Starting with the late 60’s and early 70’s, the Japanese were absorbing the hard rock and folk rock happening in the West and releasing their unique takes on it. This continued through the rest of the 70’s until Japan became a common Asian fixture among big world tours towards the end of the decade. Scorpions, Judas Priest, and Van Halen played there to sold out crowds, and you can only bet there was an entire scene full of metal bands inspired by these that developed soon after.
Most of these bands take influences from several western bands and form a weird melting pot for all these different sounds to coexist in a single album or even a single song. Of course, they also added their own flavor to the music and the fact that almost all of them sang in Japanese helps their “unique” factor as a scene. While not as prolific as the UK, the US, France, Germany, or Sweden, there are more than a few absolute gems to be found in this scene.
There were two major scenes in Japan in the 80’s. Kansai and Kanto. The “Kansai” scene was centered around Osaka in the west of Japan and was already established by the time 1980 came around. Influenced initially by mostly 70’s Western bands, the Kansai bands were bluesy, melodic and more straight forward in their approach to the heavy metal sound. On the other hand the “Kanto” scene was centered around Tokyo in the east of Japan and formed a few years later. Influenced by later bands and also Visual Kei and other Japanese phenomena, these bands were more weird, proggy and “interesting” in their approach to heavy metal.
You’ll find bands broken into three sections below; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd tier. First tier bands are not necessarily better than the 2nd tier or 3rd tier bands. Some of my favorites are listed here as 2nd tier bands. The tiers are related to popularity and influence to the scene, but nothing else. Including here are bands that released at least one EP or one full length some time during the 80’s.
The Japanese Metal Starter Pack
Before diving into the meat of it, the following releases serve as wonderful starting points to the scene. They consist of some of the best and most influential albums in Japan. If you’re going to listen to anything from this guide, make sure you take a look at this!
- Anthem – Anthem
- Bow Wow – Warning from Stardust
- Loudness – Thunder in the East
- Sabbrabells – Sabbrabells
- Seikima-II – The End of the Century
- X-Japan – Blue Blood
Here you’ll find a playlist of all bands appearing in this guide in the order that they appear. Use it to help discover bands that you like!
First Tier: The Influential
Definitely the most popular metal band out of Japan, X Japan is one band I’m sure most you are already familiar with. In line with most bands from the Kanto scene, they incorporated non-traditional elements to their brand of heavy metal. You’ll find a major scale ballad sandwiched between two speed metal songs only on an X Japan album. Of course this proggy tendency got more obvious later on starting with the Art of Life album. Initially, they were more straightforward and wrote absolutely killer, fist-pumping stuff that’s not too far, musically, from Helloween at their best.
Recommended listening: Vanishing Vision, Blue Blood
Another one of Japan’s most iconic metal bands, Loudness formed from the ashes of rock band Lazy in 1981. Disappointed with the musical direction of Lazy and wanting to go a heavier route, Loudness formed. The hard rock roots were still there, but with every album, the influence was stripped away. By the third record, the hard rock influence was gone, leaving us with some killer melodic heavy metal. Loudness also became the first Japanese band to tour the US in ’83 for this very album. After the third album, they went in a more commercial, accessible direction, but never compromised on the quality. Loudness were really one of the first Japanese bands to break into the west. Their fifth and most popular album, Thunder in the East, became the first Japanese metal record to make it onto the US billboard charts. Overall, a fairly consistent discography and you can’t really go wrong with at least most of their 80’s output.
Recommended listening: The Law of Devil’s Land, Disillusion, Thunder in the East
Formed in 1978, Earthshaker were one of the earlier bands on the scene. As is evident from the name, a Y&T song, they were initially grounded in 70’s hard rock/heavy metal. Absorbing the stylings of certain NWOBHM acts that formed around the same time, their self titled debut album, released in 1983, is a good slab of early heavy metal. It also has a song written by a certain Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden! After this, Earthshaker started getting more commercial-sounding with every release. Their second album was a nice middle ground, featuring some great melodic heavy metal with some more catchy elements. After this, the pop influences got to a point which made their sound unrecognizable. The first two, however, are great and worthy listens.
Recommended listening: Earthshaker, Fugitive
Another band that gained a lot of popularity outside Japan, Anthem formed the same year Loudness did but in the Kanto region. With more straightforward riffs and songwriting, unlike their Kanto peers, they would prove to be very influential to the bands that would form in the area. The self-titled debut came 4 years after the band’s formation, but what a phenomenal release that was. It’s chock full of fast, catchy riffs with layered vocals that you know you can’t stop listening to once you start. They never really changed their sound drastically, keeping the same formula that had worked for them on the s/t album. But even then, the quality never really dropped. Theirs is as consistent a discography as you’re gonna get from Japan.
Recommended listening: Anthem, Tightrope, Gypsy Ways, Hunting Time
The first of the Kanto bands (after Flower Travellin’ Band), Bow Wow formed in 1975, playing stuff that sounded like an amalgamation of classic 60s and 70s rock. From Black Sabbath to The Beatles, these guys drew influence from the entire spectrum of rock music available at the time. Nothing too original, at least initially, but still killer. They released quite a lot of material over the course of the 80’s, some of which was under the moniker Vow Wow. Of all the 12 albums they did release in the decade, Warning from Stardust has to be the band’s pinnacle. The riffs are catchy as all hell, at times very bluesy and other times just ripping. The rest of Bow Wow’s 80s output is well worth a listen, but it isn’t anything groundbreaking.
Recommended listening: Asian Volcano, Warning from Stardust, Vow Wow III
One of the first Kansai bands, having formed in 1977, 44 Magnum played stuff that was fairly similar to what Bow Wow and Loudness were doing early on, but with even more Scorpions influence. The first EP and two full lengths are great, but after this 44 Magnum went in a more AOR direction.
Recommended listening: 44 Magnum, Danger, Street Rock’n Roller
Sabbrabells are one of the most unique bands you’ll find from Japan’s scene. Rather than build on that early hard-n-heavy sound, they went in a darker more Mercyful Fate like direction – sometimes slow, sometimes fast, always vicious. Sabbrabells were also fascinated with the occult and this showed up in their lyrical matter and on-stage costumes. They were in some ways the closest Japan came to having a Mercyful Fate of their own. All in all, Sabbrabells ended their career a strange, weird, and extremely fun band with no notably bad releases.
Recommended listening: Sabbrabells, One Night Magic, Sailing on the Revenge
Another straightforward, hard rock influenced band from Osaka, their first two albums are a clueless, weird mishmash of different influences. The second album is better than the first but not by much, and has an interesting cover. The first half of said album is pretty good, and I’d draw similarities to early Riot, but the second half drags on and features a strange cover of a certain Twisted Sister song. Third and fourth albums are much more refined and have a certain musical direction. Adding a keyboardist, they took the anthemic heavy metal route and it totally worked for them. Killer stuff that is similar to what Loudness were doing at the time. They sadly split up after this though.
Recommended listening: Tradition Breaker (first half), Shout!, Strike Back
Seikima-II are a Kanto band that formed in 1982. In line with other bands from the region, the riffs are absolutely monstrous and the vocals are no less. The band really hit their stride on their sophomore album The End of the Century, which took the speed metal foundations set forth on their debut to the next level. All killer, no-filler, the title song “The End of the Century” is perhaps the best song from the entire scene. The band’s third album From Hell with Love would follow in a similar style before Seikima-II ultimately moved towards a more progressive direction on subsequent releases.
Recommended listening: 悪魔が来たりてヘヴィメタる (debut album), The End of the Century
Show-Ya are an all-girl band that formed early on in 1982, influenced by classic hard rock. They would go on to achieve lots of fame all through the 80’s, of course kick-started by a now infamous Coca-Cola ad that utilized their debut single “Suteki Ni Dancing (Coke Is It)”. Seeing how glam bands were getting huge, Show-Ya changed later on in their career to fit in and also brought some AOR influence. They ended the 80’s on an extremely high note however with what is arguably their best album – Outerlimits.
Recommended listening: Queendom, Outerlimits
Flatbacker and EZO
Starting out in 1982 as Flatbacker, they were initially very raw and menacing featuring twin guitar harmonies and the whole early 80’s heavy metal package. The demo and both the full lengths under the Flatbacker name are all quality. The name change to EZO happened in 1986, after which they moved to the US and gained moderate popularity and shifted to a more commercial sound. Their first full length under the “EZO” name was produced by Gene Simmons of KISS fame. It came a little late, in 1987 when thrash metal was the big thing, but it is certainly a solid album worth checking out. Musically EZO fit in with the glam bands of the time. The second album was musically a little tighter, but proved to be a financial disaster as it came at a time when glam was dying, and subsequently EZO had to disband soon after.
Recommended listening: Esa, E-Z-O, Fire Fire
Dead End formed in 1984, a little later as compared to the other influential Japanese acts. Their debut, which came out in 1986, was a strong speed metal album with lots of similarities to Restless and Wild-era Accept even down to the same type of aggressive vocals. They gained a lot of popularity from touring in Japan and built quite a legacy for themselves during the 80s, releasing three more albums in the process. The last of these three was more pop-oriented, but the other two are solid speed metal albums. As the metal scene was fading in 1990, so too did Dead End. They would disband in 1990 before their reformation decades later in 2009. They have since put out a few more records, but these are nowhere stylistically close to their early material.
Recommended listening: Dead Line, Ghost of Romance
Second Tier: Quality, but Lesser Known
One of the earlier bands on the scene, Terra Rosa were part of both the Kansai and Kanto scenes at different times. However, their best work, The Endless Basis, came when they were still a part of the Kansai scene earlier on in their career. It’s an absolute gem of record filled to the brim with Rainbow-influenced riffs with a unique Japanese twist and very tastefully done keyboards as icing on the cake. After this album, Terra Rose became a melodic rock band making the debut both a great place to start and stop with the band.
Recommended listening: The Endless Basis
Action! Are another earlier band that unfortunately didn’t really get big. Like many of their peers, a variety of different influences manifest themselves throughout any given Action! album. You’ll find a song with mid-paced heavy metal riffing and vicious vocals with harmonized choruses, followed by a song full of Led Zeppelin riffs, followed by some other bluesy riffs back to mid-paced heavy metal. Most of Action!’s output is worth a listen if you’re into the more hard-rock influenced style of traditional metal.
Recommended Listening: Hot Rox, Heart Raiser, Warning in the Night
With every Action! there’s a Reaction! These guys are one of the pioneers of the Kanto scene alongside Anthem, Bow Wow and Sabbrabells. Reaction never got as big as the previously mentioned, but they were equally killer. Featuring fast, melodic riffs and catchy songwriting overall, there are some parallels to be drawn to lighter US power metal acts like Fifth Angel, Hittman, and Leatherwolf. They got better with each release until they reached their peak with their third album, True Imitation. Their fourth effort, the self-titled album, is pretty solid as well but doesn’t quite hit the same mark. However, the material past this point is no longer metal. At their best though, Reaction were the speed metal band to beat in Japan.
Recommended Listening: Insane, Agitator, True Imitation
Also an earlier band, Sniper formed in 1981 and released two, straightforward fun heavy albums before eventually disbanding. Much like Saxon and early Rainbow in the type of heavy metal they made, the first album features some killer riffing. The second album ranges from solid to good, but might be worth the listen to the Japanese metal enthusiast.
Recommended listening: Open the Attack, Quick & Dead
Bellzlleb are an excellent doom-laden heavy metal band, full of emotions and a sense of despair built on strong riffs. The vocalist, Rei, sounds like he’s absolutely mentally disturbed. This is one of the darkest and most unique bands you will find out of Japan and it’s worth a listen for that alone.
Recommended listening: Bellzlleb
With their brand of heavy metal, Blizard wouldn’t be too out of place on the Sunset Strip. Straightforward and borrowing a lot from the glam bands of the time, these guys lacked the “oomph” of Motley Crue or Dokken and faded into obscurity after they disbanded in 1992. All that being said, the stuff on their first three albums is worth a listen and very catchy.
Recommended listening: Kamikaze Killers, Hot Shot!
Wolf are a personal favorite for the Ride into Glory team. The self-titled EP from 1987 is one of the strongest individual releases from this scene. Featuring US power metal-like riffing, vicious high-pitched vocals, and some catchy-ass songwriting, this is some obsession worthy stuff. The demo from the same year and the single released later on are great as well.
Recommended listening: s/t EP
Another favorite, Hellen would only release one EP (besides a couple of singles and a demo) before eventually disbanding. The EP Talon of King is as good if not better than the best of the scene. Featuring some power metal-esque riffs and melodic passages with some neoclassical influence and some top-notch guitar work, this is a remarkable EP. Fair warning though, there is a lot of keyboard usage here. It’s all tastefully done, of course, but you might want to tread lightly if you’re totally averse to keyboards in your heavy metal.
Recommended listening: Talon of King
One of the earliest bands in the scene, having formed in 1979, they would go on to release just the one full length. But man, what a release it is. The riffing is incredibly heavy, sometimes venturing into doom territory, but not much. The vocalist is an absolute treat, with his extra high-pitched vocals which can get a little too much sometimes but nothing a great riff won’t come in and solve immediately. The full length also has a nice acoustic song that doesn’t at all feel cheesy and totally fits in with the rest of the album. If you’re a fan of the US Tyrant, then this is a record you’re certain to enjoy!
Recommended listening: Black Sanctuary
Crowley are another notably unique band, featuring some epic riffing on top of the speed metal base and almost operatic vocals. Their fascination with occult themes led to them gaining some traction in Europe and they were set to tour there before some line-up problems halted that. They eventually disbanded in the late 80’s, leaving us with a killer EP and even more killer full length.
Recommended listening: The Scream of Death EP, Whisper of the Evil
Another personal favorite, Breeze Least were quite Swedish sounding at times with similarities to the likes of Heavy Load and Gotham City, with some neoclassical influence at other times. There were more than a few superb riffs to be found on the one 80’s full length they released. Features some excellent guitar work as well, it’s an all round excellent release and one of the best in the scene.
Recommended listening: Breeze Least
Saber Tiger are more well-known for their post 80’s output, which admittedly is great, but takes focus away from some of the worthy material they put out in the 80’s. The Rise EP matches up to their best work from the 90’s, offering some truly delicious melodies and incredibly catchy harmonized choruses.
Recommended Listening: Rise EP, Crush & Dush EP
Fast Draw are a fast-paced, pounding act that loved their high-fret melodies almost as much as they did their more evil-sounding, sometimes doomy, lower riffs. The demos are fantastic and where you should start. The full lengths aren’t as good, but all of them are at least good for satisfying that 80’s Power Metal itch.
Recommended listening: Damia, 根腐劣屑 (コンプレックス)
Zadkiel are one of the many, many bands that Venom inspired in the 80’s. They only managed a single and an EP in their short time as a band. The Hell’s Bomber EP is memorable, with all the signature evil, Venom elements in place.
Recommended listening: Hell’s Bomber EP
Playing vicious, raw speed metal, Prowler released one stellar EP and one split with Yoke of Steel. That one, lone EP they released is well worth your time.
Recommended listening: Back Fire EP
Third Tier: Other Noteworthy Releases
- 5X- Human Target
- Ageless- Barbed Wire EP
- Cry-Max – s/t EP
- Dancer- Violent Emotion
- D’erlanger- La Vie En Rose
- Eliza- Something Like Hot
- Ex Danger- Tyrant into the West
- Heavy Metal Army- Heavy Metal Army I
- Hurry Scuary- Break It Up
- Jewel- Jewel I
- Kuni – Masque
- Magenda – s/t EP
- Marino- Target
- Mell Rose- Slight Difference EP
- Paranoia- Come From Behind
- Rajas- Turn It Up
- Rose- s/t EP
- Shella- Listen!
- Stingray- Rain
- Tabbasa- 有角神舞踏
- The Datura- One Night Dream
- Tilt- Stick into Yours EP
- United- Beast Dominate EP
- Van Veen- Over the Universe
- Vanishing Point- Twilight Zone
- Yokosuka Saver Tiger- Saber Tiger EP
- Zinc Alloy- Heavy Metal Panic “Live” EP