Before J-pop or K-pop were ever a thing, the world was going crazy for J-rock and its more glammed up sub-genre Visual Kei (the Japanese cousin in the Goth family). There have been past debates between particularly passionate fans over separating J-rock and Visual Kei completely, with outsiders mistakenly taking them for the same thing. J-rockers came first of course, as the term stands for Japanese rock. However, in the 80s many rockers started experimenting with more glam, theatrical and goth looks. The only thing that changed was the visual representation of the bands, hence the term ‘visual kei’ meaning ‘visual style in Japanese’.
The now common term ‘visual kei’ was originally ‘visual shock kei’ while fans lovingly abbreviate it to just V-kei. X Japan, the pioneer of Visual Kei was originally called ‘Okesho Kei’ (meaning ‘make-up style’), but as the style goes way beyond make up, this naming was dropped later on.
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The first phase of Visual Kei was in the 80s, when rockers started styling themselves more flamboyantly, and practically inventing the style. It took a few years for their popularity to rise and they started topping charts by the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s.
The absolute pioneer of V-kei is X JAPAN, followed by BUCK TICK (actively performing and launching singles to this day), LUNA SEA (later toning down V-kei, disbanding, and reuniting in 2007), DEAD END (an eclectic, hard to define rock and metal band), COLOR (fun fact: originally wrote lyrics in English, but the label pushed them to rewrite in Japanese) and many others.
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One of the most famous bands both in Japan and abroad, X JAPAN has influenced many bands coming afterwards. They themselves have cited being influenced by KISS, David Bowie, Iron Maiden etc. Their image combines glam and heavy metal aesthetics, with make-up, jewellery, punk-like hair, but above all each member of the band was pursuing their own take on the style too.
Their music also follows suit, combining heavy metal sounds with gentle piano solos, screaming vocals with soft ballad singing, and symphonic elements. The drummer and pianist Yoshiki writes most of the songs, with contributions by Hide and sometimes other members.
X JAPAN has been through a lot, disbanding and reuniting, losing members, members passing away. They have toured the world and remain active to this day, recording a new album, occasionally performing, filming a documentary etc.
BUCK-TICK is a legend. Active for decades, never changing their members (after the initial changes when the band was forming in high school), moving from the countryside to Tokyo and succeeding. BUCK-TICK have always been holding their own against controlling record labels for the right to make their own music and style themselves as they see fit – a dream for every musician signed to a record label.
This has resulted in them leading the way with Visual Kei, and being able to try different music expressions through the decades, from punk and goth, to industrial and post-punk. The band members say they have been influenced by bands like Bauhaus, The Cure, Kraftwerk, David Bowie and many others. Even if their visual image has been toned down, it is still based on the V-kei and goth aesthetic.
It was only after 10 years that Visual Kei really took off, both domestically and internationally. The 90s were the golden age, new V-kei bands debuting and taking the style in their own direction.
If the pioneers of Visual Kei took notes from Goth, Malice Mizer were one of the first ones to embrace Rococo and Baroque aesthetics, with a bit of French flair. Their live shows were epic and lavish. Malice Mizer was formed by its two guitarists, Mana and Kozi, and because they had three consecutive vocalists their history is divided in 3 eras.
The Tetsu era was from 1992 to 1994 and the band had mostly a goth rock and progressive rock sound. The Gackt era was from 1995 to 1999, when the band tried a more art rock and synth pop sound and image. Finally, the Klaha era from 2000 to 2001 was a time of a darker and heavy metal sound. After leaving Malice Mizer, Gackt has a very successful solo carrier, holding the male soloist record for most top ten consecutive singles in Japanese music history.
L’Arc En Ciel
Another V-kei band with a French language inspiration, L’Arc En Ciel was formed at the peak of Visual kei and is active to this day. They have later somewhat distanced themselves from the Visual Kei movement and have explored different genres, even forming an alter ego band named P’UNK~EN~CIEL in addition to their solo projects.
L’Arc En Ciel have been incredibly successful. They were the first Japanese act to headline at Madison Square Garden, and have toured the world since. Their songs have been used in pop culture in movies such as Godzilla, anime such as Gundam Mobile Suit, games such as Final Fantasy and so on.
DIR EN GREY
Formed in 1997, DIR EN GREY came at the end of the Visual Kei’s peak, so many also consider them as part of the next Neo-Visual Kei phase of the 21st century. As many others, they have slowly started becoming ‘less V-kei’ in appearance. The band does have a slightly heavier sound and falls in various metal genres, as well as having a more grotesque and macabre goth image. So much so, that some of their videos have stirred controversy in Japan.
The vocalist Kyo has a versatile range, from ballad voice to metal shrieks, and had been compared to experimental vocalists like Mike Patton. They have cited influences like Alice in Chains, Pantera, Bauhaus etc. They are still releasing music and touring the world.
Post-peak there were still new Visual Kei artists, who even though were less successful in Japan than their predecessors, are generally more successful abroad. Their sound differs and varies from band to band, and from album to album in a band’s career. The visual element seems to be more important at times, inviting criticism from older Visual Kei artists and fans. However, this generation of musicians has also produced excellent music. Some of the most notable bands are The Gazette, Alice Nine, Girugamesh, and the solo artist Miyavi.
The Gazette’s members came together in 2002, but they have individually been members in other bands in the Visual Kei movement. Just like DIR EN GREY, they have a heavier metal sound and macabre videography. After 18 years and touring the world, they are still actively making music and performing.