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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Terror Squad - the wild stream of eternal sin

The Wild Stream of Eternal Headbanging

I like heavy riffs. I like pummeling drums. I like lightning fast guitar solos. In other words, I like metal. That being said, I'm not easily satisfied. If you show me some average metal band somewhere, I'll likely just yawn and check my watch. Yeah that guitar chord might sound nice, but are you actually doing anything interesting with it? It's not enough to just sound metal to really get my blood pumping. So believe me, I'm generally not the kind of person that describes albums in terms like "fucking crushing" or "pure fucking headbanging goodness." However when it comes to this Terror Squad album, it's truly best described as "metal as fuck."

Terror Squad is very much a case of "why didn't I check this out earlier" for me. I was aware of them for years, but never actually got around to picking up any of their albums. Finally on one fateful day, I had a good chance to take the plunge and boy am I glad I did. The Wild Stream of Eternal Sin is more or less thrash/death metal with a strong crossover streak. On the thrash spectrum, it fits in very snugly with the most aggressive thrash albums out there. The vocalist, Kouichi Udagawa, doesn't sing a single word here. It's all full on harsh vocals that mostly hover in a midrange pitch (with some screams thrown in). At a very short runtime, slightly less than 29 minutes, there's no time to fuck around. It's just full on, pummeling thrash from start to finish.

However like I said earlier, I'm not the kind of listener that's just easily satisfied by anything that happens to be heavy. Bland thrash that chugs only a few power chords is actually one of my most hated metal cliches out there. What sets Terror Squad apart is that they are extremely creative. In the seemingly limited framework of death/thrash, they manage to consistently craft "metal as fuck" songs and pound your skull in from start to finish. And they manage do this without even once feeling stale or tired. Every one of the seven songs crushes, but they do so in different ways.

The reason for the success is simple: the riffs are just fucking awesome. Even though there isn't a single song on here that passes the 5 minute mark, each one is completely loaded from top to bottom with riffs. And literally every single one is just so damn good. Many metal bands struggle to come up with one good riff, but Keiji Ohzeki just casually drops a bazillion different ones on you. Not a single riff feels misplaced or half-baked. They all flow together and just force you to headbang along. As a bonus, most of the guitarwork has a strong technical bent to it and is actually fairly complex. There's some unusual ideas and guitarwork that pop up from time to time with some usage of dissonance or soloing sections that hearken more melody than usual. This sort of foreshadows the more unusual technical approach the band would take on the second album.

Of course, the guitarwork is the main reason why this album kicks ass, but everyone else deserves praise as well. The drumming is pleasantly in that slightly-sloppy-but-just-right range, you want for aggressive thrash like this. The vocals are surprisingly fairly catchy and show a great sense of rhythm. Like any good thrash metal vocalist, the vocal lines enhance the backing riffs and simply just make things even more metal than they already were. As a pleasant surprise, the bass guitar is fairly audible and provides a really good low end. It gets some occasional digs, but mostly bottoms out the sound in a nice way.

But at its core, this album is a riff machine. On the surface, that description does not seem very noteworthy. Tons of bands have gone for that approach with varying levels of success. However, Terror Squad is truly exceptional on this front. If you just want in-your-face, unforgiving thrash metal, this right here is your album. The best way to describe this album is honestly with the typical metal cliches we've all heard a million times before. The Wild Stream of Eternal Sin slays, crushes, pulverizes, destroys, pounds, and tramples all over the listener. Listening to this album causes the iron levels in your blood to double. You might have to go to your doctor to get your neck checked after listening to the album. In short, The Wild Stream of Eternal Sin is just pure fucking headbanging metal goodness that any self-respecting metalhead will love.

Rating: 95/100

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Shellshock - 肆 - SHI -

Experimental Thrash/Crossover with Street Cred

Shellshock is probably one of the more well-known thrash acts from Japan. They were label mates with with Doom back on Explosion records in the 80s and also participated in a legendary split a featuring the almighty X-Japan in their early days. Like a lot of other famous experimental thrash acts, Shellshock began their career playing fairly unremarkable but solid thrash metal. As time went on, they significantly upped the experimental elements and became something very strange. For Shellshock, the big turning point is definitely when Die Chiba joined the band on bass. Die is actually a fretless bass player, and thus this put Shellshock in a rare category at a fairly early time.

Now, I know that "weird Japanese thrash with fretless bass" also perfectly describes Doom. However, Shellshock actually never once sounded anything like Doom. Their second album, Protest and Resistance, is sort of a transitional album and also an excellent blend of technical elements and good, old thrash. The subsequent two releases, Fiel Lärm and Graythem...of Chaos, are absolutely brilliant at their peaks. Unfortunately, they also get pretty deep into "weird for the sake of being weird" territory and overall both of those albums are a fairly rocky experience. 肆 ~shi~ (which creatively means "four" by the way), is the band's fourth album and first new offering after reforming roughly 14 years later. It's also hands down my favorite release from the band.

Post-reunion albums from old bands are almost always nail biting affairs, and they generally have a bad track record. On the other hand, this fourth album perfectly blends all of the good elements of Shellshock in their old days and fuses it into one, mind-blowing album. Make no mistake, this release is full on technical/experimental thrash. All of the instrumental work is nothing short of excellent, and this is miles away from the garage-type of thrash that almost anyone can pick up with just a bit of practice. And unlike a few misfires in their past attempts at experimental thrash, Shellshock never once loses focus on this record. From start to finish, it's a weirdass thrash affair.

One interesting thing about Shellshock is that they still sound very mean and tough when compared to other technical/progressive thrash metal bands. A lot of those bands have sort of a more "white-collar", "highbrow" or even just "nerd" feeling to them. Now don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Nothingface, but listening to that album never gave me the feeling that Piggy (RIP) would beat the shit out of me if I looked at him the wrong way. It's more likely we'd end up watching cheesy black-and-white sci-fi movies about aliens. Or in the case of Doom, their take on thrash sounded basically like something straight out of the psychiatric ward. Listening to them too much could end up putting you in the nut house.

Shellshock's music, on the other hand, sounds like it came straight off the street from some very rough, working-class type of guys. Of course, I've never met the Shellshock guys in person and stereotypically Japanese people are all very nice, but they certainly don't sound like nice guys on the album. The strong crossover influence as well as the barking vocals give 肆 ~shi~ a strong, mean urban vibe. There's a feeling that you might get dragged into a back alley by the Yakuza at any moment. Of course, these particular Yakuza would just rough you up while listening to avant-garde music or something.

On 肆 ~shi~, Shellshock shows off their technical/experimental side by playing some highly rhythmic, complicated, and mean riffs. There's certainly other elements at play here (like some of the odd guitar solos or Die's crazy bass lines), but the most distinguishing feature of this album is easily the extreme focus on rhythms. Thrash metal is generally more rhythmic than other metal genres but seldom do you see anything that approaches what you get on 肆 ~shi~. The meter constantly shifts, and odd time signatures are featured in abundance. Every song on here still thrashes pretty hard, but the thrash itself is delivered in an unpredictable, erratic manner.

It's hard to really praise any one particular member here because they all pretty much kick ass. The guitar assault from Akilla Ito and Norikazu Saeki is nothing short of amazing. You'll hear plenty of totally twisty riffs and bizarre solos. In a genre where mindlessly chugging is pretty common, the guitar riffs on this album are more or less the total opposite of that. Die Chiba was always an excellent bassist and certainly doesn't disappoint here. His work on the fretless adds a ton of character and flavor. And of course, everyone loves a good fretless bass tone. Pazz's resume was already amazing (Doom and Gastunk), and you can safely add this album to that list. For an album as rhythmic as this one, the drumming would have to be nothing less than incredible.

On the vocal front, I do actually appreciate that the guys mostly stick to their native tongue. It's pretty common for Japanese thrash bands to go all Engrish on you. In fact, older Shellshock works have way more English than 肆 ~shi~. Now given that the style of vocals in thrash usually less "singing" and more "barking/shouting/yelling", it's rarely ever irritating to deal with Engrish. But it still is very nice to hear this kind of vocal style delivered in Japanese. It's honestly not that common, and I find the flow to be a lot different than the typical stuff in English. It's just yet another element that separates this Shellshock album from the competition.

Overall, I do enjoy the experimental elements the band introduced on their older output in the 90s. Even if there were some missteps (especially in the Graythem... of Chaos) that had me wondering what they were going for, I much prefer that kind of direction over a bland, western clone type of approach (which to be frank, is what they were in their earliest days). I'm not sure how they managed to do it, but 肆 ~shi~ ended up being the album I've always wanted from them. Shellshock perfectly combines experimental/technical elements with hard-hitting thrash. What you have here is truly a gem. It's a completely unique, fresh take in the experimental/technical thrash world that also happens to be Shellshock's greatest work yet.

Rating: 95/100

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Lovebites - The Lovebites EP

Good Ingredients, Lackluster Results

Lovebites is the latest big hot name in the all-girl metal (or jo-metal if you prefer) craze. They're yet another Destrose offshoot (thanks to Miho) that is aiming to wow the world with their brand of ripping power metal. Fortunately for them, Lovebites has had big label support (courtesy of Victor) since the very beginning and has been marketed very hard. Hell, it worked on me at least, and I went ahead and shelled out the money for this particular EP last year. So are they really the saviors of jo-metal or just another gimmick? The truth is somewhere in the middle.

The EP is just 4 short tracks: 3 in English and the last one in Japanese. Unlike many of their peers, all 4 tracks are undeniably about as metal as it gets. There's more than ample amounts of double bass, riffs, guitar solos, and all the ingredients that go into any good metal song. But unfortunately, that's about where it ends for me. Lovebites checks all the right boxes, but they fail to execute correctly. Now don't misunderstand, the girls can play, and Asami certainly can sing well here. The compositions here are all solid and nothing to be ashamed of. But that's all. Nothing here I would consider to be particularly great. Just mostly in that fuzzy, "well it's alright I guess" area.

That being said, it's not all hopeless. There's some flashes of potential on this EP. Don't Bite The Dust starts off with a decent catchy lead riff and a nice transition, but that's about it. The verse kinda just chugs along with fairly generic riffs. The chorus is a little better thanks to Asami carrying it a little more, but the backing is still a little bland. I do appreciate the various guitar leads and some nice drum work sprinkled in here though. That saves the song from being totally dull. The guitar solo is merely alright. It borrows way too much from the previously used guitar leads and really doesn't deviate enough nor last long enough for it to really be a highlight. It's just kinda there.

The next song, The Apocalypse, is easily the most original and strongest one here. This is mainly thanks to the stronger thrash leanings. The opening riff is honestly really darn good, and the chorus is by far the catchiest one here. Asami also has some pretty good wails at times. The verse riff is one I've heard a million times before, but the prechorus is pretty nifty. If Lovebites developed this kind of direction more, they'd stand out a lot more to me. The big failing of this song is the bridge section which is awkwardly shoved in there. It doesn't really resolve properly and just abruptly jumps back into the chorus. But overall, I guess you could say this song is genuinely good.

Unfortunately, those previous two songs are easily the brightest points for me. The next two sink deep into the middling zone. Scream for Me is an alright tune, but this is when the songs begin to become too obviously formulaic. There is a very strong feeling of "been there, done that" that starts to manifest and permeate itself. The songs instead start to feel like a blender of mediocre riffs, leads and some drum fills. If you take a particular riff or lead in isolation, you'd think to yourself, "hey that's not bad." But you can't just shove them together and expect a good result. Any good song will have a nice flow. However, Lovebites's songs generally don't. They feel a lot like bits and pieces just stuck together.

Bravehearted deserves a special mention of being the only track in here that's sung in Japanese instead of English. To be honest, I'm not sure if I should be happy or sad that this exists since it proves that Asami is a much, much better vocalist in Japanese. Honestly, I would consider Asami to be the main strength of the band since vocally she's pretty much on point here. But like 99% of Japanese vocalists, she has some pretty awkward Engrish. In genres where you have to actually sing (i.e. power metal), this can be a pretty big negative at times. In the case of Lovebites, I wouldn't say it subtracts a ton of points, but the fact that Bravehearted exists with smooth, flawless Japanese is a little frustrating. I know bands geared heavily towards western audiences always suffer this fate, but I wish one of them would buck the trend.

For a band just starting in the underground, a release like this would actually be fairly encouraging. Plenty of bands start off with some warts before polishing themselves up and moving up in the world. But for a band with as much hype and marketing craze like Lovebites, I would have expected more from a first offering than this. In spite of this EP falling flat for me, I was, at the time, still optimistic that they could improve in the future and distinguish themselves further. Unfortunately, my hopes didn't come true. As the MVs and trailers rolled in for the full-length, I felt the band was merely treading water, and the samples for the subsequent EP only cemented that feeling for me. Thus, I never bothered with the next full-length or EP, and I totally dropped them from my consideration after that point.

It's honestly a shame. I wanted to like Lovebites. The chops were all there, but the pieces never really fit together. They have a lot of craze and hype, but I'm just left not really getting it. Honestly if you really enjoy this particular style of power metal, there's a pretty good chance you'll think I'm crazy and dig the hell out of Lovebites. For me though, they are nowhere close to some of the greats of Japanese power metal like Galneryus, Concerto Moon, or Versailles. Yet at the same time, they aren't nearly as bad as some of those atrocious Rhapsody clones out there. Lovebites is just kind of in the middle. They don't have any major failings, but they lack that intangible, special something that would truly make them something great. I just find myself scratching my head and saying, "well it's alright I guess."

Rating: 60/100

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