I'm a big fan of Japanese heavy metal and a collector of Japanese metal and rock music. I also enjoy documenting the scene's history.
If you look around Japan, the metal style you see most frequently today is power metal in its various forms and sub-scenes. In this article I'll be touching on the evolution of Japanese power metal from its origins to present day, going into some detail on the evolution of Japan's power metal, as well as the closely related symphonic, neoclassical, and melodic heavy metal scenes in Japan as they formed.
The Early Examples (1983-1987)
The very earliest example I can think of where a Japanese metal song fit pretty firmly stylistically with what eventually became known as power metal would be Marino's classic Midnight Believer which first appeared in 1983 on their third demo. Marino were generally pretty far removed from power metal, however that particular song, even in its earliest stages featured countless characteristics that would become synonymous with the power metal style. A heavy metal steamroller of a song with double bass drums, excellent melodic guitar playing by Raven Ohtani and an empowering vocal performance by Leo Yoshida, it was one of the first metal songs of its kind within the young Japanese metal scene. The song would appear on the band's debut and most famous album "Target" in 1984.
While basically the whole song is a prime example of early Japanese power metal, for a couple key examples within the video I recommend jumping to the solo section at 2:15 as well as from 3:52 onward.
Other Japanese power metal forerunners that appeared around the same time that Marino released the above song include bands like Majoran which was the first Japanese metal band with a female vocalist to have songs resembling early power metal, particularly Shaky which appeared on their '83 demo and also on their Witch's Egg EP in 1984. Another early and important band to the style starting to take hold in Japan which appeared around this time was Hellen, Japan's first band to play power metal as their primary style. In 1984 Hellen released their demo "Fantastic Dream". On this demo they notably made heavy use of keyboards to add another layer to their sound. An example from the tape is the song So I Am.
1985 was a big year for the growth and evolution of power metal in Japan. For starters, heavy / power metal band Shella (Again) formed and quickly began making demo tapes. Shella promptly joined Hellen in signing on as two of the first bands on the brand new record label Mandrake Root, who would grow to specialize in heavy and particularly power metal acts. This same year Shella released their debut album "Listen!" through Mandrake Root, but more significantly to power metal in Japan, Hellen released their debut EP "Talon of King", which continued along the same early power metal path set by the band's Fantastic Dream demo released just one year prior. This was the first mostly-power metal LP released by a Japanese metal band. Interestingly, we would see all-female metal act Show-Ya cover the title track of Talon of King on their own debut album the same year as Talon of King's release. Their cover had a more predominant heavy metal feel than the original, still it was quite cool.
Another notable band that started releasing music in 1985 was Stingray, who released their debut album "Rain" this year. The album was mostly hard rock, however it did contain a couple of melodic power metal tracks (such as September Magic) the style of which the band would adopt much more consistently as their career went on. On a similar note newly established bands like Anthem were making extremely power metal-esque speed metal songs like Warning Action which appeared on their 1984 demo as well as their debut album in '85, while not a power metal band at heart Anthem utilized the style many times over their career in the years to come. A couple of other very minor but interesting early Japanese power metal examples from this time included Storm Bringer and Rei's, both of which appeared on the independent split album Kanto vs Kansai with songs like ラブ ファイヤー and Resurrection respectively. Another obscure but cool example from this era is Redeemer, who included a couple songs, such as Redeemer on the Neo Hard Shock compilation in 1985.
Still in 1985, you began to see the first division of Japanese power metal bands into different sub-scenes. You had the bands like Hellen and Stingray with an emphasis on melody, but also beginning to appear this year were early power metal bands opting to go in a very different direction from that. 1985 saw bands like X (or X Japan), Prowler, guitarist Hide's band Yokosuka Saver Tiger (Emergency Express), and D'erlanger (Back Street) put an emphasis on raw speed and aggression, performing fusions of power and speed metal. In addition to that, most of these bands boasted a "visual shock" image which would eventually come to be identified as the visual kei movement, which we'll discuss with more detail a bit later. The most notable power metal release from the visual kei scene this early on would be X Japan's Orgasm EP, which contained an early version of the band's eventually famous speed / power metal song X, which can be heard in the first video below at 6:33. (While Prowler boasted an image of shocking visuals for a while, they never really became part of that early visual kei scene, they're just mentioned in this section as another example of the raw speed turn that the scene split off into).
1986 and 1987 also had a share of interesting bands popping up, some of the most notable being Precious, Wolf (The Shadow of a Shade), Ex. Danger (Midnight Angel), Breeze Least (Breeze Least), Altemis, and Dante (Behind You / Live or Die) which featured guitarist Akira Kajiyama initially. Both Precious and Dante became staples of Mandrake Root records' lineup during this time and for the next few years to come, while Wolf were notable in that they were probably the closest thing Japan ever had in musical style to what America's USPM (United States Power Metal) scene offered in this era. Wolf released their debut EP in 1987 which would be received well. Precious on the other hand though in their early stages released their first single, gearing up for a debut album to come later on. Altemis though the most minor in terms of success were notable in that they were likely Japan's first female-fronted metal band to play power metal as their primary style, with an overall sound akin to Hellen's, displayed on Altemis' "Messenger From the Moon" demo tape.
The First Breakthroughs and Developing Underground (1988-1992)
1988 is where things really began to take off for Japanese power metal. In April of 1988, the country saw its first significant commercial success in the style, with the release of X's full-length debut "Vanishing Vision", which hit #19 on Oricon's main chart, while also topping the independent charts at #1. It's generally agreed upon that this was the album that ensured that the visual kei scene gained traction to stick and eventually become what it is now. In Vanishing Vision's wake, a legion of visual kei power, speed, and thrash metal bands popped up following in X's footsteps, and this was only strengthened by the success of X Japan's second and third albums "Blue Blood" (1989) and "Jealousy" (1991) (Silent Jealousy), the former charting at #6 and the latter hitting a lofty #1 on the main Oricon charts.
Another visual kei band with significance to Japanese power metal who also began making music during X Japan's run of dominance was Aion with a thrash / power (among a bunch of other mixed styles) fusion. While fairly subtle on the power metal elements outside of a few songs they were a direct influence on several visual kei power-thrash hybrid bands throughout the rest of the 90s; Aion also experienced major commercial success. Unrelated to Aion, you had Salamander (Big Black Sun) and Astlla (Wild Desire) which were just a couple of the quality underground bands performing power metal in the visual kei scene during this time.
During this simultaneous breakthrough of the top end of the scene and development of the underground visual kei movement, you still had the "normal" (at least visually) power metal bands trying to make a name for themselves as well, and while not chart toppers a few bands did quite well. Significant examples include Akira Kajiyama and his band Precious releasing their debut, "To Glory We Steer" (Burning Vengeance) in 1990 with a subsequent solo-album by their keyboardist Yusuke Takahama in 1991 (Fire Away), Wolf with their first album "Some Aspects of the Moment", also in 1990, the melodic / symphonic metal band Marge Litch with two albums "Fantasien" (1991) (The Sacred War 1998 version, all I could find.) and "The Ring of Truth" (1992), Dancer with the album "Violent Emotion" (1988) (For Lookin' at the Future), Excuriver with the album "In Hard Time" (1988) (Endless Flight), and in the wake of Excuriver's disbandment, melodic heavy / power metal band Ebony Eyes (Final Fight) also released two albums in 1991 and 1992 respectively.
The non-visual underground developing in this half of the J-power scene also included numerous bands, a large portion of these bands working either directly with, or with assistance from Mandrake Root records. Some of the notable underground groups that formed between 1988 and 1992 were Babylon (Run into the Danger) which came from the remains of the recently disbanded Hellen, Blasdead (Killer of the Skys), Damzell with a speed-thrash-power fusion (Aces), Brave Bomber / Gaisen March (Big March), Nautiluss (Nautiluss Memories), Zenith, Guardian's Nail (Passion Red), Fortbragg featuring eventual Galneryus singer Masatoshi Ono (Now!), and lastly the newly formed prog-power metal hybrid Fatima Hill (Aesis and Your Bible).
It should be noted that going back to the late 80s, the visual kei power metal bands and the normal power metal bands had next to nothing to do with each other, and were essentially two separate power metal movements running independently. Visual kei bands tended to perform alongside other visual kei bands regardless of musical genre, while the non-visual power metal acts performed together constantly, as well as with other similar metal bands.
Metal's Lean Years and the Flourishing Underground (1993-1997)
By 1993 the vast majority of Japanese metal's commercial successes had died off, fading into disbandment, gone on an indefinite hold, or were forced to re-brand to survive the 90s metal decline. One of the only big bands across any metal style to survive this unscathed, at least initially (and by no coincidence the country's most important power metal act ever) was X Japan who released Art of Life, a symphonic / progressive / power metal fusion and one of Japanese metal's most unique songs of the 90s. The song, about the length of an EP but branded as an album sold over half a million copies was the band's second #1 on the Oricon charts. X Japan also released Dahlia at the end of this era, another number 1, though they played far less metal by this point and disbanded in 1997, a few months after the album came out. Aion on the other hand survived the start of this era reasonably well, but their popularity tapered off continually throughout this stretch of years.
Some of the notable or interesting visual kei power metal acts active during this time period included Kuroageha, After Image, Real (Gerbera), and Gaudy Mode (Assault & Battery) as well as some more power / thrash fusions like Antique Doll (Sledgehammer). At the very end of this era, basically none of the popular visual kei bands were playing metal (regardless of subgenre) anymore, however all in 1997, several independent bands playing power metal did appear in the underground circuit including Dear Rouge (To Sepia), Garnet Grave featuring guitarist Hizaki (Burst into the War), Grow Jewel (Rainbow Color), Gelaid (Shape), VellaDonna (Sabotage), and Valkyr featuring guitarist Syu (Akai Ito). While fairly minor bands overall; VellaDonna being the most popular of these, members of several of these bands would be important players in power metal's eventual revival in Japan.
As for non-visual kei bands, not much has changed here since the early 90s. Not really any massive names making waves, but the underground was still going relatively strong. While most of these bands weren't producing full-length albums, most were still releasing demos and featuring alongside one another on split albums such as Mandrake Root's Make it Shine series. These bands were also playing a steady stream of shows together, with the live-circuit being their bread and butter in regards to keeping their bands afloat. Most of the non-VK underground names mentioned in the 1988-1992 section above were still around during this era, as well as other newcomers including Crystal Clear (Second War in Heaven), Moon-Struck, power / progressive metal hybrids Vigilante (The Reviving World) and Saber Tiger (Distressed Soul), Azrael (Soldiers of the Pain), Blue Stealer (Take the Dream), all-female group Aphasia (Break the Ice), Atomic Tornado, Fumihiko Kitsutaka with his solo project (絶望という名の... 〜The Room Named Desperation〜), Stone Edge (A Red Light), and lastly out of the ashes of Crystal Clear plus the earlier mentioned Zenith came Concerto Moon (Save My Own Life), whose debut album was released at the very end of this era in 1997 through Mandrake Root.
The Revival (1998-2006)
This era is where power metal's fortunes began to turn for the better again in Japan, regaining a ton of momentum and popularity, thanks for the most part to three main bands going major, those being Concerto Moon, Sex Machineguns, and Galneryus.
I personally give a lot of credit to the label VAP for giving a handful of Japanese power metal bands opportunities on a grander scale that smaller record labels such as Mandrake Root didn't have the means to accomplish by this point. In 1998 the label signed Concerto Moon, fresh off the release of their well-received "Fragments of the Moon" (1997), and the band immediately got to work on recording their follow up effort "From Father to Son" which was also received extremely well. The band would release another four albums to warm reception during this era, all through VAP. Also signing with VAP, albeit a couple years later than Concerto Moon was Galneryus who would release three acclaimed albums themselves during this time period. The third of this era's most significant bands and the most commercially successful during this time was power/speed metal band Sex Machineguns who attained a spot on the largest label of the three groups, signing with the massive Toshiba EMI and getting widespread distribution of six full-length albums in this era, reaching the top 10 on Oricon several times and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their albums.
In the wake of the success of this main trio of Japanese power metal bands, some others experienced moderate success too, including Katsu Ohta and Ark Storm (Ark Storm), Double Dealer (Time to Die), Mastermind (Run For Your Life), Prophesia (Lionheart), Balflare (Blind Blaze), MinstreliX (Whispers in the Wind), Xanadu (Sky High), Masterpiece (Loyalty), and a handful of others. Another band of influence very worthy of a mention is Onmyo-za (而して動くこと雷霆の如し, newer song, sorry, options were limited.) who while not a pure power metal act have employed the style numerous times throughout their career.
While power metal was becoming more popular again in general in Japan, power metal in the visual kei scene however was still relegated to the underground almost entirely during this era. A few visual kei power metal bands of note were active, however none were particularly famous. Some of these bands included Jikuu Kaizoku Seven Seas (Chasing Light), Sadist (Requiem), Ancestral, Aikaryu (featuring Teru), and the solo project of former Garnet Grave guitarist Hizaki, and in relation to power metal you had the genre-mashing symphonic / Gothic metal band D form during this period as well, however they were just in their early stages. Probably the most famous power metal-related visual kei act of this stretch of years overall however was Gothic / symphonic metal band Moi dix Mois (Eternally Beyond).
Of interesting note, the vast majority of the power metal bands of this era, particularly the non-visual ones, molded their sound heavily after the European power metal sound of the 90s and early 2000s. Several of the visual kei bands from the 90s through this era however had begun to mix unusual stylistic influences together, giving quite a few of these bands a pretty unique sound differing from their non-VK counterparts.
The Second Breakthrough and The Ladies' Metal Boom (2007-)
2007 saw metal in general, however especially power metal come roaring back to life, with a stronger hold than even X Japan's height. In the visual kei scene you saw this happen with the formation and immediate breakthrough of Hizaki's new band Versailles. The success the band began to achieve inspired several new power metal and power metal-related acts to appear again within the visual kei scene, including a handful inspired directly by Versailles such as Scarlet Valse (Secret Eden), Maria'n Rosa (復讐の棘（いばら）), or Vampire Rose (Castle ～汝の血を与え給え～). Other power metal (or related) visual kei bands achieving varying degrees of commercial success at the start of the modern era include Matenrou Opera, symphonic metal band Art Cube (Yume Byosha), NoGoD (Kamikaze), symphonic / Gothic metal band D (Taiyou wo Homuru Hi), and Megaromania (Aurora ~Destinies of World~) among others.
In just the past handful of years, more visual kei bands have formed and achieved success, two examples spawned from Versailles, those being Jupiter as well as to a lesser extent Kamijo with his solo project. Another interesting modern spin also worth mentioning is that we were now seeing the formation of "retro" acts reflecting on the older days of Japanese metal. A few of these acts exist in regards to power metal, with groups such as Sex Virgin Killer (Dead End Breaker) paying tribute to the "shock" era of visual kei playing a power / thrash / speed metal hybrid.
With the non-visual modern power metal, bands like Galneryus have hit their commercial peak, consistently placing high on the Oricon charts. Other popular power metal groups or musicians of this modern era include Concerto Moon, Kelly Simonz's Blind Faith (Road to Destruction), Nozomu Wakai (Metal Souls), and Takayoshi Ohmura (Distant Thunder), as well as the continued moderate popularity of some older bands like Ark Storm, Sex Machineguns, Symphonic rock / metal act Sound Horizon / Linked Horizon (Ka no Mono no Na Ha), Skywings (In Bloom), Gunbridge (Ten Thousands Cry) and others. This era has also seen a handful of older names playing a bit of power metal, notable examples being Anthem with power metally tracks on several of their more modern, post-reunion albums (Shine On); or rock band The Alfee's leader Toshihiko Takamizawa turning his project Takamiy into a power metal band (Fantasia). One other notable example would be singer Mari Hamada who in the past decade returned to her metal and rock roots, however instead of traditional heavy metal songs which dotted her early albums, her newer albums have featured quite a few energetic modern power metal tracks (Black Rain).
A unique power metal sub-scene that began to strengthen in Japan during this time was the creation of numerous power metal doujin circles / bands, (as well as Touhou groups where many musicians were creating power metal cover albums full of songs from Touhou video games, bands like Demetori for just one example) with musicians independently creating releases in their bedrooms / basements. Think of the low-budget / basement black metal bands out there, but convert them to strangely ambitious power metal making nerds instead. This scene mostly held an online presence, with few bands actually ever performing live. Some of the best-known examples from this scene however, and by no coincidence some of the only ones that actually perform shows include Iron Attack (Sign of Justice), 5150, Unlucky Morpheus, and Denkishiki Karen. There were/are an innumerable amount of these bands out there, of course only a handful actually wrote their own music.
The most prominent division of this modern era however is undoubtedly the appearance of dozens upon dozens of talented female-fronted and all-female power metal groups. This newest sub-scene's development is generally credited to a handful of bands, a few major contributors being power metal bands Light Bringer and Aldious (Spirit Black) beginning in the late 2000s, the massive success of heavy metal band (among various other genre mixtures including power) Onmyo-za, as well as the obvious prior influence of heavy metal band Show-Ya, however perhaps the most fascinating contributor to this women's power metal boom was heavy metal band Destrose whose lineup infamously splintered over and over into what felt like a million new bands over the course of only 8 years, where the band's seemingly endless supply of talented replacements kept quitting Destrose to create bands themselves. This gave way to the direct formation of several prominent power metal groups including Mary's Blood, Octaviagrace (アザーブルー), Fate Gear (Headless Goddess), Mardelas (Apocalypse), Lovebites (Shadowmaker), Albion (全てを知らせる鐘と迷宮に惑わされし者), Disqualia (Right Now), and indirectly to the creation of singer Ibuki's solo project. The majority of these bands would experience a pretty high degree of success, adding momentum to this women's power metal movement. Other important or notable players in this collective movement throughout this era include acts such as Tears of Tragedy (Anfillia), Area51 (Valkyrja), Cross Vein (Graceful Gate), Minstrelix, Bridear (Thread of the Light), Cyntia (閃光ストリングス), Liv Moon (no samples, Victor is being weird), and the doujin group Unlucky Morpheus (Black Pentagram) whose popularity increased significantly with Light Bringer's hiatus and increased focus on the band from singer Fuki.
All of this brings us to present day with what you see around Japanese metal now, where power metal is currently the top of the metal food chain in Japan. I hope this write-up was able to give even a little bit of insight into how Japanese power metal began, evolved, survived, and expanded throughout the years. I'm sure I missed some details, but as a fan of a lot of these bands for several years now I've found the growth of the scene fascinating and I've noticed unique trends and how a lot of these bands seemed to come and go in waves, with new movements showing up seemingly by complete accident at times. A friend of mine on my home site Japanese Metal Forum had asked about the Japanese power metal's development over the years and I figured I'd try to lay this particular scene's history out as accurately as I could, so hopefully this made sense. Let me know what you thought below.