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.

Album review: Heathen “Empire of the Blind”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

California band Heathen goes beyond thrash metal on its terrific new studio album.

Heathen, formed in San Francisco in 1984, was part of the original Bay Area thrash metal scene. Their debut album “Breaking the Silence” arrived in 1987 and now the band’s fourth studio album, “Empire of the Bind” is about to be released. Heathen may be less known than some of its Bay Area peers, but there are some decent skills and pedigree in this band. Co-founder and guitarist Lee Altus is also a member of Exodus and has previously played with Die Krupps and Angel Witch. Kragen Lum, the band’s other guitarist who joined Heathen in 2007, has in recent years filled in for Gary Holt in Exodus while Holt has been touring with Slayer. Heathen is a thrash metal band but on this new album they mix things up considerably with many modern influences and contemporary sounds and as a result, “Empire of the Blind” is a very varied album. “The Blight” is a cool song with traditional thrash metal verses and then a more melodic rock chorus. “Sun in My Hand” is a powerful, modern and melodic metal song and a ballad-style track like “Shrine of Apathy” is very far from Heathen’s thrash metal roots. But we also get other things, including the smashing instrumental pieces “This Rotting Sphere”, “A Fine Red Mist” and “Monument to Ruin” as well as more straightforward thrash metal on songs such as “In Black” and “The Gods Divide”. No doubt, a few thrash purists will be upset, but I like the fact that the members of this fab band are not afraid of creating new music without limiting themselves to stay within imaginary parameters.

Heathen’s new album “Empire of the Blind” will be released on 18th September in Japan via Ward Records and Nuclear Blast internationally.

Album review: Hell Freezes Over “Hellraiser”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Japanese heavy metal is not all about veteran bands. Hell Freezes Over is at the forefront of a younger generation of terrific Japanese metal bands. Now they are releasing their gloriously old-school sounding debut studio album, “Hellraiser”.

Five years after I saw this band live for the first time, when they opened for Evil Invaders and Unleash The Archers in Tokyo, the still young Japanese lads in Hell Freezes Over have finally their debut full-length studio album ready for release. They play an excellent cross of NWOBHM and thrash and speed metal with an early to mid-80s sound. That’s rather impressive as these lads were not even born then. Two years ago they released the splendid “Speed Metal Assault”, a four-track EP which featured some of the songs that are now included on this full-length album. The album kicks off at breakneck speed with the title track “Hellraiser” and continues with “Roadkill”, one of my favourite tracks on the album (think early Paul Di’Anno-fronted Iron Maiden). “Hawkeye” is another terrific fast and riff-happy track and so is the splendid “Overwhelm”. This is distinctly old-school heavy metal – the songs, the production, the performance, the visuals. These twenty-something Japanese musicians eat, dream and live 1980s heavy metal. They are inspired by both the American metal (Bay Area thrash metal) and British metal (NWOBHM). The ten-track album, which is overflowing with raw energy, closes with the terrific “Eternal March of Valor”, a splendid instrumental band jam clocking in at more than seven and a half minutes. What a great metal album these lads have put together. There is still hope for the future of Japanese heavy metal.

Hell Freezes Over’s album “Hellraiser” will be released on 26th August via Carnal Beast, a division of Japanese label Spiritual Beast.

Album review: Enslaved “Utgard”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Norwegian band Enslaved’s new studio album offers us a tasty mix of blackened folk metal and progressive rock.

“Utgard” is Enslaved’s fifteenth studio album since guitarist Ivar Bjørnson and vocalist/bassist Grutle Kjellson founded the band in Norway in 1991. It is, without doubt, one of the band’s best albums to date. The band’s deep Norwegian roots have always been very present in its music. Enslaved’s Viking metal is a glorious and unholy mix of black and folk metal and progressive rock. Somehow they manage to both carry on the folk metal tradition and explore new musical territories. To my ears, this band sounds distinctly Nordic. The music is beautiful in a cold, dark and haunting way. It is dreamy (at times this sounds like Sigur Rós meets Bathory) only to take violent turns into extreme metal. Throughout the whole album, there are constant tempo and musical style changes. I love it. No rules, no limits, just great music with deep Nordic roots and lyrics based on Norse mythology. The band’s two newest members, drummer Iver Sandøy (Trinacria) and keyboardist Håkon Vinje (Seven Impale), prove to be great recruits for the band as the addition of their clean vocals make the prog-sounding bits excellent. The current line-up of the band is rounded out by guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal (Audrey Horne, Demonaz, Ov Hell, Trinacria), who joined in 2002. The album kicks off in folk metal valley with the track “Fires in the Dark” and it continues to take us on quite a musical journey over the album’s nine tracks. One of my favourite tracks is “Jettegryta” where we get to hear the many sides to this fabulous band. The song is a terrific melting pot of contrasting styles. The epic nature of “Homebound” also makes that magnificent track a favourite of mine. What a great boundary-pushing album Enslaved has put together! I hope we get to see them perform these songs live on stage soon. This epic material deserves to be performed in a live setting.

Enslaved’s new album “Utgard” will be released on 2nd October via Ward Records in Japan and internationally via Nuclear Blast.

Album review: FORE “Hombres”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Seasoned metal musicians from Kreator, Venom Inc, Massacre, Skull Fist and Annihilator get together to play excellent punk-rock in new band FORE.

FORE is a brand new punk-rock band formed earlier this year. The members of this American-Canadian-German punk-rock band are seasoned metal guys. The line-up consists of guitarist Taylor Nordberg (Massacre, The Absence, Soilwork, Gus G), drummer Jeramie Kling (Venom Inc, Massacre, The Absence), vocalist Brian Stephenson (Skull Fist, Annihilator, Old James) and bassist Christian “Speesy” Giesler (Kreator). The songs on FORE’s debut album “Hombres” are fast and short, just the way we like our punk. On the track “Diagnosis” we get punk rock of the American kind. It’s straightforward, bursting with energy, loud and noisy yet melodic and with heaps of attitude. Most of the songs on the album follow the same format. It’s perfect for beer drinking, uncontrolled and uncoordinated dancing and shout-along screaming matches but perhaps a tad bit too fast for lovemaking. In FORE, these metal guys can relax, have fun and play good-fun punk rock without overthinking things. “What’s Right For You” is a smashing track while other favourites of mine include “Pet”, “It’s Not You, It’s Me”, “Song for a Friend” and “Movement”. The terrific song “Today We Rise (No Tomorrow)” clocks in at a mere one minute and 14 seconds and the lyric sums up the band’s punk-rock attitude in its few short lines:

“I’m gonna live, live for today / I gotta do it, there’s no other way / I’m gonna fight, gonna fight for the truth / I gotta fight, ’cause there’s nothing else to do / Today we rise – no tomorrow, no tomorrow / Today we rise – no tomorrow, no tomorrow”

Well, there may be no future, but today this is good fun and music with a great heap of raw energy. FORE’s debut album “Hombres” will be released on 7th August.