Style: Heavy Progressive Metal
Release Date: 5 Jun 2019
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Yesterday, I discovered German cosmic prog rockers Dice, through their 21st studio album. Talk about late to the party! Well, I'm late again, because here's a Japanese band I'm discovering through, you guessed it, their 21st album. At least here I have an excuse, because unlike Loudness and Bow/Vow Wow, they don't seem to use the English language at all, presumably content with playing to a growing Japanese audience.
Their name (Ningen-Isu) translates to The Human Chair and is taken from the title of an Edogawa Rampo story from 1925, more recently reimagined into a manga by Junji Ito and also adapted into a 1997 movie. The album translates to New Youth, though I have no idea what it's aiming at. The band date back to 1987 and have only changed drummers in that time, the latest being Nobu Nakajima who joined in 2004. They're not new youth and they don't look like it (guitarist Shinji Wajima wears the attire of a literary master from the Meiji era, so late Victorian); bass player Kenichi Suzuki wears a Buddhist monk's robes and paints his head white; and drummer Nobu Nakajima dresses like a yakuza). Maybe the audience is the new youth.
It's hard to pigeonhole them, which is a good thing. They've been described as the Japanese Black Sabbath but I don't see a lot of that here. There's a very Tony Iommi riff halfway through the appropriately named 瀆神 (which I've seen translated as both God and Blasphemy), but that's about it. Maybe they used to be more doomladen in the past. The closest I heard to Sabbath otherwise was some bass work on 月のアペニン山 (Montes Apenninus) and, if we stretch through a level of abstraction, a riff or two on あなたの知らない世界 (or The World You Do Not Know) are reminiscent of Randy Rhoads from early Ozzy solo albums.
It starts out sounding pretty contemporary. Opening track 新青年まえがき (or Preface to New Youth) sounds like Rage Against the Machine should they try to be a classic metal band. 鏡地獄 (The Hell of Mirrors) slows down and adds a little bit of space rock. It's older school but with a modern feel, like an alternative band brought some Hawkwind into an alternative song. Then it's God/Blasphemy and the most common influence manifests itself, namely Judas Priest.
There's a lot of Priest on this album. 巌窟王 (The Count of Monte Cristo) has an acute Priest sound and so does 宇宙のディスクロージャー (or Disclosure by Universe). I have no idea what the subtle linguistic difference is between 地獄小僧 (Boy from Hell) and 地獄小僧 (Hell-Sent Child), but they're next to each other on the album and the latter is another Priest-infused track. The former, however, feels like it ought to be on the soundtrack of a Japanese biker movie. It growls with menace that may turn out not to be menace at all, just loud bikes.
いろはにほへと (or Even the Blossoming Flowers) shows up between the first two Priest-laden tracks and does something very different. It has that bouncy feel from the opener and underlines how Ningen-Isu are a power trio, because that's a very prominent bass from Kenichi Suzuki. It also has the only ethnic sounds that I caught anywhere on the album, with cymbals that sound quintessentially Japanese. The closest otherwise is some background woodblock sounds early in Montes Apenninus, but they could come from anywhere.
The other influence I found here ties to that power trio reference, because 暗夜行路 (A Dark Night's Passing) carries a real Budgie sound to it, just with a much lower voice from whichever band member handles vocal duties. He's not remotely trying to emulate Burke Shelley's voice even if the riffs could be leftovers from the first couple of Budgie albums. 無情のスキャット (well, Heartless Scat, says Google Translate), the eight minute epic final track, continues in a Budgie vein.
Clearly, after 21 albums, Ningen-Isu have developed their own sound, even if some of their influences are reasonably obvious. I enjoyed this album, which is mostly heavy and powerful. It speeds up at points but never becomes speed or thrash metal, just faster heavy metal. There's a progressive edge too that is most obvious on Montes Apenninus, a much quieter and introspective song that anything else on the album.
I've listened through this a few times now and it's starting to find some cohesion. Initially, it sounded more like a collection of decent tracks that Ningen-Isu might have recorded over the last decade but, over time, I found some commonality that tied it together. They just don't want to do only one thing and I'm hardly going to complain about that.
And, hey, I have twenty prior studio albums to explore if I can find them to see where how that sound developed.