Album review: Unleash The Archers “Abyss”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

On “Abyss”, its new studio album, Canada’s Unleash The Archers shows us some new sides to its creativity. There are more keyboards and some pop, but the fierce metal riffs are still there and so is the fabulous voice of Brittney Slayes.

Songs like “Abyss”, “Return to Me” and “Soulbound” are classic Unleash The Archers but with more keyboards. They’re fast, powerful, riff happy and melodic songs. “Faster Than Light” is, yes, fast. Very fast. It is power metal played like speed metal. Love it. “Afterlife” is classic Unleash-style power metal but with some cool Nightwish touches to it as well. “The Wind That Shapes the Land” is a terrific combo of classic Unleash with some more contemporary influences. “Legacy” is another refreshing track that is a melting pot of various styles and influences. I really like how the band can walk deep into new territory without getting lost, whether it is a dark and dense Finnish forest or a sunny Californian pop beach. The Japanese edition bonus track “Sunglasses at Night” (a Corey Hart cover) is my favourite track on the album. It takes the band into pop music mixed with guitar riffs and Brittney Slayes’ voice. The result is terrific. This metal band is not afraid of making use of whatever musical influences they happen to discover. It is impossible to describe Unleash The Archers without zooming in on what sets them apart from most other bands: that voice with a four-octave range. Brittney Slayes has a voice that is beyond sensational. She has the power, the range, the skill, the knowledge and the attitude. She was born with a world-class voice, but she also has the skill to know how to use it in different situations. When Unleash The Archers played Japan for the first time in 2015, I was floored by that voice. But this band is not all about that fantastic voice. They also have a tight rhythm section and terrific guitars as well as some of the best songwriting to come out of Canada since Neil Young was still living in Canada.

Unleash The Archers’ new album “Abyss” will be released on 21st August via Ward Records in Japan and Napalm Records internationally.

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Album review: Primal Fear “Metal Commando”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Primal Fear’s new studio album “Metal Commando” shows us that this band is a German stallion and not a one-trick power metal pony.

On its new studio album, Primal Fear, formed in 1997 by bassist Mat Sinner and vocalist Ralf Scheepers (ex-Gamma Ray), has matured. The album shows us that this band is far from a one-trick power metal pony. No, this is a German stallion! “Metal Commando”, the band’s 13th studio album, is a rather varied album with a number of different styles. Primal Fear is obviously a very competent band and how successful they are at playing the different styles comes down to taste. How do you like your metal served? “Along Came the Devil” is classic heavy metal of the Judas Priest kind, “Raise Your Fist” sounds like it could fit on an Accept album, while “Halo” is a fast number combining heavy metal verses with a more melodic power metal-style chorus. The contemporary-sounding “Hear Me Calling” is one of the strongest tracks on the album. It has great melody and a very catchy singalong chorus. There are also great guitars on it. Terrific stuff! It’s Primal Fear at its powerful and melodic best. “My Name is Fear” is straight-up, world-class power metal. “I Will Be Gone” is a full-on power ballad with acoustic guitars and the powerful voice of Ralf Scheepers. The closing track “Infinity” kicks off slowly and innocently before adding some serious speed, energy and attitude. The track measures more than 13 minutes and thus have plenty of time to make a number of different twists and turns, including a terrific instrumental part in the middle of the song. I welcome the variations on the album. Primal Fear has been around for a long time and hearing some new things in the mix makes it more interesting and keeps it fresh.

Primal Fear’s new album “Metal Commando” will be released on 24th July in Japan via Ward Records and internationally via Nuclear Blast.

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Album review: Ensiferum “Thalassic”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Finnish folk metal band Ensiferum returns with its eighth full-length studio album, “Thalassic”.

Finland remains a major force in global heavy metal. It has great bands playing many different kinds of metal sub-genres, but perhaps it is the world number one in folk metal. Ensiferum, formed in 1995, is no doubt one of Finland’s best folk metal bands. There have been numerous line-up changes over the years, but founding guitarist Markus Toivonen still leads the band. The band’s Nordic roots are obvious throughout everything it does: in the lyrics, visuals, choice of instruments and attitude. These are a bunch of proud Finns who don’t try to fit in or deliver what is considered to be cool. They just get on with playing the music they want to play. Their music has more variations and fewer self-imposed parameters for the music to fit into than some of their fellow Finnish folk metal bands. Ensiferum is certainly best described as folk metal. It is catchy, melodic, energetic and with some great brutality in places. At times this is power metal mixed with melodic death metal and great folk music touches to bind it all together in its Finnish glory. A song like “Andromeda” shows this beautifully and so does “Run from the Crushing Tide”, my favourite track on the album. But we also get almost straight-up folk music on songs like the fabulous “Merille Lahteva”. The album also features a magnificent cover of “I’ll Stay by Your Side”, originally done by 60s Danish pop band The Lollipops. But no matter what genre certain songs fit into, Ensiferum’s music on this album is simply terrific. The Japanese edition contains a terrific raw demo version of the single “Rum, Women, Victory” as a bonus track.

Ensiferum’s new album “Thalassic” is out now via Metal Blade Records internationally. The Japanese edition will be released on 24th July via Ward Records.

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Interview: At home with Brad Gillis | A chat about Ozzy, Night Ranger and Japanese live albums

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

While stuck at home in the US, Brad Gillis, co-founder and guitarist of Night Ranger, checked in with Roppongi Rocks to talk about his time in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, the importance of MTV back in the day, recording live albums in Japan and what’s coming up for Night Ranger.

You and Jack Blades started playing together in 1978. How do you keep the creative hunger and personal chemistry going with a musical partner for that many years? “When Jack and I got together in the band Rubicon, we hit it off from the start. It was a great short run releasing two records and performing March 18th 1978 at The Cal Jam 2, playing in front of 300,000+ people. It was the highlight of my career! Forming Night Ranger around 1980, we created our sound and had an illustrious touring schedule throughout the 80s. Keeping everyone in check and being good friends led to a healthy creative career. We’re still going strong and starting a new Night Ranger record soon with ideas still flowing.”

In the early days of Night Ranger, how important was MTV in breaking the band and the support you got by having your music videos played on the channel? “MTV was such a great avenue for Night Ranger. We had just finished a video for ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me’ and hoped the new MTV channel would embrace us. With a 24/7 on air format, MTV didn’t have enough video content to fill all day, so they played our video 25 times a day! It was great for us as it plastered our faces all over MTV and people would recognise us when touring the world. Too bad MTV has changed but we still do videos every record release and send through all social media outlets.”

Night Ranger has released several live albums recorded in Japan. What is it about Japan and Japanese fans that make Night Ranger and many other bands record live albums here? “We have made Japan a regular stopping point when releasing a new record. The fans have embraced us and all shows have been sold out. We’ve noticed the fans still love classic rock. After us listening to Cheap Trick’s ‘Live at Budokan’, we always envisioned recording a live show in Japan. I think we’ve done three or four live recordings in Japan, all with good success. We’ve played over 50 shows in Japan and can’t wait to head back over soon.”

In 1982, you did the “Diary of a Madman” tour as guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne’s band. It was an emotional time with Randy Rhoads’ sudden death, the coming and going of Bernie Tormé and Ozzy drinking heavily at the time. What are your memories from that tour? “I have so many great memories touring with Ozzy and some not-so-good times. It was a tough situation for me dealing with the band’s emotions of losing the great Randy Rhoads and the tough fans I had to win over. I remember messing up on one song the first show. Sharon reminded me the second show saying ‘Bradley, you’re doing a great job but tonight. DON’T SCREW UP!’ After two weeks on the road, we performed a live broadcast in Memphis, Tennessee that was aired throughout the country. This was a turning point in my touring with Ozzy. I played well that night and the fans started to embrace me till the end of my tour.”

Your only album with Ozzy was “Speak of the Devil”, a double live album recorded in New York City in September 1982 and consisting of only Black Sabbath songs. It became a cult classic and a big fan favorite, but the circumstances of how the album came about were far from ideal. What are your memories from that recording? ”I remember Ozzy had to complete one more album for the record company and he decided to do a live record. The band went to New York to rehearse older Black Sabbath hits for our two night stint at The Ritz. We spent five days and after did our shows. It was very tough as there were no band overdubs on ‘Speak of the Devil’ and we had just learned the material. Luckily they had two nights at The Ritz to pick out the best performance. I remember coming up with a great stereo guitar sound for those gigs. I still get great compliments on ‘Speak of the Devil’ and still sign those albums at Night Ranger meet-and-greets.”

As a musician do you play differently in different situations: as a solo artist, as a Night Ranger band member or when you’ve been part of backing bands for other artists? “I approach my solos the same way with any artist. I was lucky enough to install one of the original Floyd Rose tremolos back in the late 1970s. I started to define my style back then. Many hours at home practicing different ideas using the Floyd led me to record different sounds that can be heard on ‘Don’t Tell Me You love Me’. I remember banging on my guitar one day and getting this cricket, warble sound. Also, I started bring harmonic notes up to a crazy vibrato wiggle. With so many great guitar players in the world, I wanted people to recognise my style from one listen.”

What do you remember from the charity project Hear n’ Aid in the mid-80s? How was it possible to get things done without fistfights with so many rock stars coming together on one song, “Stars”? “Everyone got along great at that gig. It was so much fun for me to be part of a great charity and hanging out with all the fantastic musicians. Ronnie James Dio kept it all together and we all had a blast. Another thought was how to stand out on my solo, so I implemented my whammy harmonics on my solo. The big gang sing along for the chorus ‘We’re Stars’ brought me chills. Everyone embraced the whole session with class.”

What are your thoughts on the future of live music now that most gigs and tours have been halted and seriously impacted musicians’ livelihoods? “This has been a tough situation for Night Ranger and all live performers. We were going to have our best year since the 80s with 100 shows booked with a 40-show run with Sammy Hagar, Whitesnake and Night Ranger. I see no real future of getting back to normal until a cure is made. With a home studio, I’ve been staying busy writing TV music for placement and finishing my solo record. I’ve created a music site called www.musicalmansion.com where companies can hear all my different styles. Things are slow but I see the future picking up soon.”

You have some serious pedigree in the rock music business. But you have also done other work, such as music for TV shows and computer games. Is it all good fun or do you prefer playing live music? “Of course I miss performing live but to still be a part of music creation drives me through the days. I’m one of the lucky ones to be able to work from home. I hooked up with ESPN back in 2000 and that started my music placement career. I’ve placed over 400 tracks in 20 years. I’ve always done music for a living and now I’ve created a few music-related TV shows that are getting interest. When things finally open up, I’ll have a treasure trove of content for the masses.”

What’s next for Night Ranger? “We’re starting to pass around new material for our new record on the Frontiers label. Everyone has their own home studios so it’s easy to pass around new songs. Of course, we’d all love to get together in one room to write new material but the situation does not allow this for safety reasons. Hopefully, we’ll have a new record released early 2021 and we can head back to Japan!”

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Album review: U.D.O. and the Musikkorps der Bundeswehr “We Are One”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

German metal vocalist Udo Dirkschneider takes the collaboration between his band U.D.O. and the German armed forces concert band to a new and unexpected level.

Vocalist Udo Dirkschneider is one of the most recognisable voices in heavy metal. Following a great career fronting Accept, Dirkschneider formed his own band, U.D.O. in 1987 and has soldiered on ever since (including a few reunion stints with Accept). “We Are One” is U.D.O.’s seventeenth studio album and it takes the band into new territory.

The new album is a collaboration with the Musikkorps der Bundeswehr which is the official concert band of Germany’s armed forces. Accept fans will be delighted to find that Udo has brought in former Accept band members Stefan Kaufmann and Peter Baltes to help with the songwriting. The result? It’s different and very good. The collaboration has taken Udo into some kind of fantasy symphonic metal soundscape. A bit like Avantasia and Nightwish mixed with classic Udo Dirkschneider and some Broadway musical touches thrown into the mix. It is rather refreshing hearing Udo doing something different from what we’re used to. His characteristic voice is intact, but here it gets used somewhat differently and some of the music takes him in a new direction. It’s different, it’s good and I like it. It is also great to hear the combination of, and contrasts between, Udo’s voice and the other voices that appear on the album, not least the magnificent choirs. What is different about this album from many other collaborations between rock acts and orchestras is that this is an album consisting of new material, not old hits. It’s a brave move and it pays off. If you like Udo Dirkschneider and have an open mind, chances are that you’ll enjoy this album. It’s a bit of a political concept album, focused on the many threats the world faces today, such as climate change, pollution and the refugee situation. There is even a song, “Rebel Town”, that is a celebration of three decades of German reunification. The album opens very strongly with the epic track “Pandemonium” and it’s a rollercoaster of great music from there until the album ends with “Beyond Good and Evil”. “Love and Sin” is a powerful and terrific symphonic metal track, while “Children of the World” is a whirlwind of a song that would not be out of place in a Broadway musical and “We Strike Back” sounds like classic Accept-style heavy metal. As you can tell, it’s a very varied album and it will surprise some fans.

U.D.O. and the Musikkorps der Bundeswehr’s album “We Are One” will be released on 17th July via AFM Records.

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Album review: Destruction “Born to Thrash – Live in Germany”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

German thrash metal band Destruction shows us that they are still a terrific live act on its new live album.

German band Destruction plays my kind of heavy metal. They don’t pretend, they don’t try to fit in, they are just Destruction. Fast and furious thrash metal, that is what Destruction has always been about. No compromises. Original guitarist Mike Sifringer and bassist/vocalist Schmier, who together co-founded the band in 1982, are still going strong with Destruction. The band got renewed energy when hard-hitting Canadian drummer Randy Black (ex-Primal Fear, Annihilator, W.A.S.P.) joined the band a couple of years ago. They subsequently expanded the line-up with a second guitarist, Swiss musician Damir Eskic. The two new members have been a serious vitamin injection for the band. The fresh blood has served this veteran act very well. They have retained their old-school thrash roots but sound heavier and better than ever before. This splendid live release, “Born to Thrash – Live in Germany”, was recorded in front of the band’s home fans at the Party.San Metal Open Air festival in Germany in 2019. The album contains many of the most loved songs from Destruction’s vast back catalogue, including “Born to Perish”, “Nailed to the Cross”, “Mad Butcher”, “Thrash Till Death” and “The Butcher Strikes Back”. The production of the album is quite raw and just the way I like it. It gives us Destruction the way they sound in concert, not a polished version of the band, but the real thing. Thrash metal the way it is meant to be played.

Destruction’s “Born to Thrash – Live in Germany” live album will be released in Japan via Ward Records on 17th July and internationally via Nuclear Blast.

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Album review: Dee Snider “For the Love of Metal – Live!”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Twisted Sister may have called it quits in 2016, but its frontman Dee Snider keeps delivering both in the studio and live.

Former Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider released a very good solo album, “For the Love of Metal”, two years ago and has been touring in support of that album throughout 2018 and 2019. A live album capturing some of those songs live in addition to favourites from Dee’s back catalogue makes a lot of sense, especially in 2020 when there are very few shows and the hunger for live music is great.

Just before a great and raw version of “Tomorrow’s No Concern” kicks off, Dee screams “For the love of metal, I am Dee Fuckin’ Snider!” That’s it. That is what this is all about. An in-your-face Dee Snider bursting with energy and here to entertain us. The album features material recorded live at several shows, including Dee’s show at British rock festival Bloodstock in August 2019. Unsurprisingly, we get treated to Twisted Sister favourites “You Can’t Stop Rock’n’Roll”, “The Beast”, “Under the Blade”, “The Kids Are Back”, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, “Burn in Hell” and “I Wanna Rock”. There’s also an AC/DC cover in the form of “Highway to Hell” and a terrific new studio track called “Prove Me Wrong”. The new song is trademark Dee Snider: loud, cheeky, unapologetic and full of energy and attitude. Most of Dee’s recent solo material is quite strong and on this album we get great live versions of songs like “American Made”, “I Am the Hurricane”, “Become the Storm” and “For the Love of Metal”. If you like Dee Snider and Twisted Sister, you’ll love this live album. The production is quite raw with seemingly limited post-recording touch-ups or overdubs. It makes the album sound more natural and better.

Dee Snider’s new live album “For the Love of Metal – Live!” will be released in Japan on 31st July via Ward Records and internationally via Napalm Records. The live release will also be available in expanded DVD and Blu-ray formats.

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Album review: The Lightbringer of Sweden “Rise of the Beast”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Metal band The Lightbringer of Sweden teams up with German vocalist Herbie Langhans, of Avantasia and Firewind fame, to create a fab 1980s metal-influenced album. A very pleasant and unexpected surprise.

What a pleasant and unexpected surprise this was! The Lightbringer of Sweden, a new band from my old Swedish hometown, teams up with German vocalist Herbie Langhans (Avantasia, Firewind) and together they proceed to deliver a fabulous metal album. Guitarist and songwriter Lars Eng started work on The Lightbringer of Sweden project on his own in 2017. He eventually got a complete line-up of solid Swedish musicians, including drummer Tobbe Jonsson (whom I shared a rehearsal space with in our hometown back in the 1980s). Some of you will now Jonsson from his many years with melodic rockers Angeline. Having originally lined-up Niklas Stålvind from Wolf as singer, Eng had to look for an alternative when Stålvind became too busy with Wolf. And what a replacement he found! German vocalist Herbie Langhans has the pipes to deliver and he has the experience of recording and touring the world with different acts. The album contains a great blend of traditional heavy metal with some serious power metal influences. This is 80s-sounding metal at its best, melodic yet riff-happy. But the Swedish band manages to deliver this without sounding dated. It sounds here and now, a contemporary sound built on a rock-solid foundation of 1980s metal. “The Beast Inside of Me” and “Heaven Has Fallen” are the obligatory power ballads on the album. They work very well, although personally I care more for faster and heavier tracks such as “Fallen Angels”, “Skeletor” and “Into the Night”. The straightforward metal track “Lightbringer” is perhaps my favourite track on the album as it manages to sound like a terrific melting pot of equal parts Helloween and Accept. “Shadows of the Night” is another standout track which sounds a bit like Avantasia.

The Lightbringer of Sweden’s album “Rise of the Beast” will be released on 15th July.

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Album review: Deep Purple “Whoosh!”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The seasoned gentlemen in Deep Purple are still at it. Their new Bob Ezrin-produced album “Whoosh!” is a solid album of grown-up bluesy rock but with some nuanced twists and turns.

Deep Purple is back and about to release its 21st full-length studio album. “Whoosh!” is solid, bluesy grown-up rock performed by the elder statesmen of hard rock. Sure, the album doesn’t necessarily have an equivalent to “Child in Time”, “Highway Star” or “Burn”, but it is a great album from a seasoned band that has consistently delivered since 1968. From the band’s classic line-up, vocalist Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice are still in the band. What stands out for me on this Bob Ezrin-produced album, apart from Ian Gillan’s still great voice, is that guitarist Steve Morse and keyboardist Don Airey (who joined in 1994 and 2001 respectively) have managed to replace Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore. Well, obviously, they can’t be replaced, but Airey and Morse manage to fill the gaps and add their own ingredients to what Purple is today. They do it very, very well. Despite being the “new boys” in the band they are allowed to shine throughout the songs on this album.

The album builds on the band’s 20 earlier studio albums but it also brings the listener a bit further into new areas for the band. “We’re All the Same in the Dark” has the classic 70s Purple hard rock sound while “Nothing at All” sounds almost like something Mott the Hoople could’ve done. “Step by Step” is splendid and a bit different with its edginess. “Man Alive” is an exquisite track where it sounds as if Bob Ezrin has been able to get something new out of Purple. “The Power of the Moon” is a track that manages to create something rather interesting by combining trademark Purple with contemporary influences. There are plenty of obvious, and some less obvious, nuances to Purple’s new music. Bringing the band to Nashville to write and record the new album seems to have paid off in a good way. Overall, despite the band walking into some for them unusual musical neighbourhoods, Deep Purple plays it fairly safe on this album. That is OK for a 52-year-old band that is now nearing the end of its journey. But the Purple boys still have a playfulness about them and they have a very solid foundation to their songs and performance skills. The catchy “Dancing in My Sleep” manages to sound like a big band blues rocker mixed with some 1980s pop vibes to finally arrive at a contemporary-sounding track. It’s one of the 13-track album’s best songs. Nashville and Bob Ezrin have been good for today’s Deep Purple.

Deep Purple’s album “Whoosh!” will be released on 7th August via Ward Records in Japan and earMusic internationally.

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Album review: Alcatrazz “Born Innocent”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

Graham Bonnet, Jimmy Waldo and Gary Shea have reunited in a fab new line-up of Alcatrazz. “Born Innocent”, the band’s first studio album since 1986, is a rather exquisite album of melodic hard rock.

Alcatrazz was always a band whose sound was built on the combination of the characteristic voice of former Rainbow and MSG vocalist Graham Bonnet with phenomenal guitars and terrific melodic rock songs with plenty of keyboards. In 2017, Bonnet, keyboardist Jimmy Waldo and bassist Gary Shea from the original Alcatrazz line-up reunited for some fantastic shows in Japan (read our gig review here). They seemed to have a lot of fun together up on stage. Behind the drums since then is Mark Benquechea and on the lead guitar (a role previously held by both Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai) we find Joe Stump, who handles the pressure well and manages to outperform the high expectations. The new Alcatrazz album is rather exquisite. If you dug Alcatrazz back in the 80s, you’ll love this.

The “Born Innocent” album opens strongly with the title track and it just continues from there. Alcatrazz has a rock-solid rhythm section upon which Jimmy Waldo’s keyboards take us for a swirl on the dance floor together with Joe Stump’s phenomenal neoclassical guitar playing. It is all topped off with Graham Bonnet’s one-of-a-kind voice. “Polar Bear” is an immediate favourite. It has a rushed nature as if the musicians are in a hurry to reach the end of it. Perhaps it’s Joe Stump’s fault. The speed quirk makes it a very interesting song and it’s one that no doubt can be a great live song with all that energy and playfulness. “We Still Remember”, with its twists and turns, is something of a fantasyland song. Love it, especially the generous use of keyboards. “London 1666” has some terrific heavy metal guitar riffs on it which enhances the dramatic storyline. “Reality” and “Darkness Awaits” (a smoking instrumental track showcasing Stump’s talent) are two terrific Japanese bonus tracks. No doubt, there will be fans very eager to buy the Japan edition just for these tracks. They should. The 15-track album features a number of notable guests, including the late Bob Kulick, Steve Mann, Chris Impellitteri and Don Van Stavern. Former Alcatrazz guitarist Steve Vai is not playing on the album but he has contributed to the songwriting with the bouncy track “Dirty Like the City”. Overall, “Born Innocent” is a splendid album by a great line-up of Alcatrazz. Wow!

Graham Bonnet on stage in Tokyo with Alcatrazz in 2019. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The Japanese edition of Alcatrazz’s new album “Born Innocent” will be released on 31st July via Ward Records. The international edition will be released on the same day via Silver Lining Music.

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