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.
Pedal to the metal.
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.