Archive for April, 2017

Album of the Week 17-2017: The Gazette – Dogma


The Gazette is one of the most popular Japanese rock bands even outside of their native country. Save for a couple of songs, they never appealed to me much until they released their most recent studio album ‘Dogma’. For this dark monster of an album, the goth factor in the band’s familiar alternative metal sound is turned up considerably, resulting in an immersive atmosphere that works surprisingly well alongside the downtuned riff work. Despite being recognizable as an album by The Gazette, ‘Dogma’ is – thus far – a unique entry in their discography and truly takes their sound to a new level.

People who like The Gazette less than I do are prone to dismiss them as a Dir En Grey clone. And while they share a dark aesthetic as well as a preference for the downtuned mayhem of the American nu metal scene of the mid-ninties, The Gazette has always had a sound closer to J-Rock, though on ‘Dogma’, the J-Rock sound is mainly limited to Ruki’s baritone. The electronic experiments of recent albums are still there, but less prominent in the mix. This is a good thing: while the electronics made The Gazette stand out, they feel much more like an integral part of the sound here.

‘Dogma’ definitely excels most during its more atmospheric moments. Sure, the extremely heavy riff work by Uruha and Aoi – as well as their massive, crushing guitar sound – makes for pleasant headbanging on tracks like ‘Rage’, ‘Deux’ and ‘Incubus’, but if it wasn’t for the darker material, I may have taken a pass on the album. The fittingly titled closing track ‘Ominous’ has a subdued, brooding character that doesn’t really sound like anything the band has attempted before. The transitions are a little sudden, but it works remarkably well. Its finale is excellent.

Even better is ‘Deracine’. The guitar interaction in the verses – a pronounced riff with background atmospherics – is incredible, Ruki’s vocal melodies are fantastic and its atmosphere, which at times feels like a relatively heavy J-metal band covering Killing Joke, is impossible to escape. Another highlight is ‘Wasteland’, which brings together all the extremes of The Gazette’s sound. The guitar layering is extremely tasteful and the song flows very pleasantly. ‘Lucy’ is a little more straightforward and probably would not have stood out as much on a different album, but its effective main riff and huge chorus are great. The title track serves as a perfect introduction with its dark, gothic verses.

Before ‘Dogma’, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with an album by The Gazette altogether, but the fact is that it’s a strong, well-rounded album that doesn’t easily let its listener go. It also sounds less like a band trying to emulate its American influences than some of their early works, opting for a sound of its own instead. This is a development that I can only applaud and as a result, ‘Dogma’ is definitely worth hearing if you like your music heavy, dark and atmospheric. I’ll be honest: I never knew they had it in them.

Recommended tracks: ‘Deracine’, ‘Wasteland’, ‘Ominous’

Renewed Noise: Voivod


When BMG Rights Entertainment secured the rights to the legendary German heavy metal label Noise Records, it was celebrated by a bunch of entertaining compilations. “Amazing” would be one step too far, because they contained nothing new for those who followed the label during their glory days – roughly from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties – but good enough to remind us why it was such a good thing that they put bands like Skyclad, Running Wild and Kreator in the market. A compilation of Canada’s immensely creative Voivod made came later, which is now followed by full reissues of their three Noise releases.

Contrary to the compilation albums, the reissues of ‘Rrröööaaarrr’ (I’m not making this up), ‘Killing Technology’ and ‘Dimension Hatröss’ do contain a wealth of bonus material that was previously either not or very limitedly available. All three releases consist of 2 cd’s and one dvd. This often means that the band or label has cleaned the vaults and just threw every poor quality recording they could find on there. While that is true for a majority of the video footage on the dvd’s, the bonus cd’s all feature soundboard recorded concerts with a surprisingly good sound quality.

Most of these live tracks are from demos and fan club releases that the band has released throughout the years and that might explain why they sound so good. Sure, they’re a little rough around the edges – the ‘No Speed Limit Week-End’ live show that comes with ‘Rrröööaarrr’ is almost too raw – but they’re release-worthy. In fact, the live cd that comes with ‘Dimension Hatröss’ – entitled ‘A Flawed Structure?’ – is more or less on par with the official 2011 live album ‘Warriors Of Ice’. Not only is every instrument loud and clear; the mix is quite balanced, though it does favor the late Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour’s guitars. But then again: who doesn’t?

So should you be getting these re-releases? I would say that ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is indispensable. Though my favorite is still ‘Nothingface’, ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is the essential Voivod album. It’s where they first stretched their sound well beyond the boundaries of thrash metal, creating a progressive sci-fi metal sound that made them a truly unique band. And the bonus live recordings are a very worthy addition to any metal collection. The live footage on the bonus dvd isn’t as good, but at least the entire album is on it in demo form, as well as some of drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin’s cool artworks.

As for the other two: ‘Killing Technology’ is a brilliant progressive thrash record and its bonus live cd ‘Spectrum ’87’ is raw, but very listenable. By all means, get it if it’s not in your collection already, because it’s one of the best thrash albums of its time. That leaves ‘Rrröööarrr’. A record I have to be in the mood for, as it’s basically all fast, all loud, all heavy, all the damn time. It’s good that the album is easily available again, but don’t let it be your introduction to Voivod. If it is, you may not understand what all the praise is really about.

These reissues all come with fairly extensive booklets with essays by UK music journalist Malcolm Dome, decorated with quotes from interviews with all four original members. And while it is a bit awkward to see D’Amour quoted as if he is still alive – he died in 2005 – the booklets do offer a bit of interesting information about the recordings of the albums and the circumstances Voivod found itself in during those years. The band is allegedly planning to record its fourteenth album later this year and if it will be anywhere near as good as their last two releases, that is really good news. Until then, this is a very pleasant way to rediscover the sonic evolution they went through in the mid to late eighties.

Album of the Week 16-2017: Labÿrinth – Architecture Of A God


Despite their distinctly Italian power metal sound, Labÿrinth was a pretty unique band in the country’s mid-nineties metal scene. They shared their countrymen’s melodic sensibilities, tendency towards higher tempos and somewhat symphonic approach, but also had an uncommonly romantic vibe for a metal band. However, not long after founding guitarist Olaf Thörsen left, the band entered an unprecedented identity crisis. Thörsen eventually returned, but band members were shuffled around freely. Luckily, the core of Thörsen, fellow guitarist Andrea Cantarelli and singer Roberto Tiranti is firmly intact on ‘Architecture Of A God’, easily the best Labÿrinth album since their masterpiece ‘Return To Heaven Denied’.

While the last album was good enough, it featured Labÿrinth playing things too safe by trying to create a copy of ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ to the point of self-plagiarism. On ‘Architecture Of A God’, the self-referencing is limited to a brief section on ‘We Belong To Yesterday’ and the atmosphere is more spontaneous. Personally, I was glad to see Thörsen’s former Vision Divine bandmate Oleg Smirnoff vacate the keyboard position. His greater focus on atmospheric texturing than neoclassical virtuosity makes him a unique musician within the genre and gives the album a breath of fresh air at times.

That is all relative though. Because ultimately, ‘Architecture Of A God’ is a typical Labÿrinth record. Speedy, somewhat progressive power metal tracks with highly melodic choruses are alternated with dreamy semi-ballads full of bright, shimmering acoustic guitars and if Tiranti isn’t wailing or crooning passionately on top, Thörsen and Cantarelli are elevating the melodies or shredding their hearts out. ‘Stardust And Ashes’, the surprisingly aggressive ‘Take On My Legacy’, ‘Someone Says’ and especially ‘Still Alive’ are all excellent melodic power metal tracks like we’ve come to expect from Labÿrinth through the years.

For all its class, ‘Architecture Of A God’ does take a slight dip in quality halfway through. While all separate sections of the title track are amazing, the transitions don’t flow as well and the novelty of the following cover ‘Children’ from dream trance legend Robert Miles wears off quickly. But the rest is incredible; ‘A New Dream’ is one of those progressive ballads Labÿrinth excels at and though it mirrors ‘The Night Of Dreams’ somewhat, it certainly improves upon its formula, resulting in an atmospheric work of art. Smirnoff’s compositional contributions ‘Random Logic’ and ‘Diamond’ are the album’s most unconventional moments. The latter – a beautiful, scarce ballad that is highly electronic in nature – closes the album in style.

After hearing the first tracks that surfaced, my expectations of ‘Architecture Of A God’ were sky high and I can gladly say they were exceeded. Everyone who likes their power metal with a healthy dose of melody and romanticism should give the album a spin. The guitars – both electric and acoustic – sound as good as ever and Tiranti hasn’t lost one bit of his emotional power. It may be a bit premature to call the record album of the year material, but I will be very surprised if I hear a better power metal record this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Still Alive’, ‘A New Dream’, ‘Someone Says’, ‘Diamond’

Album of the Week 15-2017: God Forbid – Earthsblood


God Forbid’s last album with their original line-up – and penultimate altogether – was the record on which they truly outdid themselves. In quite a litteral sense too. Starting out as a musically tight, but not particularly surprising metalcore band, the quintet gradually evolved into an excellent contemporary heavy metal band on ‘IV: Constitution Of Treason’. It’s that album’s follow-up, however, that is a truly unique work. Though most of the separate elements are familiar – hardcore, melodic death metal, thrash metal and progressive metal most prominently – the combination is what makes this a one of the very few modern day metal masterpieces.

So what to call the music on this album then? Well, it’s definitely modern metal in the sense that it contains downtuned guitars, significant hardcore influences and the vocal interaction between frontman Byron Davis’ harsh shouts and guitarist Dallas Coyle’s melodic cleans. ‘Earthsblood’, however, is more ambitious than what even some of God Forbid’s better peers – such as Shadows Fall – were attempting. The band’s mission here seems to be to seamlessly blend all of their influences and while history has proven that approach to often be a recipe for an incoherent disaster, it miraculously works for almost the entire playing time of the album.

Nowhere is the band’s ambition more obvious than during the more progressive moments. ‘The New Clear’, for instance, sounds like nothing God Forbid has ever done before, with its subdued vibe somewhat reminiscent of Opeth and ‘Elegy’ era Amorphis. Closing tracks ‘Earthsblood’ and ‘Gaia’ – the two longest tracks on the record – are more traditionally proggy in their dynamics, alternating between God Forbid’s trademark thick, heavy riffs and more atmospheric passages. Standout moments are the acoustic guitar sections on the former and Dallas Coyle’s mood-defining one-note vocal harmonies with himself on the latter. A final punch delivered in style.

But even the band’s more familiar heavy approach sounds great here. ‘War Of Attrition’ is probably the most typical God Forbid song on here, but more impressive are the surprisingly melodic ‘Walk Alone’ – a 21st century interpretation of traditional heavy metal – the viciously thrashy ‘Shallow’ and the strong, dark opener ‘The Rain’, which has a brilliant build-up in tension. ‘Empire Of The Gun’ has some nice dramatic twin guitar work and an incredible chorus built upon Dallas Coyle’s clean vocals as a perfect juxtaposition to the heavily stomping riffs and Davis’ hardcore barks in the verses. It could have been a successful single on alternative radio.

Ultimately, God Forbid started to fall apart after ‘Earthsblood’. Dallas Coyle left the band, that released one more somewhat underwhelming record and disbanded shortly afterward. Maybe the frustration of not being able to outdo this record may have been a part of that, but whatever the reason, some bands don’t even get to make an album this good. I feel that God Forbid is often dismissed by older metal fans as one of those bands that profited from the hype created by the likes of Lamb Of God and Killswitch Engage, but the truth is that none of those bands ever cared so little about what type of music they were supposed to make and ended up with an album as spontaneous and pleasantly surprising as ‘Earthsblood’.

Recommended tracks: ‘The New Clear’, ‘Gaia’, ‘Empire Of The Gun’

Album of the Week 14-2017: Onmyo-za – Kishibojin


Concept albums can be a tricky affair, but when done right, their atmosphere and continuity lifts everything about the albums in question to a higher level. Take Onmyo-za’s ‘Kishibojin’. It’s one of those albums that leaves very little to be desired and therefore is almost impossible to turn off before it’s over. The band supersizes its unique combination of fairly traditional heavy metal riffs, an atmosphere inspired by Japanese myths and legends, an approach to songwriting that ignores genre boundaries and a duo of (almost) equally amazing singers, resulting in one of the best albums I have ever heard.

On the surface, all the songs having “Kumikyoku ‘Kishibojin'” in their titles – which I will omit from the separate songs for brevity reasons – already betrays that we’re dealing with a concept album, but there’s more subtle hints as well, such as songs transitioning into each other and recurring themes. All songs are great stand-alone tracks too, however. And there’s a consistency, both in terms of style and quality, that surpasses even the rest of Onmyo-za’s strong discography. That also means there’s no upbeat J-Rock songs here – though the aggressively playful ‘Oni Kosae No Uta’ is borderline – but I consider that a plus.

‘Kishibojin’ is a darker affair than the average Onmyo-za record, though songs like ‘Urami No Hate’ and the powerful opener ‘Samayoi’ have a hopeful undertone to them. You don’t have to understand Japanese – I don’t, for instance – to get carried away by the atmosphere. For instance, the middle section of the amazing ‘Kishibojin’ seems to portray insanity – highlighted by subtly shifting rhythms and lead guitar feel – and the ballads ‘Korui’ and ‘Gekko’ suggest a feeling of solitude. The slower, brooding tunes ‘Ubugi’ and ‘Michi’ are masterclasses in building atmosphere, while the brilliant closing track ‘Kikoku’ ties the whole thing together musically and mood-wise.

As far as performances go, ‘Kishibojin’ is as close to perfection as it gets without having its life sucked out. Bassist and band leader Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko are both great singers. The former delivers his best performance thus far on this record, while the latter is – as always – incredible. The guitar duo has perfectly complementary lead guitar syles, with Maneki having a more thematic approach and Karukan being responsible for the faster runs. ‘Kishibojin’ is session drummer Makoto Dobashi’s recording debut with Onmyo-za and his powerful, but not overly aggressive playing proves to be a perfect fit for the band.

While Onmyo-za has yet to release an album that is less than good, every good band has a release where they truly outdo themselves. ‘Kishibojin’ is that release for Onmyo-za. The generally melancholic atmosphere on the record may not be for everyone, but it’s also a very important part of what makes the album such an immersive listening experience. I would like to be critical and point out small mistakes, but the truth is that they are nowhere to be found. This is a near-perfect record, right down to the subtle, but indispensible keyboard flourishes. Go check it out, if you haven’t yet, and don’t blame me for your Onmyo-za addiction.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kikoku’, ‘Kishibojin’, ‘Michi’

Album of the Week 13-2017: Wicked Mystic – Lithium


Sometimes unexpected breakups inadvertently mean that bands go out while they’re at their peaks. Yours truly was thoroughly impressed with Wicked Mystic’s sophomore album ‘Lithium’, but before they could properly promote the record, the band had already broken up. And that means that outside of the Netherlands, not many people could acquaint themselves with this highly interesting hybrid of progressive and power metal. During those days, it wasn’t easy to find a record in the genre with such a perfect balance of melody and variation in the songwriting department. Easily one of the best Dutch metal records of all time.

Compared to its excellent predecessor ‘The Paramount Question’, ‘Lithium’ is more concise and a little more aggressive, but the general sound is similar. Specifically, this means the songs are shorter, but not simpler. Within the songs, quite a lot of things happen, but they never end up sounding disjointed. In addition, some of the album’s best moments are not in the riffs – despite their obvious quality – but in the clean and acoustic guitar passages, that the quintet seems to be quite liberal with. This may cause the album to sound a little busy at times, but that generally is its strength.

Two of the songs are even largely acoustic. ‘The Reverie’ is a beautiful, folky ballad with some excellent fretless bass work by Erik Schut, but the most wonderful acoustic work can be heard on the breathtaking closing track ‘Last Honesty’, which tells the story of a wrongfully convicted death row inmate through an immaculate build-up. Some acoustic guitar solos pop up from time to time, with those near the end of the strong heavy metal track ‘Inborn Jester’ standing out most. The heavier ‘Mournful Rhymes’ and the euphoric ‘Hollow Phrase’ profit from extended clean sections with fantastic lead guitar work by Niels Kuenen and Harald te Grotenhuis.

On the more aggressive side of things, there is the relatively speedy ‘Calm Despair’, which builds from a high-speed twin guitar intro to a song with driving rhythms and great vocals by Remko Roes, who draws parallels to Ronnie James Dio and Tad Morose’s Urban breed. ‘Knight Errant’ is the song that demands most versatility from him – from the more aggressive opening to the harmonies of the chorus. Opening track ‘Toxemia’ is easily the most modern song on the record and while it’s good, it’s probably not the best song to open with, as it’s a bit misleading.

Wicked Mystic recently had a brief reunion with one of their early line-ups, mostly focusing on the more aggressive thrash metal leanings of their early work. While it was a pleasant listen, ‘The Paramount Question’ and ‘Lithium’ were without any doubt the albums that showed the band from their more unique side. To call this progressive metal would give people the wrong impression of what the music sounds like, but it is a fact that Wicked Mystic didn’t let itself be limited by what was expected from contemporary power metal bands at the time. Worth a listen if you are into Iced Earth’s more adventurous material.

Recommended tracks: ‘Last Honesty’, ‘Inborn Jester’, ‘Hollow Phrase’