Posts Tagged ‘ J-Rock ’

Album of the Week 13-2020: Hibiki – Hands Of Providence


Anyone with a more than casual interest in Japanese metal has undoubtedly heard at least one album that hibiki plays on. Ever since his virtuosic playing first rose to prominence in the progressive power metal band Light Bringer, he has become one of the most in-demand bassists of the Japanese rock and metal scene. Possibly due to his fantastic playing, however, his compositional skills don’t quite get the praise they deserve. His first solo album ‘Hands Of Providence’ may just change that. These are all melodic, expertly written songs in which technicality does not go at the expense of memorability.

Despite being written by a bassist, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is not as bass virtuoso-oriented as one might expect. Most of the songs have a distinctly neoclassical vibe that is most clearly carried by the guitars, which are handled by hibiki’s Silex bandmate Masha, NoGoD’s Kyrie and – on three tracks – hibiki himself. It would not be unreasonable to expect something along the lines of Light Bringer’s best album ‘Scenes Of Infinity’, on which hibiki was the main songwriter. But while the albums are stylistically similar, ‘Hands Of Providence’ is more varied and somewhat less vocal-oriented.

‘Hands Of Providence’ seems to be divided into two distinct halves, with the bass-only instrumental fugue ‘Observing Inner Space’ acting as a bit of an act break. The first half contains neoclassical power metal which occasionally brings hibiki’s Light Bringer days to mind, most prominently in the hyper-melodic ‘The Wavering Night’, although it reminded me most of Concerto Moon’s early work. ‘Inside The Scream’ or ‘Traveller In Space’ would not have sounded out of place on any of the Takao Ozaki-fronted Concerto Moon albums, which means they’re full of virtuosic neoclassical playing, but are still memorable. The hopeful ‘Sonic Divine’ is the perfect introduction to the album.

Later on, the album gets somewhat more experimental, most notably on the melodic J-rocker ‘Enter Eternity’. The main riff of the song brings to mind Kiryu’s ‘Kyoka Suigetsu’ and Dir En Grey’s ‘Yokan’, but with a completely different vocal approach – former Saber Tiger singer Yoko Kubota is still in great shape – and some tasteful keyboards added to the mix. ‘Evoke/Emancipate’ is a modern, surprisingly heavy instrumental with mildly dissonant chords and exellent interaction between hibiki, Kyrie and drummer Akira Uehara. After the aching piano-led power ballad ‘Believe And Listen’, hibiki returns to melodic neoclassical hardrock once more with the excellent ‘Children Of The Sun’ before the album is over.

While the cast of musicians on ‘Hands Of Providence’ would already be enough to make me curious about the album, with one of the most interesting visual kei guitarists contributing as well as two musicians from the Saber Tiger family tree – though they never played in the band simultaneously – what really counts is the songs. On ‘Hands Of Providence’, hibiki proves to be something even more important than an incredibly skilled bassist: an excellent songwriter. There are a few moments of virtuosity here and there, but the real stars on the album are hibiki’s melodies. Highly recommended if you like your metal ultra-melodic and neoclassical.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inside The Scream’, ‘Sonic Divine’, ‘Enter Eternity’

Album of the Week 11-2020: Onmyo-za – Hyakki-Ryoran


Only a year had passed between the releases of Onmyo-za’s debut album ‘Kikoku Tensho’ and sophomore record ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the massive improvement the latter is over the former. Where the debut had promising, but largely underdeveloped material, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ features some of the best music the band has released to date. While it is significantly more polished than its predecessor, it is also one of the most traditionally metallic albums Onmyo-za put out, if the cover did not give that away already. Likely the best Onmyo-za album for conservative metalheads to start with.

Unlike the album cover, however, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ isn’t just hellish aggression. In true Onmyo-za fashion, it is in perfect balance with melody, atmosphere and inventive songwriting. Those who have known Onmyo-za from after they broke through with ‘Koga Ninpocho’ might be surprised how the band sounds here. It’s still obviously the same band, with their core sound of traditional heavy metal riffs, subtle Japanese folk touches and the excellent vocal duo of Kuroneko and band leader Matatabi in perfect form. The songs are just slightly longer and notably more complex, while there is somewhat more room for influences from thrash and doom metal.

‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ starts out with my favorite Onmyo-za song. ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ is largely a fairly conventional speed metal song with incredible guitar riffs, though the ominous semi-spoken – though somehow harmonic – intro and the horror-like mood it sets grant the track a unique atmosphere. Fans of speedy, traditional-sounding heavy metal with subtle progressive touches are relatively well off with ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ anyway, with ‘Gekai Ninpocho’ and ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’ being on the album as well. ‘Teito Makaitan’ was the band’s most aggressive track up until this album, even featuring growled vocals in the verses, but also a supremely melodic and catchy chorus.

When Onmyo-za slows down on this album, however, the full extent of their class is shown. ‘Ayako’, for example, is a masterpiece. While the track is devoid of tranquil sections and even features a twisted, unsettling middle section, the elegiac melodies that dominate the songs are enough for me to qualify it as the band’s first fanastic ballad. The actual ballad ‘Yagamu Tsuki’ is no slouch either, however, and features some of Kuroneko’s most powerful, emotional vocal work to date. On the other end of the slower spectrum, there is ‘Nurikabe’, the band’s first full-blown doom metal track, which would not have sounded out of place on a Ningen Isu record, had it not been for the mildly dissonant middle section and the superior vocal work.

Since ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’ – along with ‘Nemuri’ from the ‘Mugen Hoyo’ record – was the song that made me fall in love with Onmyo-za, ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ was sort of an introductory Onmyo-za record to me. It may very well be the best album to serve as such for metalheads who are curious about the band, but not that familiar with all the tropes of the Japanese metal scene. ‘Hyakki-Ryoran’ could not have come from another country, but has enough metallic characteristics to sound not too alien for western metalheads. It is their first amazing album, from the tightened songwriting the the unbelievable improvement Tora’s drumming went through. A must-hear for anyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shiki Wo Karumono’, ‘Teito Makaitan’, ‘Ayako’, ‘Tenkyoin Kuruito Kuruwa’

Album of the Week 46-2019: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Love


Very few bands can claim a second peak so long after their heyday the way Kinniku Shojo Tai does. Ever since reuniting, Kinniku Shojo Tai has been pumping out quality album after quality album, the best of them worthy of being mentioned among their classic work. ‘Love’ is another one of those. While the band sounds as odd as always – the cover may have given that away already – ‘Love’ is one of the more consistent albums they released in recent years. Where ‘Za Shisa’ was a little more laid-back than usual, ‘Love’ is fairly energetic and full of unexpected detours.

Kinniku Shojo Tai’s style can barely be described. Funk rock riffs, classy power metal melodies, proggy weirdness, Queen-ish bombast, punky aggression… It’s all there and often, several of those come together in the same song. Recently, much of the band’s focus went to making optimal use of the strengths of both guitarists, which could not be more different. Toshiaki Honjo excels in funky rhythm guitars and choppy rock riffs, Fumihiko Kitsutaka is likely the best neoclassical hardrock and power metal guitarist in Japan. Instead of the styles getting in each other’s way, they enhance each other better than ever on ‘Love’.

Opening track ‘Ai Wa Kagero’ almost sounds like a mission statement in the sense that after the relatively relaxed vibe on ‘Za Shisa’, ‘Love’ kicks off with an uptempo power metal track full of Kitsutaka’s magic. The triumphant lead guitar parts and fast, precise riffing set the mood for the record effectively. The way the blaring keyboards and guitars work together on ‘Hollywood Star’ would not have sounded out of place on the band’s debut album, while ‘Sacrifice’ is borderline speed metal with its punishing riffs. ‘Chokugeki Kamakiri Ken! Ningen Bakuhatsu’ combines an almost surf-esque main riff with a powerful hardrock vibe and as such, is one of the album’s most pleasant surprises.

However, Kinniku Shojo Tai’s rockers and metal tracks are almost always worth hearing. What really makes their better albums above average is the quality of the lighter material. And that’s where the increased number of songwriting contributions from Uchida really shines through. ‘Moso Boei Gun’, for instance, is one of the best Kinniku Shojo Tai ballads to date. Its unconventional structure and the post-rock-ish dissonant chords in the chorus really make it stand out from any other softer J-rock songs. The jazzy ‘Donmai Sakaba’ is another Uchida masterpiece, elevated by its loose, café-like atmosphere. And of course, the delightfully weird interlude ‘Venice Ni Shisu ~ Love’ could not have come from anyone else.

‘Love’ is good. Very good even. I thought Kinniku Shojo Tai had outdone itself with ‘Omake No Ichinichi (Tatakai No Hibi)’ four years ago, but their new album is almost as good. While it is relatively light on funk rock, it plays to all of the band’s other strengths. And while the lighter songs are clustered as much as they were on ‘Za Shisa’, ‘Love’ is notably more dynamic. Because of this, it feels less like blocks of songs and the flow of the album as a whole is improved. Not many bands can release an album this good almost four decades into their career, but then again, that’s hardly the only strange thing about Kinniku Shojo Tai.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ai Wa Kagero’, ‘Donmai Sakaba’, ‘Chokugeki Kamakiri Ken! Ningen Bakuhatsu’, ‘Moso Boei Gun’

Interview: Mardelas singer Marina Hebiishi: Back to basics


Mardelas is a Japanese super group. All the members of the band have won their spurs in other bands, but appear to have found their ultimate collaboration in Mardelas. The band’s new EP ‘Ground Zero’ was released recently. A perfect moment to catch up with singer Marina Hebiishi.

Hebiishi used to be the front woman of Destrose, possibly the band that spawned the largest number of spin-off groups in Japanese history. Contrary to many other former members of all-female bands, however, Hebiishi only works together with men in Mardelas. Guitarist Kikyo Oikawa and bassist Hisayuki Motoishi played together in Screaming Symphony (with current Jupiter singer Atsushi Kuze) and drummer Hideaki Yumida – Yumi for those close to him – used to be Light Bringer’s drummer.

The music of the quartet has its foundation in the hardrock and heavy metal that Screaming Symphony, for instance, plays as well. Yet, there is plenty of room for other influences. In the past, the band experimented with funky rhythms, J-pop melodies and other unexpected twists and turns. All of the three albums and five singles the band released in the years leading up to ‘Ground Zero’ therefore sound different from each other.

Basics

For ‘Ground Zero’, Mardelas notably turned to its hardrock and heavy metal roots more prominently than before, as the singer confirms. “On Mardelas I, II en III, you can see us grow as artists“, says Hebiishi. “Certain songs have influences from various other geres. After every release, new ideas come up from touring. And just growing as an artist.

‘Mardelas III’ was our most diverse album. And it also had the deepest concept. After the tour for the album we felt the passion to go back to basics with ‘Ground Zero’, but adding another element with our special guest keyboardist Mao (ex-Light Bringer). The songs for ‘Ground Zero’ were already composed prior to Mao coming on as a guest. He did, however, write the intro ‘Time Of Tribulation’. I would say he has been influential on the song arrangements. As artists, we write what we feel, so to us, it’s never really a challenge, but our way of life and how we feel like expressing ourselves.

Freedom

Kikyo and I are the main composers in Mardelas, with Kikyo arranging how it eventually sounds. When I start writing a song, I play chord progressions, which I eventually fit to the vocal melody I have in mind. After that, the band comes together and find other ways to arrange what is already written if necessary.

Most of my lyrical writing is about the reality of life. Pain, anger, but also happiness. Feelings that all of us have to live with and somehow overcome. I try not to sugarcoat anything in my lyrics and am pretty straightforward. My lyrics are in some ways a book of my life, but other times, I also try to put myself in someone else’s emotional position.

The main thing in Mardelas is the songwriting freedom that we have. What is great about this band is that although everyone is very technical and has amazing talent as a musician, they choose not to overshadow the main melodies of the songs. Everyone has the same opinion about the song being the most important thing, not showing off how great a guitarist or musician everyone is.

That freedom does not only exist in the compositions, but also in the way they are played. Hebiishi mentions the moment that Hisayuki Motoishi was brought in to replace former bassist hibiki (Saber Tiger, Alhambra, ex-Light Bringer and Silex) as an example. “Motoishi and hibiki are two completely different types of players“, says the singer. “We didn’t want to change Mo’s playing style. So instead of trying to copy hibiki’s style, we gave him the freedom to play the older songs his own way.

Natural

On Mardelas’ studio recordings, the band often goes for layered guitar arrangements. Something which seems difficult to replicate in the live setting, with only Kikyo Oikawa on stage. Hebiishi assures us not to worry: “Kikyo is such a talented guitarist, but he is also great at building his own sound equipment. Therefore, it is not so difficult for him to translate the sound we have in the studio to the stage. It is something which comes natural to him.

Although there are currently no touring plans outside of Japan – though Hebiishi resolutely states: “I wouldn’t say no” – the band has already had a taste of playing abroad. Mardelas played the Connichi anime convention in Germany two years ago and will be playing at Metal Matsuri in London on October 4th.

Chemistry

Historically speaking, super groups are not the most stable bands. Commercial interests are too big or the approaches the band members adapt just don’t fit together. Mardelas is a different story, Hebiishi assures us: “Kikyo and I were in the same band circle back in school. We built a chemistry early on. Our bass player Hisayuki Motoishi plays with Kikyo in his band Screaming Symphony. Yumi was introduced to us by our previous bass player hibiki. When we all played together in the studio, it just felt right.

As a result, it seems like Mardelas has quite the future ahead of itself. “Many cool thinks are being talked about right now“, Hebiishi promises. “Unfortunately, it is too soon to share anything about that. Please check our social media and websites often for upcoming news.

Differences on Buck-Tick’s ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’


This is an article that exists solely because I wish I had something similar in order to find out if Buck-Tick’s first compilation ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’ would be worth purchasing. While that may seem like an odd question for a compilation, this is not any ordinary compilation, as its title already subtly suggests. All of the songs have been reworked to varying degrees, which means that some of the songs have been altered significantly. If for whatever reason – mine were both biological and topgraphical – you are also a latecomer to the popular J-rock band, my hope is that this article will help you decide whether or not to purchase ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’.

While I have decided not to shy away from mentioning my opinion when I feel it is warranted, my aim was to be as descriptive as possible in order to let facts rather than my opinion shape your decision. If you feel that I have not succeeded in this goal, please feel free to let me know. In case I agree, it is only little trouble to alter the article.

1. Iconoclasm

Out of all the re-arranged tracks on ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’, ‘Iconoclasm’ is the one that most sounds like it was prepared for the strong industrial leanings of the era that followed the release. This is not only obvious from the electronic samples and noises that have been added to the beginning of the track, but also from Atsushi Sakurai’s heavily processed vocals. If anything, they sound like they have been recorded through a distorted megaphone. Personally, I think this significantly hurts the – admittedly limited – melodic qualities of the original version, but if there is one song that lends itself well for such an approach, it would be ‘Iconoclasm’. Best listened to on speakers, because it’s a little trebly and abrasive on headphones.

2. Aku No Hana

The alterations made to the justified classic ‘Aku No Hana’ are subtle enough to fool the casual listener into thinking that they were minor, but some of the changes were rather substantial. The overall sound mix is considerably brighter and more balanced than the mildly murky production of the album with the same name. While I’m not quite sure if the instruments were re-recorded or just remixed, Sakurai’s vocals went through some notable changes. Not only does his voice sound a tad deeper than on the original, some parts have been changed, like the whispers that end every other line of the verses. Overall an improvement over the original, though cutting out the vocals of the characteristic “I’m falling down” bit near the end was a bad idea.

3. Do The “I Love You”

A minute and a half longer than the original and that’s not because of an extended break or something similar. The song is substantially changed from its hyperactive, punky original incarnation into a new wave track with a more seductive groove. This version would not have sounded out of place on an INXS album. Hisashi Imai’s guitar solo remains surprisingly faithful to the original, it may actually be lifted directly from the original ‘Sexual XXXXX!’ recording. The accompanying parts are more streamlined, with especially the absence of the sudden crazy noises being notable.

4. Victims Of Love

Another track that is much longer than its previous version. Nearly twice as long in this case. For a more than significant part, this is due to its much slower tempo, which fits the dangerously seductive atmosphere Buck-Tick were going for much, much better. They would nail it completely on the ‘Climax Together’ live video recorded the same year, but this studio version is an excellent attempt as well. It is surprising to see how much Sakurai’s voice has developed in the less than four years since the original release. His somewhat deeper tone completely tosses the almost innocent quality of the original vocals out of the window, finally allowing him to make his vocal sound like they were probably intended. The abrupt ending is a bit of a downer ending though.

5. M.A.D

Easily the most recent song by the time the album was released – along with ‘Speed’ and ‘Jupiter’ – and therefore, it is kind of strange to see how much they changed it. The highly cinematic intro – think film music meets electro or maybe Enigma without choirs – made me hopeful about the outcome, but the rest of the track left me disappointed. Instead of a quirky, uncomplicated, Talking Heads-ish new wave track with some cool vocal harmonies, the re-arranged version of ‘M.A.D’ is high on electronic rhythms, sudden explosions of synth and aggressive vocals reverberating in the distance. As much as I would like to commend Buck-Tick for their creativity here, I don’t think the result is listenable enough.

6. Oriental Love Story

In its original version on ‘Seventh Heaven’, I have always thought ‘Oriental Love Story’ was promising, but also suffered from productional limitations. The new arrangement definitely improves upon that, though in a different way than I was expecting. When I saw the song was on this album, I expected Buck-Tick to further emphasize the “new romantic” atmosphere of the original and they certainly do in the first couple of minutes, but the song develops into something considerably more propulsive when the full band kicks in. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on how you prefer the song. Personally, I would not have minded a dreamy, romantic track, but the song works very well as an optimistic new wave rocker.

7. Speed

Right off the bat, the most notable change here are the sound effects carried over from the cross-fade of ‘Oriental Love Story’. That also means Imai’s lead-in measure has been sacrificed, but apart from that, the differences with the original version are quite minimal and superficial. The mix is certainly a lot brighter and it seems like Imai has added a lot of extra effects to his guitars, he may even have re-recorded his rhythm guitar in the middle section to make it sound a bit more funky. Also, some vocal textures have been added, though it is entirely possible that they were there already, they have just been made more audible in the mixing process this time around.

8. Love Me

If you don’t like Hawaiian style slide guitar work, avoid this version of ‘Love Me’ like the plague. That also counts if you found Sakurai’s vocals on the original version on the verge of being too schmaltzy, because this arrangement pushes the rest of the track into that territory as well. No longer do Imai and Hidehiko Hoshino deliver chorus laden chords that sound like a mix of late seventies punk and early gothic rock; instead the guitars are calm, shimmering and drenched in reverb. As you may have already understood, it’s also quite a bit slower than its original version. To be honest, I personally am not a big fan of either version, but if I had to choose, I would certainly go for the more energetic original.

9. Jupiter

‘Jupiter’ was an excellent ballad to begin with – Buck-Tick has quite a lot of those in their catalogue – so my guess is that they wanted to alter the track for this release just to include it. There is a lengthy Gregorian-style choir chant opening this version, but the rest of the track has just been embellished slightly. The vocal harmonies appear to have been redone, as their execution sounds better than on the original, Yutaka Higuchi added some cool, subtle fretless bass flourishes in the calmest sections and Imai reinterpreted his guitar solo. Some of the choir singers return on the background in the final chorus, but overall, ‘Jupiter’ feels like the original version with an intro tacked on.

10. …In Heaven…

On the surface, the reimagined version of ‘…In Heaven…’ does not sound that different from the version on ‘Seventh Heaven’, except for the grateful use Buck-Tick makes of the technological progress that has been made in the intervening years. New vocal textures have been added to the chorus and Imai explores the pleasures of harmonizing in the lead guitar parts, but overall, it is still pretty much the same song. And yet, it sounds so much more powerful than the already impressive original. The much clearer mix is definitely a part of the reason why. Yagami Toll’s drums especially sound massively improved in this version, but I also think Higuchi’s bass has more balls this time around. Whatever the reason, this is the definitive version of this delightful pop rocker, even though it still does not fix the awkward English. Oh well…

11. Moon Light

‘Moon Light’ more or less becomes the second part of a diptych with ‘…In Heaven…’ for this release. It kind of makes sense too; both songs have a similar upbeat “in love for the first time” vibe. In order to optimize the transition, I think ‘Moon Light’ has been adapted to fit alongside ‘…In Heaven…’ more than the other way around. The song has been slowed down slightly and the bright, clear guitar sound definitely sounds fitting to the ‘Seventh Heaven’ sound. This is still largely the same song as on ‘Hurry Up Mode’ though. The structure is largely the same and so are the melodies, though I think Sakurai has come a long way since the band’s debut album. Imai’s guitar solo on this version is beefed up and really cool here as well.

12. Just One More Kiss

If you want to appreciate what a good rhythm guitarist Hoshino is, by all means check out this version. This is something that stands out most when you listen to it on headphones and you can really make out all the subtleties of his picking hand. ‘Just One More Kiss’ on this release actually focuses slightly more on clean guitars as far as Hoshino is concerned than it did on ‘Taboo’. Apart from that, differences are relatively minor, though the shift from slightly distorted to clean might throw avid fans of the original off. Too bad that the only flaw in this furthermore more than decent song – the large amount of repetition in the last three minutes – is still there in the remake.

13. Taboo

‘Taboo’ is the reason why I considered buying ‘Koroshi No Shirabe: This Is Not Greatest Hits’ in the first place. The original is a masterful, goosebumps-inducing new wave track full of seductive grooves and vocals that really only could have been made in the eighties and – along ‘Tokyo’ – the highlight of the eponymous album. But what that song does not have is this incredible bass line courtesy of Higuchi. Here, ‘Taboo’ is completely reimagined. Whilst retaining the general melodies of the original, the guitars are much more sparse and the track is more oriented on almost jazzy grooves, though Yagami is too much of a hard hitter to go full jazz. The result: instead of one, Buck-Tick now has two utterly amazing tracks named ‘Taboo’ with the same lyrics and vocal melodies, but surprisingly little in common otherwise.

14. Hyper Love

Another track that is seamlessly connected to the previous one – Buck-Tick seemed to be in the mood for that when they sequenced the album. Not unlike ‘Victims Of Love’, the subsequent ‘Climax Together’ live recording is more powerful than the studio version, but I’m still on the fence about this one. Yes, Sakurai’s vocals are better than on the original and the chorus, while maybe a tad silly, is an improvement, but I’m a little conflicted about the choruses. They have a powerful, almost tribal feel, but they also kind of lack the mysterious menace of the original. That sounds like the album ends disappointingly for me, but admittedly, it works really well in terms of flow here.

Album of the Week 13-2019: NoGoD – Proof


With the visual kei scene being as full of rather faceless soundalikes as it is, it’s good to have bands like NoGoD pop up every once in a while. While the band does not use any elements that are all that different from what most bands in the scene are using – modern hardrock, melodic heavy metal, subtle hints of pop punk and J-rock aesthetics – they were always just a bit better than their peers. And with ‘Proof’ being probably the most consistent release NoGoD has released thus far, it rivals ‘V’ as the perfect album to get acquainted with them.

Stylistically, NoGoD is always at risk of being too little of multiple genres to appeal to fans of the respective genres. Approach them with an open mind, however, and you will find a lot to enjoy on ‘Proof’. Dancho is without a doubt one of the best and most unique singers in Japanese rock. Some people are apparently put off by the fact that he is always belting passionately, but I think that is one of his biggest assets. In addition, the rhythm section is rock solid and Kyrie is one of the more creative lead guitarists in the country.

‘Proof’ was preceded by two excellent singles. Selecting single was not always NoGoD’s forte, but they hit the nail on the head this time around. ‘Missing’ is very melodic and elegiac in atmosphere, but at the same time, the riffs are undeniably heavy, which pushes the song out of the power ballad territory it would have been in otherwise. Certainly one of the best songs in the band’s discography. ‘Arlequin’ is a little more uptempo and aggressive. It’s not quite heavy enough to be metal, but there’s a lot of metallic chugging on the lowest strings of the guitar, which is contrasted nicely with the open and catchy chorus.

That is hardly the only catchy moment on ‘Proof’. Opening track ‘Break Out!’ feels like a Japanese spin on the heaviest side of the Foo Fighters, ‘Dreamer’ is a little more aggressive in vocal approach, but just as memorable and ‘Tonight!’ will get stuck in your head no matter what. ‘Proof’ may sound even better when the band adopts a darker approach. The title track inverts NoGoD’s formula by making the verses more positive than its great chorus, ‘Shinkiro’ works its way through multiple climaxes and a wonderfully brooding middle section, while ‘Henrietta’ is surprisingly heavy with some inventive lead guitar work in its chorus. ‘Sendo’ is even the fastest, heaviest moment in the band’s history, bordering on thrash metal.

If you want to know what NoGoD is all about, ‘Proof’ may actually be the best place to start. It is generally slightly darker in tone than most of their other works, but every aspect that makes them the great band they are is here, right down to the fantastic instrumental ‘Kyoji to Tomoni’ and the awesome intro ‘In The Cage…’. Once, in the late seventies and early eighties, there was a time when hardrock and heavy metal weren’t two separate things yet. What NoGoD shows here is there is no need for that to be the case in the 21st century either.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sendo’, ‘Missing’, ‘Proof’

Album of the Week 11-2019: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Shinjin


Making a worthy comeback is one thing. Releasing a comeback album that is as good as your classic material is rare though. And yet, that is exactly what Kinniku Shojo Tai does on ‘Shinjin’. The band had broken up somewhat unceremoniously in the late nineties after a string of enjoyable, but highly inconsistent albums. A reunion was announced in late 2006 – without drummer Akira Ota but with original keyboard player Satoshi Mishiba helping out significantly as a session musician – and less than a year later, ‘Shinjin’ was released. Easily their best set of songs since their early nineties heyday, this is how comebacks should be.

With Kinniku Shojo Tai’s trademark bizarre mix of punk, metal, funk rock, prog and Queen-like theatricality being firmly in place, it would be tempting to say that nothing has changed since the split. There is a small, but notable change of direction to be found, however, as post-reunion Kinniku Shojo Tai has a notably stronger orientation towards melodic hard rock and power metal than before. And while some may argue that wild genre-hopping was an important part of the band’s sound, it does cause the overall sound of ‘Shinjin’ to be a little more consistent than before.

Of course, the band has not suddenly ditched all of its weirdness. There is some rather unique piano work underneath even the thickest guitar riffs and only very few western hard rock bands would dare to attempt a nervous, jangly sixties rocker like ‘Nukenin’. The fact that the first vocals on the album are some of the most aggressive “la-la-la” chants in music history (‘Nakanaori No Theme’) is quite telling as well. The campfire atmosphere of closer ‘Shinjin Band No Theme’ is one of the many moments evidencing the band’s sense of humor, but it’s surprisingly listenable as well.

Still, if you primarily want to hear Kinniku Shojo Tai rock out, ‘Shinjin’ is one of the best places to start. The blunt force of the band’s punk roots shines through on ‘Mishiyo Hikikaiken’, but there’s a surprising amount of class in their hardrockers too. Fumihiko Kitsutaka’s compositions, such as ‘Torifido No Hi Ga Kitemo Futaridake Ha Iki Nuku’ and the particularly neoclassical ‘Headbang Hatsudensho’, are renowned for that, but the powerful ‘Ai Wo Uchikorose!’ appears to be from the same mold, despite being written by his fellow guitarist Toshiaki Honjo. Also, letting a singer as shouty and unsubtle as Kenji Otsuki sing no less than three ballads seems like a bad idea, but they are fortunately quite good, the remarkably dynamic ‘Koshonin To Rosalia’ in particular.

Eclectic bands like Kinniku Shojo Tai usually have a couple of flaws on their albums, but they are quite limited in number on ‘Shinjin’. The sequencing could have been a little more effective and I am unsure about the necessity of the re-recordings of ‘Moretsu Ataro’ and the speed metal monster ‘Iwan No Baka’. Especially the latter does sound significantly better than the original version though. Having them on there does contribute to the album’s introductory value to the weird world of Kinniku Shojo Tai. ‘Shinjin’ is an album that plays to the band’s strengths, after all, and therefore worth a shot if you like any of the genres mentioned in this review.

Recommended tracks: ‘Headbang Hatsudensho’, ‘Ai Wo Uchikorose!’, ‘Iwan No Baka ’07’

Album of the Week 03-2019: Asagi – Madara


Asagi’s debut solo album is one of those instances where I doubted the necessity of a solo venture. After all, Asagi is by far the most prolific composer of his main band, the immensely popular visual kei band D, and his surprisingly unique voice is characteristic enough to add D’s character to everything he sings on. What makes ‘Madara’ a successful record, however, is its focus. Japanese folk influences have been quite prominent in some of D’s best songs, but on this album, Asagi goes full-on folk rock and folk metal. And it’s not just a gimmick: the songs are great.

Of course, Asagi has not lost his ability to write catchy, powerful rock songs. In fact, some of the songs are filled with his trademark stock visual kei melodies – opening track ‘Gekkai No Miko’ most notably – but the Japanese traditional instruments, such as the koto, the shamisen and the taiko drums, are an integral part of the songwriting rather than an extra touch. On a majority of the songs, it’s not the guitars, but these instruments that carry the melodies. While the guitars are there to give them extra punch, that does impact the character of the melodies significantly.

While the entirity of ‘Madara’ is highly entertaining, the best moments of the album are the hardest rocking ones. Songs like ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Kimera’ and ‘Komo Sakura’ just work wonders: the shamisen introduces the melody, the electric guitars join, either in unison or as bottom-heavy accompaniment, creating some fantastic oriental folk metal. I have always wondered why the number of bands attempting this style is not larger and Asagi makes a strong case for the combination of sounds. The more melodic rockers, such as ‘Hotarubi’, ‘Hana Kumo No Ran’ and ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’ are sure to please D fans, but might also draw in people who usually find them too heavy.

Since this is an Asagi album, there is of course room for some ballads in which he can show off his vocal talents. There are quite a few of them here and those are probably the most folky sounding ones on the record. Ironically, it is not Asagi himself, but bassist (and prolific producer) Hajime Okano who stands out on the album’s best ballad ‘Kaishikoki Eru E Kaeryanse’ features some gorgeous melodic work on the fretless bass that really enhances the atmosphere of the song. Closing track ‘Asagimadara’ is another beautiful ballad, this time with absolutely stunning symphonic touches.

Beside the songwriting, it is also impressive how Asagi managed to make the album about the songs and not about the all-star cast that appears on the album, which features members of Luna Sea, Dir En Grey, Galneryus, D and loads of other high profile Japanese bands. It still sounds like a cohesive collection of songs and that, again, is probably the result of Asagi’s razor sharp focus. He wanted to make a powerful rock album that was heavy on the Japanese folk influences and that is exactly what ‘Madara’ has become. One of the Japanese highlights of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubo No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukoyo Ni Hoeyu’

Album of the Week 02-2019: Gargoyle – Gaia


For some reason, ‘Gaia’ often gets ignored when people discuss the greatest works of Gargoyle. Up until last year’s unfortunate dissolution of the band, the songs on ‘Gaia’ did not even appear on their live sets all that much. Maybe that is a result of the material on the album making optimal use of the two guitar line-up, since Gargoyle would continue with just one guitarist after Yotaro left. It would really be a pity to let ‘Gaia’ go by unnoticed though, because there is simply too much good music on the album. It is in fact one of Gargoyle’s finest efforts.

‘Gaia’ is probably the second most experimental album Gargoyle released to date, surpassed only by its predecessor ‘Natural’. Unlike the latter, however, ‘Gaia’ feels pretty coherent stylistically and does not have as many sudden shifts, save for maybe the odd, but successful percussion and Spanish guitar exercise that is ‘Hako’ and the hyperactive funk rock of ‘Baby Cat’, one of Gargoyle’s better funky tracks. Everything else consists of variations on the trusted Gargoyle formula. Some songs have a cleaner guitar approach and more swing rhythmically (‘Unkown ~Annon~’) or a more exotic overall sound (‘Yagate Hikaru’), but but the thrash riffs and heavy metal melodies are everywhere.

Opening track ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’ does a pretty good job of preparing its listeners for the general sound of ‘Gaia’. The rhythm guitar work and Katsuji’s rolling double bass thunder still is as deeply rooted in thrash as the band always was, but the overall approach is a little more melodic. Frontman Kiba even shows a surprising amount of restraint in its uncharacteristically melodic vocal lines, but it all works remarkably well. ‘Sora Wa Ao’ is another track that manages to successfully blend a wild, propulsive bottom end with a melodic, almost rocky top layer.

That does not mean ‘Gaia’ cannot thrash your face off. The stomping ‘Meditation’ and the vaguely OverKill-ish ‘Who Are You?’ are both excellent energetic thrashers in the best Gargoyle tradition, while especially the speed monster ‘Kamikaze’ is absolutely annihilating. Truly one of the highlights of the band’s career. If ‘Gaia’ proves anything, however, it is that Gargoyle does not have to do that to sound amazing. ‘Sanbika’, for instance, is one of the most powerful tracks on here and it has an almost doom metal vibe, with Kentaro’s and Yotaro’s riffs not containing any more notes than they have to and Toshi laying down some of his best melodic bass lines. Definitely one of the best of their more atmospheric tracks.

My only complaints about ‘Gaia’ are aimed at its production. The guitar sound is not as powerful and pulsating as it should be and I have no idea why Kiba’s vocals on ‘Sayonara Jibun’, otherwise a very pleasant melodic thrasher, had to be so trebly, borderline unlistenably distorted. But apart from that, ‘Gaia’ is one of the best albums the Japanese experimental thrash machine has ever released. It may even have been the most consistent set of songs they have ever recorded, save for the near-perfection of ‘Tsuki No Toge’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sanbika’, ‘Kamikaze’, ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’, ‘Who Are You?’

Album of the Week 44-2018: Kinniku Shojo Tai – Za Shisa


Despite being somewhat unpredictable stylistically, Kinniku Shojo Tai has been experiencing a very solid run recently. More so than during the latter years of their original run, in fact. Some of their recent albums are slightly better than others, ‘Omake No Ichinichi (Tatakai No Hibi)’ in particular, but none of them is less than enjoyable. ‘Za Shisa’ is another convincing entry into their discography, which currently counts over twenty studio albums. The general vibe is slightly more relaxed and less crazy than on their previous records, but anyone who liked their melting pot of influences before will certainly enjoy ‘Za Shisa’.

Kinniku Shojo Tai’s unpredictability is a result of every band member bringing something different to the table. ‘Za Shisa’ features a relatively large amount of the playful funk rock riffs that guitarist Toshiaki Honjo specializes in. Everything muscular, classy and melodic is the work of Fumihiko Kitsutaka, who in my opinion is one of the world’s greatest guitarists and arrangers. Founding bassist Yuichiro Uchida usually is responsible for the weird progressive and psychedelic stuff, while his co-founder Kenji Otsuki yells, speaks and sings everything together. That sounds like it may not work, but ‘Za Shisa’ proves it does.

The first peak of ‘Za Shisa’ arrives quite early. The elegant melodic hardrock of ‘Shogeki No Outsider Art’ is Kitsutaka in its purest form with a gorgeous chorus, after which the darker, vaguely Middle Eastern tones of the climactic ‘Occult’ account for one of the album’s most atmospheric moments. What follows is the most metallic track of the album; the aggressive speed metal of ‘Zombie River ~ Row Your Boat’ would not have sounded out of place on one of the band’s earliest releases. And like on those albums, the creative use of piano and dynamics lends gravitas to the energetic aggression.

After that, the album takes a slight dip. Not that ‘Naze Hito Wo Koroshi Cha Ike Nai No Daro Ka?’ and ‘Uchu No Hosoku’ are bad songs, it’s just too much consecutive tranquillity. The pace is picked back up quite quickly though, with the subdued seventies rock feel with spoken verses of the awesome ‘Marilyn Monroe Returns’ bringing Thin Lizzy’s ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’ to mind. Uchida’s songs ‘Kenji No Zundoku Fushi’ and ‘Parallax No Shisa’ have the dynamic, haunting quality he excels at. The former has a pleasant stomp, while the way the guitar line and piano melody teasingly dance in unison on the latter is only the beginning of its ominous atmosphere. ‘Next Generation’ and ‘I, Toya’ are pleasant upbeat rockers.

Though ‘Za Shisa’ feels somewhat more laid-back, Kinniku Shojo Tai is still as weird and reluctant to stick to one genre as ever. As always, it may require some time to sink in, but it is a rewarding album for repeated spins. If you have not heard of the band before and need a western reference: imagine if Queen had embraced punk and further developed the metallic leanings of their first few albums. Now add a dash of Japanese weirdness to the mix. Sounds impossible? Tell that to them. They have been doing it for over thirty years.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shogeki No Outsider Art’, ‘Zombie River ~ Row Your Boat’, ‘Occult’