Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Interview: Mardelas singer Marina Hebiishi: Back to basics


Mardelas is a Japanese super group. All the members of the band have won their spurs in other bands, but appear to have found their ultimate collaboration in Mardelas. The band’s new EP ‘Ground Zero’ was released recently. A perfect moment to catch up with singer Marina Hebiishi.

Hebiishi used to be the front woman of Destrose, possibly the band that spawned the largest number of spin-off groups in Japanese history. Contrary to many other former members of all-female bands, however, Hebiishi only works together with men in Mardelas. Guitarist Kikyo Oikawa and bassist Hisayuki Motoishi played together in Screaming Symphony (with current Jupiter singer Atsushi Kuze) and drummer Hideaki Yumida – Yumi for those close to him – used to be Light Bringer’s drummer.

The music of the quartet has its foundation in the hardrock and heavy metal that Screaming Symphony, for instance, plays as well. Yet, there is plenty of room for other influences. In the past, the band experimented with funky rhythms, J-pop melodies and other unexpected twists and turns. All of the three albums and five singles the band released in the years leading up to ‘Ground Zero’ therefore sound different from each other.

Basics

For ‘Ground Zero’, Mardelas notably turned to its hardrock and heavy metal roots more prominently than before, as the singer confirms. “On Mardelas I, II en III, you can see us grow as artists“, says Hebiishi. “Certain songs have influences from various other geres. After every release, new ideas come up from touring. And just growing as an artist.

‘Mardelas III’ was our most diverse album. And it also had the deepest concept. After the tour for the album we felt the passion to go back to basics with ‘Ground Zero’, but adding another element with our special guest keyboardist Mao (ex-Light Bringer). The songs for ‘Ground Zero’ were already composed prior to Mao coming on as a guest. He did, however, write the intro ‘Time Of Tribulation’. I would say he has been influential on the song arrangements. As artists, we write what we feel, so to us, it’s never really a challenge, but our way of life and how we feel like expressing ourselves.

Freedom

Kikyo and I are the main composers in Mardelas, with Kikyo arranging how it eventually sounds. When I start writing a song, I play chord progressions, which I eventually fit to the vocal melody I have in mind. After that, the band comes together and find other ways to arrange what is already written if necessary.

Most of my lyrical writing is about the reality of life. Pain, anger, but also happiness. Feelings that all of us have to live with and somehow overcome. I try not to sugarcoat anything in my lyrics and am pretty straightforward. My lyrics are in some ways a book of my life, but other times, I also try to put myself in someone else’s emotional position.

The main thing in Mardelas is the songwriting freedom that we have. What is great about this band is that although everyone is very technical and has amazing talent as a musician, they choose not to overshadow the main melodies of the songs. Everyone has the same opinion about the song being the most important thing, not showing off how great a guitarist or musician everyone is.

That freedom does not only exist in the compositions, but also in the way they are played. Hebiishi mentions the moment that Hisayuki Motoishi was brought in to replace former bassist hibiki (Saber Tiger, Alhambra, ex-Light Bringer and Silex) as an example. “Motoishi and hibiki are two completely different types of players“, says the singer. “We didn’t want to change Mo’s playing style. So instead of trying to copy hibiki’s style, we gave him the freedom to play the older songs his own way.

Natural

On Mardelas’ studio recordings, the band often goes for layered guitar arrangements. Something which seems difficult to replicate in the live setting, with only Kikyo Oikawa on stage. Hebiishi assures us not to worry: “Kikyo is such a talented guitarist, but he is also great at building his own sound equipment. Therefore, it is not so difficult for him to translate the sound we have in the studio to the stage. It is something which comes natural to him.

Although there are currently no touring plans outside of Japan – though Hebiishi resolutely states: “I wouldn’t say no” – the band has already had a taste of playing abroad. Mardelas played the Connichi anime convention in Germany two years ago and will be playing at Metal Matsuri in London on October 4th.

Chemistry

Historically speaking, super groups are not the most stable bands. Commercial interests are too big or the approaches the band members adapt just don’t fit together. Mardelas is a different story, Hebiishi assures us: “Kikyo and I were in the same band circle back in school. We built a chemistry early on. Our bass player Hisayuki Motoishi plays with Kikyo in his band Screaming Symphony. Yumi was introduced to us by our previous bass player hibiki. When we all played together in the studio, it just felt right.

As a result, it seems like Mardelas has quite the future ahead of itself. “Many cool thinks are being talked about right now“, Hebiishi promises. “Unfortunately, it is too soon to share anything about that. Please check our social media and websites often for upcoming news.

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Album of the Week 32-2019: Sex Machineguns – Barbe-Q★ Michael


A lot of people, myself included, consider Sex Machineguns’ first two albums superior to the rest of their discography. However, I do feel that their excellent third album ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ kind of gets lost in the shuffle because of that. There are plenty of excellent metal tracks to be found on the album and though the material is not quite as catchy as the better tracks on the first two records, the songwriting showcases a little more complexity in the guitar department especially. Despite its flaws, every Sex Machineguns album has a few, it is one of their better albums.

Not unlike ‘Made In Japan’ before it, ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ is essentially a speed metal album posing as something else. Nothing about the goofy artwork betrays the almost thrashy nature of the record and the first two tracks are kind of misleading, again not unlike ‘Progressive Oji-chan’ on ‘Made in Japan’. Here, we have ‘S.H.R. ~Sexy Hero Revolution~’, an oddball rocker that may have worked better if it was not opening the album, and ‘Midori No Oba-chan’, which would have been an amazing melodic hardrocker, had the verses and the main melody not been lifted note for note from Stryper’s ‘In God We Trust’.

From there, the album only gets better. Sure, there are a bunch of weird tracks like the death metal tribute or parody ‘Death’ and the inexplicably underproduced closer ‘Zenkoku Takai’, but at least those have a bunch of cool riffs going for them. On the other hand, the album also produced a number of justified live classics, such as the particularly intense, yet still melodic ‘Fire’ and the catchy stomper ‘Tabetai Nametai Kiken Chithi’, which is relatively subdued in tempo, but has a nice rock ‘n’ roll-ish groove along the heavy riffs and Anchang’s high-pitched vocals.

The lesser known material might even be superior. ‘Okami To Kirigisu’ combines a violent start-stop riff with some thrashy warp-speed gallops and a brooding pre-chorus, while ‘To-chan’ isn’t necessarily anything special, but it is evidence of how good mid-tempo thrash can be if you’re not trying too hard. The true unsung gems of ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’, however, are ‘Aikoso Subete’ and ‘Pheromone’. The former contains the tightest, most vicious speed metal riffs of the album, a bunch of fantastic guitar solos and a fantastic understanding of how climaxes work, the latter is a relatively intricate thrasher that despite its complexity and moderately fast tempo manages to create an unsettling, almost doomy atmosphere. Both are incredble.

For all the flaws the record has – for some reason, Sex Machineguns’ humorous leanings often get in the way of creating a truly 100 percent consistent album – ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ is a superb piece of melodic thrash metal. In fact, the highlights of the album are some of the best thrash and speed metal released early this century. For all the odd moments and songs that just miss the mark, there is at least one incredible track. While ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ is not quite as essential as ‘Sex Machinegun’ and ‘Made In Japan’, it is definitely worth hearing if you like Sex Machineguns’ style.

Recommended tracks: ‘Aikoso Subete’, ‘Fire’, ‘Pheromone’, ‘Okami To Kirigisu’

Album of the Week 31-2019: Aria – Cheryez Vse Vremena


‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ is the second album Aria recorded with their current – and best – singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov and in a way, it shows. Where its predecessor ‘Feniks’ had to reestablish them as the Iron Maiden-inspired heavy metal band they always were with their new singer, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ shows the Russians branching out a little. It stays true to their formula enough to not alienate any fans, but it is also a tad experimental at times, justifying their relevance three decades after their inception. That may come across as inconsistent, but it is in fact one of the band’s best albums yet.

Admittedly, the album does come acress as slightly inconsistent initially, in the sense that the album is not non-stop classic heavy metal, the way the likes of ‘Geroy Asfalta’, ‘Krov Za Krov’ or even ‘Feniks’ played. This is partially caused by the early placement of ‘Bliki Solntsa Na Vodye’, which moves from an uncharacteristically groovy, almost Badlands-ish hardrock vibe to a distinct ‘Seventh Son’-like middle section and feels a bit odd when not given the time it deserves. But really, save for that song and the excellent power ballad ‘Tochka Nyevozvrata’, expertly sung by Zhitnyakov, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ is an excellent contemporary metal album.

The contemporary edge the album has is mostly in the tracks guitarist Sergey Popov composed. Sure, the powerful ‘Angeli Nyeba’ is fairly traditional heavy metal – the main riff even bears a resemblance to ‘Two Minutes To Midnight’ – but the aggressive midtempo stomp of ‘Nye Schodi S Uma’ is quite modern, without sounding like a departure. His crowning achievement here, however, is ‘Gorod’, which manages to seamlessly make its way through multiple moods; subdued anger in the verses, danger in the bridge and melancholic catharsis in the wonderfully passionate chorus and the end of the solo section. Definitely one of the five greatest Aria songs to date.

During the moments when Aria sounds like one would expect them to, however, they sound just as convincing. The opening title track, for instance, combines bassist Vitaly Dubinin’s Iron Maiden influence with an almost speed metal approach, galloping viciously and ending up sounding faster and more energetic than Maiden ever did. The build-up towards the climactic chorus is genius as well. ‘Vremya Zatmyeniy’ is a powerful song built upon a propulsive triplet rhythm and ‘Ataka Myertvetsov’ a dynamic epic. Closing track ‘Begushiy Chelovek’ closes the album in driving, yet melodic eighties metal fashion.

Some bands find it difficult to stay inspired after a while. But whether it is working with a new singer or something else, Aria sounds just as inspired on ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ as they did on their classic material. It is an album that gets better through repeated plays, as some of the songs are actually quite cleverly arranged; there is more to some of these tracks than just a good melody and a memorable chorus. In addition, this is the album on which Popov started composing material that is just as good as Dubinin’s, effectively increasing the production of good songs. And it is sonically pleasing as well. Highly recommended to anyone who likes heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gorod’, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’, ‘Angeli Nyeba’

Release of the Week Extra 30-2019: Soundgarden – Live From The Artists Den


Since I am trying to reserve the album of the week spots for studio albums as much as I can, Soundgarden’s ‘Live From The Artists Den’ seemed like a poor fit. However, it is easily my most anticipated release of the year so far and there has been a series of Chris Cornell-related reviews, so it seemed appropriate to cover this one in a slightly unconventional capacity.

‘Live From The Artists Den’ was filmed for the eponymous PBS program six years ago, on the last date of the American leg for the tour promoting Soungarden’s excellent comeback album ‘King Animal’. About an hour of the show was aired, but nearly two and a half hours of music was recorded. Some of the recent tracks surfaced on the ‘King Animal Plus’ re-release, but apparently, the fan base was requesting the entire show to be released. At least, that is what the sticker on the front of the releases suggests. Understandable, because Chris Cornell’s suicide rules out the possibility of them ever professionally recording a concert again. Fortunately, ‘Live From The Artists Den’ is excellent.

If you buy the Blu-ray, the first thing you will notice is how good the whole thing looks. The production team behind the television program records everything in high definition audio and video and that certainly shows. Sonically, the release is great as well, although I think Kim Thayil could have used a fuller guitar sound during the songs on which he is the only guitarist. In addition, the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles has an atmosphere that adds to the experience. Certainly more than the festival shows that have popped up on YouTube through the years.

What counts in the end, however, is the performances of the songs. And those are generally very good. The video of ‘Black Hole Sun’ that popped up about a week before the release is a tad misleading, as it feels somewhat obligatory; the rest of the show is mostly very good. Cornell’s voice suffers from slight bolts of end of tour fatigue at some points, though surprisingly less so later in the set than in the first few songs. Out of the Soundgarden live recordings that have been officially released, this might just be the most stable of his vocal performances.

The ‘King Animal’ songs in particular sound fantastic. And the set is built around those, as 10 out of the release’s 28 songs – the brilliantly titled outro ‘Feedbachhanal’ does not really qualify as a song – are from that particular album. ‘Non-State Actor’, the quasi-psychedlic ‘A Thousand Days Before’, the stomping 5/4 rhythm of ‘By Crooked Steps’, the hypnotizing ‘Rowing’, the somber ‘Bones Of Birds’ and especially the stomping ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’ and the gorgeous ‘Taree’ are all incredible in their performance. All of these songs are further evidence of how big a hole Cornell’s suicide left in the world of music.

Out of the other songs, it is notably the more obscure material that sounds best. Sure, ‘Spoonman’ and especially ‘Rusty Cage’ are executed fantastically, but long-time fans will be pleasantly surprised at how good the live premiere of ‘Blind Dogs’ sounds. The gloomy musical dystopia of ‘New Damage’ is one of the most taxing songs of Soundgarden’s ouevre vocally, but something pushed Cornell to rise above himself. Fans of the band’s pre-breakthrough days will be delighted by ‘Incessant Mace’ as the opener and remarkably good performances of ‘Flower’ and ‘Hunted Down’ later in the set. My personal Soundgarden favorite ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ closes off the set in a crushing fashion, with Cornell once again pushing himself to the limit on that chorus.

Since PBS is a public network, it is not too surprising that so many songs missed the broadcast. The angry hardcore of ‘Ty Cobb’ could never make it past the moral guardians lyrically – something Cornell cannot resist to make fun of prior to the encores – and the almost funereal dirge that is ‘4th Of July’ would likely have been the least accessible thing ever broadcasted on the network. For that reason alone, it is amazing to have the concert available in its full glory. The setlist is as close to perfect as it gets and the performances range from good to incredible. A must-have for fans of Soundgarden and heavy music in general.

Recommended tracks: ‘Taree’, ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’, ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘New Damage’

Album of the Week 30-2019: Audioslave – Revelations


It is truly unfortunate that Audioslave never got to record more than three albums. They started out like any other supergroup; as musicians struggling to find a way to combine their musical histories in a listenable manner, although the self-titled debut certainly already had its share of great moments. It helps that 75 percent of Audioslave came from the same band, but by the time ‘Revelations’ was released, the band had evolved beyond sounding like Rage Against The Machine with Chris Cornell singing. This is a powerful, at times surprisingly soulful alternative hardrock album that showcases some excellent songwrited and spirited musicianship.

Rage Against The Machine’s biggest strength, to me, was always their rhythm section, but ‘Revelations’ is the record on which drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford deliver their best performance yet. Their rhythms can still punch hard if they want to, but there is a strong soul and funk undercurrent on the album. As a result, guitarist Tom Morello is forced to tone down his noisy effects in favor of a more swinging rhythm guitar approach, ending up sounding something like Led Zeppelin being pushed through a Motown filter. An approach that fits Cornell’s wide, expressive range like a glove.

The opening title track briefly misleads the listener into thinking ‘Revelations’ will be a moody, downbeat album, but the song quickly transforms into a powerful swing ‘n’ stomp fest. And while ‘Revelations’ as a whole is a tad darker in tone than the first two Audioslave albums – to its benefit, if you ask me – it also has its notably celebratory moments. ‘Original Fire’, most notably, ironically sounds more upbeat than the early Seattle bands it is a tribute to. ‘One And The Same’ and the amazing funk rocker ‘Broken City’ manage to walk the tightrope of dark, dangerous and life-affirming effectively.

And yet, the most convincing moments on ‘Revelations’ are the most melancholic ones. ‘Wide Awake’ is easily my favorite non-Soundgarden song Cornell has ever sang on. It could be described as a sorrowful ballad, were it not for Commerford’s busily funky bass line and Wilk’s dynamic drum work. The yearning chorus and the climactic ending are pieces of art. Closing track ‘Moth’ is another gloomy masterpiece driven by a massive, almost Sabbathian riff and a haunting chorus. Elsewhere, the pounding ‘Shape Of Things To Come’ and the almost jazzy chord work of ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’ run a different way with the melancholy. ‘Jewel Of The Summertime’ is one of the heaviest funk tracks I ever heard.

‘Out Of Exile’ was a great album, but ‘Revelations’ is the Audioslave album I would recommend anyone to start with, as the specter of the members’ former bands was no longer looming over the band by this point. The backgrounds of the musicians are fairly obvious, but the blend of styles is rather unique. Audioslave had finally found its own sound on ‘Revelations’, which is why it is such a pity that it was their final album. Certainly one of the most organic-sounding big budget post-2000 rock releases and that is truly the finishing touch of this great album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wide Awake’, ‘Moth’, ‘Broken City’, ‘One And The Same’

Album of the Week 29-2019: Soundgarden – Superunknown


In hindsight, the title of Soundgarden’s fourth album ‘Superunknown’ is almost ironic, as the album – and its singles in particular – turned the Seattle-based band into a bestselling rock act. In a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Soundgarden consisted of four great songwriters and in Chris Cornell, they had easily the greatest singer of the entire Seattle scene. On the other hand, the band’s fearless experimentalism, as well as their penchant for odd time signatures and dissonance made them the least likely huge rock act of the era. However, that is exactly what makes ‘Superunknown’ as successful artistically as it is commercially.

As tempting as it is to call ‘Superunknown’ a sellout record, the opposite is actually true. Sure, it is notably less metallic than ‘Badmotorfinger’, but instead, this is a textured, sonically rich record that explores all the extremes of rock music. From the punky bite of ‘Kickstand’ to the psychedelic leanings of ‘Head Down’ and the dark pop supremacy of ‘Black Hole Sun’, ‘Superunknown’ is Soundgarden’s ‘Physical Graffiti’. To do that without alienating your core audience is not an easy feat, but then again, Soundgarden never released the same kind of album twice in a row, so their fans knew they could expect something different.

Unlike many albums of the era, the singles that were culled from the album actually fit the general atmosphere of the record well. First single ‘Spoonman’ is as unconventional rhythmically as anything the band released up until that point and the downbeat semi-ballad ‘Fell On Black Days’ is one of the greatest songs Soundgarden ever released. The way Cornell’s voice commands the dynamics of the song over that simple, but brutally effective guitar riff is nothing short of genius. ‘Let Me Drown’ is a powerful opening track and the subdued, yet forceful ‘Fresh Tendrils’ really deserves more appreciation than it tends to get.

Fortunately, the Black Sabbath-inspired doom metal riffing has not disappeared. While nothing is of ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ proportions, there are no less than three songs that come close. ‘4th Of July’ is a sludgy, dissonant dirge on which Cornell’s understated vocals take a back seat to the riffs, which are right in front of the mix. The monstrous groove of ‘Mailman’ is evidence that Soundgarden shares a lot of influences with Alice In Chains and the riff work of ‘Limo Wreck’ is a clear tribute to Sabbath, while the chorus houses Cornell’s finest vocal performance on the record. Closing the record on a strong note, ‘Like Suidice’ feels like a blend of alternative rock and southern blues. It’s something which is not attempted often, but works very well.

So is ‘Superunknown’ better than ‘Badmotorfinger’? Of course it isn’t. ‘Badmotorfinger’ was a monumental release on which all the stars aligned ridiculously perfectly. ‘Superunknown’ is just about as good a follow-up anyone could wish for. The album shows a band refusing to compromise and surprisingly, that eventually gave them the audience they deserved. Soundgarden was always a band that defied genres or scenes and no record is better evidence of that than ‘Superunknown’. A rare example of a breakthrough record that does not pander to the masses. Not even a little.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Mailman’, ‘Limo Wreck’

Album of the Week 28-2019: Confessor – Condemned


Prior to hearing ‘Condemned’, technical doom metal was a mix of styles I pretty much considered impossible. There are plenty of doom metal bands that take a strong influence from Fates Warning’s early albums, so progressive doom metal: sure. But the idea of abrupt shifts in rhythms, tempos and time signatures did not blend with the despair-ridden atmosphere of the better doom metal bands in my mind. Enter the debut album of North Carolina’s Confessor. Not only does it manage to make sense of combining all the aforementioned elements, it also sounds significantly more anguished than many of their peers.

First things first: those expecting a more complex version of Solitude Aeturnus’ prog-ish interpretation to the Candlemass sound may not get what they are hoping for. In fact, Confessor does not really sound like any other band. The borderline thrashy riff work brings the better moments of Invocator’s second album to mind and there are traces of what Meshuggah would later attempt, but the voice of Scott Jeffreys immediately blows those comparisons out of the water. His high-pitched, almost spotlessly clean voice sounds more tortured than any growler ever could. His sustained notes sound like Jeffreys is actually exorcising some persistent demons.

The closest comparison would be a considerably slowed-down and less bass-heavy Watchtower, a band Jeffreys briefly fronted, in the sense that Confessor hardly stays in the same gear for too long. Only ‘Eve Of Salvation’ is built upon a relatively steady foundation of Black Sabbath-influenced riff work, while drummer Steve Shelton keeps his rhythms fairly straightforward. By contrast, ‘Prepare Yourself’ contains some of the most twisted, intricate riffing that Brian Shoaf and the late Ivan Colon are subjecting themselves too on the record. The rest is closer to the latter than the former: the riff work is dense, the drumming busy and Jeffreys wails lines that sometimes appear to have little connection to the accompanying music. And yet it works.

While there aren’t really any tracks that strike me as better than the others, a stand-out track is ‘Uncontrolled’, which has a slightly more thrashy vibe than the rest of the album through its (marginally) higher tempo and the gang-shouted backing vocals in its chorus. The title track that follows has a slightly more uptempo and violent vibe than the other tracks as well, mostly due to Shelton punishing his kit like there’s no tomorrow. His bass drums sound dry, but that somehow works well with the riffs. The start-stop riffing of ‘The Stain’ sounds delightfully claustrophobic, while ‘Suffer’ ties the album together very nicely.

In the end, my only two complaints for ‘Condemned’ are minor. Cary Rowells’ bass is hardly audible most of the time; it’s there, but it’s far too trebly for its own good. Also, since the songs don’t have very clear structures – at least not initially – they blend together a little at times. Neither of those factors should discourage anyone from listening to what is truly one of the most unique albums in heavy metal history. It might need a few spins to sink in. The first time, you’ll wonder what the hell you’re listening to. The second time, you might be able to wrap your head around it a little more. From then on, you’ll either get it or you won’t.

Recommended tracks: ‘Uncontrolled’, ‘Suffer’, ‘Prepare Yourself’

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