July 15, 2016
It has been three years now since Babymetal started gaining popularity outside their native Japan. Fronted by a trio of adorable Japanese teenage girls, the group have garnered a devoted fan base worldwide thanks to a blend of frenzied speed-metal and catchy J-pop. Within the heavy metal blogosphere, their detractors are almost as rabid as their followers.
The group’s sold-out show Friday night at the Wiltern — their return to Los Angeles since their U.S. debut two years ago — demonstrated why the band have garnered the following they have, and why they are likely to remain a powerful force for the foreseeable future.
Doors were scheduled to open at 7 p.m., with the band taking the stage at 9 p.m., with no opener. Typically, this is a recipe for the majority of L.A. concertgoers to take their time and roll in moments before the band begins their set. But on this day, Babymetal fans were already lined up down Wilshire Boulevard as early as noon, and by 7 p.m. it appeared that all 2,000-plus attendees had already descended upon the Wiltern as a line snaked for blocks around the historic venue.
While the crowd was mostly male, it was still more diverse than your usual heavy metal show, both in terms of age and subculture. There did seem to be a clear divide between show-goers who were heavy metal fans who've accepted Babymetal as one of their own, sporting Iron Maiden and Judas Priest T-shirts, and a nerd-culture following that was equally well-represented in Star Wars and Rick and Morty shirts.
Merch lines were long, while the beer lines were easily the shortest I've ever seen at a sold-out Wiltern show. The overall vibe of the night was more of a community center lock-in party than a Friday night out getting drinks and watching a band.
As Babymetal's backing musicians, the Kami Band, took the stage at 9 p.m. — dressed as ghosts, resembling antagonists from a Japanese horror flick — the crowd exploded in one of the loudest eruptions I have ever heard, which only got louder when singers Su-Metal, Yui-metal and Moa-metal stepped out. As Babymetal launched into their anthem “Babymetal Death” and then zipped straight into “Gimme Chocolate,” the audience's cheers and clapping along were so enthusiastic they almost drowned out the music.
Video clips of the band’s performances in larger venues such as London's Wembley Arena depict an ornate, theatrical experience. At the Wiltern, the show was relatively stripped-down, with a Babymetal banner overlooking the stage, the Kami Band lurking in the background and the singers up front. Without the various adornments that go with an arena show, the focus really was on the three girls, and it’s a testament to their energy and work ethic that they kept the crowd entranced for the entirety of their 80-minute set.
Taking lead vocal on the majority of songs, Su-Metal – the oldest of the trio – proved that she has a genuine set of pipes, her singing voice shining strong on tracks like “Amore – Sousei.” Yui-metal and Moa-metal more than held their own as well, but in the end, the trio’s stage presence is more about their endless energy than their singing voices. Save for a few quick breaks for costume changes, all three girls are a constant whirlwind of movement onstage. The trio's detailed choreography, a common characteristic of bands formed out of the J-pop system, is one of the many things that distinguishes a Babymetal performance from being just another metal concert.
The backing band of musicians known as the Kami Band also had a few brief moments to shine throughout the night, moving to the front of the stage and jamming out as the singers left for costume changes. The Kami Band's stage presence was often just as animated as the girls', even as they pumped out blistering speed metal.
Seeing Babymetal live, you can really see how the group has become a phenomenon. Their YouTube videos, as great as they are, don't capture the full energy of a Babymetal concert. The crowd Friday night stuck with the band through every song, their energy level never wavering. Most concerts, even from the most legendary bands, have one or two songs where the crowd quiets down, takes a bathroom or beer break, or otherwise rests to pace themselves. That never happened on Friday night.
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While a strong part of that constant enthusiasm was the trio’s stage presence, the songcraft behind Babymetal is what shines in a live setting. Since all of the band’s lyrics are in Japanese, what has helped make the band a worldwide phenomenon is that every song has at least one moment that fans in any language can shout along with the band. Many times throughout the night, everyone in the room chanted “hey, hey!” with their fists raised in the air, or shouted “WOOOOOOHHHHHHHH-OOOOOO-OOOOOHHHH!” with a song. It's probably not unlike seeing Iron Maiden perform in a non-English-speaking country and hearing everyone shout along with “The Trooper.”
The band left the stage shortly before 10:30 p.m. Though the set was a relatively brisk 80 minutes, the audience was happily exhausted from running on high for the entire show. Much like the performers themselves at the end of the night, the crowd walked out all smiles.