Exploring the Gyre – An Interview with Vorchaos
“There are a lot of bands who do this as a hobby,” Vorchaos guitarist Kaz says, sipping on a beer, “but we want to be famous; we want be professional.”
I’m sitting with 4 out of 5 members of Tokyo-based metal band Vorchaos in their rehearsal studio one Saturday afternoon (Fuji sent me his answers via email). We’re seated on the floor around my recorder drinking beers and discussing what the band have been up to recently, their view of the Tokyo music scene, and their recent Japan tour, which has seen them finally branch out beyond their Tokyo stomping ground. That they’ve managed to play a succession of shows as comparative unknowns and come away from them triumphant is testimony to their unique sound and unparalleled stage presence, and certainly promises bigger things for the future.
Vorchaos formed back in 2008, with guitarists Kaz and Yuzo as original members along with vocalist Jun.
“They found me while I was playing with my previous band,” says their singer who sports a shock of black hair streaked purple and white. “It was kind of the same style as Vorchaos, but with a bit more singing,” continues Jun, who cites L’Arc~en~Ciel as an early influence, and sports a vocal range veering from purgatorial growling to a rounded and powerful clean voice. Bassist Fuji and drummer Ushi complete the line-up; Ushi telling me about how they had once met through a session his dentist had invited him to and later met again while working for Geki-rock. I ask Ushi about the first gig they played together.
“It was a bit over 2 years ago at Shibuya AUBE,” he says. “We played “Ao kagirinaku”, which was in it’s ‘prototype’ phase at the time, and so at the show we ended up jamming for 7 or 8 minutes.”
“The ending was my guitar solo,” adds Kaz. “It took a pretty long time…”
“Ao kagirinaku” is one of the standout tracks on Vorchaos’ debut album “Vortex of Chaos”. Used as a prolonged jazzy interlude at live shows, the song starts off with an easy-going drum intro and builds up with warm summery-sounding guitar tones with clean vocals throughout from Jun, backed by harmonies from the rest of the band. The song builds into an upbeat and multi-layered, guitar-driven power-ballad that makes you want to wave your lighter around above your head and sway from side to side.
“Vortex of Chaos” was released last November to a sold out show at Harajuku Astro Hall. With an ambitious 15 tracks on the album, one might expect it to be a little flabby, but the album makes for a cohesive whole (glued together by Fuji’s SE’s) in which every song earns its’ place on the CD. I asked the band to tell me about some of their favorite tracks, but before that I asked Jun about the lyrics. Being a heavier band, it is easy to make the assumption that their lyrical content is doused in rivers of blood, cataclysms, and gloom, but much in keeping with metalcore bands like Killswitch Engage, Jun claims quite the opposite:
“Songs like ’Gensou DIMENSION’ are very forward-looking. It depends on the song, but in this case it was based on past experiences and how those have influenced me. There’s no war or fighting in my lyrics. Our songs are about living.”
“My favorite is ‘Chaoscore’,” Kaz replies when we move on to talk songs, speaking of the album’s opening track – an unrelenting number that brings in elements of thrash, mixed up with prolonged solos and a brilliant vocal performance from Jun, who makes his vocal lunges seem effortless. “It was the first song I wrote for the band and it’s full of hope, because at the time I was wondering who I was going to play this song with in the future”.
“’Monster’ is my favourite,” says Fuji, choosing the tribal-edged, anthemic and feisty fifth track on the album. “I like the narrative in the lyrics, and the laughing at the beginning. The song started from the title and the lyrics and song came after that. It was an interesting way of making music.”
Yuzo talks about “Technobreak”, one of my particular favourites, and a firm crowd-pleaser at live shows. It’s amped-up, anarchic and makes you want to start a circle-pit which, at 153cm, is something this writer prefers to do mentally whilst observing the carnage from afar.
“The song started from a riff I wrote,” says the band’s guitarist and visual artist. “Kaz picked up on it and the song built from there.”
“It’s thanks to him,” Kaz says, insistently pointing at Yuzo, “that the song got made.”
“Ahh, that’s so sweet and well put,” Yuzo replies, comically batting eyelids at Kaz. “Is this some kind of bromance?”
“Ha ha,” laughs Kaz. “No homo.”
Jesting aside, what does make Vorchaos’ alchemy so potent is that these 5 on-stage rock beasts get along so well. With massive onstage personas, it can feel a little at odds to find them so self-effacing and well mannered off of it, but it’s quite clear that they have a very close bond with each other and Yuzo’s artwork for the album cover reflects this by pulling in 5 strands that reflects the members and the different elements in the band. The only person who maintains that confidence off-stage is Ushi, whose time studying music in the USA cured him of the Japanese predisposition for reticence, a much needed trait for a band with their sights set high. I asked the band what they’d learned about each other from being out on the road during their tour. Ushi points at Kaz:
“He gets really talkative when he’s driving so he doesn’t fall asleep. Fuji doesn’t have a license so he’s mostly sleeping.”
“Sleeping all the time,” adds Kaz.
How’s the tour going so far?
“Our first show was in Aomori,” says Yuzo, speaking of his hometown, “and we played a metal event at a live house there. Every time I play there the show’s named ‘Volume 1’ or ‘Volume 2’, so this show was ‘Volume 44’. A lot of my guitarist friends came down to see us. We had a bit of equipment trouble but we chatted while things got sorted out. It was a really warm atmosphere.”
“Our last show was in Yokkaichi,” adds Ushi. “The show was full of new punters, as well as fans from Tokyo, so we had a good time there. Every show has been so much fun.”
I move on to talk about the band as a whole, and their place in the music scene in Tokyo. To me, Vorchaos pull in elements of prog in their timing, thrash in their guitar driven songs and lengthy solos, as well as a bit of 80s metal (Kaz cites Loudness as an influence) in their more bombastic moments, yet none of it sounds derivative. I’d say they were a heavy metal band unlike anything the current crop of more popular bands has to offer. They stick out in the scene for not trying to emulate their musical influences but by going beyond them instead. Vorchaos, however, seem a little less certain how to define themselves:
“We’re metal but we’re not metal,” says Ushi. “ We might be pop, but we’re not. We’re rock…but we’re not.”
“I feel we’re a little confused on that point, though,” Kaz adds. “I think the most important thing is to express ourselves through our atmosphere. We like to be loud, but we don’t aim to be “metal”, per se. I don’t think we need to be defined by a genre.”
The alternative music scene in Japan is woefully lacking in mainstream representation, save for bands like One OK Rock who pander MOR alt rock to packed stadium audiences. I have a feeling that this is why many “harder” bands I’ve come across seem unwilling to be defined by one genre of music for fear that this may prevent them from getting the attention they would like from prospective fans, and from the music industry. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, the Japanese pop-factory continues churning out pre-fab idol bands that cater to pedophilic peccadillos and tweenage hormones that can only thrive in the Japanese market. It’s the musical equivalent of Galapagos syndrome and as far as I can see, the only way to get ahead in rock is to allow a record company to take you and shape you to something they consider more fitting. Not a model that would suit Vorchaos, I feel.
The metal scene, meanwhile, is so underground that despite it’s size and the number of passionate people within it, it is a surprisingly disparate place to be a music fan and even more so to be a band.
“It is difficult,” agrees Kaz. “The metal scene is not so popular and there are only 3 or 4 dedicated live houses in Tokyo.”
“The metal scene is small: though there are a lot of bands, a lot of them are amateur projects,” adds Ushi. “As for the people in the scene, there are a lot of little groups, and people tend not to socialize so much at gigs.”
“Most bands bring their friends,” continues Kaz, “and they [the fans] are not really interested in meeting new people. They gather at big gigs like Loud Park, for example, when big bands come to Japan, but there’s no close relationship between fans.”
So, what’s in the works for Vorchaos? The band have long had plans to play outside of Japan, and with one Korean show under their belts they’ve had some opportunities, but just how are they going to get there? Attracting western audiences by singing in English?
“I’d always thought I’d have to write lyrics in English since we started because we want to play abroad in the future,” says Kaz. “But, we’re a Japanese band and there are some things that can only be expressed in Japanese. We’ve made the album all in Japanese, but depending on the situation [in the future] we might sing in both.”
With bands like Crossfaith and Coldrain making huge waves outside of Japan (as well as the curious rise of pop-metal princesses Babymetal), the global rock community is looking to Japan to see what else is going to come out of a country that could be defined as the weird foreign student of the music scene – seemingly awkward and unpopular, but most likely to do something that will be the talk of the town for days. Vorchaos are a band quite unlike their contemporaries, and have a great deal of potential to take their own unique sound way beyond the confines of their home country. To do that, they need to keep up the momentum, widen their fanbase, and keep making music. When I ask about future albums (I could certainly do with another fix), Ushi smiles knowingly and says: “We’re working on it.”
Vorchaos finish their tour on July 11th at Harajuku’s Astrohall. Go check ’em out!
Check out photos from their rehearsal in the gallery below:
You can pick up “Vortex of Choas” at Tower Records, HMV and Disk Union in Japan, as well as at live shows. For outside Japan, check out iTunes, where the album is available “earth-wide”.
Thanks to Vorchaos for always being great guys to work with, Andy Levicky and Miho Tohmatsu for help with translations, and Kate Havas for proof-reading.