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