Archive for August, 2014

Album of the Week 35-2014: Dir En Grey – Gauze

Dir En Grey’s debut album is the hidden gem of the Visual Kei scene. This may sound a bit weird, figuring that the Japanese quintet is probably the most popular band in the Metal scene with non-English lyrics after Rammstein, but ‘Gauze’ stands out stylistically in a discography that is charactarized by an incredible amount of variation anyway. Those who know Dir En Grey’s later, more brutal and progressive work will probably be surprised by how melodic the material on ‘Gauze’ sounds. One thing is for sure though: this is the work of an immensely talented band capable of writing fantastic songs.

About half of the album was produced by X Japan’s main man Yoshiki. This “L.A. Session” has resulted in a lot of music that sounds closer to the melodic Hard Rock generally associated with the Visual Kei scene than the experimental take on extreme Metal that the band would come to be known for. And although all the band members have proven to be extremely talented through the years, it’s especially singer Kyo and bassist Toshiya that shine on these songs. It’s a matter of space; Toshiya’s jumpy, melodic bass lines add an almost danceable edge to Shinya’s intense drumming, while Kyo, who would become the man who could go to any vocal extreme, gets the room to display how amazing his clean vocals are.

It’s not a strict division though; ‘-Zan-‘, with its hyperspeed riffs and drums, is easily the most brutal and aggressive song on the record and it was recorded in Los Angeles with Yoshiki. On the other hand, the light and breezy Pop melodies of ‘Raison Detre’ (sic) – one of the album’s highlights – is from the self-produced session in Japan. The rest of the album sort of bounces back and forth between those extremes. ‘Cage’ and ‘Yokan’ are masterpieces of melodic Rock with beautiful choruses that have me singing along despite the fact that I don’t speak Japanese (not even a little) and on the other hand, there’s the pounding riffing of ‘Tsumi To Batsu’ and the terrifying Progmetal of ‘Mazohyst Of Decadence’.

Quite a lot of time has been spent on the production and it shows. ‘Gauze’ is a dream of hi-fi late eighties alternative Rock production. In hindsight, the guitars of Kaoru and Die could have done with a bit more balls as the casual listener hardly notices how impressive these guys are, but it’s hardly a disturbing factor. In fact, a more “Metal” production probably wouldn’t have suited the album, since it’s not strictly a Metal record.

What this is though is a collection of extremely well-written songs that have a lot of room for incredible melodies and quite possibly Kyo’s best vocal work to date – keep in mind that I have a strong preference of clean vocals. It’s hard not to love an album with such fantastic songwriting and so much variation. The beautiful cover model doesn’t hurt either. All this contributes to what is probably my favorite Dir En Grey album, along the 2008 masterpiece ‘Uroboros’. It’s quite difficult to get a hold of outside of Japan, but well worth tracking down.

Recommended tracks: ‘Raison Detre’, ‘Cage’, ‘Yokan’, ‘-Zan-‘

Album of the Week 34-2014: Stratovarius – Nemesis

One of the best developments in recent Power Metal history is the fact that Stratovarius is once again in the hands of a guitarist. This is an important thing, seeing as the departure of original guitarist and chief songwriter Timo Tolkki lead to the most guitar unfriendly record the band has released so far in the shape of ‘Polaris’. Tolkki’s replacement Matias Kupiainen basically took over his role as both the producer and main songwriter to the band, which breathes new life into the band’s tried and true formula. Predecessor ‘Elysium’ was promising, but ‘Nemesis’ is the first Stratovarius album since ‘Elements Pt. 1′ that fully adopts all of the Finns’ benefits.

It has to be said: while this is still instantly recognizable as the highly melodic band that single-handedly shaped the Finnish Power Metal scene, Kupiainen has a slightly rawer approach to the riff writing as well as the production. It may help that Kupiainen was a fan of the band before he joined; as such, he knows which elements to keep, because make the band what they are (the soaring neoclassical melodies, the strong and infectious choruses and the interaction between the guitars and Jens Johansson’s keyboards) and which elements might need a little tweaking (the three albums before he took over production lacked some serious balls in especially the riffing department).

While ‘Unbreakable’, the first single from the album, failed to impress me upon first release, the song makes a lot more sense within the context of the full album. It’s still a somewhat plain, but enjoyable Power Metal tune. More impressive is opening track ‘Abandon’, which probably has the most aggressive opening riff of any Stratovarius song. It’s a perfect amalgam of the powers of Kupiainen and new drummer Rolf Pilve, who surprisingly is every bit as good as the semi-legendary Jörg Michael.

The other highlight of the album has to be the closing title track, which works its way through a surprising number of climaxes and a couple of fantastic riffs, including an awesome twin riff, always a guarantee to make me smile. Other key moments on the album are the back-to-back stately Power Metal classics ‘Out Of The Fog’ and ‘Castles In The Air’, the latter of which contains a sick Fusion-style solo courtesy of Kupiainen, the bombastic ‘One Must Fall’ and the controversial ‘Halcyon Days’, which contains some electronic beats that in my opinion don’t sound out of place at all. It gives the song a fresh edge.

It’s surprising that a band that has stuck quite close to its formula over the last still gets such amazing performances out of its musicians. In fact, Timo Kotipelto gives the vocal delivery of a lifetime here. While he stays clear of the top heights of the likes of ‘Father Time’, but his tenor still has the strength it had when he was in his early twenties. Combined with a stellar production and the best set of Stratovarius songs in over a decade and you’ve got yourself a winning Power Metal album. It’s recently been re-released with an inessential, but still enjoyable documentary. Whichever version you choose, it’s a wise choice for fans of melodic Power Metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nemesis’, ‘Abandon’, ‘One Must Fall’

Album of the Week 33-2014: Helloween – The Time Of The Oath

‘Master Of The Rings’ marked the end of an era for Helloween. Not only because of the departure of iconic singer Michael Kiske, it also marked the return to the triumphant Power Metal sound the Germans were instrumental in creating. However, where that album still showed some caution, its follow-up ‘The Time Of The Oath’ would turn out to be a crowning achievement for the Power Metal giants. The arrival of Andi Deris meant a more intense vocal performance and less inner-band turmoil, while ‘The Time Of The Oath’ easily beat even their classic ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys’ albums in terms of consistency.

Deris was an important addition to the band for another reason than just his role as the singer. He would quickly become the composer of many of the best songs to the point that he basically became the band’s main songwriter. Many of this album’s finest moments are his compositions, although I suspect the band takes a somewhat Queen-like approach to their songwriting credits. Regardless, two of the band’s most intense moments – the energetic opener ‘We Burn’ and the borderline Thrash of ‘Before The War’ – carry his name and are amazing. That’s hardly where the fun stops though.

‘Power’ was the perfect choice to be the first single for the album. It’s a textbook Power Metal tune that contains all the characteristics of a Helloween classic, which was quite likely to draw some of the fans back in who gave up around the time of ‘Pink Bubbles Go Ape’. Its anthemic chorus, self-empowering lyrics and soaring twin solos make it the best single of the band since ‘I Want Out’. But also the album’s more experimental works work incredibly well. It’s unbelievable how well the mood shifts in the mindblowing ‘Wake Up The Mountain’ work, ‘Mission Motherland’ is a fantastic epic based on amazing riffs and the almost Doomy title track in all its atmospheric glory is a perfect closer to the album.

The only weaker moments are the ones that are to be expected; it wouldn’t be until the next album that the band finally succeeded in creating a truly good power ballad in the shape of ‘Time’. It’s not that ‘Forever And One (Neverland)’ and ‘If I Knew’ are bad songs, but they’re extremely predictable and cliché-ridden – particularly in the lyrical department. Save for those, every song on the record is a winner and that’s impressive, figuring that even the ‘Keeper’ records had atrocities like ‘Rise And Fall’. It’s easy to mistake ‘A Million To One’ as a beefed up power ballad, but when it sinks in after a couple of spins, it’s obvious that its a very well-written Heavy Metal tune with a slightly progressive twist. Even Helloween’s trademark goofy song, ‘Anything My Mama Don’t Like’ this time, is surprisingly good.

While yours truly is quite fond of every era of the band, I’m a fan of Deris. Kiske may have been technically superior, but I’ve always found more character and passion in Deris’ delivery. Combined with wild guitar antics of Roland Grapow and founding member Michael Weikath and Uli Kusch’s stellar drumming, which never disappoints, we’ve got ourselves a hell of an album. It’s my personal Helloween favorite. That may not be the most popular opinion, but whoever takes the time to listen to the album will most likely hear the same qualities that I do.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wake Up The Mountain’, ‘Before The War’, ‘The Time Of The Oath’, ‘We Burn’

Album of the Week 32-2014: Versailles – Jubilee

‘Jubilee’ marked the end of a tempestuous period for Versailles, both positively and negatively. The band had just signed with a major label and the difference is immediately noticeable sonically, but on the other hand, there was the untimely death of their original bass player Jasmine You during the recordings, effectively making this Jasmine’s final appearance with the band. It’s also the band’s best effort to date and their last fantastic album. While its follow-ups would both contain a number of good songs, ‘Jubilee’ is the band’s apex in terms of songwriting, intensity, execution and overall consistency.

Versailles was part of the Japanese Visual Kei scene, as is fairly obvious straight away when you see of their band photos or hear Kamijo’s slightly too melodramatic vocal delivery. Musically, they were one of the most interesting bands of the movement, combining a fundament of highly symphonic Power Metal with overtones of Progmetal and J-Rock and a strong dose of theatrics. And where I feel the band lost a lot of their edge on the following records, ‘Jubilee’ still has the right amount of aggression – especially in the riffing department – and intensity to appeal to the headbanging crowd.

A lot of Japanese music is very vocal based. The production and mix on ‘Jubilee’ – or any other Versailles album for that matter – emphasizes that as well. However, for me, it’s the rest of the band that makes this record. Hizaki and Teru are geniuses in composing riffs as well as executing brilliant guitar solos, many of them neoclasically tinged, and Yuki is easily the best Japanese drummer I have heard so far due to his creative approach to Power Metal drumming. And the power he displays is just delightful. Just listen to how he gives the awesome riffs in ‘月下香‘ (‘Gekkakou’ when romanized) their last push into aggressive territories and you’ll get what I mean.

Though the album is best listened to in its entirity, there are definitely some standout moments. My favorite song on the album is probably ‘愛と哀しみのノクターン‘ (romanized: ‘Ai To Kanashimi No Nocturne’) due to its perfect blend of melody and aggresive guitar power. Yuki’s drumming is once again spectacular and the little twin guitar riffs between verses are guaranteed to bring me to Metal bliss. ‘Catharsis’, opening track ‘God Palace – Method Of Inheritance-‘, single ‘Ascendead Master’ and ‘Princess -Revival Of Church-‘ are fantastic epic Power Metal tracks, while the lighter ‘Amorphous’ highlights the band’s more Pop oriented side surprisingly well.

Every fan of Japanese music should give this album at least one spin, but due to their heavy reliance on European Power Metal influences, ‘Jubilee’ may also be very appealing to melodic Metal crowds that are traditionally less likely to turn to any band from the Visual Kei scene. The fact of the matter is that Versailles is one of the very few latter day bands of the movement that actually made the music come before the visuals, despite obviously putting quite some effort into them. Both in composition and in execution, this is some of the best Power Metal released in this century, only outdone later by Jupiter, which features three members who can be heard on this album.

Recommended tracks:愛と哀しみのノクターン‘, ‘Ascendead Master’, ‘Princess -Revival Of Church-‘, ‘月下香

Album of the Week 31-2014: Fool’s Garden – Once In A Blue Moon

This week, I’d like to take you back to the first album I ever purchased with my own money. Back in the mid-nineties, Fool’s Garden had an enormous hit all throughout Europe and Asia with ‘Lemon Tree’. I was nine years old when the song came out and immediately fascinated by it. It took me at least another year to figure out what the band was called, but once I did, I came across this gem of an album in my local record store. ‘Lemon Tree’ wasn’t actually on it, but I was spellbound by it and now, almost two decades later, it’s still a brilliant record.

Fool’s Garden is a German band, but the sound they’re opting for is very much British. If the cover of ‘Cry Baby Cry’ or the fact that the album is dedicated to John Lennon didn’t give it away yet, the influence of The Beatles is fairly obvious. And while those influences would come to the surface even more on subsequent records, the band is much more than just another Beatles clone. Especially in Volker Hinkel’s big guitar sound, the Arena Rock edge is present, while this record especially has some references to the Soft Rock sound that graced many albums in the early to mid-nineties.

What mainly sets ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ apart from the band’s other output is the fact that Peter Freudenthaler and Volker Hinkel are still sharing lead vocals. The choice of letting Freudenthaler sing everything following this album is understandable, figuring that he technically has the better voice, but there’s something fundamentally bad-ass about Hinkel’s vocals. Just listen to the rocking Blues of ‘The Part Of The Fool’, on which he goes wild both vocally and on his guitar. A part of the abum’s charm is the interaction between Hinkel’s grit and Freudenthaler’s smoother delivery.

Most of the album would classify as easy listening. Songs like ‘One Way Out’ and the delightful ‘Careless Games’ could perfectly function as background music, despite the fact that that would undermine the quality of the compositions. However, the band proves they can rock out if they want to. Opening track ‘Awakenings’ is the perfect Arena Rock opener both musically and lyrically, with especially Hinkel’s guitar themes between the verses giving me euphoric goosebumps. The sultry ‘Lena’ has Freudenthaler seemingly on his knees begging the titular woman to give him another chance to a powerful backing with a somewhat southern European flair, while the U2-ish light-and-shade contrast of ‘Spirit ’91’ is quite likely the band’s most socially critical moment yet.

As with many albums in this style, there’s quite a large number of ballads. Luckily, most of them are pretty good. ‘Sandy’ is borderline cheesy, but the darker section with a fantastic guitar solo by Hinkel and Freudenthaler’s passionate delivery save it, while the short acoustic ‘You’re Not Forgotten’ is simply beautiful. One of the album’s absolute masterpieces, however, is the title track. The song evokes an atmosphere of being in a smokey Jazz café near closing time and Freudenthaler is once again on fire. The way this song works towards its climax is a compositional triumph.

Sonically, the album is treated exactly the way it should be. For Ralf Wochele’s drums, the perfect balance between Rock’s force and Pop subtlety of his playing is reflected in the way they are produced and the way Thomas Mangold’s bass is often doubled with Roland Röhl’s synths works fantastically. There’s a lot of room for the vocals, but not in a way that distracts from the fantastic music.

Fool’s Garden is still around today – minus the apostrophe – and they’re still creating expertly written music with prominent British influences. And while all of their albums are fantastically crafted Pop records, ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ is still the one I hold in highest regard both sentimentally and musically. The album is quite hard to find these days, but definitely worth tracking down. It’s been making my life better for almost two decades now and if you like good Pop and Rock music, that will quite likely be the case for you as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Awakenings’, ‘The Part Of The Fool’, ‘Once In A Blue Moon’, ‘Lena’