Posts Tagged ‘ J-Rock ’

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’

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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’

Album of the Week 52-2017: Matenrou Opera – Avalon


By the time Matenrou Opera signed to King Records subsidiary Bellwood, they had dropped almost all of their metalcore influences and most of their J-rock leanings, becoming pretty much a full-on symphonic power metal band. A style the band obviously feels very comfortable with, as evidenced by their ‘Avalon’ album. Fans of the band’s early work may complain about the relatively limited number of stylistic detours, but the truth is that Matenrou Opera specializes in what they are best at anyway on the album: highly melodic power metal songs which are uncomplicated and kind of progressive at the same time.

One of the most notable symphonic elements in Matenrou Opera’s music is the string sound of keyboard player Ayame. On ‘Avalon’, we can hear a real choir and synthesized string sounds, whereas most bands would select the opposite. That threw me off initially, but ultimately, it contributes to Matenrou Opera’s fairly unique sound. The chorus of power ballad ‘3Jikan’ may not have sounded quite as dark and powerful with actual strings. Furthermore, the synthesized horns lend a nice, triumphant atmosphere to ‘Kagayaki Wa Senkou No You Ni’, of which the chord progression in the chorus is somewhat reminiscent of Loudness’ ‘Soldier Of Fortune’.

Sonics aside, ‘Avalon’ is a compositional triumph. Opening track ‘Tengoku no Tobira’ may be the best song the band as ever released. The way it builds from the subdued aggression of the intro towards the hopeful melancholy of its chorus is nothing short of amazing. It is hardly the only highlight on ‘Avalon’ though. ‘Jolly Roger Ni Sukazuki Wo’ contains some of the most intense riffing and busiest rhythms in the band’s oeuvre, ‘Tomo Ni Sasagu Requiem’ is an exercise in dynamics, ‘Tonari Ni Suwaru Taiyou’ is breezy, yet defiant and closer ‘Tengoko No Aru Basho’ is the perfect climax in both atmosphere and instrumentation.

As far as personal performances go, I have always had a weak spot for guitarist Anzi. He is influenced by the same neoclassical school of guitar playing that many Japanese guitarists seem to take their inspiration from, but his tone is cleaner and his approach is more song-oriented. Even the neoclassical instrumental he penned, ‘Stained Glass’, is not a hyperspeed shredfest, but a melodically strong composition. Sono’s ubiquitous vibrato is a matter of taste, but it is a fact that he has more character than most Japanese singers. The drum work of Yu definitely deserves a mention too. His fills can be busy, but he never lets the music collapse.

Those assuming that Matenrou Opera is still just another J-rock band should certainly give the band another chance. There are a few traces of that in ‘Orb’, but as a whole, ‘Avalon’ is a very well-written and expertly performed power metal record which is typically Japanese in its catchy, symphonic nature, but exuberant and aggressive enough to please fans of European power metal. It is also the most consistent set of songs the quintet has released thus far, giving them the confidence to establish themselves as a power metal band for good.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tengoku no Tobira’, ‘Jolly Roger Ni Sukazuki Wo’, ‘Kagayaki Wa Senkou No You Ni’

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.

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’

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