Pull Up a Chair for Ningen Isu

Sometimes I envy my wife. She gets into a band and then is content to listen only to that band for months. How much cheaper it would be for me to do the same rather than becoming interested in whole subgenres or periods in rock history. Nah, just get into a band, buy their ten or twenty albums, and just sit back and enjoy day after day.

Well, it does happen from time to time, sort off. There was a time I listened only to Rush for six months and mostly to Yes for three months. There was the time I was into Devin Townsend and even this year I was really into Styx (that ship hasn’t exactly sailed yet either – it’s just in harbour right now).

And then there is Ningen Isu.

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By October, I always like to think of what albums will be my final purchases of the year. Of course there are always a few that get through later on in November or even December. But basically, I plan on winding down because during the winter holiday period I don’t have very much time to listen to music as I don’t commute to and from work. I decided this October, while making my Japanese band video, to pick up a few extra albums by Japanese bands. Ningen Isu had already found its way into my collection with four albums, but those four impressed me so much that I decided to get four more before the year end. Then I ordered four more. Within a few weeks, I had 19 of their 21 studio albums, plus three compilation albums I bought because there were songs that were not on the regular albums. I could have saved a bundle by just purchasing downloads from iTunes or even signing up for their streaming service. But I have to have the physical copies. That’s just how I am.

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There are several things I love about this band. The first and most obvious is of course that I love their music. Shinji Wajima (guitars, vocals) and Ken’ichi Suzuki (bass, vocals) cover a lot of my favourite styles, including stoner metal, doom metal, stoner rock, progressive rock, heavy prog, heavy psych, hard rock, and more. They are heavily influenced by the early period of heavy metal in the late sixties and early seventies, but also show a strong connection with early eighties heavy metal and even go thrash or speed metal at times. Wajima is a riff master, often said to be the Japanese Tony Iommi, and can pull off one ripping solo after another, each one tailored to suit the song perfectly. Suzuki lays down some pretty mean bass lines too, and the combination of Wajima’s guitar and Suzuki’s bass has been likened to the Alex Lifeson / Geddy Lee teamwork in Rush. After 30 years plus and 21 full length albums, these two are each one part of a three-piece metal music machine.

The third part is of course the drummer. They’ve had four in the band over the three decades. Noriyoshi Kamidate was the original drummer from 1987 to 1992. Iwao Tsuchiya played on two albums in 1995 and 1996. Masahiro Goto played as a stand-in drummer on their 1993 album, “Rashomon”, and then joined the band as the official drummer from 1997 to 2003. Finally, in 2004 they acquired Nobu Nakajima, who has remained the drummer since then. As a side note, both Goto and Nakajima have added some lead vocal work as well.

Lyrically, their songs are inspired by the literary works of Ranpo Edogawa, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as a fair bit of Buddhist themes (Wajima studied Buddhism in university) including lots of songs about Jigoku (Hell). Oh, and space songs. Lots of those too! The vocal style of Wajima and Suzuki is atypical of Japanese rock and metal bands. Their vocal style is very close to traditional Japanese theater and song. This gives their music a unique twist: while it’s impeccable in its likeness to western hard rock and heavy metal, the traditional Japanese vocals make it distinct in both the world of heavy rock music and Japanese rock music. Additionally, their choice of stage dress is with Wajima in traditional Japanese men’s wear and Suzuki in the robes of a Buddhist monk.

As for the band’s history, I have only just begun trying to read through their 30th anniversary publication which includes dialogue between Wajima and Suzuki giving a play by play recount of the making of each of the band’s 21 albums. From Wikipedia, I have learned that the band formed with Wajima and Suzuki in 1987 when soon after Kamidate became the essential third member. Actually, Wajima and Suzuki knew each other from high school and regularly visited a music saloon. It was there that they introduced to each other a song they had each written. Wajima’s was “Tetsugoshi Mokushi-roku (Apocalypse of the Iron Grill)”, and Suzuki offered a track called “Demon” (which, I wonder, could possibly be the song “Oni” from the “Shura Bayashi” album in 2003). After graduation from university, the two met up and first joined a hard rock outfit called Shiné Shiné Dan before setting off to form Ningen Isu. The name comes from the title of a short story by Ranpo Edogawa.

The book is chock full of information you won’t find on the English Wikipedia page or on the band’s English page of their web site. What I learned most recently was that the atmosphere in the band after the third album, “Ougon no Yoake (The Golden Dawn)” was not very good. Still poor, the band shared rooms when they travelled, and the album sales were declining with each new release. Ningen Isu had done very well as an indies band and had been the darlings of the TV show “Ikasu!! Band no Tengoku (Cool!! Band Heaven)”. But each new release sold less than the previous. Kamidate, who was older than the other two, was not pleased with the way things were going and parted ways with Wajima and Suzuki. Suzuki participated in a glam rock festival dressed as Gene Simmons, if I got that bit right, and met Masahiro Goto there. Suzuki asked him to do an album with the band and Goto obliged.

They first contacted Tony Iommi to produce it, but with compliments on their music, he had to decline because of his own busy schedule. They next asked Gene Simmons who agreed to do the job if they’d pay him 2 million yen (about $20,000). Ningen Isu declined on account of not having that much money. Though a track from the album was used by the Aomori Tourism Bureau and a non-album instrumental was used for a Honda bike commercial, the fourth album “Rashomon” didn’t sell much either. Their label, Meldac, released a compilation album of songs from their first four albums with the Meldac lable – “Ningen Shikkaku”, “Sakura-no-Mori-no-Mankai-no-Shita”, “Ougon no Yoake”, and “Rashomon” – and after that, Ningen Isu’s contract with Meldac expired.

Ningen Isu’s musical trajectory over the 30 years can be briefly described here. They began as a retro-sound, early seventies heavy rock band but rather swiftly became a terrific heavy prog rock band by their third album, “Ougon no Yoake”. The later half of the 90’s was spent exploring more variety, dipping into hard rock, heavy psych, and heavy prog, with traces of Japanese folk. From 2000 to 2008, Ningen Isu’s sound went more towards the modern day, heavy alternative band, but there was always room for some metal parts as well. Then they gradually became heavier until 2010. The last five albums, they have been at their heaviest yet and sound like a proper heavy metal band.

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I’ll hopefully have something of interest to add for every album, and that might just be a post for a future date. I’m thinking maybe to write a short bit for each album and select perhaps three songs that stand out for me and explain why they do. For now, I have made two videos for Music Is A Journey about Ningen Isu, one general video about the band’s history and albums and another about their compilation albums. I’m also responsible for getting the discography up on MetalMusicArchives, which I am still working on.

Progressive Aggressive

Essays on Heavy Metal #3 – The Prog and Punk Connection

Cream, The Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin… No one contests the blues roots of heavy metal. It was the arrival of the blues in rock and roll Britain that inspired many young British musicians to play blues in a rock band format, and as guitarists experimented more with guitar playing techniques and the fuzz box became prevalent, the music got louder and heavier, which in turn meant that drummers and vocalists had to be louder, too. When the American heavy metal scene really took off in 1969, bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Bloodrock and Sir Lord Baltimore were also following a blues format, having been inspired by their British predecessors. Of course, the blues in rock had already been a trend in the States as many garage rock bands of the mid-sixties had caught on to the British scene and began doing covers of British bands’ covers of African American blues.

But even while heavy metal’s roots are deep in the blues, the genre also shares a lot in common with two very different genres of rock: progressive rock and punk rock.

The Aggressive Side

Some would say that one of the earliest blue prints for a heavy metal song would be “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. Couple that with “All Day and All of the Night” and we can see how these two songs serve as templates for heavy metal. Both feature distorted guitar riffs, hard-hitting percussion, wild lead guitar solos, and vocals that build in intensity as the music rises toward the chorus. It’s no surprise to see “You Really Got Me” was covered in 1972 by Canadian heavy rockers Thundermug and again in 1978 by Van Halen, who gave the song a new shot at the charts.

However, there are those who point out the simplicity and raw aggressive nature of the songs to be more akin to punk rock. Indeed, in writing “You Really Got Me”, The Kinks had taken inspiration from the American garage rock scene, particularly the hit “Louis Louis”. The Wikipedia article on the song says, “Ray Davies has stated that he wrote the group’s first hit ‘You Really Got Me’ while trying to work out the chords of ‘Louis Louis’”. As the American garage rock scene expanded, many bands would go on to inspire future punk rock bands. The Shadows of Knight, MC5, The Music Machine, The Sonics, The Seeds and many other bands employed fuzz tone and pushed many of their songs in a more aggressive and energetic direction, and because of the relative simplicity of the songs, they were easily picked up by future punk rock bands who had a great distaste for the technical complexity of progressive rock or the doom and despair of ponderous heavy metal tunes. That punk and metal share a common origin can been seen in lists of proto-metal albums from 1969/70 which frequently include MC5 and The Stooges, two bands whose take on aggressive guitar rock are closer to punk than metal.

When punk rock arose in New York and London in the mid-seventies, it threatened to make both metal and prog redundant. Heavy metal was supposed on the verge of death in 1978, and even as new artists such as Van Halen brought a new sound and new life to the genre, battles between punk and metal fans ensued as author Steve Waksman describes in his book, “This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk.” Waksman expounds on a reader letter exchange battle in a music magazine where metalheads and punk rockers each denounce the other’s music preference, try to prove, among many other things, whose music style best represents masculinity with one punker decrying Van Halen front man David Lee Roth as no match for Joey Ramone.

In spite of the fan disputes, heavy metal and punk musicians were to borrow from each other, the first example being the integrated punk sound in many New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands and soon after in both American thrash metal and British grindcore. In the eighties, bands in both genres would crossover and back. As heavy metal continued to splinter into subgenres in the nineties, many such “core” styles (metalcore, deathcore, mathcore, etc.) would emerge, where “core” meant the combining of hardcore punk with a metal approach.

The Progressive Side

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we find progressive rock. Known for extravagant and lengthy compositions inspired by classical and jazz music, progressive rock blossomed in the early seventies around the same time as the first wave of heavy metal. Prog can trace its roots back to the mid-sixties with bands like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys who were making use of the studio to create music to be enjoyed on record first as opposed to the usual approach of recording songs that the groups already were performing live. By using the studio to create songs, artists had the freedom to experiment with and devise studio techniques for achieving realizing their musical conceptions. Sounds effects, exotic instruments, backwards recordings, modification of instrument sounds, and many other things became possible, thus opening up doors for a new approach to composing popular music.

During the peak psychedelic years of 67/68, longer compositions and the use of fuzz tone became part of the nascent prog scene arsenal. Looking at bands that are considered proto-prog, it’s not surprising to see proto-metal bands on the same list. Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge both played heavy rock with guitar distortion but also wrote songs that expanded the standard rock song format into new dimensions.

It was, however, King Crimson, whose 1969 breakout song “21st Century Schizoid Man” would break the doors open for prog rock. Interestingly, while this song and King Crimson are considered pinnacles of prog rock excellence, the song has also been covered by hard rock and metal bands like April Wine and Voivod, and King Crimson easily hold a place on proto-metal and heavy seventies lists.

James M. Curtis writes this about metal and prog in his book “Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984”:

“Heavy metal also has significant affinities with art rock. Both styles came from England and peacefully coexisted at first. In 1970, Black Sabbath and Yes were sharing the same bill at venues like Cardiff Arts Centre Project. In the British Context, it seemed perfectly reasonable for Deep Purple to put out a record called Concerto for Group and Orchestra. After all, their lead guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had had classical training; he once said that he used a Bach chord progression on the ‘Highway Star’ solo on Machine Head.”

Deep Purple are an excellent example of the connection between heavy metal and progressive rock. The band’s first three albums followed a Vanilla Fudge approach of combining a loud heavy rock guitar playing style with plenty of stunning leads with a Hammond organ (whose player, Jon Lord, was also classically trained and went on to compose several classical-type albums) and rearranging popular songs into more extravagant pieces. It would also be of extreme importance to note that the famous riff in Black Sabbath’s eponymous song was inspired by a part in “Mars: God of War” (4:25) in Holst’s The Planets (note that the opening seems to have also inspired Andromeda and Diamond Head).

There were other bands influencing metal as well. Brian Harrington and Malcolm Dume, authors of Encyclopedia Metallica, write “The Nice played a major part in the development of the pomp-school of heavy metal and certainly (Keith) Emmerson’s influence was enormous.” His costumes and his attacks on his organ set examples of how to create an exciting stage performance.

Other bands like Yes and Genesis, though exemplary prog rock bands, included heavy metal elements. Listen to “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes or some of the heavier parts of Genesis songs such as what crops up in “The Musical Box” (3:40 to 4:48) and you will hear the rumblings of heavy metal. In fact, Eddie Van Halen’s famous finger tapping technique was inspired by Steve Hackett’s finger tapping solos on songs like “Supper’s Ready” (8:10 to 8:25) and “The Fountain of Salmacis” (3:23 to 3:45). Hackett says he came up with the technique while trying to figure out how to play certain successions of notes that are easily played on a keyboard.

Furthering the connection between prog and metal, we see other British bands like T.2. and High Tide setting fine examples of early heavy metal while at the same time writing expanded and technically complex compositions, with T.2. leaning more to the jazz side and High Tide, featuring a lead violinist and including pseudo-Baroque passages, being more of the classically inspired. Necromandus were also a band that solidly straddled the line between heavy metal and progressive rock.

As heavy metal’s initial popularity began to wane after 1972/73, groups like Bloodrock and High Tide (after breaking up once) began exploring progressive rock more. Then in 1975, a band that would perfectly marry heavy rock with prog came out of Canada. The power trio Rush began developing their signature seventies style from their second album and by the time their fourth album, the monumental 2112 came out, the band had made prog in heavy rock fashionable. Their next two albums saw them experimenting with longer and complex compositions while maintaining the distorted guitars and technical lead playing. Sometimes considered the fathers of progressive metal, Rush would go on to inspire numerous metal bands of the future, perhaps the most notable of which is Dream Theater.

By the time the New Wave of British Heavy Metal broke loose, several artists delivered heavy metal with prog tendencies. One of the best examples is Iron Maiden’s debut album. Founding member bassist Steve Harris admits that prog rock had been his first love, and some of the songs on the debut album include expanded instrumental parts featuring tempo and time signature changes, rhythm changes, and a sense of melody.

Inspired by Iron Maiden, three new American metal bands would foster in the development of the progressive metal subgenre: Queensryche, Fates Warning, and Crimson Glory. Add to that the technical work of Watchtower and progressive metal had finally achieved a perfect marriage between progressive rock and heavy metal.

New “Gateway” Albums

Previously, I wrote about Stephen Lambe’s book “Citizens of Hope and Glory: the Story of Progressive Rock”. The book follows the development of progressive rock from the late sixties to the present and cites 65 albums as “gateway albums” to progressive rock music. These albums, as Lambe explains, are in his opinion important albums in the development of the genre, and for the curious and uninitiated, these albums are suitable “gateways” for entering this non-mainstream musical world. Later on, I will write about some of these albums but for today I would like to mention five albums of recent years that have impressed me deeply. Of course there are wonderful examples of such gateways to prog being released every year but it would require quite some amount of pocket money to keep up. So here are five albums released between 2011 and 2013 that I feel are worthy of adding to a list of gateway albums to prog.

Rites at Dawn - Wobbler

Rites at Dawn – Wobbler

Wobbler are a Norwegian band that formed around 1999 with the expressed idea that they would write and play music using only instruments and equipment that were available between 1968 and 1975, a very bold stab at retro prog if there ever was one. Though their first album “Hinterland” (2005) contained new material, their follow up album “Afterglow” (2009) featured material that was mostly written during the band’s early years. The music of both albums deliberately pushed the complexity boundaries farther than most, although one might notice similarities to Änglagård.

Their third album, however, was a step towards more focused song writing and melodies while still keeping the almost absurd complexity of their music. Reviewers on Prog Archives are divided with some praising the album with five-star ratings, others being more conservation in their ratings and pointing out almost critically how this album is a retro fest.

As for me, I think it’s truly brilliant. Anyone interested in hearing what prog sounds like would do well to give this a listen. Vocal harmonies, Mini Moog solos, songs over ten minutes long, odd time signatures and beats, woodwind mixed with electric guitar, complex song structures, it’s all there!

Listen to: The River

 

Heritage - Opeth

Heritage – Opeth

Opeth began in the early nineties as a death metal band that gradually began leaning toward more complex song structures. Their fourth album “Still Life” – a concept album – is regarded as one of their best. However it was their next album “Blackwater Park” which was produced by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree that really saw Opeth looking at new possibilities. (Incidentally, Porcupine Tree’s next album took on a heavier sound.)

Over their next few albums, band leader Michael Åkerfeldt worked serious death metal with acoustic and jazz-tinged interludes and began singing with clean vocals more often. “Heritage” from 2011 was however, a surprising album as any death metal element was absent and the songs had a very decided retro feel to them, all the while tenaciously adhering too very unusual song structures.

My personal favourite track is “Famine” which includes an eerie woodwind and percussion intro joined my some maliciously amused laughter, switches suddenly to a sparse piano section with vocals, transforms into a seventies hard rock prog tribute and then blasts into a Jethro Tull meets Black Sabbath section with heavy guitar and flute. The song next becomes a haunting flute and jazz/blues guitar bit before the heaviness returns. And then it fades out.

For the sheer unorthodox take on pop music composition and the marvelous guitar and drums here, this album should make the head spin of any new prog initiate.

 

Beyond the Realms of Euphoria - Galahad

Beyond the Realms of Euphoria – Galahad

Galahad came together during the neo-prog movement of the eighties, overshadowed by more successful acts like Marillion, IQ, Pendragon, and Pallas. By the nineties they began releasing their own albums at last, changing sound and style. With keyboard player Dean Baker joining the band, their sound was enriched. Electronica, classical piano, church organ and other keyboard sounds emerged as their guitar sound became heavier.

“Beyond the Realms of Euphoria” features a splendid melange of electronica, heavy prog, classical piano, and retro seventies sounds as well as more. When I let a non-proghead co-worker hear some parts of some songs, she was so impressed by how a rock band could be so diverse in a single song.

Listen to: Guardian Angel

 

Shrine of New Generation Slaves - Riverside

Shrine of New Generation Slaves – Riverside

Riverside began sounding like the Polish answer to the heavier version of Porcupine Tree and were quickly slotted into the progressive metal category. However, over the course of their albums, they have been de-emphasizing the metal side of their music and developing the more atmospheric side. On “Shrine of New Generation Slaves” the truly heavy parts are held back for unleashing when the mood suits and instead the music moves through heavy bluesy parts, saxophone atmospheres, moody guitar and keyboard segments, and sombre flowing moments. The album has a certain unity to the overall experience and each song is its own entity, never sounding quite like the others in spite of this cohesive sonic atmosphere. It’s not an album to grab your attention and take you for a ride. It’s an album that invites you to get in for a journey.

Listen to: Escalator Shrine

 

 

The Mountain - Haken

The Mountain – Haken

Haken’s third album is a masterpiece of modern music. A progressive metal band at heart, one can find plenty of speedy and heavy musical passages with intricate and complex playing very much in the Dream Theater vein. But Haken go beyond the metal power punch here and include vocal arrangements reminiscent of Gentle Giant at times, Gregorian chant at other times, and a melancholy barber shop quartet and other times still. There are jazzy segments, beautiful piano introductions, and on the expanded edition of this album a string ensemble. Each song seems to strive for diversity and complexity yet sticks to one coherent piece of music. Truly this is an album where the musicians have strained every creative muscle to create such an album and put themselves through a remarkable work out to bring it to life. Easily a “gateway to prog” album if there ever was one.

Listen to: Atlas Stone