The 50 Greatest Japanese Metal Bands of All Time
This article is in celebration of my home site, Japanese Metal Forum, on its first anniversary. To mark our first full year, just for fun, here is my very best, unbiased attempt at placing in order the 50 greatest Japanese metal acts ever, as of 2017. It was extremely difficult, as there were so many good choices and a whole bunch of fantastic bands didn't quite make the cut (bands like Wolf, Atsushi Yokozeki, and Misako Honjoh just barely missed the list, the competition was that strong).
The criteria I used in selecting the following bands was based for the most part on their influence within the Japanese scene and overall success, spanning across all metal genres (Note: not included in this article are hard rock, unless it was equally fused with heavy metal. Nor did I include alternative/nu-metal or any of the -core subgenres).
This article has been a very long time in the making with countless hours of research. If you're already a Japanese metal fan, I'm sure you can guess quite a few members of this list, but I thought it would be fun to do anyway.
Without further delay, here are the 50 greatest Japanese metal bands of all time.
Credited as one of the founding fathers of the visual kei glam movement, D'erlanger made a name for themselves as early as their demo phase. Hearing of this talented up-and-comer, the famous Japanese metal label Mandrake Root had D'erlanger perform at a competition they were hosting at the popular venue, Meguro Rock May Kan, and D'erlanger beat out several other, at the time, well known independent bands including Excuriver, Virgin Killer, Girl Tique, Genocide, and Alkaloid; securing a record deal with Mandrake Root. By their first album they had changed styles to Gothic rock, and became extremely famous in the following years. If they had stuck with metal longer, they could have potentially ended up higher on this list.
Lazy began as a high school band comprised of five friends going by the stage names of Michell, Suzy, Funny, Pocky, and Davy. In 1978 they signed with RCA and were pushed by the label to become a Japanese answer to pop rock acts such as the Bay City Rollers and released multiple albums under this forced style. However, Lazy's members desperately wanted to play hard rock and heavy metal and when they released their fifth album Earth Ark, they completely disregarded their management's direction, writing the music they truly wanted to write, resulting in one of the most famous heavy metal/hard rock albums in the very earliest years of Japanese metal. This band launched major careers for all of its members, Michell became a hugely successful singer under his real name, Hironobu Kageyama. Shunji "Pocky" Inoue would become moderately successful making soundtracks in the band Neverland along with Hiroyuki "Funny" Tanaka. Shortly after Lazy broke up, the two remaining members Suzy and Davy quickly created a certain band who appear just a wee bit higher on this list.
Heavily influenced by the NWOBHM movement in the U.K., Marino were way ahead of the game in Japan, forming in Osaka in 1979 and releasing their earliest music that same year. Perhaps the first pulls-no-punches, pure heavy metal band in Japan, Marino played an aggressive heavy metal that at times straddled the line between heavy and full-tilt speed metal, before many of their eventually famous counterparts had even formed. During their height in the mid 1980s, Marino were easily one of the most famous metal bands in the highly populous Kansai region, and were well known players in Japanese metal years before the rival Kanto region's metal scene had really begun.
Precious were a band that appeared early and set the bar high for the many Japanese power metal bands who appeared in the years following. One of the most popular bands attached to the Mandrake Root label, their album To Glory We Steer has continually been considered a Japanese metal classic ever since its release in 1990. Precious' leader Akira Kajiyama has gone on to be regarded as a legendary metal guitarist in his homeland and has collaborated with several international metal musicians over his extensive career.
One of Japan's earliest and best known thrash metal pioneers, Outrage had a sound heavily influenced by bands such as Metallica throughout the 1980s, achieving reasonable popularity at the time. While most thrash bands experienced their biggest success in the 80s, Outrage are a rare case of a classic thrash band being at their height in the present day; having evolved into their own unique sound, the band has made several appearances on the Oricon charts steadily since the mid-2000s.
One of Japan's best known extreme metal acts, Corrupted have been a staple of Japan's underground metal scene for many years, performing an unmistakable, bone-crushing sludge/doom metal. A reclusive and incredibly private band, they opt to let their music speak for them. With six critically acclaimed studio albums to date and a mosh-pit full of other EPs and splits, Corrupted look to remain one of Japan's leading extreme acts for years to come.
One of the longest running solo careers in Japanese metal, Kuni has long been regarded as an important figure in the scene, and one of Japan's finest metal guitarists. His albums have featured numerous American friends despite his career being exclusively based in Japan; he has also been featured at numerous major Japanese festivals, including two appearances at Loud Park.
43. Liv Moon
If there's one woman who could probably be called Japan's symphonic metal queen, I'd say it's Akane Liv, who along with her band Liv Moon has become a mainstay in Japan's modern symphonic/power metal scene despite only having started activities relatively recently in 2009. With a lovely and absurdly powerful voice, the rest of her band is equally talented, and includes not only one of Japan's biggest guitar names, Takayoshi Ohmura (who is also part of the hugely successful alternative metal/metalcore group, Babymetal), but also perhaps the most prominent bassist in Japanese metal too, Masaki. Liv Moon has also sold well, charting respectably on Oricon with every release in their career thus far. Expect these guys to be around for quite a few more years.
42. Light Bringer
In my opinion one of the finest power metal bands Japan has ever seen, they unfortunately disbanded right as they seemed to be teetering on the edge of stardom. With one of the best front-women to ever lead a Japanese metal band and a dizzying technical prowess instrumentally, surpassed by few within the genre, their sudden end of activity came as a shock to many. Should Light Bringer return some day and release more albums of the same standard as their existing material, they will likely climb this list significantly.
41. Blood Stain Child
Blood Stain Child were one of the more popular Japanese metal bands internationally during the 2000s. The band rose to prominence through combining a sound influenced by that of bands like Children of Bodom and In Flames, together with trance elements. While there were a bunch of other melodic death metal bands who also appeared in Japan at the turn of the century, almost none of them became quite as well known nor have lasted as long as Blood Stain Child; though a few challengers such as Gyze have appeared in recent years.
One of the most popular heavy metal band in the Kansai region during the 80s, X-Ray left their mark quickly during a pretty short 5 year run from 1981 to 1986 where they released four full-length albums. While the band lacked longevity, they made up for it with quality, as the band's albums have been favorites among many Japanese metal collectors for years now; many reprints of X-Ray's works having been issued in the years since their disbandment. Former members of the band have also gone on to take part in several notable metal projects in Japan.
A major player in the current Japanese metal world, D quickly became one of the most popular visual kei bands after forming in the mid 2000s. Playing a very strange and diverse, but highly complex and entertaining brand of symphonic/gothic metal, D have also managed to sell well, having made dozens of appearances on Oricon over the past several years with no sign of slowing down. Consider these symphonic metal madmen a band who will likely rise through these rankings significantly by the time they're done.
38. Terra Rosa
One of Mandrake Root Records' flagship bands and also one of Japan's first successful female-fronted metal groups, Terra Rosa are best remembered for their iconic debut album "The Endless Basis". They also made two other excellent albums shortly after as well. Several current and former members of this band are also members of many of the other bands on this list, and the caliber of musicians involved in this band truly speaks for how good the product they put out was. While they're technically inactive due to members paying attention to other bands right now, it's likely Terra Rosa will get together again sometime in the near future, and if they do, a new album could very well be made.
Initially created as somewhat of a successor to another band a bit higher ranking on this list when that band went on hiatus, Jupiter jumped immediately into a major spotlight in the visual kei scene; and they certainly capitalized, releasing two albums which are arguably some of the best power metal to come from any Japanese band at any point in time. Featuring what is considered by many as the finest guitar duo in the country, matched with a rhythm section that is talented enough to equal them, Jupiter are a band that was built for Japanese metal stardom, and they've yet to disappoint, nor do they look like they will anytime soon. This is another band who will likely rise in these rankings significantly over the coming years and probably even surpass some of it's members' main band eventually.
36. Concerto Moon
Concerto Moon are considered one of Japan's very greatest power metal acts, serving as a resurrection of sorts, which helped metal music return to reasonable prominence in Japan during the late 1990s to early 2000s. In turn, they're also a big factor in why Japan seems to have loved power metal so much since the mid 2000s. Spearheaded by one of the finest neoclassical guitarists in Japan, Concerto Moon were one of the few bands offering fresh ideas and churning out quality music during the period when metal as a whole was at its least popular in their country. While there's several power metal bands in Japan who are more famous these days, Concerto Moon left their impact when it mattered most.
One of the most innovative and straight up bizarre Japanese bands ever, Doom are one of Japan's all-time great progressive and thrash metal acts. With a sound every bit as oddball as their appearance, Doom thrived in Japan's underground metal scene for essentially their entire career, releasing 5 albums and a handful of EPs and splits before the tragic passing of bass mastermind Koh Morota in 1999. They would release one more album later that year before calling it quits permanently... or so we thought. Doom reunited in 2014 and have picked up about as strong as they left off, as evidenced by their latest album. It's hard to say what this band might do in the coming years, but don't be surprised if they continue making albums and build on their already legendary reputation.
34. Saber Tiger
Here's a band who have been decently well known for ages now, yet only recently made the leap into well deserved commercial success after toughing it out independently for several years. To wit, the band released 8 demos before deciding to make albums under their own label, which they did for a few albums before finally getting signed by a major label almost 17 years after formation; even then their commercial breakout didn’t occur until a bit before their 30th anniversary. One of Japanese metal's finest models for sheer dedication, it's amazing they didn't catch on with a larger audience sooner, as the band evolved over the years to play one of the most technically proficient and energetic styles of power/progressive metal to ever come out of the country.
A pioneering 80s metal band in Japan and one of the very first occult heavy metal bands to appear in the island nation, Sabbrabells had the distinction of being the first occult heavy metal band signed to a major label in Japan, a truly remarkable feat for obvious reasons. With one of the tightest sounds of any Japanese metal band in the 80s, fronted by the howling madman Kiichi Takahashi, Sabbrabells released three well received albums and an EP, with their last album "One Night Magic" being their major debut. Sabbrabells unfortunately disbanded shortly after going major, but are still remembered as one of the great 80s Japanese heavy metal bands. The band has reformed as of a couple years ago, though it's uncertain if they plan on making new music again.
Speed metal was pretty commonly played among metal bands during the mid 80s in Japan, but very few of them caught on before the appearance of a certain legendary band way higher on this list. One of the very few that did become quite popular, and did so before the aforementioned legendary band, was Reaction. After a successful run throughout the majority of the 1980s, the band unfortunately parted ways, with a couple of the band's core members tragically passing away a few years later. Thankfully, the legacy they did leave was clearly a positive one, as this was a band that was so well respected by their peers that a tribute album was made in honor of them, featuring an all-star cast of members of bands from nearly a quarter of this entire list of all-time greats.
Much like Sabbrabells, Crowley were a band that narrowly missed out on what could have been something special. One of the first heavy metal bands in Japan with an occult image, they quickly built up a reputation of infamy in Japan, taking shocking promo photos of the band with nooses, weapons and satanic props, which in turn led to overseas tour offers, western metal magazine features, and label offers; however internal conflict divided the band, causing members to leave and forcing them to disband before their careers really took flight. Their "shock image" was an influence on the eventual rise of the visual kei scene which would be pioneered by a few other bands on this list.
If they weren't around for such a short amount of time with just one album to their name, they would easily be much higher on this list. Nokemono were one of the biggest players in early Japanese metal music, and one of the first to release a full-length album that was predominantly heavy metal, preceding a whole bunch of eventual Japanese metal legends featured higher on this list. They were a big part of putting Japanese metal on the map, winning a pretty major competition in 1978, and proceeding to tour Japan with Judas Priest in the late 1970s, cementing Nokemono as an integral part of the first wave of Japanese metal.
Blizard were one of the first major heavy metal acts in the Kanto region (Tokyo/Saitama/Yokohama, etc.) of Japan. At roughly the same time that the band featured in the legendary Grand Metal Festival in 1984, Blizard were signed by Warner Bros. Records for the Japanese market; from there they quickly churned out 7 full-length albums over the course of 6 years, several of which are among Japanese metal's most memorable 80s albums. Some members of this band would later take part in several other notable metal bands.
A forefather of Japanese metal, Action's music has been played since the mid 1970s when several of its members played in the band Sansuikan. With a career spanning over 30 years if you include Sansuikan, Action! released a whopping 7 full-length albums along with two EPs between 1984 and 1989, and were an integral part of the Kansai region's metal scene during its formative days until Action parted ways in 1998. Members of Action! were also attached to the Japanese prog rock legends Novela during the early 80s. Though no longer active, Action! reunited from 2003 to 2009 and released a further two more quality albums before calling it quits for good.
G.I.S.M. were at the very forefront of Japan's metal/punk fusion, a style that saw reasonable popularity in Japan's underground music scene in the 80s. Famed for their extremely violent and unpredictable performances, they attained a fairly large cult following both in Japan and internationally among both metal and hardcore punk fans and are considered a highly influential band in both scenes. If you see any modern Japanese hardcore punk/heavy metal fusion band, a significant degree of credit for their existence is owed to G.I.S.M.
26. 44 Magnum
44 Magnum were one of the very early Japanese metal bands, forming in 1977. While primarily a hard rock/AOR band during the majority of their career after about 1985, their first few albums were an energetic traditional heavy metal, the first two of which quickly became Japanese metal classics. They were one of the key bands in Japan's first wave of metal, and took part in some of Japan's most important early metal festivals. In recent years the band has come to include singer Paul's son Stevie as the band's co-lead vocalist, so you can expect 44 Magnum to be around quite a few more years.
There might not be a thrash metal band in Japan who had more commercial success than Aion did at their peak. During the early 1990s, they truly hit their stride and were not only making critically acclaimed albums, but selling them too, with a string of several releases reaching the top 40 on the Japanese charts. Aion were also major pioneers of visual kei during the 90s era of the scene. It could be reasonably argued that the Japanese thrash metal scene pretty much revolved around Aion in their heyday, considering how many of their members were or are a part of a whole bunch of other major thrash acts in the country. There is however one even greater thrash metal band who we will get to just a little bit later.
For the record, Ningen-Isu have always been very, very good, however, only in recent years has that translated to major commercial success. Ningen-Isu are a band who worked their asses off for just about 20 years before finally achieving their major commercial breakthrough in 2006. In the following years, their popularity has continued to rise, all without a drop in musical quality, and the band are now frequently achieving top 40 charting releases on Oricon. Their massive spike in popularity has allowed the hard working trio to quit their day jobs to concentrate on creating and performing music full-time, and the band has even begun performing major metal festivals in recent years, such as Ozzfest.
23. Vow Wow
Created by Kyoji Yamamoto as an attempt at success in the UK, Vow Wow were the first Japanese band to achieve moderate success in the UK with their album Helter Skelter reaching #75 on the UK Albums Chart. This band also achieved large-scale success in Japan with their albums Vibe and Mountain Top both hitting the top 20 in weekly album sales. They also had two singles that charted in the UK too, a feat unmatched by any other Japanese hard rock/heavy metal band. With a keyboard heavy sound highly unlike Kyoji's other, more famous band, Vow Wow's musical quality was still held nearly as high; and their string of albums released from the early to late 80s remain some of Japan's best known, even today.
Look around the modern Japanese metal scene, you see an awful lot of ladies playing heavy metal, don't you? Do you notice that a whole bunch of those ladies are playing power metal? A huge portion of credit for that goes to Aldious, who have been extremely popular in Japan since they appeared in the late 2000s. Playing a lovely and energetic brand of power metal, Aldious have been emulated by several acts during the past few years, drawing countless new female musicians to heavy metal music. In the midst of leading this modern feminine J-metal movement, Aldious have sold well enough to feature in the top 50 on Oricon with every release in their career thus far, with multiple top 10s in the process. While all-female metal and rock bands wouldn't be as common in Japan as they are without Aldious, there's one other band who hold even more significance in that regard which we will get to a few bands further ahead.
While Aion's star burned brighter in the 90s during their height, Gargoyle have stood the test of time far better, cementing their legacy as one of the most consistently great metal acts in Japan for over 30 years. Another early and influential figure in visual kei, I would argue that Gargoyle are even more important to the thrash metal of Japan due to the fact that their creativity never burned out, whereas Aion's did fairly early in their career. Playing a highly complex progressive thrash style, elements of Gargoyle's sound have been emulated to varying degrees by many other Japanese metal acts over the years.
20. Flower Travellin' Band
Flower Travellin' Band were one of the earliest bands in heavy metal music on a global scale, let alone in Japan. With a crushingly heavy, dark, and trippy, Black Sabbath influenced sound, Flower Travellin' Band were way ahead of their time, blending said Sabbath influence with psychedelic Asian influences. The heaviest band to be found anywhere East of the U.K. in the early 70s; their legendary album Satori, while not initially successful, has become a classic among Japanese metal fans, to the extent that in nearly 50 years, the album has never gone out of print. They are considered by many to be the first Japanese heavy metal band. They have been cited as an influence by numerous musicians including Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth among others.
Previously known as Flatbacker playing a gritty heavy/speed metal, they changed their name to EZO and style to heavy metal/hard rock and along with a handful of other Japanese bands they relocated to America in an attempt to break out in the American market. With the assistance of Gene Simmons, EZO released their first album under their new name through Geffen Records, the second Japanese metal band to ink a deal with a major American label, and in turn they became the second Japanese metal band to crack the American Billboard sales charts, reaching a modest #150. This was enough for a few of their songs such as House of 1,000 Pleasures to receive airplay on radio stations internationally and hard rock television programs for the better part of the late 1980s; in fact a few prominent shows such as Dee Snider's House of Hair continue to play EZO's music occasionally.
One of Japan's most successful bands internationally, it's impossible to pin a single genre to Boris, as they love to play a little bit of everything: drone, noise, doom, sludge, ambient, you name it. Boris have had such a strong career, in fact, that they've toured worldwide in support of names such as Nine Inch Nails. They're also one of very few Japanese metal acts to receive international acclaim and have done so with various albums. Over the course of their career they've released nearly 30 studio albums and have collaborated with several other bands and musicians including Ian Astbury, Merzbow, and Sunn O))) to name a few.
Around 2007, power metal became a very popular genre within the visual kei scene for the first time since the late 90s. This power metal revival in visual kei and the several dozen bands in the scene that have followed are due in large part to Versailles' explosion in popularity during the late 2000s. Famous partially for their dynamic duo of guitarists Teru and Hizaki, Versailles have been the second most popular power metal band in Japan over the past decade, behind only one band who are a few spots further up this list. Versailles themselves are likely to climb a few more positions before they call it quits, though their closely related band Jupiter appears to be hot on their heels.
Anison has been a thing in Japan for a very long time, but when the supergroup Animetal appeared in the late 90s, they put a new spin on performing theme songs, re-branding classic Japanese television themes as metal anthems. With an all-star lineup of Japanese metal legends, Animetal were popular enough that in recent years several other bands have tried a similar idea. Animetal remain active under the name Aisenshi. Nine out of the ten members who ever played in this band are tied directly to at least one of the other bands on this list of all-time greats.
15. Dead End
Credited as one of the very first bands in the visual kei glam movement, Dead End have been one of the forerunners of the scene for decades now. Playing a dark and eerie brand of heavy metal, Dead End are responsible for many of the musical traits now synonymous with visual kei bands that play heavy, Gothic, symphonic, and power metal. Earlier in their career, guitarist You Adachi was at one point considered by some to be the most talented guitarist in all of Kansai, while vocalist Morrie is known as one of the biggest icons of visual kei.
14. Mari Hamada
The most successful female Japanese hard rock and heavy metal solo artist of all-time, Mari Hamada is a true Japanese rock legend. Though musically she may be considered hard rock more often than heavy metal, she has alternated between the two genres countless times throughout her many albums, more recently delving into power metal. With countless top 40 appearances on the Oricon charts, Mari Hamada has sold multiple million albums over the course of an acclaimed career dating back to the early 80s, and she's showing no signs of slowing down yet.
Probably the most popular extreme metal band in Japan since the mid 1990s, Sigh are without question as talented as they are eccentric, and trust me, they're pretty nutty. Fusing avant-garde music with black metal, they've built a strong following both inside and outside of Japan and especially online. Employing many instruments not necessarily found in black metal, let alone simultaneously, Sigh has made use of keyboards, synths, pianos, organs, tambourines, mellotrons, glockenspiels, bells, gongs, sitars, and several other instruments, they even have a dedicated saxophone player and co-vocalist, Dr. Mikannibal, as a permanent member of the band. These legendary weirdos have received constant critical acclaim throughout their careers. The first letter of all of their albums and EPs are titled to spell out "Sigh" with every four releases, one of the many small traits that attest to how bizarre these guys are, which is just how they like it.
One of the most internationally recognized Japanese metal bands, Sabbat have long been one of the most popular and influential extreme metal bands in Japan, particularly in relation to thrash and black metal. Counted as part of the first wave of black metal in the early-mid 80s, Sabbat has toured abroad constantly and have played perhaps thousands of shows, many of which have been played at international metal festivals. Over their 35+ year career Sabbat have co-released albums with dozens of metal acts from various countries including bands such as Coroner, Tankard, Agathocles, and Kreator among numerous others. I place them just a hair ahead of Sigh as they're undeniably one of the biggest reasons why extreme metal caught on in Japan in the first place.
11. Sex Machineguns
Between roughly the years 1998 and 2004 there wasn't a single metal band in Japan whose star burned brighter than Sex Machineguns. Famed for their highly energetic heavy/speed/power metal and humorous lyrics, performances, and music videos; they were one of the bands at the very forefront in re-popularizing metal music in Japan after the worldwide 90s lull that hit pretty much every metal scene. While they're not as popular as they once were, during an incredibly successful run from the late 90s through late 2000s, Sex Machineguns cracked the top 40 on Oricon with 9 albums (including a streak of 5 top 10 selling albums), as well as 12 consecutive top 40 singles, and the band has appeared on the Oricon charts with every album they've ever released.
10. Dir En Grey
Yes, there's a "modern metal" band on this list, but if any are deserving it's certainly Dir en Grey whose true genre is almost impossible to define, as they're so diverse and experimental, they're just as much progressive metal as anything else, to be honest. The most popular extremely heavy visual kei band in the country since the late 1990s, they've achieved the remarkable feat of never having an album chart outside of the top 10 on Oricon over a total of 9 full-length albums as of 2017, their 20th anniversary. They're also incredibly influential in the visual kei scene with innumerable smaller bands taking heavy influence from them, though Dir En Grey themselves no longer adopt the aesthetics of a visual kei band.
If you're familiar with Japanese metal, you'll probably notice that power metal is absolutely everywhere, and arguably the biggest contributor to the power metal explosion of the mid 2000s has been Galneryus. With a fusion of mind-blowing guitar and keyboard work from Syu and Yuhki respectively, as well as a rhythm section who are just as impressive, topped with the soaring vocals of Masatoshi Ono and formerly the equally talented Yama B, Galneryus have built a legacy for themselves as being as musically consistent, despite a couple major member changes, as they are individually talented. Syu is regarded by many as one of the most skilled neoclassical guitarists in the world, let alone Japan, and his band Galneryus has climbed upwards steadily since their formation in 2001, selling very well from the very moment they went major, and deservingly so.
While Sex Machineguns were the biggest metal band in Japan in the early 2000s, not far behind were always Onmyo-za whose popularity has only expanded in the years since, whereas Sex Machineguns' has dropped off. Playing a dramatic folk-influenced heavy metal, Onmyo-za have released a steady chain of extremely successful albums since 2002 and of their last 10 albums, not one has placed lower than 27th in sales on Oricon, with their last 7 consecutive albums placing no lower than 13th in sales. Vocalist Kuroneko is one of the biggest modern pioneers of women in Japanese metal. Considered among the very best in the business in her home country, she's been cited as a major influence by numerous women who play in various current rock and metal bands in Japan. Along with Kuroneko's husband and the band's bassist/male vocalist Matatabi, brother in law and rhythm guitarist Maneki, and rhythm guitarist Karukan, Onmyo-za are now the most successful Japanese metal band of the last 20 years.
Show-Ya are the biggest pioneers of all-female bands performing heavy metal and hard rock in Japan's history. Forming back in 1982, Show-Ya were one of the very first and quickly became the most prominent all-female metal band in Japan. With an ever changing style, the band eventually gravitated towards a heavier and even more metallic sound in the late 80s and in turn achieved some of the greatest commercial success in Japan that any metal band would ever achieve, with their legendary album Outerlimits reaching #3 on the Oricon charts in sales and selling over 600,000 copies receiving a platinum certification. They immediately followed that up with the album Hard Way which would hit #4 in sales, barely a year after Outerlimits' massive success. Even though they disbanded in the late 90s, Show-Ya's legacy endured, most noticeably with the modern influx of female-fronted and all-female heavy metal and hard rock bands following in Show-Ya's footsteps who have appeared steadily in Japan since the late 2000s, which included Show-Ya themselves reuniting and picking up right where they left off.
Not only were they early, but they quickly rose to the top and released three very successful albums in rapid succession to start their career. Earthshaker were the pop-metal gods of Japan throughout the 1980s, only really rivaled by hard rock band Make-Up whose concept was similar, though Make-Up gravitated towards hard rock much more. Earthshaker were undeniably heavy metal, but topped with bright, cheerful keyboards along with catchy hooks and melodies, and the soaring, emotional vocals of Marcy Nishida, picture a more metallic Van Halen/Y&T style which was inevitably a recipe for success for the band during that time, as Earthshaker were no less than the second most famous heavy metal/hard rock band in the entire Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) region of Japan for the entirety of the 80s, trailing just one band who I can't name quite yet. Though their popularity waned in the 90s as their sound softened, they returned in the 2000s with a new-found passion and energy which has lasted to this day, going back to their hard rock/heavy metal roots on recent albums.
5. Bow Wow
The first huge heavy metal/hard rock band in the Kanto (Tokyo) region, Bow Wow have stayed quite prominent since forming way back in 1975. When they formed, their talent was obvious and they were picked up almost instantly by major label Victor, and released some of the heaviest, most energetic hard rock albums seen from any Japanese band of the 70s, and by the early 80s, the band had evolved to an even more metallic style, resulting in their most iconic album, Warning from Stardust, released in 1982, an album that was so famous in its time that Rolling Stone Japan named it the 23rd greatest Japanese rock album of all-time. Band leader and vocalist/guitarist Kyoji Yamamoto has long been regarded as one of Japan's best guitarists across any genre and is well known for having employed tapping in his riffs and solos since the early-mid 1970s, one of the earliest rock musicians to do so.
Anthem are truly Japanese metal royalty, they've been around as long as just about any heavy metal band you could find, forming in Tokyo in 1981. If this list was ranked solely on being consistently awesome, Anthem would be number one hands down, as they have been pretty much the model for musical consistency in Japanese metal during an extensive career spanning nearly 20 full-length albums, among which you'd be hard pressed to find any single one that you would encounter many people at all speaking poorly of, which needless to say has translated into sales well, as they've been essentially glued to the Oricon charts for a few decades now, always selling respectably.
Anthem have changed out seemingly vital members on several occasions, but it's never affected the band's performance significantly. Both of the vocalists Anthem has used throughout the years primarily, Eizo Sakamoto and Yukio Morikawa, are often considered among the very best in Japanese metal, and both have had considerable success with and outside of Anthem, as has bassist and band leader Naoto Shibata along with several other Anthem members, past and present. Anthem were also one of the first Japanese metal bands to ever headline a tour in North America, playing a small handful of dates supported by Racer X and Commander. Additionally, Anthem are credited as the first band with a song (Xanadu) used as promotion for a video game, which occurred in 1986 for the RPG Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu.
Seikima-II have been some of the best entertainers in Japanese metal ever since forming in 1982. With aesthetics inspired by Kiss, elaborate make-up, pyrotechnics and energetic live performances, they took all of those Kiss-like traits and amplified them tenfold, playing heavy metal instead of rock and in addition to the image, gave themselves a backstory as demons who came from the demon world Makai, on a mission to conquer the world with heavy metal and propagate Satan. With a sense of humor unrivaled by pretty much any other Japanese metal band, they built a long-running, legendary career (10 million records sold) with humorous gags and props pertaining to how sinister they were and better yet, they matched the humor of their performances pound for pound with abundant skill and songwriting ability.
Seikima-II was so dedicated to the band's backstory that when they formed, they "prophesied" that they would disband at the end of the century and did so at exactly 23:59:59, December 31, 1999. Vocalist and leader Demon Kogure is about as well known as any single rock star in Japan and has stayed in character since 1982, never once revealing his true identity, despite appearing frequently in pop-culture. Though the band has stayed officially disbanded since 1999, they've played numerous reunions, all of which have sold out almost instantaneously. Seikima-II have been referenced numerous times in pop-culture in Japan, with band members appearing in famous anime such as Fist of the North Star, to partially influencing Detroit Metal City, to even featuring in their own video game in the 80s.
2. X Japan
Though they didn't quite top this list, X Japan could have very easily been number one, in fact, I flip-flopped between my 1 and 2 multiple times before publishing this article, it was such a tough choice. Massively influential? Pop culture icons? Multiple of the most famous Japanese metal songs ever written? check, check, and check. At an incredibly respectable #2 on this list, X Japan were the biggest metal act in Japan by a massive margin from the year 1988 until their disbandment in 1997, selling upwards of 10 million records in just those 9 years, with a total somewhere around 15 million today, making them the best-selling metal act in the history of Japan (their claim of 30 million was made only by them, I've never found info to actually validate that). X Japan with their controversial and rebellious style were groundbreakers who captured the attention of the youth of their entire nation, and in the process became the main act that kicked off the visual kei glam movement which is still prominent in all forms of Japanese music.
Changing their style often and effectively, X Japan continued to thrive throughout the 90s when metal music was at its very weakest, releasing three #1 charting albums and another that hit #6, featuring numerous styles, power metal, hard rock, heavy metal, symphonic metal, and progressive metal among a few other experimental ideas. This band was so famous at their height that they had both a video game and even a racing team. X Japan features perhaps the most famous drummer in all of Japan, Yoshiki, as well as possibly the best known Japanese guitarist of all-time, Hide, who tragically passed away in 1998 (he was so famous that when he died there were reports of copycat suicides, as well as entire roadways being closed as they were full of mourning fans). This band was huge not just to Japanese metal, but they along with a handful of other bands like Buck-Tick, Color, and Dead End expanded the scope of Japanese rock, paving the road walked by every visual kei metal band you have seen from the early 90s to present day. Who could possibly beat that you might ask? Well...
Finally, the greatest Japanese metal band of all-time is...
Loudness are by the tiniest margin the greatest band to ever grace Japanese heavy metal. My reasoning for this pick is that while yes, X Japan has sold more records, these two bands both formed at roughly the same time, and while X Japan was going through the motions of their indie/demo days, trying to pick up a record deal from 1982 up until after their full-length debut in 1988, Loudness managed to jump almost immediately into major success with their debut in 1981 (Toshi and Yoshiki were even playing Loudness songs among others when they were in their band Noise from 1981 to 1982). Loudness' success has endured for decades now, nonstop, while X Japan had been missing, disbanded, for an entire decade of that time and haven't released new metal material since reforming in 2007 either, outside of a couple songs.
For over 25 years X Japan had wanted to achieve major success in North America without any results to really show for their efforts until just recently. Loudness had the honor of being the first Japanese metal band to ever sign a record deal with a major American label, and had the first three Billboard charting albums by a Japanese metal band too, with Lightning Strikes hitting #64, Hurricane Eyes hitting #190, and of course their iconic Thunder in the East hitting #74 and staying on the charts for 23 weeks, selling upwards of 300,000 copies in America, somewhere near gold certification range. The core members of Loudness are all regarded as some of the most iconic metal musicians in their home country ever since the mid 80s. Even today Loudness tour internationally constantly and get to perform international metal festivals still, whereas X Japan have only started playing their very first shows on U.S. soil in the past decade, plus in their heyday Loudness got to share the stage at legendary American venues such as Madison Square Garden with bands like Motley Crue and Stryper way back in the 80s, a venue X Japan only played for the first time a couple years ago.
Of course something Loudness never did achieve was a #1 in their home country which X Japan did do more than once, nor did Loudness sell out huge stadiums like the Tokyo Dome constantly, however Loudness has only narrowly missed a #1, most notably with their 1992 album Loudness which hit #2 on Oricon. X Japan were extremely strong in the 90s, but while traditional heavy metal had died off quite badly as evidenced by most of Loudness' peers breaking up for at least a few years, Loudness also managed to adapt to the 90s successfully, adopting a groovier sound and continuing to chart very high on Oricon without significant change to the quality of the product they put out. Exact sales figures are hard to find, but Loudness has certainly sold multiple million albums worldwide, somewhere near, but less than that of Seikima-II and both bands less than X Japan.
The thing with Loudness though is that while they sold less, they achieved essentially every goal X Japan had set for their career, in addition to a couple extras, and while Loudness didn't have a gigantic pop culture movement at their feet the way X Japan did, they were early and they were innovators, driving Japanese metal forward to what it is today unlike any other band in the country's history without really letting up or disbanding at any point. The magazine Metallian said it best when speaking of Loudness: "There are few bands that can claim to have opened up the minds and ears of an entire music scene to the existence and possibilities of its particular country."
Loudness was that band to Japan.
Near misses/honorable mentions:
I'm sure you noticed there were many fairly big names who weren't included in this list, in most cases it's because some of these bands are so young, and in a few years they would certainly hold a place somewhere on here. Others could have held a place on this list years ago, but have been pushed out by current important acts. I'd like to mention a few of these great Japanese metal acts below in no particular order:
Coffins, Gastunk, Metalucifer, Zigoku Quartet, Yellow Machinegun, Tilt, Abigail,
Gotsu Kotsu Totsu, Volcano, Gonin-ish, Hizaki Grace Project, Wolf, Matenrou Opera, Misako Honjoh, Hurry Scuary, Sniper, Dancer, 5X, Blindman, Mary's Blood, Blaze, Moi Dix Mois, Galmet, Gallhammer, Rosenfeld, Bellzlleb, Flatbacker, Hellen, Destrose, Rajas, Genocide Nippon, MinstreliX, Gyze, Crossfaith, Defiled, Atsushi Yokozeki.