Naoto Shibata

GUEST REVIEW: Anthem – Ultimate Best Of Nexus Years (2012) by Thunder Blackmore

By Thunder Blackmore

ANTHEM – Ultimate Best Of Nexus Years (2012 King Record Co.)

In the world of metal, there is no short list of underrated bands from every corner and country of the world. Specially with long-standing bands that are still going strong to this day. Would it be bands like E-Z-O from Japan, Pretty Maids from Denmark, Thor from Canada, or Helloween from Germany, everyone regardless of nationality has a favorite band, who did well for themselves, but could’ve, would’ve and should’ve gone big. And while my choice for most underrated metal band ever would go to my fellow countrymen Pretty Maids (national bias has its moments), Japanese metal legends Anthem earns the runner-up spot, easily.

The band, led by bassist Naoto Shibata, who are perhaps more famous for his work with Loudness and Crush 40 in the 90’s, had a tough time in the 80’s with success in their homeland and even a small US tour in ’87, but also with internal struggles which prevented the band to go beyond like their fellow and more successful countrymen, Loudness. Ultimately the band would be disbanded in 1992 until they reunited in 2001 and have been going strong since then. A band considered by many to be part of the big four of Japanese Metal (with X Japan, Loudness and Flatbacker/E-Z-O) with mostly consistent excellent releases throughout the years, who just now are getting released to the west on streaming services and (hopefully) physically by Nuclear Blast. So far, there’s two options for getting into Anthem’s discography, which just so happen to be compilations. For their new era, there is Nucleus, released by the aforementioned Nuclear Blast. But as for their classic period, the import to buy is this one. Ultimate Best Of Nexus Years.

Japanese releases has a reputation of not being a very cheap options, so getting this compilation is definitely a good starter point. It collects songs from the band’s initial 80’s era, starting with the self-titled debut and ending with their final album before their hiatus, Domestic Booty (you’ll be the judge for the supposed meaning of “booty”). Given that the compilation is split into two cd’s, it also reflects the times with the singers Eizo Sakamoto and Yukio Morikawa representing disc 1 and 2, respectively. This decision, coupled with the track list being in chronological order, can be difficult at first listen. Not necessarily with the tracks themselves but more with the unevenness with the production, as the first Anthem albums sound pretty rough. Granted, that’s not a problem exclusive to the band, but that also means that you’ll have to skip to track 13, “Bound to Break”, if you are somewhat put off by the roughness.

If you can hang with it, you are in for 2 hours of kickass catchy melodic metal majesty from glorious Nippon with no noteworthy duds. Even with my nitpicky desire to swap out some tracks for others, I’m still absolutely happy with this purchase. Standouts have to be “Venom Strike”, “Shadow Walk”, “Bound to Break”, “Hunting Time”, “Night After Night” and “Show Must Go On”. The latter being their first original song with English lyrics (courtesy of the late Chris Tsangarides) and being their first to be featured in the Anime OVA, Devilman.

Until Anthem can finally release their back-catalog on physical media for a much more affordable price (CD, vinyl or otherwise), this one will do wonders in the meantime.

4.95/5 stars

Thanks to Thunder Blackmore for this awesome review.

 

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips DVD

Part Four of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips (1999 Rooms DVD, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The complete Buddha Rock 1997-1999 set comes with the three Loudness albums from that brief era, and also a bonus DVD with the accompanying music videos.  On the back some are listed as “full size” and others “short size” — let’s find out what that means and what Loudness videos looked like in the late 90s.

“Ghetto Machine” opens, with Loudness including a shaven-headed Akira Takasaki performing in a darkened room.  The added static interferance reminds us we are in the 90s when bands like Loudness didn’t have much budget and covered it up with tricks like this.  Masaki appears cold with his big fur hat, but it’s fun to see this version of Loudness on video.  “Evil Ecstasy” has cleaner production, but this is one of the “short size” videos — it’s only about 90 seconds of a pretty cool song.  Too bad because this video is much more watchable.  The funkier “San Francisco” is also one of these short versions, as is “Creatures”.  All of these videos appear to be taped at the same time.  The section of “Creatures” used focuses on the guitar solo.  That’s cool at least.  “Katmandu Fly” is the “full size”, but it’s also only a minute-long instrumental so to call it “full size” is kinda cheatin’.

Moving on from the Ghetto Machine album, all the rest of the videos are “full size”.  From Dragon, it’s two of the best tracks:  “Dogshit” and “Crazy Go Go”.  This time Loudness are playing in a huge, uber-clean garage.  As “Dogshit” demonstrates, Akira was now into his “fly sunglasses” phase.  It looks like the band are having fun here, which makes it an enjoyable watch.  Great song too.  “Crazy Go Go” is more straight ahead, with lights and struttin’ stage moves instead of goofing around.

Apparently they only did one video for the final Masaki album, Engine.  “Black Biohazard” is that song; not a tune that impressed on prior listens.  (Also strange how “Black Biohazard” is the only song not in capital letters on the cover.)  This video is made from grainy outdoor concert festival footage.  From this we can ascertain that live, Masaki was a capable frontman with a cool rock star stage persona.

At 25 minutes, this DVD can not be considered more than a bonus for buying the Buddha Rock box set.  It is not the main draw.  The fundamental reason to get Buddha Rock is to acquire the three albums Ghetto Machine, Dragon and Engine in one place with ease.  As a bonus feature, the Music Clips disc does what it does.  “Dogshit” is the best video by a wide margin, and it remains unclear why “short size” videos were included, unless that’s all that was ever made for those particular songs?

The Buddha Rock box set also comes with photos, complete lyrics (in English) and liner notes (in Japanese).  It’s the obvious way to go to cover those years, an era which ended with the Engine album in 1999.  At Masaki’s urging, Akira Takasaki reunited the original Loudness lineup and released Spiritual Canoe with Minoru Niihara at the microphone.  That put an end to the Masaki Yamada era, which started with member turnover before solidifying on these three albums with Naoto Shibata and Hirotsugo Homma on bass and drums respectively.  Great musicians both who helped Loudness explore new and weird directions at the end of the 90s.

Music Clips DVD:  3/5 stars

Buddha Rock 1997-1999 box set:  3.5/5 stars  (the sum of the whole is greater than its parts)

REVIEW: Loudness – Engine (1999)

Part Three of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Engine (1999 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The Masaki Yamada era of Loudness ended with the 1990s.  Masaki felt (correctly) that Loudness would be best off reuniting with its original lineup in the year 2000, and so Engine is the last album to feature Yamada, drummer Hirotsugo Homma and bassist Naoto Shibata.

As with the previous two Loudness albums (also included in Buddha Rock), Akira Takasaki’s penchant for experimentation is at the forefront.  “Soul Tone”, the opening instrumental, makes that much clear with its atypical exotic guitar drones in place of a song.  Then Akira cranks up the string harmonics on the bizarrely rocking “Bug Killer”, a 90s song if there ever was one.  He must have been listening to Rage Against the Machine.  The track descends into guitar mayhem by the end.  It’s incredible to think how Akira transitioned from an 80s guitar hero compared to Eddie and Yngwie, to a 90s master borrowing from Morello and the Middle East.

“Black Biohazard” chugs unremarkably just like much of the 90s did.  Leaning on a groove, “Twist of Chain” has certain 80s delicious metal elements hidden under the distortion.  It’s the kind of song that makes these lost albums really worth hunting down.  Similarly, “Bad Date/Nothing I Can Do” buries its hooks under vocal distortion.  Unfortunate that they didn’t just let it loose.  “Apocalypse” fails to build on this with a forgettable alterna-dirge.  “Ace in the Hole” has more going on, with a menacing far East vibe.  The guitars are like razor blades.

 

A sudden left turn on the partly acoustic “Sweet Dreams” almost sounds like a great lost Stone Temple Pilots song from some unknown era.  “Asylum” focuses on the bass, as a lot of the album does, choosing a heavy psychedelic feel.  A long guitar solo section is the track’s highlight.

Without warning, the oddly titled “Burning Eye Balls” goes to acoustic exotic Zeppelin territory.  This refreshing change is followed by “Junk His Head”, a pretty straightforward headbanger that does away with the distorted vocals.  Hirotsugo Homma lays down a killer beat on this one.   The penultimate instrumental track “2008 (Candra 月天)” doesn’t have any particular hooks to relay which is unfortunate since previous Loudness instrumentals have at least been interesting.  This leaves it to the closing track “Coming Home” to make final impressions, of which it makes few.  It has echoes of the old Loudness track “So Lonely” but without much of the feeling or structure.

These three final Masaki-era Loudness albums all have some cool tracks; enough at least to assemble a good single-disc compilation.  Owning all three is for fans only.  It is fun to sit and listen to a band evolve, and watch them try on all kinds of different hats.  If that’s your obsession too, pick up Engine and check out the complete Buddha Rock box set while you’re at it.

2.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Dragon (1998)

Part Two of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Dragon (1998 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

Lucky 13th album for Loudness?  Maybe not, but it is an uptick from the prior release Ghetto Machine.  The band just kept on going, with only Akira Takasaki remaining from the original lineup.  Their third singer Masaki Yamada was on his fourth album with Loudness, and by now they had established a heavy alterna-metal 90s sound.  It is the strongest of the three albums of the Buddha Rock era.

Loudness had become fearless, blending thrash and funk together on “9 Mile High”.  Those who don’t enjoy Masaki’s growling style won’t be turned around here.  Those who like it fast enough to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs will not have a problem.  It skips between thrash and funk without warning.

The appetizingly titled “Dogshit” could only have come from the 1990s.  Harmonic drones are substituted for a main riff, and Masaki’s vocal is closer to rap metal.  Yet there’s something irresistible about it.  “Dog shit on my bike boots!” sings Masaki with a heavy guitar backing him.  And that’s why Loudness could get away with doing this kind of music.  It’s the guitar.  Akira Takasaki is one of the best in the world, but he’s more fearless than Yngwie and can play just about anything.  With a virtuoso like that, it’s unlikely you’re going to sound like dog shit.

“Wicked Witches” is heavy, detuned, and it grooves to the max while drilling into your brain.  There’s even a little bit of early Van Halen in the riff.  That leads into “Crazy Go-Go”, a single and album highlight.  Foregoing the nu-metal, this one is wah-wah heavy and just plain rocks!  Flat out, kick ass, rock and roll.  “Backstage go-go babe, like a circus after school, playin’ my guitar like a country horse.”  (Country horse?)  You get the picture!  It’s about groupies!  (Akira makes his guitar whinny like a horse!)

Drummer Hirotsugo Homma gets to have some rhythmic fun on “Voodoo Voices” which is one of the most bizarre tracks Loudness have ever done.  Voodoo voices indeed, as the vocals are buried, ethereal in the mix.  It’s trippy and trip-hoppy.  The instrumental “回想” (“Kaisō”) is made up of backwards guitars playing quietly and hypnotic.  Then suddenly it’s a metal riff on “Babylon”.  Masaki eschews the growl and goes for psychedelic singing.  “Crawl” features a chugging Akira riff, and then some pulsing synth?  This album goes everywhere.

“Forbidden Love” is pretty cool, coming closer to the spirit of 80s Loudness.  Then go for some more 90s funk metal on “Mirror Ball”, which is as hot as Anthony Kiedis’ arm pit.  Another stunning instrumental emerges in “Taj Mahal”, which is not about the shredding but entirely about atmosphere.  A variety of unique sounding guitars are accompanied by exotic percussion and bass.  Unfortunately that leads into a little bit of a dud for an album closer.  “Nightcreepers” doesn’t make an impression.

While this Dragon is an experimental one, not afraid to mess with expectations or traditions, it is still rooted in that 90s nu-metal dungeon.  That is something that dates the disc to certain period in time.  When it rises above that, as it does on “回想”, “Crazy Go Go” and “Voodoo Voices”, it transcends genre and goes somewhere unique.  There are just enough of those moments to make this album a keeper.

3.25/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Ghetto Machine (1997)

Part One of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Ghetto Machine (1997 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

1997:  Masaki Yamada, the third Loudness singer, was now on his third Loudness album.  Besides founding guitarist Akira Takasaki, the rest of the band was new.  Ghetto Machine is the first with bassist Naoto Shibata, and second with drummer Hirotsugu Homma.  The 90s were chaotic even for Loudness, just like it was for bands in North America.  In Loudness’ case, they now had more original E-Z-O members (in Masaki and Homma) than original Loudness members.  Like most Loudness albums from the 90s onwards, Ghetto Machine was released only in Japan.

The album was self-produced by Takasaki, recently converted to Buddhism, and he fearlessly dove into the 1990s.  Opening with the title “Ghetto Machine”, the riff is low and grinding.  Masaki takes on a growly lower tone, and in place of hooks there is only groove and the drone of guitar.  This is far removed from the regal metal of the earliest days, but seems sincere given the freedom for Loudness to do whatever they wanted.

Track two, “Slave” features an unusual droning riff, with the thrash metal tempos of early Loudness.  At least 90s Loudness didn’t forego guitar solos like some bands.  Akira’s here is as interesting as any he’s done.  “Evil Ecstasy” opts for a nice groove right in the pocket.  Although the riffs are simpler, Akira always does something interesting, either with tone or technique.  Though 90s Loudness seems to be less focused on songwriting hooks, sonics are treated with care.

“San Fransisco” isn’t outstanding, though the guitars always are.  Nice wah-wah on the solo.  Zeppelin seems to be one of many influences on “Love and Hate”, but at this point of the album it is clear that Masaki Yamada will not be delivering much in terms of melody.   “Creatures” has a stinging little whiplash of a riff and biting vocals but little that you can sing along to.  A cool funky groove called “Hypnotized” is preceded by “Katmandu Fly”, a short atmospheric instrumental.  I almost get the feeling that the chorus riff to “Hypnotized” is a twisted variation of “Smoke on the Water”, though it could be my imagination striving to find any kind of hook.

Some crooning during a slow psychedelic jammy break in “Dead Man Walking” is the only melody in that song.  The albums takes a turn back towards melodic at the end.  Second-to-last track “Jasmine Sky” starts the change up.  It’s slow and sparse, and sounds like lead vocals by Akira.  It’s one of the only tracks with an actual vocal melody from start to finish, and sets up “Wonder Man” as a final blowout.  This monolithic riff is accompanied by exotic guitar soloing and a Masaki vocal you can sing along to.  It crawls to a vaguely Zeppelin-y ending.

Ghetto Machine brings me back to that unhappy time in the 90s, when classic bands did what they had to do to adapt, and while the new albums had merit, they were clearly missing…something.  The ’92 Loudness album with Masaki was awesome and represented everything good that the 90s could do to a rock band.  Ghetto Machine is the slide afterwards.

2.75/5 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