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

1 comment:

  1. Finally someone reviewed this one! Probably my favorite album of theirs.

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