Posts Tagged ‘ Metal ’

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’

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In Memoriam Chris Cornell 1964-2017


Now this one came as a shock. Last week, I even reviewed the best album Chris Cornell was ever a part of and now, he is dead. Despite making a few dubious artistic choices throughout his career, Cornell had one colossal voice and has written a bunch of downright fantastic songs. His death is still shrouded in mystery at the moment, but it occurred only hours after a sold out Soundgarden show in Detroit. It’s hard to say anything useful at the moment, but let me at least pay a little tribute to – by far – the best male singer from the Seattle rock scene.

Despite ultimately being one of the biggest bands of the Seattle scene of the early nineties, Soundgarden started as early as 1984. Kim Thayil is often credited for the unique guitar tapestries of the band, but Cornell was quite the guitar player himself and their interaction was an essential part of the heavy, yet melodic and deliberately awkward sound of the band. Cornell either wrote or co-wrote a significant portion of the band’s output. Soundgarden had some of the most natural sounding odd time measures in the music business and a bunch of riffs that within Seattle were only rivaled by Alice In Chains in terms of heaviness.

Soundgarden was one of the more interesting rock bands that Seattle had in the eighties, but it wasn’t until 1991 that Cornell found his voice. Both litterally and in terms of songwriting. That’s the year when Temple Of The Dog released its sole album in April and Soundgarden released their massive ‘Badmotorfinger’ in October. Two monumental records with Cornell’s voice on them. ‘Temple Of The Dog’ was a strong tribute to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood which also featured the recording debut of one Eddie Vedder and ‘Badmotorfinger’ showed Cornell almost litterally outdoing himself with songs like ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’.

While it meant Soundgarden’s breakthrough and artistic highlight, the band didn’t reach its peak in popularity with 1994’s ‘Superunknown’. Five successful singles were released from that album, the most popular of which – the monster hit ‘Black Hole Sun’ – won two Grammy Awards. Personally, I always preferred the gloomy ‘Fell On Black Days’. After one more album in 1996 – ‘Down On The Upside’ – Soundgarden split up and Cornell focused on his own projects. Always an experimental guy, he tried out several genres and while I don’t agree with every decision he made – the R&B record ‘Scream’ that he made with producer Timbaland is borderline embarrassing – he deserves a lot of respect for trying.

In the meantime, Cornell also formed Audioslave with all members of Rage Against The Machine except for singer Zack de la Rocha. They had a couple of hits, but eventually the former bands of all members involved would reunite. That included Soundgarden, whose 2012 release ‘King Animal’ battle’s Alice In Chains’ ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ for the title of best comeback album ever made by a rock band. Thayil, Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron seemed to be very serious about reuniting for good, but while on tour, Cornell passed away.

Besides the songs, we would have to remember Cornell for having a sense of humor that didn’t ruin his music. How else would you explain the hilarious glam rock and hair metal parody that is ‘Big Dumb Sex’? Sadly, there is very little that fans of his voice can laugh about today, but we are luckily still left with recordings of his amazing voice and I suggest we play it as loud as we can. I’ll start.

Album of the Week 09-2017: Onmyo-za – Fuujin Kaikou


With the genre nearing five decades of existence, finding unique sounding metal is becoming increasingly difficult. Onmyo-za somehow succeeds at doing so without attempting anything too far-fetched. Their riffs and twin melodies are generally from the traditional heavy metal and hard rock mold, but their open-minded approach to songwriting allows for a spontaneous sound that contains elements of J-rock, progrock and hints of Japanese folk. Also, singing couple Kuroneko and bass playing band leader Matatabi forsakes the “Beauty and the Beast” approach of most metallic male-female singing duos in favor of something more melodic, further emphasizing their highly original nature.

‘Fuujin Kaikou’ is the wind-themed half of a diptych with the simultaneously released – and thunder-themed – ‘Raijin Sousei’. That doesn’t mean it’s all soft and subdued though; in fact, there are plenty of riff-driven metal anthems like ‘Ichimokuren’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the excellent opener ‘Kamikaze’ present. However, it is the more melodic and better – by a hair – of the two. This approach leaves all the room Kuroneko needs to deliver her best vocal performance to date and often lays the guitars of Maneki and Kurakan on an atmospheric, but never overpowering symphonic bed. And even the ballads – there’s quite a few of them – are remarkably powerful.

To start with the latter category: Kuroneko’s composition ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’ is the most beautiful, goosebumps-inducing ballad the band has ever released. It’s the only song on the record where the orchestral tracks take over the guitars, but it fits the beautiful, cinematic atmosphere of the song perfectly. Both guitar solos are simply breathtaking as well. This does not disqualify the other calmer songs though; ‘Manazashi’ and ‘Hebimiko’ are somewhat more traditional, but excellent ballads and ‘Yaobikuni’ brings to mind Dio’s lighter sounding singles from the late eighties.

On the – slightly – heavier side of things, ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is a true highlight. With a great build-up, highly climactic lead guitar themes and a downright spectacular chorus that has Matatabi and Kuroneko duetting beautifully, the song is simply a lesson in how to write a mindblowing melodic metal song. ‘Saredo Itsuwari No Okuribi’ is somewhat more subdued, but still a great metal song with irresistible melodies. ‘Muufuu Ninpocho’ features a godly bass sound courtesy of Matatabi and is a bit more rocky, as is the – almost traditionally – upbeat closing track ‘Haru Ranman Ni Shiki No Mau Nari’. Both of those are songs that could sound horribly out of place on a metal record, but the general atmosphere makes them work here.

Exploring Onmyo-za’s discography can be a bit intimidating for a westerner, due to the fact that every song and album title is in Japanese, but ultimately, it will be a rewarding experience. Their unique sound somehow feels familiar and highly original at the same time, which was exactly what yours truly was looking for at the time he discovered them. Their status as one of the more popular Japanese metal bands is absolutely justified and listening to ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ – or really almost any of their albums – is highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’, ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, ‘Kamikaze’

Best of 2017: The Albums

No album of the week this week, because new year’s day is coincidentally on a Sunday. Also, I suspect you might be tired of my ramblings after reading all of this. When talking about 2016 in music, people tend to focus too much on the popular musicians that have died and as a result, call it a bad year. And sure, I have been a big fan of Prince for ages, but let’s keep in mind that most of the great musicians from the sixties, seventies and eighties aren’t getting any younger, so there’s a chance worse years are ahead in that matter.

When focusing on the actual music that has been released, I would say 2016 has been the year of heavily overrated western releases. Metallica released a record with a couple of good songs and one great one (‘Spit Out The Bone’, while two minutes too long, is amazing), Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is definitely not better than ‘I Am… Sasha Fierce’ and I feel that a lot of records by deceased musicians have done better simply because of their deaths. There will be one of those in the list though. With all this in mind, you probably won’t be surprised that my number one is not from Europe or North America and still very much alive.

1. Myrath – Legacy

With ‘Legacy’, the English translation of their band name, Myrath is finally showing its full potential, which in all honesty I thought they were already showing on ‘Tales Of The Sands’ five years earlier. The basic progressive power metal sound of their previous albums is still there, as are the beautiful string arrangements that are heavily inspired by the mal’uf music of ther native Tunisia, but the songs are more streamlined and melodic Zaher Zorgati’s voice -which was already amazing – has made tremendous progress. Every song has a strong identity of its own and yet, the record has a very nice flow. That sounds like everything about the album is very close to perfect and honestly, that describes my feelingsa bout this one perfectly; ‘Legacy’ is a masterpiece of fine songwriting and excellent musicianship and therefore, my album of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nobody’s Lives’, ‘Through Your Eyes’, ‘Get Your Freedom Back’

2. The Answer – Solas

After their amazing ‘Revival’ album in 2011, I sort of lost track of The Answer. The following albums were good, but missing the magic of ‘Revival’. The Northern Irish band must have realized that as well, because they have radically changed direction on this monumental record. The bigger emphasis on the band’s Celtic roots is often highlighted in reviews and while that is true, the albums as a whole is an exciting, atmospheric rock record with very diverse influences. Interestingly, it takes until the eighth track ‘Left Me Standing’ until you get something resmbling a “typical” The Answer song. The Led Zeppelin influence is still there, but think ‘Houses Of The Holy’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’ instead of the first two records this time around. The band has seriously outdone itself on this record and every fan of good rock music should have this one in his collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beautiful World’, ‘Solas’, ‘Untrue Colour’

3. Gargoyle – Taburakashi

Vicious as ever? No. More vicious than ever! Honestly, I don’t know where the members of Gargoyle – the youngest of which is in his mid-forties – get this unbridled, hungry energy from, but it has resulted in yet another mindblowing record – their third in this decade alone. It does seem like they’re exploring the extremes of their sound more and more; the hyper-aggressive thrash metal riffing starts this album with what is probably the most intense succession of five tracks ever on a Gargoyle record, but Kentaro’s classy guitar melodies – often dual harmonies – give the band a classic heavy metal or even power metal edge. Of course, with this being Gargoyle, there’s some crazy experimentation going on during the second half of the record, but it all stays pretty heavy. Gargoyle is about to hit their 30th anniversary this year and it sounds like there’s no slowing them down.

Recommended tracks: ‘Crumbling Roar’, ‘Ichi’, ‘Yaban Kairo’

4. Saber Tiger – Bystander Effect

Though released as a Tower Records exclusive in late 2015, Saber Tiger’s new record was released publicly this year and it’s almost as good as their recent masterpiece ‘Decisive’. Their perfect blend of classic heavy metal melodicism and contemporary progressive influences makes them more relevant than ever and that in itself is an impressive feat for a band that’s been around since the early eighties. The direction on ‘Bystander Effect’ is slightly more melodic than on the previous record and that makes the songs highly memorable. But fear not: all the rhythmic intensity and guitar solo euphoria is still there and Takenori Shimoyama’s raw, passionate vocal work is the icing on the cake. ‘Bystander Effect’ is proof that dwelling on nostalgia isn’t necessary as an eighties metal band; if your songwriting and musicianship is as good as it is here, there’s no need to do so.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sin Eater’, ‘RinNe’, ‘What I Used To Be’

5. Yossi Sassi Band – Roots And Roads

Since Yossi Sassi left Orphaned Land, he suddenly could use his heavy material alongside his more world fusion oriented stuff in his own solo band. As a result, ‘Roots And Roads’ is heavier and contains more lead vocals than the two albums that preceded it. That doesn’t mean Sassi has gone full oriental metal on this album though. In fact, it just means that his brand of world fusion – the term he has chosen himself is oriental rock – has gotten broader. And that’s really what Sassi’s music is about: exploring different styles from different regions and simply denying the fact that boundaries exist. In the hands of more pretentious musicians, the result could have become an incoherent mess, but as good as Sassi is on any of the struing instruments he plays here, he is a songwriter first and foremost. This makes ‘Roots And Roads’ both musically interesting and highly listenable.

Recommended tracks: ‘Palm Dance’, ‘Winter’, ‘Root Out’

6. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

Esperanza Spalding is a musician I had been following for a while, because she is a brilliant bassist and she always seemed to have interesting ideas on how to fuse jazz with somewhat more contemporary music. However, nothing could have prepared me for ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’. A fusion masterpiece if there ever was one. But if that gives you the impression that this record is full of self-indulgent soling, think again. The album is full of unconventional, but also concise and memorable songs. Spalding’s vocal performance is her best yet and Matthew Stevens’ “what if Hendrix played in a jazz band” approach gives the album something irresistible for me. The strong and rhythmically dense, but swinging interplay between the surprisingly limited number of musicians is simply excellent. Also, the part jazz concert, part performance art performance of this album at North Sea Jazz is probably the best concert I’ve seen this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Funk The Fear’, ‘Good Lava’, ‘Judas’

7. Epica – The Holographic Principle

From a surprisingly limited number of musicians to a huge amount of them. Epica was never devoid of bombastic arrangements, but ‘The Holographic Principle’ sounds simply huge and somehow, that hasn’t occurred at the cost of the band’s heaviness. In fact, I don’t think my attention was ever drawn towards Epica’s riffing as much as I was here. I would almost say that the riffs are even more memorable than the choruses. And that’s why the album is a bigger masterpiece than I expected it to be. I love symphonic metal, but often, it’s too much of either to be very interesting. ‘The Holographic Principle’ manages to be Epica’s most symphonic and most metal record thus far and it just works. It doesn’t fight each other, it complements each other. And for that, they deserve all the praise they can get. Due to a couple of big interviews, this is one of the albums I’ve had to listen to most all year, but I can’t say it’s been an ordeal in any way.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ascension -Dream State Armaggeddon-‘, ‘Tear Down Your Walls’, ‘Edge Of The Blade’

8. King Of The World – Cincinatti

Just when I thought that it’s been a while since the last King Of The World album, the press release of ‘Cincinatti’ reached me. What makes this band stand out from the rest of the blues scene is that they’re not just excellent musicians, they’re amazing songwriters as well. And that’s why their records have a deal of variation and memorability that’s quite uncommon in the scene. ‘Cincinatti’ is no exception. In fact, adding horns to the mix makes the album the next step in the evolution of King Of The World. I’d like to give a special mention to the amazing ‘World On Fire’, which doesn’t really sound like anything the band has ever done before, but still feels trusted. Still labelled a supergroup due to the band members’ previous involvement in some prestigious acts, King Of The World has proven these last few years that they are much, much more than just the sum of their parts.

Recommended tracks: ‘World On Fire’, ‘Voodoo’, ‘No Way Out’

9. Gackt – Last Moon

Gackt is probably the biggest rock star in Japan and although I’ve always appreciated him as a singer and songwriter, ‘Last Moon’ is probably the first of his records that I can listen to start to finish. Most importantly because he’s largely let go of his bombastic intro-soft verse-big chorus approach, which really got on my nerves after a while. Ironically, his diminished focus on those dynamics has made ‘Last Moon’ his most dynamic set of songs thus far. In addition, ‘Last Moon’ is still a highly polished product, as we’ve come to expect from Gackt, but it feels more organic and that’s largely due to his interaction with his fantastic backing band. One could wonder if it was a good decision to close the album with two ballads, but since they’re both excellent, I’ll give Gackt the benefit of the doubt. Possibly the best J-rock album released since Luna Sea’s last album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Zan’, ‘One More Kiss’, ‘Returner ~Yami No Shuen~’

10. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

Insomnium’s typically Finnish blend of melodic death metal and doom metal was something I always sort of liked, but lost track of due to my fading lack of interest in extreme metal. The idea of a one-track forty minute album did sort of attract my interest and I don’t regret checking it out. The lyrics tell the story of a group of vikings’ travel to an Irish island in a particularly severe winter and like any good concept album, the atmosphere of the music changes along what happens in the story. This makes ‘Winter’s Gate’ quite an immersive experience and also the most dynamic thing that Insomnium has recorded thus far. What makes this record so good is that no single element within the music overpowers the overall picture, though I do think that the lead guitars and the subtle keyboards work wonders for the atmosphere. ‘Winter’s Gate’ was a surprising highlight of 2016 for me.

Recommended tracks: ‘Winter’s Gate’ (there aren’t any others, after all)

11. Beth Hart – Fire On The Floor

‘Better Than Home’ was a good record, but a little too subdued for my taste. ‘Fire On The Floor’ luckily shows Beth Hart exploring all of her registers again, both musically and vocally. Honestly, Beth Hart is the best female rock singer alive today, so it would be a waste of her talent not to hear her rock out a little. She also puts many a blues man to shame with her slow blues performances and started experimenting with some show jazz-like tendencies remarkably successfully in recent years. All of this and much more can be heard on ‘Fire On The Floor’. In addition, Hart’s backing band for the sessions consists of giants like Michael Landau, Rick Marotta, Waddy Wachtel, Dean Parks and Ivan Neville. Again, I’m not sure if closing the record with three ballads was the right decision, which is also why I think it falls just a tiny bit short of the incredible ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’, but it’s a great album nonetheless.

Recommended tracks: ‘Love Is A Lie’, ‘Baby Shot Me Down’, ‘Fire On The Floor’

12. Ningen Isu – Kaidan Shoshite Shi To Eros

Although Ningen Isu has been recording some fine material on the intersection where doom metal, psychedelic rock and progressive hardrock come together for the last thirty years, they just keep on getting better. For me, the increasing heaviness – quite clearly influenced by Black Sabbath and Budgie – has given their recent material a consistency that earlier material lacked and therefore, their brand new ‘Kaidan Shoshite Shi To Eros’ turned out to be their best album yet. The heavy, Sabbath-ish riffing is front and center here, but there’s sparse folky elements, strange chants and other stylistic detours that still make the material unmistakably Ningen Isu. And despite this weird combination of styles, the album has a very pleasant flow. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Exploring Ningen Isu’s discography may be a bit intimidating because of all the Japanese titles, but it’s a very rewarding quest as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Chounouryoku Ga Attanara’, ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Ookami No Tasogare’

13. Marillion – F.E.A.R.

The acronym in the title is a little more crude than their subtle and intelligent music warrants, but luckily that’s the only problem I have with Marillion’s new album. Musically, it’s easily their best record since ‘Marbles’ twelve years prior. It shows the band all over the place: from folky to abstract and from highly accessible to almost impenetrably progressive. Because, in deed, after a decade of getting closer and closer to alternative rock – almost dangerously so at times – Marillion is first and foremost a progressive rock band on ‘F.E.A.R.’. It’s a 21st century take on the genre, but it’s highly progressive nonetheless. The band’s greatest assets – Steve Hogarth’s expressive vocals and Steve Rothery’s sparse, highly tasteful lead guitar work – are in full effect here and with three long, dynamic suites, there’s a lot to immerse yourself in here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Russia’s Locked Doors’, ‘Why Is Nothing Ever True?’, ‘Wake Up In Music’

14. DeWolff – Roux-Ga-Roux

Despite still not being particularly old, the three members of DeWolff have overcome the stigma of being “those three very young kids” in their early career remarkable well. Continuing to reinvent themselves musically has contributed to that as well. Where they sounded like British bands on their debut – Deep Purple and Pink Floyd quite prominently – their sound has gradually become more American, whilst still always sounding like DeWolff. On ‘Roux-Ga-Roux’, there is a strong New Orleans influence, if the title didn’t make that clear yet. The bigger emphasis on groove has considerably improved the band’s sound and while there are still a few inspired, semi-psychedelic jams, the more concise songwriting gives the record a somewhat more timeless edge, in addition to making it a very pleasant for those who aren’t as familiar with exercises in psychedelia. I’m very curious to see what they’ll do next.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sugar Moon’, ‘Stick It To The Man’, ‘Tired Of Loving You’

15. Vektor – Terminal Redux

Out of the whole retro thrash scene, Vektor was always one of the very few bands that could offer more than just nostalgia. They’ve always been labelled Voivod clones because of their sci-fi themes and use of dissonant chords, but that’s really where the comparison stops. Vektor plays hyperspeed progressive thrash metal that often borders on extreme metal, not in the last place due to David DiSanto’s screeching vocals. ‘Terminal Redux’ ups the ante in terms of the progressive side of the band, because almost all of the songs are very long, but because a lot happens within them, you’ll hardly notice. But no matter how intricate or complex it gets, Vektor seems to prioritize proper headbanging over a display of their dazzling capabilities. ‘Collapse’ isn’t just the Pink Floyd-ish highlight of the record, but also what happened to their line-up last week. DiSanto promised there’ll be more of this though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Collapse’, ‘Ultimate Artificer’, ‘Psychotropia’

16. Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

Believe it or not, but this release was already planned before the completely unexpected death of Prince. In fact, members of his fan club already had this release for a while. The first “phase” was released about half a year earlier and a little too electronic for me, but this is Prince as I like him best. It may not be very remarkable in terms of songwriting – despite the baroque ‘Baltimore’ being the best pop song of the year – but these are highly organic jams where Prince and his band audibly feed off each other and basically just let the music be what it wants to be. That results in a handful of jazzy pop tracks and light, shimmering funk grooves. Sometimes surprisingly bare bones, at other times lushly arranged. It probably wouldn’t have sold as much as it did if Prince hadn’t died about two weeks prior, but this is one of the cases where it definitely should have.

Recommended tracks: ‘Baltimore’, ‘2 Y. 2 D.’, ‘Stare’

17. Textures – Phenotype

Textures has a great reputation worldwide because of their contribution to the genre that is apparently now known as djent. They have always been able to write a good song or two (or nine, in this case) though and having a downright amazing vocalist may have made that particular job a little easier. Seriously, I thought Daniël de Jongh got the job down admirably on ‘Dualism’, but hearing him on a track like ‘New Horizons’ really shows how good he is in many different registers. The balance between heavy, choppy riffs and beautiful, atmospheric sections is better than ever on ‘Phenotype’ and the production of former guitarist Jochem Jacobs is remarkably organic for a contemporary heavy band. It’s surprising how a band can make such a refreshing album by simply improving upon what they have always done, but ‘Phenotype’ is one of such cases. I’m very curious to hear ‘Genotype’, the second part of this diptych.

Recommended tracks: ‘New Horizons’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Illuminate The Trail’

18. Santana – IV

Working for a guitar mag, you can probably imagine that the news of Carlos Santana reuiniting with Neal Schon and most of the other musicians that played on his untitled third album creates quite a stir. Luckily, the music backed up the hype. Most of ‘IV’ displays the almost reckless blend of psychedelic rock, blues and latin that the original Santana band was known for and seems to have evolved from jam sessions. Especially the instrumental tracks have spontaneity to them that isn’t very common on mainstream rock albums anymore. The only complaint I have about the album is that the clean, modern production is a little too glossy for some of the material, but luckily, not so much that it ruins your listening pleasure. With Schon and Santana jamming together, there’s enough spectacular guitar work for the magazine, but if you’re more of a rhythm junky, there’s more than enough to enjoy for you here as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yambu’, ‘Echizo’, ‘Filmore East’

19. Mary’s Blood – Fate

Highly anticipated for me, because I consider its predecessor ‘Bloody Palace’ a near-masterpiece. It doesn’t quite reach that level, but ‘Fate’ is once again a strong heavy metal, bordeline power metal record. Saki’s stellar guitar work will always be a point of interest for people who are into Mary’s Blood, but what really set this collective apart from all the other all-female bands that are currently conquering Japan – apart from their music having more power than many of their contemporaries, male or female – is the powerful, slightly raw voice of Eye. She is once again in excellent shape here. Some of the more experimental moments on the album are a subject of debate, but the record is full of driving rhythms, energetic riff work, catchy melodies and of course amazing vocals. There’s only so much hype a band can create; I strongly believe Mary’s Blood has a bright future due to having the musical value to back it up.

Recommended tracks: ‘Change The Fate’, ‘Queen Of The Night’, ‘Counter Strike’

20. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust

Another one-track album. This time a 33 minute one with lyrics about the rise and the ultimate destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Gorguts has taken that story and accompanied it with their trade-mark avant-garde death metal sound. While that style normally isn’t for me, Luc Lemay’s compositions full of guitar and bass lines that crawl and circle around each other have always intrigued me. This time, it’s no different. Even in the very subdued, tranquil and abstract middle section, there’s this tension that keeps me hanging on to the song. Very skillfully crafted and very powerfully performed. The production is surprisingly good as well; Patrice Hamelin’s drums actually sound like drums instead of computerized signals and it isn’t quite as “all loud all the time” as many modern death metal albums are. A very interesting piece of art with an interesting narrative to boot.

Recommended tracks: ‘Pleiades’ Dust’ (again, there aren’t any others)

Album of the Week 49-2016: Iommi – Fused


Combine the talents of heavy metal’s original riff master and the most soulful singer Deep Purple has ever had and ‘Fused’ is what you get. Even though the band carries the last name of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, the album seems to be a perfect collaboration between him and singer bassist Glenn Hughes, hence the double billing on the cover. This is easily the heaviest thing Hughes has ever been involved with, but it’s also one of Iommi’s most inspired releases ever. Sometimes it sounds like they’re trying to blow each other off the record, but they’re just pushing each other towards their best performances.

The quality of Iommi’s riff work was never in question, but I didn’t quite like his tone on Black Sabbath’s earliest releases. On ‘Fused’, however, his guitar sounds huge, which already accounts for an overwhelming first impression. Luckily there’s more than just that; the exciting structure of songs like ‘Saviour Of The Real’ and a handful of almost ridiculously catchy choruses take care of the replay value. Admittedly, this riff-heavy approach always has the risk of the songs ending up a bit samey, but for the majority of the record, Iommi and his merry men seem to avoid that pitfall remarkably well.

Hughes, on the other hand, is the type of singer you either love or loathe. He’s never as over the top on the records as he is live, but he screams, croons and belts as if his life depends on it here. Personally, I love it. And although I’m really fond of the more soulful approach on his solo albums, Iommi’s monumental metal riffing pushes him to do a more raw, direct and angry approach than he usually adopts. This is something which is reflected in the lyrics as well, which are often composed in a confrontational manner.

Stylistically, ‘Fused’ isn’t miles away from the doom metal that Black Sabbath pioneered, but even the most doomy tracks like the amazing ‘The Spell’ have a greater deal of actual hook writing to them than is average in the genre. And on the limited number of occasions that the album does speed up a little – ‘What You’re Living For’ most notably – there’s a slight hardrock vibe, though Iommi’s riffs keep them firmly within the metal realm. ‘Deep Inside A Shall’ is a dark take on a ballad and ‘Grace’ successfully attempts a more modern vibe. The long, somewhat proggy closer ‘I Go Insane’ ties all the styles together in a truly engaging way.

Almost two decades after their first collaboration ‘Seventh Star’, Hughes and Iommi made another amazing record together. It’s sort of a pity that they never toured behind this record, because there’s a lot of live energy here. It’s certainly not a record you just put on in the background; it demands attention. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s the best record both men released in recent years, because I’m quite enamored with the solo records Hughes made around the same time, but it’s definitely a record I revisit often. Why? Because it’s a downright excellent contemporary metal record by two amazing musicians who were actively involved with the genesis of the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘What You’re Living For’, ‘The Spell’, ‘I Go Insane’

Show & Tell: Top 10 Dir En Grey songs


“What does Dir En Grey sound like then?” Only very few questions are more frustrating to me as a reviewer, whose job it is to describe music along with my opinion, because the difficulty I have describing them suggests inability for me. Admittedly, they’re not the only Japanese band that is difficult to describe, but how do you classify a band that keeps changing styles with each album without ever sounding like a different band? They’re a crazy band with a crazy singer. And they’re fairly loud and unsettling, despite the presence of a few calmer moments. That’s as close as a description comes.

Nothing could describe Dir En Grey’s music more adequately than the actual music. So for those of you who don’t know them, let these ten Dir En Grey songs at least provide some guidance to help you get an approximate idea of their sound. Or at least the scope of their sound. Newcomers should know that their mid-period (‘Vulgar’, ‘Withering To Death’ and ‘The Marrow Of A Bone’) may be somewhat underrepresented here, simply because I don’t enjoy that era quite as much as their earliest work or their recent material. There’s still a handful of excellent ballad-like tracks on those records though.

P.S.: While it took more time to put this post together than any former entry, I rather enjoyed doing this. As a result, you can expect more of these.

10. Zan (Gauze, 1998)

Dir En Grey’s debut album ‘Gauze’ was recorded in two sessions. About half of the album was self-produced and recorded in Tokyo, while the other half was recorded in Los Angeles under supervision of X-Japan drummer and main man Yoshiki Hayashi. The latter session was defined by the highly melodic, almost Poppy sentiments of the album… And ‘Zan’. While it’s not the only aggressive moment on the record, its high speed riffing and Shinya’s almost constant Thrash polkas make it the most high adrenalin, destructive experience on ‘Gauze’. The extremely noisy guitar lead and Kyo abandoning all sanity in his performance do the rest. The song is obviously supposed to frighten its listener as well, but I’m not sure if people who listen to Dir En Grey are that easily scared. A remake was released in 2011 and it’s probably the re-recording that stays closest to the original, despite Kyo trading his insane delivery for a deep grunt. It’s slightly tighter than the original, but I still take the original over the new version.

9. Ruten No Tou (Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)

AllMusic contributor Thom Yurek described ‘Ruten No Tou’ as a ballad subverted by multi-textured Pop and Power Metal. As an adamant fanatic of the latter genre, I don’t actually hear it, but it is a downright excellent composition in which expertly layered and haunting guitar melodies with a beautiful clean guitar sound are contrasted quite heavily by the progressive Death Metal of the middle section. That chorus is among the most passionate that Dir En Grey ever recorded and most definitely the most memorable on the highly inaccessible ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Since that album features the band at its most brutal and complex, especially the calmer, more melodic moments stand out. ‘Lotus’ is another excellent example from the same album, but this closing track is rightfully the apotheosis of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. It’s also one of the very few songs the band recorded an acoustic version of that is worth hearing. If you’re curious, you can find it on the ‘Sustain The Untruth’ single from 2013.

8. Rasetsukoku (Macabre, 2000 or Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)

Easily my favorite of the band’s more aggressive songs. I’m probably not the only one, because it’s the only song from the earliest days that still appears on Dir En Grey setlists quite regularly. In fact, they often close their encores with it. The original version on ‘Macabre’ is my favorite, as it’s got a much more energetic vibe than the heavily downtuned remake on the limited edition of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Especially Kyo’s rabid vocal performance. Because of its strong Hardcore influence and slight industrial edge, ‘Rasetsukoku’ wouldn’t have felt out of place on an early Prong record. When Shinya omits the snare drum from his patterns during the passages between the verses, the rhythm has an almost electronic feel that shouldn’t work with such a heavy, riffy song, but it does. Fun fact: the title of the track translates to “man eating devil country’, which is the name China gave to Russia during the era of the last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty if you’re keeping score). It fits the Russian theme that pops up on ‘Macabre’ every now and then.

7. Mushi (Kisou, 2002)

In many ways, ‘Kisou’ is the most emotionally raw record that Dir En Grey has ever recorded. As dense and heavy some of their more recent work is, that’s how open and straightforward ‘Kisou’ is. These compositions strike a nerve emotionally and the stripped down approach only emphasizes that. Just check out the compelling ballad ‘Mushi’. Kyo’s hyper passionate performance in the video above sort of already gives that away, but even on the studio recording, the vocal melody in the chorus is profoundly sad. But the delicate acoustic guitar melody greatly contributes to the fragile nature of the composition as well. It is probably the most acoustic song the band ever recorded; the only electric guitar is the sparse, haunting solo that Kaoru closes the track with. ‘Zakuro’ from ‘Macabre’ comes close in style and quality. It’s pretty much the mirror opposite of the almost claustrophobic songwriting on ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, but that’s the fun thing about Dir En Grey: every album is basically a reaction to the one that came before. The only other band I’ve seen that with so distinctly is The Gathering.

6. Cage (Gauze, 1998)

During the early phases of Dir En Grey’s career, they were basically the more experimental answer to the Visual Kei scene. More melodic than their later work, more versatile than the average J-Rock band. That doesn’t mean that the material isn’t worth hearing though. In fact, ‘Gauze’ is probably my favorite Dir En Grey album together with ‘Uroboros’. The soaring melodies are fantastic, Kyo’s vocals are generally clean and amazing, the production is bright and the choruses basically scream to be sung along even if you don’t know any Japanese. What is most notable, however, is the amount of space there is for Toshiya’s melodic, jumpy bass lines. There’s even a bass solo in this song, but the way he carries the melody of the main section even moreso than the guitars – it first occurs right after that musical box intro – is simply amazing. For me personally, that defines ‘Gauze’ even more than the almost poppy songwriting approach; Toshiya’s really going for the depth rather than the highs these days.

5. Yokan (Gauze, 1998)

Those who discovered the band after their breakthrough in the west with their crushingly heavy sound and borderline disturbing visuals may be surprised to hear how upbeat some of their oldest material sounds. ‘Jessica’ is probably the happiest sounding song they have, but ‘Yokan’ from their excellent debut ‘Gauze’ sounds fairly cheerful as well. I’ve been told the lyrics are still rather dark, but I couldn’t factcheck due to my practically non-existing command of the Japanese language. What I can judge though, is that amazingly bright sound of Die’s clean guitar. Also, I love the way his rhythm part interacts with Kaoru’s in the verses, though the above live version from 2014 highlights that moreso than the original album version. The uncharacteristically Bluesy guitar solo – again courtesy of Die – is excellent as well and Kyo’s performance on this song is just perfect. While ‘Yokan’ may be a bit too Poppy for fans of the brutal direction Dir En Grey took recently, it’s simply a beautiful song that bears all the merits of the band’s early sound.

4. Un Deux (Arche, 2014)

After the technically impressive, but sometimes indecipherable songwriting on 2011’s ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, I was happy to see the band compose some more distinguishable tracks for its follow-up ‘Arche’. When you listen to the album’s lead-off track and highlight ‘Un Deux’, you can hear two decades of musical experience come together in one track. Despite its limited length and catchier approach, it’s still rather progressive by nature. Quite a lot happens within those three minutes musically and dynamically while unsurprisingly, I find it a significant improvement that Kyo is singing clean more often. I find the riff work brilliant, but the rhythm section does something even more important by keeping things as open as possible. When I interviewed Kaoru and Shinya around the release of ‘Arche’, they said they were aiming to write material that was a little easier to translate to the stage and since I’ve seen them live on that tour, I can only confirm that it works. But it works pretty damn good on record as well!

3. Macabre (Macabre, 2000 or The Unraveling, 2013)

For a song that is well over ten minutes long – or even over sixteen for the re-recording on the limited edition of the 2013 EP ‘The Unraveling’ – ‘Macabre’ is surprisingly tightly structured. Sure, there’s a vaguely abstract section around the five minute mark, but overall, there’s a clear verse-chorus structure. Therefore, the length of the song is rather determined by the fact that it slowly unfolds. As for the 2013 remake, which is easily the best reinterpretation of their older songs, it adds a somewhat dissonant segment as well as a few extended solo sections that truly highlight the melodic quality of Kaoru and Die’s playing. Love the twin solo, but that will hardly surprise anyone who knows me. The transitions in guitar sounds are as seamless as they get. Just check out that beautiful clean guitar tone in the 2013 live version above. And let’s not forget that strong beat that drives the song; these may not be Shinya’s most technically demanding parts, but among his most impressive performances. All things combined, simply an excellent song.

2. Ware, Yami Tote… (Uroboros, 2008)

When Kyo’s lyrics aren’t plain disturbing, they’re often deeply depressive. Perfect material for dark, moody ballads. That’s also when there’s most room for Kyo’s wide range to excel. However, Kyo’s amazing vocals aren’t the only reason why ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’ is the ultimate Dir En Grey ballad. Kaoru and Die weave a beautiful tapestry of acoustic guitars and when the first full-on distorted riff enters, Shinya’s subdued percussion keeps it from being one of those cliché power ballad climaxes as we have heard them a million times before. If anything qualifies as an actual climax, it would be Kyo’s bone chilling scream, but the lack of actual release following the tension is one of the song’s greatest merits; instead, more layers are gradually added to the dark, somewhat unsettling atmosphere of the song. On any contemporary progressive record, this would easily have been the absolute highlight. ‘Uroboros’, however, has one other trick up its sleeve…

1. Vinushka (Uroboros, 2008)

A contemporary Progmetal masterpiece. Quite ballsy to start off their amazing ‘Uroboros’ album with this highly complex slow burner of a track, but it is likely the most complete representation of the band’s range. There’s a dark, unsettling atmosphere and within ten minutes, the band excels in both acoustically based melancholy and the two violent explosions of Death Metal in the middle and at the end of the song. That’s where you can hear Kyo go from his soothing cleans to one of the deepest and most frightening grunts ever recorded without effects. I personally have a strong preference for his cleans, but it really emphasizes the shifting dynamics. Shinya’s timing is interesting; while the time signatures are fairly common, he unconventional way he times his beats creates a great deal of tension within the composition. And when the guitars envelop you, you’ll realize this isn’t so much a song as it is a deeply immersive experience. Warning: the video contains footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims that some may find shocking.

Album of the Week 21-2016: Dir En Grey – Uroboros


Ever since Dir En Grey singer Kyo discovered he possessed an almost inhuman grunt, the band’s music grew increasingly heavier to accomodate this quality. Despite the presence of a couple of excellent ballads, they took it too far on ‘The Marrow Of A Bone’. Being the type of band they are, follow-up ‘Uroboros’ is a reaction to that. It retains the heavy elements, but the key word here is balance. More ambtious songwriting and the perfect light-and-shade dynamics in both the music and Kyo’s vocals make it the most progressive Dir En Grey record to date. Possibly also their best.

Ambition is something that never eluded the Japanese quintet, but ‘Uroboros’ opens – after excellently setting the mood with an intro called ‘Sa Bir’ – with their most impressive song to date. ‘Vinushka’ is the type of song any progressive band would want to write; the way the acoustic guitars fuse with the tastefully layered electric guitars, Kyo’s dreamy vocal lines and the interesting accents in Shinya’s drums is unequalled. And that heavy passage contains such amazing riff work by Kaoru and Die! A listening experience that is progressive in the purest definition of the term, yet sounds nothing like all these Dream Theater clones.

‘Uroboros’ lasts slightly over an hour and while after ‘Vinushka’ only eleven and a half minutes have passed, you will be sufficiently absorbed to be taken away on the gloomy atmosphere of the record. Because no matter how impressive the individual performances of the musicians are, albums of these are defined by their atmosphere. And what is all the more impressive: no matter how abrupt shifts like the one from the maniacal aggression of ‘Reiketsu Nariseba’ to the absolutely stunning ballad ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’ are, they make sense and never disrupt the flow of the record.

Being a fan first and foremost of the more melodic side of the band, my personal highlights of ‘Uroboros’ are the beautifully arranged (semi-)ballads on the record: the subtle ‘Toguro’, the almost Linkin Park like (sans rap, of course) ‘Glass Skin’, the semi-psychedelic ‘Dozing Green’, closing statement ‘Inconvenient Ideal’ and most of all the aforementioned ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’. However, fans of the band’s heavy side will also be treated with tracks like ‘Bugaboo’, ‘Gaika, Chinmoku Ga Nemuru Koro’ and ‘Stuck Man’, the latter of which is carried by Toshiya’s most funky bass line to date. Tracks like ‘Red Soil’ and ‘Doukoku To Sarinu’ find the ideal middle ground.

Of course, ‘Uroboros’ isn’t for everyone. It’s inaccessible, it’s highly unpredictable and it could be a tad disturbing at times, but let’s be honest: nobody ever really loves a totally inoffensive records. For me, this album is truly a work of art that should be heard at least once by anyone who likes Rock or Metal. Though it lacks the distinct J-Rock leanings of their earliest works, I think it is the most complete representation of Dir En Grey’s versatile, nearly indescribable sound. It is a record that has to be heard in order to be understood. Don’t let me keep you from doing so!

Recommended tracks: ‘Vinushka’, ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’, ‘Toguro’