Archive for May, 2016

Show & Tell: Top 10 Dir En Grey songs

“What does Dir En Grey sound like then?” Only very few questions are more frustrating to me as a reviewer, whose job it is to describe music along with my opinion, because the difficulty I have describing them suggests inability for me. Admittedly, they’re not the only Japanese band that is difficult to describe, but how do you classify a band that keeps changing styles with each album without ever sounding like a different band? They’re a crazy band with a crazy singer. And they’re fairly loud and unsettling, despite the presence of a few calmer moments. That’s as close as a description comes.
“What does Dir En Grey sound like then?” Only very few questions are more frustrating to me as a reviewer, whose job it is to describe music along with my opinion, because the difficulty I have describing them suggests inability for me. Admittedly, they’re not the only Japanese band that is difficult to describe, but how do you classify a band that keeps changing styles with each album without ever sounding like a different band? They’re a crazy band with a crazy singer. And they’re fairly loud and unsettling, despite the presence of a few calmer moments. That’s as close as a description comes.

Nothing could describe Dir En Grey’s music more adequately than the actual music. So for those of you who don’t know them, let these ten Dir En Grey songs at least provide some guidance to help you get an approximate idea of their sound. Or at least the scope of their sound. Newcomers should know that their mid-period (‘Vulgar’, ‘Withering To Death’ and ‘The Marrow Of A Bone’) may be somewhat underrepresented here, simply because I don’t enjoy that era quite as much as their earliest work or their recent material. There’s still a handful of excellent ballad-like tracks on those records though.

P.S.: While it took more time to put this post together than any former entry, I rather enjoyed doing this. As a result, you can expect more of these.

10. Zan (Gauze, 1998)

Dir En Grey’s debut album ‘Gauze’ was recorded in two sessions. About half of the album was self-produced and recorded in Tokyo, while the other half was recorded in Los Angeles under supervision of X-Japan drummer and main man Yoshiki Hayashi. The latter session was defined by the highly melodic, almost Poppy sentiments of the album… And ‘Zan’. While it’s not the only aggressive moment on the record, its high speed riffing and Shinya’s almost constant Thrash polkas make it the most high adrenalin, destructive experience on ‘Gauze’. The extremely noisy guitar lead and Kyo abandoning all sanity in his performance do the rest. The song is obviously supposed to frighten its listener as well, but I’m not sure if people who listen to Dir En Grey are that easily scared. A remake was released in 2011 and it’s probably the re-recording that stays closest to the original, despite Kyo trading his insane delivery for a deep grunt. It’s slightly tighter than the original, but I still take the original over the new version.

9. Ruten No Tou (Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)

AllMusic contributor Thom Yurek described ‘Ruten No Tou’ as a ballad subverted by multi-textured Pop and Power Metal. As an adamant fanatic of the latter genre, I don’t actually hear it, but it is a downright excellent composition in which expertly layered and haunting guitar melodies with a beautiful clean guitar sound are contrasted quite heavily by the progressive Death Metal of the middle section. That chorus is among the most passionate that Dir En Grey ever recorded and most definitely the most memorable on the highly inaccessible ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Since that album features the band at its most brutal and complex, especially the calmer, more melodic moments stand out. ‘Lotus’ is another excellent example from the same album, but this closing track is rightfully the apotheosis of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. It’s also one of the very few songs the band recorded an acoustic version of that is worth hearing. If you’re curious, you can find it on the ‘Sustain The Untruth’ single from 2013.

8. Rasetsukoku (Macabre, 2000 or Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)

Easily my favorite of the band’s more aggressive songs. I’m probably not the only one, because it’s the only song from the earliest days that still appears on Dir En Grey setlists quite regularly. In fact, they often close their encores with it. The original version on ‘Macabre’ is my favorite, as it’s got a much more energetic vibe than the heavily downtuned remake on the limited edition of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Especially Kyo’s rabid vocal performance. Because of its strong Hardcore influence and slight industrial edge, ‘Rasetsukoku’ wouldn’t have felt out of place on an early Prong record. When Shinya omits the snare drum from his patterns during the passages between the verses, the rhythm has an almost electronic feel that shouldn’t work with such a heavy, riffy song, but it does. Fun fact: the title of the track translates to “man eating devil country’, which is the name China gave to Russia during the era of the last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty if you’re keeping score). It fits the Russian theme that pops up on ‘Macabre’ every now and then.

7. Mushi (Kisou, 2002)

In many ways, ‘Kisou’ is the most emotionally raw record that Dir En Grey has ever recorded. As dense and heavy some of their more recent work is, that’s how open and straightforward ‘Kisou’ is. These compositions strike a nerve emotionally and the stripped down approach only emphasizes that. Just check out the compelling ballad ‘Mushi’. Kyo’s hyper passionate performance in the video above sort of already gives that away, but even on the studio recording, the vocal melody in the chorus is profoundly sad. But the delicate acoustic guitar melody greatly contributes to the fragile nature of the composition as well. It is probably the most acoustic song the band ever recorded; the only electric guitar is the sparse, haunting solo that Kaoru closes the track with. ‘Zakuro’ from ‘Macabre’ comes close in style and quality. It’s pretty much the mirror opposite of the almost claustrophobic songwriting on ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, but that’s the fun thing about Dir En Grey: every album is basically a reaction to the one that came before. The only other band I’ve seen that with so distinctly is The Gathering.

6. Cage (Gauze, 1998)

During the early phases of Dir En Grey’s career, they were basically the more experimental answer to the Visual Kei scene. More melodic than their later work, more versatile than the average J-Rock band. That doesn’t mean that the material isn’t worth hearing though. In fact, ‘Gauze’ is probably my favorite Dir En Grey album together with ‘Uroboros’. The soaring melodies are fantastic, Kyo’s vocals are generally clean and amazing, the production is bright and the choruses basically scream to be sung along even if you don’t know any Japanese. What is most notable, however, is the amount of space there is for Toshiya’s melodic, jumpy bass lines. There’s even a bass solo in this song, but the way he carries the melody of the main section even moreso than the guitars – it first occurs right after that musical box intro – is simply amazing. For me personally, that defines ‘Gauze’ even more than the almost poppy songwriting approach; Toshiya’s really going for the depth rather than the highs these days.

5. Yokan (Gauze, 1998)

Those who discovered the band after their breakthrough in the west with their crushingly heavy sound and borderline disturbing visuals may be surprised to hear how upbeat some of their oldest material sounds. ‘Jessica’ is probably the happiest sounding song they have, but ‘Yokan’ from their excellent debut ‘Gauze’ sounds fairly cheerful as well. I’ve been told the lyrics are still rather dark, but I couldn’t factcheck due to my practically non-existing command of the Japanese language. What I can judge though, is that amazingly bright sound of Die’s clean guitar. Also, I love the way his rhythm part interacts with Kaoru’s in the verses, though the above live version from 2014 highlights that moreso than the original album version. The uncharacteristically Bluesy guitar solo – again courtesy of Die – is excellent as well and Kyo’s performance on this song is just perfect. While ‘Yokan’ may be a bit too Poppy for fans of the brutal direction Dir En Grey took recently, it’s simply a beautiful song that bears all the merits of the band’s early sound.

4. Un Deux (Arche, 2014)

After the technically impressive, but sometimes indecipherable songwriting on 2011’s ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, I was happy to see the band compose some more distinguishable tracks for its follow-up ‘Arche’. When you listen to the album’s lead-off track and highlight ‘Un Deux’, you can hear two decades of musical experience come together in one track. Despite its limited length and catchier approach, it’s still rather progressive by nature. Quite a lot happens within those three minutes musically and dynamically while unsurprisingly, I find it a significant improvement that Kyo is singing clean more often. I find the riff work brilliant, but the rhythm section does something even more important by keeping things as open as possible. When I interviewed Kaoru and Shinya around the release of ‘Arche’, they said they were aiming to write material that was a little easier to translate to the stage and since I’ve seen them live on that tour, I can only confirm that it works. But it works pretty damn good on record as well!

3. Macabre (Macabre, 2000 or The Unraveling, 2013)

For a song that is well over ten minutes long – or even over sixteen for the re-recording on the limited edition of the 2013 EP ‘The Unraveling’ – ‘Macabre’ is surprisingly tightly structured. Sure, there’s a vaguely abstract section around the five minute mark, but overall, there’s a clear verse-chorus structure. Therefore, the length of the song is rather determined by the fact that it slowly unfolds. As for the 2013 remake, which is easily the best reinterpretation of their older songs, it adds a somewhat dissonant segment as well as a few extended solo sections that truly highlight the melodic quality of Kaoru and Die’s playing. Love the twin solo, but that will hardly surprise anyone who knows me. The transitions in guitar sounds are as seamless as they get. Just check out that beautiful clean guitar tone in the 2013 live version above. And let’s not forget that strong beat that drives the song; these may not be Shinya’s most technically demanding parts, but among his most impressive performances. All things combined, simply an excellent song.

2. Ware, Yami Tote… (Uroboros, 2008)

When Kyo’s lyrics aren’t plain disturbing, they’re often deeply depressive. Perfect material for dark, moody ballads. That’s also when there’s most room for Kyo’s wide range to excel. However, Kyo’s amazing vocals aren’t the only reason why ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’ is the ultimate Dir En Grey ballad. Kaoru and Die weave a beautiful tapestry of acoustic guitars and when the first full-on distorted riff enters, Shinya’s subdued percussion keeps it from being one of those cliché power ballad climaxes as we have heard them a million times before. If anything qualifies as an actual climax, it would be Kyo’s bone chilling scream, but the lack of actual release following the tension is one of the song’s greatest merits; instead, more layers are gradually added to the dark, somewhat unsettling atmosphere of the song. On any contemporary progressive record, this would easily have been the absolute highlight. ‘Uroboros’, however, has one other trick up its sleeve…

1. Vinushka (Uroboros, 2008)

A contemporary Progmetal masterpiece. Quite ballsy to start off their amazing ‘Uroboros’ album with this highly complex slow burner of a track, but it is likely the most complete representation of the band’s range. There’s a dark, unsettling atmosphere and within ten minutes, the band excels in both acoustically based melancholy and the two violent explosions of Death Metal in the middle and at the end of the song. That’s where you can hear Kyo go from his soothing cleans to one of the deepest and most frightening grunts ever recorded without effects. I personally have a strong preference for his cleans, but it really emphasizes the shifting dynamics. Shinya’s timing is interesting; while the time signatures are fairly common, he unconventional way he times his beats creates a great deal of tension within the composition. And when the guitars envelop you, you’ll realize this isn’t so much a song as it is a deeply immersive experience. Warning: the video contains footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims that some may find shocking.

Album of the Week 21-2016: Dir En Grey – Uroboros

Ever since Dir En Grey singer Kyo discovered he possessed an almost inhuman grunt, the band’s music grew increasingly heavier to accomodate this quality. Despite the presence of a couple of excellent ballads, they took it too far on ‘The Marrow Of A Bone’. Being the type of band they are, follow-up ‘Uroboros’ is a reaction to that. It retains the heavy elements, but the key word here is balance. More ambtious songwriting and the perfect light-and-shade dynamics in both the music and Kyo’s vocals make it the most progressive Dir En Grey record to date. Possibly also their best.

Ambition is something that never eluded the Japanese quintet, but ‘Uroboros’ opens – after excellently setting the mood with an intro called ‘Sa Bir’ – with their most impressive song to date. ‘Vinushka’ is the type of song any progressive band would want to write; the way the acoustic guitars fuse with the tastefully layered electric guitars, Kyo’s dreamy vocal lines and the interesting accents in Shinya’s drums is unequalled. And that heavy passage contains such amazing riff work by Kaoru and Die! A listening experience that is progressive in the purest definition of the term, yet sounds nothing like all these Dream Theater clones.

‘Uroboros’ lasts slightly over an hour and while after ‘Vinushka’ only eleven and a half minutes have passed, you will be sufficiently absorbed to be taken away on the gloomy atmosphere of the record. Because no matter how impressive the individual performances of the musicians are, albums of these are defined by their atmosphere. And what is all the more impressive: no matter how abrupt shifts like the one from the maniacal aggression of ‘Reiketsu Nariseba’ to the absolutely stunning ballad ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’ are, they make sense and never disrupt the flow of the record.

Being a fan first and foremost of the more melodic side of the band, my personal highlights of ‘Uroboros’ are the beautifully arranged (semi-)ballads on the record: the subtle ‘Toguro’, the almost Linkin Park like (sans rap, of course) ‘Glass Skin’, the semi-psychedelic ‘Dozing Green’, closing statement ‘Inconvenient Ideal’ and most of all the aforementioned ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’. However, fans of the band’s heavy side will also be treated with tracks like ‘Bugaboo’, ‘Gaika, Chinmoku Ga Nemuru Koro’ and ‘Stuck Man’, the latter of which is carried by Toshiya’s most funky bass line to date. Tracks like ‘Red Soil’ and ‘Doukoku To Sarinu’ find the ideal middle ground.

Of course, ‘Uroboros’ isn’t for everyone. It’s inaccessible, it’s highly unpredictable and it could be a tad disturbing at times, but let’s be honest: nobody ever really loves a totally inoffensive record. For me, this album is truly a work of art that should be heard at least once by anyone who likes Rock or Metal. Though it lacks the distinct J-Rock leanings of their earliest works, I think it is the most complete representation of Dir En Grey’s versatile, nearly indescribable sound. It is a record that has to be heard in order to be understood. Don’t let me keep you from doing so!

Recommended tracks: ‘Vinushka’, ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’, ‘Toguro’

Album of the Week 20-2016: Vektor – Terminal Redux

Despite frequently being labeled as a Voivod rip-off, Vektor is one of the most unique bands in contemporary Thrash Metal. Sure, they borrow heavily from the Sci-Fi themes and dissonant chord work of their Canadian heroes, but Vektor plays (much) faster, writes more intricate material and adds quite a few traces of extreme Metal to the mix. After a five year break, the band finally released their third album ‘Terminal Redux’ and boy, it’s a good one! Strangely, it is simultaneously Vektor’s most progressive and their most accessible album. Longer songs, but also stronger hooks. Unbelievable, but the absolute truth.

It’s also their best produced album yet and that contributes significantly to the listenability of ‘Terminal Redux’. Unlike many modern Thrash bands, Vektor’s riffs are generally located relatively high on the necks of their guitars, so the fact that the sound isn’t quite as trebly as before really is a step forward. The riffs have more balls than ever before, Blake Anderson’s snares no longer blast through your ear drums and David DiSanto’s lead vocals – a perfect blend of Dani Filth and Sadus frontman Darren Travis – suddenly don’t feel quite as shrill as they did on the first two albums anymore.

However, none of this would be relevant if the actual music wasn’t so damn good. Technical Death Metal bands should pay close attention to Vektor. Not only because they successfully incorporated the best aspects of Chuck Schuldiner’s Death – the vortical guitar leads and the full-on riff assault – into their music, but also because they know how to write a highly complex song with what feels like a hundred riffs without ever sacrificing the hungry energy and boundless aggression essential to Metal. No matter how technical and intricate the compositions get, Vektor’s main purpose is still to get you to bang your head.

While ‘Terminal Redux’ is best listened to in one sitting – believe me, those 73 minutes are over before you know it – there are still some standout moments. Naturally, those are generally the ones that deviate somewhat style-wise. The relatively straightforward ‘Ultimate Artificer’, for instance, is one of the most memorable cuts on the album. Easily the most notable song is the highly Pink Floyd-esque ‘Collapse’, which despite a few monumental twin guitar harmony climaxes is largely built on beautiful clean guitar parts. Speaking of which, the clean guitars are better and larger in number than ever. ‘Cygnus Terminal’, ‘Pillars Of Sand’ and the mammoth 13 and a half minute closer ‘Recharging The Void’ all alternate their intense riff work with clean bits. The instrumental ‘Mountains Above The Sun’ even consists almost entirely of them.

There’s a little something for anyone here: the almost unending riffing violence should please any Thrash Metal fan, the unpredictable songwriting should be a delight to any progressive Metalhead and the vocals and drums may even draw in some people who generally confine themselves to the more extreme segments of the genre. And what is most amazing is that they tackle every one of these approaches without ever compromising the others. That is quite an impressive feat. From the day I first heard them, I have labeled Vektor as promising. ‘Terminal Redux’ is the transition to simply excellent.

Recommended tracks: ‘Collapse’, ‘Ultimate Artificer’, ‘Psychotropia’

How to do Eurovision in the 21st century

Okay, so I’ve been fairly outspoken about my dislike of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Apparently, I surprised some of my friends and acquaintances with that, with those who like heavy music asking “well, what did you expect?” and those who don’t asking “what do you expect?”. Let me try and explain with some examples of the last ten years. Mind you, this is not a “How to win Eurovision” guide, because I think the composition and production teams have a fairly good idea of how to do that. I just want to give examples of what this year was lacking to be enjoyable. Largely in chronological order, unless it helps my point if I let that go.

Finland 2006: Lordi – Hard Rock Hallelujah

Much had been said about the Gwar-inspired costumes of Hard Rock monsters Lordi, with some feeling it mocked the overdressed Eurovision candidates. It probably did, but let’s admit it: the Finns shook the system in more ways than that. First of all, it was a departure from the sweeping, syrupy ballads and upbeat Eurodance numbers that the Contest was chock-full of. As a result, people that normally felt excluded watched the show and possibly even voted. Also, I don’t think the EBU complained about the extra viewers. And most importantly: ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ is a pretty damn catchy, Kiss-like song with amazing backing vocal arrangements in the chorus. Lordi puts up a good show without sacrificing the music. And it awoke Eurovision quite hard.

What can we learn? Shake the system!

Turkey 2008: Mor ve Ötesi – Deli

Mor ve Ötesi is one of the most beloved Rock bands in Turkey and it’s quite easy to understand why: they’re amazing. After Turkey decided to send more of their most successful Pop and Rock artists, they’ve had quite some Eurovision success both commercially and artistically. They won in 2003 with ‘Every Way That I Can’ by the always amazing Sertab Erener, but the biggest musical triumph is probably this strong, melodic Rock song in 2008. It combines powerful guitar riffs with a big chorus and disctinctly Middle Eastern vocal melodies. The Turkish lyrics are sort of a plus for me as well, because I love the soft sound of the language. Songs like these always have a longer life than just the Eurovision season, as the crowd response to this song continues to prove.

What can we learn? Turkey always delivers.

Finland 2008: Teräsbetoni – Missä Miehet Ratsastaa

Two years after winning Eurovision with a powerful Hard Rock tune, Finland again went against the grain and sent a full-on Heavy Metal song in Teräsbetoni’s ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’. And while it definitely underperformed, scoring only 35 points in the final, the fiarly obvious Manowar fans did show the European audience that there’s more to Heavy Metal than guttural vocals and rhythms that sound like the drummer is falling down the stairs. In fact, ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’ is melodic and catchy, while its galloping rhythms and triumphant feel make my Heavy Metal heart pound faster. Bonus points for the Finnish lyrics. Just for diversity’s sake, I think it’s good to include one or two songs like this in the Contest every year.

What can we learn? Heavy Metal rules!

Moldova 2009: Nelly Ciobanu – Hora Din Moldova

Gimmicky acts like the elderly Russians in Buranovskiye Babuski notwithstanding, women in Eurovision are typecast more than anyone. They’re all young. They’re pretty, but not allowed to be too sexy if they’re singing a power ballad. And not too threatening to traditional role patterns. Moldova’s Nelly Ciobanu was different. She wasn’t particularly old when she competed in her mid-thirties, but definitely older than the girls in their late teens and early twenties that are common now. And while I find her attractive, she’s not the standard cute, shy Eurovision girl. No, this woman is a powerhouse, a much more forceful presence than the men she’s performing with. Also, I loved ‘Hora Din Moldova’; what the chorus lacks in melodic quality, it more than makes up for in energy!

What can we learn? Women don’t have to be cute and shy to rule!

Turkey 2010: maNga – We Could Be The Same

Sadly, Turkey’s Eurovision reign sort of came to an end earlier this decade. Allegedly, differences about the way the Contest is organized are the cause of this, but I suspect that there’s a strong financial undertone to the whole conflict. Whatever the case, it’s really a shame that Turkey doesn’t take part anymore, because there’s always songs like the almost symphonic Rock of ‘We Could Be The Same’ by the immensely popular alternative Rock band maNga. Coming in second place, the song was even the biggest Eurovision success for Turkey after Sertab Erener won in 2003. It still can count on a lot of support from all over Europe which comes to prove what I’ve stated before: Turkish entries tend to outlast the Eurovision season by quite a stretch. And rightfully so.

What can we learn? Turkey ALWAYS delivers.

Switzerland 2011: Anna Rossinelli – In Love For A While

Although it finished dead last, one of the very few songs that stood out for me in the 2011 contest was Anna Rossinelli’s ‘In Love For A While’. While the song itself is a little lightweight, I still liked it. Rossinelli herself is a charming presence both vocally and in terms of charisma, while the song itself reminded me a little of Room Eleven’s less Jazzy work. It was in fact this lightweight approach that made it stand out; in a Contest dominated by massively produced power ballads and mind-numbing dance tracks, this lovely little song is a celebration of songwriting craftsmanship and has a busking atmosphere which gives it something very pure. It may not have performed well in terms of votes, but I do still remember it fondly all those years alter because it’s really, really good.

What can we learn? Dare to be different!

Germany 2011: Lena – Taken By A Stranger

Lena Meyer-Landrut was playing in front of a home audience back in 2011, because her performance of ‘Satellite’, a very decent upbeat Pop song, won the Contest a year prior. I have a strong suspicion that powers behind the scenes are working their magic to prevent that the same country wins twice in a row and apparently, so does Germany. Why else would they send the same singer with this much of a dark, brooding and highly inaccessible Electropop song? Don’t get me wrong, I love it! While all of the choruses in the last couple of years seem to be some sort of emotional explosion, ‘Taken By A Stranger’ constantly seems to suggest climaxes that never come. I think it’s brilliant. Also, Lena may very well have delivered the sexiest Eurovision performance ever here.

What can we learn? Hosting? Why not try something weird?

The Netherlands 2013: Anouk – Birds

This one is specifically aimed at my own country: send better artists. Why is Anouk’s ‘Birds’ so much better than any other song that The Netherlands submitted  recently – including, with all respect to the great band The Common Linnets and their number two entry with ‘Calm After The Storm’ a year later? That’s easy: because Anouk isn’t afraid to kick a few people in the shins. Almost litterally. The problem with bland, inoffensive music in general is that it attracts relatively little hate, but not much love either. Anouk is our prime Rock chick and was therefore frowned upon when selected, but she blew everyone away with a beautiful orchestral song and an amazing vocal performance. Let’s give De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig a shot. Or Within Temptation.

What can we learn? The Netherlands need to send more unconventional artists!

Greece 2013: Koza Mostra & Agathon Iakovidis – Alcohol Is Free

You know the drill: the Eurodance songs are love songs and the big power ballads are about world peace and harmony. But what if you’re an artist who is just in the game to give audiences – and presumably yourself – a good time? Then just compete! Seriously, Greece’s highly infectious, Ska and Greek Folk infused party anthem ‘Alcohol Is Free’ – ironically released in the middle of their humongous economic crisis – was so fun and free of pretense that it was one of the absolute highlights of the evening. The exuberant performance by Koza Mostra may have contributed to that as well. And it’s not just me: Greece ranked sixth in 2013. As a teetotaller, I would like to point out that I’m usually off cheaper than my friends who do drink, but don’t let that take away the fun.

What can we learn? It doesn’t always have to be profound.

Italy 2014: Emma – La Mia Città

Not unlike Nelly Ciobanu, Italy’s Emma Marrone broke with the “cute girls singing power ballads” tradition by channeling her inner Rock goddess. Her slightly hoarse voice undoubtedly cost her points, but I personally loved it. And look at her performance: it is one huge, overwhelming chunk of passionate energy. Though the composition of ‘La Mia Città’ isn’t too dissimilar from what is generally heard on Italian radio, it was by far the best entry by any of the “big five” in a long time. While some of the girls singing more danceable tracks also have a tendency to appear more forward, none of them are quite as strong a presence as Emma Marrone. She may have scared the traditional crowd though, because she astonishingly only got 33 points for this awesome track.

What can we learn? We need more ladies that can rock!

Austria 2014: Conchita Wurst – Rise Like A Phoenix

Just like the song that you don’t realize is not in English until halfway through, a controversial artist is standard fare for the Eurovision Song Contest. Two years ago, that artist was the “woman with the beard” – I still think he’s rather a guy in a dress – Conchita Wurst. And he won, by quite a margin, I might add. You know why? Because he had the amazing song and the unbelievable vocal quality to back it up. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ was a classic orchestral Eurovision ballad and an anthem for the LGBT community, that – let’s be honest here – makes up quite a large portion of the Eurovision demographic. Sure, the controversy and press before the ESC has been a lot of free publicity for Conchita, but that could just as well have backfired on him if his performance was poor.

What can we learn? Controversy works, but only with a good song.

Spain 2015: Edurne – Amanecer

And just when I thought ‘La Mia Città’ was a fluke for the “big five”, Spain presented itself with a song that was breathtaking in composition, production and performance. The cinematic scope of the song as well as Edurne’s powerful, moving vocal performance caught me completely by surprise. In addition, I have a lot of respect for artists that still sing in their native tongue, even though that is no longer required. To this day, I don’t get why this amazing piece of art – that goes for the song, the performance, the production, but also the visuals – didn’t get more than a meager 15 points in the whole voting process. Then again, Germany and host country Austria received no points at all, so it could be worse. Is there any movie that would like this song on its sountrack? It fits!

What can we learn? Nothing in particular, I just really like the song.

Georgia 2015: Nina Sublatti – Warrior

Remember that I said that women are supposed to come across shy and subdued in Eurovision? Enter Nina Sublatti, the woman who enchanted me so last year. Not only is she such a strong presence herself, her song ‘Warrior’ is a female empowerment anthem along the lines of the Destiny’s Child song ‘Survivor’, that it vaguely reminded me of – albeit it with a darker vibe reminiscent of Jim Steinman’s productions for The Sisters Of Mercy. There’s a lot of boiling aggression underneath the surface of the song and while that was unthinkable in the ESC in general a few decades ago, it still more or less frowned upon for female contestants. Every year, at least one woman who despises that and takes a stand against it should enter the finals an blow me away like Nina did.

What can we learn? Female empowerment anthems should be more common.

Album of the Week 19-2016: Ace Frehley – Ace Frehley

When all original Kiss members released their solo debuts on the same day – September 18th 1978, to be exact – critics viewed it as a cash grab. Given Kiss’ commercial track record, it probably was, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the music isn’t good. In fact, Paul Stanley’s and Ace Frehley’s albums are excellent. In Frehley’s case, it’s good to hear the guitarist in total creative control without the rest of the band watering his ideas down. The result is heavier than Kiss, but also highly versatile. It wasn’t the most accessible, but definitely justified as the bestseller of the four solo records.

Sure, Frehley wasn’t the best singer in Kiss – Paul Stanley is – but he definitely makes the best of his limited range here, delivering what is easily his most confident vocal performance to date. Frehley also wasn’t the best songsmith in Kiss – again, Paul Stanley is – but the adventurous seventies Hardrock sound on display here accounts for a really engaging listen. The guitar sound is heavier and more abrasive than on any Kiss record, but that doesn’t mean this is monotonous noise. Or even a typical solo record for a guitarist. On the contrary: ‘Ace Frehley’ is filled with interestingly written material.

‘New York Groove’, a Russ Ballard composition originally recorded by British Glam band, was the big hit from this record, but its Bo Diddley-rhythm is hardly representative of the album. While it’s true that no two tracks sound the same, the album shoots right out of the gate with the high octane Hardrocker ‘Rip It Out’ that gives a much better impression of what you’re about to hear: loud guitars, catchy choruses and thunderous drums courtesy of Anton Fig. Those elements are common, but the feel differs from track to track; ‘Speedin’ Back To My Baby’ is swinging Rock ‘n’ Roll, while ‘Wiped Out’ is heavy and unpredictable.

Interesting are the two songs with fairly obvious drug-influenced titles. ‘Snow Blind’ is built upon a crushing riff with an almost inverted shuffle rhythm and has a very memorable chorus, before bursting into a more exuberant, Rock ‘n’ Roll solo section. ‘Ozone’ is more progressive in its layering of acoustic and electric guitars – also done very well in the remarkably Poppy ‘What’s On Your Mind?’ – and its understaded chorus that almost sounds like a Buddhist chant. One of the riffs even reminded me of Black Sabbath’s amazing ‘Megalomania’. The other highlight is the instrumental ‘Fractured Mirror’; upon a fundament of clean guitars, Frehley displays some of his most fragile and melodically strong playing thus far and as such, the track is the perfect closing statement.

A solo album ideally highlights a side of an artist that isn’t quite as apparent in his main band. Because Frehley was never a leader in Kiss, his first solo record sounds quite different from what was his main band at the time, but the change is very welcome. ‘Ace Frehley’ is an excellent record that I prefer over any Kiss studio album except for maybe their debut. The Spaceman proves here that he had an abundance of great ideas lying around and they deserve to be heard by anyone who loves a good guitar-driven record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ozone’, ‘Fractured Mirror’, ‘Snow Blind’

My douze points for 2016

First off, congratulations to Ukraine’s Jamala for winning this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. While the song wasn’t really my taste – it had a little too much of a Björk vibe for my liking – at least it was something completely different than the large pool of homogenized Eurodance we got served this edition. Jamala’s song ‘1944’ had a dark vibe and a slightly surprising structure and although I doubt if that was of much concern to the average televoter, I do think the fact that the song stood out has worked in its favor. I can live with this more than with last year’s winner. Still, and I’ve said this many times before, Turkey and the EBC need to sort out whatever differences they have, so that Turkey can take part again. That’ll drive the average level up for sure.

Kudos to the moderators as well. And Petra Mede in particular. I think the presentation this year was a step away from the self-conscious air that it usually has, allowing for more irony and self-deprecating humor. That was a breath of fresh air. Also, separating the televoters from the jury results was an interesting development. Don’t get me wrong: the televoting section definitely needs some work done, but I have always been very interested especially how the jury votes. I still have a dream to one day write a Eurovision song and if that ever happens and I’d win the jury vote, I’d be quite pleased.

However, the improvement on the presentation side doesn’t excuse the insulting quality of the actual songs this year. As I’ve said before, quite a lot of songs sounded very similar – no doubt a result of the Swedish composition and production teams being in high demand – and I still can’t believe how so many people can fit so much repetition into three minute songs. It speaks volumes that Justin Timberlake, the interval act, was by far the highlight of the night. Having said that, I did manage to appreciate five songs – my six, sept, huit, dix and douze points, if you will – enough to list them here. I’d even like to throw in an honorable mention for Poland’s Michał Szpak; though I didn’t like his song ‘Color Of Your Life’, I thought his highly spirited performance is the best Polish singing I’ve heard since Czesław Niemen.

But I digress. Good evening Stockholm, Heerhugowaard calling. Here are the results from the alternative Dutch jury.

Bulgaria: Poli Genova – If Love Was A Crime

While I have a really nagging problem with ‘If Love Was A Crime’, I’d be lying if I said Poli Genova’s enthusiasm didn’t somehow rub off on me. Sure, the costume that lighted up has been sort of point of interest, but I really don’t care about things like that. Just the way she looked genuinely happy to be there was a much larger part of why I appreciated her performance. Her vocal approach really fits the song well. Having said that, the large amount of repetition got on my nerves, but I do appreciate the composers for not cramming the song with vocals and lyrics. Also, the addition of a Bulgarian line in the chorus is something I find charming. To be honest, I don’t recall Genova’s performance of five years ago, but I’m not complaining about her fourth place this year.

Hungary: Freddie – Pioneer

Admittedly, my appreciation for this song is mainly directed at Freddie’s powerful, rough-edged vocal performance rather than the song itself. ‘Pioneer’ does play with dynamics quite well by having a calmer bridge between bigger verses and choruses, but I am also an outspoken hater of whistling in songs – ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ is the only song I will make an exception for. But then there’s Freddie’s mighty roar that leads from the middle eight into the final chorus that made the hairs on my arms stand up in a very, very positive way. If I was part of his songwriting team, I would see if I could make some AOR tunes to fit his voice, because he has the potential to be Hungary’s answer to Michael Bolton or John Waite. He’d deserve it.

Georgia: Nika Kocharov & Young Georgian Lolitaz – Midnight Gold

BBC-host Graham Norton was right that the visual effects that were chosen for ‘Midnight Gold’ were embarrassing even in 1976, but the song itself is pretty good. I wasn’t surprised to see that the jury in the United Kingdom gave this song twelve points, because a large portion of the song has a distinct Oasis-like vibe. The main riff stomps along nicely, I dig the guitar sound and Nika Kocharov’s vocals fit the song really well, whilst forsaking the whiny tone that Britpop singers tend to have. Unlike the other Rock-ish track (Minus One’s ‘Alter Ego’ for Cyprus), the song didn’t get completely neutered by working on it with Thomas G:son. Not quite as good as Nina Sublatti’s ‘Warrior’ that should have won last year, but another impressive entry from Georgia.

Belgium: Laura Tesoro – What’s The Pressure

While 19-year old Laura Tesoro had the ungrateful task of kicking off the grand final, I was happy to see that the jury and to a lesser extent the televoters could appreciate the refreshing ‘What’s The Pressure’. Co-written by the amazing Selah Sue, the song has a distinct old school Disco vibe, almost Chic-ish in sound, which was a pleasant departure from the general sound of the night. If it came later, it may have disrupted the lazy Eurodance flow a little. Although I think Tesoro’s vocal performance was better during the semi-finals, I appreciate the energy with which she opened the night and the positive charisma she emitted. Also, I don’t know which musicians have played on this track, but I absolutely love the bass line that carries the song. Ten points!

Australia: Dami Im – Sound Of Silence

Explaining why a non-European country takes part would take too much time, but Dami Im’s ‘Sound Of Silence’ (no, not that song) was picked by the juries as the best song of the Contest by a landslide and I’m with them. Easily the best singer to take part this year, Im pulled me in with her powerful and spirited vocals. Im’s sober performance almost contrasted with her tremendous vocal presence, but that doesn’t hurt the entry one bit. ‘Sound Of Silence’ is well-written, if somewhat unspectacular, although I think there’s a very strong climax in the form of the song’s chorus. It may have been better if it didn’t try to blend the classic Eurovision balladry with a contemporary production, but it’s easy to forget that after Im’s chilling performance.

My Eurovision predictions for tomorrow

Somehow, my enthusiasm for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest isn’t quite as large as it was last year. This does sound as a no-brainer for a music fan whose usual preference is as far away from the three minute Pop songs from the Contest as it gets, but there’s always a couple of songs that I like and the rest has a certain entertainment value. I must admit that I haven’t been watching as attentively as I usually do, due to deadlines for Gitarist, but most of what I’ve seen was not good enough to be impressive, yet not bad enough to be hilarious. The first semi-final was of a significantly lesser quality than the second one on Thursday though.

As a result of the disappointing level of composition – or entertainment – my list of predictions will be a bit shorter than usual, but I’d still like to share a few with you and hope I’m not as wrong as I was last year.

Both non-European countries in the contest – Israel and Australia – will end up in the top 10. I think Australia’s Dami Im – a downright amazing singer – might even beat last year’s number 5 ranking.

Latvia’s Justs will finish last. Seriously, why did people even vote for the song? Second to last: Lithuania’s incredibly poor ‘I’ve Been Waiting For This Night’.

The United Kingdom will receive their highest ranking in ages. Not that Joe & Jake’s ‘You’re Not Alone’ is exceptional, but at least it’s better than anything they’ve done in the last few years.

Out of the “Big Five”, Germany will receive the highest ranking.

Belgium’s entry ‘What’s The Pressure’, co-written by the amazing Selah Sue, will get nowhere near as many votes as the refreshing tune deserves.

My guesses for the top 5, in no particular order: Russia, Armenia, Australia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

Purely based on statistic probability: this year’s winning entry will be sung by a female singer.

As always, I will report on my own top 5 – if I actually manage to find five decent songs – on the day after the Contest.

Album of the Week 18-2016: D’Angelo – Voodoo

With so much musical history, it’s almost impossible to still come up with something highly original. However, this was exactly what D’Angelo did with his sophomore record ‘Voodoo’. At the time, I sort of dismissed it – I was a narrow-minded teenage Hardrocker – as another contemporary R&B cash grab, but revisiting it many years later made me realize that it’s a brilliant record that totally deconstructs and reinvents groove. It’s like D’Angelo set out to give the Neo-Soul sound of the late nineties an unprecedented looseness to distinguish it from the electronic sounds that ruled the day. It was a resounding success.

Mainstream audiences will probably remember the record for the Soul ballad ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ and D’Angelo’s (almost) nudity in the video. What should be the reason to remember this record is the excellent, low-key musicianship of everyone involved. The Roots drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and current The Who bassist Pino Palladino certainly define a portion of the album with D’Angelo by their distinctive grooves, but even the lead singer and multi-instrumentalist himself isn’t at the forefront of ‘Voodoo’. It seems like the album is supposed to be relaxed and subdued and that gives it sort of a nocturnal aura.

Less song-oriented than debut album ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Voodoo’ is a slowburner of an album that reveals its secrets over repeated listens. While the influences of Prince and Marvin Gaye are more obvious in D’Angelo’s style, it’s quite clear that the self-contained nature of Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ has been highly influential to him. How else could you explain the sudden excellent jam that pops up at the end of ‘One Mo’gin’ – the main portion of which reminds me of The Isley Brothers’ rendition of ‘Fire And Rain’ – or the highly inaccessible nature of 90 percent of the material here?

Though ‘Voodoo’ is best listened to in its entirity, the album does feature a few stand-out tracks. ‘Chicken Grease’ is the track that really awakened my interest in the album; the teasing guitar riff and the way it builds towards its climax is more brilliant than most of what I was listening to when the record first came out. Another killer track is ‘Devil’s Pie’, which builds upon a massive, deep bass line and criticizes the greed in modern Hiphop, whilst sounding not unlike the genre. ‘Spanish Joint’ stands out in the way it fuses Funk with an almost South American feel, while closing track ‘Africa’ is a psychedelic Soul ballad somewhat reminiscent of what Prince did on ‘Parade’.

So the video to promote this record has unjustly stained my opinion of it – and severely damaged D’Angelo’s confidence in the process, which in itself delayed the release of the almost equally brilliant ‘Black Messiah’ to ‘Chinese Democracy’-like proportions. Revisiting the album prove to be a great idea; ‘Voodoo’ was the first true masterpiece of the 21st century – it was released in January 2000 – and it stood the test of time remarkably well. In fact, not many albums have even come close to rivaling it. It’s a remarkable reinvention of groove and an unbelievable exercise in low-key musicianship without sacrificing compositional quality. Simply excellent.

Recommended tracks: ‘Devil’s Pie’, ‘Chicken Grease’, ‘Africa’

My second cover story of the year

After seven years of not having any cover stories, I am proud to announce that the second Gitarist with a cover story of my making is in stores now. It’s about ‘Santana IV’, the brand new album that Santana recorded with a majority of the 1971 lineup, including Neal Schon. We didn’t get the chance to interview either Schon or Carlos Santana, but I drew up a profile that explains the relevance of Santana as a guitar player and reviewed the album in the process. As much as I would have loved to have interviewed them, this gave me a freedom as a journalist that I very much enjoyed, I hope it shows!

In addition, there’s an interview with Leif de Leeuw. A very nice guy who got elected best Blues- or Bluesrock guitarist in the Benelux by our readers. We had a nice conversation about the Leif de Leeuw Band’s downright fantastic debut album ‘Leelah’, the equipment he used to record that album and the versatillity he displays as a guitar player and a composer, since he doesn’t just play Blues. There’s a smaller interview I had with guitarist Ruud van Halder of Marutyri, who play some nice Funky Fusion, and there’s interviews from my colleagues with John Scofield, The Posies and John Petrucci. Plus loads of product tests and an album reviews section that I wrote almost entirely by myself.

So please, get over the fact that Carlos Santana looks like Muammar Gaddafi on the cover – as some of our readers have pointed out – and get it while it’s hot! I’m very proud of this issue for sure!

Album of the Week 17-2016: Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

Not much more than a week after the sad, unexpected death of Prince, there’s the general release of his 39th studio album ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’. It’s not entirely new; it already appeared on several streaming media, but the CD is still pretty much my favored method of listening to music. And my favored side of Prince is strongly highlighted on this release. Where ‘Phase One’ was much too electronic for my tastes, this album is full of Jazzy Pop brilliance and light, shimmering Funk grooves. Though it misses the urgency of his best work, it’s a final testament to the genius of Prince’s musicianship.

Essentially, the album compiles a handful of tracks that were released in one form or another, but since The Purple One’s preference for musical media had the tendency to change faster than the weather, it’s good to finally have them all in one place. Especially considering the strong thematic nature of the record; though it doesn’t exactly shy away from modern production techniques, ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’ is strongly focused on performances and stripped down arrangements. Even the less Funky tracks are highly rhythmic and generally sparsely instrumentated, a couple of bombastic climaxes notwithstanding.

Personally, I had only heard ‘Stare’ before the release of the album and that track made me hopeful. It’s the bare bones Funk base of – I suspect, the credits aren’t very hepful – bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer John Blackwell that drives this track forward, while the horns and Prince’s guitar and vocals add some cool accents. ‘2 Y. 2 D.’ is equally Funky, but has more of a Motown-like arrangement. The rhythm is irresistible and the horns are explosive. ‘Black Muse’ and the upbeat, Stevie Wonder-esque closing track ‘Big City’ are less urgent, but still delightful Funk-Lite, and ‘Xtraloveable’ sounds so much like Chic, that it surprised me Nile Rodgers wasn’t involved.

A lot has been said about the socially conscious lyrics of opening track ‘Baltimore’, but I’d still like to highlight the musical side of it all, because the song is as close to Pop perfection as it gets. Despite the heavy lyrics, the song’s light, breezy feel and excellent string arrangement are goosebumps material. ‘RocknRoll LoveAffair’ is equally light and well arranged, though with a slightly more eighties light Rock feel. The actual Rock factor is turned up a notch for the cheesy, but highly enjoyable ‘Screwdriver’, while ‘Look At Me, Look At U’ and ‘Revelation’ are excellent, seductive Jazz exercises, both featuring some mindblowing saxophone work. ‘Groovy Potential’ deserves a special mention; it’s not necessarily the album’s best track, but its fusion of early Disco and contemporary R&B is unlike anything I have ever heard.

Opinions on ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’ are divided, but while I wouldn’t quite name it the best Prince record since ‘Musicology’ – ‘Lotusflow3r’ and ‘PlectrumElectrum’ are too close to my heart for that – it is definitely Prince as I like to hear him best: with a strong focus on rhythmically engaging musicianship. It wasn’t meant as such, but ultimately, the album is an excellent closing statement to a musical output that is practically unbeatable in ambition and scope. And in the end, that’s the only true downside to the album: knowing there won’t be any more like this.

Recommended tracks: ‘Baltimore’, ‘2 Y. 2 D.’, ‘Stare’