Tokyo Brutality: Asakusa Deathfest

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Invictus & Audience @ ADF 2017

During the Halloween 2017 weekend and underneath the watchful eye of not only a 2,080 foot steel obelisk but also what can only be described as a weird, gigantic, gilded sperm perched atop the offices of one of the world’s largest breweries, a new and relatively obscure Deathfest featuring various strains of extreme music from all over the world, walls of death, vegan curry, and drunken revelry in the pit and on the streets thanks to a lack of public drinking laws played out over 4 days at a small, 300 or so maximum capacity venue called Gold Sounds.

I am, of course, referring to the 2nd annual Asakusa Deathfest, held in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa district. It’s a district that gets a lot of hype, and given that it’s in Eastern Tokyo which was left relatively unharmed by the firebombings of WWII and thus has many historic/old buildings, yeah, it is historic, but from a strictly experiential point of view I’ve honestly never really understood why there’s such a big fuss made over it. I suppose for a one-time visit, it’s nice, what with the Sensoji Temple and it’s massive Kaminarimon gate, the fireworks displays over the sprawling Sumida River every summer, the sprinting rickshaws, but once that sheen wears off, it’s really a pretty downtrodden, sleepy, and uninspiring district.

And perhaps that’s why it’s such a good location for a Deathfest: it’s unassuming. Unlike many, if not all, other Deathfests, ADF not only features stellar lineups and stellar people, but also a jarring and awkward juxtaposition between the decaying suburban sprawl in the center of perhaps the world’s largest city and the Supreme Kvltitude of ADF’s attendees and performers. It is, in a word, unique.

 

This plays very well into Japanese Metal, which has, for some time, remained this invisible character in the gargantuan cultural PR/soft power campaigns that Japanese government and corporations have been pushing for, what, 20 some years, ever since the bubble of the pre-1990’s burst. “Japan is quiet” they say, “Japan is well-behaved”, they chime in chorus. “Japan has Samurai and Hello Kitty and Sushi and Geisha and Princess Mononoke and robots” they scream into an endlessly echoing chamber of autoerotic asphyxiation. And yeah, Japan totally has these things, but they comprise, collectively, a very small percent of the nation’s cultural capital. But because there is this laser focus on the whole of What Japan Supposedly Is, as opposed to its constituent parts, the things that aren’t already highlighted quickly fall to the background.

And this happens with Extreme Music, too. Yeah, everyone knows Boris, Abigail, Loudness, Merzbow, Sabbat, etc., but those are members of a group of maybe 12 well-known Japanese bands (of course, there are some others that are also known, but work with me here), all of whom began playing prior to 1995 – they are old. Not that that’s bad, far from it, but there’s stuff going on right now that almost everyone interested in Extreme Music, be they in Bangladesh or Baltimore, Seattle or Singapore, would be drooling over if they like the above mentioned bands.

In the ongoing conversation on international Extreme Music, there are many festivals (Baltimore, LA, Las Vegas, etc.) on the radar of US Metalheads that are downtown, right next to if not in the business district, all shiny and prosperous, and full of at least relatively well known acts. They are fun, they are exhilarating, they are totally worth the money, but in the end, I personally find them somewhat disappointing in that they provide a pretty predictable roster. That this “mainstream underground” festival focus exists isn’t bad, per se, but there are many more spots around the globe that showcase just as extreme music if not more so in places that aren’t so top-of-mind in general, and much more so when it comes to underground music.

Japan is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of these hidden pockets of culture that occur outside of the “mainstream” underground, and if there’s one event of the approximately 250 annual Extreme Music concerts across Japan’s national scene that showcases this overwhelming but unseen power, it’s Asakusa Deathfest.

Asakusa Deathfest is the brainchild of Tokyo’s own tireless musician/producer/gallerist Naru-san of Butcher ABC & CSSO (whom we affectionately refer to as the Godfather of Gore). He (and many others) do somewhat adhere to one sort-of stereotype about Japan that persists: absurd levels of hardwork and dedication. They have been working their asses off since at least the early 90’s to support the domestic scene, and there have certainly been many outstanding events all through that time (Grindfest! Obscene Extreme Asia! Kappunk!), but ADF represents a long-overdue and significant step up in Japan’s efforts to break onto the international stage.

Located on Edo Dori (Edo Street) on the shores of the Sumida River and just down the street from the massive Sensoji temple nestled in between Japan’s version of Walmart and countless izakaya, you’d completely miss Gold Sounds if you didn’t know what to look for. And this is representative of the Japanese scene in general: it’s hard to find. Or, at least, would be if it weren’t for the battle jackets, long hair, and uncharacteristic raucous gatherings that pepper the blocks adjacent to this and most other venues on the night of a concert.

You can almost feel the air pressure change as you approach – something’s going on here, you might think to yourself. And indeed, something is! Unlike so much of Corporate Japan (make note of that distinction), which more or less fits the stereotype of a homogenous, relatively well-behaved mass of suits, when you approach Asakusa Deathfest, you are seeing something that isn’t televised. You would be in the right to think, this is going to be rad.

Down the stairs in between masses of battlejackets, the occasional corpsepainted non-band-member, and the ubiquitous crushed beer cans, you arrive to the basement-level landing. Now that you’ve run the gauntlet and been acclimatized (maybe) to the type of person you’ll see inside, you’ll then notice a neatly organized grouping of umbrellas next to an overflowing ashtray surrounded by heshers speaking at least 4 languages. And then you’ll be surprised by the heft of the door leading into the venue proper…

But once you get in, regardless of what language you speak or what you look like, you’ll find a very attentive staff just waiting to get you in to have a good time. Sure, the conversation might be a bit awkward given that you’re probably not speaking the same language, but really you are: this event is about the language of sound, the language of riffs and blasts, grunts and shrieks. You’ll survive the ~2 minutes of awkwardness for sure, and then you’ll go through another one of those heavy doors…

To find a beautiful collection of Japanese, Chilean, Brazilian, American, Canadian, Korean, Kyrgyzstani, German, French, Singaporean, and more people shooting the shit in countless languages regardless of whether or not they understand the words but because they understand The Horns. You’ll walk up to the bar and ask for a beer (bi-ru) and get it without a second thought. You’ll weave your way through what feels like a thousand people all crammed into a 200 foot square space and be greeted by this that and the other person either verbally or with a thumbs up to your shirt or a pat on the back, and then you’ll approach the final heavy door. The threshold. The entrance to the underground, a legit, riveting, life-affirming experience many Metalhead have presumably only imagined. You open that door, and see 300 people of all shapes and sizes, in battlejackets and suits just from work, and they’re all cheering and drinking and pitting and having the time of their life. When you see that, in the split second after you cross that final threshold, and I guarantee you, no matter where you are from, you’ll think two things, in order: “I’m home,” swiftly followed by, “I gotta get into that pit!”

The full Asakusa Deathfest 2017 lineup:

Friday, October 27th, 2017:

Saturday, October 28th, 2017:

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

Monday, October 30th, 2017 (Afterparty)

If you want to know more about what goes into actually getting yourself over to Asakusa Deathfest (or even more “normal” weekend concerts) get in touch with us at info@kaala.jp. We’re happy to help people explore the depths of Japan’s extreme music scene. Also, check out our website for more info.


All photos by Nats/Imagenoise (FacebookInstagram)

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