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