Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bloody Ears & Beer Gets Evil

Ryo, vocalist and guitarist for Tokyo metal band Evil, is tall and thin with a narrow face and long hair, and if you were to put him in a black suit with a black shirt and matching tie he’d look exactly like the sort of person Jackie Chan eventually kicks through a window in every single movie, tv show, or car commercial he’s ever filmed. There’s just something about Ryo’s face and frame that suggests he was born to wear a sharp black suit and live surrounded by other karate villains of the sort that threaten Jackie Chan with knives and bats and chains after Jackie, through an unbelievable series of coincidences and mistaken identities, has inadvertently stolen their parcel of drugs or talisman or disc containing national secrets or whatever.

I don’t know what exact quality it is Ryo possesses that suggests he could have a successful career in karate-related organized crime so long as he stays away from both windows and bumbling delivery-truck drivers that are secretly Jackie Chan, but it’s probably the same quality that makes him such a magnetic frontman. I first saw Evil back in 2014 at Asakusa Extreme 28, and while I didn’t attend the event to see Evil specifically, their set stuck in my mind for some time afterward.

Evil's sound was refreshingly bare-bones and pleasingly uncomplicated, and I remarked at the time that it had the raw, energetic brutality that can only be born of a gang of angry teens experimentally thrashing away in their parents' garage. There's something youthful present in their music, but make no mistake: their sound is harsh, it is ugly, and its blank eyes stare back at you with hands firmly wrapped around your neck. The effect, combined with the funeral markers and Ryo's exhumed-Joey-Ramone stage presence, is something akin to a paralyzing agent that is slipped into Evil's live set as the visuals meld with the sound.

And I wasn't far off base about their origins. But few homes in the Tokyo area have garages, and if they do, they’re almost certainly built with typical Japanese efficiency, by which I mean having an interior volume measured to fit precisely one automobile and nothing else... So sans the garage, Evil was indeed born when a few high school friends decided one day to put a thrash band together.

When Ryo’s friends Masaharu and Mizuki asked him to perform on vocals with their nascent band, their peers were more interested in J-Rock bands like Ellegarden than, say,  Sarcafago or Sodom, but despite that – and despite the fact that Ryo did not know in a technical sense, or any other sense for that matter, how to play guitar – the trio decided they’d rather start their musical careers by covering songs from the thrash metal bands they were listening to. That was four years ago. Ryo and the others are twenty-two years old now, much younger than most of the bands one will find in Tokyo's extreme underground, and they haven’t drifted far from their roots.

The first track on their first demo is, in fact, a live recording from Evil’s very first gig. But when your music is as effortlessly effective as Evil’s, why bother drifting? Their style works, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – its all the more infectious for that fact. That is what caught my attention a year ago at Kurawood, where that sound had earned them a spot opening for none other than legendary Japanese black metal group Sabbat (also on the lineup that night were death/grind group and fellow Obliteration Records alumni Lurking Fear, with whom Evil released a split album in the spring of 2014).


Over beers and fried food at a Shinjuku izakaya chosen more for its convenient location than the quality of its food, my editor/translator and I peppered Ryo with questions about why there were so few young bands performing in Tokyo's metal scene. Ryo appeared to have never thought much about the question; his initial guess was that metal in general wasn’t terribly popular among the youth, and it was soon agreed upon by all that the most likely reason was the initiatory nature of extreme music. After all, hardly anyone just leaps into black metal or grindcore or any of the less-accessible genres out there on a whim; the typical tale is of an initiate ascending a staircase with each step containing darker and more extreme sounds, where one travels from more palatable styles of punk and hardcore or early thrash to the sort of music that causes casual listeners to wonder if it can indeed be classified as music at all. That was how each of us had arrived to where we were that day in terms of our musical tastes, although in my case the stairs inclined at a significantly sharper angle and I was being shoved from behind.

I asked Ryo if he, given the Cool Japan initiative's insistence that what the rest of the world really needed to know about Japan was that there was anime for every single kind of person that has ever lived, would be pleased with the underground scene getting more attention via that avenue, i.e. an anime series, sincere or otherwise, about metal and the people who perform it. He nodded nonchalantly. “Yeah, that’d be cool.” Subtle sarcasm or no, Ryo's following comments on the Japanese music scene in general are worth mentioning. If there are to be more younger bands (and let's be clear, good younger bands) contributing to Japan's underground, there need be better a way in which they can participate in it. Evil was lucky when friends in Lurking Fear had those connections, but generally speaking Japan's underground is so far down as to raise the question of it being too far down to even show up on the younger generation's radar. Like it or not, cultural movements in Japan tend to gain traction and notoriety through media-approved reps, "stars" as it were. This doesn't have to be TV, of course, or any mainstream media for that matter, but Japan does tend towards limiting its media outlets, so the situation here is ostensibly TV-or-bust. And this was Ryo's point: Without a "star" player, no genre stands to attract a new generation.

When it comes to attracting the right kind of young initiates, the underground has a bigger problem to worry about than just choosing a rep. Even if there is one (and there are big names out there, let's not be mistaken), how does that info get relayed if those who would benefit from receiving it are completely shut out from it? That's not to say raising the underground's profile a little higher is what should be done, but rather that Japan, with its strict rules of engagement and consumption, severely, critically limits its youth to precisely this kind of experience.

Anime? Stars? It wasn’t the answer I had expected, but the more I thought about it, I thought, "why the hell not?" It’d be a chance to expose a substantial amount of people to the music, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that metal works like an infectious disease. Given enough exposure, contamination is a foregone conclusion. Somewhere out there is a strain that, almost as soon as you hear it, will slip past your defenses and wreak havoc on your brain. Soon you will be like us. Soon you will be as we are. And honestly, it’s better if you get it over with sooner rather than later; the frail, puny bodies of the elderly will likely not survive the conversion at their late stage of life.

*Note* Interestingly enough, immediately after meeting with Evil, a pretty solid metal bar in Golden Gai called Death Match in Hell got some air time on NHK. Perhaps most surprising was the announcer's dead-pan statement concerning DMiH's appearance, that "it looks like a place that fans of death metal gather." Scripted? Most likely. Head-turning to hear that phrase used on a national broadcast? You betcha. Find the video below.

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