Interview | Venom Inc: “We can only be who we are”

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Venom Inc talks to Roppongi Rocks about an unplanned reunion, being cheeky, writing very long songs and staying relevant.

Venom Inc on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Mikio Ariga

What a comeback! When the classic “Prime Evil” era line-up of VenomTony “Abaddon” Bray, Jeff “Mantas” Dunn and Tony “The Demolition Man” Dolan – reunited as Venom Inc a few years ago, I think many people saw it as a fun and nostalgic thing. Venom was founded 40 years ago in Newcastle in the north of England. It not only pioneered extreme metal, the whole black metal sub-genre was named after its second album. In August last year Venom Inc released the fantastic album “Avé” on Nuclear Blast internationally and Ward Records in Japan. It was one of 2017’s best albums and it became obvious that Venom Inc is much more than just a reunion and a celebration of the past. Venom Inc links the past, the present and the future. When Venom Inc recently returned to Japan for a second tour, I sat down with the band backstage before their Tokyo gig.

While a bleak Cronos-led version of Venom has been out there playing shows, the proper legacy of the band seemed to have died. But then guitarist Mantas and vocalist and bassist Dolan reunited in 2010 in the band M:Pire of Evil and that was the beginning of something which in 2015 led to a proper reunion of a vital Venom under the name Venom Inc.

“It was always a good version of the band,” says drummer Abaddon. “It wasn’t a short stint of the band. People tend to forget about that a little bit. Good albums, some good tours. We went to some places we hadn’t been to before. So, it was a good thing to reunite, it wasn’t a ‘let’s get some random guy back in the band and hope it works out’. It was a good version of the band to start building from. But it wasn’t meant to be a band. It was just meant to be a one-off thing for a festival in Germany. It was meant to be these guys playing as M:Pire of Evil and I was going to join for five songs, six songs.” Dolan adds: “Just to go ‘Surprise! There you go’.”

The Demolition Man backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Abaddon continues the story: “There were a lot of…I guess what you call hardcore Venom fans there anyway. It’s very central to where a lot of people live, handy for the French people, the Swiss people and obviously the Germans. So it was always going to be a hardcore group of people there. This just kind of added a bit of spice on that cake and it made it a bit more exciting for them. Right from the beginning, right from the first chords of the first song we played, you’re getting this wave happening… You only really get that with some of the bigger bands, like when Deep Purple getting someone back in or Black Sabbath getting Ozzy back in and you get that really big wave.”

“It felt unusual, not regular,” says Dolan and continues: “Not just another band. Even the signing. There was 20 minutes allotted for the signing and after like 35 minutes they were going: ‘You know you guys can stop now’. But there was still a line. I mean there was over a thousand people, I swear to God, lining the hall while the bands were still playing. And I said: ‘But there is all them.’ It was crazy. At 50 minutes they went: ‘Look, I think you guys should probably just…’ and I said: ‘Well, when they’re finished, if we can get to every fan.’ There were other bands signing their things and leaving and we were still there. That’s just how it is.”

Abaddon backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

What prompted the reunion of the “Prime Evil” era line-up? “There is a festival in our hometown Newcastle,” explains Abaddon. “Tony’s band Atomkraft was playing and he spoke to Jeff about getting to do some old tune in a very similar sort of way but in our hometown. I was there just watching what was going on as a fan of the music. I had been there maybe a couple of years in a row. I’m standing at the bar and a couple of these big German guys with ‘Black Metal’ on their backs, they turned and looked at me when these guys were on stage.”

As Mantas appeared on stage next to his old Venom bandmate Dolan, the Germans looked at Abaddon in the audience and said: “What the fuck! Why aren’t you doing this?” Abaddon was taken by surprise: “I was like: ‘I don’t know.’ It turned out that one of them was the promoter of the show. He does a few big festivals. The one in Newcastle I think was in February and the one these guys were going to do in Germany was in April, so it was a kind of a natural. ‘If I can make this happen, would you be up for it?’ Like I said it was ever meant to be that quick couple of songs.”

After the Newcastle festival the promoter approached Dolan: “He literally after the festival said: ‘That was really great to see all that and you got Mantas up and that was brilliant. Why don’t you get Abaddon and do some Venom stuff?’ and I was like: ‘Well, it wasn’t that kind of thing and I don’t know if that could happen’.” The promoter pushed on and got Abaddon to agree to turn up at the festival in Germany after being promised flights, a nice hotel and a bottle of whisky. “It was quite a shock. We all just had a giggle,” says Dolan about the one-off festival reunion in Germany. But by the next morning, says Dolan, “We had two or three management offers, we had four or five promoters worldwide go: ‘When can we book the band?’ We’re not a band, we just did that. ‘No, no, you guys should do this’.” Abaddon adds: “We got an offer for a live album, an offer for an album.” Dolan continues: “So we just said: Why not? But the misnomer is that we went out there to cash in and play the catalogue. It kind of wasn’t like that. We agreed to do a lot of stuff so the first thing was to go: ‘What would people like to hear?’ And they wanted to hear every single song that’s ever been done!” Abaddon adds: “Funny enough one of the first places we came to was Japan. We went to China and then Japan. The Japanese were some of the first people that saw this.”

Mantas backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Since the initial touring after the reunion, the band then went into the studio and created nothing short of a masterpiece. A new album with new terrific music. Did the band members know that they had such great new material in them? “There was no plan,” says Abaddon and Dolan adds: “No plan to do anything. We just went: ‘OK’. To make it legitimate, I personally felt we should go back to the first single and then come as fast through the catalogue of Venom because it’s such great songs that lots of people hadn’t actually heard. They never got a chance to see the band. Make our way right through to where we are.”

Abaddon continues to explain: “Me and Jeff were founding members of the band but Tony is a fan of the band. I think it’s fair for me and Jeff to say that we’re not particular fans of Venom’s music. You can enjoy playing it and enjoy writing it and enjoy taking it out on the road, but would I have bought ‘Black Metal’? I would have bought ‘Prime Evil’ after I heard it, but I don’t think I would’ve then gone back to the back catalogue necessarily. But to have somebody in the band who is a fan of the band and who gets the band, knows about the songs.” Dolan originally joined Venom as a replacement for Cronos in the late 1980s.

Venom Inc with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo.

Venom has a proud legacy with some classic songs, but the new Venom Inc album beats the whole back catalogue. “That’s a big thing to say. That means a lot,” says Abaddon. “The one thing that we discovered,” explains Dolan, “because I didn’t want to go towards an album, I really didn’t. The live album, we talked about it, people were asking about it. A live album though? Maybe later once we’ve done… But there’s no new music. Do you want to give that to the fans? The same songs but just in a different configuration. Is that not boring? But there are collectors and they want it. An album brings a whole load of stress. I don’t want to get into politics anymore. I don’t want to do that. And then selling it to who and getting the best deal and publishing… You think: ‘Oh my God!’ We were having so much fun just playing the music to fans who wanted to hear particular songs. That’s what I want to be able to do, to just play the music that is there. With the way we feel, there’s something special with it. The first three of them had something and we have something. I don’t know what it is, it’s just something. Let’s just have fun with this. We’re too old to get into all that bollocks again. But, they kept pushing, they kept pushing, they kept pushing. So it was like: ‘Well, what is the best thing about us? Apart from we’re good-looking of course, we’re sexy, we smell pretty good’. If we’re going to do it, how do we take who we are in a live situation and put that on an album without it being a live album?”

Abaddon continues: “The big thing that is different, I suppose, now is social media. The way that bands are perceived, the way bands can build something or change something. It’s different now. We didn’t grow up with that. We grew up with tape trading and phone calls and word of mouth. We weren’t very good players. The interest in the band grew outside of how good we were and what we did. We relied a little bit on… You learn all this with hindsight. We were allowed to grow into what we were supposed to be. By the time we got the band there, when Tony came in, we could actually play a little bit and we knew a bit about what we were supposed to be about. Don’t forget that it was fucking five, six albums in or something! You know bands have that tricky third album? We had to go to six before we could put a good record out!”

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While working on the new album, did the band feel any constraints to fit in with the Venom legacy? “When Jeff was composing this stuff, he’s constantly writing stuff,” says Dolan. “He was sending things through that I had to be thinking about vocally. I see music in images. When I hear the piece, I see whatever it is. If I don’t see anything then it needs something else. I don’t know what it is. But, OK, we’ll think about that. But if I see it, there it is. Anything sent through I kind of saw.”

“I think that the one thing that we all kind of agreed on, how the album came together and how it was done, was that we weren’t gonna go back and say: what made ‘Bloodlust’ good? Let’s do another one!” says Abaddon and Dolan adds: “No plagiarism!”

Abaddon continues: “I think that’s fair to say, we all thought: Right! ‘Witching Hour’ was great. People love ‘Witching Hour’. Let’s do another one! That was never gonna happen. Whether it was going to sound sonically like ‘Black Metal’ or whatever, or played like ‘Prime Evil’, it was never gonna be: ‘Just take that because it worked’. That was never gonna happen!” Dolan adds: “Not on purpose. That was the key. Jeff was like: ‘Do you think I am going in the right direction?’ I went, this is the direction you need to go in: You were Jeff Mantas, you are Jeff Mantas and you will always be Jeff Mantas. And I and Tony are the same. That’s what we need to record. Us! You don’t have to be that guy, you don’t have to be anybody! We don’t have to try and be that other thing. We just have to be us, the way we are. That’s what’s working and that’s what should happen. For me I think that’s what happened. It’s honest because that’s who we are. When we play the tracks live, people have been saying the same thing. When we play the new tracks, on one of the shows we did not so long ago, a festival show, I’m singing ‘Avé’ and when I was singing the chorus it sounded funny. Something weird happening. I’m getting some kind of weird reverb. And then I realised, the audience were all singing it! They were all singing it back. Wow! It was amazing to do those new tracks. That was always a Venom thing, when people would be singing the lyrics as loud as they could while we’re doing it. That’s a testament I think. But that comes from the other thing: plagiarism would have been death to us. Trying to be something we aren’t. We can only be who we are. That’s what works!”

The cheeky side of the Venom Inc boys is always present which is evident when we discuss how much of the new material the band now typically plays in the current set list. “Eh… Jeff plays all of it, I play some of it,” says Dolan with a big smile across his face. Abaddon continues: “I play about two-thirds of it. Hahaha!!” And the banter goes on: “So, it depends on where you are in the audience. Haha!!” laughs Dolan and Abaddon adds: “If they’re at the back it’s a right fucking mess!”

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On a more serious note, Abaddon explains: “It kind of depends on how long the sets are. You have to give a crowd-pleasing performance. As people want us to play the new stuff anyway, so it’s a kind of give and take and find what fits. There are certain songs on the new album that fit well in with a classic set. One of the things I used to love about band, the bands I was into, would change up songs when they played live. One of the big things that we’ve done, there are no actual changes in the song, in parts of the song, but the way we play parts, is ‘Warhead’. We used to play ‘Warhead’ all the time, you know with the other guy and it was always good and it was heavy. It was great. But somehow it’s become this thing which is central to the set, almost every night. It’s like you just get into a fucking groove and it really becomes massive. It’s a great song, there is nothing wrong with the song. We played it pretty much every time we played but it was always just a song.”

Dolan continues: “‘Sons of Satan’, it’s kind of become an anthem for the fans and us. When we play it, it’s like the punkiest punch in the face you’re ever gonna get. And it means something now. Before it was just another song, but it means something now. Like ‘Warhead’, stuff like that. We play with it. We want to put the new stuff in, but was is amazing is that a song you may have composed forty years after that song and we put them back to back and they sound like they could…all of the songs from ‘Live Like An Angel’, the B-side of the first single, to ‘War’ or ‘Bloodlust’ in the middle, they could all be on the same album. That’s amazing to have stuff like that. That shows great songs. That’s always something I’ve said about the legacy. Most bands might go out… If you went to see Europe, tell me five Europe songs! ‘The Final Countdown’…” Abaddon adds: “Ha! I couldn’t tell you two!” before Dolan makes his point: “’The Final Countdown’! Now if you went to see Europe and they didn’t play ‘The Final Countdown’, you’d be going: ‘Ah, I’m gutted!’ To be in a band where you have got more than one and you’ve got ten and we could play 30 songs over two hours, three hours and still people go: ‘You didn’t play my favourite song! Why didn’t you play that one?’ That’s that richness of the legacy and that’s what is really special about this and really wonderful. Every night is a different night. We have that flexibility because of experience and because of everything else. Each night is not the same night. A thousand years ago, if you came to see the first night of a 30-date tour, the guys on the last night didn’t know what was gonna happen. The reviews wouldn’t be coming out until later. They might see a photograph, but rarely. They might have had a friend who went to the show. These days, before we finish the set, everybody on the last date already knows because they have taken photographs of the set list, there’s video up. In a way it’s kind of like a spoiler to a movie. I’m dying to see this movie and then someone post it and tells you everything about it. No! So I’m trying to encourage people to wait a little bit so that people can enjoy that. But because of that it means that we have that movement so we don’t give you the same show. In Osaka it won’t be the same show as tonight so that people can feel it’s special.”

The Demolition Man backstage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On the new “Avé” album there are some very long songs. Mantas, the main songwriter, explains: “There’s a couple of songs I actually had to strip back. They were even longer. ‘Forged in Hell’ was about a minute longer than it is on the album. I was listening to it and it was just… When I’m writing, I am all about hook lines and choruses and where can the audiences join in? And this particular song, to me it seemed it was taking too long to get to the ‘Forged in Hell’! It was taking too long to get to that, so it was about a minute cut out of that.” Dolan adds a cheeky: “And then you gave yourself a good talking to, didn’t you?” Mantas continues: “I did. But a track like ‘Avé’, that comes in at… even ‘Dein Fleisch’, that comes in at seven minutes. But the thing is, when I construct the songs, when I am listening back to them, the first time I have a song fully constructed, I press play and the stop watch and I see what it comes in at. Then once I have got all the parts together and it’s still the same length, even without vocals, if it’s not doing it without vocals, because the vocals are the key on every song. That’s it, that’s the storyline for it. But as an instrumental piece, if I’m sitting there going: ‘For fuck’s sake! Fucking hell, when is it going to end?’ But with both ‘Dein Fleisch’ and with ‘Avé’ and with ‘Blood Stained’ as well, it was like I didn’t notice that because I felt the arrangements and the parts were keeping the attention. Then I thought: once the vocals go on top and the story’s told, then you’re not gonna notice. Seven minutes is going to pass like that. We had to do an edit for ‘Dein Fleisch’ for some strip clubs in America. They wanted a three and half, four minute edit for pole dancers. So, I did that and then listening back to it, it actually sounded weird. It was ending too soon.”

“The thing about radio play,” explains Dolan, “‘Dein Fleisch’ was on radio constantly in America. Nobody was going: ‘It’s a bit long, isn’t it?’ They were just playing it. If it works, it just works and people don’t notice the length of it.” Mantas continues: “Purposely, that’s why the album ends with ‘Black N Roll’. Because you’re getting commentary on world, fucking shit that’s going on and you’re getting the usual stuff from Venom, you’re getting the song about metal and the fans and all that kind of stuff. And it is a pretty dark album at times. Some of the songs are long and then it just needed a good punch in the face to finish it off! With a bit of humour which we have always been known for. It was a tribute to everything we love really.”

Dolan makes a point about the cheekiness of the band: “I think that’s a highly important point as well. That humour thing is something – we always had that cheeky humour thing. Venom always had that. I think it lost itself somewhere. That is part of whole thing. To me having that cheeky side back in there, I guess was important. It’s part of the identity.”

Well, folks, the Venom Inc boys are here. They have a past, present and future together. They’re relevant and they’re better than ever before. Shortly after our chat they walk on stage and deliver a devastatingly terrific metal show. Metal we bleed indeed.

Venom Inc: Abaddon, Mantas and The Demolition Man in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Gig review: Melodic hard rock knockout in Tokyo by The Poodles

The Poodles on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

A 35-year tradition of Swedish melodic hard rock triumphs in Japan now continues with The Poodles doing their first-ever Japan tour.

The Poodles at Club Quattro, Shibuya, Tokyo, 4th April 2018

The Poodles on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Sweden has a proud tradition of producing great melodic hard rock bands that become loved by Japanese fans. Since Europe first got noticed by Japanese fans in 1983, there has been a never-ending stream of quality Swedish bands selling both records and concert tickets in Japan and winning hearts along the way. The Poodles, which formed in 2006, took 12 years to get to Japan, but now they’re here and their first-ever show in Tokyo is a success.

28 years ago – in April 1990 – I last saw Jake Samuel perform on stage. At that time he was a young drummer in Talisman, sitting behind Jeff Scott Soto, Marcel Jacob and Jason Bieler. In The Poodles he’s the frontman, the centre of attention, the mainman who commands your attention. With seven The Poodles studio albums below his belt, he’s an accomplished vocalist and a frontman who knows how to entertain an audience. Original drummer Christian “Kicken” Lundqvist is still the anchor in the band and he is joined in the current touring line-up by Argentinian bassist Germain Leth (ex-Blackcept, Watchmen) and stand-in guitarist Rob Marcello. Marcello is best known as a member of Danger Danger but he’s also played with House of Lords and Shotgun, the partial Shotgun Messiah reunion. He’s an amazing guitarist who brings something extra to The Poodles. A terrific addition to the band, even if it may only be for this tour.

The Poodles on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

This evening in Shibuya they open their set with their brilliant cover version of The Osmonds hit ”Crazy Horses” and follow with “Night of Passion”, their breakthrough hit from 2006. What follows is a high-energy, melodic hard rock show. Most of the set is made up of the band’s most famous hits. But there is the odd surprise in the set list, such as the rarely heard track “Band of Brothers” from their second album, 2007’s “Sweet Trade”. We also get a couple of more covers (from The Poodles’ latest album “Prisma” which is a covers album): Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” – classic songs given a The Poodles treatment.

Highlights of the night include “Thunderball” and “Crack in the Wall” as well as the band’s anthem “Metal Will Stand Tall” where the audience sings along like there’s no tomorrow. Speaking of which, “Like No Tomorrow” finishes the set before the band returns for an encore consisting of “Rockstar” and “Seven Seas”.

The love affair between Japanese fans and Swedish melodic hard rock continues. The Poodles is Japan’s latest glammed-up mistress of rock.

The Poodles on stage in Tokyo. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Album review: Nightstage “Sunset Industry”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

LA-based rock band Nightstage has released its debut album which is filled with terrific classic rock full of emotions and fantastic guitars.

Nightstage is a brand new band that only really formed in the past year. They released a single in 2017 and now their debut album has arrived. They have also started to perform live in the Los Angeles area. The core of the band consists of Nicky Renard on lead guitar and her father Max Foxx on rhythm guitar. They recorded the album in Nashville with an all-star backing band of pro session players. Lead vocals on the album are handled by Caleb Johnson while live the band is now fronted by Robbie Wyckoff (who has played with Roger Waters, Michael McDonald and Keith Emerson).

If one has to compare Nightstage to other artists, classic rock acts such as The Eagles, Journey, Tom Petty, New England and Bad Company come to mind. But this is no copycat band. They have crafted their own classic rock songs based on bluesy rock and a fair bit of Americana influences.

Nicky Renard is still in her teens but the music she creates and performs with the rest of the band is best described as grown-up classic American rock. But not the bland, boring kind. No, in Nightstage’s music there is depth and emotion, wonderfully expressed through Nicky’s guitar. Just listen to the crying guitar on the terrific rock ballad “Grovy Lane”. Wow!

An immediate favourite of mine on the album is “You Will Never Get It Back”, not least for the interaction between the guitars and Jim Hoke’s saxophone. “Not For Me” is a terrific and energetic rocker. All eleven songs on this very even album are strong and have been composed by Nicky and Max. There is some serious talent here, both when it comes to songwriting and musical performance. What a debut album!

The question that comes to mind when one is faced with such a strong debut album by a new act: where will Nightstage go from here?

Nicky Renard of Nightstage.

Nightstage’s debut album “Sunset Industry” is out now.

Album review: Blitzkrieg “Judge Not”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

True British metal veterans Blitzkrieg are still at it. Brian Ross still has his voice and they have another solid NWOBHM-style album for you.

One thing that hit me when I saw Blitzkrieg perform live in Japan in 2016 was that the band’s original frontman still had his voice intact. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Brian Ross has kept his pipes and stamina. That makes this so much better than many other veteran metal bands who either have an original singer who no longer can hit the notes or have have brought in a younger (and often out of place) replacement.

Brian Ross and Ken Johnson of Blitzkrieg on stage in Tokyo in 2016. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Having formed in 1980, Newcastle-based Blitzkrieg was part of the original NWOBHM movement in the 80s. Musically the band is still there. “Angels or Demons” is one of the standout tracks on the album. “Falling Into Darkness” is another immediate favourite. The vampire song “Forever is a Long Time” is a great tongue-in-cheek look at eternity and immortality. “All Hell is Breaking Loose” is a Satan versus God revenge story with a fine guitar solo to top it off. “Wide Legged and Headless” is a fast and great guitar song.

Lyric-wise we get a lot of angels, demons, darkness, fire, hell, loud, proud and so on. All as expected and according to plan. Brian Ross likes to label Blitzkrieg as “true British metal” and, yes, this is honest, to the point British metal without too much fuss. It’s straightforward metal and it works well.

On “Without You” Brian hands over the microphone to his son Allan Ross who is also the band’s guitarist. This song is different from the rest, not only because of a different voice but also in style. It doesn’t sound much like Blitzkrieg. Father and son Ross are joined in the current line-up of the band by long-time member Ken Johnson on guitar as well as two newer members, Matt Graham on drums and Huw Holding on bass. Huw also plays in another veteran metal band from the UK, Avenger. That is the same Avenger that Brian Ross co-founded in the early 80s.

Get yourself a helping of true British metal with Brian Ross and his northern lads.

Blitzkrieg’s album “Judge Not” will be released on 27th April via Mighty Music and distributed in Japan via Spiritual Beast.

Album review: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow “Memories in Rock II”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

A new live album by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow will no doubt make the purists and traditionalists upset, but for the rest of us this is a good revisit of Rainbow’s back catalogue as well as some Deep Purple goodies. Plus a brand new Rainbow song!

“Memories in Rock II” is a follow up to 2016’s “Memories in Rock”. The new album was recorded during Rainbow’s UK tour in June 2017.

When Ritchie Blackmore decided to return to rock and put together a new version of Rainbow, we all knew it would be controversial. Too many fans have too many opinions and the word “blasphemy” is always around the corner. Instead of bringing back some of his old band mates from Rainbow’s various line-ups in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Blackmore decided to create a completely new band with only himself left from previous versions of the band. If we disregard what Rainbow is supposed to be and who is supposed to be in the band and just focus on the music played by the current version of Rainbow, I must say that it is bloody good. New vocalist Ronnie Romero (Lords of Black) is not only a top lad (see my interview with him from last year here), he also has the pipes to do justice to Rainbow’s classic material.

We get treated to Rainbow classics such as “I Surrender”, “Spotlight Kid”, “Man on the Silver Mountain”, “All Night Long”, “Stargazer”, “Catch the Rainbow” and “Long Live Rock’n’Roll”. We also get a few Deep Purple classics as well, including “Mistreated”, “Burn”, “Child in Time”, “Perfect Strangers” and “Smoke on the Water”. The band seems to not only be on form, they’re also playful and many of the songs turn into mini jams.

In the current Rainbow, Blackmore and Romero are joined by Jens Johansson (Stratovarius, Cain’s Offering, Dio, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, Silver Mountain) on keyboards, David Keith (Blackmore’s Night) on drums and Bob Noveau (Mink DeVille, Blackmore’s Night) on bass plus background singers Candice Night (Blackmore’s Night) and Lady Lynn (and yes, she too is from Blackmore’s Night). With the bulk of the band having played together in their previous band, they gel and they get on with it.

Rainbow vocalist Ronnie Romero with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo in 2017.

Take this for what it is: a great musician revisiting his old hits with a new version of his band. Sure, Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet, Joe Lynn Turner, Doogie White, Roger Glover, Don Airey, Jimmy Bain, Cozy Powell, Bob Daisley, Bobby Rondinelli, etc. are not there, but Blackmore is playing rock again and he has a more than capable band to do justice to his back catalogue. And he has Ronnie Romero, what a find!

On this album (the triple CD version), in addition to the previously released studio tracks “Land of Hope and Glory” and a re-recording of “I Surrender”, we get one brand new studio track in the form of “Waiting for a Sign”. It is a great blues-based song where Ronnie Romero gets to shine in his own right as he’s not filling anyone’s shoes on this one. It’s a fab track that gives us hope that we may get more new Rainbow material in the near future.

Sit back and enjoy the past and present Rainbow on this collection. Ritchie Blackmore has still got it.

Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’s “Memories in Rock II” will be released in Japan in multiple CD and DVD formats on 4th April via Ward Records.

Album review: Riot V “Armor of Light”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The legend of American hard rockers Riot lives on with Riot V and a fab new hard rock album.

On the track “Angel’s Thunder, Devil’s Reign”, Todd Michael Hall sings “Heavy metal runs through my veins” and that sums this album up nicely. That’s what it is all about. On this album we get twelve hard rocking tracks (plus two bonus tracks on the Japanese edition). It is high-quality heavy metal delivered by a great band.

Riot V, who recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the classic Riot album “Thundersteel” with some very special gigs here in Japan, has included a brand new version of the “Thundersteel” song as one of two bonus tracks on the Japanese edition of the album (the other bonus track being “Unbelief”). At their recent Japan gigs the band performed two songs from this new album, the title track “Armor of Light” and “Messiah”. Placing new tracks next to old classics is one way to easily prove that Riot’s new material stands up very well – and even equals – the back catalogue. The new material is very strong and the musicianship matches it. Riot formed in New York City in 1975 and the current line-up of the band is built upon the two long-time members Don Van Stavern on bass and Mike Flyntz on guitar. They both originally joined Riot in the 80s. In Riot V they are joined by Todd Michael Hall on vocals, Nick Lee on guitar and Frank Gilchriest on drums.

Having witnessed their last two Japan tours, I knew they’re a great band, but the quality of the new material really exceeds my high expectations. 43 year into the band’s career they are still relevant and they have the best ahead of them. “San Antonio” is an immediate favourite with its fast guitars. It is one of many killer songs on a great album. Others include “Victory”, “Heart of a Lion” and “Burn the Daylight”. “Ready to Shine” is the only song I don’t particular like. It’s an alright song, just not a song I get too excited about, especially when it’s packaged next to some world-class metal. It feels a bit out of place. The rest of the album is rock solid.

Riot V’s album “Armor of Light” will be released in Japan on 25th April via Ward Records and internationally on 27th April via Nuclear Blast.

Album review: Cannibal Corpse “Red Before Black”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Cannibal Corpse has returned with a raw new album that is distinctly old-school American death metal.

Cannibal Corpse’s latest album “Red Before Black” is a return to form. With producer Erik Rutan (Belphegor, Morbid Angel, Goatwhore, Krisiun) back in the studio with the band, the result is a rather raw sound, which fits the music very well.

Having formed in Buffalo, New York in 1988, the band’s debut album “Eaten Back to Life” was released in 1990. The band, which relocated to Florida in the mid-90s, has gone through a few line-up changes over the years with bassist Alex Webster and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz the only remaining original members. However, the newer additions – George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher (vocals), Pat O’Brien (lead guitar) and Rob Barrett (rhythm guitar) – have all been in the band since the 1990s. Thus this is a solid line-up of the band that has produced another classy and thrashy death metal album.

With the new album they are bulldozing their way back to the front of the queue. “Red Before Black”, the band’s fourteenth studio album, is bursting with energy and comes at the listener with full force. The band’s early thrash metal influences shine through on many of the tracks. “Code of the Slashers” has a short but magnificent guitar solo. “Corpus Delicti” and “Scavenger Consuming Death” are fantastic extreme metal tracks. Brutal, heavy and in your face, these are among the best tracks on this album.

The special Japanese edition of the “Red Before Black” album comes with a bonus CD with terrific covers of songs by Accept, Metallica, Kreator, Sacrifice, Possessed, Razor and The Accused. Cannibal Corpse’s death metal-version of Accept’s “Demon’s Night” is splendid. Metallica’s “No Remorse” is also cannibalised and turned into something very different and interesting.

The Japanese edition of Cannibal Corpse’s “Red Before Black” will be released on 18th April via Ward Records.

Gig review: An evening with Marty Friedman and his guitars

Marty Friedman on stage in Harajuku. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

A special evening with Marty Friedman billed as “passionate guitar” turns out exactly like that: A musician, his guitars and plenty of passion.

Marty Friedman at La Donna, Harajuku, Tokyo, 23rd March 2018

Soon after guitarist Marty Friedman left Megadeth he relocated from his native USA and made Tokyo, Japan his home some 15 years ago. He is still here and he keeps doing a lot of interesting work across many different genres, some of it primarily focused on the domestic Japanese market. Not least because of his many TV appearances, Marty is a now a household name in Japan. Last year he released “Wall of Sound” (Ward Records), a terrific genre-bending solo album where he experimented with many different styles. A few weeks ago, an album called “B: The Beginning – The Image Album” was released. Marty produced the album, wrote all the music and played all guitar parts. He is about to embark on a tour of South America and Mexico and as a warm-up he put on a very special show at a small restaurant in Tokyo for a seated audience where everyone is within a few metres of Marty and his band. What a treat! He does all his talking during the show in Japanese. This is his adopted hometown and here he has a loyal following of fans open to whatever genres Marty decides to play.

Marty obviously has a solid background as a metal guitarist with first Cacophony and then a decade in Megadeth. But nowadays he never lets musical genres limit the music he creates. “I don’t really have any kind of genre that I’m shooting to make sure I fit into,” Marty said in an interview with Roppongi Rocks last summer. This evening he does everything from his more orchestral songs to his recent material. He is in fine form and in a great mood. The fact that “B: The Beginning” is topping several Japanese charts has most likely given him a well-deserved boost.

Marty Friedman and Kiyoshi on stage in Harajuku. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Marty has with him a fantastic Japanese band where the standout musician for me is the fierce bassist Kiyoshi. Just like her bandleader, Kiyoshi is an artist who transcends genres and is equally at home with metal mayhem as she is with J-pop. They do it all this evening, and, yes, they occasionally thrash it out with some serious shredding. Very pleasing for a Megadeth man like myself. In addition to his backing band, at this gig Marty is joined by a string section consisting of a cellist and a violinist. While the evening is mainly instrumental, Japan-based American vocalist Jon Underdown joins Marty on stage to sing two songs with the band, including the terrific “The Perfect World” from the “B: The Beginning” album. The evening’s highlight for me is “Whiteworm” from the “Wall of Sound” album. Marty is on fire here and Kiyoshi offers us some insane slap bass. Another standout moment is a fab version of “Yuki no Hana”, a cover of Mika Nakashima that Marty recorded for the 2009 album “Tokyo Jukebox”. During the encore we even get to hear Marty sing as the band starts jamming around with “Hound Dog”. We also get “Amazing Grace” in a twisted and great Marty version.

What a great evening for music lovers. Up close and personal with a master musician and his terrific band. I really enjoy seeing great musicians and artists who are not afraid to go outside their musical roots and disregard expectations. Marty Friedman is a master at that.

Album review: Monster Magnet “Mindfucker”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

American stoner rock giants Monster Magnet are back with the great new studio album “Mindfucker”.

A big part of what attracts me to Monster Magnet’s music, apart from the undeniable groove, is Dave Wyndorf‘s voice. His characteristic voice is full of pain, truth, wisdom and attitude and it is central to the Monster Magnet sound. His lyrics are also key to bringing this whole package together. On this album, the lyrical theme is based around how fucked up the world has become. “I can’t go my whole life without calling one record ‘Mindfucker’. I’d be shirking my responsibility as a rocker!” says Wyndorf in a press release and continues: “Plus, the way things are going these days, stupid is the new smart. Yeah, things are that fucked up.”

The new album “Mindfucker” is a return to form for the band. This is classic American stoner rock. The title track is a terrific song that will become a new live favourite. It’s simply Monster Magnet at its best. “Rocket Freak” is a straightforward rock’n’roll song with plenty of groove and great guitar parts. In “Drowning” we get a scaled down Monster Magnet where Wyndorf’s voice and storytelling is in focus for the most part of the song. But as the song progresses it builds up to a stoner crescendo of fabulous chaos. Then the song goes back and forth between full-on riff-heavy stoner rock and scaled down storytelling. “Ejection” is an almost Ramones-style rock track reminding us of Wyndorf’s punk background prior to founding Monster Magnet in New Jersey in 1989. “Brainwashed” is a fab track which brilliantly combines the band’s standard stoner rock with some Iggy Pop-like influences. “When the Hammer Comes Down” is a massive song which rocks back and forth. Wyndorf leads from the front and in the current line-up of the band he is joined by Garrett Sweeny and Phil Caivano on guitars, Chris Kosnik on bass and Bob Pantella on drums.

Throughout the album, Monster Magnet gives us fab stoner rock where they manage to combine 70s hard rock as well as psych rock and space rock (the influence of Hawkwind is still quite obvious) with punk rock influences. The result is Monster Magnet and it is terrific high-energy rock with attitude. Welcome back, Monster Magnet!

Monster Magnet’s album “Mindfucker” is out now via Napalm Records.

Album review: Besvärjelsen “Vallmo”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The combination of smoke-filled basement rock clubs of yesteryear and the foggy valleys of Nordic folklore have given us yet more terrific melancholic haze rock as Besvärjelsen releases its debut full-length album “Vallmo”.

Besvärjelsen, a band that describes itself as a “Swedish psychedelic stoner rock collective”, formed in 2014 and has already released two EPs. Now they’re back with “Vallmo”, the band’s splendid debut full-length album. On this album Besvärjelsen indeed gives us psychedelic stoner rock mixed with progressive rock and doom metal. Here and there we also get some obvious influences from Nordic folk music underneath the smoke which help to set this apart from many of the more American-influenced stoner bands. The result is great.

The band performs in their native Swedish as well as in English. The songs take us on walks through the fields and valleys of an exciting Swedish psychedelic soundscape. One of the band’s obvious strengths is the terrific songwriting. While we do get some proper doom and heaviness in this music, the musical foundation is built on fantastic melodies.

“Return To No Return” is excellent doom rock. “Under En Svart Himmel” is my favourite track on the album. It has a dreamy and doomy kind of atmosphere, like someone waking up with a hangover from hell but somehow manages to cope as a few sun rays shine through the drawn curtains. “I Skuggan Av Ditt Mörker” is another smashing track with terrific doom riffs and hypnotic vocals. At times it sounds as if I am listening to this on a tape recorder running out of batteries. But the energy in the music always kicks in again. The quality of the eight tracks on the album is very even and the band manages to cram in quite a few influences and styles here while remaining true to their established sound. It somehow manages to create a sound that is as much a smoke-filled basement rock club in Stockholm as it is foggy valleys in the Swedish mountains.

Sweden keeps producing fantastic haze rock. Besvärjelsen is at the top layer of the heap. Great album. I can only imagine how good this might be live.

Besvärjelsen’s album “Vallmo” will be out on 27th March via Suicide Records.