Masaki Yamada

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”.  These 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

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Loudness (1992)

LOUDNESS – Loudness (1992 Warner Music Japan)

It’s safe to say that, while the Mike Vescera era of Loudness has its merits, the band was not the same after Minoru Niihara was let go.  Loudness were not the first Japanese metal band to utilize an American singer in an attempt at greater success.  When that didn’t pan out, Vescera left to join Yngwie Malmsteen.  Unfortunately, this lineup shift happened at the worst possible time in music history:  the 1990s.  The beginning of the grunge movement.

Also gone was bassist Masayoshi Yamashita, leaving only founders Munetaka Higuchi (drums), and Akira Takasaki (guitar).  Returning their focus back to Japan, Loudness sought new members already well known at home.  Taiji Sawada from X (called “X Japan” over here) joined on bass.  In a surprising move, they chose E-Z-O singer Masaki Yamada to front Loudness through the 90s.  Masaki’s style was a vocal shift, drastically different from Niihara and Vescera.  He was also known as a theatrical frontman, using exaggerated makeup and hair.  The name recognition wouldn’t hurt though.  E-Z-O put out two critically acclaimed albums in the US, one of which was produced by Gene Simmons of Kiss.

Having felt pressure to commercialize his music, Takasaki decided to go heavy.  What better way to proclaim that they’ve returned to center than by calling the new album simply Loudness?

“Pray for the Dead” opens with heavy, heavy 90s riffing like a cross between Pantera and Megadeth.  Takasaki was not fooling around.  His trademark divebombs soon give way to a slow grind.  Masaki’s growling presence is swiftly felt.  He might not sound like Minoru but he’s completely right for the new Loudness.  This is not the heavy, technical speed metal of the early albums.  “Pray for the Dead” is the new heavy; slowed down and emphasis on groove.  The difference between Loudness and all the rest of the slow, heavy alternametal bands of the 90s is Akira.  He continued to shred solos that would make most players scratch their heads trying to keep up.

Higuchi pounds his way into “Slaughter House” which wastes no time getting up to speed.  The first fast tempo track of the album gets into thrash territory, leaving Metallica in the dust.  Once again Akira blows minds on the solos, this one going neoclassical before duelling with Taiji on bass.  Not letting up, “Waking the Dead” is a vicious song due to Masaki’s vocal bite.

Loudness is relentless.  The best tune is the groover “Black Widow”, track #4.  It is here that Loudness and Masaki gel most perfectly.  It’s better than a lot of the heavy music coming out of Seattle at the same time.  The production is crisp but weighty.  The performances really jam, even though they’re quite technical.  “Black Widow” is a killer!

A “Kickstart My Heart”-like drum pattern opens a song appropriately called “Racing the Wind”.  This is in the neighborhood of Painkiller-era Judas Priest, but with a bass player who can really shred.  On “Love Kills”, the wah-wah pedal is broken out for some play, but the song otherwise chugs along slowly.  At the time, this was the kind of song that was in the right ballpark to be a hit.  “Hell Bites” then annihilates the senses: a blistering track with incredible musicianship from all around.  There’s that wah-wah again!  It’s the closest thing to an album epic when it goes through different tempos and riffs.  Outstanding track.

An interesting song is “Everyone Lies”, since the music was written by former bassist Yamashita.  At first, it’s not an outstanding track.  After a few listens, the heavy groove becomes unshakeable.  “Everyone Lies” is a serious banger, and it gives Masaki room to really bellow.  “So sick of bullshit, better get wise, everyone lies!”  Masaki was assisted in lyrics by Jody Gray, but this sure does sound like Takasaki’s statement towards old managers and record labels.

There’s a funky groove on “Twisted”, a song that could only have been written in the 90s.  The crazy thing is Taiji’s funk bass skills are phenomenal!  When Takasaki starts Vai-shredding all over it, I forget what band I’m listening to.  Especially when Gray raps.  But that is mercifully brief.  It just goes to show how all-encompassing that altera-rock phase was in the 90s.  It touched virtually every band in some way.  Loudness more than expected.

An absolutely insane thrash metal surgical strike ends the album on “Firestorm”, with lyrics split 50/50 between Japanese and English.  Metal doesn’t come much faster than this.  Hopefully the old fans were shitting themselves in happiness with new music of this velocity.

Although Loudness had returned to their roots in terms of playing fast, heavy music once more, there is no question that they also moved into another direction simultaneously.  Loudness is not The Law of Devil’s Land.  Solos aside, there is nothing as traditionally “metal” as early Loudness.  Masaki isn’t a melodic singer like Minoru.  Instead Masaki goes full blast.  Masaki is an acquired taste with a different style.  You’ll either like it or you won’t.

I like it.

4.5/5 stars

 

Rest in peace Munetaka Higuchi and Taiji Sawada.

 

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#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