Archive for February, 2016

Album of the Week 08-2016: Merry – Peep Show

When I was exploring the many bands that comprise the Japanese Rock scene, Merry quickly became one of my favorites. Why? Because the country is full of bands imitating the bigger acts, while Merry has a strange, but appealing sound that is truly and uniquely their own. Shreds of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Punk, Jazz, Metal and Blues come together to forge a sound that is distinctly retro, but nonetheless highly original. Count to that the fact that their visual act is better thought out than just “look at us, we’re sexy vampires from the future!” and you’ve got a winning combination.

‘Peep Show’ was the first Merry album I listened to due to its relatively easy availability in Europe and it’s still quite likely my favorite, because it highlights the more melodic and catchy side of the band. Aside from ‘PLTC’, the heavy and aggressive side of the band is downplayed considerably here. That doesn’t mean the record isn’t energetic. On the contrary; it’s quite impossible to not be if you’ve got one of the wildest drummers of the country in Nero. Also, the tempos are generally high. It’s just that the strong retro aspect allows the record to shine in the songwriting department.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the beginning of the record; after the nice bombastic horns of the titular intro track follows what is quite likely the best succession of three songs on any Merry record. ‘Kyousou Carnival’ does a great job of introducing the album’s sound of high velocity, but not too distorted guitars courtesy of Kenichi and Yuu and swinging rhythms, after which ‘Sentimental Newpop’ – with its wonderfully teasing lead guitar theme and intense chorus – and the highly infectious ‘Sayonara Ame (Rain)’ – with its unforgettable chorus and brilliantly accented rhythm – perfect it.

Don’t get the impression the album is frontloaded though. The rest of the album is filled with Merry greatness. ‘Kousou Bilu No Ue De Last Dance’, ‘Mado Kara Nigeta Love Song’ and the two ‘Peep Show’ interludes feel like restaurant Jazz on steroids, ‘Bluescat’ feels like an old school swing single played at 45 RPM, ‘Retro Future’ and ‘Ringo To Uso’ beg to be sung along and closing track ‘Mousou Rendez-Vous’ ups the intensity to remind you to put on the record again. All of this with what is likely the best vocal performance I have ever heard out of Gara.

Merry is truly something else. I’m not just saying that to emphasize their quality, but rather to emphasize their uniqueness. There’s really no other band that sounds like Merry and therefore, it’s sort of hard to describe their sound even after hearing it. But a fact is that it’s good. What I especially appreciate is that their approach is a little wilder than the relatively measured approach that is common for Japanese bands. Really any release of theirs is worth your time, but while I commend the band for their continuous experimentation, ‘Peep Show’ is definitely the record that has all their strengths at the front.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sayonara Ame (Rain)’, ‘Sentimental Newpop’, ‘Bluescat’

Slagwerkkrant featuring my interview with Pauw

Even though I don’t contribute to as many issues of the Slagwerkkrant than I do to Gitarist – which would be technically impossible anyway, given that Gitarist is released twice as much per year – I am always happy to interview for them. Especially when the conversations are as nice as the one I had with Rens Ottink from the Dutch psychedelic band Pauw. He’s a very friendly guy and it was fun to talk about his vintage drumkits and some of the recording tricks he used for the band’s debut album ‘Macrocosm Microcosm’. What tricks? I guess you’ll just have to buy the Slagwerkkrant; it’s in stores now.

And if you’re enthusiastic about drumming; what are you waiting for? There’s loads of product tests, as well as interviews with the likes of Dream Theater’s Mike Mangini and Madonna’s drummer Brian Frasier Moore, while Mark Guiliana talks about his contributions to David Bowie’s last record ‘Blackstar’. I despise Bowie’s music – no, I’m not among the hordes of people who suddenly like him now that he passed away – but even I found it an interesting read. Oh and before I forget: the Noorderslag feature has two photos that I took and includes my reviews on the showcases of Typhoon, Jett Rebel and the aforementioned Pauw.

Album of the Week 07-2016: Myrath – Legacy

Probably the most impressed I have ever been by an opening act was when I went to see Orphaned Land in 2011. The second band of the evening was this amazing Tunisian band called Myrath and I basically liked them as much as I liked Orphaned Land. I bought ‘Desert Call’ and ‘Tales Of The Sands’ immediately and have loved the band ever since. It’s been four and a half years since the latter came out, but there finally is a worthy follow-up to that brilliant record. ‘Legacy’ – the English translation of their name – is a fantastic work of Orientally tinged Metal.

Style-wise, Myrath is located somewhere right in the middle of the grey area between Power Metal and progressive Metal, of which the respective border patrols are Kamelot and Symphony-X. What makes the band so unique though are the overtones of Ma’luf music. The beautiful Arabic string arrangements and – to a lesser extent – percussion are very much indebted to that form of traditional Tunisian music. And because ‘Legacy’ is highly melodic – even moreso than Myrath’s past efforts – there’s quite some room for those amazing string arrangements alongside the riffy Power/Prog and brilliant, larger than life choruses.

The increased melodicism doesn’t mean there’s no room for the heavy riff work normally associated with Progmetal; ‘The Unburnt’ and ‘The Needle’ could easily compete with any Prog giant -and win! – but Myrath obviously knows their strengths and makes sure they allow enough room for them. They know that their impeccable melodies don’t need a busy, claustrophobic bottom and when you have an unbelievable singer like Zaher Zorgati – who sounds like the Arabic cousin of Mats Levén and Roy Khan – you need to give him the freedom to excel. Each musician is extremely proficient at their instrument, they have just chosen to not let that get in the way of their amazing songwriting.

Opening track ‘Believer’ was the first track to surface and it represents the album quite well; it’s upbeat, the riffs and strings are in perfect balance and the chorus is huge and infectious. Typical for Myrath is the positive, hopeful vibe that most of the songs have. The powerful ‘Through Your Eyes’ and the delightfully dynamic ‘Get Your Freedom Back’ are perfect examples. Having said that, the latter half of the album does contain a few songs that have a darker vibe, the best of which are the moving ‘Duat’, the melancholic and passionate ‘Nobody’s Lives’ (with a beautiful chorus in Arabic) and the excellent bonus track ‘Other Side’.

While progressive Metal is stuck in a state where it isn’t all that progressive anymore – aping Dream Theater is not progressive – it’s always good to hear a band with a fresh take on the genre. I’ll admit: my weak spot for Arabic melodies does influence my opinion a little, but it’s a fact that Myrath consists of five amazing musicians who know how to write a great song. ‘Legacy’ is their third masterpiece – out of four, and debut album ‘Hope’ was quite good as well – and it should be heard by anyone. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off to Zoetermeer to see them open for Symphony X tonight!

Recommended tracks: ‘Through Your Eyes’, ‘Get Your Freedom Back’, ‘Nobody’s Lives’, ‘Duat’

Album of the Week 06-2016: Obscura – Akróasis

Contemporary Death Metal worries me. Many bands these days either make Melodeath without balls, dizzying technical Death Metal without any semblance of structure to hold on to or something so buried in groove that there’s none of the aggression the genre is known for. From the beginning of their career, Germany’s Obscura has managed to be aggressive, melodic, complex and somewhat catchy all at the same time, which is exactly why I consider them to be one of the best contemporary Metal bands. And despite major lineup changes, frontman Steffen Kümmerer has maintained the band’s dynamic sound on their brand new album ‘Akróasis’.

While the album still sounds like Obscura, the band does steer their course in a slightly different direction. The influence of Chuck Schuldiner’s Death is more than obvious – though Obscura has never sounded as much as a blatant copy as Kümmerer’s other band Thulcandra does to Dissection – but Sebastian Lanser’s drum patterns are less busy than those of his renowned predecessor Hannes Grossmann and the first contributions bassist Linus Klausensitzer did to the band’s songwriting (‘The Monist’ and ‘Ten Sepiroth’ in particular) take the band to a downtuned aggression previously unheard of. Luckily without forsaking their signature melodicism.

As a result, ‘Akróasis’ immediately sounds like Obscura, but may take a few spins to fully reveal itself. Not unlike on Textures’ new record, the band has made the atmospheric sections blend with the heavier – and extremely memorable – riffs and the dynamics that are highlighted through increased use of the acoustic guitar make the record a pleasant surprise even after you’ve heard it several times. And then it’s an amazing pleasure to blast through the pleasant aggression of opening track ‘Sermon Of The Seven Suns’ or the smack in the face that is every new riff in ‘Perpetual Infinity’.

Somewhat obligated if you’re a band with strong progressive tendencies is a long suite that moves through many different sections. Fifteen minute closing track ‘Weltseele’ is the first instance where Obscura dives into that head first and they do it exceptionally well. Easily the best song on the record, it builds from a tranquil intro toward a more typical Obscura song, before incorporating beautifully arranged strings into the second half of the composition. It’s an unlikely, but ultimately rewarding mixture of violent riffing and ominous atmosphere without ever turning into a virtuoso showoff piece for anyone, which is an admirable feat by itself.

‘Akróasis’ is somewhat harder to get into than breakthrough album ‘Cosmogenesis’ was, but if you like your Death Metal melodic and on a technically high level, this is an album not to be missed. Obscura continues to take intelligent Death Metal further down the path that Chuck Schuldiner paved for them and they do it well. Kümmerer is the last one to deny Schuldiner’s influence; I remember him saying “we totally ripped off Death for this one” before playing ‘Incarnated’ in concert once. But I see them as more than mere copies; Obscura is the evolution of technical, yet highly melodic Death Metal. If that’s what you like, ‘Akróasis’ is strongly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Weltseele’, ‘Sermon Of The Seven Suns’, ‘The Monist’

Album of the Week 05-2016: Gargoyle – Tenron

Even for bands that have a consistently awesome output, there are sometimes moments that the stars align just right. Japanese experimental Thrash monsters Gargoyle have had quite a few of those moments, but ‘Tenron’ is arguably the pinnacle for the original recording lineup of the band, which dissolved shortly after the release of the album. It’s one of those records where every song hits just the right notes and where the first listen is every bit as enjoyable as the umpteenth one. A masterpiece of Thrash Metal that is as vicious as it is melodic, entertaining and sometimes even surprising.

Very little subtlety kicks off the record when you hear Kiba’s gruff bark introducing the chorus to the spectacular opening track ‘Shinpan No Hitomi’ a capella. It pulls you right into the album – by the throat – and doesn’t let you go until it’s over. Sure, Gargoyle has a tendency to take Thrash Metal far beyond its traditional boundaries and with such an amount of variation, some tracks are bound to please the listener more than others, but as far as consistency goes, ‘Tenron’ is one of their better works. Even the goofy track ‘Amoeba Life’ (with a Country guitar solo!) is amazing.

Stylistically, ‘Tenron’ isn’t even that remarkable of a Gargoyle album, but everything that makes the band work is just turned up to eleven. The traditional funky track (‘Doumu Lullaby’) is more intense than its earlier counterparts, the slower, doomy track (‘Hikari To Yami No Monogatari’) is incredibly atmospheric and has just the right riffs in the right places (not to mention a downright amazing guitar solo courtesy of Sheja) and while it just barely misses out on the genius of ‘Cogito, Ergo Sum’ (the original) and ‘Yakusoku No Chi De’, ‘Inochi Yukashi Inochi Nagashi’ is a fantastic, brooding ballad with amazing guitar work.

However, Gargoyle is at its best when they’re firing on all cylinders and churning out Thrash grenades like the annihilating closer ‘Haretsu Ganbou’ or the mind-blowing ‘Ame Ni Mo Makezu’, the latter being responsible for making me the rabid Gargoyle fan I am these days. The aforementioned ‘Shinpan No Hitomi’ fits that category as well, although Sheja’s neoclassical flourishes and Toshi’s remarkably catchy bass lines put the song in a more melodic league. ‘Gekka Ranshou’ brings all of the influences together in an epic Heavy Metal track with a haunting guitar intro and a myriad of pummeling riffs and soaring melodic themes.

‘Tenron’ is definitely a fine place to start if you want to get yourself acquainted with the crazy world of Gargoyle. I think it would be fair to warn you that their world is highly addictive though. Especially because their music has more depth than it may reveal initially. There’s the exploration of styles, there’s a bassist that plays unconventional bass lines, but somehow makes it work, there’s a barking singer that holds his own remarkably well even in ballads and beneath all the riff and lead guitar violence, there’s one of the most vicious Thrash drummers in the world. And so – again – a Japanese band has lifted a traditionally western art form far above its accepted limitations.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ame Ni Mo Makezu’, ‘Gekka Ranshou’, ‘Shinpan No Hitomi’