Active since 1999, Onmyo-Za’s career was restricted to their native Japan until 2006, when European label Gan-Shin issued the band’s Best Of package Inyou-Shugyoku to the Western world. It was a massive volume showcasing Onmyo-Za’s seven studio records, issued to a rabid Western fan following that had gotten to know the band via YouTube (launched in February 2005) and the resulting word of mouth, cashing in on the Visual Kei trend popularized by countrymen Dir En Grey’s European breakthrough in 2005. And while the goth-oriented fashion-before-substance Visual Kei banner may apply at first glance – the band performs in traditional kimono regalia – Onmyo-Za’s music is rooted in traditional metal. Every album, including new outing Chimimouryou, offers up a welcome taste of classic Metallica or Slayer, dives into the realms of melodic rock and pop, and puts the pedal through the floor with Helloween-ish abandon as the mood strikes. All of this is tied neatly together with a female / male vocal delivery in the spirit of a thrash pop Nightwish, making for a listening experience that can be simultaneously rivetting and off-putting depending on where your tastes lie.
Call Onmyo-Za anything but trend conscious.
“We don’t blame people who may think of us as one of those Visual Kei bands,” admits bassist/vocalist/songwriter Matatabi. “In a way, I think they have no option but to think so. But the music is completely different, as you mentioned. I would like people to listen to our music without being deceived by appearances. I think most of the words that categorize music are nothing more than words. It doesn’t influence us in the slightest if we’re considered a Visual Kei band or a pop band. We aren’t interested in that. Onmyo-Za is Onmyo-Za.”
Performing in kimonos is certainly eye-catching, but it can’t be particularly easy given the type of music being played…
“To be honest with you, it is very hard to perform in long-sleeved kimonos,” Matatabi deadpans. “We’re used to it now because we’ve been performing on stage with the same style since we formed the band. I think Onmyo-Za is one of the only bands in the world who are good at performing in kimonos (laughs).”
With regards to Onmyo-Za’s long standing sonic schizophrenia, according to Matatabi the band wouldn’t know how to play the game any other way.
“Onmyo-Za’s essence of music is the metal, but we continue to create different styles of music for the music we pursue without being swayed. It’s so natural and also based on fundamental theory of ‘Do everything we think is good.’ We all listen to various genres of music and try to make an effort of taking them in. Also, some of our favourite artists we were into when we started making music remain at the same position as our roots. We play various styles of music and do it all very well. I like all of the metal styles Onmyo-Za puts into practice.”
Similar to what X Japan did over the course of their career before calling it quits in the ‘90s.
“X Japan is one of the bands Japan is proud of without a doubt,” says the guitarist. “In fact, they’ve had an influence on many Japanese musicians. Although we’re not influenced by them, it’s a privilege that people think there’s a connection between X Japan and Onmyo-Za.”
The band is fronted by female vocalist Kuroneko, essentially Onmyo-Za’s Anette Olzon to Matatabi’s role as Marco Hietala (see Nightwish for details). She’s a rarity on the Japanese metal scene in that she’s one of only a handful of women able to perform heavy music convincingly and on such a high level. Matatabi credits her for much of the band’s success.
“As far as we are concerned, Onmyo-Za wouldn’t exist without Kuroneko as a lead singer,” states Matatabi. “She was accepted in the Japanese music scene from the start without any resistance. If anything, Kuroneko’s strength as a singer has pushed us to the position we’re in at the moment. Needless to say, Kuroneko is not a sex object; her existence is the music itself.”
Interestingly, when the comparison to Nightwish is brought up, Matatabi pleads ignorance
“It’s unfortunate, but I personally have not touched either Nightwish or other female (fronted) bands. I think Nightwish is a great band as far as their reputation goes. It is indeed an honour to be compared to them.”
For the future, almost a decade into their career and Onmyo-Za have found an entirely new market to conquer.?
“Our Best Of album, Inyo-Shugyoku, was enthusiastically received in Europe,” Matatatbi reveals. “It can also be said that our live performances during our European tour were very enthusiastic, and they were same level of performances in Japan. Such experience in Europe have given us something positive without a doubt. We’re in the middle of the negotiations for releasing both new titles and old material outside Japan. Onmyo-Za wants our music to reach different countries, and we want to play in those countries as well.”
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