Sunday, March 5, 2017

Light Bringer - Heartful Message

A Strange Anomaly

Let me just start out by saying that I absolutely adore Light Bringer. If Scenes of Infinity isn't nearly a 10/10 album for you, you need to re-evaluate your life decisions. Hibiki is a bass monster, Fuki is a goddess, Mao is better than Jordan Rudess, etc. But more seriously, Light Bringer delivered some extremely awesome power metal with a heavy dose of both J-pop melodies and progressive elements and somehow made this combination work beautifully. The technical abilities of all of the band members was extremely high all across the board, and they were simply a band on a totally different level. Of course, it sucked big time when they went on an indefinite hiatus, and it doesn't help that the main core of the band (Fuki, Mao, and Hibiki) are seemingly happy doing other things.

But let's head back to the beginning of the band. Before they got that sweet record deal with King Records, Light Bringer was a struggling band in the underground with talented but unknown musicians. Their first album, Tales of Almanac, is not a bad album, and it does have some genius moments on it such as White Locked Night. However, that effort is definitely a bit uneven and patchy in spots. After that, they would improve with each album with their peak genius culminating with Genesis and Scenes of Infinity (Monument is a slight misstep, but that's another story). So this was the narrative that was in my head for a a long amount of time. However, one day I finally shelled out the money for a copy of Heartful Message and listened to it for the first time (unfortunately I don't physically own their first album). This EP predates all of those albums, and it completely shattered my expectations. Heartful Message is actually absolutely brilliant.

Stylistically, Heartful Message has way more in common with Tales of Almanac than with anything else that came later, but it's so much more refined and executed better. I know it's bizarre to say that the mini-album that came out two years before the debut album is more mature, but that's what the music suggests. Heartful Message is basically all of the highs on Tales of Almanac and virtually none of the lows. Like its successor, Heartful Message is rife with J-Pop melodies and sugary goodness. But that poppy backbone melds together with power metal and strong progressive influences to create a strange, unique creature. Of course, Heartful Message is much stronger in the pop arena than in some subsequent releases, but don't be fooled into thinking this is a flaw. Light Bringer, surprisingly, is just as technical and complex here as they ever were in their career.

As I alluded to earlier, the main core of Light Bringer; Fuki, Mao, and Hibiki; are all present on Heartful Message. With the exception of Fuki (more on that later), they sound just as good here as they sound on the future Light Bringer releases. Hibiki is even more audible here than usual and plays a bunch of crazy bass lines all over the place. Mao is the wizard behind the keyboards that lays down plenty of great solos. A man named Ryu does the drums for this release. I don't know anything about him, but he does a very admirable job. In the guitar department, Hibiki surprisingly has credits with only a couple of guest musicians showing up. Given Hibiki's technical prowess, I don't doubt the claim, but it still is a bit surprising.

Fuki is the odd one out here. Her vocals are in line with Tales of Almanac and not with her future performances. That's not surprising given they were a young band at the time, but you certainly won't find her to be a powerhouse on Heartful Message. Personally, I still do like her vocals even though at times they might be technically a tad rough. The music, despite being quite progressive at times, is very much on the cute, flowery side of the fence. Fuki's high-pitched, sugar-coated delivery fits perfectly with the ditsy, glossy keys and upbeat, peppy tempo. As much as I love her ridiculous, powerful wails that would come later (such as in Hyperion), they would not fit at all on Heartful Message. Cuteness is exactly what you want.

Although I'm aware of both poppy prog from Japan and some earlier prog/power metal blends, I'm not aware of anything quite like what Light Bringer accomplished here. Hell, not even the band themselves would exactly replicate what Heartful Message pulled off. The opener, Start!!, cheerfully opens up with an extremely joyful keyboards that remain prominent. Strictly speaking, the majority of the guitar riffs here are power metal, but the production here is so neutered that almost none of my metal senses tingle. Despite all of that, this particular song is oddly very progressive. The rhythm switches up multiple times, Hibiki basically never follows the guitar lines and constantly plays away with some cool bass runs, and the solo section is quite technical.

And that is why I find Heartful Message so compelling. It's consistently technical, more so than Tales of Almanac which did bog down in a few questionable tracks. The songwriting introduces plenty of nice, digestible melodies, but simultaneously inserts a ton of technical embellishment and progressive tendencies. This weird blend was always the main strength of Light Bringer, and the results are absolutely smashing here. To further complicate things, Heartful Message leans a ton on the poppy side but is also arguably one of their most progressive releases.

Fairy has one of the goofiest, unabashedly poppy main melodies I've ever heard, but at the same time switches time signatures multiple times and is downright unpredictable. The only letup from the technical assault is the piano ballad, Heartful..., which is pleasant enough for me not to take any issue with it. The closer, Episode, is perhaps the most power metal-esque number here as a lot of the melodic guitar leads flare up in this song. It also is one of the more complicated numbers on the EP.

But the biggest outlier is the longest song, SYMPHOPIA. Not only is this the most progressive track on the EP, this is one of the most progressive songs in Light Bringer's entire career. I still can't believe something as insane as this existed so early in the band's lifetime, but I suppose they were just always mad geniuses. SYMPHOPIA possesses a very nonlinear, complex song structure as well as some top-notch technical instrumental performances. Hibiki himself goes absolutely insane all throughout the track culminating in what is honestly one of his greatest bass solos ever. They really just stuck absolute gold with SYMPHOPIA; it's easily one of my top 5 Light Bringer songs.

On a more unfortunate note, Heartful Message is long out of print which means nailing a copy would require you to pay quite a pretty penny (collectors beware!), but the actual material is seriously amazing. The cutesy, progressive J-pop with some power metal is nailed perfectly. There's just really not anything else quite like it. The closest analogue would be some of the stronger tracks from Tales of Almanac (ex. White Locked Night bears some resemblance to SYMPHOPIA), but even those really aren't quite there. And while later Light Bringer works are certainly amazing in their own right, Heartful Message ranks right up there with the best of them. The little EP has quickly grown to become one of my favorite Light Bringer releases.

Rating: 97/100

Friday, March 3, 2017

電気式華憐音楽集団 - DETONATOR

Excellent Weaboo Metal

Denkishiki Karen Ongaku Shuudan (電気式華憐音楽集団), DenKare for short, means "Electronic-Style Karen Music Group" with Karen being the pseudonym of their vocalist. Like other doujin groups, DenKare's discography is kind of confusing with a ton of releases. Technically, most of the stuff they've done are actually soundtracks to hentai games with some songs being reworked/re-recorded over the years (and many of those releases are quite worthwhile). Detonator is what they consider to be their first "original album" (as far as I know, all of their music is original), and it's quite a good album at that.

The identities of the circle aren't public (with the exception of Shiren from Yousei Teikoku and Unlucky Morpheus), but there's plenty of not-so-subtle hints that there's some more serious crossover with members of Yousei Teikoku (妖精帝國). First and foremost, vocalist Karen is undoubtedly Yui Itsuki. Her helium-tier voice is completely unmistakable and totally unique. The PV of the song Detonator also strongly hints at Nanami and Gight (both also Yousei Teikoku members) being a part of the circle as well. This shared membership is a fantastic asset as these guys are all very talented players that can really let it rip.

Thankfully, the "electronic-style" in the name is not very accurate and what you have here is some hard-hitting metal with plenty of double bass and all that jazz. The album is unabashedly metal with tons of riffs, but it's also very true to the cover and full of "weabooisms." By that, I mean you'll get the hyper-fast tempos, the over-the-top style, but most importantly, you'll get the cutesy voice. The fact that you're even reading this review means that you're probably already well aware of what I'm talking about. But in case someone accidentally stumbled through the dark portions of the internet and ended up here, you at least deserve a heads up. Yui very comfortably falls into the "squeaky anime-esque female Japanese vocalist" range. If cute vocals plus aggressive, thrashy riffs doesn't sound awesome to you, you should probably head back to the more normal parts of the internet.

But for those of us that sit in our basements all day downloading the best Hdoujin of our favorite anime characters, DenKare is just downright awesome. They constantly whip out aggressive, lighting-fast riffs left and right that appeal strongly to the latent metal tendencies that still exist in me. Like a lot of Japanese bands, Denkare's genre is fairly ambiguous, but they do hover around harder-edge of the spectrum in the power/thrash range with some occasional coreism/chugging tastefully thrown in. Throw in Yui's squeaky vocals into that for some contrast, and you've got a strong winner.

However, don't think I'm just some casual that's satisfied by any hack that chugs an E string and gets some cute chick to do their vocals. Oh no, Japan has a ton of these groups, so you have to stand out to truly grab my attention. Where DenKare really shines is with their exceptional guitar playing. Shiren, Shiki, and all the other guitarists simply go ballistic all throughout the album. There's a fairly high amount of flashy leads and high-octane, technical soloing permeated all over this thing. The leads are generally power metal-esque and melodic in nature, but they fit quite snugly with the rhythm.

And speaking of the rhythm, it's crafted with the utmost care. Songs like Unbind and Her Kingdom Come center around bizarre, twisty rhythmic patterns that are embellished with ridiculous guitar leads. Most of their riffs sound like thrash metal to me, but the songwriting often phrases them in smart ways. For instance, the opening track, Detonator, has a simple but effective melody that interrupts the chorus with some nicely acccented drum fills to shake it up. That instance lasts like 5 seconds, but it's extremely effective and makes the chorus of the song as awesome as it is. And brilliant touches like that are not unique to that song. Her Kingdom Come also has a cool "guitar interruption/rhythmic shakeup" in the chorus and other little touches exist throughout the entire album.

Gaku and Syu are a pretty damn good bass and drum duo. One slight downside to this album is that the heavier production (they might also use some 7 string guitars in here but I'm not totally sure on that) does drown out the bass a bit compared to their earlier works, but Gaku still gets a fair amount of nice bass digs in there. Syu's drumming style suspiciously sounds a lot like Gight from Yousei Teikoku (hmm...) and that turns out to be a great thing. He's got a very fast style that likes the double bass and is perfectly capable of throwing in those nice fills right where it's needed.

Most of the album takes an extremely rapid, brisk pace, but it does have a handful of slower tracks for some contrast. This is probably a good thing since constant 150+ BPM can get tiring after a while, but I do feel those portions of the album are notably a bit weaker. For instance, Athazagoraphobia (that's a real word by the way) is basically a slower rocker. While it's nice and pleasing, I can't pretend it's anywhere near as brilliant as some of the stuff that preceded it. Another slight criticism of mine would be that the beginning of the album is definitely the strongest portion. 宵闇の宴 and 電気式華憐情愛歌 are both speedy, awesome tracks, but they are both more straightforward in composition and lack the unusual arrangements present in songs like Unbind.

But those previous gripes are all just nitpicks really. Sure, it's not the greatest album ever, but Detonator (and the rest of DenKare's stuff) is just ridiculously fun to listen to. They hit a great sweet spot for me with those addictive, saccharine vocals (Yui is a fantastic vocalist) and honest-to-god, headbanging metal. For those of you who suffer from an unholy combination of weaboo and metal tendencies, this right here is your niche. There's a lot of doujin groups out there (I'm not even sure if they count as one anymore), but DenKare is pretty clearly one of the exceptional ones. They have some high profile members, excellent musicianship, and offer some super fun, top-notch weaboo metal.

Rating: 85/100

Sunday, January 29, 2017

ARESZ - GRATING

Gotta Start Somewhere

Since most of the band's discography is not quite easy to obtain, I ended up starting off with their album, Skill, which is the only one that is reasonably available overseas. As time went on, I gradually nailed the rest of their back catalogue through online webshops, shopping services, and auctions. It came to a point where I owned all of their albums and EPs except for this elusive first album. It's out of print, and the album doesn't always show up on auctions. However, one fateful day after many months of off and on searching, I finally found it. The bid was placed and thankfully I won without any issues. Every day I was shaking in anticipation. Soon, my patience and efforts would be rewarded. The package arrived, and I gleefully put this CD in and cranked the volume. Unfortunately, it turns out that Grating kind of sucks.

Okay, so I actually didn't have high expectations to begin with and only got this album for completionist purposes and curiosity's sake. The word through the grapevine was that the first album was kind of half-baked, but man, that description is actually a bit of euphemism. For all intents and purposes, this is basically a demo, and I can see why the band stopped printing it. Aresz is known (well not really) for their insertion of cool, wanky bass shredding to hard, aggressive heavy metal. From the very beginning, they had this odd idea, and Grating also has two different bass guitar players. However, one of the major shortfalls of the album is the noticeable lack of Syoi being behind the 6 strings.

Aresz has sort of a weird "dual bassist" thing going on with one playing lead and the other playing rhythm. On most of their releases, Syoi is the guy playing the gaudy, 6 stringed bass with wicked shredding, tapping, slaps, and all of that great stuff. Without him, they wouldn't be half as interesting of a band, and as a result, Grating is much more boring. Instead, the album has some other guy named Nakkn behind the bass along with long-time member Masami. They try their best and there's some decent flourishes here and there. But it's generally fairly dull.

And that, in a nutshell, is probably the biggest issue with Grating. It's boring. The riffs aren't bad, but a lot of them underdeveloped and could have used more polish. There is too much reliance on power chords and not enough actual melody. A large portion of the album hangs around in a mid-paced tempo which simply isn't the right for music like this. Aresz thrives much better with quicker tempos, and not surprisingly, the faster songs are among the better ones here. Besides some of the bass licks, most of the music feels fairly stock and not terribly noteworthy. Rumiko's vocals are gritty and rough which is fine in the context of heavy, aggressive music. But she's not going to be some kind of saving grace or anything like that.

There's yet another big blemish here that I have yet to address: the production. To put it bluntly, it sounds like a demo recorded underwater. The sound is very muddy, and Rumiko's vocals stick out like a sore thumb to the point where her voice gets grating (hah) after a while. Given that the band probably had a shoestring budget at the time with no following, I can't really blame them. But the piss-poor production of the album really does not do Grating any favors.

Despite the overall dullness of the material and lackluster production, there are actually some flashes of brilliance. Pride is a really neat, funk-influenced track. There are some of the cool bass slaps thrown in here. The guitar lines are nice and have a funky feel. That one is probably the best track on here. For another example, take We cannot live without BATTLE! There's a neat little bass tapping lead at the opening that would later be re-recording on Grating Revival which features a much improved version of the song. Park of Life also has some interesting ideas with bass slides thrown in there despite the lethargic and boring pace of the verses.

The biggest redeeming factor of Grating is that there are flashes of potential here, and thankfully, Aresz would capitalize on that and massively improve in the next few years. Adding Syoi was probably the best thing they ever did because the follow-up, Beat Blast Spiral, is a much better album. Well, everyone has to start somewhere I suppose. Grating isn't an atrocious album or anything like that. But there pretty much isn't any reason to ever listen to it. The band's subsequent releases are pretty much better in every way. If you happen to stumble across Grating (a highly unlikely scenario), don't pay an arm and a leg for it. If you're a big fan of a band, it's nice to own just for the sake of owning it, but you're better off sticking to their other albums.

Rating: 55/100

Sunday, January 22, 2017

黒夢 - 迷える百合達 ~Romance of Scarlet~

More Commercial But More Compelling

黒夢 (Kuroyume) launched themselves to stardom with this album. After struggling and fighting in the underground as an indie band, Kuroyume would gain a lot of popularity and land a major record deal with EMI. Shortly before the release of 迷える百合達 (Mayoeru Yuritachi) ~Romance of Scarlet~, the band launched their major label debut single, For Dear, which serves as an accurate indicator of the style of this album. Unsurprisingly, Kuroyume softened their sound yet again and made themselves more palatable to the masses despite the wild visual kei imagery. Funnily enough, I would consider this a rare case where increased commercialization actually improved the band.

Their debut album, 亡骸を (Nakigara Wo), was certainly more user-friendly than the preceding material, but it was still rough, gritty and dark. There's no doubt that it appealed to a strong niche at the time, but if you really wanted to become a household name, you would need to clean up a bit. And thus, that's what Romance of Scarlet essentially represents. The production is nice and clean. Most of the gritty, edgy elements are gone. Any semblance of the band's raw, borderline metal indie days are totally gone. But as I've said before, I found this change to surprisingly be a good thing. Nakigara Wo was caught in this weird middle ground of opting for more commercial appeal while still retaining some elements from their earlier, rawer releases. And unfortunately, it didn't always pull off that balance so well and often came off feeling like an awkward transitional album.

I really haven't specified, but the general genre that Mayoeru Yuritachi falls into is essentially gothic rock/post-punk. It's basically the same style as Nakigara Wo, but cleaner and more accessible. The guitars are generally subdued aside from some occasional leads and solos, and the overall mood is more on the melancholic side without feeling dark or depressing. There's some occasional use of synths like in aimed blade at you to help bring out the atmosphere, but they never take a prominent role.

Of course, Kuroyume was always a far cry from a progressive rock band, but their instrumental performances were never boring. The early work has a surprising amount of great guitar riffs, some nice solos and overall awesome atmosphere. Nakigara Wo does dumb this down a bit by toning down Shin's guitar assault. Shin sticks to mostly chord progressions on Mayoeru Yuritachi as well, but somebody else suddenly steps up to the plate to deliver the goods. I'm more biased on this subject than most, but my ears perk up whenever I hear excellent bass work. Hitoki was never bad, but he knocks it out of the park on Mayoeru Yuritachi.

First of all, the production is simply fantastic. It's clean and polished like it needs to be and every instrument is perfectly audible and mixed well. But what really stands out is the bass tone. It's simply glorious. I'm not sure who is responsible for producing the bass this way, but hopefully whoever did got a raise. I'm not even exaggerating; this is honestly one of the best bass guitar tones I have ever heard in any recording. It's very thick and low-sounding, but well-defined and clear. Whenever I need to adjust my subwoofer for some reason, I always use a song off of this album because the bass is so well-produced.

But enough about the tone, nice sounding whole notes won't make an album great after all. The quality of Hitoki's basslines also massively improve. While Shin did most of the heavy lifting on the earlier band work, Hitoki steps up to the plate and becomes the star of the show for me. Nearly every song here is quite arguably more bass-centric than it is guitar-centric as basically everything has highly fluid, intriguing basslines. In the context of Shin's mostly minor/gothic-sounding chord progressions, Hitoki does a great job at making the songs interesting to more avid music listeners without scaring off potential listeners who may be turned off by more aggressive guitarwork. It's an interesting approach, and one that I would say has been highly successful.

However, Shin does get some digs in there every now and then. The opening guitar lead on For Dear is ridiculous catchy and even melodic. He gets plenty of nice solos in there as well. aimed blade at you also contains some absolutely beautiful acoustic guitar work. Kiyoharu's vocal performance is considerably less crazy than it was on previous albums. There's really not any screaming or anything to be found here. Interestingly enough, this is arguably the most subdued vocal performance in his entire career. Naturally, his voice is still unique and instantly recognizable, but the wild vibrato is not so wild here. In fact, his voice is more than tame enough for those often turned off by visual kei style vocals. I've always enjoyed Kiyoharu's style, and some of Kuroyume's strongest, ear-worming choruses are on this album.

What makes this album so strong is the combination its catchy vocal melodies, fantastic bass work, and the slightly melancholic atmosphere. The individual songwriting is very strong and nearly every song here is notable in some way. masochist organ opens up with a fast-moving, super-catchy bassline with a nice guitar complement. 百合の花束 boasts a more mid-tempo and ballad-like nature, but remains very sweet and pleasing. The oddly titled song, autism -自閉症-, actually winds up being the heaviest one here. Shin's guitar distortion shows up again, and he plays some actual riffs. The middle section is also well done with a great guitar and bass solo.

As a warning, I should mention that the later reissues/remasters of Mayoeru Yuritachi leave out autism -自閉症- for some reason, and you definitely want that track. Be sure to grab the original 1994 CD. Anyway, Kuroyume never really settled on a specific sound, but Mayoeru Yuritachi is probably the band's most consistent and strongest album overall. It's bookended by a piano intro and outro (which don't add or take anything from the whole product), but the rest of the work here is absolutely on point. They manage to nail a combination of poppy/accessible songs and great instrumental work in a gothic/post-punk context. After this, the band would drop the visual kei imagery as well as the gothic/post-punk sound and pursue the poppier sound. Shin would also shortly leave after the Cruel EP which dramatically changed the sound of the band again. Kuroyume did make good music and good albums after Mayoeru Yuritachi, but this is essentially an end of an era for them. Personally, I think this is the band's brightest flash of brilliance and magnum opus.

Rating: 95/100