Album of the Week 12-2019: Anthem – Nucleus


Some European label – Nuclear Blast, no less – finally has the balls to release Anthem’s music outside of Japan. Sure, the band needed a set of songs with English lyrics to accomplish an international record deal, but apart from the lyrics, Anthem was always easily one of the more European sounding of all Japanese metal bands. Their first international release ‘Nucleus’ is a collection of re-recorded songs from the last ten albums of the band. As a compilation and an introduction to the band, ‘Nucleus’ works remarkably well and even the transition to English feels suprisingly natural.

For those who don’t know: Anthem is one of the oldest heavy metal bands in Japan and still one of the best. Unlike many contemporary Japanese bands, Anthem does not dazzle you with displays of virtuosity, instead opting for ballsy, riffy metal that is actually heavy and uptempo, but not too fast. This band truly belongs alongside the likes of Accept and Judas Priest in any serious heavy metal collection. The spirited performances and excellent songwriting of the band make Anthem more than just a nostalgia act though. The fact that almost all of these songs have originally been recorded in the 21st century says enough.

Apart from the English lyrics and having Yukio Morikawa on lead vocals instead of original lead singer Eizo Sakamoto on some of these tracks, they really are not that much different from their original versions. I am quite happy that the keyboards have been pushed a little more to the background on tracks like ‘Black Empire’ and the goosebumps-inducing closer ‘Unbroken Sign’, allowing Akio Shimizu’s rhythm guitar to give the songs just a little more force. Producer and engineer Jens Bogren also makes the best out of Isamu Tamaru’s drums, which end up sounding modern, but not triggered to hell and back.

The song selection on ‘Nucleus’ is commendable as well. Sure, with a collection like this one, everyone misses a favorite, but Anthem really did a good job picking the songs that fit Morikawa’s voice best. There’s a few instances where I think Sakamoto did it better, but ‘Ghost In The Flame’, ‘Echoes In The Dark’, ‘Eternal Warrior’ and the aforementioned ‘Unbroken Sign’ almost appear to be written for Morikawa, while he wasn’t even in the band when they were originally released. The sequencing is done really well, as the album flows like a new studio record rather than a loose collection of songs.

It is good to see Anthem try their hand at conquering the European market almost four decades after bassist and main songwriter Naoto Shibata started the band. Everyone who enjoyed Accept’s post-reunion material will undoubtedly like ‘Nucleus’ as well, but in fact, every fan of traditional heavy metal should give the band a chance. High import prices are no excuse anymore. Anthem has more good riffs and memorable choruses than the average young power metal band and the rhythms are never less than extremely powerful. Hopefully this will not be their last European release.

Recommended tracks: ‘Immortal Bind’, ‘Unbroken Sign’, ‘Echoes In The Dark’

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Album of the Week 11-2019: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Shinjin


Making a worthy comeback is one thing. Releasing a comeback album that is as good as your classic material is rare though. And yet, that is exactly what Kinniku Shojo Tai does on ‘Shinjin’. The band had broken up somewhat unceremoniously in the late nineties after a string of enjoyable, but highly inconsistent albums. A reunion was announced in late 2006 – without drummer Akira Ota but with original keyboard player Satoshi Mishiba helping out significantly as a session musician – and less than a year later, ‘Shinjin’ was released. Easily their best set of songs since their early nineties heyday, this is how comebacks should be.

With Kinniku Shojo Tai’s trademark bizarre mix of punk, metal, funk rock, prog and Queen-like theatricality being firmly in place, it would be tempting to say that nothing has changed since the split. There is a small, but notable change of direction to be found, however, as post-reunion Kinniku Shojo Tai has a notably stronger orientation towards melodic hard rock and power metal than before. And while some may argue that wild genre-hopping was an important part of the band’s sound, it does cause the overall sound of ‘Shinjin’ to be a little more consistent than before.

Of course, the band has not suddenly ditched all of its weirdness. There is some rather unique piano work underneath even the thickest guitar riffs and only very few western hard rock bands would dare to attempt a nervous, jangly sixties rocker like ‘Nukenin’. The fact that the first vocals on the album are some of the most aggressive “la-la-la” chants in music history (‘Nakanaori No Theme’) is quite telling as well. The campfire atmosphere of closer ‘Shinjin Band No Theme’ is one of the many moments evidencing the band’s sense of humor, but it’s surprisingly listenable as well.

Still, if you primarily want to hear Kinniku Shojo Tai rock out, ‘Shinjin’ is one of the best places to start. The blunt force of the band’s punk roots shines through on ‘Mishiyo Hikikaiken’, but there’s a surprising amount of class in their hardrockers too. Fumihiko Kitsutaka’s compositions, such as ‘Torifido No Hi Ga Kitemo Futaridake Ha Iki Nuku’ and the particularly neoclassical ‘Headbang Hatsudensho’, are renowned for that, but the powerful ‘Ai Wo Uchikorose!’ appears to be from the same mold, despite being written by his fellow guitarist Toshiaki Honjo. Also, letting a singer as shouty and unsubtle as Kenji Otsuki sing no less than three ballads seems like a bad idea, but they are fortunately quite good, the remarkably dynamic ‘Koshonin To Rosalia’ in particular.

Eclectic bands like Kinniku Shojo Tai usually have a couple of flaws on their albums, but they are quite limited in number on ‘Shinjin’. The sequencing could have been a little more effective and I am unsure about the necessity of the re-recordings of ‘Moretsu Ataro’ and the speed metal monster ‘Iwan No Baka’. Especially the latter does sound significantly better than the original version though. Having them on there does contribute to the album’s introductory value to the weird world of Kinniku Shojo Tai. ‘Shinjin’ is an album that plays to the band’s strengths, after all, and therefore worth a shot if you like any of the genres mentioned in this review.

Recommended tracks: ‘Headbang Hatsudensho’, ‘Ai Wo Uchikorose!’, ‘Iwan No Baka ’07’

Album of the Week 10-2019: Kipelov – Zhit Vopreki


Valery Kipelov’s name will forever be inextricably linked to the legendary Russian heavy metal band Aria, which he fronted until 2002. His current band, simply named Kipelov, is more than just a continuation of the Aria sound, however. In fact, Kipelov is much more in line with contemporary power metal, adding to the relevance of the band. Of the three studio albums the band has released so far, sophomore album ‘Zhit Vopreki’ is their best. There are many powerful riffs to be heard here and several German power metal bands could learn a songwriting lesson or two from the Russian quintet.

On ‘Zhit Vopreki’, Kipelov profits from having a well-oiled band. Predecessor ‘Reki Vremën’ was released six years earlier, but the band played a lot of live shows in the meantime and it is obvious that all the band members are on the same wavelength musically. Guitarists Andrey Golovanov and Vyacheslav Molchanov in particular are tight, sounding like a massive wall of guitars despite not being tuned too low or having an unusual amount of bass in their sound. Vocally, Valery Kipelov does not give the impression of being in his mid-fifties here, sounding as passionate and powerful as he ever has.

After a slightly theatrical intro, the title track shows the album’s mission statement and does it well. The song has a defiant, almost heroic atmosphere that should be synonymous with heavy metal. Uptempo, but not too fast is a common pace for Kipelov and really contributes to the power of the song, maximizing the impact of its incredible chorus. That tempo accounts for some of the album’s highlights, as evidence by the following two tracks: the powerfully stomping ‘Blast Ognya’ and the catchy ‘Glamurnaya Ptitsa’. The lone truly fast track, ‘Etsë Povoyuyem’, almost pushes the band into speed metal territory surprisingly effectively.

However, what truly makes ‘Zhit Vopreki’ the best Kipelov album is the quality of its slower tracks. When the band slows down to an almost doomy, midtempo groove, the results are simply stunning here. ‘Bezumiye’ has a brooding, almost evil feel, but ‘Chërnaya Zvezda’ is a true highlight here. The riff work is relatively straightforward, but that is exactly what allows the song to be so atmospheric. In addition, the vocal arrangements are incredible; the dual harmonies are vaguely reminiscent of Alice In Chains, while the extra layer in the chorus is really powerful.  ‘Na Grani’ and especially the largely acoustic, profoundly dark ‘Dikhaniye Posledney Lyubvi’ are surprisingly excellent ballads as well.

Kipelov’s departure from Aria may have been a shock to the fan base when it happened, but in the long run, it all turned out for the best. Aria is still making great records with the fantastic Mikhail Zhitnyakov and Valery Kipelov is recording great albums in a style he, if ‘Zhit Vopreki’ is any proof, apparently feels more comfortable with. In addition, ‘Zhit Vopreki’ has aged very well. Nothing sounds dated, which can in part be accredited to the ballsy production, but in the end, it’s the songs that make it one of the best post-2010 power metal albums worldwide. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys the likes of Morgana Lefay.

Recommended tracks: ‘Chërnaya Zvezda’, ‘Zhit Vopreki’, ‘Etsë Povoyuyem’

Massive thanks to Ruslania for helping me purchase the album.

Album of the Week 09-2019: Sisters Of Suffocation – Humans Are Broken


Death metal that is both clever and varied without losing any of the aggression that is essential to the genre is hard enough to come by these days. That is exactly why it is good to have albums like Sisters Of Suffocation’s sophomore album ‘Humans Are Broken’ every once in a while. The music is complex, but not showy or hard to follow and while there are plenty of melodic touches and unexpected twists to surprise the listener, Sisters Of Suffocation never forgets the importance of brutality. ‘Humans Are Broken’ sets the bar pretty high for death metal in 2019.

Prior to the recordings of the album, Sisters Of Suffocation went through a couple of line-up changes. These changes have certainly had their effect on the outcome. New drummer and lone brother Kevin van den Heiligenberg makes his presence known through his powerful and varied drumming – you will never hear him play the same type of groove for too long – as well as his explosive and surprisingly natural drum sound. In addition, Emmelie Herwegh joined as a second guitarist, causing fellow axewoman and main composer Simone van Straten to really run with the idea of having two guitars. There are significantly more solos and harmonies here than on ‘Anthology Of Curiosities’ two years ago.

Another big plus about ‘Humans Are Broken’ is the amount of variety in material. Sisters Of Suffocation really explores all corners of death metal here, from the almost Bay Area thrash metal nature of the riffs in ‘What We Create’ right down to the subtle nods to black metal in more atmospheric tracks like ‘Liar’ and ‘The Next Big Thing’. Vocalist Els Prins has a few melodic outbursts here and there, but the music never veers into full-on melodic death metal or wimpy metalcore territory. Check out ‘The Objective’ for an example; the song is full of melodic guitar and vocal work, but the intensity does not let up for even a second.

Of course, anyone looking for a punch in the gut is served well by ‘Humans Are Broken’ as well. The absolutely annihilating main riff to ‘Blood On Blood’ will do just that and despite its progressive nature, there is plenty of pummeling riff work in the ‘Souls To Deny’-era Suffocation-esque ‘The Machine’, as well as what is probably the strongest guitar solo on the album. ‘Wolves’ packs so many ideas that it’s almost impossible to believe that the track is only three minutes long. And yet, the song never becomes disjointed, instead opting for a dark, immersive atmosphere.

While many younger death metal bands are trying to adhere to a certain trend or style, the main concern of Sisters Of Suffocation seems to be to write a good song and perform the hell out of it. And that is exactly how it is supposed to be. For some fans of certain subgenres within death metal, ‘Humans Are Broken’ may be too little of “their” thing, but really, everyone who likes their death metal interesting, slightly technical and somewhat melodic, the album is a must. If this line-up manages to stay together, I cannot see anything standing in the way of a bright future for Sisters Of Suffocation.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Objective’, ‘Wolves’, ‘What We Create’

Interview Narumi: Free from restrictions


One of the most striking Japanese releases in 2018 was debut EP ‘The Seed’ by Narumi. This guitarist is mainly known for her work with power metal bands Destrose and Disqualia. However, on her instrumental solo debut, she displays a completely different side of herself. One that can still get heavy at times, but elements from film music and jazz fusion are at least as prominent. These types of records often end up being endless exercises of virtuosity, but Narumi keeps the melodies front and center in her surprisingly well-written songs. Her skills are impressive, but don’t get in the way of her songs. Plenty of reasons for a conversation with the guitarist.

The fact that these songs are so focused on atmospheric melodies is not that surprising, considering Narumi’s approach. “I made this EP from beginning to end as if I was writing a fantasy novel“, she explains. “If you can feel that whole view of the world, I am very pleased about that. Strictly speaking, there were no songs written in advance before I started working on the project. What I did have was a lot of idea fragments. After the concept for the EP became clear, I finished them as songs within two or three months.

‘The Seed’ has seven instrumental tracks. That was not always the idea though. “Originally, I had planned to sing the song ‘1921’ myself“, Narumi admits. Not that strange, as she has been doing backing vocals for several projects. “But when I recorded my vocals, I could not convince myself of my singing. That is why I fixed it by re-writing it as instrumental music. During the production, I think about an image to give the songs their rough titles. When the song is completed, I alter the words to match the image if necessary.

Independent

Interestingly, ‘The Seed’ is entirely the vision of just Narumi and her producer and arranger Issei Ambo. “I played all the guitar parts, everything else has been programmed by Issei Ambo“, she confirms. “This way, I was able to create freely, free from various restrictions, such as the intentions of a record label or finding a compromise between conflicting opinions of others. It was important for me to approach this solo project that way. I think it is interesting to see that the number of these kinds of independent artists is increasing worldwide.

So far, I have only played in rock bands with twin guitars. I was trying to create this tight and aggressive high-gain sound that is unique to active pick-ups. But this time, I wanted to create a totally different sound in order to pick up my performances when I was playing softly and delicately as well. For the recordings, I used Ibanez and Kramer guitars through a Kemper Profiler amplifier. I edited the sounds of the Bogner and the Friedman a little and used those sounds to record the songs.

Evolving

The style in my previous activities was only a small part of who I am. And I am still evolving. My favorite musician is Sugizo, one of the guitarists in the famous Japanese rock band Luna Sea. But I also think guitarists like Plini and Steve Vai are great. There are so many that I cannot mention them all.

I started playing guitar shortly after Michael Jackson passed away. Orianthi was broadcast playing the guitar and that image of her really impressed me. When I was studying at a music school, Destrose contacted me, because they were looking for a female guitarist. That was the start of my career. Although I was not originally a metal guitarist, I started playing rock and metal styles according to the direction of each band after I debuted with them.

Future

Now that ‘The Seed’ has been out for a while, the logical question would be what the future has in store for Narumi. “I would like to play these songs live in the near future“, she says. “But for now, I’d like to increase the number of songs for my solo project before I start playing live. Apart from my solo project, I am currently preparing to launch an all-female band. Please keep an eye on that!

‘The Seed’ can be ordered through Narumi’s website. Just the EP costs 2000 yen and for 3200 yen, a bundle with the EP and a photo book can be ordered. The orders can be shipped internationally for only 200 yen.

 

Originally published in Dutch on The Sushi Times

Album of the Week 08-2019: Whispering Sons – Image


Belgium’s Whispering Sons really managed to impress me at the Eurosonic festival last month. My first impression of the band was that they were a very authentic sounding tribute to the darkest side of the early eighties post-punk and proto-goth sounds, think Joy Division at their most depressive with hints of early The Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus and the few good songs that The Cure made. Repeated spins of their debut album ‘Image’ revealed that Whispering Sons is much more than just a convincing retro act. The atmosphere is too immersive and the songwriting quality too high to limit them to that.

Naturally, the eighties retro vibe is the first thing that stands out when you put on ‘Image’. The repetitive, hypnotizing bass lines and the tight, almost electronic drum sounds, as well as Kobe Lijnen’s atmospheric, reverberating guitar lines – there is very little chord work on the album – immediately bring the early eighties to mind. But then something happens: the album gets under your skin. The emotionally intense choruses get stuck in your head and you end up humming along the melody lines quite quickly. In addition, Fenne Kuppens’ deep voice has a dark appeal that fits the music perfectly.

‘Alone’ is a minor hit in Belgium and it might actually be the perfect way to get acquainted with Whispering Sons’ sound. It is one of the album’s most accessible tracks in the sense that it does not require a lot of time to absorb the atmosphere. It is relatively uptempo and Lijnen immediately builds a strong melody in the intro. The climactic chorus has a sing-along quality to it without falling victim to the trappings of the cheesier side of the new wave spectrum. Still a quite gloomy song, but it definitely has the potential to appeal to those who don’t normally don’t listen to the genre.

That is hardly the only good song on ‘Image’ though. In fact, the consistency of the album is admirable. Of course, there are some stand-out moments, like the profoundly desperate atmosphere of ‘Skin’ and the propulsive, threatening feel of opening track ‘Stalemate’. ‘No Time’ has sections that are a little more abstract and excellent climaxes lead by a simple, but brutally effective bass line courtesy of Tuur Vandeborne. ‘Hollow’ makes excellent use of dynamics by holding back during the vocal sections and pushing forward when in the guitar-lead parts, only to resolve in a fantastic apotheosis. I quite enjoy the subdued aggression of ‘Got A Light’ as well.

While ‘Image’ is sure to please fans of post-punk, new wave and early goth rock, who – let’s face it – have not had a lot of new stuff to rejoice over in the last few decades, it has the melodic appeal and the excellent songwriting to find its way to a much larger audience. Anyone who does not fear a little darkness in his or her music should certainly give the album a spin. Whispering Sons has a great sound and a lead singer with a magnetic charisma. What more do you need to find your intended audience?

Recommended tracks: ‘Alone’, ‘Skin’, ‘Stalemate’

Album of the Week 07-2019: OverKill – The Wings Of War


If there is one thing you can count on in the metal scene, it would be OverKill releasing a solid thrash record every two or three years. Having said that, their last album ‘The Grinding Wheel’ was not one of my favorite OverKill albums, despite its incredible three-song finale. ‘The Wings Of War’ is the first of their albums in over a decade with a different line-up than its predecessor and that usually means a slight change of direction. Jason Bittner does not bring a huge shift, but it does seem that his drumming relit some fire for the band.

Of course, this is still an OverKill record, so you know what to expect: there is an abundance of thrash riffs with clear inspiration from Black Sabbath and American punk, which Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth enhances with his pleasantly shrill vocal delivery. His performance deserves praise, as he is turning sixty in a few months and still sings with the intensity of a man half his age. Guitarist Dave Linsk’s melodic embellishments give the songs a lot of character, contributing significantly to the NWOBHM leanings that make the album sound somewhat like a spiritual successor to ‘The Electric Age’ (2012), only with more consistent songwriting.

While OverKill’s bread and butter is still uncomplicated in-your-face thrash metal, the record feels surprisingly experimental at times. ‘Bat Shit Crazy’ has a few subtle, but brutally effective time feel changes and a brooding clean middle section followed by one of the most “classic metal” solo sections the band did in decades. The following ‘Distortion’ has one of their coolest bass and guitar intros yet, especially the second half. The rest of the track is excellent mid-tempo OverKill. The dark and powerful ‘Where Few Dare To Walk’ is another great atmospheric OverKill track, rivaling ‘Bitter Pill’ and ‘Killing For A Living’ as the best tracks in that style.

Even the album’s punky track is good. Those are generally not my favorites, but ‘Welcome To The Garden State’ is a fast, aggressive and surprisingly funny tribute to their home state of New Jersey. Those looking for high-octane thrash should not be worried though. For all the interesting melodic touches – most of them courtesy of Linsk and Ellsworth – the album still has equal amounts of groove, aggression and attitude. First single ‘Last Man Standing’ gives a pretty good impression of the overall sound with its thick, almost hardcore-ish riffs and catchy chorus, but the best thrasher of the album has to be closer ‘Hole In My Soul’. It has a great build-up, a fantastic chorus and after its intro never lets up in terms of speed. OverKill has been doing amazing album closers lately and this one is no different.

Many thrash bands that started around the same time as OverKill are battling identity crises or consistency issues, but neither of those seems to effect the New Jersey thrashers. They know who they are and they know how to express that. What is even more impressive is that they manage to do so without losing their credibility or becoming a parody of themselves. ‘The Wings Of War’ is one more piece of evidence for that theory. It is a sincere, powerful thrash metal record that is pretty much on par with ‘White Devil Armory’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hole In My Soul’, ‘Where Few Dare To Walk’, ‘Believe In The Fight’

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