So far at least, the 2010s have been a pretty formative time for more progressive evolutions in metal in terms of both musicianship and culture. With all the seven strings, experiments in minimalism, and “this isn’t metal”-metal, it’s easy to be perplexed by Rise of the Northstar’s entire existence. The video for the lead single off their debut studio album Welcame features the French five-piece dressed in gakuran school uniforms, stirring up a light ruckus around a Japanese suburb, playing Street Fighter in an arcade, and performing around traditional kabuki actors in a traditional metal video-shoot warehouse. If you’ve never heard of them until now, that’s pretty much the band in their entire essence. Rise of the Northstar pride themselves on theming their entire output based on shonen anime and manga.
My initial reaction, much like the title of the album’s opening track, was suitably “what the fuck”. Your reaction was probably the same. But that being said, the marriage of metal and nerdy media go back an awful long way, and arguably hand-in-hand. I mean, Emmure put out that videogame-themed album a couple of years back, Slipknot based the lyrics of their first album around Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and then we’ve got ol’ Gary Gygax to blame for the decades upon decades of sword-and-sorcery metal lyrics. Although, with that in mind, it’s easier to understand Rise of the Northstar’s presence in the metal scene right now, nothing will protect you from the shifty eyes and ridicule when you say, “yeah, I’m listening to an anime-themed metal band.”
It’s easy to write the band off as a hollow gimmick to cash in on the J-chic that’s very much in right now (despite the band surprisingly being around for more than half a decade), and even easier to praise them for naming themselves after the greatest televisual masterpiece of all time, but Rise of the Northstar’s infatuation with Japanese media goes far beyond just their image, with the band inserting little motifs all over the place (such as the clumsy, careering breakdown riff in the album’s opener mirroring the style of the original Godzilla theme). But ignoring the references to old shonen manga and action movies, there’s a curious amount of variety in the band’s influences, and which can easily be appreciated by fans outside of the band’s intended demographic (though really, how would you even be listening to this record if you weren’t a dude in a Naruto headband). While the band lays its foundations on the groove of 90s New York hardcore and crossover thrash a la Madball and Earth Crisis, they also branch out to classic metallic hardcore and youth crew (an unsurprising influence with producer Zeuss giving the band a distant connection to Hatebreed and Emmure), as well as hip-hop (from the subtle injections of staggering Ghostface Killah rhythm into their instrumentals and vocal deliveries, to the not-so-subtle of directly sampling Cypress Hill in the album’s lead single). Of course, it’s also easy to spot the influence of Japanese bands such as Number Girl and Maximum the Hormone, all of whom are, ironically, more inspired by Western bands than anything else.
As someone with his own secret penchant for both the iconically-absurd machismo of old anime serials and the youth-powered tour de force of punk rock, it’s hard not to love the sheer brand of ridiculousness that comes from the fusion of these two distinctly separate cultures. The band’s image is almost an inhibitor, since they pack so much into their songwriting it almost feels wasted on an audience which may not entirely appreciate it. If they completely abandoned their aesthetic, Rise of the Northstar could match the likes of Turnstile as one of the best current HXC bands out there; instead, their image feels far too distracting. Thankfully, their affinity for Japanese media avoids reducing a whole culture down to an accessory, like certain other artists have done.
In essence, despite existing as a curious anomaly in the cultural zeitgeist, Rise of the Northstar deliver a spirited homage to the entertainment of their youth with an insane amount of polish, finesse, and delinquent hubris.