Friday, December 2, 2016

Versailles - The Greatest Hits 2007-2016

They're Back!

I always picked on the fangirls and told them to grow up and move on. Stop crying out for a reunion; the band was a done deal. Kamijo wants to be the next Gackt doing his solo stuff, and Hizaki & co. were happy in Jupiter. Versailles is history, and they'll won't do anything else besides occasional revival shows. Welp, it looks like they have the last laugh here. Versailles is 100% back in full gear. They've done several reunion shows, released this compilation, and they even have a new album coming out next February. Everyone get aboard the hype train!

The Greatest Hits 2007-2016 is the band's latest offering to assure us all that they are indeed blazing a new trail. It's also a nice way to cash in on blind fanboys/fangirls like me. Fortunately for us lowly thralls, the band does put in more effort than usual on this compilation release. It has two brand new Versailles tunes, bookended in the tracklisting, with the other 11 songs being completely re-recorded. The 11 old songs are cuts lifted from Lyrical Symphony, Noble, Jubilee, and Holy Grail. Interestingly enough, songs from the band's 4th album, Versailles, are totally left out from the compilation. Given my personal opinion on that album (good, but not up to the Versailles standard), I have zero problem with this decision and applaud it.

So for the fans out there, the biggest inquiry most likely pertains to the quality of the two brand new songs. Well the good news is that I think both are good overall. I guess the bad news is that neither one are amazing or anything, but realistically the band would save that material for the actual album (a decision I don't object to). The new opener, Melodic Thorn~美の暴力~, is very obviously penned by Kamijo. In fact, so much so that you'll realize that he basically just slightly reworked Sacrifice of Allegro from his Symphony of the Vampire EP and called it a day. Yikes. Welp, I have to say that the original is also quite a bit better and features better guitar riffs and leads oddly enough. I guess your tolerance for self-plagiarism will vary here, but honestly it's not that obvious of a ripoff besides the opening synths. It took me a while to figure it out, but I guess this could potentially bother you a lot if you fell in love with Kamijo's solo EP and played it a million times already. The closing track, Chandelier, is Hizaki's offering and as far as I can tell, he didn't ripoff of himself, so we're good there at least. This one is definitely better than Kamijo's song even if you don't take into account the plagiarism. As usual, there's the nice guitar lead work from both Teru and Hizaki. Yuki does a bunch of nice drum fills, there's some cool bass doodles, and the chorus is pretty catchy. Nothing spectacular, but it's an enjoyable song.

As for the 11 other songs, we have a fresh new recording of each one with more spruced up, fancy production. When it comes to re-recordings, I don't require that they somehow top the original or even be as good as it. All I ask for an alternate version that's worthy to listen to from time to time. To put it bluntly, I unfortunately don't see much of a reason to ever listen to the re-recordings because the originals are basically better in every way. The perception of production values will certainly vary from person to person, but I never thought Versailles ever had anything close to bad production. Both Lyrical Sympathy and Noble are noticeably a little rougher and not squeaky clean like when they went major, but neither are anywhere close to bad. So the new takes of the songs from those releases really don't gain anything to my ears, and I find myself preferring the originals with ease.

To make the matter worse, I'm not really a fan of the production and mix used here. It's not outright bad, but it is an active detriment to the old songs here. I love Yuki's drumming, but what in the world was he thinking with this drum sound? It's not offensively bad, but it's pretty plasticy sounding and the bass drums could be quieter. Really, the drums are just too loud period. They should have turned them down a notch. On the flipside, what happened to Masashi? He's not inaudible, but why in the world is the bass this quiet on a Versailles release? That's just not right. The lack of bass pretty much just flat out ruins some of the re-recordings here for me. For instance, take ASCENDEAD MASTER which has a so-bad-it's-good title and is one of my all-time favorite Versailles songs. That opening verse where there's an incredible dual-lead guitar melody interacting with bass counterpoint that is woven together in an ingenious fashion to invoke a sense of grandeur with its brilliant use of harmony? Well screw you because the bass guitar part is like 5 decibels softer than it should be. And really, I just find myself wondering why in the world they would shoot themselves in the foot like this.

One of the reasons why I adore Versailles so much is because of how brilliantly they write songs and have all the different instruments and voice complement and interact with each other. It's not merely just guitars playing a few decent riffs, the double bass blasting, and some half-baked vocal melodies. No, they were always so much better than that. The vocal melodies from Kamijo would often be accented and expanded upon in Hizaki's and Teru's guitars. Both Jasmine You (RIP) and Masashi would often interject in their bass to serve as a moving line to counteract the guitars switching to longer, legato notes. Yuki's drumming was always highly dynamic and contained a plethora of interesting rhythms and excellently executed fills to signal transitions and to build up tension. The best Versailles songs have an extremely discerning eye for composition, and they compose with such meticulous care that very few other bands can even compare.

I realize I'm basically just throwing a tantrum over the bass guitar getting gutted, but damn it I still don't understand why. When you spend all of that time carefully crafting your songs, why would you just nuke one of the key elements of your sound? It just rubs people autistic about this kind of thing like me the wrong way. On zombie, I expect to hear that awesome bass melody that perfectly foils Kamijo in the chorus. And believe me, it's not at all inaudible. But I have the original version perfectly clear in my mind, and the re-recording is far more muddy and doesn't pop out nearly as much as it should. I've compared the two back and forth and the version on Noble is just so much better and clearer.

But the biggest offender on this album is easily MASQUERADE. This, again, is one of my all-time favorite numbers from Versailles, and it's just so much inferior on this compilation. One of the reasons why this song is so brilliant is because of how well Masashi's bassline and Yuki's unique rhythms gel together. And of course, the vocal melodies from Kamijo are absolutely on point. The problem, once again, is that the bass, while not inaudible, is way quieter than the original. When Teru and Hizaki play their guitar parts later on, they so overpower Masashi that it's ridiculous. The bass solo in the middle is also just totally wrong and sounds extremely awkward at such a low volume level. When Hizaki comes in with his guitar solo, it's way, way louder and totally messes up the balance. Again, why in the world would they screw up their songs this much?

There are some instances of non-bass related reasons for my dislike of the re-recordings. For instance, the opening guitar melody on After Cloudia on the re-recording is played at a lower pitch than the original for some reason. This decision just seems ill-fitting to me because that line loses the wonderful, soaring feeling that the original has. But truthfully, like 90% of my problem with the new takes is basically just the bass guitar getting the short end of the stick. Sure, I did gripe about the drums a bit, but you honestly get over that after a while. Still, the main draw of Versailles for is the entire group as a whole. When a certain integral part gets shafted so hard, it really just messes up the experience for me. Why even bother with these re-recordings when you have the original versions that get everything right?

But believe it or not, there are actually some positive points to be found here. One of Versailles' biggest contention points with newcomers are the croons from Kamijo. By visual kei standards, Kamijo is pretty tame all things considered, but to those not used to this kind of style (and let's be honest here, Kamijo isn't the best technical vocalist around), he can be jarring. However, I have to say that he does a remarkably great job on these re-recordings. I don't know if it's just more practice or what, but his voice is much improved in the technical aspect. He's got much better pitch control and tone here. Personally, I've always enjoyed Kamijo's charismatic, smooth delivery, but his performance here might actually win over some of the skeptics. He's not Bruce Dickinson or anything, but Kamijo does excel at the style he does and I do think he's an integral part of Versailles. And he's also composed several of the band's best songs, so I honestly can't knock the guy too much.

So when it comes to actually rating this, it's a little tricky. On the plus side, the band did a fantastic job picking a wide variety of tracks from their older material and included some of their absolute best songs here. If you asked me to pick 11 Versailles tracks for a compilation, it honestly wouldn't differ much from what you have there. Good taste in your own music guys. The new songs are good, but definitely are not must have tracks. And of course, I'm not a fan of the production direction here, but my reasons are incredibly subjective and I realize that some people may wildly disagree with me there. So in a nutshell you have some good-but-not-great new songs and some incredible old songs harmed by terrible production.

For newcomers, I definitely would not recommend this one to you. Go pick up a copy of Noble and get into the band that way. For the long time fans, it just depends on your level of devotion I guess. Given the nature of the this market, these two new tracks are going to remain exclusive, so getting the compilation will be your only way to legitimately own them. The release is kind of expensive, but if you have money to burn and are a big fanboy/fangirl of the band it's probably worth picking this up just for those two tracks alone. I spent most of my time complaining in the review, but I don't mind just playing the first and the last songs from time to time and treating it as a two-track single. If you only have some casual/passing interest in the band, I would tell you to pass. These two songs aren't anything to die for. With that in mind, I really can't justify giving this a high rating since it's basically only for diehard fans and none of the re-recordings are worthy alternatives to the originals. But all in all, Versailles are indeed back! And I certainly can't complain about that. Here's to hoping that the new album in February will be yet another incredible addition to their catalog. I'll be eager to hear what they cook up (hopefully with better production this time).

Rating: 60/100

Saturday, November 5, 2016

D - Neo culture -Beyond the world-

Branching Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 97/100

黒夢 - 亡骸を・・・

Inconsistent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 75/100

Saturday, October 29, 2016

D - Tafel Anatomie

Take Two

Not too long before this album, the band would make its final lineup switch (Tsunehito on bass) and form its rock-solid base that persists today. The stability of D's lineup is pretty unusual for the industry, but the rapidity of their releases is not. D's second album is essentially the same stylistically as their previous material. As before, the band serves up their unique amalgamation of gothic rock, metal, and j-rock. There's the obligatory wandering bass lines, tricky drum rhythms, and flashy leads. And of course, Asagi's voice is splendid as usual.

And speaking of Asagi, I've got to point out how underrated this guy is. In fact, I probably didn't praise him enough in my review of their previous album. Now visual kei vocalists are often disparaged (in many cases for good reason), but Asagi is very far from a talentless hack. I'd even go as far as to say that he's become one of my favourite all time vocalists. His voice is instantly recognizable and highly unique. The man possesses a ridiculously large range and can go from a lower tenor up to falsettos. And as if that wasn't impressive enough, he can do a few tricks with some harsh vocals as well. I'm not sure how in the world a vocalist this talented ended up in visual kei, but I certainly won't complain.

Tafel Anatomie is essentially a continuation of the The Name of The Rose, but this is not at all a bad thing. The songs are all very catchy, there's plenty of flashy musicianship at play, and there's that welcome flavor of gothic-tinged borderline j-rock/metal. One slight difference from the debut album is that I feel this one is a bit more polished, and the different elements incorporated into D are mixed better. Phantom Pain is a rather humble number that mostly stays in the j-rock realm, but other tracks like 太陽を葬る日 show a significant amount of metal with some serious double bass and riffage.

The band is able to seamlessly blend the heavy moments with some J-rock oriented choruses to make a compelling product. A good example of this would be Leukocyte which starts of with a dark, brooding riff and some aggressive drumming. Then, the verse goes in a soft direction with some clean guitar and bass lines. And then the pre-chorus switches it up on you again with some gang shouts and more aggressive riffing. Finally, the song flows smoothly into a more catchy, slightly poppy chorus. The way D mixes together all of their various influences and elements into an awesome creation puts them in a class of their own.

Counterintuitively, D dropping their aggression actually isn't a bad thing at all. One major reason for this is because of the absolute monster behind the bass, Tsunehito. In Japan, it's pretty much mandatory that you don't have a crappy bassist, but Tsunehito is simply a cut above the rest. The guy is all over the place in the music and rarely follows the guitars. Although he doesn't do a technical freakout or anything (he is certainly capable of it though), this stuff isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world to play which makes him one of the biggest draws of the band for me. Even the more ballad-like numbers like Calling Me have him very active in the music often taking the lead.

Despite the strong gothic influence in D, guitarists Ruiza and Hide-Zou don't shy away from harmonizing with each other. In fact, there are even instances of some neoclassical-tinged solos and dual leads within the gothic backdrop. Those neoclassical vibes do contrast a bit, but the additional flair is quite welcome and adds to the experience. And while D never really goes full power metal, there's no doubt that their music sometimes shows some power metal elements in the riffs as well as the lead and solo department. It's just in a much darker context.

Perhaps due to Tafel Anatomie's slightly shorter run time or with the inclusion of Tsunehito in the band, I do find it a tad more compelling than The Name of the Rose. I think The Name of the Rose had some more standout songs (notably the hilariously long-titled song 闇より暗い慟哭のアカペラと薔薇より赤い情熱のアリア). However, Tafel Anatomie seems to gel together as a whole unit a bit better to me and also has some strong standouts of its own like the beautiful ballad, Glow in the sun, or the barn burner, 太陽を葬る日. Regardless, it's another great release from this highly talented group and after here they would branch out and develop their sound even more.

Rating: 90/100

Hizaki - Rosario

Courtly and Elegant

Well, Hizaki seems pretty busy. Out of basically nowhere, he announced that he was releasing a new solo album earlier this year. And here I thought he would be too busy with the Versailles reunion, but I guess everyone is just a workaholic or something over there. Anyways, this is his first solo album in almost a decade and considering the experience he's gained in Versailles and Jupiter, I naturally had high expectations. Thankfully, I wasn't let down at all, and Hizaki's instantly recognizable style of neo-classical/power metal guitar playing is highly poignant as always.

In contrast with Hizaki's previous full-length solo album, this one is actually completely instrumental aside from some choir parts. However, this isn't a concern since he has always had a knack for writing very strong melodic guitar lines along with gripping solos, and that characteristic is preserved here. Those familiar with Versailles and Hizaki stuff have a good idea what to expect here: high-tempo, highly melodic, and technical, pleasing guitar playing. In addition to Hizaki's skills, the massive guest musician lineup has plenty of familiar names, like the other guys from Versailles, and they are all well-accomplished players themselves.

The biggest strike against Rosario is the fact that some of these tracks are recycled from previous works. More specifically, Silent Knight and Desert Apple are from Versailles. Race Wish is from one of Hizaki's previous solo outings. And finally, Church Candle and Rose Quartz are from Jupiter. Depending on how dedicated you are to following the man, it's possible that you are already familiar with 5 of the tracks here which leaves you with 9 new ones (not too bad of a ratio honestly). In my case, I was only previously familiar with the two Jupiter songs, so certainly my perception may be warped a bit from more seasoned fans. The old songs are all re-recorded, but they are also very faithful to the originals, so the experience is about the same. Additionally, Hizaki adds a rendition of Presto from Vivaldi's Four Seasons which features some cool dueling violin and guitar leads. Even though these tracks are a bit old hat, they're done very well and are pleasant to listen to.

Fortunately, that's pretty much where my gripes end with Rosario. The opening song, Grace and Dignity, describes the character of this album perfectly, and that song is essentially representative of the album as a whole. It opens with Hizaki's ear-worming guitar melody before bursting into high-velocity power metal grace. Hizaki's lead guitar really gives a nice "soaring" feeling over Rosario as he intersperses more soulful, legato styles with neo-classical shredding in a thoughtful, well-written manner.

One of the biggest potential weakness of guitar solo albums is for the backing tracks to be really dull and repetitive, but Rosario thankfully avoids this trap. The rhythm tracks are obviously written in a way to emphasize Hizaki's lead guitar which is certainly expected, but there are always good variations and frills put in to keep it from feeling too stock. You'll hear a cool drum fill, maybe a nice bass doodle, and of course the backing riffs are well-written and phrased in a way to prevent them from becoming stale. Another nice thing about Hizaki's songwriting is that he doesn't shy away from putting in some subtle progressive elements. If you pay attention, you can notice a surprising amount of time signature changes that help keep the rhythm and meter fresh.

Given that the album is over 1 hour long, it would be pretty dull if everything was high-flying power metal, so Hizaki put in some softer numbers to mix things up and it works well. Eien no Tomoshibi and Church Candle both show a soft, more passionate side with some beautiful guitar playing and serve as sort of a nice intermission in the middle of the album. The track placing is also well done despite the recycled numbers. When you get tired of the faster numbers, some of the softer tracks come up. And when you start itching for a tempo increase, the album kicks it up a notch again.

Race Wish is a well-known and well-regarded song and after becoming familiar with it, I can certainly see why. It starts off slowly (which complements the previous track, Church Candle) before speeding up to a ridiculously catchy melody. This song is a very good demonstration of both Hizaki's technical abilities as a guitarist, and his skill as a songwriter to craft ear-pleasing melodies. Another interesting track to note is the inclusion of Rose Quartz, from the Jupiter single. This one stands out as being very technical and shows off the ability of all of the entire band and not just Hizaki.

The big eye-catcher is the 10 minute, self-titled track, Rosario, at the end. Hizaki has got plenty of really good epics under his belt, and this is yet another one. It's pretty clear that a lot of time went into writing this particular song as it features all of the bells and whistles from Hizaki's playbook. There are long, extended melodies, some progressive elements, soaring synths, and plenty of technical guitar work. The song structure is not exactly through-composed, but the sections are quite long and extended with little repetition. Rosario is a highly accomplished work and a wonderful way to close out the album.

Even though a notable chunk of the album is recycled material, they fit like a glove here, and I find myself not really caring at all. It's an extremely enjoyable listen and everything flows so nicely. I suppose the long run time may urk some people. And certainly if 1 hour of Hizaki soloing doesn't sound appealing to you, you probably won't like this. However, for long time fans of Hizaki and his assorted works, this will definitely deliver.

Rating: 90/100

Saturday, October 22, 2016

陰陽座 - 鬼哭転生

A Little Rough Around the Edges

Before I went off the deep end and became obsessed with J-metal, there was actually a time when I was totally unfamiliar with the stuff. I originally stumbled upon 陰陽座 (Onmyo-Za) through some random video on youtube and because I'm a dork, I thought the kimonos and stuff looked cool. Fortunately, I happened to really enjoy what I heard, so I slowly, over time, began collecting more and more Japanese stuff. This particular album, 鬼哭転生 (Kikoku Tenshou), was one of my introductions to that world.

I normally think of Onmyo-Za as one of those bands with a million albums and well-seasoned musicians, but Kikoku Tenshou features a very young Onmyo-Za just starting their career. This is before they got a big record deal with King Records, and it's one of their two albums on Mandrake Root. Consequently, the production here is a bit rough with some background hiss, and it lacks the squeaky clean sound of their later albums. And as a nice poetic parallel, the music here is also a bit rough, but it's brimming with potential.

Even though this is only their first album, it's fairly ambitious. Onmyo-Za is mostly rooted in traditional heavy metal a la Iron Maiden, but they've always had a tendency to mix things up and experiment a little bit. After the bombastic, low-budget keyboard intro, the band opens up in a fairly standard heavy metal manner with 眩暈坂. But make no mistake, it's not a bad number by any means. The main riff is pretty solid, the solos are nice, and the thick galloping bass is cool. There's also some theatrical, spoken word sections sprinkled in here and in a few other tracks on the album.

But Onmyo-Za is not at all the kind of band content with staying in one stylistic corner. They begin to spread their wings a bit with the doomy track, 逢魔刻. Naturally, it features a much slower tempo and a darker, more solemn mood than the couple of songs that precede it. The stylistic shift is extremely well executed and quite convincing. However, Onmyo-Za's latent genius truly takes off for the first time with the 5th number, 文車に燃ゆ恋文. To this day, this is still one of my favorite Onmyo-Za songs, and right off the bat, you know it's a speed demon. Maneki and Karuken barge in with a blazing fast riff. The rhythmic switches and starts/stops are another really nice touch. The contrast between Kuroneko's beautiful, slightly folky voice and the instruments in the verse is also a gripping point. Unsurprisingly, the chorus is unbelievably catchy and Matatabi shows off some of his bass prowess with a cool, walking bass line. And the solo absolutely kills it. This particular song was the one that convinced me that this band was truly special. For better or worse, it's followed up by a syrupy, kinda cheesy ballad, 氷の楔. Kuroneko's voice is more than good enough to carry this, but to this day, I'm not sure how I feel about all the synths at the end. It's not a bad song, but they would get much better at ballads in the future. The bass tone is nice though.

For me, the album gets stronger overall in its second half as the band gets more adventurous and strays away from the typical, traditional metal formula. There's more contrast, there's more bass doodles, and the vocal lines just seem way more catchy. Another song to note is the absolutely stellar 百の鬼が夜を行く. There's some cliche but awesome folk melodies thrown in, and the dual vocal harmony between Matatabi and Kuroneko in the chorus is absolutely ace.

At this point, the evident skill of the musicians involved deserves a shout-out. For most, Maneki and Karuken are probably going to be the focal point. Despite their youth, both guitarists already sound adept at their craft. They make a fantastic duo that is capable of shredding out great solos, switching up riffs, and slapping dual leads everywhere. Tora is a very nice, subtle drummer. He's not flashy, but he can control the pulse very well and put in good fills. Matatabi is a Japanese bassist which by default means he's not content with following the rhythm. He's pretty audible and goes off on his own plenty of times.

But oddly enough, Onmyo-Za's biggest asset is probably their vocal talent. Kuroneko is the obvious one here. She possesses a very good vibrato and a very wide range. She's an emotive vocalist and can evoke a variety of moods. Matatabi isn't quite as impressive as his spouse, but he's a very good vocalist in his own right. The band can even do some harsh vocals and gang shouts (they show up on the thrashy, closing track), and there's also plenty of folky chanting/droning to be found as well. The vocal performance here (and in every Onmyo-Za album really) is quite impressive.

Kikoku Tenshou is definitely a very good release. The band would become a lot more polished and developed later on, but the groundwork they laid here is extremely respectable. I find that the album takes a little while to get really good, but it's all enjoyable material.

Rating: 83/100

Dir En Grey - Macabre

More Experimental

The band was on a roll commercially, so after the release of Gauze, they quickly found themselves signed to a sub-division of Sony. After you get your first major record label deal, it's only logical to follow up with a more experimental, bizarre release. I do wonder how the hell Dir en grey managed to convinced the suits in charge to greenlight some of these songs especially since they were a really young band at the time. I guess it's just one of those "only in Japan" things.

The opening intro track, Deity, quickly makes it clear that Macabre is a totally different beast. There's some weird electronic shit going on, and there's a bunch of random vocal stuff in the background. It's actually quite spooky and foreboding. The full band properly comes in later about halfway through, and plays some rather heavy, aggressive material albeit in a strange and ominous fashion. And that is a step in the right direction to describing the character of this album, it's more aggressive, but at the same time a lot weirder.

Macabre is probably one of the band's most inaccessible albums and as a result it's a lot more subtle. It lacks a lot of the poppy hooks of their older material and middle period. It also lacks the flashy technical acrobatics and inhuman vocal performance from Kyo in their later albums. In spite of this, I've grown to appreciate and love its eccentricities. is the first proper song on the album, and I also assert it to be one of Dir en grey's most underrated works. In fact, virtually everything about this song I find to be downright brilliant. The opening melody that's traded between Die and Kaoru, Toshiya's bass slides, Shinya's weirdly timed drumming, and Kyo's screams all gel perfectly together to create a dark, haunting atmosphere. And then the way the band turns on a dime to a more melodic, lighter chorus with acoustic guitar work and bass melodies is also amazing. The contrast, oddly timed phrasing, and overall weirdness of starts Macabre off on a really high note.

The excellent musicianship from Gauze is retained here. Die and Kaoru both play some excellent melodies and complement each other very well. Toshiya is a beastly bassist. He's got some great lines all over the place. Shinya steps up his game slightly on Macabre. There's more clever patterns and more weirdly timed beats. In fact, the band steps up a bit in the songwriting department as well. While there are some poppier numbers around, the songs are generally arranged in a more complicated, slightly experimental J-Rock direction. Mind you, nothing here is really progressive (aside from one track), but there was definitely more effort put into the songwriting this time around. Also, Kyo continues to improve vocally. It's not a major contrast like the difference between their indie days and Gauze, but it's noticeable. He experiments a little more with his voice, makes some more strange noises, and puts in a lot more screaming and harsh vocals into the work. It's still a long way from the sheer insanity of Kyo's voice today, but his performance here is certainly admirable.

Genre-wise, Macabre mostly falls into "J-Rock," but as you might guess, that really doesn't mean much for this band. We can find some more aggressive more metallish numbers, some beautiful ballads, and even some funky-tinged tracks. For the most part, this is all pulled off extremely well, but there is one splotch that doesn't really jive with me. Hydra has a pretty good idea and starts off fairly well. Too bad it's way too long and way too repetitive. I don't find it horrible, but really this song would have been way better if it was just 2 minutes long. The random ambient break in the middle doesn't really do much for me either.

However, I'll happily defend the integrity of every other track. 蛍火 is one of the band's best ballads, and it features some gorgeous violin playing. You even get used to the random screeching noise in the middle of the violin break after a while. 【KR】cube and Berry serve as a one-two punch of upbeat, fun J-rock with the former is being slightly funky in character. 羅刹国 isn't quite as amazing as 残 -ZAN- from Gauze, but it does its job as the album's obligatory heavy track very well. Audrey is probably the most poppy number here. And while it doesn't reach the catchiness of some the band's previous tracks such as -I'll-, it's still quite respectable.

But where Dir en grey really hits it out of the park is with the long, almost 11 minute song, MACABRE -揚羽ノ羽ノ夢ハ蛹-. I would consider this to be the band's first, bona fide progressive outing. It features long, extended sections, lots of development, and songwriting brilliance all around. The way the guitars, bass, and drums all interact during the verses is simply top notch. I love the tradeoff between Toshiya and both Kaoru and Die with the backdrop of Shinya's characteristic drumming. Kyo's voice starts off very solemnly and stately, but as the music rises, so does the passion and intensity of his vocal delivery. The self-titled track also has excellent use of tension and knows to build up to climaxes and to let you down from high points. There's some beautiful guitar solos in here, and I'd even go as far as to say that this is one of the band's best moments in their entire career. The way the song ends on a soft note is just icing on the cake.

I've had this album for many years, but it took me a very long time to come around to it. Fans of Gauze may be disappointed at the lack of poppy hooks here. Fans of later Dir en grey may feel this one to be too soft. However, Macabre is a unique album even within the band's bizarre discography and deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. I've seen many fans gloss over this one, but honestly I find it to be one of their strongest moments. It's definitely not the Dir en grey album I would start out with, but it's one of the ones I come back to the most often. I don't like it quite as much as Gauze or Arche, but I still think it's wonderful.

Rating: 95/100

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Kamijo - Heart

Should Have Been So Much Better

Ah yes, my favourite Francophile vampire LARPer released his debut solo album a couple of years ago. Of course, Kamijo's big claim to fame these days is the rightfully beloved Versailles, but some drama happened and you know the story from there. Anyways, his previous EP, Symphony of the Vampire, is surprisingly an extremely good release, so I thought Kamijo would pull off this solo thing without a hitch. Unfortunately, my eventual opinion ended up being a bit more complicated.

Unlike Symphony of the Vampire, Heart opts for a much more lighthearted, less heavy direction and dials back the power metal onslaught. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the symphonic stuff that replaces the metal isn't quite as satisfying. One of the problems with Heart is that (with the exception of a few songs) it never actually abandons the power metal base. So you end up with the typical conundrum of massive symphonic fluff with a buried rhythm section. And that alludes to what is quite easily the biggest issue with this album: the production.

There's no way around it; the production is pretty bad. All of the strings and keyboards sound pretty good, but the rhythm section is mixed really poorly. First off, most of the album sounds like Kamijo used a drum machine, and it is not a good one. To make it even more frustrating, 3 of the songs have Kei Yamazaki (the same guy that drummed on Symphony of the Vampire) behind the kit, and the drumming on those songs sounds perfectly fine. Why in the world did Kamijo not just have this guy drum on everything? He is signed to Warner after all. It's not like Kamijo is on a budget here. The dorky-sounding drum machine is not horrendous on its own, but it certainly does not help.

What's more criminal is that the guitars are buried pretty far in back although there are a few songs where they are at a more normal volume level. It wouldn't be such a problem if it wasn't for the fact this is a mostly power metal album, and there are some interesting things going on with the guitar parts. Additionally, the bass tone can sound odd at times with an unnatural/electronic feeling, but the counterpoint is quite solid and enjoyable. The symphonic fluff is mostly well-executed, but it's written in a way to mostly just be ornamentation and not anything seriously engaging.

Another setback is Kamijo himself. I've never disliked his vocals (quite the contrary actually), but he's pretty limited in execution. One unfortunate blight on the album is the moment where Kamijo tries out a falsetto near the end of Louis. Let's just say it's quite painful, and I always reach for my volume control when that part comes up. He really should just stick to the usual smooth, charismatic voice which he fortunately does for most of the album. The lack of gang shouts and solid backup vocals does hurt a little bit though.

For the most part, the songwriting is actually quite solid, and that's what saves Heart from being horrendous. Naturally, the power metal numbers are styled a la Versailles, but Kamijo also throws in some other curveballs. Romantique and 抱きしめられながら are both romantic-sounding, dancey ballad numbers. They are actually quite well executed with nice, moving vocal and bass melodies, and it's on these songs that the production of the album hurts the least. The latter does sound superficially similar to Malize Mizer's Au Revoir, but I'm willing to chalk that up to being a weird coincidence as the two songs are quite different in composition. Moulin Rouge is some kind of swing metal hybrid that sounds awfully close to Diablo Swing Orchestra. However, Kamijo's take is more laidback and less crazy.

Musically, nothing stands out to me as amazing or anything, but really it's not bad stuff. On the contrary, there are a lot of really enjoyable moments, and Kamijo's hired guns do a great job on their instruments (good instrumental players seem to grow on trees in Japan). The big thing holding this back is the bizarre, ill-fitting production by far. I don't know if he decided to dial back the guitars for more commercial appeal or what, but it I'd easily give this album a lot more points if the mix was more appropriate. Additionally, it does feel like Kamijo mostly plays it safe on this album. Sure there are the pseudo-experimental numbers, but they are pretty tame. The power metal numbers are also mostly solid with some nice solos, but none of them truly shine like my favourite Versailles songs. I found Symphony of the Vampire to be a lot more adventurous and ambitious overall. Heart is nothing to be embarrassed about, but it's really not that exciting.

Rating: 63/100

Sunday, August 28, 2016

MinstreliX - Memoirs

A Nice Mixture of Genres and Influences

This release would be MinstreliX's first full-length, showcasing an eclectic mixture of power metal, progressive metal and even a little jazz among other elements. Takao, the main songwriter and only consistent member of the group, definitely shows off his diverse influences throughout the album. Here, you can find jazzy sections, folky guitar melodies, progressive riffing and other such goodies. Takao would opt for a much more streamlined (but still technical) power metal direction in the future, and that would become mostly what the band is known for. So Memoirs is basically the oddball in the MinstreliX discography and probably my personal favourite.

Curiously enough, the vocalist on the album, Lola, is actually an American. The band had Leo Figaro as the vocalist for their early demos, but they had some issues which resulted in chucking Figaro and somehow convincing Lola to move to Japan and record and tour with the group. All the songs are in English and Lola wrote all the lyrics, so there is no Engrish to be found here. Her singing voice is somewhere around a contralto which is more on the lower end of a spectrum for a female. While her voice is an atypical choice for power metal (especially for Japan's usual take on the genre), she has a pleasing tone and does a fine job behind the mic.

Despite being the band's first full-length, the songwriting is quite mature. Much of the album is solidly in progressive territory and flirts with odd time signatures and other unusual elements. There are a lot of interesting composing quirks here ranging from the sing-along folk elements in Long Winding Road to the incredible bass solo lead-up to the spastic drum fills during the first verse of To Immortality. Naturally, all the musicians are very fine players. Shin-D's basslines are perfectly audible and often deviate from the rhythm guitar. The Betrayal, in particular, has a very cool jazzy bass section to back up a jazz solo from the Yui's keyboards only to later lead into a bass solo. Yuki's drumming is a treat to hear, and there's lots of really nice fills to be found. And of course, Takao shreds away with plenty of ridiculous leads and solos.

What's particularly praiseworthy is the wide variety of material, and its excellent execution. In addition to the more straightforward power metal numbers, the album features some slower, more contemplative tracks like Moon Sickness or odder, more progressive songs like Entropy. The band even manages to pull off an amazing, beautiful ballad with Soul Of The Breeze~mistral which incorporates some peculiar jazz and folk elements. The huge progressive epic at the end, The Wanderers, showcases Takao's guitar prowess with face-melting solos and riffs. Lola also gives some of her best vocal lines near the end with some particularly powerful, passionate notes.

Although it was released independently, the production is excellent. All the instruments are perfectly audible, mixed together nicely, and the clean, sleek tone is perfect for a power/prog metal album. The playing can get fairly complex, but it still retains a clear sense of melody with Lola's vocals soaring over the rest of music. While the album is not way out in left field, the material is relatively unique and highly enjoyable.

Rating: 95/100

Friday, August 26, 2016

Octaviagrace - Recollect Storia

Prog Remains Kawaii

Only a few months after the release of the excellent Resonant Cinema, the quintet returns with yet another high-quality offering to the altar of Japanese metal. As expected of the all-star lineup, there is plenty of instrumental prowess on display. The progressive influence is primarily concentrated in the abundance of embellishments and frills. And underneath the instrumental flurry, the poppy backbone in the musical skeleton provides the desired catchiness and attention-grabbing melodies required for any good album. Additionally, power metal elements stem from the strong key presence and highly melodic guitar leads. All together, these elements blend to create the unique and wonderful Octaviagrace sound.

Stylistically, Recollect Storia fits quite snugly with the previously release. While there's no doubt that Resonant Cinema was already quite accomplished from an instrumental point of view, this release seems to turn up the technical aspects up a notch. Part of what makes Octaviagrace so great are all the little touches and ornaments all over their songs, and there seems to be more of those distinctive quirks on Recollect Storia. On the very first verse of the opener, albescence, Yosuke throws in some nice, tasteful bass slaps. There's also a cool drum fill during the second verse. For another example, Aurally Lover features an awesome tapping guitar part during the chorus. You can find stylistic flourishes like that all over Recollect Storia if you look for it.

I suppose the biggest loss is the lack of a jazzier track like ラストノスタルジア from the previous EP, but the band more than makes up for it. Mikitty improves her vocals this time around. Resonant Cinema had some tuning and pitch issues at times, but they are gone here. She's on point and provides that style of ridiculously catchy and poppy vocal melodies that only exists in Japan. I also found Reanne to have more standout moments. The keyboard fluff is always nice, and he delivers a lot of memorable lines.

But just like last time, the stars of the show are undoubtedly Yosuke on bass and Hanako on guitars. Like before, Yosuke is a beast, and the bass almost never follows the rhythm here. He goes all over the fretboard playing long, complicated counterpoint lines and even throws in some slaps and leads for good measure. Hanako is essentially the riff backbone of the band and the main reason why Recollect Storia is has any metal elements to begin with. Despite not being very heavy in tone, the guitar work is still excellent and Hanako plays technical leads and solos all over this thing.

追想列車, penned by Hanako, may be the band's most complicated song yet. It features some more odd angular rhythms, and some very spastic guitar leads. I don't think I've quite figured out that song myself. The closing track, アザーブルー, is basically the textbook, catchy single number. The way the verses lead up to the big chorus is perfect, and of course the chorus itself is no slouch with Yosuke in particular stealing a lot of the spotlight. And as always, the technical interplay between Yosuke and Hanako with the poppy backdrop is really the main draw of the band for me.

Unfortunately, the single/EP clocks in at under 20 minutes with 4 tracks, so it's even shorter than Resonant Cinema. However, all four songs are top notch and considering there wasn't even a full year between the two EPs, I can't really complain. A full album is indeed on the way, so I'm quite excited for this. The hiatus of Light Bringer left a strong desire for more jpop/prog/power amalgamations, and luckily, Octaviagrace is doing an excellent job filling that void.

Rating: 96/100

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Dir En Grey - Gauze

Quintessential J-Rock

Oh man, few things upset me more than seeing people dismiss early Dir En Grey as "generic jrock" or "generic visual kei" or something along those lines. Sure, this release isn't super experimental, but it's very far from banal. About a year before this release, the quintet hit it big with their breakout single, I'll, which is a very fun, upbeat poppy jrock song. Normally, you would expect a continuation of this style, but the band was never one to stay stagnant. The debut is one that holds some serious nostalgia for me and probably for plenty of other people. This album is likely one of the most common entry points into the genre and despite years of exploration, it still remains near the top of the pack for me.

In many ways, Gauze builds upon Dir En Grey's previous releases and expands into new territory. After the electronic intro, Schweinの椅子 opens up in a surprisingly aggressive, heavy fashion with Kyo screaming at you. Didn't these guys just hit the mainstream? And on the turn of a dime, the following song, ゆらめき, returns to more traditional poppy, J-Rock territory. And that's kind of how the album goes. There's a large variety of material to be found here that ranges from more typical 90s-style J-Rock numbers to stranger, aggressive beasts. Although this album is before the point where Dir En Grey is generally considered to have gone off the deep end, there's still some unusual moments to be found here. For instance, the guitar solo in ゆらめき is mostly bizarre dissonant noise and guitar feedback. Not exactly what you'd expect from a hit single. The most obvious example is the long number, mazohyst of decadence. Featuring a slow, crawling tempo and haunting melodies, Kyo goes absolutely insane vocally and unleashes some rather wicked screams.

And speaking of Kyo, he's improved quite dramatically on Gauze. He sounded a bit rough on the band's previous releases, but it's clear that his voice is much more mature here. His pitch is much better and under control. His range is a lot more polished. And to top it off, Kyo's seriously upped his harsh vocal game. Many of the tracks feature lots of really good screams and other weird noises. Of course, Kyo would somehow find a way to get even more crazy later on in Dir En Grey's career, but his performance here is still quite impressive.

Musically, the band is in great form. Even though they weren't playing progressive metal at the time, Shinya gives a good drum performance. The clever little drum pattern on 予感 is proof of that. Toshiya was always a huge part of the band's sound, and he shines all over the place here. I'm always a sucker for talented bassists, and bands with bassists as good as Toshiya always catch my attention. You really can't have a good J-Rock band without awesome bass counterpoint. Many of the band's most iconic songs, such as Cage, are centered around him. Contrary to the norm, Die and Kaoru are probably the least flashy members here. Both are still great guitarists though, and trade off some nice leads and solos.

Gauze does have a pretty long runtime, but it flows very smoothly thanks to the huge variety of songs. 残 -ZAN- is easily the heaviest song on the album (it was later reworked into death metal) and has some excellent vocal work by Kyo as well as the iconic psychotic laughing in the intro. A personal favorite of mine is 予感 which is criminally catchy and has a stupidly good chorus. Perhaps the weakest part of the album is the closer, アクロの丘. It's a bit of ballad and it's not bad, but the song is pretty long and can feel quite repetitive. Still, the album extremely enjoyable overall.

I'd even go as far as to say that this is probably one of their strongest albums (and believe me I'm not one to write off weird progressive material at all). The poppier parts of the album all have extremely strong melodies and choruses to keep you engaged. The heavy moments are in an odd grey area between J-Rock and nu-metal that is quite interesting and not really common. And of course, some of the weirder moments give you a glimpse at what the band would do in the future. Gauze is definitely essential J-Rock and one of Dir En Grey's finer works.

Rating: 96/100

Friday, August 19, 2016

Doom - Complicated Mind

Uncharted Waters

Doom is one of those bands I hold dear to my heart. They started off in the 80s as an awesome thrash band with a really good bassist. But the band would show some unusual tendencies as early as Doom Days. Only a few months before the release of Complicated Mind, the Killing Field EP severely upped the ante and plunged the band deep into progressive territory with its unorthodox approach to thrash and bass virtuosity. But somehow, the Japanese madmen found a way to push the boundaries even further and create something truly unparalleled. Complicated Mind, as the name would imply, is a rather complicated affair with little regard for the concept of genre or standard conventions. Instead, they created one of the most bizarre and innovative progressive metal albums ever.

A few minutes into the album, one thing quickly becomes clear: Doom are absolute masters of rhythm. There are many mind-bending rhythms and unpredictable time signature changes all over this beast. The off-kilter pulse even rivals the likes of Watchtower at times in its utter madness. From a timbre standpoint, Doom also is highly unusual. As it is commonly noted, Fujita seems to channel Piggy at times with the use of weird dissonant chords and solos, but in Complicated Mind he goes a step further. Somehow, he finds a way to intersperse hard rocking and bluesy patterns among the jumbled mess of progressive oddities and balls-to-the-wall thrash. At times, you'll find yourself listening to a killer bluesy solo that would make the greats of the past proud and then find yourself jerked back into thrash. And the weird thing is that this all flows seamlessly feels natural.

The album itself varies widely in terms of the character of the songs. There are some songs, like Bright Light, that lean more on the thrash side with some bizarre touches. There are also some really good hard rocking numbers with progressive flourishes like Fall, Rise and... Then, there are other abstract monsters such as The Boys Dog that center around unique riffs that completely defy normal conventions. Weird spoken word sections also pop up from time to time and work quite well in the backdrop of Fujita's dissonance. Additionally, there are moments of absolute melodic beauty with harmonizing basslines and stunning guitar leads. One special mention goes to Poor Boy Condition which is a crazy instrumental track that features some of the most fun rhythmic patterns I've ever heard. In the middle, the band completely lose their mind with twisty bass lines, spastic drumming, and ominous chords.

All of the band members are about as good as it gets, but Doom's biggest asset is without a doubt Morota on fretless bass. If there is a metal bassist hall of fame out there, this guy undoubtedly needs to be near the very top. In contrast to most fretless players in metal, who seem more interested in making wanking noises as opposed to playing appropriate counterpoint, Morota crushed the competition with his usage of unorthodox embellishments and complicated but fitting basslines. Behind nearly every riff, there is well-written complimentary bass that adds so much more to the experience. He was truly one of the most unique and innovative bassists in metal.

Unsurprisingly, this album is completely laden with Fujita's funny Engrish which adds a little goofiness to the overall character. The lyrics are pretty amusing to read with a fairly poor grasp on the language, but it just adds to the fun for me. Out of Doom's excellent discography, I'd have to say Complicated Mind is my personal favorite work. It has that perfect balance of thrash, prog, hard/blues rock, and all of the other elements that make this band so great. It's forward thinking and completely unique. It's extremely satisfying from a technical standpoint, and the album's songwriting is stunning. Not only would I consider this to be Doom's best work, this easily one of my favorite albums of all time. It simply has all the elements I love in music.

Rating: 100/100

Monday, March 14, 2016

Doom - Killing Field

Forgotten Pioneers

The tech thrash boom in the late 80s produced a ton of well-regarded, legendary bands that all pushed the boundaries of metal to brand new lands and territories. And indeed, I highly respect and love many of these groups myself. But when discussing these legendary bands, Doom is unfortunately a frequent omission. There's no doubt that their geographical location is the reason that the three piece is overlooked in the west, but they were among first thrash bands to break new ground in the technical and progressive fields. Their debut album, No More Pain, is mostly a thrash affair with some technical moments and weird things that would hint at what they would do next. Just under a year later in 1988, Doom released Killing Field which had the band take a radical new direction.

At this point, it is imperative to mention that not only was Doom among the first progressive metal groups, they are also one of the first metal bands to use fretless bass which is naturally a key component of their sound. Steve DiGiorgio is probably the most famous fretless bass player in metal, but Koh Morota's work in Killing Field eclipses Sadus's Illusions (in terms of technicality) which was released in the same year. What Morota did with his bass in Doom was totally nuts and certainly way ahead of its time.

Describing what Killing Field really sounds like is a difficult endeavour, but words like "insane," "progressive," and "avant-garde" are on the right track. What the band really does best is weird you out. I don't mean weird in the sense of genrehops or anything like that, but their music sounds like thoughts of a madman. The spiraling basslines and fretless tone coupled with the bizarre dissonant chords evoke very surreal, twisty imagery. The constant time signature shifting, complex rhythms, and bizarre structures also help drive home the twisted labyrinth feel. It's extremely crazy, unpredictable stuff especially for the time it was released.

Killing Field is arguably more progressive metal than it is thrash. The very opening of the album is quite an abrupt jolt to realm of progressive metal with the odd time signatures and bizarre rhythms. In addition, the band structures their song in very strange ways. Instead of obvious verse chorus structures, the band will instead cycle through different sections often adding in ornaments to shake things up. From a technical standpoint, the EP is highly accomplished and handily beats most other bands from this time period. Fujita's guitarwork is quite unique, and he employs a lot of strange chords and highly dissonant, shredding solos. Hirokawa is also quite accomplished behind the kit and dishes out complicated patterns and proggy rhythms. But truthfully, the member that sticks out the most to is the madman behind the bass. Koh Morota very much deserves the title of "bass god" and is possibly the most underrated bassist in all of metal. The basswork on this album is stunningly complex and only rivaled by the likes of Doug Keyser from Watchtower or other bassists of that caliber. This is already pretty bizarre by today's factors, but imagine hearing this in 1988. Totally insane.

Another interesting feature of Doom is the relative lack of lyrics. My copy of the CD doesn't actually have a booklet, but I can tell that the amount of vocal lines are very small (it's true for all of their works). Fujita doesn't really sing (well they are a thrash band after all); he sort of yells/snarls/barks into the mic. Despite many of the same lyrics being repeated, his voice is used very rhythmically to accent the strange patterns present in the music. It's rather interesting to hear this kind of thing in a prog band since most of the other tech thrash bands had actual singers. Doom also mangles the English language, but that's hardly anything to care about unless you happen to be an English major or something.

It's worth noting that I have the 2007 remaster which comes with 4 extra bonus tracks. I have not heard the original, but this remaster is extremely well done. The bass is very prominent in the mix and Morota's fretless tone sounds wonderful. The four bonus tracks do obviously stick out a bit from the first five, but they are all excellent and worth hearing. Tracks 6 and 7 are originally from an older compilation with X Japan, Jurassic Jade, and a few other notable Japanese thrash bands from that time period. They both are more thrash in character, but still retain plenty of prog elements. You End.Get Up! You contains some extremely clever time signature switching in the pre-chorus. Will Never End is some really bizarre dance-esque track with weird usage of bass slaps and guitar effects. Honestly, it's almost impossible for me to describe, but it's pretty upbeat/dancey in feeling and has some weird reverbing vocals. Strange stuff. Parasite is actually a cover of the famous Kiss song believe it or not. The band spruces it up with a some more technical instrumental work and even finds a way to throw in a progressive section in it. It's pretty cool.

Doom is a band I've known about for a while, but finally getting my hands on their material is extremely rewarding. I know that Japan had produced a lot of thrash bands in the late 80s (Gargoyle is one I'm a big fan of), but Doom's stuff is among the most unique I have ever heard. The closest reference point is probably Voivod (it's highly unlikely either band were aware of each other at the time), but even that's not quite accurate especially not with Koh Morota. Maybe someone with better ears than me can figure out some of the band's influences, but the stuff they cooked up was absolutely insane. They are criminally underrated and deserve to be recognized as one of the pioneering acts of progressive metal and technical thrash. It's such a shame that their genius is hard to find and relatively unknown.

Rating: 95/100

Friday, February 5, 2016

黒夢 - 生きていた中絶児・・・・

Surprisingly Raw

My first exposure to 黒夢 (Kuroyume) was actually their debut single on Avex, Misery. It was more or less a random stumble on youtube, but one that would ultimately contribute to my personal musical journey. Western fans are probably more likely to know Kuroyume as that band Kyo was a roadie for back in the day, but don't think their influence ends there. In fact, Kuroyume are easily among the most influential visual kei bands of all time and predated the huge influx of visual kei bands in the 90s. They're probably more well known for their major label pop rock stuff, but the band was a completely different beast in their indie days. 生きていた中絶児・・・・ (Ikiteita Chuzetsuji) is an old demo tape that later was on remastered and properly released on CD. It's a short, 6-track EP, but it's the band's heaviest release.

Kuroyume really started off as a dark, gothic/post-punk band that teetered dangerously close to metal much to my surprise. I assume that this period of the band shares much in common with the British post-punk/gothic scene, but I'm really not too familiar those bands to make any meaningful comparison. What I can say, however, is that this is particular EP is actually pretty damn heavy. The guitar is often heavy on distortion, and there are a lot of riffs employed by Shin here. True to the gothic tradition, Hitoki's bass tone is very thick and serves as backbone of all of the music. As the literal translation of the band's name implies, these 6 tracks are all very dark and melancholic in mood.

Kiyoharu's vocals are the rawest they have ever been. Multiple times throughout the runtime, he utilizes some very powerful screams that would surprise anyone who is only familiar with their pop rock material. Another surprising thing is that the songwriting is actually often rather complex and more nuanced than you'd expect. That's not to say Kuroyume went progressive rock or anything, but there are moments of legitimate time signature changes, rhythmic variations, and unexpected melodic patterns that show some serious nuance. Hitoki's performance on bass, the building block of the music, is excellent and goes through a large variety of melodic lines.

I enjoy all of Kuroyume's stylistic shifts, but my preference is definitely the period of time when Shin was in the band and wrote the songs. Fortunately, Hitoki and Kiyoharu were capable of writing good songs and released quality material after his departure. But the stuff that Shin wrote is really quite special and nothing afterwards is on the same level for me. One reason for this is because he was a really damn good guitarist. On some later works, it's really easy to get distracted by Hitoki's flashy bass runs, but the guitar is quite in your face here so it's hard to ignore. And of course, you certainly don't want to ignore it since there are quite a lot of riffs here and plenty of the solos are dissonant shredfests that are well placed and fit the mood of the album. It's also worth mentioning that the orignal version of 親愛なるDEATHMASK is actually different than the one that would show up on their debut album. Neither version I'd consider truly superior, but there's certainly some pros and cons. I much prefer Kiyoharu's screaming on the rerecorded version, but this one has some extra bass lines and accents that I love. I'd also say that the buildup to Shin's solo is not nearly as good on this version as it is on the first album.

Unfortunately, there is one blight on the mini album. It's the closing song, 鏡になりたい. It's a dark ballad that works very well instrumentally, but Kiyoharu pretty much messes things up on this one. On the rest of the EP, he's absolutely excellent and delivers one of his strongest vocal performances ever. I love his over-the-top, emotive style and the harsh vocals he uses here are all really awesome especially in songs like 黒夢 . But on the final track, it's just too much for my taste. I'm usually pretty tolerant of out of tune, ridiculous vibrato, but he really should have reigned it in on this one. Kiyoharu sounds pretty damn goofy here, and it pretty much nulls any potential emotional impact the last song could have had for me.

But the good news is that the first 5 songs are all a huge thumbs up. There's never a dull moment and even the unnamed session drummer does a pretty good job. It's a really nice blend of dark, gothic rock with some metal elements that does a great job conveying a dark, melancholic mood while showcasing a good degree of musical complexity and proficiency. There's no doubt that this is easily one of the band's strongest releases.

Rating: 93/100