The Ultimate Guide to Visual Kei: A Crash Course for Beginners



Visual kei fans have many different opinions and preferences, but if there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's the difficulty of describing the movement to newcomers. Some of us here at VKH set out to fix that problem once and for all. Below you will find the result: a thorough, up-to-date crash course in the key aspects of today's visual kei scene. Welcome to The Ultimate Visual Kei Guide for Beginners.


Introduction

This guide is meant for listeners who are brand new to visual kei, along with fans who want to properly explain visual kei to their friends. Longtime listeners looking for new genres and subcultures may find some value in it as well. Credit for this guide goes to Jeff, Winona, and Shiro from VKH, as well as the dedicated VKH followers who gave us their feedback.

If you'd like to see how this list was created, we recorded the entire process as part of our YouTube live stream series VKH Live. The recorded stream is embedded below.  It took 7 hours of debate and discussion, but what we came up with made it all worth it.

Note: Some of the examples we chose ended up being changed in the final draft of this article.




What is Visual Kei?

Visual kei is a movement and subculture from Japan, most often associated with rock and metal music. Like it's 1980s glam metal inspiration, visual kei is characterized by elaborate hairstyles and costumes, varying levels of makeup, and a general prioritization placed on aesthetics in addition to music. Visual kei artists often focus as much on the visual aesthetics of their act as they do on their music. 



How This Crash Course Is Structured
  • Scope: This article is intentionally broad, in order to cover as many styles and sounds in visual kei as can be reasonably done. We intentionally limited artist representation to one song or video per artist in order to show off as many different styles and sounds as possible. 
  • Modern and relevant: The purpose of this article is to give an idea of the current-day visual kei movement, and the examples you're about to see reflect that. The songs and videos given as examples are from bands that have not disbanded at the time of publication. Visual kei has a rich history of styles, sounds, and bands that are not currently in the modern scene, so we encourage you to research those as well. 
  • Exotic but still familiar: This guide has been structured to show off aspects of visual kei that are either similar to or completely different from what you would find in western music. It's our hope that after reading this article, you will have found aspects visual kei music that you like, but also new music that you didn't even know you would like.


Things to Consider If You're New to Visual Kei
  • Androgyny and Makeup: Although the artists in visual kei are mostly male, many of them adopt an androgynous look, and some of them outright gender-bend. It's worth noting that in visual kei the aesthetics are fundamentally for artistic expression, and do not necessarily reflect a specific gender or sexual identity. There are also many varying levels of visual expression within with the scene. Whether you embrace flamboyant fashion or prefer toned-down aesthetics, you're sure to find something that suits your tastes.
  • Respect Your Own Limits: Visual kei is a scene where nothing is sacred (you could argue this makes it especially pure as an art form). It's entirely possible to find something that offends you or makes you uncomfortable, and that's completely fine. Feel free to be as selective about which aspects of the scene you prefer as you like.
  • Familiar vs Unfamiliar: Many visual kei artists take influences from western culture and combine it with influences from their own. Others strive to make music that doesn't sound like anything else. Visual kei is a great place to find familiar sounds while investigating unfamiliar genres, so feel free to be as preferential or experimental in your music selection as you want.
  • Nothing is Vanilla: Most modern visual kei artists blend sounds from multiple genres (the amount varies from artist to artist). This is also true (to a lesser extent) in regards to visual style. Many of the styles and sounds in the examples below could arguably be put in other categories. While this is a valid point, we picked the category that we think best represents the song or video the most. However, it's important to keep in mind that you will rarely find a visual kei band that fully adheres to the definitions of a single music genre.


Visual Kei by Look - "The Kei's"

Angura Kei: Reflecting traditional Japanese fashion, this subgenre uses traditional kimonos, Japanese uniforms, and more to get the point across.

Example: "Etsu to Utsu" by Kiryu



Eroguro Kei: Inspired by the Eroguro ("erotic-grotesque") artistic movement, dark themes are reflected in costumes and makeup. Similar to the art movement from which it was created, eroguro kei often focuses on eroticisim, sexual corruption, and decadence. The music tends to be aggressive (or at least dark and gloomy), and music videos featuring displays of gore and eroticism are not uncommon. 

Example: "THE KINKY" by DADAROMA



Extra Kei*: Use of an overwhelming variety of visual and/or musical styles atonce make the bands appear very... "extra". Extra Kei bands tend to create songs that force sounds from many different genres on top of or adjacent to each other while still sounding somewhat cohesive. Visuals tend to be excessive and clashing.

Example: "Maguro Kaitai Chainsaw" by ACME



Genki Oshare Kei: A subset of Oshare Kei (see below) with a strong focus on "enthusiastic", "energetic", and "lively" aesthetics to fit its name. While it still prioritizes trendy fashion, Genki Oshare Kei often incorporates a large mix of bright colors and unconventional fashion choices into its style. 

Example: "Odarasareta jinsei" by Vivarush



Iryou Kei: "Iryou" translates to "medical". It features the use of medical themes, often in a grotesque fashion (lab coats, eyepatches, blood-soaked versions of the previous two, etc.). Although it's rarely used in the modern scene, it's still noteworthy. General rule of thumb is if the band wears white lab coat, they're probably Iryou Kei.

Example: "Tsumi wa Boku wo Irozukeru" by SEX-ANDROID



Kirakira Kei: Generally characterized by flashy or shiny costumes, glamorous makeup, and often (but not always) a lighter, mainstream-friendly sound. 

Example: "Starry Heaven" by Royz



Kote Kei: These are "old school" visual kei bands of the from the 80s and early-to-mid 90's and the modern bands that emulate them. Hairstyles and costumes are usually wild, colorful, and shocking. Heavy use of makeup and accessories. It's generally considered to be a throwback look. 

Example: "Farewell another version" by La'veil MizeriA



Kurofuku Kei: Artists in this subculture wear all black clothing, usually black suits. Most bands in this subculture were early visual kei bands (some of whom are still active), although some modern examples can also be found. 

Example: "MISS TAKE ~Boku wa Miss Take~" by BUCK-TICK



Nagoya Kei: A subculture of bands that (mostly) originate from the city of Nagoya, Japan. They're characterized by gloomier and darker aesthetics compared to most of visual kei. Visuals are much more toned-down compared to other subcultures, with a stronger emphasis placed on the music. Bands in this subculture usually take more influence from western music than eastern. 

Example: "SORROW" by DEATHGAZE



Neo-Visual Kei: A more "modern" approach to visual kei, often associated with the second generation of the movement (bands formed in the 21st century). Costumes and makeup are strongly-influenced by current-day fashion trends. Music genres range from metal to pop with no core focus, but songs often consist of catchy or mainstream-friendly sounds performed in a heavy metal context. The most popular bands in the visual kei scene are often neo-visual kei bands. 

Example: "LIQUID VAIN" by RAZOR



Oshare Kei: Utilizing trendy fashion ("oshare" literally translates to "trendy" or "fashionable") and somewhat more traditional makeup compared to other subcultures, bands in this subgenre tend to reflect the popular styles at the time of each release. You'll see a range of styles and color palettes over the period these bands are active, varying from the bright colors you'd often see in Harajuku fashion or Genki Oshare Kei (see above) and the dark colors of today's streetwear. They reflect what the kids are wearing these days.

Example: "Punky Heart" By LM.C



Parody Kei*: Focused primarily on parodying various aspects of the visual kei scene, these bands turn sketch comedy into music videos. Bands often wear outfits imitating other subcultures that look more like caricatures than authentic visuals. A single song can be a mash-up of popular visual kei musical tropes (such as the "anisong" chorus that mainstream bands use on tracks that will be featured in anime openings/endings). Bands may switch between multiple outfits and musical styles in a single music video, depending on how many aspects of the visual kei scene they are parodying. 

Example: "Yuugai Menhera Doll" by 0.1 no gosan



Soft Kei: Softer and more toned-down than most of the other sub-genres of visual kei, it's considered "easy on the eyes". Visuals feature classy outfits and natural makeup, and music is often light and catchy. 

Example: "Mirai Iro" by Plastic Tree



Tanbi Kei: Costumes and other visuals that are heavily-inspired by classical European cultures make up this style, particularly the Baroque, Victoria, and Rococo eras. Music includes many classical elements and instruments that were common in these European eras. Occasionally all-white costumes may be used for lighter songs. Inversely, they wear all-black costumes for heavier songs. Music videos often include religious imagery, scenery depicting aristocracy or royalty, and castles or other iconic European-era structures. 

Example: "Je l'aime" by Moi dix Mois






Visual Kei by Sound: Popular Genres

Alternative Metal: This genre drives metal elitists crazy, because it basically breaks all the rules they make about what metal "should be." Alternative metal bands mix heavy metal with genres that are not normally associated with metal, such as electronic music, hip hop, and funk. Some of the most popular metal bands in both visual kei and the west are alt-metal bands. Western examples include Faith No More (the genre's creators), Slipknot, and Mudvayne.

Example: "Falling" by the GazettE



Alternative Rock: Long story short, this is "not supposed to be mainstream rock, but kind of still mainstream rock." It describes a laundry list of bands that combine rock music with other genres of music outside of rock.  The genre started out as an attempt to reject mainstream rock trends, but ironically many alternative rock bands have become very popular in mainstream music. There is no set sound that can describe this genre, and many people wonder if some of these bands even qualify as rock. Western examples include Radiohead, Muse, and Coldplay.

Example: "Aka no Towa" and "Nemureru Tenshi" by Kiyoharu



Art Rock: A generally avant-garde approach to rock music that sounds like it could be played in the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). Art rock attempts to elevate the often shallow and entertainment-centric rock genre to an artistic statement. Art rock artists often take a more experimental and/or conceptual approach to their music. Western examples include Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Arcade Fire.

Example: "bottom circus" by More




Avant-Garde Metal: A subgenre of heavy metal music that is generally defined by the use of experimental and innovate elements. Closely related to progressive metal, it has an unusual sound that sounds...weird. In a good way. Avant-garde metal artists use unconventional sounds, instruments, song structures, playing styles, and/or vocal techniques. Western examples include Buckethead, Mr. Bungle, and Gorguts.

Example: "Aharewata" by DIMLIM




Deathcore: This is the music you either work out to or use to scare your neighbors. Deathcore is an extremely vicious fusion genre that combines death metal and metalcore. Deathcore bands frequently use death metal riffs, death metal blast beats, and metalcore-style breakdowns. The deathcore scene is relatively underground, but filled with passionate fans. Western examples include Suicide Silence, Chelsea Grin, and Thy Art Is Murder.

Example: "ESCAPE" by Deviloof



Djent: Djent bands hilariously got their name from the constant "djent-djent-djent" sound that you hear in their music. The sound is created by distorted, palm-muted, low-pitch guitars, but the genre's name really describes it the best. To their credit, however, many djent bands accompany their repetitive djent chords with complex instrumentation on guitar, bass, and drums. Western examples include Meshuggah (the genre's creator), Periphery, and Animals As Leaders.

Example: "Ajna" by JILUKA



Electronicore: This genre uses metalcore fused with elements from electronic music genres. Electronicore bands often make use of metalcore breakdowns that may be accompanied by bass drops inspired by electronic music. Combining the two most adrenaline-pumping aspects of metal and electronic music can make for one hell of a song! Western examples include Enter Shikari (generally credited as the genre's creators), early-era Asking Alexandria, and I See Stars.

Example: "ENDER ENDER" by MUCC



Genre Blending: This isn't a genre, but a solid example of how visual kei bands can use multiple genres in a single song. 

Example: "Eternal〜katsubou no sora〜" by Rides in ReVellion



Gothic Metal: A fusion genre that combines heavy metal with a gothic atmosphere to speak to the darkness within you. Gothic metal bands often deal with dark themes, and express them in their lyrics and the atmosphere of their songs.  Western examples include Nightwish and Evanescence.

Example: "Mage" by David (Click the image)



Hard Rock: A broad subgenre of rock music that generally describes loud, aggressive rock music. Emphasis is often placed on the electric guitar, which is generally used with distortion and other effects. Aggressive vocals, driving drum rhythms, and strong bass are not uncommon. Western examples include AC/DC, Bon Jovi, and Guns N' Roses.

Example: "blind message" by DIAURA



Heavy Metal: A subgenre of rock music and the first standard form of metal music. Heavy metal is sometimes considered to be interchangeable with "metal", although this is disputed. Heavy metal music is characterized by a thick, overpowering sound. Heavy metal bands use strong distortion, extended guitar solos, and mid to fast tempos. Lyrics and performances are often filled with aggressive and sometimes disturbing elements. Western examples include Iron Maiden, Avenged Sevenfold, and Slayer.

Example: "LOTUS" by Dir En Grey



Jazz Rock: This one's pretty straightforward: rock music that incorporates jazz tempos, instruments, and harmonies. It's not something that's seen very often in the west these days, but in Visual kei it's a popular genre that many bands like to try at least once. Western examples include Steely Dan and Soft Machine.

Example: "Kuroneko ~Adult Black Cat~" by Acid Black Cherry



Metal: Generally use to describe a broad sub-genre of rock music characterized by an overpowering and often aggressive sound. Includes a vast array of subgenres such as death metal, black metal, and heavy metal (although the last is disputed by some, see the heavy metal description above). While difficult to characterize due to it's scope, metal is generally considered to be heavier than hard rock, which is, in turn, heavier than rock. Western examples include Metallica and KISS.

Example: "CREATURE" by Lynch.



Metalcore: If you're a metalhead, then you either love or hate this genre. Metalcore combines extreme metal with hardcore punk and contains a variety of notable subgenres (such as the previously-mentioned electronicore and deathcore). It's best known for its frequent use of repetitive and heavy guitar breakdowns, which most metal fans consider to be either glorious ear candy or monotonous nonsense, depending on who you ask. Metalcore bands use a lot of rough vocals, but it's not uncommon to hear some clean vocals mixed in every now and then. This genre is currently one of the most popular in the mainstream metal scene. Western examples include August Burns Red, middle-era Bring Me the Horizon, and Killswitch Engage.

Example: "BREAK THIS FAKE" by NOCTURNAL BLOODLUST



Nu Metal: Most millennials will remember nu metal in the form of Linkin Park's first two albums. This genre is a form of alternative metal that mixes metal music with elements from various music genres, including hip hop, funk, and grunge. Nu metal bands strongly favor guitar riffs over solos, which are rarely seen. Songs are often written in a hip hop or pop tempo, which allowed many nu metal bands to rise in popularity at the turn of the century. Western examples include Linkin Park, Korn, and Limp Bizkit.

Example:"Koufuku no Melody" by DEZERT



Pop Rock: This style of rock music prioritizes professional songwriting and recording over attitude and aggressiveness. Bands in this genre heavily use elements from mainstream pop music. Pop rock bands often achieve much mainstream success, but receive a lot of criticism for being too commercial (the term "sellout" comes to mind). For many rock fans, if a rock band they follow suddenly switches to pop rock music, it means something has gone horribly awry. That being said, the most authentic kinds of pop rock bands are difficult to criticize, since they're quite good at what they do. Western examples include OneRepublic, Maroon 5, and Imagine Dragons.

Example: "SHADOWPLAY" by A9 (formerly Alice Nine)



Post-Hardcore: A subgenre of punk rock music that preserves the intense energy of hardcore punk while emphasizes creative expression. Many post-hardcore bands are known for an aggressive sound tinged with melodic aspects and/or elements from genres outside of rock music. This genre is probably best described as "metalcore-lite". Western examples include A Day to Remember, Pierce the Veil, and Sleeping with Sirens.

"Tsumi to Batsu" by RAVE




Post-Punk: A diverse subgenre of rock music that is inspired by punk rock, but less aggressive and more experimental musically. There's not really a unifying sound in post-punk, but many bands take ideas from art, philosophy, and politics and describe them in a pop cultural context. The genre is generally regarded as a departure from mainstream punk music in order to focus more on the avant-garde. Western examples include The Cure, Gang of Four, and Talking Heads.

Example: "Oshimai" by Kizu



Power Metal: A subgenre of heavy metal that combines traditional metal, speed metal, and symphonic elements to deliver a, for lack of better words, powerful sound. Bands in this genre usually have a faster and more uplifting sound than other heavy metal subgenres. Anthemic choruses, highly-technical guitar solos, and theatrical performances are common characteristics of power metal songs. Western examples include DragonForce, Manowar, and Helloween.

Example: "Born to Be Free" by X Japan



Punk Rock: A subgenre of rock music that rejects the commercialism and shallowness of mainstream rock. Common characteristics include short and fast-paced songs, stripped-down instrumentation, and anti-establishment themes. These are really the rebellious "punks" of rock music. Western examples include Sex Pistols, Green Day, and The Ramones.

Example: “Hi-Stupid dragger 2017.08.18 TSUTAYA O-EAST” Live Digest by GOTCHAROCKA



Rap Metal: A subgenre of alternative metal that combines hip-hop with heavy metal. It usually features guitar riffs, rapped vocals combined with rough vocals, and sometimes turntables. Heavy emphasis on "rapped vocals". Western examples include Fire From the Gods and BackWordz.

Example: "Act. 1" by CHOKE



Rap Rock: Similar to rap metal in concept, this genre mixes elements of hip-hop with various types of rock music. The primary difference is that the instrumentation is turned way down in some areas. Western examples include Hollywood Undead, Papa Roach, and Rage Against the Machine.

Example: "What's My Name?" by MIYAVI



Rock: This should be fairly self-explanatory, but in case you don't know what plain-old rock music sounds like, here it goes: this is essentially a descriptor for a broad range of popular music that developed from the "rock-n-roll" music in the early 1950s. Rock songs are usually centered around the use of electric guitar, supported by bass guitar, and backed with percussion produced from a drum kit. Rock music contains a myriad of subgenres and a wide variety of sounds. Western examples include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Queen.

Example: "FLOWER" by GACKT



Soft Rock: A subgenre of rock music that features soft melodies and slow-to-mid tempos. Largely features acoustic guitars, although electric guitars can still be used to create light songs. This genre takes it's "soft" influences from both rock and pop music (it is arguably a subgenre of both). However, you definitely should not confuse this with pop rock (see above). Western examples include The Bee Gees, Elton John, and Journey.

Example: "Hold You Down" by Luna Sea



Symphonic Rock: A rock subgenre that mixes symphonic elements and instruments with rock music. Classical instruments, choirs, and sometimes entire orchestras are frequently used. There are very few modern bands in the west that would be considered symphonic rock (most fall under symphonic metal or progressive rock). Contrary to popular misconceptions, you don't need a whole orchestra to pull this off. Western examples include The Moody Blues and Electric Light Orchestra.

Example: "Remember the Name" by Aiolin



Symphonic Metal: A genre that is similar in concept to symphonic rock, except it combines metal with symphonic elements instead of rock. Symphonic metal tends to have a grand sound that reflects that of a symphony. Keyboards similar to those used in power metal are sometimes used. Many symphonic metal songs feature classically-trained vocalists, which earned it the nickname "opera metal". It is possibly the most "extra" version of rock music. Western examples include Epica and Within Temptation.

Example: "Ascendead Master" by Versailles




Conclusion

We hope you or a friend you're introducing to visual kei found this guide useful. This crash course barely scratches the surface of the many styles and sounds visual kei artists create, so we encourage you to explore and find more. We recommend subscribing to Apple Music, as it currently has the most Japanese music available internationally. Beyond that, searching on websites like YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes is also a good idea. However, some visual kei music is not easily available outside of Japan, so for those we recommend using CDJapan to get ahold of them. Finally, you can always count on VKH Press for the best news, reviews, interviews, podcasts, and videos covering all things related to visual kei!

The following video from Cure Magazine is a pretty good summation of what's popular in the indie visual kei scene today. Please keep in mind that this video was made to promote Cure Magazine's annual festival Cure World Visual Festival to be held April 29, 2018.



Featured Bands:
Bands are listed in order of presentation in the video


  • R-Shitei
  • DIAURA
  • DOG in the PWO
  • Arlequin
  • Codomo Dragon
  • Blu-Billion
  • FEST VAINQUER
  • RAZOR
  • Pentagon Japan
  • Kizu
  • UNiTE.
  • LEZARD
  • DADAROMA
  • Jack Caper
  • Gossip
  • D=OUT
  • SCAPEGOAT
  • CLOWD
  • xaa-xaa
  • Belle
  • LACK-CO.
  • Neverland
  • REIGN
  • GRIMOIRE
  • Rides in ReVellion
  • Gyakushū no jisaku -jienya-
  • Zombie
  • Amai Bouryoku
  • ACME
  • 0.1g no gosan
  • Vivarush
  • MIZTAVLA
  • KRAD
  • POIDOL
  • Mamireta
  • BabyKingdom
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