Thursday, March 12, 2015

Jizue - Novel

Fantastic Modern Jazz

Coming from Kyoto, Jizue is a rather intriguing group consisting of a piano, guitar, bass and drums. Japan does actually have a pretty solid jazz scene, and there's a quite a few small instrumental groups like this lurking around. To my knowledge, Jizue is actually relatively popular, and I think they've toured overseas a few times as well. At the time of writing, the group has four albums out, and I do enjoy them all. However, Novel is by far my favourite from these guys, and it contains some really amazing tracks.

The subgenre Jizue lands in is nu jazz which is admittedly not very descriptive, but there's always been a strong post-rock influence in their sound and on Novel it's probably the strongest. Not surprisingly, Kie Katagi's piano wizardry and Noriyuki Inoue's guitar playing take most of the leads and the majority of the melody. Both are fantastic players and really show it well throughout the album by weaving infectiously complex and catchy melodies while bouncing off each other constantly. Go Yamada on bass and Shin Kokawa on drums don't show off nearly as much, but neither are slackers. The two provide a very solid rhythm and foundation for the group to shine as a whole.

Paradoxically, Novel is probably the band's most inconsistent album despite my earlier declaration. This is not because there are bad tracks, but simply because sun, unnecessary pain and chaser are the first three consecutive songs and strongest works on the album. The ones following are certainly not even remotely bad, but there's a slight quality drop. Indeed, the biggest flaw of the album is really just the song order. Perhaps if you shuffle them up, you might get a more pleasing result, but I really don't have any concrete ideas in this regard.

The album does actually open up with the mandatory intro track called intro which is just a brief electronic opening that doesn't add much or take anything away. Sun begins with a beautiful and infectiously catchy acoustic guitar melody from Noriyuki. The rest of the band comes in and creates a very mellow and pleasing atmosphere. The song itself gradually builds up and reaches an amazing climax while playing around with different chords and keys. Overall, the mood settles down a bit before very appropriately ending with Noriyuki's guitar. It's also the first song I personally heard (and probably many others) from the band, and I was immediately hooked.

In contrast, the following tune, unnecessary pain, is a much more wild and explosive. It opens calmly with Kie playing the usual “Chinese scale” before she bursts out into some ridiculous, rhythmically-complex piano playing. Here, the band showcasts a lot of math-rock influence and it really works. You can hear them flirt with a lot with complex time signatures and weirdly-timed melodies. It's a showy piece, but a really well-written one. Strangely enough, the song closes with rather straightforward post-rockish section while fading into Kie's seemingly-erratic piano.

The next song, chaser, is hands-down my favourite from the group. It follows in the spirit of unnecessary pain by being rather wild and out there. The song starts off innocently enough with a syncopated, interesting melody that all the melodic instruments eventually play together in unison. But then the middle section happens, and it's mindblowing. Suddenly, everyone is thrown into this insane, complex time signature with Kie and Noriyuki playing some really jawdropping and technical leads. Go's bass slaps and Shin's weirdly-timed drumming only makes it more convincing. Quite frankly, the instrumental playing is just ridiculous, and this particular section grabs my attention every time I hear it. Afterwards, the band goes back to the opening melody, and later ends doing a rather loud and slightly dissonant variation on that melody. It's just fantastic from start to finish.

Now, I really hate to say it, but it doesn't get quite as good again. Of course, some listeners may disagree, but I personally like Jizue the best when they're showy. The rest of the album is mostly mellow and calm which is not a bad thing, but I normally like things loud. Fortunately, these guys are excellent songwriters and can write soft material that can keep guys like me interested as well. To shake things up, the band incorporates some electronic elements such as in c-loud which is solid, but it works much better on kotonoha which also features some very pretty female vocals near the end.

It's not like the rest of the album doesn't have any wild or adventurous moments, but after coming off of such a song as amazing as chaser the rest of the album is just not quite as good to me. It's definitely a lot more straightforward musically and less “mathy.” Nonetheless, it's still good stuff, and I'm pretty sure that what I'm perceiving as a little flaw is pretty much only a problem for dumb metalheads like me who like everything loud. Hitorinouta and pray are both really good tracks that showcase both more mellow and louder sides of the band. It's also worth mentioning that ふる里 is a really soft and almost ambient song that creates a really ethereal, dreamy atmosphere. It's not my thing, but it's done pretty well. Regardless, the last sections of pray are really fantastic with a soulful guitar solo from Noriyuki and a soft ending a little later with just piano and guitar.

I'm not a huge jazz buff, but for those that are into more modern stuff and aren't afraid of experimentation this is definitely a group you should check out. Jizue does also have a really strong post-rock influence throughout their works, so this will also appeal to fans of math-rock/post-rock especially if you already like Japan's scene. Despite my whining, this album is absolutely fantastic and try not to put too much weight on that. If every track was as good as chaser, this might have been one of the greatest things I've ever heard, but instead, it's “just” among the best albums I have.

Rating: 90/100

Monday, March 2, 2015

Jupiter - The History of Genesis

Heavier Than Before

I was really excited for this album back when release date was around the corner. All of the singles released beforehand were top-notch stuff, and the band seemed to be headed in a new exciting direction. Thankfully, my expectations were more than met, and I can pretty confidently say that Jupiter's second release will be among the best power metal releases this year.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Jupiter guys decided that they wanted play heavier and harder on this album, and the result is fantastic. Classical Element is a wonderful album, but I felt that it lacked a little oomph to firmly put it on par with my two favourite Versailles albums: Jubilee and Holy Grail. However, this new release tops both of aforementioned albums. The music here is definitely still rooted in the Versailles-style of power metal that you know and love, but now we see the heaviness being kicked up a huge notch.

The album kicks off with The Birth of Venus followed by Last Moment. Both tracks are pretty standard fare for the band, but that's not at all a bad thing. They are absolutely wonderful power metal pieces that have Hizaki's patented writing style, and the guys' individual performances shining brightly. But then we arrive at the ominously-titled Darkness. It starts off with a spooky-sounding intro, but soon kicks off into some of the heaviest riffing these guys have ever done. Indeed, we have some straight-up melodeath riffs and blast beats with Zin growling over it. Yes, Zin did do some harsh vocals on Allegory Cave from the previous album, but they were pretty standard visual kei nu-metal vocals and not terribly remarkable. Fortunately, Zin took some time to practice because the guy can now do some seriously awesome growls. Darkness is a serious headbanger while retaining the usual musical complexity from the band and is among the best songs Hizaki has ever written.

On Classical Element, Zin showed that, despite not having Kamijo's characteristic voice, he was a good enough vocalist to complement the music while being more technically talented. However, he did not leave a significant impression on me other than being “a good vocalist.” On this album, Zin seriously steps up his game and shows that he's a huge cut above the rest. Not only did his harsh vocals become awesome, you can hear Zin employ a wide variety of singing styles. There's very wide, epic-sounding vibratos, falsettos, gritty singing, low opera-like notes and even a dose of what I like to call “generic visual kei voice.” Here, Zin proves that he's an indispensable member of the group, and gives Jupiter a solid identity other than “Versailles with a different vocalist.”

As for everyone else, their individual performances are exactly what you'd expect. Hizaki and Teru are possibly the most dynamic guitar duo in all of power metal. Both play crazy riffs and solos off of each other like it's absolutely nothing. Masashi's basslines have that nice wandering, meandering feel to them and often deviate from the rhythm guitar. Yuki is perhaps the most underrated drummer I know, and he seriously deserves to have his name among the great, well-respected metal drummers. The guy has an incredibly unique and distinct approach to the kit that results in a bunch of insane fills and creative drum patterns. He's basically the polar opposite of all of those boring power metal bands that just spam the double bass and snare drum. The band members could effortlessly play circles the vast majority of their European power metal peers.

This album is definitely much more diverse than previous efforts, and almost every track has an identity worth mentioning. B.L.A.S.T is a good nu-metally sounding track a little in the vein of Dir En Grey that features more Zin growls. The Moon is actually an interesting ballad where Masashi's bass gets to shine and there's even some jazzier moments sprinkled in. Church Candle is a really interesting instrumental track that features a choir and violin backing to a long and slow, soulful guitar solo (I'm not actually sure who is doing the solos). The song gradually builds in intensity until you reach near the end where it ends on a rather grand and soulful note. It's really quite an emotional piece and easily one of the highlights of the album.

Zin has writing credits for Red Carnation which features some female vocals that add a nice contrast. The music also has a subtly different feel than the usual stuff from Hizaki, so it's a nice bonus. 絶望ラビリンス has the band exploring the extreme metal side again with some more of Zin's growling and heavy music from the other guys. Arcadia sounds sort of like everything thrown into a blender. It kicks off with really fast, thrashy riffs, but then goes into the usual power metal fare and later has a brief piano break, short orchestral break and some other stuff. Fortunately, all of this works really well together and makes it into one hell of a track. Zin's vibrato wail after the first verse is also really awesome.

If you were smart enough to pick up the regular edition, the album closes off with Sacred Altar which is probably the heaviest track on the album other than Darkness and my personal favourite. It starts off with a cheesy intro about how pissing off god will cause you to suffer, but then guitars come in playing a cool intro section with nice leads. The song is a little unusual in that the chorus has Zin doing some gritty singing with a choir backup with midpaced riffs, but the verses are definitely death metal. Quite frankly, Zin's vocals during some parts are downright brutal, an adjective I really don't use to describe power metal bands. He reaches some really low pitches, belts out some screams and sings right after all that. Zin's vocal performance is incredible on the whole album, but he really shines here. Of course, the instruments are all top-notch and memorable. It's just a really powerful closer.

There are some minor flaws that should be addressed. Luminous is an okay ballad that may not interest listeners much. Zin does have some nice high notes in it, but it's not that interesting. Also, Shining is pretty much a cheesy 90s visual kei buttrock song with a lot of guitar wankery. I personally think it's a lot of fun, but it definitely might be off-putting. The self-titled track is not bad, but for an 8 minute song, it could be a little more interesting. Production-wise, I think the album is great, but Masashi's bass seems too low in the mix than I'd like. You can still hear him well, but there are some interesting basslines that sound like they should be louder.

The biggest issue with the previous album was that the songs often blended together and there didn't seem to be enough standout moments. Fortunately, The History of Genesis does not have this problem at all. There's tons of memorable stuff here from every band member. Despite clocking in at well over an hour, the album goes by without any serious problems thanks to the large variety in the songwriting. There may be a bump at Luminous or Shining for some, but it's a fantastic ride otherwise. I'm mainly wondering how they'll top this one and what direction the band will take in the future. It's a good time to be into Japanese power metal.

Rating: 95/100