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

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