Loudness

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I was recently asked to contribute to a book known as The Dig showcasing Japanese metal. I was initially approached by veteran journalist Takashi Kanazawa for an interview offering up one person’s western world view on Japanese bands, but he decided to take it up a level and asked me to compose an actual article. Published exclusively in Japan by Shinko Music, the issue came out at the end of June. The original English text is below.

Die-hard Japanese metal fans may be put off by the fact that I only mention some of the most popular / best known bands. Note that if I’d been given the space the story would have been a lot longer, and I would have paid worthy attention to many of the Japanese bands that fly below international radar a lot of the time. Fact is that Loudness, Anthem, EZO and X Japan were the building blocks for my interest in the Japanese metal scene; this is a story about that.

I am by no means an authority on Japanese metal, so take this as one fan’s tribute to that scene.

By Carl Begai

My love affair with Japanese heavy metal began as it did for the vast majority of western world metalheads: Loudness.

It was 1986, and during an episode of the weekly Power Hour on MuchMusic (Canada’s answer to MTV) the band’s video for their new song ‘Let It Go’ was aired for the first time. I was immediately enthralled. Everything about the song was magic – the guitar riff, the vocals, the melodies, the solos – and I wanted more. The next day I bought the cassette version of the Lightning Strikes album from Sam The Record Man in downtown Toronto and, during the drive home, I was introduced to a band that captivates me to this day.

loudness

Hell, it was because of ‘Let It Go’ that I decided I wanted to learn how to play guitar. After over 25 years of practice I can almost play the whole song. Almost.

It was the purchase of Loudness’ Disillusion album several weeks later, however, that made me a Japanese metal addict for life. I found the vinyl LP at the Record Peddler import store, unaware the band’s label Music For Nations had pressed Japanese and English language versions of the record. I didn’t realize until I put it on at home that I’d picked up the Japanese version. It was the strangest and most amazing thing I’d ever heard. As a Canadian I come from one of the most culturally enriched countries in the world, yet the exposure I’d had to Japanese at that point in my life never prepared me for the metal blasting out of my stereo. Everything about it was unique to my ears, and so damn heavy. Even the ballad. I was amazed, and I must have played it 100 times in the first month.

From the moment I dropped the needle on the record I was hooked, and the hunt began… Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Niihara1“Back in 1999, I thought I didn’t have any demand as a singer and I seriously considered retiring. It was the guys from XYZ-A who saved me. If it wasn’t for XYZ-A, the current lineup of Loudness would not exist.”

It’s an unexpected admission from vocalist Minoru Niihara, who is best known as the vocalist for the legendary Loudness the world over, but perhaps not that surprising looking back on his career. As the voice of the very first Japanese metal band to make a serious international impact in the early ’80s, Niihara was living the dream, only to have it snuffed out when he was invited to leave the band in 1988 in the interest of cornering the Western market with an American singer (Obsession’s Michael Vescera). Stints as a solo artist (1989) and with Ded Chaplin and SLY through the ’90s followed and were only moderately sucessful. It wasn’t until he hooked up with XYZ-A for their 1999 debut, Asian Typhoon, that things took a turn for the better. The album was a smoker, putting Niihara back on the map and rejuvenating his career. Two years later he reunited with the original Loudness line-up, reclaiming his original post which he owns to this day. Rather than sacrifice one band for the other, however, Niihara has been going strong with both Loudness and XYZ-A ever since.

Unlike Loudness, XYZ-A has never achieved the same level of success, but Niihara is far from discouraged. Settling in to discuss the band’s new record, Seventh Heaven, he knows XYZ-A has hit the sweet spot with their fans following its oddly named but highly praised predecessor, Learn From Yesterday! Live For Today! Hope For Tomorrow!. A pleasant surprise, particularly since the two albums prior to it (IV and Wings) were rather dull and uninspired in comparison.

“When YTT was released, it was recognized by our fans as the best album of our career,” says Niihara. “Every process including songwriting, arrangement, performing, recording worked successfully. I strongly feel that we as a band have gotten so much experience throughout years and it finally paid off.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Vescera 1Word began circulating recently that Obsession / ex-Loudness vocalist Michael Vescera – who fronted the band in the late ’80s for two studio albums – will be performing with Loudness as a guest vocalist on April 14th at the Live N’ Louder Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I caught up with Vescera to discuss the planned show, which is going to be a one-off performance with him up front.

“I’m actually singing the whole set with Loudness,” says Vescera. “I was contacted by the US representation a few weeks ago, they asked if I would be interested in doing this festival with Loudness. We all felt that this would be awesome to make happen, so it’s all been put together. It will be great to play with the guys again, I’m sure it’ll be killer. As far as set list, we’re not sure as of yet. We’re discussing this and should know soon.”

As for original Loudness vocalist Minoru Niihara and his status in Loudness, “he’s still in the band and still the vocalist for Loudness,” says Vescera. “I haven’t heard anything to the contrary.”

A day later I spoke with Niihara about the Loudness situation and he filled in the blanks:

“First of all, I am still Loudness’ vocalist and actually I am working on the new album now,” says Niihara. “When Loudness was offered the South America rock festival show a few weeks ago, my side project X.Y.Z.→A’s Japan tour had been booked already on the same week and the same day, so I won’t be able to go to South America. MinoruAkira2_2Akira (Takasaki/guitars) wanted to play in South America so badly and he asked me, ‘You can’t go there because of your schedule; can we have a special guest for that show?’ and I said ‘It is just my schedule-wise thing happening and I’m sorry about that, so please don’t hesitate having a someone for the show, I understand it.’ However, I didn’t know until you told me now that Mike would sing for me, though (laughs).”

“Who can sing for me but Mike?” Niihara adds. “I think he’s the right choice in such a situation. I believe Loudness and Mike will kick some ass in South America show. I’d love to go to sing in South America some day, in the near future.”

Up to this point Vescera has been busy with Animetal USA and enjoying the success of Obsession’s new album, Order Of Chaos, which has struck a chord the world over much the same way the band’s early albums did.

“On the Obsession front, we have a few shows booked for late April,” he reveals. “Still speaking with promoters for Europe, Japan, and the rest of the world. Hopefully some things will surface soon with that. We just finished re-mixing Carnival Of Lies for the re-release with Inner Wound; it sounds awesome and we’re real excited to have a proper release with this. The back catalogue is almost finished as well. Everything has been re-mastered, there will some cool unreleased stuff, never released photos and some video clips.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

During a recent discussion with former Loudness / Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Michael Vescera about the new and long overdue Obsession album, Order Of Chaos, he took the time to update me on the project that’s become his top priority, Animetal USA.

“With Animetal USA, I don’t even have time to think,” says Vescera, owing the band’s rigorous studio and promotional schedules as one of the reasons for the hold-up on the Obsession front. “It’s non-stop work. And the Animetal thing is time consuming because it’s not just singing and writing. I have to go back and forth with the publishers to get clearance on the lyrics, I sing it but they need certain words of phrases in Japanese, it’s pretty intense and a lot of work. But I like it like that. I’d rather be busy doing a million things rather than just sitting around at home.”

Almost a year ago, Vescera gave me an in-depth rundown of how the Animetal USA machine works (check out the interview here). For the uninitiated, he and his bandmates – Impellitteri guitarist Chris Impellitteri, ex-Whitesnake / ex-Ozzy Osbourne bassist Rudy Sarzo, and ex-Slayer drummer Jon Dette, who Judas Priest’s Scott Travis – have taken up the mantle worn by Japan’s original Animetal project, which features classic anime theme songs dating back to the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and turning them into metal anthems.

Anime is a big part of Japanese culture, making the success of the original Animetal during their 10 year run from 1996 to 2006 – releasing 11 singles and an assortment of albums, collections and live records – a no-brainer. Animetal USA’s success was guaranteed in Japan, especially considering the individual members’ histories, but Vescera admits everyone was still surprised just how well they went over. Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

In the metal biz for 30 years now, vocalist Michael Vescera can lay claim to singing for greats like Loudness, Yngwie Malmsteen, Roland Grapow (ex-Helloween) and Joe Stump (Reign Of Terror), has established himself as a dependable session player and producer, has released five solo albums (four under the MVP moniker), and is now the frontman of the hugely successful Animetal USA project out of Japan featuring Chris Impellitteri (guitars), Rudy Sarzo (bass) and Jon Dette (drums). Obsession is the band that put him on the map, however, and folks that were into the first three records – Marshall Law (’84), Scarred For Life (’86) and Methods Of Madness (’87) – have often wondered to some degree if Vescera would ever go back to his cult-favourite roots. A decent attempt at an Obsession comeback was made in 2006 with Carnival Of Lies, but a presumed lack of interest in the album and Vescera’s busy schedule put the band’s future activities on hold indefinitely. Oddly enough, during one of the busiest times in his career he managed to hammer out Order Of Chaos, an Obsession album worthy of the early days and the fans that have stuck around this long.

Vescera and myself have been discussing for years the possibility of when – not if – a new Obsession record might see the light of day. It came down to having the time to piece together and record all the song ideas brought to the table.

“It’s always in the back of your mind that you want to get it done, but the Animetal thing pulled me away from it,” he concedes. “Even when I was on the road, the guys were working on the Obsession record. It was tough. We were talking about it, and we agreed it would be nice to just be able to go into the studio for a couple months and make a record from beginning to end. We were really psyched about doing the new record, though, because we knew it was going to be cool. The guys are all great, but of course they were scratching their heads asking ‘Hey, when’s this thing going to be done?’ (laughs).”

“Order Of Chaos was finished in January 2012. I finished it before went out to California to do the Animetal single ‘Rock Lee’. The label (Inner Wound) wanted to wait until towards the end of the year to release it. It looks like the label manager made the right decision, but it’s been done for a while. I’m glad it’s finally out.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Ten years ago, if you’d told Obsession vocalist Michael Vescera he’d be in a band with Impellitteri guitarist Chris Impellitteri, ex-Whitesnake / ex-Ozzy Osbourne bassist Rudy Sarzo, and Judas Priest drummer Scott Travis, he likely wouldn’t have ruled out the possibility. With a career spanning 25 years that includes albums and tours with Loudness, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Helloween guitarist Roland Grapow, working with a line-up of all-star musicians would probably be viewed by Vescera as par for the course provided the planets aligned in his favour. Had you told him that he’d do so looking like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, he would have laughed in your face. And yet, these days Vescera finds himself fronting just such a band and having a truckload of fun doing so.

“When I was younger I wanted to be a member of KISS,” he laughs, “and now I’m at least getting to play dress-up for the stage.”

Animetal USA owes its existence to a concept established in Japan well over a decade ago. The original Animetal – fronted by Anthem vocalist Eizo Sakamoto and ex-Volcano guitarist She-ja – was launched in 1996, taking famous Japanese anime theme songs dating back to the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and turning them into metal anthems. Their debut album, Animetal Marathon, went on to sell 300,000 units in Japan. Animetal released seven albums along with several compilations before going on indefinite hiatus in 2006, and according to Japan-based Area51 guitarist Yoichiro Ishino the band received more attention from the anime scene than metal fans. As a result, Animetal charted several times, even hitting the Top 10.

“We appreciate the legacy of the original Animetal and what they accomplished,” says Vescera, well aware of the origin story. “We’re really just looking forward to the future with Animetal USA and hoping to bring it to the rest of the world, not just Japan. In most of the press we did in Japan, they truly appreciate us bringing Japanese culture and music to rest of the world. We’re all hoping for a long run with this.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

I recently caught up with Obsession vocalist Michael Vescera to discuss his latest career move as the frontman of the Japanese anime-inspired band, Animetal USA. We quite naturally touched on his stint with Loudness from ’89 – ’91, when guitarist Akira Takasaki fired original singer Minoru Niihara in the interest of gaining attention on the North American market. The change didn’t go over well with the majority of Loudness fans, and it was dubbed a failed experiment by some, but Vescera is still regarded as an important part of the band’s history. That said, when Loudness toured the US in May / June 2011 – with Niihara up front – the internet was abuzz with claims that Vescera would join the band on stage when they hit Nashville. The May 23rd gig came and went, but there was no follow-up on YouTube or anywhere else to suggest the highly anticipated reunion ever took place or had even been planned. Until now…

“That was absolutely true,” Vescera confirms. “We’ve been talking quite a bit, actually, me and the Loudness guys. I see their manager George (Azuma) quite often; when he’s in Nashville we hang out. When Munetaka (Higuchi/drums) died in 2008 (following an eight month battle with liver cancer) I issued a statement and Akira contacted me. We’ve been talking back and forth for a few years, and Akira’s mentioned a couple times that he’d like to do something again. So, when they were touring the States this summer they called me from San Francisco and mentioned they were coming to Nashville; would I come out and perform a couple songs with them? I told them I’d love to. I even talked to Minoru, who was totally into the idea. But, the night before the show we had tornados come through and they did so much fucking damage. I think the guys were in Chicago, and they couldn’t risk the possibility of driving through that, so they had to cancel the show.”

“The gig was at the Mercy Lounge, and everyone was going to come out to see them. The guys from Cinderella, Slaughter… basically anyone who was in a metal band in Nashville was going to come out. It was so sad that they had to smoke it. So yeah, it was definitely a true story.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Call it irony at its finest when a band called United can lay dubious claim to 14 line-up changes over the course of their career. Then again, that career has lasted 30 years, and 2011 saw the band cough up what is considered even by their toughest critics to be their strongest album to date. Proof, perhaps, that everything happens for a reason… especially if the band’s rehearsal room comes equipped with a revolving door.

“I don’t think there’s any specific secret to why we’ve been around this long, but one thing I can say for sure is I’m the #1 fan of United myself,” says bassist and manager Akihiro Yokoyama, who has been a part of the band since 1983. “To be honest, I didn’t expect it would last this long when I joined the band (laughs). Replacing singers would usually bring a major change to a band’s sound, but as far as we’re concerned I think that’s never been the case because the three of us in the string section (featuring Yoshifumi ‘Hally’ Yoshida and Singo Otani on guitars) have been playing together for 20 years. Just with the three playing together, it naturally produces the United sound.”

Like any band with three decades under its belt, United have had their highs and lows, moving in unexpected – in some cases, unpopular – musical directions to keep things fresh for themselves. And, on some level, to justify their existence on a changing music scene, as was the case in the late ’90s.

“In the early days, we used to play pretty authentic heavy metal influenced by Judas Priest, as you can see from the name of the band. But the guitar player at that time was also into hardcore punk, so we were naturally going for more extreme direction. What we call thrash metal came into the scene shortly after that, and I think the basic musical direction of the band was established around that time. As time went by, we started listening to broader styles of music, wanted to pursue dark and heavy sound like Pantera, Korn or Tool, and made albums like Reload (’97) and Distorted Vision (’99). I don’t think they were in the realm of thrash metal. The experimental trials ended up not as cool as we had wanted, and we realized we weren’t skillful enough to do those kind of cheap tricks, so we returned to where we knew we belonged (laughs). Our new album is the heaviest and the fastest album in the entire history of United.” Continue Reading

Okay, so it isn’t a monthly update as I’d planned, but feast your eyes and ears on some righteous noise news out of Japan… the island nation where I will one day spend far too much money on fattening up my metal collection…

Loudness recently contributed a song entitled ‘The Eternal Soldiers’ as an intro theme for the new anime movie, Mazinkaizer SKL. The single was released on December 15th with a B-side entitled ‘The Danger Zone’; both tracks fall in line with the band’s current thrash-oriented attack, as heard on their latest album King Of Pain. Click the following links for audio samples: ‘The Eternal Soldiers’, ‘The Danger Zone’.

The single is now available for order via CDJapan.com here.

Click here for look and listen to ‘King Of Pain’, the first single from the album. King Of Pain is Loudness’ second album with new drummer Masayuki ‘Ampan’ Suzuki. He replaces founding skinbasher Munetaka Higuchi, who lost his battle with liver cancer in November 2008. Continue Reading

It seems that not even death is capable of slowing Loudness down. King Of Pain marks the band’s second album since the passing of original drummer Munetaka Higuchi in November 2008 – a victim of liver cancer – their first with new man Masayuki “Ampan” Suzuki behind the kit. It’s a fitting tribute to Higuchi’s characteristic push (according to frontman Minoru Niihara) to make things louder and heavier with every new record. Having regained their footing since previous outing The Everlasting – a cold album overall featuring songs pieced together using archive Higuchi recordings – Loudness unleash a surprising ‘80s flavoured rip and tear on King Of Pain. It’s not the step back into the realms of nostalgia so many fans are clamouring for but it definitely pays tribute to the past here and there, making it the band’s strongest album since the 2001 reunion record, Spiritual Canoe. Lead-off track ‘The King Of Pain, ‘Power Of Death’ and ‘Rule The World’ feature classic ‘80s Akira Takasaki riffs and tones alongside Niihara’s much improved and grittier vocals, the first song swiping a page from the band’s Shadows Of War / Lightning Strikes era, the others a tip of the hat to Loudness staples ‘Crazy Doctor’ and ‘Esper’. Continue Reading