Nippon Riffin': Japan’s Nastiest (and Best) Metal, Part II
We're tackling death, doom, blackened thrash and black and sludge metal, here; the heavier end of the Japanese metal scene is our destination.
Konnichiwa, folks. Welcome back. Yesterday, in part one of this two-part Nippon Riffin' feature, we briefly surveyed the history of Japanese metal. In the process we looked at a number of the nation's significant metal bands, but this month's Japanese metal fest wasn't born from the notion that the nation's metal scene desperately needs exposure. It’s already reaping plenty of well-deserved attention. Instead, there have been two Japanese metal releases of late, from Coffins and Church of Misery, that have exhibited just how visceral and entertaining the nation's metal can be. Listening to those albums inevitably led to considering a raft of other Japanese bands that have brought a similar punch and pummel to the table, and thus, here we are; taking a peek at five of Japan's standout metal acts in more detail.
These bands -- Coffins, Church of Misery, Abigail, Sigh and Corrupted -- represent some of the best metal Japan has to offer. If you add those bands to the pool of groups mentioned in part one of Nippon Riffin' (where essential fare from the likes of Sabbat, G.I.S.M, and Metalucifer is covered) you'll (hopefully) get a sense of the depth of the Japanese metal scene, both historically and in its contemporary form. Obviously, if you're a fan of Japanese metal you'll have your favorite bands, and please, feel free to leave your picks in the comments below. The more theatrical end of the Japanese metal spectrum is filled with exuberant uptempo riff warriors, along with many an emo-dripping balladeer, but from here on in we're tackling death, doom, blackened thrash and black and sludge metal; the heavier end of the Japanese metal scene is our destination.
Coffins (The Fleshland)
Tokyo-based death and doom merchant Coffins came to prominence around the globe with its third full-length, Buried Death, which was released on US label 20 Buck Spin in 2008. The band's previous full-lengths, 2005's Mortuary in Darkness and 2006's The Other Side of Blasphemy, are gruesome and guttural death metal roils that certainly warrant attention, and Coffins is a prolific band, with an intimidatingly sized discography of splits and EPs to enjoy.
Coffins' latest LP, The Fleshlands, is the band's first for new label Relapse Records, and it's a highly anticipated release for fans of murderous and mayhem-laced metal.
The Fleshlands sees the band expanding to a four-piece, and the subsequent 40 or more minutes of doom- and sludge-drenched death metal benefits from Coffins' best production yet. Recorded at Tokyo's Noise Room Studio with engineer Shigenori Kobayashi, and produced by Coffins' guitarist and vocalist Bungo Uchino, tracks such as "Here Comes Perdition" and "Hellbringer" are Hades-bound quagmires -- some of the band's grottiest and strongest yet. "Rotten Disciples" and "The Colossal Hole" grind through sluggish Sabbath via Autopsy crawls, and the clinging, low-end and gangrenous reek of "Dishuman" and "The Unhallowed Tide" come with all of Coffins' patented stomp and stench.
In truth, Coffins has never sounded more dangerous, or grislier, than on The Fleshland. Guitarist Bungo Uchino's riffs, which have always been extremely heavy, are like a mammoth-on-steriods here. His hanging on to the tri-tone twangs is rendered in all its dirty, dragging, gloomy glory, and while the album is massively heavy and resoundingly filthy there's no masking of Uchino's deft transitions between doom metal's drag and death metal's drubbing. Bassist Takuya Koreeda and drummer Satoshi Hikida dispense all the battering old school subterranean sludge, slithering up from the caverns for the uptempo, churning charges, and vocalist Ryo Yamada provides all the required bleeding-throat growls.
In all, The Fleshlands is distortion atop clotting fuzz, and muck heaped on murk (with plenty of Iommi- and Geezer-worthy grooves stabbed in the heart and buried within). The album is easily Coffins' best work yet, and the amplification of production values takes nothing away from the slag-heap suffocation or the outright bludgeon of the band's fundamental feculence. If you've not heard Coffins before, The Fleshland's the perfectly grotty place to start.
Church of Misery (Thy Kingdom Scum)
Tokyo doom metal band Church of Misery deals in murder, torture, and then a little more homicidal action thrown in for good measure. Aside from a few covers here and there, the band's chosen subject matter has dealt almost exclusively in murderers and serial killers. That's a fittingly dark premise for a band steeped in Sabbath-esque psych-heavy doom, and not an unsurprising thematic course, given that plenty of other Japanese metal bands dig into some very unhealthy interests.
Formed in the late '90s, Church of Misery is very much of a vintage inclination when it comes to its sound; tones akin to those of Sabbath, Saint Vitus, the Obsessed, and Pentagram are the primary sonic goal here. A few early EPs raised the attention of listeners from abroad (and Church of Misery is another fan of numerous splits and EPs), and the band's debut, Master of Brutality, was released in the US on label Southern Lord, although these days, the band finds its home on Rise Above Records, an apt coven lorded over by Cathedral's Lee Dorian.
Since its debut, every release from Church of Misery has been overflowing with cannabinoid and psychotropic doom, all channeled through (one presumes) blood-dripping amps. The band's latest, Thy Kingdom Scum, is no different, but in this case that's no bad thing. Megalithic riffs abound on tracks like "Cranley Gardens (Dennis Andrew Nilsen)" "Lambs to the Slaughter (Ian Brady / Myra Hindley)" and "All Hallow's Eve (John Linley Frazier)". Unnerving samples, and anguished howls and graveled growls from vocalist Hideki Fukasawa, dispense the retro reek and creeps. However, as juicy and walloping as the big old chords are, Church of Misery's not-so-secret weapon has always been the lysergic bass lines and cosmic soloing. In that regard, bassist Tatsu Mikami and guitarist Ikuma Kawabe go for broke on the new album, with frenzied interweaving from both on the 12-minute plus "Düsseldorf Monster (Peter Kurten)" being a delirious rocket ship ride into '70s heaving blues and acid-fired progressive rock.
There's no doubt that Church of Misery is equal to and, in fact, far more interesting than many of its overseas peers. If you're going to find fault with the band, its lyrical obsession with murderous types is probably going to be the element that nags, although the band isn't exactly celebrating slaughter here, more pointing out the maniacal nature of a chosen few (or the possibility that it lurks within us all). You certainly can't fault the band’s ability to mine the doom of yore, and bring the tweaked-out lurch of morbid and ponderous '70s metal right to your doorstep. You'll not find a weak track on Thy Kingdom Scum, and I'd venture to say you'd struggle to find a frail tune on many of Church of Misery's full-lengths thus far.
Thy Kingdom Scum swings like a wrecking ball, and for fans of real-life horrors it's a, well, real-life horror. It's a trauma-inducing slab of doom, and while a hulking purveyor of sludgy doom and psych like Electric Wizard might be a little more on the radar for Western metal fans, Church of Misery deserves equal attention. Our fascination with homicide and humanity's abundant cruelty traverses every geographic boundary, and Church of Misery reaffirms that fact.
In part one of Nippon Riffin', I posited the theory that Japan could be seen as a nation of significant extremes. Traditional values, and the divide between public and private behaviors, are enforced through strict societal norms, yet Japan is also a nest of contradictions, giving birth to bukkake and
How that all flows into Japanese metal is an interesting stream to follow. Metal is, after all, all about the transgression of social niceties and normalities, even if, in the vast the majority of cases, those transgressions are suggested rather than acted out -- the odd church burning and murder aside, obviously. In Japan, the same sense of transgression applies of course, and if you combine that with traditional career and family expectations, the idea of dedicating your life to the pursuit of heavy metal glory is often a controversial step. Clearly, times change, and Japanese youth are somewhat freer to explore alternative options these days. However, back in 1992, when bassist Yasuyuki, drummer Yasunori and guitarist Youhei formed the blackened thrash trio Abigail (the self appointed "evilest band in Japan", the group's decision to follow the wreckage trail of Bathory/Bulldozer/Sodom/Hellhammer was a bold step to take.
Abigail played its first show in late 1992 together with the equally influential Sigh, and two decades, five full-lengths, eight EPs, 40-odd splits, 16 live albums, and a few line-up hiccups later, Abigail is still here. Still projectile vomiting its original lyrical rot, and still discharging energetic sonic excreta. With releases titled Fucking Louder than Hell, Intercourse and Lust, Welcome All Hell Fuckers and Speed Metal Motherfuckers, we're talking a lot of fuck(ery), and little in the way of finery or, obviously, romance. I won't even delve into the narrative content of Abigail's tunes, except to say, that it's all so über-over-the-top that it's hard to take the sex, drugs, booze, and sex, sex and sex, seriously. And I guess that's the point.
Abigail, and the side-projects of Abigail's multi-instrumentalist Yasuyuki (Cut Throat and Barbatos), is essentially metal amplified, magnified, and maximized to its provocative potential.
"Street Metal", Yasuyuki calls it. Strip it all down, and you've got classic '80s metal, over which Yasuyuki snarls with his black metal brogue. Motörhead, Venom, and a solid injection of black metal and punk flirtations (à la Darkthrone) have defined Abigail's discography, although the black metal influences have certainly ebbed on occasion. Still, like Church of Misery, or Abigail's sonic kin Sabbat (an essential listen for any fan of Japanese), you can pluck a release from anywhere in Abigail's ordure-bespattered oeuvre and you're guaranteed to find more than a few broken-tooth, battered tunes to enjoy. (And Tiger Junkies, where Yasuyuki records with Toxic Holocaust's Joel Grind, is well worth seeking out, too. See 2008's excellent D-Beat Street Rock 'N' Rollers.)
Obviously, Abigail is not for those likely to be easily offended, but, as with many other hyper-manic testes-fueled rockers, its shock value is all exaggerated, rabble-rousing artistry in the end. It's not to everyone’s taste, but nonetheless, Abigail has been ripping out the riffs and rolling out the rollicking drum fills for 21 years, so there's abundant experience under the band's belt, musical experience at least, and who knows what else they've got going on. If you've not indulged before, the band's latter years on label Nuclear War Now! are a good place to start.
Sigh bassist, vocalist, keyboardist and founder Mirai Kawashima is often touted as a sophisticated composer of some of the most fascinating metal to ever have emerged from Japan. While that is undoubtedly true, let's not forget that Kawashima is also the frontman for Cut Throat, joining Abigail's Yasuyuki in delivering releases such as Please Show Me Your Pussy and Anal Electrocution. To paint Kawashima as the high-brow doyen of black and experimental metal isn't the complete picture. He is, like all of us, a contradictory character.
Still, as far as Sigh is concerned, the band's catalogue of releases is filled with some of the most powerful and enthralling Japanese metal ever. While its first few albums were clearly influenced by the usual horde of European pioneers (Venom, Mayhem, Darkthrone, Celtic Frost etc), it was Kawashima's often symphonic arrangements that led Sigh to be singled out as a band to watch early on, signing to Mayhem founder Euronymous's Deathlike Silence label for the band's debut, 1993's Scorn Defeat.
If Sigh had continued on with its primeval black metal the band might well just be another footnote in the sub-genre’s history, albeit one with plenty of staying power. However, as Sigh progressed through its career it incorporated fuller orchestrations and increasingly bizarre sequences, with its fifth full-length, 2001's Imaginary Sonicscape, showing a huge evolutionary leap. The album brought progressive and psychedelic rock, funk, avant-jazz, classical suites, and even pop into the black metal mix, making for a truly original, unique and enthralling LP.
From thereon in, Sigh's career has been marked by ever more adventurous albums, not all of them wholly successful. The band's 2005 album, Gallows Gallery, was marred by atrocious production issues and a little provocative, if untrue, controversy, although you'd have to wonder if that was really accidental. Subsequent releases from the band (2007's Hangman's Hymn: Musikalische Exequien, 2010's Scenes From Hell and 2012's In Somniphobia) have all brought increasing amounts of eccentricity. The band leaps from John Zorn-esque freak-outs to blackened thrash sprints, and synthesizer soundtracks to saxophone blasts are brought by Kawashima's fiancé, Dr Mikannibal, who joined in 2007, providing a frontwoman element to the band's sound.
Over time, Sigh has proved to be consistently schizophrenic in its approach, and you never know what you're going to get on the band's next album. Of course, it's the band’s unpredictability that makes Sigh so compelling, and the band's maelstrom mix of extreme metal and extreme experimentalism has continued to be evolutionary -- even revolutionary. While the focus has often been on Kawashima and Dr Mikannibal, guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa's work is something to behold too. Shifting from pitch-black dirges to thrashing arpeggios in a split second, Ishikawa certainly has all the skills and dexterity for the makings of a guitar god, or, given Sigh's ghoulish obsessions, a notable six-string demon.
Sigh has moved from the kvlt to the cult over its career, with its early nightmarish sounds shifting, but still poking and prodding at our worst nighttime terrors. It’s debatable whether Sigh is really a black metal band anymore, but that argument seems superfluous given the rewards found in both the band's blackest and most eclectic works. While the band's beginnings were drenched in darkness, it's not as if the arrival of '70s keyboards, strings, choirs, post-pop, and better production has lightened the mood significantly. Sigh has remained as committed to investigating enigmatic and hallucinatory reveries, and no amount of demented psychedelia takes away from the fact that the band is one of Japan's darkest and most spellbinding acts.
If you made it to this point in this two-part Japanese metal overload, thank you. As a reward, I'll dispense some honesty. The truth is, this entire Nippon Riffin' saga has really just been one gigantic excuse to write about one band: sludge and doom metal behemoth, Corrupted.
Corrupted is the best Japanese metal band; I'm sure we can all agree on that. The band doesn't do interviews, or indulge in any publicity whatsoever, so little is known about its motives or influences, aside from the obvious rejection of mainstream modes of promotion, and the punk rock antipathy that comes with that stance. Everything we know of Corrupted comes via the band's releases, leaving everything open to conjecture and speculation.
What do we know about Corrupted? Well, in one sense, the band plays overdriven, brown-note, lead-footed sludge and doom through amps that sonic peers Noothgrush or Grief would deem unfit for service. Feedback, fuzz and distortion are all key elements, as are oppressive, mangling riffs wielded like Thor's Mjölnir and dropped like ten tons of bricks. However, while the band dispenses some of the most pulverizing instrumental passages of gloom-drenched sludge imaginable, Corrupted also provides plenty of gentile acoustics and elongated delicate drones.
The band's songs are often lengthy, although Corrupted is by no means afraid to radically cut down the running time of other tracks to suit. Still, 1997's Paso Inferior (underpass) contains one 42-minute track, 1999's Llenandose de Gusanos (filling oneself with worms) contains one 50-minute and one 73-minute track, and 2005's El mundo frio (the cold world) contains a single 72-minute track. Accordingly, there's a great deal of prolonged thunder to enjoy on the band's releases, but Corrupted often breaks up the cacophonous bitterness by dropping in those aforementioned acoustic touches, with ambient drones and merciful chimes bringing light to the darkness.
If you look at those aforementioned album titles, you'll note Corrupted's use of Spanish. It uses the language extensively for release titles, and the majority of the band's songs are also sung (read gurgled and growled) in Spanish, although, Japanese, English and German also appear. Whether that heavy usage of Spanish has a particularly heavy reason behind it is unclear; it may well be that Corrupted's members simply found a few Spanish-speaking bands that inspired them early on. Whatever the case, it's an intriguing hook.
Sonic parameters aside, what is also intriguing about Corrupted is that while the band has been prolific, the bulk of its material has appeared on EPs or splits with bands including Discordance Axis, Grief and Cripple Bastards. With six full-lengths to its name, 20-plus splits and EPs, and a handful of compilation appearances, Corruption is a dream come true for the geeky metal collector, which, at the end of the day, is pretty much what all us metal fans are.
Befitting Corrupted's themes of ruination and catastrophe, much of the band’s artwork and imagery is filled with scenes of devastation -- the consequences of war and suffering featuring heavily. Match that to the band's sound, or at least to its heaviest elements, and there's a clear path to follow to our ultimate, self-imposed annihilation. However, those gentler refrains and melancholic drones lift Corrupted's work from one-dimensional hopelessness. Certainly, the band's catalogue is overflowing with despair, but what sets Corrupted apart from simply being another gloom merchant is its capacity to imbue its dispiritedness with faint traces of optimism. That's not to say the band is hopeful, as such (the bulk of its work is wonderfully demoralizing), but the fact that a hint of promise appears is one of the crucial facets of the band's attraction. Sure, you can spend your time with Corrupted being battered by dejection, but there's beauty here too.
That plaintive beauty is exhibited best on 2011's Garten der Unbewusstheit. It's a notable album for its German accentuations, and its wistful, luxuriant tracks. Where previously Corrupted had slathered on the musical heaviness, Garten der Unbewusstheit was the band's lightest in that regard, although thematically, it still brought plenty of forlornness. The album was Corrupted's most melodic and reflective, and if any evidence was required of the band's uncompromising attitude to following its artistic direction regardless of expectations, Garten der Unbewusstheit is it. What made the album all the more poignant was that at the time of its release it was rumored to be Corrupted's last; and if it was (or is), then the album's sumptuous sorrowfulness stands as testament to the band's evolution through its career.
Corrupted's only ever made a single statement about its refusal to play the promotion game: "Our expression of being Corrupted is in the sound, lyrics and artwork of our records". What we can take away from that statement are two important ideas. Firstly, Corrupted's isolation and deliberate obscurity leaves the focus on its sound, and in return the band has provided works that are monumentally heavy and diaphanous (each extreme being equally impressive). Secondly, it’s up to the listener to construct their own sense of meaning around Corrupted's releases. Certainly, the band won't be enlightening us as to their intent outside of the sound and artwork available. In refusing to do so, Corrupted encourages us to consider not only its music but also its politics. It's an all-encompassing circle of ideas, and while the band is absent from direct interviewed commentary, its expressions are nonetheless explicitly clear.
Of course, in saying that, they're clear to me, but quite possibly your interpretation is different, and that's the Corrupted’s finest component. Your approach to the band is governed by you alone, and the band isn't going to hold your hand, tell you where to start, or tell you its latest release is all killer, dude. In a world saturated in hollow hype, Corrupted is refreshing, even if that refreshment is delivered via an absolutely filthy shower of Herculean low-end metal. You can, on one level, take the band as nothing more than a fine example of strapping sludge; but then, you can also look at Corrupted as a far larger political entity, one that happens to deliver its policy via the most robust and rugged means. Either way, Corrupted's impact is assured to be bruising.