I have to give Malice Mizer* credit: they pulled off something that, while derivative in certain respects, still manages to be a singularity in J-music. Even given the existence of visual-kei like Dir en grey, Pierrot, and the rest, Malice Mizer still feel significant, untouchable. At their best, there's not much like them musically, and their sense of style is unmatched. Given that most J-artists can be at least given Western touchstones if not outright counterparts (ex. Kim Wilde for Nanase Aikawa, Madonna for Ayu, any R&B ever for Amuro), Malice Mizer actually come off better than anything in their genre in the West; better at embodying, ironically enough, traditionally Western Romantic elements.
Now, this might seem like a contentious statement. A bunch of dragged-up doom kids in monk's robes, dresses, and powdered wigs? An androgynous vocalist and mute guitarist? French song titles? 'Classical' instrumentation? Videos shot in churches, filled with crosses, naked women, and comedy blood and gore? On paper, it sounds a few amps short of a Spinal Tap joke. This is, after all, the kind of band who namecheck the Illuminati and dress their bassist in lederhosen.
But a closer look - especially at the music - reveals greater complexity. Sure, they're gothic. But in what manner? Are they like Joy Division? The Cure? Cradle of Filth? Bauhaus? Cabaret Voltaire? X-Japan? (God help us) AFI? The answer is both none and all of the above, because Malice Mizer managed that rare thing: they pulled off a successful synthesis while simultaneously not quite resembling anything that had gone before, in either East or West.
Look closer, and see the genuine emotion underlying the poses. You see, Malice Mizer were Romantic in the classical sense - they were able to find a rarefied elegance in blood, sickness, and poison, the little cruelties of existence elevated to the level of high art. They'd never resort to something as crass as invoking Satan along the lines of Marilyn Manson: instead, they suggest worlds of darkness and occult horror obliquely. The Malice Mizer image is at once campy and intensely refined: a palpable Byronic aura pervades their videos and live performances. Gackt comes off like an 18th century rake, all pirate-shirts and beribboned hair. Mana is less a man in makeup than a beautiful recreation of femininity with no fixed gender designation at all. It's telling that the movie-version of Bel Air contains both blood-stained pacts in underground rooms and carefree frolicing in beautiful, sunlit gardens: Malice Mizer is all about the tradeoff, the ruined innocence, the shame, regret, and distorted nostalgia. And nowhere is this more clear than in the band's definitive statement, the 1998 album merveilles.
Given major-label budgeting after a series of indie releases, this is when Gackt and the gang busted out the violins, pianos, organs, music-boxes, and whatever else they could stuff into the studio to craft their symphony to God, or in this case, someone further south. It's remarkable how successful this album is, seeing as how its ingredients couldn't be any less pop. It's not often you can describe a rock album as 'decadent' and have it mean something other than overproduced, but this is the kind of disc a bunch of French aristocrats would make, the kind who would have more than a passing acquaintance with the Marquis de Sade. The obvious comparison point is 'symphonic black metal', and while that description isn't entirely wrong, it's inaccurate for merveilles. Later albums, the ones with Klaha on vocals, sound like black metal. Not merveilles. It's too stylish for genre, too baroque. I'm going to come out and say it: Gackt-era Malice Mizer is the only incarnation that was any good. Before him and after him, everything tends to blur into a horror movie soundtrack rather than music you can connect with: good as background music, not much else. But merveilles. That title means something like 'Marvels' or 'Wonders', and the description is accurate: this album is by turns dramatic, classical, rocking, and beautiful. Think: the wistful wind-up rhythm of 'Bel Air'. The demented carnival organ grind of 'Illuminati'. The violin-lashed 'Au Revoir', with its almost saloon-style piano refrains. And "Le Ciel". Where to begin with one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard, regardless of genre. This may be the best thing Gackt has ever penned - in this band, on his own, or anywhere else. The song feels timeless; you scarcely care that it's in Japanese or bother to check the lyrics. The band could look like the Beach Boys and it wouldn't matter once the silences in the song open up and Gackt's voice takes over. They've created an original sound here, one that, while seemingly incongruous at first, makes sense within the confines of its own meticulously crafted world. Vital stuff, singular and strange. It hasn't dated.
Bel Air music video
Illuminati live performance
Au Revoir music video
Le Ceil live performance
Malice Mizer isn't exactly a household name, even in Japan, but their impact has been considerable: Mana went on to become one of the founders of the Gothic Lolita movement, and Gackt, well, he's one of the biggest entertainment personalities in the nation, as well as a successful J-rock artist in his own right. These are talented individuals, and their influence has extended to the rest of the culture in numerous ways. But merveilles is when it all came together for them; I'd list it as one of the significant Japanese albums of all time.
*in case you don't know, their horrible Engrish band name comes from the answer to the question 'What is human life?' as they saw it; that is, 'malice and misery.' This never prevented them from dressing for success.
Edmund: Some additional music videos from the Klaha era.
Beast of Blood