Show & Tell: Top 10 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 in case of 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 ten favorite Onmyo-za songs. Online pickings from their fantastic latest album ‘Hado Myoo’ are pretty slim, however, so I’d like to stress that the fantastic ‘Shimobe’ would have made my list if it was available.

10. 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 expected – 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.

9. 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.

8. 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.

7. 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’.

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 because 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.

For those wondering: the 90 second intro ‘Jokyoku’ in the video above is not actually the intro to ‘Hado Ninpocho’, but to ‘Mao’.

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.


P.S.: Well, what do you know! A part of ‘Shimobe’ has been put online! Not enough to realize the entire genius of the song – there’s a surprising number of new elements introduced in its last three minutes – but the contrast between the verses and the choruses is aptly displayed here.

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