Gig review: Voivod

Voivod’s Snake on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks 

Canadian cult rockers Voivod give their Japanese fans a weird and wonderful night of spaced-out music. 

Voivod at Tsutaya O-West, Shibuya, Tokyo on 18th January 2019

Voivod’s Snake on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

What a weird and wonderful show Canadian cult rockers Voivod put on in Tokyo this evening. Founded in Quebec, Canada 36 years ago, the band has released 14 studio albums so far, most recently 2018’s “The Wake”. The band has seen a number of line-up changes, including having former Metallica and Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted as a member for a number of years. The current line-up features original drummer Michel “Away” Langevin and vocalist Denis “Snake” Bélanger. They are joined by Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain on guitar and bassist Dominique “Rocky” Laroche. 

Voivod’s Away on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

As a band, they have a terrific combination of wackiness and cheekiness. But they back that up with terrific music. Voivod’s musical style is best described as…Voivod. The band’s record label Century Media Records calls them “Canadian progressive sci-fi metal innovators” while the band has described itself as “cosmic-metal warriors”. The band’s music is all over the place. It’s hard rock, thrash metal, speed metal, progressive metal, jazz metal, avant-garde metal… Their style is always evolving. There are twists and turns around every corner and this is what makes this innovative band so interesting.

The evening’s setlist is very tasty and it is evident that the band members are loving it up on stage. The whole set is performed with big smiles on their faces. They open with “Post Society” from the 2016 EP and follow it with “Ravenous Medicine”, a classic from the 1986 album “Killing Technology”. The band’s anthem “Voivod” is an obvious highlight of the evening. “Iconspiracy” from the new album is another one. The set is a fabulous mix of new and old and it highlights the band’s broad musical world. They close a splendid evening of music with the Pink Floyd cover “Astronomy Domine”.

Voivod’s Snake and Rocky on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Just as I think that Voivod’s stage show somewhat reminds me of a Napalm Death gig, I notice that none other than Napalm Death frontman Barney is standing next to me at the gig. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Voivod’s Chewy, Rocky and Snake on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Gig review: Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators

Slash. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks (archive photo)

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Slash puts on a great show in Tokyo focused on his solo material.

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators and H.E.R.O. at Studio Coast, Shin-Kiba, Tokyo on 17th January 2019

The evening kicks off with promising new Danish rock band H.E.R.O. as support act. They have just been signed by Sony Music Japan and their short set gets them noticed and no doubt creates some interest in their debut full-length studio album which will be released in April.

I first saw Slash live with Guns N’ Roses in 1991 on the “Use Your Illusion” tour. Since then I have seen him numerous times solo. What sets this evening’s gig apart from all the previous ones, is that he is no longer relying on playing old Guns N’ Roses hits. This evening we only get one GNR song, “Nightrain”. We also get one Velvet Revolver song, “Fall to Pieces”, but the show is primarily built around Slash’s solo material. It is a fantastic night of good-fun quality rock’n’roll delivered by a world-class band. Unlike in Guns N’ Roses, here Slash gets to do what he wants. He can be more relaxed and have a more laidback approach. It looks like he is having more fun and it feeds into the music too. Slash has a fabulous and very tight band. It’s the same line-up as when they last toured Japan four years ago: vocalist Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge), bassist Todd Kerns (Bob Kulick, Hookers & Blow, Sin City Sinners), drummer Brent Fitz (Union, Vince Neil, Alice Cooper, Bruce Kulick) and guitarist Frank Sidoris (The Cab).

They open the show with “Call of the Wild”, a track from the latest album, “Living the Dream”, and follow it with crowd favourite “Halo”, one of the best songs from Slash’s solo catalogue. Other highlights of the 22-song show include the terrific “World on Fire” and “Shadow Life”. In the splendid “Wicked Stone” we get one of a series of excellent extended guitar solos by Slash. The man and his guitar are in love and they are having a good night. If one were to look for areas of possible improvement, perhaps we could wish for a little more variation in the song material. A majority of the songs are of a similar kind. We do get a couple of slower songs and a few songs that are a bit more blues rock, but for the most part, Slash’s show is made up of guitar-based melodic hard rock. Having bassist Todd Kerns sing lead on a couple of great songs (“We’re All Gonna Die” and “Doctor Alibi”) is a smart move. It mixes things up and Kerns is a hell of a showman – his stage moves reminds me of Gene Simmons in the 1970s. A great evening of rock finishes with the catchy “Anastasia” and one more fantastic guitar solo by Slash.

Album review: Dust Bolt “Trapped in Chaos”

Dust Bolt’s Lenny Bruce (and a stage diver) on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks 

The young Germans in thrash metal band Dust Bolt are back with a fab new album.

Germany has a great new generation of heavy metal bands that are starting to make noises internationally. One of my current favourites is thrash metal band Dust Bolt. Following a great show in Tokyo in December, they are now back with a great new studio album called “Trapped in Chaos”. 

Dust Bolt formed in 2007 and released their debut album “Violent Demolition” in 2012. “Trapped in Chaos” is their fourth full-length studio album. It’s overall a terrific thrash metal album that no doubt will win the band plenty of new fans. For the most part, this is very much an old-school sounding album created in the tradition of American-style Bay Area thrash metal. But there’s some variation, most obviously in the form of the song “Another Day in Hell” which is far from straightforward thrash. It is perhaps best described as Dust Bolt’s answer to Metallica’s “One”. Call it what you like, it’s brilliant. It really is a power ballad, but somehow it manages to be that without losing the band any of its street cred. The album’s opening track, “The Fourth Strike”, also opened the band’s recent Tokyo show. It sounds like it has been written to open shows and my guess is that it will survive for many years to come in the band’s live set. One of the absolute highlights of the album is the fantastic track “The Bad Ad”. It is a track with great aggression, smart melodies and terrific guitars! Dust Bolt has indeed great songs. They manage to both deliver top-level quality music and somehow still retain a kind of underground sound. Love it! Thrash metal isn’t supposed to be too polished. There should be a certain degree of grittiness to the songs. Dust Bolt knows that and they deliver accordingly.

Dust Bolt’s “Trapped in Chaos” will be released on 18th January via Napalm Records. A Japanese edition, including live recordings from Tokyo in December, will be released later via Metal Justice Tokyo.

EP review: Night Crowned “Humanity Will Echo Out”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks 

Excellent dark, melodic and brutal music on debut EP by Sweden’s Night Crowned.

Night Crowned’s three-track debut EP “Humanity Will Echo Out” surprises me. I have never heard of the band and as I listen I am impressed by the music. Normally bands this good don’t just appear from thin air. They come from somewhere. That turns out to also be the case with Night Crowned. There is plenty of pedigree here: Marcus Sunesson on guitar (Engel, The Crown, CyHra, The Haunted), Henric Liljesand on bass (The Unguided, Nightrage, Amaranthe), Janne Jaloma on drums (Dark Funeral), Ken Romlin on vocals (Dark Forest of North, Disrated) and Johan Eskilsson on guitar (Cipher System).

Night Crowned plays powerful and high-energy music in the tradition of Nordic extreme metal of the 1990s. It sometimes reminds me of the heavier parts of Amorphis’ music and there are also reminders of Dark Funeral and similar bands. The music is brutal and heavy but it also has great melodies and an atmospheric soundscape. The three songs on this EP – “No Room for Hope”, “Nocturnal Pulse” and “All Life Ends” – are all excellent and they make it clear what this band is all about. The future is bleak and in such a dystopian society we need a suitable soundtrack of hopelessness. Here we have it. I really like when bands put out an EP like this one, where we get slam-dunked by terrific music, rather than, which is too often the case, a full-length album with three-four great songs and then some fillers. I can only imagine how good this can be live on stage. I have seen Sunesson, Liljesand and Jaloma perform here in Japan with other bands and I hope they will return with Night Crowned. 

Night Crowned’s “Humanity Will Echo Out” is out now via Black Lion Records.

Album review: Raven “Screaming Murder Death From Above: Live in Aalborg”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Cult hard rock band Raven returns with a fabulously raw live album ahead of its upcoming Japan gigs.

Ever since Raven was founded in Newcastle in the north of England in 1974, the band has had brothers John Gallagher (vocals and bass) and Mark Gallagher (guitar) at its core. They emerged as part of the NWOBHM scene in the UK. They toured North America in 1983, with Metallica as its support act, and Raven soon thereafter relocated to the US. Raven’s sound is a mix of classic British heavy metal with some American-style thrash elements (or shall we say it sounds like that because Raven actually inspired and toured with many of the Bay Area bands?). In 2017, drummer Mike Heller (Fear Factory) joined the band to complete its current energy-filled line-up.

This live album is raw and it is real, just like the band itself. We get an excellent song selection on this eleven-track album recorded in Denmark in November 2017. We get two songs “Destroy All Monsters” and “Tank Treads (The Blood Runs Red)” – from the most recent studio album, 2015’s “ExtermiNation”. But the bulk of the material is from the early 1980s, including “Hell Patrol” and “Rock Until You Drop” from the band’s 1981 debut album. We also get the 80s classics “Faster than the Speed of Light”, “Hung, Drawn and Quartered”, ”All for One”, “Break the Chain”, “On and On” and “Crash Bang Wallop”, plus “A.A.N.S.M.M.G.N.”, a spaced-out guitar solo by Mark Gallagher (picture Ace Frehley performing a terrific and hazy solo at an English working men’s club in a coal mining town). This live album is a splendid snapshot of what Raven is all about.

Raven “Screaming Murder Death From Above: Live in Aalborg” will be released on 18th January via Steamhammer/SPV internationally and Ward Records in Japan.

Raven will perform two special shows in Tokyo in March: On 14th March they will do a show focused on the first three albums and on 15th March they will do a greatest hits show. Get your tickets here:

Album review: Magnum “Live At The Symphony Hall”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

British prog-rock glory on stage in Birmingham on an exquisite new live album by Magnum. 

I haven’t seen Magnum live for many years, but this terrific live album brings me right back to the impressive shows I saw them perform in 1990 and 1991. Magnum is a terrific and classic progressive rock band with great melodic and symphonic touches. Formed in 1972, Magnum has so far released twenty studio albums. Magnum’s core duo remains the same – vocalist Bob Catley and lead guitarist Tony Clarkin. In the current line-up of the band they are joined by Al Barrow on bass, Rick Benton on keyboards and Lee Morris (ex-Paradise Lost) on drums. 

On “Live At The Symphony Hall”, recorded live in front of their loyal hometown fans in Birmingham, England on 19th April 2018 during the final show of the “Road to Eternity Tour”, we get Magnum delivering a flawless performance. It’s fifteen songs of sheer classic rock brilliance. On this double CD/three-LP live release we get treated to classic songs such as “How Far Jerusalem” (the album’s absolute highlight for me), “All England’s Eyes”, “Vigilante”, “When The World Comes Down”, “The Spirit” and “Don’t Wake The Lion (Too Old To Die Young)”. We also get four splendid songs “Peaches and Cream”, “Show Me Your Hands”, “Without Love” and the title track “Lost On The Road To Eternity” – from Magnum’s most recent studio album that was released a year ago. The new material fits right in with the classics and it demonstrates that this band has still got it. They’re still delivering in the studio and on stage after all these years. The musicians, the song material, the delivery…it’s all world class. What a terrific band!

Avantasia’s Tobias Sammet appears as a guest on this Magnum show which reminds us of the great musical partnership Sammet and Catley have shown us on both Avantasia and Magnum songs. Magnum’s “Live At The Symphony Hall” will be released on 18th January via Steamhammer/SPV internationally and Ward Records in Japan. Avantasia will perform in Tokyo in May, hopefully with Bob Catley teaming up with Tobias Sammet on stage once again.

Album review: Soilwork “Verkligheten”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks 

Soilwork’s sound keeps evolving while still being built around a combination of melodic rock and rather brutal metal. The new album “Verkligheten” is another masterpiece.

Since the last album, 2015’s terrific “The Ride Majestic”, Soilwork has lost drummer Dirk Verbeuren to Megadeth. But Dirk left Soilwork a departing gift by recommending the young drummer Bastian Thusgaard as his replacement. It sounds like that was a perfect replacement for the seemingly irreplaceable Dirk. Originally a Swedish band, Soilwork is now more of a European band consisting of Björn “Speed” Strid (vocals), Sven Karlsson (keyboards), Sylvain Coudret (guitar) and David Andersson (guitar and bass), in addition to drummer Thusgaard. “Verkligheten” is the band’s eleventh full-length studio album since being founded in 1995. 

Soilwork remains a tasty combination of great melodies and brutality. But the sound keeps evolving with new twists and turns. On tracks such as “Full Moon Shoals”, “Stålfågel” and “The Nurturing Glance”, some of the vibes of The Night Flight Orchestra (the classic rock band which includes some of Soilwork’s members as well as Sharlee D’Angelo from Arch Enemy) are shining through. This is more brutal, but the beautiful melodies are present in both bands. Essentially Soilwork has a classic rock foundation and then there is an overlay of brutality added to the mix on most songs. One of my favourite tracks on the album is “The Wolves Are Back in Town”, which sounds as if it comes straight from “The Ride Majestic” sessions. Glorious! On “Needles and Kin”, Amorphis’ powerful vocalist Tomi Joutsen provides splendid guest vocals. In addition to the album’s twelve tracks, there is a bonus EP called “Underworld” featuring the songs “Summerburned and Winterblown”, “In This Master’s Tale”, “The Undying Eye” and the original version of “Needles and Kin”. I dig it. This is good stuff. Modern, relevant metal where brutality does not mean you have to get rid of beautiful melodies and where it’s OK to use plenty of keyboards.

Soilwork’s new album “Verkligheten” is out today via Nuclear Blast internationally and via Ward Records in Japan.

Single review: Angeline “Higher Than Love”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks 

Swedish melodic rockers Angeline are back with a new single with a splendid B-side track.

A few months ago, Swedish melodic rockers Angeline released their latest full-length studio album, “Shadowlands”. Now they’re back with a two-track single featuring “Higher Than Love” (taken from the recent studio album) and the previously unreleased “Somebody Save Us Now”. It is once again guitar-based hard rock of the melodic kind. The title track is catchy radio rock while “Somebody Save Us Now” is my clear favourite as it has a bit more bite to it. The song sounds like it would work a treat in Angeline’s live set. It features great melody, terrific guitars, a rock solid rhythm section and it is very groovy. In other words, it could have been an Electric Boys song. Angeline is now 32 years into their career and they’re better than ever. Obviously, I still love their “The Legend” demo from 1988, but the more mature version of Angeline is really delivering at a high level. There is talk about a brand new Angeline EP being released later this year. Until then, put on your dancing shoes and groove along to this new single.

Angeline’s “Higher Than Love” single will be released digitally on 25th January.

Interview: Mats Karlsson of 220 Volt | One of Sweden’s best melodic hard rock bands turns 40

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

As 220 Volt turns 40, guitarist Mats Karlsson talks to Roppongi Rocks about the band’s sound, the current line-up, what the plans are for the anniversary year and much more. 

In 2019, 220 Volt, one of the best Swedish melodic hard rock bands of all time, marks 40 years since its foundation. While the band has seen a number of line-up changes over the years, founding guitarists Mats Karlsson and Thomas Drevin are still in the band together with long-term drummer Peter Hermansson (who joined in 1982). They are joined in the current line-up by bassist Mats Vassfjord and vocalist Göran Nyström. 220 Volt has always been known for great live shows. I still have great memories from some of the band’s high-energy gigs in Sweden in the 1980s. 

Having released their self-titled debut album in 1983, their most recent full-length studio album was 2014’s “Walking in Starlight”. The band called it quits in 1992 but reunited in 2002. “In 2002, when we started to play together again, it was to mark the 20th anniversary of our debut single. At that point, I, Thomas and Peter had already played together for a few years. We wanted to do the reunion with the original line-up and that’s what we did.”

Apart from the veterans in the band – you, Thomas and Peter – the band now features two newer additions – bassist Mats “Vasse” Vassfjord (Impera, Scaar, Laney’s Legion) and vocalist Göran Nyström (Twinspirits, Majestic Dimension, Paincraze, Silent Call). “We have known Vasse for a long time. He’s experienced and is an easygoing person. Thus, it has worked very well. We were looking for a vocalist for a long time. We got many recordings sent to us and did a few auditions. We wanted to find somebody with their own personality and not necessarily somebody that sounds like our previous vocalists – who all have had rather characteristic voices. After a while somebody mentioned Göran. He’s been flying a bit under the radar in Sweden’s hard rock scene as he has mainly done things in Italy and such. We liked what we heard and it turned out he was also available. We also realised that he, like us, was from the county of Jämtland in rural Sweden and so we had something in common there.”

At the beginning of the band’s career, you managed to create some kind of Swedish version of NWOBHM which later got merged with more melodic hard rock and even some power ballads. How would you describe your sound? “We like to call it classic hard rock and melodic metal. We have never really started to work on an album with a set musical focus in advance. We just try to write as good songs as possible, which is why the albums are quite different from each other. That’s something I always loved about, say, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Black Sabbath and all the old classic bands – you never really knew in which direction they would head next. I have had that as a bit of a guiding star. However, what we have decided ahead of the next album is that we must not shy away from trying things we haven’t done before, without becoming a thrash metal band. We want to a heavier album. That’s the direction we’re heading in.” 

In the mid-1980s you toured with Nazareth and AC/DC. How much did those support act slots mean for the band? “Obviously it meant a lot. Many more people got to see us live than what we could have achieved on our own. With AC/DC we played what was at that time the largest indoor arenas in Scandinavia and all the gigs were sold out.”

In the 1980s you were part of a wave of Swedish hard rock bands that emerged around the same time, including bands such as Europe, Treat, Heavy Load, Madison, Easy Action, Torch and so on. Many of you were friends, but was there some rivalry and dirty tricks between the bands as you fought for the same fans, record deals and tours? “There was a certain rivalry, but it egged us on. We managed to avoid the dirtiest tricks. We got a bit of a breakthrough already with our first album. That gave us a platform to stand on and we had an organisation in place. It was tougher for the smaller bands.”

Backed by major label CBS, 220 Volt also got to work with some top industry pros, including British record producer Max Norman (Loudness, Ozzy Osbourne, Savatage, Megadeth, Death Angel).

220 Volt: Peter Hermansson, Mats Karlsson, Göran Nyström, Thomas Drevin och Mats Vassfjord. (Photo credit: Mats Vassfjord)

Rock artists and Christmas songs are often not a great combination – there are numerous examples of terrible songs in that music category. But your cult classic “Heavy Christmas” is actually a very good song. What was the thinking behind you releasing this back in the day? “It was originally an idea by our A&R guy at CBS/Sony. He was visiting the studio and mentioned the idea to us. It didn’t take us long to compose the song. If I remember it correctly, I came up with the riff and a rough chorus before he even left the studio. According to Dee Snider, who we played with recently, we made the first proper metal Christmas song! He knew which year it came out and everything. His brother apparently worked at a radio station on Long Island at that time and, apparently, they played our song frequently.”

Despite a number of line-up changes over the years, 220 Volt’s musical output has always managed to keep an even and great quality. Have you always been the driving force behind the creative process? “Thank you for the kind words. I have always had a lot of ideas, but have not been the sole songwriter. We have had different roles within the band through the years. In the beginning, it was me and Thomas that came up with guitar harmonies and riffs. He’s very good at arranging things. Peter is good at melodies and so he was important then and now doing that. Today, it can, for example, be a riff from Peter that kicks off things and then I step in with the melody. We had it as a requirement that our new vocalist should be able to contribute to the songwriting and Göran is really doing that. Thus, nowadays all of us get involved in most things, which is great.”

Your latest studio album was released in 2014. Can we hope for a new studio album sometime soon? “A new album will be released. We’re working hard on new material. We’ve had some personal issues to deal with. Illness, hospitalisation, death and such sad things that have taken up a lot of time for us. But now we’re making good progress and my feeling is that all the material for the new album can be ready within two or three months. I am hopeful that we can release an album this year, at least an EP followed by a full-length album soon thereafter.”

In 2019, in addition to writing and recording new material, 220 Volt has some gigs already announced, including some international festival appearances. The Swedes are still relevant, vital and no doubt will keep giving us great melodic hard rock.

Album review: Burning Witches “Hexenhammer”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks 

Burning Witches – Swiss band playing old-school heavy metal on new album.

While Burning Witches is quite a new heavy metal band, formed in 2015 in Switzerland, their sound has a fair bit of a 1980s metal vibe to it. The songwriting and the production also feels like it is 1985. And that is why I like this album. They manage to sound like the soundtrack of my youth but without being copycats. There is a foundation here that contains a big chunk of NWOBHM as well as the more Germanic metal from the same era. It has a raw feeling to it. Schmier from German thrash metal veterans Destruction has been a mentor for the band which may have rubbed off a bit on the music as well. “Hexenhammer” is the follow-up to the band’s 2017 self-titled debut album. The terrific “Open Your Mind” is a clear favourite of the 14 tracks on the album. Another is “Executed”, a fast track with some clear Judas Priest influences. In addition to original material, we get a cover of Dio’s “Holy Diver”. It’s a decent version of the song, but I don’t really see the point of them including such a cover on the album. This band has enough of its own great material. One of the bonus tracks is an acoustic version of the power ballad “Don’t Cry My Tears”. Here we really get to hear a terrific performance by vocalist Seraina Telli. For those of how us who like classic heavy metal, this band is a treat. In addition to Telli, Burning Witches consists of guitarists Romana Kalkuhl and Sonia Nusselder, bassist Jeanine Grob and drummer Lala Frischknecht. Keep an eye on them, I am confident that this is only the beginning for this band.

Burning Witches’ “Hexenhammer” album is out now via Nuclear Blast internationally and Ward Records in Japan.