Album of the Week 02-2021: Alice In Chains – Dirt

You probably don’t need me to tell you that ‘Dirt’ is a masterpiece. And yet, that is what I will be doing in the next five hundred words or so. It will be an impossible task to find the words for how much I love this album, but if one album deserves the effort, it would be Alice In Chains’ sophomore album. While Alice In Chains has yet to release an album not worth hearing, there is a sense of urgency and a dark, twisted atmosphere to ‘Dirt’ that none of their other albums consistently feature, making it one of my favorite albums of all time.

In a sense, ‘Dirt’ is the album where Alice In Chains found its signature sound: generally slow, creepy riffs that combine a seventies hard rock swagger with a doom metal feel and of course the trademark dual vocal harmonies by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell. The debut occasionally touched upon that, but there were also distinct traces of the band’s glam metal past. Those have largely been exorcized here. What remains is certainly dark and depressive, but with enough memorable melodies and excellent songwriting to not become totally unlistenable. Alice In Chains are masters of this balance.

Opening track ‘Them Bones’ was the first Alice In Chains song I have ever heard and excellent proof of how the band keeps their music listenable. The lyrics are firmly tongue-in-cheek, while the tempo is above average for the band. This philosophy extends to the next two songs, but in a way that it eases you into the less easily digestible material on the album, especially by how it subtly slows down. ‘Dam That River’ is still a driven rocker, but ‘Rain When I Die’ already kicks down the tempo a few notches, which allows the Staley-Cantrell vocal duo to shine even more.

What is most impressive about the rest of the album is that all of it is instantly recognizable as Alice In Chains, but there is still a great degree of variation. The title track is a twisted psychedelic rocker dominated by Jerry Cantrell’s wah-drenched riffs, ‘Down In A Hole’ a full-on elegiac ballad, ‘Rooster’ a remarkably refreshing subversion of the power ballad and the catchy ‘Godsmack’ still has a few traces of funk metal riffs, which are all the more powerful due to their relatively limited number. ‘Would?’ eventually became the number one fan favorite of the band. It is an atypical closer in how it suddenly ends, but such a wonderfully dynamic track that it hardly matters.

As someone who liked the state of heavy metal in the eighties, it would be tempting to dismiss anything that came from Seattle in the nineties. Much like Soundgarden, however, Alice In Chains sort of bridged a gap between scenes. There are too many huge, monolithic metal riffs on ‘Dirt’ to limit them to the meaningless grunge tag. For what it’s worth, I have always considered them a metal band for the alternative rock era. Whatever you choose to call ‘Dirt’, it is a masterpiece of dark, powerful music that belongs in any rock collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘Them Bones’, ‘Would?’, ‘Rain When I Die’

Show & Tell: Top 10 Merry Songs

In multiple reviews of Merry albums, the biggest challenge has been to describe the sound of the Tokyo-based band. They are a rock band without any shade of doubt, but there are so many elements from punk, rockabilly, jazz, blues and metal sprinkled through their sound, that mere words cannot do them justice. Ultimately, the easiest way to describe Merry’s sound is to let them do it themselves, through their music. Not entirely without my influence, however, as these songs are my ten favorite Merry songs.

Merry is one of those bands where I don’t exactly have one or two clear favorites. Any of the top five songs could have topped the list, as those were the five songs I knew should be included immediately, without having to think for even a second. Stylistically, my preference does push this list towards a certain style within their signature sound, but there will be more on that while describing the songs. Nonetheless, this list should give you a good impression of what a wonderfully weird, yet surprisingly listenable band Merry is.

Oh yeah, before I start: ‘Peep Show’ will be the album best represented in this list by far. There is a very simple explanation for that, however. It is simply one of the best, most unique J-rock records of all time. Merry is one of the most consistent bands in the visual kei scene, to the point where even their worst album is great – imagine that! – but even for consistent bands, the stars sometimes align just right.

10. Yako (Beautiful Freaks, 2011)

Since the more extreme moments on 2009’s ‘under-world’ were aggressive enough to make me worried about Merry sacking their subdued retro rock – or “retrock”, as they called it themselves – influences, ‘Beautiful Freaks’ was a pleasant surprise. It surely is not their most consistent record, but there are more than a few excellent melodic rock songs. ‘Yako’ is not particularly retro, but Yuu’s opening riff does kind of sound like something a surfrocker would come up with after a steady diet of listening to British invasion bands. There is a looseness in it, a swing that Merry needed at that time in their careers. Also, the way the bright-sounding chorus suddenly opens the song up – not the first time in Merry song – is a moment of pure bliss. ‘Yako’ is certainly one of the best singles Merry has released to date and a pretty good way to get acquainted with them if you are still on the fence about the retro thing.

9. Bluescat (Peep Show, 2006)

Because of its title alone, ‘Bluescat’ was the first Merry song I ever heard. After all, if you are curious about a band that has one of the least search engine-friendly names in the world, you pick the song that does not require you to go through copying the kanji title first. ‘Bluescat’ did not disappoint though. This rockabilly on steroids track was enough to enhance my curiosity into the strange world of Merry even more. Crazy as I am about the song’s interestingly woven guitar tapestries, the first thing that stood out to me was Nero’s drumming. Japanese drummers in bands of this stature tend to be excellent, but also quite measured in their approach. Nero is wild, nearly unhinged in a sense that sounds like he is trying to translate the unpredictable improvisatory nature of jazz drummers to power hitting in a rock context. The guitars were nothing like I would expect, but they are playful and memorable. Some rhythmic surprises only increase the fun.

8. under-world (under-world, 2009)

Generally, aggressive material is not what I prefer to hear from Merry. Not because they are not good at it, but they are just not the type of band I listen to when I want to hear something fast and aggressive. The title track of their relatively aggressive ‘under-world’ album from 2009 is the most important exception to that rule for me though. Here, Merry mixes the aggression with an almost aching sense of melancholy in the vocal and lead guitar department. While Gara does a lot of screaming and yelling throughout the album, ‘under-world’ retains the melodic qualities of his voice and Nero shows what an absolute beast he is behind the drums. It is his switch from pounding polkas to a slower time feel that lends this song its excellent dynamic qualities. This should also serve as an example to modern metal bands: acoustic drum sounds can in fact sound good enough for fast music, as long as you hit your drum kit with the right amount of power and ferocity. Yes, I also think it sounds like “underwear”. No, it doesn’t spoil anything for me.

7. Haraiso (Modern Garde, 2004)

One of the Merry songs that really got a hold on me early on and it is kind of difficult to pinpoint why. Not that it is the type of song that I would not enjoy usually, but it is quite simple, consisting of only a handful of simple riffs. What it does do is subtly shift its mood multiple times. When the listener is thrown into the first verse immediately, it appears that ‘Haraiso’ will be a fun, lightweight rocker, but as soon as the drums switch to a slower feel, there is a brooding darkness underneath the song, followed by the sorrowful longing of the chorus. If the translation of the lyrics I found is to be trusted, this progression of moods – which I noticed prior to reading the translation – is present in the lyrics as well. I quite like Kenichi’s guitar solo as well. He seems to favor telling story through his lead guitar work instead of showing off. The melodic theme he plays on the chorus also adds some emotional gravitas it would not have otherwise.

6. Sayonara Ame (Rain) (Peep Show, 2006)

To this day, it baffles me that Tetsu does not have a songwriting credit on ‘Sayonara Ame (Rain)’. His bass line, one of my favorites in J-rock history, is nearly half of what makes the song so good. It starts out as something reminiscent of Killing Joke’s ‘Love Like Blood’ rhythmically, but far more melodic. During the pre-chorus, the bass gets so melodically busy that it should clash with Gara’s vocals, except it does not. The chorus, meanwhile, is one of the best in Merry’s catalog. It somehow manages to be melancholic and uplifting at the same time, while Yuu’s guitar solo might just be the best he ever recorded. It is short and not at all virtuosic, but it does a great job building from the main melody of the song. The little clean guitar part before the verses start does wonders for the song’s dynamic character as well.

5. Tokyo Telephone (Haikara-San Ga Toru 2nd Press Ni Amo Meikyoku Tsuika, 2002)

Full disclosure: I used to mix up ‘Tokyo Telephone’ and ‘Tasogare Restaurant’, which – spoiler alert – is still to come, all the time. Maybe because they both have titles that are half kanji, half katakana. Or maybe it is because they are both early Merry tracks with a subdued groove that manages to be laid-back and driven at the same time. ‘Tokyo Telephone’ is the slightly more relaxed one of the two, with its rhythms dragging instead of pushing. The way Kenichi’s and Yuu’s guitars dance around each other add a great deal of swing to ‘Tokyo Telephone’ as well. If there is one thing this song proves, it would be that merely a year after Merry had formed, their signature sound had already been established and they excelled at it. Sonically as well; the guitar sounds in this song are subdued enough to give enhance the song’s vibe, but also just abrasive enough to emphasize that Merry is first and foremost a rock band.

4. Fukuro (Nonsense Market, 2014)

Sheer euphoria. That is what I feel every time I hear ‘Fukuro’ and that is why it has been one of my favorite Merry songs ever since I heard it. While that busy drums and dissonant guitar chords intro does a great job introducing the song, it is when it opens up immediately afterward when the beauty of ‘Fukuro’ is revealed. That lead guitar melody is quite simple, but does so much to give that section its triumphant feel. When ‘Fukuro’ was released, I had been listening to Merry for a couple of years and was so glad that Gara seemed to be moving into a more melodic direction vocally again. Musically, the song sounds like it came together from a spontaneous jam, but the fact that every member knows exactly when not to play betrays that the arrangement was far more thought-out than it may seem. Tetsu does not write a lot of Merry songs, but when he does, they tend to be winners. ‘Fukuro’ is the Exhibit A.

3. Sentimental Newpop (Peep Show, 2006)

That teasing lead guitar line, those sudden bursts of intensity, those simple yet excellent vocal harmonies in what appears to be the pre-chorus, that release from all the tension in the final minute or so of the song… Even today, I sometimes have trouble understanding how much great stuff Merry crammed into only three minutes in ‘Sentimental Newpop’. While it is not necessarily a busy song, as the structure is easy to follow and the arrangement leaves enough room for the vocals and guitars to breathe, it has far more musical information than the average three minute song. The title of the song undoubtedly is a reference to the omnipresent nostalgia in Merry’s discography, but let me tell you this: if new pop music was generally this energetic and melodically rich, I would not have complained about it nearly as much as I do.

2. Tasogare Restaurant (Gendai Stoic, 2003)

If ‘Sayonara Ame (Rain)’ and ‘Sentimental Newpop’ were the songs that made me fall in love with Merry, ‘Tasogare Restaurant’ is the song that made me decide that I wanted to stay with them. Despite its driving rock beat, the song feels relatively subdued and there is a nostalgic melancholy in both Gara’s vocal delivery and the overall feel of the song. That main riff, with Kenichi holding down the deceptively simple chord work and Yuu laying down a lead guitar part with a slightly different rhythm, is so effective that it hurts. In addition, I really like how the song opens up during its verses, as this is usually something musicians reserve for a chorus. Admittedly, ‘Tasogare Restaurant’ does not really have a chorus in the traditional sense. It does have a part that returns later, but with slightly different rhythms. Is that a complaint though? Of course not! That epilogue rounds out what is without a doubt one of Merry’s most brilliant songs.

1. Fukinko Kinema (Beautiful Freaks, 2011)

Easily the Merry track I play most. To be honest, I am not quite sure what it is about ‘Fukinko Kinema’ that I love so much. With all those chords on the afterbeats, ‘Fukinko Kinema’ is basically a slowed-down ska song, a genre that I do not particularly enjoy. But the laid-back retro vibe, the excellent melodies and that almost cathartic chorus are too good to resist. Structurally, ‘Fukinko Kinema’ is rather interesting as well. There is a break halfway through the second verse, the tension ramps up for the guitar solo after the first chorus only to drop back to the original feel of the song. Naturally, the energetic guitar solo returns after the final chorus, this is Merry we are talking about, after all. All of this contributes to a song that never fails at putting a smile on my face. It should be played at any Merry concert, but it appears that it is played at most of them already!

Album of the Week 01-2021: Arouge – Arouge ~Bogyaku No Kikoshi~

One could make a long-running tv series out of the question “how did this band not make it?”. In case of Arouge, it is truly remarkable that they did not become a bigger name. Not only did they have one of Japan’s finest guitarists in the shape of Fumihiko Kitsutaka, who would later get his deserved fame with Kinniku Shojo Tai and X.Y.Z.→A; Koshi Yamada is one of the most talented singers of his era and they had a collection of songs that were simultaneously melodic, memorable and powerful. ‘Arouge ~Bogyaku No Kikoshi’ sadly remains their sole album, but it is one of the most accomplished debuts of the mid-eighties.

Arouge started out as the high school band Sleazy Luster when the members were still in their mid-teens. Kitsutaka and bassist Jun Fukuda quickly proved to be extremely capable songwriters. Their debut album offers more than enough evidence for that. Somehow, Arouge managed to combine the powerful, riffy bottom-end of traditional heavy metal with the elegant melodicism of neoclassical hardrock and subtle pop metal sensibilities in the vocal and arrangement department. They were more melodic than Anthem, more accessible than Loudness and heavier than Bow Wow. That should have been a recipe for a hardrock sensation, but it was not to be.

If there is any issue with ‘Arouge ~Bogyaku No Kikoshi~’, it would be the sequencing. The album has a good flow, but while the hypermelodic ‘Tonight (I Sing My Heartful Song For You)’ would have made an excellent single, it lacks the energy an opening track should have. The following ‘Everybody’s Rock & Roll’ is a fun stomper, but easily the weakest track on the album. Fortunately, it only gets better from there. ‘In My Vision’ is a classy rocker with an excellent build-up full of powerful, yet elegant neoclassical riffs.

What is most surprising about the album is how much variation it shows in only 36 minutes. ‘See You In The Dream’ is closer to the hardrock side of the spectrum, while ‘Remember’ combines a thick early power metal base with an almost breezy feel in the vocals. On the more metallic end of things, there is the forcefully galloping ‘Chains’ and the proto-thrash of ‘No. No. No!’, while the slow, heavy shuffle of ‘Makin’ Love’ is borderline. ‘Play A Game’, of which the music was written by Bow Wow mastermind Kyoji Yamamoto, is as melodic as it is powerful, while ‘Winter Days’ is probably the best Japanese ballad of its era. It’s quite subtle, though it has heavier parts and would not have sounded out of place on one of the Uli Jon Roth-era Scorpions albums.

However, the best way to experience ‘Arouge ~Bogyaku No Kikoshi~’ is the 2-cd reissue from 2004. It contains a bonus disc with eleven bonus demo tracks, only one of which also appeared on the full album. The first three tracks were written after the album was released, but might just be the best Arouge material yet. ‘Don’t Get Back’ makes excellent use of dynamics by juxtaposing its proud heavy metal main riff with more subtle verses. It also features what might be Yamada’s best vocal performance on the release. ‘Dead Or Alive’ is simple, but brutally effective eighties metal with a fantastic chorus and pre-chorus and easily my favorite Arouge song, while ‘Rock Emotion’ would later be reworked for Kitsutaka’s brilliant solo debut ‘Euphoria’ as ‘Dance Desire’.

Some of the older tracks on the second disc should really have been on the actual album. It baffles me, for instance, that ‘Find Another Love’ did not make it on the album. With its uncomplicated heavy metal riffing and a soaring, memorable vocal performance by Yamada, it would have been a highlight. The interesting structure of ‘For Those Who Dare’ is a great example of how to build up tension in a song. My guess is that the songs with the Japanese titles were left off for commercial reasons, as I can see no other reason to leave the brilliant ‘Mihatenu Yume’ off the album. Sure, some of the songs are underdeveloped – ‘Night’ in particular is full of cool riffs, but clunky transitions – but this is great stuff and despite the varying sound quality, all of it is very listenable.

When Fumihiko Kitsutaka eventually got his well-deserved place in the spotlights, Arouge would get some more attention, but never enough to warrant a second album or a full-scale reunion. The original line-up did eventually play together again at Kitsutaka’s twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaris as a musician and the chemistry is still tangible. These days, ‘Arouge ~Bogyaku No Kikoshi~’ is quite difficult to get, but well worth checking out. It almost plays like a snapshot of the state of melodic heavy metal in the mid-eighties, but with the memorable songwriting chops to make it a timeless collection of excellent songs.

Recommended tracks: ‘Dead Or Alive’, ‘Chains’, ‘Don’t Get Back’, ‘No. No. No!’

Album of the Week 53-2020: Ningen Isu – Mugen No Junin

And the award of the most unexpected reissue of 2020 goes to Ningen Isu’s ‘Mugen No Junin’. Fans of manga and anime – which I am not – may have predicted it because the animated series based on the manga with the same title was released in late 2019, but it was a surprise to me. Due to its relatively mellow nature, ‘Mugen No Junin’ generally is not a fan favorite. And since it was released on a label not affiliated with Tokuma, it was not part of the band’s recent reissue campaign. It’s good that it’s available again, however, as ‘Mugen No Junin’ is better than it gets credit for.

‘Mugen No Junin’ is generally referred to as Ningen Isu’s most folky album and while there is some truth to that, that description also gives off a slightly wrong impression. The music on ‘Mugen No Junin’ is still as riff-driven as Ningen Isu always was and despite the generally more laid-back feel, it is heavier as a whole than its predecessor ‘Odoru Issunboshi’. When the album turns more folky, it is generally the type of folk that British prog rock bands from the seventies would attempt, with the tranquil, decidedly eastern ‘Mokko No Komoriuta’ being the only exception.

Where ‘Odoro Issunboshi’ occasionally sounded too laid-back for its own good, I actually think Ningen Isu nails the laid-back seventies hardrock and heavy metal grooves really well here. Opening track ‘Sarashikubi’ spends most of its time in a leisurely gallop – which would technically make it a trot – which really enhances the melancholic atmosphere of the song. It would not have worked quite as well had it been faster. Another track in which the relaxed pace works wonders is ‘Katana To Saya’. The interaction between the three musicians is really highlighted during these mid-tempo compositions, aided by the remarkably organic production. The slightly more uptempo ‘Tsujigiri Kota Mushukuhen’ marries a cool folky, yet distorted guitar line with almost nonchalant seventies rock riffing very effectively.

Of course, we are dealing with Ningen Isu here, so there will always be some crushing Sabbath-inspired riffs. ‘Bakkasu Kuruhi’ is easily the heaviest, most doomy track on here, although it does have some interestingly contrasting faster sections. ‘Jigoku’ and ‘Kuroneko’ feature some incredible riff work as well, though both songs feature a surprising amount of jumpy riffs and start-stop tricks. Shinji Wajima emulating a crying cat on his guitar in ‘Kuroneko’ (which transaltes to “black cat”) is a cool bonus. The spacey ‘Uchu Yuei’ is the closest Ningen Isu has ever sounded to Hawkwind.

However, what really makes the reissue of ‘Mugen No Junin’ worth the purchase even if you already own the original album are its bonus tracks. ‘Sakurashita Ondo’ is a unique entry into Ningen Isu’s oeuvre and can only be described by a Japanese power trio trying to play Turkish psychedelic funk from the seventies. This track may not be for everyone, but I love it. Especially that fuzzy lead guitar line over Kenichi Suzuki’s proto-disco bass line is incredible. Rounding out the reissue is the brand new ‘Mugen No Junin Buto Hen’, which after its brilliantly monumental intro transforms into one of Ningen Isu’s trademark near-speed metal tracks with a perfect blend of melody and intensity. Definitely worth getting the album for.

Ultimately, ‘Mugen No Junin’ is one of the most creative albums Ningen Isu released to date. Most of the risks taken on the album are very successful experiments. As a disclaimer, I do have to point out that to me, this was one of the Ningen Isu albums that needed the largest number of spins to finally sink in, but once it did, there wasn’t a single song worth skipping. Its replay value is greatly increased by the fact that it is so full of character, almost to the point of being an anomaly in Ningen Isu’s body of work. But those afraid that a folky Ningen Isu album would not contain enough monolothic riffs should not worry either. ‘Mugen No Junin’ is still more seventies rock and metal than folk rock.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kuroneko’, ‘Tsujigiri Kota Mushukuhen’, ‘Jigoku’, ‘Bakkasu Kuruhi’

Best of 2020: The Albums

Saying 2020 was not a great year for music is saying like there weren’t a lot of good heavy metal bands around in 1942. Technically true, but hardly the world’s biggest concern. As per usual, the music industry reacted in the dumbest way imaginable to a crisis – let’s postpone our releases and focus on live streams! – but if that was the biggest problem of these twelve months, the world would have had nearly 2 million additional inhabitants by the end of the year.

Having said that, it was not that hard to come up with a list of the year’s fifteen best releases this time around. Yes, I’m sticking with fifteen. No, I’m not so firm in my principles that I will not expand it to twenty again when I think the year warrants it. I just wanted to emphasize that there was plenty of new, interesting music to enjoy this year if you are open to it. The top 5 probably have made the top 5 in any given year.

Interestingly, this is the first time since I started this blog nine years ago that a European release tops the list two years in a row. Congratulations Rammstein and Dool! Before I start getting too cynical and deconstruct my opinions to the point of saying my reviews are not really worth anything, let’s move on to the list. And yes, I did just give my number one away already.

1. Dool – Summerland

Gothic rock without the self-pity. Atmosphere without sacrificing tight and recognizable songwriting. Dool’s gripping blend of gothic rock, post-punk and doom metal already overwhelmed me on their 2017 debut ‘Here Now, There Then’ and ‘Summerland’ is every bit as good. Nearly nine months after its release, I still have not figured out whether I like ‘Summerland’ more than the debut, but that only serves as a confirmation of both the albums’ immense qualities. ‘Summerland’ contains slightly less doom metal, but is so full of excellent dark songs with memorable melodies that it hardly matters. The arrangements, and the amazing guitar tapestries in particular, are excellent as well. In my original review, I said that ‘Summerland’ might just be the best goth-ish album since Fields Of The Nephilim’s ‘Elizium’ and I still stand by that statement. Also, many bands in this style only have one excellent album. Dool already has two out of two now!

Recommended tracks: ‘God Particle’, ‘Sulphur & Starlight’, ‘Summerland’

2. Triptykon with the Metropole Orkest – Requiem

While I don’t want to make a habit of including live albums in a list intended for studio albums, ‘Requiem’ is not just any live album. This is the complete ‘Requiem’ suite which was started by Celtic Frost in 1987, continued in 2006 and now finished by Triptykon in 2020. ‘Grave Eternal’, the second part of the suite, was not played in any shape or form before or since, which means nearly two thirds of the album’s length consists of new material. In my review I likened it to the final movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony as interpreted by a doom metal band with an unconventional orchestra. There is a surprising amount of elegance to be found between the monolithic doom riffs, but the overall sound is dark and almost oppressively bleak. And I love it for that. Just like the new Dool album, ‘Requiem’ is simply a must-hear for fans of dark music. Not an easy listen, but a masterpiece if you give it the time it deserves.

Recommended tracks: ‘Grave Eternal’

3. Apocalyptica – Cell-0

Full disclosure: I thought Apocalyptica struck gold by writing original material and adding drums to their music, only to have that gold wasted by adding vocals. So when it was announced that ‘Cell-0’ would be a fully instrumental album, that made me hopeful that it would be their first fantastic album since 2003’s ‘Reflections’. The anticipation only grew when I heard the cinematic scope of the first songs that surfaced. ‘Cell-0’ does not disappoint. It is not ‘Reflections’ part two, however. Where Apocalyptica used to extensively run their cellos through distortion pedals and similar effects, the natural, acoustic sound of the cello is predominant on the album. I love the melancholy of the compositions, as well as the very thought-out arrangements. Through the years, I have commended Apocalyptica for their constant innovation, but I would not mind if they would explore this style a little longer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Call My Name’, ‘Cell-0’, ‘Ashes Of The Modern World’

4. Hibiki – Hands Of Providence

In a way, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is a somewhat atypical solo album for a bassist. Sure, there is a track that highlights hibiki’s immense qualities on the instrument (‘Observing Inner Space’), but if there is one thing front and center on ‘Hands Of Providence’, it would be hibiki’s incredibly keen sense of melody. The first half of ‘Hands Of Providence’ is full of beautiful neoclassical power metal tracks that are somewhat reminiscent of old Concerto Moon, just tons better than what Concerto Moon doing these days, while the second half has its focus slightly shifting towards melodic J-rock and visual kei without the record sounding disjointed at all. And if that wasn’t cool enough, it has Yoko Kubota (ex-Saber Tiger) singing. Despite being one of Japan’s most in-demand bass virtuosos, ‘Hands Of Providence’ proves that there’s one thing hibiki does even better than playing bass and that is writing songs that, despite their complexity, are highly memorable.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inside The Scream’, ‘Sonic Divine’, ‘Enter Eternity’

5. Lovebites – Electric Pentagram

While Lovebites’ sophomore album ‘Clockwork Immortality’ was notably more melodic than their incredible debut ‘Awakening From Abyss’, ‘Electric Pentagram’ is significantly heavier. At first, it felt like a bit of an overcorrection, but after giving ‘Electric Pentagram’ a few spins and the strengths of the fantastic songs sank in, I cannot conclude differently than that it is another quality European-styled power metal album. The album excels at its extremes; the intense borderline thrash metal of ‘Thunder Vengeance’ and ‘Set The World On Fire’ on one side, the elegant, dramatic majesty of ‘A Frozen Serenade’ on the other. My only issues with the album are minor productional things. This year’s ‘Five Of A Kind’ live release proved that the songs sound even better with the keyboards lower in the mix and the Finnvox mastering job is kind of exhausting to listen to for 70 minutes straight. Apart from that, I can’t see any reason for fans of heavily guitar-oriented power metal to not enjoy ‘Electric Pentagram’.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Frozen Serenade’, ‘Thunder Vengeance’, ‘Set The World On Fire’

6. X.Y.Z.→A – Wonderful Life

Hideous cover aside, ‘Wonderful Life’ was probably the most pleasant musical surprise of 2020. Of course, the presence of Fumihiko Kitsutaka made me aware of X.Y.Z.→A, though their albums tend to be fun, but inessential to me. ‘Wonderful Life’ is absolutely essential. Kitsutaka and drummer Funky Sueyoshi can write some of the best melodic hardrock and heavy metal released these days and they seem to be willing to bring the best out of Minoru Niihara’s worn vocal cords. There isn’t a single song on ‘Wonderful Life’ not worth hearing, which makes it a giant leap forward from their earlier albums, which are good, but inconsistent. Every single song on ‘Wonderful Life’ has fun, memorable hooks and of course, loads of fantastic guitar work – we are dealing with Fumihiko Kitsutaka after all. There is something delightfully unpretentious about the album, which made it one of the most enjoyable listening experiences of the year for me.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yusha Wo Tataeru Kane’, ‘Shijo No Takera’, ‘Here You Go!’

7. My Dying Bride – The Ghost Of Orion

Another pleasant surprise. Due to my love of dark music, I have always appreciated My Dying Bride, but I generally found sitting through an entire album somewhat exhausting. ‘The Ghost Of Orion’ instantly became one of my favorite My Dying Bride records, however. It strips back the gothic overtones from everything but Aaron Stainthorpe’s vocals and is built completely upon Andrew Craighan’s mournful doom metal riffs, often beautifully harmonized. Sustained single notes hardly ever sound as dynamic as on ‘The Ghost Of Orion’ and the production goes a long way in making the album sound as immersive, yet oppressive as it is. Stainthorpe, meanwhile, delivers his best recorded performance to date. His daughter’s health situation clearly influenced his work on the album – ‘Tired Of Tears’ leaves very little doubt in that regard – but I prefer him to sound as clean and melodic as he does most of the time here anyway. Excellent work by everyone involved.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Long Black Land’, ‘The Solace’, ‘To Outlive The Gods’

8. Hevig Mollestad – Ekhidna

My chief editor at Gitarist sort of threw ‘Ekhidna’ on my digital desk because he had read positive things about it. I can only agree with anything postive said about this album. The jazzy improvisations mixed with Sabbath grooves of Hedvig Mollestad’s trio are already something special, but with the fusion factor turned way up and Mollestad mostly providing intricate, yet groovy rhythm guitars, ‘Ekhidna’ is one of the greatest guitar fusion albums I have heard in many years. Mollestad is an incredible guitarist, but in these compositions of hers, she mainly leaves the virtuosity to the keyboard players and trumpeter Susana Santos Silva. The interaction between all musicians involved is incredible and I cannot believe how much life there is in such a densely arranged record. ‘Ekhidna’ could be a hard rock record with pianos and trumpet or a jazz record with surprisingly heavy riffs, but whatever you choose to call it, it is a must-hear for fans of guitar music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Antilone’, ‘A Stone’s Throw’, ‘Ekhidna’

9. Heathen – Empire Of The Blind

Heathen’s 2010 comeback album ‘The Evolution Of Chaos’ is quite likely my favorite thrash metal album of the twenty-first century. ‘Empire Of The Blind’ is not quite that earth-shattering, but it is an excellent progressive thrash metal album. Here, Heathen sounds a bit darker and a tad more progressive-leaning than before, which is not that shocking, given that Kragen Lum wrote all the material this time around. David White probably aged best out of all cleaner thrash metal singers and his voice goes a long way in making ‘Empire Of The Blind’ sound like Heathen, though Lum made sure Heathen’s trademark melodic guitar approach is still front and center on the album. Thrash purists may think that the album contains a few contemporary Nevermore-isms too much, but anyone who stays away from ‘Empire Of The Blind’ because of that would be missing out on some clever, unpredictable songwriting and a ton of fantastic guitar work.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Blight’, ‘The Gods’ Divide’, ‘Empire Of The Blind’, ‘Devour’

10. Fleetburner – Fleetburner

Give me a concept album that is both progressive and deeply emotional and I will surely give it a listen. Fleetburner is the project of Dutch guitarist Kevin Storm, who is mainly active as a session and touring musician, but this untitled debut album proves that he mas more than a few impressive compositional chops up his sleeve. What makes ‘Fleetburner’ interesting is that Storm manages to combine elements that usually are not used together. Plenty of riffs on the album would not sound out of place on an extreme metal album, but due to how they blend with the generally calmer drums and the keyboards, not to mention Ken Simerly’s intense and decidedly non-metal vocal performance, it ends up sounding like ‘Brave’ era Marillion experimenting with metal riffs more than anything else. ‘Fleetburner’ is such an impressive debut that I don’t even need to mention the high profile musicians involved to urge fans of dark progressive music to give this a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fleet’, ‘The Deck’, ‘Below The Waves’, ‘The Breakwater’

11. Mekong Delta – Tales Of A Future Past

Easily one of my most anticipated releases of the year. And I have to admit, my initial impression was one of slight disappointment. That mainly has to do with the album ending on a relatively weak note, because the rest of the material grew on me very quickly. ‘Wanderer On The Edge Of Time’ and ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ were excellent albums, the former in particular is a masterpiece, but they followed such a similar formula, it was obvious something needed to change. ‘Tales Of A Future Past’ is the most traditionally progressive metal album Mekong Delta has released to date and features more prominent synthesizers than any of their post-‘Visions Fugitives’ releases. The Russian classical music played the thrash metal way is still here, but returning guitarist Peter Lake brings a distinct contemporary progressive edge to the proceedings. Plenty of excellent riffs too. Music this complex hardly ever sounds this listenable.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Colony Of Liar Men’, ‘Mindeater’, ‘Landscape 3 – Inherent’, ‘The Hollow Men’

12. Takenori Shimoyama – The Power Of Redemption

Saber Tiger singer Takenori Shimoyama released two solo albums last year. ‘Way Of Life’ is largely in Japanese and has Shimoyama’s vocals working surprisingly well with the mostly acoustic backings, while ‘The Power Of Redemption’ is all English and full-on neoclassical power metal. Despite the rotating cast of Japanese all-star musicians, the album actually sounds quite close to what Shimoyama did with Double Dealer. Most of Double Dealer’s final line-up even appears on ‘Sun Down’. The most successful songwriting collaboration is the one with Yutaro Abe, but it is remarkable how consistent the album sounds despite different musicians appearing on each track. Shimoyama himself still sounds every bit as good as when he first joined Saber Tiger in his early thirties and obviously feels comfortable singing neoclassical hardrock and metal like it appears in spades on ‘The Power Of Redemption’.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Last Survivor’, ‘Chaos Region’, ‘Beneath The Wave’

13. Dark Fortress – Spectres From The Old World

Another album I was greatly anticipating that didn’t exactly bring what I was expecting. Dark Fortress’ previous two albums ‘Ylem’ and especially ‘Venereal Dawn’ saw the German band slowly moving towards a blend of doom metal and bleak, atmospheric black metal that I like a lot. So when ‘Spectres From The Old World’ turned out to be much faster, it initially was a disappointment to me. After a while, it dawned on me that the faster material does coem from the same bleak atmosphere as the slower, doomy stuff and I got to appreciate ‘Spectres From The Old World’ for what it is rather than being disappointed about what it is not. Having said that, my favorite moments on the album are still the atmopheric, yet crushing doom songs, such as ‘Isa’. But anyone who wants dissonant black metal chords to transport them to a different world rather than having their ear drums violently pummeled needs to hear Dark Fortress’ recent works.

Recommended track: ‘Isa’, ‘In Deepest Time’, ‘Swan Song’

14. Firewind – Firewind

‘Immortals’ was my favorite album of 2017, but the period leading up to the release of Firewind’s self-titled ninth album was fraught with difficulty. The band suddenly found itself without singer and keyboard player, the latter of which has not even be replaced. It kind of works though. While I don’t think Herbie Langhans is a better singer than Henning Basse – though to be fair, hardly anyone in heavy metal is – Langhans does very well with the slightly more aggressive, stripped down approach of ‘Firewind’. The album sounds like a guitar driven power metal band with a modern hard rock mix and I really think that blend helps it stand out. There is a risk of Firewind not sounding different enough from Gus G’s solo project, because ‘Firewind’ occasionally sounds like the stuff the guitarist does without his band, but when it is this good, that should not be much of a problem.

Recommended tracks: ‘Perfect Stranger’, ‘Break Away’, ‘Devour’

15. Demons & Wizards – III

After nearly a decade and a half of silence, things suddenly got busy in the Demons & Wizards camp. Two reissues, a tour and then there was a new album. It surprised me how consistently mid-tempo the album is. Even more so because it allowed Jon Schaffer to squeeze a little more variation out of his mid-tempo riffs than he usually tends to do. After all, that is where ‘III’ shines in my opinion. Each and every song on the album has its own identity. There is some experimenting with guitar tunings, resulting in some songs sounding a bit darker, while others have the aggression emphasized. Of course, Hansi Kürsch brings varying degrees of theatricality to the album due to how and whether or not he chooses to layer his vocals. Vocally, Kürsch has aged more gracefully than many of his peers and that certainly helps ‘III’ be as good as it is. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of their two previous works, it is far more consistent than their second album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Dark Side Of Her Majesty’, ‘Diabolic’, ‘Universal Truth’

Album of the Week 52-2020: Merry – Modern Garde

By its title alone, Merry’s second album ‘Modern Garde’ already serves as a bit of a mission statement for the Tokyo-based band. Even in their early days, Merry was a band that stood out among their early twenty-first century visual kei peers by having some thought behind their concept, alluring to the Japanese avant garde of the early twentieth century musically and especially lyrically. There is something decidedly nostalgic about Merry’s music, but the rocking guitars and hard-hitting rhythms also make it timeless. And while Merry is still releasing quality music these days, ‘Modern Garde’ is undoubtedly one of their greatest works.

Merry’s core style is a hyperactive mix of punked-up rock ‘n’ roll rhythms, guitar parts that are either dancingly interwoven or abrasively heavy with the occasional ska chords on the afterbeats and frequent quasi-jazzy detours. The best way to differentiate their albums is by the varying degrees of heaviness. There are certainly albums on which Gara is mostly yelling and screaming, but ‘Modern Garde’ features memorable vocal melodies and intimate performances out of him most of the time. And though Merry is great enough during their heavier moments, I actually prefer them more melodic and focused on their jazz and rock ‘n’ roll leanings.

Not that ‘Modern Garde’ is without its heavy moments. After the playful intro ‘Sasurai Rhapsody’ – one of the few instances where I think whistling in a rock track is actually done well, it’s even harmonized whistling – the opening bars to ‘Japanese Modernist’ violently pound their way through the speakers. Its beautifully open chorus makes it more than just an exercise in hyperactivity though. ‘T.O.P’ has its share of growled madness as well, though it’s mainly built on a typical Merry guitar line, while ‘Lost Generation’ is probably the most punky track on here without ever being full-on punk.

It’s just that ‘Modern Garde’ is better when more subdued. ‘Haraiso’ is one of my favorite Merry songs due to its nostalgic feel and how brilliantly the instruments are layered. The verses literally feature none of the musicians playing in unison, but it never sounds chaotic. ‘Renai Kosaten’ has a similar sense of yearning melancholy that Merry excels at. Those are still rock songs in essence though; closer ‘Kuroi Niji’ has more of an intimate jazz club vibe, though Nero’s drums as usual are a bit more forward than such a description may suggest. ‘Uragiri Loop’ combines all elements of Merry’s sound in a surprisingly concise song and as such, is one of the unsung highlights of ‘Modern Garde’.

Admittedly, Merry isn’t a band for everyone. But they are one of the very few newer bands that have a style that is completely and utterly their own. Not unlike Alice In Chains, though stylistically very different, Merry combines elements from styles that already existed long before they commenced activities, but in a way that sounds unique. If you are not familiar with Merry, ‘Modern Garde’ actually might be the best place to start. ‘Peep Show’ is still my favorite album of theirs, but ‘Modern Garde’ contains all the elements that make Merry what they are in only 39 minutes.

Recommended tracks: ‘Haraiso’, ‘Uragiri Loop’, ‘Renai Kosaten’, ‘Japanese Modernist’

Album of the Week 51-2020: Aria – Noch’ Koroche Dnya

‘Noch’ Koroche Dnya’ was Aria’s first release after their string of classic albums (‘Geroy Asfalta’, ‘Igra S Ognëm’ and ‘Krov’ Za Krov”) and arguably their last great album with singer Valery Kipelov. Given the circumstances under which the album was recorded, it is a small miracle that the album came out as good as it is. Both Kipelov and guitarist Sergey Mavrin left the band, though Kipelov returned prior to the recordings. And while the record has some consistency issues, as well as an eyesore of an album cover, it contains some of the best eighties heavy metal released in the mid-nineties.

One thing that immediately stands out about ‘Noch’ Koroche Dnya’ is how organic it sounds. Aleksandr Manyakin’s snare drum falls a bit flat, but overall, it really feels like you are listening to a band playing music together rather than the overly processed productions that were slowly starting to pop up around that time. Main songwriter Vitaly Dubinin’s bass has a warm, yet trebly tone that can carry the guitars of founding member Vladimir Holstinin and newcomer Sergey Terentyev and Kipelov’s voice stands out, but doesn’t overpower the music. Combine that with a couple of excellent songs and you’ve got yourself a great heavy metal album.

Because to be fair, heavy metal is what Aria does best here. Multiple songs have loads of guitar harmonies, as well as a foundation of excellent traditional metal riffs. The surprisingly propulsive ‘Korol’ Dorogi’ and the powerfully dramatic ‘Duh Voyni’ are among the highlights of Aria’s discography for me, while its excellent build-up makes ‘Rabstvo Illyuziy’ one of their strongest openers to date. The closing title track has become a live staple and despite one section being particularly reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is an excellent epic with a perfect sense of dynamics.

When Aria experiments with styles on ‘Noch’ Koroche Dnya’, the results might need a little more time. The ballads – ‘Voz’mi Moye Serdtse’ and the remarkably impassioned power ballad ‘Angelskaya Pil” – are both excellent, the latter being a top three Aria ballad without any doubt. ‘Paranoya’ balances on the tightrope between hardrock and heavy metal and is probably my least favorite song here, but I have grown out of skipping it. ‘Uhodi, I Nye Vozvrashaysya’ seemed a bit too oriented towards big live sing-alongs initially, but actually is a fun heavy metal song with great vocals, while ‘Zver” is nothing particularly special, but enjoyable nonetheless.

If you ignore the album cover, ‘Noch’ Koroche Dnya’ leaves very little to be desired. Sure, it is not quite as good as the three albums that preceded it, but there is plenty of material here that deserves to be mentioned alongside Aria’s classic songs. The problems boiling beneath the surface of Aria at the time likely did not disappear, as despite the presence of a couple of undeniable highlights especially on 2001’s ‘Himera’, the two following albums were not quite as good and everyone except Dubinin and Holstinin left the band afterward. Nothing of that can be heard here though and as a result, ‘Noch’ Koroche Dnya’ is highly recommended to anyone who likes the better heavy metal bands of the eighties.

Recommended tracks: ‘Korol’ Dorogi’, ‘Duh Voyni’, ‘Angelskaya Pil”, ‘Rabstvo Illyuziy’

Album of the Week 50-2020: Ningen Isu – Mandoro

Ningen Isu has been around for over thirty years. But even in their native country of Japan, they did not really get the audience they deserved until a few years ago. In a way, I can understand their cult status. Their heavily Black Sabbath-inspired music is a bit of an anachronism and the fact that none of the three members are particularly strong singers or make-up clad pretty boys makes them difficult to market to a wider audience. On the other hand, if music as good as that on ‘Mandoro’ fails to attract a decent audience, that’s really the audiences fault.

‘Mandoro’ was released almost exactly two years after ‘Shigan Raisan’, Ningen Isu’s first great album after a string of fine, but surprisingly forgettable albums. Surprising, because like the bands that influenced them – besides Black Sabbath, Budgie and to a lesser extent Led Zeppelin are fairly obvious influences, with the occasional Motörhead-ish faster track – Ningen Isu’s riffs were always memorable. One can’t help but admire how Ningen Isu’s crushing doom metal and monolithic hard rock riffs refuse to be forgotten. ‘Mandoro’ is full of them. If anything, despite being over an hour long, ‘Mandoro’ trims most of the fat many Ningen Isu albums tend to have.

Overall, ‘Mandoro’ is slower and heavier than most Ningen Isu albums, but not devoid of the slighty proggy touches that characterize their best works. Shinji Wajima’s guitar sounds manage to be fuzzy and heavy at the same time, no doubt helped by the solid foundation of Nobu Nakajima and Kenichi Suzuki, whose bass lines have more melodic qualities than the average stoner or doom bassist. Admittedly, many of the songs on ‘Mandoro’ needed some time to truly reveal their brilliance to me, but ultimately, that only increases the replay value of the album.

The memorability of this album’s songs seems to be confirmed by the fact that more than a few of them remained on Ningen Isu live sets for several years. In fact, the intro track ‘Shigan Goeika’ is still frequently used as their concert intro. I kind of wish they would actually play it, however, as its heavy riffs and vocal interplay would profit from the live environment. The following ‘Kuroyuri Nikki’ took forever to grow on me, but has a fantastic build-up in intensity, not to mention a few of the album’s greatest riffs. ‘Jikan Kara No Kage’ is an excellent proggy, semi-psychedelic composition, while the slight folky touches (the shamisen, the guitar solo melody) in ‘Sakura Ranman’ are a nice stand-out.

Honestly, there really aren’t any disposable tracks on ‘Mandoro’. It is one of the most consistent Ningen Isu records and definitely a top five album for them. And how many bands this old school can say that three decades into their career? In fact, with albums like ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, ‘Shin Seinen’ and in deed ‘Mandoro’, Ningen Isu might just be better than they have ever been these days. The international attention ‘Mujo No Scat’ has gathered them is well-deserved, but as albums like ‘Mandoro’ prove, also later than this hard-working band should have gotten it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shigan Goeika’, ‘Kuroyuri Nikki’, ‘Neputa No Mandoriko’

Aria interview: Kevy Metal goes YouTube!

Recently, I was offered the opportunity to have a video interview with Vitaly Dubinin of Russian heavy metal institute Aria. Being the immense fan that I am of the band, I could not say no, despite the fact that video really isn’t my medium. Or at least not yet. In order to even publish the video, I started my own interview channel on YouTube, which given my undying love for lame puns is of course called Kevinterviews.

Please watch my interview with Vitaly Dubinin in the embedded video above. Dubinin speaks Russian throughout the interview, but English subtitles have been provided by Yana Filimonova, for which I am extremely grateful. Also, I cannot thank Trond Nicolaisen of Tomorrow’s Outlook enough for setting up the interview and editing the video. Something I have no post-School for Journalism experience with, but I am planning to get back into for some more video interviews.

Just for clarity’s sake: this weblog is not going to disappear. My main focus has always been written content and that will not change. There will still be an Album of the Week review on this weblog every week and I am still looking to publish as many interviews with interesting metal musicians here as possible. Kevinterviews should be seen as an extension of my Kevy Metal weblog rather than a replacement.

Having said that, it would be a waste of effort to just start a YouTube channel and not do anything with it after its first serious publication. Currently, I have no interviews planned for the YouTube channel after this one, but I am seriously looking into the opportunity of publishing more video interviews through the channel. Whenever I have news, you, my readers, will be the first to know.

But for now, please enjoy this rare glimpse into Aria’s inner workings for their international fanbase. Anyone interested in the band’s music will be pleased by the in-depth look that Dubinin provides into the band’s history, their songwriting process and their plans for the future, now available for most of the world to understand as it is subtitled.

And just because it is possible, let me close the whole thing off with a video from Aria’s YouTube channel. Fragments of this particular video were used to open and close the video of the interview:

Album of the Week 49-2020: Anthem – Burning Oath

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Anthem never actually released any bad albums. They just laid low for a while when the nineties inevitably ruined the music business for traditional heavy metal. They did, however, struggle a little bit with how many productional traits associated with power metal they should incorporate into their music after they reunited in the early twenty-first century. After all, Anthem was always best when they made ballsy, uncomplicated heavy metal – which why ‘Immortal’ is still my favorite album of theirs. ‘Burning Oath’ is one of the few Anthem albums that strikes a perfect balance between traditional and contemporary.

Keyboards and hypermelodic choruses have not completely disappeared from Anthem’s music, especially the latter are fairly prominent here, but after two albums on which the riffs kind of took a back seat to melodicism, ‘Burning Oath’ turns the tables. The album is chock-full of meaty riffs from the Accept and Judas Priest school of heavy metal, which combined with one of Eizo Sakamoto’s best vocal performances ever to be recorded creates a highly enjoyable album that is low on pretense and high on headbanging memorability. Where the live staples on ‘Black Empire’ and ‘Heraldic Device’ were immediately obvious, ‘Burning Oath’ is solid all the way through.

Because of this newly restored balance, the sporadic times when the pseudo-symphonic leanings of early 2000s power metal do crop up, they make much more of an impact than on most post-reunion Anthem albums. ‘Ghost In The Flame’, for instance, is largely a grinding midtempo track with a highly dramatic chorus, but the little bombastic touches added to the outro really help the otherwise overlong finale get off the ground. Elsewhere, ‘Unbroken Sign’ has a bit of an adventurous vibe, which is only enhanced by adding synthesized strings and layered guitar arrangements.

Like Anthem as a whole, however, ‘Burning Oath’ is best when it hits the gas for some riff-based heavy metal. ‘Struggle Action’ kicks up the tempo a notch without moving too far into thrash territory, whereas opener ‘Evil One’ is an excellent moodsetter with its strong build-up and surprisingly pounding chorus. ‘Face To The Core’ doesn’t get talked about quite as much, but damn if that is not a tasteful slice of moderately fast, dynamic heavy metal. ‘On And On’ is a little more melodic, but built upon a cool playful riff and would open the band’s live shows on the ‘Burning Oath’ tour. Guitarist Akio Shimizu is usually responsible for the more power metal-ish moments and his best contribution this time is the powerful closer ‘Dance Alone’.

If you cannot fault bassist and band leader Naoto Shibata for anything, it would be dubious quality control. Anthem albums are always the very best they can put out at that particular moment. The best they could was just slightly better than usual on ‘Burning Oath’. Its follow-up ‘Absolute World’ shared many of this album’s strengths, though Sakamoto had sadly left the band before it was created. He certainly left the band while he was at his peak – post-reunion Sakamoto is the best singer Anthem has ever had. Anthem is still going strong and releasing worthwhile albums to this day. ‘Burning Oath’ can even be compared favorably to some of their classic works.

Recommended tracks: ‘Evil One’, ‘Unbroken Sign’, ‘Face The Core’, ‘Dance Alone’