Posts Tagged ‘ Folk Metal ’

Album of the Week 07-2018: Angra – Ømni

Change does not appear to affect Angra. They survived a massive schism around the turn of the century and now Dave Mustaine has hijacked longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro for Megadeth, they still manage to put together another great album. Most of the current line-up already proved that the (largely) Brazilian band could still pump out great progressive power metal, as ‘Secret Garden’ was the best metal album of 2015. Now that ‘Secret Garden’ has put Angra back on the map, ‘Ømni’ shows the band stretching their boundaries a little. The results are slightly less memorable, but a very rewarding listen nonetheless.

Much to my surprise, Loureiro’s replacement Marcelo Barbosa is an integral part of the album, having contributed significantly to the songwriting. Sole founding member Rafael Bittencourt gratefully profits from the possibilities his guitar partnership with Barbosa provides as well. As a result, ‘Ømni’ ends up sounding less European-tinged power metal and more like a progressive metal album with very distinct world fusion overtones. Angra never shied away from putting their South American roots on display, but it seems like partnering with Barbosa gave Bittencourt the courage to dive deep into crossover opportunities, providing the basis of the most interesting moments of ‘Ømni’.

That does not mean that there is no place for power metal on ‘Ømni’. In fact, the album starts out with two fairly traditional, euphoric power metal numbers, with ‘Travelers Of Time’ being the more contemporary take on the genre and ‘Light Of Transcendence’ the more old school one. Even these tracks sound fresh though, as Angra always had a way of rubbing up against clichés, but never fully engaging. On the metallic side of the album, ‘Magic Mirror’ is great, but ‘War Horns’ is the true winner. Darker and heavier than Angra usually sounds, it is an intense listening experience, on which Loureiro guests.

Despite all this familiarity, ‘Ømni’ is best when it surprises. The semi-ballad ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’ has a very folky basis and some beautifully heartfelt vocals by Bittencourt, while ‘Caveman’ has some chants in Portuguese and Latin-flavored drums and percussion alternating with the stomping riff work and Fabio Lione’s mighty voice. The complete fusion of all styles can be heard in ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, in which we can hear everything from subtle bossa nova touches to virtuosic progmetal without ever sounding disjointed. If anything, the song has a supreme build-up. ‘Black Widow’s Web’ may come across as messy, but is too enjoyable a dark progster to complain. ‘Insania’ contains some of Felipe Andreoli’s best bass work yet.

All in all, ‘Ømni’ presents quite a unique mixture of styles which leaves you wondering why this combination is not attempted more often. It is a great progressive metal album that may not be as easy to digest as ‘Secret Garden’ was, but will probably prove to be more durable throughout. ‘Ømni’ is one of those albums that slowly reveals its small secrets over repeated listens. In addition, it is the ultimate evidence that Angra still has its artistic merits more than two and a half decades into their career. Anyone who wishes to hear how versatile the guitar can be in a metal context should give ‘Ømni’ a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, ‘War Horns’, ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’


Album of the Week 05-2018: Onmyo-za – Kongo Kyubi

Due to its polished, almost glossy production and the relatively mellow nature of its songs, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ initially was one of my least favorite Onmyo-za albums. After letting the album – and, presumably, myself – mature for a while, my appreciation for the album increased rapidly. It is quite unique in the Onmyo-za canon in that there is an abundance of clean and twelve string guitars, but only three of the songs qualify as a ballad. Instead, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ channels all the band’s melodic sensibilities and puts them on the crossroads of traditional heavy metal, eighties hardrock, mildly progressive rock and J-rock.

Had Onmyo-za continued down a softer road following ‘Kongo Kyubi’, it would have been seen as a transitional album, but since it was followed by one of the darkest records the band ever made, it can probably be considered a melodic experiment that works surprisingly well. That does not mean the album feels like a stylistic detour; songs like ‘Aoki Dokugan’ and ‘Sokoku’ contain everything Onmyo-za fans would want; NWOBHM inspired riffs, melodic lead guitar themes, highly memorable melodies and – always a defining feature of the band – the excellent dual lead vocals of bassist Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko.

Still, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ has a few amazing songs that would have sounded out of place on other Onmyo-za albums. ‘Banka’, for instance, is the most bluesy track the band ever released, albeit in an eighties Gary Moore blues ballad kind of way. Furthermore, ‘Baku’ sets the mood for the album very effectively. It is based on some shimmering twelve string parts courtesy of guitarist Maneki, but also has a few pulsating riffs, a notably upbeat chorus and some of Matatabi’s busiest bass work to date. ‘Izayoi No Ame’ does a brilliant job combining Onmyo-za’s trademark melodic J-metal with melodic hard rock.

That does not mean that ‘Kongo Kyubi’ is without its heavy moments. ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’ is a masterpiece of a speed metal track, while the three-song suite ‘Kumikyoku Kyubi’ is remarkable in being the only Onmyo-za suite so far that does not contain a distinct ballad-esque track. Sure, its first part ‘Tamamo-No-Mae’ has a bouncy, almost disco-like rhythm as its foundation, but the epic Iron Maiden vibe of ‘Shomakyo’ and the riff-fest ‘Sessho-Seki’ keep it firmly within the metal realm. In addition, ‘Kuraiau’ – yes, I also first thought it was “cry out” – is the best of Onmyo-za’s upbeat closers, which often are a little lightweight. By contrast, ‘Kuraiau’ has a powerful seventies hardrock feel.

Once ‘Kongo Kyubi’ clicked with me, I learned to appreciate it for what it is: an extremely well-written, perfectly arranged and flawlessly produced album. Onmyo-za found a way to perfectly balance their sense of melodicism with some surprisingly inventive riff work which sounds standard enough, but really isn’t once you find out the chord structures. As for myself, I am glad I love this band enough to give this album a few extra chances, after which it proved that it is not a watered down version of Onmyo-za, but instead a very successful attempt at highlighting the band’s more romantic side. The latter half of the album is surprisingly metallic though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’, ‘Izayoi No Ame’, ‘Kumikyoku “Kyubi” ~ Shomakyo’, ‘Kuraiau’

Album of the Week 30-2017: Fatima Hill – Aion

Progressive metal is at its best when it is not a vehicle for virtuosity. The bands who favor atomosphere and interesting compositions instead of showing off their instrumental skills are relatively limited in number, but they exist. Fatima Hill from Japan was one of those bands. Compared to other prog bands, their songs are relatively relaxed and their riffs are relatively close to traditional heavy metal and early power metal in style, an approach that, in combination with the powerful alto of Yuko Hirose, results in quite an unusual and refreshing sound. Their sophomore album ‘Aion’ is a mystical, powerful work of art.

For those of you who have never heard of the band before: imagine the brooding heavy metal riffs of Mercyful Fate and the atmospheric blend of them being played high on the guitar neck and being backed by subtle keyboard flourishes like on Warlord’s early work. Throw in the compositional originality of early Fates Warning and Crimson Glory and you’ll get close to Fatima Hill’s core sound. The band has a tendency to throw a few curveballs at the unsuspecting listener, but they do so in a way that makes a surprising amount of sense within the context of the album.

Opening track ‘Ares Dragon’ does a pretty good job introducing that sound. The riff work is complex, but due to the relatively subdued rhythms, it never comes across as busy as many prog bands appear to be. Guitarist and main composer Anjue Yamashiro obviously wants the songs and the atmosphere to reign over the individual skills of the players and as such, ‘Aion’ is a very pleasant album to listen to. On the heavier tracks, the band sounds confident, but not overly so. The Middle-Eastern tinged ‘The Black Bat’, the dramatic ‘Ultimata’ and the relatively propulsive ‘Babel Dune’ all seamlessly blend somewhat traditional heavy metal riffing and ambitious, adventurous songwriting.

The aforementioned curveballs are ‘Other’, the almost title track ‘Aeon’ and the lengthy closer ‘The Song For Beatrice Part 3 (The Seven Songs)’. The latter sounds like it will turn into a big, bombastic prog epic, but remains rather low-key and somewhat folky throughout its nine minutes of playing time, even during its powerful finale, while featuring excellent work by Hayato Asano on the fretless bass and Yamashiro on the acoustic guitar. The folk factor is really dialled up for ‘Aeon’ by prominently featuring Yamashiro’s electric mandolin, making it sound like a mixture of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ and the title track from Crimson Glory’s ‘Transcendence’. ‘Other’ is a romantic sounding, almost poppy song in which the simple, yet effective lead guitar and Takamichi Koeda’s baroque keyboards form an excellent backdrop for Hirose’s vocals.

It may take some time to fully grasp the charm of Fatima Hill’s sophomore album. I’ll freely admit that I’m still getting used to Yuko Hirose’s voice, despite her being a fantastic singer. However, due to its exceptional songwriting and pleasant nineties production, ‘Aion’ is a true winner. You have probably noticed me mentioning atmosphere a lot and the only reason for that is that it is an indispensible part of the album’s charm. Yamashiro deserves all the praise he can get for setting all egos aside and letting the songs take center stage. Whenever he does choose to play a solo, it counts and adds something to the song. Fatima Hill may be a somewhat obscure band, but they deserve to find their way to a larger number of ears.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ares Dragon’, ‘Ultimata’, ‘The Song For Beatrice Part 3 (The Seven Songs)’

Album of the Week 22-2017: Onmyo-za – Karyo-Binga

Released hot on the heels of the impressive diptych of ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ and ‘Raijin Sousei’, it is something of a miracle that Onmyo-za still had enough inspiration left to write another excellent album. In fact, it is even better than the latter. ‘Karyo-Binga’ sounds manages to sound familiar and fresh at the same time, as its combination of traditional heavy metal and hard rock riffs, J-rock melodicism, prog rock adventurism and subtle hints of Japanese folk is exactly what we have come to expect from Onmyo-za, whilst simultaneously updating the band’s sound, resulting in one of their best albums yet.

Of course, the update is minimal, as the sound of Onmyo-za is still strongly centered around the equally melodic voices of Kuroneko and band leader Matatabi, as well as the strong, but never busy riff work and passionate leads of Maneki and Karukan. However, it is quite obvious that the band was hungry to try out new things this time around, most notably downtuned guitars and a bigger emphasis on keyboards. That does not mean that we are dealing with a watered-down, pseudo-heavy version of Onmyo-za here though. Neither dominate the record and therefore, ‘Karyo-Binga’ feels like nothing more or less than a contemporary Onmyo-za record.

Like the other highlights in Onmyo-za’s discography, ‘Karyo-Binga’ has a very pleasant flow. This flow is somewhat reminiscent of its two predecessors, because ‘Karyo-Binga’ also starts with a relatively calm track which – despite its six minutes of length and song-oriented structure – feels like an overture (the title track) before moving into a powerful, but not too propulsive melodic heavy metal track (‘Ran’). The band is clever enough to keep itself from falling victim to an auto-pilot formula though, so among moments of familiarity, the band has strategically placed a few slightly surprising track to keep you attentive.

The relatively light, yet still powerfully rocking ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’ is one of them. Due to the subtle Hammond organ, the song has a bit of a seventies rock vibe, but Kuroneko – who, again, outdoes herself here – keeps it firmly within the Japanese rock realm. ‘Ningyo No Ori’ starts out sounding like it could be the big sweeping ballad of the album – which in fact ‘Jorougumo’ come closest to – before developing into a relatively concise epic with a dark, heavy middle section. ‘Susanoo’ and ‘Nijuunihikime Wa Dokuhami’ are the clearest examples of downtuned riffing without forsaking the melody and ‘Hyouga Ninpouchou’ is a passionate heavy metal track with amazing lead guitar work reminiscent of ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ from ‘Fuujin Kaikou’.

Onmyo-za’s music is a melting pot of many different influences, as is the case with a large number of Japanese rock and metal bands. But where many Japanese bands end up sounding busy and at times disjointed, Onmyo-za found a way of combining all these influences into an irresistible, powerful sound that is remarkably pleasant to listen to. ‘Karyo-Binga’ is the latest and most contemporary sounding installment, but the consistency of the band’s discography is truly amazing. The record is well worth listening to if you are interested in any of the genres represented in the band’s sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hyouga Ninpouchou’, ‘Omae No Hitomi Ni Hajirai No Suna’, ‘Ran’, ‘Ningyo No Ori’

Album of the Week 14-2017: Onmyo-za – Kishibojin

Concept albums can be a tricky affair, but when done right, their atmosphere and continuity lifts everything about the albums in question to a higher level. Take Onmyo-za’s ‘Kishibojin’. It’s one of those albums that leaves very little to be desired and therefore is almost impossible to turn off before it’s over. The band supersizes its unique combination of fairly traditional heavy metal riffs, an atmosphere inspired by Japanese myths and legends, an approach to songwriting that ignores genre boundaries and a duo of (almost) equally amazing singers, resulting in one of the best albums I have ever heard.

On the surface, all the songs having “Kumikyoku ‘Kishibojin'” in their titles – which I will omit from the separate songs for brevity reasons – already betrays that we’re dealing with a concept album, but there’s more subtle hints as well, such as songs transitioning into each other and recurring themes. All songs are great stand-alone tracks too, however. And there’s a consistency, both in terms of style and quality, that surpasses even the rest of Onmyo-za’s strong discography. That also means there’s no upbeat J-Rock songs here – though the aggressively playful ‘Oni Kosae No Uta’ is borderline – but I consider that a plus.

‘Kishibojin’ is a darker affair than the average Onmyo-za record, though songs like ‘Urami No Hate’ and the powerful opener ‘Samayoi’ have a hopeful undertone to them. You don’t have to understand Japanese – I don’t, for instance – to get carried away by the atmosphere. For instance, the middle section of the amazing ‘Kishibojin’ seems to portray insanity – highlighted by subtly shifting rhythms and lead guitar feel – and the ballads ‘Korui’ and ‘Gekko’ suggest a feeling of solitude. The slower, brooding tunes ‘Ubugi’ and ‘Michi’ are masterclasses in building atmosphere, while the brilliant closing track ‘Kikoku’ ties the whole thing together musically and mood-wise.

As far as performances go, ‘Kishibojin’ is as close to perfection as it gets without having its life sucked out. Bassist and band leader Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko are both great singers. The former delivers his best performance thus far on this record, while the latter is – as always – incredible. The guitar duo has perfectly complementary lead guitar syles, with Maneki having a more thematic approach and Karukan being responsible for the faster runs. ‘Kishibojin’ is session drummer Makoto Dobashi’s recording debut with Onmyo-za and his powerful, but not overly aggressive playing proves to be a perfect fit for the band.

While Onmyo-za has yet to release an album that is less than good, every good band has a release where they truly outdo themselves. ‘Kishibojin’ is that release for Onmyo-za. The generally melancholic atmosphere on the record may not be for everyone, but it’s also a very important part of what makes the album such an immersive listening experience. I would like to be critical and point out small mistakes, but the truth is that they are nowhere to be found. This is a near-perfect record, right down to the subtle, but indispensible keyboard flourishes. Go check it out, if you haven’t yet, and don’t blame me for your Onmyo-za addiction.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kikoku’, ‘Kishibojin’, ‘Michi’

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’

Album of the Week 26-2016: Yossi Sassi Band – Roots And Roads

Ever since leaving Orphaned Land, Yossi Sassi seems to be more productive than ever. In fact, now that he only has his own band to mind, it looks like the last obstacle was broken down and he’s really not holding back anymore. How else can you explain the sound of ‘Roots And Roads’? Not only is the Israeli string wizard bringing east and west together again with a musical scope that borders on the incredible, it’s also the heaviest and most song oriented record he has made under his own name yet. A progressive work in the truest sense of the world.

Once again, ‘Roots And Roads’ finds Sassi and his excellent backing band combining the traditional music of the middle east with progressive Rock and Metal. There’s a distinct difference between this album and its predecessor ‘Desert Butterflies’ though; where that record focused mainly on instrumental works, about half of this one features vocals. It’s not like Sassi has toned down the sound of his band – quite the opposite actually – but there does seem to be a greater deal of memorability here. His instrumentals were always fairly well-written, but the melodies really have a way of getting stuck in your head this time.

‘Roots And Roads’ features an impressive list of guest musicians. And while some of them really put their mark on some of the tracks – Harel Shachal’s clarinet on the enchanting ‘Winter’ is mindblowing, while Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal yet again makes an appearance in the awesome ‘Palm Dance’ – it is Sassi himself who steals the show. If he’s not churning out powerful riffs and passionate leads, he’s rocking the bouzouki, saz, oud or chumbush like no one before or since. When those instruments appear, they usually carry the melody – ‘Root Out’ and opening track ‘Wings’ are the most obvious examples – which makes sense, given the pioneer status he has when it comes to incorporating Middle-Eastern elements in Rock music.

Another thing Sassi has done really well on this record is using many different vocal styles throughout the album. The line-up of his band has a male singer in himself and a powerful female singer in Sapir Fox, although the similarly-voiced Diana Golbi lays down the best performance on the record in ‘Root Out’. Myrath singer Zaher Zorgati, on the other hand, provides a strong contrast to Sassi’s voice with his Roy Khan meets Mats Levén performance on ‘The Religion Of Music’, marking his second appearance on a masterpiece in 2016.

If all that musical brilliance wasn’t enough, ‘Roots And Roads’ has a very pleasant flow due to a perfect sense of climaxes and light-and-shade workings. It’s the final polish on an album that is worth hearing by any music fan all over the globe, which seems fitting, given that it’s obviously Sassi’s mission to break down boundaries and letting the music speak for itself. The musicians are from different continents and so are the musical influences that can be heard throughout the album. And while any other musician would turn such a myriad of influences into an incoherent mess, you can leave it up to Yossi Sassi to make one of this year’s finest records out of it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Palm Dance’, ‘Winter’, ‘Root Out’