The most subversive, rage-inducing act in heavy metal played the Fonda on Sunday night. The group is fronted by three Japanese teenage girls in pigtails who make heart-shaped hand gestures onstage and sing about how much they love chocolate.
Babymetal is a Japanese concept group, and they're the most divisive thing in heavy music right now. The trio -- singers Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal, producer Kobametal and a backing band of corpse-painted virtuosos -- came from the "Idol" format of manufactured pop groups in Asia, but their songs are arranged with the thrashing guitars and blast-beat drums from every variant of heavy metal.
The conceit seems like a trollish genre joke, but the group has become a major touring act, a cult favorite of classic bands such as Slayer and Anthrax, Lady Gaga tourmates and the centerpiece of a whole new music debate.
In a genre in which bands are on a quest to find the most offensive, putrescent sounds and imagery, can that loathsomeness be directed at the expectations of metal fans? When more "serious" metal has reached a terminal velocity of brutality and skill and when cannibalism and genocide have become unremarkable lyrical topics, is a viciously kawaii group of Japanese teenage girls the most authentically demonic idea for a heavy band today?
The group makes no attempt to hide its origins: Its singers admit that they had never listened to metal before joining the group, and its origins as an offshoot of the junior-high J-pop pop act Sakura Gakuin are well-documented. The openness of the group's artifice is half of the appeal, and it's done in good spirits. It's a joke at the expense of metal's purist masculinity, not at the idea that young women can play heavy metal.
Their songs are a delirious mix of thrash, death and power metal with candy-pink J-pop melodies spread like frosting atop all the violence. Not even the most dedicated black-metal purist could deny that Babymetal's tracks are played with the same skill and ferocity as their genre contemporaries. And though a legendary Japanese metal act such as Church of Misery may have grounds to be annoyed by Babymetal's sudden popularity, the metal scene has largely decided to be in on the joke and enjoy it.
The Fonda show was just about the most fun one could ask for at a metal show. The crowd was about 60% serious-looking metal fans (vintage Slayer tour shirts abounded), 20% Reddit-dwelling dudes who appreciated the maximum trolling aspects of the show, and 20% J-pop fans who knew the group on their own terms. It's far from the first time metal has embraced its own parody -- but Babymetal is perhaps the genre's most brilliant and welcomed send-up yet.
Everyone had a blast throwing devil horns at the stage and chanting the band's name until the curtain dropped. Babymetal's live show reveled in the weirdness of its pairing -- its singers played up their adorableness, bopping around the stage with giddy choreography and major-key harmonies, while their robe-clad backing band fired off volleys of raw instrumental fury spliced with synths and pre-recorded orchestras.
Unlike the recent K-pop wave, in which Western fans were intrigued by its earnest, upbeat weirdness, Babymetal arrived fully aware of its conceit. The show opened with a brilliantly nonsensical "Star Wars"-style origin myth video, and the backing band was clearly recruited from gifted and experienced metal practitioners (who, incidentally, could not stop grinning while onstage: "Babymetal lead guitarist" is clearly a fantastic gig).
Sunday's show reaffirmed that metal has a sense of humor about its own rules and systems. Babymetal is a band that could not exist without the Internet, with its ecosystem of genre-threshing mash-ups and weirdo viral videos at the expense of anyone taking anything seriously. The self-seriousness of an act such as Liturgy seems a bit deflated after a trio of Japanese high school girls just out-metalled them by being satanically precious.
The idea of a rock band being truly upsetting in 2014 is laughable in itself, so fans of heavy, brutal music might as well laugh along with them. Babymetal is just about the only metal group sticking with the mission of the genre -- freaking people out and putting on a hell of a spectacle. Is fluorescent J-pop the only way to out-do murder and church burnings?