When WagakkiBand addressed the audience from the stage at the legendary Nippon Budokan in January last year, singer Yuko Suzuhana made a request: She asked the audience to help carry the band to even bigger and better things.
13 months later, seeing WagakkiBand own the stage of Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium for the first of two sold-out shows on February 17 and 18, 2017 – a total of 15,000 glowstick-waving fans – it was clear her wish had come true.
Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium is one of Japan’s largest concert venues, sometimes even used to host music festivals; it will serve as a venue for the Olympic Games in 2020, as it did in 1964. Filling a room this size for two nights is impressive enough, but WagakkiBand did not stop at just filling it – they put on an unforgettable show to boot.
“I was worried as to whether we would be able to connect with the audience members all the way at the back of such a huge venue, but you have shown me that we can,” Yuko told the crowd, her voice heavy with gratitude. “Because of you, we are growing as a band. Thank you!"
Growing as a band, yes, but also as a live phenomenon. The spectacle we have come to expect was on display, of course, with the eight impossibly accomplished musicians joined by 30 dancers as acrobatic as any Olympic gymnast. A horseshoe-shaped catwalk extended the stage around the edge of the stalls and the first balcony, allowing the members to get close to their fans.
There was even a snow machine, in reference to the February 17 show’s title, “Great New Year's Live 2017 ‘Yuki No Utage’” (“Snow Celebration”). (The second night, “Sakura No Utage”, had a sakura theme, with the two shows symbolizing the passing from winter to spring.)
But more than that, WagakkiBand have begun to adapt musically to their successes on the stage. Yuko told the crowd that the songs on forthcoming album “Shikisai”, due in March, were written specifically with live performance in mind. The bruising riffs of “Valkyrie -Ikusa Otome-” bore this out explosively, while the slower-paced recent single “Okinotayuu” blended Daisuke Kaminaga’s comforting flutelike shakuhachi with Machiya’s faux-Spanish guitar to present a sure-footed ballad.
Later, the audience got their very first chance to hear unreleased song “Ukiyo Heavy Life”, with a frantic tempo perfectly suited to the stage. Wasabi’s stop-start drums and Daisuke’s deep stabs of shakuhachi built teasingly to a rock-out chorus, while traditional Japanese painted “ukiyo-e” imagery of flaming spirit ladies, skeletons and haunted animals graced the jumbotron behind the stage.
WagakkiBand know exactly what will please their ever-growing crowd. Breaking the band’s usual style of rock played on traditional Japanese instruments, an interlude made tongue-in-cheek use of hard-edged house music and digital club visuals to introduce the ever-popular drums vs wadaiko (taiko drum) battle that has become a centerpiece of their concerts.
The set-piece was as awesome as ever, with muscular drummer Wasabi and charismatic wadaiko player Kurona joined by four more percussionists, building an intricate six-man polyrhythm using only hand-cymbals, before Wasabi clambered behind his drum kit and Kurona his wadaiko set for a barrage of heavy beats. The pair then tossed away their drumsticks in unison and proceeded to beat their instruments with their bare hands.
Every band member had their chance to shine. While Kiyoshi Ibukuro takes a supporting role on many of WagakkiBand’s songs, his skills with the harplike koto created a beautiful melody during his solo spot titled “Kochou No Yume”. Beni Ninagawa bookended the coquettish “Yoshiwara Lament” with an intro and outro from her Tsugaru-jamisen (a type of shamisen), later joining forces with shakuhachi player Daisuke for an extended workout over a twisted EDM beat for their duet “Tono Monogatari: Shi Shi”.
Wearing white Noh masks, bassist Asa and guitarist Machiya formed a power-trio with drummer Wasabi for “Homura”, a fist-pumping instrumental metal workout whose title translates fittingly as “Blaze” – all beefy basslines, aggressive drums and wailing guitar harmonics. The three musicians were joined by robed dancers, and Machiya dramatically pulled off his mask – to reveal another one underneath. It's these neat touches that make WagakkiBand's shows so much fun.
Front and center for most of the set was Yuko. Her mastery of shigin, a powerful vocal technique with over 1,000 years of history, is always mesmerizing to behold. Her voice soared with aching emotion on the graceful “Hoshizukiyo”, as she stood against the screen with its full-moon backdrop, dressed in a stunning snow-white kimono – with white hairpins, hair accessories, obi belt and hand-fan to match.
On “Setsuna – Hakuo No Yoru -”, Yuko (this time dressed in delicate black and white lace) even led a troupe of yukata-clad dancers in a theatrical sword-and-fan-dance performance known as kenbu.
The main set closed out with the forthcoming album track “Yuki Yo Mai Chire Sonohou Ni Mukete”, an ode to the snow, and that’s when the snow machine kicked in – white confetti floated elegantly downwards as the song’s warm mid-tempo melody unfolded.
And then as the band left the stage, the audience began the now-customary chant of the chorus to “Akatsuki no Ito”, their voices drifting like the snow, summoning WagakkiBand back on to play the song themselves.
“It's always over so fast! Is it already the encore?” exclaimed Yuko. “When I stand on the stage in front of your smiling faces, I'm always struck by the diversity of our audience, from kids to people in their 70s. You are our treasure.”
They ended the set with “Senbonzakura”; the band members prowled the catwalks as silver confetti ribbons were shot overhead, then regrouped center-stage to rock out together. Kiyoshi’s Koto led seamlessly into Beni's commanding Tsugaru-jamisen solo. Although it is a cover, WagakkiBand have made this song completely their own, with their powerful live performances and ever-mounting YouTube views (55 million and counting).
All in all, not a bad start to the year. WagakkiBand’s next domestic tour will take them to medium-sized halls all around Japan, a return to more intimate surroundings, but even in the vast Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, they seemed right at home.
As the video screen played a teaser of every song from the forthcoming album “Shikisai”, the crowd cheered along, excited to hear how the stage has influenced WagakkiBand’s latest music – and how that music will influence their shows going forward.
New album “Shikisai” will be released March 22 in Japan. Will be available on Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes. WagakkiBand will tour Japan from April 22. For more information, visit http://wagakkiband.jp/wagae/
New album “Shikisai” order here @ mu-mo shop for international shipping
WagakkiBand New Song “Okinotayu”