Album review: Amaranthe “Manifest”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Since releasing its debut full-length album in 2011, Sweden’s Amaranthe has built a career based on catchy modern metal with its signature move of having three lead vocalists. Now the band is back with “Manifest”, its sixth studio album.

I have followed Amaranthe closely since first seeing the band live here in Tokyo in 2011. They are always an entertaining live act and they have consistently delivered in the studio. Olof Mörck, band founder, guitarist, keyboard player and main songwriter, has led his troops to create another contemporary-sounding album. As the band’s principal creative force, together with Elize Ryd, he has never been afraid of bringing different influences to the band’s music. On its new album “Manifest”, Amaranthe continues with its now well-established formula of contemporary music which combines pop with metal – plenty of catchy tunes, big choruses, a massive dose of keyboards mixed with heavy guitar riffs and that one thing that really sets this band apart from the competition – three lead vocalists with very separate styles which gives the band a terrific way to mix things up between and even within their songs. A band with not one, but three, world-class singers is quite unique. Elize Ryd’s clear female pop voice is mixed with Nils Molin’s seasoned rock voice and Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson‘s angry growls. The combination works a treat for the band’s music which is built on a solid foundation provided by a rock-steady rhythm section consisting of bassist Johan Andreassen and drummer Morten Løwe Sørensen. “Crystalline” is the album’s obligatory power ballad while “Strong” is a great duet between Elize Ryd and Finnish guest vocalist Noora Louhimo from Battle Beast. The song “BOOM!”, during its four minutes and thirteen seconds, sums up what Amaranthe is all about. It is one of my favourite tracks on the album. The soundscape is busy. What is essentially a contemporary pop song, keeps making twists and turns while still being both brutal and very catchy. Amaranthe in a nutshell. Other standout tracks include “Adrenaline” (fab chorus and a terrific short guitar solo), the fast and high-energy songs “The Game” and “Archangel” as well as “Do or Die”, where Nils and Henrik really get to shine with their vocal performances.

Amaranthe’s new album will be released on 30th September in Japan via Virgin Music/Universal Music Japan and internationally on 2nd October via Nuclear Blast.

Album review: Torch “Reignited”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Reunited Swedish hard rockers Torch have brought their 1980s heavy metal sound with them into 2020. All metal, no rust!

Swedish heavy metal band Torch made a name for itself in the early to mid-1980s. They released a few albums, now cult classics, and toured in Europe before they broke up in 1986. In 2013, four of the original band members reunited with the addition of a new guitarist. The reunion was well received and they kept on playing, including a successful gig at Sweden Rock Festival in 2018. In 2019, they started work on new music and now the comeback album “Reignited” is here. The album kicks off in style with the hard-hitting track “Knuckle Duster”. “Reignited” is an excellent metal album. Some of this sounds like Accept. Some of it hints at other 1980s Swedish acts like 220 Volt, Madison and Heavy Load. “Cradle to Grave” has a bit of an AC/DC vibe and “Collateral Damage” has Judas Priest touches while other songs have hints of W.A.S.P. and Mötley Crüe. Torch is a melting pot of 1980s metal that has been updated and given a contemporary upgrade. The result is very good. They manage to sound a lot like 1980s metal but without becoming a retro or tribute act. Back to the future! One of my favourite songs on the album, “In the Dead of Night”, is a terrific and catchy metal song. Vocalist Dan Dark has a voice made for singing this kind of catchy metal music. Other splendid songs include “All Metal, No Rust”, “Feed the Flame”, “Snake Charmer” and “To the Devil His Due”. Torch never made it big in the 1980s. Perhaps the band’s second coming will change that.

Torch’s new album “Reignited” will be released on 25th September via Metalville.

Album review: Napalm Death “Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

England’s Napalm Death, quite possibly the best band in the world, returns with an evolved sound and more varied musical influences on its new album.

I really dig Russ Russell’s production on this new Napalm Death album. The production process has added a lot of interesting bits and pieces like an overlay to the, mostly, chaotic songs. There are a lot of funky sound effects nestled in among the hard-hitting music. The songwriting is also more varied on the band’s 16th studio album compared to a typical Napalm record. It seems the band has taken in a lot more different influences this time. The result? It’s glorious. Glorious chaos. As always when it comes to this band, there are no compromises. They do what they want to do. There’s plenty of the kind of grindcore we have come to expect of Napalm Death. But there is also much more and many of the songs combine several different musical styles. It is a more complex Napalm we get to hear on this album. “Amoral” is an obvious highlight for me. Rather different from Napalm’s trademark chaos. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still brutal and has plenty of attitude, but it is…well…melodic. Perhaps a tad bit more Killing Joke than Bolt Thrower. Possibly a bit more creamy Stilton soup than meat and potatoes. Call it whatever, I love it. Napalm Death keeps evolving and it is still quite possibly the best band in the world. “A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen” is another song which comes across as an interesting mix of industrial music and goth rock. On the more old-school grindcore side of things, “That Curse of Being in Thrall” is one of the absolute highlights with its relentless energy and excellent performance. The rumbling bass on “Backlash Just Because” is another highlight that instantly makes me smile. It will be very interesting to see how Napalm will integrate some of these new songs into their live set. The core band line-up of vocalist Barney Greenway, bassist Shane Embury and drummer Danny Herrera is intact. Guitarist Mitch Harris only plays a bit on the album. Napalm live guitarist John Cooke has this time also contributed in the studio. The bulk of the music has been written by Shane and the lyrics – as thought-provoking as ever – by Shane and Barney. Napalm Death, a motley crew of gentlemen and scholars of creativity, glorious chaos and protest, remains quite possibly the best band in the world.

Napalm Death’s album “Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism” will be released on 18th September via Century Media Records.

Barney and Shane Embury of Napalm Death on stage in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Album review: Anthem feat. Graham Bonnet “EXPLOSIVE!! –studio jam–”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Graham Bonnet reunites with his old friends in Japanese band Anthem for a good-fun studio jam.

Anthem, led by its founder and former Loudness bassist Naoto Shibata, is one of the best known heavy metal bands from Japan. Originally formed in 1980, the band released its self-titled debut album in 1985. Anthem and legendary Rainbow, Michael Schenker Group and Alcatrazz vocalist Graham Bonnet originally teamed up 20 years ago for Anthem’s comeback album, “Heavy Metal Anthem”, an album which consisted of old Anthem songs that were re-recorded with English lyrics. The brand new release “EXPLOSIVE!! –studio jam–” is an eight-track album with re-recorded songs from the past. It is, as the name suggests, a relaxed studio jam. We get to hear the “Heavy Metal Anthem” songs “Gypsy Ways (Win, Lose or Draw)”, “Crying’ Heart” and “Midnight Sun”, a couple of Rainbow songs (“Since You Been Gone” and “Lost in Hollywood”), an MSG song (“Desert Song”) and the Alcatrazz ballad “The Witchwood”. From Bonnet’s solo back catalogue we get the terrific “Night Games”. This is a good-natured, laidback and fun studio jam with friends. 72-year-old Graham Bonnet, who had his first hit single in 1968, still has a great voice and just released a new Alcatrazz album. It’s great to see him reunited with his Japanese friends to play some old favourites. Personally, I find the three Anthem songs the most interesting as they are lesser-known songs for fans outside of Japan and they may be new discoveries for some Bonnet fans.

Anthem feat. Graham Bonnet “EXPLOSIVE!! –studio jam–” is out today via Ward Records.

Album review: Ace Frehley “Origins, Vol. 2”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Ace Frehley returns with a new album of covers of classic rock songs that inspired him. Plus a smoking version of early KISS tune “She”.

Some people may wonder why a great songwriter like Ace Frehley is doing another album of covers. But throughout his career, he has been mixing covers in with original songs. On this new album, he revisits some of the music that influenced him as a young musician. Exactly two years ago, on 5th September 2018, I witnessed a fabulous show by Ace Frehley right here in Roppongi, Tokyo. The Spaceman was on fire and sounded so good, both vocally and on the guitar. It seemed he had pulled himself together and once again became the world-class rock star he can be. His new album, “Origins, Vol. 2”, is the follow-up to 2016’s covers album “Origins, Vol. 1” (Ace also released the splendid “Spaceman” album of original material in 2018). The new covers album is good fun. It’s a laidback take on some classic rock tracks. The album sounds spontaneous and because of that, it is also very good. This is Ace Frehley having fun with musical friends playing some of the songs he grew up with during the 1960s and 70s. Many of these cover versions on this album are really good – such as “Good Times Bad Times” (Led Zeppelin), “Never In My Life” (Mountain), “Space Truckin’” (Deep Purple), “Kicks” (Paul Revere & The Raiders) and “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” (The Animals). There are also plenty of terrific guest contributions on the album – Eric Clapton’s “Politician” features a great guitar duel between Ace and John 5. “30 Days In The Hole” (Humble Pie) has a splendid Robin Zander of Cheap Trick on vocals. “Manic Depression” (Jimi Hendrix) features another former KISS guitarist, Bruce Kulick, who gels incredibly well with Ace. “I’m Down” (The Beatles) has a great John 5 guitar solo and then there is “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (The Rolling Stones) with Lita Ford on vocals. Some of the other fab musicians on the album include Jeremy Asbrock, Matt Starr, Alex Salzman, Ryan Spencer Cook and Philip Shouse. Rob Sabino does a wonderful job with the keyboards on “Space Truckin’”. “Lola” (The Kinks) is a song that is a bit less exciting for me personally but it’s still a decent track featuring Ace’s girlfriend on background vocals. As a bonus track, we get a fresh version of the early KISS tune “She”. It is the album’s highlight for me. KISS played it live already back at their very first show in 1973 (and prior to that an earlier version of the song was performed by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley with their pre-KISS band Wicked Lester). It then appeared on the KISS album “Dressed to Kill” in 1975. Rock soldiers – Ace is back and he told you so!

Ace Frehley’s new album “Origins, Vol. 2” will be released on 18th September via eOne/SPV.

Album review: HammerFall “Live! Against the World”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On its new live album, HammerFall gives us a Swedish shout-along power metal show performed in front of a loyal German audience.

Sweden’s HammerFall is a band that has built up a sizeable following for its version of power metal, not least in Germany. On this live album, recorded live at the MHP Arena in Ludwigsburg, Germany on 15th February 2020, we get to hear the highlights of the band’s vast back catalogue – including many of the songs from last year’s “Dominion” studio album – performed in front of a loyal and engaged German audience. HammerFall plays European power metal – in most cases, it is very melodic, spectacularly bombastic and often rather catchy. On songs like “Hector’s Hymn” the musical style can perhaps best be described as riff-happy metal meets Eurovision Song Contest catchiness. It’s a non-threatening sub-genre of metal that is especially loved in Germany. Lots of guitar riffs mixed with catchy tunes. On the ballad “Second to One” Joacim Cans sings a duet with Finnish powerhouse Noora Louhimo of Battle Beast fame. The rest of the band’s current line-up consists of band founder Oscar Dronjak and Pontus Norgren (Great King Rat, Talisman, The Poodles, Zan Clan) on guitars, Fredrik Larsson (Evergrey) on bass and David Wallin (Pain) on drums. “Live! Against the World” is a double-CD (and a bonus Blu-ray) with 20 tracks. As we are talking about European power metal here, there are of course a few fantasy references with song titles such as “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” as well as plenty of battle cries like “One Against the World”, “The Way of the Warrior”, “Last Man Standing” and “Let the Hammer Fall”. My favourite parts of the album include the awesome medley of music from the band’s 20-year-old “Renegade” album as well as the song “Keep the Flame Burning” from the same album. The album has a strong finish with “Hammer High”, “(We Make) Sweden Rock” and “Hearts on Fire”. If you dig Nordic-style melodic shout-along power metal, you won’t be disappointed with this live album.

HammerFall’s “Live! Against the World” will be released on 23rd October in Japan via Ward Records and internationally via Napalm Records.

Album review: Smash Into Pieces “Arcadia”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Chris Adam Hedman Sörbye made a name for himself as a touring vocalist with Amaranthe a few years ago. Now he’s back with his band Smash Into Pieces’ fifth studio album, “Arcadia”. It’s poppy but with some serious arena rock potential.

Swedish vocalist Chris Adam Hedman Sörbye is best known in rock and metal circles as a touring stand-in vocalist for Swedish melodic metal band Amaranthe around 2016-2017. There he did a stellar job filling in and doing justice to Amaranthe’s music. In his own band Smash Into Pieces, he gets to be himself. “Arcadia” is the fifth studio album since the band was founded in 2008. Does Smash Into Pieces play rock? Or is it pop? I don’t know. It’s modern, melodic and it’s good. It manages to be 1980s chic, contemporary and futuristic at the same time. This is electronic music with a lot of keyboards and a lot of programmed music. Some of the music on this album is pure pop, some of it is rock and on some of the songs, the band has brought in some of their rock and metal vibes to both the songwriting and Chris Adam’s vocal performances. But it’s always melodic and mostly dance-friendly. At times this reminds me somewhat of the work Japanese electronic rock band Boom Boom Satellites did. “The Chosen One” is one of the highlights of the album. Chris Adam’s voice really gets to shine here. It’s a very strong song – here performed in a quite poppy version. But add some guitar riffs and some proper drums ad this could be a massive arena rock anthem. Similarly, “Big Bang” has major potential to become an arena rock hit and so do “Wake Up” and “Godsent” (where we do get some decent guitars). The title track “Arcadia” makes me want to dance. These songs will fit neatly into the band’s live show together with the best bits from its back catalogue. Smash Into Pieces is the kind of modern genre-bending band that has great potential in the Japanese market. These Swedes have all the talent and skills to take this band to the next level. They did play here in Japan in 2013, but I think it is time to give this another proper shot. This kind of melodic contemporary music could be great for a special guest slot on a Babymetal tour or opening at an arena gig by One OK Rock. I dig this rather dance-friendly album. It’s often more spun sugar than raw meat, but it’s quality music. However, I can’t stop wondering what some of these songs would sound like if proper guitars and drums were added. Some of the band’s earlier releases have prominently featured guitars and this time they opted for more keyboards and less guitar (a bit of a mystery for a band with two guitarists – Benjamin Jennebo and Per Bergquist – and no official keyboard player). But perhaps that will be slightly different when these songs are taken to the live stage.

Smash Into Pieces’ new album “Arcadia” will be released on 28th August via Gain/Fifth Island Music.

Album review: Raven “Metal City”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The Gallagher brothers in NWOBHM band Raven are back with a solid and high-energy metal album. It’s 1982 all over again.

I love Raven. The veteran NWOBHM band just keeps going. They just do their thing, year after year, no matter what. The band’s musical style hasn’t changed much since the early 1980s. Well, that’s not really true. Following their relocation to New York City in the mid-1980s, they did play around with a slightly more commercial sound for a bit while signed to Atlantic Records. But essentially, Raven has mostly been about solid, fast and proper meat-and-potatoes metal. That’s what they’re good at and why we love ‘em. Brothers John Gallagher (vocals and bass) and Mark Gallagher (guitar) formed the band in 1974 in Newcastle, England. Their debut full-length album “Rock until You Drop” was released in 1981. In the current line-up of the band, they are joined by American drummer Mike Heller (Fear Factory, Malignancy, System Divide) who joined them in 2017. During last year’s Japan tour, it was evident that Mike is a drummer bursting with energy. He has brought his on-stage energy to the recording studio and seemingly he has also brought some of the craziness from the band’s early days with him. It’s 1982 all over again. The catchy rocker “Top of the Mountain” is one of the highlights on the album. The title track “Metal City”, “The Power”, “Human Race”, “Not So Easy” and “Battlescarred” are also strong cards on this solid metal album. The Motörhead tribute “Motorheadin’” is well proper and very fitting. Lemmy would’ve smiled. “Rock This Town”, a bonus track on the Japanese edition of the album, is fun and a very guitar-happy track to round off the album with. As always, Mark Gallagher’s guitar work is world-class. Without him and his guitar, the thrash and speed metal sub-genres would not have existed. Raven’s influence on metal bands formed in the early 80s cannot be overstated. Thank you for your service, Gallaghers. Keep at it.

Raven’s album “Metal City” will be released on 18th September via Ward Records in Japan and SPV/Steamhammer internationally.

Raven on stage in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Album review: Bulletbelt “Warlords”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Bulletbelt is uncompromisingly brutal yet melodic metal from New Zealand. It stinks and I love it!

Bulletbelt from New Zealand plays a form of gritty, pissed-off, crushing and thrashy blackened metal on “Warlords”, the band’s fourth album. This new release presents a new line-up of the Wellington-based band. Drummer and band founder Steve Francis and long-time bass player Tim Mekalick are still in the band. Newer members are guitarist Josh O’Brien and vocalist Paul Roberts. This is riff-heavy music and ahead of the band taking these new songs to the live stage, it has added a second guitarist in the form of Andrew Collett. The music sounds as if Dark Funeral and Napalm Death had an out-of-wedlock bastard son. The music is brutal and, yet, quite melodic. There are plenty of hooks in there. I dig it. My favourite tracks on the album include “Impaler”, “Flames of Hell”, “Boudicia”, “Punishment of God” and the rather punky “Blade on the Fire”. The album’s absolute highlight is the more than seven-minute-long track “Herodian Kingdom”. The epic song starts off innocently with an acoustic guitar and a piano before the song goes all mayhem. The variations are great and keep Bulletbelt’s music interesting. Bulletbelt did a Japan tour in 2018 which included a stop at the legendary Asakusa Deathfest in Tokyo. They have also released a split 7-inch vinyl with Japanese black metal band Sabbat featuring live tracks from the bands’ joint New Zealand tour in 2018. Hopefully, we get to see Bulletbelt here in Japan again once live gigs become possible.

Bulletbelt’s album “Warlords” is out now via Impaler Records.

Interview: At home with Arnel Pineda of Journey

Arnel Pineda

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson checked in with Journey vocalist Arnel Pineda at his home in the Philippines for a chat about getting discovered via Youtube, stepping into big shoes, creativity during the lockdown, the new band line-up and a forthcoming Journey EP. The Filipino singer joined Journey, one of the best and most successful classic American rock bands ever, in 2007 after being invited to audition for the band by its founder Neal Schon.

Are you still dividing your time between the Philippines and the US? “I was until pandemic happened. I got really lucky landing in the Philippines to join my family a week before the lockdown happened due to the pandemic.”

You had a busy career in the Philippines and Hong Kong prior to joining Journey in 2007. How did you end up auditioning for Journey and getting the job? “It’s these videos singing with my band I recorded that my friend Noel Gomez, having asked permission from me, that he took and uploaded to Youtube back in early 2007. Neal Schon found them, watched them, somehow got convinced and he reached out to offer me, if I’m interested, to audition.”

Did you feel a lot of pressure becoming the frontman of a legendary band and having to fill some very big shoes? “Of course! Terrified and fearful, but I think my own musical adventures back in the 1980s until 2005 gave me reasons enough to plunge myself into their world. I am just grateful that for the past 13 years, it’s still working.”

Is there a difference for you as a vocalist performing older Journey material originally sung by Steve Perry and Steve Augeri and performing newer Journey songs which you recorded? Which do you prefer? “It will always be nostalgic and beautiful to sing the old stuff that they’re known for because of Mr Steve Perry and Mr Steve Augeri, but I think there is a lot of pretty neat stuff from the two albums I’ve recorded with them that should be in the gig when we tour.”

Last year, Journey released the terrific “Escape & Frontiers Live in Japan” album. What do you remember from the recording of that album here in Japan in 2017? “It was all a blur to me because I was so engrossed studying the obscure ones from those albums. They’re actually amazing stuff and gave me a thought though that they should have been played together more often with the ‘dirty dozen’.”

Journey has a partly new line-up with the recent return of Randy Jackson on bass and the additions of drummer Narada Michael Walden and Jason Derlatka on keyboards. Have you had a chance to actually meet and play with your new bandmates in person yet? “Nope. I only had the chance of collaborating virtually with Narada because of this single that Journey’s working on. He’s a very, very wonderful, gifted and talented man indeed. With Randy? Just on Whatsapp, where we have a thread. It’s all hi and hello.”

Has the forced downtime resulted in more recordings or songwriting for you when you can’t tour or perform live? “Yes, indeed. Especially with my solo stuff. I can’t really wait to record them properly and turn those into a complete song to put out there for the fans to hear.”

What’s coming up next for you and Journey? “Hopefully a new EP album and a tour with the new line up of members as soon as there’s a vaccine good and safe enough available out there.”