Album review: Thundermother is back with a new line-up and some smokin’ rock’n’roll

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Swedish rockers Thundermother are back with a brand new line-up and a great new album filled with terrific and smokin’ rock’n’roll.

In 2017, the band Thundermother fell apart when four of five members walked out. Founder and guitarist Filippa Nässil picked up the pieces, recruited three new fierce members and suddenly we had a brand new Thundermother that was better than ever.

Thus, the new album is, obviously, purely terrific. The new recruits are Guernica Mancini on lead vocals, Sara Pettersson on bass and Emlee Johansson on drums. Together with Nässil they have created such a massively great rock’n’roll album that my ears are smiling from this groovy ear candy.

Guernica Mancini’s voice is a great fit for the band. She commands your attention and she gets it.

The new Thundermother plays bluesy hard rock. There are hints of AC/DC, even some Led Zeppelin, a pinch of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and much more, including plenty of influences from 70s hard rock. But most of all, this is the new version of Thundermother and it is rather splendid stuff.

The single “We Fight for Rock N Roll” is representative of what this album is all about. Great, straightforward but catchy rock’n’roll. Great songs, simple but appropriate production of a terrific album by a new old band. With no weak spots or fillers, this is an album full of great tunes, such as “Revival”, “Whatever”, “Survival Song”, “Hanging At My Door”, “Rip Your Heart Out”, “Quitter” and so on. Hey, we even get a major power ballad in “Fire In The Rain”. But mostly this is a smokin’ rock album.

Thundermother – welcome back in your new upgraded version. Love it. Now how about a Japan tour so that we can get a live album sorted with this explosive rock band?

Thundermother’s self-titled new album will be released on 23rd February via Despotz Records.

 

 

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Interview: Epica’s Simone Simons talks about combining metal with anime

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Dutch symphonic metal band Epica is a bunch of hardworking musicians. 2017 saw them release two EPs and tour the world in support of their “The Holographic Principle” album. “In 2017 we toured a lot. We toured our asses off!” says vocalist Simone Simons when she meets Roppongi Rocks in Tokyo.

Following on from last year’s first and very successful Epica tour in Japan, the band recently made a very shrewd move for the Japanese market: combining metal with Japanese anime. The “Epica vs Attack on Titan songs” EP, released in Japan on 20th December via Ward Records, features covers of the soundtrack to Hajime Isayama’s popular Japanese anime series “Attack on Titan”. The band recently followed that with a return to Japan for a one-off show in Tokyo where they, in addition to a best-of set, performed three of the four songs from the new EP.

Epica consists of guitarists Mark Jansen and Isaac Delahaye, bassist Rob van der Loo, keyboardist Coen Janssen and drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek in addition to vocalist Simone Simons. Simone is in a good mood when we meet her and she is clearly very happy to be in Japan again. “Thank you very much. Arigato. I am very happy to be back here,” says the singer who is actually celebrating her 33rd birthday when she meets us.

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson and Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

It took Epica some 15 years before their first Japan tour, but the Japanese fans did not have to wait long for the follow-up visit. The first Japan tour in 2017 made its mark on Simone. “We did three shows: Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. I fell in love with Osaka. That’s where we had the most time to do sightseeing. The sunset was making the city look yellow and golden. It was amazing! I really liked the culture, the people, the food. We struggled to get to Japan. We had some offers from promoters and then we had to wait if it would all happen. We were always pulling the short straw, so to speak. Now we made it and shortly after we got the opportunity to cover the ‘Attack on Titan’ songs. So, I guess it was worth the waiting. It was 15 years. Because now we got back here in nine months and we got this amazing opportunity.”

Is this perhaps a start of frequent visits and an intense love relationship between Epica and the Japanese fans? “Hahaha! That would be nice, yeah. That would be appreciated. I can’t say how excited I am for tomorrow to actually play those songs live. It’s different from what we normally do with Epica. So it’s going to be something new. And I’m ready for it!”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Epica’s new EP combines two lucrative cultures with strong and loyal fans: metal music and Japanese animation. The EP features four cover songs where Epica has recorded Epica-style versions of songs from the “Attack on Titan” soundtrack. “Our Japanese fans love it! The ‘Attack on Titan’ fans love it we’ve been told earlier, so we’re very relieved. It’s not an easy task to cover cult tracks like those. It’s so huge in Japan and a little bit scary! Dangerous territory. I guess that’s the greatest honour for us, that they are happy with how it sounds and that the fans of ‘Attack on Titan’ love it too. And people all over Europe have been asking us: ‘When is this EP being released in Europe?’ because Japan gets the first release. Some of our fans have the CD already because they have some friends in Japan that are willing to ship the CD to them.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

While Epica’s sound somewhat keeps evolving, they have established a signature Epica sound which combines symphonic and melodic metal with occasional growls and plenty of heavy guitar-based riffing. In addition, they have a world-class singer. Simone Simons is leagues above most competitors and that sets Epica apart from many other bands in the same genre. “Well, thank you for the compliment, first of all. I think the ‘Attack on Titan’ songs really do have the Epica… They are wearing the Epica dress, so to speak. But it was really new for us. We’ve never had any super-fast songs as these ‘Attack on Titan’ songs. We had to slow them down a little bit in order for us to play it and not have them computer programmed. It’s not a style we’ve worked with before, so that was the great thing about it. It was a challenge, like how can we fit all the pieces of the puzzle together? How does the original composer think about it? We’ve been given, really, a lot of freedom to make it our own. We recorded demos and we sent them to Japan. We had the lyrics in Japanese translated to English. It was quite one on one, so it didn’t work with the vocals anymore. So then Mark, Coen and I divided up the four songs and rewrote the lyrics. Everything went really smooth. I am myself a huge soundtrack fan, so this was a great opportunity to do something on my wish list. Still, I would like to work more in this field because I enjoyed it immensely.”

For the new EP, Epica once again recorded with producer Joost van den Broek, someone they seem to have developed a very close working relationship with. “Yeah, he’s now a little bit the seventh band member. He guides us through the whole process, from the beginning to the end. He is very organised, which is a great thing, because not all musicians are like that. He really makes sure that everything is really streamlined and that we don’t cross any deadlines, that we are all well prepared. We recorded professional demos – that almost sounded like they only had to be mixed and mastered and they could also be on the EP – for us to get the material in our bones, in our systems, so that when we recorded for real it would be really natural. We approached the whole writing and recording session exactly the same as we would do with normal Epica material.”

Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Epica seems to be a bit heavier live than on record. I love that extra heaviness we get from Epica on stage. “That’s the energy that gets out when we’re all together, I guess. When you’re in the studio, everybody is just on their own. Drums, bass, guitar, the choir and then the vocals come in the end, the arrangements. Then when you’re on stage there’s a different energy. I’ve been told that before that Epica sounds great on record but live it’s just a different experience. That’s why I always tell people to come and see our shows and not watch it on Youtube with crappy audio.”

Having released two EPs during 2017, when can we expect the next full-length album? “I cannot put a date on it because we are still touring until the end of the summer, August. Then, after, we are going to take our time, enjoy time at home and let creativity flow, whenever it hits us. And get together a couple of months after that and see how many songs we have, how are we going to plan the year. In 2017 we toured a lot. We toured our asses off. It’s a great thing for a musician, but it’s the only big thing or downside of being a musician is being away from your family. Some of us are parents, we all have partners, wives… I have a husband, I don’t have a wife! It’s hard to be away.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Simone’s husband is German musician Oliver Palotai. He’s a member of Kamelot and have also played with Doro, Uli Jon Roth, Circle II Circle, Blaze Bayley and others. The couple has a young son together. “Luckily he doesn’t tour like crazy. He’s going to tour now, in this year. But we make sure that our schedules are not blocking each other, so one of us is at home. There sometimes is an overlap of a couple of days, but we have great family that helps us with that. 2017 was a little bit too much for all of us. Not to sound ungrateful, but it got out of balance. We were all missing our families a little too much. We want to still appreciate what we do. We know it is very special and we want to live it as long as we can. That’s why we are going to take it a little bit easier, writing and recording a new album. Not putting a deadline on it, because we don’t want to become a music-writing machine. We want it to come organically. And spend some more time with family and friends as well.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

In addition to her main job fronting Epica, Simone has made many guest appearances with other artists, most recently with Exit Eden, Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon project and Tarja. How does she manage to fit all this into a very busy schedule? “I don’t know! I must have more hours a day, I think sometimes. Exit Eden I recorded with Joost as well. We did that in one day. And Ayreon I recorded in Arjen’s studio in one day. So, that’s only two days basically. And for Tarja I recorded it at my husband’s studio in five minutes.”

Her past guest work has also included work for her husband’s Kamelot. He has also been a live member on an Epica tour. “I’ve sung on three Kamelot albums, I think five or six songs in total. I’ve sung with Leaves’ Eyes as well. I’ve sung on MaYaN also!” says an excited Simone about all the interesting studio work she’s done. But all these projects are basically studio-based. She doesn’t go on tour with any other artists. “That would be an exception if I were to do that because we’re touring so much with Epica. I have a second company that is my blog and photography website. Sometimes I go to events, but that is also hard to plan because Epica is often away. So I try to not be more away apart from touring with Epica and the occasional event I have to go to. So I get to spend some time with family.”

Epica’s Simone Simons in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

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Masa Ito’s Rock TV celebrates 200 shows with Michael Schenker as a special guest

Masa Ito and Michael Schenker filming Masa Ito’s Rock TV. Photo: Mikio Ariga

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On Sunday 28th January, Masa Ito’s Rock TV filmed its 200th show in front of an audience in Shibuya with German guitar legend Michael Schenker as a special guest. Roppongi Rocks was of course there.

Masa Ito is the most famous rock music journalist in Japan. Here in Japan he is even more famous than some of the artists he interviews. He has been instrumental in introducing many foreign artists to the Japanese market since the early 1980s. He has worked in print and radio and in recent years, in addition to his radio show Power Rock Today on bayfm, one of his main outlets has been the Masa Ito’s Rock TV show which he launched in 2014.

Special guest for the 200th show was none other than Michael Schenker who was in Tokyo to promote his new Michael Schenker Fest album “Resurrection” (being released in Japan via Ward Records and internationally via Nuclear Blast).

Masa Ito interviewed Schenker in front an enthusiastic audience of lucky fans. Schenker talked about the new album “Resurrection” which features three legendary former MSG vocalists – Graham Bonnet, Gary Barden and Robin McAuley – as well as Doogie White from Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock. It also features old MSG musicians Ted McKenna, Chris Glen and Steve Mann. As several of the band’s members are based in Scotland, Schenker said that he has been rehearsing in Scotland. Schenker drives himself up there with a pit stop in Manchester along the way.

Michael Schenker filming Masa Ito’s Rock TV in Tokyo. Photo: Mikio Ariga

Schenker is very pleased how the new album came together and having four different singers was not a problem as it sort of fell naturally who sings what on the different tracks. He also discussed how Metallica’s Kirk Hammett ended up as a guest on the album. While Schenker says that he doesn’t listen to music as he focuses on “self expression”, he said he had heard Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” while shopping clothes in Paris and liked Hammett’s guitar playing. Michael Schenker, who regularly tours in Japan, said that the new tour will kick off in North America in March and that he didn’t yet know when the next Japan gigs will be (it’s only three months since he last performed in Japan).

To the audience’s delight he did mention that he named his current band Michael Schenker Fest with a view of having guests (”No guest, no fest!”). In addition to the legendary names already in the band, he said that Klaus Meine of Scorpions and Phil Mogg of UFO would be great to have as guests sometime during the new world tour.

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Gig review: Swedish preachers of death The Haunted conquered Tokyo once more

The Haunted on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Swedish death thrashers The Haunted once again made Tokyo do it with a splendid, brutal and sweaty show at Liquidroom.

The Haunted at Liquidroom, Ebisu, Tokyo, 26th January 2018

The Haunted on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

During the two decades that have passed since Swedish death thrashers The Haunted released their debut album, Japan has been a constant in their career. It was here in Japan they recorded the live album “Live Rounds in Tokyo” back in 2000 and they still have a loyal following here.

The current line-up of The Haunted is terrific and I hope it stays like this. The members are, however, all busy with other bands such as At the Gates, Witchery, The Lurking Fear and much more, so it can’t be too easy to plan for The Haunted’s touring and recording sessions. The Haunted’s brutal rock’n’roll machine is anchored with the rock solid At the Gates rhythm section of Adrian Erlandsson and Jonas Björler. Add to that two great and, I believe, very underrated guitarists – Patrik Jensen and Ola Englund – and you have a very good metal band. And then we still have frontman Marco Aro, who after a break of ten years, returned to the band in 2013. It seems as if he were born to front this band. He’s a perfect fit. And best of all, he so obviously is happy to be fronting this band. The Japanese audience’s affection for the band makes him somewhat emotional a couple of times during the show. It is a two-way brutal love affair between this Swedish extreme metal band and the Japanese metalheads in the audience.

The Haunted’s thrash guitars played over a death metal foundation make this different and better than many other extreme metal acts. Excellent Swedish death thrash, combining Bay Area thrash with the Gothenburg sound.

The Haunted on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

With the fab new studio album “Strength in Numbers” released just a few months ago, the band has quite a treasure trove of songs to choose from when they put together their set lists. This evening in Tokyo we get a terrific set list with material from throughout the band’s career and representing most of the band’s nine studio albums.

We get no fewer than five songs from the latest album, including the splendid “Preachers of Death”, “Spark” and “This is the End”, in addition to the two songs that open both the latest album and this evening’s show: the instrumental intro “Fill the Darkness with Black” (ain’t that poetry, then I don’t know what is!) and “Brutal Force”.

From the “Revolver” album we get  “99”, “No Compromise” and “All Against All”. From “The Haunted Made Me Do It” we get “Bury Your Dead”, “Trespass”, “Hollow Ground” and “Dark Intentions”. Additionally, we get “D.O.A.“ from “One Kill Wonder” and we get “The Flood”, “The Medication” and “The Guilt Trip” from “The Dead Eye”. From “Exit Wounds” we get treated to “Eye of the Storm”, “Trend Killer” and “Time (Will Not Heal)”, while from the band’s self-titled 1998 debut album we get “Hate Song” and “Bullet Hole”. What else could one ask for? This is as close to the ultimate The Haunted set list one can get.

The Haunted on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

The energetic Japanese audience is with the band the whole time from before they enter the stage until well after they have left it. They’re so into the performance that Marco Aro several times become lost for words. He is clearly overwhelmed by the love from The Haunted’s Japanese fans who not only sing along and headbang, we also get a series of circle pits and plenty of crowdsurfing this evening. The Haunted made us do it indeed.

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Gig review: Pagan Metal Horde | A great folk metal fest headlined by Ensiferum and Trollfest

Ensiferum on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

By Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Japanese promoter Evoken de Valhall put on another great folk metal festival in Tokyo headlined by Ensiferum and Trollfest.

Pagan Metal Horde Vol 2 at Shinjuku Blaze, Tokyo, 5th January 2018

Boisson Divine on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Boisson Divine

Following the opening act, Chinese folk metal band DreamSpirit, the second band to rock the stage with their flutes combined with heavy guitars and drums was Boisson Divine, a French band with two albums released and playing outside of their country for the very first time. Opening the gig with “Que Me’n Tornerèi”, Tokyo greeted an enthusiastic band with happy faces and dancing riffs, thrilled by the reception of the Japanese audience. The interesting part of this show was that with the exception of two members, all of the band sings along, forming beautiful choirs while playing their instruments amazingly. Lead vocalist Baptiste Labenne showed not only talent with his voice and guitar, but also a strong sympathy for the audience. With only a 25-minute set, Boisson Divine enchanted the Japanese people with their French lyrics. We might see them in Japan again in the near future.

Valhalore on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Valhalore

When the curtains fell down, the amazing Sophie Christensen entered the stage with her flute, playing a beautiful captivating melody that left the venue silent, with everybody paying attention only to the tenderness of her music. Lights went out and the other five members of Valhalore joined Sophie for the triumphant “Upon the Shores” followed by “The Winterstone”. As is quite common among folk metal bands, Valhalore’s members all wear typical clothes and make up, reminding us of the Viking era, which gives the show a more powerful atmosphere. This Australian sextet was also playing outside of their country for the first time and although a little anxiety was noticed on their faces, they did a great job. As they sound heavy, headbanging is a mandatory thing both for the audience and the band. The singer Lachlan Neate not only knows how to command the audience during the instrumental parts of the songs, but also can make his audience stop and pay attention to his amazing voice and screams. It was definitely the best show of the night. Even with a short set, Valhalore showed that they came to stand their ground and conquer stages worldwide.

Wind Rose

Wind Rose on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

The venue started filling up with more people when the Italians Wind Rose appeared on the stage with the epic “Dance of Fire”. What we saw was a band dressed properly for a rigorous winter, yet heating up the stage while banging their heads and having a lot of fun. Singer Francesco Cavalieri started the show with his operatic vocals, followed by the amazing riffs of Claudio Falconcini. All of their songs feature an amazing orchestral line, reminding the listener of an epic movie soundtrack, and this is the reason why their show is so intense. Heaviness and feeling describe perfectly what these guys do when on stage, and between some talking and acknowledgments, the metal vibe took control of the venue, making people go crazy in the circle pits. Closing the night with “The Breed of Durin” from 2015’s “Wardens of West Wind”, Wind Rose showed us that they are a very experienced and energetic band, taking the audience to a world of fantasy. A must see for every folk metal fan.

Trollfest on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Trollfest

The co-headline band of the Pagan Metal Horde night was Trollfest, a Norwegian band formed in Oslo, calling their own music Balkan metal. It took a little more time than expected for the curtains to fall down, but when they did, the Tokyo audience was surprised by a stage full of party balloons hanging on the instruments as well as on the members’ hats and clothes. This is a very different band, with a sound heavier than most of the folk metal bands, and also featuring a saxophone (very well played by Drekka Dag).

Trollfest on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

The way the members paint their faces and dress is very peculiar. Trollfest mixes heavy metal, folk music and humour to create a unique experience for those who are watching. Most of their songs are sung in Norwegian, but they have also recorded an unusual cover version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, which of course was performed, and to be honest, it is better than the original. The stage at Blaze was large enough for all the bands, however for Trollfest it became a little narrow, as guitarists Mr. Seidel and Dr. Leif Kjønnsfleis, bassist Lodd Bolt and accordion player Fjernkontrollet dance, jump and run across the whole stage during the set. The light show during the set is great, but the greatest part of their show is how funny they can be, probably due to how much they interact with the fans. Balloons flying all around and people following their dancing marked this first presentation of a band that conquered the Japanese hearts with their passion and sympathy.

Ensiferum on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

Ensiferum

Ensiferum’s intro music “Ajattomasta Unesta” creates an atmosphere similar to an epic war movie soundtrack. This is followed by the amazing first track of the latest album, “Two Paths”. “For Those About to Fight For Metal” is that kind of song that gets stuck in your head and you just cannot stop singing. As the keyboardist Netta Skog recently left the band, Ensiferum entered the stage as a quartet, but that did not extinguish their fire. The grunt vocals of Petri Lindroos fired up the venue, while Markus Toivonen and Sami Hinkka took care of the clear parts of the chorus together with the audience. Sami is also the highlight of the show, banging his head, warming up the crowd, running, dancing and going crazy with each song. Followed by the title track of the new album, “Two Paths” is a song that reminds me of classic rock’n’roll. The set took us through their whole career, including great successes like “Warrior Without a War” and “Two of Spades” that made the crowd insane. After a brief break, the band came back for an encore consisting of “From Afar” and the beautiful Finnish anthem “Lai Lai Hei”. It is impossible to speak about folk metal without mentioning Ensiferum. It is also not possible to watch their show without getting amazed by their impeccable performance, not only showing their competence as musicians, but also giving the audience much feeling and energy.

Ensiferum on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Caroline Misokane, Roppongi Rocks

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Album review: W.A.S.P. “ReIdolized (The Soundtrack to the Crimson Idol)”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Masterpiece: Blackie Lawless and his W.A.S.P. in top form as they revisit “The Crimson Idol” after a quarter of a century. “I think that my style still peeks through the cracks. I’m very proud of the results,” says guitarist Doug Blair.

A re-recording of an old successful album is a risky undertaking. But on this occasion it pays off handsomely for Blackie Lawless and his W.A.S.P. “The Crimson Idol”, a concept album about an abused child searching for love, was originally released in 1992. It was hailed by critics and fans alike as the band’s best album to date. This new and expanded version is even better. And it comes not only with additional songs, but also with the original one-hour “The Crimson Idol” movie which has never been released until now.

W.A.S.P. arrived on the scene as an outrageous shock rock act. But there is so much more to this band than the fake blood and raw meat that made them headlines in the mid-80s. There have always been great songs and fine musicianship. I have been a W.A.S.P. fan since their debut album came out in 1984. Despite many line-up changes (although now Blackie can lean on long-time members Mike Duda on bass and Doug Blair on lead guitar), Blackie has managed to keep delivering throughout the band’s career. “ReIdolized” is their finest moment so far. We get some of W.A.S.P.’s finest work here, both fast rockers – such as “Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the New Rogue)” and “Doctor Rockter” – and moody, dark ballads. The material is terrific and the re-recorded versions have been done with care and attention to detail. We get new versions of all the songs from “The Crimson Idol” as well as some extra songs that didn’t make the original album.

The album’s dark ballads, like “Miss You”, are terrific. Doug Blair’s guitar solo on that song is world-class without being over the top. The track “The Idol” is the album’s centerpiece and it is powerfully beautiful in its nakedness and open pain. Here it all comes together: a great song with terrific vocal emotion and splendid musical performance. Once again Blair’s guitar is smoking.

Two things really stand out for me on this double album: Blackie’s voice and Doug Blair’s guitar playing. We knew the material was strong, but the ridiculously strong individual performances by Blackie and Doug are above and beyond what I was expecting. Blackie has put his heart, soul and sweat into making this double album and it shows. He isn’t called Blackie without reason. He brings a dark, moody emotion to much of his music. It shines through (if darkness can shine that is) in the raw emotion which we get on many of the tracks here.

Doug Blair originally joined the band in 1992 when “The Crimson Idol” album was released, but he didn’t play on the album. Guitars were handled by Bob Kulick and Doug Aldrich. Now Blair finally gets to shine on these terrific songs. While listening to “ReIdolized”, I checked in with Blair to hear his thoughts on recreating and expanding the guitar work of Kulick and Aldrich:

“I auditioned and joined in July 1992 – after the record had been completed with Bob and Doug contributing leads. We then played a bunch of US warm-up shows, some big festivals and a 64-city European ‘The Crimson Idol’ headlining tour — during which I obviously became immersed in those songs and their respective leads. Since then, we’ve done limited anniversary tours and have always included many ‘The Crimson Idol’ songs in the live set. So, they’ve always been nearby in spirit. With the boss, we approached the re-recordings with the goal of getting as close as possible in all ways. Of course it was a challenge – 25 years after the fact – with everyone older, and current gear and recording methods unrecognisably different. But it was such a joy, and sometimes also frustrating, to get what we wanted and needed. Bob, and Doug as well, put forth some of the best playing of their careers, and, to me, of any lead work on the band’s recordings up until then. So, compared to our usual uber-collaborative lead ‘creation and structuring’ methodology used on the past three records, this was a vastly different toil! It wasn’t easy to play these leads, but I put forth my best effort, and I think that my style still peeks through the cracks. I’m very proud of the results, and totally honoured to have been able to work on this iconic anniversary record, as ‘The Crimson Idol’ has truly influenced my life’s path – even if I didn’t play on the original.”

This is a masterpiece. W.A.S.P. is so much better than they get credit for. On the one hand, the band’s use of theatrics and shock tactics in the 80s is the reason for that. But on the other hand, without getting those headlines back then (and upsetting Tipper Gore along the way), they would never ever have been able to give us “ReIdolized”. This album works a treat in any setting. But to really get down and into this, I’d say you should sit alone in a dark room and play this double album loudly.

W.A.S.P.’s “ReIdolized (The Soundtrack to the Crimson Idol)” will be released on 2nd February via Napalm Records.

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Interview: Paul Stanley and Eric Singer of KISS talk about three decades of playing together

Eric Singer and Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

KISS legends Paul Stanley and Eric Singer recently sat down with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo to talk about their nearly three decades of playing together, their love for Motown and Philly soul and much more.

Sitting down to talk with people who essentially wrote and performed the soundtrack to one’s youth is both exciting and scary at the same time. The reason for our conversation this evening in Tokyo is that Paul Stanley and his KISS colleague and former Black Sabbath drummer Eric Singer, with their current side project Soul Station, are revisiting the soul music of their youth. Thus, here we have a combination of the music of my youth and the music of their youth.

We kick off our meeting in Tokyo the evening before they start a 12-gig residency at Billboard Live in Tokyo and Osaka with their Soul Station band by chitchatting about timepieces (”I like your watch,” says Eric Singer who in 2015 was elected to the jury of watchmaking’s highest awards, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève) and modern art (“Kind of Basquiatish. It almost looks like Basquiat,” says Paul Stanley, who is also a painter, of my original hand-painted art t-shirt by Aussie artist James “The Walking Creative” Smith), but we soon focus the conversation on music.

Prior to Eric Singer joining Paul Stanley in KISS in 1991 he played in Stanley’s solo band in 1989 and now they are also playing together in Soul Station. The now nearly three-decade long partnership started when the former Black Sabbath and Lita Ford drummer Singer was in the band Badlands in the late 80s (which also featured Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E Lee and Singer’s former Black Sabbath colleague Ray Gillen). They recorded their debut album in 1989.

Roppongi Rocks Stefan Nilsson centre) with Eric Singer and Paul Stanley of KISS in Tokyo in January 2018.

“That’s actually how I met Paul. I was in New York recording that record. And the bass player Dennis St James, who was playing bass with Paul, he was managed by the same management people. He went to the office one day and he said: ‘Hey, what’s Eric doing? Paul Stanley needs a drummer.’ ‘He just finished his tracks. He’s going home. He’s done for like a few months’ So, I think he recommended me as well as some other people. I got a call from Paul’s office, from Derek Simon. He called and said: ‘Can you come over and meet Paul?’ It goes to show you how fate works. Literally my hotel was one block around the corner from the KISS office. I walked around the corner and went to meet Paul in his office. I remember I brought him a couple of Black Sabbath albums and some stuff I had played on. Then we just chatted. I was going home the next morning. That night I was going to the Record Plant. I was just hanging out. They were doing overdubs and Jason Flom, the A&R guy who had signed us, shows up in the studio very late at night, about midnight. He goes: ‘I heard you’re playing in Paul Stanley’s solo band.’ I go: ‘What!?’ Nobody had told me anything. ‘I just saw Paul Stanley at the China Club. He told me you’re playing drums in his solo band.’ That’s how I found out.”

“Amazing!” says Paul Stanley before Singer continues: “I remember it like it was yesterday. This was early, like January of ’89 when that happened.” Eric Singer is now well established in KISS where he replaced Eric Carr who died of cancer. “Other than Gene and Paul, my time in KISS has been the longest of anybody.” But Stanley’s working relationship with KISS co-founder Gene Simmons beats the relationship with Singer by about two decades. “With Gene it is about 49 years,” says Stanley. “What year did you meet him?” asks Singer to Stanley who replies: “Well, I was 17.” “On that fateful day,” comments Singer before Stanley adds, tongue-in-cheek, “That day that will live in infamy.”

Eric Singer in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Now, 29 years after they started playing together, Stanley and Singer are still at it. In addition to playing with KISS, they are both members of the 13-person strong soul collective Soul Station.

Singer explains how the idea of Soul Station started a few years ago. “The school where his children go, once a year they do like a fundraiser. A lot of the artists’ and musicians’ children go to that school. One day Paul said: ‘Hey, I’m gonna do a cool gig where we’re gonna play classic rock, like Led Zeppelin and Free and stuff like that’. He put together a cool band and played at the museum, the history museum downtown LA, a really cool vibe. Then the next year they wanted to do it again. So Paul said: ‘I want to do something different. I always wanted to do this Motown stuff. So he put this band together. And it was so much fun and so cool that it basically, kind of fed on itself and here we are a couple of years later. That day we played at the school, the Foo Fighters played and Bush, because their kids all went to the school. So for the parents that had children at that school, they got one hell of a concert. It was only like a 150 people there. It was on the school grounds, on the football field. It was really cool.”

Was soul music the obvious thing to do when Stanley and Singer wanted to do a side project for when KISS is not touring the world? “For me,” says Stanley, “my roots are much more diverse than some people realise. And Eric too. So, I think that is very much something we have in common. I grew up with classical music, Broadway and opera. When I got a little older, I saw Otis Redding, The Temptations. My roots were as much Philly soul and Motown as Led Zeppelin. And I think really that what you bring to your music, that’s unlike your music, is what will make your music different. If you just feed on something similar, it becomes redundant. It becomes almost incestuous. Whereas, when you have roots that are outside of your genre, you have something extra to offer. For me, there’s two kinds of music: good and bad. There’s good rock’n’roll and there’s some awful stuff. There’s jazz that is horrible. I’ve played with Eric so long that I really think, as will happen with people who play a long time, we instinctively know, without speaking, what we’re thinking. I know that Eric knows what I’m thinking.”

Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Singer continues: “And what you want! I think that’s even more important. I know how he likes certain things. I am good at following, or taking his lead and anticipating how he’s feeling about something or an ending. Like we talked today in rehearsal, I am able to follow you obviously better than the other guys because I am used to it. I have a sense of how he will naturally feel things.”

Paul Stanley has much admiration for his rhythm anchor: “But Eric is also, he’s so much more than… Eric, I believe, is very, vastly underappreciated or thought of in music circles. He is right up there with the best. He’s a phenomenal drummer, not just because he plays rock, but because he comes from a background that’s far beyond rock. To think that somebody could come in and play this kind of music, to play Soul Station, would be insanity. To think you could take some guy out of a ‘hard rock band’, it just wouldn’t happen. You know, Eric really is well schooled and really understands music. On top of that, the bonus, that we didn’t even know when he joined KISS, is he is a great singer. And let’s face it, as time goes on and our voices aren’t what they once were, as any athlete’s body isn’t what it once was, Eric can do some of the lifting, so he’s great. I would say that with him here or not. He’s a terrific guy and a great person to play with.”

Two famous rock stars seemingly suddenly playing in a soul band might be somewhat of a surprise for some people. Were they at all nervous about how things would be perceived when they first performed with Soul Station? “No, I don’t think so,” says Singer. “Because, like Paul said, there’s sometimes more than meets the eye. If you only know somebody from how you first discovered them, either as a band or individually, like we always tell people: Everybody in LA only knows me as Eric Singer – a rock drummer. They don’t realise that when I grew up, in my formative years I played in my father’s band, I’d play all the standards and was exposed to opera, community theatre. I then was a band leader and they used to take me to the symphony and the opera. I was exposed to lots of stuff and played other types of music. In fact, I was really not a rock drummer originally. I was more of that type of a drummer because that’s what I did since a young age. But I always wanted to be a rock drummer and I always thought I could do it, I could be good at it, if I just had the opportunity. Once the opportunities presented themselves, I was able to take advantage of them. I always believed that I could do that. People always asked me when you’re a kid: ‘What did you think?’ or ‘What did you feel?’ All I know, I used to go to concerts and I used to have the posters on my wall and buy the magazines. I said: ‘I didn’t just think I could this, I always thought you’re supposed to do this’, if that makes sense. I know it is easy to say because I have had some success with it, but I truly believed that since a young kid. I just thought I need the opportunity and then I know I can take advantage of it. Once those opportunities manifested themselves, I was a quick study and I learned very quickly and adapted. At least I feel like I did.”

Eric Singer in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Stanley continues: “I wasn’t nervous the first time we were gonna play. I knew we were great. Whether or not people would come is another thing. Look, when you say to somebody: ‘Hey, you know the guy who sings in KISS is going to do Motown and Philly soul’, you’re gonna go: ‘What?’ And plus, in the beginning and even now, I try to make sure people know, look if you’re coming to hear ‘Love Gun’, it ain’t gonna happen. If you’re coming to see me play guitar, I’m not playing guitar. So, that very much changes the rules and the dynamics. If I put together a solo band and, honestly, just to side track, I don’t think of this as… This isn’t a back-up band for me. I’m in this band. I’m not interested in having guys play behind me. I think the reason we have so much fun as a band is because I want everybody to be featured.”

Singer explains: “Everybody’s integrated in this. There’s no doubt about it. All the singers, everybody gets to shine. But the music is so great that, as long as you stay true to the music, everybody shines because of that. Because the material is so strong. It’s undeniable.” Stanley continues: “We’re not up there rearranging these songs. Our cause is to go out and play them the way they were recorded. It’s really disappointing, unfortunately, when you see some bands from that era doing sped-up versions and Vegas arrangements. I wanna hear those songs, we all wanna hear those songs played reverently with the respect of them sounding like they should, the way we remember them. Again, for me, there was talk when we first talked about the first show: OK, the band will play and then I will come out. I come out with the band. We’re in this together. It’s not: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please…’ You know? I want everybody here to feel, not only appreciated, but essential. Somebody else said: ‘Oh, you could do some shows this summer and there’s musicians available in this country or that country.’ It’s not like that. This is a band!”

In KISS, Stanley is always playing guitar as well as singing, whereas in Soul Station he is fully focused on vocals. One might wonder if this makes a difference to how he performs on stage. “There’s no problem,” says Singer. “Because he always could dance. He’s a good dancer, a performer. So to me it’s like, instead of having a guitar, he’s got a mic stand. And he’s got the girl background singers, so he’s got the props around him!” Stanley continues: “Eric is essential, because I can lean on him. I think a great drummer is somebody who you can almost physically lean on. He’s not stiff, but he’s dependable and he’s in the pocket.”

Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Singer cuts in: “One thing I was going to point out, not to interrupt you, but you made a good point before. One thing I found pretty eye opening, was when we learned the songs, I always make sure I do my homework, because while the guys in the band, they’re really more schooled about charts. They could literally show up and they would show up with the charts. They’re sitting there reading their charts all the time. I think that you should know… Paul taught me a lesson a long time ago and it applied to singing, so I applied that theory to playing. Know what you’re playing, like, know the song. Know what you’re singing so you can mean it. So I applied the same thing. Know the material so you can really play it, not just reading it like a book. The eye opening thing for me was that so many of these artists, even the bands themselves, the way they play the songs… They don’t really play the stuff faithful to the records. They play all the tempos really fast, the drummers don’t play the beats like on the albums. It’s pretty surprising. So we try to go: ‘Let’s be faithful and play these songs, the parts and stay in the pocket, the tempos, the way these songs were written.’ I think it comes off better that way. I believe it does.”

Stanley continues: “For vocalists, I think, particularly in bands where vocalists have been replaced over the years, I kind of go: ‘I don’t think you understand the song you’re singing. You might as well be singing in Chinese, because… Have you ever sat down and read those lyrics? You’ve memorised them, but what’s the intent of the lyric? What’s being said?’ Otherwise, that’s one of the problems I have with some of these talent shows on TV. I’ve said to my wife: ‘This guy might as well be singing in Latin, because he has no idea what he is singing about.’ So, it’s not a matter of the melody. It’s not a matter of memorising a lyric. You gotta know what you’re singing!”

“I’ll be honest, I get off on the vibe of a song,” says Singer. “I really love guitar, so it’s all about the vibe and the riffs. That’s what I’m attracted to musically. But these songs, the lyrics really are great lyrics. The songs are great but the lyrics have a lot of depth to them. They are a lot about relationships, about emotion. They’re great. They really are great. Like ‘Let’s Stay Together’, what a great lyric!”

Eric Singer and Paul Stanley in Tokyo in January 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Japan and KISS have had a loyal relationship ever since the 1970s. Not only KISS, but also side projects such as Soul Station, Gene Simmons Band and Eric Singer Project have done well here. In 2015, KISS last did a major Japan tour and also had a number one hit single (a collaboration with Japanese pop group Momoiro Clover Z) and in 2016, there was a successful KISS Expo Tokyo which was opened by Gene Simmons. What is this long-lasting Japanese fascination with everything KISS built on? “I think,” says Singer, “just like we were fascinated with British rock – basically they took our music, repackaged it and sent it back over – but I think the same way that we have always been fascinated with the British invasion, I think it just kept going west, across the ocean. And the fascination is there for the fashion, just the whole overall culture.”

“I think it goes beyond that,” says Stanley. “I believe that our connection to Japan is based upon their knowing how much we love being here, how much we appreciate them. A great relationship is based on reciprocity. A great relationship is based on the give and take. I think that over the years we’ve shown ourselves to be truly enamoured with everything here. So, I think it’s reciprocal. It’s not just about music. It’s not just about a culture. We’ve gone beyond that. We’ve made it personal.”

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Gig review: Epica premieres “Attack on Titan” songs on stage in Tokyo

Epica on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Mikio Ariga

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Only nine months after their first Japan tour, Dutch symphonic metal masters Epica returned to Tokyo to perform new music. It was, of course, another massive win for the band.

Simone Simons of Epica on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Mikio Ariga

It took Epica 15 years before they finally toured Japan in April 2017. It was a huge success. Since then, the band has released two new EPs and now they returned to Japan for a special one-off show in Japan to mark the release of the “Attack on Titan” EP.

In Japan we rarely get opening acts at concerts by international artists. But this evening is special and Japanese violinist Ayasa gets to showcase her skills to an appreciative audience who is eagerly awaiting Epica’s return to the Tokyo stage.

Epica is a bit different from most other symphonic metal artists. The Mark Jansen-led band’s signature sound is often bombastic, epic and energetic. They have a great and well-balanced mix of melodic symphonic music and sheer brutality. They have better songs than the competition. The band is tight and rock solid and they’re fronted by the one and only Simone Simons. Her vocal talents are above and beyond most  other singers in this genre. I’d say that only Floor Jansen in Nightwish is her equal.

The Tokyo show is similar to the one the band did in Japan last year. Just like then, we get a world-class show with some of the band’s most loved songs, such as “Sensorium”, “Edge of the Blade”, “The Holographic Principle”, “Unchain Utopia” and “Cry for the Moon”. But we get more than that. They also play the terrific “Fight Your Demons” from “The Solace System” EP that was released last September. And we get  the live premiere of three new songs from the new “Epica vs Attack on Titan songs” EP: “Crimson Bow and Arrow”, “If Inside These Walls Was a House” and “Dedicate Your Heart”. Epica has taken these manga soundtracks and made them into Epica-style songs. Works great both in the studio and live on stage. Fab songs.

Mark Jansen of Epica on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Mikio Ariga

During the show, keyboardist Coen Janssen once again tries to prove that he’s the Keith Moon of keyboards. When he’s not playing his rotating keyboard on stage, he’s out in the audience playing a handheld curved keyboard. He certainly adds some comedy to the well-executed show.

Epica is simply put a great band with great songs and they have what many other similar bands don’t have: Simone Simons. What a truly splendid vocalist she is. She helps to set this apart from the pack. The fact that the band seems to truly enjoy performing for their fans also adds to the positive energy that surrounds Epica shows.

As they did in April, they close a terrific evening with the modern classics “Sancta Terra”, “Beyond the Matrix” and “Consign to Oblivion”.

Epica on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Mikio Ariga

Epica has with these two visits to Japan in nine months certainly laid the groundwork for a long and loving relationship with the band’s Japanese fans.

The “Epica vs Attack on Titan songs” EP is out now via Ward Records.

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Gig review: A fine evening of proper British rock with Thunder at Club Citta

Thunder on stage at Club Citta. Photo: Mikio Ariga

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

An evening of British rock music of the best kind with Thunder back on stage in Japan.

Thunder at Club Citta, Kawasaki, Friday 12th January 2018

Thunder on stage at Club Citta. Photo: Mikio Ariga

It’s just over two years ago since British rockers Thunder last played in Japan and now they’re back for three gigs for their Japanese fans. This evening at Club Citta in Kawasaki we get another perfect demonstration of how great music played by a great band can be delivered without any fancy big stage production. There are no gimmicks, no spectacular stage outfits, no pyro or big laser show, no Stonehenge replica or anything else. Just a great rock band doing what they do best: performing great rock music for their fans.

Fab musicians (Luke Morley and Ben Matthews on guitars, Harry James on drums and Chris Childs on bass) playing terrific songs – that is Thunder’s foundation. And when you add vocalist Danny Bowes on top of that, it becomes awesome. Bowes is no doubt one of the best British rock singers ever. That voice, that feeling, his presence and his obvious love for performing for his fans. That is very hard to beat.

I bloody love this band because they always deliver. This evening they open with the terrific “Loser” from 2003’s “Shooting at the Sun” album and follow that with “The Enemy Inside” from their latest album, “Rip It Up”. We get a great set list of both old favourites and some newer material, including four songs from their most recent album. They have evolved from their early days when they had long hair and dressed in black leather. Since many years Thunder is now a great blues-based rock band.

Thunder on stage at Club Citta. Photo: Mikio Ariga

A fine evening of British rock comes to a close with “Dirty Love” from the band’s 1990 debut album “Backstreet Symphony”. This band is clearly one of the absolute best British rock bands in recent times. Fabulous!

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