An Introductory Guide to the Burgeoning Kawaii Metal and Alt Idol SceneSaturday, 18th November 2023
You may have seen more features here regularly from acts originating from Japan, such as Hanabie., PassCode (featured above), Broken by the Scream, and of course, Babymetal (whom I assume you already know so I will not waste your time below). And for some, discovering some of the larger acts is well and good, but this simple truth is that for this scribe, the surface level is never enough. Particularly as it’s been very inspiring as of late, the way many of these acts defy genre conventions and toss in a variety of influences that some might consider ‘taboo’ for the metal scene – either in presentation, sound, or both. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list – there’s definitely going to be some groups that I miss that could be here, but this was put together through looking first at more recent releases and bands/groups that are still active, not to mention caught my ear. That said, let’s dive in!
My Personal Beginnings:
Blood Stain Child – Epsilon
Honestly, this album was a game-changer for me when it released (2011). It was the first time I had heard anything that fused together melodic death metal with cybernetic sounds incorporating trance, EDM, and jpop/anisong tendencies. Even though this album’s vocalist Sophia Aslanides was not from Japan, it opened a door to some unique sonic possibilities that I never would have dreamed of existing, let alone enjoying!
Blood Stain Child on Facebook
PassCode – Strive
It wasn’t until I heard Strive that I caught those same sentiments that I had found on Epsilon almost a decade later. Pulsating electronic beats, driving riffs, vocoder-augmented vocals – it’s a lot to take in the first time, particularly if you haven’t ventured outside of the traditional metal boundaries. But the energy is like nothing else. Despite finding multitudes of alt idol discoveries since, both more melodic and/or heavier, the balance found with PassCode is virtually unmatched. Perhaps it’s due to finding them first, but they set a high bar for others to live up to and they’v been around for a very impressive amount of time (especially for idols).
PassCode on Instagram
PassCode on X/Twitter
Let’s start the list with some kawaii metal/rock (test the waters/boundaries here):
Fate Gear can sound very much like a melodic death metal band when they choose to play it straight. Menacing riffs, screamed vocals, punchy electronics. They can lay out plenty of aggression, but occasionally they employ a more melodic sense, with can be accompanied by more traditional Japanese sounding instrumentation or folkish vibes.
Fate Gear on Facebook
Fate Gear official website
Lovebites probably caught some eyes when announced for PowerProg next year in Atlanta, but they’ve been doing their shredding take on power metal for quite some time. Their music is a shot of adrenaline, full of incredible riffing and blazing solos, then you add in asumi’s vocals for maximum impact and power metal glory. For shred fans, it’s an easy one to recommend.
Lovebites official website
Lovebites on Facebook
Rising rapidly over the last few years of their career, States-side at least, Band-Maid is a hard-rocking, fun act where all the members are dressed up as maids. Hence the name, yes? But don’t let the maid outfits fool you, they take their rock and roll very seriously and they capitalize on maximum energy in their music. As one of the more prominent acts outside of Babymetal, they probably don’t need much of a push here, but worth a mention for those who may stumble upon this article completely green to Japanese rock/metal.
Band-Maid official website
Band-Maid on Instagram
Also falling more on the hard rock side of things is TRiDENT. But they play around with that space in its ambiguity well, providing some cuts that have a more aggressive edge that metal fans would enjoy (see “Repaint” below, arranged by PassCode writer/arranger Koji Hirachi), while still having a melodic sensibility that those seeking something less abrasive can still enjoy. They have a new EP that should really help to open some doors for them, internationally, based on the released tracks so far.
TRiDENT on Instagram
TRiDENT official website
Scratching that metalcore-esque itch is Dimrays, who find it in their hearts to bring in those exterior influences like jpop, rap, dance, and a solid dose of electronics into their mix in order to blend it all into something that feels fresh and new. They are an electrifying new force in this scribe’s eyes and ears, providing something that feels raw and energetic, yet has a sense of control without pushing the lines too far to become a jambled mess. They seem to have that same ‘explosive’ wow factor of influences and may well get that Hanabie. level of recognition soon with enough push and luck.
Dimrays on Instagram
Dimrays on Facebook
Guitarist Saki (ex-Mary’s Blood, Amahiru) has made Nemophila a more world-renown act, but the entire act is not to be overlooked for their playing abilities. What’s fantastic about Nemophila is their ability to genre-blur. Some songs feel much more melodic, some feel more rock, and some scream of heaviness. Mayu’s vocals are just as shape-shifting as the music around her, which keeps their music sounding even more potent.
Nemophila official website
Nemophila on Instagram
Not sure that I needed to put this one here, given the number of other pieces I’ve done on them recently, but Hanabie. deserves mention for just how creative and absolutely wild they can get. Merging electronics, hardcore, metalcore, trance, jpop, and more into a package that not only manages to sound cohesive as well as thoroughly addictive, there’s a reason they’ve caught so much buzz since their sophomore effort. They are doing something that you just can’t replicate, and it’s nothing short of impressive.
Hanabie. on Instagram
Hanabie. on X/Twitter
A brief intermission: Alt Idols – what are they and how is it different from kawaii metal/rock?
It’s all a marketing game really (particularly internationally), and do the labels matter? Not really in the long-run, unless you’re an elitist armchair warrior. But one big distinction is that the groups above are playing all of the instruments. With alt idols, the face of the group are the vocalist(s). The music being performed behind them (or even through the backing speakers) is important in terms of their sound, but an alt idol relies more on dance choreography and singing. Blasphemy for the pure metal warrior, but it’s all an acquired taste. It’s more akin to traditional Japanese idol music, which can be found in a slew of anime (Love Live, Idolm@ster, Idoly Pride) if you need a quick reference point. Traditional idol music is happy and cute/cheerful, whereas alt idols can bring in darker sounds as well as potentially less cheerful lyrics.
Probably the best starting point is with Himari Tsukishiro’s Isiliel, who was a member of the now on hiatus Necronomidol (one of the murkiest and wild sounding alt idol groups I’ve encountered). Moonbow Genesis was actually recorded in Studio Fredman, and is the least ‘idol’ sounding of the rest of this list in many regards. There’s a more epic and blackened feel to Isiliel’s sound which makes it very unique to hear – you don’t often imagine that post-black feel being accompanied by a Japanese sounding vocalist, and it’s a mystifying experience to behold.
Isiliel on Instagram
Isiliel on X/Twitter
If you want heavy idol music, Maze is an up-and-coming act worth a glance. They’ve released six songs in 2023 and they are all varied and monstrous in tone. Low vocals and chugging riffs that dip into deathcore levels, yet they can flip things back on their head instantly with an electronically-laced chorus and clean vocals that offer a thrill without entirely letting go of the heaviness they’ve built up – it’s just released a different way. Check the breakdown on “Idol Riot” below for a prime example of this. There’s a lot of potential for them to break boundaries as they continue ahead.
Maze on Instagram
Maze on X/Twitter
Broken by the Scream
Speaking of heavy, there’s nothing quite like the extremity that Broken by the Scream can reach. Not just in pure sonic aggression, but in the extreme contrasts that perpetually zip between the poppiest, happiest sounding melodies and the blastbeat-riddled chaos that they can swirl together repeatedly over the course of one song. The ping-ponging might be too much for some to handle, but from a personal standpoint, the movement of energy from two polar opposites makes each song an absolute blast to hear.
Broken by the Scream on Instagram
Broken by the Scream on X/Twitter
Offering a heavier electronic edge and sampling to go with some occasional punk spark, Quubi also utilizes some galloping tempos at times to get into a catchy groove that feels equal parts energetic and catchy. Compared to others on this list, they don’t do anything too wild or zany, which would help ensnare a broader audience, but the underlying energy makes them an easy group to toss into this list as well since there’s a lot of crossover potential and for an alt idol act, they have some really incredible songs and atmosphere. Very balanced, but with plenty of extras to make them more than the sum of their parts.
Quubi on X/Twitter
As the name suggests, there’s some chiptune elements to be heard in 8bitBRAIN’s approach to alt idols. Putting that together with some very melody and kawaii sections, the group also absolutely doubles down on intensity for heavier sections. Out of all the groups in this piece, one could make a case for them having the most abrasive ones – seriously, some of them wouldn’t feel out of place on a grind album. So if you want both melody and utter abrasion, look no further than 8bitBRAIN.
8bitBRAIN official website
This one doesn’t swing metal in the least, but the all-but-throbbing electronic beats that Axelight deploys does give them a different type of heaviness. Some of their best songs (such as “Endless Rave” below) feature driving beats which jackhammer efficiency reminiscent of Fear Factory’s industrial side, but with some added pop flair and catchiness. The buzzing EDM elicits that same frenetic sense, yet Axelight manages to sound completely different than the rest of the groups mentioned here, but are no less addictive when you hear them.
Axelight on Instagram
Axelight on X/Twitter
I wanted to put in a more melodic alt idol group in, and Yosugala is one of my favorites. There’s still some rock energy behind them, but the pop sense is equally strong with their sound. It’s upbeat and happy sounding, feeling more akin to what you might get from a traditional idol group, but with some guitars and crunch added in to give off a little more power to them. Honestly, one listen to “Indigo,” which was my own first exposure, was all it took to discover their entire backlog.
Yosugala on X/Twitter
Another act merging together some heavier guitar riffing with electronics, the uptempo nature of their EDM-inspired synths meshes nicely with the rest of the instrumentation and the five vocalists of this particular group to hit a sweet spot for me. Like Quubi, it doesn’t stretch the boundaries too far outside of the rock/electronic meshing, but it still makes for a very compelling sound that lets them absolutely soar through some of the choruses. Their next album releases in December 2023.
Plevail on X/Twitter
While NightOwl can bring some harder rock vibes into their songs, what I’ve found to be most enjoyable from them is their gentler side. When they perform songs that are more melodic, there’s an almost fairytale quality to them that feels whimsical without feeling overly poppy, in the traditional sense. There’s a more ‘chill’ vibe to them that allows their voices to really soar into the songs.
NightOwl on Instagram
NightOwl on X/Twitter
“Fighting” idols that I recently saw live a few times on their US tour, and their output can range from heavier, rock-oriented songs to more playful and fun ones (“Wabisabe Wasabi”). You can check out that feature for plenty more on Neo Japonism, but briefly speaking, they’ve got some tenure behind them (much like PassCode), and that sort of experience permeates their live performances. There’s a strong level of mastery to what they are doing, and whatever the song, it’s fascinating to listen and watch.
Neo Japonism on Instagram
Neo Japonism on X/Twitter
To bring things back into heavier territory is Antithese, who embody a strong modern metal/alternative metal feeling to the music behind them. Heavy, hook-friendly in both the melodies and the vocals, the pounding electronic backdrop is the icing on the cake in putting Antithese together. They pull together a sound that’s very triumphant and upbeat, but also with a heavy, underlying sound that’s as catchy as it is frenetic.
Antithese on X/Twitter
A group that merges together just as much EDM and electronic soundscapes as it does heavy guitar behind it, Inuwasi does draw some comparisons to an act like PassCode, but without the harsh vocal elements to bring them into more extreme territory. Their sense of melody within the visceral beats and riffs is what makes them shine the brightest – then shifting things completely into melody when needed – makes Inuwasi a treat to listen to.
Inuwasi on X/Twitter
‘Light-Black’ is the Japanese translation of the band name, though they are actually from Thailand. Akira-Kuro goes hard between offering electronically-enhanced metalcore, with scorching riffs and screamed vocals and some absolutely delightful sounding, catchy pop choruses. The name fits them quite perfectly then, and the dynamic works really well, occasionally going into further blast-driven extremes for a greater adrenaline rush and rich explorations of melancholy (“Hope”).
Akira-Kuro on X/Twitter
Akira-Kuro on Instagram
Offering an absolutely frenetic mix of metal fused with pop sensibilities, LuciDreaM is a South Korean duo that can bring the music into glorious extremes. On the heavier side of things, they can hit melodic death/thrash metal, gothic, and groove metal vibes, but some songs go into more playful feelings where they dig further into the electronic side and hit rave-like upbeats and melodies (“Idealist”). The diversity sounds huge here, and gives them a feel that can be either addictively catchy or bludgeoning – sometimes both at the same time.
LuciDreaM on X/Twitter
All over the map, musically, in the best way possible is the easiest way to describe Shingeki. They go anywhere from frantic metalcore to jazz to rap to EDM – but somehow they make it work and feel cohesive. One of the biggest thrills of hearing a song from them for the first time is not exactly knowing the direction it will take next. But you can be assured it’s going to put in some heavy moments to tie things together for the most part.
Shingeki official website
Shingeki on X/Twitter
I was reluctant to put Zsasz in since by the time this article publishes, the group will be disbanded, but with their recently released album, ∄, it seems it would be a pity not to include them. Big, chunky grooves, soaring hooks and vocal lines (and of course, some electronics meandering into the mix) – it’s a great note for the group to go out on. Hopefully the members will go onto other projects.
Zsasz on X/Twitter
Zsasz on Instagram
Bonus: Anime Idol-related content
I’ve casually mentioned some anime adjacent groups/idols on year-end lists, so I thought I’d put a few quick ones here that might interest someone looking into this particular realm of music.
Roselia have entered my personal top ten songs for the year before, and they are a Bang Dream/Bandori act, where the seiyuu (voice actresses) perform the songs from the mobile game live, as the particular characters. Roselia operates as a gothic/symphonic metal act, and really what you hear is pretty comparable to many established groups of this type to the West, but they bring a bit more power metal shred at times.
Bang Dream official website
A rock band whose anime hasn’t even begun yet (Girls Band Cry), they’ve started accumulating songs over the course of this year and 4 of which are in my top 10 most listened to songs in 2023 according to Stats.fm. Darker, depressive lyrical content contrasts with some soaring guitarwork and hooky vocals make for an extremely memorable combination. If the anime is as good as these songs are, it’s going to be phenomenal, to say the least.
Togenashi Togeari on Instagram
Girls Band Cry official website
Yuina/Wien Margarete (Love Live Superstar!!)
An instant favorite character of mine when she was introduced, Yuina’s voice is one that I feel could easily be suited to a more metallic backing. The orchestral background on “Edelstein” allows her voice to sound powerful and graceful at the same – a grandiose feeling that has a sound unlike anything Love Live has produced. When her Love Live contract is up (she is a part of Liella), one can only hope Yuina goes back into rock music, like her beginnings with Drop Doll.
Love Live Superstar official website
Yuina on X/Twitter
Many will argue over this, but I think Symphogear is the most metallic anime around. Mecha-based magical girls who fight with the power of song – songs which tend to straddle the rock/metal/eurobeat sound really well – while annihilating enemies. A stunning voice cast, including Nana Mizuki whom I’m featuring below, who can all sing (they’ve performed the songs live outside of the anime), there’s a plethora of frantic songs that would honestly make many a metalhead pretty happy if they were to discover them. “Synchrogazer” was the opening to the first season of the anime, which aired in 2012.
Symphogear official website
Nana Mizuki official website
An anime about horse girls who are also idols, which replicates actual horse races from Japan isn’t going to be anyone’s go to for metallic content. However, they’ve released some scorchers in the midst of more traditional idol fare. “Destroy for Dasein,” sung by Tanino Gimlet ( seiyuu: Misato Matsuoka), is about as heavy as it gets – rivaling many on this list. It’s brutal, especially considering it’s from a very major mobile game in Japan.
Uma Musume official website