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