Lightning Strikes

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 – Lightning Strikes (1986)

LOUDNESS – Lightning Strikes (1986 Warner – US version)

Eager to repeat the success of 1985’s Thunder in the East, Loudness regrouped with the same production team (Max Norman and Paul Cooper) on the followup Lightning Strikes.  Taking their sound to even wider commercial limits, Loudness wrote a single for the new album, and hoped for American stardom.

When metal bands try their hands at commercial music, the results can be mixed.  Fortunately for Loudness, they had the ability.  Guitarist Akira Takasaki was in a pop rock band called Lazy when he was 17 years old and could write melody.

Lightning Strikes commences with the lead single “Let It Go“, a triumphant upbeat rock song that any band would have loved to write.  The song cannot be praised heavily enough for its sharp catchy riff or singalong melodies.  Singer Minoru Niihara delivers with a knack for a good yell.  Like icing, Takasaki lays down a melodic and technical solo for the sweet tooth.

Seconds up to bat is “Dark Desire”, a terrific track that encourages you to “start a fire with rock”.  This fire goes at a slow burn, but with another notable Takasaki solo as accelerant.  “1000 Eyes” is a bit more metal with its themes of storms and destruction, and screaming chorus to boot.  Check out some bass slaps from Masayoshi Yamashita too.  Then, like a high speed chase, it’s “Face to Face”, pure metal with no commercial considerations whatsoever.  It’s not particularly memorable but the chorus scorches.  The first side concludes with a textbook Takasaki riff on “Who Knows”, a different but decent melodic metal track.  It reminds me of some of the more interesting songs on side B of Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind, but not as accomplished.

Some tricky stuff via the school of Yngwie Van Lynch is piled onto the front end of “Ashes in the Sky”, a phenomenal power ballad that would have been great on a Dokken album.  (This song was titled “Shadows of War” and served as the opening title track for the slightly different Japanese release.)  “Black Star Oblivion” picks things up with a speed metal track propelled by drummer Munetaka Higuchi.  The jagged chorus makes up for the ordinary verses.  Another memorable riff makes up the structure of “Street Life Dream”, which grinds along at a deliberate pace.  Closing with some dense and blurringly fast riffing, “Complication” sounds like its title.  It’s a bit too busy but certainly ends the album dramatically.

Lightning Strikes is not a bad album.  It has some great tunes, but it has a few that miss the mark.  It houses possibly their greatest song ever, “Let It Go”.  It’s a good album to have, but you just wish it was more consistent.

3/5 stars

#815: Let It Go

“I was the one who talked about the other man,
I thought he was my friend but you had other plans!” – Loudness

 

 

GETTING MORE TALE #815: Let It Go

The first time I saw Loudness on the Pepsi Power Hour, I was hooked. I can remember being fascinated by Japanese culture for a long time, but Loudness made it deeper, because now I had Japanese heavy metal to be interested in.

“Rock and roll Crazy Nights!” sang the quartet.  “You are the hero, tonight!”  Sounded cool to me.  I was 13.

Minoru Niihara on MuchMusic, 1986

The Power Hour didn’t play a lot of Loudness, just two songs.  “Crazy Nights” was the first, but by 1986 the band were becoming more Americanized.  “Let It Go”, the only other video they played, was a real attempt to crack the US market.  I was an instant fan.  Contrived or not, “Let It Go” is one of the ultimate 80s rock anthems.

Some brief Loudness history is in order.  Akira Takasaki, lead guitar, is the Eddie Van Halen of Loudness.  He formed the band and is the only member to play on all the albums.  He and drummer Munetaka Higuchi came from an earlier band called Lazy, named after the Deep Purple single.  Lazy was far more pop rock and Takasaki, a true virtuoso, was dissatisfied.  Metal was growing in Japan.  Soon Masayoshi Yamashita had joined on bass, and the band just needed a singer.  Minoru Niihara of Earthshaker to the rescue.  Within months they had a debut album:  1981’s The Birthday Eve.

The band recorded four albums in Japanese.  But the fourth, Disillusion had an English version recorded as well.  This led to their breakthrough Thunder in the East, released on Atco in the US.  The opening track was “Crazy Nights”, which led to video play.  And that’s how I came on board.

“M-Z-A!”

“You, come to see the show, well we’re gonna rock and roll you!”  I never ask too much lyrically of any band whose second language is English.  Still, “Crazy Nights” was about as good as the American rock of the 80s.  Niihara’s accent is thick but this only adds to the appeal.  The music, compared to their earlier Japanese albums, is toned down, more mainstream.  But it’s still clearly heavy metal.  The emphasis is on the riff.

Also important is the image.  Despite the cultural differences, Loudness still looked cool to American audiences.  When everybody else (cough cough Iron Maiden) were wearing rising sun T-shirts, these guys were actually from the rising sun!  Their stage moves also translated perfectly.  And check out Takasaki’s metal-plated guitar.  He understood the kind of visual flash that he needed.  His outfit matched, but Vince Neil was not amused.  When Loudness opened for the Crue, Takasaki was ordered to wear a different top.  His was too similar to Shout-era Motley.

But what’s with that strange chant, “M-Z-A”?  According to Niihara, he didn’t have lyrics in place for that section, and on the guide vocal just sang random sounds, “M-Z-A”.  It made the album, and puzzled fans the world over!

Like Thunder in the East, the followup album Lightning Strikes was produced by Max Norman.  Under Norman, the band recorded “Let It Go”, their most commercial song yet and one that will stick with me for life.

In 1986 I had mono, and I was housebound for weeks and weeks on end, except for doctor’s appointments.  I sat in the basement recording MuchMusic videos, and “Let It Go” was early in that batch.  To me, Loudness had never looked or sounded cooler.  I thought Niihara was really slick in that suit jacket.  The image was clearly toned down to “hard rock” from “heavy metal”, but the new casual-looking Loudness also appeared more natural.  The video even showed the construction of a guitar (Takasaki’s), the likes of which I had never seen before.  When I was well enough, Bob came over and watched all the videos I taped.  He loved “Let It Go” too.

“It’s Godzilla!” 

I continued to love the song into adulthood, partly because of the lyrics.  They were almost autobiographical!

I was the one who talked about the other man,
I thought he was my friend, but you had other plans,
I just can’t take that chance,
There ain’t no looking back,
Just a victim of circumstance,
I helped you fall in love so, Let It Go!

That happened to me!  I did tell her about the other man.  They totally would not have met if it wasn’t for me.  Fuckin’ hell!  Niihara knew my pain before I even did!  What about the rest of the words?

Driving to the top of the city,
Drive until I reach the view,
Where we used to try and see,
Our dream come true.

There was this one location where you could park the car and just look down at the city.  I did this sometimes when I was feeling romantic, or alone and feeling down.

Stop the car, light a cigarette,
Fill the air with the radio,
And there’s nothing I can do,
But think of you.

I never smoked a cigarette in my life; I wish I could just delete that line!  Otherwise, everything so far is bang on.

When I dial your telephone number,
It’s like you’re never home,
But I know it isn’t true,
What’s he doing with you?

Oh man.  So many times.  So many times.

They almost could have called this “The Love Life of Young Mike”!  That’s one way a song you like can stick with you for life.  Today I just really like the music.  “Let It Go” has all the right stuff.  Brilliant riff, great verses and chorus, and a well-composed melodic guitar solo.  It’s literally the perfect hard rock song.

Loudness with Mike Vescera

What happened next to Loudness?  They made one more album with Niihara called Hurricane Eyes, with Eddie Kramer producing.  It failed to have an impact, and Takasaki was convinced to hire on an American vocalist.  It seemed to be the only option, to grab that brass ring of success.  After one more EP (Jealousy, released only in Japan), Minoru Niihara was let go.  He was replaced by Obsession’s Mike Vescera for two albums.  “You Shook Me” from 1989’s Soldier of Fortune gained some video play.   Ultimately though, Mike had to make a go of it with Yngwie Malmsteen, with whom he recorded the excellent Seventh Sign album.

Like many metal bands, in the 90s Loudness faced an identity crisis.  Bassist Yamashita departed, and Mike Vescera was replaced by former E-Z-O lead singer Masaki Yamada.  E-Z-O had two US-released albums, and some name recognition due to a Gene Simmons produced record.  Releasing albums in Japan, Loudness carried on after original drummer Munetaka Huguchi departed as well.  The band experimented musically and lyrically, with Eastern and nu-metal influences, like the song “Dogshit” from 1998’s Dragon.

Loudness with Masaki Yamada

Takasaki kept Loudness going while also taking care of a very busy solo career.  Through the 1990s, Loudness made five albums with Yamada singing, all released only in Japan.

Ultimately, though Yamada was an ideal replacement, he could never be the original.  He suggested that Loudness reunite their classic lineup for their 20th anniversary, and so it happened.  Akira Takasaki, Minoru Niihara, Masayoshi Yamashita and Munetaka Higuchi reformed the classic lineup, and proved it was not just a one-off.  They continued to crank out new albums starting with 2001’s Spiritual Canoe, losing no momentum.  The reunion seemed built to last, until Higuchi sadly succumbed to liver cancer in 2008.  The beloved drummer was replaced by Masayuki Suzuki the following year and Loudness carried on again.

It’s an inspiring tale of perseverance, talent, and determination.

Strangely enough I have only now bought my first Loudness album.  They no longer have a huge presence here and their CDs are very hard to find.  Lightning Strikes seemed the right one to go with.  It’s enjoyable.  Everybody knows that Takasaki is frighteningly good, but really the whole band is.  Quite a lot of fun, to hear a classic 80s metal album so long after it came out.  It’s a trip.  And I’m glad Loudness never “Let It Go”, and kept going on despite all the changes.  Time to get Thunder in the East next.  I love it Loud…ness.

 


“Let It Go” with friends at the memorial concert for Munetaka Higuchi

 

REVIEW: Aerosmith – Rock in a Hard Place (1982)

Be sure to check out Deke‘s loving review over at Arena Rock – Thunder Bay and Beyond by clicking here!

ROCK IN A HARD PLACE_0001

AEROSMITH – Rock in a Hard Place (1982 Columbia, 1993 Sony)

I sometimes wonder what it was like to be an Aerosmith fan in 1982.  Their last album, Night in the Ruts, showed signs of decay.  Then out came Rock in a Hard Place.  Joe Perry and Brad Whitford were both gone*, and in their places were Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay.  Both guys are good players and writers, but they are not Perry and Whitford, who were 2/5 of the Aerosmith sound.  Changing two guitar players in the space of an album, especially when you’re losing a guy like Joe Perry, is always risky.  It’s risky because you’re losing a very recognizable member (musically and visually), and you’re changing the creative chemistry of the band.  Whatever was special about the first six albums, there was no guarantee it would carry over to the seventh.  Add to that an unfortunate album cover featuring Stonehenge.  There was nothing wrong with that, until This Is Spinal Tap came out in 1984.  It was a movie that Steven Tyler took very personally. Rock in a Hard Place looked like a joke, now.

Thankfully the record opened with two great songs in a row. The frantic “Jailbait” immediately recalled previous high points like “Toys in the Attic”. New guitar players or not, Hamilton and Kramer were more than capable of laying down that speedy Aero-groove on their own. Unusually for a rhythm section, they have a signature sound together, which makes “Jailbait” naturally sound like Aerosmith. Tyler is a sassy as ever, singing from experience I’m sure. Incidentally “Jailbait” is the only song with a Rick Dufay writing credit. Jimmy Crespo on the other hand co-wrote seven tracks.

Richie Supa, co-writer of “Chip Away the Stone”, returned to help out on the single “Lightning Strikes”. Maybe that’s one factor that makes the song so classic to me. Brad Whitford was still with the band when it was recorded, so that’s him on rhythm guitar instead of Dufay. “Lightning Strikes” was accompanied by a cool music video featuring the new guys. It’s cool how they fit in with the band, looking right at home, smoking on cigs. In the video, the band double as greaser gang bangers, ready to rumble in the middle of the night…when the lightning strikes.

Unfortunately, album quality takes a dip after that!

“Bitch’s Brew” is OK but it’s easy to hear the fatigue. The groove is there and the riff is solid, but there aren’t enough hooks to go around. That’s Crespo on the backing vocals, by the way. “Bolivian Ragamuffin” features some sweet slide guitar and really harkens back to what I like about Aerosmith. It’s just not a good enough song!

“Cry Me a River” is the old Ella Fitzgerald classic, and who but Aerosmith are better at doing unusual classic covers? “Cry Me a River” isn’t one of their best, but it is good. They do it as a smokey, lounge number complete with electric guitars and a monster called Joey Kramer on the drum kit!

Skip “Prelude to Joanie”. What happened here? This song intro is pretty silly.  Did Tyler listen to The Elder and say, “Jeez I have to get more sci-fi and conceptual sounding in my music!” Skip it, and get to the much better “Joanie’s Butterfly”. This sounds fresher. In a way it foreshadows some of the more exotic textures that Aerosmith would try out 15 years later on Nine Lives. It starts acoustic, but when the electric part kicks in, it’s old Aerosmith all over again and it works. It was an ambitious song and for the most part, they pulled it off. It could stand a little more cohesion, but think about the drugs swimming in their veins at the time!

ROCK IN A HARD PLACE_0003“Rock in a Hard Place (Cheshire Cat)” again recalls the good ol’ days, sounding a bit like “Same Old Song and Dance”. Not as good, mind you, but in the ballpark.  “Jig is Up” is an attempt to get back to the funkier Aerosmith vibe, but it’s a completely forgettable track.  Truly filler, B-side material.  (Great guitar playing though.)  “Push Comes to Shove” ends the album on a slower, lounge-y note.  Once again I can’t help but hear the band burned out and running on fumes when I listen.

Aerosmith would tour around, in smaller venues, for the next few years.  Tyler was in some serious shit with his problems, falling down and passing out on stage.  Meanwhile as the band aimlessly toured the country, Joe Perry and Brad Whitford began to talk about what it would take to rejoin the band.  As if fated, Rick Dufay killed his own job with Aerosmith by suggesting to Steven Tyler that getting the other two guys back would be his best option.  Wheels were set in motion.

Record deal with Columbia now done, the label were free to issue live albums and outtakes.  Even as Aerosmith were on tour behind a brand new studio album for Geffen (Done With Mirrors), Columbia ensured there was also a live album on the shelves.  That’s what we’ll be looking at next time.

3/5 stars for Rock in a Hard Place.

* Be sure to check out the Joe Perry Project, and Whitford/St. Holmes.

AEROSMITH BOX OF FIRE review series:

BOX OF FIRE THUMBDisc 1: Aerosmith (1973)
Disc 2: Get Your Wings (1974)
Disc 3: Toys in the Attic (1975)
Disc 4: Rocks (1976)
Disc 5: Draw the Line (1977)
Disc 6: Live! Bootleg (1978)
Disc 7: Night in the Ruts (1979)
Disc 8: Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits (1980)
Disc 9: Rock in a Hard Place (1982)