Album of the Week 37-2018: Atsushi Sakurai – Ai No Wakusei


With his amazing voice being the defining factor that it is in Buck-Tick, it is quite surprising that no one in the Japanese record industry pushed Atsushi Sakurai to release more solo albums than just ‘Ai No Wakusei’. It sold reasonably well, but it would be logical to assume that Buck-Tick took up most of his time, given that their second career peak started shortly after its release. With several of the song titles containing references to his contributors, it is likely that Sakurai was inspired by the people he worked with. That also explains the wide range of styles here.

A different songwriter and different musicians on every track sounds like the album could turn out quite messy and to be honest, it kind of is. After Wayne Hussey’s sublime gothic rock of opening track ‘Sacrifice’ and Raymond Watts’ heavy industrial rock with Arabic string interlude in ‘Yellow Pig’, the album is all over the place for a while. There’s electronic tracks (‘X-Lover’), sparse funk highly reminiscent of Prince (the surprisingly cool ‘Smell’) and J.D. Thirlwell – perhaps better known as Foetus – contributed the hyperactive, chaotic jazz of ‘I Hate You All’. That could throw you off, but it’s worth hanging on.

The album settles for a certain groove during its latter half, that groove being low-key rock with a distinct dark vibe. It is public knowledge that Buck-Tick guitarist Hisashi Imai was inspired to write a more gothic-leaning album (the incredible ‘Jusankai wa Gekko’) after hearing Sakurai’s solo performances in support of ‘Ai No Wakusei’. And with songs like the menacing ‘Hallelujah!’, the incredibly dynamic ‘Shingetsu’ and the brooding majesty of ‘Yokan’, a reworking of his excellent collaboration with Dutch electro-goths Clan of Xymox, it is clear why Imai heard the impact Sakurai could have in dark, gothic surroundings. His deep, emotional baritone is tailor-made for it.

However, that does not mean that ‘Ai No Wakusei’ is all dark all the time. ‘Taiji’ has an optimistic chorus with subtle guitar work and a gently purring hammond organ in the background, while as a whole, the track is simply a powerful, well-constructed pop rocker with several surprising climaxes. ‘Fantasy’ is an upbeat electro-based track and the semi-title track ‘Wakusei’ has a bit of a positive ring to it, despite being built upon crunchy power chords and reverb-drenched lead guitar parts. ‘Neko’, which I assume is a tribute to Sakurai’s cat, even closes the album in a surprisingly soothing manner.

Somehow, ‘Ai No Wakusei’ is one of those albums where you don’t know what to expect even after you have heard it. But that is part of its charm as well. What the first half of the album lacks in terms of flow, the album as a whole more than makes up for in the individual quality of the songs. It is also not quite as vocal-centric as one might expect from a solo release by a singer as characteristic as Sakurai. A decade later, Sakurai would team up with several ‘Ai No Wakusei’ contributors to form The Mortal, but in name, this is truly the only album where he could do whatever the hell he wanted and one thing is for sure: he ran with it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Yokan’, ‘Smell’, ‘Taiji’, ‘Shingetsu’

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Album of the Week 36-2018: Alice In Chains – Rainier Fog


A twisted riff, an overall gloomy vibe, haunting vocal harmonies… Opening track ‘The One You Know’ leaves very little doubt that we are listening to Alice In Chains. This could be interpreted as a lack of originality, but since Jerry Cantrell and his cohorts single-handedly developed and perfected this style, why bother doing anything else? Especially since ‘Rainier Fog’ finds the Seattle-based band doing their own thing so well. Though it lacks the urgency that their comeback album ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ and their masterpiece ‘Dirt’ had, it is more memorable than its predecessor ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’.

When original lead singer Layne Staley died, it took Alice In Chains surprisingly little time to find their footing with William DuVall. As a result, the band sound really comfortable with their own style this time around, especially in jam-oriented tracks like the Zeppelin-esque ‘Drone’. That also means the miserable darkness of songs like ‘Frogs’ and ‘Down In A Hole’ is not quite reached here, though the absolutely gorgeous closer ‘All I Am’ does come close with its somber acoustic basis and eerie electric touches. Due to its powerful dreary harmonies in both the vocal and the guitar department, ‘Deaf Ears Blind Eyes’ is another song that would not have sounded out of place on an early Alice In Chains record.

Though good enough, ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ was short on true highlights. By contrast, ‘Rainier Fog’ has a few songs that immediately stick, the title track being one of them. It moves from a typical Alice In Chains mid-tempo rocker with a great chorus to a cathartic tranquil middle section that truly highlights the dual lead vocals of DuVall and Cantrell. Furthermore, ‘The One You Know’, the particularly powerful ‘Red Giant’ and – surprisingly – especially DuVall’s composition ‘So Far Under’ have all the trademark Alice In Chains elements in place without having the band sounding like they are on auto-pilot.

One area where ‘Rainier Fog’ truly outshines its predecessor is the ballads. Initially, all but ‘All I Am’ seemed to suffer from the same flaw as the ones on ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ – being good, but unremarkable – but repeated spins bring out their qualities. ‘Maybe’ fluently goes through several moodswings and ends up being one of Cantrell’s best ballads by sheer unpredictability, while ‘Fly’ is a rather typical Cantrell ballad, though its chorus and guitar solo are delightfully climactic. Even the relatively upbeat ‘Never Fade’ manages to be highly convincing, with great performances by both DuVall and Cantrell, culminating in what is easily the most unforgettable chorus on the record.

Like most of Alice In Chains’ albums, ‘Rainier Fog’ is a bit of a grower. It appears to be immediate at first spin, but there are too many subtleties here to play it once and then toss it aside. Fortunately, the album has plenty of replay value. Aside from the incredible songwriting – this is Jerry Cantrell, after all – the great production does wonders as well. Sean Kinney’s drums sound very natural and even Mike Inez’ bass isn’t buried beneath everything else. With Alice In Chains’ style being as distinctive as it is, ‘Rainier Fog’ is unlikely to draw new listeners in, but it is indispensible for people who loved them before. It might even surpass their expectations.

Recommended tracks: ‘All I Am’, ‘Rainier Fog’, ‘Deaf Ears Blind Eyes’, ‘Red Giant’

Get your jazz on with Gitarist!


Having done six interviews at the North Sea Jazz festival in July, there’s a serious focus on jazz in this month’s issue of Gitarist. If you see only five, that’s because we will feature Belgian jazz legend Philip Catherine in a larger article in next month’s issue – you heard it here first!

That doesn’t mean this month’s artists are not worth reading about. What about widely beloved guitarist Bill Frisell? I had the opportunity to talk with this extremely friendly musician about his massive discography. Also, after being impressed thoroughly by Roosevelt Collier’s unconventional work on the lap steel with Bokanté last year, we could not pass up upon hearing he played the festival again. Oz Noy and Adam Rogers are big names in modern fusion and Pascal Danaë combines delta blues and Guadeloupian sounds in this remarkably full-sounding trio Delgres. If you want to know more about their sounds and approaches, these interviews are the way to go.

Besides that, we have a large special about improving your guitar playing technique, my colleagues have spoken with Guthrie Govan and The Pineapple Thief and there are loads of album and gear reviews. That should still your guitar appetite until the next issue.

Album of the Week 35-2018: Acid Black Cherry – Black List


Solo projects are an odd phenomenon. Technically, they could highlight a vision someone is not allowed to display in their main band, but they are often a disjointed mess. Acid Black Cherry’s debut album ‘Black List’ has all the symptoms of the latter – a rotating cast of musicians, a wide range of styles – but ends up being much closer to the former. The strict direction of main man and sole songwriter yasu keeps the whole thing from spiraling out of control. Realizing the importance of the first strike, ‘Black List’ is a minor J-rock classic and likely yasu’s best work yet.

In essence, the music on ‘Black List’ is not as far removed from yasu’s former band Janne Da Arc as one might expect. The differences are almost cosmetic rather than fundamental. On ‘Black List’, Acid Black Cherry is somewhat heavier and considerably more theatrical than Janne was, but the focus is still mainly on highly melodic rock songs with instantly hummable choruses, energetic but not too complicated riff work and a strategic use of light-and-shade workings. The approach is not too dissimilar to what Gackt has been doing for the last decade, but notably less predictable and therefore better.

While it would be easy to blame the immense artistic value of ‘Black List’ on the contributions of big names in J-rock – including Luna Sea’s Sugizo, La’cryma Christi’s Shuse and Siam Shade’s Daita and Jun-ji – the truth is that yasu’s songwriting and arrangements are simply really good. Arrangements are worth mentioning, because it’s exactly the fantastic use of keyboards and strings that adds some class to the surprisingly dark, menacing nature of the fanatastic opener ‘Sins’ and the bass and horn arrangements that lend an authentic jazzy edge to the manic ‘Black Cherry’, as wildly as it rocks most of the time.

On ‘Black List’, the genre-hopping is its forte rather than its flaw. The dark, dangerous vibe that made me love ‘Sins’ so much is revived on ‘Murder License’, while ‘Bit Stupid’ is an infectious, breezy and funky pop rocker. ‘Fuyu No Maboroshi’ is a particularly theatrical ballad, while ‘Shojo No Inori’ is a fun melodic hardrocker that would not have sounded out of place on one of Janne Da Arc’s later albums. Occasionally yasu’s particularly light and thin voice is a little grating, but overall, it’s remarkable how well it works on the harder rocking tracks on ‘Black List’.

Despite releasing more quality material throughout the years, Acid Black Cherry would never again release an album as good as ‘Black List’. Some serious overproduction drags most of their albums down, though none of the original albums is less than enjoyable. Though a lot of effort has gone into the production and arrangements of ‘Black List’, this album truly is enhanced by the effort. There is a bit of a risk that western rock fans might find yasu’s voice a little off-putting, but the fact remains that ‘Black List’ is a fantastic album. It even sounds like one rather than a loose collection of songs. That alone is already rather impressive within the J-rock realm.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sins’, ‘Shojo No Inori’, ‘Murder License’

Album of the Week 34-2018: Eisbrecher – Shock


Often labelled a Rammstein clone – which is not entirely unjustified – Eisbrecher has been moving away from sounding like outright clones and more into “inspired by” territory in recent years. Sure, there are German lyrics sung with a reasonably deep voice over semi-electronic rhythms and simple, but brutally heavy guitar riffs, but the music Eisbrecher put out on ‘Die Hölle Muss Warten’ and ‘Schock’ technically has the potential to appeal to a wider audience than Rammstein, had they not come first. Eisbrecher’s songs are more melodic, the choruses are highly catchy without exception and ‘Shock’ especially has an extremely pleasant flow.

In a way, Rammstein and Oomph! marked the boundaries of what the Neue Deutsche Härte genre should be so clearly that it can be seen as quite a limiting genre. That alone is reason enough to praise Eisbrecher, as their relatively poppy, yet still heavy and driven take on the genre is a clear attempt to craft their own sound within the niche. With the lyrics being either rebellious or romantic, Eisbrecher’s sympathetic frontman Alex Wesselsky seems to aim for the heart, which is perfectly accompanied by the strong melodic writings of guitarist and keyboard player Noel Pix and a small army of outside writers.

Taking the old adage that the first strike is deadly, Eisbrecher kicks off ‘Shock’ with what is probably the greatest song they have ever written. ‘Volle Kraft Voraus’ (“full steam ahead”) is a perfect title for an album opener, but what really makes the song a winner is the way it manages to perfectly marry a yearning feeling and the anthemic pride of its brilliant chorus. It is followed by ‘1000 Narben’, another one of the band’s stronger tracks, which has everything in it to please even the most pop-oriented listeners of alternative rock radio stations.

While the level of the first two tracks is never reached again, it is remarkable how consistent ‘Shock’ is. Even the ballads, generally not the forte of NDH bands, are quite good. The deeply sentimental ‘Noch Zu Retten’ and the gorgeously arranged ‘Schlachtbank’, which is somewhat reminiscent of their early masterpiece ‘Leider’, are highlights, as is the more gothic-tinged ‘Rot Wie Die Liebe’. Those who like their German rock heavy will certainly like ‘So Oder So’, ‘Unschuldsengel’, ‘Fehler Machen Leute’ and the particularly Rammstein-esque ‘Himmel, Arsch Und Zwirn’, while ‘Dreizehn’ and the dancey ‘Nachtfieber’ make perfect use of the dynamics between guitars and electronics. The duet ‘Zwischen Uns’ with Swiss singer Mia Aegerter is irresistably catchy.

Although originality is next to impossible for an NDH band, I applaud Eisbrecher for how fresh and recognizable they sound on ‘Shock’. Once you let go of the genre tag, chances are that you will appreciate ‘Shock’ for what it really is: a collection of extremely well-written, impeccably produced rock songs that will refuse to leave your head even if you try. Fans of complexity should look elsewhere, but ‘Shock’ is full of heavy, uncomplicated fun that may end up being surprisingly melodic for those who only know the genre casually.

Recommended tracks: ‘Volle Kraft Voraus’, ‘1000 Narben’, ‘Himmel, Arsch Und Zwirn’

Interview: Loudness and the Japanese hardrock scene


Loudness was one of the first Japanese bands that also had some success in Europe and North America. Partially due to the MTV success of ‘Crazy Night’ and Akira Takasaki’s status as a guitar hero, but according to singer Minoru Niihara, Loudness also was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. We spoke with Niihara prior to the concert in Alkmaar, at which Loudness promoted its 27th studio album ‘Rise To Glory’.

After the previous album ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’, we had to wait over three and a half years for ‘Rise To Glory’. And that is quite surprising, as the band has been releasing new albums just about every year since the original lineup of Niihara, Takasaki, bassist Masayoshi Yamashita and drummer Munetaka Higuchi reunited around the turn of the century. Even after Higuchi passed away in 2008, there were hardly any delays in their release schedule. “We needed the extra time“, Niihara confesses. “In addition, we needed to look for a new record label, because our previous contract expired. In the meantime, Akira kept on writing new songs. Because of that, we could select the best material.

For his lyrics, Niihara employs a rather unconventional approach: “I think of a theme and write down my thoughts about that, just some ideas and lines in Japanese. After that, three friends of mine help me turn it into a complete set of lyrics. They have been raised bilingual in California and live in Japan these days. They speak perfect Japanese and because of that, they know the weaknesses of Japanese people speaking English. You could say they fix it. Many Japanese people need someone to tell them what is wrong with their English. There hardly is any need to speak or write English when you live in Japan. Even at the universities, classes are in Japanese.

Timing

When Loudness was founded in 1981, there were no heavy metal bands in Japan. “Before us, you only had Bow Wow from Tokyo and Murasaki from Okinawa“, Niihara confirms. “And those bands weren’t really heavy metal, because we didn’t know that back then. They were hardrock bands. I’m from Osaka, where a lot of young British hardrock bands performed. I was in a school band with which we played covers of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. But professional hardrock bands? We didn’t have those in the seventies. There were lots of people who listened to western hardrock, but no one played the music themselves. I don’t actually know why either.

We were lucky. Around the time we released our debut album (‘The Birthday Eve’, 1981), the new wave of British heavy metal became really popular in Japan. Bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon were very popular. That made people curious about our music, because we were a Japanese band that also made this type of music. Our timing turned out to be perfect. Young rockers loved us and Akira became a guitar hero. He actually already was when he played with Lazy. That was a pop group, but his playing was amazing. When he was seventeen, he was already known as a great guitar player.

Sold out

Before I joined Loudness, I have talked to some people who worked for record labels. When they heard I wanted to play hardrock, all of them said: that’s old, no one will buy that. After we received a gold record for the first Loudness album, the same people suddenly told us that they knew our music would become big. Bullshit! Some of these guys even literally said we would never go anywhere.

Things went differently. Loudness became a big success in Japan. “Every place we played was sold out“, says Niihara. “And then we’re talking about two to three thousand capacity venues. While we only had one album out. After that, more and more bands that kind of sounded like Loudness popped up. Every record company tried to sign its own Loudness. The positive thing about that is that many Japanese hardrock bands got the chance to release an album. Two or three years after our debut album, Japanese metal was very popular.

San Francisco

After a while, the scene slowed down a little. Our sound engineer and friend Daniel McClendon, who is from San Francisco, asked us why we wouldn’t just go to the States for a couple of shows someday. In Japan, we had achieved just about everything we could achieve. In 1983 we went to California for a couple of concerts, just to see what the possibilities were for us. We did four shows in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles.

The audience in San Francisco was insane. There was a very active, hardcore underground heavy metal scene there. We met bands like Metallica and Slayer there when they weren’t much more than local bands. That kind of surprised me, because the image I had of music from San Francisco couldn’t be more different. I thought of relaxed rock music like The Doobie Brothers and the Eagles. Our shows were attended by young guys who were looking for new heavy metal, however. We didn’t even know how all these people knew about us, because we hadn’t released a single album in the States yet.

Later on, we found out that they traded tapes with each other. Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich was one of those fanatic tape traders. He also already knew Bow Wow, for instance. There was even a record store in San Francisco that imported our lp’s. Their owner really helped us simply by playing our music to people who might be interested in us. That way, Loudness could already build an audience before we ever played in the States.”

Identity crisis

Thanks to the presence of an A&R manager of the big Atlantic Records label, Loudness became the first Japanese metal band that signed with a major label in America. Initially, that was fruitful: ‘Crazy Nights’ and the accompanying album ‘Thunder In The East’ (1985) became a big success. When it turned out difficult to retain that success, friction developed within the band, which eventually lead to Niihara’s departure. A couple of years later, Yamashita left as well.

In the nineties, Loudness underwent a sizeable identity crisis. With the American singer Mike Vescera, the band recorded two albums that were obviously aimed toward the Californian glam metal scene, only to follow that up with the incredibly heavy ‘Loudness’ (1992) with singer Masaki Yamada (ex-EZO) and Taiji Sawada, who had just left X Japan at the time. After that, Loudness appeared to follow the alternative metal trend, though without Sawada. In the meantime, Niihara was occupied with bands like Ded Chaplin, Sly and X.Y.Z.→A.

Mature

The turning point arrived around the turn of the century, when Loudness’ classic line-up reunited, allegedly on the recommendation of Masaki Yamada. “Akira says that’s what happened“, Niihara says. “I think Akira had the idea to bring the original guys back together again himself as well. Around that time, Masaki told him the time was right for a reunion. Maybe it just had to happen. Our twentieth anniversary was upcoming and Akira wanted to do something special for that occasion.

It was supposed to be a reunion for maybe one or two years, but after our new album (‘Spiritual Canoe’, 2001) and the tour, the fans begged us to continue with the same line-up. We got together to talk about it and nobody actually wanted to quit. Everyone was curious to see where else we could go. And we wanted to play in Europe again, so we just tried it. And we’re still here! We’ve been around longer now than we were together in the eighties.

Niihara does have an explanation for that. “We are older and wiser“, he laughs. “We sometimes think back to those days and realize we were a bunch of idiots. We drank too much and we were acting really stupid sometimes. These days, we have families and children. We have become a lot more mature.

The singer did not listen to the albums he did not sing on until after the reunion. “In the nineties, I was too busy with my own music“, he explains. “And besides, I was trying to leave Loudness behind me. They kicked me out, after all. After the reunion, we had to play some songs from the albums recorded with Mike and Masaki. It wasn’t until then that I started listening to the material from those days. And I was really impressed! Mike Vescera sings great on those two records!

Recovery

During this tour, the drum stool is occupied by Ryuichi ‘Ryu’ Nishida, who worked as a session drummer with the likes of Gackt and Marty Friedman and is a part of the instrumental rock band Ra:IN with X Japan guitarist Pata. Earlier this year, Masayuki ‘Ampan’ Suzuki, who replaced Higuchi after his death, was hit by a stroke. “He is working hard on his recovery“, Niihara reassures. “There are some problems with the right side of his body. He has trouble talking and holding his drum sticks.

We are just happy that he’s still there. There are so many people who die from the same conditions. We hope he can play a couple of songs with us by the end of the year. More than a couple of songs is really too much for him at this point. We told him: please take your time, don’t rush. When he’s ready, we will go for it again. We are fortunate enough to have a fantastic drummer like Nishida helping us out.

A Dutch version of this interview can be read at The Sushi Times.

Album of the Week 33-2018: Fates Warning – Darkness In A Different Light


Prolific is a thing Fates Warning has not been for a while. At the time of its release, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ was only the fifth Fates Warning album 22 years and their first in almost a decade. Maybe they needed the time to recharge their batteries, because it is easily their best in a long time. While no Fates Warning album is ever less than decent, much of the material released prior to ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ lacked either assertion (‘FWX’) or melodic content (‘Disconnected’). However, this album restores the balance that is so essential for progressive metal.

Stylistically, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is not too far removed from ‘Sympathetic Resonance’, the album guitarist Jim Matheos recorded with original singer John Arch. The riff work is heavy, but there is an abundance of melodic and atmospheric touches to give the material depth and lasting power. The biggest difference between the two albums is defined by singer Ray Alder, who has a much darker and more emotional tone than Arch. And while his range has not aged perfectly, the emotional impact of his delivery is impressive, resulting in what is arguably his best singing since the rather vocal-centric ‘Parallels’.

While ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is no stylistic detour – it basically blends the heavy punch of ‘Disconnected’ with the melancholic melodicism of ‘Parallels’ – something feels fresh and more metallic about the album. My suspicion is that switching drummers had some influence on that. Mark Zonder’s skills are unquestionable, but he also has a tendency to overplay. Bobby Jarzombek is every bit as technical, but understands that even in its most complex form, heavy metal should be driven and energetic. The return of longtime guitarist Frank Aresti can also be felt in the lead guitar department, though it is still pretty much Matheos’ album.

At its best, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ can certainly be compared favorably to Fates’ classic material. ‘Firefly’ is a gorgeous song that blends crushing riffing with a fantastic chorus, while ‘And Yet It Moves’ closes the album in a particularly epic fashion. It forsakes the suite-like nature of many long progmetal tracks in favor of a more song-oriented approach to the point where I didn’t realize I was listening to a 14 minute song until the acoustic part before the finale reared its head. The darkly brooding ‘Lighthouse’ is one of the most brilliantly atmospheric tracks in the band’s discography.

If there is anything to criticize about ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is that it takes a slightly too obvious cue from bands that commenced their activities after Fates Warning did at times. The influence of Porcupine Tree pops up every now and then and ‘Kneel And Obey’ has a distinct Alice In Chains vibe. That is hardly an issue that ruins the listening pleasure of the album though, as it easily is one of the better progressive metal albums in recent years. Fates themselves would eventually outdo it with the slightly more consistent ‘Theories Of Flight’ three years later, but fans of intricate, yet heavy and melodically strong music should enjoy this immensely.

Recommended tracks: ‘Firefly’, ‘And Yet It Moves’, ‘Lighthouse’

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