Archive for November, 2018

Album of the Week 47-2018: Navarone – Salvo


Despite working with pretty much the same team as on its predecessor ‘Oscillation’, Navarone’s fourth album ‘Salvo’ is a completely different beast. Instead of releasing another carefully arranged production full of subtle intricacies that slowly reveal themselves over repeated spins, the quintet opts to focus on their live energy. Understandable, because that has certainly been one of the band’s biggest strengths throughout the last decade. The result is a record that may not have as many surprises as ‘Oscillation’ did, but with the set of powerful rock songs the band came up with this time, that should hardly be a problem.

With ‘Salvo’ being the kind of “live in the studio” record that many seventies hardrock bands excelled at, Navarone is more focused stylistically as well. That does not mean that all the songs sound similar – giving every song its own character is a specialty of the band – but it does mean the majority of what you will hear consists of uncomplicated, riff-driven hardrock with strong choruses that are memorable without exception. There aren’t even any ballads. The dark, minimalistic southern blues of ‘Fire’ – one of the album’s most experimental tracks – is probably the thing that comes closest to one.

Occasionally, ‘Salvo’ is reminiscent of the better work that Slash did with Myles Kennedy in recent years. Not just because Merijn van Haren en Kennedy are among the very few excellent rock singers of this era or because of the massive Gibson sound of Kees Lewiszong and Roman Huijbreghs, but also because of the fact that the songwriting has similar sensibilities. ‘The Strong Survive’ has that typical energetic feelgood vibe that the opener on a powerful rock record should have, while the grinding, moore moody ‘Waste’ is one of those deep cuts that could just develop into a classic over time.

Navarone was never about blindly copying their influences though. ‘Another Way’ has a fairly unique approach in its combination of classic and contemporary rock styles, not to mention an awesome build towards its chorus. It’s the one song that would have made sense on ‘Oscillation’ as well. The fairly accessible ‘SøReal’ sounds like a nineties rock radio hit without directly sounding like any of the songs that actually were, while the crushing riff work of ‘Mind’s Eye’ is borderline metallic in nature. Sure, the Black Sabbath kind of metal and the overtones are more contemporary rock than anything esle, but that only contributes to the unique nature of that excellent track.

Most amazing is the fact that Navarone brings all these elements together in a manner that does not sacrifice any of their catchy, recognizable songwriting. ‘Salvo’ has a very pleasant flow, likely more so than any of their other records. Many of the younger rock bands notably try to appeal either to old schoolers or the modern rock crowd. What Navarone proves once again on ‘Salvo’ is that it’s perfectly possible to have a multi-generational appeal if you just write and play the right songs. Highly recommended to anyone who mopes that all contemporary rock is inferior to the classic stuff.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mind’s Eye’, ‘SøReal’, ‘The Strong Survive’, ‘Another Way’

Album of the Week 46-2018: Aria – Proklyatiye Morey


Aria was Russia’s first big heavy metal band and still the country’s best. In fact, the band has been experiencing a second youth in recent years, despite a majority of its members being around sixty years old. Bassist Vitaly Dubinin and founding guitarist Vladimir Holstinin have never stopped writing excellent material and with the best Aria singer to date in the shape of Mikhail Zhitnyakov at their disposal, their exciting, often dramatic heavy metal songs are pushed as close to perfection as it gets. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is no different, though it does feature Aria treading surprisingly progressive waters at times.

First things first: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ is probably the best opening track on any 2018 heavy metal release. With eighties heavy metal oozing out of every pore of the song, from its gorgeous twin guitar intro riff to its uplifting chorus carried by Zhitnyakov’s powerful tenor, the song sends chills down my spine I have not felt since Accept’s ‘Hung, Drawn And Quartered’ six and a half years ago. Sure, Aria has a history of fantastic openers, but ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ certainly compares favorably to earlier masterpieces like ‘Proshay, Norfolk!’ and ‘Cherny Kvadrat’. Simply the perfect way to open the album.

The rest of the album follows a pattern similar to Iron Maiden’s latter day works. There’s a few shorter, punchy songs alternated with some longer, more progressive tracks. Aria’s songwriting is more consistent, however, and ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ definitely has a better sense of dynamics. Despite lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, the record hardly ever feels that long, because the band never forgets to insert memorable hooks into even the longest songs. In addition, the more concise songs like ‘Era Lucifera’ and the excellent ‘Vsho Nachinaetsya Tam, Gde Konchaetsya Noch’ bristle with strong, catchy melodies and spirited performances.

Picking highlights is difficult, but the nine minute ‘Zhivoy’ is amazing. It starts out like an epic, somewhat hopeful ballad, but then moves through a darker tranquil passage before turning into a defiant heavy metal song. ‘Varyag’ also is epic heavy metal at its finest, bringing to mind the better moments of Maiden’s ‘Brave New World’. ‘Ubit Drakona’, on the other hand, has a more seventies hardrock feel, underlined by some subtle Hammond organ underneath the simple, but brutally effective riff work. ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’ is another delightfully uncomplicated headbanger with a surprisingly aggressive vocal line by Zhinyakov in its chorus.

While it is tempting to call an album this long overlong, the songs speak for themselves. The semi-ballad ‘Dim Bez Ognya’ is slightly longer that it should be, but too good to be dismissed entirely. The title track is even the longest Aria song to date, but is a pretty convincing, doomy Maiden-esque track. What counts is that Aria continues its line of consistent heavy metal albums and plays with the energy of a band half their age. Heavy metal albums this good are pretty hard to come by this day and age and therefore, it is good that Aria is as reliable as ever. Even when they’re taking a few proggy detours that are as surprising as they are enjoyable.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’, ‘Zhivoy’

Album of the Week 45-2018: Sigh – Heir To Despair


While Sigh started out as one of Japan’s first extreme metal bands, they have become one of the country’s most unpredictable bands. Though black metal is never completely gone, their highly experimental albums can contain anything from jazzy breaks to film noir soundtrack interludes and electronic beats. In a way, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the more accessible albums the band has released so far, but they once again follow a completely different direction than ever before. As long as you don’t expect a symphonic black metal record, the oriental melodies and traditional heavy metal riffs may enchant you.

A brief genre description for the music on ‘Heir To Despair’ is as difficult as ever, but progressive East-Asian folk metal covers most of the bases. The inclusion of main man Mirai Kawashima’s flute gives certain sections a distinct seventies prog feel, while the shamisen of guest musician Kevin Kmetz – along with the general atmosphere of the melodies – gives the album what is arguably the most oriental vibe ever to be heard on a Sigh record. And yet, the eighties metal feel of the guitar riffs is also there. It is a mix of influences that is as unlikely as it is successful.

Some people may be surprised by the relatively large amount of clean singing on the record. In addition to employing several traditional Asian vocal techniques such as throat singing, Kawashima has put down a handful of excellent, haunting vocal harmonies. The brilliant midtempo opener ‘Aletheia’ is full of them, for instance. A daring opener, as it does not ease the listener into the album’s sound, but drops the new sound on them immediately. ‘In Memories Delusional’ balances more traditional heavy metal sounds with more folky touches and strong hamonies and may be an excellent starter if you have not heard the excellent thrashy metal of ‘Homo Hominis Lupus’ yet.

Elsewhere, the album can get a little weird. The electronic rhythms of the ‘Heresy’-trilogy can have a dubby feel due to the use of reverb, while most of the band’s influences are crammed into the three tracks. That is just a short detour though, since as a whole, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the most consistent Sigh albums both stylistically and in terms of quality. The album ends with two exceptional extreme progressive metal tracks that are filled with excellent ideas and sudden shifts in atmosphere. A very climactic ending to an album that isn’t exactly short on interesting musical ideas anyway.

The most remarkable thing about this, however, is how Sigh managed to streamline all of those ideas. Sure, the trilogy is an obvious departure in terms of overall sound, but ‘Heir To Despair’ has a very pleasant flow for an album with such a wide range of influences. Sure, the pristine production helps, but in the end, it is a triumph for Kawashima in terms of songwriting and arrangements. This is a must for fans of adventurous metal, but even progressive rock fans who don’t mind a bit of extra grit could find something of their liking here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Aletheia’, ‘Hands Of The String Puller’, ‘In Memories Delusional’

Album of the Week 44-2018: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Za Shisa


Despite being somewhat unpredictable stylistically, Kinniku Shojo Tai has been experiencing a very solid run recently. More so than during the latter years of their original run, in fact. Some of their recent albums are slightly better than others, ‘Omake No Ichinichi (Tatakai No Hibi)’ in particular, but none of them is less than enjoyable. ‘Za Shisa’ is another convincing entry into their discography, which currently counts over twenty studio albums. The general vibe is slightly more relaxed and less crazy than on their previous records, but anyone who liked their melting pot of influences before will certainly enjoy ‘Za Shisa’.

Kinniku Shojo Tai’s unpredictability is a result of every band member bringing something different to the table. ‘Za Shisa’ features a relatively large amount of the playful funk rock riffs that guitarist Toshiaki Honjo specializes in. Everything muscular, classy and melodic is the work of Fumihiko Kitsutaka, who in my opinion is one of the world’s greatest guitarists and arrangers. Founding bassist Yuichiro Uchida usually is responsible for the weird progressive and psychedelic stuff, while his co-founder Kenji Otsuki yells, speaks and sings everything together. That sounds like it may not work, but ‘Za Shisa’ proves it does.

The first peak of ‘Za Shisa’ arrives quite early. The elegant melodic hardrock of ‘Shogeki No Outsider Art’ is Kitsutaka in its purest form with a gorgeous chorus, after which the darker, vaguely Middle Eastern tones of the climactic ‘Occult’ account for one of the album’s most atmospheric moments. What follows is the most metallic track of the album; the aggressive speed metal of ‘Zombie River ~ Row Your Boat’ would not have sounded out of place on one of the band’s earliest releases. And like on those albums, the creative use of piano and dynamics lends gravitas to the energetic aggression.

After that, the album takes a slight dip. Not that ‘Naze Hito Wo Koroshi Cha Ike Nai No Daro Ka?’ and ‘Uchu No Hosoku’ are bad songs, it’s just too much consecutive tranquillity. The pace is picked back up quite quickly though, with the subdued seventies rock feel with spoken verses of the awesome ‘Marilyn Monroe Returns’ bringing Thin Lizzy’s ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’ to mind. Uchida’s songs ‘Kenji No Zundoku Fushi’ and ‘Parallax No Shisa’ have the dynamic, haunting quality he excels at. The former has a pleasant stomp, while the way the guitar line and piano melody teasingly dance in unison on the latter is only the beginning of its ominous atmosphere. ‘Next Generation’ and ‘I, Toya’ are pleasant upbeat rockers.

Though ‘Za Shisa’ feels somewhat more laid-back, Kinniku Shojo Tai is still as weird and reluctant to stick to one genre as ever. As always, it may require some time to sink in, but it is a rewarding album for repeated spins. If you have not heard of the band before and need a western reference: imagine if Queen had embraced punk and further developed the metallic leanings of their first few albums. Now add a dash of Japanese weirdness to the mix. Sounds impossible? Tell that to them. They have been doing it for over thirty years.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shogeki No Outsider Art’, ‘Zombie River ~ Row Your Boat’, ‘Occult’

Interview – Lovebites’ international metal ambitions


Within Japan, but certainly also outside of the country, Lovebites has been doing well recently. After a couple of one-offs at festivals in England and Germany, the all-female metal band is about to embark on their first European tour. Not long after that, on December 5th to be exact, their second album ‘Clockwork Immortality’ will be released. Plenty of reason to catch up with guitarist Midori.

Performing outside of Japan has always been an ambition for Lovebites. Part of the reason for that is the European-tinged sound of the band. “We would like to play at places our style of metal originates from and is beloved at“, Midori explains. “Besides, there are many places in the world where metal is much more accepted than in Japan. We want to play at those places. These days, metal is not as big in Japan as some people think it is. We hope that our shows abroad will contribute to other bands from the Japanese scene being introduced to a more international audience.

We hope that metal fans all over the world want to listen to our music, regardless of if they have some special interest in Japanese culture or not. That is usually the type of audience you have to limit yourself to when your lyrics are all in Japanese. That’s why we thought it would be a better idea to write our lyrics in English. All our English lyrics are checked and corrected by native speakers or people who lived in English-speaking countries for a long time. They do not just pay attention to our choice of words and our grammar, but also the way the words are supposed to be pronounced. We want to do anything to improve and enhance our lyrics.

Prejudice

When I had just started playing guitar, my influences were mainly Japanese non-metal bands. Later on, I went to a music school and got involved with bands that played covers of modern metal bands, such as Pantera and Avenged Sevenfold. That created the basis for my current guitar style.

That guitar style is notably different than that of her fellow guitarist Miyako, though Midori points out that they are a bit looser with that than they used to be: “Generally, I play flashy and aggressive solos, while Miyako plays slower, more melodic solos. That division is not that strict though. Sometimes we switch if it feels right. When we had just started, we thought it was very important that the two of us had a completely different style or technique, but these days, we don’t really care about that anymore.

Midori is not the only Lovebites member that once started out playing different music. While she has been playing fairly aggressive metal for a while now, singer Asami never sang metal at all before joining Lovebites. “The best thing about that is that she had zero prejudice about which vocal lines were metal or not“, says Midori. “Her vocal lines are very natural and rooted in her own background, which is R&B and gospel. Her delicate, but powerful singing style really enhances the music of Lovebites. Her vocals have provided us with extra opportunities.

Confidence

And yet, Lovebites’ music is deeply rooted in the European heavy and power metal tradition of the likes of Helloween and Iron Maiden. With all the high tempos and technical antics that come along with that. “Lovebites’ songs are fairly difficult to play“, Midori admits. “Most of them are pretty close to the edges of our capacities. If we practice one of the more difficult songs, we always start playing them at a slightly lower tempo. After that, we gradually raise the tempo bit by bit, so we can play them at the normal tempo confidently. That is something I do when I practice by myself, but also when we all play together.

My favorite artists have a lot of songs that I would love to play, but that are a little difficult for me. Those songs, I also practice by first playing them slowly and increasing the tempo as I go along. I am always looking for new songs that I would like to play. Sometimes, I keep the live situation in the back of my mind when I’m arranging guitar parts for Lovebites. But whenever it is necessary, I don’t have any problems with altering the phrasing of certain pieces a little.

As for myself, I am always working on new ideas for licks and phrases. When the production of our albums starts up, we always write the type of song we need at that particular moment. For instance, when we already have a bunch of fast songs, we could decide that it is time for a slower one. We work with several production teams and for the compositions, we frequently work together with Mao, Light Bringer’s keyboard player. All the guitar solos are written by Miyako and myself.

Female-friendly

Save for their debut ‘The Lovebites EP’ (2017), all artworks of Lovebites’ releases have something in common. ‘Awakening From Abyss’ (2017), ‘Battle Against Damnation’ (2018) and the upcoming release ‘Clockwork Immortality’ all prominently feature a wolf on their covers. “Since metal is not a mainstream genre, the wolf symbolizes us being a ‘lone wolf’ in the music scene“, Midori explains. “We are planning to use the wolf on all of our releases. This way, he can become a character that belongs to the band, like Eddie from Iron Maiden, Vic Rattlehead from Megadeth or Johnny from Riot. That is why we are considering giving him a name.

That is not the only visual aspect that makes Lovebites stand out. Not only is the quintet an all-female band in a scene where male musicians have long been the norm, they also dress in white. “Most metal bands dress in black“, Midori smiles. “That is why we thought it would be a good idea to dress in white to give the band something unique. Male musicians are still the majority in Japan, but a lot of great female musicians have come to prominence in recent years. We have the feeling that the current generation of metal fans really gives the music a chance rather than just watching how the band members look. I think the scene has become a lot more female-friendly.

It is a trend among Japanese all-female metal bands to gradually drop metal elements from their sound and aim for something more pop-oriented. Midori reassures that this is not something to worry about in this case: “Our fan base consists of metal fans. They have supported us from day one. We are not planning to get off-track and have faith in the fact that we will continue to be a metal band.

Variation

As said before, there is a new Lovebites album about to be released. What can we expect from ‘Clockwork Immortality’? “The album will largely feature the same sound that we had on ‘Awakening From Abyss’ and ‘Battle Against Damnation’“, Midori promises. “Our sound will still be rooted in power metal and feature notable influences from thrash metal and speed metal. However, we did experiment with the use of acoustic guitars. In addition, we tried to adopt a different approach than we usually do for some songs. This way, we still try to add a little variation to our sound.

Remarkably, an international release date is yet to be announced for ‘Clockwork Immortality’. “We hope to be able to give this album an international release as well“, Midori says carefully. “Of course we are aware of the fact that hardcore fans import our cd’s from Japan, but we would at least like to offer the opportunity to buy the cd for a normal price. Fortunately, we have already received some positive feedback from a couple of labels outside of Japan.

Differences between Japanese and European shows are largely practical, says the guitarist: “When we tour in Japan, we always have a big group of roadies with us. Because of that, all we have to do is play. Everything else is done for us. When we go to Europe, we have to do everything ourselves. In terms of the audience, there is not much of a difference. Both of the audiences are very warm and welcoming. One thing I do notice is that people in Europe sing along to our choruses louder. Sometimes the audience sings louder than the band. That never happens in Japan.

We use the exact same equipment in Japan as abroad. I’m using a Kemper digital amplifier, but when we play outside of Japan, I unmount it, so I can travel lighter, but still have the same sound. For this European tour, we will also leave our wireless systems at home. Furthermore, I have an endorsement with E-II Guitars, of which I will bring two. Both of them will have a Floyd Rose tremolo system, but I use them for different tunings. If there ever is a Kemper at the venue already, I will just have to bring a USB stick with the data. That would be even better.

Lovebites will tour Europe in mid-November:

13 November: Haarlem, Netherlands – Patronaat
14 November: Essen, Germany – Zeche Carl
16 November: Hamburg, Germany – Logo
19 November: Aschaffenburg, Germany – Colos-Saal
20 November: Paris, France – Nouveau Casino
21 November: London, UK – O2 Academy Islington


There are two people who deserve extensive gratitude for this interview. First of all, Arlequin Photography for helping me set up the interview with Joël Heijda from the Patronaat crew. Also, a major “domo arigato” to Fubito Endo for translating Midori’s answers for me. This article is largely an English translation of the article published on The Sushi Times, albeit enhanced with some of the technical information on the Gitarist website.