Posts Tagged ‘ J-Rock ’

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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Album of the Week 39-2017: Galneryus – Ultimate Sacrifice


A new Galneryus album is always something to look forward to, even though it seemed highly unlikely that they would exceed the quality of ‘Under The Force Of Courage’. Unlikely, but not impossible, as ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ proves. The record is a continuation of the concept on its predecessor, but it updates the formula of that album in a way that makes ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ feel like a fresh, new experience, even though it’s the same euphoric, warp speed power metal that we have come to expect from the Japanese quintet. It has just been offset with some darker and more progressive elements.

Initially, the latter half of the album appealed to me significantly more than the former, something which is still true about ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ for me. In this case, it is mainly the presence of ‘Rising Infuriation’ and ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’. While the former is a showcase for keyboard player Yuhki’s love for progressive metal – Symphony X most notably – and quite likely the darkest moment of the record, the latter is structured in a way that is rather atypical for Galneryus: a crazy, virtuosic beginning, some of the band’s heaviest riffing in the middle and a passionate ballad in the end.

There are a few real gems among the first few tracks though. First of all, Galneryus has once again created an intro track that counts as one of the highlights of the album (‘Enter The New Age’) and it evolves into ‘Heavenly Punishment’, which after a few spins turned into one of my favorite Galneryus openers. In many ways, it is typical for them, but it is just a tad more aggressive and melancholic than their usual openers. ‘Wings Of Justice’ has a vicious intro and verse that bring to mind Rhapsody’s ‘Holy Thunderforce’ and the middle section of ‘The Shadow Within’ is simply to die for.

Galneryus usually shines when they combine their trademark sound with a fresh approach. ‘Wherever You Are’ turns out to be a great melodic hardrock tune in the vein of ‘Shining Moments’ with one of Syu’s most incredible guitar solos near the end and not the typical Galneryus ballad. That one is still here, but it’s hidden in the final six minutes of ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’. Anyone looking for the “Galneryus sound” will be pleased by the twelve minute title track that closes the album. It works its way through a number of climaxes – including one where a raw-throated Syu takes over the microphone from soaring siren Masatoshi Ono – before leaving you wanting to turn the album on again.

The fact that Galneryus is one of the most beloved Japanese power metal bands, even outside of Japan, where their albums are not even available on cd, should not be much of a surprise anymore. The band is simply a tad better than its international competition in every way: their choruses are slightly more powerful, Syu has just a little more emotion in his shredding, Ono soars just a bit more powerfully… All of this results in a type of power metal that is not lacking any power, but neither does it leave anything to be desired in terms of melody, energy and slight progressive touches. One of the metal highlights of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rising Infuriation’, ‘Heavenly Punishment’, ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’

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 28-2017: Buck-Tick – Juusankai Wa Gekkou


Buck-Tick is one of the most influential bands from the Japanese visual kei scene. Singer Atsushi Sakurai has one of the most distinctive, appealing voices of that scene and yet, their classic material never appealed to me much. Their earliest work was a bit too upbeat for my taste, while most of their nineties output has strong electronic overtones that I find somewhat abrasive. ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ solves both of these issues by being a dark, gothic monster of an album with a pleasant, organic production. It turned out to be a unique entry in Buck-Tick’s discography, both stylistically and quality-wise.

While the gothic label ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ often gets is not entirely inaccurate, especially regarding its lyrical themes and horror-like imagery, the sound of the album is better characterized as a relatively dark post-punk band discovering how lively their songs can sound with a more organic sonic approach. As such, the album really plays to Buck-Tick’s strengths. Always the band’s main attraction, Sakurai’s voice is front and center and he obviously knows his way with the album’s atmosphere. However, the “less is more and every note counts” approach of guitarists Hisashi Imai and Hidehiko Hoshino deserves a lot of praise as well.

Those who are used to the virtuoso approach that even more accessible J-rock bands like Luna Sea and L’Arc-en-Ciel employ might be surprised at how the musicianship takes a back seat to the songs and the atmosphere here. The songs are pretty low-key and even the climactic outbursts are not very bombastic. As a result, ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ is a slow burner and in order to enjoy the record, it is imperative that the atmosphere absorbs you. That does not mean the musicianship is not important. The amazing ‘Doll’, for instance, is characterized by a brilliant, teasing guitar line as much as by the atmosphere and Sakurai’s performance.

Remains of the band’s electronic approach can be found in the spooky ‘Muma – The Nightmare’, which – despite the fact that it’s followed by two more tracks – sounds like the climax of the record. The electronics are just a bit less “busy” than on the material they released in the decade prior to ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’. The impeccably arranged ‘Alive’ is another standout track, due its memorable and strategically placed chorus. ‘Passion’ is one of the darkest, most horror soundtrack-inspired moments of the record and therefore, is best not listened to in the dark. It does capture the creepy mood exceptionally well though.

‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ is by no means a perfect record. At 78 minutes, some fat could have been trimmed, especially from the intros, outros and interludes, while ‘Seraphim’ and the vaudevillian ‘Diabolo -Lucifer-‘ stand out like a sore thumb due to their relatively upbeat atmosphere. Their main purpose seems to be to emphasize the darkness of ‘Muma – The Nightmare’. Despite those minor complaints, ‘Juusankai Wa Gekkou’ has a consistency that some of the most popular Buck-Tick albums lack. It is easy to sit this one out, as this is one of those albums that refuses to let you go once it gets a hold of you.

Recommended tracks: ‘Alive’, ‘Doll’, ‘Muma – The Nightmare’

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 17-2017: The Gazette – Dogma


The Gazette is one of the most popular Japanese rock bands even outside of their native country. Save for a couple of songs, they never appealed to me much until they released their most recent studio album ‘Dogma’. For this dark monster of an album, the goth factor in the band’s familiar alternative metal sound is turned up considerably, resulting in an immersive atmosphere that works surprisingly well alongside the downtuned riff work. Despite being recognizable as an album by The Gazette, ‘Dogma’ is – thus far – a unique entry in their discography and truly takes their sound to a new level.

People who like The Gazette less than I do are prone to dismiss them as a Dir En Grey clone. And while they share a dark aesthetic as well as a preference for the downtuned mayhem of the American nu metal scene of the mid-ninties, The Gazette has always had a sound closer to J-Rock, though on ‘Dogma’, the J-Rock sound is mainly limited to Ruki’s baritone. The electronic experiments of recent albums are still there, but less prominent in the mix. This is a good thing: while the electronics made The Gazette stand out, they feel much more like an integral part of the sound here.

‘Dogma’ definitely excels most during its more atmospheric moments. Sure, the extremely heavy riff work by Uruha and Aoi – as well as their massive, crushing guitar sound – makes for pleasant headbanging on tracks like ‘Rage’, ‘Deux’ and ‘Incubus’, but if it wasn’t for the darker material, I may have taken a pass on the album. The fittingly titled closing track ‘Ominous’ has a subdued, brooding character that doesn’t really sound like anything the band has attempted before. The transitions are a little sudden, but it works remarkably well. Its finale is excellent.

Even better is ‘Deracine’. The guitar interaction in the verses – a pronounced riff with background atmospherics – is incredible, Ruki’s vocal melodies are fantastic and its atmosphere, which at times feels like a relatively heavy J-metal band covering Killing Joke, is impossible to escape. Another highlight is ‘Wasteland’, which brings together all the extremes of The Gazette’s sound. The guitar layering is extremely tasteful and the song flows very pleasantly. ‘Lucy’ is a little more straightforward and probably would not have stood out as much on a different album, but its effective main riff and huge chorus are great. The title track serves as a perfect introduction with its dark, gothic verses.

Before ‘Dogma’, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with an album by The Gazette altogether, but the fact is that it’s a strong, well-rounded album that doesn’t easily let its listener go. It also sounds less like a band trying to emulate its American influences than some of their early works, opting for a sound of its own instead. This is a development that I can only applaud and as a result, ‘Dogma’ is definitely worth hearing if you like your music heavy, dark and atmospheric. I’ll be honest: I never knew they had it in them.

Recommended tracks: ‘Deracine’, ‘Wasteland’, ‘Ominous’