Album of the Week 12-2017: Seikima-II – Mephistopheles no Shouzou


A cliché often used for eighties rock bands that survived through the nineties is that their records sound as if the nineties didn’t happen. Hardly any album answers more to that sentiment than ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’. Despite being released in 1996, the compositions, arrangements and production scream eighties hard rock and heavy metal, while the band’s appearance and theatricality could be either a tribute to or a parody of Kiss during a time when Kiss themselves didn’t even wear make-up. One thing is for sure: it was almost impossible to find this much classy heavy metal on one record in the mid-nineties.

Most of Seikima-II’s records are good, but many of them lack a consistency that ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ does have. The fact that it’s a concept album of Faustian themes may help the excellent flow of the record, although not an inch of the band’s versatility has been sacrificed. There’s the NWOBHM-tinged heavy metal of their early days, melodic hard rock tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on their late eighties records and a bunch of power ballads, all passionately performed with a complete disregard of whatever musical trend reared its head, giving the album a timeless flair.

‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’ kicks off the album in a delightful early eighties heavy metal fashion with all the simple, yet effective riffs and twin guitar harmonies you can wish for. This approach is combined with powerful galloping rhythms in songs like closer ‘Holy Blood ~Tatakai No Kettou~’ and the extremely well structured ‘Yajuu’. The power ballads may sound entirely out of style for the time of the album’s release, but especially ‘Who Kills Demon?’ – somewhat reminiscent of the band’s own ‘Stainless Night’ – is really good. ‘Salome Wa Kaette Satsui Wo Shirushi’ has a more epic nature, sounding unlike anything the band has ever done before.

Notably, former members have contributed greatly to the record. Especially original guitarist Damian Hamada, who wrote some of the album’s best material, including the aformentioned ‘Yajuu’ and the dark, brooding, slithering masterpiece of a title track. Former guitarist Jail O’Hashi wrote the closing track ‘Akuma No Blues’, which doesn’t really sound like the rest of the album musically and production-wise – it’s a seventies inspired blues rock track – but it’s too enjoyable to complain about that.

As for the actual members, Sgt. Luke Takamura III and Ace Shimizu throw around amazing guitar solos – including a mindblowing acoustic one in the title track – and Demon Kogure once again opens up his entire vocal register. Bassist Xenon Ishikawa and excellent drummer Raiden Yuzawa are surprisingly laid back for a metal rhythm section, but it works really well within the context of Seikima-II’s unique music.

Sandwiched between two records that have the band experimenting with a somewhat more poppy approach, ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ often gets forgotten, but the truth is that it’s a quality heavy metal album released in a time that those were extremely rare. If you like your metal theatrical, epic, melodic and not afraid of a little experimentation, Seikima-II is your band. And with the consistency being as it is on ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, it’s going to be difficult to turn off the album before it’s over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, ‘Yajuu’, ‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’

Album of the Week 11-2017: OverKill – W.F.O.


Like many of their peers, OverKill faded to the background a little when the nineties reared their heads. Unlike their peers, however, OverKill continued to make quality records. A complaint often heard is that the band focused too much on groove following their classic ‘Horrorscope’ album. And while the next record ‘I Hear Black’ did in deed have a lot of Black Sabbath-inspired grooves, its follow-up ‘W.F.O.’ is one pissed-off record which merges an almost punkish aggression and some of the most varied songwriting in the band’s history. Looking back, only its 1994 release date keeps it from being considered a classic.

‘W.F.O.’ is basically OverKill turned up to eleven. Their trademark punky thrash attitude is amplified by an abrasive production job – harsh guitars, a prominently rumbling bass – that may be somewhat off-putting in the beginning, but turns out to have its charms as well. The riff work oozes with anger and energy and appear to attempt breaking free from the confines of your speakers, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for nuance on this record. In fact, its versatility is rivaled only by the seminal records ‘Horrorscope’ and ‘The Years Of Decay’. And maybe, just maybe, ‘Killbox 13’.

The album bulldozes into gear with the adrenalin monster ‘Where It Hurts’, which is one of my favorite OverKill openers to this day. There’s very little subtlety in the song, but enough to hear the fantastic interaction between the guitars and the rhythm section, which don’t necessarily blindly follow each other. This level of aggression is retained for thrash monsters like ‘They Eat Their Young’ or more punk influenced material like ‘Fast Junkie’ and ‘Supersonic Hate’. ‘Under One’ already signals in the more modern influences that OverKill would flirt with on their following records, but not without the trusted OverKill approach.

Surprisingly, the album does get a lot more melodic at times. ‘R.I.P. (Undone)’, an acoustic instrumental dedicated to the memory of Savatage’s Criss Oliva, is quite unique in that respect, featuring Rob Cannavino on the acoustic guitar and Merritt Gant soloing his heart out on top of that. ‘Bastard Nation’ feels like a disillusioned – and better – nineties equivalent to ‘In Union We Stand’ and ‘The Wait – New High In Lows’ combines the two extremes. The best is saved for last; ‘Gasoline Dream’ is a dark, brooding monster of a track with a climactic finale that remains one of the band’s best songs to this day.

Even though they are rare, strong thrash records have been released deep into the nineties and ‘W.F.O.’ is definitely one of them. Ironically, the prominent feel on the album is a disillusionment similar to the one expressed on many of the grunge records that were big at the time, OverKill just chooses to express it with pure, uncut anger rather than a feeling of despair. The result is an album that is OverKill through and through; its streetwise aggression is part of what makes the band – and this album in particular – so unique. Highly recommended those who need their blood to rush again.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gasoline Dream’, ‘Bastard Nation’, ‘Where It Hurts’

Album of the Week 10-2017: Pentagram – Bir


Around the time ‘Unspoken’ was released, Pentagram must have realized that there was a demand for their Turkish language songs, which the album lacked. So a year after that album, the band released ‘Bir’, a collection consisting entirely of songs in Turkish lyrics or without any lyrics at all. This also marked the shortest break between two albums in the band’s history. And while the traditional Turkish flair that makes the band so unique wasn’t entirely absent on ‘Unspoken’, it is featured significantly more prominently on ‘Bir’, albeit not in the overwhelming, over-emphasized manner that bands with similar influences often employ.

If there should be any criticism about ‘Bir’, it’s the fact that it should have been an EP. The two instrumental tracks ‘Mezarkabul’ and ‘For Those Who Died Alone’ are exactly the same as the versions on ‘Unspoken’ and are probably only there for conceptual reasons. They’re fine tracks as they are for sure, but that only leaves the listener with about half an hour of new music. The good news is that every single one of those minutes is excellent music and many of the songs featured on ‘Bir’ are still staples in Pentagram’s live set to this day.

Starting with the diptych of the instrumental intro ‘Tigris’ and the title track, a downright fantastic, upbeat heavy metal track calling for unity. This song is bound to drive a Turkish heavy metal crowd crazy and it’s easy to see why: its message, its catchy chorus and its simple, but brutally effective riffing is designed for a communal feeling. The thrashy ‘Bu Alemi Gören Sensin’ – which features guitarist Hakan Utangaç on lead vocals instead of the more soaring Murat İlkan – and ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’ – which sounds like Metallica after a holiday to Turkey – feature traditional Turkish poems set to brand new music, something which works better than it may sound.

Less well known is ‘Sır’ and while it did take a while before the song grew on me, it is a monster of a slower metal track that manages to have both a symphonic and a somewhat industrial feel at the same time. It doesn’t quite sound like anything Pentagram has done before or since, but fits the darker vibe of the second half of ‘Bir’ really well. That vibe is further emphasized by the brilliantly brooding ‘Ölümlü’, which features what is quite likely İlkan’s most “evil” sounding performance ever in its verses.

While it may be intimidating to buy an album with four instrumental tracks of which the longest two have been previously released, ‘Bir’ is still a very worthy addition to any metal collection. For one because it emphasizes Pentagram’s unique, yet familiar style and it solidifies the band’s status in their home country, where they are viewed as the number one metal band. It’s easy to see why: the guys are excellent songwriters and will never let flashy instrumental egos get in the way of a good melody and a memorable chorus. You’re guaranteed to have them stuck in your head even if you don’t speak a single word of Turkish.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bir’, ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’, ‘Ölümlü’

Album of the Week 09-2017: Onmyo-za – Fuujin Kaikou


With the genre nearing five decades of existence, finding unique sounding metal is becoming increasingly difficult. Onmyo-za somehow succeeds at doing so without attempting anything too far-fetched. Their riffs and twin melodies are generally from the traditional heavy metal and hard rock mold, but their open-minded approach to songwriting allows for a spontaneous sound that contains elements of J-rock, progrock and hints of Japanese folk. Also, singing couple Kuroneko and bass playing band leader Matatabi forsakes the “Beauty and the Beast” approach of most metallic male-female singing duos in favor of something more melodic, further emphasizing their highly original nature.

‘Fuujin Kaikou’ is the wind-themed half of a diptych with the simultaneously released – and thunder-themed – ‘Raijin Sousei’. That doesn’t mean it’s all soft and subdued though; in fact, there are plenty of riff-driven metal anthems like ‘Ichimokuren’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the excellent opener ‘Kamikaze’ present. However, it is the more melodic and better – by a hair – of the two. This approach leaves all the room Kuroneko needs to deliver her best vocal performance to date and often lays the guitars of Maneki and Kurakan on an atmospheric, but never overpowering symphonic bed. And even the ballads – there’s quite a few of them – are remarkably powerful.

To start with the latter category: Kuroneko’s composition ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’ is the most beautiful, goosebumps-inducing ballad the band has ever released. It’s the only song on the record where the orchestral tracks take over the guitars, but it fits the beautiful, cinematic atmosphere of the song perfectly. Both guitar solos are simply breathtaking as well. This does not disqualify the other calmer songs though; ‘Manazashi’ and ‘Hebimiko’ are somewhat more traditional, but excellent ballads and ‘Yaobikuni’ brings to mind Dio’s lighter sounding singles from the late eighties.

On the – slightly – heavier side of things, ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is a true highlight. With a great build-up, highly climactic lead guitar themes and a downright spectacular chorus that has Matatabi and Kuroneko duetting beautifully, the song is simply a lesson in how to write a mindblowing melodic metal song. ‘Saredo Itsuwari No Okuribi’ is somewhat more subdued, but still a great metal song with irresistible melodies. ‘Muufuu Ninpocho’ features a godly bass sound courtesy of Matatabi and is a bit more rocky, as is the – almost traditionally – upbeat closing track ‘Haru Ranman Ni Shiki No Mau Nari’. Both of those are songs that could sound horribly out of place on a metal record, but the general atmosphere makes them work here.

Exploring Onmyo-za’s discography can be a bit intimidating for a westerner, due to the fact that every song and album title is in Japanese, but ultimately, it will be a rewarding experience. Their unique sound somehow feels familiar and highly original at the same time, which was exactly what yours truly was looking for at the time he discovered them. Their status as one of the more popular Japanese metal bands is absolutely justified and listening to ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ – or really almost any of their albums – is highly recommended.

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

Interview: Tomoyasu Hotei wants to create something extraordinary

Recently, I’ve been given the opportunity to interview legendary Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei. What follows is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. Should you be proficient at Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original arctile.

In Japan, Tomoyasu Hotei reached a legendary status at quite a young age due to his work with the massively popular Boøwy. After that band split up in the late eighties, he worked with superstars like Iggy Pop, Rammstein guitarist Richard Z. Kruspe and his hero David Bowie and recently, he decided to pursue his international ambitions by relocating to London. In April, he will tour through Europe.

Since I moved to London, I learned why Japan is described as ‘the Far East’“, the 55 year old guitarist says. “Japan is very well organized, very safe and the food is great, but everything is executed within the country. People tend to look only inward. I have dreamt to explore the outside world, but one day I realized that you have to be based outside of Japan to seize that opportunity. Luck will not come to you; you have to approach it. You may have some access to the outside world through the internet, but if you are looking for a more authentic experience, you have to live and breathe on the same ground that you want to approach. I feel convinced that I have made the right decision.
Hotei has already taken note of the conveniences of living in the west. “If you want to fly from Japan to the Netherlands, it takes twelve hours“, he states. “But from London, it only takes two hours. That itself makes me feel that I’m closer to the rest of the world. Also, it’s the best way to learn a language; way better than learning it at school. True, it is very cold and miserable during the winter, but summer is heaven! If I had stayed in Japan, I may not have had this opportunity to play to Dutch people.

Visual consciousness

In the early eighties, Boøwy stood out due to their approach that was influenced – both musically and aesthetically – by new wave, glamrock and post-punk. “Even before the term “visual kei” was created, I was always conscious about visuals“, he explains. “Perhaps we were the original visual kei band? X Japan, Buck-Tick and Miyavi weren’t yet established back then. Back in those days, I had spiky hair with heavy make-up, guaranteed to catch people’s attention in the streets!
I am a huge fan of David Bowie and have been influenced by his music throughout my career. But he was inspired by kabuki. He used visual techniques to create unusual atmospheres on stage. I too wanted to created something extraordinary and by wearing make-up, I felt like I had another identity. I thought by adding some fantasy to rock music, it would create more depth in the music.
My visual consciousness hasn’t changed and I still care about artwork and stage plots. However, because I have now ‘matured’, I can’t do anything too crazy anymore; I am nervous that my daughter won’t talk to me anymore if I did, haha!

Trust

Japan seems to have a bigger market for “strange” bands. Hotei seems to notice this as well. “You can’t find a band like Babymetal in Europe“, he thinks aloud. “And the music market in Japan is dominated by domestic bands who make up something like ninety percent of the total market. Perhaps it is more competitive there; people have to be experimental and make it original. In Europe, I think there are distinctive genres of music. Therefore, my impression of the music audience there is something like jazz fans who will not be interested in rock and metal fans who are not interested in techno.
My audience in Japan is very special. There’s a level of trust we have built over the years. To those who are not familiar with my audience and see 10,000 people singing and dancing along with my performance, it is almost like a cult group. That makes me a preacher! The size of my crowds in Europe and the USA is relatively small, but I genuinely enjoy playing in such an intimate setting. It is so raw; it reminded me of when I started thirty five years ago. I can feel the grip on the people as they are up on their feet and that means I’m doing something right. Also, it’s great to see Japanese people in the audience; it makes me feel at home, away from home.
I think this is still a trial period, but those people who may not be familiar with me, trust me, you will get your money’s worth! I am always eager to share my music with people who have no clue who I am or have never heard my music before. I want to show my ability to entertain them with a danceable guitar sound and performance. I am confident that my live performance is the most effective way to describe myself. Once you see my performance, people will see how unique I am.

In April, Hotei will tour through Europe for about a week and a half. During this tour, he will play in the Netherlands twice and in Belgium once. “I love Amsterdam“, he states enthusiastically. “I thoroughly enjoy my last year’s visit. For those who were there last year, I can guarantee this year’s show will be even better. I have a slightly different band this year, bringing my longstanding drummer from New York, Zac Alford, who some may know from his work with Bowie, and my keyboard player Okuno from Tokyo, as well as my old friend and musical collaborator Noko. It’s a truly international band!

Recognize

I’ve released over twenty studio albums as a solo artist“, Hotei says. “Which is a lot! I know now for a fact that the Japanese market is very quick to move from one album to the next. In Japan, you release an album followed by fifty plus shows each time. It was actually my routine. My international debut ‘Strangers’ was released in October 2015 and I have just started writing for my second international album in February. ‘Strangers’ is a great album, but I’m committed to making a “greater” album.
My inspiration is based on my guitar. It is an endless journey; the potential is infinite. That’s the beauty of the guitar, I think. I have always been persistent to create guitar sounds that people will recognize as my sound. I’m now discovering digital technology and have been using a digital amp lately. But ultimately, I think it’s not the equipment that makes my sound so unique, I think it is coming from my playing style.

The list of artists that Hotei has worked with is enormous. Are there any people left on his wishlist? “I consider myself against the luckiest in the world to have performed with David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Roxy Music“, he smiles. “Also, it was a great honor to collaborate with Iggy Pop, Brian Setzer and Zucchero from Italy. If I may blow my own horn, I was able to grab these great collaboration opportunities because I am a very skilfull guitarist. I am very flexible and I enjoy making singers feel very comfortable.
My door is always open to more opportunities. Not just with legendary artists, but also talented upcoming new artists. My guitar riffs are very catchy, so perhaps I can collaborate with hiphop artists too. I’d love to have the chance to play with Beyoncé! I’m very interested in St. Vincent’s music too. What about a great artist from the Netherlands? Maybe you can introduce me!

Album of the Week 08-2017: Czesław Niemen – Niemen


Some singers are so good that you don’t have to understand the words they are singing in order to appreciate them. Case in point, Polish rock pioneer Czesław Niemen. With a voice that combines the power of a rock singer with the raw passion of blues and soul singers and a musical style that brings together elements of progressive rock, fusion, soul, folk and – later on – early electronic music, there’s no escaping the music even without understanding Polish. While its predecessor ‘Enigmatic’ is often considered the pinnacle of his work, ‘Niemen’ is the one where all elements are in perfect balance.

Alternately, the album is known as ‘Czerwony Album’ – the red album – for obvious reasons. It is also sold under the title ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, after its massive twenty minute opening track, which yours truly considers Niemen’s crowning achievement. The main sections are pushed forward by Janusz Zieliński’s simple, but brutally effective bass line and Niemen’s forceful, heartfelt vocals, while its middle section is lead by the fanastic improvisations of his backing band. Even Zieliński and drummer Czesław Mały-Bartkowski get extended solo spots, while guitarist Tomasz Jaśkiewicz and hammond organist Jacek Mikuła go nuts with strong, surprisingly passionate accompanied solos.

But while that monumental opening track is without any doubt the centerpiece of ‘Niemen’, there’s over fifty minutes of additional quality material on the album. The strong interaction between the musicians is more than apparent in the fantastic instrumental ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, which along the opening track is easily the most proggy moment on the record and again features amazing soloing by both Mikuła and Jaśkiewicz, while Niemen sounds like a man begging on his knees and surrendering everything he’s got in the highly soulful ‘Nie Jesteś Moja’, a surprisingly succesful European rock take on the Stax Records releases of the late sixties.

Other moments on ‘Niemen’ are significantly more accessible. ‘Wróć Jeszcze Dziś’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a seventies pop radio station if it would have had English lyrics and the same goes for ‘Zechcesz Mnie, Zechcesz’, the latter partially because of Jaśkiewicz’ notably cleaner guitar sound. ‘Italiam, Italiam’ is unsurprisingly the track that would later appear on many compilations and the main section of ‘Chwila Ciszy’ brings to mind Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. The flute-led sections of ‘Sprzedaj Mnie Wiatrowi’ and ‘Aerumnarum Plenus’ are reminiscent of the folky, pastoral sound of early British prog bands and the stomping ‘Muzyko Moja’ closes off the album on a high, albeit somewhat abrupt note.

Following ‘Niemen’, the singer and multi-instrumentalist that gave the record its name would continue to experiment with different styles, from the more fusion driven direction on ‘Niemen Aerolit’ to the increasingly electronic sounds that would characterize his output from the late seventies onward. Always with that incredible, incomparable voice. He kept on releasing strange, but deeply sincere music almost until his death in 2004, leaving behind a legacy that transcends boundaries, musically as well as culturally. Don’t let the Polish language keep you from hearing this remarkable musician, who also happens to be one of the best singers I have ever heard.

Recommended tracks: ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, ‘Muzyko Moja’

Album of the Week 07-2017: Dool – Here Now, There Then


‘Listen Without Prejudice’ may have been the meaningful title of George Michael’s second solo album, in some reversed kind of way, the phrase also applies to Dool’s debut album ‘Here Now, There Then’. Singer and guitarist Ryanne van Dorst will be known to most Dutch music fan for the punky rock ‘n’ roll she made under the pseudonym Elle Bandita, but I sincerely doubt if anyone familiar with her earlier work would have expected something like ‘Here Now, There Then’: a dark, bleak, unsettling, brooding and ultimately downright beautiful rock album with an atmosphere that is guaranteed to absorb you completely.

First single ‘Oweynagat’ blew me away when it was released a couple of months ago, but nothing could have prepared me for this masterpiece of a debut album. Monolithic riffs, haunting vocal harmonies, pounding drums and chiming atmospheric guitar parts are all over the record. It helps that the band makes full use of the fact that they have three guitarists – Van Dorst, Nick Polak and Reinier Vermeulen – and the rhythm section is highly versatile. Drummer Micha Haring moves from brute doom metal hammering to more swinging rock rhythms with incredible ease and the fact that the song material requires him too is one of the album’s greatest assets.

As versatile as the record is, the atmosphere is consistently dark and reminiscent of early goth rock and post punk bands like The Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus and early Killing Joke. The massive doom metal atmosphere of opening track ‘Vantablack’ certainly is the bleakest beginning of a record I’ve heard in a long time. But it’s exactly that feel that makes it beautiful. It takes you in and won’t let you go until it’s over. In a way, the track is more than just an opening track, it’s an opening statement.

Even though that doom metal sound doesn’t reappear until the brilliant ‘The Alpha’, Dool delivers when it comes to every type of dark rock music they attempt. The aforementioned ‘Oweynagat’ shines due to its vocal harmonies, the dynamic drum work and its amazing chorus, closing track ‘She-Goat’ has an incredible build-up towards its climax, the seventies-ish ‘Golden Serpents’ is full of beautiful guitar parts – including a fantastic twin solo at the end – and ‘In Her Darkest Hour’ gallops along below its awesome riffs very nicely until it hits some unpredictable rhythms in its chorus. ‘The Death Of Love’ is a little more subtle, but no less impressive and highly dynamic.

It’s been a while since I was impressed this much by a debut album, but it’s a fact that Dool produced a remarkable piece of art with ‘Here Now, There Then’. This is a record that is so strong in the message and the atmosphere it’s trying to get across that it’s almost impossible to not feel it. Combined with the musical craftsmanship within its lineup and Van Dorst’s excellent compositions, there is very little reason left not to check this downright mindblowing album out. It may be a little dark, but don’t let that keep you from missing out on what may just be the best debut of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Oweynagat’, ‘The Alpha’, ‘Vantablack’