Monday, January 21, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1220: Wagakki Band

My last review was an album entirely filled with songs about the St. Lawrence Seaway. This next album is about as far as you could get from that, but equally enjoyable.

Disc 1220 is… Yasou Emaki
Artist: Wagakki Band

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? The Wagakki Band strike heroic poses. This cover demonstrates that poses always look more heroic when you brandish a sword.

Despite all the swords, there is no reason for alarm – they’re musicians not swordfighters. And don’t worry about the fact that there are eight of them; they aren’t a ska band either.

How I Came To Know It: I was reading an article online and someone was pointing out how weird this band was. I’d never heard them so I watched the embedded video to decide for myself. The video was over the top, filled with fantasy fight scenes which were pretty cool but as for the music I didn’t find it weird at all - I just liked it.

I then set out to find a Wagakki Band album but that is not easy on this side of the Pacific Ocean. In 2017 Sheila and I went to San Francisco and I brought my ‘hard to find’ music list to the legendary Amoeba Records. Sheila quickly became bored watching me dig through the stacks so she amused herself by helping me look for rare records. I gave her this one as an assignment not expecting much but low and behold – she found it.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one Wagakki Band album. I am on the lookout for their 2014 effort “Vocalo Zanmai” but it might be a while. Even Amoeba didn’t have that one. For now, there is no stacking to be had.

Ratings:  3 stars but almost 4

Imagine Jethro Tull, Iron Maiden and Madonna had a baby and you might have an approximation of Japanese folk-metal group Wagakki Band. The group blends pop, traditional Japanese folk and heavy metal into a high-energy soup of syncopation and soaring melodies.

The band’s front woman is Suzuhana Yuko. Suzuhana’s vocals are pure pop, pure and light with a little sugar around the edges, like she’s smiling at you while she’s singing. Her vocals carry most of those uplifting melodies I noted earlier, and she delivers them in long, furious bursts that must take incredible breath control. She doesn’t blow you away with power, but there is a technical mastery there, and whatever she’s singing (all the songs are in Japanese) she sings it with conviction.

Wagakki Band is famous for blending Western rock and roll with traditional Japanese forms, and their commitment starts with their instruments. Alongside the standard guitar-drums-bass approach they add Japanese folk instruments including the koto (a thirteen string sideways harp), the tsugaru shamisen (a kind of thin-necked banjo/guitar), and the shakuhachi (an end-blown bamboo flute). The blend of east and west works fabulously here, creating an undercurrent of heavy metal, with the bright and more whimsical traditional instruments.

I am particularly fond of Kaminaga Daisuke’s work on the shakuhachi. When Suzahana’s vocals aren’t casting their spell, you can be sure Kaminaga’s flute will be. His shakuhachi alternates from a blur of fantasy-evoking notes to a ghostly whistle as the song requires. There is plenty of great guitar licks on “Yasou Emaki” but I like it best when the shakuhachi is rocking out.

The entire album has a driving energy that makes it rush forward. Despite clocking in at a rather bloated 61 minutes the experience was over before I knew it.

Lyrically, I had no idea what was going on. The tracks are all listed in Japanese and while the CD booklet prints all the lyrics, those are in Japanese as well. There are some English words in the titles (Track 3 is called “Perfect Blue” and Track 12 has the words “Attack on Titan” embedded in the middle of a bunch of Japanese characters, but that was far too little information to form a guess about what the songs were about.

It was a bummer, because I suspect these guys sing about cool stuff, but I have no idea. It reminded me a little of when I listen to Celtic folk music in Gaelic, catching the energy but not knowing what is happening, except in this case everything is sped up and electrified.

Wagakki Band is not for everyone. You need to like both folk and metal, and you have to have an open mind to hearing some arrangements and melodic structures that aren’t exactly what your ear is accustomed to. However, if you can open your mind to the experience, these guys will quickly draw you in with their skillful playing and enthusiastic delivery.

Best tracks: I know what I like, I but I don’t know what they’re called so I’ll just list them by track: Track 1, Track 2, Track 3, Track 6, Track 11, Track 12

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