Archive for December, 2016

Album of the Week 51-2016: Mary’s Blood – Fate

There has been a veritable cornucopia of female heavy and power metal bands from Japan these last few years. A few of them are good, a lot of them are too upbeat and poppy for my taste and then there’s Mary’s Blood. Armed with an array of excellent contemporary heavy metal riffs courtesy of new guitar sorceress Saki and the powerful, slightly gritty throat of the excellent Eye, the band created an almost-masterpiece with ‘Bloody Palace’ last year and almost exactly a year later, they released another fantastic record by the title of ‘Fate’. Another must if you’re into modern heavy and power metal.

Melody and heaviness are in perfect balance with Mary’s Blood. The bottom end is kept firm and powerful by Saki’s riffing and Mari’s not overly complex, but highly effective drum work and combined with Eye’s perfect amount of power, passion and grit, they sound a bit like a 21st century Japanese counterpart to Warlock. They have the catchy songs and the exceptional vocals in common, but Mary’s Blood is clearly a band of its own time and location. And interestingly, they have become a little bit heavier over time without sacrificing any of their memorable melodicism.

If there is something of a tried, tested and true Mary’s Blood formula, it is certainly well represented in songs like ‘Nautical Star’, ‘Counter Strike’, ‘Endless Tragedy’ and ‘Queen Of The Night’. Intense, but not too aggressive riffing, dual guitar harmonies, a chorus that I’d have sung along immediately if I spoke Japanese and plenty of room for Saki to show off her considerable skills. ‘Chateau De Sable’ even has her battling with former Seikima II guitarist Luke Takamura, resulting in a downright awesome solo section. And Miki ‘Sun-Go’ Igarashi from Japan’s original all-female metal band Show-Ya contributes to the album’s highlight: the wonderfully intense borderline thrash of ‘Change The Fate’.

Japanese bands have a tendency to experiment a little on their albums and ‘Fate’ is no exception. Their collaboration with Babymetal producer Yuyoyuppe raised some eyebrows and while the results are somewhat controversial, I think ‘Angel’s Ladder’ mainly suffers from its prominent placing on the album. Eye really shines on this very heavy stomper and it may not have caused as much backlash if it was placed later on the album. The breakdown on the other one, ‘Self-Portrait’, sounds a little strange at first, but you’ll get used to it, as the rest of the track is unmistakably Mary’s Blood.

As a whole, ‘Fate’ is just short of the brilliance and the perfect flow of ‘Bloody Palace’, but not by much. The playing is beyond excellent and Eye’s singing beyond even that. The ballad is even better this time around – the dark atmosphere and the guitar-oriented direction of ‘In The Rain’ work wonders – and the band is luckily still finding ways to keep things fresh. As long as that is the case, I see a bright future ahead of Mary’s Blood. And they deserve it, because they’re easily the most powerful of all the female metal bands coming from Japan the last couple of years.

Recommended tracks: ‘Change The Fate’, ‘Queen Of The Night’, ‘Counter Strike’

Yoshiki in the Slagwerkkrant

Are you a fan of X Japan or do you need a Christmas gift for someone who is? May I suggest you the new issue of the Slagwerkkrant? Included is an interview with their drummer, pianist and band leader Yoshiki. It’s based on the same conversation as the interview I published here a couple of weeks ago, but there’s a bigger emphasis on his playing and his equipment. If you’re a drummer, make sure you get it. If only because there’s a lot of educational material and drum equipment, as well as interesting interviews with the likes of Steve Smith and the awesome Jay Bellerose.

Ironically, we have Yoshiki in the magazine graced by a cover with a kit from Sakae drums, which is also Japanese.

For a preview, check out this link.

Album of the Week 50-2016: Chris Rea – The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes

More than three decades after his biggest successes, Chris Rea only does whatever he wants. Freed from the shackles of label pressure and being given a second chance after pancreatic cancer nearly took his life, Rea went back to the blues that has inspired him since he started playing guitar in his early twenties. Often employing a theme as the framework for his later records, ‘The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes’ is a tribute to the importance of the relatively cheap Hofner guitars for the development of British sixties music. The music, however, is pure, unadulterated Chris Rea blues.

Rea was always too much of a songwriter – and a really good one at that – to be taken seriously by fans of the delta blues that influenced him strongly, but that’s also what makes his music so interesting. Sure, in the eighties, producers often smoothed his sound to the point that there was more pop than blues, but his slide guitar playing is full of bluesy soul. And then there’s the voice. His sandpaper vocal cords are instantly recognizable and therefore, it’s difficult to categorize ‘The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes’ as anything else than a Chris Rea record.

However flawed it is as a period piece – save for the Shadows-like instrumentals of the fictional group The Delmonts – the songs are amazing. That’s also where Rea’s songwriting comes in: these aren’t just vehicles for live jamming, a considerable amount of effort has gone into the structure, atmosphere and attention span of these songs. Especially when Rea and his rhythm section of Colin Hodgkinson (bass) and Martin Ditcham (drums) adopt a somewhat more laidback approach, like they do in ‘I Will Be With You’ and ‘The Shadow Of A Fool’, something magic happens. It’s almost as if Rea whispers incantations.

‘Blues For Janice’ is the album’s highlight. In essence, the song isn’t that much different than some of Rea’s eighties hit songs, but the rawer approach gives the song an air of sincerity that you don’t often hear anymore. It’s great how the rawness of Rea’s guitar enhances the dreamy atmosphere of the song rather than clashing with it. Other songs, like ‘Legacy Blues’ and ‘Don’t Give Your Ace Away’ have a rhythmic drive that is a trademark of Rea’s later work. It’s remarkable how much variation there is on the record; there are elements of blues, rock, jazz, pop and soul throughout the record, but the unique sound never really becomes one of each.

Whether you get the trimmed down version on one cd or the huge audio book version where The Delmonts can be heard on one cd and the Hofner Bluenotes on the other – in case it wasn’t clear, it’s all Rea, Hodgkinson and Ditcham – there’s enough variation and good songwriting going on to keep any listener interested all throughout its length. Like any of Chris Rea’s latter day albums, ‘The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes’ is full of great, blues-inspired music that doesn’t care if it’s marketable or if it fits any category. That’s how the best records get made.

Recommended tracks: ‘Blues For Janice’, ‘The Shadow Of A Fool’, ‘Legacy Blues’

Interview: Versailles’ frontier defying spirit

B7 Klan offered me the opportunity to interview Versailles and of course I took that opportunity. What follows here is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. If you can read Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original article right here.

With their bombastic power metal sound and their almost fairytale-like appearance, Versailles grew to be one of the most important players in 21st century visual kei. In late 2012, the band took a break, but as of last year, the band is active again. After a few one-offs in Japan, the band’s first tour will follow and just like in their early days, it will remarkably take place in Europe. “The time was right for Versailles again“, says guitarist Hizaki.

In the intervening years, the band fully committed itself to other projects. Singer Kamijo went solo and all of the other members formed the excellent power metal band Jupiter, which will remain active alongside Versailles. “I compose imagining the person who will sing the song“, states Hizaki, who also released his instrumental solo album ‘Rosario’ earlier this year. “The melodies I write will always be a reflection of the singer’s personality. I do like the fact that I can now show in Versailles the skills that I have developed in my personal activities.
Kamijo also doesn’t rule out the opportunity that his solo adventure will get a sequal. “I’m sharing my feelings with different audiences“, he describes the differences. “In both cases, we are playing my melodies, but the reasons why I’m writing each project’s songs are different. In 2017, Versailles celebrates its tenth anniversary, so you can imagine that there will be some new projects.“”On February 14th, we will release our new album“, guitarist Teru already spills. As for the rest, the band still keeps their plans strictly secret, but bassist Masashi calls on the fans to keep an eye on their website and social media: “We have many projects planned.

For a Japanese band, Versailles has always been surprisingly internationally oriented. Before the band even went on its first full tour through Japan, their first European tour with Matenrou Opera was already a fact. Later on, the band came back to Europe twice, so it’s not a complete surprise that the band once again aims for Europe after a couple of one-offs in Japan. “I can’t wait to come back to Europe“, Hizaki agrees. “Since we can’t meet our fans out there often, I want to enjoy them as much as possible. It seems to be even harder to bring our music overseas to America, but I would like to make it back there as well someday.“”I notice that European audiences want to show their power in a different way“, says Kamijo. “In some countries, they shout. In Japan, they synchronize their choreography.
It’s beautiful to see the different reactions in each country“, Masashi confirms. Teru agrees: “When I play overseas, I truly realize that the reaction in Japan is really original.
And yet, it’s remarkable that Versailles is one of the very few bands that tours Europe somewhat regularly. “I don’t know exactly how we did that“, says drummer Yuki. “But I am really proud of Versailles’ music. We only stick to our own convictions.
I guess some bands get too discouraged by certain details“, Teru thinks aloud. “It’s important to make music with a spirit that transcends frontiers and nationalities.
And the band rehearses for that with full determination. “As usual, I’m practicing by playing a lot“, Yuki says. “Besides that, I listen to good music and I imagine myself playing it, drum acting. And because I’m trying to be more familiar with the English language, I also watch some movies.
I record myself in ProTools and then check the results of my playing“, Teru shares. But, Hizaki emphasizes: “You who will be at our live shows must be ready too.

Versailles’ music contains quite dense arrangements. Besides the five band members, a vast amount of choral and orchestral samples deliver a significant amount of bombast. However, the spectacular guitar work of Hizaki and Teru always remains prominent. “There is always an orchestra in my head“, the latter smiles. “It’s important to listen to all of the band members’ sounds. I always try to think of all the elements when I’m playing. Concerning my guitar sound, I try to reduce the gain and keep the peak in the middle and high frequencies.
When we practice the songs, we always make it“, Hizaki adds. “The synthesizer parts always tend to be gathering into midi arrangements, so I try to be attentive of those in terms of my phrasing.
An additional problem for many Japanese bands is that they can’t take all of their equipment with them to Europe. Amplifiers are rented, but every member at least takes his own instrument with him. “And I’m taking my sticks and pedals with me. And my love for Versailles“, Yuki states. “I’m considering taking a Fractal Audio system with me“, Hizaki thinks aloud.
When asked if they would ever like to play with an actual orchestra, everyone answers affirmatively. “Of course“, Yuki continues. “It’s one of my biggest dreams.” “Please organize it!“, Hizaki begs.

One can’t think of contemporary visual kei without thinking of Versailles. At least as much attention as they put into their music will also go into their flamboyant clothing, hairdos and album covers. “What do you like more?“, Kamijo asks. “A wonderful movie without images or a beautiful movie with images?
The music and the visual aspect are inseparably connected to each other“, agrees Teru, himself a graphic designer. “The artistic value of the music can be increased by this combination. I am proud of visual kei, but I don’t want to be too occupied with trying to fit that genre or category. I only go forward with what I like and what I think is beautiful.
And there’s another mission for Versailles: bringing the visual kei audiences and the metal audiences together. “There is a barrier between them higher than the highest frontier“, Kamijo states. “We are there to destroy this barrier.
The band is not interested in ever making music without the visual aspect. “Impossible“, they collectively say. “My spirit is always in heavy metal“, Hizaki continues. “But I can’t feel any attraction towards artists who neglect their appearance.
Only Yuki leaves the door slightly ajar. “I think we and our audience would still like our music“, he says. “Otherwise we would have never started doing this. But I do think that it adds an element with which you can tell the listener more than with just the music.
And how do the guys stay fresh and inspired after playing together for so long? “By stimulating each other to become better“, Kamijo resolutely says. Masashi agrees: “We all evolve together with the other members.” “It’s simply interesting to work with the music of other people than myself“, Hizaki concludes.

Versailles’ ‘Renaissance’ tour travels to the following venues in early 2017:

January 26th: Teatr Club, Moscow, Russia
January 27th: Gloria, Helsinki, Finland
January 29th: O2 Islingron Academy, London, England
February 1st: Zeche, Bochum, Germany
February 2nd: Hybrydy, Warszaw, Poland
February 4th: Salamandra 1, Madrid, Spain
February 5th: La Machine du Moulin Rouge, Paris, France

Album of the Week 49-2016: Iommi – Fused

Combine the talents of heavy metal’s original riff master and the most soulful singer Deep Purple has ever had and ‘Fused’ is what you get. Even though the band carries the last name of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, the album seems to be a perfect collaboration between him and singer bassist Glenn Hughes, hence the double billing on the cover. This is easily the heaviest thing Hughes has ever been involved with, but it’s also one of Iommi’s most inspired releases ever. Sometimes it sounds like they’re trying to blow each other off the record, but they’re just pushing each other towards their best performances.

The quality of Iommi’s riff work was never in question, but I didn’t quite like his tone on Black Sabbath’s earliest releases. On ‘Fused’, however, his guitar sounds huge, which already accounts for an overwhelming first impression. Luckily there’s more than just that; the exciting structure of songs like ‘Saviour Of The Real’ and a handful of almost ridiculously catchy choruses take care of the replay value. Admittedly, this riff-heavy approach always has the risk of the songs ending up a bit samey, but for the majority of the record, Iommi and his merry men seem to avoid that pitfall remarkably well.

Hughes, on the other hand, is the type of singer you either love or loathe. He’s never as over the top on the records as he is live, but he screams, croons and belts as if his life depends on it here. Personally, I love it. And although I’m really fond of the more soulful approach on his solo albums, Iommi’s monumental metal riffing pushes him to do a more raw, direct and angry approach than he usually adopts. This is something which is reflected in the lyrics as well, which are often composed in a confrontational manner.

Stylistically, ‘Fused’ isn’t miles away from the doom metal that Black Sabbath pioneered, but even the most doomy tracks like the amazing ‘The Spell’ have a greater deal of actual hook writing to them than is average in the genre. And on the limited number of occasions that the album does speed up a little – ‘What You’re Living For’ most notably – there’s a slight hardrock vibe, though Iommi’s riffs keep them firmly within the metal realm. ‘Deep Inside A Shall’ is a dark take on a ballad and ‘Grace’ successfully attempts a more modern vibe. The long, somewhat proggy closer ‘I Go Insane’ ties all the styles together in a truly engaging way.

Almost two decades after their first collaboration ‘Seventh Star’, Hughes and Iommi made another amazing record together. It’s sort of a pity that they never toured behind this record, because there’s a lot of live energy here. It’s certainly not a record you just put on in the background; it demands attention. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s the best record both men released in recent years, because I’m quite enamored with the solo records Hughes made around the same time, but it’s definitely a record I revisit often. Why? Because it’s a downright excellent contemporary metal record by two amazing musicians who were actively involved with the genesis of the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘What You’re Living For’, ‘The Spell’, ‘I Go Insane’

The Answer, Rik Emmett and more in Gitarist

Okay, so this issue of Gitarist has been in stores for a while already, but I still wanted to point out the fact that there’s a few interesting interviews that I have done in it. First of all, I have had a very pleasant chat with The Answer’s Paul Mahon about their new album ‘Solas’. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year thus far and the approach that deviates strongly from what the band is known for accounted for an interesting conversation. Besides that, I have also interviewed former Triumph frontman Rik Emmett about his new solo album ‘RES9’, that sees him returning to the melodic rock he used to be known for.

In addition, there’s interviews with Robin Trower, Cilice Orchestra, Maarten van der Grinten and loads of gear and album reviews. It should be in stores at least another week, so go get it if any of this interests you.

Album of the Week 48-2016: Metalium – As One

On the surface, Metalium is another typical German power metal band. They have the rolling double bass drums, the uptempo songs and the anthemic choruses. They have a couple of assets that set them apart from that saturated field though. One of them is the excellent singer Henning Basse, but they also often leaned a bit toward the more aggressive American side of the genre. And while many of their albums have been plagued by consistency or production issues – or both – they have released a couple of excellent records, the fourth chapter in their ongoing saga – ‘As One’ – likely being the strongest.

Sonically, ‘As One’ is a major improvement over its predecessor ‘Hero Nation’, which was almost unlistenably poorly produced. Both the rhythm guitars and the drums have a nice punch here, but the band also seems to have learned a lesson or two about songwriting in the two years between the records. While the songs are still relatively simple in structure, the attention span is significantly increased by slight adaptions to the tension build-up. For instance, ‘Illuminated’, the doom metal song they spent the rest of their career trying to outdo, is over twelve minutes with its prologue and epilogue, but manages to stay interesting.

As many bands in their genre, however, Metalium’s strength is in their uptempo material. Especially the opening salvo of the borderline thrasher ‘Warrior’ and the highly dynamic ‘Pain Crawls In The Night’ is an excellent representation of the skills of both drummer Michael Ehré and guitarist Matthias Lange, who never gets too flashy, but does have his share of  strong leads. Ehré goes nuts in ‘Goddess Of Love And Pain’, one of the album’s highlights in its pleasantly chaotic unpredictability. ‘No One Will Save You’ and its hardrock-infused eighties Euro metal vibe is another high water mark.

Less successful are the dull midtempo plodder ‘Find Out’ and the title track, which is ruined by a godawfully annoying chorus that happens to return too many times throughout the song. However, Basse’s spirited performance almost manages to save even those songs; while he had yet to find the powerful grit that he has these days, it’s more than obvious that we’re dealing with more than just anonymous power metal singer number umpteen here. It feels like he’s pushing towards the edge of his range at some points, but never does he go overboard and he nails every note.

Many fans seem to think that every Metalium album is a little less good than the one that came before. And although the debut is a thoroughly enjoyable power metal effort, the band reaches its apex compositionally and productionally with ‘As One’ and its following chapter ‘Demons Of Insanity’, which has slightly better highlights, but also a few more skipworthy moments. This may be textbook power metal, but at least more thought went into it than the mindless Priest-aping that many turn of the century German power metal bands resorted to. This is sheer power metal euphoria, plain and simple.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goddess Of Love And Pain’, ‘Pain Crawls In The Night’, ‘Warrior’