By Carl Begai
“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.”
Seventh Heaven, like YTT, is a gritty high-energy clattering romp in the spirit of the band’s first two albums, Asian Typhoon and Metalization. It sounds, to these ears at any rate, as if XYZ-A took a long hard look at what made them tick from the start when going in to write the new music. Compared to IV and Wings, XYZ-A in 2013 sounds like a young band high on life and attitude.
“That’s very interesting. We strived to record the sound that you could hear us playing loud and rocking out in the room. Maybe it was good that we managed to record a live-sounding powerful performance. The rhythm section was recorded almost 100% live. We didn’t compare the new music with any of those previous albums. Each of us wrote and arranged as we like and that ultimately became Seventh Heaven. From my experience, songs that are written with intention rarely becomes what you intended them to be.”
“In XYZ-A we’re all writers; the music and lyrics,” he adds. “We go through democratic discussions and decide on which song should be recorded and end up recording songs written by each of us. I guess we’re lucky (laughs). We didn’t have any preconceived idea on direction of songs before recording but we were conscious of the overall balance. For instance, we tried to avoid similar type of songs. Or if a certain type of song is missing, I would write to fill in the hole. In this case, it was a simple ballad. There were no rules or restrictions as to what kind of song you would write. All of us write however and whatever that person wants to write.”
And once again, putting the new XYZ-A album together was a balancing act with Loudness, who released the 2012 album only a few months before Seventh Heaven.
“I started writing for Seventh Heaven after completing the 2012 album, Niihara reveals. “To be exact, we went in for pre-production around August 2012. Loudness and XYZ-A recordings are never done at the same time. We coordinate our schedule so there will be no conflict, therefore we can concentrate on respective projects. I wouldn’t say two-recordings-at-same-time is impossible but it must be pretty tough. I don’t even want to imagine it.”
Getting down to the raw and dirty sound of Seventh Heaven, which does indeed harken back to the first two XYZ-A records following another spin through the old material, it sounds very ’70s organic. Heavy, warm, not too polished, hinting to the time when bands used to record analog instead of present day digital.
“Wyn Davis was the enginner for our first and second album,” says Niihara, giving credit where her believes it’s due. “He has his own studio in LA and he prefered to use analog gear, and that definitely brough the whole organic vibe. We were very pleased with it, too. We use old gear and perhaps that brought the old, organic vibe on the new album. Kitsutaka plays a Gibson Flying V from the ’60s that is plugged into old Marshall. The key pedal he uses is an old Boss Overdrive. As for bass, Tatsuhiko (Wasada) plays Musicman’s Sting Rays. String instruments are tuned into regular tuning. For drums, Sueyoshi plays very conventional double-bass kit. So, our sound is created by instruments that are made in ’70s or earlier. Our recording engineer was great at capturing the sound as it is. For recording basic tracks, it’s a live recording, all-at-once style, and we later overdub as needed. Very traditional style.”
And because both XYZ-A and Loudness are guitar driven, inquiring minds want to know what the biggest differences between recording and performing with Fumihiko Kitsutaka and Akira Takasaki are and how they influence him as a singer.
“There are only few of my songs that Akira ever played on. Generally, I don’t write for Loudness. Kitsutaka comes up with great guitar riffs for any type of songs that I come up with. So, I don’t really need to worry about ‘How would the guitarist approach this song?’ when I write. So, I don’t really know the difference between the two of them. They have very different styles when they play, both of them are amazing. Kitsutaka has stubborn faith about his way of playing. On any type of songs, he has a clear vision about his playing and never wavers. Takasaki is an off-the-wall type of guitar player. He’s free-spirited and good at writing various styles of songs. Without doubt, they’re two incomparable geniuses.”
“As for building vocal melody lines, Kitsutaka is very meticulous. He writes with guitar and is complete in every detail. He wants me to sing as it is. Takasaki used to be like that in the past but these days he comes up with melodies while he plays, so it’s more close approach to how singers comes up with vocal lines. They have full knowledge about my vocal style and taste and never ask for the impossible. I appreciate that.”
Wrapping things up, Niihara looks back on his near-retirement 14 years ago and the fact he’s been fronting two bands simultaneously without a break for over a decade. He has every reason to be proud of what he’s accomplished, and he’s not about to change a thing.
“For me, XYZ-A is much more than a job. It doesn’t matter to me if the band sells or not. We don’t need to rush in XYZ-A. We get together whenever we can. This band is sort of life’s work for all of us. We’d like to continue while we are all healthy. On the other hand, Loudness is a globe-trotting act again just like in the ’80s. As for my priority in schedule, Loudness always comes first; we’re working ambitiously for global success. For now, there’s no murderous world tour planned yet so I have plenty of time to sleep (laughs).”
Check out the video for ‘Patriot’s Dream’, taken from Seventh Heaven, here.
Big thanks to Takashi Kanazawa for his assistance and continued invaluable support.