Archive for April, 2019

Album of the Week 17-2019: Black Sabbath – Mob Rules

Black Sabbath completely reinvented itself when Ozzy Osbourne left and Ronnie James Dio took over. ‘Heaven And Hell’ turned out to be one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time and made Sabbath catch up with the blossoming NWOBHM scene with class and conviction. Its follow-up ‘Mob Rules’ is often seen as more of the same. But while the album still mostly relies on the perfect blend of Sabbath’s at the time unprecedented heaviness and Dio’s more melodic hardrock sensibilities, it’s also quite a bit heavier than ‘Heaven And Hell’. ‘Mob Rules’ is an excellent album in its own right.

Looking back, it does seem like remaining original members Tony Iommi (guitar) and Geezer Butler (bass) tried to inject some more of the slow, heavy doom metal (although it was not yet known as such) that Black Sabbath was renowned for in the Ozzy-era back into their sound. Though to be fair, the arrival of new drummer Vinny Appice probably contributed to that as well, as he is a more straightforward power hitter than Bill Ward. I have once seen the album described as Iommi and Dio trying to blow each other off the record and though that description is apt, it also suggests less cohesion than actually can be heard.

‘The Sign Of The Southern Cross’ is far and away the longest and heaviest track on ‘Mob Rules’. It is built upon simple, but monstrous riffs that don’t contain a lot of notes, but wring everything out of those that are there. It also is the perfect rebuttal for the previous statement, as the band leaves plenty of room for Dio’s majestic voice in the verses. This also does wonders for the dynamics of the song. Following it, however, is ‘The Mob Rules’, which injects Sabbath’s music with the savage aggression of the punk era. In a way, ‘Mob Rules’ marries what were the best elements of past and present when the album came out in 1981.

One often heard complaint is that ‘Mob Rules’ follows the sequencing of ‘Heaven And Hell’ a little too closely, but that may originate from staunch critics of the band. Sure, ‘Turn Up The Night’ is stylistically similar to ‘Neon Knights’ – uptempo, powerful and romantic – and tracks like ‘Voodoo’ and ‘Country Girl’ reprise the loose, rocky vibe of the likes of ‘Lady Evil’, but the sound of ‘Mob Rules’ is so characteristic that nobody would mistake them for ‘Heaven And Hell’ tracks. In addition, ‘Falling Off The Edge Of The World’ and ‘Over And Over’ don’t sound like anything Black Sabbath has done before or since. The latter is an impressive doom metal ballad, unlikely as that sounds, and the former an epic heavy metal track that would not sound out of place on one of Dio’s first two albums, had it not been for the main riff that just screams Iommi.

Ultimately, ‘Mob Rules’ does in deed fall somewhat short of ‘Heaven And Hell’. The interlude ‘E5150’ is much too long, especially considering its place on the album, and ‘Slipping Away’ isn’t exactly the most inspired Black Sabbath track to date. Give it some time, however, and the album will proof it has a lot of merit on its own. Some of the songs are quite unique entries into the Black Sabbath catalog and worthy of being heard. There is simply too much good stuff on this record to be dismissed as the lesser Black Sabbath album with Dio.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Sign Of The Southern Cross’, ‘Falling Off The Edge Of The World’, ‘Turn Up The Night’

Differences on Buck-Tick’s ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’

This is an article that exists solely because I wish I had something similar in order to find out if Buck-Tick’s first compilation ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’ would be worth purchasing. While that may seem like an odd question for a compilation, this is not any ordinary compilation, as its title already subtly suggests. All of the songs have been reworked to varying degrees, which means that some of the songs have been altered significantly. If for whatever reason – mine were both biological and topgraphical – you are also a latecomer to the popular J-rock band, my hope is that this article will help you decide whether or not to purchase ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’.

While I have decided not to shy away from mentioning my opinion when I feel it is warranted, my aim was to be as descriptive as possible in order to let facts rather than my opinion shape your decision. If you feel that I have not succeeded in this goal, please feel free to let me know. In case I agree, it is only little trouble to alter the article.

1. Iconoclasm

Out of all the re-arranged tracks on ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’, ‘Iconoclasm’ is the one that most sounds like it was prepared for the strong industrial leanings of the era that followed the release. This is not only obvious from the electronic samples and noises that have been added to the beginning of the track, but also from Atsushi Sakurai’s heavily processed vocals. If anything, they sound like they have been recorded through a distorted megaphone. Personally, I think this significantly hurts the – admittedly limited – melodic qualities of the original version, but if there is one song that lends itself well for such an approach, it would be ‘Iconoclasm’. Best listened to on speakers, because it’s a little trebly and abrasive on headphones.

2. Aku No Hana

The alterations made to the justified classic ‘Aku No Hana’ are subtle enough to fool the casual listener into thinking that they were minor, but some of the changes were rather substantial. The overall sound mix is considerably brighter and more balanced than the mildly murky production of the album with the same name. While I’m not quite sure if the instruments were re-recorded or just remixed, Sakurai’s vocals went through some notable changes. Not only does his voice sound a tad deeper than on the original, some parts have been changed, like the whispers that end every other line of the verses. Overall an improvement over the original, though cutting out the vocals of the characteristic “I’m falling down” bit near the end was a bad idea.

3. Do The “I Love You”

A minute and a half longer than the original and that’s not because of an extended break or something similar. The song is substantially changed from its hyperactive, punky original incarnation into a new wave track with a more seductive groove. This version would not have sounded out of place on an INXS album. Hisashi Imai’s guitar solo remains surprisingly faithful to the original, it may actually be lifted directly from the original ‘Sexual XXXXX!’ recording. The accompanying parts are more streamlined, with especially the absence of the sudden crazy noises being notable.

4. Victims Of Love

Another track that is much longer than its previous version. Nearly twice as long in this case. For a more than significant part, this is due to its much slower tempo, which fits the dangerously seductive atmosphere Buck-Tick were going for much, much better. They would nail it completely on the ‘Climax Together’ live video recorded the same year, but this studio version is an excellent attempt as well. It is surprising to see how much Sakurai’s voice has developed in the less than four years since the original release. His somewhat deeper tone completely tosses the almost innocent quality of the original vocals out of the window, finally allowing him to make his vocal sound like they were probably intended. The abrupt ending is a bit of a downer ending though.

5. M.A.D

Easily the most recent song by the time the album was released – along with ‘Speed’ and ‘Jupiter’ – and therefore, it is kind of strange to see how much they changed it. The highly cinematic intro – think film music meets electro or maybe Enigma without choirs – made me hopeful about the outcome, but the rest of the track left me disappointed. Instead of a quirky, uncomplicated, Talking Heads-ish new wave track with some cool vocal harmonies, the re-arranged version of ‘M.A.D’ is high on electronic rhythms, sudden explosions of synth and aggressive vocals reverberating in the distance. As much as I would like to commend Buck-Tick for their creativity here, I don’t think the result is listenable enough.

6. Oriental Love Story

In its original version on ‘Seventh Heaven’, I have always thought ‘Oriental Love Story’ was promising, but also suffered from productional limitations. The new arrangement definitely improves upon that, though in a different way than I was expecting. When I saw the song was on this album, I expected Buck-Tick to further emphasize the “new romantic” atmosphere of the original and they certainly do in the first couple of minutes, but the song develops into something considerably more propulsive when the full band kicks in. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on how you prefer the song. Personally, I would not have minded a dreamy, romantic track, but the song works very well as an optimistic new wave rocker.

7. Speed

Right off the bat, the most notable change here are the sound effects carried over from the cross-fade of ‘Oriental Love Story’. That also means Imai’s lead-in measure has been sacrificed, but apart from that, the differences with the original version are quite minimal and superficial. The mix is certainly a lot brighter and it seems like Imai has added a lot of extra effects to his guitars, he may even have re-recorded his rhythm guitar in the middle section to make it sound a bit more funky. Also, some vocal textures have been added, though it is entirely possible that they were there already, they have just been made more audible in the mixing process this time around.

8. Love Me

If you don’t like Hawaiian style slide guitar work, avoid this version of ‘Love Me’ like the plague. That also counts if you found Sakurai’s vocals on the original version on the verge of being too schmaltzy, because this arrangement pushes the rest of the track into that territory as well. No longer do Imai and Hidehiko Hoshino deliver chorus laden chords that sound like a mix of late seventies punk and early gothic rock; instead the guitars are calm, shimmering and drenched in reverb. As you may have already understood, it’s also quite a bit slower than its original version. To be honest, I personally am not a big fan of either version, but if I had to choose, I would certainly go for the more energetic original.

9. Jupiter

‘Jupiter’ was an excellent ballad to begin with – Buck-Tick has quite a lot of those in their catalogue – so my guess is that they wanted to alter the track for this release just to include it. There is a lengthy Gregorian-style choir chant opening this version, but the rest of the track has just been embellished slightly. The vocal harmonies appear to have been redone, as their execution sounds better than on the original, Yutaka Higuchi added some cool, subtle fretless bass flourishes in the calmest sections and Imai reinterpreted his guitar solo. Some of the choir singers return on the background in the final chorus, but overall, ‘Jupiter’ feels like the original version with an intro tacked on.

10. …In Heaven…

On the surface, the reimagined version of ‘…In Heaven…’ does not sound that different from the version on ‘Seventh Heaven’, except for the grateful use Buck-Tick makes of the technological progress that has been made in the intervening years. New vocal textures have been added to the chorus and Imai explores the pleasures of harmonizing in the lead guitar parts, but overall, it is still pretty much the same song. And yet, it sounds so much more powerful than the already impressive original. The much clearer mix is definitely a part of the reason why. Yagami Toll’s drums especially sound massively improved in this version, but I also think Higuchi’s bass has more balls this time around. Whatever the reason, this is the definitive version of this delightful pop rocker, even though it still does not fix the awkward English. Oh well…

11. Moon Light

‘Moon Light’ more or less becomes the second part of a diptych with ‘…In Heaven…’ for this release. It kind of makes sense too; both songs have a similar upbeat “in love for the first time” vibe. In order to optimize the transition, I think ‘Moon Light’ has been adapted to fit alongside ‘…In Heaven…’ more than the other way around. The song has been slowed down slightly and the bright, clear guitar sound definitely sounds fitting to the ‘Seventh Heaven’ sound. This is still largely the same song as on ‘Hurry Up Mode’ though. The structure is largely the same and so are the melodies, though I think Sakurai has come a long way since the band’s debut album. Imai’s guitar solo on this version is beefed up and really cool here as well.

12. Just One More Kiss

If you want to appreciate what a good rhythm guitarist Hoshino is, by all means check out this version. This is something that stands out most when you listen to it on headphones and you can really make out all the subtleties of his picking hand. ‘Just One More Kiss’ on this release actually focuses slightly more on clean guitars as far as Hoshino is concerned than it did on ‘Taboo’. Apart from that, differences are relatively minor, though the shift from slightly distorted to clean might throw avid fans of the original off. Too bad that the only flaw in this furthermore more than decent song – the large amount of repetition in the last three minutes – is still there in the remake.

13. Taboo

‘Taboo’ is the reason why I considered buying ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’ in the first place. The original is a masterful, goosebumps-inducing new wave track full of seductive grooves and vocals that really only could have been made in the eighties and – along ‘Tokyo’ – the highlight of the eponymous album. But what that song does not have is this incredible bass line courtesy of Higuchi. Here, ‘Taboo’ is completely reimagined. Whilst retaining the general melodies of the original, the guitars are much more sparse and the track is more oriented on almost jazzy grooves, though Yagami is too much of a hard hitter to go full jazz. The result: instead of one, Buck-Tick now has two utterly amazing tracks named ‘Taboo’ with the same lyrics and vocal melodies, but surprisingly little in common otherwise.

14. Hyper Love

Another track that is seamlessly connected to the previous one – Buck-Tick seemed to be in the mood for that when they sequenced the album. Not unlike ‘Victims Of Love’, the subsequent ‘Climax Together’ live recording is more powerful than the studio version, but I’m still on the fence about this one. Yes, Sakurai’s vocals are better than on the original and the chorus, while maybe a tad silly, is an improvement, but I’m a little conflicted about the choruses. They have a powerful, almost tribal feel, but they also kind of lack the mysterious menace of the original. That sounds like the album ends disappointingly for me, but admittedly, it works really well in terms of flow here.

Album of the Week 16-2019: Death Angel – Killing Season

Out of all the bands that resumed activity in the wake of Chuck Billy’s Thrash Of The Titans benefit, Death Angel is easily the most relevant today. Where most of those bands rely mostly on nostalgia, Death Angel still releases some of the most convincing and creative thrash metal around. Having said that, I do prefer the band with its original rhythm section. Original drummer Andy Galeon in particular granted a unique flavor to the band. ‘Killing Season’ was the final album for him and bassist Dennis Pepa and it is inexplicably overlooked as one of their best albums.

What makes ‘Killing Season’ so good is how little it is concerned about what style it is. Most of the record is some form of metal, but the lines between several subgenres are blurred, which is probably why thrash purists are not showering the album with the praise it deserves. In a way, it does sort of sound like the hybrid of thrash metal, traditional heavy metal and modern hardrock that Metallica has been attempting on their last two albums, with the most important difference being that it’s actually successful here. Nick Raskulinecz’ production occasionally lends the material a Foo Fighters-ish polish, without forsaking the metallic qualities of the songs.

As for the subgenre distinction, look no further than opening track ‘Lord Of Hate’. It has a thrash intensity, but with riffs that have more in common with more traditional heavy metal. It is hardly the only track on the album for which that is true. The mindtempo stomper ‘Dethroned’ and the more modern, but extremely powerful aggresion of ‘Sonic Beatdown’ are also in between genres. ‘Buried Alive’ relies on a mid-tempo gallop and some of Rob Cavestany’s most effective riff work to date, while ‘Soulless’ combines dark heavy metal with an almost Alice In Chains-ish atmosphere, most apparent in the vocal harmonies of Cavestany and frontman Mark Osegueda in the pre-chorus.

Save for the cool jazzy interlude in the otherwise full-on punk-ish anger of ‘Carnival Justice’, the more experimental material is all on the second half of the album. ‘When Worlds Collide’ and ‘Steal The Crown’ both have an almost rock ‘n’ roll-like vibe in the looseness of their rhythms, while ‘God Vs. God’ is one of those more modern metal tracks that needs a couple of spins to appreciate the brilliance of its tortured atmosphere, not unlike ‘Famine’ on the previous album ‘The Art Of Dying’. Closing track ‘Resurrection Machine’ starts out sounding like it will be the lone ballad of the album, but evolves into a dynamic heavy metal track with a gorgeous Cavestany-sung middle section. With that, ‘Killing Season’ ends on a high note.

Though ‘The Art Of Dying’ was Death Angel’s big comeback, ‘Killing Season’ is the one that proved the band was still relevant. There is a freedom to the band’s songwriting approach here that any of their other albums not titled ‘Act III’ and ‘Frolic Through The Park’ lack, albeit with much more consistency than the latter. ‘Killing Season’ also features what is probably Mark Osegueda’s finest vocal performance to date and a surprisingly natural, yet sufficiently heavy production. In an era of burnt-out seasoned bands and embarrassing acts bands, ‘Killing Season’ is all a fan of interesting thrash can wish for.

Recommended tracks: ‘Soulless’, ‘Resurrection Machine’, ‘Buried Alive’, ‘Sonic Beatdown’

Album of the Week 15-2019: Catharsis – Imago

Although seen as a genre predominantly from northwestern Europe, some of this century’s most interesting power metal releases are actually from elsewhere and don’t always make it over to the west. Some bands try to make the transition by translating their songs to English, but ‘Imago’, the third full-length of Moscow-based Catharsis, is a rare example of the opposite. It was originally released in 2002 with lyrics entirely in English, just like their first two albums. The next year, a Russian version was released, which despite being musically identical somehow sounds superior. Certainly a must for fans of neoclasscially tinged power metal.

Oleg Zhilyakov’s vocals are an important part of what makes this release so good. That can be said about any Catharsis album, because Zhilyakov has incomparable range, power and drama in his voice, but judging from his performance here, he feels slightly more comfortable singing in his native tongue. Fortunately, the language fits his passionate, semi-operatic delivery perfectly. While Zhilyakov is amazing, a great singer does not necessarily make a great band. Catharsis’ compositions are excellent though. They’re generally uptempo, but not as upbeat as most similarly styled German or Swedish bands. There is always a darkness brooding underneath Catharsis’ songs and the occasional progressive leanings bring Symphony X to mind.

What stands out immediately about ‘Imago’ is how theatrical the songs sound with relatively minimal embellishments. Sure, Julia Red’s keyboards add some layers that the guitars cannot, but even she is not trying to emulate a full orchestra. Catharsis’ music immediately transports you to the darkest chapter of a fairytale. The guitar riffs are melodic and powerful, but not too heavy and the climactic choruses often feature Zhilyakov sounding like he is begging for his life to be spared, which is goosebumps-inducing more than once. Catharsis has a power that many bands in the genre strive for, but only few manage to achieve.

Stylistically, most of the songs on ‘Imago’ are similar, but there are little clever compositional touches that make them stand out. ‘Voin Sveta’ has a more aggressive midtempo grind, the fiery ‘Izbranny Nebom’ has what is probably the most awesome riff on the album, ‘Vzorvi Moi Sny’ has a mind-blowingly exciting build up towards its chorus and ‘Tantsui V Ogne’ has a surprisingly danceable rhythm. Both ‘Zvezdopad’ and ‘Izbranny Nebom’ have a couple of unconventional twists in their amazing choruses as well. There are tracks that deviate from the norm though, most notably the multi-faceted doomy crawler ‘Rassvetny Zver’ and the surprisingly good ballad ‘Dalshe – Tishina…’.

‘Imago’ is not a perfect album – instrumental track ‘Tarantul’ has a lot of interesting ideas, but sounds like it should have been a full band composition rather than a piano instrumental – but it is the perfect album for anyone who wants a slightly different take on their power metal without moving away from the genre’s essence too far. Catharsis is full of great musicians, they know how to set a perfect mood or atmosphere for their music and – I can’t stress this enough – Oleg Zhilyakov is one of the best power metal singers in the world.

Recommended tracks: ‘Izbranny Nebom’, ‘Rassvetny Zver’, ‘Zvorvi Moi Sny’, ‘Zvezdopad’

Album of the Week 14-2019: Jupiter – Zeus ~Legends Never Die~

Multiple times over the last few years, I had feared that Jupiter would disband. There have been several line-up changes and I thought the final nail in the coffin would be the reformation of Versailles, the hugely popular, but slightly inferior band that almost the entire original line-up came from. These developments alone would be enough reason to be happy with the release of their third album ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’. But it’s also really, really good. New kid and former Concerto Moon singer Atsushi Kuze fits the band amazingly well and the album is probably Jupiter’s most consistent to date.

Jupiter does not suddenly sound different on ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’. The music is still high octane symphonic power metal with prominent influences from progressive metal and melodic death metal, as well as plenty of room for the impressive dexterity of guitarists Hizaki and Teru. In fact, some might argue that the inclusion of two tracks from the spectacular single ‘Theory Of Evolution’ and two that were previously recorded with former singer Zin further diminishes the surprise impact of the album. Kuze’s somewhat husky hardrock voice further broadens the appeal of Jupiter outside of the visual kei scene, however, and the impact his voice had on Hizaki’s songwriting is significant.

Now, Hizaki has a way of making singers better. He managed to make Kamijo sound semi-acceptable in Versailles, Juka’s best vocal performance was on his ‘Dignity Of Crest’ album and he transformed Zin into one of the best singers in the visual kei scene. Anticipating what would happen if he worked with Kuze’s already impressive set of pipes was half the fun of waiting for ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’ to be released. And to be brief: the album contains Kuze’s best vocals to date. He does not do anything radically different from what he did in Concerto Moon and Screaming Symphony, but he’s like a fish in the water with the bombastic, theatrical material that Hizaki wrote for the album.

With Kuze being a hardrock singer first and foremost, it is notable that the songwriting plays to these strengths. ‘Drastic Night’ has a seventies hardrock vibe due to the simple, but brutally effective main riff and the inclusion of a Hammond organ, but manages to sound contemporary power metal enough to make perfect sense on the record. More dramatic tracks, like the highly dynamic ‘No Cry No More’ and the absolutely sensational ‘Straight Into The Fire’ could not have been written for any other singer. The most powerful choruses, such as the ones for ‘Theory Of Evolution’ and the long closing epic title track really profit from having a singer with significantly more power than the average visual kei frontman.

To those who were afraid that Zin’s departure would result in Jupiter shunning their melodic death metal songs: rest assured. In ‘Tempest’ and the previously released ‘Angel’s Wings’, the album contains two tracks that feature prominent melodeath influences. The former sounds a little like a mash-up of Galneryus’ neoclassical abandon and Jupiter’s own ‘Allegory Cave’, while the latter has a mind-blowing final chorus. Both rely heavily on aggressive, borderline thrash metal riffing. Kuze does not yet have the versatility in his growls that Zin had, but there is almost a hardcore-like quality to their blunt aggression. Something which also works surprisingly well on the last section of the lone Teru composition ‘Show Must Go On’, a powerful modern hardrock track.

Out of the songs that had already been recorded with Zin, ‘The Spirit Within Me’ really takes the cake. Not only does it have what is possibly the best riff of the album, the song fits Kuze’s voice so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine it had not orignally been written for him. It is kind of ironic that one works so well, as ‘Tears Of The Sun’ underwent a more significant change, being transposed to a different key. Relatively new drummer Daisuke played on the original versions of both of these tracks, but his contributions to ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’ should not be overlooked, as his playing is incredible. He has all the skills that his predecessor Yuki also had, but he appears to be a little more understated and serviceable, which does sound a little weird, given the fact that a track like ‘Theory Of Evolution’ is basically fifty percent blazing fills and ‘The Spirit Within Me’ has some of the most impressive double bass rolling I have heard in recent years.

As a whole, ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’ could be the start of a new era for Jupiter. People who liked their music before should have no issue with the record, but the inclusion of a singer with the type of voice that usually is not associated with visual kei really opens them up for people who generally stay away from the scene. In addition, every single song on the album is worth hearing. ‘Memories Of You’ goes on a bit long near the end, but the darker first half of the song is the best ballad-esque bit Hizaki has written to date. Everything else is a perfect blend of power metal, hardrock, progressive metal and melodeath. If that sounds right up your alley, you can’t go wrong with ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Spirit Within Me’, ‘Straight Into The Fire’, ‘No Cry No More’, ‘Theory Of Evolution’

Show & Tell: Top 25 Onmyo-za songs

Before I get to the band that I’d like to present to you today, I would like to talk about the importance of labelling bands correctly. As a journalist, I understand the convenience of having a simple descriptive tag to pique the interest of potential listeners. However, tagging bands wrongly can needlessly alienate an audience that might just enjoy the music. This is exactly what happened to me with Onmyo-za.

Onmyo-za has been consistently mislabelled by many media outlets. Among the most common unjustified genre tags the Osaka-based band has had thrust upon them are J-rock (they are much too metal for that), folk metal (a few traditional East Asian folk touches here and there does not make a band folk metal) and visual kei (not a musical genre and hardly fitting). Maybe the best way to describe the sound of the self-proclaimed “yokai heavy metal band” is to just let the music speak for itself.

So if any of you is curious about the band based on things that I or other people have written, but are intimidated by the 100% Japanese titles in their discography, please let me provide some guidance in the form of my twenty-five favorite Onmyo-za songs.

25. Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna (Karyo-Binga, 2016)

While I am mildly critical of the upbeat rockers that close many Onmyo-za albums, the band is capable of making excellent rock tracks when they put their minds to it. ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’ does not close ‘Karyo-Binga’ – it’s actually somewhere in the middle – but it was one of the songs that immediately stood out to me when I first listened to the album. The subtle Hammond organ, which is easier to spot on the studio version than on this live recording, steers your mind towards Deep Purple and once that has happened, the main riff doesn’t sound too dissimilar from something Ritchie Blackmore would play around the ‘Perfect Strangers’ era. Just tuned a little lower. Onmyo-za’s melodic approach is wildly different from Deep Purple’s, however, which is largely why ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’ develops its own identity. The great chorus is surprisingly light on vocal notes, but that is hardly a problem. Quite a few nice harmonies in both the vocal and the guitar department as well here, which is always worthy of a recommendation for me.

24. Ryu No Kumo O Eru Gotoshi (Garyo-Tensei, 2005)

While ‘Garyo-Tensei’ was sort of Onmyo-za’s breakthrough album simply because it contains ‘Koga Ninpocho’, I was a bit disappointed when I first heard it. The dry production doesn’t do the songs any favor, and save for three, the songs that were not on the ‘Inyo-Shugyoku’ compilation I already owned were not as good as I hoped. One of those three is second track ‘Ryo No Kumo O Eru Gotoshi’, a highly melodic track with Kuroneko and Matatabi bringing out the best in each other vocally. Every section of the song has a very distinct atmosphere and while Onmyo-za would further explore the possibilities of start-stop riffing with vocals on top (see the next two entries), this is the first time they did it that powerful. From a songwriters’ perspective, I find it quite interesting that the song doesn’t have an outspoken chorus. I guess the part Kuroneko sings on her own qualifies as such, but the fact that it doesn’t stand out says more about the quality of each of the parts than that it diminishes the obvious quality of that part.

23. Konpeki No Sojin (Ryuo Shugyoku, 2013)

The second part in what I have dubbed “the blue trilogy” to make my life easier – after ‘Aoki Dokugan’ from ‘Kongo Kyubi’ (2009) and before ‘Seiten No Mikazuki’ from ‘Raijn Sosei’ (2014) – is the best of the three. While none of these songs recycle any riffs or themes, they do share a bit of a stylistic approach, with all of them using fairly traditional heavy metal riffs and almost dreamy melodic characteristics that would more commonly be seen in a more laidback rock context. What makes the general dreaminess of ‘Konpeki No Sojin’ stand out, however, is the fact that it is the only song out of the three that is carried vocally by Kuroneko. Her voice, along with the subtle keyboard flourishes in the treble spectrum, give the vocal sections a somewhat otherworldly quality. This is further enhanced by the heavily contrasting short sections that Matatabi sings on, which feature what are quite possibly his most aggressive vocal lines to date.

22. Kumikyoku “Kishibojin” ~ Michi (Kishibojin, 2011)

Before I move on, let me warn you that about half of Onmyo-za’s 2011 masterpiece ‘Kishibojin’ will be in this list. ‘Michi’ already kind of sums up what I like so much about the album. Yes, it is certainly darker than most of the songs Onmyo-za is known for, but that is a strength rather than a turn-off. ‘Michi’ is one of the darker-sounding metal tracks on the album, but it doesn’t get all ham-fisted and obvious about it, despite being slow enough to be considered doom metal without demanding too much of a stretch of the imagination. The album also contains what I consider to be Matatabi’s best vocal work to date and ‘Michi’ puts his great – and sadly underrated – voice front and center. The start-stop riff in the chorus helps it stand out, but he basically employs his full range here. The little raw accents are excellent and when his wife Kuroneko does join, the harmonies are impeccable. Meanwhile, the guitar riffs may appear simple and serviceable, but they only enhance the atmosphere so well because they are full of subtly dissonant chords. Lessons in musical subtlety are rarely this heavy.

21. Izayoi No Ame (Kongo Kyubi, 2009)

When I was collecting Onmyo-za’s discography little by little, I held off on buying ‘Kongo Kyubi’ for the longest time. The album is notably more mellow than most of the band’s repertoire and the production is polished to the point of glossy and because of that, I thought it could not be good enough. I was wrong. ‘Izayoi No Ame’ single-handedly proves how well the bright, clean production works with the songs written for ‘Kongo Kyubi’. Like basically any other Onmyo-za track, the song is full of fantastic melodies and it has a great chorus, but there are some productional touches that could only be on this album. The subtle clean guitars in the fantastic intro, for instance. Or the way the mind-blowingly brilliant bridge to the chorus is set up to maximize the impact of the chorus. Just listen to it: the riff has more notes than the start of the chorus, but the drum part makes it sound much less claustrophobic than how most European power metal bands would handle such a part. The productional approach definitely enhances ‘Izayoi No Ame’, but it could not have worked this well if Matatabi had not written and arranged such incredible parts for it.

20. Kirameki (Kojin Rasetsu, 2002)

In a way, ‘Kirameki’ sums up the formula of Onmyo-za’s third album ‘Kojin Rasetsu’ quite well. The fast, almost thrashy opening riff – bonus for the brief guitar harmony in the riff – seems to suggest a further exploration of the speed metal-isms that were relatively prominent on previous album ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’, but there is far too much melodic refinement in the track to see it as nothing more than raw speed metal. The vocal harmony in the chorus is particularly melodic, further emphasizing how well Kuroneko and Matatabi work together as singers. All available vocals come together in what seems to be a moment of complete abandon during the end of the second verse, but all of this is quickly drawn back into control once the chorus returns again. Right before the quiet part near the end, Karukan plays one of my favorite solos he has ever recorded. It is quite restrained by his standards, but it just fits perfectly.

19. Mizuchi No Miko (Garyo-Tensei, 2005)

Kuroneko compositions are usually ballads with a distinct East-Asian folk touch. ‘Muzuchi No Miko’ is a notable exception. A powerful metal track full of dramatic melodies and excellent three-part vocal harmonies, it is one of the highlights that lifts the surprisingly hit and miss ‘Garyo-Tensei’ to a higher level. Karukan’s two-hand tapping runs in the intro are hard to pull off as rhythmically and melodically consistent as he does it here and again, heightened interest is guaranteed by the solo section, which is constructed just a little differently than in most heavy metal songs. It is remarkable how guitar-oriented the composition is for something that’s been written by a singer who doesn’t play any instruments in the band. Of course Kuroneko gets her chance to shine, but it’s mainly through the interesting and unpredictable vocal melodies she has written. That extended powerful note that ends the chorus is her voice at her best, however.

18. Kumikyoku “Kishibojin” ~ Oni Kosae No Uta (Kishibojin, 2011)

‘Kishibojin’ lacks the lighter, upbeat rock song that most Onmyo-za albums have – I have to resist the urge to type “fortunately” here. There is one track that is somewhat different in tone than the melancholic nature of that record though and that is the almost cheeky-sounding ‘Oni Kosae No Uta’. It is quite heavy, but the teasing melodies and the remarkable vocal interaction – Kuroneko is haunting, Matatabi and Maneki are raw and mischievous – make it stand out in terms of atmosphere. Later live versions of the song proved that these elements are exactly what makes the track such an infectious one in the live environment. Audiences seem intent on participation in this particular track for sure. Another notable thing is how bluesy and wah-drenched Maneki’s solo is, which is quite a rare feat in Onmyo-za’s discography. There isn’t any other song quite like ‘Oni Kosae No Uta’ in their repertoire and that is exactly what makes it such a pleasant surprise.

17. Ayako (Hyakki-Ryoran, 2000)

On their sophomore album ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’, Onmyo-za released what I consider to be their first top-tier ballad. It is hardly a typical ballad, however. Not by Onmyo-za standards and certainly not by hardrock and metal standards. In fact, the only aspect of ‘Ayako’ that could be considered traditionally balladesque is Kuroneko’s generally soft and elegiac lead vocals, though the opening riff is certainly the type of riff what a power ballad from a metal band would culminate into. About five minutes in, a completely new section enters. By playing around with the time feel in a way that makes it seem like there are lots of shifts in tempo and dynamic, as well as Kuroneko sounding like an actress reciting the lines of a particular tense scene, there is a brief moment of absolute madness. The band would later revisit this type of songwriting in the middle section of the title track of ‘Kishibojin’ over a decade later, but ‘Ayako’ is an already surprisingly well-developed example from their earliest days. The fragile, resigned sadness of the rest of the song is a work of great serviceable restrained by each of the band’s members.

16. Kuraiau (Kongo Kyubi, 2009)

Almost all Onmyo-za albums finish on a somewhat lighter note with a more upbeat rock track. These usually are not my favorite songs, but every once in a while, one pops up with an interesting vibe. ‘Ikiru Koto To Mitsuketari’ had its hopeful sound, but ‘Kuraiau’ is just a really powerful rock song. The main riff has strong seventies hardrock leanings, the solo is one of the bluesiest things they ever put out and the chorus – which doesn’t say “cry out”, as I first thought – invites to sing along even if you don’t speak the language. In fact, its crowd interaction possibilities are probably the reason why the song can consistently be found near the end of the band’s set lists. Unlike some of the other album closers the band has made, however, ‘Kuraiau’ still has a propulsive, driving rhythm. It even stands as one of the harder rocking songs on the relatively light and polished ‘Kongo Kyubi’. Since contrast is a big thing in the concept of the band – their band name refers to the gathering of yin and yang – that does make a lot of sense.

15. Mao (Mao-Taiten, 2007)

‘Mao-Taiten’ is often labelled as one of Onmyo-za’s most straightforward metallic albums and while there is some truth to that statement, it is also far more melodic than the musical picture such a description would bring to mind. The intro is Matatabi’s Iron Maiden worship in all of its harmonic guitar glory – note how he adds a lower octave for a fuller sound though – and none of the riffs is less than metal, with a part of the middle section even being borderline thrash with a very brief grunted section. The track also features some of Tora’s most prolonged uptempo double bass drumming to date, including all the recordings he has done since leaving Onmyo-za in 2009. Kuroneko’s vocals, on the other hand, are some of the most melodic and “airy”-sounding she has ever done on a non-ballad. Also, the production sounds a great deal more polished than one might expect from one of the band’s more metallic records. Perhaps surprisingly, these different properties only enhance what is one of Onmyo-za’s best opening tracks. Impressive enough when you realize how many good ones they have done.

14. Kumikyoku “Kishibojin” ~ Ubugi (Kishibojin, 2011)

Ask people to name an example of the darker nature of ‘Kishibojin’ and chances are pretty big they will mention ‘Ubugi’. The downtuned, stomping riffs could have pointed the band into a more modern metal direction, but since the band chose to include only Kuroneko’s vocals on the track, the overall atmosphere is immediately pushed into more melancholic, introspective territory. I also love how understated the chorus of ‘Ubugi’ is. The song really opens up in that part of the song, with everyone leaving room for everyone else to excel, but everyone flat out refuses to cram the section full of his own notes. This philosophy continues in Maneki’s short, surprisingly modest guitar solo. There are not that many notes, but everyone of them counts. Also, his picking style and the subtle wah make it feel like a part of the composition rather than a moment to show off. After the still somewhat hopeful ‘Samayoi’ (still to follow), ‘Ubugi’ effectively sets the atmosphere for ‘Kishibojin’, but unlike many mood-setters on concept albums, it also sounds fantastic on its own.

13. Teito Makaitan (Hyakki Ryoran, 2000)

One of the most interesting things about Onmyo-za’s vocal duo is that it steers clear of the overused “beauty and the beast” trope. Both Kuroneko and Matatabi can truly hold their own with clean vocals. Having said that, grunts and screams do pop up every once in a while. The songs in which they are featured prominently I often consider inferior to the more melodic work, with one notable exception: ‘Teito Makaitan’. The gruff vocals in the verses give off an aura of madness, especially due to how they are offset against Kuroneko’s subtle siren song in the background. Highlighting the song, however, is its downright incredible chorus: a chilling climax of which the amazing melody contrasts with the rest of the song. Maneki’s guitar solo near the end is the perfect extension of this melody. It’s not just the juxtaposition of heavy and melodic though. The verses and the chorus are much more open than the uncharacteristically dense, but intense riffing heard throughout the rest of the song. Admittedly, ‘Teito Makaitan’ was a bit of a slow burner for me, but it did eventually end up being one of my favorite Onmyo-za songs.

12. Hao (Hado Myoo, 2018)

How do you establish an album that is heavier and overall darker than your average input? By opening it with a track that is just that, of course! ‘Hao’ effectively sets the mood for the yokai-infested underworld that is ‘Hado Myoo’. But it is more than just a heavy track kicking off a heavy album. There are very few songs that show the contrasts Onmyo-za somehow always manages to combine in a listenable way as well as ‘Hao’. The Matatabi-sung sections are heavy, with propulsively pounding drums courtesy of Makoto Dobashi, while the palm-muted chords of Maneki and Karukan push the listeners’ ear drums hard. Then there is the chorus. The chords get longer and wider, while Kuroneko’s angelic voice adds a layer of melancholic introspection. In the middle section, the couple alternates, effectively blending the two extremes. This effect is further emphasized by Kuroneko singing the last verse over the riff that first backed Matatabi. See? A mixed vocal duo does not have to be grunts and operatic vocals to get the most out of the dynamic opportunities on offer.

11. Kumikyoku “Kishibojin” ~ Samayoi (Kishibojin, 2011)

Much of Onmyo-za’s magnum opus ‘Kishibojin’ is characterized by an undercurent of dark melancholy. While opening track ‘Samayoi’ is not without its fair share of melancholy, it also has a hopeful quality. As a rule, I am very fond of this combination of atmospheres, but it is very difficult to pull off. If your name is not Matatabi, that is. This composition, while not too complicated, has a couple of nifty tricks that strongly enhance its impact. Most notably, the way the chorus opens up by using a raised key to suggest a more positive vibe is brilliant. A perfect contrast to the more subdued, tentative verses. In addition, this song is the ultimate piece of evidence to how underrated Matatabi is as a singer. Kuroneko is often name-checked as one of Japan’s best singers – and rightfully so – but while she harmonizes with Matatabi here is a work of sheer beauty, it is without a doubt the band leader’s song vocally. His dynamic range really gets to shine here and the melodies are simply gorgeous.

10. Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku (Chimimoryo, 2008)

Despite the epic nature of Onmyo-za’s music and lyrical subject matter, the band does not have a lot of songs that are actually of epic length. Out of the ones that are, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ is my favorite because of its supreme build-up and the quality of its monumental riffs. The riffs in ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ are based around broad chords and eerie guitar harmonies, which envelop the listener not unlike the temple bell does to the priest Anchin in the Noh play the lyrics are based on. These huge riffs have a truly dramatic feel to them, which really does wonders for the atmosphere of the song. Most of the tempo changes are rather subtle and drive the story forward without any abrupt developments, with one notable exception. The moment the fast riff sets in during the middle section of the song is one of my favorite moments in Onmyo-za’s discography. Sure, the riff itself is nothing too complicated, but it’s awesome and it certainly manages to prolong the listener’s attention, which is not irrelevant in an eleven plus minute song.

9. Kumikyoku “Kishibojin” ~ Kikoku (Kishibojin, 2011)

An engaging concept album demands an engaging closing track. And in that regard, ‘Kishibojin’ does noet disappoint. The song starts out by reintroducing the album intro ‘Shuhu’ and evolves into what is easily one of the most traditionally metallic tracks on the record. That is not a complaint, however, as it is exactly the perfect way to round off ‘Kishibojin’. Of course, this song is traditionally metallic by Onmyo-za standards. Kuroneko is far from a typical metal singer, even if you take all the different popular vocal approaches for female singers into account, and the chords used in the riffs are not just standard power chords. During the solo section, Karukan proves that it’s perfectly possible to play fast runs without sacrificing any of the emotion a guitar solo should have. Furthermore the section involves into what has become one of the most successful formulas for Onmyo-za twin solos: Maneki and Karukan playing in harmony, then trying different parts, only to come back together for a gorgeous harmony again.

8. Shutendoji (Chimimoryo, 2008)

‘Chimimoryo’ is probably Onmyo-za’s most varied album in terms of style and therefore potentially appeals to the broadest audience. Opening track ‘Shutendoji’ is rather atypical in the sense that it neither eases the listener into the record nor does it burst out of the gate. Its massive, almost mythical sonic approach brings to mind latter day Led Zeppelin, or at least to my mind, and immediately transports the listener to another world. The big reverberating chords, the slow gallop of the verses and the repeating twin guitar pattern are more traditional heavy metal elements, but while the song sounds slightly more metallic during its second half, it never turns into a full-on heavy metal track. In fact, the powerful lead guitar part right after the second chorus is more reminiscent of a soundtrack to some sort of climactic scene, while the arrangement of different guitar parts stacked on top of each other underneath it is a masterclass in both composition and arrangement. Also, this doesn’t technically concern this particular song, but I love the way ‘Shutendoji’ transitions into the following ‘Araragi’.

7. Shimobe (Hado Myoo, 2018)

Now this one took me completely by surprise when ‘Hado Myoo’ was released. This is arguably the heaviest track Onmyo-za ever released, with its main riffs having quite a bit in common with the contemporary wave of Scandinavian melodeath bands. Onmyo-za being what they are, however, refuse to adhere to the formula of the style. Matatbi limits his grunts to a few accents, mainly opting for his powerful clean voice instead. The added piano also is far from a staple of the genre. In addition, it is simply mind-blowing how many new elements are introduced to the song in its second half, with a surprising degree of melancholic beauty in the vocal parts. But if the song has to be summed up in one section, it has to be the 7/8 opening riff that might not even sound all that alien to unsuspecting listeners. It’s vicious, it’s explosive, it refuses not to be headbanged along to… Exactly like ‘Shimobe’ as a whole sets out to be.

6. Kumikyoku “Kishibojin” ~ Kishibojin (Kishibojin, 2011)

Onmyo-za’s first and so far only concept album ‘Kishibojin’ is without a doubt my favorite Japanese album ever and one of my all-time favorites altogether. But since I tend to listen to it in its entirity, I hardly name separate songs as my favorites. That is strange, because there are several tracks on the album that are true gems on their own, the title track probably being the best of them. It is one of the darkest tracks on the record, which is probably Onmyo-za’s darkest and most melancholic already. All of the riffs in the song are absolutely stellar and I love how dynamic the rhythmic changes in the song are. The middle section of the song is truly a class of its own. Due to the constantly changing time feel in the rhythms and the riffs, a descent into madness is brilliantly illustrated in the music. The tempo remaining stable and constant, however, is what keeps the section from collapsing under its own weight. Splendidly done and a testament to Matatabi’s brilliance as a songwriter. And I cannot stress this enough: ‘Kishibojin’ is one of those albums that should be listened to start to finish.

5. Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku (Fujin Kaiko, 2014)

Let’s be honest, can anything still ruin this song by the time that gorgeous slab of power metal kicks in after the piano intro? ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is not one of Onmyo-za’s most popular tracks, but it should be. My guess is that ‘Fujin Kaiko’ is often dismissed as the less metallic counterpart to the simultaneously released ‘Raijin Sosei’, which I think it is superior to. There is little argument that ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is an absolutely stellar metal track, however. It contains what are likely the greatest vocal melodies that both Kuroneko and Matatabi have ever recorded, while the entire song has a very moving, immersive atmosphere that would not sound out of place under a final battle scene in either a movie or a video game. In addition, I absolutely love how Karukan’s solo intensifies as it goes along until Maneki takes over in an absolutely stunning emotional climax. Without a doubt one of the most criminally underrated Onmyo-za songs to date.

4. Kumo Wa Ryu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau (Fujin Kaiko, 2014)

If there is one thing that Onmyo-za got considerably better at through the years, it would be ballads. None of their early ballads is outright bad, but some of them have a tendency to drag a little. ‘Kumo Wa Ryu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, however, is a pure work of art. This Kuroneko composition certainly isn’t your standard rock ballad. The orchestral arrangement has a cinematic quality and, more importantly, a dreamy, almost otherworldy atmosphere. While the arrangement is grand in scale, it is actually quite subtly and cleverly produced. It would have been too obvious to have the guitars and rhythms enter in a bombastic fashion during the chorus. Instead, they are softly mixed into the track in a way that enhances the bottom end of the spectrum. The heartfelt guitar solos of Maneki (the first) and Karukan (the one at the end) are absolutely stunning as well. At the risk of sounding pathetic: the song moved me to tears the first time I heard it. In addition, the rather unconventional chord progression still manages to send chills down my spine.

3. Hado Ninpocho (Mao Taiten, 2007)

While the artwork and the guitar-heavy production of 2007’s ‘Mao Taiten’ album give the impression that it is the band’s most metallic work to date, some of the album’s greatest moments are characterized by melodic refinement. Case in point: ‘Hado Ninpocho’. When I was singing along the incredible chorus harmony of Matatabi and Maneki after hearing it only once, it was evident that there was something special going on here. It still baffles me that such a simple song has so much going for it. Then again, the depth of this song does not come from complexity, but from extremely effective use of what is essentially a limited number of chords. Even that recurring dual guitar harmony does not contain a lot of notes, but because of the way it interacts with the chords underneath it make it sound like much more than the sum of its parts. The chords in the verses make clever use of subtle dissonance to build up a considerable amount of tension, afer which the melancholic, downright spine-chilling chorus is the perfect release.

2. Nemuri (Mugen Hoyo, 2004)

After hearing a few scattered tracks, ‘Nemuri’ was my proper introduction to Onmyo-za and it is not difficult to hear why this song in particular encouraged me to delve deeper into the band’s discography. Naturally, the strong Iron Maiden vibe of the main riff contributed to this, but it would be an insult to the compositional genius of the track to cite that influence as the only reason. The driving, uptempo, but not too fast rhythm and the dramatic D minor key of the song help to give it a desperate, yet defiant atmosphere. The timing in the section before the solo section is quite clever, leaving out one quarter note every second measure without the whole thing sounding too proggy or contrived. Speaking of the solo section, it is quite cleverly built up, with both the solos and the accompanying parts gradually increasing intensity in a surprisingly little amount of time. And then there is that chorus… I realize this is not the first time in this text I am talking about choruses – nor, spoiler alert, will it be the last – but there is something beautifully haunting about the vocal melody and the perfect harmonization between Kuroneko and Matatabi. ‘Nemuri’ is likely the first song I would suggest newcomers to check out, as it sums up the essence of the band in only five minutes.

1. Shiki Wo Karumono (Hyakki Ryoran, 2000)

Probably the song that made me realize this band is really something special. Save for the ominous harmonies of Matabi and Maneki in the intro, the band technically stays within pretty conventional speed metal boundaries for most of ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’, but there is quite a unique atmosphere to it. Sure, the voice of Kuroneko is quite different from what you’d hear on the average eighties metal record, but there is something rather unusual to the songwriting as well. It would be too easy to attribute this to their Japanese roots. Matatabi obviously set out to create an unsettling atmosphere that turned out to go well with the many monstrous yokai on the album cover of ‘Hyakki Ryoran’. The track contains some of the greatest Onmyo-za riffs to date, though there are other nifty bits of compositional genius to be heard as well. The subtle harmonies in the chorus, for instance, and the way the riffing always takes a slightly different twist than you might be expecting. After all, what’s creepier than never knowing what to expect? ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ is a work of pure genius.