Akira Takasaki

REVIEW: Loudness – Live-Loud-Alive – Loudness in Tokyo (1983)

LOUDNESS – Live-Loud-Alive – Loudess in Tokyo (1983 Columbia)

Like many classic rock bands, Loudness waited three studio albums before going double live.  The Birthday EveDevil Soldier and The Law of Devil’s Land were ripe and ready for live album immortality.  English is minimal, but you don’t need a Japanese dictionary to enjoy the metal within Live-Loud-Alive.  It is the most galvanized of the metal; Loudness’ integrity uncompromised, with Akira Takasaki in lead shred mode.

With a double length album so early in Loudness’ career, they played plenty of non-album material to fill it.  And it’s good!

Opening with a recording of Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” the band rip right into the riff for “In the Mirror”.  That guitar sounds so classic, you’ll be questioning which Scorpions or Metallica album it’s from.  A heavy chug named “Road Racer” (originally a non-album Loudness single) is paired with one of Minoru Niihara’s most melodic lead vocals.  Only the thick and shimmery (probably embellished) chorus is in English.   On guitar, Akira Takasaki’s solo sounds like he is re-entering the atmosphere after an alien/robot conference in space.  “I Was the Sun” has a slower beat, pounding sheet metal into lethal form, with an elementary riff.  Ordinary as the riff may be, it isn’t the highlight this time.  The chorus takes center stage.  The first side of the original vinyl ended on “Fly Away”, a mammoth of a song mixing the delicate and the heavy.

“Black Wall” opens on what sounds like bass synth, but Akira soon takes command with a melancholy and precise guitar pattern.  Then, like any good Sabbath song, he breaks into a completely different lick, just as catchy.  An instrumental track from Akira’s solo album follows, including a wicked drum solo by Munetaka Higuchi.  This side of the record blows out with “Mr. Yesman”, a complex track like “2112” crossed with “Children of the Damned”.

On side three, a new song is previewed:  “Exploder”, a Van Halen-like guitar instrumental destined for album #4.  This transitions into another instrumental called “Heavenward”, similar to Akira’s solo work.  It’s all just good music that flows track intro track.  Guitar shrieks tell us that “Loudness” is next, a brilliant mid-tempo rocker of radio-ready nature.  It sounds like vintage, early 80s Scorpions.  Another killer riff in “Sleepless Night” brings the side to a solid close.

“Speed” does what it says.  That’s no surprise.  What may be surprising is the quality of the non-album B-side “Shinkiro”.  This cool track has some great melodic twists and an absolutely brilliant and varied Akira solo.  One of his best!  From volume-knob twists to full-on speed, it’s brilliant.  The only way to end it is by going back to the beginning, and “Burning Love”, the first non-album single by the band.  It’s a blistering way to go out.

Though not singing primarily in English yet, their musical influences were clearly the same ones from North America and Europe that we know and love too.  While you may not recognize the songs, many will sound familiar because they draw from the same pool.  It’s the best of early Loudness, void of commercial ambition.  While you do lose the ability to sing along, you can at least slam to the riffs.  One can hear why this album is held in such high esteem by the faithful.  It sounds like an experience.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – World Tour 2018 – Rise to Glory – Live in Tokyo (2019)

LOUDNESS – World Tour 2018 – Rise to Glory – Live in Tokyo (2019 Ear Music)

In an unfortunate twist of events, Loudness drummer Masayuki Suzuki was sidelined by stroke and could not perform on the Rise to Glory tour.  Ryuichi “Dragon” Nishida filled in beat-for-beat and appears on the live album World Tour 2018 – Rise to Glory – Live in Tokyo.  This 2 CD/1 DVD combo set is compiled from three days in Tokyo, with a bonus:  the DVD features one track with Masayuki Suzuki from the fourth day.  His performance on “Loudness” is as if there was nothing wrong with him, and he appears delighted to be playing live again.

Live in Tokyo is an energized performance, focusing almost entirely on early Loudness.  This being a hometown crowd, many of the songs are performed with their original Japanese lyrics.  1985’s Thunder in the East takes the early focus on disc one with the first six tracks all being sourced from the “big” album.  These tracks are intense, with solos by Akira Takasaki that melt the face.  Classic Loudness with jagged riffs and still-powerful vocals from Minoru Niihara.

Oldies abound.  Disc 1 also includes “Loudness” (the version with Ryuichi Nishida on drums) from the 1981 debut The Birthday Eve.  A slick, well-received version.  There’s also a punishing “In the Mirror” from third LP The Law of Devil’s Land, and the memorable “Crazy Doctor” from 1984’s Disillusion.

The second disc spotlights two lesser-known albums.  First is The Law of Devil’s Land from 1983.  The first five heavy numbers (including a second version of “In the Mirror”) all come from that platter.  This is the heavy proto-thrash that Loudness were peddling at the start of the 80s, and vicious stuff it is.  But not without hooks!  The last five originated on Disillusion, regarded by some aficionados as Loudness’ best.  From “Crazy Doctor” through the ballad “Ares’ Lament” and the finisher “Esper”, these are some great metal songs.

 

Impressively, the third disc (the DVD) highlights another batch of songs missed on the first two discs:  newer material.  “Soul on Fire”, “Go For Broke”, “Until I See the Light”, “I’m Still Alive” and a pair of instrumentals from the new Rise to Glory (2018) stand up to the earlier material.  The awesome “The Sun Will Rise Again” from the 2014 album of the same name rounds out the freshest material.  The new tunes are still heavy, riffy and melodic, but with a very slight modern edge.  “I’m Still Alive” goes thrash metal, but that’s part of Loudness’ origins.  Besides the return of Suzuki on drums for one song, the highlight of the DVD is a ballad.  After so many brutal songs, Minoru breaks out an acoustic guitar for an unplugged “Ares’ Lament”.  This is completely different than the version on CD 2, which was done fully electric.

Any classic band from the 80s or earlier, still trying to pull it off today, has the same question to answer:  How good is the singer?  Minoru Niihara is excellent.  As if no years have passed.  None of the material presents a challenge.

Considering the mixture of material over the three discs, Rise to Glory – Live in Tokyo would be a suitable entry point for any rock fan wanting to check out Loudness.  You’ll get the hits from Thunder in the East, ample early deep cuts, and a sampling of quality new stuff.  Value for the money and time invested.

4.5/5 stars

 

Sunday Screening: Loudness interview…in English! (2015)

This week I’ve realized that regular readers here are not as familiar as they should be with the legendary Japanese metal band Loudness!  I’ve done my best to educate with my Loudness reviews, but there is nothing better than hearing the story directly from the source.  This brief 2015 interview with the affable Loudness is from the Tuska Open Air Festival in Helsinki, and conducted in English!

The surviving original members Masayoshi Yamashita, Minoru Niihara, and Akira Takasaki are questioned by interviewer Kati Rausch about their history.  Subjects covered:

  • Their first gig (sold out) in 1981 (when Masayoshi was only 19 years old)
  • Switching to English in 1984
  • Their recent album The Sun Will Rise Again
  • Devil horns

A great little 5 minute interview with three guys you can’t help but like.  Check out some Loudness today.

 

LOUDNESS REVIEWS

REVIEW: Loudness – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips DVD

Part Four of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips (1999 Rooms DVD, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The complete Buddha Rock 1997-1999 set comes with the three Loudness albums from that brief era, and also a bonus DVD with the accompanying music videos.  On the back some are listed as “full size” and others “short size” — let’s find out what that means and what Loudness videos looked like in the late 90s.

“Ghetto Machine” opens, with Loudness including a shaven-headed Akira Takasaki performing in a darkened room.  The added static interferance reminds us we are in the 90s when bands like Loudness didn’t have much budget and covered it up with tricks like this.  Masaki appears cold with his big fur hat, but it’s fun to see this version of Loudness on video.  “Evil Ecstasy” has cleaner production, but this is one of the “short size” videos — it’s only about 90 seconds of a pretty cool song.  Too bad because this video is much more watchable.  The funkier “San Francisco” is also one of these short versions, as is “Creatures”.  All of these videos appear to be taped at the same time.  The section of “Creatures” used focuses on the guitar solo.  That’s cool at least.  “Katmandu Fly” is the “full size”, but it’s also only a minute-long instrumental so to call it “full size” is kinda cheatin’.

Moving on from the Ghetto Machine album, all the rest of the videos are “full size”.  From Dragon, it’s two of the best tracks:  “Dogshit” and “Crazy Go Go”.  This time Loudness are playing in a huge, uber-clean garage.  As “Dogshit” demonstrates, Akira was now into his “fly sunglasses” phase.  It looks like the band are having fun here, which makes it an enjoyable watch.  Great song too.  “Crazy Go Go” is more straight ahead, with lights and struttin’ stage moves instead of goofing around.

Apparently they only did one video for the final Masaki album, Engine.  “Black Biohazard” is that song; not a tune that impressed on prior listens.  (Also strange how “Black Biohazard” is the only song not in capital letters on the cover.)  This video is made from grainy outdoor concert festival footage.  From this we can ascertain that live, Masaki was a capable frontman with a cool rock star stage persona.

At 25 minutes, this DVD can not be considered more than a bonus for buying the Buddha Rock box set.  It is not the main draw.  The fundamental reason to get Buddha Rock is to acquire the three albums Ghetto Machine, Dragon and Engine in one place with ease.  As a bonus feature, the Music Clips disc does what it does.  “Dogshit” is the best video by a wide margin, and it remains unclear why “short size” videos were included, unless that’s all that was ever made for those particular songs?

The Buddha Rock box set also comes with photos, complete lyrics (in English) and liner notes (in Japanese).  It’s the obvious way to go to cover those years, an era which ended with the Engine album in 1999.  At Masaki’s urging, Akira Takasaki reunited the original Loudness lineup and released Spiritual Canoe with Minoru Niihara at the microphone.  That put an end to the Masaki Yamada era, which started with member turnover before solidifying on these three albums with Naoto Shibata and Hirotsugo Homma on bass and drums respectively.  Great musicians both who helped Loudness explore new and weird directions at the end of the 90s.

Music Clips DVD:  3/5 stars

Buddha Rock 1997-1999 box set:  3.5/5 stars  (the sum of the whole is greater than its parts)

REVIEW: Loudness – Engine (1999)

Part Three of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Engine (1999 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The Masaki Yamada era of Loudness ended with the 1990s.  Masaki felt (correctly) that Loudness would be best off reuniting with its original lineup in the year 2000, and so Engine is the last album to feature Yamada, drummer Hirotsugo Homma and bassist Naoto Shibata.

As with the previous two Loudness albums (also included in Buddha Rock), Akira Takasaki’s penchant for experimentation is at the forefront.  “Soul Tone”, the opening instrumental, makes that much clear with its atypical exotic guitar drones in place of a song.  Then Akira cranks up the string harmonics on the bizarrely rocking “Bug Killer”, a 90s song if there ever was one.  He must have been listening to Rage Against the Machine.  The track descends into guitar mayhem by the end.  It’s incredible to think how Akira transitioned from an 80s guitar hero compared to Eddie and Yngwie, to a 90s master borrowing from Morello and the Middle East.

“Black Biohazard” chugs unremarkably just like much of the 90s did.  Leaning on a groove, “Twist of Chain” has certain 80s delicious metal elements hidden under the distortion.  It’s the kind of song that makes these lost albums really worth hunting down.  Similarly, “Bad Date/Nothing I Can Do” buries its hooks under vocal distortion.  Unfortunate that they didn’t just let it loose.  “Apocalypse” fails to build on this with a forgettable alterna-dirge.  “Ace in the Hole” has more going on, with a menacing far East vibe.  The guitars are like razor blades.

 

A sudden left turn on the partly acoustic “Sweet Dreams” almost sounds like a great lost Stone Temple Pilots song from some unknown era.  “Asylum” focuses on the bass, as a lot of the album does, choosing a heavy psychedelic feel.  A long guitar solo section is the track’s highlight.

Without warning, the oddly titled “Burning Eye Balls” goes to acoustic exotic Zeppelin territory.  This refreshing change is followed by “Junk His Head”, a pretty straightforward headbanger that does away with the distorted vocals.  Hirotsugo Homma lays down a killer beat on this one.   The penultimate instrumental track “2008 (Candra 月天)” doesn’t have any particular hooks to relay which is unfortunate since previous Loudness instrumentals have at least been interesting.  This leaves it to the closing track “Coming Home” to make final impressions, of which it makes few.  It has echoes of the old Loudness track “So Lonely” but without much of the feeling or structure.

These three final Masaki-era Loudness albums all have some cool tracks; enough at least to assemble a good single-disc compilation.  Owning all three is for fans only.  It is fun to sit and listen to a band evolve, and watch them try on all kinds of different hats.  If that’s your obsession too, pick up Engine and check out the complete Buddha Rock box set while you’re at it.

2.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Dragon (1998)

Part Two of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Dragon (1998 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

Lucky 13th album for Loudness?  Maybe not, but it is an uptick from the prior release Ghetto Machine.  The band just kept on going, with only Akira Takasaki remaining from the original lineup.  Their third singer Masaki Yamada was on his fourth album with Loudness, and by now they had established a heavy alterna-metal 90s sound.  It is the strongest of the three albums of the Buddha Rock era.

Loudness had become fearless, blending thrash and funk together on “9 Mile High”.  Those who don’t enjoy Masaki’s growling style won’t be turned around here.  Those who like it fast enough to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs will not have a problem.  It skips between thrash and funk without warning.

The appetizingly titled “Dogshit” could only have come from the 1990s.  Harmonic drones are substituted for a main riff, and Masaki’s vocal is closer to rap metal.  Yet there’s something irresistible about it.  “Dog shit on my bike boots!” sings Masaki with a heavy guitar backing him.  And that’s why Loudness could get away with doing this kind of music.  It’s the guitar.  Akira Takasaki is one of the best in the world, but he’s more fearless than Yngwie and can play just about anything.  With a virtuoso like that, it’s unlikely you’re going to sound like dog shit.

“Wicked Witches” is heavy, detuned, and it grooves to the max while drilling into your brain.  There’s even a little bit of early Van Halen in the riff.  That leads into “Crazy Go-Go”, a single and album highlight.  Foregoing the nu-metal, this one is wah-wah heavy and just plain rocks!  Flat out, kick ass, rock and roll.  “Backstage go-go babe, like a circus after school, playin’ my guitar like a country horse.”  (Country horse?)  You get the picture!  It’s about groupies!  (Akira makes his guitar whinny like a horse!)

Drummer Hirotsugo Homma gets to have some rhythmic fun on “Voodoo Voices” which is one of the most bizarre tracks Loudness have ever done.  Voodoo voices indeed, as the vocals are buried, ethereal in the mix.  It’s trippy and trip-hoppy.  The instrumental “回想” (“Kaisō”) is made up of backwards guitars playing quietly and hypnotic.  Then suddenly it’s a metal riff on “Babylon”.  Masaki eschews the growl and goes for psychedelic singing.  “Crawl” features a chugging Akira riff, and then some pulsing synth?  This album goes everywhere.

“Forbidden Love” is pretty cool, coming closer to the spirit of 80s Loudness.  Then go for some more 90s funk metal on “Mirror Ball”, which is as hot as Anthony Kiedis’ arm pit.  Another stunning instrumental emerges in “Taj Mahal”, which is not about the shredding but entirely about atmosphere.  A variety of unique sounding guitars are accompanied by exotic percussion and bass.  Unfortunately that leads into a little bit of a dud for an album closer.  “Nightcreepers” doesn’t make an impression.

While this Dragon is an experimental one, not afraid to mess with expectations or traditions, it is still rooted in that 90s nu-metal dungeon.  That is something that dates the disc to certain period in time.  When it rises above that, as it does on “回想”, “Crazy Go Go” and “Voodoo Voices”, it transcends genre and goes somewhere unique.  There are just enough of those moments to make this album a keeper.

3.25/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Ghetto Machine (1997)

Part One of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Ghetto Machine (1997 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

1997:  Masaki Yamada, the third Loudness singer, was now on his third Loudness album.  Besides founding guitarist Akira Takasaki, the rest of the band was new.  Ghetto Machine is the first with bassist Naoto Shibata, and second with drummer Hirotsugu Homma.  The 90s were chaotic even for Loudness, just like it was for bands in North America.  In Loudness’ case, they now had more original E-Z-O members (in Masaki and Homma) than original Loudness members.  Like most Loudness albums from the 90s onwards, Ghetto Machine was released only in Japan.

The album was self-produced by Takasaki, recently converted to Buddhism, and he fearlessly dove into the 1990s.  Opening with the title “Ghetto Machine”, the riff is low and grinding.  Masaki takes on a growly lower tone, and in place of hooks there is only groove and the drone of guitar.  This is far removed from the regal metal of the earliest days, but seems sincere given the freedom for Loudness to do whatever they wanted.

Track two, “Slave” features an unusual droning riff, with the thrash metal tempos of early Loudness.  At least 90s Loudness didn’t forego guitar solos like some bands.  Akira’s here is as interesting as any he’s done.  “Evil Ecstasy” opts for a nice groove right in the pocket.  Although the riffs are simpler, Akira always does something interesting, either with tone or technique.  Though 90s Loudness seems to be less focused on songwriting hooks, sonics are treated with care.

“San Fransisco” isn’t outstanding, though the guitars always are.  Nice wah-wah on the solo.  Zeppelin seems to be one of many influences on “Love and Hate”, but at this point of the album it is clear that Masaki Yamada will not be delivering much in terms of melody.   “Creatures” has a stinging little whiplash of a riff and biting vocals but little that you can sing along to.  A cool funky groove called “Hypnotized” is preceded by “Katmandu Fly”, a short atmospheric instrumental.  I almost get the feeling that the chorus riff to “Hypnotized” is a twisted variation of “Smoke on the Water”, though it could be my imagination striving to find any kind of hook.

Some crooning during a slow psychedelic jammy break in “Dead Man Walking” is the only melody in that song.  The albums takes a turn back towards melodic at the end.  Second-to-last track “Jasmine Sky” starts the change up.  It’s slow and sparse, and sounds like lead vocals by Akira.  It’s one of the only tracks with an actual vocal melody from start to finish, and sets up “Wonder Man” as a final blowout.  This monolithic riff is accompanied by exotic guitar soloing and a Masaki vocal you can sing along to.  It crawls to a vaguely Zeppelin-y ending.

Ghetto Machine brings me back to that unhappy time in the 90s, when classic bands did what they had to do to adapt, and while the new albums had merit, they were clearly missing…something.  The ’92 Loudness album with Masaki was awesome and represented everything good that the 90s could do to a rock band.  Ghetto Machine is the slide afterwards.

2.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Akira Takasaki – Tusk of Jaguar (Take Another Bite) (1982)

AKIRA TAKASAKI – Tusk of Jaguar (Take Another Bite) (1982, 2009 Columbia CD reissue)

In 1982, Loudness guitarist Akira Takasaki and a Japanese keyboardist named Masanori Sasaji teamed up to record an album of music that was different from the usual Loudness rock.  Though the cover art and title Tusk of Jaguar screams “pure metal”, this is actually a combination of rock, pop and jazz fusion among other influences.  The cool thing about the album is that Loudness play on almost all of it, including singer Minoru Niihara on a couple of vocal tracks.  Some songs are all but considered part of the Loudness discography.

Certainly the opening title track sounds like Loudness.  That speed metal pace can only have been set by Munetaka Higuchi on drums and Masayoshi Yamashita on bass.  “Tusk of Jaguar” is a strange amalgam of shredding metal and jazz-rock interludes.  It sounds a bit like the Ian Gillan Band but with Eddie Van Malmsteen on lead guitar instead of Berne Torme.  Tremendously enjoyable, but way over the heads of most of the masses.

Minoru makes his first appearance on “Steal Away”, a song difficult to describe.  It’s Styx-like and has a big organ sounds like Dennis DeYoung.  Cinematic, progressive pop dance rock?  Then it goes pure Burn-era Deep Purple!  I don’t know what it is, and even with Minoru it sounds little like Loudness.  It’s also one of only a few songs without Higuchi and Yamashita.

“Macula (Far from Mother Land)” is based on synthesizer until it transforms into a more traditional guitar instrumental, with clear Brian May influences.  The way Akira Takasaki stacks his guitar harmonies can only be described as Queen-like.  For that reason, this song is the most accessible to rock fanatics, who will eat up every note that Akira celeverly lays down.  For those curious to know more about the critically acclaimed guitarist, check out “Ebony Eyes”, a serious hard rocker on which he takes lead vocals himself!  His voice is higher in timbre than Minoru’s, and while he is not an amazing vocalist, he does have some pretty incredible guitar solos on this track.

“Wild Boogie Run” is an interesting tune, sounding almost exactly like Dixie Dregs.  The violins, the acoustic & electric guitars, and slight western leanings make this a track that will make your friends wonder what Dregs album it was from.  This could be the track worth buying the album for.  Rock returns on “Gunshots” but even when Akira is just riffing, the rhythms beneath are complex and jazzy.  Hard to describe, but heavy!  A jazzy funk opens “Mid-Day Hunter”.  Takasaki is nothing if not diverse on Tusk of Jaguar, but even if the rhythms throw you for a loop, you can surely dig into his always memorable lead work.  In their early pre-Steve Perry days, Journey wrote songs like this.

Minoru Niihara returns on a song that is basically a Loudness track:  “Show Me Something Good”.  Though it also has Masanori Sasaji on keyboards, it is the entire Loudness lineup otherwise.  A pop rock track like this could have sat on an album like Lightning Strikes if it was produced with heavier intent.  The album closer is called “Say What?” which you might in fact be saying by the end of it.  Blazing tempos and synth solos adorn a track that is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

This is a challenging album, no word of a lie.  It’s certainly not immediate, and though parts of it sound familiar, it takes a bit of listening to really start to penetrate.  Loudness fans, and anybody into challenging progressive rock should give it a go.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Hurricane Eyes (1987, 2017 30th anniversary 5 CD reissue)

LOUDNESS – Hurricane Eyes – 30th Anniversary Limited Edition (originally 1987, 2017 Warner Japan)

In most timelines and biographies, they’ll have you believe that the original lineup of Loudness had already peaked by 1987 and were creatively and commercially going downhill.  While the commercial side of things was out of their control, creatively Loudness were still writing great songs.  Though they did have one more EP in them, Hurricane Eyes is the final album of the original Minoru Niihara era of Loudness.  It was recorded by Kiss and Jimi Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer with one track by Andy Johns.  Though not as heavy or complex as Disillusion or noteworthy as Thunder in the East, it is thoroughly enjoyable from side A to side B.  The commercial bent is obvious on some songs, but it doesn’t really blunt the impact.

Like most Loudness albums from the classic era, the band recorded lyrics in both English and Japanese and both versions of the album are included in this luxurious 5 CD box set.  In Japan, the Loudness catalogue has been treated reverently but this is the beefiest of all their deluxe sets.  Along with both versions of Hurricane Eyes (including minor musical differences), the set includes a disc of album demos, and another disc of alternate mixes and rhythm tracks.  The fifth CD is a live set from the Hammersmith Odeon from 1986.  Like any set of this nature, you’ll be listening to the same songs in four or five versions, but fortunately they stand up to such immersion.

Though Hurricane Eyes represents a peak effort to break into the American market, and some songs verge on Dokken homages, it’s a strong album loaded with hooks and enviable guitar theatrics & riffs.  And regardless of some of the more radio-friendly material, it also boasts the thrash-like “S.D.I.”, a speed metal riff-fest that remained in the Loudness set list long after after Minoru was let go.  The technical playing on “S.D.I.” is outstanding, and that’s laid bare for you to hear in the instrumental mix on Disc 4.  The guitar solo is pure Eddie meets Yngwie.  “S.D.I.” opens the English version of the album, but closes the Japanese.  It works excellently in either configuration.

The English album continues with “This Lonely Heart”, a hook-laden hard rocker anchored by a solid riff and soaring chorus.  Lynch and Dokken must have been jealous they didn’t write it because it’s right up their alley.  The album title Hurricane Eyes comes from a lyric in “This Lonely Heart” but what you’ll remember mostly is that indelible chorus.  Keyboards are poured into “Rock ‘N Roll Gypsy”, an obvious choice for a radio single.  Though it didn’t hit the charts you can certainly hear the effort in it.  On the Japanese version of the track, the keyboards are present but not mixed in as prominently.  It’s the better of the two mixes, with more of that Akira Takasaki guitar up front.

“In My Dreams” is the first power ballad, with focus on the power part.  Akari has some sweet anthemic guitar melodies in his pocket for this very Scorpions-sounding track.  This gives way to another blitz of a song, though not as over the top as “S.D.I.” was.  “Take Me Home” has similar urgency but more deliberate pace.  “Strike of the Sword” is in similar metal territory with a fab Akari riff.  The vocal melodies sound a little disconnected from the song though.

Don Dokken’s turf is revisited on “Rock This Way”, a mid-tempo ditty within hit territory.  You could imagine this being written for the concert stage, so you can have a singalong chorus — “Rock this way!”  Picking up the pace, “In This World Beyond” is a bit more complex though retaining an insanely cool chorus.  The Loudness guys really developed an absurdly good chorus-writing ability by this point!  But stick around to be strafed out of the sky by Akira’s machine-gun solo.  “Hungry Hunter” returns us to mid-tempo rock ground, though it’s not their most remarkable song.

The American album ends with “So Lonely”, a re-recording of “Ares’ Lament” from 1984’s Disillusion, also in the closing position.  Disillusion didn’t get a lot of attention outside Japan, and “Ares’ Lament” was a clear highlight.  Though the structure is essentially the same, “So Lonely” is a tamed version” of the more traditional metal original.  Keyboards are added, replacing the Akira-shred of the original.  The chorus is beefed up and placed front-and-center.  It suits Hurricane Eyes and though it’s merely a blunted version, it’s still quite excellent.  It’s a demonstration of how you can take a song and tweak it into a different direction.

“So Lonely” isn’t present on the demo CD, presumably because they didn’t need to demo their own classic tune.  Instead there are two tracks that didn’t make the album, but would be finished in the future:  “Jealousy” and “Love Toys”.  The 1988 Jealousy EP would see the first track released (but only in Japan).  This is the most Dokken of all the songs, with one of those concrete riffs that George Lynch was prone to writing with ease.  Maybe when Dokken broke up, Don should have given Akira Takasaki a phone call.  The more frantic and metal “Love Toys” was revisited in 1991 with new lead singer Mike Vescera, for the On The Prowl album of re-recordings.  Both tracks had potential in the unfinished demo stage.  In fact all the Loudness demos on this disc are nearly album-ready.  They’re rougher but also appealing for that same reason.

Disc 4, Behind the Hurricane Eyes is a hodgepodge of alternate mixes and rhythm tracks.  The eight rhythm tracks (essentially mixes without vocals and solos) include another version of “Love Toys”.  The mercilessly tight rhythm section of Munetaka Huguchi and Masayoshi Yamashita come to the fore on these tracks, as does Akira Takasaki as the riffmaster.  “S.D.I.” is present on this CD twice, in rhythm track form and as a straight instrumental.  You will be getting plenty of “S.D.I.” in this box set!  You’ll also enjoy the brighter “Top 40 Mix” of “Rock This Way”, a really good remix that sounds perfect for the hits of the era.  A mix of “So Lonely” with an earlier fade-out isn’t that interesting, but still desired by the collector.  “Hungry Hunter” and “This Lonely Heart” are present in “old mix” and “rough mix” respectively.  Differences are minor.

You could find yourself with a bit of ear fatigue after hearing so many versions of the same songs.  Fortunately Disc 5 is a live set from the previous tour with none of the same songs.  Buckle up.  Opening for Saxon at the Hammersmith Odeon, Loudness went straight into “Crazy Doctor” from Disillusion after a glowing intro from Biff Byford.  It’s right to the throat from the start and this CD has their full set.  “1000 Eyes” from Lightning Strikes follows, the album for which they were touring.  Loudness could have used some backing vocals live to beef up the chorus, but Minoru does a remarkable job on his own, givin’ ‘er all over the place.  It’s also cool to hear Akira go from rhythm to lead so effortlessly live.

There is honestly something charming about someone who isn’t a native English speaker really giving their all to talk to an audience in English.  Minoru is clearly happy to be in “London rock and roll city!” and the audience lets him know he’s welcome.  The awesome “Dark Desire”, also from Lightning Strikes, follows and Akira lays down a mesmerising solo.  Then a long dramatic intro opens “Ashes in the Sky / Shadows of War”, a highpoint of an already great set.

The big Loudness single in 1986 was “Let It Go“, a truly special pop metal song.  This version opening for Saxon at the Hammersmith might be the best live recording if not the most energetic.  Afterwards the late Munetaka Higuchi takes a drum solo (presumably to give Minoru’s voice a rest after this workout!).  There’s a brief segue into Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Minoru introduces the band.  That pumps up the crowd for Loudness’ biggest hit “Crazy Nights” complete with crowd singalong.  “MZA!”  After smoking through this one, Akira takes a blistering solo break.  The set closes with “Speed” from their third album The Law of Devil’s Land.  They saved the most aggressive song for last.  Couldn’t let Saxon have it too easy, right?

Though hard to get, these Loudness deluxe editions from Japan are really beautiful to hold in hand.  The thick booklet is printed on glossy paper, and though the liner notes are in Japanese, lyrics are provided in both languages.  The rest of the booklet is stuffed full of tour photographs whose only language is rock and roll.  Loudness certainly looked the part.  The set also includes a little reproduction backstage pass, but the main feature is the music.  Diehards are going to love it.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Masters of Loudness (1996)

LOUDNESS – Masters of Loudness (1996 Warner Japan, 2010 Wounded Bird reissue)

By 1996, Loudness already had three singers, 11 studio albums, and numerous EPs, compilations and live records.  15 years on from their debut album The Birthday Eve, it was time for an anthology.  Masters of Loudness is made up of 29 tracks (eight live ones) including all singers and all eras.  It uses Japanese mixes of some songs, different from their US counterparts, and what appears to be one exclusive new tune.

How the mixture is balanced can only be determined by a solid listen.

The original Loudness commences the anthology, which is mostly in chronological order but not entirely.  Minoru Niihara has always been a hell of a singer, and his melodic singing helps make “Angel Dust” accessible as a speed metal rocker can be.  Like a cross between vintage Scorpions and Priest, pedal fully to the floor.  It doesn’t matter that most of the words are in Japanese.  From the excellent Disillusion album, “Dream Fantasy” is included in all its Maiden-esque glory.  Not “Crazy Doctor” though — Masters of Loudness chooses to include some of the biggest and best songs in live form instead.  This is an unfortunate though popular strategy used on numerous anthologies and it is a win/lose proposition.  In the “win” column, it breaks up monotony, represents more releases, and allows you to hear lesser-known versions of popular songs.  On the other side of the coin, it means you don’t get the best known versions of the best songs.  You get, frankly, inferior versions of possibly the only songs you know.  And that’s why it’s unfortunate.

The third track “Speed” is one such live inclusion, from 1983’s Live-Loud-Alive.  It does allow you to hear how hot Loudness were on stage so early in their career.  The entire Thunder in the East album is bafflingly skipped over.  It is possible, from the Japanese perspective, that Thunder in the East is not as significant as it is here.  Instead we jump ahead to 1986’s Shadows of War (released here as Lightning Strikes) and 1987’s Hurricane Eyes.  The Japanese mix of “Let It Go”, their most commercial track, is notably different.  The vocals are more distant and there are additional shouts and bits of guitar included.  The US mix was more streamlined and polished for radio.  “Shadows of War” and “S.D.I.” are also Japanese mixes each awesome in its own right.  “Shadows of War” just has the vibe, right in the middle of darkness and light.  Meanwhile “S.D.I.” is an iconic thrash that goes down easy thanks to Minoru Niihara’s vocal prowess.

This anthology skips past the final release with Niihara (1988’s Jealousy EP) and picks up with new vocalist Mike Vescera, their first and only American member.  Strangely the first Vescera track is “Slap in the Face” which is actually from his last release with the band, a 1991 EP.  It’s biting and heavy, but the loss of Minoru Niihara changed not only the voice of Loudness, but also their identity.  Where they used to sound uniquely Japanese, Vescera made them sound like a band from anywhere.  He was and is a great singer with grit and remarkable range and power.  He could certainly take on Minoru in terms of vocal ability.  But they sounded less like Loudness.  That said, “Slap in the Face” is a heavy stomper that was perfectly in line with the direction bands like Metallica and Megadeth were going in the early 90s.

“You Shook Me” (their biggest track with Vescera) and “Demon Disease” represent 1989’s Soldier of Fortune album which still has a cult following.  Loudness only made two albums with Mike, and that era is unfortunately weighted too heavily on this set.  Nothing against the songs themselves, but this brief period gets far more disc time than all of the Niihara era.

Mike’s final Loudness album was 1991’s On the Prowl which mixed new material and new English re-recordings of selections from some of the older Japanese albums.  One of the new ones, “Down N’ Dirty” is predictably a stumble.  It sounds like some sassy band from Hollywood, not a band with the regal history of Loudness.  Trying to sound like Poison?  Perhaps.  At least “In the Mirror” and “Sleepless Nights” sound like Loudness, and they should, being re-recordings of the same songs from The Law of Devil’s Island.  Truthfully, Vescera sounds heroic here, like a true metal warrior come to rid the town of its evil.

A trio of live tracks with Vescera singing close off the first disc.  At the time of release these would have been considered rarities, but in 2009 a full live album with Vescera was issued called Live Loudest at the Budokan ’91.  These are cool live tracks and help fill in some songs that were missing from earlier.  The power ballad “Never Enough” is a remake of an old B-side called “Silent Sword”.  The cheese factor is cranked up, but let’s face it, this is the kind of song people were having hits with until grunge changed that forever.  Akira Takasaki’s guitar solo is delectable.  Then finally it’s “Crazy Doctor”, possibly the best riff that Akira ever wrote.  Vescera has no issues with the notes or the power necessary to deliver them effectively.  Finally the CD ends with a live cut of the very first song from the very first album:  “Loudness”.  It’s quite good and an excellent showcase of Mike’s abilities, not to mention the extended Takasaki solo, a composition until itself, where he shows Eddie Van Halen how guitar tapping is done.

Loudness changed once again, when Mike Vescera bailed to join Yngwie J. Malmsteen.  They also lost original bassist Masayoshi Yamashita at this time.  The second CD (mostly) represents the Masaki Yamada (E-Z-O) era of Loudness, their current singer at the time of release.  With that in context, you can understand why so much time is dedicated to Masaki, who only had two Loudness studio albums under his belt so far.

The first Masaki, 1992’s Loudness, has five of its ten tracks represented here.  They selected five of the best:  “Pray for the Dead”, “Slaughter House”, “Black Widow”, “Hell Bites”, and “Firestorm”.  By and large, the new Loudness was focused on heavy grooves.  Banging heads was a priority once again.  “Firestorm” thrashes as fast and heavy and any vintage Loudness classic.  The big difference was Masaki’s clearly noncommercial voice.  Unlike Vescera or even Minoru, you can’t really imagine Masaki’s songs on the radio.  It was, however, the 1990s, and Masaki was able to harness the altera-heavy going on at that time.

From the 1994 live album Once and For All, “Waking the Dead” is included, another song from the first Masaki album.  Then finally it’s “Crazy Night”, Loudness’ biggest and most beloved hit from Thunder in the East.  Strangely though, instead of the Masaki live version from Once and For All, we are back to Mike Vescera again.  It’s a fine version indeed, but this confusion could have been avoided by just putting the studio version on CD 1.  It’s probably confusing for the listener to be bouncing around from one singer to another.

There are four songs from the second Masaki album, 1994’s Heavy Metal Hippies.  This is when Loudness started their real 1990s evolution, focusing less on metal and loosely expanding into other styles.  They also lost two more members at this point.  Bassist Taiji Sawada, who replaced Masayoshi Yamashita in 1992, was out and Akira played bass on Heavy Metal Hippies.  Original drummer Munetaka Higuchi also left and was replaced by E-Z-O drummer Hirotsugu Homma.  By the numbers, at this point Loudness was actually more E-Z-O.  The change is audible in the music, still heavy, but less melodic and more modern (“Howling Rain” being an exception).  Though Heavy Metal Hippies was released only in Japan, they still managed to get a metal big namer to produce:  Chris Tsangarides.

The Loudness lineup solidified once more with bassist Naoto Shibata, who appears on the live tracks “Desperation, Desecration” and “S.D.I” from 1995’s Loud ‘n’ Raw.  Yes, “S.D.I.” is the only song to appear twice on this anthology.  Why “S.D.I.”?  Why not.  It’s important to have live versions of old classics, but with the new singer at the microphone.  Unfortunately in a comparison between Masaki and Minoru, Minoru wins.  He wrote the song for his own voice, and Masaki’s growly style is barely compatible.

Masters of Loudness saved the best for last:  “Master of the Highway”, an excellent song that seems to be an exclusive.  It puts the focus right onto the riff, a sharp Takasaki blitz of six-string chunk.  Masaki has never sounded so menacing as when growling this tune.

Black stars!
Coming down.
Power!
Pedal to the metal.
Night rider,
Machines of steel.
I am the master! Master of the highway!
Yeah yeah! Oh yeah!

As Masaki tears off through the “demon night”, he only turns up the menace further.  “You’re with the master!  Master of the highway!”  Akira then lays down a face melter of a solo, and before you can get back up, it’s all over.

Rare is the single track that is worth buying a 2 CD anthology just to get, but there it is.

It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall and to know exactly what the thinking process is in making a release like this.  How was each track decided upon?  Why was there a Mike Vescera version of “Crazy Night” right in the middle of a disc that is otherwise entirely Masaki Yamada material?  Did somebody higher up say “Nope, we need a melodic version of the song, put on an earlier one”?  And why live versions of such big hits anyway?

Masters of Loudness can be broken down this way:

  • Suffers from too many live substitutions.
  • Minimizes the Minoru Niihara era in favour of later singers.
  • Breaks chronological order twice.

But it can also be said that Masters of Loudness has:

  • 29 awesome Loudness tracks.
  • One really smoking “new” track in “Master of the Highway”.
  • A representative slice of every Loudness lineup from 1981-1996.

As always, cost will be a factor and Japanese imports are rarely cheap.  If you can afford it, it’s worth picking up Masters of Loudness and of course, playing it loud.

3.5/5 stars