PassCode – September 5, 2023 – Gramercy Theater, New York, NYTuesday, 12th September 2023
Personally, it was a chance encounter with PassCode’s 5th full-length album Strive in late 2020 that sparked quite a revolution in yours truly’s musical tastes. Being exposed to sounds like Blood Stain Child’s vastly underappreciated Epsilon album a decade before and absolutely loving it, it was the first thing I had found that was in the same metallic vein (despite some differences of course). It was addicting and the album became a near-constant when it came to daily workouts, eventually leading down the path to their previous releases and discography (previous album Clarity is an all-out must).
From a personal standpoint, Strive opened the floodgates to a new Japanese music scene due to some extra freetime courtesy of COVID-19. While there was an awareness of idols and idol culture due to following anime like Love Live and Zombie Land Saga, outside of Babymetal there wasn’t much that really merged the two sounds together that I had found. Enter PassCode’s blurring mix of metalcore, EDM, and jpop/idol music and it was like I’d hit the jackpot on both of my areas of interest. While I would eventually dive into many groups after PassCode, none really hit that same sweetspot. Needless to say, I hold them to a very high regard, but relegated myself to the belief that only way I’d ever see them would be a trip halfway around the world to Japan. So when their US ‘tour’ (3 dates – Dallas, NYC, and LA) was announced in the summer it was an instant purchase. Not just a ticket, but a VIP to make sure I got the most out of this opportunity. All that was left was the waiting…
Compared to some similar acts (such as BandMaid whom I saw last fall), the VIP for PassCode was surprisingly value-based. First up, you were able to go in and see their soundcheck (2 songs – “Taking You Out” and a cover of Bring Me the Horizon’s “Mantra”). A nice treat given the size of the VIP – while everyone was up close and personal to the band, there was no thoughts of moshing around, which made it nice to view the band’s synchronized dancing without any fear of being tossed around as collateral damage. Sound was very much on point for the soundcheck – the vocals of all four members (Nao Minami, Kaede Takashima, Hinako Ogami, and Emily Arima), while the musicians behind them had plenty of presence.
For the uninitiated, the four vocalists stay up front and center, singing and dancing while instrumentation in the background has much less emphasis. The level of synchronicity that the four vocalists utilize as they move around the stage, particularly when they are right in front of you, is nothing short of breathtaking. For a mere soundcheck, they were going all out, thrilling the VIPs that were present. They did not perform the “Mantra” cover later during the show, so it was an added bonus to see the song and their impressive dance movements for it.
After the soundcheck, VIPs were lined up and brought to the downstairs of the Gramercy for a very brief meet & greet. While it was a bit like being herded cattle, knowing how similar events work with anime conventions and even other Japanese acts, it was a treat to get not only a photo with them (a Polaroid taken by staff), but an individual one at that with you in the center of the four. Accomplishing my goal of getting them to notice my Liella/Love Live Superstar shirt and comment on it helped provide a way to break through their English language barrier, knowing only very limited Japanese myself.
After that, we got some goodies – a signed postcard, a small zipped bag, a surprisingly large towel, a waterproof cell phone holder, and a set of US tour-based stickers. Again, at a price well worth the extra money – especially with the act probably looking at these three dates to garner if there is enough interest for a full-tour – every dollar counts. If it matters, merch was flying off the shelves, with several items being sold out (acrylic stands, pins) even before the VIP were finished.
Compared to some other recent metal shows I’ve been to post-COVID, the PassCode crew was a very friendly one. As one who usually flies solo at concerts, it can be hit or miss to find some conversation before the show starts. In this case, plenty of people were willing to chat – which made the almost hour and a half post-merch time a quick one.
Starting promptly at 8PM with no opening act, PassCode hit the stage to a mostly full Gramercy Theater (sadly it did not sell out) amid plenty of shouts and cheers. They kicked things off with the set with “Groundswell” from their recently released EP of the same name, and to my delight, they didn’t mess too much with the strobe/lighting effects for the first song so you could really watch the choreography. Highlighted by some very quick, synchronized movements involving at least three members as one of them would come closer to the crowd as the main singer for that segment, occasionally giving rise to motions that involved all four members.
As already stated from the soundcheck, it’s really impressive – even more so when you think about how these need to perform on a smaller stage here than in their home country. While it would be easy to get caught up in the moment of seeing the group’s movements in front of you, they were perpetually encouraging the crowd to get into the music in varied ways. Clapping, arm swaying, jumping, shouting, screaming, or even dancing along was not only encouraged, the way they wrapped the crowd into their charisma made it feel near impossible to not join in. I don’t think I’ve left a venue that sweaty and tired (from a mere 90 mins no less) in a decade.
The group’s mastermind and founding member Nao was all smiles for the performances, as were the other three, but what stood out with her performance was how quick she was to encourage individuals in the front – making a lot of direct eye contact, pointing directly at a phone screen, and more – really commanding the crowd, even if a very vocal majority of the crowd were all about the act’s newest member, screamer Emily Arima (who joined in 2021 after the dissolution of Ladybaby, taking the spot of former vocalist Yuna Imada). Arima herself left the most metallic impression, coming out as far as she could to the crowd with lots of big arm motions, inciting the audience as she growled with just as much tenacity and power as any brutal death act. Kaede and Hinako joined in with equal fervor to this mix – it honestly made it a tough way to focus in on just a single member when they were all vying for your attention at times. Probably the highlight in this area though went back to Nao, who frequently looked teary eyed to the crowd’s response as it continued to grow throughout the evening. Touching stuff, in an otherwise frenetic whirlwind – the sheer endurance those four have to dance and sing like that is incredibly impressive. Unlike in Japan, where they would stop more to banter with the crowd over a longer duration, they only stopped for a few times between songs for some brief crowd interactions, instead soldiering on back to back to back on songs with little to no reprieve.
When they did stop to interact with the crowd, despite their limited English, it was just as entertaining to see the crowd shouts for things like, “where did you come from/where do you live” and things along those lines. With a 13 song set (and an encore), the band focused more on recent cuts, which makes sense considering it’s their first time over here as well. But playing five cuts from Clarity as well as two from Strive was quite pleasing, not to mention a few older and popular cuts such as “Miss Unlimited” and “Ninja Bomber.” Well-rounded would be the best way to report on the setlist, with an emphasis on their latest EP (playing 3 of the 4 tracks). Some personal favorites from the set included “Seize Approaching Brand New Era” with it’s emphasis on the EDM/dance side of things, and “Tonight” hitting more upbeat jpop vibes blended with the blistering thrash tempo and an insane chorus (it made an excellent closer).
All in all, it’s easy to rank this as one of my favorite concerts of all time, and that’s no exaggeration. I can’t think of a time where I just had such a smile the entire concert from a group. Their energy was infectious and you could tell they were giving their all (even the band behind them, while relegated to a pretty small amount of space). I was reminded of a recent chat I had with Lena Scissorhands (Infected Rain) where she stated that ‘adding dance to metal works only for the better.’ I can think of no better representation of this than PassCode. The way they move was astonishing, coupled with frantic energy and emotion as they incited the crowd to go just as hard as they did. Seeing Nao’s appreciative teary eyes sent me to the same feeling at several points in the concert, which gives a good impression of how much the band’s performance really resonated. Hopefully the other two nights were just as memorable for the attendees and PassCode themselves, may they please return to our shores for a full-tour so that more people over here in the West can witness them in a live performance. I know it’s one I’ll cherish for life.