Traveling around the Naeba Valley during Fuji Rock, you will see plenty of popular Japanese bands with hugely enthusiastic followings. Here’s my personal Top-5 for rocking Japanese bands playing major stages at this year’s festival, all great, energetic acts that will be fun to watch and sure to create an impression. Please note this list doesn’t include bands on smaller stages, like Naeba Shokudo, Boardwalk, Gypsey Avalon, Cafe de Paris and others, and there are plenty of great finds there. We’ve also already published a Rookie-A-Go-Go preview a couple weeks ago, so be sure to check that out. Lastlky, this list leans towards rock, punk, metal and ska and not much towards J-Rock or J-Pop, which is perhaps a whole other animal. OK, here’s the list:
MAXIMUM THE HORMONE
Green Stage, Saturday 16:50
This is gonna be one of the biggest headbangers’ balls ever for Fuji Rock’s main stage by a band that combines about 8 genres of metal with hyper-commercial kawaii girly pop. The band is an overload of Japanese culture at its hardest, its cutest, its most rawly expressive and its most grossly commercial. Releasing music commercially since 2004, To Western reviewers, Maximum the Hormone is pretty much always compared to System of a Down, and bass player Ue-chang is said to be a spitting image of Flea. To Japanese, they’re known for the theme songs to anime series including Death Note and Dragonball Z, major video game soundtracks, TV ads (Nissan and others) and their extreme metal has pushed to the top of Oricon charts for albums, singles and DVDs. So in sales terms their very alternative music muscles into sales charts with J-pop music and mainstream movies. And yet the weird thing is that they are at heart an indie band, creating their own music and image, writing their own blog posts, playing overseas metalfests like Hellfest in France and Slipknot’s namesake Knotfest in the US. They lovingly refer to their headbanging fans harapekos, which translates into something like “the hungry horde”. The band has taken two extended breaks so far so their female drummer Nao could have babies. I think they may also be the nearest precursor to BabyMetal, from which their fantastically self-generated weirdness was transmuted into a formula for mainstream extreme metal pop. Awesomely weird in every way, they are one of those ultimate paradoxes of Japanese culture. If you want an outstanding spectacle of mind-boggling Japanese heavy metal strangeness, this is your band.
White Stage, Saturday 22:00 (main headliner)
Brahman are kind of a legend to Japanese indie bands in the way that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are a beacon to US indie bands. I’m not saying this to make a musical comparison to the RHCP, because the music is quite different. The point of comparison is that Brahman is also a group that started playing raw punk and hardcore, then transformed themselves via exceptional songwriting into a popular crossover group that, while staying indie, at the same time grew to embrace a much larger mainstream following. In a way, it’s made them into a “generational thing” for Japanese indie rockers from the 2000s. The song below, “Basis”, is perhaps their “Under the Bridge”, i.e. the moment they reached a larger audience. To me, this is great rock songwriting that transcends language. I have no idea what Toshi-lo is singing, but by any standard, this is an awesome song, and Brahman has plenty of them.
Red Marquee, Sunday 12:40
You’ll find more hard bass-slapping from Leo Imai and his band. Leo was raised in London and returned to Japan in 2006 to start a career as a sort of avant-rock star. He has four albums to date, and the sound is very hard-edged and self-consciously modern, and rooted in heavy ’90s alternative rock and grunge. Check out this new brand new release, just hitting store shelves two weeks before Fuji Rock! It’s pretty darn good.
More the Man
Red Marquee, Saturday 12:40
Ska! Suits! Horns! Manic! Oh, yeah, they’re really really mental! This is a relatively new band (est. 2016) formed by Tatsuyuki Hiyamuta after he split one of Japan’s greatest ska bands, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. For Fuji Rock and possibly the future, the lineup also includes Motoharu Fukuda from SOIL &”PIMP”SESSIONS. The band name gives a nod to the first two albums by The Specials, and the music is an edgy mixture of rock, ska, and jazz –– the core sounds Hiyamuta has been pursuing since his years in TSPO. Their new EP “Eyes Wide Shut” dropped less than a month before Fuji Rock. If you love ska, or simply own a pair of checkered Vans, yup, you’ve gotta see these guys!
Mitsukaze and Green Massive
Crystal Palace, Sunday 23:45
This set coulld well be your great Sunday festival night-cap at the Crystal Palace. A five-piece, Mitsukaze and Green Massive plays a mix of all sorts of rootsy music, including rock steady, reggae, blues, soul, and funk. Just listen, enjoy and dance it up. This is music to re-energize those tired feet, and the spirit is infectious! And another reason not to go home early!
Just to keep you versed in the masses of screaming fans for possibly unknown-to-you bands, here’s a quick (and still incomplete) roundup of big J-bands playing Fuji Rock this year. Friday on the festival’s biggest stage, there’s Glim Spanky (Friday Green Stage) who’s kind of like Alanis Morissette circa Jagged Little Pil, and also Sakanaction (Friday Green Stage) a hugely popular mainstream rock-pop band from Hokkaido.
Also very notable is the male-female folk duo Humbert Humbert (Saturday Field of Heaven) who are sound like they’re inspired by James Taylor and sincerely recommended for anyone who enjoys that kind of highly crafted pop folk songs including some great acoustic-electric guitar parts.
On Sunday the White Stage has a lineup of soul and R&B leading up to UK headliner Chvrches, including Japanese R&B diva Misia (Sunday White Stage), and R&B crooners cero (Sunday White Stage).
Other big Japanese acts in various pop and rock genres playing big stages include Unicorn (Saturday White Stage), The Elephant Kashimashi (Friday White Stage), Haneregumi (Friday Field of Heaven), Suchmos (Sunday Green Stage). That should get you at least familiar with some of the key names you’ll be seeing on t-shirts all Fuji-Rock-weekend long. Maybe check out some of the music too!