Tools for Discovery: Onmyo-za albums ranked

Years ago, when I discovered how good Onmyo-za was, I was faced with a daunting task: trying to figure out which of their albums is worth getting without being able to read any of their song and album titles. In all honesty though, it was a pleasant journey that I can truly say enriched my life. Onmyo-za’s combination of old school hardrock and heavy metal riffs, highly melodic songwriting, two excellent lead singers and subtle folky touches offered me something I did not know I needed in my life, but absolutely did. Now that singer Kuroneko is recovering from health issues that affected her voice and hearing, I thought now is the right time to rank Onmyo-za’s album from the ones I enjoyed least to the ones I cannot get enough of, to make life easier for future fans of the band.

Before you ask: Onmyo-za never made any outright bad or even mediocre albums. If these albums were graded, I would rate none of them lower than 7 out of 10. That is a level of consistency many bands can only dream of. Still, to westerners like myself, Onmyo-za’s discography is vast and – due to the consistent use of Japanese characters that even native speakers reportedly find somewhat difficult to read – intimidating. With this list, I hope to provide you with some insight of what you can expect and in what order you should buy the albums. Though if you happen to find one for an attractive price, by all means, do yourself a favor by getting it.

15. Fuin Kairan (2002)

Does this one even count? With its 37 minutes of length, it just about outlasts EP length and it really is a collection of re-recorded odds and ends. And that’s exactly how it feels. It starts out promising and later on, there is one of the most pleasantly brutal Onmyo-za tracks in ‘Shinshoku Rinne’. But the middle part of the album is where it gets a little murky. The band has done much better doomy tracks than ‘Tsuchigumo Kitan’, as well as better ballads than ‘Tsukuhime’. ‘Fuin Kairan’ is worth getting for the highlights, but quite likely the Onmyo-za album I revisit least. It is valuable in that it keeps you from dumping a lot of money into getting their rare older singles for the exclusive tracks, however.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shinshoku Rinne’, ‘Kasha No Wadachi’, ‘Kamaitachi’

14. Kikoku Tensho (1999)

Onmyo-za’s debut album is promising, but underdeveloped. ‘Hyaku No Oni Ga Yoru Wo Yuku’ and the thrashy ‘Onikiri Ninpocho’ would go on to be live staples for the band, and rightfully so. A few too many ideas on the album just don’t really go anywhere, however. Having said that, I am quite fond of ‘Memaizaka’ and ‘Fuguruma Ni Moyu Koibumi’. Other songs just stumble on inexperience. Drummer Tora in particular is not yet in the shape he would be in from their excellent second album onward (spoiler alert) and a track like ‘Onmyoji’ is just a tad too ambitious at this point in the band’s career especially from a productional standpoint. Subsequent live recordings prove the songs would improve later on.

Recommended tracks: ‘Onikiri Ninpocho’, ‘Memaizaka’, ‘Fuguruma Ni Moyu Koibumi’

13. Mugen Hoyo (2004)

It pains me to put ‘Mugen Hoyo’ so low on the list, as it contains one of my two absolute favorite Onmyo-za songs in the shape of the Iron Maiden-esque ‘Nemuri’. Not that ‘Nemuri’ is the only good thing ‘Mugen Hoyo’ has to offer, but the album is quite frontloaded. The opening one-two punch of ‘Mugen’ and ‘Jami No Hoyo’ is excellent, while ‘Kodo’ is one of the better melodic hardrock tracks in the band’s discography. There is a notable dip during the middle part of the album, but ‘Nehan Ninpocho’ and the dreamy Kuroneko ballad ‘Yumemushi’ are bright spots that remedy the situation. ‘Mugen Hoyo’ is a very worthwhile album, just not as good as some of the band’s other work.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nemuri’, ‘Jami No Hoyo’, ‘Nehan Ninpocho’

12. Garyo-Tensei (2005)

Since it contains the band’s breakthrough hit ‘Koga Ninpocho’, ‘Garyo-Tensei’ is probably the first Onmyo-za album most people heard. However, it is plagued with too many consistency issues to be the perfect first introduction to the band. Also, the bone-dry production doesn’t do the songs any favors. I still think ‘Kami No Furumeki’ is the worst album opener in Onmyo-za history, though ‘Onmyo-Live’ (2006) proved that it was a great rock track if it appears later on an album. Some songs simply push the average quality way up though. The exquisite ‘Yoshitsune’ trilogy does just that, as do the powerful ‘Mizuchi No Miko’, the supremely melodic ‘Ryu No Kumo O Eru Gotoshi’ and the hidden gem ‘Gekka’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ryu No Kumo O Eru Gotoshi’, ‘Kumikyoku “Yoshitsune” ~ Muma Enjo’, ‘Mizuchi No Miko’, ‘Gekka’

11. Raijin Sosei (2014)

Released on the same day as ‘Fujin Kaiko’, ‘Raijin Sosei’ initially seemed the more interesting of the two, being the darker and heavier one. Surprisingly, it is not. The average is dragged down significantly by ‘Hitokabemaru’; the dullest, most melodically lacking Onmyo-za song to date. It is a fine, if slightly overlong album with a few stand-out moments though. Just not as consistently amazing as its lighter counterpart. However, when the album is good, it is downright excellent. Strangely, the less densely composed and arranged songs, such as ‘Tenguwarai’ and ‘Kannari Ninpocho’, are generally my favorites. The dramatic opening salvo and the 13-minute epic ‘Kasane’ are very much worth hearing as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tenguwarai’, ‘Shikoshite Ugoko Koto Raitei No Gotoshi’, ‘Tengoku No Ikazuchi’, ‘Kasane’

10. Hoyoku Rindo (2003)

Somehow, I keep forgetting how good ‘Hoyoku Rindo’ is. It contains a number of songs that should have been staples, but for whatever reason, only the supremely melodic opener ‘Hoyoku Tensho’ became one. The massive epic ‘Nue’ should have been another, for instance. Or the overtly Iron Maiden-inspired ‘Omokage’. Or the fantastic speedy metal track ‘Kirin’. Sure, the end of the album is a little predictable: a fine Kuroneko ballad (‘Hoshi No Yadori’) followed by a much too upbeat, lightweight rocker (‘Mai Agaru’). Overall, this is a top-class album though. The only reason it is not higher on the list is because of Onmyo-za’s discography is so unbelievably consistent. Pretty much the median Onmyo-za album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hoyoku Tensho’, ‘Omokage’, ‘Nue’

9. Maoh-Taiten (2007)

‘Maoh-Taiten’ is often considered one of Onmyo-za’s most metallic albums. Superficially, it may well be. Its cover is clearly aimed at a metal audience and there are quite a few songs with surprisingly thrashy riff work (‘Mukuro’, ‘Fugutaiten’, I guess opening track ‘Mao’ also counts). However, the album is far more melodic than it lets on, which results in some of the finest Onmyo-za tracks, such as the amazing ‘Hado Ninpocho’. It has a few consistency issues though. ‘Hyosube’ is enjoyable enough, but breaks up a string of vastly superior songs and ‘Kuchizuke’ is hardly one of the band’s better ballads. On the other hand, ‘Ikiru Koto To Mitsuketari’ is easily one of the band’s best upbeat closing rockers.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hado Ninpocho’, ‘Mao’, ‘Ikiru Koto To Mitsuketari’, ‘Mukuro’

8. Kojin Rasetsu (2002)

Third albums are often transitional albums and ‘Kojin Rasetsu’ is no exception. The old school metal-isms from ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ are still present, but the album also shows the first careful steps towards more sophisticated productions and arrangements. This includes the excellent ‘Kurotsuka’ suite, the band’s first multi-part song, this time a diptych instead of a trilogy. Matatabi would become a better songwriter later on, but ‘Kojin Rasetsu’ might just be the most consistent of their early albums. There’s only one I personally rate higher due to it having higher peaks, but most of the songs on here are worth your time if you like melodic heavy metal with subtle touches of East-Asian folk music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kirameki’, ‘Rasetsu’, ‘Kumikyoku “Kurotsuka” ~ Kikoku-Shuhu’

7. Karyo-Binga (2016)

‘Karyo-Binga’ is in many ways an upgrade on what Onmyo-za was trying to achieve on ‘Raijin-Sosei’. Both albums feature Onmyo-za incorporating contemporary metallic characteristics into their well-established sound without forsaking any of their trademark melody or atmosphere. ‘Karyo-Binga’ does take this a bit further with extensive use of seven-string guitars and using keyboards as a more integral part of the songwriting, but this is unmistakably Onmyo-za. Stand-out tracks are limited in number, but that is mainly because it is such a consistent album with a clearly defined stylistic approach. Furthermore, ‘Karyo-Binga’ has a dark, melancholic atmosphere that can really only be heard here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’, ‘Ningyo No Ori’, ‘Hyoga Ninpocho’, ‘Susanoo’

6. Kongo Kyubi (2009)

Since ‘Kongo Kyubi’ is notably more polished and mellow than usual, it was one of my least favorite Onmyo-za albums for the longest time. Turns out I was wrong. Its polished nature is actually a major strength. That bright top layer of clean and twelve-string guitars, as well as the supreme vocal harmonies make ‘Kongo Kyubi’ sound unlike any other Onmyo-za album. Perhaps surprisingly, ‘Kingo Kyubi’ is not all that ballad-heavy. In fact, the ‘Kyubi’ trilogy is their first without any ballad-esque chapters en ‘Kuraiau’ is one of their most powerful closers. Then again, contrast is Onmyo-za’s forte. Some songs may be closer to melodic hardrock than heavy metal, but ‘Kongo Kyubi’ is full of really classy stuff.

Recommended tracks: ‘Izayoi No Ame’, ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’, ‘Kuraiau’

5. Hyakki-Ryoran (2000)

The leap in quality from Onmyo-za’s promising, but underdeveloped debut to their fantastic second album is astounding. Especially since it took them less than a year. Production and performances have been polished up, Tora’s drumming in particular is far better than on the debut, and the songs are simply better. ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ is an eternal favorite of mine, but there are so many good songs on ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’. ‘Ayako’ is a breathtaking dark semi-ballad, ‘Nurikabe’ probably the band’s best doomy track, ‘Teito Makaitan’ has an unbelievable chorus, ‘Oka No Kotowari’ and ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’ are fantastic melodic tracks… Possibly the best Onmyo-za album to start with for western metal fans.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’, ‘Teito Makaitan’, ‘Ayako’, ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’

4. Hado Myoo (2018)

Onmyo-za’s most recent album is their heaviest. And once the impact of the initial punch in the face has worn off, it is still an incredible album. ‘Hado Myoo’ is best when it contrasts the more defiant sections that Matatabi sings with the melancholy of the sections Kuroneko carries, like in the monstrous opening track ‘Hao’ or the vicious – by Onmyo-za standards, at least – ‘Shimobe’. There is still plenty of Onmyo-za’s trademark melodicism to be heard here, although there notably are no ballads and even the traditional more rocky closer (‘Bureiko’) features surprisingly heavy chords. There is more darkness and aggression on ‘Hado Myoo’ than on any other Onmyo-za album, but it’s all the better for it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shimobe’, ‘Hao’, ‘Haja No Fuin’, ‘Tesso No Aza’

3. Fujin Kaiko (2014)

Often dismissed as too light, ‘Fujin Kaiko’ is actually one of Onmyo-za’s most dynamic albums. Sure, it’s lighter than ‘Raijin Sosei’, but it features plenty of excellent melodic heavy metal tracks, such as ‘Kamikaze’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the incredible ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’. The more ballad-esque material ranks among the best Onmyo-za songs in the style. Particularly the unbelievably gorgeous, highly cinematic ‘Kumo Wa Ryu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, which never fails to move me to tears. Anyone dismissing this one expecting anything like an acoustic ballad album should give it a shot, because it contains more hardrock and heavy metal than its reputation suggests. And all of it is amazing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’, ‘Kumo Wa Ryu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, ‘Kamikaze’

2. Chimimoryo (2008)

Probably the Onmyo-za album with the broadest appeal. ‘Chimimoryo’ is a very streamlined album with a lot of care being put into its arrangements, as well as its tracklisting. The album simply flows exceptionally well and puts pretty much all aspects of the band’s sound on full display. ‘Chimimoryo’ is at its best when the band dives into epic, adventurous territory, such as the lengthy masterpiece ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ and the fantastic opener ‘Shutendoji’. But the shorter songs are no less entertaining. Despite the wide range of styles heard on ‘Chimimoryo’, it is still a heavy metal album or at least a very heavy rock album, just one that might appeal to those who normally don’t listen to heavy music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shutendoji’, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’, ‘Araragi’

1. Kishibojin (2011)

My favorite Onmyo-za album, and in fact one of my favorite albums of all time, is a concept album that truly highlights the melancholic side of the band. There are no upbeat rockers this time around and the ballads are generally really dark, but this all contributes to the consistency of this amazing album. While the songs serve the general concept and atmosphere, all of them are actually excellent by themselves as well. Vocally, this might be the best effort yet by both Kuroneko and Matatabi, but there is so much happening musically on this record that I probably won’t get enough of it for the next few decades. This might also be the Onmyo-za album I recommend to more conservative metalheads.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kishibojin’, ‘Kikoku’, ‘Samayoi’, ‘Michi’, ‘Ubugi’

Album of the Week 29-2021: Anthrax – Spreading The Disease

Out of the so-called Big Four of thrash metal, Anthrax has always been the one I am most conflicted about. Admittedly, this is at least in part due to the fact that the songs that became staples for the band generally are not their strongest material or, even worse, covers that are done well, but should really have been sacrificed in favor of original material. In all honesty, Anthrax does have its fair share of excellent songs, but a release like their sophomore album ‘Spreading The Disease’ does raise an interesting question: is Anthrax really best as a thrash metal band?

‘Spreading The Disease’ was the first album the band recorded with Joey Belladonna on vocals and probably his best recorded performance. Despite having good singers throughout their career – I personally like John Bush even better – the band hardly ever wrote material to the strengths of their singers. Belladonna’s background clearly is not in thrash metal, causing him to technically over-sing some of the material in here, but that is exactly what pushes tracks that otherwise would have been dull plodders like ‘Madhouse’ towards acceptable territory. While I’m still not crazy about that song due to its terrible chorus, Belladonna’s performance does make the pre-chorus incredible.

Apparently ‘Madhouse’ was received well enough to still be on the band’s setlist nearly every night, something I will never understand. The other live staple from ‘Spreading The Disease’ is opening track ‘A.I.R.’, a fairly decent thrasher which shows some of the first glimpses of what a creative drummer Charlie Benante would become. Along with ‘Aftershock’, closer ‘Gung-Ho’ is without a doubt the best thrasher on the album, having some excellent riff work as well as a pre-chorus with a fantastic build-up. ‘Stand Or Fall’ has some cool fast thrash riffs as well, though its overly melodic chorus does take the sting out a bit.

Now here is where my doubt if thrash metal is Anthrax’s forte comes in. The best material on ‘Spreading The Disease’ leans towards more traditional forms of heavy metal. ‘Lone Justice’ in particular is a fantastic metal song with far more open riff work than the average thrasher, really allowing Belladonna to deliver his greatest vocal performance on the record. The powerful ‘The Enemy’ is practically eighties US power metal, while ‘Armed And Dangerous’ is probably Anthrax’ most sophisticated song to date with its Queensrÿche-ish first half. The mid-tempo ‘Medusa’ is another highlight. A simple composition, but the riffs are great and Belladonna’s vocal approach is quite creative.

Despite my reservations about Anthrax as a thrash band, ‘Spreading The Disease’ is clearly an excellent metal album with some of the band’s best songwriting to date. ‘Persistence Of Time’ has it beat in terms of creativity, but ‘Spreading The Disease’ definitely has the best melodies on any Anthrax album. I also really love Frank Bello’s fat bass tone here. Through the years, I have had plenty of discussions whether or not Anthrax deserves the praise they get. But after hearing ‘Spreading The Disease’, my conclusion is really that they do, just not for the material that is usually praised.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lone Justice’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Armed And Dangerous’

Album of the Week 28-2021: Rakshasa – Hyakka Sousei

Rakshasa came to my attention while searching for bands that sound like Onmyo-za. They don’t really; both bands have an approach that combines heavy metal with traditional Japanese elements in their sound and aesthetics, as well as an emphasis on female vocals – pretty much exclusively in Rakshasa’s case – but their approaches vary significantly. Another thing Rakshasa’s second album ‘Hyakka Sousei’ doesn’t really resemble is their own debut ‘Rikudo Rasetsu’. While it is clearly the same band, the songs on ‘Hyakka Sousei’ sound more streamlined and far more melancholic. A massive improvement: the album is all the better for it.

Multiple members of Rakshasa play in more extreme bands, such as Ethereal Sin and Wirbelwind. And it shows. While ‘Hyakka Sousei’ is a highly melodic affair, many of the guitar riffs would not have sounded out of place on the more melodic end of the extreme metal spectrum or in a relatively extreme folk metal band. Rakshasa never sounds too extreme, however, as their songs make admirable use of space and Yuri has a fantastic voice that perfectly carries the abundant melancholy present on ‘Hyakka Sousei’. Many folk-ish metal bands go for the battle atmosphere, Rakshasa almost appears to mourn the losses of those battles, which certainly makes them stand out.

Difficult as it is to describe Rakshasa’s music in a way that does them justice, adjectives like intense, majestic end deeply moving are more than appropriate to capture the spirit of ‘Hyakka Sousei’. Except for maybe the slightly more upbeat and catchy closer ‘ChouChou Hanabi’, most of the songs have a distinct haunting atmosphere. That is not always immediately apparent; the eleven-plus minute ‘Ryojyun’ sounded a bit disjointed at first, but its dynamics and theatricality start to make more sense the more you listen to it. Similarly, the ballad ‘Yukimi Touge’ initially felt overlong to me, but is actually really cleverly written and arranged.

The songs that made a great first impression also simply just got better. It is astounding how understated the amazing ‘Genren’ is, as Rakshasa resisted the temptation to tack on a bombastic chorus by keeping the song spacious and beautifully sad. More propulsive is the excellent opener ‘Mihata No Motoni’, in which guitarist Kikka paves the way for a chorus with one of Yuri’s most powerful vocal performances on the record with some deliciously minor key, folky power metal riffs. ‘Harukanaru Wadatsumi’ probably has the most aggressive riffs on the album and a really cool single-note vocal line in the pre-chorus, while ‘Hyakka Ryouran’ has surprisingly playful rhythms.

While Rakshasa’s debut album was promising, I also kind of wished they would tone down the upbeat power metal elements and the sporadic J-rock-isms. That is exactly what they did on ‘Hyakka Sousei’. As a result, it might just be my favorite Japanese metal album of the year so far. It is a highly dynamic album that manages to keep suprising the listener even after mulitple listens and has an atmosphere I never really heard before. Rakshasa went through a number of line-up changes recently, but the songwriting core of Kikka, Yuri and bassist Yama has stayed intact. Hopefully that means there will be more excellent Rakshasa music in the future.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mihata No Motoni’, ‘Genren’, ‘Ryojyun’, ‘Harukanaru Wadatsumi’

Album of the Week 27-2021: Coroner – Mental Vortex

My relationship with Coroner’s fourth album ‘Mental Vortex’ through the years has been a strange one. It was released right in between the two Coroner albums that used to be my favorites. Because of that, I used to think it was not thrashy enough to be as good as ‘No More Color’, but also not avant-garde enough to be as intriguing as ‘Grin’. After many years, I have really come to appreciate ‘Mental Vortex’ for what it is. While the Swiss trio does not stray as far from their thrash metal roots here as would be the case on ‘Grin’, ‘Mental Vortex’ does see the band branching out.

One thing that always set Coroner apart from other bands that carried the technical thrash metal tag is that their rhythms were much more laid-back and ‘Mental Vortex’ might actually be the best example of this. For all the intricate riffs and twisted melodies Tommy Vetterli plays, Markus Edelmann’s drums always have a relaxed groove to them even during some of the odd time signatures or when he’s driving the more aggressive sections forward. Vetterli is making better use of dissonant chords here as well in a way that does not sound strange or contrived at all.

Another impressive feat about ‘Mental Vortex’ is how memorable the songs are. When a band crams a large number of complicated riffs into a song, very few – if any – will stick. In addition, though Ron Broder’s bile-spitting vocals aren’t the most melodically memorable, multiple parts of the songs on ‘Mental Vortex’ will remain with the listeners for a long time after they turned off the album. The choruses of ‘Son Of Lilith’, ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘About Life’ are just so incredibly catchy that the average listener is certain to shout them along. Quite surprising for an album as dense and intricate as this one.

‘Divine Step (Conspectu Mortis)’ is the perfect opening track for ‘Mental Vortex’, as it feels closest to ‘No More Color’ in style, though the presence of dissontant chords sort of serves as a proper introduction for the album’s sound. ‘Sirens’ at times sounds like a progressive rock track recorded by a thrash metal band that also enjoys post-punk, while ‘Semtex Revolution’ is a perfect lesson in dynamics, even incorporating a subtle acoustic guitar in its darkest sections. It also contains Vetterli’s best guitar solo on the album. ‘Pale Sister’ and ‘Son Of Lilith’ contain a few excellent, twisted and typically Coroner riffs.

Ultimately, only the Beatles cover ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ misses the mark. It is well-performed and the darkness of the original certainly fits alongside the rest of the album quite well, but it doesn’t really add much to the original and I would far rather have had another Coroner composition. Because the seven that are on here are mostly great, often amazing. While ‘Mental Vortex’ does nothing to smoothen the transition to the cold, industrial atmosphere of ‘Grin’, its mildly avant-garde approach to songwriting was definitely something the band needed to get out of its system to make that transition. And once it sinks in, the fact that it’s not ‘No More Color’ or ‘Grin’ only works to its benefit.

Recommended tracks: ‘Semtex Revolution’, ‘Divine Step (Conspectu Mortis)’, ‘Sirens’

Album of the Week 26-2021: Deep Purple – Come Taste The Band

Hardcore fans of Deep Purple’s Mark II line-up are quite doubtful whether or not they should even consider ‘Come Taste The Band’ a Deep Purple album. It was the first album released after the departure of Ritchie Blackmore and most of the material has been written by newcomer Tommy Bolin and relative newcomer David Coverdale. Judged by its own merits, however, ‘Come Taste The Band’ is an excellent album full of loose, inspired playing, with Coverdale and Glenn Hughes in their finest vocal shape. It certainly sounds different from ‘Machine Head’ or even ‘Burn’, but different is not necessarily worse.

A large portion of what makes ‘Come Taste The Band’ so good is the chemistry between Bolin’s rhythm guitar, Hughes’ bass and Ian Paice’s drums. Where Deep Purple’s former studio albums focused on compositions first and foremost, with most of the jamming being limited to the solo sections, all songs on ‘Come Taste The Band’ feel like they are the result of extensive jam sessions. There is more swing to the rhythms than on any Deep Purple album before or since, giving the album a slightly funky rock ‘n’ roll feel, but the guitar riffs and melodies are still highly memorable.

Those who don’t enjoy ‘Come Taste The Band’ often derisively call it the first Whitesnake album, but that seriously sells the album short. The only song I could see working for an early Whitesnake record is ‘I Need Love’, which coincidentally contains one of Coverdale’s strongest performances on the record. Everything else sounds surprisingly American. No doubt this is influenced by Bolin being the first American to ever join the band, but it also seems to have taken away Hughes’ inhibitions when it comes to bringing his fascination with soul and funk to the record. Hence the fantastic, ultra-funky ‘Gettin’ Tighter’.

For all the cool, bluesy rock ‘n’ soul grooves ‘Come Taste The Band’ has, the standout tracks are actually the ones that don’t quite fit that moniker. The haunting, melancholic ‘You Keep On Moving’ is one of my favorite tracks the band ever recorded. The voices of Hughes and Coverdale work together goosebumps-inducingly perfectly on the track and the surprising structure accounts for multiple climaxes. The notably uptempo opening track ‘Comin’ Home’ is probably the most typical Deep Purple track on here and has a nice drive, as well as a fantastic chorus. ‘This Time Around/Owed To “G”‘ starts out as a highly Stevie Wonder-inspired showcase for Hughes, but transforms into a fantastic instrumental jam with excellent lead guitar work for its second half.

Sure, there is something to be said for people not considering ‘Come Taste The Band’ a Deep Purple album. Gone are the classically inspired melodic runs and keyboardist Jon Lord largely remains in the background, but the album is chock-full of fantastic grooves and Bolin really proves that he was one of the world’s finest guitarists with his playing on this record. Sadly, he passed away at the age of only 25 a year after the album was released, by which time Deep Purple had already split up for the first time. The album may require an open mind, but it’s simply too good to dismiss. For what it’s worth, I would take it over ‘Who Do We Think We Are’ or ‘Fireball’ any day.

Recommended tracks: ‘You Keep On Moving’, ‘Comin’ Home’, ‘This Time Around/Owed To “G”‘, ‘Gettin’ Tighter’

Album of the Week 25-2021: Helloween – Helloween

It would be tempting to compare Helloween’s first album after the return of singer Michael Kiske and founding guitarist Kai Hansen to the reunion that made Iron Maiden a three-guitar band. A better comparison would be Testament’s reunion with Alex Skolnick and Greg Christian. Maybe a weird comparison, but like ‘The Formation Of Damnation’, ‘Helloween’ is a good album, though not something the band could not have made without the return of historic band members. However, after the insultingly poor ‘Straight Out Of Hell’ and the occasionally far too goofy ‘My God Given Right’, ‘Helloween’ is a bit of a return to form.

One thing the expanded Helloween line-up does run with on their self-titled sixteenth album is the possibilities offered by having multiple singers. Andi Deris in particular seems to get a kick out of contrasting and harmonizing his lower, rawer voice with Kiske’s squeakily clean highs in the songs that he has written. This notable mutual respect between Deris and Kiske was already key in making the live releases with this line-up so good and ‘Helloween’ is no different. Despite some key lines, Hansen’s role on ‘Helloween’ is mainly that of a guitarist. He is a secondary singer more than anything here.

But how does the music on ‘Helloween’ sound? Honestly, not very different from other recent Helloween releases. It is notably better than its two predecessors and ‘Rabbit Don’t Come Easy’, but overall, it is still the hypermelodic, uptempo power metal sound they pioneered with an above average amount of AOR influences in many of the songs. That is not a complaint, as the melodic rocker ‘Best Time’ is easily one of the greatest songs here. It is highly reminiscent of the better moments of Unisonic, which Hansen and Kiske were a part of, but surprisingly, it was written by Deris and guitarist Sascha Gerstner.

Metal is still here in spades, however, and the more traditional tracks are the better ones of that part of the equation. ‘Mass Pollution’ and ‘Fear Of The Fallen’ have a couple of cool riffs with a distinct NWOBHM vibe, while ‘Rise Without Chains’ and the midly Accept-ish ‘Indestructible’ could have been singles from any latter-day Helloween album. As usual though, the somewhat surprising tracks are the most memorable ones. Gerstner’s dramatic midtempo stomper ‘Angels’ cleverly toys with dynamics, especially when its haunting chorus enters out of nowhere. ‘Cyanide’ might seem like a fairly standard upper mid-tempo Helloween track, but has a feel the band hasn’t shown for a long time.

Anyone who likes any twenty-first century Helloween album can blindly buy their self-titled. Just don’t expect another ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys’. Not that ‘Helloween’ needed to be that; it’s got notably less filler than the second ‘Keeper’ album, though a few songs feel a bit phoned-in. Overall, Helloween deserves all the praise they can get for not forcing themselves to make another ‘Keeper’ album. Instead, you can hear a bunch of old friends making some music they enjoy. Admittedly, I don’t enjoy every single track as much as they do, but the lack of pretense on ‘Helloween’ is part of why it is as good as it is.

Recommended tracks: ‘Best Time’, ‘Cyanide’, ‘Angels’, ‘Fear Of The Fallen’

Album of the Week 24-2021: Galneryus – Union Gives Strength

During the period leading up to the release of ‘Union Gives Strength’, Galneryus consistently referred to the release as a “special album” in marketing outings. So what’s so special about it? They probably did not want to give the impression that it’s one hour plus of new material, as roughly twelve minutes of its hour-long runtime are taken up by two remakes. But to me, what makes ‘Union Gives Strength’ a special album is the simple fact that it is their greatest release in a long time. The overall sound is a bit darker than the average Galneryus release, but that works in the album’s favor.

Superficially, ‘Union Gives Strength’ is a rather typical Galneryus album. The melodies and song structures are, as always, firmly rooted in European power metal traditions, Masatoshi Ono’s vocals are as soaring as always and guitarist Syu once again throws all the fast runs he can at it, while always sounding surprisingly emotional in his phrasing. There are just a few little touches that set the material apart. The use of seven-string guitars occasionally brings the darker material of their criminally underrated ‘Reincarnation’ album to mind and the progressive metal factor is turned up to eleven during most of the middle sections.

While the remakes of ‘Everlasting’ and ‘Deep Affection’ are decent enough, if a bit unnecessary, ‘Union Gives Strength’ is ultimately worth getting for the forty-six minutes of excellent original material. This is where the “special album” moniker comes in. There are only six original songs on ‘Union Gives Strength’, but three of those are around the nine-minute mark. Particularly these three long tracks are nothing short of amazing, but ‘Bleeding Sanity’ manages to wrap the darker power metal character of the release into five minutes. Only ‘Hold On’ is a bit more positive and almost feels like a more proggy take on ‘Wings’ from the ‘Alsatia / Cause Disarray’ EP.

Opening track ‘The Howling Darkness’ immediately sold me on ‘Union Gives Strength’. After a brooding intro, we are treated to one of the heaviest Galneryus tracks since the departure of original singer Yama-B, with the riffing and rhythms in the pre-chorus even leaning towards death metal. The following ‘Flames Of Rage’ – possibly the most Galneryus song title that doesn’t contain the word “flag” ever – is fast, more traditional power metal, but retains the dark, dramatic undercurrent. ‘See The Light Of Freedom’ is built upon a typical Galneryus riff and combines the darkness with more hopeful sections. The chord progression in the chorus of ‘Whatever It Takes (Raise Our Hands!)’ has been done to death by the band, but in the context of the album, it works quite well as a relatively upbeat closing chapter.

After the subpar ‘Into The Purgatory’, I was a bit apprehensive about ‘Union Gives Strength’, but everyone who enjoys Galneryus’ high-octane melodic power metal will find something to like about the album. The sound is a million times better than that on its overly dry-sounding predecessor, but in the end, ‘Union Gives Strength’ simply has the most consistent set of Galneryus songs in a decade. Possibly longer. ‘The Howling Darkness’ is easily the band’s best opener since ‘The Promised Flag’ and everyone, including new drummer Lea, is at the top of their game performance-wise. A must-have for fans of the type of power metal that isn’t made at this level in Europe all that often anymore.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Howling Darkness’, ‘Flames Of Rage’, ‘Bleeding Sanity’

Album of the Week 23-2021: United – Core

United is one of the very few old school thrash bands to make it through the turn of the century with some dignity. Sure, they had a decent amount of dull groove metal in the mid to late nineties and their 2011 release ‘Tear Of Illusions’ is a tad too close to American metal trends for comfort at times, but their first releases of this century are some of the most spirited hardcore-inspired metal releases of their age. By leaning harder into the hardcore side of things, ‘Core’ shows a surprisingly unique and aggressive combination of thrash metal and hardcore.

Many aggressive metal bands trying to get with the times around 2000 went a similar route: taking the thrash-adjacent melodeath riffs of At The Gates’ ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’ and break them up with the breakdowns the likes of Machine Head borrowed from the hardcore scene, almost always after the second chorus. On ‘Core’ – as well as its predecessor ‘Infectious Hazard’ – United really delves into the dissonant chords and the rhythmic intricacies of hardcore and combines them with their trademark thrash riffs. The arrival of Masatoshi Yuasa could not have come at a better time, as his angry bark fits this style perfectly.

Strangely, this almost works better than the sound United is known for. Shingo Otani and Yoshifumi Yoshida are arguably the best riff writers among the more traditionally-minded thrash metal bands in Japan, but their songs sometimes lacked cohesion and they never had great vocalists. On ‘Core’, all of United’s best elements fall into place. Most of the songs are fairly intricate, which makes them fresh and engaging even after repeated listens. A track like ‘Hell Breaks Loose’ could be a decent fit for one of their early albums with a different productional approach, but most of ‘Core’ is a refreshing mix of influences not often heard in metal.

Overall, ‘Core’ is a very consistent album. Nearly every song has a few blunt, but satisfying riffs and the way the band experiments with tempo and time feel changes works to their advantage. Opening track ‘Bust Dying Mind’, for example, has plenty of riffs to get the conservative thrasher to bang his head, but also some notably more contemporary sections. ‘Purify’ is a more modern track full of bouncy rhythms, but also some hyper-aggressive riffs and an incredible off-kilter, rhythmically dense middle section, and the way ‘They Come With The Storm’ plays with dynamic changes is impressive. Closer ‘Loss And Gain’ is consistently fast and annihilates everything in its way.

‘Core’ sometimes feels more like a hardcore band playing thrash riffs than the other way around, which makes it a highly entertaining listen. Sure, there are a few moments where the breakdown riffs could have been truncated somewhat in ‘Crucify The Weak’ most prominently, but as a whole, ‘Core’ sounds completely different than one would imagine thrash with hardcore influences to sound like. This might just be United’s most consistent album to date. Don’t expect pure, unadulterated thrash going in and you might be as enthralled by its creative, aggressive riffing and oppressive atmosphere as I am to this day.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bust Dying Mind’, ‘Hell Breaks Loose’, ‘Purify’, ‘Loss And Gain’

Album of the Week 22-2021: Burning Witches – The Witch Of The North

Around the time Burning Witches started writing for last year’s ‘Dance With The Devil’, the Swiss band seemed to realize that they needed a little more variation in order to stand out from the crop of younger traditional heavy metal bands. On that particular album, the increased variation in tempos was the most notable change, although the addition of Dutch singer Laura Guldemond allowed them to write for a wider range of vocal styles as well. Upon hearing ‘The Witch Of The North’, it immediately becomes clear that the material was written to make the most of the opportunities Guldemond presents.

Stylistically, the music on ‘The Witch Of The North’ does not even differ all that much from what Burning Witches has done in the past. The larger degree of theatricality and the slightly more elaborate guitar arrangement push the overall sound a bit closer to power metal than before, but Burning Witches is still clearly the same band as on their previous three albums. What always bugged me about their first two albums is that they adhered to mid-tempo territory and simple structures too often and too long to truly live up to their potential. ‘The Witch Of The North’ certainly shows a lot more fire.

For me, Burning Witches is at their best when they play more uptempo material. The band notably dialled up the intensity on the faster songs on the record, which along with Guldemond’s vocals pushes some of the songs close to thrash territory. Parts of ‘Thrall’, the opening title track and closer ‘Dragon’s Dream’ have enough aggression to please thrashers who don’t mind an amount of melody more akin to heavy and power metal. Another great asset of ‘The Witch Of The North’ is that different tempos and time feels enhance each other far more than anything Burning Witches has released up until this point.

What really makes ‘The Witch Of The North’ work as a whole, however, is the degree of drama in the melodies and the song structures, which is unlike anything Burning Witches has ever done before. A track like ‘Nine Worlds’ or the excellent ‘Flight Of The Valkyries’ goes through more different atmospheres than is usual for the band and while that could be risky, I would say that it generally pays off. An additional benefit is that it makes the mid-tempo tracks, such as ‘For Eternity’ and the particularly awesome ‘Tainted Ritual’, stand out more and sound considerably better than in the past.

Improving with each album rather than playing things safe is something that deserves praise and that is exactly what Burning Witches has done here. Sure, it’s not perfect – the verses of the ballad ‘Lady Of The Woods’ sound a little too similar to ‘Black Magic’ off the previous album and some structures come off a bit chaotic – but the band seems to become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses with each album. In addition, having a singer like Laura Guldemond really helped push them from decent to actually good. I just can’t get over the fact that the character that’s supposed to be her on the cover doesn’t look anything like her.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Witch Of The North’, ‘Tainted Ritual’, ‘Thrall’, ‘Flight Of The Valkyries’

Album of the Week 21-2021: Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake

Solo projects by metal guitarists are often self-indulgent affairs. But then again, Amorphis’ Esa Holopainen never was your typical lead guitarist for a metal band. He tends to build his guitar solos around recognizable melodies and a handful of impactful notes with a great sound, while his compositions for Amorphis are often less riff-oriented than one might expect. The first album of his solo project Silver Lake takes this approach even further by largely adopting an atmospheric rock approach with songs that are relatively simple compositionally, but very sophisticated in terms of arrangements. An approach that works extremely well.

What surprised me most is how pleasant the flow of the album is. Every track has a different singer – only Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse appears on two tracks – which usually means the album is all over the place. In my interview with Esa Holopainen, the guitarist even said he wrote most of the songs for the singers who perform on the tracks. His signature is all over the record, however. There are a few heavy riffs here and there, but the overall sound is much closer to the catchier side of progressive rock with a distinct folky approach in how the melodies are woven into the arrangements.

The result doesn’t sound miles away from what Amorphis did on ‘Am Universum’, only with a bolder attitude towards focusing on the most memorable moments of the songs. Holopainen makes excellent use of space, allowing even the busiest arrangements to breathe rather than cramming them full of notes. Most of the Silver Lake songs have the distinct dreamy atmosphere that Holopainen’s songs are known for, more often than not helped by a main melody that manages to be melancholic and hopeful at the same time. Also, Holopainen’s tasteful use of warm-sounding acoustic guitars is much more prominent here than on any Amorphis album.

Albums like this one always are at risk of having certain singers turn people away, but Holopainen truly found the right singer for each song. Personally, I don’t think Renkse ever sounded as good as on the subdued melancholy of ‘Sentiment’ and ‘Apprentice’, while Amorphis’ Tomi Joutsen was the obvious choice for the album’s heaviest track ‘In Her Solitude’. Leprous frontman Einar Solberg delivers a particularly emotional performance on ‘Ray Of Light’, while my favorite track is probably the poppy rocker ‘Storm’, which is given its powerful edge by Nordman singer Håkan Hemlin. Anneke van Giersbergen as always adds a glimmer of hope to her track ‘Fading Moon’.

Honestly, Holopainen could have made an album full of instrumental, largely acoustic pieces like the opening title track and it would still be great, but the fact that he and his producer Nino Laurenne went out of their way to make a collection of well-written and excellently performed songs out of this effort is worthy of praise. ‘Silver Lake’ is melodically similar enough to Amorphis to appeal to their fans, but it’s also different enough to have people who don’t listen to metal be enchanted by Holopainen’s melodies. It’s dreamy without losing track of its well-built song structures. Highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Storm’, ‘Silver Lake’, ‘Sentiment’