Archive for October, 2019

Album of the Week 43-2019: Ningen Isu – Ogon No Yoake

‘Ogon No Yoake’ is the album on which Ningen Isu matured. That may be a dirty word for some rock bands, but Ningen Isu finally realizes its full potential here. Their debut EP and first two albums contained plenty of excellent songs, but also showed that the band wasn’t quite sure what their strengths were. By contrast, Ningen Isu sounds confident and powerful throughout the full running time of ‘Ogon No Yoake’. It might just still be their best-produced album to date, which helps them sound more professional, while the increased bottom end increases the impact of their riffs and rhythms.

While most Japanese hardrock and metal bands stand out due to spotless songwriting, the musical interaction is what truly elevates Ningen Isu’s songs beyond their compositorical greatness. Ningen Isu is obviously influenced by the heavier end of seventies progressive rock and gladly injects the jam-heavy nature of the likes of Rush into their Sabbathian grooves. Guitarist Shinji Wajima, bassist Kenichi Suzuki and drummer Noriyoshi Kamidate are on fire when they need to be – just listen to the busy rhythms of ‘Wa, Gan De Nebega’ – but also are more than willing to show restraint when the music asks for it.

Ningen Isu is often classified as a doom metal band and while that classification is not unjustified, it fails to properly cover the amount of variation heard on ‘Ogon No Yoake’. There’s short, swift rockers like ‘Dokushaisa Saigo No Yume’ and the relatively accessible ‘Kyofuku No Neji’ and long tracks with extended jams, such as ‘Mugon Denwa’ and ‘Mandragora No Hana’, the latter of which even borrows from Black Sabbath’s namesake song in its middle section. There is even a short acoustic instrumental (‘Subarashiki Nichiyobi’) that works perfectly as a breather right after the middle of the record.

Closing track ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’ is probably pointed to as the album’s highlight by most of the band’s fans. And for a good reason, as it is a dark, monstrous doom metal track capable of capturing the mood of the Lovecraft story it is based on (‘At The Mountains Of Madness’). It is hardly the only peak on ‘Ogon No Yoake’, however. ‘Shinpan No Hi’ is a surprisingly laid-back and melodic rocker with a thick, driving bottom end and a highly memorable chorus. The opening title track needed some time to make sense to me, but is easily one of the better songs. It builds up slowly, but steadily into a powerful heavy metal epic. I particularly love the semi-gallop underneath Wajima’s guitar solos.

Some hardrock and heavy metal is expertly written, but lifelessly recorded. Ningen Isu’s music always breathes and moves. It is remarkable that the increased focus on streamlining and production on ‘Ogon No Yoake’ has not ironed that out at all. In fact, it made the music all the more powerful and the spirited jams come across even better than on the previous releases. Today, Ningen Isu is still recording fantastic albums. One could even say they entered a new youth, which is what the title of their latest album ‘Shin Seinen’ translates to. Those who don’t know the band would be well off starting with ‘Ogon No Yoake’ or its more compact follow-up ‘Rashomon’ though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ogon No Yoake’, ‘Shinpan No Hi’, ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’, ‘Kyofuku No Neji’

Album of the Week 42-2019: Forbidden – Twisted Into Form

Forbidden is rarely named as one of the biggest names in thrash. Part of the problem may be that the relatively late arrival of the band’s fine debut album ‘Forbidden Evil’ made them less influential than some of their peers. Or maybe their music was just too complex for a larger audience. Whatever the reason, Forbidden deserves much more praise than they get. The band made relatively progressive thrash metal at a time when Heathen was pretty much the only American band that even came close to them in terms of complexity. Sophomore album ‘Twisted Into Form’ is the best example of this approach.

Prior to ‘Twisted Into Form’, Forbidden switched lead guitarists. Glen Alvelais’ insane lead guitar was part of the allure of ‘Forbidden Evil’, but ‘Twisted Into Form’ immediately proves that his replacement Tim Calvert is more on the same page with the rest of the band. Not only does he have a songwriting credit for almost every song on the album, Calvert and Craig Locicero are the perfect rhythm guitar duo for this type of thrash metal. Both guitarists and later Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph are all locked in the same groove, which greatly benefits the overall sound of ‘Twisted Into Form’.

While ‘Forbidden Evil’ had the higher peaks, ‘Twisted Into Form’ is a much more consistent record than its predecessor. The criticism that some of the album’s early songs have a tendency to blend together is not entirely unjustified, but that may also be caused by the more measured playing of the band. This degree of control really seems to fit Locicero’s vision. On this album, Forbidden relies less on melodic lead guitars and more on the complexity of the riff department. As a result, the songs are slighly less catchy, but Russ Anderson’s characteristic thrash meets classic metal voice increases the memorability.

‘Infinite’ is the perfect opener for this particular album. Not only does it ease you into the album’s more intricate approach with a song that starts with some riffs that could have been on the debut, it’s also slightly more catchy and aggressive than the rest of the record. The riff work is delightfully dark and eerie-sounding as well. The aggression also shines through on the lengthy ‘R.I.P.’, which combines a pounding main riff with a slowly building middle section. The title track, with the brilliant echo effect on its main riff and Anderson’s best vocal performance on the record, is one of the highlights as well.

‘Twisted Into Form’ leaves very little to complain about. Even the short acoustic pieces, intro ‘Parting Of The Ways’ and the nightmarish ‘Spiral Depression’, are excellent. If I would change anything about the record, I would switch out ‘Step By Step’ with either ‘Tossed Away’ or ‘One Foot In Hell’. The former sounds somewhat similar to the preceding ‘Out Of Body (Out Of Mind)’ and the latter two, despite being quality songs, feel like a bit of an afterthought after the incredible ‘R.I.P.’. Altering the sequencing might have fixed both issues. But ultimately, those issues are only minor. I can see why its excellent, but more modern follow-up ‘Distortion’ could be divisive, but ‘Twisted Into Form’ is a classic that all fans of progressive thrash metal should at the very least give a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Infinite’, ‘Twisted Into Form’, ‘R.I.P.’

Album of the Week 41-2019: Despair – Beyond All Reason

Some bands are known as a springboard for their band members’ further succes rather than for their own music. Germany’s Despair is one of those bands. Original vocalist Robert Kampf would go on to start Century Media Records, guitarist Waldemar Sorychta is a renowned producer and known for Grip Inc. rather than Despair, while drummer Markus Freiwald recently played with Sodom. It is unfortunate that Despair is a forgotten name, because their third and thus far final album ‘Beyond All Despair’ in particular is an incredible work of progressive thrash metal. It strikes the perfect balance between melody, aggression and complexity.

Debut album ‘History Of Hate’ was a great example of music that has the unbridled aggression of thrash metal with a greater emphasis on compositorical intricacy. The production and the vocals occasionally were more primitive than necessary, but the material on the album showed great promise. When Kampf departed the band to focus on his record label, the arrival of Andreas Henschel allowed the band to go in a somewhat more melodic direction, as even his barks have a somewhat melodic slant. And where second album ‘Decay Of Humanity’ suffers from monotony, its follow-up does almost everything right.

One notable thing about ‘Beyond All Reason’ is how much it sounds like ‘Nosferatu’-era Helstar at times. ‘Imported Love’ and ‘Son Of The Wild’ in particular would fit that album. The riffs consist of lots of notes and are almost neoclassical in approach, but at the same time, they have a dark, eerie atmosphere that really makes ‘Beyond All Reason’ stand out among Despair’s discography. The semi-ballad ‘In The Deep’ has a more than passing resemblance to ‘The Curse Has Passed Away’, though with a much more engaging second half. It would not be fair to accuse Despair of copying Helstar here, but the influence can clearly be heard.

It is worth noting that despite the more atmospheric and progressive approach – at times enhanced by Sorychta’s tasteful keyboard work – Despair still shows its thrash metal roots here. The riff work in ‘Rage In The Eyes’, for instance, is every bit as classy as on the rest of the album, but a bit more aggressive than on other tracks. The following ‘Burnt Out Souls’ is very aggressive in its rhythms as well. ‘Deaf And Blind’, on the other hand, has the more proggy side of the band on full display without feeling like a disorienting opening track. The dense ‘The Day Of Desperation’ is somewhat slower, but no less complex and inspired.

While ‘History Of Hate’ is often seen as the ultimate Despair album, ‘Beyond All Reason’ is the record where the quality of everyone involved shines through. The compositions are great, the production is a perfect fit for the progressive thrash style on the record and Sorychta and Marek Greschek – interestingly both born in Poland – are an incredible guitar team. There are great riffs and solos from both all over the record and in that regard, instrumental closer ‘Crossed In Sorrow’ is a perfect showpiece for them. Anyone looking for progressive or technical thrash metal with a little something special should look no further.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Day Of Desperation’, ‘Deaf And Blind’, ‘Burnt Out Souls’

Release of the Week Extra 41-2019: Aria – Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney

Bands whose songs are inspired by movies or works of literature are often inspired to do theatrical concerts at some point. Aria did this already with ‘Plyaska Ada’ back in 2007, but ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ has them armed with a more consistent set of songs and a better singer. As a result of this set-up, ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ focuses on Aria’s more theatrical songs, but those tend to be their best anyway. It even has a very pleasant flow if you just listen to the audio portion, however, which makes this a must-have for fans of traditional heavy metal.

‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ is Aria’s third live release in three years, which may seem like too much, but all of these were special occasions. ‘Klassicheskaya Aria’ had the band playing with an orchestra and ’30 Let! Yubileyniy Kontsert’ was an anniversary show. Despite the theatrical themes, ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ is the most “normal” of the three in the sense that it’s just the band playing some of their best material without having to take orchestral arrangements or appearances from former members into account. Combine that with the band’s tight, yet energetic playing and you’ve got one of Aria’s best live sets to date.

As good as the band’s compositions and musicianship are, an important part of why this set-up works is current singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov. He is easily the best Aria singer to date. His dramatic vocals really fit the material on this record and his visual performance makes me wonder if he has a background in musical theater. From the moment the band blasts out of the gate with the incredible ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, he grabs the audience by the throat and while I’m not necessarily a fan of singers changing clothes a lot, he really embodies the characters he acts out. Hear him sing ‘Antichrist’ – a song I thought no one could do better than Valery Kipelov, but I’ve been proven wrong – and you’ll hear what I mean. His fantastic entrance helps, but his amazing vocal performance gives it lasting value.

Sonically, there is very little to complain about. All the instruments are crisp, clear and lively and I have the idea there hasn’t been a lot of post-productional polishing going on, especially since the concert was recorded in late April and is out already. Vitaly Dubinin really proves the value of having a bassist who does more than blindly following the guitars, as his playing is melodically richer than that of Steve Harris, who appears to be his main influence. Sergey Popov and Vladimir Holstinin are an incredible guitar duo, with Popov being the slightly more aggressive player, sounding as an unshakable guitar wall when playing in unison. Maxim Udalov is the ultimate serviceable drummer who knows what the music needs at all times.

Of course, the visual appeal of the show will be the major talking point for the DVD portion of ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’. Some of it is a really nice addition too and certainly better executed than Iron Maiden’s half-assed attempts on ‘Death On The Road’. A good thing is that the theatrical elements are sometimes quite subtle, such as the denim jackets for ‘Geroy Asfalta’ or the red muleta in Zhitnyakov’s pocket during ‘Torero’, which allows the bands to play these classics without them feeling like too much of a departure from the rest of the show. It’s even better because this is probably the best version of ‘Torero’ that is currently available on any Aria live recording. The breastplate on Zhitnyakov’s armor saying “ARIA” instead of “SPQR” during the incredible ‘Kolizey’ is a nice touch.

However, even without the DVD portion, ‘Gost’ Iz Tsarstva Teney’ is worth hearing. Ultimately, that is what makes it a successful release. Aria managed to put on what looks like a music theater show without it getting in the way of their fantastic songs. There are six songs from last year’s ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ on the release, but it isn’t as focused on that record as one might think. Also, with excellent performances of classics like ‘Shtil’, ‘Kreshcheniye Ognëm’, ‘Noch Koroche Dnya’, ‘Obman’ and the anthemic ‘Ulitsa Roz’ in addition to all the aforementioned tracks, it would be a great introductory release for anyone who wants to get acquainted with the band. If you aren’t sure whether you want to order the album or not, make sure you check it out on one of the bigger streaming platforms, as it is internationally available.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘Kolizey’, ‘Torero’

Album of the Week 40-2019: The Magpie Salute – High Water II

While it isn’t entirely fair to keep comparing The Magpie Salute to The Black Crowes due to the large number of shared members, the fact is that the Crowes had not impressed me as much as The Magpie Salute’s debut album ‘High Water I’ did last year. Without his brother Chris, Rich Robinson was allowed to focus on what made his music so good in the first place: well-written songs and the inspired guitar interplay between him and Marc Ford. Add an exceptional singer in the shape of John Hogg and you’ve got recipe for success. ‘High Water II’ is no different.

Musically, ‘High Water II’ does appear to be a little more direct than its predecessor. The latter day Led Zeppelin-isms of ‘High Water’ and the slightly psychedelic touches have mostly been sacrificed in favor of a selection of tightly composed southern rock, southern soul and americana songs that are big on melodic hooks and spontaneity. Though I am not familiar with the recording process, it does look like it has been recorded with the entire band in one room again. The recordings just have that feel. Especially in the way the musicians react to one another at times.

Despite its more direct approach, ‘High Water II’ failed to make the impression the first part did when I listened to it the first time. A couple of spins in, it is hard to define why, as there is plenty to like on here for anyone who enjoyed the debut. Fans of the soulful rockers will be delighted by the likes of ‘Doesn’t Really Matter’, ‘Leave It All Behind’, the horn-heavy ‘In Here’ and ‘Turn It Around’, while the more americana-oriented part of the audience will certainly be enamored by the Marc Ford-sung tracks ‘Lost Boy’ and ‘Life Is A Landslide’. The semi-epic ‘Mother Storm’ marries the two sides quite perfectly.

As a whole, ‘High Water II’ has a very pleasant flow, because its consistently energetic, high-quality playing and writing does not let up. There are slightly less obvious highlights this time around, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t around. Closing track ‘Where Is This Place’ is a masterpiece in the way it combines the compositorical elements of country blues with the electrified grooves of late sixties and early seventies soul. The Stonesy grit of ‘Gimme Something’ accounts for a driving, powerful song, while ‘Sooner Or Later’ definitely is the most Crowes-like song on the record and therefore a perfect choice to open the record.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: without Chris Robinson’s insistent hippie mysticism, Rich Robinson’s songs come across much better these days. There don’t appear to be any ego’s in The Magpie Salute: everyone just seems to want what is best for the song. While it is easy to transform these types of songs into a vehicle for overlong soloing, the band keeps its records concise, memorable and highly inspired. While I still think ‘High Water I’ has a slight edge over this new album, it is basically as close as it can possibly get and quite likely is more consistent as a whole.

Recommended tracks: ‘Where Is This Place’, ‘Mother Storm’, ‘Gimme Something’