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