Over the years this has grown into my own personal project, reviewing the artists that I discover and interest me. If you wish to see more of my work, particularly my more metal-orientated material, you can find me as a regular contributor for the online magazine
Preface: Those who know me well know I'm a Metal fan. But I'm also a J-Pop fan. I've been to both sides; I've had the "but it's just screaming" argument when arguing Metal to J-Pop fans, and heard the exclamations of "but it's talentless" come from the Metal camp, but I did not develop an interest in the genre by simply picking it up at random, and I felt it high time for someone to dispel some myths.
1) It's Nothing Like Western Pop.
It sounds odd to state, but Japanese Pop music has completely different origins. It's often referred to as J-Pop precisely because of this distinction. The 50s Elvis Rock never took off in Japan and Blues never really made it big across either. Instead what once dominated the charts was Enka; a traditional form of Japanese folk you've probably heard without realising. Meiko Kaji's "Uremi Bushi" may have been penned in the 70s for the film "Lady Snowblood", but it entered western consciousness much later when Tarantino revived it for his "Kill Bill Pt. 1".
Enka isn't the only component however, and this is where things get interesting, because around the 70s Jazz took off in a big way. The free swinging, guitar tapping, blast beating and shredtastic fantastic saw American musicians flock to Osaka and Tokyo and deciding they'd rather not leave. Even now Osaka is referred as 'the second home of Jazz' (the first of course being New Orleans), and artists like Kaori Kobayashi and Hiromi Uehara continue to top the local charts. Now you'll note that these are all elements common in Metal and it's this influence in particular that becomes important because it means...
2) Musicians Actually Have to Know How to Play Their Instruments.
When Friedman left Cacophony to become a Japanese studio musician, I doubt it was because he was lazy. No, he left because being a western studio musician wasn't challenging enough. When the studio took Nana Mizuki's long time co-writers and collaborators away from her to work on other projects, she refused to co-operate until they could be reunited. Outside of idol groups, J-Pop isn't made by a committee deciding what will sell; it's made by bands and individuals.
There is this absence of focus on simply pouring money into one formula but rather an intention to spread it around and to figuring out what sticks. It means artists need to stand out and be different; it means guitar solos aren't uncommon and that Jazz experimentalism runs rampant. In fact, I rank one solo Pop/Rock artist as one of the most unique artists in any music genre: Miyavi. The man started out in a by-the-numbers Rock band but when it came time to strike out on his own, he developed a style of funky slapping and popping I didn't think possible on an electric guitar.
3) The Music is Often Incredibly Creative and Diverse.
I often say I'm a fan of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Now, whilst this isn't a lie, nor is it strictly true. Rather, it's more accurate to say I'm a fan of Yusutaka Nakata. So much so that I follow him from project to project; before Kyary Pamyu Pamyu hit the scene there was Marino, Perfume, Nagisa Cosmetic, Meg and countless others. Nakata cultivated a signature style that may have reached it's perfect complement with Kyary, but it was a style he had been creating long before she existed. Mariko Goto is another prime example of unbridled creativity, having made a career out of embodying the playfulness and mood swings of a ten year old girl—so much that the stage show for her Punk band prior to her going solo saw her dress up like a schoolgirl whilst the band in suits stared at her intently; this little Japanese woman bouncing around the stage like a pinball screeching that all the people looking at her were perverts—and she does this deranged child routine better than anyone else, even as she now approaches her 40s. Sadly this does result in her being somewhat 'unhinged'. Like the time she jumped off stage and hospitalised a photographer for being obnoxious and distracting her from her performance. Unsurprisingly, she was blacklisted from most major labels (except King Records JPN, because King Records give no fucks) and the tour cancelled, but what happened next is a perfect example of…
4) They Often Interact With Fans in a Way That Puts Other Artists to Shame
Mariko Goto was left without funding, without a venue, without a label. But she promised her Tokyo fans a show, and by the Gods did she give them one; now a free agent with little time to lose, she posted up her route, grabbed her guitar and took to the streets for a free, the-more-the-merrier walking tour of the streets, singing for anyone who cared to listen.
When artists become big in the West they often become hidden from sight, going to fancy restaurants and guarded bars. They ignore and slight the fans, and if you want to actually meet them you need cough up big time (note: this is not intended on a slight on the Metal scene in general, but rather the biggest names of the scene forgetting how they got there). J-Pop is the complete opposite; artists are often big because of their fan interaction, and the idol scene (and AKB48 in particular) is a perfect example of that.
I must confess it took me the longest time to understand the appeal in idol groups like AKB48, and it wasn't until I ventured to their café in Akihabara that everything finally clicked: they’re loved because they’re accessible. They perform twelve shows a week, constantly do games and competitions and vie for the affection of fans through their personalities. A Pop artist may sell out an arena, but AKB48 fill a small theatre so many times that the only way to get tickets now is through a literal lottery (there is admittedly only space for 250 people in the theatre to the best of my knowledge, but that not only serves to improve the sense of intimacy between fan and artist, and still means performing for 3,000 fans a week). I'm not going to pretend there aren't issues in the manner idols are sometimes treated, but the manner they blur the lines between an almost reality TV-like set of appearances and their music; the manner they showcase their personalities as well as their art feels beyond what other large names have accomplished.
Now this is one of the biggest names in Japan and a viable solution, but fan interaction happens more often than you think. In fact, I'd say a good 50℅ of the time an artist will do some sort of meet and greet, or hanging around after the show; about the same as underground Metal. Even the TV appearances they make don't feel staged. When Yukari Tamura had a new single she grabbed fellow vocalist Nana Mizuki for a radio plug in; no planning, just two friends being themselves, and the result is one of the most hilarious promotional plugs I’ve ever heard. How often do you see that in the West? How often does it sound like a specified phrase theyre required to say? How often does that result in a complete absence of personality? And it's not just public appearances that show this off, but also...
5) The Lyrics and Themes are About as Diverse as You Can Get (i.e. It's not all fucking love songs).
There are only so many ways you can skin a cat, and there are only so many way you can describe a single emotion. It's time the west stopped beating the dead horse and followed suit with Japan who have diversified their interests into topics such as righteous justice (Mell), children's fairy tails (HNC), Kyary Pamyu's array of Aliens, Monsters and Ninjas, or whatever batshit weirdness Plus-Tech Squeeze Box had in mind when they came up with their particular brand of insanity.
Plus tech squeeze box - Cartoom!
Mariko Goto - m@u
Kahimi Karie - K. K. K. K.
Me-al Art - Hemelocalis (ヘメロカリス)
Kawada Mami - Square the Circle
Antennasia - Qus-Cus
Perfume - Game
Gacharic Spin - Winner!
Strawberry Machine - Crazy Kilt
Chappie - New Chappie
Supercell - Supercell
Nana Mizuki - Ultimate Diamond
Hazel Nuts Chocolate - Cute
Tenniscoats - Tan-Tan Therapy
Polysics - Weeeeeeeeee!!!
This album could not have come at a more perfect time. My second to last piece for this column before I pull the plug – I'll talk about my plans for the finalé soon – and it is quite possibly the only angry hate-filled rant I have in my system that could possibly top the giants that preceded it. If you've read much of the review work I've written then there's no doubt that you'll have seen me shit on Pantera with an alarming frequency. I will never get the attraction; generic chugged guitars and horrendous abuse of pinch harmonics to try and make you wince in physical pain, bland drumming and tunes that shamelessly pretend to be Exhorder if they were all mentally retarded, but personal dislike for a particular artist isn't quite enough for me to hate them. That said, whilst we're on the topic, lets get everything out of my system: I would never wish for the death of a guitarist regardless of how dreadful I think they were, and no I don't buy the whole “Pantera are responsible for Nu-Metal and Metalcore” argument other 'hayterz' love to toss around. It gives them far too much credit and only works if we ignore every other artist who assisted in the styles development (go look up Faith No More's “The Real Thing” and tell me they didn't play a part) and the fact that evolution and development of a genre is very much required to prevent stagnation, whether or not you like the new direction taken or not. I'm sure plenty of people got pissed off when the first thrash metal bands appeared, crying “but it's not Trad.” No dipshit, it's not. The whole argument is almost as retarded as those defending them by screaming “Pantera saved metal” because they managed to get on the charts, as though some evil genius had rounded up every last metal fan, CD, and Vinyl and tied it all to some train tracks, cackling until Pantera rode in on horses with cowboy hats like some cheesy as fuck knock-off Clint Eastwood Western. Meanwhilst, just off camera stand the Atheist boys scratching their heads as Immortal run around pulling silly poses (again). It's complete bullshit.
So all in all, let me clarify once and for all that I do not hate Pantera. I hate Phillip Anselmo, and on reflection is probably why the final edition of this column is less filled with humour as much as it is a personal attack on his very person. This is the skinhead to give all the others a bad name. Let's ignore the fact that they made one of the biggest left turns in all of musical history the moment he joined; that their earlier Glam/Power material (that actually wasn't dreadful I'd like to add) suddenly disappeared for the new flavour of the month, a fact that could forgivable if they then didn't spend the rest of the musical careers pretending it never happened. It's as though he brainwashed the entire band and made them ashamed of the music they had written previously; manipulated the other members into his line of thought like some sort of musical L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology). Ok, so he joined a band, convinced them their work was shit and they should follow another path. What path do you ask? Why the Neo-Nazi White Power path of course! Fact: When you have to open a seven minute speech with “now I don't mean to be racist, but...” it's gonna be fuckin' racist. At least if he opened with “Hi, I'm Phil Anselmo and I hate black people” he could add a dash of honesty to the rant before he goes on to make straw man arguments by taking unintended inferences and stereotyping the entirety of black culture.
Can you imagine just how awkward it'd be if you were the lone black fan in the audience as he's screaming out “this is a white thing”? Y'know what he wore when he was asked to defend the accusations of being racist? Why the AWB flag of course; the logo for the far right party in South Africa that didn't want apartheid to end. Here's the interview, and just so you're sure, here's the Wikipedia page for the party. The most common argument I get in response is that “oh but you don't understand what it was like at the time.” True, I would have been too young and in another continent to know what it was like at the time. What I do know is that shortly after Cowboys From Hell was released, footage of Rodney King being beaten within an inch of his life emerged, and I can't help but look back and wonder if those police officers were Pantera fans... The jury may still be out on whether he really was racist or simply an idiot with a habit of saying - and wearing - the wrong thing; of presenting himself in a manner that he didn't intend to, but there can be little doubt that he's become the poster boy for morons, bigots, racists and assholes. But at least the past is behind us and we can move on. Or so I thought. Then I heard the news he was releasing his first solo album. God damnit.
Part of the reason this review is coming so late is because it's taken me so long to manage to make my way through it. Often I can intently listen from beginning to end with, at worst, maybe a smoke break or two in between, but here I had a barrier to overcome. All too often I would find myself distracted by something odd glowing in my peripheral vision. My current theory was that somehow it was creating some sort of reaction whereby my body was actively trying to encourage me to hibernate as a sort of precautionary measure against the harm conscious listening would do to my body, and that glinting was nothing more than the natural moisture of the eye being squished as my eyelids drooped as though they had weights hooked onto the ends, refracted by the light of my lamp. Perhaps if I listened to more Pantera in my youth, my cognitive abilities would have been suppressed and demolished to the point that this review would be written in the form of grunting and I would be ecstatic by what was discovered here. Be thankful I'm actively demolishing my brain cells for this review, I guess is what I'm really trying to say, because yes, it's most definitely Anselmo alright, but at least this is an Anselmo whose learned from his mistakes in the past.
Well, one of them at least. Despite the questions surrounding any racial prejudice he may have held - perhaps still holds - it's an issue that is avoided in it's entirety. That much remains clear, even if my neanderthal translation capabilities are sadly quite rusty, and it isn't helped that all he does is incoherently shout a lot vaguely in time with the song in the background. He's angry. We have no idea of the details as to why he's angry, but I can definitely glean that he's angry about something and likes to bark like a dog and beat his chest in order to prove just how angry he is about, y'know, that thing he's angry about. Either that or he's constipated. There are vast portions where it may in fact be a recording of him trying to force through out that shit – I mean literally here – from all that curry he ate earlier.
In fact, and this is probably the nicest thing I'll say about this entire album, many of the song titles seem to display an unexpected honesty. There's “Usurper Bastards Rant” where he no doubt points out he should never have been deified, is a bastard, and then rants nonsensically for a bit, and right off the bat we have “Music Media is my Whore,” which I assume is where he admits that he could fart into a microphone and have fans flock to it in their millions. Why on earth the spectacular finalé to the following track wasn't included here is beyond me, because he quite literally pretends to sneeze into the microphone (seriously, Batallion of Zero, 3:25 in. Tell me I'm wrong) which makes his point quite well. In fact, this whole album feels like a test of that theory as he never really seems to make a point, and the instrumentation largely sounds like they just started improvising around whatever he was yelling; that they all wandered into a studio and recorded the first shit that they could come with.
Sadly, not all of them are so intelligent. “Walk Through Exits Only” for example, the title track from where the album takes its name is really something of a "no shit Sherlock" moment. Did you only just figure out what a fucking exit is? Are you still struggling with the notion that you need to enter something before you exit it? Did you just scream in peoples faces about how walking out through entrances was a “white thing” and that they “wouldn't understand?” Fortunately for me, he also finishes off with a monolothic 12-minute epic entitled “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens,” (though he could have just called it "Irrelevant") which means I can comfortably call him
a dumbfuck with the intellectual capabilities of a lamp post and less street cred than the piss curiously everywhere in the dive bar cubicle but the toilet itself [EDIT: I've been informed by our lawyers that I'm still not allowed to say that], because he doesn't like computer technology, and judging by the production on this album, technology fucking hates him right back.
(Skip to 3:24)
Ok, modern post-production. I get it. I hate it, but I get that you want the music to sound “loud,” and you do that by decreasing the dynamic range so that everything is cut off at the same volume and then pump up the volume of the disc. This is a “loud” album, so congratulations, you have accomplished that perfectly. You've also understood the modern Deathcore logic that the best way to make an album sound heavy is by downtuning every guitar to the point that ears struggle to physically distinguish between the notes, but you've combined the two and gone with the attitude of “more is better.” As a result, the entire album feels like a wall of bass. It actually has less tonal variety than shitty "Drum and Bass" tracks because at least there, on the odd occasion, the drums and the bass stop and play something ever so slightly different. But not you, you thought you'd make forty minutes of a single bass note. Thank god there's at least one guitarist who bothered to slap five other strings on his guitar else you'd really be in shit street. It's just a shame that, he too, has pumped the distortion up to eleven and believes every great solo is dependent on how fast you can play. The actual notes are clearly irrelevant, so long as it's not the same one that was just played. I can just imagine how it happened in the recording studio: “Keys? Scales? Fuck that, learning is for pussies. Melo-what now? Ain't that a girl's name? Do I look like a girl to you? Harmo- Oh that's fucking it, you're gonna get it you piece of shit.”
The first time I tried to listen to this album, after what felt like an eternity I had to turn it off. I was halfway through track two. After a few more attempts I finally managed to make it from beginning to end in a single sitting; my mind had become numb to the monotonous noise of a drunk man yelling incoherently and the thick blurred wall of bass only broken up by the guitarist trying his hardest to recreate the sound he makes when he has an orgasm. If you thought Pantera used too many notes when they made “Walk,” or the solos weren't quite incoherent and headache inducing enough then you're gonna love this shit. For the rest of you, c'mon? What were you expecting? There's no rhythm, no sense of groove or melody. It doesn't really belong to any genre because there's nothing here to form a link to it. The closest comparisons I can come up with would be the likes of John Cage's "4:33" or just about anything done by Merzbow; it almost questions whether it can be considered music such is the void of musicality, except this is done less through experimentalism or philosophical pretentiousness as much as it is done through him being borderline mentally retarded. “Everybody ruins music, not just me,” he yells. No Phil, you're still fucking it up in a pretty monumental way. Take out the 8 minutes of pick scraping and feedback that finishes the album and it barely clocks in at half an hour, and even that feels far too long. Just when you think he couldn't make music worse, he comes right back and proves you wrong.
I couldn't have put it better myself.
Grimm - Dark Medieval Folklore - 3.5/5
Rarely do I have this much fun listening to a Black Metal album. Admittedly, the instrumentation leaves much to be desired, but hell, I don`t think there`s any other Metal album that can make me want to get up and dance. And I did, too.
The band has gone through many personel changes through the years, but now only two members remain, Heer Marchosias and Heer Antikrist. That would explain why the album is so simple. The drums are used in such a way as to create a beat for the song and nothing more. The guitars seldomly go in any direction other than that of the beat created by the drums, adding only melody to rhythm. They remind me of the guitars on Dei Kaberoi, which I reviewed earlier, except more simple. The end result is something resembling a large symbal being pounded on over and over again. This sounds very negative, but after a while, you`ll be forced into contention by the hypnotic, almost monotonous beats. Surprisingly, what appears to take the lead sounds like a violin. No, not a violin, a fiddle, like you hear with Kopriklaani - very basic, in fact I`m not even sure if it`s a real fiddle or a synthesizer, but it provides the few shreads of "wandering melody" which can be found on this album.
The vocals, however, are a bit more interesting. They almost exclusively make use of the type of clean vocals that one expects from Borknagar, except less imposing, which, I believe, is down to poor production values. But, and this is the interesting part, there`s also a very limited use of "unclean" vocals. Simply telling you what they are won`t give the desired effect, so I`ll attempt to illustrate what happened when I first heard them: I was in the kitchen making hot chocolate when this album was playing for the first time. As the kettle boiled, I suddenly heard the most terrible screams coming from my bedroom. I actually thought someone was being murdered in there. These were no vocals. They were plain screams. Open your mouth and scream and you`ll know how they sound.
That`s about it. The entire album consists of these few things. There is also a small use of synthesizers, most notably in the first track, but nothing spectacular. Other than that the album exists entirely of almost addictive drum beats, rhythmic melody provided by the guitar, a bit of fiddling and some low-pitched clean vocals. It`s an almost a Satyricon-like simplicity which they have achieved here. They managed to express every idea they had perfectly. Does this mean that they`re exceptionally talented? No. They simply didn`t aim too high. But what they did aim for, they achieved.
One major complaint, though, is that the songs come to feel a bit long-winded after a while. But that notwithstanding, I think that with their brand of Motorhead-esque ballz, combined with a very folksy beat, they might just be the first in a bread of bastard children: the fun Black Metallers.
Highlights: Germaanse Stampdans, Klughtspel Der Duyvelsbanders
Toehider – To Hide Her – 4.5/5
Toehider are undeniably an eccentric bunch, taking the prog rock format and emerging with this compilation of comical tracks. Their most recent work was a collection of covers from underrated cartoons. They wanted to avoid the 'second album slump' by starting their recording career with 12 EPs in 12 months; more than 240mins of material in their first year. They did a humourous track all about how they 'do it for metal.' In fact they use humour throughout much of their work; it could almost be considered some weird hybrid between Queen and Tenacious D, taking pop hooks, rocking riffs, eclectic acoustic guitar, and swirling them all together to create a compilation so diverse you could have sworn it wasn't the same band.
Their eccentricity perhaps not all that surprising when you consider Queen was such an influence on them, and oddly, in a sense it does show. Take their 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' You've probably heard it so many times you know all the words, but what genre would you call it? When they're doing their opening, right before he sings 'don't stop me now' it's rather poppish isn't it? The 'I'm just a poor boy' segment is essentially a choir of three, more theatrical than anything rock. Understand then that when I refer to Toehider as a prog rock band, I don't mean they always play progressive rock, merely that if you added all the metallic elements, indie lines and pop passages, then averaged them all out, prog rock is about where we'd end up. The absolutely last thing I want you to expect is for these guys to sit still and play one genre for an entire album.
In fact, in break from my usual contempt at breaking down the different tracks, allow me to take you on a brief walk through this release. Opening with a pop ballad, we swiftly move on to a prog rock tune, pop rock, then it's on through to folk rock, jazz rock, Ozzy-era Sabbath-influenced rock, pop punk, indie rock; there's acoustic guitars, thick groovy riffs, gentle melodies, xylophone solos – the songs don't blend the different styles, they're simply distinct enough to stand alone within the rest of the package. Mixed in with the gentle humour are sombre notes, questioning living up to expectations and the turmoil after the death of a loved one. He balances the serious with the silly and prevents things from dragging on for too long; neither becoming little more than a joke or too bogged down with weighty topics, which whilst an unconventional approach, in this instance oddly works.
Genre wise he just can't sit still. I almost want to call his appreciation for so many styles uncanny but it never feels as though he spent the time studying or learning each approach. Each line and melody comes to him so fluidly that you never doubt he just has an immense ear for what particular tone a track requires. After hearing how capable musicians they are, so much of their work feels as though they're playing beneath their abilities but there's simply no trace of the thought that they should show off, just as content performing a basic acoustic arpeggio as they are shredding out a face-melting solo. The drummer coming off the back of 'Soilwork' clearly knows his way around the drum kit and the bassist proves she's never a slouch, but the real star is the immensely versatile vocal work, from the Queen-like chorals, the powerful soprano lines, all the way down to the gentle folk lines and everywhere in between, always letting his natural accent emerge and give him a flavour that only furthers to gloriously distinguish their work.
There are, however a few flaws in his masterful debut. With such a wide variety of styles, it loses a sense of coherency; it feels less an album as much as a collection of work, and given his knack for choosing a style suitable at each point it seems a shame that he hasn't picked an overarching concept or tale, encompassing both the heavy topics and his humourous side. On similar lines, the fact that there is so much to choose from will cause listeners to gravitate to some songs over others; the slow and atmospheric finale the first to feel the wrath of the skip button, whilst I've lost count of the number of times 'Everybody Knows Amy' (so named after their bassist) has been spun. They'll make you laugh and make you cry, but for all their indecision over which genre to play, they're certainly never boring.
Highlights: Daddy Issues, There's a Ghost in the Lake, Everybody Knows Amy, Fireside
Mariko Goto - 299792458 - 4/5
If I was charged with describing this album in one word it'd be easy. It would simply be KAWAIIIII!!!! And I mean that with no sense of irony stemming from the fact I usually loathe obsessive Japanophiles who use Japanese words when perfectly good English ones exist. Well alright, maybe there's still a hint of irony in there, but simply calling it 'cutesy pop' as she described it doesn't convey the sheer sense of my wide and blurry eyed squeeing in delight at how god damn adorable this is. It's like a journey into the mind of the cutest child you've never laid eyes upon, seeing the world through her eyes in all its delights; through the temper tantrums, excitement and contentment at having found something sugary to nibble on, and I don't even like kids.
This may well be her first solo effort but it's most certainly not the first album where she's found herself the centre of attention, having brief cult success in Midori, splitting up shortly after making their first major label release in 2010. If you're familiar with their odd addictive brand of paedo-punk-jazz you'll be glad to know she hasn't given up the jazzy piano lines and the occasional screeched vocal, but certainly there is less of the contrasting chaos to her jaw-achingly cute side. Nonetheless, to simply dismiss this out of hand as 'just another J-pop album' would be doing it grave disservice as it's nothing of the sort. As the intro prepares you, consisting of nothing more than Goto herself playfully singing nonsensically, this is gonna be an album so sugary you'll swear you can feel your teeth rotting by the minute. It's almost glitch like in its imperfections – the musical equivalent of a small child failing to colour inside the lines of her favourite colouring book – and in a world of auto-tuned “perfect pitch” voices and overproduced backing music, it's these imperfections that give it its charm.
There is certainly an easy to listen to pop-like sensibility to much of the instrumentation; bouncy piano lines form the heart of the tracks rhythm, utilising the inherent versatility of the instrument to traverse between all out noise-laden chaos and the simpler, again child-like melodies, at times almost evocative of a nursery rhyme. The guitars and the rest of the backing instrumentation – particularly the drums who never seem to find themselves stuck for a new jazzy beat for the track at hand – are often little more than that, backing to lend a little more flavour to the proceedings, and despite the piano interludes and brief guitar solos, Goto herself always stands at the forefront. The album title seems bizarre but a quick google shows that it is, in fact, the speed of light in metres per second. Get it? No, can't exactly say I did either, but in an odd way it's a perfect example of her quirkiness; how you don't really have to understand its purpose to enjoy it, and it's all part of what makes her so unique.
To call her a talented vocalist seems like something of an oxymoron; by any standard you could use to determine a vocalist's ability, whether in vocal range, register, ability to sustain a note, add vibrato, alternate pitch in rapid succession or even being able to sing in key, she is by all these standards fairly awful. And yet, it is through all these faults that her childish persona is allowed to flourish; through all the imperfections that she is able to sing like no other – a fact made even more incredible when you consider her decade long music career; how she must be closer to 30 than the 13 year old school girl she still seems to represent. That there is more to the instrumentation than meets the eye is apparent but it is really here, in the vocals, that the album really provides it's draw, delivering upon a style that can be said to belong to no other, and whilst perhaps not up to the best of her work in Midori, it doesn't matter. I still want to snuggle her like the all too adorable kitten she is.
Highlights: Mamaku, Utopia, Atashi no Shoudou
Kaipa – Vittjar – 4.5/5
One of my guilty pleasures – or rather, 'songs I love that I expect most reading this will hate,' seeing as I'm not really ashamed in my love of this tune – has to be Polyphonic Spree's 'Light and Day.' I can't confess to liking much else of their material but something about that track always puts a smile on my face. Because when you spend so long listening to the aggressive and depressive depths of metal with an obsessive attitude it's very easy to get lost in a world that's bleak, pessimistically forgetting that there is still good and beauty in the world. I admit this is an odd way of beginning a review, but I assure you it's perfectly relevant: Kaipa have reminded me once again that there is still beauty in the world and have done it in a way few others have done before.
For an artist with a 40 year old career you would have thought their name would have come up more often. True, they are Swedish, but it's hardly as if nothing from that frostbitten land makes it across, and yes, they did go on a 20 year hiatus, but they also reformed a decade ago. It's also true that the line-up has changed considerably since their conception with only one original member left handling the keyboards duty, and the only other name I recognise is that of Per Nilsson of 'Scar Symmetry.' Not that his guitar work here bears any resemblance. Quite frankly I'm not sure why I brought it up. What we have here are old fashioned prog rockers who aren't so much 'retro' as they are valuable relics from the 70s, surviving all this time and arriving from another time; their blend of jazzy lines and folk melodies in their compositions never anything but natural, laid back and rather than forcing anything, just letting the music flow and meander from them as it chooses. It's this laid back feel to their work that is their defining trait; not necessarily uncaring but joyously carefree, never getting too bogged down with serious topics but contemplating and expressing their love for life’s simple pleasures. Length doesn't matter; 'epic' tracks never feel that way despite one clocking in at over 20 minutes. That it's long feels irrelevant, it's not trying to create something larger than life, nor does it ever gets boring due to being stretched out, it's simply content to take all the time it needs to let the song develop.
That it's so light and airy is surely to be off-putting for some, but don't go mistaking this for some pop outfit; it's hardly superficial in it's output and despite the tone manages to throw up plenty of interesting passages; jazzy bass lines and drum beats; upbeat guitar solo's amongst the slower; vocal lines left to convey the atmosphere alone; recorders; violins; and a whole range of keyboard work forming a rich fabric that is subtle in it's complexity. It's certainly no less technically inclined than the classics; your King Crimson's, Jethro Tull's and Rush's, but it's purpose is focussed in a different way, subtly weaving flourishes of masterful musicianship such that it feels merely a means to an end, furthering the track in it's intended direction.
With perhaps the notable exception of the lead male vocalist – as there is also a lead female vocalist – whose powerful and distinctive vocals sometimes manage to steal the show, going on to elaborate on the individual elements seems rather pointless. Each member demonstrates their phenomenal capabilities and feels perfectly suited, not for what they bring to the music themselves but for how they work with the rest of the band. There is no singular stand out element because there is no one trying to stand out; there is no one-upmanship with one musician trying to steal the show from another, though I don't doubt most could if they tried. Kaipa might just be the last surviving remnant of a bygone era, and without them the only thing left will be 'retro' artists pretending they could have belonged. Whether it's taken them this long to perfect their craft or if they've always been writing music of this standard I don't know, all I know is that with Vittjar, perfect it they have. Easily one of the most impressive albums this year.
Highlights: Silent Ballroom Band, Treasure-House
Spawn of Possession – Incurso – 3/5
Six years in the making and toted as one of this years big musical events, this looked like a Tech Death band experimenting with the use of gothic classical passages within their framework, an idea that resulted in one of the experimental black metal band Sigh's best releases (Hangman's Hymn) and a concept that didn't long to sucker me in. A concept that, as it turns out, was almost completely false; the track I spun to see what the fuss was about an anomaly in an album which is by and large straight forward for the genre. That's what you get for judging an album by one interesting track, as the rest of the album isn't even particularly good (though I must confess, I do love that artwork).
The bassist gets his moments, often heard with his tight bass twang working away in the background and the vocals maintain a constant tone but ultimately both are fairly bland. No arguments against the vocalist's tone itself, his deep growl is nothing but perfectly fitting but contains zero variation, unless you count the passages where he's actually not growling at all. Truth is they both could be doing just about anything most of the time and you're unlikely to care, it's obvious there's so much more emphasis on the twin guitars and drumming – even more so than usual – that the rest of the band are there more for completing the line-up; like how Slipknot seems to employ their friends to dance around on stage with a triangle or something; they may be present but what's actually required of them is pretty minimal.
The guitars largely rely on a few simple tricks to make the main body of their work sound complex; always use plenty of pinch harmonics when you want to sound dissonant; after chugging for a bit, skip to a high note and play a couple of notes, (it doesn't really matter which, any will do); and under no circumstances should you let a note ring out. Actual riffs do emerge from time to time but all too quickly are they snapped away for the lazier alternatives. There are times where due to the overly crisp production the guitars sound downright electric and inorganic, and left alone it could almost at times be an odd techno track someone's playing far too quickly to actually dance to, a problem especially prevalent during the solos and higher pitched passages. The drums fare little better in preventing this mechanical tone but at least they can be said to carry a distinctive rhythm, the kick drum providing a constant drilling attack whilst the rest of the tools at his disposal are employed in constantly shifting beats, adding flourishes and fills far beyond the usual and expected blasts, easily surpassing the rest of them in terms of his chaotic compositions, technicality and capabilities. Quite frankly he deserves a better band.
Everything's overproduced to remove any trace of viscerality. It's technical, yes, but almost parodical of the genre as a whole, as if to lightly mock the stereotype of the genre in it's soulless, wank-infested glory. It actually sounds better when played through my dreadful mobile phone, the inadequate capabilities of the small speaker adding a layer of distortion and noise that quite depressingly improves the overall tone, creating a greater sense of chaos. They seem to take it so seriously, yet then proceed to remove any bite the instruments might have had; bombard you with an array of seemingly random high pitched notes interspersed between the constant chugging before breaking out the short, mindless, brain-dead, seemingly obligatory shredded solo. It's difficult to determine whether they were serious or they were trying to crack a joke; put on a straight face and desperately try not to laugh as fans endlessly praise an album they slammed out in a lazy afternoon. Sadly, I suspect they really thought they'd done well with this one, despite every track sounding damn near identical. They're fantastic musicians, there can be no debating that. It's just shame that outside of that final track, they seem to be such lousy composers.
Highlights: The Evangelist, Apparition
Stam1na – Nocebo – 4.5/5
If metal can be considered to have a home, that region to the north of Central Europe otherwise known as Scandinavia would undeniably be it. The infamous Norwegian black metal scene; Swedish death metal and 'Gothenburg' riffs, and then there's Finland. Certainly they're none the less obsessed with the genre – one of the biggest children's shows there, Hevisaurus, is basically 'Barney' if he donned some denim and made a power metal band – yet whilst we can safely establish the nation tends to have a better taste in popular music, so much of what becomes big there never seems to migrate. Sure, some of it does; the likes of Nightwish and HIM still plague us to this day, but then there's artists such as Von Hertzen Bros. and Alamaailman Vasarat which whilst reaching the Finnish album charts, never seems to leave the country. Which brings me squarely onto Stam1na, releasing this #1 album that nobody else seems to have paid attention to, and it's not the first time this has happened either.
A concept album about a 'nocebo' or an 'anti-placebo;' medical science giving people drugs that actually do nothing yet we think will make us worse, and that negativity actually does end up making everyone feel worse. And then they set fire to Tavastia for some reason, a well known music venue in Helsinki (look, I don't speak Finnish and that's the language they sing in OK? I'm only telling you what I know). It's the apocalypse that mankind has brought down on itself through our own ignorance; it's a bit like Mastodon's 'Leviathan' all over again, except with more of a Devin Townsend's 'Ziltoid' brand of insanity about it. Describing how they sound isn't exactly the easiest of tasks, and perhaps 'alternative metal' in the vein of System of a Down is one of the better descriptors (I know, 'alternative to what?' right? As much as I hate the term, here it oddly fits), along with 'Progressive Thrash.' But not the kind you're thinking. No, the thrash isn't the Bay Area kind but rather the melodic and groove laden kind. Nor is the progressive element akin to what I suspect you're probably thinking either but a little closer to 'Rush' instead. So alternative progressive thrash that's sort of like Devin Townsend but not with catchy System of a Down elements and some Rush in the- look will you just click the damn youtube video at the bottom already? It'll make my job a great deal easier. Then hit repeat as the video is all kinds of B-Movie awesome as well, though I suspect the view of four hairy Finns windmilling in unison contains some form of brainwashing capability.
Moving on, one of the stand out features of this album is the diverse vocal work. There are clean lines and deathly growls, both done pretty darn well, but what he really tends to favour is a violent yell. It's unconventional but actually works; frantically shouting what I can only assume translates to a hundred variations of 'fuck you,' not that I'm entirely sure who he's shouting at nor why he would want to utter obscenities at them. It doesn't matter, his point gets made and he makes it so loudly and with such frenetic tenacity that there will be times where you'll move to wipe the flecks of spit from your face only to realise there's nothing actually there. There will be times, too, when the guitar work is fairly chug-heavy but contrasting the down-tuned fretwork is a higher pitched riff always around the corner. Often it's the guitars that offer it in the form of a melodic solo, psychedelic riff or something even less expected, but sometimes it's a keyboard synth passage. At one point it's even a banjo interlude, but whatever they choose it usually arrives out of the blue and yet somehow never feels at all out of place amidst the insanity, only straying so far as to keep things interesting.
There can be no doubt that you're listening to a Stam1na track the second it starts spinning – nobody is crazy quite like this – but no two tracks sound alike, and it's a testament to the production work that all this is possible. I know I've made all this sound atrocious; catchy as crap music with lots of shouting, groovy riffs and a mainstream appeal, but it's not. It's not even in that 'guilty pleasure' category where you find yourself humming the tune and nodding your head but then feeling dirty about it, as though you've done something inherently wrong. Yes, it may sometimes sound like nu-metal's feisty cousin, but holy fuckin' shit is that one damn sexy cousin.
Highlights: Valtiaan Uudet Vaateet, Tavastia Palamaan!, Rabies
Hot Cross – Cryonics – 4.5/5
This band plays Screamo. That's emotional post-hardcore with screamed vocals; the kind of depressed cries of anguish that perpetuate the sensation of despair at personal circumstances beyond your control. SCREAMO. Right, now that I've successfully dissuaded the close-minded amongst you – I have no particular desire to go on a rant about how you probably haven't heard what the genre has to offer, there's fourfa for that – I can get on with detailing precisely why this is an album that should excite. It's not quite old-school, being release in '03, but if you track the origins of its members you'll note that they, in fact, are. The vocalist and drummer arrive from Saetia, one of the kings of classic 90's emo. One guitarist arrives from “Off Minor,” known for his distinctive progressive take on the genre, and the other from “You and I,” the least well known of the three bands who are none the less talented. If all this means nothing to you, let me break it down further: this band is hot shit.
In fact, with this much talent on display you'd expect them to be headed down shitsville, each member vying for control and forgetting that there's another four members whose just as good as them, but that never happens. It never feels anything less than an artist that have been playing together all their lives, some bizarre cohesive unit that despite being separated into individual musicians seems to function from a shared consciousness. There are three vocalists but they are all there to serve a purpose, the main dealing with the majority of the duties but often found playing off against one of his backing vocalists; the clean toned contrast to his screams or engaging in shouting match with an alter ego. No doubt if you despise screams in your music then this will become an obstacle, but the lyrics aren't angst-filled or juvenile; one track begins by screaming out “Give me back one last chance to drink from the sky. I'm sick of chasing echoes and fighting a lost cause just to let words fly.” Emotional tragedies still are it's core but there's a sense of depth and poetry to it that defies the usual criticisms.
But if the intricate layers of vocals and lyrical lines was complex, it's not a thing on the composition of the guitars; the vocals can always strip themselves down to just the lead vocalist, but the guitars don't ever stop. The bass is given no less prominence in the final mix than the guitarists are, maintaining a rhythm and forming a bridge between the drums and guitar work, but ultimately playing lines that are his and his alone. The guitars are no different; clean though perhaps with a slight twang or use of effects pedals for more atmospheric lines, no singular element takes the lead and instead find themselves weaving in and out of one another, creating complexity through intricately layering them, harmonising each element into a single track. It's not just one specific passage where they worked this out either, their progressive format completely removes all chorus lines and allows the pieces to fluidly change one element at a time. It's simply unlike any other artist I can name.
But my praise for them hasn't quite finished here. Three vocalists and three guitarists all playing completely independent lines, layered on top of one another so that it'll always give you plenty to listen to. You'd expect it all to be a bit too much, a bit too chaotic with your focus divided between too many elements. The real beauty of their composition is in just how much this doesn't ever happen; how they are able to create a melodious chaos with guitar riffs flying in from nowhere, playing in unison, but then in an instant tone everything down for a ballad, and despite the inherent complexity of the composition, have the elements work together in perfect harmony. To call their work rich and vibrant is a massive understatement; each track is intricately woven around each of the musicians and the result is a melody that is both instantly memorable yet sustainable over a number of listens. Hot Cross's debut effort is a forgotten gem of the screamo era that many modern artists would do well to pay attention to: this is how you do it properly.
Highlights: Pretty Picture of a Broken Face, A Tale for the Ages, Requiescat
Age of Silence – Acceleration – 2.5/5
I wanted to like this album, I really did. I was so astounded by it's discovery; a super-group of talented Norwegians coming together to produce a progressive metal album that could only be epic by virtue of the talent on display; the drummer from Arcturus and Mayhem, the bassist, keyboardist and guitarist from Winds as well as Borknagar's (backing) vocalist, how could it go wrong? In a sense it seems like a side-project of Winds, but really it's a different entity altogether; no neo-classical power is to be found here, it lies squarely in that experimental side of progressive metal. In fact, if I had to make any comparison it reminds me of Leprous or Ihsahn's work, not because they sound similar but because the sound so radically different from what you'd ordinarily expect.
Sadly, it all too quickly begins to fall apart. The guitars feel rather generic and quite heavy on the use of chords, which whilst not bad in itself, often finds itself lacking in riffs which would really have gone into helping the piece into becoming more memorable. The keys vary between barely being noticeable in the background and displaying odd flourishes of being unignorably dominant in the forefront, supplying piano passages or energetic synth solo's almost always completely at odds with the rather robotic lack of emotion. The vocals send things from bad to worse with a drawl that rarely allows him to change pitch, and the lack of energy throughout the whole piece just makes the drums sound as though they really can't be bothered to try, even though at the start of the album it's clear he's doing his best to inject a small amount of personality into the proceedings. The tracks are barely distinguishable from one another (only the gentle “90° Angles” making any notable change to the pace) and nothing ever really seems to fit together coherently, but of course, this could all be the point of the music.
If usually we strive for an emotional response, to weave a story or explore a concept, their intention might well be to sound as robotic and emotionless as they possibly could. It would certainly fit with the theme they're striving for, the notion that we are becoming too heavily reliant on machines and technology and losing our humanity as a result. In that case they succeeded in doing that remarkably well and I would have no option but to concede and give them top marks for it, but a concept relying on being as boring as possible doesn't exactly make for interesting music. Quite the opposite in fact. If I didn't know any better I'd have thought they were a group of teens trying to form their first high school band, it's that bland and unenthusiastically performed. Only two of the musicians seem capable here and it would have been better if it were just the drummer and keyboards left alone, written as an instrumental piece. I apologise for bringing it all up in the first place, I'm sure this is one chapter all the musicians involved would rather pretend never actually happened.