OFF-TOPIC: Jeff's 2015 J-Rock Year in Review - Indie Bands Edition!

With the first month of 2016 complete, I figured now would be a great time to take a look back at how some of the more prominent J-Rock bands performed in 2015. And so I present to you the inaugural edition of Jeff's J-Rock Year in Review series! For this article, I will be taking 10 indie bands and evaluating their general progress throughout the year 2015, as well as speculating on where they're headed in 2016.

The Criteria:
  • Artists on this list must operate like an independent artist. Example: While MIYAVI is technically classified as an independent artist, he currently records, collaborates, releases music, and tours in a way that is similar to most major artists. This behavior, combined with his superstar status, disqualifies him from this list out of fairness to smaller independent artists. (Don't worry: I'll be covering MIYAVI in the upcoming Major Artists edition of this article out of fairness to him.)
  • Each artist must have made enough progress as a musical artist last year so as to be able to be evaluated as progressing "for better" or "for worse" in 2015.
  • Exception to previous rule: Artists can still qualify for this list if they have released substantial content throughout the year of 2016 OR provided extensive touring or other notoriety gaining-activities based on releases made in the latter half of 2014. 
As with my reviews, all opinions are my own. Please feel free to sound off in the comments below with your own thoughts on the bands covered in this article. Without further ado, let's get started!

A9 (formerly Alice Nine)
Ginga No Oto, Alice Nine’s first release as the newly-independent band A9, marked the beginning of a solid reboot for a solid band. For this release, A9 returned to a traditional rock sound that focuses on energetic and intricate instrumentation. The versatile sound on this EP allows the band’s talented guitarists to show off their skills more than they were able to in past releases, but the band still retains the upbeat-yet-rocking sound that we had come to associate with Alice Nine. A9 also applies some of the production tricks they learned from their last album to Ginga No Oto, and these subtle effects work nicely to bolster the quality of the EP without polluting the core sound, as was often done on their previous album. The revamped sound is still a little rough around the edges (the rapping has got to go), but it’s a step in an exciting direction for the band. I’m confident that once A9 has had a chance to refine and master their new sound, they will catch fire in a way they haven’t quite been able to in years.

Recommended Tracks: "Phoenix", "Spiegel", "Ryuuseigun"


DADAROMA's 2014-2015 debut is the best first year that I have ever seen from a new visual kei band ever. Currently my favorite indie band and my band of 2015, this band embodies the heavy metal and avant-garde metal sounds of previous visual metal greats like Dir En Grey, but they do so in their own sleek and varied style that distinctly separates them from even the most well-known of the darker visual kei bands. They also embody a spirit of experimentation that can be likened to bands like the GazettE, and are surprisingly adept at creating lighter and even jazzy music that uses the band’s thunderously heavy core sound as a skeleton. As a result, DADAROMA’s library to date features a variety of tracks that all reflect a consistent DADAROMA sound in spite of their broad genre coverage. What’s most stunning about this fantastic band is the overall integrity of the sizable amount of content that they’ve released throughout their infancy: to date, there are no bad DADAROMA songs. This band’s debut has been absolutely unreal, and it has set DADAROMA up to absolutely devour the underground visual kei scene, and I sincerely hope they do so.

Recommended Tracks: "Oboreru Sakana", "MONEY", morphine #1, morphine #2, Ame no Waltz, "Sauishu Densha"

Another one of my favorite indie bands, RAVE’s potential was so strong early on that visual kei label PSC (who has managed artists such as Alice Nine, MIYAVI, SuG, and the GazettE) quickly snapped them up and put them on their sub-label for independent artists (Indie PSC). Since then, RAVE has been releasing quite a large amount of content for an indie band that has yet to release a full-length album, including 2 singles and a mini-album in 2015. At first glance (read: if you only watch the band’s promotional videos), it would seem that their new affiliation with PSC has changed the band’s uniquely funky rave-rock sound into a more generically mainstream sound, but in reality this is only the result of the band experimenting with a bunch of recording and production resources that have been made newly available to them. A quick listen to the B-sides and supporting tracks of any of their 2015 releases will show you that the band’s signature sound is not only intact, but also benefiting from the plethora of musical styles that RAVE has been playing with in their lead promotional tracks.

The lead track on their latest single Subcul finally shows the fruits of their experimentation with a bigger budget, as it features a revamped version of the core sound from singles like "SETSUDAN" that made fans fall in love with this band in the first place. Now that the band has had time to grow into their new resources without imploding (as many new PSC bands have a tendency to do), I’d love to get a full-length album announcement from RAVE in 2016. PSC clearly wants this band to fill a hole that was left by SuG’s exit, and surprisingly enough that’s not necessarily a bad thing: RAVE is well on their way to using their own groovy, catchy style to make a name for themselves in the oshare-kei scene. Let’s just hope that they have the good sense to stay true to themselves in spite of all the temptation that comes with being a PSC band (I’m looking at you, SCREW and Sadie).

Recommended Tracks: "Subcul", "Yokubaliese", "DayxByexday", "Uchouten Bubble"


NOCTURNAL BLOODLUST is the primary reason that I rarely listen to any other metalcore bands these days: they are so brilliantly heavy, intense and surprisingly experimental that I rarely feel the urge to even bother looking at other bands in the Japanese, UK, or U.S. metalcore scenes. Reaching back into December of 2014 for a moment, I’d like to remind everyone that this band released an incredible album called THE OMNIGOD, and every metal head should go check it out. The band spent a lot of 2015 focusing on touring and even released a live DVD. If you haven’t seen footage of their live performances, you should do so, if for nothing else just so you can verify that the vocalist’s rough vocals are as authentic as they sound, because they are and it’s quite impressive. NOCTURNAL BLOODLUST also released Providence, a single whose lead track is an interesting marriage of the band’s viciously heavy sound and, of all things, jazz and swing music. At times, the song pushes the band’s boundaries just a little too far into slightly cringe-worthy territory, but it’s still a fun track, and the more traditional NOCTURNAL BLOODLUST sounds that the song is grounded in more than make up for the awkward rapping in the middle of the track. To balance things out the band also released the single Juso, which is all about the Melodic metalcore/deathcore sound that NOCTURNAL BLOODLUST excels at. I definitely recommend checking out THE OMNIGOD and the two 2015 singles for some quality headbanging music. When you’re finished with that, feel free to check out their metalcore cover of Taylor Swift’s “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, and prepare to giggle.

Recommended Tracks: "Providence", "Juso", "T.Y.R.A.N.T.", "DEAD END", "Punch me if you can", "GENESIS"

DIV released their second album SECRET in early 2015. I found it to be a decent album that relied excessively on previously-released (albeit very good) songs. The only memorable album-exclusive song was the album’s promotional track "SECRET NIGHT", which was an interesting departure to a hard-rock/electronica fusion from the light-rock/ambient mixture that we’re used to hearing from DIV. Then, towards the end of the year, DIV released their single Ikenai Kiss, whose title track built on "SECRET NIGHT’s" sound but tweaked the core sound back to a catchier and more upbeat sound that’s more in line with the rest of DIV’s music. "Ikenai Kiss" is a very nightclub-friendly rock song, and in spite of the fairly sudden change in direction that DIV is taking, I actually think it’s one of the best singles that the band has released. I’ve always believed that DIV is one of the few bands that truly knows how to blend electronic and rock music in a way that fits their own personality (which results in an added fidelity to their songs that few bands that try this have achieved). With that in mind, I have faith that they’ll stay true to themselves as they move ahead with their next release, which is themed directly around electronic dance rock.

Recommended Tracks: "Ikenai Kiss", "Butterfly Dreamer", "Secret Night", "Justice",  "Hyouryuu Kanojo"

Those of you who have read my past reviews of MEJIBRAY’s releases know that I had come to love this band as it started to come into its own by releasing high-quality music that embraced who the band was and pushed limits of the visual kei metal sound. After this year, I have nothing for disdain for this band. In truth, I haven’t enjoyed any release from MEJIBRAY that came after their RAVEN single and their SM compilation album that featured their epic reboot of “KILLING ME”. But let’s just focus on 2015, where things went from “meh” to awful.

April 1st saw the release of NEPENTHES, a single whose lead track sounds like a rehashed version of their 2014 track “Theatrical Blue Black”, which in turn sounds like a rehashed version of their fan favorite “Karma-Gareki no Mantichoras-”. In May, the band released “Eiki”, a single whose lead track would’ve sounded at least somewhat unique to me if I didn’t immediately recognize the guitar instrumentation from at least one other previously released major rock track (“Whore” by the popular up-and-coming U.S. metal band In This Moment comes to mind). The title track off of sounded somewhat better than the previous two releases, but only because it sounds like a bad cover of their (also previously released) track “DECADANCE-Counting Goats...if I can’t be yours”—which, by the way, is a great song that I recommend everyone re-listen to in order to remind themselves of the content that this band should be capable of producing. “Paradigm Paradox” sounds like a train wreck, and “Secret No. 003” is the band’s weak attempt at a party/dance song.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned any B-sides, it’s because, on the whole, listening to them was an absolute chore for me: MEJIBRAY still has not solved it’ chronic tendency to release uninteresting and disorganized B-sides. One thing that is especially concerning is the fact that vocalist Tsuzuku’s voice seems to be getting worse: his clean vocals are becoming more and more strained and his rough vocals are sounded less varied and more forced.

Overall, it seems as though MEJIBRAY has lost their ability to make heavy songs that can snap to and from the catchy (and original) choruses that tie their rough metal style together, and their music is suffering heavily as a result. I always try to reserve judgement on a band until the last possible minute, but it’s clear that this band is in the midst of a full-blown downward spiral in terms of musical integrity. Even worse, the band is relying on its eroguro-kei shock value and the member’s personalities to distract from these uninspired releases. It’s a real shame because they were heading in a great direction in 2014. I sincerely hope this band takes some time off to reflect and attempt to preserve their previously solid sound.

Recommended tracks: None

If you’ve never listened to Buglug, I highly recommend you check out their fantastic backlog of tracks. This band has been my favorite oshare-kei band for a long time, and I’ve been excited to see them not only get mainstream success as an indie band, but continue to get mainstream success while further pushing the boundaries of their unique approach to the oshare-kei formula. HAPPY BIRTHDAY KILL YOU, the band’s second album, pushed the experimentation even further while still retaining that core rocking Buglug style. The supporting tracks on the album don’t stand out quite as much as the promotional singles, but that’s to be expected from a band whose first album was almost entirely made up of singles. There are exceptions: for example, “Saru” is a brilliant song that combines all things Buglug with just the right amount of new sounds (there’s a reggae bridge!) to create one hell of a track. 

Overall, the band’s continued growth and experimentation seems to have been quite healthy for them, and has continued to produce solid music. Their latest single Koun no Megami wa Sariyukedo Wara features a lead track that plays around with a variety of sounds, including female backing vocals and some electronic dance sounds. While I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the track — it’s catchy, but it’s quite all over the place—I can say that the B-sides focus more on the traditional jazzy and quirky Buglug sound. Quite frankly, however, this band’s been on a hot streak almost since its inception, so I’m inclined to give them a pass on their riskier experiments, as long as they continue to hold on to their excellent core sound as they continue to grow as a band.

Recommended Tracks: "Saru", "Hone", "HICCHAKAxMECCHAKA", "HAPPY BIRTHDAY KILL YOU", "JUGEMU"

Many of us at VKH Press had extremely high hopes for Arlequin after hearing their very first EP, and I found their first album to be very enjoyable. Still, my one major critique about the band is that they consistently play it too safe. Granted, they are excellent at making energetic songs that could easily pass for high-quality anime opening tracks. That being said, I know from listening to hidden gems like “Zou”, “blind bud” and “fiction” that there’s a massive amount of potential to make crazy, heavy, and even elegant music lying dormant within this band. Unfortunately, it seems that Arlequin still has a tendency to ride their massive wave of indie success around and away from that kind of experimentation. Don’t get me wrong: the band does a marginal amount of experimentation on their B-sides (“Watashi to rikai” from the Qualia single comes to mind), and their lead tracks are solid; but this band can (and I believe will) become so much more than it already has become.

One exception to Arlequin’s play-it-safe tactics occurred this year with the release of the single Douke no Hana. This single embraced a mesh of funky, groovy, and catchy sounds that makes it one of my favorite singles released by the band to date. All three tracks are great fun (especially the wonderfully catchy third track “Hitogata”), and display a side of Arlequin that we’ve never seen before—and I like what I see. I’m hoping to see more experimentation in the future by Arlequin, but if I don’t get it, I won’t necessarily be unhappy with “safer” singles like Dilemma and Qualia, whose quality make it difficult not to like this band.

Recommended Tracks: "Hitogata", "Douke no Hana", "Mi Wo Shiru Ame", "Watashi to rikai"

I’ve been following Pentagon since they were a session band named Call Me back in 2014, so when this band first debuted at the beginning of January I already had a strong hunch that they were going to be a hit. Resembling a more adorable version of MEJIBRAY, Pentagon has very a winning and dark personality that charmed the twisted side of listeners from day one. Throughout 2015, they’ve dazzled audiences and rapidly risen to notoriety in the underground visual kei scene. Much as is the case with their big brother band Arlequin (they’re both signed to GOEMON Records), it’s very hard not to like Pentagon, but this band is not without its flaws. The band's music has not significantly matured since their debut: their song structure still tends to seem very disorganized or “thrown together”. Pentagon also tends to rely on safe (read: upbeat and catchy) choruses too much, even using them in songs where they are completely out of place (“Jesus Phobia” is a chief offender). Still, I have definitely enjoyed this band’s debut and some of their singles, and I’m looking forward to checking out their recently-released second album to see if they’ve been able to improve their sound just a little bit more.

Recommend Tracks: "Hitokui Teddy Bear", "Omukae", "Hae", "Shounen Waltz"

After an amazing 2014 album that massively expanded their musical range, Kiryu has spent the last 2 releases (the single Kyuubi and their contribution to B.P.RECORDS' FAMILY PARTY compilation album) essentially deconstructing their own unique sound. Both "Kyuubi" and "Utakata" take the band’s core sound (a blend of traditional Japanese music and horror rock) and pulls its individual parts as far apart from each other as possible in the verses, before snapping them cleanly back together in the choruses and bridges. It’s an interesting experiment that challenges the listener to keep track of all of the tracks’ moving parts but avoids losing the listener by tying it all together in the chorus.

I strongly recommend checking out the lead tracks of both releases. "Kyuubi" is a face-melting return to the heavier guitar solo-driven style of some of Kiryu’s older releases, and one of my favorite tracks from 2015. On the other hand, "Utakata" expands on some of the band’s newer, lighter sounds by incorporating them into a frantic-yet-soothing track with a wonderfully melodic chorus. Kiryu also collaborated with labelmates Royz and Comodo Dragon for B.P.RECORDS' special FAMILY PARTY release, which features the Utakata "single" along with single-esque contributions from Royz and Comodo Dragon. The lead track, "Ryouran Resonance", is a group effort mashup of all three bands’ musical styles and sounds, and the Kiryu’s unique sound definitely provides a solid backbone for this fun collaboration between all three bands. Overall, Kiryu deserves a massive amount of respect for continuing to push the boundaries of their music in truly artful ways, in spite of their ever-increasing mainstream success.

Recommended Tracks: "Kyuubi", "Utakata", "Ryouran Resonance"

Keep an eye out next week for the Major Bands Edition of my J-Rock Year in Review. In the meantime, did you agree or disagree with my comments on the above bands? What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) indie releases from 2015? What bands do you expect to make a splash in 2016? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
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