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

Friday, July 3, 2015

Loszeal - Ideal World

Solid Japanese Prog

Loszeal is yet another newcomer to the Japanese metal scene. As far as I can tell, they struggled underground for a couple of years before releasing this debut album through the respectable label, Black-listed Productions. Atypical of the country, there's almost zero power metal to be found here. Indeed, this is just a “straightfoward” progressive metal release as the cover would indicate. Despite not being highly groundbreaking or revolutionary, Loszeal's form of prog is quite enjoyable, and the band is capable of crafting good melodies while displaying some technical virtuosity.

The album doesn't actually credit anyone as a drummer which initially made me worry that there was a drum machine. However, the PV of Freak Outsider has some random dude in the back that seems to actually be playing the drum part so I'll assume that was the same guy on the album. There is more mechanical drumming from techdeath bands that abuse triggers anyway, so it's not something to fuss over.

Their sound is pretty standard progressive metal although Loszeal never drifts into what I like to call “riffless prog” (like Dream Theater). Loszeal also plays more on the aggressive end of the prog metal spectrum, but manages to write actual melodies in the riffs without falling into the “chug prog” trap (like later Between the Buried and Me). Structure-wise, the songs here aren't terribly complex, but they do all deviate from verse-chorus with plenty of musical ideas to justify the song lengths. The band injects odd time signatures, complexity, and technical proficiency in all of the individual sections making this release overtly progressive.

One distinguishing feature of the band, for better or worse, is vocalist Mami Hachiya. On a purely technical level, she's solid in terms of intonation and all of that, but her tone is actually quite grating, and there are sections where she's intentionally off-key. It sort of works for the music, but it's a surprisingly harsh vocal delivery for female clean singing especially from a country that's so oriented around melodic songs. As a side note, there's a healthy amount of Engrish in the lyrics here so beware. The vocal melodies themselves are actually extremely catchy (the chorus of 懶惰、断絶 is fantastic), and there's lots of really nice moments on it. It's just a little different, but it's completely understandable why someone might be turned off.

Production-wise, the album is nice and clean. Ryosuke Yamada, the main star of the show, plays a lot on the low end of his guitar, and the distortion overlaps the bass tone a lot and drowns it out a little bit. However, it is nowhere near inaudible, and you can pick the bass out easily if you look for it. I would prefer the bass tone to be more defined and higher in the mix, but it's just a personal preference and nothing major. Fortunately, Takuma Hongo often deviates from the guitar and becomes completely clear, so my gripe becomes irrelevant there. As expected of progressive metal, there's quite a bit of synths here, but it's mostly reserved for the wank sections and adds some extra countermelodies.

The standout tracks to me would be the slightly jazzy and more mellow Adaptation : uoitatdapV, the spastic Freak Outsider, and the closing epic Ideal world. On those tracks, all of the elements of the band seem to come together the best and most of the technically impressive moments occur there. I have no strong complaints overall, but the chorus of Repeat Itself is notably weak. The biggest flaw of Loszeal is that they simply don't stand out. Paradoxically, a group like this is not too common in their home country since most prog bands in Japan inject a large amount of power metal influence in their sound. Loszeal has almost zero power metal, but when compared to the amount of progressive metal groups in the western world, it's not terribly original. Fortunately, the band does not fall into most of the traps of modern progressive metal. The melodies here are all very memorable without too much wank, and the band never goes to half-assed ambient territory nor try sappy lame ballads.

All in all, it's a solid, well-written release that would be entertaining to prog fans despite not being absolutely essential.

Rating: 80/100

Vrain - Rendez Blue

The 80s Never Ended In Japan

Sometimes, you struggle trying to describe an album. The band could play some really bizarre style or perhaps incorporate a huge variety of elements into their music. Or maybe the music is just dizzily complex and difficult to digest let alone try to articulate. Vrain is actually none of that. In fact, this entire album can be summed up with just one simple word, “fun.”

Supposedly, Vrain had spit out a couple of EPs in the early 2000s, but the main songwriter and drummer, Miya (the only remaining original member of the band), finally found a solid foundation by 2006 with the release of their Emerald EP on Black-listed Productions. Emerald saw the addition of vocalist/keyboardist Hiro as well as Kassy on bass and Nodoichi on guitars. Presumably, the label and the band members were quite in sync with each other and just a year later they put out their debut album, Rendez Blue.

Rendez Blue is a nice step up from Emerald with catchier songwriting and more diversity; something later releases unfortunately have yet to match (although the White Storm EP comes close). The overall mood of the album can be quickly gathered from the first few seconds of the opening track, Rise. The cheesy, techno-like synthesizer intro is not fooling you at all. This is extremely upbeat, keyboard-laden power metal. Understandably, this description could immediately lead readers to believe that Vrain has no bite and are nothing more than a few power chords behind obnoxious keys.

Fortunately, this isn't the case. Rise is a fast song full of interesting musical ideas and lays the template for what this album sounds like. Vrain actually does stand out quite a bit from the horde of J-power metal bands given how much they embrace the 80s aesthetic and how well it actually works. The guitar tone is quite sharp and light (feeling rather 80s-esque), and the keyboard parts are quite active in the music, adding lots of melodies and countermelodies while also screaming 80s. For further confirmation, just take a look at their band pictures. Often, keyboard-heavy power metal bands are devoid of riffs and dully plod along, but Vrain knows their strengths and sticks to lightning fast riffs embellished by cheesy keys that are just plain fun.

As expected of the Japanese, the bass guitar is quite audible thanks to the light guitar tone, and Kassy adds lots of counterpoint and some leads to the music. Miya gives a strong performance in the back adding plenty of interesting fills and varied drum beats. Nodoichi is a fantastic guitar player (check out the band's rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee on 熊ん蜂の飛行) who can shred some really nice solos and strong leads making it a shame that he basically disappeared from the scene after his brief time with Vrain. As always, the vocalist is where most western listeners will give up, but Hiro's voice is surprisingly normal. She is in a completely standard range (no piercing shrills), uses only moderate vibrato, and has a quite pleasant tone. Of course, most of the lyrics are in Japanese, but that would be a poor reason to pass up on the band.

Ultimately, the biggest strength of the band lies in the ability to craft extremely catchy and fun power metal while displaying a good amount of instrumental prowess. The previously mentioned keyboard intro to Rise is guaranteed to be instantly memorable and the rest of the music naturally follows. The album more or less stays true to the anthem of light, fast and fun power metal, but there are a few standouts of note here.

The third track, Moonlight Rendezvous, isn't actually metal at all, but it's really cool. Jazz enthusiasts will have to forgive me for my uncertainty in pinning down the subgenre, but it's essentially in the vein of smooth, cool or bossa nova jazz. There's the walking bass lines, jazzy drumming, light melodic guitar lines and some cool synths floating on top. It's like the music of an 80s sci-fi film in a futuristic bar orbiting Jupiter. I'm abusing this word a lot, but it's just a really fun, upbeat song that you just can't help smiling at.

On the flip side, the fifth track, Shooot!! (yes, that's how it's spelled), is an absolute speed demon. Although I have said that this album is fairly light in tone, this song in particular is completely headbangable. The first thing you'll notice from the monophonic keyboard is that the tempo is insanely fast. Once the rest of the band comes in, you are greeted with an absolutely awesome speed metal riff. What's quite nice is that the song never resorts to 16-note chugging, but instead mixes it up by having lots of chord variation. This is probably my personal favorite track on the album.

As for the negatives, the production is not quite as clean as it should be. At the time, Black-listed Productions was a tiny label (this was just the label's 16th release), so it's not surprising that they didn't many resources. The mix itself is great, but there's a little noise at the upper frequencies that hamper the experience a bit. This is most evident on Hiro's higher notes in the ballad, Sandglass, which is also not a particularly strong song and possibly skippable for some. I also feel that the second half of the album is not quite as strong as the first half other than the band's version of Flight of the Bumblebee.

But these are all just minor quibbles. Vrain's Rendez Blue is fairly unique in the scene and is highly enjoyable while having a good amount of nuance to the music. For those who don't mind cheesy power metal, this is undoubtedly a worthy album to own.

Rating: 90/100