Archive for March, 2017

Album of the Week 12-2017: Seikima-II – Mephistopheles no Shouzou


A cliché often used for eighties rock bands that survived through the nineties is that their records sound as if the nineties didn’t happen. Hardly any album answers more to that sentiment than ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’. Despite being released in 1996, the compositions, arrangements and production scream eighties hard rock and heavy metal, while the band’s appearance and theatricality could be either a tribute to or a parody of Kiss during a time when Kiss themselves didn’t even wear make-up. One thing is for sure: it was almost impossible to find this much classy heavy metal on one record in the mid-nineties.

Most of Seikima-II’s records are good, but many of them lack a consistency that ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ does have. The fact that it’s a concept album of Faustian themes may help the excellent flow of the record, although not an inch of the band’s versatility has been sacrificed. There’s the NWOBHM-tinged heavy metal of their early days, melodic hard rock tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on their late eighties records and a bunch of power ballads, all passionately performed with a complete disregard of whatever musical trend reared its head, giving the album a timeless flair.

‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’ kicks off the album in a delightful early eighties heavy metal fashion with all the simple, yet effective riffs and twin guitar harmonies you can wish for. This approach is combined with powerful galloping rhythms in songs like closer ‘Holy Blood ~Tatakai No Kettou~’ and the extremely well structured ‘Yajuu’. The power ballads may sound entirely out of style for the time of the album’s release, but especially ‘Who Kills Demon?’ – somewhat reminiscent of the band’s own ‘Stainless Night’ – is really good. ‘Salome Wa Kaette Satsui Wo Shirushi’ has a more epic nature, sounding unlike anything the band has ever done before.

Notably, former members have contributed greatly to the record. Especially original guitarist Damian Hamada, who wrote some of the album’s best material, including the aformentioned ‘Yajuu’ and the dark, brooding, slithering masterpiece of a title track. Former guitarist Jail O’Hashi wrote the closing track ‘Akuma No Blues’, which doesn’t really sound like the rest of the album musically and production-wise – it’s a seventies inspired blues rock track – but it’s too enjoyable to complain about that.

As for the actual members, Sgt. Luke Takamura III and Ace Shimizu throw around amazing guitar solos – including a mindblowing acoustic one in the title track – and Demon Kogure once again opens up his entire vocal register. Bassist Xenon Ishikawa and excellent drummer Raiden Yuzawa are surprisingly laid back for a metal rhythm section, but it works really well within the context of Seikima-II’s unique music.

Sandwiched between two records that have the band experimenting with a somewhat more poppy approach, ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ often gets forgotten, but the truth is that it’s a quality heavy metal album released in a time that those were extremely rare. If you like your metal theatrical, epic, melodic and not afraid of a little experimentation, Seikima-II is your band. And with the consistency being as it is on ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, it’s going to be difficult to turn off the album before it’s over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, ‘Yajuu’, ‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’

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Album of the Week 11-2017: OverKill – W.F.O.


Like many of their peers, OverKill faded to the background a little when the nineties reared their heads. Unlike their peers, however, OverKill continued to make quality records. A complaint often heard is that the band focused too much on groove following their classic ‘Horrorscope’ album. And while the next record ‘I Hear Black’ did in deed have a lot of Black Sabbath-inspired grooves, its follow-up ‘W.F.O.’ is one pissed-off record which merges an almost punkish aggression and some of the most varied songwriting in the band’s history. Looking back, only its 1994 release date keeps it from being considered a classic.

‘W.F.O.’ is basically OverKill turned up to eleven. Their trademark punky thrash attitude is amplified by an abrasive production job – harsh guitars, a prominently rumbling bass – that may be somewhat off-putting in the beginning, but turns out to have its charms as well. The riff work oozes with anger and energy and appear to attempt breaking free from the confines of your speakers, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for nuance on this record. In fact, its versatility is rivaled only by the seminal records ‘Horrorscope’ and ‘The Years Of Decay’. And maybe, just maybe, ‘Killbox 13’.

The album bulldozes into gear with the adrenalin monster ‘Where It Hurts’, which is one of my favorite OverKill openers to this day. There’s very little subtlety in the song, but enough to hear the fantastic interaction between the guitars and the rhythm section, which don’t necessarily blindly follow each other. This level of aggression is retained for thrash monsters like ‘They Eat Their Young’ or more punk influenced material like ‘Fast Junkie’ and ‘Supersonic Hate’. ‘Under One’ already signals in the more modern influences that OverKill would flirt with on their following records, but not without the trusted OverKill approach.

Surprisingly, the album does get a lot more melodic at times. ‘R.I.P. (Undone)’, an acoustic instrumental dedicated to the memory of Savatage’s Criss Oliva, is quite unique in that respect, featuring Rob Cannavino on the acoustic guitar and Merritt Gant soloing his heart out on top of that. ‘Bastard Nation’ feels like a disillusioned – and better – nineties equivalent to ‘In Union We Stand’ and ‘The Wait – New High In Lows’ combines the two extremes. The best is saved for last; ‘Gasoline Dream’ is a dark, brooding monster of a track with a climactic finale that remains one of the band’s best songs to this day.

Even though they are rare, strong thrash records have been released deep into the nineties and ‘W.F.O.’ is definitely one of them. Ironically, the prominent feel on the album is a disillusionment similar to the one expressed on many of the grunge records that were big at the time, OverKill just chooses to express it with pure, uncut anger rather than a feeling of despair. The result is an album that is OverKill through and through; its streetwise aggression is part of what makes the band – and this album in particular – so unique. Highly recommended those who need their blood to rush again.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gasoline Dream’, ‘Bastard Nation’, ‘Where It Hurts’

Album of the Week 10-2017: Pentagram – Bir


Around the time ‘Unspoken’ was released, Pentagram must have realized that there was a demand for their Turkish language songs, which the album lacked. So a year after that album, the band released ‘Bir’, a collection consisting entirely of songs in Turkish lyrics or without any lyrics at all. This also marked the shortest break between two albums in the band’s history. And while the traditional Turkish flair that makes the band so unique wasn’t entirely absent on ‘Unspoken’, it is featured significantly more prominently on ‘Bir’, albeit not in the overwhelming, over-emphasized manner that bands with similar influences often employ.

If there should be any criticism about ‘Bir’, it’s the fact that it should have been an EP. The two instrumental tracks ‘Mezarkabul’ and ‘For Those Who Died Alone’ are exactly the same as the versions on ‘Unspoken’ and are probably only there for conceptual reasons. They’re fine tracks as they are for sure, but that only leaves the listener with about half an hour of new music. The good news is that every single one of those minutes is excellent music and many of the songs featured on ‘Bir’ are still staples in Pentagram’s live set to this day.

Starting with the diptych of the instrumental intro ‘Tigris’ and the title track, a downright fantastic, upbeat heavy metal track calling for unity. This song is bound to drive a Turkish heavy metal crowd crazy and it’s easy to see why: its message, its catchy chorus and its simple, but brutally effective riffing is designed for a communal feeling. The thrashy ‘Bu Alemi Gören Sensin’ – which features guitarist Hakan Utangaç on lead vocals instead of the more soaring Murat İlkan – and ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’ – which sounds like Metallica after a holiday to Turkey – feature traditional Turkish poems set to brand new music, something which works better than it may sound.

Less well known is ‘Sır’ and while it did take a while before the song grew on me, it is a monster of a slower metal track that manages to have both a symphonic and a somewhat industrial feel at the same time. It doesn’t quite sound like anything Pentagram has done before or since, but fits the darker vibe of the second half of ‘Bir’ really well. That vibe is further emphasized by the brilliantly brooding ‘Ölümlü’, which features what is quite likely İlkan’s most “evil” sounding performance ever in its verses.

While it may be intimidating to buy an album with four instrumental tracks of which the longest two have been previously released, ‘Bir’ is still a very worthy addition to any metal collection. For one because it emphasizes Pentagram’s unique, yet familiar style and it solidifies the band’s status in their home country, where they are viewed as the number one metal band. It’s easy to see why: the guys are excellent songwriters and will never let flashy instrumental egos get in the way of a good melody and a memorable chorus. You’re guaranteed to have them stuck in your head even if you don’t speak a single word of Turkish.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bir’, ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’, ‘Ölümlü’

Album of the Week 09-2017: Onmyo-za – Fuujin Kaikou


With the genre nearing five decades of existence, finding unique sounding metal is becoming increasingly difficult. Onmyo-za somehow succeeds at doing so without attempting anything too far-fetched. Their riffs and twin melodies are generally from the traditional heavy metal and hard rock mold, but their open-minded approach to songwriting allows for a spontaneous sound that contains elements of J-rock, progrock and hints of Japanese folk. Also, singing couple Kuroneko and bass playing band leader Matatabi forsakes the “Beauty and the Beast” approach of most metallic male-female singing duos in favor of something more melodic, further emphasizing their highly original nature.

‘Fuujin Kaikou’ is the wind-themed half of a diptych with the simultaneously released – and thunder-themed – ‘Raijin Sousei’. That doesn’t mean it’s all soft and subdued though; in fact, there are plenty of riff-driven metal anthems like ‘Ichimokuren’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the excellent opener ‘Kamikaze’ present. However, it is the more melodic and better – by a hair – of the two. This approach leaves all the room Kuroneko needs to deliver her best vocal performance to date and often lays the guitars of Maneki and Kurakan on an atmospheric, but never overpowering symphonic bed. And even the ballads – there’s quite a few of them – are remarkably powerful.

To start with the latter category: Kuroneko’s composition ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’ is the most beautiful, goosebumps-inducing ballad the band has ever released. It’s the only song on the record where the orchestral tracks take over the guitars, but it fits the beautiful, cinematic atmosphere of the song perfectly. Both guitar solos are simply breathtaking as well. This does not disqualify the other calmer songs though; ‘Manazashi’ and ‘Hebimiko’ are somewhat more traditional, but excellent ballads and ‘Yaobikuni’ brings to mind Dio’s lighter sounding singles from the late eighties.

On the – slightly – heavier side of things, ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is a true highlight. With a great build-up, highly climactic lead guitar themes and a downright spectacular chorus that has Matatabi and Kuroneko duetting beautifully, the song is simply a lesson in how to write a mindblowing melodic metal song. ‘Saredo Itsuwari No Okuribi’ is somewhat more subdued, but still a great metal song with irresistible melodies. ‘Muufuu Ninpocho’ features a godly bass sound courtesy of Matatabi and is a bit more rocky, as is the – almost traditionally – upbeat closing track ‘Haru Ranman Ni Shiki No Mau Nari’. Both of those are songs that could sound horribly out of place on a metal record, but the general atmosphere makes them work here.

Exploring Onmyo-za’s discography can be a bit intimidating for a westerner, due to the fact that every song and album title is in Japanese, but ultimately, it will be a rewarding experience. Their unique sound somehow feels familiar and highly original at the same time, which was exactly what yours truly was looking for at the time he discovered them. Their status as one of the more popular Japanese metal bands is absolutely justified and listening to ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ – or really almost any of their albums – is highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’, ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, ‘Kamikaze’