Posts Tagged ‘ Folk Metal ’

Album of the Week 03-2019: Asagi – Madara


Asagi’s debut solo album is one of those instances where I doubted the necessity of a solo venture. After all, Asagi is by far the most prolific composer of his main band, the immensely popular visual kei band D, and his surprisingly unique voice is characteristic enough to add D’s character to everything he sings on. What makes ‘Madara’ a successful record, however, is its focus. Japanese folk influences have been quite prominent in some of D’s best songs, but on this album, Asagi goes full-on folk rock and folk metal. And it’s not just a gimmick: the songs are great.

Of course, Asagi has not lost his ability to write catchy, powerful rock songs. In fact, some of the songs are filled with his trademark stock visual kei melodies – opening track ‘Gekkai No Miko’ most notably – but the Japanese traditional instruments, such as the koto, the shamisen and the taiko drums, are an integral part of the songwriting rather than an extra touch. On a majority of the songs, it’s not the guitars, but these instruments that carry the melodies. While the guitars are there to give them extra punch, that does impact the character of the melodies significantly.

While the entirity of ‘Madara’ is highly entertaining, the best moments of the album are the hardest rocking ones. Songs like ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Kimera’ and ‘Komo Sakura’ just work wonders: the shamisen introduces the melody, the electric guitars join, either in unison or as bottom-heavy accompaniment, creating some fantastic oriental folk metal. I have always wondered why the number of bands attempting this style is not larger and Asagi makes a strong case for the combination of sounds. The more melodic rockers, such as ‘Hotarubi’, ‘Hana Kumo No Ran’ and ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’ are sure to please D fans, but might also draw in people who usually find them too heavy.

Since this is an Asagi album, there is of course room for some ballads in which he can show off his vocal talents. There are quite a few of them here and those are probably the most folky sounding ones on the record. Ironically, it is not Asagi himself, but bassist (and prolific producer) Hajime Okano who stands out on the album’s best ballad ‘Kaishikoki Eru E Kaeryanse’ features some gorgeous melodic work on the fretless bass that really enhances the atmosphere of the song. Closing track ‘Asagimadara’ is another beautiful ballad, this time with absolutely stunning symphonic touches.

Beside the songwriting, it is also impressive how Asagi managed to make the album about the songs and not about the all-star cast that appears on the album, which features members of Luna Sea, Dir En Grey, Galneryus, D and loads of other high profile Japanese bands. It still sounds like a cohesive collection of songs and that, again, is probably the result of Asagi’s razor sharp focus. He wanted to make a powerful rock album that was heavy on the Japanese folk influences and that is exactly what ‘Madara’ has become. One of the Japanese highlights of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubo No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukoyo Ni Hoeyu’

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Interview: The Asian taste of Sigh


Eccentric is probably the best word to describe Sigh. Their sound is anchored in extreme metal – black metal particularly – but is rife with influences from other genres. Progressive and psychedelic rock, classical music, jazz, electronic music… All of these are elements that have been appearing in their experimental music since the mid-nineties. “Black metal encompasses almost every musical genre“, says singer, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Mirai Kawashima. “All kinds of bands from Blasphemy to Alcest and Deafheaven are often categorized as black metal. Black metal is so non-limiting that it does not describe any musical style at all. Also, obviously, what we play is not thrash or death metal, so we stick to the black metal tag.

November 16th sees the release of Sigh’s twelfth album ‘Heir To Despair’. On it, the extreme metal has almost been put on the background in favor of distinct influences from progressive rock and East-Asian folk. “The seventies prog vibe has always been there, say since ‘Gastly Funeral Theater’ (1997)”, says Kawashima. “I love crazy prog stuff from the seventies and I am a vintage keyboard collector. Also this time, I tried some flute, which must give a more prog feel to the album. Actually, ‘Graveward’ (2015) was supposed to be a very prog album, but during the recording, I got into more orchestral stuff and the direction of the album drastically changed.

As for the Asian feel, I’ve been experimenting a lot with the traditional Japanese way of singing and wanted to incorporate that into Sigh’s music. And this time, most of the lyrics are in Japanese. I can sing much better in Japanese, as I do not have to care about the accurate pronunciation, unlike when I have to sing in English. Also, I thought the Japanese lyrics could give a different atmosphere to the songs. And to be honest, not much is left for me to say in English after ten albums…

Expectation

When Kawashima announced the release of ‘Heir To Despair’ on social media, he said that everyone would hate the album. Allegedly, no one who heard it liked it. Have the reactions been a little better in the meantime? “So far only ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ has been published“, Kawashima explains. “And actually, it’s got a lot of positive reactions. However, the song does not represent the album in any way. The feature of ‘Heir To Despair’ is an Asian taste and the use of flute. ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ does not sound Asian and does not feature the flute. People liking ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ means there’s a bigger possibility that they are going to hate the album.

Not that Kawashima cares: “Especially right after the album release, the audience reaction is rather misleading. When ‘Imaginary Sonicscape’ (2001) came out, more than half of the reviews were more than bad. People were thinking that we were a black metal band and the album did not sound black at all, so they were confused. But seventeen years have passed since then and ‘Imaginare Sonicscape’ must be one of the most popular Sigh albums. When people listen to an album for the first time, they just listen to the gap between their expectation and the actual music.

Objective

‘Heir To Despair’ has a remarkably clean, almost polished sound. The contrast with the raw production of ‘Graveward’ could hardly be greater. This is not the first time that there is such a sizeable difference between the sonic approach of two consecutive Sigh albums. “I believe it pretty much depends on the direction or the theme of the album“, Kawashima explains. “The theme of ‘Scenes From Hell’ is hell, so we wanted a hellish production. The production of ‘Heir To Despair’ was kind of an experiment. ‘Graveward’ was engineered by our own guitarist, which I must say was a big failure. I’m not saying he was a bad engineer or anything, but he was too biased. Obviously he wanted his guitar to be heard more than anything and he knew too much about the songs, which excluded objectivity.

In order to maintain that objectivity, I left it up to our Canadian engineer Phil Anderson this time. Of course I wanted some of my playing or vocals to be more audible, but I didn’t say anything about it, as it was an experiment of objectivity. I guess it worked very well.

Insanity

A thematic approach is Kawashima’s modus operandi anyway: “The concept of this album is about insanity. I’ve been wondering what insanity is these days. Of course, there are some real mad people of whom everyone can tell that they’re mad, but insanity is not always that distinctive. It’s just a matter of where to draw the line between sanity and insanity and it is one hundred percent arbitrary. When you are insane, you cannot tell that you are. I don’t think I am insane. I think that what I am saying in this interview makes perfect sense, but there is no way to assure that. Completely insane people probably think they’re talking completely logical.

The artwork by Eliran Kantor perfectly describes what I wanted to express with the music. The woman looks happy, but everything else on the artwork is wrong. The plant is dead and the room is a mess. As I said, insanity is not always very distinctive. Some people look very normal while having a deep darkness inside their mind. And that is the real horror.

Spontaneous

Since Sigh commenced activity in the late eighties, the band has been centered around Kawahima. More often than not, these kinds of line-ups tend to be highly unstable, but Sigh always maintained a relatively constant line-up. Save for the arrival of guitarist You Oshima in 2014, the band has not had any line-up changes for over a decade. “I’m sure there should be better players“, says Kawashima. “But what makes them peculiar is that they are all crazy in some way, which works good for Sigh maybe. They are all really hard people to work or communicate with. It’s truly frustrating that I have to deal with them, but maybe that is proof that they are artistically unique. At least I hope so.

Yet, it is Kawashima who is pulling the strings. “I write most of the songs and all the lyrics“, he explains. “As for ‘Heir To Despair’, half of ‘In Memories Delusional’ was written by our guitarist You Oshima and I left all the guitar solos up to him, but I can say that’s the only compositional input from the other band members.

My method of composing varies. Sometimes I compose playing piano. Sometimes I just come up with the ideas walking down the street. I usually keep collecting those bits and pieces and assemble them into a song on MIDI. Then I keep listening to the demoes and change or rearrange them until I am a hundred percent satisfied with it. Then I pass it on to the other members. The songs on ‘Heir To Despair’ were composed very spontaneously compared to the past ones. I usually use a lot of musical theories to arrange the songs, but this time I did not think about theories that much. I just kept writing without thinking that much.

Success

Compared to many other Japanese bands, Sigh has a reasonable degree of succes worldwide. “It’s just a matter of how you define success“, Kawashima nuances. “I personally do not think Sigh succeeded at anything. Anyway, I just thank Euronymous (guitarist of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, who was murdered in 1993). When we were hunting for a label around 1992, he was the only one who showed interest in us. I am not even exaggerating anything. I sent the demo to every label in the world and nobody but Euronymous wanted to sign us. So without him, Sigh probably would have ended up a demo band. He liked us, then the black metal boom happened. Nobody or nothing else got us that.

Since being signed to Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions, Sigh has been performing all over the world, albeit not that frequently. Not even in Japan. Yet, Kawashima notices a difference in preferences: “Here in Japan, our most popular album is obviously ‘Hangman’s Hymn’ (2007), so when we play here, we play more songs off this album. In Europe and the US, I believe they want to hear earlier, more black metal stuff, so when we play abroad, we play a lot from ‘Scorn Defeat’ (1993). In the coming weeks, we will play some shows with Dimmu Borgir, Gorgoroth, Samael and Sinsaenum and we will play only songs from after 2007 and almost all the songs are fast. That’s what the Japanese audience wants.

Album of the Week 45-2018: Sigh – Heir To Despair


While Sigh started out as one of Japan’s first extreme metal bands, they have become one of the country’s most unpredictable bands. Though black metal is never completely gone, their highly experimental albums can contain anything from jazzy breaks to film noir soundtrack interludes and electronic beats. In a way, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the more accessible albums the band has released so far, but they once again follow a completely different direction than ever before. As long as you don’t expect a symphonic black metal record, the oriental melodies and traditional heavy metal riffs may enchant you.

A brief genre description for the music on ‘Heir To Despair’ is as difficult as ever, but progressive East-Asian folk metal covers most of the bases. The inclusion of main man Mirai Kawashima’s flute gives certain sections a distinct seventies prog feel, while the shamisen of guest musician Kevin Kmetz – along with the general atmosphere of the melodies – gives the album what is arguably the most oriental vibe ever to be heard on a Sigh record. And yet, the eighties metal feel of the guitar riffs is also there. It is a mix of influences that is as unlikely as it is successful.

Some people may be surprised by the relatively large amount of clean singing on the record. In addition to employing several traditional Asian vocal techniques such as throat singing, Kawashima has put down a handful of excellent, haunting vocal harmonies. The brilliant midtempo opener ‘Aletheia’ is full of them, for instance. A daring opener, as it does not ease the listener into the album’s sound, but drops the new sound on them immediately. ‘In Memories Delusional’ balances more traditional heavy metal sounds with more folky touches and strong hamonies and may be an excellent starter if you have not heard the excellent thrashy metal of ‘Homo Hominis Lupus’ yet.

Elsewhere, the album can get a little weird. The electronic rhythms of the ‘Heresy’-trilogy can have a dubby feel due to the use of reverb, while most of the band’s influences are crammed into the three tracks. That is just a short detour though, since as a whole, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the most consistent Sigh albums both stylistically and in terms of quality. The album ends with two exceptional extreme progressive metal tracks that are filled with excellent ideas and sudden shifts in atmosphere. A very climactic ending to an album that isn’t exactly short on interesting musical ideas anyway.

The most remarkable thing about this, however, is how Sigh managed to streamline all of those ideas. Sure, the trilogy is an obvious departure in terms of overall sound, but ‘Heir To Despair’ has a very pleasant flow for an album with such a wide range of influences. Sure, the pristine production helps, but in the end, it is a triumph for Kawashima in terms of songwriting and arrangements. This is a must for fans of adventurous metal, but even progressive rock fans who don’t mind a bit of extra grit could find something of their liking here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Aletheia’, ‘Hands Of The String Puller’, ‘In Memories Delusional’

Album of the Week 17-2018: Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins


In recent years, many reliable metal bands have let me down, while bands that sort of slipped under my radar for years manage to thoroughly impress me. Last year, it was Septicflesh. Now it is Primordial that has released one of the better albums I have heard this year. Truth be told, the Irish quintet already had its moments of appeal to me in their more traditionally metallic material with clean vocals by A.A. Nemtheanga. And it is exactly that side of the band that is put front and center on ‘Exile Amongst The Ruins’, an atmospheric, melodically strong metal album.

Primordial’s background in somewhat folky black metal is mainly limited to dissonant chords and two more extreme passages. As a whole, ‘Exile Amongst The Ruins’ feels more like a relatively experimental doom metal album. Even in their most black metal days, Primordial tended to be more about atmosphere than aggression and despite the occasional outburt, their latest offering takes that approach to its logical extreme. The pace is generally moderate, though there is more variation in tempos here than on the likes of ‘The Gathering Wilderness’. The band has also shown great progress in their use of dynamics.

Those dynamics are a large part of what makes the album so good. A song like ‘To Hell Or The Hangman’ doesn’t have so much of a verse-chorus structure, but rather builds layers in a way industrial metal bands usually do. It does so splendidly though, making it the best song on the album. However, where Primordial used to have albums full of these “builders”, they switch up approaches quite nicely here. ‘Where Lie The Gods’ slowly builds towards its climax – a passionate howl by Nemtheanga – while songs like ‘Nail Their Tongues’ and the title track have great, pronounced, almost catchy choruses.

Surprising is the tranquil and melancholic ‘Stolen Years’, which provides a bit of a breather before the last twenty minutes of the album. Eight of those are taken up by ‘Sunken Lungs’, which is the brightest example of the album’s organic recording process. Many metal bands finetune their albums to death these days, but in the sound and the fluctuating tempos of Simon O’Laoghaire’s incredibly creative drum parts, you can really feel that the album is alive. The long closer ‘Last Call’ has some nice ebb and flow workings, which makes it sound considerably shorter than it actually is.

Anyone with a strong preference for Primordial’s black metal roots will probably be disappointed by ‘Exile Among The Ruins’. While its predessor ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’ at least had one full-on extreme metal track, this one leans on powerful melodies, strong songwriting and Nemtheanga’s best vocal performance yet much more. For me personally, that can be considered a great asset. The mood of the album absorbs its listener and refuses to let go until the album is over. And with the album clocking in over 65 minutes, that is quite impressive. Highly recommended to fans of atmospheric doom metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘To Hell Or the Hangman’, ‘Stolen Years’, ‘Nail Their Tongues’

Album of the Week 14-2018: Skyclad – A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol


Before folk metal became synonymous with heavy drinking songs – that being either heavy songs for drinking or songs for heavy drinking – Skyclad managed to blend folk and heavy metal in an intelligent and reasonably complex manner. For the British band, the folk influences were there to enhance the engaging riff work instead of the other way around and in Martin Walkyier, they had the best lyricist in metal. Each of the first five albums is great, but while others may point towards ‘Prince Of The Poverty Line’, ‘A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol’ is the one I return to most.

With ‘A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol’ being Skyclad’s second album, it was still very much rooted in the NWOBHM and thrash metal history that Walkyier, guitarist Steve Ramsey and bassist Graeme English had in bands like Sabbat and Satan. However, the addition of violinist and keyboard player Fritha Jenkins to the line-up meant that the folk elements were promoted from novelty to a full part of the arrangements in a spectacular manner. In fact, songs like ‘Karmageddon (The Suffering Silence)’ and ‘Salt On The Earth (One Man’s Poison)’ have some incredible harmonies for the violin and two guitars.

Despite arguably being the first band in the genre, Skyclad’s early work may have some trouble being considered folk metal by current fans of the genre, save for ‘Spinning Jenny’. Then what is it? It’s not quite thrash metal, though the intensity and the tempos are there and while it’s considerably more complex than classic heavy metal, calling this progressive metal would be a step too far. Still, how ‘A Broken Promised Land’ moves from intense riffing to a tranquil middle section and back is very likely to please fans of all aforementioned genres rather than alienating all of them.

In later years, the atmosphere on Skyclad’s songs would frequently move into bitter irony. Here, most of the material is still quie angry and aggressive, really bringing out the best in Walkyier’s diction. His gruff bile spitting can hardly be accused of possessing a wide range, but it does give the already impressive riff work on songs like the atmospheric ‘Men Of Straw’ and the incredible ‘R’vannith’ a little extra push. ‘The Declaration Of Indifference’ is the biggest masterpiece here, as everything simply works: Walkyier’s word play, Ramsey’s pulsating riffs and an incredible climactic build-up towards its spectacular chorus.

Creating a whole new subgenre isn’t something every band can claim doing, but I doubt if that was ever Skyclad’s intention. ‘A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol’ never sounds like a band trying to be clever, instead just focusing on making the best album possible. My only minor quibble with the album is that it closes with ‘Alone In Death’s Shadow’. This dark, doomy ballad is quite good, but doesn’t work as a climax. ‘R’vannith’ would have been my pick. Apart from that, there hardly is anything to complain about here, unless you passionately disagree with Walkyier’s fairly left-wing views. But even then, there’s too much excellent music to let this go by unnoticed.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Declaration Of Indifference’, ‘A Broken Promised Land’, ‘R’vannith’

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’

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