japanese import

REVIEW: Ghost – Opus Eponymous (2010 Japanese import)

GHOST – Opus Eponymous (2010 Rise Above Japanese import)

They could have gone down as a novelty, if the music wasn’t so genuine.  An expert mix of metal, Satan and Abba.  From the gloom of the north came Ghost, led by Papa Emeritus and his Nameless Ghouls.  We knew little about the band then, except that they were just too good to have come out nowhere like that.

As Ghost have grown and evolved, the shadow of their first album grows even longer.  Opus Eponymous consisted of an intro, eight gothic keyboard-drenched metal anthems from hell, and one bonus cover track for the Japanese market.  With “Papa’s” true identity wisely obscured at the time, the focus was off the extensive pre-Ghost discography of leader Tobias Forge.  Though elements of his glam and death metal pasts remained, Ghost was truly unique right from their debut.  Forge conjured a fictional backstory for the band in his mind.  He imagined Ghost were a group of older guys.  Active in the 70s, but started playing together in the late 60s.  Very experienced and maybe a little bitter.  Opus Eponymous was not meant to sound like a debut, and it does not.

Like entering a church on a cloudy day, “Deus Culpa” greets you as the light organ drifts through.  But this is no ordinary mass, and the sermon is quite devilish.  Foreboding dissonance and flat chords warn you against entering, but still you go.  Then suddenly the rolling electric bass of “Con Clavi Con Dio” is followed by a blast of guitar and evil organ!

“Lucifer!  We are here for your praise, evil one!” sings Forge with a provocative calm.  What really made Ghost stand out was the juxtaposition of evil metal, with the keyboards and otherworldly, ethereal lead vocals of “Papa Emeritus”.  Choir-like backing vocals and the persistent howl of organ add to the classic horror scene.  Listening to the lyrics, it is clear that Forge knows his subject matter convincingly enough.  But he also knows how to write a song and every second of “Con Clavi Con Dio” delivers some sort of hook, thrill, or chill.  The production is also outstanding in its bare simplicity, compared to later Ghost.

The plinking intro of “Ritual” disguises its true heaviness, at first.  Forge deftly merged a plutonium-heavy riff with light and delicate vocal harmonies.  While you’re being caressed by the sweetest Satanic prayers, you’re also enduring the assault of guitars and bass.  “Ritual” sounds, somehow, like a song that could have emerged from the year 1985, but with the wisdom of future knowledge.  Quite possibly the pinnacle of this album.

Galloping in the dark, “Elizabeth” (long “i”, not short “i”) is among the heaviest tracks despite its melodic chorus.  As a song about a suspected 16th century Hungarian serial killer, it could be one of the less evil songs on the record!  It is followed by the dastardly catchy “Stand By Him”, featuring a very traditional metal guitar solo section.  ”Tis the night of the witch, tonight,” beckons Forge, and you cannot resist his call to this tale of revenge.  (Or justice?)  Then comes in the chopper-like opening guitars of “Satan Prayer”, the most blunt of all the songs.   Yet like the others, impossible to resist, because of impeccable construction from melody and riff.  The clever keyboards and dual guitar solo are a confectionery topping over the robust chug of distortion.

A crack of thunder, the crash of drums, and “Death Knell” is here.  Forge sells the creepy vocal easily, though not difficult given the words as he sings of evil rebirth.  One of the most straight metal of the tracks, and the outro is pure Ozzy.  “Prime Mover” then enters like a warning siren.  Once the smoke has cleared, the bass does its work to level the stragglers.  Forge floats over the waste, ethereal and haunting.

All that’s left on the domestic album is the brilliant instrumental closer “Genesis”.  Apparently it’s a sped-up waltz; I think it’s a piece of hammering progressive brilliance.  The repetitive keyboards provide the melodic hook, and ghostly guitars add to the story.  Not to be left out, the bassline is delicious to listen to.  There’s also a very Sabbath-y acoustic outro.  The rituals are complete and a new evil is born.  An outstanding album closer!

The Japanese CD contains a dark rendition of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”, mournful and sad.  It’s the opposite of the George Harrison original.  Some like it; some feel it’s the worst track on the album.  It does work as a sort of coda, but is probably experienced best separately.

With Opus Eponymous, Ghost arrived.  To their credit they’ve never tried to repeat this exact album.  Instead Ghost continued to explore, a growth personified by adopting the guise of a new singer on every album (Papa II, Papa III etc.), even though they were all played by Tobias Forge!  This remarkable debut is just as valuable as the later more diverse records, perhaps simply because of its more focused singular vision.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Yngwie Malmsteen – I Can’t Wait (1994 Japanese EP)

YNGWIE MALMSTEEN – I Can’t Wait (1994 Pony Canyon Japanese EP)

Immediately following the Seventh Sign album, new Yngwie Malmsteen material surfaced in Japan.  Three songs and two live tracks served as a nice dessert after a pretty good studio album.  Mike Vescera remained on lead vocals.  The lineup is largely the same as The Seventh Sign, but with Barry Sparks added on bass (probably just for the live songs; it sounds like Yngwie on the studio cuts).

Title track “I Can’t Wait” is one of Yngwie’s strongest ballads.  Though it starts with uncharacteristic acoustic strumming, the song transforms into the kind of epic ballad that you expect from the guitar god.  Vescera’s range and power are on display.  Great song.  And you don’t always say that about Yngwie tunes.

“Aftermath” is a pounder.  Slower, determined, great drums.  Lots of shredding come solo time.

The two live songs are “Rising Force” and “Far Beyond the Sun”, hits from the days of yore.  Recorded live at the Budokan earlier in the year, it must have felt something like home for Mike after his stint in Loudness!  “Rising Force” is an ass-kicker, pedal to the metal, and the whole band rising to the occasion.  That’s it for vocal tracks though.  “Far Beyond the Sun” is one of Yngwie’s best known guitar compositions, familiar and beloved for its exquisite neo-classical stylings.  As for this version?  Flawless and inspired.

The final track is a studio instrumental called “Power and Glory (Takada’s Theme)”.  This was done as a theme for a Japanese pro wrestler and few will be familiar with it.  Slow, plodding, with the repeated chant of “Ta ka da!”, it is hard to really like.  Yngwie’s acoustic work is always brilliant, but difficult to digest here.

Good EP overall.  Hard to find.  Snag if you find for a good price.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Yngwie Malmsteen – The Seventh Sign (1994 Japanese import)

YNGWIE MALMSTEEN – The Seventh Sign (1994 Pony Canyon Japan)

Former Loudness singer Mike Vescera can be forgiven for moving on with Yngwie J. Malmsteen.  The Swedish guitar wizard was on his 6th lead singer, and despite lacklustre sales, the gig was one that came with a certain amount of prestige.  Fortunately it was a winning combination.  Their first album together, The Seventh Sign, boasted a dozen tracks with most of them pretty good.

Opening “Never Die” recalls the fire of “I’ll See the Light Tonight”.  If you’re familiar with Yngwie, you know what to expect.  Blazingly fast neoclassic guitar licks, speedy riffs and aggressive vocals.

“Like the sky, I’m perpetual, I never die!”

It’s a good opener, in the fast-paced Dio vein of rock.  Fortunately Yngwie slows it down for the wah-wah inflected bluesy rock of “I Don’t Know”.  The main riff here is catchy enough and Yngwie adorns it with plenty of licks.  Vescera has a powerful set of lungs, an absolute requirement when singing with Yngwie.  He gets to show off his abilities a bit on the decent power ballad “Meant to Be”.  “Forever One” makes it two ballads in a row, though the second is less “power”, and employs some acoustic portions.

For heavy, don’t miss out on “Hairtrigger”.  Vescera is in top form here, and the sputtering speed rocker satisfies to the end.

An instrumental slow blues called “Brothers” follows, and you might think “this album sounds overloaded with ballads”.  But yet that isn’t the impression you get listening.  These are not wimpy songs.  They have power and loads of guitar.  The actual effect you get is that of a heavy album.

The awesome title track gets it cranked on side two right from the start.  There’s some intricate classical guitar but then, wham — the mighty riff.  It’s a blur but it smokes.  “The Seventh Sign” is one of Yngwie’s best tracks of ’em all, if you like ’em heavy.  Vescera rises to the challenge.  As for the playing, even when we’re focused on that heavy riff, Yngwie still has time for some whammy bar nuttiness.

“Bad Blood” is a heavy blues, maybe going for a heavy Purple vibe (check that organ), but without a memorable melody behind it.  Vescera is the star here; the guy can sing anything.  It really gets stinky on “Prisoner of Your Eyes”, the worst of the ballads.  Amberdawn Malmsteen is responsible for the fetid lyrics.  This is rotting limburger cheese topped with surströmming as a garnish.  Would you like a side of industrial vinegar?  One word:  “cringe”.

Back to quality, the sitar introduces “Pyramid of Cheops”.  Insofar as Egyptology in metal goes, this is not a top track.  It does crush, but up against classic Maiden, Dio or Blue Murder, it’s no competition for the champs.  One has to admire Yngwie’s restraint for the most part, as he just grinds at the riff.

Another album highlight, “Crash and Burn”, really goes for the neoclassic vibe.  The faux-harpsichord is a delightfully baroque touch, but then the song takes off for the skies.  Great Yngwie riff, a fine example of neoclassical gone right.  Vescera keeps it heavy.  Then it’s the final instrumental, “Sorrow” which sounds like it should.  Sparse classical guitars pick out a mournful melody.  It’s a comedown from “Crash and Burn” and works brilliantly in that regard.

The Japanese, of course, got a bonus track.  Called “Angel in Heat”, this unremarkable song features Yngwie on vocals.  He’s going for a Hendrix vibe again, but the song is pretty atrocious.  Without Vescera to save the song, it’s for collectors only.

Like any Yngwie record, you could objectively state that most of the songs on The Seventh Sign would be better with less playing.  But then it wouldn’t be Yngwie, would it?  He’s often been criticised for not coming up with enough memorable material, but most of the songs on The Seventh Sign are above average.  Having a great singer didn’t hurt either.  It’s one of the guitar madman’s better records.

3.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Rubber (Domestic and Japanese versions)

HAREM SCAREM – Rubber (1999 Warner Japan)
RUBBER – Rubber (2000 Warner Canada)

Time hasn’t been too unkind to Rubber, the experimental Harem Scarem album where they actually changed the band’s name to match.  Except in Japan where Harem Scarem were huge, a strange album by a band called Rubber emerged in the summer of 2000.  A generic, low budget rubber duckie adorned its cover.  No picture of the band on the back, but the mixing credits of Harry Hess and Pete Lesperance revealed the connection.  In Japan, the album was released in 1999 as a full-on Harem Scarem album, with all four band members depicted on the back, including Barry Donaghy and Darren Smith.  (Notably, Smith is not pictured nor listed as a band member on the domestic CD, as by the time it was released, he had left the band.)

What’s the fuss, then?  Harem Scarem had released a series of excellent albums with rarely a dud, but little impact in Canada or the United States.  Their albums had been skewing progressively more pop as the 1990s wore on.  By Rubber, it could almost have been considered a complete re-invention to a pop rock sound, heavily influenced by the simplicity of 90s pop-punk bands.  So the band was relaunched in hopes that some people thought they were a new hot group on the scene with a sizzling debut.

The Japanese and domestic CDs had different running orders, but since it was released in Japan first that’s the track list we’ll be following, including exclusive bonus song “Enemy”.  To its merit, the domestic CD includes an exclusive remix of “Sunshine” by noted producer Arnold Lanni.

“It’s Gotta Be” opens the album with a very 90s-sounding simple descending guitar riff.  It stands upon a catchy chorus, which Harry Hess delivers with the usual melodic expertise.  There are stronger tunes on the album, but “It’s Gotta Be” sounds very much like what was on the radio and video at the time.  Bands like Marvelous 3.

The oddly titled “Who-Buddy” is more like it!  Fast-paced (again, think pop-punk), with twang and candy-coated melody.  The build-up to the chorus can’t be resisted.  So very different from Harem Scarem of old, but the same four guys do it well.  Hess and Lesperance have always had a foot in pop, as demonstrated on the very mainstream Harem Scarem debut.  Pop changed quite a bit from 1990 to 2000, and “Who-Buddy” is a reflection of that evolution.

“Coming Down” is a different kind of pop, more lush with Spanish-influenced guitar twang.  Slower paced, but just as focused on melody, “Coming Down” is a lovely song that reminds of the melancholy music of the time.  “Didn’t know the grass is always greener, and then those blades cut my own hands.”

Thing really go pop-punk on the outstanding single “Stuck With You”.  As Hess sings, “There couldn’t be anymore anarchy if we tried,” you believe he’s 22 years old.  Smith’s busy drumming is on the mark, and the chorus just soaks into you until it’s just…stuck with you!  On the cover for the CD single, the three remaining guys are depicted with contemporary short spiky hair.  If not for the lack of neck tattoos they could have been Blink 192.  There’s even a reference to the current events of the time.  “The killer bees, casualties, everybody’s paying a price.”  Remember the killer bee scare of the late 90s?  The bees never came.

Unfortunately the hit never came either.  Though a brilliant song, it was impaired by a truly terrible music video about a kid who eats a variety of objects including a rubber duckie (seemingly containing the band), a doll and his little sister.  Somebody should have deep-sixed that idea.

“Sunshine” opens with typically late-90s skippy sound effects and adornments.  The Japanese version is 4:56 in length; Arnold Lanni trimmed his mix down to 3:54.  A slow pop song with distorted watery vocals on the Japanese mix, it’s a unique sounding track that fit into the alterna-flavours of the era.  Motley Crue made a whole album mixed like this, except it was shit and called Generation Swine.  The Lanni mix on the domestic CD retains the sound effects but ditches the vocal distortion, in favour of a clean mix that is easier on the ears, including additional backing harmonies.  Both versions have their merits, with the Japanese as a more spacey, experimental track and the Lanni version more aimed at radio.

Next up is the rockabilly “Face It”, continuing the twang of previous songs.  Unfortunate album filler compared to the others.  Smith’s drumming up a storm though!  “Trip” is more fun with a bendy 90s riff, and lead vocals by Pete Lesperance.   The chorus is suitably snotty.  Another odd title, “Pool Party” conceals an interesting if not quite memorable enough song.  The music is a little off-kilter, hinting at the band’s truly excellent schooled musicianship that was largely simplified for this album.

Back to the upbeat, “Headache” is pure bangin’ fun, with influences from rock to punk to ska.  Then an understated ballad called “Everybody Else” sits in the penultimate slot, building tension with a stealthy backdrop of strings.  Similar to past dark Harem Scarem ballads though wildly different in production.  Then we close on the Japanese exclusive “Enemy”, an upbeat track with a big chorus.

Harem Scarem continued with the dual identity for a few more albums before reverting back to their original sound and name.  As Rubber, they next released Ultra Feel, Weight of the World and Live at the GodsWeight of the World was a return to their classic, slightly progressive hard rock sound and so the name change back to Harem Scarem was sure to follow.  By 2003 the Rubber experiment was fully exhausted and the album Higher was the first to have no connection to that name.  From the Rubber era, only Weight of the World was included in the expansive Harem Scarem box set.

Rubber the album isn’t bad though.  It’s better than the followup Ultra Feel, and though dated, still contains a number of good songs that are fully enjoyable today.  The best track is clearly “Stuck With You”, despite the atrocious music video.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Quiet Riot – Hollywood Cowboys (2020 Japanese import)

QUIET RIOT – Hollywood Cowboys (2020 King Record Co. Japanese import)

We all wanted Frankie Banali go out on a high note.  He fought hard.  His battle with cancer was inspiring.  Unfortunately, his last Quiet Riot album Hollywood Cowboys is not memorable except as the drummer’s finale.  The shame of it is, they previous album Road Rage was pretty decent so it wasn’t unreasonable to get hopes up for the sequel.

The songs just aren’t memorable enough.  It’s bad when you can’t remember which track was the single (“In the Blood”).  The opener “Don’t Call It Love” is better; singer James Durbin was able to infuse the chorus with some passion.  The problem is none of the songs stick.  Can you remember how “Change Or Die” or “Wild Horses” goes without a listen?  “In the Blood” isn’t terrible by any stretch but there are no real singles on this album.

The musicianship is fantastic, with Frankie drumming like only he could.  There’s some tasty organ on “The Devil You Know”, but no hooks.  You can hear that they worked hard on Hollywood Cowboys, adorning songs with “woo oo ooo” backing vocals and lickity-split solos by Alex Grossi.

Some highlights include an AC/DC-like blues called “Roll On”, and the ballad “Holding On” which nails the vintage Quiet Riot vibe.  There’s also a blast of Priest-like metal called “Insanity” that has plenty of power if lacking in melodies.

The album sounds as if rushed, which would be understandable given the circumstances, but that’s the impression it gives.  Even the cover looks rushed.  The mix is really saturated and could have used some more loving care.  To its credit, it is probably the heaviest Quiet Riot album ever, from drums to riffs.

Here’s the mindblowing part.  Only one guy on this album is still in Quiet Riot, and that’s guitarist Alex Grossi.  James Durbin left before it was released, and he was replaced by former QR singer Jizzy Pearl (from the 10 album).  Legendary bassist Rudy Sarzo is returning in 2022, replacing Chuck Wright.  Lastly and most regrettably, Frankie’s stool was filled by former Type O Negative drummer Johnny Kelly.  None of that is relevant a Hollywood Cowboys review, it’s just recent history.  One does wish for more stability in the lineup, and perhaps Sarzo will bring that.

The Japanese import bonus track this time out is a lacklustre acoustic version of “Roll On”.  Frankie plays with brushes, so it’s interesting from a drummer’s point of view.  Sadly it’s the kind of bonus track that’s just not worth the price paid for the import.

Hollywood Cowboys is a scattershot collection of parts that never coalesces into songs.  Everybody wanted Frankie Banali to succeed, in every way possible.  But one must also be honest in a review, and can take no pleasure in shitting all over Frankie’s last record.

2/5 stars

REVIEW: Leatherwolf – Street Ready (1989 Japanese import)

LEATHERWOLF – Street Ready (1989 Island/Polystar Japan)

Leatherwolf progressed in just three albums from an unremarkable thrash band to a melodic, heavy rock quintet with a knack for a hook.  They also had a gimmick: the “Triple Axe Attack”.  Unlike most bands of the time, Leatherwolf boasted three guitarists.  Geoff Gayer and Carey Howe handled the leads while singer Michael Olivieri played the rhythm.  Their first album was just OK, but on their second they signed to a major label and had some decent production.  They also wrote better tunes, and embellished their sound with keyboards and ballads.

By the third, their songwriting chops had really grown.  In the end, this album is less heavy than the first two; a little more straightforward. It still retains thrash metal aspects mixed with ballads, but on the whole this album is more middle of the road.  Track for track, it’s free of filler and each song has some kind of memorable hook that makes return visits a pleasure.

Traditional metal guitar harmonies and thrashing chords blend on the opener “Wicked Ways”, which careens from slow to fast and back again.  Focus is solidly on the guitars, though Michael Olivieri certainly blows all the fuses on lead vocals.  A great melding of styles, like an 80s Iron Maiden song fueled by nuclear fusion.

For a song called “Street Ready”, a dirty groove is most appropriate.  That’s where Leatherwolf take this nasty little tune with bite.  The riff recalls their single “The Calling” from the previous album.  But the first single this time was the balladesque “Hideaway”. A power ballad with the emphasis on power.  Singer Michael Olivieri had a great range and plenty of lung capacity.  A ballad with bite.

Back to heavy, “Take A Chance” is quite thrash, but faster than the mainstream.  The choppy riff could have come from an early Scorpions album, when they had sting.  Keeping the pace is “Black Knight”, an instrumental thrash rocker with amazing drumming courtesy of Dean “Drum Machine” Roberts.  Faster and heavier than anything since their debut.

Back when albums had sides, side two opened with a big powerful anthem, a roll of bass, and earthshaking chorus.  “I am the thunder that starts the rain.”  This song must have been a killer live.  Slow in pace, but the weight comes from that heavy anthemic feeling, defying the storm.

A second ballad “The Way I Feel” is soft by comparison, but doesn’t lack backbone.  Comparable to “Share A Dream” from the last album. Not for everyone — thrash metal people should certainly avoid.  Everyone else will enjoy its melodic power.  Speaking of power, back in that direction is the ragged “Too Much”, careening off the rails at top acceleration.

“Lonely Road” takes us back to huge anthem territory, like “Thunder”, but faster.  A soft keyboard intro is deceptive.  This ain’t no ballad.  This is a banger; you have to let it get going.  They go full-on for closer “Spirits In The Wind”.  Great tune with lots of metal guitar thrills.

In Japan however that wasn’t the closer.  A bonus track “Alone in the Night” is tacked on for added value.  This originated on the 1988 Return of the Living Dead Part II soundtrack (which also featured Zodiac Mindwarp and two Anthrax tunes).  It has a thinner sound to it, indicating it came from a separate recording session.  Not one of Leatherwolf’s better songs, but not a throwaway either.  Just not as memorable, but a valuable addition.

Song for song, Street Ready is the best Leatherwolf album.  Metal bands just don’t try to sound like this anymore.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Minoru Niihara – One (1989)

MINORU NIIHARA – One (1989 Triad)

Original Loudness vocalist Minoru Niihara was let go in 1988 so they could have a stab at a success with an American singer.  While they went their way (and did not cross over onto the charts as they hoped), Niihara recorded his first solo album appropriately titled One.  He worked at Cherokee studios in Hollywood, where there must have been a lot of rock stars hanging out.  The credits on One include:  Mark Slaughter, Reb Beach, Doug Aldrich, the rhythm section from Journey (Steve Smith and Ross Valory), Kal Swan, David Glen Eisley, and the Tower of Power horns!

That being said, you might expect a straightforward hard rock album right out of 1989 like so many you remember from that year.  You’d be partly right.  However the lyrics are mostly in Japanese, and while the intent might have been to make a straight-ahead commercial rock record, it goes a bit sideways on some tracks.

It sounds like some of the same opening sounds as on Alice Cooper’s Trash album (also 1989) are used on first instrumental “Overture”.  Then it goes soft rock, with guitar strings tinkling like a fragile piece of glass, backed by heavenly keyboards.  In a jarring shift, the first proper song “Let’s Get Together” doesn’t meld well with this intro.  It also sounds a bit out of time, a relic from a couple years prior.  But Minoru is on top of it.  “Let’s get together! Have fun tonight!” goes the boppin’ English chorus, with plenty of the expected thick backing vocals from the Hollywood cast and crew.  Although it already sounded dated for 1989, “Let’s Get Together” is a fun track clearly aiming for a party concert vibe.  Not bad — production is clunky, and there are a couple key changes that sound off, but it’s otherwise a fun song that does what it’s there to do.

American rock vibes dominate “Stand Up to the Danger”, sounding a bit like “Loud and Clear” by Autograph.  That could be Reb Beach just rippin’ it up on the solo, but the track is very standard for the genre.  A neat ballad follows, the Journey-like…ahem…it’s a case of a language barrier, I’m sure, but the song is called “Come Over Me”.  Very much like a Journey ballad, and it’s probably Valory and Smith on bass and drums respectively.  Maxine and Julia Waters on backing vocals.

A cool 80s bass groove sets the tone on “I Can’t Wait”.  This mid-tempo car-cruiser is an album highlight, and a track worth getting in your ears.  Great solo too (Doug?).  Coincidentally, Minoru’s replacement in Loudness was a fellow named Mike Vescera, and he later recorded a different song called “I Can’t Wait” with Yngwie J. Malmsteen.  One of Minbru’s weaknesses (and it probably comes down to English as a second language) is a reliance on cliche song titles.  “I Can’t Wait”, “Stayin’ Alive”, “Dynamite”, and “Fool For You” are all song titles you’ve heard before.

Speaking of “Dynamite”, the next track on the disc — it’s a little more unique.  With a bluesy opening, it soon lets loose with a blast of saxophone.  The chorus is full-on pop.  A little clunky in construction and production, but different and still cool.

A soft keyboard ballad called “You Can Do It” sits right in the middle of the album.  Even though vinyl, and  especially cassettes were big in 1989, One only saw release on CD.  No “side one” or “side two” with this album.  Once more the ballad would sound appropriate on a Steve Perry album, and the guitar solo is really smooth.  Good song; Minoru’s style of singing is a bit overblown for a soulful ballad, but you can certainly tell he loves singing this way.

“Bluest Sky” is cool, acoustic and stripped back but “Stayin’ Alive” really scorches.  It’s the closest thing to classic Loudness.  It is the only clearly heavy metal track on the album.  Probably Reb Beach ripping up his fretboard and whammy bar on the solo.  Definitely Mark Slaughter on the chorus.  The horn section returns on “Fool For You”, but Minoru’s over-the-top singing does not suit the funky metal stylings.  He does well on “Too Long Away to Reach”, a little more restrained.  But it is the third ballad that really does sound like Journey.  So much that you’d assume it was Neal Schon on guitar.

Finally Minoru closes his solo debut on one more ballad, “I’ll Never Hide My Love Again”.  This time it’s a big power ballad with a massive chorus, and because it’s dramatically different from the earlier ballads, it works.  Definite vibes of King Kobra’s “Dancing With Desire” (1985).

See what I mean when I say that One sounds dated already even for 1989?  That doesn’t make it bad, but not all pieces fit.  There are some obtrusive keyboard overdubs, some of the ingredients just don’t mix.  While Minoru is a fine vocalist, and he gives 110% here, some of the songs sound like they would work better if he laid back a bit.  Then again, that could be the language barrier; the words he is singing might be totally appropriate to his vocal output.  Everything in music is subjective anyway.  Regardless of interpretation, Minoru Niihara’s effort is no less than his whole heart, and you have to give credit for that.

3/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Bonham – Mad Hatter (1992 Japanese import)

BONHAM – Mad Hatter (1992 Sony Japan)

The first Bonham album in 1989 was a critic’s darling.  Produced by Bob Ezrin, it sold well enough and made plenty of year-end lists.  For the year 1989, it was a breath of fresh air compared to the Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard tracks dominating the airwaves.  Those who thirsted for the rarified air of Led Zeppelin got some of that with Jason on drums and the incredible Canadian Daniel MacMaster on lead vocals.  It was easy to imagine that “Wait For You” was a new Zeppelin single built for that year.  But every band has to grow, and where would Bonham take it?  Further down the Zeppelin road, or try and find their own identity?

Bob Ezrin did not return, and most of the followup album Mad Hatter was produced by Tony Platt, with the rest produced by Ron Saint Germain.  The band grew from the debut, establishing more of their own groove.  It was a more diverse and challenging platter.  Unfortunately, the album arrived in 1992, amidst the Pearl Jams, Soundgardens, Nirvanas and the rising tide of grunge.  Despite the strong single “Change of a Season”, the album tanked.

What an opener “Bing” is, a word that doesn’t seem to be in any of the lyrics.  At first, it has a very old school Zeppelin groove, akin to “Candy Store Rock” meets “Black Dog”.  But then it goes to a completely different place on the chorus.  The sonics are clearer and sharper than the debut.  Jason’s drums are huge as the should be.

Yet it’s the title track that really shocks the system.  Opening with a blast of horns, “Mad Hatter” goes one of the few places Zeppelin never went:  full-on funk with horns.  This would be the Tower of Power horn section.  It would be lazy to compare “Mad Hatter” to “Get the Funk Out” from a couple years past, as it has its own vibe.  Ian Hatton on guitar proves himself to be diverse talent with licks-o-plenty.

Another direction is explored on “Change of a Season”, the shoulda-woulda-coulda single that would have been huge a year or two prior.  The melancholy ballad was simply the wrong temperature for 1992. The gothic tone of the video was cool, but the video got zip for airplay.  It’s the backing strings (synth) and epic chorus that make this song.  It sounds less like Zeppelin and perhaps more like something from David Coverdale’s Reptile Emporium.

Another cool direction is explored on “Hold On”, a unique song with elements from multiple genres.  Funk, soul, progressive, blues, and even bluegrass.  This is followed by another song with epic overtones, “The Storm”, a six minute track that takes the Zeppelin influences to the craggy progressive peaks of another land.

Although there’s no side break on a CD, there are a natural place for it as you can pause for a breath before plunging into “Ride on a Dream”.  A breaknace pace and metallic riff make it unlike anything else on the album.  Perhaps a band like the Scorpions could do “Ride on a Dream”, but even Klaus would be challenged by the outstanding MacMaster lead vocal.  This plutonium-fuelled track would give anyone a run for their money.

But after all that drama, you need something a little more laid back.  That would be “Good With the Bad”, a jazzy piano ballad and the longest song on the album.   It doesn’t remain in ballad territory forever, going to the swamps of Florida where Savatage reside halfway through.  The comparisons are easy to hear.  Next, we go to a bluesy, funky blast of Zeppelin-flavoured ale on “Backdoor”.  Another cool tune with a different vibe from the others.  Things drag a bit on “Secrets”, which tries to marry the funky side with a “Kashmir”-scale chorus but doesn’t really follow through.

Moving on to the end, it’s “Los Locos” in second to last position.  This is a tender blues guitar/violin instrumental with dark piano accents.  That would be bassist John Smithson handling those wicked violin licks and a lot of the keyboards.  Perfect track for this spot, setting up for the closer.  It’s up to “Chimera” to take you out, and it does with a shiny upbeat vibe.  Although it’s probably sheer coincidence, it sounds a bit like Marillion circa the same period.

Lo and behold, that is not all!  The Japanese fans got a little bonus on their CDs called “Waste No Time”.  It’s definitely not an also-ran.  It has a heavy bass groove that isn’t like the other tracks on the album.  MacMaster really lets it blast on the chorus too.  Definitely Zeppelin vibes come solo time.

This album was available with two covers.  The majority of copies have the surreal Dali-esque landscape that you see here.  The alternate cover was plain white with just the new Bonham logo.  Which looks rather silly without the proper cover art for context.  That’s the cover that retailers such as Columbia House sold in the 1990s.

In 1994, Jason Bonham reconvened with Ian Hatton and John Smithson, but not Daniel MacMaster.  The new singer was Marti Frederiksen — yes, that Marti Frederiksen, the one that writes massive hits for everyone today.  The band took on a new modern grunge sound, and renamed themselves Motherland.  ☮︎ For Me was the pretentious name of that album.  As a sad final coda, Daniel MacMaster died too young at age 39 from a strep infection that he thought was a cold.

At least we can say that Bonham with MacMaster really did outgrow the Zeppelin tag by the second album.  Still a part of the DNA, but expressing itself more rarely.  It’s a shame about the timing of the album, because had it sold like the first one did, maybe we wouldn’t have had the Motherland debocle.  Mad Hatter is a pretty fine second album that does all the things that second albums should do.  Shame it was the last.

3.75/5 stars

THREE-VIEW: KISS – Best of Solo Albums (Japanese CD)

  Best of Solo Albums (Originally 1979, 2020 Universal Japan CD)

Third review for this Kiss compilation here, but why?  A couple reasons.  For one, it’s the first-ever official CD release of this album!  It took 41 years for them to finally put out a CD, and yet only in Japan.  More remarkably, there is one track here that I’ve never heard before in this particular version.

That song is the incredible Paul Stanley epic “Take Me Away (Together As One)”.  On Paul’s solo disc, it fades away at the end of side one at 5:35 in length.  Here, it goes to 5:48, no fade, right to the end of the track.  It’s an ending I’ve never heard before.  This song isn’t even on the more common European version of Best of Solo Albums, just the Japanese.  And apparently the CD has an unreleased version without the fade.

“Oh boy!” you exclaim.  “I have to buy this import just to get 13 seconds of music I never heard before?”

No.  You don’t have to buy it.  I did, because I wanted a copy of this album on CD.  When I discovered the longer version of the track, I was ecstatic to unexpectedly get something extra for my money.

There’s no need to review this album track by track again.  I’ve done it twice, and I’ve also reviewed all four solos albums twice each.  There’s really no need to run through all the songs again, although this tracklist is quite different.  Unlike the European version, these songs are not arranged in three-track blocks for each member.  Additionally, seven of the European tracks were substituted with others.  That’s more than half the album!

Gene Simmons:  Instead of “Mr. Make Believe” and “See You In Your Dreams”, Japan used “See You Tonite” and “Living In Sin”

Paul Stanley:  “Move On” was replaced by the unreleased version of “Take Me Away (Together As One)”.

Ace Frehley:  “Speedin’ Back to my Baby” was removed in favour of the instrumental “Fractured Mirror”

Peter Criss:  All three of the Cat’s songs – “You Matter To Me”, “Tossin’ and Turnin’”, and “Hooked on Rock and Roll” were replaced!  I guess Japan didn’t care for those as much as they did “Don’t You Let Me Down”, “Rock Me Baby” and “I Can’t Stop the Rain”.

For me, I prefer the running order that Europe used, with each member of the band getting three songs in a chunk.  However, there are plenty of songs that I prefer on the Japanese version, such as “See You Tonite”, “Take Me Away (Together As One), “I Can’t Stop the Rain” and “Don’t You Let Me Down”.

It’s interesting that the solo albums are by and large panned by the masses, but nobody can agree on the “Best Of“.  Maybe those albums weren’t so bad after all, at least when you distil them down to the essential tracks.  The Japanese CD will become my preferred listening experience for two main reasons:  it sounds better than the vinyl, and I like more of the songs.  It would sound even better if I had an MQA decoder, a new-ish hi-resolution CD format from Japan, which will unlock an even better sounding version of the album, if you have a few grand to spend on upgrading your system.  If not, enjoy the disc and stellar packaging, with not one but two different covers to display.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Change the World (2020 Japanese import)

HAREM SCAREM – Change the World (2020 Frontiers Japanese import)

One of the greatest melodic rock bands in the world is Canadian and 30 years since their inception, they still got what it takes.  Pete Lesperance, Harry Hess, Creighton Doane and Darren Smith can be counted on to deliver some great professional singalong tuneage every time.  Not every album has been brilliant (some people don’t like the Rubber era, I’m not big on Voice of Reason) but with their latest Change the World, Harem Scarem is back on top.

The upbeat title track opens the celebration with chiming guitar notes wrung from the neck.  “You and I are gonna change the world,” sings Harry with an uplifting melody.  Pete’s got his back with hooky guitar fills.  A track like this could have easily come from peak period HS, like 93’s Mood Swings.  “Aftershock” has a little more bite, but the same kind of killer chorus.  For those unfamiliar, expect thick, heavily layered choruses with all four guys singing multitracked backing vocals.  It’s like Def Leppard with more balls.  Yet it’s also their own song because Harry Hess’ voice has not changed one iota.  It’s just as powerful as it was on 1985’s Blind Vengeance debut, only better!  “Searching For Meaning” hearkens back to the pop sensibilities of Rubber, but richer in tone and with a heavier slam.

Things go darker on “The Death of Me” without losing the edge.  It’s not about defeat, it’s about keeping up the fight.  “I know you won’t be the death of me!”  An apt tune for 2020.  “Hit the panic override!” urges Harry.  Keep calm and carry on!

The piano comes out for the first ballad “Mother of Invention”.  The vocal arrangement here is quite nice though the song isn’t all that memorable.  The bass-driven “No Man’s Land” is more unique, and has one of those choruses that is so hard for forget.  Then head for space on “In the Unknown”, a softer burner of a track that launches into the stratosphere, fuelled by killer hooks.  This is Harem Scarem’s bread and butter.

If you think a song with a title like “Riot In My Head” should be faster and more intense, then you got your wish.  The riff sounds as if lifted from a classic 80s racing song.  Great track, as is the ballad “No Me Without You”, with its slight nods to the Beatles.  It’s back to the racetrack with “Fire & Gasoline”, an absolute smoker of a song.  There’s a classic Lesperance guitar solo to savour and a bangin’ beat to bash your head to.  The standard album then concludes on “Swallowed By the Machine”, another defiant fist pumping rocker.  Get psyched with lyrics such as “We all have dreams, we all have doubts, be careful which you feed, and don’t get swallowed by the machine.”  A rip-roaring guitar workout a-la Nuno Bettencourt takes it to another level.  Talk about ending the album on an up!

Of course, those who go the extra mile and purchase the Japanese CD get the extra track, an acoustic recording of “No Man’s Land”.  It’s an interesting alternative though not as impressive as the original.  Still a cool little coda, and still ending the album on an up note.

For a humble band from Canada that a lot of people aren’t even aware of, Harem Scarem have a remarkably huge discography.  There are more peaks than valleys, but Change the World is definitely evidence that this band has more to give.  One of the finer rock records of 2020.

4.5/5 stars