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

ARESZ - GRATING

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

Saturday, November 5, 2016

D - Neo culture -Beyond the world-

Branching Out

D is one of those weird bands that is extremely loose with genres. Both The Name of the Rose and Tafel Anatomie flirted around with gothic, j-rock, and metal influences. Admirably, the band somehow found a way to juggle these conflicting sounds and craft coherent, enjoyable songs. Pinning an exact genre of them was always difficult, and Neo Culture -Beyond the world- further complicates this endeavor. With their third album, D begins to explore new territory. They simultaneously incorporate more melodic and folk influences into the record. The previous two albums didn't shy away from melodic choruses, but with Neo Culture, D embraces that characteristic, melodic j-rock style with open arms.

The genre conundrum only gets more confusing because the band doesn't really back away from their metal influences either. Indeed, a great wealth of riffs and metal also exists on this album. The gothic backdrop still persists with the minor chords and some keyboard window dressings, but Neo Culture is notably a lot happier in tone. D was never really that dark in sound, but this album marks a turning point where the band started to incorporate more melodic choruses into their sound. You may ask how on earth they can meld a wide range of seemingly conflicting influences and genres all on one record. That would be a good question because I haven't quite figured that one out myself, but the result is pretty damn great.

I'm not sure if the song title was meant to be meta, but Neo Culture follows the trend of opening with humbler songs with the first track, Follow. It's a pleasant song with the usual ingredients that make D such a great band. You have Asagi's characteristic voice, the omnipresent bass, and guitar leads. But the next one up, Signal indicates the first, real departure from the previous material. In contrast to Follow, Signal is much happier with a strong melodic backbone and pop appeal. Even though the song seems more user-friendly especially with the big, melodic j-rock chorus, D doesn't step away from their intricate songwriting or technical skill at all. Tsunehito still smokes the fretboard on his bass. Both Ruiza and Hide-Zou carry some sweet dual leads and solos. And Hiroki finds a way to put in some nicely timed drum fills and patterns.

I have to say that D pulls off this kind of song very well. Writing a catchy, poppy song that still shows off impressive musicianship is really an art, and D is one of the best at this craft. They find a way to put in some variation that can easily be overlooked if you aren't paying attention. The two verses will often differ, a separate independent bassline that accents a melody is mandatory, the drumming will always have some off-beats, and both guitars will harmonize with each other or even with the bass. And of course, Asagi's voice is stellar as always, and he can carry those j-rock choruses with power.

One interesting element the band experiments with is folk. 桜花咲きそめにけり is centered around a very nice folk melody that's propelled by the lead guitar. Asagi also shows off his vocal versatility by singing in a lower pitch with a lot of vibrato, giving a traditional flavor to his voice. This one is predominately metal with plenty of riffs, and the dual lead solo section over folk melodies is also really awesome. The band would do more songs similar to this one in the future, but this attempt is easily one of their strongest. I love this song.

Virtually everything here is golden, but my personal favorite is probably the closing track, Dearest You. Basically everything I love about D is showcased here. The song starts off in a j-rock fashion with some awesome bass slides from Tsunehito and chord trade-offs between Ruiza and Hide-Zou. But then the band quickly switches it up on you and goes pretty heavy with some nice aggressive riffing for a bit before going to the verse. Asagi gives one of his strongest vocal performances here showing off some of his harsh vocals as well as falsettos. The main chorus is extremely catchy, and the solo section is equally awesome. During the bridge, there's also a part where Asagi hits a falsetto while Tsunehito does a short, little bass doodle that always impresses me. On the "greatest D songs ever" list, this one is definitely a contender for number one.

Neo Culture clocks in at well over an hour, but thankfully it's not a chore to listen to at all. D employs a large variety of songs and ideas. You can find softer ballads, some hard-hitting metal, more gothic tracks, and all sorts of stuff. Genre-wise it's pretty much all over the place, and they pull off all of the various styles effortlessly. In fact, I'd go as far as to say this is possibly D's strongest entry in their excellent discography. Neo Culture sounds mature and accomplished. The entire album is consistently high quality and every track is written with the utmost care.

Rating: 97/100

黒夢 - 亡骸を・・・

Inconsistent

I've long said that I preferred the Kuroyume material with Shin on guitars, but there really should be a "read the fine print" clause for this album. I assume the band was gaining a lot of popularity in the year following the release of 生きていた中絶 児 (Ikiteita Chuzetsuji) and for 亡骸を (Nakigara Wo), they opted for wider appeal. Ikiteita Chuzetsuji was very raw and even borderline metal at times, but Nakigara Wo has the band lightening up their sound quite a few notches. Instead of the extremely dark, metallic gothic sound, gears are switched to a lighter, more melodic gothic/post-punk sound.

Overall, it feels like the band was still trying to find their footing. Going in a lighter direction is not something I'm inherently opposed to, but the results here are unfortunately not consistent. I think Shin was trying to transition to a more commercial-friendly sound while still retaining the grit from their earlier stuff. There are some songs here that work extremely well and can even knock it out of the park. However, others leave you scratching your head. I don't find anything here to be outright bad, but a few of the tracks could have used more polish.

In pursuit of a more melodic and accessible direction, the songwriting predictably gets simpler than it was on previous works. A lot of the subtlety of their first single and EP are lost here. Not that the band was ever super-complicated or anything, but the meter shakeups and more elaborate solos are missing here. Unfortunately there's not nearly as many cool leads or riffs from Shin. He generally opts for chord progressions and overall less exciting guitar work. The songs are all pretty much just straightforward verse-chorus.

It's not all doom and gloom though. Like I said before, there are moments where the more poppy, accessible songwriting gels with the gothic/post-punk backbone extremely well. For instance, DANCE 2 GARNET is a fast-paced number with a super catchy bassline from Hitoki and some nice leads from Shin. There's also other good moments. The opener, Under・・・, manages to blend aggressive D-beats with some clean minor chords as sort of a midway point between Kuroyume's aggressive tracks and their new, softer direction.

I do keep mentioning that Nakigara Wo is softer (which is true), but it's actually still really dark. Sure, Kiyoharu isn't screaming at you too much. And yeah, a lot of the distortion from Shin's guitar goes away. But the overall tone is still quite depressing. It's still very much a gothic album even though it's not nearly as raw as it used to be. For example, 十字架との戯れ may not be as hard as 黒夢 from Ikieita Chuzetsuji, but the guitar is very dissonant and Kiyoharu's voice sounds like he's in agony making this one of the strongest tracks on the album for me.

And speaking of Kiyoharu, he's one of Kuroyume's biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses. His voice is very distinctive and very visual kei for better or worse. You'll have to expect the wide vibrato and over-the-top style. For the most part, his super-passionate approach works very well in the backdrop of the music, but there are times where I feel like he overdoes it. In 終幕の時, the chorus is a goofy-sounding "la-la-la." To make it worse, the song has the gall to have a pseudo-fade out of Kiyoharu's "la-la-la's" only for him to fade back in and end with some of the few screams. The idea itself isn't so bad, but I find the execution to be rather lacking.

And that would be an example of the inconsistency I was speaking of earlier. 終幕の時 is not a bad song, but it's definitely lacking a bit in ideas and goes on too long. 讃美歌 is a decent gothic ballad, but it never really connects with me like some of their other stuff. After 十字架との戯れ, Nakigara Wo sort of goes into a three track lull of decent songs. They all have solid ideas, but unfortunately nothing really wows me. If has the most potential of the three with some really nice melodic basslines, but it lacks the development to truly be outstanding. Fortunately, the last two tracks close the album out on an extremely high note.

親愛なるDEATH MASK from Ikiteita Chuzetsuji is re-recorded and makes a reappearance here. It's hands-down the most aggressive number on the album and sticks out like a sore thumb. The difference in the instrumentation is slight; Shin's guitar seems to be more dominant, and Hitoki's role is diminished. My chief complaint would be the lack of some notable bass accents that were on the original version. However, Kiyoharu's vocal performance is a huge upgrade over the original. When I said he's potentially one of Kuroyume's biggest strengths, this would be a good example. Kiyoharu goes pretty nuts with some very wicked screams that are much superior to the original take. As a bonus, the build up to Shin's solo is way more gripping, and the solo itself is also superior in this version with a much more impressing dissonant touch. I did previously say no rendition of the song was truly superior to the other, but I think I would pick this one if you put a gun to my head.

Another surprise is the closing, self-titled track, 亡骸を. It's a simple, stripped down ballad with clean guitar and repetitive drumming, but it somehow works. Kiyoharu, again, just knocks out of the park vocally and basically carries the whole thing. I might even go as far as to say that this is the best ballad he's ever done. His voice is extremely passionate, and the chorus is highly emotional and melancholic. I promise you that this kind of thing normally doesn't resonate with me much, but somehow Kuroyume pulls it off. There's a moment during the bridge where Kiyoharu makes a passionate shout and it's followed up by a subtle bass melody from Hitoki. That small segment is easily one of Nakigara Wo's most powerful moments. This song is a brilliant way to close out the album on a soft, sad note.

Nakigara Wo is Kuroyume's first full-length album, and there's some ups and downs. Overall, I do think it's a good album, but it lacks some of the brilliance of the band's other work. Kuroyume never really settled on a singular sound, but here it does sound like they are trying to transition to a more accessible sound without fully working out the kinks. They would have a much more successful fusion of gothic/post-punk and pop appeal with the follow-up, 迷える百合達 ~Romance of Scarlet~. Still, there are still some extremely strong ideas to be found here. Even if it isn't my favorite Kuroyume album, I still think it's a worthy album.

Rating: 75/100