Minoru Niihara

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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

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

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

niiharaBy Carl Begai

No matter what he does musically, vocalist Minoru Niihara will forever be known first and foremost as the singer for Loudness. Even when Obsession’s Michael Vescera and ex-EZO frontman Masaki Yamada took his place (between 1988 – 2001) Niihara was still regarded as the band’s one true voice. Two years prior to Loudness’ official reunion Niihara launched XYZ-A, perhaps best described as a bare bones garage metal band, arguably the most successful venture under his belt outside the Loudness camp. Like any long time band, however, XYZ-A’s appeal seemed to wane with back-to-back ho-hum albums I.V. (2004) and Wings (2006); neither was particularly bad but both were far from memorable a dozen spins later. Their ten year anniversary record, Learn From Yesterday! Live For Today! Hope For Tomorrow! – a take on Albert Einstein’s famous quote – is a much different and aptly titled story, as Niihara and his bandmates have made a welcome return to the devil-may-care attitude of their earlier records. Top that off with a new major label deal in Japan with Toy’s Factory – former home to Arch Enemy – and XYZ-A are primed for another decade at the very least. Loudness, meanwhile, figures as prominently as ever in Niihara’s life.
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