (most importantly) their composing is sweet. But apart from Versailles I haven’t really found any visual kei groups that stand out to me a lot. It just kinda feels like same old and not much variation between bands. Do you have a particular favourite?

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    • Nice choice. 🙂
      They’re not one of the more ‘hardcore’ visual kei bands, but I really like SID. ‘Monochrome no Kiss’, ‘Ranbu no Melody’, and ‘Rain’ are great singles. And every now and then, the GazettE puts out something I really enjoy, like ‘Shiver’. Similar to you though, I wouldn’t call myself a visual kei fan. I just like whatever music I like, and if it occasionally happens to fall into the visual kei category then so be it. I actually wished I liked visual kei more, because I think the general style can be pretty damn cool.

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      • I’m not a big SID fan or anything but I think ‘S’ is an awesome song. And their vocalist is good too. There are also some GazettE songs I like such as VORTEX. I also like what MIYAVI is doing these days, the electro-slap-guitar combo, though I don’t know if he would be called vkei anymore. Anyway enjoy your vacation and I’ll be looking forward to whatever article you decide to put out next!

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      • Totally enjoy a bit of SID and GazettE and watching Miyavi slap his guitar around. Gackt is still…well, Gackt >< Used to listen to a bit of Alice Nine but not so much now.

        I hope you're doing something nice for your holiday – or are you climbing Fuji? Because that doesn't count!

        Now that you've mentioned Monochrome Kiss I have to go watch Kuroshitsuji fanvids.

        Or listen to Pink Spider.

        Or both.

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        • SID is definitely my favourite visual kei artist, but yeah, every now and again some GazettE and Gackt goes down well.

          I am indeed climbing Fuji-san, although not until this coming weekend – my last couple of days of leave from the office. But I’ve also been watching movies, visiting the zoo, doing a bit of shopping, and generally bumming around my prefecture’s capital city (Matsuyama). 🙂

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          • Is that the last weekend before they close it off to climbers? Can’t be that long now.

            I hope you have clear skies. I still have to go back so I can actually see the bloody thing. Every time it’s been cloudy or foggy – although I did see it from the shinkansen window in 2008. I think Fuji-san is playing hard-to-get…

            Anyway good luck and remember to cut your big toenails particularly short!

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  2. I listen to the GazettE occassionaly, but overall I don’t listen to the visual kei genre a lot. The Gazette has some very agressive songs and don’t always follow a steady path in a song. The song can go from heave screaming/grunting to clean vocals and suddenly distorted guitars or what not. There is no real straight line, it appears like a mixture of many genres within one, as you stated. But there are really good songs out there.

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    • Yeah, I listen to the GazettE every now and again as well. As you say though, even a single track can often go through many different styles when it comes to visual kei – for me, that makes a lot of visual kei music difficult to listen to.

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  3. Very interesting. I haven’t listened to any of the bands you mention in your article. I just sort of stumble upon music randomly (or I want to take a closer look at something I’ve heard in some anime/drama) and I just haven’t come across any visual kei yet. I should look up these bands you mention, so that I at least can have an opinion. 🙂

    There’s a young Swedish boy with the stage name Yohio who wants to introduce this style in Sweden (he has performed in Japan) and according to Wikipedia, his music is “rock/pop music taking inspiration from the Japanese visual kei movement”; I don’t know how it compares to the actual Japanese visual kei, but I think he looks just like how you describe it in your second paragraph. 🙂 The first time I saw him on TV I was like “aw, cute, he looks like a little manga girl!”… and then I was surprised that his voice was the complete opposite of “girly” *lol* just like you write.

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    • That’s how I’ve gotten into a lot of Japanese music as well – I hear a song used in an OP or ED, like it enough to check out what else the artist has done, then possibly fall in love. I would never have discovered some of my now very favourite Japanese artists this way, such as Kalafina or Yui. The same goes for visual kei artists too… although I wouldn’t say I’m a visual kei fan. I just happen to like one or two artists that fit into that category. 🙂

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  4. I’d also say Versailles, though I actually prefer their harder tracks. It’s the guitars that make their music for me, though Kamijo’s voice can be exceptional, especially in tracks like Prince.

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    • I have a lot of respect for Versailles but there haven’t been any tracks (at least not in the last couple of years) that I’ve particularly liked. But I tend not to like the harder visual kei stuff – more moderate material usually works better for me as far as vk is concerned.

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  5. Good article. Thanks for laying out what VK really is. A lot of misconception by fans is they see it as a genre rather than a style of appearance.

    My all time favorite jrock band is Luna Sea. What makes them stand out to me more than others is their sound that very much like the 80’s rock style except in a more modernize form. It’s a very nice blend of clean and distortion guitars balancing out the mainstream and unconventional song writing. Most rock bands bassists don’t stand out but in Luna Sea, J’s bassplay leads the songs’ pacing. Songs like Loveless and Rosier are perfect examples of this. Inoran, the rhythm guitarist, most of the time plays clean guitar sounds and beautiful arpeggios creating the band’s key melodies while Sugizo, the leader guitarist, does all the heavy work that includes all the guitar solos. Shinya is one hell of an aggressive drummer and Ryuichi is an excellent vocalist for their sound, though he may be hit or miss to some. This band has the perfect lineup in my eyes. Without Luna Sea, we wouldn’t see other bands like GazettE and Siam Shade in existence. I highly recommend checking out their 23 min single, THE ONE -crash to create-. It pretty much sums up their entire music style in both old days and post-reunion era.

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    • You’re welcome, and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. You’re right – a lot of people do mistake VK for a particular genre of music, which of course is not the case, even though many VK bands do have a lot of similarities with regard to their sound.
      Thank you for commenting! Luna Sea’s a real classic. 🙂

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  6. Pingback: Lolita: Fashion and Subculture | OTAKU LOUNGE

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