Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Devil Within - Dark Supremacy

Melodeath Without the Bullshit

The Devil Within is pretty much a Japanese melodeath supergroup. Every member of the band is a part of one (or more) notable metal bands in the Japanese scene. When the band and its lineup was announced, it was pretty hard not to feel the hype. Kouta's guitar prowess is on constant display over in Thousand Eyes (his main gig), so there was never a concern there. Undead Corporation is far too core for my taste, but there was no question that the guys from that band (Kensuke and Yu-to) were good players. I dig Afterzero, so seeing Yoji on bass was nice. And of course, MergingMoon's second album is a treasure, so U on vocals was undoubtedly a major asset.

Upon looking at this lineup, I naively assumed that Kouta was the man of the hour here. He is the brains and mastermind behind Thousand Eyes, so I just figured Devil Within was his baby. Plus, you have to admit that Kouta just looks pretty fucking metal. Well obviously it turned out that I was wrong. The person behind all of the songwriting is actually the guy with the goofy-looking hair, Kensuke (who made the switch from bass in Undead Corporation to guitar in Devil Within). It turns out that Kensuke is both a splendid guitarist and a great songwriter, so I suppose I shouldn't make fun of his hair too much. From start to finish, the album is straightforward melodeath, but it avoids all of the usual trappings of that genre.

Japanese melodeath bands, for better or worse (usually worse), often have core elements in their sound. Dark Supremacy is exactly 0% core, so you can rest assured that you won't have to come out as a poser to your metalhead friends. The album is almost 100% by the book, but the execution is spot on. Sure, they don't sound terribly different than other melodeath bands you've heard before, but Devil Within maintains high quality songwriting and riffing to keep you hooked in. They employ a high variety of memorable, good riffs plus excellent leads and guitar solos throughout the entire runtime. Add some pretty sweet drumming and awesome vocals to mix and you have a winner.

The vocals are at least pretty different than what you usually get. U belongs to the relatively rare class of female vocals in extreme metal. She's also, without a doubt, one of the best. She can do it all: scream, grunt, growl, and pretty much anything else you can name. In comparison with the second MergingMoon album, her vocals here are a lot tamer and more typical for extreme metal, but that makes sense. This isn't weirdo progressive melodeath/metalcore after all. Regardless, U does a fantastic job behind the mike and definitely is a large asset to the album being as good as it is.

On the instrumental front, I find that the band strikes a great balance between melody and death metal. There are plenty of legitimate death metal riffs in here, so you're not smothered in tons of frilly noodling. On the flip side, the album is certainly pretty melodic, so there's all the catchy guitar leads and solos that you'd expect from melodeath. It's pretty accessible to people from both sides of the melodic death to pure death metal spectrum.

To be quite honest, the album being a tad one-dimensional isn't really a big deal when every song kicks a lot of ass. I personally find the songs that lean a little more on the death metal side of the spectrum (Creature of in the Dark is probably my favorite track thanks to the mean death metal riffs in it) a little stronger, but truly there's never a large deviation in quality. After hearing one song, you've basically heard them all, but is that really a bad thing? You get nicely-varied, high octane furious drumming that doesn't overdo the double kicks or blast beats. You get tons of awesome dueling guitar riffs and leads. You get some fantastic, shredding solos from both guitarists. All in all, it's just good quality, pummeling melodeath.

Rating: 85/100

Thursday, May 2, 2019

ARESZ - Beat Blast Spiral

A Much Needed Maturation

Aresz might be the most underrated band in the world. They're immensely talented, incredibly unique, and just plain fun. The band members are all very hard workers who have been active on the scene for decades. Yeah they might be stuck playing in shitty small venues (since barely anyone has ever heard of them) with a bunch of crappy, inferior bands but these guys (and girl) genuinely kick ass. Now technically, Grating is the first album from the band. That album is one I mostly panned since it is honestly quite half-baked and not really a good product. However in a mere span of two years, Aresz would get their stuff together, hone their potential, and unleash this killer piece of work, Beat Blast Spiral.

Beat Blast Spiral literally corrects all of the problems that plagued and brought down Grating. Piss-poor demo production? Gone. Now, you've got the nice and thick heavy metal sound that you've always wanted. Lots of meandering midtempo stuff? Gone. The speed is cranked up a notch and everything flows better. Boring, half-baked riffs? Gone. Now, the guitar work is killer and entertaining. Everything that was wrong with Grating is gone and anything that was good about it is expanded and improved upon.

With that in mind, I consider Beat Blast Spiral to be the first "real" Aresz album. This is because the band would gain a vital core member and bassist extraordinaire Syoi. For those who don't know (i.e. basically everyone), Aresz actually has two bassists. One guy, Masumi, essentially plays rhythm (on 4 strings) and the other guy, Syoi, plays "lead bass" on a gaudy 6-stringed bass. The band did have this idea on their first album, Grating, as well, but here it truly matures for the first time. This is a major addition to their sound and one that is an essential part of the band's identity.

Another essential defining feature of Aresz is their magnificent frontwomen, Rumiko. You simply won't find another vocalist quite like her anywhere. Female vocalists in metal tend to be more along the heavy/power metal variety with strong high notes and all that jazz. Rumiko, on the other hand, takes a gritty and rough, strong masculine tone. Her vocal style is more like a thrash metal vocalist's idea of singing. There's no trying to sound pretty or nice or anything like that. It's simply very powerful and aggressive. Her style of vocals has more in common with the likes of Kiba from Gargoyle or Nov from Aion/Volcano/Zigoku Quartet than any female vocalist I've ever heard.

The genre Aresz falls in is pretty ambiguous. You could cop out and call it "heavy metal," but I guarantee it's not like any heavy metal you've heard before. It's better to think of them in a vague grey area of heavy/power/speed/thrash, but that's not really helpful either. Aresz's riffwork is one of the reasons why they hard to classify and also such a great band. The band definitely tends to hang out in the heavier end of the spectrum of heavy metal. They don't shy away from that glorious double bass or those thrashy sounding riffs, and I absolutely love it. As another nice feature, Aresz's leadwork (in both the guitar and bass) tends to have a fairly strong neoclassical bent.

The unique approach of Syoi on the 6 string bass is something that is worth further explaining. It's easy to miss it, but this guy's bass parts are completely nuts. Every song is covered with elaborate, neoclassical-styled tapping, nice slapped parts, and just flat out awesome bass leads. The crazy bass fluff never gets in the way of the songs. Instead, it complements and enhances the entire experience. I've never heard any other band in metal utilize the bass guitar like Aresz does, and that is one of the many things that makes them stand out to me.

The songs are fairly consistent in quality and style. Jumble Up↑ is one of my favorite numbers on here thanks to how headbangable the main riff is and the amazing slapped bass lines. FOR PEACE OF MIND is another winner for me thanks to its brisk pace and high energy. I also really enjoy Don't be so foolish! for its goofy title and the cool bass break it does in the middle. The only real song on here that's a bit of a miss is Struggle To One's Feet that has some awkward rap lines shoved in there. I'm not really sure what they were thinking with that, but it's definitely out of place. It's just one song out of the 1 hour+ runtime though, so I can cut them some slack here and not let it bother me too much.

Most importantly, Aresz is just plain fun. It's the kind of heavy metal that naturally gets your fist pumping and head banging. The riffs are fun as hell to listen to, and the guitar solos are all excellent and masterfully executed. On paper, the style they play doesn't seem too remarkable, but the execution is excellent and much different from the norm (especially with all the neat bass work). The band really started to unlock their inner potential with Beat Blast Spiral. It's not their best album, but this work elevates and firmly establishes Aresz as a force to be reckoned with in the world of Japanese metal.

Rating: 85/100

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Valthus - Remains of Memory

Remains of my Eardrums

We all make mistakes. Sometimes you forget your car keys. Sometimes you accidentally leave your lunch at home. Sometimes you piss off your boss. And sometimes you buy some music that you shouldn't have bought. It was 2015, and I was in the middle of my Japanese power metal phase. Now don't get me wrong, I still love lots of bands in that style, but back then I was more eager in my consumption than I should have been. Valthus was one of those bands I encountered. I listened to the Red Sea MV and went ahead and picked it up despite some small reservations at the time. Considering that I've owned this release for almost 4 years and probably have less than 10 full playthroughs, it's safe to say this purchase was a mistake.

Honestly, the review's title is a bit of an exaggeration. I revisited this EP expecting to totally trash it, but it's really not quite that bad. As far as power metal goes, the instrumental work is certainly well above average. You don't get drowned in keys, and there's plenty of good, headbangable material here. The riffs and soloing are well done, and overall the songwriting is more than solid enough. The foundation of the EP is truthfully enjoyable power metal. But unfortunately, the final, crucial ingredient is lacking. There's one, huge major setback this release (and Valthus as a whole) has. It's the vocals.

I am extremely lenient when it comes to vocals. I'm sure I sit through a lot of vocalists that most people couldn't stand. A great vocalist will certainly enhance the experience, but a band can still kick ass for me if their vocals are only average and everything else rocks. So when I say that Valthus has bad vocals, you know they are really, really bad. The band has a guy that goes by the name of "Wat Hagar", and he's sadly not even 1/10th as pleasing on the ears as Sammy Hagar. To put it bluntly, he sucks. But to his credit, Mr. Hagar sucks in a really strange, unique way.

In terms of technique, Hagar's not bad at all. In fact, he's actually pretty good. The guy has a pretty large range and comfortably hits those high notes. What's just absolutely loathsome about his voice is his tone. Listening to Hagar is like listening to a man that was born with a naturally dreadful sounding voice trying to sing. Sometimes you just need to accept that you weren't meant to do certain things. Hagar is the guy who rebelled against destiny and honed his skills in defiance of fate and wiser people around him. Purely on a technical level, the guy can definitely sing. The problem is that no amount of practice can fix such a naturally horrid sounding voice.

So what does Hagar actually sound like? Well for starters, he sounds super nasally. Now, I have a high tolerance for nasally singers and listen to plenty of them myself. But Hagar's approach irritates me and starts getting grating after awhile. Secondly, the Engrish is super extreme. While Hagar still wouldn't be a good singer in Japanese, the English lyrics of Valthus is definitely not doing him any favors here. The pronunciation is really bad, and the guy slurs together all his words terribly. However, the real killer here is just the total lack of any sort of power or masculinity in his voice. Yeah Hagar is definitely male, but he certainly doesn't sound very manly. There's not much strength or vigor in his voice, and his vocal lines just shit there awkwardly on top of the music. There's not that intangible "it" factor that gives you the sense that the guy has a bona fide voice for metal.

Hagar's vocal performance ranges from bad to worse. His midrange is "just" bad. It's not great or anything, but at least I don't find myself wincing. The going starts to get rough when Hagar sings longer lines in the upper part of the register. That's when his tone is the most irritating and grating and things firmly cross over into the atrocious territory. For example, the chorus of Square the Circle is nothing short of horrific because most of it is up in Hagar's higher ranger. On these parts of the EP, you will find your face wincing in disgust the most. Any goodwill that may have been gathered by solid guitar riffs and solos is completely obliterated whenever Hagar decides to hang out up there.

Now if you just listen to a sample or a song, you might think to yourself, "hey it's not really that bad." However, that is exactly the same massive mistake I did. You see, Hagar has this weird ability to get more irritating the more you listen to him. The opener, Red Sea, might not feel so bad, but when you get down to Rise against the Wind, you really just want this guy to shut up already. Good music has tons of replay value. Your favorite albums are the kind of stuff you can listen to over and over again and never get bored. Wat Hagar's (and Valthus's) problem is that he is the exact opposite of this. The more you listen to him; the more annoying he gets. Just listening to the 30 minute EP again for this review was exhausting. Imagine actually listening to a full album of this guy (and it does exist).

Of course, the main take home here is: decent/good instrumentals, horrific vocals. In Japanese power metal, this is not an uncommon thing. On the contrary, there are a ton of bands that fall into that category (i.e. Dragonlance). However, Valthus has bad vocals in a unique way. I don't know if Hagar's variety of bad vocals is better or worse than the standard kind, but in the end it's still pretty bad. If this release had at least a decent singer, I'd probably score it around a 7/10 or so. The instrumental work itself is not awe-inspiring or anything, so it's not like the world is missing out on a huge amount of potential here. But it's pretty good for what it is. Thank god they didn't put a ballad number on here.

Fortunately for Wat Hagar (and unfortunately for power metal fans), the guy somehow got a significant gig upgrade and is now the vocalist for the long-running, Japanese power metal band Concerto Moon. Hagar's attempt at Savior Never Cry is really something has to be heard to be believed. I'm sure longtime Concerto Moon fans contracted PTSD after hearing that take. Nevertheless, Valthus is still marching on. All I can do is hope that somebody somewhere slaps some sense into Hagar and gets him to retire. He's someone that was just not meant to sing.

Rating: 40/100

Friday, April 26, 2019

Hidden - Embalm 〜Enbalm After 20 Years〜

Unearthing a Gem from the Underground

It was the early 1990s. The vast majority of essential works in the thrash metal canon were already released. By this time, the genre was rapidly in decline and in a very precarious state: both artistically and commercially. In light of these circumstances, it's not too surprising that a band like Hidden gets lost in the dust of time. They had a few demos and a couple of proper songs on the Melodical Renaissance split (which also featured other excellent bands like Fatima Hill), but the group soon fizzled out and was no more. The band simply showed up too late to the party, and the metal scene was moving in new, different directions.

However around 2017, some small rumblings on the internet were heard. Hidden suddenly created a facebook page. Songs on youtube were posted. Plans for releasing an album were slowly, but surely being set in motion. There were certainly a few setbacks and delays on this front, but admirably the guys didn't give up. Time continued to pass on, but finally a firm release date of January 23rd, 2019 was set. Old recordings from 1995 were rescued from obscurity, remastered, and put on disc (for the very first time for some of these songs). Embalm 〜Enbalm After 20 Years〜 (amusingly, the notes in the booklet explain that it's not a misspelling) essentially functions as the band's "posthumous" album as well as a bit of a compilation of old demo tape songs.

The band officially considers this their first album, and I agree with that interpretation. The songs here do fit together very nicely and flow from one to another smoothly. Stylistically, Hidden plays 80s-style technical thrash metal. Of course given how late they were to the scene, we aren't really breaking any new ground or destroying any boundaries here. Doom became Japan's representation of highly-innovative, progressive thrash metal years before Hidden even formed. Nevertheless, the songs Hidden put together are all very enjoyable and well worth a spot in the collection of any thrash metal fan, especially those that enjoy a little technical edge.

Ignoring the mandatory intro/outro tracks (which are harmless and don't really add much or take away anything from the work here), it's understandable to be a bit concerned when looking how the fairly long song lengths. Are the songs really good enough to hold your attention for 9+ minutes? Rest assured, the answer is a resounding "yes." The song structures are all basically verse-chorus with a super long bridge section, but every section is packed full of ideas so it never feels stale.

In terms of actual sound, Hidden fits right in with all of your favorite 80s thrash metal bands: both compositionally as well as production wise. The guitar tone just oozes that classic thrash sound with tons of grit and bite. The drumming is clearly from a time period long before the "trigger era", and the actual production is far from being totally polished and clean (just how we like it). Listening to Embalm 〜Enbalm After 20 Years〜 is exactly like stepping in a time machine and discovering a long, lost band from thrash's heyday (ignore that these guys were technically a few years late).

Of course, I've said that Hidden was a technical thrash metal band, so the riffs often are angular and twisty in nature. Every musician here is clearly very talented and skilled at their instruments. The music is plenty complicated and far beyond the reach of your typical pizza/party thrash band. But at the same time this album is not nearly as mindbending as some of the stuff from the likes of say Watchtower so Hidden sits sort of in a middle ground. They are still plenty heavy and hard-hitting riff-wise, so your average thrasher will more than likely dig the stuff here. However, the band has plenty of technical instrumental work to make the prog/tech guys in the room happy as well.

Of all the musicians here, the only one that has any sort of name recognition is the guy on vocals, Hideaki Niwa. That's because he's also Vigilante's vocalist which is a progressive metal band that's still active today. If you've ever listened to any Vigilante albums (the first two are excellent by the way), then you'll know what to expect here. Niwa is the high-pitched wailer type of vocalist. Basically just think of the vocals from either one of the first two Watchtower albums, add a Japanese accent, and you'll get Niwa. The sharp contrast between Niwa's crazy wailing, and the heavy thrashing riffs work surprisingly well. Yeah, the lyrics are full of grammatical errors. And yeah Niwa's accent is pretty strong. But since most of the vocals are in the unintelligibly high-pitched register anyway, it really doesn't matter much.

Regarding the actual songs, the one that resonates the most with me is definitely Lunatic Theater. All of the best elements of the band combine perfectly on this particular track. The riffs are earworming and amazingly technical. The chorus is unbelievably powerful and catchy. And of course, the solo section is nothing short of jawdropping with the insane plunge into neoclassical-inspired territory. Both guitarists trade off exhilarating solos with each other before ending it with an incredible dual lead with a time signature change. It's just simply brilliant.

I'm really glad the guys from Hidden took the time to rescue this material and put out this release. The stuff they recorded was downright excellent. It's always a good feeling when a gem from the underground gets rescued from obscurity. Hidden may not have been technical thrash metal innovators, but the style they played is extremely enjoyable nevertheless. There's plenty of facemelting solos and riffs to make the snobby tech guys happy, but at the same time everything is perfectly digestible for your average thrasher as well. Whenever I'm in my tech thrash mood, this release is one I've been going back to very often. It's just awesome stuff.

Rating: 90/100

Monday, February 18, 2019

La'cryma Christi - Dwellers of a Sandcastle

Dreamy, Introspective J-Rock

Now I know that describing music from a bunch of visual kei guys as "dreamy" could lead to some misunderstandings, but honestly, it's a good description. La'cryma Christi is one of the more well-known and beloved visual kei bands that came out of the boom in the 90s. They were a band that I was aware of for many, many years. These guys often showed up as guest musicians on some other things I've owned, and I've always meant to give some of their back catalog a good shake since I've only heard good things. After only a couple of listens, I simply said to myself, "why the hell did I wait so long?"

Like most visual kei bands from the 90s boom, La'cryma Christi's early days were more unique and experimental. They would polish up and streamline themselves as their popularity increased, but La'cryma Christi, to my knowledge, never really morphed into 100% poppy J-Rock. Dwellers of a Sandcastle is technically their major label debut, but it very much has the spirit of more underground, more unique J-rock. As a disclaimer, the band did release a mini-album before this one called Warm Snow. It has exactly the same tracklisting as Dwellers of a Sandcastle, but I believe some parts have been re-recorded and some of the lyrics are different. I have not heard the original Warm Snow release, and I have no idea what it sounds like honestly. However, I can assure you that I absolutely love all of the songs on Dwellers of a Sandcastle just the way they are.

Also like most visual kei bands from that era, La'cryma Christi had a fairly large amount of post-punk/gothic influence. In spite of this, this album, as well as the their subsequent one, is an extremely unique piece of J-Rock. It's hard to exactly put a finger on it, but La'Cryma Christi sounds nothing like many of their visual kei peers from this same period. They had a different sense of melodicism and at times even a slight dose of progressive rock influence. Their guitar leads were often fairly extensive and more elaborate than their peers. And the atmosphere, oh god the atmosphere is genius.

Is atmospheric J-Rock a thing? Dwellers of a Sandcastle could certainly qualify. In the atmospheric black metal world, "atmosphere" is often created by crapping up the recording quality and repeating the same musical ideas ad nausem. On the other hand, La'crmya Christi creates atmosphere the right way: as a natural result of the songwriting. Of course, the gothic/post-punk influence by default provides a more sad feeling. But you will be hard pressed to find anything that evokes feelings quite like this.

In general, the mood that permeates the album is sombre and downcast. It's not outright depressing or hostile, but the music is certainly based mostly around minor chords. Make no mistake, this isn't just strumming a few sad-sounding chords and calling it a day. La'cryma Christi is far, far more creative than that. The musicianship here is quite admirable all across the board. Levin does a more than adequate job behind the kit with some quality rhythms and fills. Every worthwhile J-Rock album has quality basslines, and you certainly get them Shuse. Another very good asset is Taka on vocals. Visual kei vocals can be a bit of a mixed bag and an acquired taste, but not Taka. I find his voice to actually be very accessible and really good honestly. His timbre here perfectly matches the instrumentalists and the atmosphere. His smooth, pleasing tone has a good hint of longing and melancholy to it. This guy can actually sing really, really well.

However, the biggest star of the show is definitely the guitarwork courtesy of Hiro and Koji. The very opening first opening notes of Warm Snow greet you with a sublime rhythm and lead duo that set the tone for the album. The guitar melodies and riffs are pleasing from a strictly technical point of view, but they also paint a picturesque, melancholic atmosphere that seeps across the entire album. While the overall sound leans toward the sad side of the spectrum, the band knows exactly when to place some stunningly melodic and even beautiful guitar work. The way solos suddenly burst onto the scene can be downright heavenly. Because of this, Dwellers of a Sandcastle sounds very introspective. This isn't a "woe is me" whiny, indie rock type of introspection. Instead it's more of a dreamy, nostalgic, and sombre kind of introspection. It's sort of like the kind of music you'd play when reminiscing your childhood.

I know I've been constantly referring to this as an album (which is what the band considers it), but Dwellers of a Sandcastle is actually only 5 tracks so the runtime is more of an EP rather than anything else. Don't fret though. Every single one of these 5 songs is absolutely excellent and on point. Warm Snow is more of a midpaced, sentimental type of song which is an interesting choice for an opener. Forest and A.S.I.A. pick up the pace a little bit and go for a slightly more uplifting/rocking approach. Of the 5 songs, the 4th one is probably my favorite. カリブで生まれた月 has more of a laid-back character, and the guitar work gorgeously melds with the verse and chorus. Additionally, I absolutely adore the bridge section. Poison Rain is perhaps the most typical "radio-friendly/J-Rock" number here, but it's still an excellent and catchy tune.

Truly, the way La'cryma Christi pieces together all of the various elements is nothing short of exceptional and unique. Earworming, extended guitar leads and melodies wrap themselves all over every song. The omnipresent bass countermelody pleasantly weaves its way across every track. And of course, Taka's voice passionately delivers the vocal lines like no one else could. The unique sense of atmosphere and melody that La'cryma Christi achieved on this album (and their subsequent release) is honestly something that I have never ever heard before. What they do here is nothing short of incredible and in light of that, I can't help but sing constant praises. This is an absolutely mandatory pick up for any J-Rock fan, and anyone who is not afraid of trying some unique, gothic-influenced rock.

Rating: 95/100

Friday, February 8, 2019

Galneryus - Under the Force of Courage

My Sword Is Raised

Galneryus is a band I've cherished for a long time. The reality was that it was Galneryus, not the big Euro names, that opened my eyes to wonders of power metal. Hearing New Legend (sorry for not having OG credibility) for the very first time way back in the day was a revelation. In high school, I scraped up enough cash to buy One for All - All for One (the Galneryus album that contains New Legend of course) and was instantly blown away. To this day, I still love that album. Nearly every song on it is absolute gold.

Over the years, Galneryus has rightfully garnered a reputation for both their consistency and high quality. Every album they've released is power metal, but they are all very different works and have their own merits and strengths. To this day, fans still squabble over what their favorite Galneryus albums are. Some releases, such as Angel of Salvation, seem to have a bit more buzz than others, but truly there's no firm consensus. In my case, the question of "what's the best Galneryus album" was extremely difficult and nearly impossible to answer. Certainly, there are some albums I cherished more than others (such as the aforementioned One for All - All for One), but there was no way I could pick just one. But then Galneryus did the impossible and released this masterpiece.

If some spawn from Satan tried to set fire to my Galneryus collection, the first thing I would try to save is Under the Force of Courage. The band consistently blew the competition out of the water throughout their entire existence, but then the madmen decided that they would one-up themselves. On this album, Galneryus go for an ambitious concept album approach. The band has plenty of epic and grandiose songs in their discography, but Under the Force of Courage as a whole is a very epic and dramatic work. Galneryus has also had plenty of flirtations with progressive rock/metal influences in past songs, and on this album they ramp those influences up to the strongest level they've ever been.

This album is a perfect lesson on how to do power metal correctly. Galneryus doesn't try to pass off shoehorning in a million keyboard/vocal layers as "being epic" or "good songwriting." Instead, they actually write good music that naturally sounds grandiose. Galneryus doesn't have the problem of disappearing guitars or autopilot drumming. Instead, every part is crafted with the utmost care to be both engaging and thrilling. This album has literally everything a power metal fan could want. Extremely catchy and sing-along choruses? Check. Thrilling guitar solos and amazing riffs? Check. Keyboards that actually complement the music with great solos and don't overpower everything? Check. Drumming that's more than just double bass droning? Check. Hell, there's even a bass solo thrown in here as well.

It's really something when you can say without a doubt that the very worst part of the album is the rather inoffensive intro track, Premonition. Of course, I use the phrase "worst part" very, very loosely here. The intro track has some fairly awkward spoken word Engrish to setup the story. Even then, there's some neat guitar motifs introduced here that would be used in other parts of the album so it's not like it's just a time killer. I will concede that about the first 3 minutes of the album are a bit short of perfection, but once The Time Before Dawn kicks in, you're listening to some of the greatest power metal ever to be written.

Galneryus has had a long tradition of opening instrumental tracks. Some of these are fairly short while others are more elaborate. And although The Time Before Dawn technically isn't the first track, it effectively serves the same role as the previous openers. It also happens to be literally the best opening instrumental the band has ever written. One of the biggest draws of the band is each musician's mastery over their respective instruments and The Time Before Dawn is an excellent example of this. The song starts off a bit slow and builds up momentum, but you soon lose yourself in that masterful, oddly-timed riff. It has a very chaotic sound to it, and Yuhki plays some excellent, slightly-dissonant keyboard solos to really drive the point home. Later near the end of the song, things calm down and Syu carries it to the end with some very beautiful melodic solos of his own.

A typical Galneryus album is a highly melodic slab of power metal with tons of guitar solos and leadwork to go around. In that sense, Under the Force of Courage isn't a radical departure from what they were doing previously in their career. Rest assured, Syu will still blow you away with face melting solos, and Ono's characteristic voice will carry you to the skies. But at the same time, Under the Force of Courage is truly unlike any album they've done previously. It's still power metal, but the tone often gets darker than one would expect. There's a lot of subtle things about the album that are unusual for Galneryus (or for any band really). For example, the main riff of The Voice of Grievous Cry is unusually long, incredibly technical and ends about two measures later than you would normally expect. The band was never afraid of using odd timings (one of the many reasons why they destroy other power metal bands), but on this album they really just go all out.

And speaking of going all out, Rain of Tears definitely qualifies for that description. As I mentioned before, Galneryus has always had a dose of progressive rock/metal influences that could show up from time to time (see some songs like Save You! or Enemy to Injustice). But Rain of Tears is probably the closest thing to full-blown progressive metal the band has ever done. The song starts off as sort of a dark ballad, but it builds tension over time and intensifies. Eventually, Syu's guitar kicks in with some very heavy riffing with Yuhki playing some haunting, dark keyboard melodies over it. Hell Syu himself even does a few (very good) growls later. It's absolutely brilliant. The song's structure is also pretty weird and pretty much entirely nonlinear (save for a little bit of repetition here and there). Rain of Tears ends on a grand climax with some oddly timed riffs that then fade out to the keyboard motif from the beginning of the song. All in all, it's one of the most ambitious things Galneryus has ever played and also one of my favorite songs from them period. It's even weirder because there's not really a solo section on the song either and yet it still manages to be so captivating.

Soul of the Field is another noteworthy song for the band with its large injection of extreme metal elements. Junichi plays quite a few blast beats, and Syu's harsh vocals show up again. Personally, it's one of my favorite numbers and I find the way it switches between Syu's harsh vocals and Ono's cleans stunningly good. After the obligatory ballad number, Chain of Distress (which is actually quite good), we finally make it to the most eye catching track on the album. The 14 minute epic, The Force of Courage, inevitably brings up comparisons to a previous 14 minute epic on another album, Angel of Salvation. While I do absolutely love Angel of Salvation (which owes much of its melodies to Tchaikovsky's violin concerto), The Force of Courage is easily the better epic number to me.

Even though the song is a whopping 14 minutes long, it's just so good and engrossing that it doesn't even feel half that length. Like much of the album, The Force of Courage has a very strong progressive influence to it and is extremely dynamic. It ingeniously recalls previous motifs from earlier in the album and seamlessly weaves them into the composition. The song goes through countless twists and turns with many extended solo sections. All of the band is absolutely on fire here. Syu and Yukhi's solos are nothing short of mindblowing. Ono is sublime on the chorus. Junichi's drumming is spot on, and Taka even gets a really cool bass solo in here among some other pretty solid bass work. There's no doubt that this epic right here is the absolute highlight of the album for me.

Galneryus has a superb discography. They don't have a bad album and have lots and lots of good ones. But when it comes to picking out their magnum opus, this is the one for me. It is honestly quite surprising that they released an album this creative and this forward thinking so late in their career, but I absolutely love it. Under the Force of Courage is ambitious and risky, but it succeeded. The massive 1 hour and 4 minute length fly by. The unusual experimentation in some of the songs still sound fresh and unique. All in all, I really cannot find a flaw. Yeah okay the spoken word part is perhaps a bit silly, but the stuff that comes later is so amazing and genius that it more than makes up for it. Time will tell if Galneryus can put out another album that can match Under the Force of Courage for me. But for now, this is honestly one of my favorite power metal albums of all time. Nowadays, this is the Galneryus album I reach for the most. There's nothing more I could ask for.

Rating: 100/100

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Luna Sea - LUV

No LUV From Me

I got into Luna Sea only a couple of years ago, but man it was a revelation. I've always liked a good J-Rock tune, so I felt silly waiting so long to get into these guys. The first four Luna Sea albums are absolute, bone fide classics and essential albums for any J-Rock fan. The high energy, aggressive post-punk vibes, the occasional progressive rock leanings, the ethereal atmosphere, and the sheer catchiness of the songs in that portion of their catalog are simply irresistible.

Afterwards, the band would come back down to earth with "merely" a very good album, Style, and then have a couple of blips along the way with Shine and Lunacy. Those two aren't terrible albums or anything, but honestly there's not much reason to play them when you could just play one of their other albums instead. Afterwards the band would briefly split up for a while before reuniting in 2007 and then releasing their 8th album, A Will, in 2013. A Will may not be as good as those first four albums, but it is a damn good album that I always enjoy whenever I play it.

So with all of this in mind, I was extremely excited when I heard Luna Sea was finally going to release a new album in 2017. I was eagerly waiting and thoughts like "this could be the Album of the Year" were constantly in my mind. A little bit later, the full MV for Hold You Down came out and I was pretty let down by it. Despite the bad warning sign, I still held out hope. After all, A Will is an excellent album and that was only 4 years ago. Limit is a decent song, and it's on the album. Surely these guys still have it? So finally near the beginning of this year, I got my hands on a copy of LUV, gave it a listen, and realized that it sucks.

The biggest disappointment of 2017 is definitely the fact that Luna Sea released this garbage. This album is so bad that I've literally only listened to it 3 times despite owning it for about 8 months, and the third time was just to remind me how crap it is while I write this review. To understand what went wrong here, you have to understand why Luna Sea was (note the past tense) good. The sound of classic Luna Sea is hard to describe, but it was like an intriguing mix of post-punk, progressive rock, J-Rock, and other elements. They crafted a unique sound with a great sense of atmosphere, catchiness, and good instrumental work. Add Ryuichi, easily one of Japan's best singers, to the mix, and you have a winner.

Now, I'm a reasonable man. I realize that not every album is going to be a masterpiece. A Will is certainly not as good as Mother or Image, but it's a very good album in its own right. I didn't expect Luna Sea to somehow go back and duplicate their artistic peak. I just asked for a reasonable effort. This is not a "reasonable effort" in any way, shape, or form. The vast majority of the album is lazy, by-the-numbers, bland, and phoned-in (bar one certain song but it still sucks anyway).

Hold You Down starts off seemingly innocent enough. The song sort of slowly builds up over time, and you hear Sugizo wail away a few nice-sounding high notes. This is all well and good, but then you check the time and realize you're two minutes into the song and it still sounds like an intro. And indeed, the entire song ends up sounding like a big buildup to something, but that coveted "something" never actually arrives. It's basically just one big meandering tune with some randomly 3-note solos from Sugizo sprinkled in. Not a good way to kick off the album.

As the album goes on, you're smothered with stock J-Rock melodies left and right. What the hell? I thought I was listening to Luna Sea and not some generic clone J-Rock band. There are some slightly better songs on here like Brand New Days, Limit, or The LUV which have a little more energy and inspiration. However, most of the album is slow, bland, and boring. Did you love the high-energy aggression of an old track like Shade? Or how about a progressive rock-influenced oddity like Search for Reason? Or maybe just a straight-up good and catchy J-Rock tune like Rosier? Well too bad, nothing here is even remotely in the ballpark. Hell, nothing on LUV can even come close to Rouge, a great rocker from the previous album, A Will.

The instrumental work is just plain boring. Sugizo has like one or two good guitar solos on the entire album. I'm not asking for some shredfest or anything, but surely he can do better than a handful of notes. Inoran's rhythm is extremely dull. J is audible and plays some stock J-Rock bass lines, but that's about it. Shinya's drumming is totally lifeless and on autopilot. I thought these guys were way more creative and fun to listen than this? What on earth happened? To his credit, Ryuichi still sounds good vocally, but he can't save an album with poor songwriting like this.

Now there's one song that deserves special mention for inducing a "what the fuck are you doing" reaction from me. That would be Ride the Beat, Ride Dream. This is a song that sounds straight off of one of Sugizo's solo albums except that Inoran and Shinya have credits for it. For those who have no handle on what Sugizo's solo stuff is like, just think of a nonsensical blend of electronic junk and "experimental" (i.e. random noise and sampling) elements. If that kind of stuff is your thing, that's whatever. But a "song" like that has absolutely no place on a Luna Sea album and sticks out like a sore thumb. Sure, I'll give it credit for breaking the previous mold of phoned-in, stock J-Rock, but it is still awful.

Who do I blame for this travesty? Maybe Yoshiki's bad musical ideas are rubbing off on Sugizo? Maybe the label pressured them to put something out, so the guys had to get together and rush this one out? Whatever the case, I really hope LUV doesn't end up being the creative death of Luna Sea. If you contrast this album with A Will (which came out only 4 years earlier), the difference is night and day. A Will was post-reunion Luna Sea that lived up to their great legacy. It's an album I happily play and enjoy nearly as much as their classic material.

On the other hand, LUV is just plain horrible. If this was released by some no-name J-Rock band I suppose it wouldn't be quite as bad. Sure, I would still throw the album in the trash where it belongs, but it wouldn't be nearly as disappointing. These are literally the same guys that released Mother and Image! How did they fart out something so awful and boring? Shine and Lunacy are nowhere near my favorite albums, but neither of those albums are completely bland or boring. They have their moments and don't tarnish Luna Sea's legacy. LUV, by a mile, is the worst Luna Sea album. It's not even close. The best song on here, Limit, is about a C-grade Luna Sea tune. Everything else is worse with most of it being completely terrible.

You can check out LUV via Spotify or something, but that's really a waste of time. LUV isn't even the entertaining kind of bad album. It's the boring and uninspired kind of bad which is arguably the worst kind of bad there is. The music might have some value in putting you to sleep if you suffer from insomnia, but that's all. And of course it goes without saying that you shouldn't spend a single cent on any of the trash here. Maybe, just maybe, you can justify buying Limit digitally, but I wouldn't bother with that even if I was desperate for new Luna Sea. Instead, do yourself a favor. Pick up your copy of the debut album, or Mother, or literally any other Luna Sea album besides this one. Remember the material that actually made the band great, and pray that LUV doesn't mean that the band is artistically dead.

Rating: 15/100