Posts Tagged ‘ Hard Rock ’

Album of the Week 26-2017: Ningen Isu – Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros


Ningen Isu is the best seventies power trio that is not actually from the seventies. Despite starting out in 1987, their brand of heavily Black Sabbath-inspired, yet progressively tinged metal would have fit the same bill as Rush and Budgie in the mid-seventies. While the band has recorded some excellent progressive doom metal throughout the last three decades, they had yet to release an album that I enjoyed start to finish. Until ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’ was released last year. Though instantly recognizable as Ningen Isu, there are some surprises that make the record amazing right down to the last note.

As the band kept progressing, their albums kept getting more consistent and notably heavier, yet there was always a song that went overboard in weirdness or that suffered from the fact that none of the three band members are particularly strong singers. ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, however, plays to the band’s strengths. The songs on the album are crushingly heavy and the compositions take a few more left turns than we are used to by the band; the trio no longer builds on the same groove for more than sixteen bars and Nobu Nakajima’s rhythmic patterns are busier than ever.

Opening track ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’ actually gives a good impression of what the album will sound like. It is built upon a couple of monolithic, Sabbath-like riffs, but is not just about the riffs. It is a dynamic composition with some interesting twists and turns and a good vocal performance by guitarist Shinji Wajima. There’s an excellent interaction between the rhythms and the riffs, which constantly push each other to the front rather than off the record. These characteristics define all the songs, although sometimes they are a bit more straightforward (‘Doro No Ame’) and a little more complex at other times (‘Yomigaeri No Machi’).

In a typical case of saving the best for last, the brooding, doomy epic ‘Madame Edwarda’ is one atmospheric monster of a closing track. Another stand-out track, however, is the delightfully rocking ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, which starts out sounding like an AC/DC song and evolves into one of the most catchy, upbeat Ningen Isu songs to date. Nakajima’s vocal performance on the song is surprisingly good as well. The middle section of ‘Yukionna’ cannot be anything else than a tribute to Led Zeppelin classic ‘Achilles Last Stand’, but it is done in good taste and honoring an incredible band, so I will just let that slide.

The mark of a true progressive band that it keeps getting better. By that definition, Ningen Isu is a real progressive metal band, even though the King Crimson-isms were larger in number in their earlier years. In hindsight, it should not be too suprising that the trio outdoes itself on ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, as they have been improving from the day they started releasing music. And they were pretty damn good to begin with anyway. Anyone with a taste for seventies progressive rock and traditional doom metal should not be discouraged by the lack of English song and album titles and just give this band a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’

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 21-2017: Seikima-II – Living Legend


According to Seikima-II’s own mythology, the band had to disband one second before the end of the 20th century. Luckily, they did not do so before releasing one more brilliant heavy metal album. Despite their reputation as an excellent heavy metal band, this was still a little surprising, because throughout the nineties, Seikima-II was all over the map stylistically. While they did release one amazing heavy metal album in the shape of ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ during that decade, there were plenty of pop influenced experiments for ‘Living Legend’ to be a pleasant surprise. And one with some excellent songwriting to boot.

Though the break-up after the release of ‘Living Legend’ had already been planned, it does not sound like Seikima-II was running out of ideas here. Sure, there is a fairly large amount of filler tracks on here – there is a flawless 50 minute album hidden in this great 70 minute record – but even the majority of those are quite enjoyable. While songs like the modern, highly rhythmic ’20 Seiki Kyoushikyoku’, the glossy ‘From Here To Eternity’ or the simple, anthemic ‘Rock ‘n Renaissance’ are nowhere near “best of” status, they are pleasant enough to stay away from the skip button. In fact, only the overlong ‘This World Is Hell’ is skipworthy.

Many of the other songs are essential Seikima-II material, with the odd song even reaching masterpiece status. The brilliantly structured ‘Go Ahead!’ is definitely one of those. The song moves from a bombastic intro to relatively subdued verses and a straight up progressive metal middle section. It is the perfect closing statement to a farewell record and somewhat reminiscent of Queen’s more epic songs. Opening track ‘Heavy Metal Is Dead’ is another classic, doing everything in its power to disprove its title with its memorable main riff and powerful chorus.

Other great songs include the classy, elegant heavy metal of ‘Century Of The Raising Arms’ – which would not have sounded out of place on ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ – and the simple, rocking fun of ‘Revolution Has Come’. ‘Silence Or Violence?’ brings Loudness’ classic ‘Soldier Of Fortune’ to mind and is every bit as enjoyable, while ‘Gloria Gloria’ is a successful attempt at the big, sweeping midtempo epic that ‘This World Is Hell’ sadly fails to be. The production on ‘Living Legend’ is relatively dry, but it is hardly bothersome, especially because it serves as a perfect juxtaposition to the overproduced nature of its predecessor ‘Move’.

Calling your final studio album ‘Living Legend’ and saying that heavy metal is dead after you call it quits may come across as shameless megalomania, but personally, I have always assumed there was something decidedly tongue-in-cheeky about Seikima-II’s over the top and at times ridiculous mythology. Also, releasing records like these does give a band some credit to make claims like these. Over the last decade and a half, the band frequently reunited for live shows and compilations of re-recordings, but a new album remains to be written. And maybe that is for the best, because ‘Living Legend’ is a fitting farewell, as it is a legacy to two decades of excellent hard rock and heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Go Ahead!’, ‘Heavy Metal Is Dead’, ‘Century Of The Raising Arms’

Album of the Week 20-2017: Heart – Little Queen


While Ann and Nancy Wilson are still soldiering on making good music – in fact, their most recent studio album ‘Fanatic’ is easily the best thing they’ve done since the late seventies – Heart made its best albums in the second half of the seventies. They were always a good singles band, but 1977’s ‘Little Queen’ is a fantastic record almost all the way through. Though it may primarily be known for its energetic rockers like ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Kick It Out’, ‘Little Queen’ is a highly dynamic, balanced record and a songwriting triumph for both the Wilson sisters and guitarist Roger Fisher.

Anyone who has ever heard a Hart album except for maybe their eighties records should not be shocked that the band was heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin. ‘Little Queen’ is no different in the sense that it fuses hard rock songs with distinct folky touches like Led Zeppelin did on their third and fourth albums. The folky diptych of ‘Sylvan Song’ and ‘Dream Of The Archer’ even seems pretty directly modelled after ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, with its layered vocals and prominent spot for the mandolin. It does have a more dreamy atmosphere though. These folky ballads are juxtaposed nicely against forceful rockers, creating a very pleasant listening experience.

It’s still the rockers that got most of the attention though. And in case of ‘Barracuda’, it’s not hard to understand why. Built upon the secont meanest gallop around at the time – after Led Zeppelin’s ‘Achilles Last Stand’- ‘Barracuda’ is a strong, riffy rocker with what is arguably Ann Wilson’s most powerful vocal performance to date. It may sound realitvely simple, but just listen how well those guitars in the chorus are arranged: it’s a little work of art. The energetic rock ‘n’ roller ‘Kick It Out’ is another staple off this album and it’s easy to hear why: it practically begs for the stage.

There’s much more to enjoy on ‘Little Queen’ though. The title track, for instance, with its subdued, syncopated, almost funky riffing and qausi-psychedelic middle section, is a hidden gem in the band’s body of work. ‘Love Alive’ is another Zeppelin-esque masterpiece of layered guitars, many of them acoustic. The epic two-part finale of ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Go On Cry’ is gorgeous as well, with the dark nature and the almost wordless vocals of the latter making it quite a unique entry in Heart’s discography. ‘Say Hello’, with its weird reggae meets folk feel, is the sole misstep on this record.

Otherwise, it’s nothing less than excellent. ‘Little Queen’ is more focused and songwriting-oriented than many rock albums that were released in the mid-seventies, but still a very sprawling record in its own way. Part of the reason why is the fact that the album is very much a band effort. Nobody except for maybe occasionally Ann Wilson outshines the compositions and everyone’s performances are serviceable to the songs. Then again, that must be relatively easy to do if the songs are actually this good. Heart would go on to release a string of great songs, but they wouldn’t release an album this consistent until early this century.

Recommended tracks: ‘Barracuda’, ‘Little Queen’, ‘Love Alive’

Album of the Week 19-2017: Led Zeppelin – Presence


For some reason, ‘Presence’ turned out to be Led Zeppelin’s slowest selling studio album. Maybe because its sounds significantly more stripped down than ‘Houses Of The Holy’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’, but ultimately, I prefer it even to some of the band’s classic albums. The record shows Led Zeppelin reconnecting with its roots, attempting to capture the essence of what made them so good in the first place. And succeeding at it surprisingly well. ‘Presence’ is a muscular hard rock record with excellent songwriting and an unusually strong emphasis on Zeppelin’s brilliant rhythm section. It is simply everything I’d want from them.

‘Presence’ was written and recorded during a tumultuous time for Led Zeppelin. Singer Robert Plant was seriously injured due to a car accident and the recordings had to be rushed due to the studio being booked by The Rolling Stones, which may be why the album isn’t loaded with extra touches like its two predecessors were. Instead, it focuses on the power within band and has the distinct live feel that made the debut so exciting seven years prior as a result. Drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones sound bigger than ever and the compositions truly focus on the band’s strengths.

The album is bookended by two of the best songs the band has ever recorded. ‘Achilles Last Stand’ is probably the most carefully arranged song on the album and basically feels like proto-heavy metal, due to its propulsive, galloping rhythm and Jimmy Page’s almost orchestral-sounding, layered guitar work. It feels significantly shorter than just over ten minutes. The other masterpiece is ‘Tea For One’, which – after a misleading intro – is essentially a minimalistic slow blues, into which Page’s sparse riffs inject a dark, almost doomy vibe. It’s number one on my list of Zeppelin songs that don’t get the love they deserve.

While those two tracks take up almost half of the album’s running time, they are hardly the only enjoyable songs on the record. The band’s adaptation of Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel blues song ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ quickly became a live staple, which is easily justified by its drive and strong build-up. ‘For Your Life’ has a spontaneity that brings back memories of the self-titled debut, though with a cleaner production and the sleazy, dirty fifties groove of ‘Candy Store Rock’ makes the song a true hidden gem. The other two songs are just good, but figuring that this is Led Zeppelin, “just good” is still far above average.

Although ‘Presence’ never enjoyed the same classic status, it is every bit as good and consistent as ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ was. In the end, the most important reason why I prefer ‘Physical Graffiti’ to this is really that it has twice as much Led Zeppelin. On ‘Presence’, the band strikes a better balance between spontaneous jams and meticulously arranged songs than they have done before or since. I can understand why it’s somewhat lost between the sprawling majesty its predecessor and the confusing experimentalism of its follow-up, but the fact is that this is the band’s final masterpiece and a treat to fans of Zeppelin’s trademark rock sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Achilles Last Stand’, ‘Tea For One’, ‘Candy Store Rock’

Album of the Week 12-2017: Seikima-II – Mephistopheles no Shouzou


A cliché often used for eighties rock bands that survived through the nineties is that their records sound as if the nineties didn’t happen. Hardly any album answers more to that sentiment than ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’. Despite being released in 1996, the compositions, arrangements and production scream eighties hard rock and heavy metal, while the band’s appearance and theatricality could be either a tribute to or a parody of Kiss during a time when Kiss themselves didn’t even wear make-up. One thing is for sure: it was almost impossible to find this much classy heavy metal on one record in the mid-nineties.

Most of Seikima-II’s records are good, but many of them lack a consistency that ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ does have. The fact that it’s a concept album of Faustian themes may help the excellent flow of the record, although not an inch of the band’s versatility has been sacrificed. There’s the NWOBHM-tinged heavy metal of their early days, melodic hard rock tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on their late eighties records and a bunch of power ballads, all passionately performed with a complete disregard of whatever musical trend reared its head, giving the album a timeless flair.

‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’ kicks off the album in a delightful early eighties heavy metal fashion with all the simple, yet effective riffs and twin guitar harmonies you can wish for. This approach is combined with powerful galloping rhythms in songs like closer ‘Holy Blood ~Tatakai No Kettou~’ and the extremely well structured ‘Yajuu’. The power ballads may sound entirely out of style for the time of the album’s release, but especially ‘Who Kills Demon?’ – somewhat reminiscent of the band’s own ‘Stainless Night’ – is really good. ‘Salome Wa Kaette Satsui Wo Shirushi’ has a more epic nature, sounding unlike anything the band has ever done before.

Notably, former members have contributed greatly to the record. Especially original guitarist Damian Hamada, who wrote some of the album’s best material, including the aformentioned ‘Yajuu’ and the dark, brooding, slithering masterpiece of a title track. Former guitarist Jail O’Hashi wrote the closing track ‘Akuma No Blues’, which doesn’t really sound like the rest of the album musically and production-wise – it’s a seventies inspired blues rock track – but it’s too enjoyable to complain about that.

As for the actual members, Sgt. Luke Takamura III and Ace Shimizu throw around amazing guitar solos – including a mindblowing acoustic one in the title track – and Demon Kogure once again opens up his entire vocal register. Bassist Xenon Ishikawa and excellent drummer Raiden Yuzawa are surprisingly laid back for a metal rhythm section, but it works really well within the context of Seikima-II’s unique music.

Sandwiched between two records that have the band experimenting with a somewhat more poppy approach, ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ often gets forgotten, but the truth is that it’s a quality heavy metal album released in a time that those were extremely rare. If you like your metal theatrical, epic, melodic and not afraid of a little experimentation, Seikima-II is your band. And with the consistency being as it is on ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, it’s going to be difficult to turn off the album before it’s over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, ‘Yajuu’, ‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’

Album of the Week 10-2017: Pentagram – Bir


Around the time ‘Unspoken’ was released, Pentagram must have realized that there was a demand for their Turkish language songs, which the album lacked. So a year after that album, the band released ‘Bir’, a collection consisting entirely of songs in Turkish lyrics or without any lyrics at all. This also marked the shortest break between two albums in the band’s history. And while the traditional Turkish flair that makes the band so unique wasn’t entirely absent on ‘Unspoken’, it is featured significantly more prominently on ‘Bir’, albeit not in the overwhelming, over-emphasized manner that bands with similar influences often employ.

If there should be any criticism about ‘Bir’, it’s the fact that it should have been an EP. The two instrumental tracks ‘Mezarkabul’ and ‘For Those Who Died Alone’ are exactly the same as the versions on ‘Unspoken’ and are probably only there for conceptual reasons. They’re fine tracks as they are for sure, but that only leaves the listener with about half an hour of new music. The good news is that every single one of those minutes is excellent music and many of the songs featured on ‘Bir’ are still staples in Pentagram’s live set to this day.

Starting with the diptych of the instrumental intro ‘Tigris’ and the title track, a downright fantastic, upbeat heavy metal track calling for unity. This song is bound to drive a Turkish heavy metal crowd crazy and it’s easy to see why: its message, its catchy chorus and its simple, but brutally effective riffing is designed for a communal feeling. The thrashy ‘Bu Alemi Gören Sensin’ – which features guitarist Hakan Utangaç on lead vocals instead of the more soaring Murat İlkan – and ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’ – which sounds like Metallica after a holiday to Turkey – feature traditional Turkish poems set to brand new music, something which works better than it may sound.

Less well known is ‘Sır’ and while it did take a while before the song grew on me, it is a monster of a slower metal track that manages to have both a symphonic and a somewhat industrial feel at the same time. It doesn’t quite sound like anything Pentagram has done before or since, but fits the darker vibe of the second half of ‘Bir’ really well. That vibe is further emphasized by the brilliantly brooding ‘Ölümlü’, which features what is quite likely İlkan’s most “evil” sounding performance ever in its verses.

While it may be intimidating to buy an album with four instrumental tracks of which the longest two have been previously released, ‘Bir’ is still a very worthy addition to any metal collection. For one because it emphasizes Pentagram’s unique, yet familiar style and it solidifies the band’s status in their home country, where they are viewed as the number one metal band. It’s easy to see why: the guys are excellent songwriters and will never let flashy instrumental egos get in the way of a good melody and a memorable chorus. You’re guaranteed to have them stuck in your head even if you don’t speak a single word of Turkish.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bir’, ‘Şeytan Bunun Neresinde’, ‘Ölümlü’