Posts Tagged ‘ symphonic Power Metal ’

Album of the Week 49-2019: Catharsis – Svetliy Albom


Sometimes it baffles me why some bands are bigger than others based on something as trivial as language. Several lower mid-tier power metal bands are drawing decent crowds throughout Europe, while a fantastic band like Catharsis is approached with caution simply because they sing in Russian. Because make no mistake, Catharsis is one of the better symphonically tinged power metal bands around. Their sixth album ‘Svetliy Albom’ might serve as an excellent introduction to those who have never heard the band before, as it may just be the most well-rounded album the Moscow-based sextet has released so far.

Describing Catharsis’ music as symphonic power metal is accurate, but does paint somewhat of an incomplete picture of what the band sounds like. First of all, the riff work courtesy of Igor ‘Jeff’ Polyakov and Oleg Mission is notably more ballsy and bottom-heavy than that of most bands on the symphonic end of the power metal spectrum, occasionally sounding reminiscent of a less complex Symphony X. In addition, the production on ‘Svetliy Albom’ sounds somewhat mid-period Kamelot-esque in terms of bombast, but the overall atmosphere on Catharsis’ records leans significantly more towards rebellion and occasional melancholy. Catharsis never forgets the “heavy” in heavy metal.

What makes ‘Svetliy Albom’ one of their better albums is the presence of songs that exceed the already high standard Catharsis set on their preceding albums. ‘Vyshe Kubki!’ immediately became on of my favorite Catharsis songs due to the simple, but brutally effective syncopated rhythm and exciting atmosphere. Also, the understated nature of the song’s chorus is a masterstroke. Most of the other songs are excellent power metal tracks, each with their own distinctive features, such as the less symphonic, but more modern power metal leanings of Julia Red’s keyboards in the mid-tempo stomper ‘Catharsis’ and the relatively high tempo of the climactic ‘Vechniy Strannik’.

Even more climactic is my personal favorite of the album: opening track ‘Inoy’. It is astounding how well the composition succeeds at constantly adding a new layer of tension and that doesn’t even take the incredible voice of Oleg Zhilyakov into account. His dramatic, semi-operatic delivery is exactly what the song needs and he manages to give the song a longing, almost aching quality. That unisono melody of Mission and Red after each chorus is amazing as well. Elsewhere, ‘Verniy Angel Moy’ is one of the better power metal ballads I heard in a while due to its unusual structure.

Anyone who likes power metal and is not averse to a certain degree of theatricality must give Catharsis a chance. It is clear that for Catharsis, the songs come first and adding layers of bombast is only done if the song asks for it. They don’t overcomplicate things, but they also are no slaves to the verse-chorus structure. Many of their peers could learn a lesson or two from them. In addition, they have one of the greatest singers the genre has today in Oleg Zhilyakov. All of these aspects make ‘Svetliy Albom’ a record on which all pieces are in the right places.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inoy’, ‘Vyshe Kubki!’, ‘Vechniy Strannik’

Album of the Week 15-2019: Catharsis – Imago


Although seen as a genre predominantly from northwestern Europe, some of this century’s most interesting power metal releases are actually from elsewhere and don’t always make it over to the west. Some bands try to make the transition by translating their songs to English, but ‘Imago’, the third full-length of Moscow-based Catharsis, is a rare example of the opposite. It was originally released in 2002 with lyrics entirely in English, just like their first two albums. The next year, a Russian version was released, which despite being musically identical somehow sounds superior. Certainly a must for fans of neoclasscially tinged power metal.

Oleg Zhilyakov’s vocals are an important part of what makes this release so good. That can be said about any Catharsis album, because Zhilyakov has incomparable range, power and drama in his voice, but judging from his performance here, he feels slightly more comfortable singing in his native tongue. Fortunately, the language fits his passionate, semi-operatic delivery perfectly. While Zhilyakov is amazing, a great singer does not necessarily make a great band. Catharsis’ compositions are excellent though. They’re generally uptempo, but not as upbeat as most similarly styled German or Swedish bands. There is always a darkness brooding underneath Catharsis’ songs and the occasional progressive leanings bring Symphony X to mind.

What stands out immediately about ‘Imago’ is how theatrical the songs sound with relatively minimal embellishments. Sure, Julia Red’s keyboards add some layers that the guitars cannot, but even she is not trying to emulate a full orchestra. Catharsis’ music immediately transports you to the darkest chapter of a fairytale. The guitar riffs are melodic and powerful, but not too heavy and the climactic choruses often feature Zhilyakov sounding like he is begging for his life to be spared, which is goosebumps-inducing more than once. Catharsis has a power that many bands in the genre strive for, but only few manage to achieve.

Stylistically, most of the songs on ‘Imago’ are similar, but there are little clever compositional touches that make them stand out. ‘Voin Sveta’ has a more aggressive midtempo grind, the fiery ‘Izbranny Nebom’ has what is probably the most awesome riff on the album, ‘Vzorvi Moi Sny’ has a mind-blowingly exciting build up towards its chorus and ‘Tantsui V Ogne’ has a surprisingly danceable rhythm. Both ‘Zvezdopad’ and ‘Izbranny Nebom’ have a couple of unconventional twists in their amazing choruses as well. There are tracks that deviate from the norm though, most notably the multi-faceted doomy crawler ‘Rassvetny Zver’ and the surprisingly good ballad ‘Dalshe – Tishina…’.

‘Imago’ is not a perfect album – instrumental track ‘Tarantul’ has a lot of interesting ideas, but sounds like it should have been a full band composition rather than a piano instrumental – but it is the perfect album for anyone who wants a slightly different take on their power metal without moving away from the genre’s essence too far. Catharsis is full of great musicians, they know how to set a perfect mood or atmosphere for their music and – I can’t stress this enough – Oleg Zhilyakov is one of the best power metal singers in the world.

Recommended tracks: ‘Izbranny Nebom’, ‘Rassvetny Zver’, ‘Zvorvi Moi Sny’, ‘Zvezdopad’

Album of the Week 14-2019: Jupiter – Zeus ~Legends Never Die~


Multiple times over the last few years, I had feared that Jupiter would disband. There have been several line-up changes and I thought the final nail in the coffin would be the reformation of Versailles, the hugely popular, but slightly inferior band that almost the entire original line-up came from. These developments alone would be enough reason to be happy with the release of their third album ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’. But it’s also really, really good. New kid and former Concerto Moon singer Atsushi Kuze fits the band amazingly well and the album is probably Jupiter’s most consistent to date.

Jupiter does not suddenly sound different on ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’. The music is still high octane symphonic power metal with prominent influences from progressive metal and melodic death metal, as well as plenty of room for the impressive dexterity of guitarists Hizaki and Teru. In fact, some might argue that the inclusion of two tracks from the spectacular single ‘Theory Of Evolution’ and two that were previously recorded with former singer Zin further diminishes the surprise impact of the album. Kuze’s somewhat husky hardrock voice further broadens the appeal of Jupiter outside of the visual kei scene, however, and the impact his voice had on Hizaki’s songwriting is significant.

Now, Hizaki has a way of making singers better. He managed to make Kamijo sound semi-acceptable in Versailles, Juka’s best vocal performance was on his ‘Dignity Of Crest’ album and he transformed Zin into one of the best singers in the visual kei scene. Anticipating what would happen if he worked with Kuze’s already impressive set of pipes was half the fun of waiting for ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’ to be released. And to be brief: the album contains Kuze’s best vocals to date. He does not do anything radically different from what he did in Concerto Moon and Screaming Symphony, but he’s like a fish in the water with the bombastic, theatrical material that Hizaki wrote for the album.

With Kuze being a hardrock singer first and foremost, it is notable that the songwriting plays to these strengths. ‘Drastic Night’ has a seventies hardrock vibe due to the simple, but brutally effective main riff and the inclusion of a Hammond organ, but manages to sound contemporary power metal enough to make perfect sense on the record. More dramatic tracks, like the highly dynamic ‘No Cry No More’ and the absolutely sensational ‘Straight Into The Fire’ could not have been written for any other singer. The most powerful choruses, such as the ones for ‘Theory Of Evolution’ and the long closing epic title track really profit from having a singer with significantly more power than the average visual kei frontman.

To those who were afraid that Zin’s departure would result in Jupiter shunning their melodic death metal songs: rest assured. In ‘Tempest’ and the previously released ‘Angel’s Wings’, the album contains two tracks that feature prominent melodeath influences. The former sounds a little like a mash-up of Galneryus’ neoclassical abandon and Jupiter’s own ‘Allegory Cave’, while the latter has a mind-blowing final chorus. Both rely heavily on aggressive, borderline thrash metal riffing. Kuze does not yet have the versatility in his growls that Zin had, but there is almost a hardcore-like quality to their blunt aggression. Something which also works surprisingly well on the last section of the lone Teru composition ‘Show Must Go On’, a powerful modern hardrock track.

Out of the songs that had already been recorded with Zin, ‘The Spirit Within Me’ really takes the cake. Not only does it have what is possibly the best riff of the album, the song fits Kuze’s voice so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine it had not orignally been written for him. It is kind of ironic that one works so well, as ‘Tears Of The Sun’ underwent a more significant change, being transposed to a different key. Relatively new drummer Daisuke played on the original versions of both of these tracks, but his contributions to ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’ should not be overlooked, as his playing is incredible. He has all the skills that his predecessor Yuki also had, but he appears to be a little more understated and serviceable, which does sound a little weird, given the fact that a track like ‘Theory Of Evolution’ is basically fifty percent blazing fills and ‘The Spirit Within Me’ has some of the most impressive double bass rolling I have heard in recent years.

As a whole, ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’ could be the start of a new era for Jupiter. People who liked their music before should have no issue with the record, but the inclusion of a singer with the type of voice that usually is not associated with visual kei really opens them up for people who generally stay away from the scene. In addition, every single song on the album is worth hearing. ‘Memories Of You’ goes on a bit long near the end, but the darker first half of the song is the best ballad-esque bit Hizaki has written to date. Everything else is a perfect blend of power metal, hardrock, progressive metal and melodeath. If that sounds right up your alley, you can’t go wrong with ‘Zeus ~Legends Never Die~’.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Spirit Within Me’, ‘Straight Into The Fire’, ‘No Cry No More’, ‘Theory Of Evolution’

Interview: The third era of Angra

Some bands are irreparably damaged by change. Angra seems immune to that. In fact, through the years, line-up changes have only made the Brazilian quintet stronger. Losing their longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro to Megadeth could have been disastrous, but their brand new album ‘Ømni‘ proves that Angra is still as inspired as ever. With influences from progressive metal, power metal and Brazilian music, the album is a masterclass in how versatile heavy metal guitar playing can be. The two guitarists responsible for this, bandleader Rafael Bittencourt and newcomer Marcelo Barbosa, guide us through the creation of the album.

After Kiko left, I was a bit worried“, admits Bittencourt. “Kiko was not only an exceptional guitar player, but also my songwriting partner. I wanted someone to fill that spot. Because of that, everyone got involved with the songwriting. This album started from zero, with conversations of what the direction of the band should be. When we were touring with Tarja Turunen two years ago, we started jamming and exchanging ideas with small amps in the dressing room and backstage.
At the time, we were touring for the anniversary of our ‘Holy Land’ album, which allowed us to do a lot of research on that album together. Marcelo lives two hours away from where I live by plane and Fabio
(Lione, singer) lives in Europe, so I was meeting with Felipe (Andreoli, bassist) and Bruno (Valverde, drummer) more often, but whenever we could, we would get together out in the woods for a couple of days. Just resting, chatting and exchanging ideas. Marcelo was showing me new bands and artists that I hadn’t really listened to, like Alter Bridge and Jeff Buckley, so we kind of exchanged influences as well. All of this has made ‘Ømni’ a very collective work.
I think that every time we changed members, the music changed a little bit. As a guitar player, Marcelo has a similar background to Kiko. They are both very technical and influenced by fusion players. Musically, however, it was a big difference, because Marcelo has a different way of doing things. The biggest difference was his energy, the way his personality balances with the group. He was the missing link that we needed to complete a very solid line-up.

A lot of soul

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be in a band like Angra“, says Barbosa. “Not only because everybody respects the band around the world, but also because the atmosphere within the band is really good. Fabio, Bruno and I were encouraged to bring in some ideas and we also had the chance to give our opinions about the ideas the other guys came up with. Because of that, I felt really free and respected by the other guys, which is of course a perfect situation for me.
I was familiar with some of the writing that Marcello has done in the past, especially what he did with Almah“, continues Bittencourt. “So I knew we would get the whole package from him. I wanted Marcelo to be a part of the songwriting process, but I didn’t know how his input would sound in the overall result. We had some structures and parts for solos, but I would only know what he had in mind when he was actually recording it. During the recording sessions, I was getting more and more impressed with him. Every time he would record a solo, he would do something different. He used a whole variety of phrases and sounds.
My first concern was to bring in someone very technical, so the audience would not miss Kiko. In the end, Marcelo did not only bring technique, but also a lot of soul. The stuff he plays is alive. I can feel it moving. This time, we were learning how to work together. Next time, everything will be different when we start the writing process, because now we know what to expect from each other. I can’t wait to create more guitar parts together. I think the guitar parts will be even richer next time.

Fresh ideas

For me, ‘Ømni’ represents a new era for the band“, explains Bittencourt. “Our third. This time, three of the guys are relatively new to the band, so they’re helping to create a new sound with new ideas. Bruno, for instance, is only 27 years old, the same age as the band. He is very excited to be in Angra, because here in Brazil, Angra represents pride, as we are one of the few Brazilian bands that are successful abroad. This excitement, combined with the experience that Felipe and I have in the band, brings a lot of fresh ideas to the table.

What we wanted ‘Ømni’ to do is to combine these fresh ideas with the long history of Angra. We wanted to wrap up our history style-wise, so we brought a little bit of power metal, a little bit of melodic metal, symphonic metal, progressive metal, Afro-Brazilian stuff, orchestral stufff with percussion… Everything that we have ever done in a fresh, new sound. And I think we really succeeded.
This is the best time I have experienced with the band. In the past, it has sometimes been very stressful and painful to record and release a new record. This time, it was smooth, easy, natural and organic. Ideas were flowing. We would be talking, laughing, stopping for coffee, come back and more ideas would flow. Before the album came out, we didn’t know if people would like it, but I knew it was our best work. Everyone was so talented and so creative. I love it when our problem is that we have two or three choruses in the same song. Not because we don’t have a chorus, but because we have two or three really good melodies. In that case, deciding which one is out is not stressful, it makes me happy.”
We actually had almost an entire album of other songs“, smiles Barbosa. “We wrote about eight songs more than we have on the album. Sometimes you already have two prog songs and it would be too much if you add a third one to the albums. The same goes for ballads, we already had two.
There is a whole soft song that was already prepared for the album“, agrees Bittencourt. “A really good song, but we already had a ballad and our producer Jens Bogren, who is a genius, did not want the album to become too soft. He wanted the record to be a little more aggressive, so it would make more of an impact. The whole song was out, so we can put it on our next one. There are also many ideas for songs; choruses, verses, riffs, instrumental parts… We don’t have to start from scratch next time.

Nothing to lose

I always write songs having the melody as a guideline“, Bittencourt shares. “Many times I start singing a melody, I add some rhythms to the melody and I won’t start adding the chords until the third stage. Therefore, singing is a natural thing for me. I like singing. Still, I think guitar players usually don’t sing as good as the lead singer, simply because of the position of the microphone. When you play, you want to watch the neck and you start worrying about what you’re doing. And worrying is never good, regardless of if you’re singing or playing.
During the ‘Angels Cry’ anniversary, we had nothing to lose. Some people complained that we didn’t have Edu or André
(Falaschi and Matos, former singers) with us, but when Fabio joined the band, we started researching new ways of interpreting our music. The audience knew that something different than what was previously done was coming up. That was a good moment for me to start singing, because everything would be new to the ears of the audience.
However, I was not going to be the lead singer, because that is a very hard task. We have very difficult guitar parts and difficult vocal melodies. And communicating with a crowd is also a big responsibility. I did not want to quit focusing on being the guitar player. I wanted to sing once in a while, when the songs are meaningful to me. Like ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’ on the new album. It’s a very personal song, so I decided with Fabio that I was going to sing it.

Guitar scientist

We started working with Jens Bogren with our last album ‘Secret Garden’“, says Bittencourt. “He brought a new concept for the guitar sounds. That was when I started to research new sounds and new equipment. In fact, it was Marcelo who made me aware of the fact that Kemper if very practical to work with. If I want to try an amp, I don’t need to buy it first. It really gave us the option to try out what is best for us with everything in the same box.
Our friends and us are always exchanging Kemper profiles, we literally have thousands“, explains Barbosa. “That’s why it’s always changing. Rafael and I extensively talked about guitar tone and exchanged sounds and ideas about our sound. We needed a really good set-up that was small and light to travel with and that we could use directly into the PA. Using the Kempers on stage is great for us, because we have tons of different sounds that we love. And we also have the option to not use a cabinet.

Marcelo is a guitar scientist“, admits Bittencourt. “He spends a lot of time on researching guitar sounds and learning different techniques, styles and phrases. He is a real perfectionist with every detail of playing guitar. I am a guitar lunatic. I’m much more intuitive. A part of the reason why I don’t spend the same amount of time on such things, is that I’m involved with every step of the production in Angra: the schedule, what we have for lunch when we are rehearsing and recording, hiring keyboard players, the orchestra and the percussionists. So when it comes to creating the guitar parts, my main resource is my intuition. However, I think this is very complementary. As a player, Marcelo is very intuitive as well.
My task in Angra productions is to capture everyone’s ideas and glue them together in a concept that makes sense. There’s classical parts, acoustic guitar sections, thrash metal riffs, a piano part, percussions… How to glue that together in a way that doesn’t feel like too many atmospheres into 50 minutes of music, that is my job. This time, it was a very easy task.

Diversity

Both of us started listening to Brazilian music before we even started playing the guitar“, says Bittencourt about the strong Brazilian influences on ‘Ømni’. “It’s our background, it’s in our veins. I think that all power metal bands should feel free to add some more diversity to their music, because the crowd is losing interest in power metal. It got so stiff and conservative that it is hard to create something engaging. Many power metal bands got so framed into a certain set of rules, that they all started to sound the same. Some of them sound as if they’re just following some rules instead of being creative. Kids grow up and get smarter. If you dumb their music down, they will lose interest at some point.

Angra is currently on tour.

Listen to ‘Ømni’ on Spotify.

Album of the Week 08-2018: Rhapsody – Symphony Of Enchanted Lands


For everyone involved in the making of the album, ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ is the pinnacle of their abilities. It was not just a compositional triumph for all the musicians involved, it also established Sascha Paeth and Miro as the go-to producers for symphonic metal. Rhapsody did not invent the genre, but ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ takes the genre to its logical extremes. An enormous orhcestra, three different choirs, narrators, medieval interludes… And surprisingly, it works. The progressive power metal songs sound full and bombastic rather than cluttered, with the metal elements and the classical elements being in perfect balance.

Two decades after its initial release, ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ is primarily known for its shorter power metal tracks, specifically ‘Emerald Sword’ and ‘Wisdom Of The Kings’. Both of these songs would end up in almost every live set once the band started touring, which they did not do until about a year and a half after the album’s release.  The popularity of these songs is understandable. ‘Emerald Sword’ is a fresh power metal song with a some memorable guitar work and an anthemic chorus, while the verses of ‘Wisdom Of The Kings’ harbor one of Fabio Lione’s best vocal melodies.

‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ has more to offer though. The middle section of the album has two back-to-back progressive metal tracks. The dark, threatening ‘Beyond The Gates Of Infinity’ is the better of the two by a hair. The Dream Theater-inspired riff work is offset by horror-style symphonics, an excellent use of dynamics and an unpredictability in the songwriting some of the band’s later work lacks. As its title suggests, ‘Eternal Glory’ is slightly more triumphant in approach, though also ending in darkness. The brass driven intro sets the mood for a proud, somewhat angry metal song.

Another interesting song is ‘The Dark Tower Of Abyss’. Arguably the least accessible song of the record, but it is also the most baroque chamber music oriented song on the record. There are large sections of the song reserved for strings and harpsichord, though the electric guitar driven sections have an exciting amount of tension. ‘Wings Of Destiny’ is Rhapsody’s first piano-based ballad and with a singer as passionate as Lione, it was bound to succeed. Only the closing title track misses the mark somewhat. It does contain a number of great sections, but those would have worked better if they were worked into four separate songs rather than a single long one.

Still, with all its bombast and carefully arranged production, ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ is an album that sounds as overwhelming now as it did upon release twenty years ago. Rhapsody outdid itself here, as subsequent releases proved. The more metallic approach they would adapt – undoubtedly fueled by their live shows – resulted in a couple of great songs, but never again would they release an album as consistently good as ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’. As a young teenager, I was obsessed with this record and I still don’t see that as a youthful mistake. The music on this album is way too good for that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beyond The Gates Of Infinity’, ‘Eternal Glory’, ‘The Dark Tower Of Abyss’

Album of the Week 07-2018: Angra – Ømni


Change does not appear to affect Angra. They survived a massive schism around the turn of the century and now Dave Mustaine has hijacked longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro for Megadeth, they still manage to put together another great album. Most of the current line-up already proved that the (largely) Brazilian band could still pump out great progressive power metal, as ‘Secret Garden’ was the best metal album of 2015. Now that ‘Secret Garden’ has put Angra back on the map, ‘Ømni’ shows the band stretching their boundaries a little. The results are slightly less memorable, but a very rewarding listen nonetheless.

Much to my surprise, Loureiro’s replacement Marcelo Barbosa is an integral part of the album, having contributed significantly to the songwriting. Sole founding member Rafael Bittencourt gratefully profits from the possibilities his guitar partnership with Barbosa provides as well. As a result, ‘Ømni’ ends up sounding less European-tinged power metal and more like a progressive metal album with very distinct world fusion overtones. Angra never shied away from putting their South American roots on display, but it seems like partnering with Barbosa gave Bittencourt the courage to dive deep into crossover opportunities, providing the basis of the most interesting moments of ‘Ømni’.

That does not mean that there is no place for power metal on ‘Ømni’. In fact, the album starts out with two fairly traditional, euphoric power metal numbers, with ‘Travelers Of Time’ being the more contemporary take on the genre and ‘Light Of Transcendence’ the more old school one. Even these tracks sound fresh though, as Angra always had a way of rubbing up against clichés, but never fully engaging. On the metallic side of the album, ‘Magic Mirror’ is great, but ‘War Horns’ is the true winner. Darker and heavier than Angra usually sounds, it is an intense listening experience, on which Loureiro guests.

Despite all this familiarity, ‘Ømni’ is best when it surprises. The semi-ballad ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’ has a very folky basis and some beautifully heartfelt vocals by Bittencourt, while ‘Caveman’ has some chants in Portuguese and Latin-flavored drums and percussion alternating with the stomping riff work and Fabio Lione’s mighty voice. The complete fusion of all styles can be heard in ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, in which we can hear everything from subtle bossa nova touches to virtuosic progmetal without ever sounding disjointed. If anything, the song has a supreme build-up. ‘Black Widow’s Web’ may come across as messy, but is too enjoyable a dark progster to complain. ‘Insania’ contains some of Felipe Andreoli’s best bass work yet.

All in all, ‘Ømni’ presents quite a unique mixture of styles which leaves you wondering why this combination is not attempted more often. It is a great progressive metal album that may not be as easy to digest as ‘Secret Garden’ was, but will probably prove to be more durable throughout. ‘Ømni’ is one of those albums that slowly reveals its small secrets over repeated listens. In addition, it is the ultimate evidence that Angra still has its artistic merits more than two and a half decades into their career. Anyone who wishes to hear how versatile the guitar can be in a metal context should give ‘Ømni’ a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, ‘War Horns’, ‘The Bottom Of My Soul’

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Album of the Week 16-2017: Labÿrinth – Architecture Of A God


Despite their distinctly Italian power metal sound, Labÿrinth was a pretty unique band in the country’s mid-nineties metal scene. They shared their countrymen’s melodic sensibilities, tendency towards higher tempos and somewhat symphonic approach, but also had an uncommonly romantic vibe for a metal band. However, not long after founding guitarist Olaf Thörsen left, the band entered an unprecedented identity crisis. Thörsen eventually returned, but band members were shuffled around freely. Luckily, the core of Thörsen, fellow guitarist Andrea Cantarelli and singer Roberto Tiranti is firmly intact on ‘Architecture Of A God’, easily the best Labÿrinth album since their masterpiece ‘Return To Heaven Denied’.

While the last album was good enough, it featured Labÿrinth playing things too safe by trying to create a copy of ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ to the point of self-plagiarism. On ‘Architecture Of A God’, the self-referencing is limited to a brief section on ‘We Belong To Yesterday’ and the atmosphere is more spontaneous. Personally, I was glad to see Thörsen’s former Vision Divine bandmate Oleg Smirnoff vacate the keyboard position. His greater focus on atmospheric texturing than neoclassical virtuosity makes him a unique musician within the genre and gives the album a breath of fresh air at times.

That is all relative though. Because ultimately, ‘Architecture Of A God’ is a typical Labÿrinth record. Speedy, somewhat progressive power metal tracks with highly melodic choruses are alternated with dreamy semi-ballads full of bright, shimmering acoustic guitars and if Tiranti isn’t wailing or crooning passionately on top, Thörsen and Cantarelli are elevating the melodies or shredding their hearts out. ‘Stardust And Ashes’, the surprisingly aggressive ‘Take On My Legacy’, ‘Someone Says’ and especially ‘Still Alive’ are all excellent melodic power metal tracks like we’ve come to expect from Labÿrinth through the years.

For all its class, ‘Architecture Of A God’ does take a slight dip in quality halfway through. While all separate sections of the title track are amazing, the transitions don’t flow as well and the novelty of the following cover ‘Children’ from dream trance legend Robert Miles wears off quickly. But the rest is incredible; ‘A New Dream’ is one of those progressive ballads Labÿrinth excels at and though it mirrors ‘The Night Of Dreams’ somewhat, it certainly improves upon its formula, resulting in an atmospheric work of art. Smirnoff’s compositional contributions ‘Random Logic’ and ‘Diamond’ are the album’s most unconventional moments. The latter – a beautiful, scarce ballad that is highly electronic in nature – closes the album in style.

After hearing the first tracks that surfaced, my expectations of ‘Architecture Of A God’ were sky high and I can gladly say they were exceeded. Everyone who likes their power metal with a healthy dose of melody and romanticism should give the album a spin. The guitars – both electric and acoustic – sound as good as ever and Tiranti hasn’t lost one bit of his emotional power. It may be a bit premature to call the record album of the year material, but I will be very surprised if I hear a better power metal record this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Still Alive’, ‘A New Dream’, ‘Someone Says’, ‘Diamond’

Interview: Versailles’ frontier defying spirit


B7 Klan offered me the opportunity to interview Versailles and of course I took that opportunity. What follows here is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. If you can read Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original article right here.

With their bombastic power metal sound and their almost fairytale-like appearance, Versailles grew to be one of the most important players in 21st century visual kei. In late 2012, the band took a break, but as of last year, the band is active again. After a few one-offs in Japan, the band’s first tour will follow and just like in their early days, it will remarkably take place in Europe. “The time was right for Versailles again“, says guitarist Hizaki.

In the intervening years, the band fully committed itself to other projects. Singer Kamijo went solo and all of the other members formed the excellent power metal band Jupiter, which will remain active alongside Versailles. “I compose imagining the person who will sing the song“, states Hizaki, who also released his instrumental solo album ‘Rosario’ earlier this year. “The melodies I write will always be a reflection of the singer’s personality. I do like the fact that I can now show in Versailles the skills that I have developed in my personal activities.
Kamijo also doesn’t rule out the opportunity that his solo adventure will get a sequal. “I’m sharing my feelings with different audiences“, he describes the differences. “In both cases, we are playing my melodies, but the reasons why I’m writing each project’s songs are different. In 2017, Versailles celebrates its tenth anniversary, so you can imagine that there will be some new projects.“”On February 14th, we will release our new album“, guitarist Teru already spills. As for the rest, the band still keeps their plans strictly secret, but bassist Masashi calls on the fans to keep an eye on their website and social media: “We have many projects planned.

Choreography
For a Japanese band, Versailles has always been surprisingly internationally oriented. Before the band even went on its first full tour through Japan, their first European tour with Matenrou Opera was already a fact. Later on, the band came back to Europe twice, so it’s not a complete surprise that the band once again aims for Europe after a couple of one-offs in Japan. “I can’t wait to come back to Europe“, Hizaki agrees. “Since we can’t meet our fans out there often, I want to enjoy them as much as possible. It seems to be even harder to bring our music overseas to America, but I would like to make it back there as well someday.“”I notice that European audiences want to show their power in a different way“, says Kamijo. “In some countries, they shout. In Japan, they synchronize their choreography.
It’s beautiful to see the different reactions in each country“, Masashi confirms. Teru agrees: “When I play overseas, I truly realize that the reaction in Japan is really original.
And yet, it’s remarkable that Versailles is one of the very few bands that tours Europe somewhat regularly. “I don’t know exactly how we did that“, says drummer Yuki. “But I am really proud of Versailles’ music. We only stick to our own convictions.
I guess some bands get too discouraged by certain details“, Teru thinks aloud. “It’s important to make music with a spirit that transcends frontiers and nationalities.
And the band rehearses for that with full determination. “As usual, I’m practicing by playing a lot“, Yuki says. “Besides that, I listen to good music and I imagine myself playing it, drum acting. And because I’m trying to be more familiar with the English language, I also watch some movies.
I record myself in ProTools and then check the results of my playing“, Teru shares. But, Hizaki emphasizes: “You who will be at our live shows must be ready too.

Dreams
Versailles’ music contains quite dense arrangements. Besides the five band members, a vast amount of choral and orchestral samples deliver a significant amount of bombast. However, the spectacular guitar work of Hizaki and Teru always remains prominent. “There is always an orchestra in my head“, the latter smiles. “It’s important to listen to all of the band members’ sounds. I always try to think of all the elements when I’m playing. Concerning my guitar sound, I try to reduce the gain and keep the peak in the middle and high frequencies.
When we practice the songs, we always make it“, Hizaki adds. “The synthesizer parts always tend to be gathering into midi arrangements, so I try to be attentive of those in terms of my phrasing.
An additional problem for many Japanese bands is that they can’t take all of their equipment with them to Europe. Amplifiers are rented, but every member at least takes his own instrument with him. “And I’m taking my sticks and pedals with me. And my love for Versailles“, Yuki states. “I’m considering taking a Fractal Audio system with me“, Hizaki thinks aloud.
When asked if they would ever like to play with an actual orchestra, everyone answers affirmatively. “Of course“, Yuki continues. “It’s one of my biggest dreams.” “Please organize it!“, Hizaki begs.

Connected
One can’t think of contemporary visual kei without thinking of Versailles. At least as much attention as they put into their music will also go into their flamboyant clothing, hairdos and album covers. “What do you like more?“, Kamijo asks. “A wonderful movie without images or a beautiful movie with images?
The music and the visual aspect are inseparably connected to each other“, agrees Teru, himself a graphic designer. “The artistic value of the music can be increased by this combination. I am proud of visual kei, but I don’t want to be too occupied with trying to fit that genre or category. I only go forward with what I like and what I think is beautiful.
And there’s another mission for Versailles: bringing the visual kei audiences and the metal audiences together. “There is a barrier between them higher than the highest frontier“, Kamijo states. “We are there to destroy this barrier.
The band is not interested in ever making music without the visual aspect. “Impossible“, they collectively say. “My spirit is always in heavy metal“, Hizaki continues. “But I can’t feel any attraction towards artists who neglect their appearance.
Only Yuki leaves the door slightly ajar. “I think we and our audience would still like our music“, he says. “Otherwise we would have never started doing this. But I do think that it adds an element with which you can tell the listener more than with just the music.
And how do the guys stay fresh and inspired after playing together for so long? “By stimulating each other to become better“, Kamijo resolutely says. Masashi agrees: “We all evolve together with the other members.” “It’s simply interesting to work with the music of other people than myself“, Hizaki concludes.

Versailles’ ‘Renaissance’ tour travels to the following venues in early 2017:

January 26th: Teatr Club, Moscow, Russia
January 27th: Gloria, Helsinki, Finland
January 29th: O2 Islingron Academy, London, England
February 1st: Zeche, Bochum, Germany
February 2nd: Hybrydy, Warszaw, Poland
February 4th: Salamandra 1, Madrid, Spain
February 5th: La Machine du Moulin Rouge, Paris, France

Interview: The second life of Yoshiki and X Japan


Last week, I had the chance to speak to Japanese X Japan’s drummer, pianist and band leader – and visual kei superstar – Yoshiki. He was in Amsterdam to promote the new documentary about his band, ‘We Are X’. What follows here is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. If you can read Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original version right here. All pictures are courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Since their breakthrough in the mid-eighties, X Japan became one of the biggest and most influential bands in Japan. How big? That goes well beyond what we can imagine, but the brand new documentary ‘We Are X’ now also gives the rest of the world a look into the crazy and at times dramatic history of the band. Prior to the showing at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), we spoke to drummer, pianist and band leader Yoshiki about the past and the future of X Japan.

The vast majority of the thirty million albums that X Japan sold went over the counter in Japan. That’s why it may seem strange that ‘We Are X’ is presented to the whole world, but the history of the band is at times stranger than some fiction. Not only was the band there for the genesis of the extravagant visual kei scene and does Yoshiki possess an enormous archive with spectacular pictures, according to director Stephen Kijak, but with a singer who left the band under the influence of a cult leader and two dubious suicides among their band members, the band had to endure its share of drama.
My agent in America approached me to do a documentary a couple of years ago, because the story is crazy“, Yoshiki explains. “But I said: no way, it’s too painful for me to even revisit my memories, that kind of nightmare. But eventually, people around me started convincing me that the story of X Japan may help people.
The timing seems ideal, because there’s a new album coming; their first in twenty years. ‘We Are X’ seems like the perfect way to promote the band’s new international ambitions. According to the band leader himself, this is a coincidence: “We didn’t have any plan anyway. Everything has happened organically and naturally. Coincidentally, the film is going to be out when we are about to finish the album. We have one show already scheduled at Wembley Arena on March 4th, 2017. That could be the beginning of a new world tour. I’m actually talking about it.

Miracle

That album was supposed to be released early this year. However, the release was slowed down due to unforeseen circumstances, among which serious health issues for guitarist Pata. “He is fully recovered“, Yoshiki reassures. “It’s almost a miracle. I thought he was not going to survive. Early this year, we were actually recording in Los Angeles with our vocalist and our guitar player – Toshi and Sugizo – when we heard the knews that Pata was in ICU. I said: can I talk to him? But they said: no, nobody can even talk to him. I tried to find out how bad it was.
His doctor said that he’s conscious, but he’s not eating anything. He didn’t know if he was going to survive. A few weeks later, I finally talked to Pata. I asked him if he would fully recover, but he didn’t even know. That took several months. We stopped recording, but at some point, we had to move on. There is a song Sugizo and I played his parts to.

Meanwhile, the as of yet untitled album is almost finished. “The recording part is nearly done“, Yoshiki states. “There’s a few more piano parts left, but otherwise, the drums, guitars and vocals for every single song are done. It’s going to be really edgy. There’s going to be some heavy songs, some ballads as well. We don’t want to be just repeating the same thing. So I’ll say it’s a new era of X Japan.
While Yoshiki was the main composer in the heyday of the band, he was often supported by guitarist hide and bassist Taiji, both of whom have passed away in the meantime. “There is an amazing song on it from our new guitar player Sugizo“, he explains. “So not the whole album is written by me, but the majority is.

Self expression

In their early days, X Japan – still under the name X at the time – was there for the birth of the visual kei scene, known for their flamboyant outfits and hairdos and a complete disregard for musical boundaries. “I came from a classical background“, Yoshiki explains. “When I was playing Beethoven or Mozart, it was all about how you could get close to what Beethoven or Mozart was thinking. I thought that was cool too, but I wanted to create something of my own. When I found rock, I thought: this is complete freedom, you can do anything. Complete freedom for describing yourself. When we started playing live, we played punk rock, heavy metal and soft ballads. Then all the critics told us we had to decide on one direction. I was shocked; I thought rock meant that you could do anything.
As a result, we couldn’t belong anywhere. When we were playing club shows, we were having a hard time finding other bands to play with. Nobody wanted to play with X, because they couldn’t categorize us. We just kept doing what we wanted and eventually the audience started growing. Visual kei doesn’t have to be one specific sound, it’s more like a freedom of how you can express yourself.

In Japan, there is very little overlap between the visual kei audience and the “regular” metal audience. Much to Yoshiki’s joy, there is an overlap in Europe: “When we toured Europe in 2011, both audiences came. I think that’s really cool. I live in America; when you go to Ozzfest or something, there are the heavy metal people, but when you go to a visual kei band, there are really cool fashinable Japanese Harajuku people or animation cosplayers. I love both of them. The cool thing about X Japan shows is that we have both kinds of people coming. We enjoy that.

Nightmare

X Japan’s rush was ended quite abruptly in the mid-nineties when singer Toshi announced he would play his last show with the band on New Year’s Eve of 1997. He claimed no longer being able to get any satisfaction from his rock star existence, but later admitted being pressured by the leader of the Home Of Heart cult. His departure meant the end of the band and less than half a year later, the immensely popular guitarist hide died. Officially by suicide, but people close to him suspect that it was an accident.
According to many, the death of hide also meant the end of visual kei. “Everybody died when hide died“, Yoshiki agrees. “I died as well. I don’t remember that time that much, because I was kind of blacked out. I didn’t even want to be in this world. I think you can say that the entire scene kind of died, but the younger generation of bands kept going with the visual kei spirit. I actually should thank them; because of a lot of new bands, we kind of woke up several years later and realized that visual kei is not only a one-time thing.
In the late nineties, Dir En Grey came to my studio in Los Angeles, where we were recording a part of their first album. At that time, I couldn’t even talk about X Japan without crying. After hide passed away, I didn’t even want to touch the subject. But Dir En Grey were talking about going to see X Japan shows. Kaoru, their guitar player, loved hide and Shinya, their drummer, complimented my performances. I couldn’t avoid the X Japan subject. Actually, I started thinking of doing something on my own – not even with X Japan, but a new band or something – when I started producing Dir En Grey.

Break

Remarkable in ‘We Are X’ is the large amount of attention for the physical pain Yoshiki has caught due to years of headbanging and playing with the wrong technique. According to Yoshiki himself, he’s been suffering that pain “pretty much from the get-go”. “In the beginning, I didn’t think of drums as a musical instrument“, he explains. “When my father took his own life, I was so angry, I was breaking things, punching the wall and everything. So when my mother bought me a drum set, I was basically punching drums. Kicking drums. When people saw me doing this, they said: Yoshiki, your body is going to break if you keep playing like this. I didn’t care. I had so much pain inside, I almost wanted to do something physically to compensate for my mental pain.
Many years and several surgeries later, he is still playing. Hard. “When hide died, I died“, he emphasizes once again. “But our fans around the world actually kept supporting us. Almost unconditionally. So basically, I still exist because of our fans. Our fans gave us a second life, a second chance. So I just want to thank them. And for me to thank them, I just have to keep on rocking, keep on breaking all those walls. We don’t have a specific plan, but I hope that the show at the Wembley Arena will be the beginning of a world tour.