Thursday, July 19, 2018

Regnum Caelorum et Gehenna - Dimersity 03 : Verum cur non Audimus

Mr. Sweden: The Japanese Melodic Death Metal Master

Melodic death metal is such a difficult genre for me. On paper, it sounds like a great combination. A little bit of Iron Maiden-style leads with some hard hitting death metal? Wow, sign me up! The problem, however, is that the combination of melody and death metal is very hard to do nowadays without sounding stale. Of course, every older genre has this problem to some extent, but I think it's fair to say that melodeath is more guilty of "sameness" and "generic ripoffs" than most styles. Thankfully, Regnum Caelorum Et Gehenna is totally different.

Regnum Caelorum Et Gehenna (must be a TYPE-MOON fan) is one of those doujin bands. I still find it perplexing how those M3 events can have kawaii electronic stuff as well as some of the most unique melodeath I've ever heard, but it's just one of those Japanese things. The band has been around since 2012, and Dimersity 03 : Verum cur non Audimus is their third offering to the doujin world. Mr. Sweden is the songwriter as well as main guitarist, and the other guys in the band also have silly pseudonyms (e.g. the vocalist is named "Albert of Joy Toy"). Dimersity 03 was my introduction to their work, and I can pretty confidently say it's my favorite Regnum album. Now to be fair, I don't actually own Dimersity 02 (yet), but judging from some samples as well as the descriptions from other people who have listened to it, Dimersity 03 is just on another level.

I have, thus far, described Regnum Caleorum Et Gehenna as a melodic death metal band, but that isn't actually wholly accurate. They are very progressive as well and have been so since the beginning. Dimersity 01 is essentially a progressive melodeath/metalcore album, but Dimersity 03 drops all of the core stuff and significantly ups the progressive/technical factor to become a progressive melodic death metal album. It's not just your run-of-the-mill prog though. Dimersity 03 is a dizzyingly complex affair that I still haven't really fully comprehended. As a disclaimer, the drums are actually programmed (it's just the fate of being a fairly unknown band in an obscure niche), so it's not fair to award points based on the drum performance. On the plus side, they sound like real drums anyway, and you wouldn't guess they were programmed from just a blind listen. Regardless, everything about the music is absolutely ace.

So let me just be blunt, I think Dimersity 03 is nothing short of stunningly amazing. This is easily the most technical and complex melodic death metal album I own. Even some other bands whom I think are very skilled (such as the two Mysterious Priestess albums) do not come close to this. Now of course, I realize that being extremely complex and technical doesn't automatically make something good. However, this particular Regnum Caelorum Et Gehenna album is an absolute blast to listen to and is highly addicting.

In a nutshell, the reason why I love this album so much is the 3 pronged assault of highly technical instrument performances (especially the guitars), extremely dense, intricate songwriting, and the abundance of weird, experimental ideas. Any band that pulls off those three things is almost always guaranteed to be loved by me, and Regnum certainly nails them all on this album. The total runtime clocks in at about 1 hour and 8 minutes, but it's never a chore to listen to. I would say there is a very, very slight dip in quality in the middle (tracks 5-8), but other than that this album is essentially flawless to me and is everything I could ask for from a melodeath act.

One thing about Dimersity 03 that took some time for me to realize is that it's actually a pretty weird album. It's not weird in the obvious sense of bizarre vocals or pseudo-random songwriting. No, it's more subtle than that. I would say there's essentially two main factors that contribute to the weirdness: the complex songwriting and the use of keyboards. Of course as I've said before, this album is very technical so right off the bat you end up with something a little unusual. However, the most singular cause of the weirdness to me is the use of keyboards.

A lot of Japanese melodeath bands use keyboards, but they generally use it to add some slight electronic flavor or core-esque elements. And believe me, I generally don't like that approach very much. However, Regnum is completely different. Mr. Sweden uses the keyboards in a very unique, prog-like way. I honestly didn't realize this on my first few months of listening to the album, but later it occurred to me that the keyboards are completely integral to every composition. In a way it is subtle since you can easily get lost in the guitar work or the drumming, but after enough time you'll start to notice how the keyboards often work with and accentuate some guitar leads. You'll also begin to realize that they actually often atmospheric.

This is a huge reason why this album is so incredibly unique. It's not only compositionally dense and technically proficient. It's also very atmospheric thanks to the keyboards. Despite being a melodic death metal album, you will find the utilization of many minor key and other melancholic chords. This sort of sombre mood is conveyed in multiple songs throughout the album. This serves as an interesting contrast to the vocals/grunts which are generally very vicious and violent. Additionally, the keyboards also often have a more traditional "prog-like" timbre and actively play large roles in time signature changes and the more progressive moments of the album.

Dimersity 03 kicks off in an incredibly ballsy way with a 16-minute progressive melodeath epic. It's an odd choice to place your big epic right at the beginning, but it works here. Verum cur non Audimus has some awkward spoken word Engrish intro for about a couple of minutes at the beginning (with some very cool backing guitar/keyboards). After that, the song is an absolute masterpiece. There are all kinds of unpredictable twists and turns in this song. The rhythm constantly shifts all over the place. There's plenty of time signature changes to be found here. There are even some more laid-back/calmer moments sprinkled in the 16-minute behemoth. Verum cur non Audimus essentially has a structure of a normal, verse-chorus song, but with a ludicrously long bridge (~8 minutes or so) and it's amazing. What a great way to open your album.

Thankfully, the opener isn't just a fluke. While I would certainly say that the opening song is one of the best ones on the album, everything else is nearly as good. The next track, Sign in the Days, comes out with a relentless, highly-technical assault from the guitars. And that assault from the guitars continues for the entire album. Every individual element is executed well (in particular, the drum parts are extremely well written despite being programmed), but the real shinning star is definitely the guitar work. The guitar work is ludicrously complex and nothing short of incredible. The leads just never seem to end. The riffs are aggressive and highly varied. And the solos are brilliant and show absolute technical mastery. There's really never a dull moment.

One song, in particular, that I think is worth going into detail about would be the third track, Awakening from the Abyss. In 4 minutes and 32 seconds, this genius track demonstrates everything I love about the album. Right when the song begins, you're greeted with a moody, minor key keyboard motif. The backing riffs and drums shift rhythms multiple times during this brief intro period as an ingenious way of building tension just before the verse. As soon as the verse takes off, some guitars ramp it up to full gear and execute an excellent, extended guitar lead with a million different notes. While the verse chugs along, the keyboards subtly continue some chord progressions in the background while the drumming keeps shifting rhythms and even performs a polyrhythm at one point. And of course, there is a brief transitional section to the chorus that involves a couple of more time signature changes to further complicate things. All of this ordered, technical chaos has the effect of building tons and tons of tension right before the chorus hits.

In general, melodeath bands tend towards more triumphant and uplifting choruses, but Mr. Sweden does something completely different here. He recalls those downcast, melancholic chords and suddenly makes that the centerpiece of the chorus. All of that technical chaos and insanity disappears in a flash and the chorus is actually rather laid-back and calming. Of course, Albert is still screaming his head off and there's still those double bass kicks. But oddly enough, I find the chorus section to be soothing and even pleasant. The way it contrasts with the spastic verse and the way the keyboards are used as foreshadowing is honestly genius. You're not going to find many songwriters that can pull off something as technically intricate and emotionally resonating as this and certainly not in melodeath of all things.

You can quite easily do similar breakdowns for the other songs on the album. The entire album (although the opening track is a little different) is basically verse-chorus, but the way it is crafted is excellent. The above analysis of Awakening from the Abyss is a specific example of unique songwriting choices, and you can find many, many more of them on the rest of the album. As a whole, the album is especially dynamic. There's no shortage of twists and turns. Often you run into a strange chord, bizarre melodies and unpredictable rhythms. Despite being a melodic death metal album, the band isn't afraid of dissonance and often employs them during the duration of the album.

All in all, it's a unique, complicated beast. The music itself is certainly within the melodeath category. There's plenty of violence and aggression to go around. But at the same time, it's so dense and technical. I constantly find myself going back to this album time and time again. That can only be a good thing. Dimersity 03's one hour and 8 minute duration features some of the most original progressive melodic death metal that I have ever heard. This is one of those albums that's just so different and is guaranteed to constantly be in my listening rotation for many, many years to come.

Rating: 98/100

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hollow Mellow - Reincarnation

How Do You Even Write Music Like This?

Ah, the wonderful, mysterious world of doujin. Deep in the darkest corners of hikikomoris' basements, you will come across many oddities. Intense devotion to the ideal 2D characters, detailed drawings of fanart, neverending Touhou arranges, and all sorts of stuff. But of course, not all doujin is created equal. Plenty of fanart I've come across on Pixiv instilled feelings of revulsion in me. Plenty of uninspired electronic Touhou arranges have put me to sleep. And plenty of otaku have awful taste and are obsessed with poorly written characters (get a better waifu!). But once in a while, you unearth an honest-to-god gem. The precious diamond in the rough we all search for. Hollow Mellow is precisely that.

As you probably have gathered, Hollow Mellow is strongly affiliated with the aforementioned doujin scene. They regularly participate in Comiket and all that kind of stuff. However unlike many of their musical peers, they're wholly original. Right off the bat, that puts you on a higher level than most other groups. That's not to say that there aren't highly enjoyable Touhou arrange circles out there, but I always give more credit to good original compositions. However, what truly sets Hollow Mellow apart is the immense perplexity in attempting to describe their sound.

Hollow Mellow plays some impossible genre of music, but it is mostly rock-based. I'm not really convinced that "dark cabaret" is a real genre, but there's a certain carnival-esque, dancey feel to their music that is typically associated with acts that fall under that label. It's also worth noting that they have a slight doujin-esque power metal feel at times due to the exuberant amounts of melodic guitar leads. In a odd way, Hollow Mellow can sound like some strange form of baroque rock at times due to the omnipresent violin. One other aspect to note is that their music is surprisingly dense in a compositional sense, and the technical skill of every member is at a fairly high level. That gives them a sort of progressive rock feel. So if you add all of that together, they come out as something along the lines of progressive dark cabarat doujin baroque rock? What a mouthful. Oh yeah, and they're argubably a bit gothic at times too.

The group is the brainchild of singer-songwriter, Iruma Rioka. Before Hollow Mellow came into existence, she released numerous works as a solo artist (many of which are quite worthwhile). On this particular album, Reincarnation, some old tunes from previous solo releases and Hollow Mellow EPs are reworked and brought back to life (hence the title). There's also a couple of brand new tracks in here. Given their relative obscurity, it's not likely that you'll be familiar with any of the songs on here. But in case you do have your hands on them, I can assure you that Reincarnation is nevertheless quite worthwhile. I'd even go as far as to say that these are the definitive version of all of the songs. The presence of the violin adds a ton to their sound.

Hollow Mellow is merely a three piece group (there's session musicians when they play live), and each one brings their strengths to the table. As I mentioned before, Rioka handles the vocals and writes all of the songs. Of course, being the main songwriter is an irreplaceable asset, but her singing ability is quite pleasant as well. Rioka isn't a powerful, hard-hitting singer, but her voice perfectly complements the dreamy, fantastical atmosphere ubiquitous in Hollow Mellow. No other singing style would be suitable. Jill is the lady behind the violin, and thankfully she is far above merely playing sad-sounding chords. All of the violin work is completely integral to every composition. Many violin leads are utilized effectively, and she even shines in some solo sections. The third member would be Nemu who handles the guitars. To put it simply, his guitar work is fabulous. He phrases riffs and melodies in a strange rhythmic ways that help creat a sort of carnival-esque/upbeat feel. The guitar is somewhere in that weird grey area between rock and metal. While there are genuine riffs here, most of it is more focused on lead/melodic work. This isn't a bad thing though. Every track has very pleasing leads that are always fun to listen to. Nemu also recorded the bass guitar parts and true to the Japanese tradition, it's far from boring or lazy. Even by their standards, the bass guitar here is extremely active and wanders off on its own lines all the time. As for the drums, nobody is credited, and they may even be programmed. Fortunately, the drums sound real to me, and Hollow Mellow has the funds to afford a session drummer.

One of the things that immediately stands out about Hollow Mellow is that all of their songs are virtually polyphonic in texture. Japanese bands do utilize polyphony a lot more on average than western ones due to their willingness to incorporate countermelody into bass, but I honestly can't think of an example that is as complicated as Hollow Mellow without delving into classical music. In the album, it is normal for there to be three simultaneous melodies in a song. That is, the bass guitar, lead guitar, and violin all play totally separate phrases. And these aren't just half-assed lines either. Pick any one instrument in isolation, and you will find much to love. It's not like you can just squish random motifs together and expect them to sound good. It takes skill to compose like this.

I wouldn't be surprised if Rioka has formal musical training because it is evident that she knows exactly what she's doing. I earlier mentioned that sometimes you get progressive rock vibes from them. Part of the reason is just because of how well-crafted every song is. But the band does flirt with tempo changes, unexpected stop-starts, and even time signature changes. Bad End -白雪姫- is probably the song where they show off their progressive side the most. The song bursts open into one of those stunning, oddly-timed riffs that most people could never dream of writing. And then, they take it a step further by somehow laying the perfect violin accompaintment on top of that. Rioka comes in on vocals later, and the song abruptly slows down to a slow waltz-like tempo. I'm not sure if I would every take the time to compile a list of "best all-time song openers," but I can guarentee you that Bad End -白雪姫- would be very high on there.

If my long-winded ramblings haven't already made it clear, I think Hollow Mellow is simply amazing on every level. You wouldn't think a girl obsessed with wearing meticiulous and impratical lolita dresses would also be an absurdly talented songwriter. They scratch basically every itch for me. Complex instrumental work? Check. Dense songwriting and progressive influences? Check. Totally unique sound? Check. Hell, I haven't even mentioned this yet, but every one of Rioka's choruses are infectiously catchy and fun. You'd have to be dead inside if you don't find yourself swaying along to the bouncy rhythms in Control Me -醜いアヒルの娘-. How could you not immediately fall in love with the energetic closing number, Fall Away -マッチ売りの少女-? Or not feel the intensity of the build up to the genius bridge section in Bad End -白雪姫-. There's also the majestic, slow waltz of Serenade -人魚姫- that evokes images of a fantastical landscape. The band is melodic/catchy, progressive, and totally unique. That, right there, is a winning combination for me any day. I didn't realize I had a craving for progressive lolita dark cabaret doujin, but listening to Hollow Mellow has enlightened me. You should enlighten yourself to their genius as well.

Rating: 95/100

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Light Bringer - Heartful Message

A Strange Anomaly

Let me just start out by saying that I absolutely adore Light Bringer. If Scenes of Infinity isn't nearly a 10/10 album for you, you need to re-evaluate your life decisions. Hibiki is a bass monster, Fuki is a goddess, Mao is better than Jordan Rudess, etc. But more seriously, Light Bringer delivered some extremely awesome power metal with a heavy dose of both J-pop melodies and progressive elements and somehow made this combination work beautifully. The technical abilities of all of the band members was extremely high all across the board, and they were simply a band on a totally different level. Of course, it sucked big time when they went on an indefinite hiatus, and it doesn't help that the main core of the band (Fuki, Mao, and Hibiki) are seemingly happy doing other things.

But let's head back to the beginning of the band. Before they got that sweet record deal with King Records, Light Bringer was a struggling band in the underground with talented but unknown musicians. Their first album, Tales of Almanac, is not a bad album, and it does have some genius moments on it such as White Locked Night. However, that effort is definitely a bit uneven and patchy in spots. After that, they would improve with each album with their peak genius culminating with Genesis and Scenes of Infinity (Monument is a slight misstep, but that's another story). So this was the narrative that was in my head for a a long amount of time. However, one day I finally shelled out the money for a copy of Heartful Message and listened to it for the first time (unfortunately I don't physically own their first album). This EP predates all of those albums, and it completely shattered my expectations. Heartful Message is actually absolutely brilliant.

Stylistically, Heartful Message has way more in common with Tales of Almanac than with anything else that came later, but it's so much more refined and executed better. I know it's bizarre to say that the mini-album that came out two years before the debut album is more mature, but that's what the music suggests. Heartful Message is basically all of the highs on Tales of Almanac and virtually none of the lows. Like its successor, Heartful Message is rife with J-Pop melodies and sugary goodness. But that poppy backbone melds together with power metal and strong progressive influences to create a strange, unique creature. Of course, Heartful Message is much stronger in the pop arena than in some subsequent releases, but don't be fooled into thinking this is a flaw. Light Bringer, surprisingly, is just as technical and complex here as they ever were in their career.

As I alluded to earlier, the main core of Light Bringer; Fuki, Mao, and Hibiki; are all present on Heartful Message. With the exception of Fuki (more on that later), they sound just as good here as they sound on the future Light Bringer releases. Hibiki is even more audible here than usual and plays a bunch of crazy bass lines all over the place. Mao is the wizard behind the keyboards that lays down plenty of great solos. A man named Ryu does the drums for this release. I don't know anything about him, but he does a very admirable job. In the guitar department, Hibiki surprisingly has credits with only a couple of guest musicians showing up. Given Hibiki's technical prowess, I don't doubt the claim, but it still is a bit surprising.

Fuki is the odd one out here. Her vocals are in line with Tales of Almanac and not with her future performances. That's not surprising given they were a young band at the time, but you certainly won't find her to be a powerhouse on Heartful Message. Personally, I still do like her vocals even though at times they might be technically a tad rough. The music, despite being quite progressive at times, is very much on the cute, flowery side of the fence. Fuki's high-pitched, sugar-coated delivery fits perfectly with the ditsy, glossy keys and upbeat, peppy tempo. As much as I love her ridiculous, powerful wails that would come later (such as in Hyperion), they would not fit at all on Heartful Message. Cuteness is exactly what you want.

Although I'm aware of both poppy prog from Japan and some earlier prog/power metal blends, I'm not aware of anything quite like what Light Bringer accomplished here. Hell, not even the band themselves would exactly replicate what Heartful Message pulled off. The opener, Start!!, cheerfully opens up with an extremely joyful keyboards that remain prominent. Strictly speaking, the majority of the guitar riffs here are power metal, but the production here is so neutered that almost none of my metal senses tingle. Despite all of that, this particular song is oddly very progressive. The rhythm switches up multiple times, Hibiki basically never follows the guitar lines and constantly plays away with some cool bass runs, and the solo section is quite technical.

And that is why I find Heartful Message so compelling. It's consistently technical, more so than Tales of Almanac which did bog down in a few questionable tracks. The songwriting introduces plenty of nice, digestible melodies, but simultaneously inserts a ton of technical embellishment and progressive tendencies. This weird blend was always the main strength of Light Bringer, and the results are absolutely smashing here. To further complicate things, Heartful Message leans a ton on the poppy side but is also arguably one of their most progressive releases.

Fairy has one of the goofiest, unabashedly poppy main melodies I've ever heard, but at the same time switches time signatures multiple times and is downright unpredictable. The only letup from the technical assault is the piano ballad, Heartful..., which is pleasant enough for me not to take any issue with it. The closer, Episode, is perhaps the most power metal-esque number here as a lot of the melodic guitar leads flare up in this song. It also is one of the more complicated numbers on the EP.

But the biggest outlier is the longest song, SYMPHOPIA. Not only is this the most progressive track on the EP, this is one of the most progressive songs in Light Bringer's entire career. I still can't believe something as insane as this existed so early in the band's lifetime, but I suppose they were just always mad geniuses. SYMPHOPIA possesses a very nonlinear, complex song structure as well as some top-notch technical instrumental performances. Hibiki himself goes absolutely insane all throughout the track culminating in what is honestly one of his greatest bass solos ever. They really just stuck absolute gold with SYMPHOPIA; it's easily one of my top 5 Light Bringer songs.

On a more unfortunate note, Heartful Message is long out of print which means nailing a copy would require you to pay quite a pretty penny (collectors beware!), but the actual material is seriously amazing. The cutesy, progressive J-pop with some power metal is nailed perfectly. There's just really not anything else quite like it. The closest analogue would be some of the stronger tracks from Tales of Almanac (ex. White Locked Night bears some resemblance to SYMPHOPIA), but even those really aren't quite there. And while later Light Bringer works are certainly amazing in their own right, Heartful Message ranks right up there with the best of them. The little EP has quickly grown to become one of my favorite Light Bringer releases.

Rating: 97/100

Friday, March 3, 2017

電気式華憐音楽集団 - DETONATOR

Excellent Weaboo Metal

Denkishiki Karen Ongaku Shuudan (電気式華憐音楽集団), DenKare for short, means "Electronic-Style Karen Music Group" with Karen being the pseudonym of their vocalist. Like other doujin groups, DenKare's discography is kind of confusing with a ton of releases. Technically, most of the stuff they've done are actually soundtracks to hentai games with some songs being reworked/re-recorded over the years (and many of those releases are quite worthwhile). Detonator is what they consider to be their first "original album" (as far as I know, all of their music is original), and it's quite a good album at that.

The identities of the circle aren't public (with the exception of Shiren from Yousei Teikoku and Unlucky Morpheus), but there's plenty of not-so-subtle hints that there's some more serious crossover with members of Yousei Teikoku (妖精帝國). First and foremost, vocalist Karen is undoubtedly Yui Itsuki. Her helium-tier voice is completely unmistakable and totally unique. The PV of the song Detonator also strongly hints at Nanami and Gight (both also Yousei Teikoku members) being a part of the circle as well. This shared membership is a fantastic asset as these guys are all very talented players that can really let it rip.

Thankfully, the "electronic-style" in the name is not very accurate and what you have here is some hard-hitting metal with plenty of double bass and all that jazz. The album is unabashedly metal with tons of riffs, but it's also very true to the cover and full of "weabooisms." By that, I mean you'll get the hyper-fast tempos, the over-the-top style, but most importantly, you'll get the cutesy voice. The fact that you're even reading this review means that you're probably already well aware of what I'm talking about. But in case someone accidentally stumbled through the dark portions of the internet and ended up here, you at least deserve a heads up. Yui very comfortably falls into the "squeaky anime-esque female Japanese vocalist" range. If cute vocals plus aggressive, thrashy riffs doesn't sound awesome to you, you should probably head back to the more normal parts of the internet.

But for those of us that sit in our basements all day downloading the best Hdoujin of our favorite anime characters, DenKare is just downright awesome. They constantly whip out aggressive, lighting-fast riffs left and right that appeal strongly to the latent metal tendencies that still exist in me. Like a lot of Japanese bands, Denkare's genre is fairly ambiguous, but they do hover around harder-edge of the spectrum in the power/thrash range with some occasional coreism/chugging tastefully thrown in. Throw in Yui's squeaky vocals into that for some contrast, and you've got a strong winner.

However, don't think I'm just some casual that's satisfied by any hack that chugs an E string and gets some cute chick to do their vocals. Oh no, Japan has a ton of these groups, so you have to stand out to truly grab my attention. Where DenKare really shines is with their exceptional guitar playing. Shiren, Shiki, and all the other guitarists simply go ballistic all throughout the album. There's a fairly high amount of flashy leads and high-octane, technical soloing permeated all over this thing. The leads are generally power metal-esque and melodic in nature, but they fit quite snugly with the rhythm.

And speaking of the rhythm, it's crafted with the utmost care. Songs like Unbind and Her Kingdom Come center around bizarre, twisty rhythmic patterns that are embellished with ridiculous guitar leads. Most of their riffs sound like thrash metal to me, but the songwriting often phrases them in smart ways. For instance, the opening track, Detonator, has a simple but effective melody that interrupts the chorus with some nicely acccented drum fills to shake it up. That instance lasts like 5 seconds, but it's extremely effective and makes the chorus of the song as awesome as it is. And brilliant touches like that are not unique to that song. Her Kingdom Come also has a cool "guitar interruption/rhythmic shakeup" in the chorus and other little touches exist throughout the entire album.

Gaku and Syu are a pretty damn good bass and drum duo. One slight downside to this album is that the heavier production (they might also use some 7 string guitars in here but I'm not totally sure on that) does drown out the bass a bit compared to their earlier works, but Gaku still gets a fair amount of nice bass digs in there. Syu's drumming style suspiciously sounds a lot like Gight from Yousei Teikoku (hmm...) and that turns out to be a great thing. He's got a very fast style that likes the double bass and is perfectly capable of throwing in those nice fills right where it's needed.

Most of the album takes an extremely rapid, brisk pace, but it does have a handful of slower tracks for some contrast. This is probably a good thing since constant 150+ BPM can get tiring after a while, but I do feel those portions of the album are notably a bit weaker. For instance, Athazagoraphobia (that's a real word by the way) is basically a slower rocker. While it's nice and pleasing, I can't pretend it's anywhere near as brilliant as some of the stuff that preceded it. Another slight criticism of mine would be that the beginning of the album is definitely the strongest portion. 宵闇の宴 and 電気式華憐情愛歌 are both speedy, awesome tracks, but they are both more straightforward in composition and lack the unusual arrangements present in songs like Unbind.

But those previous gripes are all just nitpicks really. Sure, it's not the greatest album ever, but Detonator (and the rest of DenKare's stuff) is just ridiculously fun to listen to. They hit a great sweet spot for me with those addictive, saccharine vocals (Yui is a fantastic vocalist) and honest-to-god, headbanging metal. For those of you who suffer from an unholy combination of weaboo and metal tendencies, this right here is your niche. There's a lot of doujin groups out there (I'm not even sure if they count as one anymore), but DenKare is pretty clearly one of the exceptional ones. They have some high profile members, excellent musicianship, and offer some super fun, top-notch weaboo metal.

Rating: 85/100

Sunday, January 29, 2017


Gotta Start Somewhere

Since most of the band's discography is not quite easy to obtain, I ended up starting off with their album, Skill, which is the only one that is reasonably available overseas. As time went on, I gradually nailed the rest of their back catalogue through online webshops, shopping services, and auctions. It came to a point where I owned all of their albums and EPs except for this elusive first album. It's out of print, and the album doesn't always show up on auctions. However, one fateful day after many months of off and on searching, I finally found it. The bid was placed and thankfully I won without any issues. Every day I was shaking in anticipation. Soon, my patience and efforts would be rewarded. The package arrived, and I gleefully put this CD in and cranked the volume. Unfortunately, it turns out that Grating kind of sucks.

Okay, so I actually didn't have high expectations to begin with and only got this album for completionist purposes and curiosity's sake. The word through the grapevine was that the first album was kind of half-baked, but man, that description is actually a bit of euphemism. For all intents and purposes, this is basically a demo, and I can see why the band stopped printing it. Aresz is known (well not really) for their insertion of cool, wanky bass shredding to hard, aggressive heavy metal. From the very beginning, they had this odd idea, and Grating also has two different bass guitar players. However, one of the major shortfalls of the album is the noticeable lack of Syoi being behind the 6 strings.

Aresz has sort of a weird "dual bassist" thing going on with one playing lead and the other playing rhythm. On most of their releases, Syoi is the guy playing the gaudy, 6 stringed bass with wicked shredding, tapping, slaps, and all of that great stuff. Without him, they wouldn't be half as interesting of a band, and as a result, Grating is much more boring. Instead, the album has some other guy named Nakkn behind the bass along with long-time member Masami. They try their best and there's some decent flourishes here and there. But it's generally fairly dull.

And that, in a nutshell, is probably the biggest issue with Grating. It's boring. The riffs aren't bad, but a lot of them underdeveloped and could have used more polish. There is too much reliance on power chords and not enough actual melody. A large portion of the album hangs around in a mid-paced tempo which simply isn't the right for music like this. Aresz thrives much better with quicker tempos, and not surprisingly, the faster songs are among the better ones here. Besides some of the bass licks, most of the music feels fairly stock and not terribly noteworthy. Rumiko's vocals are gritty and rough which is fine in the context of heavy, aggressive music. But she's not going to be some kind of saving grace or anything like that.

There's yet another big blemish here that I have yet to address: the production. To put it bluntly, it sounds like a demo recorded underwater. The sound is very muddy, and Rumiko's vocals stick out like a sore thumb to the point where her voice gets grating (hah) after a while. Given that the band probably had a shoestring budget at the time with no following, I can't really blame them. But the piss-poor production of the album really does not do Grating any favors.

Despite the overall dullness of the material and lackluster production, there are actually some flashes of brilliance. Pride is a really neat, funk-influenced track. There are some of the cool bass slaps thrown in here. The guitar lines are nice and have a funky feel. That one is probably the best track on here. For another example, take We cannot live without BATTLE! There's a neat little bass tapping lead at the opening that would later be re-recording on Grating Revival which features a much improved version of the song. Park of Life also has some interesting ideas with bass slides thrown in there despite the lethargic and boring pace of the verses.

The biggest redeeming factor of Grating is that there are flashes of potential here, and thankfully, Aresz would capitalize on that and massively improve in the next few years. Adding Syoi was probably the best thing they ever did because the follow-up, Beat Blast Spiral, is a much better album. Well, everyone has to start somewhere I suppose. Grating isn't an atrocious album or anything like that. But there pretty much isn't any reason to ever listen to it. The band's subsequent releases are pretty much better in every way. If you happen to stumble across Grating (a highly unlikely scenario), don't pay an arm and a leg for it. If you're a big fan of a band, it's nice to own just for the sake of owning it, but you're better off sticking to their other albums.

Rating: 55/100

Sunday, January 22, 2017

黒夢 - 迷える百合達 ~Romance of Scarlet~

More Commercial But More Compelling

黒夢 (Kuroyume) launched themselves to stardom with this album. After struggling and fighting in the underground as an indie band, Kuroyume would gain a lot of popularity and land a major record deal with EMI. Shortly before the release of 迷える百合達 (Mayoeru Yuritachi) ~Romance of Scarlet~, the band launched their major label debut single, For Dear, which serves as an accurate indicator of the style of this album. Unsurprisingly, Kuroyume softened their sound yet again and made themselves more palatable to the masses despite the wild visual kei imagery. Funnily enough, I would consider this a rare case where increased commercialization actually improved the band.

Their debut album, 亡骸を (Nakigara Wo), was certainly more user-friendly than the preceding material, but it was still rough, gritty and dark. There's no doubt that it appealed to a strong niche at the time, but if you really wanted to become a household name, you would need to clean up a bit. And thus, that's what Romance of Scarlet essentially represents. The production is nice and clean. Most of the gritty, edgy elements are gone. Any semblance of the band's raw, borderline metal indie days are totally gone. But as I've said before, I found this change to surprisingly be a good thing. Nakigara Wo was caught in this weird middle ground of opting for more commercial appeal while still retaining some elements from their earlier, rawer releases. And unfortunately, it didn't always pull off that balance so well and often came off feeling like an awkward transitional album.

I really haven't specified, but the general genre that Mayoeru Yuritachi falls into is essentially gothic rock/post-punk. It's basically the same style as Nakigara Wo, but cleaner and more accessible. The guitars are generally subdued aside from some occasional leads and solos, and the overall mood is more on the melancholic side without feeling dark or depressing. There's some occasional use of synths like in aimed blade at you to help bring out the atmosphere, but they never take a prominent role.

Of course, Kuroyume was always a far cry from a progressive rock band, but their instrumental performances were never boring. The early work has a surprising amount of great guitar riffs, some nice solos and overall awesome atmosphere. Nakigara Wo does dumb this down a bit by toning down Shin's guitar assault. Shin sticks to mostly chord progressions on Mayoeru Yuritachi as well, but somebody else suddenly steps up to the plate to deliver the goods. I'm more biased on this subject than most, but my ears perk up whenever I hear excellent bass work. Hitoki was never bad, but he knocks it out of the park on Mayoeru Yuritachi.

First of all, the production is simply fantastic. It's clean and polished like it needs to be and every instrument is perfectly audible and mixed well. But what really stands out is the bass tone. It's simply glorious. I'm not sure who is responsible for producing the bass this way, but hopefully whoever did got a raise. I'm not even exaggerating; this is honestly one of the best bass guitar tones I have ever heard in any recording. It's very thick and low-sounding, but well-defined and clear. Whenever I need to adjust my subwoofer for some reason, I always use a song off of this album because the bass is so well-produced.

But enough about the tone, nice sounding whole notes won't make an album great after all. The quality of Hitoki's basslines also massively improve. While Shin did most of the heavy lifting on the earlier band work, Hitoki steps up to the plate and becomes the star of the show for me. Nearly every song here is quite arguably more bass-centric than it is guitar-centric as basically everything has highly fluid, intriguing basslines. In the context of Shin's mostly minor/gothic-sounding chord progressions, Hitoki does a great job at making the songs interesting to more avid music listeners without scaring off potential listeners who may be turned off by more aggressive guitarwork. It's an interesting approach, and one that I would say has been highly successful.

However, Shin does get some digs in there every now and then. The opening guitar lead on For Dear is ridiculous catchy and even melodic. He gets plenty of nice solos in there as well. aimed blade at you also contains some absolutely beautiful acoustic guitar work. Kiyoharu's vocal performance is considerably less crazy than it was on previous albums. There's really not any screaming or anything to be found here. Interestingly enough, this is arguably the most subdued vocal performance in his entire career. Naturally, his voice is still unique and instantly recognizable, but the wild vibrato is not so wild here. In fact, his voice is more than tame enough for those often turned off by visual kei style vocals. I've always enjoyed Kiyoharu's style, and some of Kuroyume's strongest, ear-worming choruses are on this album.

What makes this album so strong is the combination its catchy vocal melodies, fantastic bass work, and the slightly melancholic atmosphere. The individual songwriting is very strong and nearly every song here is notable in some way. masochist organ opens up with a fast-moving, super-catchy bassline with a nice guitar complement. 百合の花束 boasts a more mid-tempo and ballad-like nature, but remains very sweet and pleasing. The oddly titled song, autism -自閉症-, actually winds up being the heaviest one here. Shin's guitar distortion shows up again, and he plays some actual riffs. The middle section is also well done with a great guitar and bass solo.

As a warning, I should mention that the later reissues/remasters of Mayoeru Yuritachi leave out autism -自閉症- for some reason, and you definitely want that track. Be sure to grab the original 1994 CD. Anyway, Kuroyume never really settled on a specific sound, but Mayoeru Yuritachi is probably the band's most consistent and strongest album overall. It's bookended by a piano intro and outro (which don't add or take anything from the whole product), but the rest of the work here is absolutely on point. They manage to nail a combination of poppy/accessible songs and great instrumental work in a gothic/post-punk context. After this, the band would drop the visual kei imagery as well as the gothic/post-punk sound and pursue the poppier sound. Shin would also shortly leave after the Cruel EP which dramatically changed the sound of the band again. Kuroyume did make good music and good albums after Mayoeru Yuritachi, but this is essentially an end of an era for them. Personally, I think this is the band's brightest flash of brilliance and magnum opus.

Rating: 95/100

Friday, December 2, 2016

Versailles - The Greatest Hits 2007-2016

They're Back!

I always picked on the fangirls and told them to grow up and move on. Stop crying out for a reunion; the band was a done deal. Kamijo wants to be the next Gackt doing his solo stuff, and Hizaki & co. were happy in Jupiter. Versailles is history, and they'll won't do anything else besides occasional revival shows. Welp, it looks like they have the last laugh here. Versailles is 100% back in full gear. They've done several reunion shows, released this compilation, and they even have a new album coming out next February. Everyone get aboard the hype train!

The Greatest Hits 2007-2016 is the band's latest offering to assure us all that they are indeed blazing a new trail. It's also a nice way to cash in on blind fanboys/fangirls like me. Fortunately for us lowly thralls, the band does put in more effort than usual on this compilation release. It has two brand new Versailles tunes, bookended in the tracklisting, with the other 11 songs being completely re-recorded. The 11 old songs are cuts lifted from Lyrical Symphony, Noble, Jubilee, and Holy Grail. Interestingly enough, songs from the band's 4th album, Versailles, are totally left out from the compilation. Given my personal opinion on that album (good, but not up to the Versailles standard), I have zero problem with this decision and applaud it.

So for the fans out there, the biggest inquiry most likely pertains to the quality of the two brand new songs. Well the good news is that I think both are good overall. I guess the bad news is that neither one are amazing or anything, but realistically the band would save that material for the actual album (a decision I don't object to). The new opener, Melodic Thorn~美の暴力~, is very obviously penned by Kamijo. In fact, so much so that you'll realize that he basically just slightly reworked Sacrifice of Allegro from his Symphony of the Vampire EP and called it a day. Yikes. Welp, I have to say that the original is also quite a bit better and features better guitar riffs and leads oddly enough. I guess your tolerance for self-plagiarism will vary here, but honestly it's not that obvious of a ripoff besides the opening synths. It took me a while to figure it out, but I guess this could potentially bother you a lot if you fell in love with Kamijo's solo EP and played it a million times already. The closing track, Chandelier, is Hizaki's offering and as far as I can tell, he didn't ripoff of himself, so we're good there at least. This one is definitely better than Kamijo's song even if you don't take into account the plagiarism. As usual, there's the nice guitar lead work from both Teru and Hizaki. Yuki does a bunch of nice drum fills, there's some cool bass doodles, and the chorus is pretty catchy. Nothing spectacular, but it's an enjoyable song.

As for the 11 other songs, we have a fresh new recording of each one with more spruced up, fancy production. When it comes to re-recordings, I don't require that they somehow top the original or even be as good as it. All I ask for an alternate version that's worthy to listen to from time to time. To put it bluntly, I unfortunately don't see much of a reason to ever listen to the re-recordings because the originals are basically better in every way. The perception of production values will certainly vary from person to person, but I never thought Versailles ever had anything close to bad production. Both Lyrical Sympathy and Noble are noticeably a little rougher and not squeaky clean like when they went major, but neither are anywhere close to bad. So the new takes of the songs from those releases really don't gain anything to my ears, and I find myself preferring the originals with ease.

To make the matter worse, I'm not really a fan of the production and mix used here. It's not outright bad, but it is an active detriment to the old songs here. I love Yuki's drumming, but what in the world was he thinking with this drum sound? It's not offensively bad, but it's pretty plasticy sounding and the bass drums could be quieter. Really, the drums are just too loud period. They should have turned them down a notch. On the flipside, what happened to Masashi? He's not inaudible, but why in the world is the bass this quiet on a Versailles release? That's just not right. The lack of bass pretty much just flat out ruins some of the re-recordings here for me. For instance, take ASCENDEAD MASTER which has a so-bad-it's-good title and is one of my all-time favorite Versailles songs. That opening verse where there's an incredible dual-lead guitar melody interacting with bass counterpoint that is woven together in an ingenious fashion to invoke a sense of grandeur with its brilliant use of harmony? Well screw you because the bass guitar part is like 5 decibels softer than it should be. And really, I just find myself wondering why in the world they would shoot themselves in the foot like this.

One of the reasons why I adore Versailles so much is because of how brilliantly they write songs and have all the different instruments and voice complement and interact with each other. It's not merely just guitars playing a few decent riffs, the double bass blasting, and some half-baked vocal melodies. No, they were always so much better than that. The vocal melodies from Kamijo would often be accented and expanded upon in Hizaki's and Teru's guitars. Both Jasmine You (RIP) and Masashi would often interject in their bass to serve as a moving line to counteract the guitars switching to longer, legato notes. Yuki's drumming was always highly dynamic and contained a plethora of interesting rhythms and excellently executed fills to signal transitions and to build up tension. The best Versailles songs have an extremely discerning eye for composition, and they compose with such meticulous care that very few other bands can even compare.

I realize I'm basically just throwing a tantrum over the bass guitar getting gutted, but damn it I still don't understand why. When you spend all of that time carefully crafting your songs, why would you just nuke one of the key elements of your sound? It just rubs people autistic about this kind of thing like me the wrong way. On zombie, I expect to hear that awesome bass melody that perfectly foils Kamijo in the chorus. And believe me, it's not at all inaudible. But I have the original version perfectly clear in my mind, and the re-recording is far more muddy and doesn't pop out nearly as much as it should. I've compared the two back and forth and the version on Noble is just so much better and clearer.

But the biggest offender on this album is easily MASQUERADE. This, again, is one of my all-time favorite numbers from Versailles, and it's just so much inferior on this compilation. One of the reasons why this song is so brilliant is because of how well Masashi's bassline and Yuki's unique rhythms gel together. And of course, the vocal melodies from Kamijo are absolutely on point. The problem, once again, is that the bass, while not inaudible, is way quieter than the original. When Teru and Hizaki play their guitar parts later on, they so overpower Masashi that it's ridiculous. The bass solo in the middle is also just totally wrong and sounds extremely awkward at such a low volume level. When Hizaki comes in with his guitar solo, it's way, way louder and totally messes up the balance. Again, why in the world would they screw up their songs this much?

There are some instances of non-bass related reasons for my dislike of the re-recordings. For instance, the opening guitar melody on After Cloudia on the re-recording is played at a lower pitch than the original for some reason. This decision just seems ill-fitting to me because that line loses the wonderful, soaring feeling that the original has. But truthfully, like 90% of my problem with the new takes is basically just the bass guitar getting the short end of the stick. Sure, I did gripe about the drums a bit, but you honestly get over that after a while. Still, the main draw of Versailles for is the entire group as a whole. When a certain integral part gets shafted so hard, it really just messes up the experience for me. Why even bother with these re-recordings when you have the original versions that get everything right?

But believe it or not, there are actually some positive points to be found here. One of Versailles' biggest contention points with newcomers are the croons from Kamijo. By visual kei standards, Kamijo is pretty tame all things considered, but to those not used to this kind of style (and let's be honest here, Kamijo isn't the best technical vocalist around), he can be jarring. However, I have to say that he does a remarkably great job on these re-recordings. I don't know if it's just more practice or what, but his voice is much improved in the technical aspect. He's got much better pitch control and tone here. Personally, I've always enjoyed Kamijo's charismatic, smooth delivery, but his performance here might actually win over some of the skeptics. He's not Bruce Dickinson or anything, but Kamijo does excel at the style he does and I do think he's an integral part of Versailles. And he's also composed several of the band's best songs, so I honestly can't knock the guy too much.

So when it comes to actually rating this, it's a little tricky. On the plus side, the band did a fantastic job picking a wide variety of tracks from their older material and included some of their absolute best songs here. If you asked me to pick 11 Versailles tracks for a compilation, it honestly wouldn't differ much from what you have there. Good taste in your own music guys. The new songs are good, but definitely are not must have tracks. And of course, I'm not a fan of the production direction here, but my reasons are incredibly subjective and I realize that some people may wildly disagree with me there. So in a nutshell you have some good-but-not-great new songs and some incredible old songs harmed by terrible production.

For newcomers, I definitely would not recommend this one to you. Go pick up a copy of Noble and get into the band that way. For the long time fans, it just depends on your level of devotion I guess. Given the nature of the this market, these two new tracks are going to remain exclusive, so getting the compilation will be your only way to legitimately own them. The release is kind of expensive, but if you have money to burn and are a big fanboy/fangirl of the band it's probably worth picking this up just for those two tracks alone. I spent most of my time complaining in the review, but I don't mind just playing the first and the last songs from time to time and treating it as a two-track single. If you only have some casual/passing interest in the band, I would tell you to pass. These two songs aren't anything to die for. With that in mind, I really can't justify giving this a high rating since it's basically only for diehard fans and none of the re-recordings are worthy alternatives to the originals. But all in all, Versailles are indeed back! And I certainly can't complain about that. Here's to hoping that the new album in February will be yet another incredible addition to their catalog. I'll be eager to hear what they cook up (hopefully with better production this time).

Rating: 60/100