Posts Tagged ‘ Hard Rock ’

Album of the Week 42-2017: Black Sabbath – Master Of Reality


If Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut was the birth of heavy metal, their third record ‘Master Of Reality’ is where the genre reaches adolescence. It retains some of its youthful mistakes – most prominently Ozzy Osbourne’s rather dull vocal lines, something which would not improve until ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ – but improves upon a lot of them as well. Despite its flaws, ‘Master Of Reality’ is an album that still sounds fresh and relevant today and the most important reason for that is the fact that Black Sabbath perfects its own intention on this record; the album is full of mighty riffs.

Nowhere is the power of the riff more apparent than on the massive closer ‘Into The Void’. It is Black Sabbath’s first encounter with the C# tuning – for non-musicians: one and a half step lower than standard tuning – and it has been a successful one. Many heavy metal riffs have been written since that intro, including a number of particularly fine ones by Black Sabbath themselves, but none has ever quite surpassed the thick, heavy majesty of this track’s intro. And that’s not even the only brilliant riff in the song. ‘Into The Void’ is probably the song that captures the essence of early Black Sabbath best.

There are many more songs to enjoy here, although the record really only has six songs if you subtract the two acoustic instrumentals. ‘Children Of The Grave’ is easily one of Black Sabbath’s finest compositions. The driving shuffle rhythm, Tony Iommi’s simple, but brutally effective riffs and Osbourne’s first truly decent performance form one of the band’s most exuberant compositions, even though it’s not particularly upbeat. ‘After Forever’ is quite a surprise upon first listen due to some unexpected twists and the incredibly downbeat ‘Solitude’ is one of the very few successful Black Sabbath ballads.

While the band was often berated for their dark lyrics, they are nowhere near as dark as they are made out to be. ‘After Forever’ and ‘Lord Of This World’ – another riff monster with surprisingly good vocals – are the most overtly religious lyrics that bassist Geezer Butler had written up to this point. In fact, the only more obviously christian lyrics in my collection are in Stryper songs. It does give the songs a unique character though. In contrast, I could do without the overt ode to pot that is opener ‘Sweet Leaf’, but at least Iommi’s riffs make it a worthwhile song.

Early Black Sabbath really triumphs over later work by the band because of the musical interaction between the members. Butler and drummer Bill Ward occasionally get a little jazzy, though ‘Master Of Reality’ is really the album where they started getting very bottom heavy. Butler’s right hand attack lacks even the vaguest hint of subtlety, but that is exactly what gives Iommi’s guitar work the balls it would not have had otherwise. Sure, Black Sabbath has made albums that are more interesting musically or more memorable melodically, but if anyone ever wanted to know why early Black Sabbath was so hugely influential, ‘Master Of Reality’ is the album to put on.

Recommended tracks: ‘Children Of The Grave’, ‘Into The Void’, ‘Lord Of This World’

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Album of the Week 36-2017: Merry – M-Ology


‘M-Ology’ is the album I have been wanting Merry to make for about a decade. While I really liked ‘Nonsense Market’ (2014), everything about ‘M-Ology’ points at a total throwback to the days of ‘Modern Garde’ (2004). While such a “return to the roots” is a strained move for many bands, Merry never strayed from their original path too much. They just explored the heavier edges of their sound to a point where they sort of buried the retro aspects that made their sound so unique and appealing. Now that these are back at the forefront, Merry’s new album is a brilliant work of “retrock”.

Those who are unfamiliar with Merry are probably better off listening to their music than reading a description, as the quintet plays a fairly rich cocktail of styles. Genre-wise, this is definitely J-rock, but there are jazzy rhythms amplified by Nero’s hard-hitting drum style, afterbeat ska chords and rockabilly-ish themes on the guitar, a punky energy and a bunch of vaudevillian melodies that pop up now and then. If that sounds like an impossible combination: that’s what yours truly thought too, until he actually heard the music. Merry’s songs are busy and bristling with energy, but always recognizable and well-crafted.

Prior to the announcement of the album, the singles for ‘M-Ology’ already made me look forward to the album. ‘Happy Life’, released over two years ago, is an excellent upbeat rock song with a chorus filled with the hopeful melancholy that characterizes a lot of Merry’s best material. ‘Heijitsu No Onna’ balances on the line between ballad and light rock song, but it was ‘Kasa To Ame’ that won me over. Built upon a not too complicated, but brilliantly brooding bass line courtesy of Tetsu, this song displayed the Merry that stole my heart so many years ago. The song is also a masterclass in musical climaxes.

Album highlight ‘Inugata Shinsei Masochist’ is the song whichI thought would be the next single, due to its goosebumps inducing arena rock intro and marvellous chorus, but apparently, the band went for the title track, which after a delightfully chaotic intro develops into a song that evokes a feeling of nostalgia. Other notable tracks are the remarkably upbeat punk polka of ‘Black Flag Symptom’, the overwhelming weirdness of ‘Mass Control’ and ‘F.J.P’, a song that amplifies everything that makes Merry such a great band to begin with.

Where ‘Nonsense Market’ saw Merry reconnecting with their core sound a little, ‘M-Ology’ sees them diving head first into it. Gara’s screams, shouts and grunts can be great means to emphasize an angry passage of a song, I prefer the focus on catchy melodies he employs here. As always, Kenichi and Yuu are great at crafting guitar melodies that either dance around each other or build upon each other’s heaviness and Tetsu and Nero are among the best rhythm sections in Japan, with the latter having an intuitive, playful style which makes him my favorite Japanese drummer. This may sound like an exaggerated amount of praise, but since ‘M-Ology’ can rival ‘Modern Garde’ and ‘Peep Show’ as Merry’s best album, I think the praise is more than deserved.

P.S.: Included in the “B type” of the album is the best bonus dvd that ever came with a Merry album. Filmed at what looks like the same location as the first ‘Many Merry Days’ dvd’s and produced with a somewhat cinematic look, I am sort of sad that as a European, I cannot obtain the full show that comes with the fanclub edition of the album. Still, these five songs are performed incredibly.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inugata Shinsei Masochist’, ‘Kasa To Ame’, ‘M-Ology’, ‘Happy Life’

Album of the Week 35-2017: Living Colour – Shade


With ‘Shade’ only being the third album in the 17 years since Living Colour reformed – and the first in eight years – expectations were high. What exactly I expected, I don’t actually know, but it certainly wasn’t an album that sounds as raw and “live” as ‘Shade’ does, as ‘Collideøscope’ and ‘The Chair In The Doorway’ were both albums with a notable emphasis on the production. This shift in approach has pros and cons, which makes ‘Shade’ a bit of a confusing record, but it is a fact that Living Colour hasn’t made a record this lively since their early nineties heyday.

There is a bit of a drawback here, as the looser arrangements sacrifice a bit of memorability of Living Colour’s earlier work. None of these choruses will stay with you as long as ‘Cult Of Personality’ did. In addition, some of the songs are just too long. The bluesier tracks ‘Invisible’, ‘Who’s That’ and the Robert Johnson cover ‘Preachin’ Blues’ in particular outstay their welcome, all of which would have been fine tracks had they been a minute and half shorter. Especially the unlikely marriage of New Orleans music and grooving heavy metal riffs on ‘Who’s That’ is interesting enough.

However, ultimately ‘Shade’ is a successful album. There are not many hard rock bands that groove as mercilessly as Living Colour does, as evidenced by songs like the excellent ‘Program’ and the Notorious B.I.G. cover – no, seriously – ‘Who Shot Ya’. ‘Come On’ seems to successfully blend the visceral live feel and the more produced nature of the previous two records and ‘Always Wrong’ sort of shifts back and forth between a psychedelic rock song based on a driving bass line by Doug Wimbish and a power ballad. Again, the combination of styles seems unlikely, but works miraculously well. And that is, of course, Living Colour’s trademark.

Moreover, the album takes an interesting turn about halfway through. There are a bunch of really cool experimental tracks on the second half of the record, starting with ‘Blak Out’, which seems to have developed from a dubby jam of Wimbish and drummer Will Calhoun until Vernon Reid’s massive guitar riff takes over. Reid also really shines on the dreamy, almost spacey closing track ‘Two Sides’. And to keep that part of the album from losing itself in experimentation, there are heavier tracks like ‘Pattern In Time’ and ‘Glass Teeth’ to restore the balance. The latter in particular is an awesome track, even with its borderline silly chorus.

In the end, there is an excellent 40 minute record in ‘Shade’. The only problem is that it is almost ten minutes longer. The performances are as good as you would expect from this group of geniuses. Corey Glover still sings as good as he did on ‘Vivid’ almost three decades ago and Vernon Reid has a surprisingly bluesy, melodic approach here. It’s amazing how much he still sounds like himself even without all the atonality he has extensively toyed with. Avid fans of Living Colour can blindly purchase ‘Shade’. Casual fans may want to give it a listen before purchasing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Blak Out’, ‘Two Sides’, ‘Glass Teeth’

Album of the Week 34-2017: Cloven Hoof – Who Mourns For The Morning Star


Ever since resuming activities early this century, Cloven Hoof went through so many lineup changes, that I was not very hopeful about the recent ones. Sure, bassist and band leader Lee Payne is very enthusiastic about George Call’s voice, but anyone would say that about their new singer, right? This time, it is justified. Call is one of the reasons why ‘Who Mourns For The Morning Star’ is such a great album. He comes very close to Russ North as Cloven Hoof’s best singer. In addition, the record features some of the most spirited, enthusiastic heavy metal performances I have heard in a while.

Compositionally, the songs on ‘Who Mourns For The Morning Star’ are a mixture between the NWOBHM approach that Cloven Hoof had in the early eighties and the USPM-leanings they had a couple of years later with North at the helm. If you are looking for a close reference in style, the recent Accept albums are not too far removed from this record in overall feel. Cloven Hoof just employs a greater deal of variation in the tempos. There are a few more than passing nods to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the latter enforced by the fact that Call strongly resembles Bruce Dickinson in his higher registers.

Some people may complain about a few somewhat chaotic middle sections, but those are a staple of Cloven Hoof’s sound as much as the ballsy riffs – which, due to the spectacular production, grind more ferociously than ever – and anthemic choruses. While opening track ‘Star Rider’ may resemble ‘Astral Rider’, which opened the amazing ‘A Sultan’s Ransom’, in title, it is much more of a traditional heavy metal track with spectacular guitar work and Call showing off his clean, but rough vocal approach. It is the perfect way to introduce the album to unsuspecting listeners.

The rest of the album varies from straightforward heavy metal with a slight hardrock edge, such as ‘Neon Angels’, ‘Song Of Orpheus’ and the Motörhead-ish scorcher ‘Time To Burn’, and songs with a somewhat more progressive approach, such as ‘Song Of Orpheus’, ‘Morning Star’ and closing track ‘Bannockburn’. The latter is the least successful track here: while the main section – including the Maiden-est chorus on the record – is good enough, the rest of the composition sounds more like ideas pasted together rather than an actual song. ‘Mindmaster’ borrows a fragment from Halford’s ‘Locked And Loaded’ somewhat obviously, but since the – surprisingly modern – song is kind of cool, I will let that slide.

While I was somewhat reserved about Payne’s enthusiasm, ‘Who Mourns For The Morning Star’ proves that it was justified. Call is simply a revelation, young newcomer Luke Hatton really goes wild on some of the lead guitar parts and Danny White – Call’s bandmate in Aska – is easily the tightest drummer the band has had in the 21st century. But this album really shines because of how effortless and natural it sounds. It simply sounds like a band having fun playing the music they love rather than trying to adapt to any trend or forcing the magic of their heyday. And that is all I want from Cloven Hoof at this point in their career.

Recommended tracks: ‘Star Rider’, ‘Time To Burn’, ‘I Talk To The Dead’

Album of the Week 32-2017: Anthem – Domestic Booty


Some of Anthem’s best records have something awkward to them that has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual music. ‘Immortal’ has its album cover, ‘Domestic Booty’ its title. And maybe the fact that the band broke up for about a decade in the aftermath of this album’s release. Changes in the musical trend department are often cited as the reason for that hiatus and anyone who has heard ‘Domestic Booty’ can safely conclude that the quartet was certainly not running out of inspiration. The record is full of blazing heavy metal songs, some of which are among the best of Anthem’s catalogue.

While ‘Domestic Booty’ isn’t the most consistent record of Anthem’s original run – that would probably be ‘Bound To Break’ – they do sound like a band rejuvenated on the album. Frontman Yukio Morikawa truly shines with his most aggressive and energetic vocal performance thus far, while newcomer Akio Shimizu, who is still the band’s guitarist these days, lends a subtle contemporary edge to the record without altering the powerful, not too complicated heavy metal compositions of bassist and band leader Naoto Shibata too much. It is truly difficult to believe that the band creating this music would split up less than a year later.

These days, opening track ‘Venom Strike’ is still on most Anthem live sets and its classic status is easy to understand. This borderline thrash metal song with rolling bass drums by Takamasa ‘Mad’ Ouchi is probably the most aggressive Anthem song to date and therefore begs to be played live. Even better, but not quite as popular, is the intense, moving heavy metal of ‘Renegade’, which has probably the best chorus the band recorded with Morikawa on vocals and really showcases the guitar talents of Shimizu. Sure, there is some awkward English going on, but that should not ruin the listening experience.

Since these two tracks open the record, it may seem a tad frontloaded, but there is plenty more to enjoy. ‘The Dice Of No Mercy’ is one of the darker Anthem tracks yet and as such, a very pleasant surprise. The euphoric ‘Cry In The Night’ and the brooding ‘Gold & Diamonds’ greatly profit from the subtle synth flourishes courtesy of current Deep Purple keyboard player Don Airey and the uptempo triplet frenzy of ‘Devil Inside’ is exactly what the album needs at that point. But even the less notable tracks, such as mid-tempo stomper ‘Mr. Genius’ and the semi-epic closing track ‘Silent Cross’, are very much worth hearing.

If Anthem would have definitively called it a day after the release of ‘Domestic Booty’, it would have been a great closing chapter to a strong career in heavy metal. Nowadays, it sort of gets lost in the shuffle, because Anthem has released seventeen albums to date and the record spawned only one live staple. If it was up to me, ‘Renegade’ would at least have been one as well. Farwell albums, even if the farewell eventually turns out to be temporary, often feel like a bit of an afterthough. ‘Domestic Booty’, however, is another excellent Anthem record. Not one of their best, but it’s pretty damn close.

Recommended tracks: ‘Renegade’, ‘Venom Strike’, ‘The Dice Of No Mercy’

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’