Minoru Niihara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Masters of Loudness (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masters of Loudness can be broken down this way:

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 stars

 

 

 

 

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

REVIEW: Loudness – Thunder in the East (1985 US version)

LOUDNESS – Thunder in the Easy (1985 Atco, 2003 Wounded Bird reissue)

1984’s Disillusion album turned some heads, especially when Loudness re-recorded the vocals in English.  Now they were signed to an American label and worked with an American producer (Max freakin’ Norman), ready to break into that lucrative market.  Thunder in the East was their debut to many fans outside Japan.  For the occasion, the band shed some of its more challenging heavy metal arrangements in favour of mainstream rock and metal.

Out of gates first, “Crazy Nights” is a virtual sledgehammer.  The riff is trademarked “heavy metal” and the chorus has the galvanised sheen expected from a song like this.  The lyrics were designed for the concert stage, with lines like “Let me hear you all go wild,” and “Come on get on your feet”.   But the line that confused fans worldwide was the chant “M! Z! A!” after every chorus.   It turns out that “M-Z-A” stands for nothing.  It’s just some filler lyrics that were meant to be replaced in the final version, but left in because it sounded cool.  Fortuitous for Loudness, as it became a bit of a catchphrase.

Regardless, “Crazy Nights” is the one Loudness song you need to get if you only want one Loudness song.  The riff just bites, like a mean old dog.  It’s the “big hit” and deservedly so.  Lots of chances to sing, shout and headbang.  You are the heroes tonight.

A blistering “Like Hell” turns up the temperature in short order, with a fast blitz including melodic verses.  The chorus however is a simple shout:  “Like hell!”  Loudness founder Akira Takasaki is not only a master of the six string (usually compared to Eddie Van Halen) but also a hell of a songwriter (pardon the pun).  His knack for riff and melody resulted in a collection of songs running the gamut from vintage Priest to Dokken.  “Like Hell” could have been on Defenders of the Faith.  More on the old-school Scorpions side of things is “Heavy Chains”, a metal dirge with a foothold in early Maiden territory to boot.  This brilliant track showcases singer Minoru Niihara’s impressive range and power.  A frantic “Get Away” takes its speed and melody from Van Halen, but cranked up to 11.  Takasaki’s multitracked guitar solo is neoclassical nirvana right up Malmsteen Avenue.  Sheer melodic thrills embody “We Could Be Together”, a song Don Dokken could have felt at home singing, and with some licks that sound positively Lynchian.

The second side commenced with “Run For Your Life”, a complex track that sounds at times like a ballad and others like a heavy metal hurdle through a minefield.  It’s the first track that doesn’t have the same structural integrity as the others, though it challenges in other ways.  “Clockwork Toy” is more straightforward, solid riff and chorus, but not as memorable.

Things take a cool, funky turn on “No Way Out”, a very different track but also very addictive.  The guitar playing on tracks like this proved Takasaki could do a lot more than people assumed.  Impressive too is the chugging “The Lines Are Down”, which is located right in Dokken Town.  Except heavier, because make no mistake, Loudness are heavier.

The final track “Never Change Your Mind” is harder to categorize.  Ballady, with light and shade, it’s unique.  It sounds like an anthem at the halfway point…an anthem with guitar divebombs. It’s a dramatic way to end an impressive metal feast.

Since Thunder in the East contains Loudness’ best known hit, it comes highly recommended.  It’s a solid piece of metal history.  It might not be their pinnacle but it’s a damn fine album indeed.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Disillusion (1984 Japanese version)

LOUDNESS – Disillusion (1984 Nippon Columbia)

For a few albums starting with their fourth record Disillusion, Loudness began recording English lyrics for outside Japan.  For the Japanese versions, the lyrics are a mixture of both languages with the choruses usually sung in English.  Whichever version you hear, Disillusion will satisfy your craving for memorable heavy riffs, brilliant vocals, and incredible guitar shredding.

Guitarist Akira Takasaki was considered the Japanese Eddie Van Halen and you can hear why on Disillusion.  Though Loudness are heavier than Van Halen, Takasaki employs techniques similar to King Edward.  Disillusion opens with the thunderous “Crazy Doctor”, on which you can hear the Van Halen chords loud and clear, though the track sounds more like heavier vintage Dokken.  As outstanding as Akira is, also unmistakable is singer Minoru Niihara.  The original Loudness frontman could really sing with all the necessary panache and metal inflection.

The opening guitar shreddery on the speed metal “Esper” recalls St. Edward once again, but Loudness could have given Metallica a run for their money on this one.  Completely over the top!  A number of fans think that Loudness softened their sound when they released their American major label debut Thunder in the East in ’85.  You can understand why they think that when you hear “Esper”.  However this is a balanced album, and the more melodic “Butterfly” slows things down so you can catch your breath.  Unfortunately “Butterfly” is the closest thing to a mistep on this otherwise brilliant disc.

There’s a Maiden-y vibe to “Revelation” circa Piece of Mind, but not just because of the name.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Loudness were influenced by Maiden.  We do know that both Loudness and Maiden were influenced by Deep Purple so there might be some convergent evolution going on.

The parallels to Sir Edward continue on side two with an instrumental called “Erupt…” err, sorry, it’s called “Exploder”.  Whatever the similarities, Takasaki is an enticing guitar player and he came to public attention exactly when this kind of playing was most popular.  “Exploder” blows away most of the competition.  Only a handful of players could do stuff like this and they usually had names like “Rhoads” and “Halen”.

Vocals return on “Dream Fantasy”, another blazing hot metal extravaganza, with solid chorus intact.  It’s worth noting that Takasaki was not alone in musical excellence.  Drummer Munetaka Higuchi (R.I.P.) was a heavy-hitter who could thrash it up and come up with interesting fills.  Masayoshi Yamashita has a knack for a busy, melodic bassline, though mostly holds down the fort so Akira can fly.

“Milky Way” boasts a cool, smoother style of riff and another exemplary Minoru Niihara chorus.  It’s a challenging arrangement with different rhythms and textures.  Loudness were not simply banging out metal riffs for your rock and roll crazy nights.  They were stretching the boundaries of their abilities, playing intelligent metal like the Scorpions and Priest did in the 70s.  But they also weren’t afraid of getting down n’ dirty, as they do on “Satisfaction Guaranteed”.  Though you can’t tell without the lyric sheet, it’s the only song that is completely sung in English.  It’s not the lyrics, but the riff that will hook you.  Note the passing Maiden-esque gallop.

This version of Disillusion concludes with an epic “Ares’ Lament”.  It’s a cross between early Maiden and Scorpions with a touch of darkness, with a long shadowy outro reminiscent of “Child in Time”.  It’s a brilliant end to a pretty stunning album.

Disillusion is not immediate, except for “Crazy Doctor” which will hook you at first listen.   It’s a busy record, so you need to give it a couple proper listens to let the riffs and hooks come to the fore.  Once they do, you will uncover many elements of pleasure in the grooves within.  It sounds uncompromised and is more unique than the albums that followed.  It’s a fine example of metal forged in integrity.

4.5/5 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

 

#735: Quite Possibly the Worst Music Video I’ve Ever Seen: Vigilants – “Run For Cover”

GETTING MORE TALE #735: Quite Possibly the Worst Music Video I’ve Ever Seen
Vigilants – “Run For Cover”

Recording music videos from the TV as a kid was a fine art.  My method was to keep the machine on “record-pause” as videos were playing.  Then all I had to do was un-pause and I’d be able to start recording almost immediately.  I’d lose maybe a second of video.  Then I’d pause again at the end, waiting for the next “good song”.

The Pepsi Power Hour was an amazing way to discover new (or old) bands.  By recording the videos, I could hear the songs over and over.  If there was a new band I was curious about, I’d take a chance and hit record.  If I didn’t like the song or band, I’d just rewind and record over it.  The Power Hour would play virtually any kind of metal.  Their intro had Slayer’s “Angel of Death” as the theme music!  From Poison to Cro-Mags, they would play it.  Venom were regular favourites.

One afternoon in 1986, I was recording away when J.D. (John) Roberts announced a new band coming up, called Vigilant.  (Over the years I’ve seen it spelled as Vigilants and Vigilante, but I will continue to use the spelling as it appeared on TV that day.)  I recorded it — decent enough hard rock song — and I kept the video because their labelmate Lee Aaron had a cameo in it.  Lee Aaron was and is Canada’s Metal Queen, so I thought the band must be OK.  But dear God, what a video.  What a horrendous video!

Let’s break it down.

We got the asshole record exec who won’t give a band a shot.  We have Lee Aaron at reception, and a stripper entering the offices!  What could this be about?

The stripper plays the record exec a tape, and then suddenly enters:  more strippers!  How many?  Who knows, but you can play “count the strippers” with your friends if you like.  The song is playing, but we still haven’t seen the band.

It’s well over two minutes before the band burst into the room, guitars in hand, to play along to their song.  The fashion of the day:  checkers, stripes, tassels, and tight tight pants.  Pants so loud that Jon Bon Jovi himself wouldn’t have been seen in them.  The bassist has one of those narrow body basses that were trendy at the time.  The drummer?  He doesn’t even show up until the 3:00 mark.  Poor drummer!  The point of course is that the strippers have far more screen time than the guys in the actual band, the hallmark of the stinkiest of the 1980s.  Sulfer-stinky!

The one on the left is in roller skates.

The plot thickens when a roadie enters, with a flash bomb.  He’s going to blow up the band!  But then, Lee Aaron pulls the old switcheroo.  And the roadie, though good at plugging in flash bombs, doesn’t seem to know how to unplug them.  Guess who gets blowded up!  Not the band or the strippers, I’ll tell you that!

Don’t worry, it’s a happy ending for everybody.  Including the lead stripper, it’s heavily implied….

Please enjoy (?) the music video for “Run For Cover” by Vigilant (or Vigilante, or Vigilants) featuring Lee Aaron.  The song actually wasn’t that bad.  The verses were nothing to write home about, but the bridge and chorus are pretty good!  Generic as hell, but it was the 80s.  (Oh, and check out the funny MuchMusic bumper before the actual video, featuring Loudness singer Minoru Niihara!)