Posts Tagged ‘ traditional Heavy Metal ’

Album of the Week 10-2018: Seikima-II – The End Of The Century

Classic heavy metal with a distinct theatrical edge, heavy kabuki-styled make-up on the band members, a downright hideous album cover… We must be dealing with an excellent Seikima-II album. Back in the mid-eighties, when original guitarist Damian Hamada had already left the band, but was still writing most of the material, they were really the only Japanese band that could hold a candle against Anthem if traditional, British-styled heavy metal was what you were looking for. When the band delved into more varied territory shortly afterward, they still delivered quality material, but there is a certain charm to these early songs.

Despite all the borderline ridiculous touches in terms of atmosphere and thematic approach – which I suspect were at least partly parodic in nature – part of why ‘The End Of The Century’ is so good is just because it makes sense. Sure, if you just want to listen to the excellent songs, the little interludes disrupt the flow of the album a little and it does not help that Demon Kogure’s narrations make little sense if you aren’t familiar with the Japanese language, but the songs are actually really good. The guitars sound surprisingly punchy for a 1986 production as well.

If you look at Seikima-II’s setlists throughout the years, you will find that almost every song on ‘The End Of The Century’ became a live staple for the band, with the possible exception of the doomy ‘Kaiki Shokobutsu’ and ‘Akuma No Sanbika’, the latter of which is a beautifully arranged masterpiece of guitar and vocal harmonies and one of the best Seikima-II songs. Even the instrumental opening track ‘Seikima-II Misakyoku Dainiban -Soseki-‘ ended up opening most of the band’s concerts. Sure, only half of it frequently made it to the stage, but the other half is full of exciting riffs and themes.

The remaining tracks are all classics, the best of which being the fantastic title track. It’s nothing too complicated, but its riffs are just classy and effective. ‘Roningyo No Yakata’ is another one that is textbook Seikima-II with its powerful main riff and horror-themed lyrics, while closing track ‘Fire After Fire’ combines the power of a speed metal-styled opening riff and a chorus that refuses to leave your head. ‘Jack The Ripper’ completes the fascination with British metal by employing a British theme in its lyrics. Sure, the actual English lines could have used some work, but the song is energetic and catchy as hell.

While it would be easy to dismiss Seikima-II as a Japanese Kiss ripoff – which, I’m not ashamed to admit, is what I initially did – but they have much more to offer in terms of consistent songwriting. And if it’s consistent heavy metal you want, you can hardly go wrong with ‘The End Of The Century’. ‘Demon’s Night’ is fairly average, but everything else is among the best traditional heavy metal released in the eighties. Don’t let the kabuki appearance and the poor album cover discourage you: ‘The End Of The Century’ is an incredible album.

Recommended tracks: ‘The End Of The Century’, ‘Akuma No Sanbika’, ‘Roningyo No Yakata’


Album of the Week 06-2018: Onmyo-za – Chimimoryo

Out of all Onmyo-za albums, ‘Chimimoryo’ is proabably the one with the broadest appeal. That does not mean it isn’t metal. Quite the contrary. The riff work on the album is still as rooted in traditional heavy metal as it always has been, but the polish of the production and the melodic sensibilities really opens the door for J-rock fans, while the dynamic and subtly adventurous nature of the record invites progressive rockers to have a listen. No matter what side of Onmyo-za you like best, it is represented on ‘Chimimoryo’, which – as a result – is one of the band’s best.

What really makes ‘Chimimoryo’ as near perfect as it gets is the fact that it has a very pleasant flow. It would not surprise me if multiple track orders were tested before release in order to find the one that is just right. This is not the type of album where you’d get tired of too many songs of the same tempo or style after each other, neither does it boggle your mind with illogical genre-hopping. The powerful voice of bassist and band leader Matatabi and the expressive (mezzo-)soprano of Kuroneko are very much in balance here as well.

As great as ‘Chimimoryo’ is all the way through, the more epic tracks really raise the album’s status. And that already starts when you put on the album, as ‘Shutendoji’ is a monumental midtempo hardrock track of late Zeppelin proportions, only with some brilliant guitar harmonies and a metallic rhythm section more reminiscent of Iron Maiden. Later on, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ takes you through multiple climaxes during its eleven and a half minutes. Huge, doomy riffs, balladesque sections and one of the more awesome speed metal riffs in the band’s discography, it’s all there and each section is even better than the last.

These songs alone don’t make a good album though. The hypermelodic single ‘Kureha’ is reminiscent of ‘Yoka Ninpocho’ in how the clean and distorted guitars interact, the strong melodic metal stomper ‘Araragi’ feels like a sequel to ‘Shutendoji’ with its powerful lead guitar themes and broad chords and if it’s fast riffs you want, ‘Hiderigami’ and ‘Oni Hitokuchi’ will serve you all the energetic speed metal you need. Kuroneko’s composition ‘Tamashizume no Uta’ is the lone ballad on the album, but her amazing voice and the rather atypical marching rhythms and percussion really turn it into something unique.

Unless you are a wool-dyed old-schooler, ‘Chimimoryo’ would be the perfect album to get acquainted with Onmyo-za’s unique sound. Matatabi’s compositions evidence that the guitars of Maneki and Karukan do not have to play power chords the whole time in order to sound metallic and the vocals prove that there are more options than the overused beauty and the beast tactic for male-female vocal duos. Onmyo-za would later top ‘Chimimoryo’ with ‘Kishibojin’, but only barely. This is one of the very few albums that is of consistently high quality from start to finish and deserves to be heard because of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shutendoji’, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’, ‘Araragi’, ‘Oni Hitokuchi’

Album of the Week 05-2018: Onmyo-za – Kongo Kyubi

Due to its polished, almost glossy production and the relatively mellow nature of its songs, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ initially was one of my least favorite Onmyo-za albums. After letting the album – and, presumably, myself – mature for a while, my appreciation for the album increased rapidly. It is quite unique in the Onmyo-za canon in that there is an abundance of clean and twelve string guitars, but only three of the songs qualify as a ballad. Instead, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ channels all the band’s melodic sensibilities and puts them on the crossroads of traditional heavy metal, eighties hardrock, mildly progressive rock and J-rock.

Had Onmyo-za continued down a softer road following ‘Kongo Kyubi’, it would have been seen as a transitional album, but since it was followed by one of the darkest records the band ever made, it can probably be considered a melodic experiment that works surprisingly well. That does not mean the album feels like a stylistic detour; songs like ‘Aoki Dokugan’ and ‘Sokoku’ contain everything Onmyo-za fans would want; NWOBHM inspired riffs, melodic lead guitar themes, highly memorable melodies and – always a defining feature of the band – the excellent dual lead vocals of bassist Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko.

Still, ‘Kongo Kyubi’ has a few amazing songs that would have sounded out of place on other Onmyo-za albums. ‘Banka’, for instance, is the most bluesy track the band ever released, albeit in an eighties Gary Moore blues ballad kind of way. Furthermore, ‘Baku’ sets the mood for the album very effectively. It is based on some shimmering twelve string parts courtesy of guitarist Maneki, but also has a few pulsating riffs, a notably upbeat chorus and some of Matatabi’s busiest bass work to date. ‘Izayoi No Ame’ does a brilliant job combining Onmyo-za’s trademark melodic J-metal with melodic hard rock.

That does not mean that ‘Kongo Kyubi’ is without its heavy moments. ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’ is a masterpiece of a speed metal track, while the three-song suite ‘Kumikyoku Kyubi’ is remarkable in being the only Onmyo-za suite so far that does not contain a distinct ballad-esque track. Sure, its first part ‘Tamamo-No-Mae’ has a bouncy, almost disco-like rhythm as its foundation, but the epic Iron Maiden vibe of ‘Shomakyo’ and the riff-fest ‘Sessho-Seki’ keep it firmly within the metal realm. In addition, ‘Kuraiau’ – yes, I also first thought it was “cry out” – is the best of Onmyo-za’s upbeat closers, which often are a little lightweight. By contrast, ‘Kuraiau’ has a powerful seventies hardrock feel.

Once ‘Kongo Kyubi’ clicked with me, I learned to appreciate it for what it is: an extremely well-written, perfectly arranged and flawlessly produced album. Onmyo-za found a way to perfectly balance their sense of melodicism with some surprisingly inventive riff work which sounds standard enough, but really isn’t once you find out the chord structures. As for myself, I am glad I love this band enough to give this album a few extra chances, after which it proved that it is not a watered down version of Onmyo-za, but instead a very successful attempt at highlighting the band’s more romantic side. The latter half of the album is surprisingly metallic though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kuzaku Ninpocho’, ‘Izayoi No Ame’, ‘Kumikyoku “Kyubi” ~ Shomakyo’, ‘Kuraiau’

Album of the Week 04-2018: Loudness – Rise To Glory

There was a time when a new Loudness album was something I was passionately looking forward to. With the previous album ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’ being quite lackluster, this was not necessarily the case with ‘Rise To Glory’, but the results of the latter seem to point out that its predecessor was an accidental misstep. ‘Rise To Glory’ is the most spontaneous and traditional sounding Loudness album in a long time. While the Pantera-ish contemporary leanings have not disappeared entirely, the second half of the album in particular is very likely to please fans of what Loudness did in the eighties.

My main criticisms of ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’ were aimed at the predictable and tired songwriting. It seemed like the band was running on autopilot at the time. That certainly is not the case on ‘Rise To Glory’. There are definitely more than two types of riffs in the arsenal of guitar wizard Akira Takasaki this time around. The stomping modern metal riffs have largely been replaced by old school hard rock and tradtional heavy metal riffs and there is even some acoustic guitar work on the record. This increase in dynamics is one of the album’s greatest assets.

Variation is also greater than before in the tempo department. Recent Loudness albums tend to contain two or three faster songs and a large number of modern midtempo tracks. Though ‘Rise To Glory’ is not filled with speed monsters – ‘Massive Tornado’ and the more melodic ‘I’m Still Alive’ have obviously been designed as such – there is a lot more material in the faster end of the midtempo spectrum to be heard here. The title track, with its classic speed metal main riff, is one of the best examples of this, as is the galloping album highlight ‘Why And For Whom’.

While Takasaki is always riffing creatively and soloing impressively and bassist Masayoshi Yamashita is more present than he has been in a while, Minoru Niihara’s deteriorating vocals were a factor that dragged ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’ down. Although his voice is still a clear victim of aging here, he actually sounds surprisingly good on the album’s two semi-ballads ‘The Voice’ and ‘Rain’, the latter an atmospheric, almost doomy track that I feel Takasaki had been wanting to write for ages. The latter could also be true for the somewhat psychedelic ‘Kama Sutra’, which would not have sounded out of place on ‘Heavy Metal Hippies’, but somehow also doesn’t here.

Sure, people who are no fans of the genre could criticize songs like ‘No Limit’, the upbeat opener ‘Soul On Fire’ and the midtempo stomper ‘Go For Broke’ for being old man’s metal or more of the same, but the fact of the matter is that Loudness is really good at this creative take on traditional heavy metal. Apart from Niihara’s voice, nothing on ‘Rise To Glory’ seems to signal that Loudness’ members – except for drummer Masayuki Suzuki, who is in his mid-forties – are approaching sixty. In fact, ‘Rise To Glory’ is the first post-reunion Loudness album of which I can safely say that fans of the band’s classic material can blindly buy it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Why And For Whom’, ‘Rise To Glory’, ‘Rain’

Album of the Week 43-2017: Lovebites – Awakening From Abyss

After their excellent ‘The Lovebites EP’, I was expecting Lovebites’ debut album to be goot, but not this ridiculously good. In short, ‘Awakening From Abyss’ is the only album that can rival Firewind’s ‘Immortals’ as the best metal album from 2017. The record is chock-full of energetic riffs, blazing lead guitar work, pounding drums and passionate vocals. What more can you desire from a heavy metal album? Very little in deed. This Japanese quintet combines traditional heavy metal and contemporary power metal in an incredible manner and they seem hellbent on world domination. Song material this good certainly deserves to be heard worldwide.

On their EP, Lovebites excelled in dynamic and catchy, yet surprisingly inricate power metal with a powerful, rather unpolished production. The guitars are thick and raw and the incredible voice of relative newcomer Asami is one of the main attractions of this band. For ‘Awakening From Abyss’, the band has continued and enhanced this approach. At times, they end up sounding surprisingly aggressive. Songs like ‘Warning Shot’ and ‘Burden Of Time’ have a distinct Motörhead-ish vibe in the riff department, while several tracks combine recognizable choruses with riffs that angrily pound through the speakers.

No track combines those two extremes quite as deliciously as opening track ‘The Hammer Of Wrath’. After a brooding, vaguely Middle-Eastern sounding guitar melody, the song is an ongoing assault of vicious riffs and memorable melodies, which is exactly what one could wish from a heavy metal track. It is hardly the only highlight of the record though. ‘Shadowmaker’ has everything it takes to be a modern day power metal classic – that dramatic chorus is incredible – and ‘Don’t Bite The Dust’ is everything that classic metal bands aspire to be these days. On the lighter side – only slightly though – there are the epic semi-ballad ‘Edge Of The World’ and the gripping, haunting melodies of ‘Liar’.

It is impressive how the members of Lovebites combine their impressive skills and end up sounding significantly better than even the sum of their parts. Guitarists Midori and Mi-Ya are all over the album with high octane riffs and impressive solos, even throwing in a few awesome trade-offs like the one near the end of ‘Scream For Me’. Haruna tackles simple beats with the same conviction as busy parts and fills and though bassist Miho is not on the foreground, her aggressive right hand attack gives the music the balls it needs.

Then there is Asami’s golden throat. Her range is lower and more powerful – and as a result, more pleasant to listen to – than that of most Japanese singers, though she occasionally proves to be just as forceful in the higher regions. Honestly, ‘Awakening From Abyss’ is one of those albums that leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. It’s a boiling, dynamic and incredibly overwhelming stew of several eras of heavy and power metal. I haven’t heard many contemporary metal albums this good in a while. And due to their deals with JPU Records in Europe and Sliptrick Records in North-America, the whole world has the chance to get acquainted with the music of these ladies. I suggest that you’ll do so.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go and pick up my jaw from the floor.

Recommended tracks: ‘Awakening From Abyss’, ‘Shadowmaker’, ‘Burden Of Time’

Album of the Week 42-2017: Black Sabbath – Master Of Reality

If Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut was the birth of heavy metal, their third record ‘Master Of Reality’ is where the genre reaches adolescence. It retains some of its youthful mistakes – most prominently Ozzy Osbourne’s rather dull vocal lines, something which would not improve until ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ – but improves upon a lot of them as well. Despite its flaws, ‘Master Of Reality’ is an album that still sounds fresh and relevant today and the most important reason for that is the fact that Black Sabbath perfects its own intention on this record; the album is full of mighty riffs.

Nowhere is the power of the riff more apparent than on the massive closer ‘Into The Void’. It is Black Sabbath’s first encounter with the C# tuning – for non-musicians: one and a half step lower than standard tuning – and it has been a successful one. Many heavy metal riffs have been written since that intro, including a number of particularly fine ones by Black Sabbath themselves, but none has ever quite surpassed the thick, heavy majesty of this track’s intro. And that’s not even the only brilliant riff in the song. ‘Into The Void’ is probably the song that captures the essence of early Black Sabbath best.

There are many more songs to enjoy here, although the record really only has six songs if you subtract the two acoustic instrumentals. ‘Children Of The Grave’ is easily one of Black Sabbath’s finest compositions. The driving shuffle rhythm, Tony Iommi’s simple, but brutally effective riffs and Osbourne’s first truly decent performance form one of the band’s most exuberant compositions, even though it’s not particularly upbeat. ‘After Forever’ is quite a surprise upon first listen due to some unexpected twists and the incredibly downbeat ‘Solitude’ is one of the very few successful Black Sabbath ballads.

While the band was often berated for their dark lyrics, they are nowhere near as dark as they are made out to be. ‘After Forever’ and ‘Lord Of This World’ – another riff monster with surprisingly good vocals – are the most overtly religious lyrics that bassist Geezer Butler had written up to this point. In fact, the only more obviously christian lyrics in my collection are in Stryper songs. It does give the songs a unique character though. In contrast, I could do without the overt ode to pot that is opener ‘Sweet Leaf’, but at least Iommi’s riffs make it a worthwhile song.

Early Black Sabbath really triumphs over later work by the band because of the musical interaction between the members. Butler and drummer Bill Ward occasionally get a little jazzy, though ‘Master Of Reality’ is really the album where they started getting very bottom heavy. Butler’s right hand attack lacks even the vaguest hint of subtlety, but that is exactly what gives Iommi’s guitar work the balls it would not have had otherwise. Sure, Black Sabbath has made albums that are more interesting musically or more memorable melodically, but if anyone ever wanted to know why early Black Sabbath was so hugely influential, ‘Master Of Reality’ is the album to put on.

Recommended tracks: ‘Children Of The Grave’, ‘Into The Void’, ‘Lord Of This World’

Album of the Week 41-2017: Saber Tiger – Timystery

Before Saber Tiger was fronted by the passionate howls of Takenori Shimoyama, they made a couple of excellent albums with Yoko Kubota, an impressive singer in her own right, at the helm. This was the time when the Japanese quintet started incorporating progressive elements into their music, slowly morphing from an above average heavy metal band to the amazing band they are today. ‘Timystery’ is one of those albums that does everything just right. The compositions are better and the musical interaction is more cohesive than ever before. And though it would turn out to be Kubota’s last album with the band, she really comes into her own here.

‘Timystery’ finds Saber Tiger streamlining the progressive touches that were on the foreground on its direct predecessor ‘Agitation’. As a result, ‘Timystery’ feels a little more like ‘Invasion’, Kubota’s 1992 debut with the band, but there is some more musical class hidden beneath the surface. In essence, the album is exactly what you would have expected from Saber Tiger at this point in their career: energetic songs, huge beefy riffs and recognizable choruses, but the songs take a few surprising twists. Also, it is Saber Tiger’s first album that features English lyrics exclusively.

Fortunately, these lyrics go beyond the usual English catchphrases surrounded by poor grammar that Japanese bands revelled in at the time. I don’t know if Kubota had any help, but her English is decent enough and the songs actually have topics. There is a lot of relational material and lyrics about trust issues, but they work. Sometimes even surprisingly well: every aspect of ‘Bad Devotion’ is flawless. The start-stop riffs and dynamics of the song really enhance the story of a woman trying to get back on her feet, while every section of the song is a new climax, culminating in the solo section, which is both virtuosic and goosebumps-inducing.

Of course, no one needed to worry about the qualities of the musicians; Akihito Kinoshita and Yasuharu Tanaka are likely the best guitar duo in the business, Takashi Yamazumi is a bassist who makes the most of his moments, but also has no problem holding down the bottom end and Yoshio Isoda is solid as a rock. That musicianship is what lifts songs like the highly rhythmic ‘Living On In The Crisis’, the relatively heavy opener ‘No Fault / No Wrong’, the pleasantly melodic ‘Distressed Soul’, the pounding ‘Revenged On You’ and the highly dynamic ‘Easy Road To Life’ above their obvious compositional quality.

Saber Tiger truly struck gold on ‘Timystery’. They found the perfect balance between progressive metal – the unconventional rhythms of the lengthy closer ‘Spiral Life’ are easily the most “proggy” moment of the record – and traditional heavy metal, creating something that may appeal to fans of both genres. The album contains several of the best songs the band has ever made and it would take more than fifteen years before the band would top it. Albums this consistent are a rarity, especially in the mid-nineties metal scene, but ‘Timystery’ is simply an album that will not let you go until long after it is over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Devotion’, ‘Living On In The Crisis’, ‘Easy Road To Life’