Archive for the ‘ Journalism ’ Category

Get your jazz on with Gitarist!


Having done six interviews at the North Sea Jazz festival in July, there’s a serious focus on jazz in this month’s issue of Gitarist. If you see only five, that’s because we will feature Belgian jazz legend Philip Catherine in a larger article in next month’s issue – you heard it here first!

That doesn’t mean this month’s artists are not worth reading about. What about widely beloved guitarist Bill Frisell? I had the opportunity to talk with this extremely friendly musician about his massive discography. Also, after being impressed thoroughly by Roosevelt Collier’s unconventional work on the lap steel with Bokanté last year, we could not pass up upon hearing he played the festival again. Oz Noy and Adam Rogers are big names in modern fusion and Pascal Danaë combines delta blues and Guadeloupian sounds in this remarkably full-sounding trio Delgres. If you want to know more about their sounds and approaches, these interviews are the way to go.

Besides that, we have a large special about improving your guitar playing technique, my colleagues have spoken with Guthrie Govan and The Pineapple Thief and there are loads of album and gear reviews. That should still your guitar appetite until the next issue.

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Interview: Loudness and the Japanese hardrock scene


Loudness was one of the first Japanese bands that also had some success in Europe and North America. Partially due to the MTV success of ‘Crazy Night’ and Akira Takasaki’s status as a guitar hero, but according to singer Minoru Niihara, Loudness also was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. We spoke with Niihara prior to the concert in Alkmaar, at which Loudness promoted its 27th studio album ‘Rise To Glory’.

After the previous album ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’, we had to wait over three and a half years for ‘Rise To Glory’. And that is quite surprising, as the band has been releasing new albums just about every year since the original lineup of Niihara, Takasaki, bassist Masayoshi Yamashita and drummer Munetaka Higuchi reunited around the turn of the century. Even after Higuchi passed away in 2008, there were hardly any delays in their release schedule. “We needed the extra time“, Niihara confesses. “In addition, we needed to look for a new record label, because our previous contract expired. In the meantime, Akira kept on writing new songs. Because of that, we could select the best material.

For his lyrics, Niihara employs a rather unconventional approach: “I think of a theme and write down my thoughts about that, just some ideas and lines in Japanese. After that, three friends of mine help me turn it into a complete set of lyrics. They have been raised bilingual in California and live in Japan these days. They speak perfect Japanese and because of that, they know the weaknesses of Japanese people speaking English. You could say they fix it. Many Japanese people need someone to tell them what is wrong with their English. There hardly is any need to speak or write English when you live in Japan. Even at the universities, classes are in Japanese.

Timing

When Loudness was founded in 1981, there were no heavy metal bands in Japan. “Before us, you only had Bow Wow from Tokyo and Murasaki from Okinawa“, Niihara confirms. “And those bands weren’t really heavy metal, because we didn’t know that back then. They were hardrock bands. I’m from Osaka, where a lot of young British hardrock bands performed. I was in a school band with which we played covers of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. But professional hardrock bands? We didn’t have those in the seventies. There were lots of people who listened to western hardrock, but no one played the music themselves. I don’t actually know why either.

We were lucky. Around the time we released our debut album (‘The Birthday Eve’, 1981), the new wave of British heavy metal became really popular in Japan. Bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon were very popular. That made people curious about our music, because we were a Japanese band that also made this type of music. Our timing turned out to be perfect. Young rockers loved us and Akira became a guitar hero. He actually already was when he played with Lazy. That was a pop group, but his playing was amazing. When he was seventeen, he was already known as a great guitar player.

Sold out

Before I joined Loudness, I have talked to some people who worked for record labels. When they heard I wanted to play hardrock, all of them said: that’s old, no one will buy that. After we received a gold record for the first Loudness album, the same people suddenly told us that they knew our music would become big. Bullshit! Some of these guys even literally said we would never go anywhere.

Things went differently. Loudness became a big success in Japan. “Every place we played was sold out“, says Niihara. “And then we’re talking about two to three thousand capacity venues. While we only had one album out. After that, more and more bands that kind of sounded like Loudness popped up. Every record company tried to sign its own Loudness. The positive thing about that is that many Japanese hardrock bands got the chance to release an album. Two or three years after our debut album, Japanese metal was very popular.

San Francisco

After a while, the scene slowed down a little. Our sound engineer and friend Daniel McClendon, who is from San Francisco, asked us why we wouldn’t just go to the States for a couple of shows someday. In Japan, we had achieved just about everything we could achieve. In 1983 we went to California for a couple of concerts, just to see what the possibilities were for us. We did four shows in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles.

The audience in San Francisco was insane. There was a very active, hardcore underground heavy metal scene there. We met bands like Metallica and Slayer there when they weren’t much more than local bands. That kind of surprised me, because the image I had of music from San Francisco couldn’t be more different. I thought of relaxed rock music like The Doobie Brothers and the Eagles. Our shows were attended by young guys who were looking for new heavy metal, however. We didn’t even know how all these people knew about us, because we hadn’t released a single album in the States yet.

Later on, we found out that they traded tapes with each other. Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich was one of those fanatic tape traders. He also already knew Bow Wow, for instance. There was even a record store in San Francisco that imported our lp’s. Their owner really helped us simply by playing our music to people who might be interested in us. That way, Loudness could already build an audience before we ever played in the States.”

Identity crisis

Thanks to the presence of an A&R manager of the big Atlantic Records label, Loudness became the first Japanese metal band that signed with a major label in America. Initially, that was fruitful: ‘Crazy Nights’ and the accompanying album ‘Thunder In The East’ (1985) became a big success. When it turned out difficult to retain that success, friction developed within the band, which eventually lead to Niihara’s departure. A couple of years later, Yamashita left as well.

In the nineties, Loudness underwent a sizeable identity crisis. With the American singer Mike Vescera, the band recorded two albums that were obviously aimed toward the Californian glam metal scene, only to follow that up with the incredibly heavy ‘Loudness’ (1992) with singer Masaki Yamada (ex-EZO) and Taiji Sawada, who had just left X Japan at the time. After that, Loudness appeared to follow the alternative metal trend, though without Sawada. In the meantime, Niihara was occupied with bands like Ded Chaplin, Sly and X.Y.Z.→A.

Mature

The turning point arrived around the turn of the century, when Loudness’ classic line-up reunited, allegedly on the recommendation of Masaki Yamada. “Akira says that’s what happened“, Niihara says. “I think Akira had the idea to bring the original guys back together again himself as well. Around that time, Masaki told him the time was right for a reunion. Maybe it just had to happen. Our twentieth anniversary was upcoming and Akira wanted to do something special for that occasion.

It was supposed to be a reunion for maybe one or two years, but after our new album (‘Spiritual Canoe’, 2001) and the tour, the fans begged us to continue with the same line-up. We got together to talk about it and nobody actually wanted to quit. Everyone was curious to see where else we could go. And we wanted to play in Europe again, so we just tried it. And we’re still here! We’ve been around longer now than we were together in the eighties.

Niihara does have an explanation for that. “We are older and wiser“, he laughs. “We sometimes think back to those days and realize we were a bunch of idiots. We drank too much and we were acting really stupid sometimes. These days, we have families and children. We have become a lot more mature.

The singer did not listen to the albums he did not sing on until after the reunion. “In the nineties, I was too busy with my own music“, he explains. “And besides, I was trying to leave Loudness behind me. They kicked me out, after all. After the reunion, we had to play some songs from the albums recorded with Mike and Masaki. It wasn’t until then that I started listening to the material from those days. And I was really impressed! Mike Vescera sings great on those two records!

Recovery

During this tour, the drum stool is occupied by Ryuichi ‘Ryu’ Nishida, who worked as a session drummer with the likes of Gackt and Marty Friedman and is a part of the instrumental rock band Ra:IN with X Japan guitarist Pata. Earlier this year, Masayuki ‘Ampan’ Suzuki, who replaced Higuchi after his death, was hit by a stroke. “He is working hard on his recovery“, Niihara reassures. “There are some problems with the right side of his body. He has trouble talking and holding his drum sticks.

We are just happy that he’s still there. There are so many people who die from the same conditions. We hope he can play a couple of songs with us by the end of the year. More than a couple of songs is really too much for him at this point. We told him: please take your time, don’t rush. When he’s ready, we will go for it again. We are fortunate enough to have a fantastic drummer like Nishida helping us out.

A Dutch version of this interview can be read at The Sushi Times.

Interview – Ryoji (Gyze): “The future of heavy metal is in Asia”


By competing in the Wacken Metal Battle, related to the famed Wacken Open Air, Gyze has been one of the few Japanese metal bands that has made something of a career for themselves in Europe. Not that that should be too surprising, as the folky melodic death metal of the trio has quite some common ground with the Finnish metal scene. And yet, through the use of Oriental folk elements, they have their own identity. Recently, their new single ‘The Rising Dragon’ was released internationally. Within this context, we talked with singer, guitarist and keyboard player Ryoji Shinomoto.

We believe that heavy metal has no borders“, Ryoji emphasizes. “We love playing in Japan as well as in Europe. But even within Japan, every city is different. The audience reaction varies from place to place.  I do love playing festivals. The energy at a festival is so different from solo shows. But we always play our best no matter where we are. The only funny difference is that announcements in English are easier to do for me than in Japanese. I always feel nervous speaking in front of an audience in Japanese, haha!
The announcements aren’t the only aspect in which the band has to switch between English and Japanese. Gyze also offers lyrics in both languages. “English is easier for me, because Japanese has a different rhyming technique“, the frontman admits. “Also, English sentences are sometimes much shorter. However, when we decide to use Japanese for the lyrics, I always choose to use difficult characters, archaic words and four character proverb.” Smiling, he adds: “So usually, even Japanese people can’t read our lyrics.
‘Day Of The Funeral’ from our first album, ‘Nanohana’ from our second album or our new single ‘Ryugin’ are like a story from a book, which is easy to write and read. ‘Brown Trout’, ‘Trash My Enemy’, ‘Frozen Dictator’ and ‘Horkew’ are more interesting and difficult lyrically. When people listen to ‘Horkew’, they might here English words there, but actually, the lyrics are totally in Japanese. It happens because I chose words that would sound similar to English to make it more interesting. For instance, “(mita)sarenai” sounds like “silent night”.
Also, we have some themes on our albums. The first album is filled with energy, with songs about revenge, regrets and anger. The second: regrets, sadness, love and war. The third album is about the Ainu people, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. Apart from that, there are human emotions, Japanese gods and, well… Fish! Our new single contains two new songs: ‘Japanese Elegy’ is about war and ‘Ryugin’ is a positive song about Gyze and the future.

Find an audience

Of course, the Ainu are not a random theme; Gyze is also from Hokkaido. Traditionally, this is a difficult area to conquer the music market from even within Japan. “Actually, I never thought about that“, Ryoji admits. “As far as I know, no band from Hokkaido has ever succeded at conquering the international metal market. Moreover, Gyze happened to be the first Japanese bands – not just from Hokkaido – to perform at many world famous festivals. But I love Hokkaido and I am proud that I am from there.
There are not many Japanese bands who dare to tour internationally. “The first reason is that Japanese people can’t or don’t want to use English“, says Ryoji. “Furthermore, Japan is an island country. There is a big cultural difference. But please, listen to as many Japanese bands as you can, then it might become easier for them to find an audience overseas. As long as you listen to Gyze first, of course, haha!
Offering Asian bands a platform has been important to Ryoji for quite some time now. In 2015, Gyze was involved with organizing Vanishing Heaven Fest, which besides Japanese bands also featured bands from Taiwan and South Korea. “Recently, my favorite metal bands are from Asia and Eastern Europe“, Ryoji explains. “The European metal scene consists of the classics. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the line-ups of festivals and the bands featured in the media are getting a bit predictable. The Asian metal market, however, is just starting to grow. There are a lot of unique and varied bands here. That’s why I believe that the future of heavy metal is in Asia.

Ideal sound

Gyze only has three members. Bassist Aruta Watanabe and Ryoji’s younger brother Shuji complete the line-up. Still, the music has a lot of different elements. Besides the guitars, bass, drums and vocals, keyboards and several traditional instruments can be heard. “On stage, I only play lead guitar“, Ryoji explains. “But on the cd’s, I always want to create the ideal sound. If when composing I feel like using a certain instrument, I will. That’s why we have songs with shamisen, violin, keyboards, harmonic guitars and so on. That ideal sound is not just me of course, because Shuji and Aruta’s sounds are equally important.
I always use the piano for composing and I really care about notes and music theory. First, I check all the notes and tuning by piano. And if I find some odd sounds, I always fix them. Even for the bass. When I just started composing heavy metal, I just relied on my sense. If I felt like the sound was messy, I just deleted the part. Recently, we started checking the bass lines through midi. Aruta and I check the tuning, the scales and the notes of his parts. The same appeals to the drums with Shuji. All these checks and precautions help to avoid turning things into a mess. Especially if we start playing the songs at full speed.
Of course the parts are important, but to really make heavy sounds, speed and melodies sound as one, mixing and mastering is just as important. That is why we are considering remixing our second album to make it sound even better.
For te mix and even the album covers, Gyze has exclusively worked with European engineers and artists thus far. “The funny thing is that we have never worked with Japanese engineers and designers“, Ryoji smiles. “Our first engineer was Ettore Rigotti from Disharmonia Mundi. I was a big fan of his band. Then from the third album on, we started working with Ahti Kortelainen. I love his sound and of course, he has experience with a lot of great heavy metal bands like Sonata Arctica and Kalmah.
All our album covers thus far have been designed by Machine Room (Rhett Podersoo). We were introduced to him by Ettore and his style touched my heart. His works are elegant, gorgeous, unique, modern and powerful. We hope to be able to use his artworks until the end.

Essence

Traditionally, visual kei and the “regular” metal scene are two separate worlds in Japan. And though Gyze is closer to the latter, the band has a number of pronounced visual elements and Ryoji recently shared the stage with Jupiter. “Visual kei is not a music genre, just a style“, he emphasizes. “There is a heavy metal sound in visual kei, but there is a punk sound as well. Gyze doesn’t need to be categorized. If someone wants to label us as visual kei, that’s fine with us. When people listen to our music, everyone can understand within one second that it is heavy metal.
Ryoji’s initial influences were not Japanese bands: “When I was about seven or eight years old, I got a guitar from my father and played classical guitar until junior high school. The first rock band that inspired me was Kiss. I listened to a lot of hard rock and punk until I was about sixteen years old. Later, I started listening to heavy metal. I really enjoyed the essence of heavy metal: the fast tempos, the minor scales, the melodies and the epic feel of such bands as Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth and later on various death metal bands. Around the same time, I also started listening to traditional Japanese pop, world folk and classical music.
Recently, I have mainly been inspired by classical composers like Beethoven, Vivaldi and Chopin. I have even made heavy metal covers of their compositions. I tried to read the original scores and analyze the compositions. I had a really good time working on that. Also, I have been listening to a lot of enka and Eastern European folk lately. Joe Hisashi, Studio Ghibli’s composer, and Ryuichi Sakamoto are very interesting as well, because their music delivers and eastern atmosphere with western musical instruments. I have not really been influenced by much metal lately, but I like a lot of Chinese metal!

A large portion of Gyze’s discography, including the new single ‘The Rising Dragon’, can be streamed through Spotify, iTunes, Deezer, Tidal and other popular streaming platforms.

Gyze is currently on tour through Europe:

August 11th: Leyendas del Rock, Villena, Spain
August 12th: Underworld, London, England
August 13th: Colosseum, Genk, Belgium
August 14th: Backstage, Munich, Germany
August 15th: Summer Breeze, Dinkelsbühl, Germany
August 17th: Turock, Essen, Germany

The original Dutch version of this article can be read at The Sushi Times. Thanks to Mona Miluski at All Noir for setting up the interview.

Interview: Rockabul


When you think your band is going through difficult times, wait until you see the story of the Afghan metal band District Unknown. Their story, as chronicled in the documentary ‘Rockabul‘ by the Australian film maker Travis Beard, is simultaneously one of a band trying to find its sound and simply one of young people trying to survive and find their place in a politically unstable country. Prior to its screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Beard and talk about his involvement with this special project.

Beard’s involvement with District Unknown and the Afghan music scene is not just one of casual interest. He lived in Afghanistan from 2006 until 2014 and with his band White City, he was at the heart of what became known as the expat party scene. “In 2002, the Americans came in, the Taliban fled and there was relative peace until about 2006 or 2007“, Beard explains. “We refer to it as ‘the golden time’. It was a time when Kabul was safe, you could move around pretty easily and that is why the expat party scene flourished. After that, I guess things sort of started to decline, but it wasn’t until 2011, when the Americans and the NATO forces announced that they were handing over the keys to the city, that it got worse and worse every year. They gave the security back to the Afghan forces, which is the police and the military. That means they were manning the checkpoints. Because Afghanistan is full of corruption and because it’s a very troubled country, those checkpoints didn’t work and attacks escalated. I constantly keep an eye on the news and it’s just going from bad to worse, which is really sad.
There’s this kind of catch-22: you don’t want to have this occupying force, but at the same time, once they leave, the country goes into a bigger mess. This country’s been a crossroad for a lot of conquerors and people moving their empires through and therefore, it’s been troubled for a long time. It’s not just something the Americans caused or the Russians before them. It’s just been a troubled part of the world because of where it’s positioned. Unfortunately, Afghans have bore the brunt of that for thousands of years.
What drew you to Afghanistan in the first place?
We refer to it as the Afghan bug. It’s an itch you get from experiencing the country. A lot of people fall in love with it. I fell in love with it. And some people end up staying there for many years. I guess that’s what happened to me. I was exposed to it, I fell in love with it and then I just couldn’t get out of there until the shit really hit the fan and I had to leave.

Growth trajectory

Despite being featured in the film himself, the real protagonists of ‘Rockabul’ are District Unknown. In essence, their story is not much different than that of other bands. As the viewer, you can see them evolving from an enthusiastic, but also directionless group of youngsters to a group of guys that work on their dreams together. The discerning factor is, of course, their location, which creates a lot of difficulties that western bands never get to experience. “I had a studio where you could practice music. There weren’t many places to do that“, says Beard. “They walked into my studio and I just pressed record and I got that first day. And the second day, and the third day and so on. The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t a film maker. I was a photographer. So there was a dual kind of evolution or growth trajectory between us. They were learning how to make music and be a band. And I was learning how to make films. And we grew together. Almost at the same pace. You see us grow as a collaborative team and it all comes together when they go to India. That is kind of their pinnacle regarding their performance. And they really peaked.
They weren’t the most popular band in Afghanistan, but they were the most dynamic. When you saw them perform on stage, the other musicians thought: these guys aren’t that good, but the crowd is going mental! That was the energy. it was all about the energy. You don’t have to be the best musicians around, but if you give off enough energy, the audience will respond. And it worked for them. It was a great path to follow. I was very lucky that they walked into my house and that they allowed me the access they did.

A key scene in your registration of the concert in India was the friction between frontman Youssef and his predecessor Lemar about the representation of Afghanistan. Was there ever any disagreement between you and the band about that scene?
We had contracts signed with every member. I wouldn’t have gotten that access if they hadn’t allowed it in the first place. And when we got to the India situation, it would have been so easy to cut that as in: they finish the gig, the crowd’s screaming and we cut to a plane flight or them in bed and that’s the end of it. But there was something else. There was the tension of the two frontmen being on stage together for the first time. Lemar was the man who ran that band. He was very vocal and very passionate about his country, whereas Youssef is the classic kind of frontman who just wants to rock out. He wanted to have a good time and he wasn’t interested in politics. And they butted heads. That was an interesting thing to watch from a filmmaker’s perspective. I wanted to show the reality of what happened after the concert, because there was a lot of expectation at that concert and things boiled over. It’s not always sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Especially if you’re a band from a country like Afghanistan. It’s good to show that and not just have a clean cut of all the highs and not show the lows.
You have filmed the band and the scene for seven years. How do you decide what makes the cut?
There were members that didn’t make the cut, there were other recordings that didn’t make the cut, there’s another half a dozen concerts that didn’t make the cut, there was the in-band fighting about really silly stuff… It’s just not that interesting. Every band fights. we know that. It was more about the cultural exchange and the cultural challenge for them in the country. It’s hard to squeeze that into ninety minutes. There was talk at one point of doing a mini-series, which I kind of laughed at, but we definitely had enough content for that. It’s just one of those things, you’ve got ninety minutes, you make do with what you’ve got. And I hope that we’ve got as much of the story across in that.
Yesterday we had a press screening and Youssef was present. That was the first time anyone in the band was seeing the film. And I watched him more than I watched the film itself. He just had a smile on his face. He said he relived all those memories and saw the truth in what happened. That’s all I ever wanted. I wanted to try and relate the fact as close as possible. Obviously you’ve got a narrative and an audience that you want to entertain. You don’t want to lose them. But at the same time, the five most important audience members I have is the band. And after that, the second most important audience I have is the Afghan and expat community that were there along with the band. Before I even go to an international audience, that’s what I sort of had to tick off, to verify that this film is what it represents.

Intervention

With all of the political and religious tensions in the area, were some of the ideas you proposed to the band too reckless?
There is a fine line between brave and reckless. And I think the only way to succeed in such an environment is to serve that fine line. And I served it, whether it be with festivals or taking the show on the road. Or having musicians in my house every day, because I lived in a residential area. I didn’t lived in a compound protected by security and the normal kind of precautions that the western community did. I lived like Afghans did. With the Afghans. So that frequency in my house was also a risk, because it doesn’t take long for the neighbors to know what’s going on. The neighborhood talked. We got kicked out of houses, because we were playing music. And there were situations where Afghans would be pulled aside and they’d be questioned: what’s with the foreigner you work with?
So when you’re putting on concerts and doing these events outside of the so-called safety zone, or ‘the bubble’ as we referred to it in Kabul, you have to push that envelope. Otherwise you don’t get result. I always asked the boys: do you want to do this? Do you want to go on these adventures and so-called wacky ideas that the westerner is coming up with? They were never forced. Sometimes they’d say yes and other times some obviously said no. There’s a lot I didn’t put in, because a certain person didn’t want to be shown or it was just too much.
For me, the biggest issue or the biggest concern I ever had was a fatality at one of my events. At least I can say that didn’t happen, but I saw it happen after I left at the venue I worked at for many years. We didn’t want something like that to happen and ruin the whole legacy. There would be someone saying: oh yeah, that’s the guy who ran all those festivals and got twenty kids killed. We did it to create a platform for them to be able to express themselves with no limits. With no rules. They could just say what they want on stage. It was a peaceful project and I hope that’s how it will be remembered.

How do you maintain a certain degree of neutrality if you’re so close to the subject?
Politically, I’m very much outside the system in my lifestyle. I’m quite left of center, but because Afghanistan is such a complex situation, I was really adamant and quite focused on not giving my opinion on the situation. I’m an outside observer in a very complex situation with many players. And I wanted the Afghans to speak about their views and perspectives on the situation. Because it’s their country. Some of the band members weren’t interested in politics – particularly Pedram, the drummer – whereas other members were. You kind of just have to let it come out organically and therefore hope that the audience takes enough parts of information from the film to make their own assessment.
We know that the Americans intervened, but the fact of the matter is: their intervention had vertain influences on the country. Culturally, politically and economically. District Unknown would not have existed without that intervention. They would have been into metal, but they would never have had a platform. And that’s why the Americans sponsoring our concert was very important to highlight in the film. We took that money from the Americans. It was not a comfortable deal, but I knew what I was doing. At the same time, without those funds from the Americans and, in later years, other western embassies, we would never have had that platform. We analyzed this in the narration. I talked about myself being part of the war machine. And we kind of just pulled it back. If you represent the Obama perspective, the embassy perspective and the Afghan perspective, I think the audience is intelligent enough to come to their own conclusions.
Regarding to neutrality with the band: that’s impossible. As soon as you walk in with a camera, everything changes. That’s quintessential documentary making 101. There was no way around it. But the good thing is: because I was a musician and because I was running the scene with a couple of other collaborators, I was always kind of there. Because of that, it wasn’t as different as it could have been. I think that’s where I got a lot of the visceral and fly on the wall moments in the film from, because I was there every day and they were in my house every day. And so you get shit after a while, just because it’s there. It’s right in front of you.

The right film

The subject matter of the film draws comparisons to Viceland’s 2007 documentary ‘Heavy Metal In Baghdad’ about the Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda. Did that film influence you at all?
Absolutely! I saw that film when it came out and I’m not going to beat around the bush: I’m not a fan of Vice. I never was a fan of Vice. It was their first feature film, it got them their street cred, but it was a piece of shit. I mean… They’re clearly extreme tourists and that’s it. We lived in Afghanistan. We didn’t just nourish the scene, we were the scene. And when I saw the film, I was already mentoring District Unknown and I thought: I want to make the other film. The right film. The film which is what Vice kind of just flirted with and then turned into the typical mass news media sensation.
The funny thing is: it comes up in a lot of conversations. I’m not afraid to talk about it, because I believe our film is a lot stronger than that. And in a sense it did inspire me: it inspired me to make a better film. Or at least a truer representation.

How important was it to represent the expat scene in the film?
That was an important factor, because without the expat scene, you would never have had the music scene flourish. Because that was the safe zone where they could do it. And we slipped those Afghans in under the radar, to be become a part of that scene. And eventually, the Afghans wanted to perform to their own audience. And you see through the film the evolution of the scene and the fact that we have Afghans playing to Afghan audiences. That was obviously our ultimate goal. You want to be influencing your peers, not just a bunch of westerners that are ultimately going to leave the country. It was integral to show that part. As much as it was excessive. And a lot of the expat party scene is quite wrong in an ethical or moral sense when you’re an Islamic republic like Afghanistan. But that was the truth. That’s what they were doing every day or every weekend. So I tried to give a taste of the expat scene without going overboard, because the film is really about the Afghans rather than the expats.

Interview: The third era of Angra

Some bands are irreparably damaged by change. Angra seems immune to that. In fact, through the years, line-up changes have only made the Brazilian quintet stronger. Losing their longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro to Megadeth could have been disastrous, but their brand new album ‘Ømni‘ proves that Angra is still as inspired as ever. With influences from progressive metal, power metal and Brazilian music, the album is a masterclass in how versatile heavy metal guitar playing can be. The two guitarists responsible for this, bandleader Rafael Bittencourt and newcomer Marcelo Barbosa, guide us through the creation of the album.

After Kiko left, I was a bit worried“, admits Bittencourt. “Kiko was not only an exceptional guitar player, but also my songwriting partner. I wanted someone to fill that spot. Because of that, everyone got involved with the songwriting. This album started from zero, with conversations of what the direction of the band should be. When we were touring with Tarja Turunen two years ago, we started jamming and exchanging ideas with small amps in the dressing room and backstage.
At the time, we were touring for the anniversary of our ‘Holy Land’ album, which allowed us to do a lot of research on that album together. Marcelo lives two hours away from where I live by plane and Fabio
(Lione, singer) lives in Europe, so I was meeting with Felipe (Andreoli, bassist) and Bruno (Valverde, drummer) more often, but whenever we could, we would get together out in the woods for a couple of days. Just resting, chatting and exchanging ideas. Marcelo was showing me new bands and artists that I hadn’t really listened to, like Alter Bridge and Jeff Buckley, so we kind of exchanged influences as well. All of this has made ‘Ømni’ a very collective work.
I think that every time we changed members, the music changed a little bit. As a guitar player, Marcelo has a similar background to Kiko. They are both very technical and influenced by fusion players. Musically, however, it was a big difference, because Marcelo has a different way of doing things. The biggest difference was his energy, the way his personality balances with the group. He was the missing link that we needed to complete a very solid line-up.

A lot of soul

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be in a band like Angra“, says Barbosa. “Not only because everybody respects the band around the world, but also because the atmosphere within the band is really good. Fabio, Bruno and I were encouraged to bring in some ideas and we also had the chance to give our opinions about the ideas the other guys came up with. Because of that, I felt really free and respected by the other guys, which is of course a perfect situation for me.
I was familiar with some of the writing that Marcello has done in the past, especially what he did with Almah“, continues Bittencourt. “So I knew we would get the whole package from him. I wanted Marcelo to be a part of the songwriting process, but I didn’t know how his input would sound in the overall result. We had some structures and parts for solos, but I would only know what he had in mind when he was actually recording it. During the recording sessions, I was getting more and more impressed with him. Every time he would record a solo, he would do something different. He used a whole variety of phrases and sounds.
My first concern was to bring in someone very technical, so the audience would not miss Kiko. In the end, Marcelo did not only bring technique, but also a lot of soul. The stuff he plays is alive. I can feel it moving. This time, we were learning how to work together. Next time, everything will be different when we start the writing process, because now we know what to expect from each other. I can’t wait to create more guitar parts together. I think the guitar parts will be even richer next time.

Fresh ideas

For me, ‘Ømni’ represents a new era for the band“, explains Bittencourt. “Our third. This time, three of the guys are relatively new to the band, so they’re helping to create a new sound with new ideas. Bruno, for instance, is only 27 years old, the same age as the band. He is very excited to be in Angra, because here in Brazil, Angra represents pride, as we are one of the few Brazilian bands that are successful abroad. This excitement, combined with the experience that Felipe and I have in the band, brings a lot of fresh ideas to the table.

What we wanted ‘Ømni’ to do is to combine these fresh ideas with the long history of Angra. We wanted to wrap up our history style-wise, so we brought a little bit of power metal, a little bit of melodic metal, symphonic metal, progressive metal, Afro-Brazilian stuff, orchestral stufff with percussion… Everything that we have ever done in a fresh, new sound. And I think we really succeeded.
This is the best time I have experienced with the band. In the past, it has sometimes been very stressful and painful to record and release a new record. This time, it was smooth, easy, natural and organic. Ideas were flowing. We would be talking, laughing, stopping for coffee, come back and more ideas would flow. Before the album came out, we didn’t know if people would like it, but I knew it was our best work. Everyone was so talented and so creative. I love it when our problem is that we have two or three choruses in the same song. Not because we don’t have a chorus, but because we have two or three really good melodies. In that case, deciding which one is out is not stressful, it makes me happy.

We actually had almost an entire album of other songs“, smiles Barbosa. “We wrote about eight songs more than we have on the album. Sometimes you already have two prog songs and it would be too much if you add a third one to the albums. The same goes for ballads, we already had two.
There is a whole soft song that was already prepared for the album“, agrees Bittencourt. “A really good song, but we already had a ballad and our producer Jens Bogren, who is a genius, did not want the album to become too soft. He wanted the record to be a little more aggressive, so it would make more of an impact. The whole song was out, so we can put it on our next one. There are also many ideas for songs; choruses, verses, riffs, instrumental parts… We don’t have to start from scratch next time.

Nothing to lose

I always write songs having the melody as a guideline“, Bittencourt shares. “Many times I start singing a melody, I add some rhythms to the melody and I won’t start adding the chords until the third stage. Therefore, singing is a natural thing for me. I like singing. Still, I think guitar players usually don’t sing as good as the lead singer, simply because of the position of the microphone. When you play, you want to watch the neck and you start worrying about what you’re doing. And worrying is never good, regardless of if you’re singing or playing.
During the ‘Angels Cry’ anniversary, we had nothing to lose. Some people complained that we didn’t have Edu or André
(Falaschi and Matos, former singers) with us, but when Fabio joined the band, we started researching new ways of interpreting our music. The audience knew that something different than what was previously done was coming up. That was a good moment for me to start singing, because everything would be new to the ears of the audience.
However, I was not going to be the lead singer, because that is a very hard task. We have very difficult guitar parts and difficult vocal melodies. And communicating with a crowd is also a big responsibility. I did not want to quit focusing on being the guitar player. I wanted to sing once in a while, when the songs are meaningful to me. Like ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’ on the new album. It’s a very personal song, so I decided with Fabio that I was going to sing it.

Guitar scientist

We started working with Jens Bogren with our last album ‘Secret Garden’“, says Bittencourt. “He brought a new concept for the guitar sounds. That was when I started to research new sounds and new equipment. In fact, it was Marcelo who made me aware of the fact that Kemper if very practical to work with. If I want to try an amp, I don’t need to buy it first. It really gave us the option to try out what is best for us with everything in the same box.
Our friends and us are always exchanging Kemper profiles, we literally have thousands“, explains Barbosa. “That’s why it’s always changing. Rafael and I extensively talked about guitar tone and exchanged sounds and ideas about our sound. We needed a really good set-up that was small and light to travel with and that we could use directly into the PA. Using the Kempers on stage is great for us, because we have tons of different sounds that we love. And we also have the option to not use a cabinet.

Marcelo is a guitar scientist“, admits Bittencourt. “He spends a lot of time on researching guitar sounds and learning different techniques, styles and phrases. He is a real perfectionist with every detail of playing guitar. I am a guitar lunatic. I’m much more intuitive. A part of the reason why I don’t spend the same amount of time on such things, is that I’m involved with every step of the production in Angra: the schedule, what we have for lunch when we are rehearsing and recording, hiring keyboard players, the orchestra and the percussionists. So when it comes to creating the guitar parts, my main resource is my intuition. However, I think this is very complementary. As a player, Marcelo is very intuitive as well.
My task in Angra productions is to capture everyone’s ideas and glue them together in a concept that makes sense. There’s classical parts, acoustic guitar sections, thrash metal riffs, a piano part, percussions… How to glue that together in a way that doesn’t feel like too many atmospheres into 50 minutes of music, that is my job. This time, it was a very easy task.

Diversity

Both of us started listening to Brazilian music before we even started playing the guitar“, says Bittencourt about the strong Brazilian influences on ‘Ømni’. “It’s our background, it’s in our veins. I think that all power metal bands should feel free to add some more diversity to their music, because the crowd is losing interest in power metal. It got so stiff and conservative that it is hard to create something engaging. Many power metal bands got so framed into a certain set of rules, that they all started to sound the same. Some of them sound as if they’re just following some rules instead of being creative. Kids grow up and get smarter. If you dumb their music down, they will lose interest at some point.

Angra is currently on tour.

Listen to ‘Ømni’ on Spotify.

Surprisingly metallic contributions to this month’s Gitarist


My contributions to this month’s issue of Gitarist have been surprisingly metallic. Balance is delivered by other authors’ pieces this month. First off, I had an interview with Rafael Bittencourt and Marcelo from Angra about their fantastic new album ‘Ømni‘. We talked about more interesting stuff than the article allowed room for, so please stay tuned: everything else we talked about will be published about in English on this very weblog later this week. Furthermore, the interview I had with Spoil Engine guitarists Steven ‘Gaze’ Sanders and Bart Vandeportaele is published with two live photos I took in his month’s guitarist.

And most relaxingly, I have taken the time to talk with Merel Bechtold, my friend of many years, about the recording of Purest Of Pain’s album ‘Solipsis’. Many years ago, we gigged together a couple of times, so it already seems like Purest Of Pain has been around forever, but due to her busy gigging schedule with Delain and Mayan, she finally found the time to finish the album. It sounds good; everyone who likes modern, Scandinavian style melodic death metal should certainly give the album a spin. You will not regret it.

Moreover, Michael Landau talks with us about his thoroughly enjoyable new album ‘Rock Bottom’ and there are loads and loads of gear reviews and background articles. If guitars and guitarists interest you and you can read Dutch, I can’t advise you enough to check this thing out. It is in stores now.

Read about Zakk Wylde’s guitars in Gitarist


Recently, I have sat down with Zakk Wylde to talk about the new Black Label Society album ‘Grimmest Hits’, but more importantly, the equipment of Wylde Audio. A couple of years ago, Wylde surprisingly said farewell to his trusted Gibsons and Marshalls and started manufacturing his own gear. Gitarist was of course very curious about his ongoing guitar projects and much to my surprise, the interview was chosen to be this month’s cover story. If you are curious about the guitars that Wylde has been working on and you live in Holland or Belgium, I can only recommend you to pick up the issue of Gitarist, which is in stores now.

That is not all there is, of course. As usual, I took a majority of the music reviews upon me, but there are also lots and lots of gear reviews in the magazine as well. In addition, there are some very insightful interviews with master luthier Makoto Terasaki from acoustic guitar giant Takamine and Adrian Emsley of amplifier brand Orange, the latter of which I actually use equipment of myself.

In the last few weeks, I have been working on a few other interesting interviews and features, so please stay tuned!

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