Album of the Week 47-2016: Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation – Mighty ReArranger


“My peers may flirt with cabaret / Some fake the rebel yell / Me, I’m moving up to higher ground / I must escape their hell”. Sure, these words may come across a bit arrogant, but they’re very true first and foremost. Not a single member of any legendary group had a solo career that has been so consistently focused on constantly reinventing himself the way that former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant does. Not even George Harrison and Paul Simon. Hungry to discover folk music from all the corners of the world and determined to stay relevant, Plant’s solo output is consistently amazing.

What is it that makes Plant’s discography so good? Mainly that he stubbornly refuses to repeat himself. Whether he does a contemporary take on the Zep sound (‘Manic Nirvana’) or immerses himself completely in different styles (‘Shaken ‘n’ Stirred’), he is convincing rather than embarrassing. ‘Mighty ReArranger’ manages to be both extremes at the same time. There are big, beefy Zeppelin-esque riffs and Plant’s voice is of course one of a kind, but the textures and rhythms borrowed from Middle-Eastern, American and North and West African folk music give the record a clear identity of its own, not to mention a layered approach that slowly reveals its secrets over repeated listens.

Plant was in his late fifties when ‘Mighty ReArranger’ was recorded, but his backing band The Strange Sensation consists of people with indie, jazz and trip hop backgrounds, while guitarist Justin Adams grew up in Egypt and produced Mali’s mighty Tinariwen and brings a knowledge of the African music that Plant loves so much to the table. All these influences blend in a way that shouldn’t work, yet it does. Songs like ‘The Enchanter’ and the brooding ‘Tin Pan Valley’ sound like Massive Attack jamming with Led Zeppelin, while ‘Takamba’ and ‘Somebody Knocking’ have distinct desert blues leanings.

Another asset of ‘Mighty ReArranger’ is that a lot of attention has been spent on its flow. This isn’t just a collection of songs, it is designed for a listener’s maximum attention span. It builds up from the acoustic-based ‘Another Tribe’ and the accessible rocker ‘Shine It All Around’ through some more experimental moments like the folky ‘All The Kings Horses’, the Byrds-inspired hippie rock tune ‘Dancing In Heaven’, the aformentioned ‘Tin Pan Valley’ and the subdued, yet rhythmically throbbing ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ until it ties all ends together in the title track. And the bar boogie Ray Charles tribute ‘Brother Ray’ is a nice epilogue.

Despite the consistently high level of Plant’s solo output, ‘Mighty ReArranger’ is the record I revisit most. Possibly the presence of an actual backing band gives Plant a solid basis to work with and as a result, it’s about the music as much as it is about his performance. It speaks volumes about his versatility that everything sounds equally convincing, no matter if it touches upon hardrock, blues, indie, folk or world music. If you’re into one of those genres, you will do yourself a favor by checking this record out. You’ll probably end up liking the others as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tin Pan Valley’, ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’, ‘Freedom Fries’

Interview: The second life of Yoshiki and X Japan


Last week, I had the chance to speak to Japanese X Japan’s drummer, pianist and band leader – and visual kei superstar – Yoshiki. He was in Amsterdam to promote the new documentary about his band, ‘We Are X’. What follows here is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. If you can read Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original version right here. All pictures are courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Since their breakthrough in the mid-eighties, X Japan became one of the biggest and most influential bands in Japan. How big? That goes well beyond what we can imagine, but the brand new documentary ‘We Are X’ now also gives the rest of the world a look into the crazy and at times dramatic history of the band. Prior to the showing at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), we spoke to drummer, pianist and band leader Yoshiki about the past and the future of X Japan.

The vast majority of the thirty million albums that X Japan sold went over the counter in Japan. That’s why it may seem strange that ‘We Are X’ is presented to the whole world, but the history of the band is at times stranger than some fiction. Not only was the band there for the genesis of the extravagant visual kei scene and does Yoshiki possess an enormous archive with spectacular pictures, according to director Stephen Kijak, but with a singer who left the band under the influence of a cult leader and two dubious suicides among their band members, the band had to endure its share of drama.
My agent in America approached me to do a documentary a couple of years ago, because the story is crazy“, Yoshiki explains. “But I said: no way, it’s too painful for me to even revisit my memories, that kind of nightmare. But eventually, people around me started convincing me that the story of X Japan may help people.
The timing seems ideal, because there’s a new album coming; their first in twenty years. ‘We Are X’ seems like the perfect way to promote the band’s new international ambitions. According to the band leader himself, this is a coincidence: “We didn’t have any plan anyway. Everything has happened organically and naturally. Coincidentally, the film is going to be out when we are about to finish the album. We have one show already scheduled at Wembley Arena on March 4th, 2017. That could be the beginning of a new world tour. I’m actually talking about it.

Miracle

That album was supposed to be release early this year. However, the release was slowed down due to unforeseen circumstances, among which serious health issues for guitarist Pata. “He is fully recovered“, Yoshiki reassures. “It’s almost a miracle. I thought he was not going to survive. Early this year, we were actually recording in Los Angeles with our vocalist and our guitar player – Toshi and Sugizo – when we heard the knews that Pata was in ICU. I said: can I talk to him? But they said: no, nobody can even talk to him. I tried to find out how bad it was.
His doctor said that he’s conscious, but he’s not eating anything. He didn’t know if he was going to survive. A few weeks later, I finally talked to Pata. I asked him if he would fully recover, but he didn’t even know. That took several months. We stopped recording, but at some point, we had to move on. There is a song Sugizo and I played his parts to.

Meanwhile, the as of yet untitled album is almost finished. “The recording part is nearly done“, Yoshiki states. “There’s a few more piano parts left, but otherwise, the drums, guitars and vocals for every single song are done. It’s going to be really edgy. There’s going to be some heavy songs, some ballads as well. We don’t want to be just repeating the same thing. So I’ll say it’s a new era of X Japan.
While Yoshiki was the main composer in the heyday of the band, he was often supported by guitarist hide and bassist Taiji, both of whom have passed away in the meantime. “There is an amazing song on it from our new guitar player Sugizo“, he explains. “So not the whole album is written by me, but the majority is.

Self expression

In their early days, X Japan – still under the name X at the time – was there for the birth of the visual kei scene, known for their flamboyant outfits and hairdos and a complete disregard for musical boundaries. “I came from a classical background“, Yoshiki explains. “When I was playing Beethoven or Mozart, it was all about how you could get close to what Beethoven or Mozart was thinking. I thought that was cool too, but I wanted to create something of my own. When I found rock, I thought: this is complete freedom, you can do anything. Complete freedom for describing yourself. When we started playing live, we played punk rock, heavy metal and soft ballads. Then all the critics told us we had to decide on one direction. I was shocked; I thought rock meant that you could do anything.
As a result, we couldn’t belong anywhere. When we were playing club shows, we were having a hard time finding other bands to play with. Nobody wanted to play with X, because they couldn’t categorize us. We just kept doing what we wanted and eventually the audience started growing. Visual kei doesn’t have to be one specific sound, it’s more like a freedom of how you can express yourself.

In Japan, there is very little overlap between the visual kei audience and the “regular” metal audience. Much to Yoshiki’s joy, there is an overlap in Europe: “When we toured Europe in 2011, both audiences came. I think that’s really cool. I live in America; when you go to Ozzfest or something, there are the heavy metal people, but when you go to a visual kei band, there are really cool fashinable Japanese Harajuku people or animation cosplayers. I love both of them. The cool thing about X Japan shows is that we have both kinds of people coming. We enjoy that.

Nightmare

X Japan’s rush was ended quite abruptly in the mid-nineties when singer Toshi announced he would play his last show with the band on New Year’s Eve of 1997. He claimed no longer being able to get any satisfaction from his rock star existence, but later admitted being pressured by the leader of the Home Of Heart cult. His departure meant the end of the band and less than half a year later, the immensely popular guitarist hide died. Officially by suicide, but people close to him suspect that it was an accident.
According to many, the death of hide also meant the end of visual kei. “Everybody died when hide died“, Yoshiki agrees. “I died as well. I don’t remember that time that much, because I was kind of blacked out. I didn’t even want to be in this world. I think you can say that the entire scene kind of died, but the younger generation of bands kept going with the visual kei spirit. I actually should thank them; because of a lot of new bands, we kind of woke up several years later and realized that visual kei is not only a one-time thing.
In the late nineties, Dir En Grey came to my studio in Los Angeles, where we were recording a part of their first album. At that time, I couldn’t even talk about X Japan without crying. After hide passed away, I didn’t even want to touch the subject. But Dir En Grey were talking about going to see X Japan shows. Kaoru, their guitar player, loved hide and Shinya, their drummer, complimented my performances. I couldn’t avoid the X Japan subject. Actually, I started thinking of doing something on my own – not even with X Japan, but a new band or something – when I started producing Dir En Grey.

Break

Remarkable in ‘We Are X’ is the large amount of attention for the physical pain Yoshiki has caught due to years of headbanging and playing with the wrong technique. According to Yoshiki himself, he’s been suffering that pain “pretty much from the get-go”. “In the beginning, I didn’t think of drums as a musical instrument“, he explains. “When my father took his own life, I was so angry, I was breaking things, punching the wall and everything. So when my mother bought me a drum set, I was basically punching drums. Kicking drums. When people saw me doing this, they said: Yoshiki, your body is going to break if you keep playing like this. I didn’t care. I had so much pain inside, I almost wanted to do something physically to compensate for my mental pain.
Many years and several surgeries later, he is still playing. Hard. “When hide died, I died“, he emphasizes once again. “But our fans around the world actually kept supporting us. Almost unconditionally. So basically, I still exist because of our fans. Our fans gave us a second life, a asecond chance. So I just want to thank them. And for me to thank them, I just have to keep on rocking, keep on breaking all those walls. We don’t have a specific plan, but I hope that the show at the Wembley Arena will be the beginning of a world tour.

Album of the Week 46-2016: X – Vanishing Vision


For a band that would be all over the place stylistically, X Japan – still just X at the time – debuted with a surprisingly metal oriented effort. All the idiosyncrasies that would later make them one of Japan’s biggest bands are here – not in the last place their over-the-top image – but it’s easily their heaviest output yet. A poor sound that is especially unforgiving towards the guitars may soften its impact, but it’s a record full of excellent riffs, triumphant twin guitar leads, rolling drums and exciting songwriting. And a record that resonated with an audience; ‘Vanishing Vision’ outsold any indie record at the time.

Somewhat of a victim of circumstance, ‘Vanishing Vision’ has a few flaws that it couldn’t have helped at the time. As stated before, it would have benefited from a better sound, but the band wasn’t quite working with the budgets they’d have later. I disagree with the criticism on the production of ‘Blue Blood’, but the popular opinion is definitely the true one. Besides that, there are three excellent songs here that would eventually be reworked into something even better. The only thing they may have been able to prevent is the fact that the original A-side is notably stronger than its B-side.

Those who followed the band for a while may be surprised by the large number of contributions by bassist Taiji. Drummer and pianist Yoshiki is traditionally the man who carries the majority of the weight in the songwriting department, but both sides of the record kick off with an excellent Taiji composition; ‘Dear Loser’ is an excellent intro and moodsetter with a perfect build-up in tension and the slap-heavy instrumental ‘Give Me The Pleasure’, which he wrote with guitarist Hide, is the album’s most delightfully weird tune. ‘Phantom Of Guilt’ is classy, mid-tempo heavy metal with huge riffs and an interesting interaction between clean and distorted guitars.

Furthermore, there is excellent speed metal (‘Vanishing Love’, ‘I’ll Kill You’), Hide’s trademark sound on the border between hardrock and heavy metal (‘Sadistic Desire’) and epic power metal (‘Kurenai’). That’s also where the problem lies; ‘Kurenai’ is excellent, but if you have heard the cleaner, more bombastic version on ‘Blue Blood’, this one is a slight letdown. The same goes for the closing track ‘Un-Finished…’, which would ironically appear in its finished state on ‘Blue Blood’ and turn out to be X’s most profoundly sad, beautiful piano ballad.

A work in progress? Maybe. X would find its definitive form on the following record ‘Blue Blood’, but ‘Vanishing Vision’ is still a debut to be proud of. Its somewhat naive nature is one of its main merits; it influenced a certain reckless mindset when it comes to throwing all these styles together. Surprisingly, the result is more focused than ‘Jealousy’ would be three years later. The album is pretty much a highly entertaining listen all the way through – except for maybe ‘Alive’, which doesn’t have enough going for its eight minutes – and strongly recommended to fans of eighties power and speed metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘I’ll Kill You’, ‘Sadistic Desire’, ‘Vanishing Vision’

In Memoriam Leon Russell 1942-2016


Why the media haven’t quite gotten to this sad death of another musical icon is beyond me. Leon Russell was a presence to be reckoned with. When he sat down behind the piano with his long white hair and beard, often with a hat, you just felt there was someone there. His broad musical output, which touches on folk, country, blues, rock, soul and jazz, speaks for itself. His woeful tale of heartache known as ‘A Song For You’ has been covered by over 100 artists, but even so, he was more known as a studio musician for the likes of Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.

Leon Russell was – along with Dr. John – my favorite white piano player. The Oklahoma born pianist had a way of combining styles from a young age; his early band The Starlighters, which also included J.J. Cale, was one of the creators of what would became known as the Tulsa Sound, which combined elements of country, blues, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, Russell was often invited to studio sessions by people looking for that sound, even after he moved to Los Angeles. Not just on piano, by the way; he was a proficient guitarist as well.

During this time, Russell had also proven himself as a highly successful songwriter. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Joe Cocker, who recorded his song ‘Delta Lady’. Russell eventually became the band leader for Cocker’s ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ tour, of which a popular concert film was made. Meanwhile, Russell was already working on a solo career. His self-titled debut was released in 1970 and included classics like ‘Shootout On The Plantation’, ‘Hummingbird’ and his own version of ‘Delta Lady’. And ‘A Song For You’, on which Russell’s performance may not be technically perfect, but it’s an intense emotional experience.

His contribution to George Harrison’s ‘The Concert For Bangladesh’ in 1971 is likely what brought him to public attention. Besides playing the piano and bass, he also sang the Rolling Stones classic ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and The Coasters’ ‘Young Blood’. During the rest of the seventies, he would keep steadily releasing albums either under his own name or his country alter ego Hank Wilson. I personally consider the dreamy, jazzy and occasionally bizarre ‘Carney’ to be his best solo studio album. ‘Magic Mirror’, ‘Tight Rope’, ‘This Masquerade’, ‘Roller Derby’ and ‘Manhattan Island Serenade’ are all masterpieces. Dutch listeners may recognize the latter as the basis for the 1981 Amazing Stroopwafels hit ‘Oude Maasweg’.

After the seventies, Leon Russell slowly faded into obscurity. He would continue releasing albums and playing live solo or backing artists, but it would take until 2010 before the duet album ‘The Union’ he recorded with ardent admirer Elton John brought him back to the public eye. The album is a masterclass in both piano playing and songwriting and shines with an unbridled joy for making music. Both Russell and John simply hadn’t sounded that great in years. Russell’s last studio album ‘Life Journey’ was released in 2014.

Even though he kept on playing live right until the end of his life and was even talking about tour dates in 2017, the many health issues that plagued Russell in recent years have ultimately prevented him from doing so. He was recovering from heart surgery when he died in his sleep at age 74 yesterday. And so, the in memoriam I had hoped not to write in a while is a fact. I will miss Russell’s adventurous musical spirit and urge everyone to dig into his sizable discography as a tribute to this musical mastermind who may not have gotten the public praise he deserved, but could count on undivided admiration from his fellow musicians.

Album of the Week 45-2016: Gargoyle – Furebumi


If you think Japanese music is weird, this album – or this band, for that matter – isn’t going to change your mind. When I discovered it, however, it provided me with something that I had been looking for a long time: the guitar riffs and intensity of thrash metal combined with a complete lack of inhibitions regarding experimenting with other styles. While the basis is always thrash metal with – more prominently in recent years – power metal melodicism, there’s hints of funk, J-rock, a sometimes punky attitude, Japanese folk influences and a singer who, despite sounding like a rabid dog, always delivers something memorable.

‘Furebumi’ is Gargoyle’s first masterpiece. While ‘Misogi’ was a better debut than many bands can even dream of today, their sophomore record upped the ante in many ways. First and foremost, this is where Katsuji becomes one of Japan’s best drummers. From the vicious blasting in ‘Dilemma’ to the snare rolling madness of ‘Execute’, there was absolutely no better drummer for fast paced music in Japan. His double bass patterns also show massive improvement. Besides that, Gargoyle’s first truly progressive tendencies can be heard on this record. And it’s worth noting that they are ridiculously good for a first attempt.

Opening track ‘Ruika ~Prologue~ / Ounou No Goku’ convinced me of Gargoyle’s greatness right away. The prologue itself morphs from a Japanese folk composition – something also apparent in the downright brilliant outro ‘Ruika ~Epilogue~’ quite logically – into a high intensity thrash metal song with amazing twin guitar melodies. And that’s only the beginning. ‘Halleluyah’, ‘Algolagnia’, ‘Dilemma’, closer ‘Shoumetsu’ and the one minute scorcher ‘Execute’ are all set to destroy everything that dares to stand in their way. The contrast between She-ja’s crushing riffs and his melodically strong lead guitar work gives these songs a longer lasting value than many other thrash songs from the era, as does Toshi’s creative bass work.

But Gargoyle doesn’t just thrash. Initially, I found the upbeat punk metal of ‘Tokimeki’ an odd choice as the second track of the record, but its high tempo and memorable songwriting quickly made it one of my favorites. And then there’s the slow, atmospheric “doom prog” of ‘Ruten No Yo Nite’. The high-pitched female vocals may throw some people off, but it’s a brilliantly constructed song full of interesting riffs and even a violin solo that became the mould that would shape practically every longer Gargoyle track in the future. ‘Naidzukushi’ is a funk rocker and while there aren’t any ballads this time around, the dreamy atmosphere among the heavier riffs of ‘Tell Me True’ provide a more than decent alternative.

While ‘Misogi’ was very promising, ‘Furebumi’ paved the way for a string of classic albums. It’s where all the potential that Gargoyle had was fully realized for the first time and save for a minor dip around the turn of the century, they have somehow managed to maintain their interesting take on thrash metal for almost three decades now. If you are curious about what this weird, but indescribably awesome band is about, ‘Furebumi’ may not be the worst place to start. ‘Tenron’ may be broader in scope and ‘Tsuki No Toge’ may be just a tad more consistent, but it is most certainly a monumental record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ruika ~Prologue~ / Ounou No Goku’, ‘Ruten No Yo Nite’, ‘Tokimeki’

Album of the Week 44-2016: Toto – Falling In Between


Forget all the massive hits Toto had in the eighties, regardless of how good some of them were. Forget all the secret hits they had backing other artists. Now put on ‘Falling In Between’. It’s good, isn’t it? I’m sure that selling millions of records considerably softened the blow, but Toto was never taken as seriously as they should have been. Every musician in the band is top class and the band is obviously skilled at crafting good songs with melodies that keep lingering in the back of your mind. ‘Falling In Between’ adds a somewhat more adventurous approach to that and ends up sounding spectacular.

Despite touring behind this record with guitarist Steve Lukather and singer Bobby Kimball as the only original members, chief songwriter David Paich can still be heard on keyboards here and longtime bassist Mike Porcaro makes his last appearance before falling victim to ALS, which sadly eventually cost him his life. Drummer extraordinaire Simon Phillips had been in the band since Jeff Porcaro’s death in 1992 and Steve Porcaro may not be mentioned in the lineup, but has contributed synths and sound design to practically every song, making experienced keyboard player Greg Phillinganes the only “new kid”. And there seems to be some magic in the interplay here.

Of course such a lineup isn’t a guarantee for a good Toto album, but it helps that everyone involved has experience with the sound that makes Toto so good. And it’s all there: the songs are melodic and recognizable, a lot of styles are touched upon without sounding incoherent and there are some displays of virtuosity without sacrificing the catchy nature of the compositions. The relaxed ‘Dying On My Feet’, the exuberant ‘King Of The World’, the uptempo ‘Taint Your World’, the slightly kitschy ballad ‘Spiritual Man’ and the somewhat funky ‘Let It Go’ all sound different, but are unmistakably Toto.

Most interesting are the moments when the band experiments with world music. The suprisingly heavy, proggy title track has a chorus with a vaguely Middle-Eastern flair, while the downright spine chilling ballad ‘Bottom Of Your Soul’ – which features former singer Joseph Williams in its chorus – has a strong African vibe due to its choir arrangements and Lenny Castro’s percussion. Closing slow burner ‘No End In Sight’ ties together all the styles and becomes a strong progressive rock song in the process. ‘Simple Life’ is a short, but moving ballad sung by Lukather.

While latter day Toto didn’t have the huge hits they had in the eighties, their releases have been consistently strong. ‘Mindfields’ was a little overlong, but had a few really strong songs and ‘XIV’ is a pleasant record to listen to. ‘Falling In Between’ is just a tad better than those two and stands as one of Toto’s best records yet. Personally, I enjoy it as much as my early favorite ‘Hydra’. And just like that one, it’s at times progressive and unpredictable, but always melodically strong. And with all the genres they touch upon, it’s never boring. Highly recommended to just about anyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bottom Of Your Soul’, ‘Falling In Between’, ‘No End In Sight’

Album of the Week 43-2016: Bad Company – Bad Company


Back in the seventies, supergroups sometimes actually were bigger than the sum of their parts. Led Zeppelin could be considered one, but the first band to release an album on their Swan Song label is an even better example. Bad Company combined the talents of Free’s Paul Rodgers (vocals, piano) and Simon Kirke (drums), Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and bassist Boz Burrell, who played on one King Crimson album. Their debut is one of the best albums ever released; practically every track is essential seventies rock with all the riffs and melodies you could wish for. And the album art is iconic.

Maybe this is sacrilege, but as much as I like Free, I have always preferred Bad Company. It’s a matter of performance versus composition. Free had loosely written structures that could be adjusted to the immense improvisational talents of – primarily – their late guitarist Paul Kossoff. Bad Company has tight, concise songs with highly memorable choruses and nice tension and release workings. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any impressive performances; Rodgers is one of the world’s greatest singers and always delivers, while Burrell is one of the very few bass virtuosos whose busy playing works on a bluesy rock record.

Sure, the market was flooded with bluesy hardrock by the time ‘Bad Company’ was released in 1974, but in the midst of excessive, drug-fueled jamming, the quartet brought the genre back to its bare essentials. Armed with a handful of good riffs and a bunch of melodies that will forever stick to the back of your mind, the band recorded a record of which almost every song is still a staple on classic rock stations worldwide. And it makes sense: songs like ‘Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘Movin’ On’ just feel right and have you singing – or at least moving – along during the first spin.

Even more interesting are the moments when the band takes things in a somewhat darker direction. The namesake track is beyond brilliant. From a brooding piano intro, the verses only have the guitar adding atmospheric touches before exploding in the chorus. Rodgers’ vocal is among his most moving performances yet. The same can be said about the subdued, bluesy masterpiece ‘Ready For Love’, which Ralphs took with him from his Mott The Hoople days. ‘Rock Steady’ is fairly straightforward, but has a brilliant, dangerous sounding chorus. And while the album sounds fairly American, the beautiful closer ‘Seagull’ brings the folk of Bad Company’s British home soil to the forefront.

While the original lineup of Bad Company would go on to release more fantastic albums – and even their less impressive records feature a number of mindblowing songs – their debut album is one of those moments where all the stars align and everything sounds just right. Of course it helps to have so much talent in one band, but that alone will not result in a timeless classic that still sounds as fresh today as it must have sounded the day it was release. I’m just assuming there, because I wasn’t born until twelve years after its release. Songwriting as it’s done on ‘Bad Company’ transcends trends and technological development. That’s why it’s still amazing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Company’, ‘Ready For Love’, ‘Seagull’