Thursday, December 24, 2015

Jupiter - Topaz

Hopefully They'll Keep Going

With the recent announcement of Versailles doing a show again, the importance of this single suddenly grew. I'm a big fan of the band, so of course I got myself a copy. But since Yuki and Masashi are going to leave and Versailles is active again, there's a real possibility that this seemingly normal single is the last thing Jupiter will ever release. I certainly hope they keep going in spite of everything, but only time will tell on that one. Topaz came out later in the year not too long after Jupiter's absolutely excellent second album, The History of Genesis. Following the footsteps to that album, the 3 songs on Topaz are all quite a bit different in style and showcase the band's diversity.

One of the things I really admire about the band are Zin's vocals. I know he has a lot of detractors, but the guy is extremely talented. The excellent vocal performance he gave on Jupiter's second album continues here. The single opens up with the title track Topaz which is also a ballad. It's a risky move, but they manage to make a great ballad. Zin does have quite a bit of engrish in the beginning, but his delivery is fantastic. His voice is full of emotion and passion throughout the whole ballad and carries the melody perfectly. Another really nice thing is that Topaz isn't instrumentally lazy at all. Masashi does a lot of really cool bass doodling, and Teru and Hizaki come in later with some really nice harmonized leads. It's quite a nice, moving song.

And as if to troll you, Jupiter follows up with one of Teru's goofy songs. lolite is an "only in Japan" mixture of metalcore and power metal that's a bit cheesy, but it actually works. Zin does some nice growls in the middle, and there's plenty of nice riffs and leads here. The real highlight of the short single is the closing instrumental track, Rose Quartz. It's actually been quite a while since Hizaki has penned an instrumental track like this, but it's certainly welcome here. Despite the lack of Zin singing, the instrumental work is top-class and his absence isn't too missed. There's a few progressive elements tossed in at times, and the song features really nice neoclassical lead work from both Teru and Hizaki. Of course, there's plenty of other goodies from Masashi and Yuki throw in, and overall it's a wonderful track.

I like Jupiter and Versailles; the latter reuniting is certainly good news for me, but I hope it doesn't mean the end of Jupiter. They're a different group with their own identity, and it would be a shame to seem them go.

Rating: 90/100

Jupiter - Blessing of the Future

There's Some Potential

I'll spare you the long history lesson, but in a nutshell this is the first release from Hizaki and company with new vocalist Zin after the split of Versailles. It might be a bit pointless to review it now, but looking back on older releases of bands before they released more mature material is an interesting affair. Jupiter would grow and develop greatly with their future releases, and you can see the first seeds they planed on this single.

Of course, Jupiter has the absolutely all-star, top-class instrumentalists from Versailles: Hizaki and Teru on guitars, Masashi on bass, and Yuki on drums. This potent combination of skill and talent is extremely hard to match, and they all have unbelievable chemistry with each other. The elephant in the room here is the new vocalist Zin. Kamijo from Versailles was (rightfully) much beloved for his ability to carry vocal melodies and his charismatically smooth voice. So does Zin match him? Well, honestly not quite. One thing I do highly respect the band for doing is not just finding some Kamijo clone and putting out the same music. Zin is a quite a different vocalist and while I find him a bit undeveloped here, he shows a lot of potential. In the context of power metal, Zin is a more traditional approach with the way he can hit those high notes and deliver that vibrato. He doesn't get to truly shine here, but his vocals are not bad at all. They did a really good job picking Zin.

As far as the actual songs go, Blessing of the Future is easily the highlight here. The opening guitar melody is stupidly catchy, but also quite a notable step up from what Versailles had been putting out at the time. I was never too hot on their self-titled album, and in many ways, I found it a bit watered down to what the band had been doing in the past. In a sense, Blessing of the Future is a return to form. While it's not on par with my favorite Versailles tracks (not by a long shot), it does fall in line with the high standard I hold Jupiter (and anything Hizaki is involved in really). It's quite an improvement. Shout Your Desire does feature a few heavier/chugging moments, but for the most part, the whole single is the usual style of highly melodic, neoclassical power metal. There's the flashy guitar leads, rhythmically varied riffing, catchy choruses, and pretty much everything anyone familiar with Hizaki would expect. Jupiter would greatly improve as time went on, but this is a pretty damn good start.

Rating: 80/100

Hizaki - Dance with grace

A More Collaborative Effort

Dance with Grace continues in the style of the previous EP, Maiden Ritual. The biggest difference this time around is the much longer and more extensive list of guest musicians. One considerable upgrade is the presence of an actual drummer (although some of the bass kicks sound pretty weird). I'd also say that the guest vocalists are better. Each track has a different vocalist, and my favorite is easily Yoshi. He has a very nice, clean tone and pretty good control of his voice. Of course, he has the mandatory, over-the-top vibrato, but uses it in a more sparing and restraining manner. I also liked Masaki's voice quite a bit on track four. The other guys are all okay, but Yoshi stood out the most to me by a fair margin.

Naturally, the main draw here is Hizaki's guitar playing. As usual, he delivers the high-octane, neoclassical-styled power metal you want. However, there is one twist on Dance with Grace. The bizarrely titled song, sister's sex features some more aggressive thrashy riffing and surprised me quite a bit when I first heard it. The vocalist here, Maaya, does only highly distorted screams and growls to match. It's not a bad idea, but the vocal effects seem pretty excessive and a bit distracting. Nothing dealbreaking, but I feel this one could have been executed better.

Unfortunately, there is no instrumental number on this EP which is the biggest loss to me. Every song on here is excellent Japanese-styled power metal, but I'm a pretty big fan of Hizaki's instrumental songs. Nonetheless, there's still plenty of great neoclassical soloing here. A slight step down to me, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.

Rating: 83/100.

Hizaki - Maiden Ritual

The Cutest Guitar Shredder

Hizaki's big break and claim to fame was the power metal sensation Versailles, but he was actually a pretty prolific musician before those days. When he started his solo project, Hizaki wasn't exactly a veteran in the visual kei but certainly not a newcomer. Maiden Ritual is his first solo EP, but his unmistakable guitar and songwriting style is written all over this. This is a fairly low budget affair, and it's pretty obvious in the drum programming. There's that low budget, underground visual kei feel to the whole thing which is quite honestly a charm point for me. It's perhaps unfair, but simply the knowledge that this is music made by Hizaki when he was pretty much a nobody makes this more enjoyable.

Not counting the intro track, it's just a 4 song affair. Ritual and tragic serenade feature guest vocals from Fu-ki (of the visual kei band Blood). He has a fairly standard voice, but it fits perfectly with the music. The overall feel is slightly rough around the edges (perhaps due to the production), and there's a bit more indie-style visual kei in the riffage here. But stylistically, it's basically the same kind of power metal that anyone familiar with Versailles or Jupiter would expect just cast into a more "underground" context. The songs with the guest vocals are both quite good, but the best part of the EP are the two instrumental tracks at the end.

What makes Hizaki such a great guitarist is both his skill and his ability to craft highly melodic, ear-pleasing solos and leads. Both Lunar Eclipse and Requiem demonstrate this perfectly. Of course, you know he could just shred his brains out 24/7, but that doesn't happen here. The two instrumentals are absolutely fun to listen to. Hizaki plays a bunch of neoclassical melodies and leads, but always tastefully and in a controlled manner. Admittedly, the backing tracks are nothing too special, but the lead is what's really important and it's absolutely ace. It's a short and sweet little EP and anyone who enjoys Versailles or Jupiter would also dig this one.

Rating: 85/100

Mysterious Priestess - 夢国ノ義士

Extremely Unique Progressive Metal

What really put Mysterious Priestess on my radar was the video for 満願ノ夜明 (Mangan no Yoake) for their upcoming album, 夢国ノ義士 (Yumeguni no Gishi). I was pretty much instantly floored. The huge large presence of folkish keys, winding basslines, and that really bizarre solo was quite unusual and compelling. I've seen someone describe the song as Yes getting into a buscrash with Sigh which is an amusing image, but not completely inaccurate. Mysterious Priestess makes a very large sonic shift with their second album, Yumeguni no Gishi. The first was primarily rooted in melodeath, but this album sheds almost all of that and opts for a more strange extreme progressive metal approach with lots and lots of folk vibes.

One unfortunate thing about Yumeguni no Gishi is that's actually very short. The first two tracks serve more as a long introduction to Mangan no Yoake as opposed to standalone songs. It's very well done and give an appropriate, dreamy atmosphere. Things become a little more dissonant and chaotic after a brief narration, and the buildup to the real first song completes. The introduction doesn't feel overlong or excessive, but it does suck about 5 minutes out of an album that's already pretty short. Yumeguni no Gishi is really more like an EP than a full length.

The good news is that's where my complaints end. Despite being short, the actual material is absolutely stellar. One of the biggest notable changes from the last album is the addition of keyboardist, Kurumi Fujioka who makes her presence very well known. There was some keyboard work on Agency of Fate, but here it is much more extensive and developed. In addition the to the keyboards, Yumeguni no Gishi also features extensive usage of female vocals, strings, percussion, flutes and various other instruments. This gives a very strong folk undercurrent through the whole album that's executed excellently.

The band's most accomplished work is the 10 minute progressive metal title track, 夢国ノ義士. This non linear track is extremely moody with the use of all the different instruments and strong keyboard presence. It contains very little vocals; Kei does some robotic sounding stuff through a vocoder, and there's a short section near the end where he does his usual snarling. However, the majority of the song is actually rather soft and laid back. It goes for a moody prog approach as opposed to furious instrumentals and manages to succeed.

The remaining two songs (終焉 is a closing track with weird narration and synths) are more in line with Mangan no Yoake with the large key presence and progressive metal approach. Even though there is no shortage of impressive instrumental work from everyone in the band, Yumeguni no Gishi is primarily a moody, strange beast. The songs are all crafted with twisty, nonlinear structures, but simultaneously evoke an ethereal dreamy vibe. I've not heard anything quite like it. My best point of reference would be from some more laid back prog bands (the Keyboardist cites Mr. Sirius and Kenso as influences and both are bands I absolutely adore), but I can't really point to anything solid. This is a completely different affair than their debut album, but I also find it much more superior. Japan has a pretty good track record of putting out weird music, and you can safely file this one in that category.

Rating: 90/100

Mysterious Priestess - Agency of Fate

Intriguing Melodeath With a Few Quirks

Mysterious Priestess are a rather unknown and underappreciated band. They've been relatively low key with releases in contrast to many of their peers but nonetheless deliver interesting music. The debut album, Agency of Fate, is primarily a melodeath album, but the band shows a lot of progressive flourishes that they would develop later on.

Swear Vengeance Against The God starts off the album on a bit of a worrying note. Not because of the music, but rather because of the production. It's really muddy and basically demo-tier. For whatever reason, only this track is produced this way, and from Summon The Guardian Angel onwards, everything gets much cleaner. These two tracks are fast-paced, melodeath, but there's quite a few progressive moments. You can find a few transitions and tempo changes that are rather progressive in nature. Summon The Guardian Angel carries an atypical song structure and also has a few time signature changes making it essentially progressive melodeath. The bass is also very reminiscent of progressive bands in its audibility, and the way it weaves its own path. Kei Koganemaru, the lead guitarist and vocalist, is the main brain behind the band and writes the songs. His vocals are mostly a midranged snarl that isn't anything terribly inspiring, but it gets the job done.

Things really pick up when Amaterasu rolls in. After the opening riff that reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean or something goofy like that, verse surprisingly transitions to a jazzy section with excellent basswork from Yusuke Sugiyama, jazzy drumming from Yohei Jimbo, and Kei's distorted snarling. The jazz breakdown is well incorporated into the song and fits the overall uplifting mood. The solo section is also excellent with a very nice piano break and guitar solo. This song shows pretty nice attention to detail and forshadows the band's future direction.

Not surprisingly, the most progressive work on here is the longest track, Seven Moons. It opens up with a sort of cheesy but interesting oddly-timed melody from a casio keyboard or something. Even though the song does use some pretty traditional tremolo picking, it's placed in a complicated rhythmic backing. There are many different sections that utilize more complicated playing, and the melody from the keyboard persists throughout the whole song.

Afterwards, the album does shift into a more aggressive and slightly more straightfoward gear for the next couple of tracks. Of course, there's still technical prowess with nice leads, solos and riffage, but its generally a more straightfoward, melodeath approach. The excellent closer, Eternal Calmness, opens up with a progressive riff and flaunts the band's experimental side much more. In general, Agency of Fate does feel a bit like an amateur album from an underground band, but there's quite obviously a ton of potential here. It's a very enjoyable album, but I enjoy the more progressive moments the most. Hindsight is 20/20, so I suppose this assessment is fundamentally unfair due to my familiarity with their second album. Don't get me wrong, Agency of Fate is great, but their second album would shift directions to a sound I like a whole lot more and sort of reactively makes the debut a tad weaker. But at the end of the day, this album has a ton of great music on it, and that's all that really matters.

Rating: 75/100

人間椅子 - 無限の住人

Still Rocking Out

無限の住人 (Mugen no Juunin) is the 6th full length album by the Japanese rock gods. Active since the late 80s, everything these guys touch turns to gold, and it's no different here. Ningen-Isu's primary influence is the Sabbath school of heavy metal, and there's no doubt they graduated at the top of their class. Shinji and Kenichi are absolute masters at serving up those wonderful, old-school grooves and riffs. Although the basis of the band's sound has remained unchanged through all of these years, each Ningen-Isu has its own identity and has subtle (or occasionally more obvious) distinction from the rest. On Mugen no Juunin, the change in sound is actually fairly overt. In comparison to the previous 5 albums, the band sheds much of the metal and goes for a more hard rock/psychedelic rock approach. Of course even without the metal bite, Ningen-Isu remains a compelling group.

The opening track, 晒し首, is a fun, midpaced rocker that sets the tone for much of the album. As always, the interaction between Kenichi's bass lines and Shinji's guitar riffs serve as the primary attraction. This particular features drummer Iwao Tsuchiya who only drummed on a couple of albums, but nonetheless does a pretty good job providing nice rhythms in the back. Given their image and country of origin, it probably won't be much of a surprise to learn that the group often incorporates traditional folk into their music. Mugen no Juunin is quite possibly the most folkish album they ever released. The acoustic ballad, もっこの子守唄, is basically a short, sweet folk song with Shinji singing along in a campfire-esque way. The title track, 無限の住人, also makes extensive use of acoustic sections, some traditional sounding instruments, and folkish chants from Kenichi. One of the highlights of the album for sure.

But the biggest standout to me is easily the third track, 地獄, which is easily one of the most unique songs in Ningen-Isu's massive discography. It instantly slaps you in the face with this incredibly weird but ridiculously catchy riff from both Kenichi and Shinji. As icing on the cake, Kenichi makes a bunch of weird vocal noises and even does a madman laugh at some point. The middle section is a sharp contrast to all the madness and goes for a pretty spacey psychedelic vibe with a lot of weird guitar effects from Shinji. But really the main reason this song stands out so much is because of the aforementioned main riff. It's simple, but extremely unique, and I've not heard another band come up with anything that sounds like that.

There are plenty moments where the band pulls out a very fine metal riff, but most of the album is really more hard rock in character. Of course, this isn't a bad thing at all if you're as good as Ningen-Isu. What they do best is genuinely rock out. For a nice contrast, think of all of those bad stoner doom bands that spend all their time getting a fuzzy tone but only play derivative, second-rate music and have no sense of songwriting. Ningen-Isu is basically the polar opposite of that. They make great songs, have a huge passion of music, and continue to serve top class rock and metal. In terms of consistency, they're almost unparalleled, and at their peaks, they make some of most compelling 70s-style rock and metal out there.

Another song I really feel the need to commend is the monstrous doomy closer, 黒猫. Following the trend of past albums, Ningen-Isu decide to close the album with a long epic. Whenever you see a really long Ningen-Isu track (there's another on this album and it is indeed really good), you know you're in for a treat. The band doesn't usually come off as overtly prog rock in character to me, but I can definitely hear it in their longer songs. 黒猫 shares the characteristics of long Ningen-Isu in its long, extended structure and scope. While much of the previous material is lighter in tone and often psychedelic and spacey, there's a huge tone shift here to a much darker, ominous atmosphere. The main riff is very heavy, but still very catchy. The song itself goes through plenty of different sections and closes the album large, grand manner.

Mugen no Juunin is probably not their most accessible or immediate album (especially not if you're looking for hard hitting metal). But it's by no means bad, and my appreciation of it has grown a lot over time. It's a very interesting hard/psychedelic rock experience with a ton of great grooves. Out of their 18 great albums, this one is definitely one of the ones I like more.

Rating: 90/100

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

D - The Name of the ROSE

Jrock Metal

"Jrock" is simultaneously one of the most useful and most bullshit genre tags in existence. There's a pretty large amount of stuff I conveniently file under "jrock" that bears very little sonic resemblance to each other. But if you listen carefully enough, you begin to notice a few commonly shared traits among some styles of jrock. The way the guitars interact with each other, the moving bass lines, the relatively laid back drumming style, and of course the over-the-top vocalist. So what in the world does D have to do with any of this? Well in a sense, they basically play the aforementioned jrock, but in a metal context.

This isn't actually such a radical idea. A lot of jrock bands straddle the blurry line to metal very hard. In many cases, all you would have to do is throw in a little more distortion, add a few more riffs and voila! It's metal! So suppose that you had a jrock band that did exactly that? They had the appropriate distortion and enough riffs to technically qualify as metal, but they really feel more like a jrock band overall. Well to me, D is exactly that. The Name of the Rose carries a lot of metal riffs, but also exhibits traditional "jrockisms" in its usage of chord progressions, basswork and drumming style. It's quite a mix of material that varies from hard hitting metal to softer, ballad-like numbers.

In contrast to much of their fellow countrymen, D keeps a rather dark mood present on most of their material. It's possible that I'm just into different stuff, but most Japanese music I encounter is obviously primarily based in major keys with an uplifting vibe. True to their gothic imagery, D actually makes regular usage of minor chords and keeps a melancholic atmosphere. In a sense, they come across to me as a modern take on 90s style jrock with gothic and metal window dressings, and given their visual kei image, this actually makes sense. Back in the early 90s, there was a fairly small, but notable visual kei known as nagoya kei. Sonically, it tended to be quite a bit darker and took a lot from gothic rock and post-punk. And to my ears, it sounds like D was inspired a lot from this particular scene and put it in their own sound. Essentially, they play some form of gothic rock/metal (quite a vague term in and of itself), but in a very distinct Japanese style with their own twists and turns. If you've ever listened to any jrock (especially the stuff from the 90s), underneath the poppy chorus there's often a lot of surprisingly active, moving guitar and bass that can play a ton of different notes and chords. As I've been constantly repeating, D's own music shares these characteristics.

One thing that you really have to praise is the extremely high level of musicianship. Much to my surprise, all of the members of D can go toe to toe with many other bands I consider to be extremely talented. Day Dream is a softer number that opens the album quite humbly with some darker clean chords and with Asagi carrying the verse melodies. But the song quickly develops and builds on itself. Even by Japanese standards, Bassist Tsunehito is extremely active in the music and rarely follows the guitars. Both Ruiza and Hide-Zou are excellent guitarists. I believe Ruiza takes the majority of the lead parts, but the two are no slackers and make a compelling duo. Hiroki is capable of blasting the double bass, doing calmer, tighter drumming, adding a nice fill or whatever pattern suits the current style of music the most. As you go through the album, you'll find a million different notes and rhythmic variation. Sure, it's all basically verse chorus structure, but I'm pretty tempted to call it "technical gothic metal" or something ridiculous like that. There's a ton of intricate technical work from every instrumentalist here.

Vocally, the band is also excellent. Asagi's voice is very much in line with typical visual kei vocalists, but he has a distinctive tone and character. Another thing that surprised me was how diverse his vocals can be. No where is this better demonstrated than on the comically long titled track, 薔薇より暗い慟哭のアカペラと薔薇より赤い情熱のアリア, which also happens to be the main highlight of the album for me. After a brief gothic choir introduction, the main riff is quickly flaunted, and you instantly know it's going to be a barn burner. For most of the songs, Asagi remains in a comfortable midrange, but he pretty much goes completely nuts here. There's a bit of impressive screaming in the pre-chorus, and the rest of the band provides a healthy amount of gang shouts. But what stands out the most is the ridiculous usage of falsettos in the chorus. They aren't delivered in a power metal-esque style, but rather in a more controlled, subdued manner. The delivery gives Asagi's voice a rather feminine quality as opposed to evoking images of conquest or what not. Regardless, the way he pulls off those stupidly high notes is quite mind melting and certainly unique. The falsettos do remind me of Kyo from Dir En Grey, but the single this song is from came out in 2005 which was long before Kyo started incorporating falsettos into his vocal work. Nevertheless, the main riff, ridiculous vocals, and wandering basslines easily make this my personal favorite song on the whole album.

As a disclaimer, the copy of The Name of The Rose that I'm familiar with is the 2006 re-release that has Tsunehito on bass and three extra bonus tracks. The original release has a different bassists and thus a different mix. I'm pretty sure it's not anything terribly different, but it's worth mentioning. The bonus tracks are both a blessing and a curse. They're all quite enjoyable songs, but they do stretch the album out to a whopping 1 hour and 8 minutes which is quite a long time commitment. It's not hard to listen to The Name of the Rose in one sitting, but it does sometimes drag a bit near the end. Overall, it's a pretty enjoyable album, and I do look forward to exploring the group's future output.

Rating: 88/100

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

陰陽座 - 魑魅魍魎

Beautifully Diverse Heavy Metal

陰陽座 (Onmyo-za) is truly a remarkable band. Active since 1999, the group has been incredibly consistent and delivered great album after great album. Sonically, the band's most obvious influence is Iron Maiden due to the frequent usage of dual leads and gallops, but a closer look will reveal that Onmyo-Za pulls musical elements from all over the place. Indeed, Onmyo-za creates a sound that is their own with their unique, diverse songwriting and fabulous vocal and instrumental performances.

Cutting right to the chase, the band arguably possesses the most amazing vocal duo in all of metal. Kuroneko and Matatabi, who are also married, consistently deliver some incredibly potent and memorable vocal lines. I suppose Matatabi is the technically inferior vocalist of the two, but he still has an excellent tone as well as a great range. With Kuroneko, there's really no doubt. She's among the most talented female vocalists in the scene today. She's extremely emotive and diverse in her vocal delivery. Stunningly beautiful lines, powerful choruses, and light-hearted vocals are all just another walk in the park. Of course, the two regularly harmonize with each other, and the couple act as perfect foils which add more depth and enjoyment to the music. Additionally, the band even makes use of some gang shouts and harsh vocals for the more aggressive numbers as well as some tradtional folk-like chanting. They're all very well-executed and only further show how ridiculous the vocal talent is in Onymo-Za. There's seriously very few other bands that are as vocally compelling.

As with all Onmyo-Za albums, 魑魅魍魎 (Chimimouryou) showcases a wide variety of stylistic choices. Given the instrumentation, it's only natural to expect the usual dual leads a la Iron Maiden. But you'll also be surprised to find that there's also some rather doomy riffs lying around. The band also crosses into jrock territory, employs power metal elements, tosses in the occasional folk, a few bluesy solos, and even forays into thrash for a bit. And what's even better is that they pull all of this genre switching completely effortlessly. It's not a badly forced shift for the sake of seeming quirky, but rather a completely natural result of excellent songwriting. So what you end up with is a large variety of riffage and instrumental work that is all very impressive.

Another remarkable thing is the large variety of moods the band is able to evoke. For example, has a bit of a haunting, dark chorus while しょうけら is goofy, uplifting fun. 酒呑童子 is a more mid-tempo and ominous introduction while 鬼一口 is extremely aggressive and rather warlike. Not only are the vocalists exceptional, but so are the instrumental players for being able to express these emotions. Matatabi is also the bass player who, like many Japanese bassists, is not content with merely following the guitarists. Often you'll find him crafting his own bass line, and there's even a bass solo on しょうけら. Likewise, Tora is an excellent drummer. He's not terribly flashy, but if you listen closely you'll notice that he has great control of the beat and employs plenty of rhythmic variation.

But the main instrumental accolades belong to the incredible guitar duo of Maneki (he's Matatabi's brother actually) and Karukan. Despite all of the diversity, Onmyo-za is a metal band at the end of the day. Sure, they do the occasional ballad here and there, but ultimately you want the riffs. And boy do they deliver. The guitarists never get lazy and just stick in some filler power chords or mindless chugging. They'll throw in a doomy riff here, a slightly thrashy one there, and then maybe have neoclassical-styled solo or a bluesy lick. Even on the more hard rock songs, the guitar work is still impressive. Sure, they'll opt for some more melodic major chords for softer moments, but the playing is always rhythmically phrased very well to never bore you. And like any self-respecting guitar duo, Maneki and Karukan harmonize all the time and do it extremely well. Whether it's trading solos, harmonizing a lead, or just playing a good riff, the two never fail to impress.

One thing you might notice is that Onmyo-Za occasionally throws in a really long song on some of their albums throughout the years. As you might suspect, Onmyo-Za's super long songs show a few progressive elements in they way that they are structured and are always highlights of their respective albums. The track on Chimimouryou, 道成寺蛇ノ獄, is quite possibly my favorite epic they've ever done. It's basically through-composed and flows smoothly through a large variety of different musical sections with little repetition (there's even a genuine prog riff in here). Despite being having a massive length of 11 minutes, the song feels more like 5 or 6. It's just that engaging and well-written.

Ballads are normally an iffy affair for me, but Onmyo-Za is one of those rare few bands that can consistently make a compelling ballad; even with relatively little instrumentation. 鎮魂の歌 is a beautiful song that incorporates some folk and symphonic elements, but more importantly showcases what an amazing voice Kuroneko has. The way she carries the uplifting chorus in such a beautiful, emotive manner is truly exceptional. In contrast, to the relatively darker opener, the album ends on a more uplifting, light-hearted jrock number, にょろにょろ. Like any Onmyo-Za song, the band shows close attention to detail in their songwriting, and even the lighter numbers never fail to disappoint with the great interplay between all the instruments and vocals. にょろにょろ features some slightly more cutesy vocals from Kuroneko to match the happy vibe, and it makes for an excellent, happy closing track.

Despite all of this rambling, there's still one very simple thing I have yet to mention: Onmyo-Za is fucking catchy. It seems stupid to bring this up now, but really that's probably their greatest strength as a group. It doesn't matter if the band is playing heavy, doom, thrash, power, jrock, folk, etc. They know how to craft vocal lines and guitar riffs that stick in your head. Ultimately, any song Onmyo-Za makes is chock full of excellent melodies that are just damn catchy. Chimimouryou is probably among my personal favorite Onmyo-Za albums simply because I perceive a slightly higher diversity and consistency than usual in the quality of the songs, but everything the band has released is incredibly good anyway.

Rating: 95/100

Gauntlet - Birthplace of Emperor

Derivative But Good

Not to be pretentious, but these days I find fairly straightforward music hard to get into. Not that everything needs to be experimental or avant-garde, but rather I like it when some band has a unique quirk that makes their material unmistakably theirs. In comparison to most of what I listen to, Gauntlet is fairly standard. For once, I can just file Birthplace of Emperor under "power metal" without having to scratch my head over genre hops or result to the bullshit "jrock" tag. Despite the normalness of the music, the group does bring some interesting things to the table.

After listening to 5 seconds of Beyond the Wall, it's pretty obvious which band Gauntlet is aping. Birthplace of Emperor sounds a lot like the first two Galneryus albums. Ripping off of Galneryus isn't exactly easy, and they do it rather well. The glorious, victorious feeling is there. There's a strong presence of keys, but it's never overbearing since the focus is the riffs. Even Yu-ta basically sounds like a higher-pitched version of Yama-B. He can let out some really nice wails and carry choruses with the necessary over-the-top delivery. Those sensitive to bad English might want to stay away. As the album title suggests, there's bad grammar and mauling of the English language everywhere in this album. For me, Yu-ta's accent is so bad that I have no idea what he's saying 99% of the time anyway, so it comes off as a foreign language anyway which really ends up being a good thing. Overall, I find his vocal performance to be quite impressive, and some of the notes he hits are pretty far up there.

But let's not kid ourselves here. The main reason why Gauntlet works is the guitars. One of the reasons why copying Galneryus is hard is because you actually have to be really damn good at guitar. Fortunately, Task and Yasu are a textbook example of an awesome power metal duo. The two play crazy riffs and leads together in the typical melodic, shredding style. All of the solos here are really well-executed, and there's no shortage of impressive guitarwork on the album. As icing on the cake, Yoshio, the bassist, occasionally joins in on some of the solo and lead work by adding in some tapping parts or a good bassline. I would have liked a lot more from the bass department, but it's better than nothing.

Unfortunately, Gauntlet is just not nearly as good as Galneryus. Perhaps this is my fault for listening to bands that genrehop all the time, but Gauntlet plays exactly the same style for the entire album minus the short ballad at the end, and it gets a little stale. Galneryus always knew how to mix things up and keep their albums from feeling tiring despite the fact that they often clocked in well over an hour. Birthplace of Emperor is admittedly pretty one-dimensional. With the exception of the intro track and the ballad, everything here is extremely fast power metal with riffs and leads everywhere. Don't get me wrong, they pull it off really well, and I totally understand anyone thinking I'm crazy for trying to call this a fault. But honestly, I just find it all to sound pretty samey near the end. I doubt throwing in a random jazz track would help anything, but variation is the biggest thing this album lacks.

Rating: 70/100

Sunday, December 20, 2015

MergingMoon - Kamikakushi~神隠し

Electronic Breecore That's Actually Amazing

So back when I used to work part time, one of the new guys randomly approached me and said "you'd like MergingMoon." I did jam hard in public so recommendations and talk of bands weren't exactly unexpected, but this band mention was certainly a cut above the rest. It turns out that my informant received his knowledge from an Anthony Bourdain show which had a segment about underground Japanese death metal. Well I've got to hand it to Bourdain, MergingMoon's second album is genuinely awesome.

Like many of their peers, MergingMoon plays melodeath with a healthy amount of core influence and an overabundance of synthesizers. But upon closer inspection, you'll find a lot of elements that sets them apart from their peers. After the weird electronic intro track, Maleficium kicks off the album in a style that could easily cause listeners to instantly lose all hope in the band. The beginning is basically an example of the much loathed "breecore" consisting of chugging and the mandatory brutal vocals. But I think you'll be quite surprised if you give the song some time. It actually develops rather nicely and flows into a ton of different sections. Actual riffs and leads appear, ton of rhythmic variation occurs, and there's even some progressive elements in the song. In fact, the songwriting here is quite dense and often rather complicated. First impressions can be deceiving after all.

Now there's one thing that I haven't elaborated on yet, and it's arguably the strongest point of the whole album: the vocalist. First of all, U is a girl, but more importantly, she kicks ass. In fact, this album has one of the most ridiculous harsh vocal performances I've ever heard. She can go all over the place: gutturals, screams, brees, and everything in between. There's also some clean vocals from both U and the bassist, Tatsuya. They're both pretty good despite some slight Engrish, and they add good contrast. Vocally, most of the album is rightfully centered around U's harsh delivery which is pretty insane and rather unique.

On the instrumental side, it's pretty impressive and rather technical. Most of the riffs are identifiably melodeath, but the band knows how to phrase them very well in unexpected ways. Surprisingly, the keyboard work is very welcome here and adds a lot of great ornamentation and atmosphere when needed. Admittedly, the keys can be pretty cheesy (there's a lot of core influence after all), but the music is just too good for me to deduct any points. The drumming is quite varied; he knows when to put in a good fill or accentuate with the double bass. Hell, there's even some nice bass slaps and other good bass stuff thrown in at times.

Individually, the elements of the album don't seem too remarkable, but when you put them all together you'll end up finding that Kamikakushi is really quite out there. The album displays a pretty large amount of variety and covers a ton of different material. Agonizing Choice is mostly weird and spacey with bizarre keyboards. The band's most well-known song, Greyen, somehow pulls off great slams and breakdowns while having a very poppy, catchy chorus. In Merging Lives is a really unique, heartfelt ballad that is mostly clean vocals and manages to be rather beautiful at times. Despite the greatness of the previously mentioned tracks, the song that impresses me the most is the 9 minute track, When A Phantom Becomes A Fact. After the eerie electronic intro, it sends you through a maze of musical twists, turns, and surprises while featuring a good amount of progressive elements along the way.

In a nutshell, this album is just pretty goddamn weird, and it's also absolutely excellent. The music mirrors the vocals; it's completely insane. Kamikakushi seems to be all over the place in the way it covers so many different moods and feelings which would be impossible with your run-of-the-mill melodeath album. The way the band can seamlessly go from brutal slams, melodic riffing, and even uplifting choruses is totally unique. The album constantly catches you off guard left and right. Listening to it is a rather exhilarating experience.

Rating: 90/100

Versailles - Versailles

Not The Bang I Would Have Liked

Uh oh. It's the dreaded after-the-debut, self-titled album. In the case of Versailles, it would be the last album before their long hiatus (which may or may not be over actually; we'll see). By now, it would only be natural that I would have very high expectations for the group. But after giving the self-titled a listen, I just can't help but feel that it's quite obviously inferior to their past work. As with every Versailles album, the band presents their patented style of power metal with a slightly new twist, but I don't feel the change is for the better this time.

The introduction, Prelude, is the same melody from the identically titled intro to Noble cast with a different arrangement. It gives a nice nostalgic feeling, but the following song, Rose makes it pretty evident that times have changed. There's the familiar power metal fanfare but with a bit more restraint this time. In fact, it's extremely similar to the metal portions of Destiny -The Lovers- from the previous album. Not exactly ideal. Now don't mistake what I'm saying here. It's still a good song that I like, but that's it. Versailles is a band that I want to floor me with amazing songs like Aristocrat's Symphony or Princess -Revival of Church-. This doesn't quite match that level.

But the band does try new things. Edge of the World has some slight nu-metal in it as well as some very impressive slap bass from Masashi. I suppose it's a bit out of left field since the band has never done a song like that before, but it's pretty well-executed. 妖 〜ayakashi〜 also mixes it up a bit with some folk influences and has some nice transition sections and guitar leads. Unfortunately, I feel it's too repetitive for the band, and I'd expect more variation in the songwriting. Paradoxically, my favorite track is probably the half-ballad, Illusion, which features a lot of really nice basswork and interplay between the guitars.

All in all, my main problem with the album is that I'm never really floored. On the past Versailles albums, it was just amazing song after amazing song. Sure, some songs were better than others, but nothing off of the self-titled moves me as much as most of the relatively weaker material off of the first three albums. Even the epic, Created Beauty doesn't come close to long songs the band has done in the past.

There's some pretty nice solos and riffs. Yuki pulls off plenty of good fills. Masashi goes all over the place with his bass. The music is still fairly technical as usual. But despite all of these good ideas, nothing really fits together quite as well as it should. Other than Illusion, there's really not a great or amazing song here. We mostly just stay in that weird lukewarm, good-but-not-that-good territory which is not what I want from Versailles. And given that the band went on hiatus soon after this, it's not really much of a surprise that the self-titled doesn't quite live up to the glories of the previous material.

Rating: 70/100

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Art of Gradation - Concentration

Not Quite There

Light Bringer's lineup sort of imploded in 2011 and 2012. First, guitarist Kazu would leave before the release of the band major label debut single, Noah (that he wrote). And not too long after the release of Light Bringer's third album, Genesis, guitarist Seiya and drummer Satoru also said their farewells. Despite these setbacks, the band found themselves a new guitarist and drummer and proceeded to release one of my favorite albums of all time in 2013, Scenes of Infinity. Meanwhile, ex-Light Bringer members, Kazu and Seiya teamed up with vocalists Ibuki and Michiru and keyboardist Reanne to form their own band (Satoru would later join, but he's not actually credited on Concentration). They released their debut album on exactly the same day as Light Bringer's Scenes of Infinity. Unfortunately, the result isn't nearly as smashing.

Since there were ex-Light Bringer members involved, I was hoping for some prog elements. Maybe Hibiki rubbed off a bit on them, right? Well unfortunately, you won't really find any of that here. In a nutshell, this release is extremely light, keyboard-laden power metal that barely even counts as metal. Well whatever, as long as the music is good, right? Hmm, that's the tough call. There's some nice solos and leads to be found here, but overall it's honestly pretty mediocre with occasional good moments.

It's not fair to compare this band to Light Bringer, but you just have to with that origin story. One shortfall is in the vocal department. Of course hardly anyone can compare to the Fuki's amazing vocal talents in Light Bringer, but these two ladies don't bring anything notable to the table. Despite the dual vocalist thing, Michiru is really the one that handles 90% of the vocals here. The moments where both girls sing together all have Ibuki mixed very far into the background to the point that she might as well have been credited as backing vocals. It's kind of a shame since Ibuki is actually a much better vocalist than Michiru in basically every way, but she's woefully underused here. As for Michiru herself, her voice is cartoony as fuck, and there's some pretty obvious pitch correction and vocal processing going on at times. She doesn't sound outright terrible, but she's more or less just there and mediocre.

The best vocal moments on the album are all the rare moments when Kazu sings. For instance, consider Our Song. The small part of the verse that Kazu sings by himself is honestly so much better than anything else the ladies sing on the whole album. He's far more emotive, expressive and has a better tone. Every time I listen to Art of Gradation, I always find myself wishing that Kazu was the vocalist instead. The guy is such a good singer that I even would have liked for him to sing a little more in Light Bringer and steal some of Fuki's spotlight.

Instrumentally, it's mostly okay. The drum tone sounds pretty programmed and given the lack of a drummer credit in the album booklet, the conclusion is pretty obvious. It's nothing deal breaking, but you'd think obvious drum machines would have been a thing of the past by now. The guitar leads and solos are actually pretty good on average, but the riffage is often pretty filler-feeling and flat. While the huge keyboard precense is kind of cute, it's also nothing special.

However, there is one song that is not just good, but absolutely great from start to finish, and it really surprised me. The sixth track, Sky!!, is stylistically in the same vein as the rest of the album, but it's clear that the songwriting is much more creative and interesting here. The opening guitar melody is great, Kazu sings a bit on it, and the song has the glorious, soaring feeling appropriate to its namesake. If you reach a little, you could also reasonably argue that there's some prog influence on this song as well. A lot of the transitions are reminiscent of Light Bringer in a very good way. Unlike most of the album, listening to this particular song is pretty fun and engaging. I'd also put Our Song and 奏-KANADE- a notch above the rest mainly because Kazu sings a bit on those.

I don't believe Art of Gradation ever gave any sort of official breakup announcement, but I'm pretty sure it was just a one time thing that's over. The website is gone, and the members have all moved on to much greener pastures. Kazu, Seiya, Reanne, and Satoru would form the absolutely excellent group, Scrambled Soul Circus with Haruka of Tears of Tragedy and Yosuke of Octaviagrace (Reanne is also in this band). Ibuki teamed up with some ex-Destrose members to form the all girl group Disqualia and also get to actually sing. Michiru disappeared from the scene, and well I'm not going to shed any tears over it. Concentration is worth a listen for the novelty if you're obsessed with any of the members and want to hear everything they've been involved in. It's not a fantastic release or anything, but hey maybe a decade from now my CD will skyrocket in price and I'll get to charge criminal amounts of money for it.

Rating: 60/100

Versailles - Holy Grail

Versailles Still At Their Peak

I never understood why, but I've seen a fair amount of people sort of gloss over this album. I have no idea how common the sentiment that Versailles went downhill after Jubilee is, but I sure as hell don't agree with it. Holy Grail is definitely a different beast from Jubliee, but it's still top notch material. This time around, the band lightens up a bit, and the guitars are less heavy. However, the high quality of musicianship persists, and Versailles once again flaunts their unique brand of power metal.

After the previous bassist, Jasmine You, died during the recording of the last album, the band selected Masashi as his successor, and he's more than up to the task. No offense to Jasmine You, he laid down plenty of excellent basswork himself, but Masashi is more skilled of the two. The shift in production here lightens up the guitar tone a lot, and frees up the bass. The band was never one to settle for simple compositions, and there is highly technical basswork prominent with even a bass solo here and there.

Following the tradition of the previous two albums, Holy Grail opens up with the bombastic track, Masquerade, written by Kamijo. I actually find this one to be one of his most well-written songs. The verse features excellent interplay between Yuki's weird drumming patterns, Masashi's bass, and both lead guitarists. And always, the man has a strong knack for catchy choruses and great melodies. The album marches on with the usual but fantastic Versailles-style power metal with all of the obligatory neoclassical frills. As always, Hizaki and Teru make one incredible guitar duo and constantly play crazy leads and solos off each other. That carefully crafted sense of songwriting is there with intelligently placed countermelodies and harmonization. Of course, Kamijo's smooth voice croons on top of all of the complex instrumental interplay.

All goes incredibly well, but at Remember Forever, we hit the first bump in the road. As the title might tip you off, it's a ballad and not a particularly good one at that. Versailles is no stranger to ballads and have managed to pull of great ones before, but this one isn't anything to cherish. While not being an outright bad track since there's some nice guitar wankery, and the chorus is nice, it's not that great of a song. Well one dud isn't normally a big deal, but the next track, Destiny -The Lovers- starts off as a ballad itself which leaves my head scratching a bit. Power metal riffing comes in later albeit tamer than before to save the day. Again, neither track are outright bad, but they don't come close to the amazing ballad, Amorphous, off of Jubilee. And the metal bits of Destiny -The Lovers- fall short of the A-class metal you were hearing not too long ago. It's definitely a slight dip in quality.

Fortunately, the band gets it back together with Dry Ice Scream!! [Remove Silence] (what a goofy title). There's a bit of gang vocals on this one, and it features some of the most aggressive riffing on the album. But you aren't free from the wretched ballads just yet. For some bizarre reason, the band decided to throw yet another ballad, Love Will Be Born Again. I hate to say it, but this is easily the worst song here and possibly the worst Versailles song period. Kamijo is no stranger to bad English pronounciation, and I don't think it's ever been as bad as it is on this song. I normally don't care too much about Engrish; it can add a lot of charm and ultimately I'm just here for a good vocal line. But it's downright awful here. Nothing against Kamijo because I can tell that he's very passionate and doing his best. Neverthless, he's not really convincing. The overall dullness of the instrumentation here does not provide any relief either. It's Kamijo in the spotlight butchering the English language over mediocre vocal melodies. I just don't like it.

But my complaining ends there. Truthfully, the biggest problem, by far, is the three ballad-esque tracks. It's not that I'm against a good ballad; Versailles has pulled them off incredibly well in the past. I just don't find any of ones on this album to be particularly compelling, and they interrupt the flow of an otherwise amazing album. Normally, this would deduct a lot of points from the album, but the band more than makes up for the flaws with the grand finale. Those who paid attention to the tracklisting might have been wondering about the monstrous, 16 minute epic, Faith & Decision at the end. I assure you; it's one amazing piece of music. This song is truly Versailles's crowning achievement as well as their best epic and closes out the album perfectly.

The first seven minutes are all instrumental. With the insane chops of all of the band members, you know it's basically a wankfest but a beautiful one. There are insane solos, drumming and basslines everywhere. Versailles has never been truly prog, but this might as well count. The song structure is very nonlinear, goes through tons of sections, tempo changes, and even some time signature changes. Kamijo's voice coming in for the first time leads to a softer moment, but it's a welcome contrast to the previous onslaught of technical acrobatics. Additionally, there's a very distinct, beautiful guitar melody that you'll find surfacing at various points in the whole song. Kamijo's voice is quite arguably at his best, delivering his lines even more passionately than ever before. Faith & Decision is quite an accomplishment and a ridiculous musical journey.

Holy Grail is a slightly inconsistent album with at least one too many ballads, but really it's the closing epic that sticks out the most in my mind. It's a pretty long investment, 1 hour and 11 minutes, but a rewarding one. Apart from those damn ballads, the album flows incredibly well and tracks like Philia and Judicial Noir demonstrate the wonderful style of Versailles at its best. Truthfully, the whole album serves as a buildup for the finale, Faith & Decision, and it pays off wonderfully every time.

Rating: 94/100

人間椅子 - 二十世紀葬送曲

Doomy Goodness

人間椅子 (Ningen-Isu) is actually quite out of place in my collection. Yeah sure, there's a bunch of obi strips on my CDs and in that regard Ningen-Isu fits right in. But stylistically speaking, the band is actually completely out of my comfort zone. In general, I'm more of a fan of flashy technical acrobatics whether it is in math rock, power metal, prog rock, etc. Despite my unfamilarity with the scene, it's really easy to tell that Ningen-Isu is something special. They're often accurately described as the "Japanese Black Sabbath" due to the way the power trio delivers mid tempo, heavy riffs in the style pioneered by the much beloved forefathers of heavy and doom metal. But make no mistake, Ningen-Isu isn't just some half-baked derivative group that can only ape a style without any creativity of their own. In fact, these veterans have been consistently serving up high quality metal for decades with their own unique character and vision.

The band has released a whopping 18 albums to date (with another on the way) and none are duds. Firmly picking a single favorite Ningen-Isu album is an impossible task, but the 1999 album, 二十世紀葬送曲 (Nijuu Seiki Sousoukyoku), is easily among the top albums the band has ever released. The previous album in 1998 is mostly rooted in psychedelic rock, but this album has Ningen-Isu returning to their doom and heavy metal roots. As with any Ningen-Isu album, the primary attraction is the incredible interaction of the dynamic duo of Kenichi on bass and Shinji on guitars. Both men are simply masters of the art of riffing. Right after the opening bluesy notes reminiscent of a train whistle (appropriate given the title of the first song), the album's very first riff is an absolute winner. Your ears are greeted with this midtempo catchy, twisty riff that gives you that much desired authentic classic heavy metal feel.

Much of the album relies on a "money moment" type of songwriting, and it actually works quite well. Many songs flow incredibly smoothly with great verses and choruses, but then the band throws in a flashy moment where everyone jams really hard and it's awesome. For instance, take the 5th track, 曉の断頭台. Most of this song is slow and foreboding in feeling with an absolutely haunting guitar lead from Shinji over a rhythmic, marching bassline. But in the middle lies this incredible section. Suddenly there's a slight tempo increase, heavy power chords are strummed, Goto flies all over the drum kit, and Shinji ends up whipping out a great solo. This small moment is also a good example of why I earlier said that Ningen-Isu is out of place in my music collection. That brief section I just described is actually incredibly simple in the guitar and bass and consists of 2 power chords that a 5 year old could play.

Now don't get me wrong, Shinji can shred like a monster, and Kenichi easily outclasses most bassists. But truthfully in contrast to most of their countrymen and my own personal taste, their riffs are generally quite simple. And yet they're crafted with the utmost care and delivered at just the right time. However, this album doesn't actually lack at all in the technical department for me. While the core of Ningen-Isu is the unchanging duo of Kenichi and Shinji, they've also rotated through four different drummers in their career. None of them were anywhere near bland or boring drummers and all brought plenty to the music, but hands down, my favorite Ningen-Isu drummer is the one that contributed his incredible skill to this album, Masuhiro Goto.

His performance is paradoxically subtle and flashy, but once you notice it, you have to just marvel at this guy's skills. He also drummed for the famous Japanese prog rock band, Gerard, and you can definitely hear a proggy influence in his drumming. To put it simply, his control of the beat and rhythm is absolutely top class. There's a ton of incredibly precise and intricate drum work that would completely stumble lesser drummers. And the man's fills are really nothing short of mindblowing. While plenty of my favorite Ningen-Isu albums do not have Goto as a drummer, the albums in the "Goto-era" all feature his insane drum work that quite frankly, none of the other drummers for the band could quite match. Furthermore, I find this album in particular to have one of his strongest performances.

Vocally speaking, both Shinji and Kenichi handle the duties. Their voices may sort of blend together to the casual listener, but there's certainly a notable difference. Kenichi has the lower, gruffer voice and also is the one that makes most of the weird noises and eccentric singing (not too much of that on this album though). Shinji is higher pitched and sings in a more typical rock style. While neither vocalists are anything to write home about, they both work well together with some harmonization and give their unmistakable, unique character to the music.

This is Ningen-Isu at the top of their game. As always, the band showcases much diversity in their material. Bluesy heavy metal vibes, crushing doom, and even thrashy moments are all handled masterfully by the group. Additionally, the absolutely stellar drum performance is always a sweet treat to hear. Consequently, this is one of my most visited Ningen-Isu albums. It's top-notch quality from top to bottom.

Rating: 90/100


Neoclassical Bass Shredding

Imagine you're forming a band with the intention of playing some good old metal. Typically, you follow in the footsteps of the classic bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest and recruit an over-the-top vocalist, dual lead guitars and a rhythm section. Well Aresz went for a slightly different approach. Instead of dual lead guitars, why not have a dual lead guitar and bass? This idea lead to the bizarre instrumentation of a lead guitarist, lead bassist, rhythm bassist, drummer and vocalist. 6 string lead bassist virtuoso, Syoi, is actually more subtle than you'd expect and the album's main focus is on delivering headbangable heavy metal.

The guitar here has a very thick, heavy tone, but the music itself is mostly heavy metal with some power and thrash moments here and there. Despite the whole two bassist thing, the driving force of the song is mostly guitarist, Natsuki, who lays down plenty of tasteful riffs and solos. Most of the musical frills come from Syoi who plays a lot of weird tapping melodies to complement the guitar riffs and also contributes in lots of solo sections. As the title alludes, much of the soloing (in both the guitar and bass) is neoclassical in style as typical of Japan. The other bassist, Masami, just plays your regular-old 4 string and mostly follows to rhythm to give a thick undertone. However if you listen closely, you'll notice that there are times where he contributes his own lines but it's much less flashy than the other two guys.

Another interesting feature is vocalist Rumiko. Aresz are a female-fronted band, but don't let that fool you. Rumiko's vocal delivery is very aggressive, gritty and rough much to my surprise. She's still obviously female, but there's no piercing high notes to be found here. She stays pretty solidly in the lower range. Her voice is pretty unique and has tons of character, so there's really no complaints from me. It's just a surprising contrast to most of her fellow countrywomen. A variety of session drummers were used, but it's all pretty similar in style to me: highly aggressive and full of flashy fills.

But ultimately, the real staying power lies with the guitar and gaudy bass playing. The combination of the riffs and unique bass ornamentation really makes Aresz stand out. There's a few moments on the album where the duo lay off the heavy attack and go for a weird spacey vibe while noodling around on their instruments. Occasionally, keyboards/synthesizers pop in to give some background ambiance. Those calmer moments work quite well, but most of album is really just about awesome, heavy riffs and awesome solos. Production-wise, everything is thick and loud to match the rocking vibe the band has going on. My main complaint is that the mix is often a bit muddy and picking out all of details in the instrument playing is not easy. But otherwise, Aresz has created an excellent slab of fairly unique heavy metal.

Rating: 83/100

Friday, December 18, 2015

Versailles - Jubilee -Method of Inheritance-

Versailles At Their Peak

It's been 3 years since Versailles went on hiatus. Despite Kamijo embarking on his solo project and Hizaki's gang forming Jupiter, fans still clamor for a reunion. Although I highly doubt Versailles will ever seriously reform as a band and make new music, there are no doubts in my mind about the high quality of the work they did when they were together. Not too long ago, I made a bold statement proclaiming that Jupiter had topped Versailles with their second album, The History of Genesis, but I'm really going to have to retract that. Not because I felt any sort of new dislike towards Jupiter, but simply because I managed to appreciate Versailles even more than I had before.

Despite being the band's debut on a major label, Jubilee follows in the footsteps of its beloved predecessor, Noble, in the onslaught of highly technical but catchy, high-speed power metal. Analogous to how the apprentice surpasses his master, Jubilee also shows significant refinement and improvement over its highly respectable predecessor, Noble. The follow up contains more intricate songwriting, better usage of harmony and counter melody, and more ambitious material overall. Jubilee actually opens up in an incredibly risky and bold way: with the album's longest epic. It's only natural to place these things at the end of albums for the grand finale, but for whatever reason, the band decided to put it right at the beginning. Being penned by Kamijo, God Palace is very similar in structure and style to the predecessor's opener, Aristocrat's Symphony. In the past, I haven't given God Palace the respect it truly deserves. It took a while for me to grasp the brilliance of the song, but now I can safely say it's probably the best thing Kamijo ever wrote. It's a bombastic, daring composition. Hell, it's even a tad on the progressive side. The song structure is long and complex. The instrumental work is dynamic and engaging. And there's even some time signature changes thrown in here. I don't know why it took me so long to warm up to God Palace, but now it's one of my favorites on this album.

And continuing on with a one-two punch, the next song Hizaki, Ascendead Master, is another one of the highlights on Jubilee. This short, catchy tune was already released beforehand as a single, and it fits just like a charm on the album. I'll be straight; this is easily one of Versailles best songs and demonstrates all of the praise I've been flinging at the album perfectly. Structurally speaking, the song is just the standard verse-chorus, but within it the band intelligently utilizes the tricks to great songwriting. My personal favorite section in the entire song is right at the first verse. Hizaki and Teru play this amazing dual lead with Jasmine You (RIP) harmonizing with an equally amazing counter melody. Kamijo is, of course, singing the verse on top of all this madness, but it all fits perfectly together both melodically and harmonically. That short little section right there is just brilliant composing. It's never actually repeated, but the rest of the song also has excellent riffs, melodies and usage of rhythmic variation to keep you engaged. I'll concede that Teru's solo rips off of Bach (I think it's Bach anyway), but I don't really care much because the whole song is just too awesome.

And although I spent a whole paragraph telling you how great one particular song was, the songwriting I described really applies to the whole album. There's just too many moments of amazing songwriting for me to not drown this album in the praise it rightfully deserves. There's this incredible attention to detail in the songwriting that very few other bands match. Kamijo will sing a great vocal line for a bit and then Hizaki and Teru will accentuate with a melody on the guitar line to bring more impact. While the guitars blaze away on a solo/lead section, you'll also find counter melody in the bass that foils the lead incredibly well. Yuki himself is also deserving of praise; his unique approach to the kit brings incredible variety and interesting patterns to the rhythm. I still stand by Zin being a better vocalist than Kamijo but do not deny his smooth, charismatic voice. Indeed, Kamijo brings his own talents to the table in Versailles, and I can understand why he has undying, loyal legions of fangirl thralls. In contrast to the flashy neoclassical-inspired instrumentalists, Kamijo's vocal delivery is comparatively restrained and low key but incredibly pleasing and charismatic. Throughout the whole album, you get this incredible sense of cohesion and chemistry among all the band members.

Stylistically, Versailles does mostly play in their own, unique style of power metal with tons of neoclassical soloing and some symphonic stuff to give the bombastic feel when appropriate. But there is plenty of variation to be found here. In particular, Amorphous is a beautiful half-ballad that makes excellent use of acoustic guitars, bass and has a heartfelt chorus and solo. Reminiscence is a cute and fluffy neoclassical-styled solo instrumental by Teru that has him playing variations over the main melody. Versailles is also capable of pulling off heavier moments. Princess and 月下香 feature some of the heaviest riffs on the album while keeping all of the elements that make Versailles great. The closing ballad, Serenade, is actually dedicated to Bassist Jasmine You who, as you might have guessed, tragically died during the recording of the album. In all honesty, it's probably one of the weaker tracks on the album (ballads are always iffy for me). But it's pretty heartfelt, well-done with the obligatory basslines and serves as an appropriate closer.

I may pick on obsessive fangirls a bit, but Versailles was genuinely something special. The flamboyant visual kei image may turn off some observers, but make no mistake: these guys are deadly serious about their music. The whole album clocks in at a whopping 1 hour and 5 minutes, but the time genuinely flies by due to the incredible songwriting. As said before, there is just an amazing amount of nuance to be found throughout the whole album. The music is full of great melodies while utilizing excellent harmony and rhythmic variation. While the album really isn't outwardly progressive, there is even some odd time signatures here and there in both God Palace and Princess. Although Noble is excellent and the album that rocketed them to fame, Jubilee is really the Versailles album I go back to the most. It's always such a treat to listen to.

Rating: 97/100

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dir En Grey - Missa

Unpolished But Promising

I suppose this is a pretty cliché thing to say, but who in 1997 would have imagined Dir En Grey becoming the band they are now? Nowadays they play bizarre, experimental metal, but Dir En Grey's origin is in fact from the Visual Kei scene in the 90s. Missa is the band's very first release in their indie days, and is also probably overlooked. I'm not going to proclaim that this is some sort of underrated masterpiece (far from it honestly), but it's a worthy release and certainly not one that fans of jrock should pass up. The band doesn't break musical boundaries with this one, but they always knew how to write a good song.

It's a short, little 6-track EP and as previously alluded, the style fits right in with old 90s jrock. The first song has a brief spoken word intro before launching into the wondrous vocals of Kyo… in 1997. Yikes. I won't hold back; Kyo is probably the most amazing, diverse and insanely talented vocalist I have ever heard. His deep gutturals, piercing screams, falsettos, and whatever noise comes out of his mouth amaze me. But you won't find any of it here. On Missa, Kyo's voice is a bit rough, often out of tune and just simply unpolished. I don't really mind too much because his character, charisma and passion is quite evident, but it's a far cry from his vocal performance on Gauze and certainly nowhere near some of the stuff that comes later.

So how about the actual music? Well much of it sounds exactly like a band just starting out and trying to find its footing in the world, but it's pretty good. As you would expect, Toshiya lays a very thick backbone with those wonderful basslines all quality jrock has. Die and Kaoru play their own parts on top; sometimes trading off riffs, harmonizing or just playing together. Shinya doesn't prog out behind the kit like he does now, but his drumming is very tight and there's good usage rhythmic patterns.

But I'll be honest with you, I do mentally divide this EP into two parts: the good part, and then the really good part. The first three songs are all good and worth hearing, but they just aren't as strong. The melodies are a bit less creative and catchy, the basslines are a bit more basic, and the drumming is a bit more dry. However, the last three songs are not just really good, but fantastic.

蒼い月 kicks off with the strongest, catchiest melody thus far in the EP. There's this really twisty, windy-feeling bassline with tight, syncopated drumming and two different guitar parts adding embellishments. Kyo's voice is more convincing on this song as well. His delivery of the vocal melodies are great, and there's also some pretty nice screaming in the pre-chorus.

Garden was actually one of Dir En Grey's more famous songs in their Visual Kei days, and it's not hard to see why. It's the poppiest song on the whole EP and more than adequately catchy with Kyo's passionate delivery in the chorus to back it up. But where the magic really happens is during the monophonic guitar part in the middle with the echo effect. This brief section is a great contrast to the upbeat nature of the rest of the song and brings out a more intimate and bonding atmosphere. It's honestly just a short little break and nothing terribly special on surface, but those 30 seconds just add so much more to the whole song.

The last song, 秒「」深, on the EP is actually the most aggressive one. It's the predecessor of the more aggressive numbers off of Gauze like Mask and Zan. Despite being bit more basic than the other songs, the aggression is convincing and Kyo also pulls off some nice screaming on it. 秒「」深 would actually get rerecorded later on the Six Ugly EP in a more nu metal style. The original isn't too far off, but it's ultimately just harder jrock. Nonetheless, it's a good way to end the mini-album.

Wow. Did I really manage to ramble so much about a 30 minute EP? But one more thing I want to point out is that Missa feels very nostalgic to me. Perhaps this sounds silly, but listening to Dir En Grey's Visual Kei material feels like I'm hearing the end of 90s jrock which is true in some ways. Dir En Grey is easily among my favorite bands and I love everything they've done despite all of the stylistic changes, but only their music before the Kisou album gives this feeling to me. In that regard, Missa will always be a special to me even if it's really just an amateur release from a band that had yet to find their place in the scene.

Rating: 80/100

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gargoyle - 禊

Only in Japan™

Gargoyle is quite easily one of my favorite bands or possibly my favorite band period. In their vast career, they've put out multiple, high quality albums far beyond the reaches of most acts and carved out their own unique identity. Out of all the places to start, there's probably not a better place than right here: the debut album. There are some obscure demos that existed beforehand, but Gargoyle really defined themselves with Misogi.

One thing that is important to note about Gargoyle is that their music is a classic case of the “only in Japan” type of songwriting. Funk, folk, neoclassical shred, thrash and other elements all thrown together on the same album? You better believe it. Gargoyle's style is mostly rooted in thrash, but is mixed seemingly haphazardly with other styles and genres which gives the band a pretty unique and weird identity. If destroying genre boundaries and overall craziness sound bad to you, you should probably stay far, far away from this record.

The brilliant opener, Destroy, sets the tone of the album and also serves as a great way to experience the band for the first time. In fact, this is one of the band's most popular songs and after listening to it, it's not hard to see why. The eerie stop-start riffs at the intro, the catchy thrashing verses, and the melodic dual-lead choruses showcase the kind of diversity in musical ideas that these guys are capable of pulling off. The song also features an absolutely insane, long-extended solo section which is quite arguably the best of Gargoyle's career and certainly among the best I've personally heard. The ridiculous dual-lead, shredding violin and harmonizing bass line just knock it all out of the park. It's basically the perfect way to open up your album.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is just about as awesome as the opener. What ultimately makes the band as good as they are is the unique style of riffing that Gargoyle brings to the table. There's much more here to find than just palm muted chugging. Guitarist She-ja whips out these twisty, melodic riffs that headbangable and go all over the fretboard. The leads are very neoclassical in style and of course let's not forget the crazy solos that this guy lays down left and right. Another huge contributor to the awesomeness known as Gargoyle lies in the presence of a bass god that goes by the name of Toshi. Yup, Toshi's bass is perfectly audible in the mix and contributes tons of counterpoints, leads and just great basswork all around. The basslines deviate from the guitar lines all the time, and form a rock solid foundation for the guitar leads and riffs to float on top. Drummer Katsuji is not nearly as flashy as She-Ja or Toshi, but he's a speedy drummer that's perfectly capable behind the kit.

There's one thing that I have yet to mention, and it's potentially a major issue for some: the vocals. Of course, there's the language barrier as Kiba “sings” in Japanese, but what's even more inaccessible is the fact that he sort of warbles and makes all these crazy weird noises. For me, these wild vocals instantly clicked, but I could see a lot of people being driven up the wall by this guy. But he's one of the major defining characteristics of the band, and there's plenty of catchy memorable vocal melodies to reel you in. It really would not be Gargoyle without this crazy guy behind the mic.

There's a couple of songs on here that I find a little weak; namely Purple Heaven and 虫螻. Both seem to drag on a little and aren't quite as creative and wild as the rest of the album, but neither are anything to be ashamed of. The rest of the album is absolutely glorious. “ぎ” features this insanely well-crafted, twisty main riff that has Toshi and She-ja harmonizing off each other. It's a small little touch, but it just makes the music so much more engaging. Certain Feel is a wickedly cool funk track that features saxophone in the middle, female vocals and some more killer basslines from Toshi. 人形の森 is a heartfelt, stunningly beautiful neoclassical instrumental ballad.

Perhaps the real star of the tracklist is the monstrous Ever Green near the end. Here, I feel like all of the elements of the band come together the best. The melodic style of riffing, wandering bass, and everything else just seem to work. The song also has some creepy vibes starting off with a sort of eerie intro of a baby and other weird backing vocals in the chorus. The album closes with a very dark ballad; Cogito, Ergo Sum; that is just some clean guitar and Kiba singing in a haunting, dark manner. It's a bizarre way to close an album that's mostly highly melodic, but it works quite well.

All in all, Gargoyle's first album is an absolute winner. The key to the success is the unique and varied songwriting along with catchiness and instrumental prowess. And you know what's even more ridiculous? They would actually get even better as the 90s went on. Hell, Misogi is probably my least favorite pre-2000s Gargoyle album, but I still absolutely adore it. If you're looking for an incredibly unique thrash band that's not afraid to experiment with different sounds, this is a great place to start.

Rating: 90/100

Sunday, September 6, 2015

X Japan - Art of Life

29 Minutes of Brilliance

X Japan is quite arguably the most important and most influential metal band for the entire Japanese metal scene. Their debut, Vanishing Visions, sold massively well and got them a major record deal to Sony. After that, the band launched Blue Blood which would sell even better and stay on the chart for weeks. In fact, the next album, Jealousy would be X Japan's best selling album at over a million copies. So after all this commercial success, what do you do? Write a 29 minute epic of course!

So here we have X Japan's 4th studio album, Art of Life. Whether or not Art of Life truly counts as an album is up for debate, but it is an extremely remarkable musical journey nonetheless. A crude glance of their previous history makes this release seemingly come completely out of nowhere, but that actually isn't the case. X Japan has experimented ever since Give Me the Pleasure off of their debut. Despite the western hard rock influences present on Blue Blood and Jealousy, you'll also find symphonic arrangements, ballads, power metal, and other such oddities. The point is that the band was always changing their sound, and Art of Life is another progression and to me, serves as the band's true magnum opus.

Featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (they're based in London and world-renowned for those who don't know), the recording process of Art of Life is just as ambitious as the music the music itself and this really shows in the production. The sound quality is downright gorgeous and breathtaking. Every instrument is perfectly audible and well-balanced to each other, there's tons of dynamics, the orchestra is spaced extremely well across the channels, and Toshi's voice soars on top just like it should. Quite frankly, Art of Life is the best production job I've ever heard in metal. I really find it just that stunning.

Gorgeous production is meaningless without interesting music, but thankfully Yoshiki delivers on this front as well. Make no mistake, Art of Life is an extremely ambitious and highly original, creative piece. The overall structure is very nonlinear and goes through multiple sections with little repetition making the progressive label well deserved.

The song starts off as a ballad with clean guitar and string accompaniment which may be worrying to some, but X Japan was always adept at writing quality ballads with interesting, moving music. Here, it's no different. Toshi is perhaps the band's weak point (the engrish doesn't help I suppose), but his vocal delivery on Art of Life is absolutely full of passion and emotion. His voice is very distinctive and the song simply wouldn't be the same without him.

Later on, the rest of the band comes in to bring the metal and with brilliant results. Yoshiki rips up his drum kit with energetic crazy fills. Hide and Pata play the X Japan-style, melodic, harmonizing neoclassical leads, and Heath does the bass counterpoint. Throughout the song, there are multiple displays of tasteful, skillfull playing from all members of the band. There's multiple guitar solos, excellent riffing, blazing-fast drumming, and neat little bass moments. Of course, the orchestra on top does an amazing job providing atmosphere and doing its own, interesting playing to add to the music. Despite the rather depressing tone of the lyrics, this part of the song feels quite uplifting, soaring and beautiful.

Around the 15 minute mark or so is where the magic happens, and where some listeners may be disgruntled. So after everything quiets down, Yoshiki is left playing an 8 minute solo on the piano. While the fact that the drummer can also play piano is interesting in and of itself (it was Yoshiki's first instrument actually), what really makes this part the standout of the song is the cacophonous roar in the middle. Starting out as a simple melody over a few chords; the solo builds up slowly (adding some additional piano tracks along the way), becomes more complex and eventually reaches the point where Yoshiki is quite literally bashing random notes. For some, this part just violently contrasts with the rest of the song and serves absolutely no purpose. But the contrast is the point, and it thematically fits.

In fact, this seemingly meaningless cacophony is really the highlight of this 29 minute epic. It's a remarkable symbolization of the struggle and trials of life, and in Yoshiki's case, it refers to his own suicidal feelings that he went through after his father took his own life. Honestly, I'm normally not one to look for deeper meaning in music, but it's definitely here. The random notes eventually end, and the orchestra returns to give the uplifting feeling back right before the rest of the band come in to play the last closing minutes. It finally ends on a hopeful note with Toshi passionately singing the last uplifting line: “A rose is breathing love in my life.” At the end, it's a confirmation to live life and move forward which is perhaps not the most original message, but it's executed in an absolutely genius and stunning way.

Art of Life is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece in my book. It's an extremely creative, ambitious song and a true, genuine raw expression of emotion. There's really just no flaws I can find. The melodies from all the instruments are gorgeous, there's blazing fast riffs and drumming, there's even good bass playing here. Hell, this album/song has sold over 600,000 copies to date and topped the Oricon charts when it was released. The fact that something like this was a commercial success still blows my mind, but it just goes to show the importance of X Japan. I immensely enjoy all of the band's studio albums, but this is the best. It's simply perfect in every way and deserves no less than a perfect score.

Rating: 100/100

Monday, July 13, 2015

Octaviagrace - Resonant Cinema

Prog Goes Kawaii

I'm not sure if there is a term for a band a few notches below the level of a true supergroup, so I'll just dub Octaviagrace as a fairly-successful-in-their-own-niche-group. Composed of both members and ex-members of Cross Vein, Albion, Roman so Words, and Scrambled Soul Circus, Octaviagrace boasts a lineup of talented, well-accomplished musicians. Consequently, the good amount of progressive elements featured in the mini-album trailer was not a surprise, and the EP turned out to be a bit more technical than I expected.

Similar to their more famous peer, Light Bringer, the progressive elements of the music does not come from long, extended song structures. In fact, these songs are all basically verse-chorus. Instead, Octaviagrace inserts a lot of embellishments, frills and variation into the tracks to engage and throws curveballs at the listener. From the jazzier ラストノスタルジア to the slightly heavier Hardenbergia, there's a lot of nuance and display of technical skill and virtuosity.

Despite the skill of the musicians, Octaviagrace's main distinguishing feature is that the music is surprisingly adorable. Like any other self-respecting metalhead, I am perfectly down for crushing, heavy riffs that get my head moving, but this stuff just sounds so cute. The jpop elements are a huge driving force thanks to the delivery of Roman so words' vocalist, Miki. Other than some of the borderline out-of-tune lines, her voice is quite sweet and melodic with the pop sensibilities typical of the late night anime opening track.

Of course, the rest of the band is armed with light, fluffy tone to match. The production is crisp and clean with very light guitar tone, bass that's astronomically high in the mix, and soaring synths. Not surprisingly, the most apt comparison would be the jpop/power/prog amalgamation from the previously mentioned band, Light Bringer. Octaviagrace also falls into this niche, but their take on this genre-fusion is to downplay power metal aggression and up the pop and keyboards. This has the result of making everything cute and poppy yet technical and progressive.

The most showy instrument is probably Yosuke on bass. The man provides lots of tasteful bass leads, countermelodies and even solos. Of course, good bass in progressive metal is nothing new, but this guy could easily give most Dream Theater clones a run for their money. Hanako would be the other highly-gifted player in the group. Despite the fluffy guitar tone, she also deliveries the goods. There's plenty of melodic riffs, leads and shredding solos to be found on the Resonant Cinema. While everyone else also does a great job (there's plenty of good drumming and melodic keywork), the album's biggest strength is really the fantastic interplay between Yosuke and Hanako. The way the guitar and bass play off each other is just incredibly satisfying, and the jpop texture really makes this thing rather unique.

Only 5 tracks in about 25 minutes, Resonant Cinema is a short, but very sweet treat. Cute and fluffy progressive jpop power metal (what a mouthful) is not very "metal," but it's apparently really awesome. Hopefully a full album will come soon.

Rating: 95/100