Posts Tagged ‘ traditional Heavy Metal ’

Album of the Week 30-2018: Volcano – Darker Than Black


‘Darker Than Black’ is Volcano’s fourth original studio album since mid-July 2015. While that may seem a bit excessive, it is also remarkably good. Volcano was always the perfect band for anyone who could not choose between the vicious aggression of thrash metal and the melodic appeal of traditional heavy metal and ‘Darker Than Black’ is no different, though the melodic death metal influences that were prominent a few albums ago have been dialed back considerably. ‘Darker Than Black’ is one of Volcano’s more interesting albums compositionally, though it is just as capable of thrashing your face off when it needs to.

One thing that immediately stands out is that a lot of attention has been given to making the songs instantly recognizable. Every previous Volcano album has its fair share of powerful songs and catchy moments, but at times, some of the non-highlights had a tendency to sound a little too similar. However, no two songs sound alike on ‘Darker Than Black’. This is admirable, because thrash metal can be quite the limiting genre. By subtle changes in tempo, atmosphere and melodic content, the Japanese quartet managed to give each song its own face while retaining their thrashing intensity.

Speaking of atmosphere, two of the album’s most atmospheric moments have surprisingly been composed by bassist Akira. The propulsive ‘Jailbreak Vampire’ has a middle section that would not have sounded out of place on a mid-nineties Scandinavian melodeath album, while closing track ‘Guardian Deity’ immediately becomes one of the album highlights through its heroic melodicism. Guitarist She-ja wrote the rest of the material, with ‘Flight To The World’ possibly being the best opening track Volcano ever released. Classic twin guitar melodies, punishing drum work by the incredible Shun and biting thrash riffs constantly keep each other in perfect balance. And good luck getting that chorus out of your head.

Furthermore, Volcano explores the entire spectrum of heavy metal here. At the most melodic end, there are songs like the classic midtempo heavy metal of ‘Scatter Toxins’ and the relatively open ‘When You Are’, which has a gorgeous, almost bluesy guitar solo. The latter is also true for ‘Arena’, which is the perfect breather for an otherwise rather chaotic song. ‘Horror’ is a very cool riff-driven thrasher closest to the eighties Bay Area tradition, while ‘Great Crisis’ similtaneously houses some of the album’s most extreme as well as some of its most melodic sections. It should not work and yet, it does.

In fact, the entire album works. The only issue have with it is that the mastering job is a nightmare. It isn’t disruptive in every single song, but during some intense double bass sessions, the music distorts. With the songwriting generally being on par with – at times even slightly better than – the better moments of ‘Melt’, that should only be a minor complaint though. Though nothing on ‘Darker Than Black’ may be as instantly catchy as ‘Tokyo Panic’, it feels like this 53-minute collection of carefree thrashing will leave more of a lasting impact, quite likely making it the second best Volcano album after 2001’s incomparable ‘Davi’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Flight To The World’, ‘Guardian Deity’, ‘Horror’

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Album of the Week 26-2018: Iced Earth – Night Of The Stormrider


‘Night Of The Stormrider’ is often mentioned as a favorite by those who followed Iced Earth from the very beginning and it is easy to hear why. The song material is notably more complex than the songs that would make the band a big name less than a decade after its original release in 1991, though there is more of a polish than on the self-titled debut. The fact that it’s a concept album certainly helps its continuity as well. Whatever happened in the intervening year, it helped. Most of the songs would remain live staples for many years to come.

Whether or not ‘Night Of The Stormrider’ would be your favorite Iced Earth album depends on what you want to hear from them. If you want the hooky choruses and dramatic vocals that are currently synonymous with them, the album may come off disappointing. Jon Schaffer’s trademark aggressive, hyperspeed palm-muted riffs are all over the record though. And there’s certainly a higher riff density than usual. Verse-chorus structures are broken up by extensive middle sections full of tempo and atmosphere changes, while the overall tone of the album is notably darker than most of the band’s other output.

Compositionally, the album contains some of Iced Earth’s finest work. Especially when the band combines fierce aggression and the first traces of theatricality, as is the case in the massive opener ‘Angels Holocaust’, Iced Earth proves they were easily among the best metal bands of the early nineties. Closing epic ‘Travel In Stygian’ manages to wrap up all the elements of Iced Earth’s style as well, with fierce semi-thrash riffs, balladesque sections and a particularly climactic chorus following each other seemlessly, though it could have used a shorter middle section. ‘Stormrider’ and the more melodic, oft-forgotten ‘Mystical End’ are more concise, but no less impressive.

Another song that doesn’t always get the praise it deserves is ‘Desert Rain’. It is easily the darkest moment on the album musically, with the rage and confusion of the lyrics perfectly illustrated by the juxtaposition of forceful metal and more desperate tranquil sections. Its chorus is one of the band’s first experiments with vocal harmonies and it is quite tasteful. If you’re splitting hairs, you could argue that the song is more a collection of riffs or segments than a composition, but that is the case for ‘Pure Evil’ as well and that one is still a fan favorite to this day.

The album is not without its flaws. First and foremost, John Greely is merely adequate, though significantly better than his predecessor Gene Adam. His cleans have a pleasant tone and his rawer work sounds delightfully aggressive, but his high-pitched screams lack character and his range is quite limited. The acoustic interludes ‘Before The Vision’ and ‘Reaching The End’ don’t add much musically and some sections (most notably the parts before the final verses of ‘The Path I Choose’ and ‘Pure Evil’) sound too similar. The pros outweigh the cons though. Unlike Schaffer, I think the bottom-heavy production benefits the music and there is a simple reason why a majority of these songs are considered Iced Earth classics: they’re very good.

Recommended tracks: ‘Angels Holocaust’, ‘Desert Rain’, ‘Stormrider’

Album of the Week 23-2018: Onmyo-za – Hado Myoo


Heavy, dark, but without forsaking their trademark streamlined melodicism. How they do it is a mystery to me, but Onmyo-za manages to upgrade the formula of their already impressive latter day sound on ‘Hado Myoo’ without the help of a potentially alienating stylistic shift. Despite its fairly heavy use of seven string guitars, its predecessor ‘Karyo-Binga’ had its lighter moments. ‘Hado Myoo’ has not, except for maybe the relatively accessible first single ‘Oka Ninpocho’. And that is a great thing, as this powerful, relatively riff-driven monster of an album truly confirms Onmyo-za’s relevance in the year before its twentieth anniversary.

Being quite a short album by Onmyo-za standards, ‘Hado Myoo’ wastes no time setting the scene and drags the listener into an unsettling, yokai-infested underworld by means of its massive opening track ‘Hao’. The song truly plays to all of the band’s strengths, with especially the contrast between the crushing sections sung by bassist and bandleader Matatabi and the more melancholic introspection of the parts lead by his wife Kuroneko being nothing short of genius. ‘Hao’ is more than a mind-blowing opener though. It is a warning that ‘Hado Myoo’ is not going to be for the faint of heart and it delivers on that promise.

‘Shimobe’ follows a similar structure, albeit on a higher tempo, with its fierce riffing unveiling a distinct melodic death metal influence. The 7/8 intro is vicious and it is quite remarkable how many new things happen in the latter three minutes of the song. Easily the heaviest Onmyo-za song in quite some time. But while the aforementioned songs are peaks in intensity, ‘Hado Myoo’ does not let go until it is over. The songs vary in heaviness – ‘Haja no Fuin’ brings some of that delicious NWOBHM-inspired twin riffing to the fore, while ‘Ippondara’ is a grinding midtempo stomper with a cool bass solo – but none of them will be relegated to background music. Fortunately.

Elsewhere, ‘Tesso No Aza’ teaches many European and American bands a lesson or two on how to do epic heavy metal and ‘Oka Ninpocho’ and ‘Fushoko No O’ feature some tasteful Japanese folk elements as part of their arrangements. ‘Izuna Otoshi’ and ‘Itsumade’ are the typical melodic heavy metal we have come to expect from Onmyo-za, though the latter does feature some borderline thrash riffs. Even the closing track is very powerful. Onmyo-za usually reserves that spot for lighter, upbeat rock tracks, but while ‘Bureiko’ does have a more “rocky” feel than the rest of the album, it is still very much rooted in pounding riff work.

As far as my expectations for ‘Hado Myoo’ went, this was not what I was expecting. Not many metal bands can say that their fourteenth album is one of their heaviest thus far, but Onmyo-za can proudly declare that. It never sounds forced, however. ‘Hado Myoo’ is clearly the work of a band doing something they feel comfortable doing. It is a sonic triumph as well, with the guitars of Maneki and Karukan having the perfect amount of grit and Matatabi’s bass rumbling underneath slightly more prominently than usual. Yours truly for one was stunned and unless you listen to Onmyo-za for their ballads – there aren’t any – most of their fans will too.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shimobe’, ‘Hao’, ‘Haja No Fuin’, ‘Tesso No Aza’

Album of the Week 17-2018: Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins


In recent years, many reliable metal bands have let me down, while bands that sort of slipped under my radar for years manage to thoroughly impress me. Last year, it was Septicflesh. Now it is Primordial that has released one of the better albums I have heard this year. Truth be told, the Irish quintet already had its moments of appeal to me in their more traditionally metallic material with clean vocals by A.A. Nemtheanga. And it is exactly that side of the band that is put front and center on ‘Exile Amongst The Ruins’, an atmospheric, melodically strong metal album.

Primordial’s background in somewhat folky black metal is mainly limited to dissonant chords and two more extreme passages. As a whole, ‘Exile Amongst The Ruins’ feels more like a relatively experimental doom metal album. Even in their most black metal days, Primordial tended to be more about atmosphere than aggression and despite the occasional outburt, their latest offering takes that approach to its logical extreme. The pace is generally moderate, though there is more variation in tempos here than on the likes of ‘The Gathering Wilderness’. The band has also shown great progress in their use of dynamics.

Those dynamics are a large part of what makes the album so good. A song like ‘To Hell Or The Hangman’ doesn’t have so much of a verse-chorus structure, but rather builds layers in a way industrial metal bands usually do. It does so splendidgly though, making it the best song on the album. However, where Primordial used to have albums full of these “builders”, they switch up approaches quite nicely here. ‘Where Lie The Gods’ slowly builds towards its climax – a passionate howl by Nemtheanga – while songs like ‘Nail Their Tongues’ and the title track have great, pronounced, almost catchy choruses.

Surprising is the tranquil and melancholic ‘Stolen Years’, which provides a bit of a breather before the last twenty minutes of the album. Eight of those are taken up by ‘Sunken Lungs’, which is the brightest example of the album’s organic recording process. Many metal bands finetune their albums to death these days, but in the sound and the fluctuating tempos of Simon O’Laoghaire’s incredibly creative drum parts, you can really feel that the album is alive. The long closer ‘Last Call’ has some nice ebb and flow workings, which makes it sound considerably shorter than it actually is.

Anyone with a strong preference for Primordial’s black metal roots will probably be disappointed by ‘Exile Among The Ruins’. While its predessor ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’ at least had one full-on extreme metal track, this one leans on powerful melodies, strong songwriting and Nemtheanga’s best vocal performance yet much more. For me personally, that can be considered a great asset. The mood of the album absorbs its listener and refuses to let go until the album is over. And with the album clocking in over 65 minutes, that is quite impressive. Highly recommended to fans of atmospheric doom metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘To Hell Or the Hangman’, ‘Stolen Years’, ‘Nail Their Tongues’

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’

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