Album of the Week 09-2017: Onmyo-za – Fuujin Kaikou


With the genre nearing five decades of existence, finding unique sounding metal is becoming increasingly difficult. Onmyo-za somehow succeeds at doing so without attempting anything too far-fetched. Their riffs and twin melodies are generally from the traditional heavy metal and hard rock mold, but their open-minded approach to songwriting allows for a spontaneous sound that contains elements of J-rock, progrock and hints of Japanese folk. Also, singing couple Kuroneko and bass playing band leader Matatabi forsakes the “Beauty and the Beast” approach of most metallic male-female singing duos in favor of something more melodic, further emphasizing their highly original nature.

‘Fuujin Kaikou’ is the wind-themed half of a diptych with the simultaneously released – and thunder-themed – ‘Raijin Sousei’. That doesn’t mean it’s all soft and subdued though; in fact, there are plenty of riff-driven metal anthems like ‘Ichimokuren’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the excellent opener ‘Kamikaze’ present. However, it is the more melodic and better – by a hair – of the two. This approach leaves all the room Kuroneko needs to deliver her best vocal performance to date and often lays the guitars of Maneki and Kurakan on an atmospheric, but never overpowering symphonic bed. And even the ballads – there’s quite a few of them – are remarkably powerful.

To start with the latter category: Kuroneko’s composition ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’ is the most beautiful, goosebumps-inducing ballad the band has ever released. It’s the only song on the record where the orchestral tracks take over the guitars, but it fits the beautiful, cinematic atmosphere of the song perfectly. Both guitar solos are simply breathtaking as well. This does not disqualify the other calmer songs though; ‘Manazashi’ and ‘Hebimiko’ are somewhat more traditional, but excellent ballads and ‘Yaobikuni’ brings to mind Dio’s lighter sounding singles from the late eighties.

On the – slightly – heavier side of things, ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is a true highlight. With a great build-up, highly climactic lead guitar themes and a downright spectacular chorus that has Matatabi and Kuroneko duetting beautifully, the song is simply a lesson in how to write a mindblowing melodic metal song. ‘Saredo Itsuwari No Okuribi’ is somewhat more subdued, but still a great metal song with irresistible melodies. ‘Muufuu Ninpocho’ features a godly bass sound courtesy of Matatabi and is a bit more rocky, as is the – almost traditionally – upbeat closing track ‘Haru Ranman Ni Shiki No Mau Nari’. Both of those are songs that could sound horribly out of place on a metal record, but the general atmosphere makes them work here.

Exploring Onmyo-za’s discography can be a bit intimidating for a westerner, due to the fact that every song and album title is in Japanese, but ultimately, it will be a rewarding experience. Their unique sound somehow feels familiar and highly original at the same time, which was exactly what yours truly was looking for at the time he discovered them. Their status as one of the more popular Japanese metal bands is absolutely justified and listening to ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ – or really almost any of their albums – is highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’, ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, ‘Kamikaze’

Interview: Tomoyasu Hotei wants to create something extraordinary

Recently, I’ve been given the opportunity to interview legendary Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei. What follows is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. Should you be proficient at Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original arctile.

In Japan, Tomoyasu Hotei reached a legendary status at quite a young age due to his work with the massively popular Boøwy. After that band split up in the late eighties, he worked with superstars like Iggy Pop, Rammstein guitarist Richard Z. Kruspe and his hero David Bowie and recently, he decided to pursue his international ambitions by relocating to London. In April, he will tour through Europe.

Since I moved to London, I learned why Japan is described as ‘the Far East’“, the 55 year old guitarist says. “Japan is very well organized, very safe and the food is great, but everything is executed within the country. People tend to look only inward. I have dreamt to explore the outside world, but one day I realized that you have to be based outside of Japan to seize that opportunity. Luck will not come to you; you have to approach it. You may have some access to the outside world through the internet, but if you are looking for a more authentic experience, you have to live and breathe on the same ground that you want to approach. I feel convinced that I have made the right decision.
Hotei has already taken note of the conveniences of living in the west. “If you want to fly from Japan to the Netherlands, it takes twelve hours“, he states. “But from London, it only takes two hours. That itself makes me feel that I’m closer to the rest of the world. Also, it’s the best way to learn a language; way better than learning it at school. True, it is very cold and miserable during the winter, but summer is heaven! If I had stayed in Japan, I may not have had this opportunity to play to Dutch people.

Visual consciousness

In the early eighties, Boøwy stood out due to their approach that was influenced – both musically and aesthetically – by new wave, glamrock and post-punk. “Even before the term “visual kei” was created, I was always conscious about visuals“, he explains. “Perhaps we were the original visual kei band? X Japan, Buck-Tick and Miyavi weren’t yet established back then. Back in those days, I had spiky hair with heavy make-up, guaranteed to catch people’s attention in the streets!
I am a huge fan of David Bowie and have been influenced by his music throughout my career. But he was inspired by kabuki. He used visual techniques to create unusual atmospheres on stage. I too wanted to created something extraordinary and by wearing make-up, I felt like I had another identity. I thought by adding some fantasy to rock music, it would create more depth in the music.
My visual consciousness hasn’t changed and I still care about artwork and stage plots. However, because I have now ‘matured’, I can’t do anything too crazy anymore; I am nervous that my daughter won’t talk to me anymore if I did, haha!

Trust

Japan seems to have a bigger market for “strange” bands. Hotei seems to notice this as well. “You can’t find a band like Babymetal in Europe“, he thinks aloud. “And the music market in Japan is dominated by domestic bands who make up something like ninety percent of the total market. Perhaps it is more competitive there; people have to be experimental and make it original. In Europe, I think there are distinctive genres of music. Therefore, my impression of the music audience there is something like jazz fans who will not be interested in rock and metal fans who are not interested in techno.
My audience in Japan is very special. There’s a level of trust we have built over the years. To those who are not familiar with my audience and see 10,000 people singing and dancing along with my performance, it is almost like a cult group. That makes me a preacher! The size of my crowds in Europe and the USA is relatively small, but I genuinely enjoy playing in such an intimate setting. It is so raw; it reminded me of when I started thirty five years ago. I can feel the grip on the people as they are up on their feet and that means I’m doing something right. Also, it’s great to see Japanese people in the audience; it makes me feel at home, away from home.
I think this is still a trial period, but those people who may not be familiar with me, trust me, you will get your money’s worth! I am always eager to share my music with people who have no clue who I am or have never heard my music before. I want to show my ability to entertain them with a danceable guitar sound and performance. I am confident that my live performance is the most effective way to describe myself. Once you see my performance, people will see how unique I am.

In April, Hotei will tour through Europe for about a week and a half. During this tour, he will play in the Netherlands twice and in Belgium once. “I love Amsterdam“, he states enthusiastically. “I thoroughly enjoy my last year’s visit. For those who were there last year, I can guarantee this year’s show will be even better. I have a slightly different band this year, bringing my longstanding drummer from New York, Zac Alford, who some may know from his work with Bowie, and my keyboard player Okuno from Tokyo, as well as my old friend and musical collaborator Noko. It’s a truly international band!

Recognize

I’ve released over twenty studio albums as a solo artist“, Hotei says. “Which is a lot! I know now for a fact that the Japanese market is very quick to move from one album to the next. In Japan, you release an album followed by fifty plus shows each time. It was actually my routine. My international debut ‘Strangers’ was released in October 2015 and I have just started writing for my second international album in February. ‘Strangers’ is a great album, but I’m committed to making a “greater” album.
My inspiration is based on my guitar. It is an endless journey; the potential is infinite. That’s the beauty of the guitar, I think. I have always been persistent to create guitar sounds that people will recognize as my sound. I’m now discovering digital technology and have been using a digital amp lately. But ultimately, I think it’s not the equipment that makes my sound so unique, I think it is coming from my playing style.

The list of artists that Hotei has worked with is enormous. Are there any people left on his wishlist? “I consider myself against the luckiest in the world to have performed with David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Roxy Music“, he smiles. “Also, it was a great honor to collaborate with Iggy Pop, Brian Setzer and Zucchero from Italy. If I may blow my own horn, I was able to grab these great collaboration opportunities because I am a very skilfull guitarist. I am very flexible and I enjoy making singers feel very comfortable.
My door is always open to more opportunities. Not just with legendary artists, but also talented upcoming new artists. My guitar riffs are very catchy, so perhaps I can collaborate with hiphop artists too. I’d love to have the chance to play with Beyoncé! I’m very interested in St. Vincent’s music too. What about a great artist from the Netherlands? Maybe you can introduce me!

Album of the Week 08-2017: Czesław Niemen – Niemen


Some singers are so good that you don’t have to understand the words they are singing in order to appreciate them. Case in point, Polish rock pioneer Czesław Niemen. With a voice that combines the power of a rock singer with the raw passion of blues and soul singers and a musical style that brings together elements of progressive rock, fusion, soul, folk and – later on – early electronic music, there’s no escaping the music even without understanding Polish. While its predecessor ‘Enigmatic’ is often considered the pinnacle of his work, ‘Niemen’ is the one where all elements are in perfect balance.

Alternately, the album is known as ‘Czerwony Album’ – the red album – for obvious reasons. It is also sold under the title ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, after its massive twenty minute opening track, which yours truly considers Niemen’s crowning achievement. The main sections are pushed forward by Janusz Zieliński’s simple, but brutally effective bass line and Niemen’s forceful, heartfelt vocals, while its middle section is lead by the fanastic improvisations of his backing band. Even Zieliński and drummer Czesław Mały-Bartkowski get extended solo spots, while guitarist Tomasz Jaśkiewicz and hammond organist Jacek Mikuła go nuts with strong, surprisingly passionate accompanied solos.

But while that monumental opening track is without any doubt the centerpiece of ‘Niemen’, there’s over fifty minutes of additional quality material on the album. The strong interaction between the musicians is more than apparent in the fantastic instrumental ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, which along the opening track is easily the most proggy moment on the record and again features amazing soloing by both Mikuła and Jaśkiewicz, while Niemen sounds like a man begging on his knees and surrendering everything he’s got in the highly soulful ‘Nie Jesteś Moja’, a surprisingly succesful European rock take on the Stax Records releases of the late sixties.

Other moments on ‘Niemen’ are significantly more accessible. ‘Wróć Jeszcze Dziś’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a seventies pop radio station if it would have had English lyrics and the same goes for ‘Zechcesz Mnie, Zechcesz’, the latter partially because of Jaśkiewicz’ notably cleaner guitar sound. ‘Italiam, Italiam’ is unsurprisingly the track that would later appear on many compilations and the main section of ‘Chwila Ciszy’ brings to mind Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. The flute-led sections of ‘Sprzedaj Mnie Wiatrowi’ and ‘Aerumnarum Plenus’ are reminiscent of the folky, pastoral sound of early British prog bands and the stomping ‘Muzyko Moja’ closes off the album on a high, albeit somewhat abrupt note.

Following ‘Niemen’, the singer and multi-instrumentalist that gave the record its name would continue to experiment with different styles, from the more fusion driven direction on ‘Niemen Aerolit’ to the increasingly electronic sounds that would characterize his output from the late seventies onward. Always with that incredible, incomparable voice. He kept on releasing strange, but deeply sincere music almost until his death in 2004, leaving behind a legacy that transcends boundaries, musically as well as culturally. Don’t let the Polish language keep you from hearing this remarkable musician, who also happens to be one of the best singers I have ever heard.

Recommended tracks: ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, ‘Muzyko Moja’

Album of the Week 07-2017: Dool – Here Now, There Then


‘Listen Without Prejudice’ may have been the meaningful title of George Michael’s second solo album, in some reversed kind of way, the phrase also applies to Dool’s debut album ‘Here Now, There Then’. Singer and guitarist Ryanne van Dorst will be known to most Dutch music fan for the punky rock ‘n’ roll she made under the pseudonym Elle Bandita, but I sincerely doubt if anyone familiar with her earlier work would have expected something like ‘Here Now, There Then’: a dark, bleak, unsettling, brooding and ultimately downright beautiful rock album with an atmosphere that is guaranteed to absorb you completely.

First single ‘Oweynagat’ blew me away when it was released a couple of months ago, but nothing could have prepared me for this masterpiece of a debut album. Monolithic riffs, haunting vocal harmonies, pounding drums and chiming atmospheric guitar parts are all over the record. It helps that the band makes full use of the fact that they have three guitarists – Van Dorst, Nick Polak and Reinier Vermeulen – and the rhythm section is highly versatile. Drummer Micha Haring moves from brute doom metal hammering to more swinging rock rhythms with incredible ease and the fact that the song material requires him too is one of the album’s greatest assets.

As versatile as the record is, the atmosphere is consistently dark and reminiscent of early goth rock and post punk bands like The Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus and early Killing Joke. The massive doom metal atmosphere of opening track ‘Vantablack’ certainly is the bleakest beginning of a record I’ve heard in a long time. But it’s exactly that feel that makes it beautiful. It takes you in and won’t let you go until it’s over. In a way, the track is more than just an opening track, it’s an opening statement.

Even though that doom metal sound doesn’t reappear until the brilliant ‘The Alpha’, Dool delivers when it comes to every type of dark rock music they attempt. The aforementioned ‘Oweynagat’ shines due to its vocal harmonies, the dynamic drum work and its amazing chorus, closing track ‘She-Goat’ has an incredible build-up towards its climax, the seventies-ish ‘Golden Serpents’ is full of beautiful guitar parts – including a fantastic twin solo at the end – and ‘In Her Darkest Hour’ gallops along below its awesome riffs very nicely until it hits some unpredictable rhythms in its chorus. ‘The Death Of Love’ is a little more subtle, but no less impressive and highly dynamic.

It’s been a while since I was impressed this much by a debut album, but it’s a fact that Dool produced a remarkable piece of art with ‘Here Now, There Then’. This is a record that is so strong in the message and the atmosphere it’s trying to get across that it’s almost impossible to not feel it. Combined with the musical craftsmanship within its lineup and Van Dorst’s excellent compositions, there is very little reason left not to check this downright mindblowing album out. It may be a little dark, but don’t let that keep you from missing out on what may just be the best debut of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Oweynagat’, ‘The Alpha’, ‘Vantablack’

Album of the Week 06-2017: OverKill – The Grinding Wheel


As legendary as earlier OverKill albums like ‘Horrorscope’, ‘The Years Of Decay’ and debut album ‘Feel The Fire’ have become, it’s a fact that even in the 21st century, New Jersey’s finest has released some quality material. That’s why a new OverKill album is always something to look forward to. In fact, recent albums like ‘White Devil Armory’ and especially 2010’s incredible ‘Ironbound’ have increased the thrashing intensity, which in combination with their punkish vigor and relentless grooves account for excellent contemporary thrash metal. And while ‘The Grinding Wheel’ doesn’t quite reach that level, it’s another worthy addition to the band’s discography.

Initially, I was a bit underwhelmed by the first tracks that surfaced. While I really like the chorus of first single ‘Our Finest Hour’, the verse riff was lifted note for note from the superior ‘Electric Rattlesnake’ and opening track ‘Mean, Green, Killing Machine’ had an interesting middle section with Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth’s cleanest vocal performance in years – something he repeats in a few other tunes on the album – but also felt a bit like OverKill going through the motions. While neither are among my favorites, they admittedly make a little more sense within the context of the album.

Especially the second half of the record contains a few gems. ‘Red White And Blue’ for instance, a ripping, hardcore-infused thrasher in the same vein as ‘Pig’ on the previous record. The closing title track is an epic work of art comparable in style and atmosphere to ‘In The Name’ and the classic ‘Gasoline Dream’. That gothic doom-like outro is unlike anything OverKill has ever done before. ‘The Wheel’ is another masterpiece; it goes through several distinct movements – with especially that brooding verse riff being beyond amazing – without ever feeling disjointed. Three tracks that end the album on a great note.

But there’s more. ‘The Long Road’ is classic OverKill meets Iron Maiden’s triumphant twin guitar melodies with Dave Linsk – who truly outdoes himself on the entire record – soloing wildly over it. The groovy ‘Come Heavy’ shows the band’s Black Sabbath influences even more obviously than their tendency to switch to something completely different halfway through the songs. Out of the songs with more subdued tempos, ‘Shine On’ takes the cake. Partially because the thrashiness of the riff contrasts wonderfully with the relatively laid-back rhythm. ‘Let’s All Go To Hades’ is the most punky song of the bunch and while I generally prefer the band’s more metal material, the dual lead vocal harmony is excellent.

Some bands are just impossible to slow down. OverKill is one of them. Where many bands that started around the same time – they’ve been around since 1980 – exist solely on nostalgia, OverKill still manages to push themselves to some spirited performances and a few excellent tracks. And even more amazing is the fact that Ellsworth’s voice never manages to lose any of its vicious power. While ‘The Grinding Wheel’ isn’t the latter day masterpiece that ‘Killbox 13’ or ‘Ironbound’ was, it grew on me after a few spins, by which point it was impossible to sit still. Especially to that triple threat at the end of the record.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Grinding Wheel’, ‘Red White And Blue’, ‘The Wheel’

Album of the Week 05-2017: Drive Like Maria – Creator Preserver Destroyer


After their excellent self-titled second album, things went a little quiet around Drive Like Maria. Luckily, the Dutch-Belgian rock trio is still around. They announced the release of three EP’s that would form the new album last year and that album is finally here. And while it retains the band’s eclectic rock sound – the stoner component becoming less prominent with each release – ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ has a more streamlined, even somewhat more produced feel than the previous two records, which significantly benefits the catchy and melodic nature of the songs and Bjorn Awouters’ soulful vocals. The result is familiar, yet fresh.

For an album that consists of songs that were originally released on EP’s, ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ has a remarkably consistent flow. It helps that more thought went into the track sequencing than just throwing the EP’s tracks on front to back. This way, a nice balance is created between the energetic rock songs and the more subdued material and the whole thing sounds like an album rather than a collection of singles. The great deal of variation also contributes greatly to the album’s replay value; Drive Like Maria once again covers a wide range of emotions in a handful of extremely well-written songs.

That range is one of the biggest assets of ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’. If the record was full of pop songs like ‘Taillight’ or ‘I Wonder If It Goes’, there would be a considerable risk that the album would be a boring listen, but because there’s tracks like the heavy opener ‘Nighthawk’, the restrained ‘Sinners’, the dark ballad ‘Will We Ever’ or the upbeat rocker ‘Keeps Me Going’, the album becomes highly dynamic and the songs more or less accentuate each other. Also, the spirited performances elevate the songs above the already high quality of the compositions. Awouters and Nitzan Hoffmann are an excellent guitar duo and his versatility alone already makes Bram van den Berg the best drummer in the Netherlands.

My two favorite tracks on the album appear back to back, like they did on the ‘Creator’ EP. ‘Sonny’ is a melancholic pop rock song with amazing vocals by Awouters and a great build-up towards its dreamy chorus, whilst ‘Tiny Terror’ is more epic in nature and due to its subtle saxophone accents brings to mind the Golden Earring’s early seventies work. The latter shines in the way it slowly becomes more exuberant. ‘Forget’ also feels epic, despite the fact that it’s only 4 minutes long, and ends the album on a very high note.

But really, ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ is a really consistent album full of memorable melodies, strong performances and an amount of variation that is not all that common in contemporary rock music. Drive Like Maria never was so loud in its rock excess that they would scare away more casual pop rock listeners, but with this record, I would actually encourage people who aren’t usually into heavy rock to give this a listen. Simply because it’s twelve excellent songs performed really well. I’m very curious to hear how this material will sound in the live environment.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sonny’, ‘Tiny Terror’, ‘Forget’, ‘Will We Ever’

Navarone, Drive Like Maria and more in Gitarist


Those of you who want to know more about the most recent Album of the Week, but prefer to get their information from the musicians involved should look no further than this month’s issue of Gitarist. I didn’t just interview Navarone’s guitarists, but the entire band about the creation of ‘Oscillation’. It’s a special album that deserves a lot of attention from everyone. Also, I spoke extensively with Drive Like Maria’s Nitzan Hoffmann about their new album ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’, another great rock album from the Benelux. I can only say that the year has started out great in that respect.

Furthermore, we have interviews with Eric Johnson about his new acoustic record and new blues prodigy Aaron Keylock. There’s a big feature about mini pedals and we have loads of gear and cd reviews. I can’t see a reason not to rush to the store and buy it unless you already have a subscription.