Posts Tagged ‘ Hardrock ’

Album of the Week 32-2018: The Magpie Salute – High Water I


Volatile fraternal relationships are nothing new in music. What is quite unusual, however, is that one brother goes on to do something which is at least on par with what made them famous in the first place. The Magpie Salute may just turn out to be one of those instances. After a legal dispute between Chris and Rich Robinson lead to the unfortunate dissolution of The Black Crowes, the latter sounds more focused and inspired than he has in a long time on the first studio album of The Magpie Salute, which also features ex-Crowes Marc Ford and Sven Pipien.

Without Chris Robinson’s hippie mysticism influencing the overall sound, Rich Robinson’s compositions really get the chance to shine. What helps is that singer John Hogg is a revelation. He has a powerful, versatile voice that sounds quite unique during the introspective parts and somewhat reminiscent of Kelly Keeling in his more powerful moments. The music itself is quite reminiscent of The Black Crowes – how could it not? – but more concise and powerful. As a whole, ‘High Water I’ does feel like it rocks a little harder than most of the Crowes’ recent work, but it is every bit as versatile.

Guitar-wise, there is a great deal of respect between Ford and Robinson on ‘High Water I’. They never get in each other’s way and really give each other the chance to excel in their respective specialties. For slide master Ford, the rootsy rocker ‘Take It All’, the acoustic americana of ‘Hand In Hand’ and various moments of pedal steel-like beauty are the obvious moments to shine, while Robinson is more of a master of strong melodic content. The latter was never a showy player in the first place; it is quite obvious that he just wants what is best for the songs.

‘High Water I’ has a remarkably pleasant flow. While each song is different from the others, the sequencing is sublime. That does not mean there aren’t any highlights, of course. ‘High Water’ sounds like it could have been inserted into ‘Led Zeppelin III’ without anyone noticing, as it is acoustic, yet extremely powerful. Closing track ‘Open Up’ works its way from a brooding acoustic riff to a gorgeous climactic harmony in the chorus, while ‘For The Wind’ is a powerful, dynamic epic, ‘Send Me Omen’ is a strong rocker and ‘Sister Moon’ is a gorgeous minor key pop song.

It is too early to tell whether The Magpie Salute will be as good as The Black Crowes, but ‘High Water I’ can certainly be compared favorably to ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ and ‘The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion’. It is basically the album I have been wanting the Crowes to make for at least twenty years with a much better singer to boot. The more concise songwriting certainly contributes to my joy listening to this album, but the greater degree of focus certainly works miracles as well. Sure, it kind of sounds like the Crowes, but definitely on one of their best days.

Recommended tracks: ‘High Water I’, ‘Open Up’, ‘For The Wind’

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Album of the Week 29-2018: Concerto Moon – Savior Never Cry


In the light of Atsushi Kuze joining Jupiter, his works with Concerto Moon have been receiving more than a few spins in my household. I have been fairly critical of Kuze’s competent, but somewhat Dokken-ish voice in the past, but there is one Concerto Moon album on which he is really pushed to his best performance thus far and that is ‘Savior Never Cry’. Of course, the fact that the band sounds at their heaviest and most aggressive here works miracles as well. The fact that their classy, hardrock-inspired melodicism is not sacrificed is an impressive achievement in its own right.

Somehow, I think I prefer Concerto Moon without a keyboard player. The keys are indispensable for their early progressive hardrock meets neoclassical power metal approach, but on ‘Savior Never Cry’, band leader Norifumi Shima’s riffing takes center stage. His sound appears to be just a tad heavier too, to the point where it’s hard to believe that he’s actually playing a guitar with single coils. This powerful, bottom-heavy sound really pushes Kuze to a performance that foregoes his usual gentle rasp in favor of a throaty, full-force approach that is not too dissimilar to what Yukio Morikawa does with Anthem.

Concerto Moon certainly proves that the first strike is deadly. The opening title track of the album’s predecessor ‘Angel Of Chaos’ was already impressive, but ‘Savior Never Cry’ really has the band firing on all cylinders. Shima’s riffs are thick and tasteful, Masayuki Osada’s drumming is pulsating and punishing and Kuze is inspired to do some of his most intense screaming yet. The rumbling double kick work and heavy riffing is continued on the following ‘Straight From The Heart’, which I consider one of Concerto Moon’s most underrated tracks to date. Its eighties Dio-esque vibe is simply irresistible.

From then on, the album does not get quite as heavy anymore, though the speedy closer ‘Slash The Lies’ – which inexplicably only is a bonus track – comes pretty close. The heaviness is hardly missed though. The fact that Shima (mostly) has to fill his end of the sonic spectrum by himself results in very powerful hardrock and heavy metal tracks like ‘Lay Down Your Life (To Be Free)’, ‘Over The Fear’ and the midtempo ‘In My Dream’. Even the ballad ‘Lovers Again’, often a weak point for Japanese bands, is surprisingly good. Only ‘The Shining Light Of The Moon’ is a little too watered down for my taste.

Norifumi Shima and Concerto Moon were obviously on a roll around the turn of the decade. ‘Angel Of Chaos’ is one of the band’s best albums, but ‘Savior Never Cry’ ups the ante in terms of heaviness, compositional quality and vocal performance. After the release of ‘Savior Never Cry’, Concerto Moon would continue in a somewhat more hardrock-oriented direction. Quite accomplished hardrock too, but after being infatuated with the almost ‘Painkiller’-like intensity of this album’s title track, it’s difficult to settle for something else. ‘Savior Never Cry’ is highly recommended to anyone who longs for the time when hardrock and heavy metal weren’t two separate things yet.

Recommended tracks: ‘Savior Never Cry’, ‘Straight From The Heart’, ‘Slash The Lies’

Album of the Week 18-2018: Fumihiko Kitsutaka’s Euphoria – Euphoria


When neoclassically inspired guitarists start a solo project, the records are often filled with flagrant displays of virtuosity. Fumihiko Kitsutaka however, presumably through his career as the guitarist for eighties hardrockers Arouge and crazy eclectics Kinniku Shojo Tai, learned a lesson or two about songwriting. Sure, his impressive dexterity is fairly prominent on his solo debut, but the real stars on ‘Euphoria’ are the compositions and the arrangements. Clearly, Kitsutaka wanted his songs to enchant the listener rather than his technical profiency and because of that, ‘Euphoria’ is one of the better neoclassical hardrock and power metal albums out there.

In the booklet, Kitsutaka is credited as “master of guitar orchestrations” and that may actually be the biggest asset of ‘Euphoria’. Not only are there plenty of Queen-inspired guitar harmonies, the use of acoustic guitars is incredible. Sometimes it is just a ringing chord adding some brightness to the top layer, other times nylon stringed classical guitars provide the perfect accompaniment for Tetsuya Saito’s vocal delivery. The use of only one singer also contributes to the album’s consistency, while the changing rhythm section – two drummers and three bassists share duties – is likely chosen to add different flavors to the rhythms.

For all intents and purposes, ‘Euphoria’ is a rather unusual solo album for a lead guitarist. Sure, there are songs like the powerful neoclassical hardrocker ‘The Room (Named Desperation)’ and the virtuosic instrumental ‘Justice Of Black’, but they don’t dominate the album. Even when songs like the stomping headbanger ‘Deep In Love’ and the energetic power metal track ‘Sacred Garden’ seem to invite Kitsutaka to cram the solo section full of sweeps and classical scales, his lead guitar work is always melodic and tasteful, while the memorability of a chorus seems of equal or greater importance to the guitarist.

There are a few real surprises on ‘Euphoria’. First of all, the relaxed romanticism of ‘Nursery Rhyme’ features Kitsutaka almost exclusively on the classical guitar, save for a powerful electric solo. ‘Dance Desire’ is a strong hardrocker that combines a relatively heavy bottom end with a rather atypical swing in the rhythm department, while ‘Losing You’ combines distinct melodic touches with some aggressive start-stop riffing and a busy chorus with some of Saito’s most passionate vocals. Saito really ties this album together with Kitsutaka anyway, as his lower take on visual kei-inspired vocals gives the album part of its unique atmosphere.

Sonically, ‘Euphoria’ also forsakes the spotlessly clinical sound usually associated with these types of releases and opts for a highly dynamic, organic sound that really feels like a band playing together. All of this contributes to an album that, despite being of a style that has been attempted before, has a very fresh feel. There is no pretension or showing off on ‘Euphoria’, just a group of musicians wanting to make the best album that could possibly be made at the time with the means at their disposal. More bands should attempt that approach. If anything, ‘Euphoria’ proves that it works.

Recommended tracks: ‘Losing You’, ‘Dance Desire’, ‘Sacred Garden’, ‘Nursery Rhyme’

Album of the Week 16-2018: Stryper – God Damn Evil


With an album title like ‘God Damn Evil’, it is obvious that all semblance of subtlety has gone out the window. Then again, Stryper never was about subtle intricacies. You just know you’re going to get simple, effective hardrock songs with huge choruses, strong melodies and a fairly obvious christian message. In recent years, Stryper has dialed up the metal factor in their music considerably, resulting in some of their most consistent albums thus far. ‘God Damn Evil’ is no different. It is once again better than its predecessor, continuing the upward trajectory that started with ‘Murder By Pride’ in 2009.

First things first: Michael Sweet once again sounds incredible. His vocal approach is occasionally a bit rawer than usual, but his soaring, spotlessly clean melodies are all over ‘God Damn Evil’. His songwriting has never been better either. Some of the previous albums had a tendency to drag because of all the midtempo tunes and while most of the material here still isn’t in turbo mode, the album easily has the most pleasant flow of any Stryper album since ‘Soldiers Under Command’. His brother Robert also gives his best drum performance yet, though his snare is still a tad too loud.

Before the album was released, four songs surfaced that already made me quite hopeful about the album. Especially ‘Lost’, a melancholic melodic hardrocker reminiscent of the incomparable class of Stryper’s best song ‘Sympathy’. The crushing midtempo metal of ‘The Valley’ was another pleasant surprise. ‘Take It To The Cross’ raised some eyebrows, because of its brutal chorus with Sweet channeling his inner Halford, but despite the borderline self-plagiarism – the main riff is very similar to the one in ‘Yahweh’, which in turn was borrowed from Black Sabbath’s ‘Children Of the Grave’ – it is a very blunt, effective opening track.

‘Can’t Live Without Your Love’ is a surprisingly decent ballad. Sure, it has a strong AOR-vibe, but it’s not as slickly saccharine as the likes of ‘Honestly’. The heavier side of label mates Journey seems to have influenced the gorgeous midtempo hardrocker ‘Beautiful’. The title track and the slightly more metallic ‘Sea Of Thieves’ highlight the band’s eighties Sunset Strip sleaze rock roots, while the midtempo stom of ‘You Don’t Even Know Me’ features one of Sweet’s most ominous vocal melodies to date. ‘Own Up’ finds a perfect middle ground between grinding latter day Stryper riffs and a beefy eighties hardrock chorus.

Sure, the lack of subtlety may be an issue for some. The chorus of ‘The Devil Doesn’t Live Here’ is borderline for me, but it is too enjoyable a speed metal track to let it get in the way. And that is exactly why despite my atheism, I have always enjoyed Stryper. There are too many good riffs, awesome melodies and blazing leads by both Michael Sweet and Oz Fox on the album to let them escape my attention. New bassist Perry Richardson occasionally lets it rip too. Hardly anyone can craft simple rock songs with such impact as Sweet. ‘God Damn Evil’ is the strongest evidence of that so far.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lost’, ‘The Valley’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Own Up’

Album of the Week 06-2018: Onmyo-za – Chimimoryo


Out of all Onmyo-za albums, ‘Chimimoryo’ is proabably the one with the broadest appeal. That does not mean it isn’t metal. Quite the contrary. The riff work on the album is still as rooted in traditional heavy metal as it always has been, but the polish of the production and the melodic sensibilities really opens the door for J-rock fans, while the dynamic and subtly adventurous nature of the record invites progressive rockers to have a listen. No matter what side of Onmyo-za you like best, it is represented on ‘Chimimoryo’, which – as a result – is one of the band’s best.

What really makes ‘Chimimoryo’ as near perfect as it gets is the fact that it has a very pleasant flow. It would not surprise me if multiple track orders were tested before release in order to find the one that is just right. This is not the type of album where you’d get tired of too many songs of the same tempo or style after each other, neither does it boggle your mind with illogical genre-hopping. The powerful voice of bassist and band leader Matatabi and the expressive (mezzo-)soprano of Kuroneko are very much in balance here as well.

As great as ‘Chimimoryo’ is all the way through, the more epic tracks really raise the album’s status. And that already starts when you put on the album, as ‘Shutendoji’ is a monumental midtempo hardrock track of late Zeppelin proportions, only with some brilliant guitar harmonies and a metallic rhythm section more reminiscent of Iron Maiden. Later on, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ takes you through multiple climaxes during its eleven and a half minutes. Huge, doomy riffs, balladesque sections and one of the more awesome speed metal riffs in the band’s discography, it’s all there and each section is even better than the last.

These songs alone don’t make a good album though. The hypermelodic single ‘Kureha’ is reminiscent of ‘Yoka Ninpocho’ in how the clean and distorted guitars interact, the strong melodic metal stomper ‘Araragi’ feels like a sequel to ‘Shutendoji’ with its powerful lead guitar themes and broad chords and if it’s fast riffs you want, ‘Hiderigami’ and ‘Oni Hitokuchi’ will serve you all the energetic speed metal you need. Kuroneko’s composition ‘Tamashizume no Uta’ is the lone ballad on the album, but her amazing voice and the rather atypical marching rhythms and percussion really turn it into something unique.

Unless you are a wool-dyed old-schooler, ‘Chimimoryo’ would be the perfect album to get acquainted with Onmyo-za’s unique sound. Matatabi’s compositions evidence that the guitars of Maneki and Karukan do not have to play power chords the whole time in order to sound metallic and the vocals prove that there are more options than the overused beauty and the beast tactic for male-female vocal duos. Onmyo-za would later top ‘Chimimoryo’ with ‘Kishibojin’, but only barely. This is one of the very few albums that is of consistently high quality from start to finish and deserves to be heard because of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shutendoji’, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’, ‘Araragi’, ‘Oni Hitokuchi’

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’

Interview: Yoshiki’s new ways to express himself


Picture courtesy of YSK Entertainment

Call him dedicated or call him reckless. You would probably be correct either way. X Japan drummer, pianist and band leader Yoshiki severely damaged his neck due to his intense drumming style to the point that he needed neck surgery. In fact, since the last time I sat down with Yoshiki, he had surgery again, this time to replace a disc in his neck with an artificial alternative. While he appears to be more conscious of the health risks of his playing style than ever, he is also driven to pick up drumming again. If only to promote the new X Japan album, that he has been working on for years now.

It feels weird. I had neck surgery several years ago, but then they carved a bone to make a little space between the bones“, Yoshiki explains his most recent surgery. “This time, a disc in my neck was completely worn out, so they had to put plastic and metal into my neck. It was a big operation. Last time, they went through the back of my neck. This time, they went through the front. They had to pull the vocal cords aside and place the artificial disc. It’s a pretty intense surgery.
Is it a definitive thing or did the doctor give you an estimation of when you can play again?
The way I play drums is not good for my health. Period. That’s what my doctor said. So I just have to find a way to play drums the healthy way. There are some things I have to focus on. First off: headbanging is bad. At some point, people have to stop doing that. I guess I have reached the epitome. It brought me to this position: I had two neck surgeries. So we have to find a different way to express ourselves. Not only the artists, also the audience. Otherwise, we’re all going to have neck surgery in the end.
What’s your physical therapy like these days?
It is focused on building muscles in my neck. My nervous system is already damaged though. Luckily, my motor skills are still fine, so I can move my hands. But because of the nerve damage, I can’t really feel anything properly anymore. There’s always a burning sensation in my hand. It’s very uncomfortable. A terrible feeling. So I just have to find a different way to express myself. Without headbanging.
Does your situation impact your compositions at all, in the sense that you adapt what you write to what you can play?
Fortunately, I finished every single drum track for the upcoming album before surgery. But as of now, I can’t play drums. That’s what the doctor said: no more drums. The way I play drums is just too much, but I’m trying to find a way to go back to the stage as a drummer. Then I’ll play as hard as I can, as soon as I can. But believe it or not: the day after the surgery, I was already in the studio. There are things I can still do. Some editing, for instance.
Ever since we started working on the album, I haven’t really stopped. Even when we were doing the Wembley show back in March; I was in London doing some interviews and preparing for the concert, but I also booked a recording studio and I was also working on the new album. And I thought about it, since I’m in Europe now, to see if I had some extra time. I would like to keep recording. But my schedule is really tight, so I couldn’t do it this time.

Picky

Yoshiki already addressed the elephant in the room himself: the new X Japan album, their first studio album since the 1996 release ‘Dahlia’. “Pretty much all tracking is done. There is one more song I need to play piano to and I’m just adding a last touch, by means of sound effects or guitar effects or something like that. Vocal tracking is done, even the strings – we have recorded an orchestra – are done. So now I just have to find the time to go back to the studio and finish it. I’m trying to have it done by the end of this year.
Is the oldest material still up to your own quality standards after so much time?
Good question… I think so. I mean, I like it. It’s really hard for me to say I like the songs, because I’m super picky, but I think this album is going to be amazing.
Have you found the right label for the release of this album yet?
Most likely it will be Sony Records. Worldwide. I think the whole world will get it at the same time.
Is Extasy Records (Yoshiki’s own label, originally founded to release X Japan’s albums) still active at all?
Yes and no. As of now, I’m planning on producing artists, but I just have to concentrate on finishing X Japan’s album before I do any other things. Also, I have so much promotion and so many interviews to do for the ‘We Are X’ film, so I’m trying to find the time. I always have people looking for artists. Actually, I get a demo pretty much every day. Sometimes I’m really overwhelmed by what I hear. But it’s so hard for me to find the time to even produce now. So unless it is someone extremely good… Well, even then I would probably introduce them to some label or something.

Interest

If the documentary ‘We Are X’, which is in theaters now, shows anything, it is that the Japanese music industry is something that is almost impossible to imagine for westerners. There are superstars in Japan that hardly anyone in the west has ever heard of. Yoshiki does note an increase in interest in X Japan now that the movie is out: “The added interest is great, but we dit not make this film for that kind of purpose.
A lot of Japanese bands make a very clear distinction between their indie days and their major days. You have been in both situations. Are the differences really that big?
I don’t know. Of course, during our indies era, we had no director, no producers, no label telling us what to do. It was all about us. When we signed to a label, suddenly there were a lot of people telling us what to do. And sometimes that was great advice, sometimes it was not. But basically it is still you. You are making this music, so in essence, I don’t think it’s not that different.
Are there any projects you are working on at the moment?
I’ve been working with Marilyn Manson on a project of the two of us, but first I need the finish the new X Japan album. Also I’m working on a new classical album. Piano and a symphony orchestra, something like that.
Would you ever consider making a follow-up to ‘We Are X’?
I don’t know. We’re always filming, so there’s always enough material and there’s always a chance that there will be something else. But as of now, we are trying finish recording our new album. If anything comes out, it will definitely be after our new album. I’m pretty sure it will be released next spring.
Can I hold you to that?
Yes.

Dutch readers can watch ‘We Are X’ on Picl.

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