Here's another band I haven't heard in far too long. I remember Anthem from the mid-eighties as one of a slew of Japanese bands that suddenly became known to the west. Vow Wow may have hit biggest, because they moved over to England and changed their name from Bow Wow to fit better in an English speaking country, but Loudness did well and Earthshaker got noticed too. That was a good time for Japanese bands in the west and I picked up a few early Anthem albums from English record shops, four out of the first six, and they were all solid.
However, that only took me to 1990's No Smoke without Fire. They knocked out another one before splitting up in 1992, but they reformed in 2000 and, if I'm counting properly, this is their eleventh original studio album since. I say "original" deliberately, because their first album back was a sort of best of with Graham Bonnet stepping in as vocalist for one album only, Heavy Metal Anthem. A couple of decades later, Explosive!!: Studio Jam is exactly that, a COVID-era set of covers, with the support of Bonnet again along with current vocalist Yukio Morikawa.
This is a good one that showcases quite a range for a band who haven't changed their style much over the years, shimmying a little more into power metal from a heavy metal base. For a change, the representative songs aren't just the first few, but some of them are important to get a grasp on what Anthem do.
Snake Eyes is a stormer of an opener, very reminiscent of the sort of up tempo belters that Accept so often used to kick off albums. I like it a lot. Wheels of Fire isn't as heavy but it still rips and it's a much more accurate guide to what's coming. It's hard to define a Japanese flavour to heavy metal, especially when Yukio Morikawa sings in English, but it's there if we pay attention, especially in his vocal delivery on songs like this one. Roaring Vortex slows the pace a few songs in to give us a real churner of a track that ought to generate a serious pit. Its title is highly appropriate.
If you're getting an idea of what they do already, let me throw another few tracks at you to make that seem rather premature. Blood Brothers ups the tempo again after Roaring Vortex, but it's a lot sassier, almost like it's a glam metal song on speed rather than power metal done fast. I could hear a lot of bands covering this, but the ones who might do it justice are likely to sound different indeed. Similarly, Mystic Echoes sounds like a hard rock song translated into a metal style, a track that screams classic Rainbow. It got to the point where I started to imagine I was watching Ritchie Blackmore and listening to Ronnie James Dio or indeed, as it runs on, Graham Bonnet.
Oh, and then there's Void Ark, which is an instrumental showcase, especially for Akio Shimizu, who has a lot of fun demonstrating his chops on guitar. Oddly, he isn't the band member who played for Loudness—that's bass player Naoto Shibata, in between stints for Anthem—because I heard a lot of Akira Takasaki in the first couple of minutes. However, he shifts wildly into a sensitive emotional mode reminiscent of Gary Moore, which screams for our attention, and then shifts again into even more of a spotlight moment, with Shimizu's fingers shredding the fretboard.
All these things are Anthem and Anthem do all those things well. The best song here for me has to be Snake Eyes, which is a perfect way to start, but the most fun song is probably Master of Disaster and I had a lot of fun with Howling Days and Burning Down the Wall too. These are definitely more traditional metal songs but they're good ones nonetheless with top notch riffing and a thoroughly reliable rhythm section in Shibata, the only founder member left in the band, and drummer Isamu Tamaru, who's top notch throughout without ever showing off, yet another reminder of Accept.
What's perhaps most notable is that this doesn't feel like another album in a long string. Anthem are hardly reticent about stepping into the studio. This comes four yers after Nucleus, but that's a sign of COVID messing up everyone's schedules more than anything else. They haven't gone more than three years without an album since their reformation in 2000 otherwise. Maybe it's stronger than the last few, which I haven't heard, because they've had longer to put it together, but maybe they're just this good all the time. It's not groundbreaking, but it's damn solid throughout.