Archive for June, 2016

Interview: Yama-B’s expressions of his own worlds

When exploring Japanese music, I encountered a lot of bands that I liked musically, but seemed to lack something in the vocal department. One of the first singers who really blew me away was former Galneryus and current Gunbridge singer Yama-B. A true powerhouse with an incredible range. These days, he supports guitar heroes Kelly Simonz and Iron-Chino, whilst still leading Gunbridge and his solo project Rekion. For a project I’m working on, Yama-B and I had an extremely pleasant conversation about his musical background, but also his plans for the future.

Our drummer Hideki left Gunbridge, but we have a new drummer called Tommy. In a few weeks, our bassist Naoya, who joined us after Toshiyuki left, will leave as well. I really want to get a good bassist, but if we can’t find one, I will play bass and sing. Also, I joined a charity project called Ana – Metal For Charity, lead by Marius Danielsen, the vocalist for Darkest Sins from Norway. I already finished recording my parts, so the newest song should be released in the near future.

You sing in surprisingly good English, but your work with Rekion is all in Japanese. What makes you decide in what language a song should be?

First, let me explain the difference between Gunbridge and Rekion. Gunbridge exists so I can express my Heavy Metal music, as European and American bands have inspired me to do. I wanted to have this big band sound, like the music I heard when I was a young boy. That’s why I sing in English in Gunbridge.
Rekion, on the other hand, is a very personal project. Rekion is not meant to be played by a band. The sound and lyrics come from the bottom of my heart and express my inner space. It’s much more introspective and therefore, I need to write the lyrics in Japanese. I prioritize musical themes in Gunbridge and personal insistence in Rekion.

So when you started to get serious with music, you were listening to western bands?

There is no doubt that I was influenced by European and American bands. My parents liked classical music and western popular music, so we usually checked the American hit charts. Many Heavy Metal bands were in the charts at that time. It was a great age, I think (laughs). I was fifteen years old at the time and truly inspired by Heavy Metal music.

Did your parents’ love for classical music influence your somewhat operatic singing style?

My mother was an operatic soprano who practiced her skills through personal lessons. I was very curious, so I always asked her: hey mom, how was today’s lesson? (laughs) That’s how I learned my vocal techniques from when I was fifteen to when I was about twenty years old.

Your music has brought you to Europe. How different are European shows from Japanese shows?

There really isn’t that much of a difference between Europe and Japan. My memories of Europe are very positive. Everything was handled very professionally and very politely. That was very comfortable for us. I like the European audiences, because they always make a lot of noise during the shows. That’s very powerful for me! Their screaming makes me excited. Japanese people are very quiet, you know? (laughs)

Japan is well known for its Visual Kei scene. Is there still so much animosity between that scene and the Heavy Metal scene?

Both scenes are still very separate. Visual Kei audiences don’t see Heavy Metal musicians, because Metal musicians aren’t cool to them. And Heavy Metal fans don’t like Visual Kei, because they think Visual Kei musicians get a huge fan base without any musical effort. In my opinion, they are both wrong. There are many cool musicians in Heavy Metal bands and there are many great players in the Visual scene. For example, mr. Syu, the guitarist, played in a Visual Kei band before we formed Galneryus. Also, Issy and Hayato, both guitarists in Gunbridge, played in Visual Kei bands before Gunbridge. There’s a part in both scenes where there is no border. Dir En Grey is very heavy and I feel there is a deep musical effort there. Do you know Versailles? Very progressive! Their music is very cool, I think.”

How important is the visual aspect for a “non-visual” musician like yourself?

I don’t need strange make-up, but I do think we have to dress up and decorate the stage to express our own world, our inner space, when we play on stage. With Gunbridge, we decorate the stage with some flags and a large backdrop. We like to make that effort.

You are known to be a big anime fan and can even be heard on a few soundtracks. What is it that makes anime and Heavy Metal work so well together?

Both express a world of their own with extreme deformation.

What artists inspire you these days?

These days, I don’t listen to cd’s much anymore. My friends, musicians I work with on stage or in the studio inspire me. I get a lot of encouragement from them. Kelly Simonz from Blind Faith or Iron-Chino from Iron Attack! and Lightning, for instance. They are great as composers, players and band leaders. Also, my best friend and great senior Eizo Sakamoto, from Aisenshi, Eizo Japan and previously in Animetal and Anthem.

Album of the Week 25-2016: Steve Hackett – Spectral Mornings

Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is to me one of those people who should consistently be mentioned in any list of guitar heroes, but somehow hardly ever is. Maybe it’s because he focuses on tasteful, melodically oriented leads rather than constant speedy runs, although the is perfectly capable of writing the latter. Another reason why he deserves all the praise he can get is the fact that his records are infinitely more listenable than those of any neoclassical shredder. Hackett is an excellent composer and though his consistent embrace of technology makes some of his efforts sound a bit dated, his third album ‘Spectral Mornings’ was his first masterpiece. Definitely worth a listen.

Like the vast majority of his solo records, ‘Spectral Mornings’ is a bit of a hodgepodge, which can make it sound a little uneven at times. It’s not completely fair to judge it by that, because he tackles every style on the album with an elegance and an expertise that makes it nearly impossible not to admire Hackett for it. Even the humorous, vaguely Carribean sounding ‘The Ballad Of A Decomposing Man’, which does stand out like a sore thumb in a way, because the rest of the record is such stately, progressive music.

The most important reason for me to love this record is opening track ‘Every Day’. It starts out reasonably poppy with a prominent role for Nick Magnus’ synthesizers and the excellent vocal harmonies Hackett shares with bassist Dik Cadbury and lead singer Pete Hicks, but it’s the second half that turns the whole song into gold. Lead by a myriad of fantastic melodies, these are quite likely the most beautiful three minutes of guitar music ever laid down on tape. Hackett’s playing is highly expressive, but the melodies are also extremely well-written. The backing by his band, Magnus especially, is subtle, but just right for the part.

So ‘Every Day’ starts the record off in a mindblowing fashion, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else to be enjoyed here. The closing title track is more proof that Hackett is an excellent guitarist who refuses to let his playing get in the way of the composition. ‘Clocks – The Angel Of Mons’ is another great instrumental built upon a strong recurring theme and features an overwhelming drum solo by John Shearer, which I suspect is double tracked. But even outside of his pastoral Progrock sound, Hackett and his band excel: ‘Last Time In Cordoba’ is a vehicle for the guitarist’s considerable skills on the classical guitar, while ‘The Virgin And The Gypsy’ highlights his Folk origins beautifully.

Anyone who doesn’t consider Steve Hackett a guitar hero obviously hasn’t heard him play. Maybe part of the “problem” is that the calm, sympathetic Brit has never had the ego to impose himself onto the audience as the next facemelting shredder, but his best records feature some of the most tasteful, pleasant guitar music ever made. And he’s still going strong. His three most recent studio records are every bit as good as this one, but if you’re looking for a way to get into the man’s impressive skills, look no further than the last three minutes of ‘Every Day’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Every Day’, ‘Spectral Mornings’, ‘Last Time In Cordoba’

Album of the Week 24-2016: Saber Tiger – Decisive

Yesterday and the day before, I was lucky enough to witness the first two concerts Saber Tiger ever gave on European soil. It’s hard to explain how happy that makes me, but Saber Tiger is the one band I never thought I’d have a chance to see without actually going to Japan. They never made the international impact that their peers Loudness and Anthem did, even though they’ve been vastly superior to either of them in recent years. In fact, ‘Decisive’ is one of my all time favorite records, because it combines everything that I love about Heavy Metal in general.

Guitarist Akihito Kinoshita has soldiered on with Saber Tiger since 1981 and has improved the band with each change. However, ‘Decisive’ marked the start of a significant leap forward, because it finally combines all of the band’s strengths: Takenori Shimoyama’s raw, passionate singing, the dual guitar attack of the intuitive Kinoshita and the somewhat more modern, technical Yasuharu Tanaka and the inventive riff work. In addition, newcomer Yasuhiro Mizuno’s very accomplished drum work offers the opportunity for a more contemporary, progressive approach – think Nevermore – to the band’s traditional Heavy Metal and Power Metal sound. The sound is energetic, melodic, unpredictable and just simply amazing.

Still in the phase of discovering the band, ‘At The Front’ was the song that won me over definitively and I still think it’s their best. It’s also the perfect example of the album’s strength: some of the rhythms and riffs contain more than a hint of Progressive Metal influences, but the melodies also have the dramatic elegance of classic Heavy Metal. This sense of drama is reflected well in the song’s lyrics and Shimoyama’s powerful performance. All the elements of this highly dynamic track complement each other, making the result even better than the sum of its parts.

What makes ‘Decisive’ stand out from many contemporary Metal records is that every song has a clear identity of its own. ‘Angel Of Wrath’ was a logical choice for a video because of its strong melodic sensibilities, ‘Avenger’ features one mind blowing riff after the other and opening track ‘The Hammer’ ups the intensity to almost Thrash levels. The main riff in ‘Bionic’ pushes the band into more modern, Pantera-like territory, something that works very well with the excellent lyrics courtesy of co-producer Fubito Endo. It’s amazing how much variation they crammed into this one hour album. That alone is worthy of your attention and quite likely the reason why it will hold your attention as well.

Every self-respecting fan of expertly written and executed Heavy Metal with excellent vocals should have ‘Decisive’ in his or her collection. It’s the work of a band looking to expand its boundaries and succeeding in it with an ease that I – as a songwriter – should envy, but instead, can’t stop listening to. It’s unbelievable how much the band continues to grow more than three decades into their career. ‘Decisive’ is an album that contains everything you could wish for as a Metal fan and more. And there may be a chance that Europe will finally get the chance to discover this amazing band. I’ll meet you there.

Recommended tracks: ‘At The Front’, ‘Angel Of Wrath’, ‘The Hammer’

Album of the Week 23-2016: Sven Hammond Soul – The Usual Suspects

When Sven Hammond Soul started out, they were a Hammond organ-based (don’t tell me that surprises you) instrumental Soul band reminiscent of Booker T. & The M.G.’s and maybe The Meters. Through a sort of horn-filled Soul revue approach, they eventually became the best Rock ‘n’ Soul band in the Netherlands. As a result, the band eventually dropped the “Soul” from the name, but this last record under the original name is where the shift towards more song-oriented material first happened. Having an amazing singer (Ivan Peroti) in the line-up and a Rock oriented producer (Tony Platt) may have influenced that, but whatever the case, the album is amazing.

‘The Usual Suspects’ has a distinct late sixties and early seventies vibe, but still sounds rather current. Platt’s clear and vibrant production helps a bit, but even moreso, the band knows how to write a good song without trying to get too caught up in becoming a period piece. There’s hints of Blues and Pop, larger parts of Soul, Funk and Rock and most impressively, those influences blend together seamlessly in a way that should please fans of any of those genres. It certainly feels like these songs came together without much concern of what genre it fits and the whole record profits from that.

It was the (almost) title track of this record that definitively won me over for the band. ‘The Usual Suspect’ has some nice riffs that don’t overpower the composition, a great vocal melody from Peroti and an amazing chorus. Try to imagine a mixture of The Black Crowes more concise songs and Tom Jones’ most Soulful material. But it’s hardly the only highlight on the record. ‘Happy People’ is nice and funky, ‘Children Of The Dark’ works towards the perfect climax that is the moving chorus and ‘Pussy’ compensates for its unfortunate title by being an instrumental track with all the band members firing on all Funk cylinders.

Although ‘Good Home’ is primarily a Funk track, drummer Joost Kroon seems to be channelling his inner John Bonham in a main section that is highly reminiscent of ‘Immigrant Song’, which pleases the Led Zeppelin fan that I am. ‘Heaven’ and especially the sparse closer ‘My Name’ give Peroti all the room he needs to prove his excellence as a singer. Guitarist Tim Eijmaal has plenty of moments throughout the record, but the relatively heavy Blues riff that ‘Bad News’ is built upon deserves a special mention. That simple, but brutally effective lead is pretty awesome too!

Even if you’re not primarily a fan of Soul music, you’d still do yourself a favor checking ‘The Usual Suspects’ out. It’s an extremely well written record featuring a band that takes full advantage from the fact that it consists of five top class musicians. Don’t be fooled though: Sven Hammond – with or without Soul – doesn’t get its kicks from blowing your mind with their technical prowess. Instead, they use their skills to give each and every song the treatment it needs to shine. The results are stunning.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Usual Suspect’, ‘My Name’, ‘Happy People’

Album of the Week 22-2016: Death Angel – The Evil Divide

New Death Angel records are the source of some inner conflict for me this decade. Since the departure of drummer Andy Galeon, I’ve been missing the non-Metal influences in the band’s rhythmic approach that makes ‘Act III’ one of my all time favorite records. However, due to Rob Cavestany’s highly unconventional riff writing and consistently strong output, Death Angel is easily the most relevant today of all the bands that decided to give it another go after Thrash Of The Titans. ‘The Evil Divide’ is another excellent Thrash record. Slightly less aggressive than the vicious ‘The Dream Calls For Blood’, but also more creative and allround more satisfying.

My favorite post-reunion record of the band is and probably always will be the playful and surprisingly melodic ‘Killing Season’, but ‘The Evil Divide’ is the next best thing, considering the all-out Thrash Metal direction the band is taking these days. On the bonus DVD, drummer Will Carroll explains that he and Cavestany had been working on getting more variation in the rhythms without sacrificing any aggression and that actually sums up the sound of the album quite well. It’s aggressive, very energetic, but a great deal of attention has been given to giving every song its own identity, which is rare enough in contemporary Thrash Metal.

Actually, it was the video for ‘Lost’ that made me hopeful for the record. It’s the most melodic song on the record and its midtempo Heavy Metal feel makes it stand out somewhat. Excellent guitar work by Cavestany and Ted Aguilar – what else is new? – but the brightest shining star here is singer Mark Osegueda, who simply never sounded this good. It’s a bit of a departure from his almost punky aggression on the rest of the record, but a very welcome departure nonetheless. Quite possibly Cavestany’s best guitar solo to date as well.

‘Father Of Lies’ is the other highlight on the record. I love the part after the choruses where basically nobody plays the same part, but the opening and main riffs are simply killer as well. That clean middle section with excellent guitar solo is a pleasant surprise as well, as it seems to come from out of nowhere. Other highlights are ‘Hell To Pay’, with its NWOBHM vibe and awesome solo trade-off between Cavestany and Aguilar, the creative riff work of ‘The Electric Cell’ and the surprisingly brutal ‘Breakaway’. ‘It Can’t Be This’ is a slow burner; it felt like a filler the first time around, but it hides a handful of subtle songwriting secrets.

It is a testament to Death Angel’s qualities as a band that I didn’t even need to mention the guest guitar solo’s by Sepultura’s Andreas Kisser and producer Jason Suecof to point out why these songs are so great. The band doesn’t want to dwell on nostalgia or release albums just to expand their tour cycles, as many of their peers seem to do. They want to release strong, well written Metal records. ‘The Evil Divide’ is just that. And it’s evidence that there’s no need to either stubbornly cling to your old sound nor update your sound beyond recognition to stay relevant as a Thrash band in the 21st century.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lost’, ‘Father Of Lies’, ‘Breakaway’