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50 Years of Japanese Metal: A Half Century of Heavy Music in the Far East

I'm a big fan of Japanese heavy metal and a collector of Japanese metal and rock music. I also enjoy documenting the scene's history.

50-years-of-japanese-metal

In celebration of the first fifty years of heavy metal in Japan, throughout this article we will be exploring five different decades of Japanese metal releases, year by year, beginning with the Flower Travellin' Band's Anywhere in 1970 and running through 2020, bridging the gap from the country's origins in metal to the eventual bustling and busy scene still going strong today. For each year I will talk briefly about up to three Japanese metal highlights which I felt were interesting or important features of that particular year. To be clear, this is in no way a rankings list, but merely highlighting just a few albums of note for each subsequent year.

Keep in mind that the early-mid 70s portion of this does contain some proto-metal and heavy rock mixed with the actual early metal features, because let's face it, Flower Travellin' Band were way ahead of the game and after them there were a handful of years without bands playing legitimate heavy metal in the country, so a bit of proto-metal content and some rock albums containing single instances of metal songs will simply keep me from committing seppuku digging through releases, trying to fill a few years of gaps in metalness up until the style began to take off at the start of the 80s. I also didn't restrict subjects for the decade to just albums in the 70s section, allowing for occasional mention of EPs, demos and such, because quite frankly there wasn't a whole lot of metal on a global scale until the later half of the decade anyway.

Please note that this article focuses primarily on the evolution of Japanese heavy, power, doom, thrash and speed metal, though I mentioned a handful of other albums of major significance to more extreme subgenres on occasion. I didn't make mention of divisive "metal" styles like alternative (including idol metal), nu-metal or metalcore unless bands were equally fused with more widely agreed upon metal styles. Also important to mention, in the 80s through early 90s, let's be honest, I could have highlighted any trio of quality Loudness, Anthem, X or Seikima-II albums for nearly every year, however doing that is completely uninteresting and there was just so much more going on in the country beyond that extremely busy handful of Japanese metal stalwarts, I felt it was only right to mention other highlights over some of these obvious, more famous choices whenever I could, though those names still appear often for obvious reasons. I've also listed up to ten additional releases of note for any given year, as I couldn't possibly talk about every single important or interesting release the country has seen. All of my rambling aside, let's get this started.

50-years-of-japanese-metal

1970

Flower Travellin' Band - Anywhere

Flower Travellin' Band - Anywhere

Flower Travellin' Band - Anywhere

Note: Not a metal album overall, but the band's Black Sabbath cover is the first clear example of heavy metal music being played in Japan.

Sure it's a cover album, but Flower Travellin' Band's Anywhere is an incredible demonstration of just how early this heavy rock and metal band really was. It contains the first legitimate heavy metal song ever performed by a Japanese band, being a cover of Black Sabbath's monumental track, Black Sabbath, which in itself was released just a mere ten months earlier in the same year, so as Black Sabbath's legendary debut turned fifty in 2020, so did Anywhere, Japan's first mark on the metal radar. Outside of the obvious metal highlight of the album, the band also created monstrous dark and heavy covers of rock songs, such as King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man. The fact that the band somehow heard of Sabbath's debut from the other side of the world, obtained a copy, and enjoyed it enough to cover it and record it to a studio album only months apart is a bit baffling to be honest, but that's exactly what they did and in turn it makes a great starting point for this article.

1971

Flower Travellin' Band - Satori

Flower Travellin' Band - Satori

Flower Travellin' Band - Satori

Considered by many as the first album from Japan that could reasonably be called heavy metal and also one of the first metal albums on a global scale, Flower Travellin' Band's iconic mixture of Black Sabbath inspired doom metal and eastern folk flavored psychedelica was a monument in the development of Japan's heavy metal scene. There was the obvious Sabbathian influence to the album, but make no mistake, the Flower Travellin' Band were very much a remarkable and unique entity on their own, with dark and aggressive tracks such as Satori Part I, to the slow-progressing, trippy and ominous rides that are Satori Parts III and V. The Flower Travellin' Band would never be quite as heavy as the level they reached on their first two albums, opting to delve deeper into bluesy and proggy tracks, but the mark they left on a yet largely untapped music style was a massive one. The Flower Travellin' Band's music has in turn been cited as an influence by groups such as Opeth and covered or paid tribute to by bands ranging in style from The Claypool Lennon Delirium to Marduk, to the band's countrymen Outrage or Gargoyle.

Too Much - Too Much

Note: Not a metal album, it's a heavy blues album included as a proto-metal example based on certain songs.

This is one of my favorites of this era, the band Too Much with their self-titled and sadly only album that they would release before disbanding. The album is mostly pretty chill blues rock, but of course as I'm mentioning them on this list there's a couple of outlier songs; those being Love is You with its crunchy, doomy rock riffing and metal-as-hell uptempo solo section, along with the slower, more psychedelic but nearly as heavy Grease it Out. The guitar work demonstrated here is magnificent for 1971, it's honestly hard to believe such a talented band never managed to stick around for more than one release.

Blues Creation - Demon & Eleven Children

Note: Not a metal album, it's a heavy blues album included as a proto-metal example based on certain songs.

Blues Creation were one of the heaviest bluesy rock bands in the world when they released their debut in 1969, so it wasn't all that surprising to see them crank things up a notch with their second album, 1971's Demon & Eleven Children. While they were never a clear-cut metal band, they were roughly the heaviest Japanese band not named Flower Travellin' Band in these very earliest years of heavy Japanese rock and metal. There's metallic ideas to be found all over the place, such as the massive, thundering riffs present in the title-track, Demon & Eleven Children, as well as Atomic Bombs Away. Also worth mentioning in regards to metallic ideas is the song Sorrow which opens with guitar work reminiscent of England's eventual NWOBHM movement.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Speed, Glue & Shinki - Eve
  • Strawberry Path - When the Raven Has Come to the Earth
  • The Mops - Iijanaika

1972

Flied Egg - Dr. Siegel's Fried Egg Shooting Machine

Flied Egg - Dr. Siegel's Fried Egg Shooting Machine

Flied Egg - Dr. Siegel's Fried Egg Shooting Machine

Note: Not a metal album, this is a heavy progressive rock album included as a proto-metal example based on certain songs.

One of Japan's prog rock classics, Flied Egg's creatively titled Dr. Siegel's Fried Egg Shooting Machine is also one of the heaviest albums in the Japanese rock scene's earliest years. The band, melding numerous influences; in particular Uriah Heep with a little Hendrix, Sabbath, ELP and others; could rock any way you'd want. The album boasted complex and cheery prog rock songs, slower bluesy numbers, or pummeling doomy tracks of which there were multiple such as I'm Gonna See My Baby Tonight, Burning Fever or Rolling Down the Broadway. Such a vast array of ideas made this album a memorable and unique contribution to Japanese rock's tapestry.

Flower Travellin' Band - Made in Japan

Note: Not a metal album overall, however the band was still creating incredibly heavy songs at this point.

As mentioned under 1971, The Flower Travellin' Band's sound would never be quite as heavy as it was on Satori again, but that's not to say they weren't still a juggernaut of heavy rock when they released their second album, Made in Japan. While boasting a more progressive psych sound, the group hadn't forgotten how to rock your face off, and they were still arguably the heaviest band on Japanese soil, though the competition was tighter by this point. Songs like Kamikaze or Spasms would have fit in reasonably well on Satori.

Speed, Glue & Shinki - Speed, Glue & Shinki

Note: Not a metal album, this is a heavy blues/psych album included as a proto-metal example based on certain songs.

While Speed, Glue & Shinki as well as Shinki Chen's other bands were already quite heavy for the era, 1972 saw this band crank things up a notch. While they never really changed their heavy blues and psychedelic rock formula, the band's self-titled album added a heap more attitude and explosive energy to their songwriting formula, resulting in proto-metallic songs like Wanna Take You Home or the funky yet nearly as heavy Calm Down.

1973

Cosmos Factory - Cosmos Factory (An Old Castle of Transylvania)

Cosmos Factory - Cosmos Factory (An Old Castle of Transylvania)

Cosmos Factory - Cosmos Factory (An Old Castle of Transylvania)

Note: Not a metal album, this is a heavy prog album included as a proto-metal example based on certain songs.

While this one is also not a metal album, it's likely the heaviest rock album of 1973 in Japan. It calls to mind stylistic influence from other heavy-prog acts such as Uriah Heep and King Crimson. Among the album's proto-metallic highlights are the songs Maybe as well as Fantastic Mirror. Worth a mention as well is the final two segments of the album's epic-length An Old Castle of Transylvania (from 11:06 onward roughly). The group's output would continue to be strong throughout the rest of the 1970s, but this was the heaviest their sound would ever be.

1974

Yonin Bayashi - Ishoku Sokuhatsu

Yonin Bayashi - Ishoku Sokuhatsu

Yonin Bayashi - Isshoku Sokuhatsu

Note: Not a metal album, but the title-track is heavy prog, only included as a proto-metal example.

1974 is the weakest year on this list in terms of bands performing metal, or even proto metal songs for that matter, however I'm comfortable at least mentioning prog rock band Yonin-Bayashi's stellar 1974 album Isshoku Sokuhatsu for one main feature, the epic-length title-track. For the most part a calm and smooth prog rock song, it slowly creeps further into insanity, then with a literal snap at 7:32 turns the remaining half into probably the single heaviest Japanese rock song of the year; thumping and authoritative bass and drums, an aggressive vocal performance, heavily distorted guitar riffs and solos, and topped with spacey, early 70s heavy-prog keyboards.

1975

Yamaha 8.8 Rock Day '75

Yamaha 8.8 Rock Day '75

V/A - 8.8 Rock Day '75 (Featuring Murasaki)

Note: Not a metal album overall, but included based on a handful of Murasaki songs featured on the compilation.

A bit of an odd inclusion, but here we have the live album for Yamaha's 1975 8.8 Rock Day band battle event. I mention this only due to the inclusion of one band, and that's Murasaki from Okinawa. One of the early pioneers of hard rock in Japan, Murasaki, whose name translates to "purple" in honor of their main inspiration Deep Purple, were gaining a bunch of fanfare around the country, even though the young band hadn't even released their debut by this point. Yamaha thought they'd bring the promising youngsters to headline this gigantic festival and make their mainland debut, and as the guests of honor Murasaki would introduce several thousand Japanese music fans to the wonders of hard rock and heavy metal on this grand stage of a former World Expo (Expo '70, Osaka). Much like Deep Purple, Murasaki had a tendency to get really heavy when performing live, and this was demonstrated well on the live album for the event, where Murasaki, whose performance was a smash hit, would be given an entire side of the two record release. At this event they debuted some of their classic songs including Double Dealing Woman, which is a rather up-tempo and aggressive track not unlike something the band's heroes and metal pioneers Deep Purple would have made around the same time. Speaking of Deep Purple, another hit with the crowd was Murasaki's cover of Highway Star.

1976

Bow Wow - Hoero! Bow Wow

Bow Wow - Hoero! Bow Wow

Bow Wow - Hoero! Bow Wow

Forming in 1975, gifted youngsters Bow Wow quickly went major and were able to release a debut record only a year later. Roughly half metal and half rock, Hoero! Bow Wow set the tone for the rest of the band's career to come, with massive heavy, powerful, and metallic tracks abundant, among them Hearts on Fire and Volume On. The young band, led by guitarist extraordinaire and lead vocalist Kyoji Yamamoto, marked a shift in the still developing Japanese rock landscape, bringing a new dynamic of speed and energy to the table to a level only briefly explored prior by bands like Murasaki. Bow Wow, rooted much less in the slow and doomy blues of the slightly older bands on this list, could play as fast as anyone that 70s rock had to offer by contrast (though they still ventured into slower tracks on occasion, see James in My Casket). Loudness frontman Minoru Niihara stated in an interview with Kevin Pasman of The Sushi Times that before the Loudness guys' rise, the two most famous and heaviest home-grown metallic bands rocking Japan in the mid 70s were Murasaki and Bow Wow. There was simply nothing quite like these guys in the country at the time.

Murasaki - Murasaki

Note: Not a metal album overall, but included primarily based on the song Devil Woman, as well as other metallic ideas the band had on this record.

Immediately following Murasaki's acclaimed performance at 8.8 Rock Day in 1975, they hit the studio, quickly assembling their debut album and preparing for its release early in the next year. The self-titled Murasaki featured some of the heaviest and most metal songs found in Japan yet, with the polished up studio versions of multiple songs from their performance in the year prior. Among these was an early metal song in Devil Woman, a galloping, in-your-face number that was one of the fastest metal tracks a Japanese band had come up with to this point, easily on par with Bow Wow. Additionally, and while not particularly metallic, I just love the dual leads and overall swagger that the track Do What You Want carries. This album was a real success for Murasaki, quickly selling over 40,000 copies when most bands in the young Japanese rock scene struggled to sell anything close to that number.

Ginbae - Ginbae

Note: Not a metal album, but as one of the heaviest Japanese albums of its time, I figured it was worthy of a mention.

One of the heaviest Japanese releases to come out since The Flower Travellin' Band's monumental Satori, Ginbae played an extremely heavy, doomy rock sound, at times straddling the line between rock and metal. Probably the most mysterious band on this list, Ginbae appeared and disappeared very quickly, leaving only one release behind. That said, their lone EP, the 1976 self-titled Ginbae is very worthy of a mention on this list. With a rich, fuzzy, thunderous guitar tone and a thumping, slow musical pace, Ginbae were another band who took a great deal of influence from Black Sabbath plus various doomy heavy rock bands of the early 70s, applying elements of their styles to a more cheerful, bluesy style. One of the standout tracks from the EP is the song Toluene, which features a fantastic leading riff that carries the song similarly to that of more modern doom and stoner metal tracks. I'll also mention the song Akage no Anne which is nearly as metal.

Other notable releases for this year:

Olive - Olive

1977

Bow Wow - Signal Fire

Bow Wow - Signal Fire

Bow Wow - Signal Fire

One of the most famous Japanese rock albums of the 70s with popularity continuing to this day, for Signal Fire, in my opinion Bow Wow's musical game was at the highest level it would be at any point in the decade. A young, inspired and energized band, Bow Wow's Signal Fire featured about half metal songs, and half rock. This album, building on the debut a year prior, helped to rocket Bow Wow towards stardom, becoming one of the first famous hard rock and heavy metal acts in the Tokyo area. The album also left its mark outside of the country, and while not a huge seller the album attained a fair share of fans for the band, including eventual members of Metallica and even landed Bow Wow tours in support of both Aerosmith and Kiss. A couple of the album's metal highlights are the songs Silver Lightning and Electric Power Up.

Murasaki - Impact

Note: Not a metal album overall, however it features a couple metal songs. Included as an early metal example.

Thanks to the success of their self-titled album, Mursaski were able to get right back to work, recording and putting forth their second album Impact less than a year later. The band's final album before a nearly thirty year disbandment, the Okinawan rock legends went out with a bang. Released on New Year's Day, 1977, Impact was "more of the same" thing offered by their first album, and I say that in the best way possible. While noticeably more progressive, Impact carried plenty of the Deep Purple-loving 70s rock sound that the band wore so proudly earlier, and also similar to their first album, Impact included a dose of metal, particularly with the high speed Let Me Go which, vocals aside, would fit seamlessly on an early Riot or Judas Priest album. Also worth a mention is Doomsday.


Bow Wow - Charge

Note: Not a metal album overall, however it contains a couple of early metal songs and warrants a mention at least.

Charge was Bow Wow's second album of 1977 and it was surprisingly good given how quickly it was produced following Signal Fire. While overall I'd say it’s teeth aren’t quite as sharp as its predecessor, Bow Wow were still one of the most metallic 70s acts to be found and Charge had plenty to offer. Included among the album's metal highlights are Jet Jive, The Clown, or Blue Eyed Lady. Bow Wow would sink into a period of relative inconsistency and reinvention over the course of their next few albums until roaring back in the early 80s.

1978

Yamaha EastWest '78

Yamaha EastWest '78

V/A - EastWest '78 (Featuring Nokemono)

Note: Not a metal album overall, this is included based on the band Nokemono's feature.

Another oddity inclusion for this list in the same vein as what we saw in 1975, but I couldn't think of a more fitting album for 1978 than the live album for Yamaha's EastWest '78 band battle festival, which unknown to a lot of fans had a prominent feature of the early Japanese metal band Nokemono, who were brought in as guests of honor after winning their regional festival, MidLand '78. The band played several songs that would eventually feature on their album as well as songs they would sadly never release, such as the excellent early Japanese heavy metal example, Down to Hell. Also featured was Hijiri e no Tabiji which would be reworked into the song Tozasareta Machi for their album.

Sansuikan - Moetsukita Akumatachi

This was another one of Japan's earliest predominantly heavy metal releases. Sansuikan released a four song demo tape in 1978 called Moetsukita Akumatachi. The music on this demo was an upbeat and fairly nimble heavy metal with a big helping of progressive rock overtones. This band more or less merged with the band Scheheradaze to become Novela in 1980, and then from there Yoshiro Takahashi and Mototsugu Yamane would eventually split off to create Japanese metal pioneers Action!, bringing a few of Sansuikan's songs with them, including 100,000 Volt and Back Stage Queen. This was a little-known, but fascinating early contributor to Japanese metal because they were tied to so many prominent musicians and influential bands.

1979

Nokemono - From the Black World

Nokemono - From the Black World

Nokemono - From the Black World

The main highlight this year, Nokemono released From the Black World, one of the first Japanese full-length albums that was predominantly heavy metal, influenced by the late '70s works of Scorpions, Bow Wow, and Judas Priest primarily. Though they weren't around long at all, they're a big part of the formative years of Japanese metal, winning a large Yamaha competition and then as a result touring Japan with Judas Priest that same year. Their album preceded Loudness' debut by almost three years. Probably their best known song, Run Away, is a great example of what the album as a whole was all about, boasting excellent guitar work with brilliant 70s metal riffing both fast and slow, double bass drums, an upbeat swagger, and ultra catchy style that set them apart from many other '70s heavy metal and hard rock acts during that era. Another favorite of mine from the album is Ari Jigoku, a song that would be covered by Sabbat in 2004.

Lazy - Rock Diamond

Note: Not a metal album overall, but this is included based on "Hotel" being an early example of Japanese heavy metal.

In 1979 change was quickly brewing for the label-controlled pop rock act Lazy; guitarist Akira Takasaki and drummer Munetaka Higuchi were growing dissatisfied with the band's rather forced direction and were pushing for a bigger say in the band's songwriting. With Lazy's 1979 album Rock Diamond, the future Loudness star members successfully managed to get a metallic monster of a song in Hotel included on an otherwise quite mellow pop rock album; a glorious act of defiance and a telling signal of where the band would be heading in the coming years.

George Murasaki & Mariner - Mariner One

Note: Not a metal album overall, but this is included based on "Demon King" being an early example of Japanese heavy metal.

Created after the disbandment of George Murasaki's main band Murasaki, Mariner was an Okinawan powerhouse of a hard rock act which marked the first time George Murasaki would team up with vocalist Hiroto Arasaki, who would front the bands Heavy Metal Army as well as Eastern Orbit a few short years later. Playing a style influenced by the likes of Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, Rainbow, and a few others, they had a tendency to get pretty metallic, just as the aforementioned influences did. On this first album Mariner One, the song Demon King goes full-on Rainbow-mode and is a total barn burner of a Blackmore/Dio inspired metal song, right in the middle of a relatively relaxed hard rock album. Mariner had some very metal moments in other instances, but never quite to the extent of this track.

Other notable releases for this year:

Marino - Demo

50-years-of-japanese-metal

1980

Lazy - Uchusen Chikyugo (Earth Ark)

Lazy - Uchusen Chikyugo (Earth Ark)

Lazy - Uchusen Chikyugo (Earth Ark)

Lazy, as mentioned in 1979 were quickly morphing into a completely different band from what they had been known as previously. With this album Akira Takasaki and Munetaka Higuchi would set in motion the rest of their careers, jumping head first into heavy metal and hard rock. All but abandoning their pop rock roots, Uchusen Chikyugo, known in English as Earth Ark was another leap forward for the fledgling Japanese metal scene and was musically a direct predecessor to the duo's eventually famous Loudness. Consisting of roughly half metal songs, half rock, Uchusen Chikyugo had the same speed and raw energy offered in a similar manner by Bow Wow's early albums and, in my opinion, was the perfect prequel to Loudness' debut the following year. An excellent album across the board, some of the album's metal highlights in my estimation would be Earth Ark, Dreamy Express Trip and Dreamer.

Novela - La Songerie

Note: Not a metal album overall, but this is included based on certain songs, particularly "Illusion" and "Night With No Name" being early examples of Japanese heavy metal.

Japan's progressive rock scene has always boasted several bands who had highly metallic traits and influences, groups like Starless, Scheherazade, Eastern Orbit and so on. Novela were another, and maybe the most important of these bands. I don't think anyone who knows them would deny that they were prog rock first and foremost, however the band's discography was dotted with plenty of metal tracks through the years, particularly on early albums. La Songerie featured a handful of examples, still in the extremely early days of Japanese metal, those being the progressive-heavy metal hybrid tunes Illusion and Night With No Name, as well as to a slightly lesser extent the reworked Scheherazade song The Boyhood ~The Cliff from about the halfway mark onward. Novela's lineup would fracture after the band's second album In the Night, with Yoshiro Takahashi, Eijiro Akita and Mototsugu Yamane splitting off to create Japanese metal pioneers Action!.

George Murasaki & Mariner - Mariner Two

Note: Not a metal album overall, but this is included based on "I'm Alone" being an early example of Japanese heavy metal.

For the band's first album, I'd singled out the song Demon King as being the most metal song Mariner ever made, and while they wouldn't hit that peak level of metalness again, the group's second album Mariner Two still had its own early Japanese metal example in the song I'm Alone. George Murasaki and co. would part ways a few years after this, continuing to dabble in metal occasionally before George and JJ would reunite under the Murasaki name in 2007, picking up where they'd left off and continuing an excellent career.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Novela - In the Night
  • Silver Stars - See

1981

Heavy Metal Army - Heavy Metal Army 1

Heavy Metal Army - Heavy Metal Army 1

Heavy Metal Army - Heavy Metal Army 1

1981 saw the formation of Japan's first heavy metal/hard rock supergroup, comprised primarily of members from the biggest bands on the island of Okinawa. The group featured members of Murasaki, Mariner, Condition Green, and from the mainland members from Carmen Maki's solo project as well as Blues Creation. Additionally, the quintet also boasted none other than Bow Wow's Kyoji Yamamoto as a "secret" guest. Everything went right for this project, they were picked up by a major Japanese label immediately for the release of what would be this self-titled album and their only album under this name. While the album had quite a few AOR leanings, it was mostly metal, following in the footsteps which bands like Nokemono or Bow Wow had left only a few years prior. Songs like Yes or No, That's Hammurabian Police or Heavy Metal Army are only a few examples of what you can expect from this album.

Loudness - The Birthday Eve

One of the most important albums in the history of Japanese metal. This is the album that put heavy metal firmly on the radar of Japanese music fans and catapulted Loudness to stardom, becoming the face of Japanese metal for the majority of this decade. Coming up at the same time as the peak of the NWOBHM movement with British bands subsequently touring Japan, it was no surprise that a homegrown band of Loudness' quality would become a huge success. Labels didn't believe in Loudness at first though and they struggled to get a record deal, however upon release The Birthday Eve immediately caught on and quickly went Gold-certified in sales in Japan, and from there Loudness never looked back. Songs like To Be Demon or I'm On Fire are just a couple of this classic's highlights.

Silver Stars - Rape Noise

A band who appeared in the late 70s was Silver Stars, whose members worked as roadies for Bow Wow. While their first album was kind of a bizarre spacey rock, Silver Stars would take things in a more refined as well as metallic direction for their sophomore effort See, and the group would hit their metal peak with their third and final album before a long disbandment, the strangely titled Rape Noise (I'm about 99% sure it's a poorly translated attempt at calling it something to the affect of "Sound Assault"). The album was the farthest thing from ear-rape though, boasting an extremely well-executed metal and rock sound heavily inspired by the likes of Bow Wow and Thin Lizzy. Melodic and polished with excellent guitar work, yet contrasted with gruff, often shouted punkish vocals, these guys had a great sound in my opinion. Some of my favorites from this all-around enjoyable album include Hard Cover, Stardust and Buchi Korose.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Bad Scene - Bad Scene
  • X-Ray (Tokyo) - Demo

1982

Bow Wow - Warning from Stardust

Bow Wow - Warning from Stardust

Bow Wow - Warning from Stardust

Considered by a large portion of Bow Wow fans to be the crown jewel of their discography, this was Bow Wow's strongest album since the mid 1970s and one of, if not the, most metal albums they would release. On the back of their 70s reputation they were flown to England to perform at Reading Rock Festival '82 sharing the stage with acts such as Iron Maiden, Budgie, Trust, Tygers of Pan Tang and numerous others during the height of the NWOBHM movement; which needless to say only strengthened Warning from Stardust's release. Warning from Stardust was a resounding success for the band, selling extremely well and opening the door for more overseas opportunities. Bow Wow adapted their sound to that of the early 80s while still remaining very much "Bow Wow", with sleek new tracks including You're Mine, Break Out the Trick, or the title-track Warning from Stardust. In 2007, Rolling Stone Japan named the album one of the greatest Japanese rock albums of all-time at 23rd. Following Warning from Stardust, Bow Wow would go on hold while Kyoji and crew ventured overseas with a new hard rock and heavy metal project called Vow Wow, which would in itself become a moderate success internationally.

Eastern Orbit - Future Force

Despite a successful debut in 1981, Heavy Metal Army ended up parting ways with bassist Masahiko Takeuchi and guitarist Shinki Sugama by 1982. In the midst of restructuring, the band added guitarist Isamu Tada in place of Sugama as well as Dave Ito in Takeuchi's stead. Along with these personnel changes they revised their name to Eastern Orbit, adopting a more experimental and progressive rock and metal sound which would be unveiled on their second album Future Force. While you can easily tell it's the same band who made Heavy Metal Force 1 a year prior, there's so many different ideas present, most of which I think were successful. For one there's a ridiculous sci-fi and dystopian future theme running across the album, and while it's pretty nerdy, it's equally awesome and very metal for the era. Another noticeable difference separating this record from their prior one is Isamu Tada's more muscular guitar tone, as well as more subtly mixed keyboards from Yuki Nakajima. This record features less metal overall than Heavy Metal Force 1 did, however Future Force's metallic peaks are typically bolder and more explosive. Some of the best examples from this album are Project Noah, Air Shock and Madame X. While Eastern Orbit would break up in 1983, they'd leave behind one more single as well as an excellent live album which featured plenty of strong material that, for one reason or another, never received studio recordings.

5X - Human Target

Carmen Maki was already a mainstay in Japanese rock thanks to her band Oz, her solo career and a well-received collaboration between her and Blues Creation. While she was no stranger to rock music, 5X was her first venture into heavy metal when she teamed up with guitarist George Azuma. The group's debut record Human Target, boasting fun tracks like Down to Pieces or the punky, Motörhead-esque Midnight Train, was another one of the earliest Japanese metal releases on a major label, with the group quickly being signed by EMI after formation. This album spurned a brief, albeit fruitful couple years for 5X in which they created another album, plus a live-album which was recorded during Human Target's successful tour. The band parted ways not long after however, with Carmen Maki remaining a popular singer and George Azuma becoming a prominent producer for Japanese metal bands.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Akira Takasaki - Tusk of Jaguar
  • Bow Wow - Asian Volcano
  • Loudness - Devil Soldier
  • Misako Honjoh - Messiah's Blessing
  • Sniper - Demo 82

1983

Sabbrabells - Sabbrabells

Sabbrabells - Sabbrabells

Sabbrabells - Sabbrabells

1983 saw Japan's first two successful heavy metal bands to utilize "shocking" occult imagery and themes in their look and sound, those being Crowley and Sabbrabbells respectively. The first of these two acts to release an album however was the latter. It was also around this time that you saw Japan's first prominent heavy metal-dedicated label appear in Explosion Records, and one of the first bands signed to the label was Sabbrabells who quickly put together their first full-length; the self-titled Sabbrabells. The album, boasting classic Sabbrabells tracks like Black Hill, Devil's Rondo or Wolf Man separated Sabbrabells from most other early Japanese metal groups in both quality and memorability.

Loudness - The Law of Devil's Land

The Law of Devil's Land marked the beginning of Loudness' height not only commercially, but in my opinion creatively too. The obvious classic Loudness track on the album was In the Mirror, but there was plenty of other great metal here as well like Black Wall or Show Me the Way. Loudness was firing on all cylinders by this point, and yet again, the album went Gold-certified in sales in Japan. Loudness were practically gods in the Japanese rock scene by this point even though they had only been around for two years, which just goes to show the scope of the impact they'd already made. In the wake of Loudness' immediate and large-scale success, coming up around them were about a million inspired young bands in Japan who wanted to be the next Loudness, playing heavy metal for themselves. This album also gave them the opportunity to tour in the United States for the first time in their career.

Earthshaker - Earthshaker

Another significant band that got rolling this year was Earthshaker. They had already been around for a few years, but riding the wave of NWOBHM bands that were touring Japan successfully at this time, now was the perfect time for Earthshaker to release their own debut which as you might expect boasted a healthy NWOBHM influence to its sound. In 1983 the group pulled out all the stops in putting forth a self-titled album, working closely with the prominent producer Masa Itoh to get their album just right. They even had a song written for them by Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden, that being Dark Angels (Animals). A couple other killer tracks from this record were Time is Going and Wall. Earthshaker would slowly gravitate towards pop more and more as the decade progressed, but they followed up with two more strong albums and would be one of Japan's most successful metal bands of the 80s.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • 44 Magnum - Danger
  • 5X - Carmen Maki's 5X
  • Eastern Orbit - Journey to Utopia ~ Eastern Orbit Live!
  • Mari Hamada - Lunatic Doll 〜 Ansatsu Keikoku
  • Mari Hamada - Romantic Night 〜 Hono no Chikai
  • Messiah - Metal Ground Zero
  • Misako Honjoh - 13th
  • Misako Honjoh - The Cruiser
  • Munetaka Higuchi - Destruction
  • X-Ray - Hard Section

1984

Loudness - Disillusion

Loudness - Disillusion

Loudness - Disillusion

1984 saw Loudness continue the momentum they'd built with The Law of Devil's Land, as this album also went Gold-certified in sales in Japan, and for good reason. This was perhaps Loudness' hardest hitting record yet and an instant classic loaded with all-time Japanese metal staples like Dream Fantasy, Esper and of course Crazy Doctor. At this point Loudness were garnering international talk among metal fans and with that the opportunity to tour globally arose, along with significant record deals. This album saw both Japanese and English versions as well, as there was enough Western interest to warrant it. With the release of this album, Loudness embarked on a massive world tour which included their first of many European shows, along with a return to North America.

Sniper - Open the Attack

Sniper's Open the Attack was another significant album in 1984. Coming up through the massive Yamaha band battle circuit; the same circuit which spawned Nokemono in the late 70s albeit a different regional event; Sniper put forth an excellent debut here and while only teenagers, their sheer instrumental prowess garnered them some mild international attention as well, and as a result this record would see a European print too. Easily one of the fastest Japanese heavy metal bands of this era, it's not a stretch to call Sniper one of the first bands to play speed metal in Japan, with songs like Never Change or Open the Attack demonstrating this best. They could also blow you away with world class guitar heroics courtesy of guitarist Burny, in particular the song Fire boasts some of his finest riff work, as well as a nice guest feature in Marino's Raven Ohtani. Sniper were particularly notable in that they were one of the first metal bands in the Nagoya metropolis to really garner any attention (alongside Crowley), as to this point the Japanese metal scene was rooted almost exclusively in the Tokyo and Osaka areas.

Blizard - Blizard of Wizard (Ankoku no Seisho)

Another one of Japan's earliest major successes in metal, Blizard's career took off almost immediately after forming. Honing their skills live and writing material over their first two years, 1984 saw the band's career skyrocket, beginning with a performance at the legendary 5th Grand Metal festival where they shared the stage with 44 Magnum, X-Ray, Marino, Make-Up, Misako Honjoh, Rajas and Arouge. While Honjoh was already pretty well-established, virtually every other band hit their peaks immediately following the event, and Blizard were no exception. Dropping their debut Blizard of Wizard right after the event through Warner-Pioneer records, the record sold well and was met with praise from critics. Another record with heavy influence from the NWOBHM movement (and to be fair, who wasn't taking cues from that scene's stars at the time), the guitar work in particular, courtesy of Toshiya Matsukawa, was applauded. A handful of highlights from this one include Stealer, Orion and Lady Stardust. Blizard would follow up with another strong album in Kamikaze Killers this very same year, and their run of success would endure for the remainder of the decade before the band parted ways.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • 44 Magnum - Street Rock'n Roller
  • Action! - Hot Rox
  • Action! - Action! Kit
  • Arouge - ~Bogyaku no Kikoshi~
  • Blizard - Kamikaze Killers ~ My Tears Evaporate
  • Earthshaker - Fugitive
  • Earthshaker - Midnight Flight
  • Marino - Target
  • Vow Wow - Beat of Metal Motion
  • X-Ray - Tradition Breaker


1985

Loudness - Thunder in the East

Loudness - Thunder in the East

Loudness - Thunder in the East

With Loudness' fifth album Thunder in the East, history was made. This was the first Japanese album, rock or metal to ever chart on the Billboard 200 in America, hitting an incredibly respectable #74 where it remained for several weeks, going on to sell a few hundred thousand copies. Following this album a handful of Loudness' countrymen would also make attempts at overseas markets to varying success. With the success of this album in particular, Loudness shared the stage with Mötley Crüe on a massive North American tour and established a reasonable foothold in the American market that would last for a few years after this. Songs such as Like Hell or Clockwork Toy showed the band's evolution into a more commercial sound, all without losing their metal bite. This album also generated the catchy hit Crazy Nights. M-Z-A! M-Z-A!

Anthem - Anthem

Anthem had already been around since 1981, however they took more time to establish themselves and prepare for their debut than bands like Loudness or Earthshaker had. Among this preparation was the making of a demo, as well as an appearance on the first Heavy Metal Force compilation, showcasing the young band among some of Japanese metal's up-and-coming stars, helping Anthem to secure a major record deal in the process. Anthem would also switch out original singer Toshihito Maeda for a more fitting voice in the smooth and versatile Eizo Sakamoto, and from there they were set. While most of the Japanese heavy metal to this point came from the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto area) region, this self-titled album made Anthem one of the first big successes in heavy metal to come out of the Tokyo region. While they were still a young and relatively inexperienced band, this record spawned all-time Anthem classics such as Warning Action, Steeler, Wild Anthem and more.

Seikima-II - Akuma ga Kitarite Heavy Metal

Also making their debut in 1985 was Seikima-II. One of Japanese metal's great entertainers, when Seikima-II formed, they gave themselves a backstory as a band of akuma sent from hell with the mission of propagating Satan and conquering the world through heavy metal by the end of the century, by which point they'll have finished their quest and disband. Along with this backstory, the band were both humorous and extremely theatric, adding to the incredible music they put out consistently. Akuma ga Kitarite Heavy Metal set the stage for the legendary career Seikima-II would go on to enjoy for the following fifteen years. With this first album, you got an idea exactly what the band were about. Fun, finely crafted heavy metal performed by nutty, but seriously talented musicians with a flair for the dramatics, I can leave you with nothing more appropriate than the six-part Akuma Symphony Suite Opus #666 in D Minor (playlist).

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Flatbacker - Senso (Accident)
  • Hellen - Talon of King
  • Rajas - Turn it Up
  • Shella - Listen
  • Show-Ya - Masquerade Show
  • Stingray - Rain
  • The Datura - One Night Dream
  • Toshiya Matsukawa - Burning
  • Vow Wow - Cyclone
  • X-Ray - Strike Back

1986

Anthem - Tightrope

Anthem - Tightrope

Anthem - Tightrope

Tightrope was another big stepping stone for Anthem. After the success of their debut, momentum continued to build for the young band and they were becoming better-known by the day, and as a result they returned quickly with a follow-up in Tightrope. A more experienced band, the record, displaying a clearer musical direction and tighter musicianship was another success for Anthem, spawning classic tracks such as Night After Night and Victim in Your Eyes. It was around this time that King records realized what they had in Anthem and began promoting them more. With an expanded touring schedule and features in practically every rock magazine in Japan, more opportunities started to open up for Anthem. Their expanding popularity allowed them to begin working with American record producers, aiming for a better sound, and it also opened the door for them to do a bit of soundtrack work, which included them releasing the single Xanadu, which would be the first metal song used in promotion of a video game.

Loudness - Lightning Strikes / Shadows of War

With Lightning Strikes, Loudness maintained their overseas success, and this album would peak even higher on the Billboard charts (#64) than Thunder in the East had just a year prior. Continuing to evolve with the ever-changing metal world, Loudness would add more glam metal elements to their sound, however behind this glammed up façade, they were still the same old Loudness at their core, as demonstrated on Black Star Oblivion, Face to Face or Ashes in the Sky. Seeing both an English and Japanese version, Lightning Strikes performed well in both markets. After this record, Loudness put out one more moderately successful album in Hurricane Eyes before cracks started to form and the band went into a period of decline and regrouping.

Crowley - Whisper of the Evil

One of the first Japanese metal bands to use occult imagery and shocking visuals, Crowley flirted with success, with it slipping from their grasp as the band's lineup fractured at the worst possible time. With their debut, Whisper of the Evil, Crowley were another one of the few bands in this article to garner international attention, earning magazine features and even overseas tour offers. This record was relatively bare-bones, straightforward, but quality heavy metal, centered around a particularly strong vocalist in Takashi Iwai, and of course it was much more ominous than what you'd find in most of Crowley's countrymen at the time. A couple tracks in particular which I enjoy from this one are Stalker and Floating Man. In the years following this release, Crowley's whisper would still echo as the band maintained a reasonably strong cult following, ultimately leading to the band's full revival in 2014.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Breeze Least - Breeze Least
  • Dead End - Dead Line
  • Flatbacker - Esa
  • Jewel - Jewel I
  • Reaction - Agitator
  • Sabbrabells - Sailing on the Revenge
  • Seikima-II - The End of the Century
  • Show-Ya - Queendom
  • The Comes - Power Never Die
  • Zodiac - Hot Line

1987

Terra Rosa - The Endless Basis

Terra Rosa - The Endless Basis

Terra Rosa - The Endless Basis

One of the first female-fronted bands in Japanese metal, Terra Rosa took a few years to really get going, following their formation in 1982. With a handful of demo tapes and plenty of gigs played, they would eventually be picked up by the pioneering Japanese metal label Mandrake Root, and they would make their debut soon after. Terra Rosa's debut, The Endless Basis, is a magnificent heavy metal record wearing its 70s metal influences proudly and is anchored by the rock-steady, charismatic vocal performance of Kazue Akao. Psychedelic and progressive overtones abound, there really wasn't another heavy metal band quite like Terra Rosa in Japan in the late 80s. Just a few of my favorite songs on this one are Petrouchka, Vision of the Lake Bottom and The Endless Basis. The album performed so well for the band that it received an additional pressing in 1987, and then that success eventually led to Terra Rosa signing with a major Japanese record label in King, with whom they would release two more excellent albums in Honesty (1989) and Sase (1991).

Anthem - Bound to Break

Things were continuing to progress well for Anthem in 1987, and with their popularity ever rising, the band put an incredible amount of effort into taking another step with their third record, Bound to Break – widely considered to be their most consistent album to this point. Playing their signature high-octane, carefully crafted heavy metal with power metal-ish overtones, now with a squeaky clean production job by the legendary Chris Tsangarides, several of Anthem's best known songs appeared on this record including Show Must Go On, the title-track and Empty Eyes. Newly minted metal stars in their homeland, things were also going as well as they could internationally for Anthem at this point, as on their Bound to Break tour they were also able to include a trip to America on their schedule, not only playing on U.S. soil for the first time, but headlining a gig, supported by, I kid you not, Paul Gilbert and Racer X, as well as Commander. Anthem would keep their momentum rolling over the next couple years with two strong albums in Gypsy Ways and Hunting Time, despite a major shift in the band's core lineup shortly after Bound to Break's tour, as Eizo Sakamoto departed due to anxiety issues and was replaced admirably well by Yukio Morikawa.

G.I.S.M. - M.A.N.

Influential hardcore punk outfit G.I.S.M. always boasted a bunch of metal elements in their sound thanks to guitarist Randy Uchida, however none of their albums were quite as metal as their sophomore record M.A.N. This record is like if a guitarist from the NWOBHM movement wandered into a hardcore punk gig, shredding away in melodic bliss when the rest of the band simply wanted to have fun and smash things. It's beauty and chaos meshed together perfectly in a totally unique metal-punk hybrid, listen to Good as It Is or Nation's Prosperity to see what I mean. Already highly regarded in both the punk and metal scenes, and having already influenced countless metal-punk hybrid bands in Japan and abroad, this album added another distinct chapter to G.I.S.M.'s considerable legacy. A couple of other important metal-punk hybrids from this era include Gastunk and The Comes.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Dead End - Ghost of Romance
  • Doom - No More Pain
  • EZO - E.Z.O
  • Loudness - Hurricane Eyes
  • Presence - Presence
  • Reaction - True Imitation
  • Sabbrabells - One Night Magic
  • Seikima-II - Big Time Changes
  • Tilt - The Beast in Your Bed
  • Wolf - Wolf

1988

Doom - Complicated Mind

Doom - Complicated Mind

Doom - Complicated Mind

One of Japan's most beloved thrash metal names, prog-thrash weirdos Doom came up through the independent circuit early on, carving their path alongside other 80s staples like Jurassic Jade, Rose Rose, Shellshock and a handful of other notable names in the Tokyo metropolis. With a string of quality releases to start their career in 1986 and 1987, the band was able to swiftly land a major deal with Victor for the release of their Killing Field EP, and with a quick turnaround Doom put out their major debut by the end of the year. That album was Complicated Mind; a record I think most Doom fans would say was the finest hour of a truly great band. There's only so many words you can use to describe Doom's brand of thrash metal; inventive, complex, bizarre and eclectic would only scratch the surface and you get these traits in spades on Complicated Mind. Doom meshes vast stylistic diversity and eccentricity with catchy-as-hell grooves and rhythms in a way few bands metal-wide ever have. One of the things people always love most about Doom is the brilliant fretless bass work of the late great Koh Morota, who's at his very best here, adding so much to Doom's collective sound with his crafty licks, riffs and grooves. A few favorites from this intricately crafted gem of a record include Can't Break My... Without You or Bright Light. I'm pretty fond of Poor Boy Condition as well. Though Doom were never quite as famous as they deserved to be, they carved out a solid, fruitful career as a whole, which has included a successful reunion following a lengthy disbandment; they're rightly recognized as one of the most innovative metal acts to ever come out of Japan.

X (X Japan) - Vanishing Vision

Note: I would have made this monumental record the main feature of this year, however I don't think HubPages would enjoy the cover art, so I've given X a couple of later main features.

In 1988 X Japan, then known simply as X, released their debut record after several years of preparation as an independent band, which included the release of their Orgasm EP in 1986. X were a new breed in Japanese metal, captivating the frustrations and angers of their young audience and reflecting it in a relentless assault of speed and power metal. The band was so edgy for their time in a reserved Japanese society that they couldn't land a record deal, and with that the band opted to release Vanishing Vision themselves through their own label, the pioneering visual kei label Extasy Records. The album was a resounding success and reached #19 on the Oricon charts, which was unprecedented for an independent band such as them. With that the band was able to finally land the big record deal they'd pursued for the past few years and it was becoming apparent that a star was about to be born. In this era, I'd wager there wasn't a single metal band in Japan who could play quite as fast as X did in their prime. This record included several X classics such as I'll Kill You, Vanishing Love and one of the earlier versions of Kurenai.

Dead End - Shambara

Rising from the ashes of the band Liar, Dead End swiftly established themselves as a unique entity in the Japanese rock world, with a distinct blend of heavy metal and a large helping of Gothic rock elements. Melodic, yet raw and eerie, the band's third record Shambara carried on a natural path of progression set in motion with the band's first two albums, and songs like Serpent Silver or Embryo Burning offer just a glimpse into this album's distinct sound. Over the course of their career, especially in the latter portion of this original run of activity, Dead End would establish themselves as an extremely important band to Japanese music, with vocalist Morrie and bassist Joe in particular helping to pioneer both the visual kei movement as well as the Gothic rock sound that would eventually dominate in the 90s. Guitarist You Adachi on the other hand, while not a part of the fledgling visual kei movement was already regarded as one of the most gifted guitarists in the country.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Gypsy Ways
  • Dancer - Violent Emotion
  • Eliza - Something Like Hot
  • Excuriver - In Hard Time
  • Genocide Nippon - Black Sanctuary
  • Girl Tique - Shijuu Kinkaku
  • Hurry Scuary - Break it Up
  • Kuni - Lookin' for Action
  • Outrage - Black Clouds
  • Vanishing Point - Twilight Zone

1989

Show-Ya - Outerlimits

Show-Ya - Outerlimits

Show-Ya - Outerlimits

Show-Ya's Outerlimits is one of the most significant albums in Japanese metal history. By this point Show-Ya had already been around for several years. Going back to their early days, Show-Ya were primed for a strong career after taking Yamaha's band battle festivals by storm back in the early 80s, winning numerous events on their way to a record deal with EMI. After some restructuring, the band put forth six full-length albums between 1985 and 1988, featuring a tight heavy metal and hard rock hybrid, topped with the powerful voice of Keiko Terada. Come 1989 when several bands around them were usually further softening their sound, Show-Ya decided to kick things up a notch and gave us Outerlimits, which would become the most successful album of their career. Outerlimits was a smash hit, reaching #3 on Oricon and quickly going platinum in sales, eventually selling upwards of 600,000 copies. I'm not overstating this when I say the following either, the album revolutionized the role of women playing heavy metal in Japan, opening the door for the countless young women rocking the country today. Among this album's classic tracks you have songs like Genkai Lovers, Yasei no Bara and Battle Express. Show-Ya would find similar success only a year after this in the album Hard Way before lineup problems sent the band into a rapid decline and eventual dissolution.

X (X Japan) - Blue Blood

Barely one full year following the massive, if somewhat unexpected success of their debut, Vanishing Vision, Blue Blood continued the astronomical rise of X, and as the band's major debut on CBS/Sony, the record was a smash hit. Reaching #6 on the Oricon charts, X, along with Show-Ya were on top of the Japanese metal world, but in X's favor, they also had a massive movement forming around them in a legion of groups with a "visual shock" image inspired by their own, soon to be better-known as visual kei bands. Playing a myriad of musical styles, this movement would quickly become a dominating force in Japanese rock. As for Blue Blood, this one's a total Japanese metal classic and fans are typically torn as to whether this album, Vanishing Vision or Art of Life is the band's greatest work; I personally lean towards Blue Blood. For the most part a lightning fast power and speed metal record, this is a fierce, inspired and consistent album, chock full of X classics from Orgasm to the better-known version of the earlier mentioned Kurenai, as well as X, the title-track and the symphonic power metal masterpiece Rose of Pain. In the years immediately following Blue Blood, X's influence would continue to snowball, with the band growing to become the best-selling Japanese metal act of all-time.

EZO (Flatbacker) - Fire Fire

Arguably the greatest metal band (along with Saber Tiger) to ever come out of Hokkaido, originally known as Flatbacker, the band mowed through the competition at Yamaha's Stage Flight and Light Music Contest band battle tournaments in 1984 on the way to a record deal with Victor, releasing two successful albums in 1985 and 1986 before the band's ambitions took them overseas under a new moniker, EZO. Changing style from an intense heavy/speed metal, as EZO the band opted for a more commercial "glam" sound, albeit still playing metal mixed with hard rock. EZO's overseas debut, the self-titled EZO was a decent success, generating a couple minor hits and achieving #150 on Billboard, also giving EZO the distinction of being only the second Japanese metal act to ever chart in America, following Loudness. This also opened the door for a U.S. tour with Guns 'N' Roses. Attempting to build on the success of the first EZO album, in 1989 the band put forth Fire Fire, which would be their final record. My personal favorite release in their catalog, Fire Fire was a relative dud in terms of sales, unfortunately for the band, although the musical product was arguably better than the more famous record that preceded it. A lot of Japanese metal fans are fairly staunch in their preference of eras of this band; they're either an EZO fan or a Flatbacker fan with little in-between. I think this is a shame though as these guys were masters of their craft in both eras, whether it was their gnarly brand of speed metal or the sleazier heavy metal and rock, and they were generally far heavier than their peers around them in both scenes. In my opinion Fire Fire blew the doors off of most of the other glammy metal albums of the late 80s, with content like the speedy Black Moon, the pounding Night Crawler, or the groovy, post-apocalyptic title-track. While the band met their end shortly after Fire Fire, both Hiro Homma and Masaki Yamada would join Loudness in the 90s, with Homma joining Anthem by 2000 as well.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Hunting Time
  • BellzlleB - BellzlleB
  • Doom - Incompetent
  • Fast Draw - Let off the Alarm
  • Gargoyle - Misogi
  • Hideaki Nakama - Point of No Return
  • Jurassic Jade - Gore
  • Loudness - Soldier of Fortune
  • Outrage - Blind to Reality
  • Terra Rosa - Honesty
50-years-of-japanese-metal

1990

Precious - To Glory We Steer

Precious - To Glory We Steer

Precious - To Glory We Steer

With the popularity of metal starting to hit its global 90s decline, we have a few years upcoming where we can talk about some less commercially dominant releases and dig into the Japanese metal underground which would remain strong through this upcoming era with numerous influential groups appearing in the coming years. One of these significant releases was Precious' To Glory We Steer. Forming in 1986, Precious were groomed to become Mandrake Root records' top band in the late 80s, with guitarist Akira Kajiyama becoming the star of the label's impressive roster of musicians. With quality singles already released and a busy touring schedule, a full-length was a natural progression for Precious, and in 1990 we were given To Glory We Steer, one of Japan's most recognizable power metal records of the 90s. A smooth neoclassical power metal, flashy enough but not over the top as some bands in the style could be, this record was ahead of its time in the Japanese scene and in particular defined the power metal sound that Mandrake Root records would focus on for the majority of this decade. Precious, and especially this album, would launch major careers for multiple members of the band, particularly keyboardist Yusuke Takahama as well as Akira Kajiyama who would become one of the best-known guitarists in Japanese metal. To Glory We Steer, with songs like Burning Vengeance, Blasting Your Head or Back to the Memory remains a popular album in the J-power metal fandom to this day.

Anthem - No Smoke Without Fire

One of the most beloved albums of Anthem's career, No Smoke Without Fire was Anthem's proverbial last kick at the can in terms of international success during their original run. Now a well-oiled machine with newest vocalist Yukio Morikawa settled into the band nicely, Anthem travelled all the way to the UK to record this new album, pulling all the stops and putting everything they had into this one. While their international ambitions sadly wouldn't be realized here for a myriad of reasons beyond their control, the album's musical product was stunning. Boasting some of the best material of their career, killer songs such as Voice of Thunderstorm, Blinded Pain or Hungry Soul made this an eternal classic among Japanese metal fans. After this album however, cracks began to show for Anthem, as the band's iconic guitarist Hiroya Fukuda quit, right as the band was about to embark on a massive tour in support of the record. In a frantic search for a worthy replacement, Fukuda's spot on the tour would be filled by the brilliant Hideaki Nakama, formerly of Hurry Scuary, who was fresh off of the release of a successful solo album. This was a temporary solution however and in 1991 he had also left the band. Finally, with the addition of a then-unknown quantity in Akio Shimizu, Anthem would release one more album in 1992 with the hilariously titled, but still strong Domestic Booty before looking at the fading Japanese metal landscape and opting to disband for the better part of the next decade.

Wolf - Some Aspects of the Moment

In my opinion one of Japan's best heavy metal acts of the 80s, Wolf were pretty unlucky in that they were late to the party, as far as traditional heavy metal goes. As a result of this, they largely missed out on the successes that several of their countrymen got to taste just a few years earlier, despite the skill to match most of those bands pound for pound. Never fortunate enough to see a major record deal, Wolf released their self-titled debut EP in 1987, and then in 1990 they released their first and only full-length, Some Aspects of the Moment, right as heavy metal was starting to decline. An energetic, well-crafted album boasting stellar performances from vocalist Tatsunori Matsumoto and shredder extraordinaire Masahiko Kuroki, some of this album's highlights include Star Light, Beyond the Horizon and Never Surrender. While Wolf never saw stardom, their records have received constant praise from Japanese metal fans and they remain sought after classics in the scene.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Aion - Human Griefman
  • Blizard - Danger Life
  • Fast Draw - Rough & Ready
  • Gargoyle - Furebumi
  • Kinniku Shoujo Tai - Gekko Chu
  • Ningen Isu - Ningen Shikkaku
  • Sacrifice - Total Steel
  • Show-Ya - Hard Way
  • S.O.B. - What's the Truth?
  • United - Bloody but Unbowed


1991

X Japan - Jealousy

X Japan - Jealousy

X (X Japan) - Jealousy

The best-selling record in the history of Japanese metal, topping the Oricon charts and selling well over a million copies, Jealousy was X Japan's commercial height. While still mostly heavy and power metal, the band began to experiment more with this record, featuring glammier tracks like Joker or Desperate Angel, multiple instrumental segways, my favorite of which was the somewhat spacy and whimsical Love Replica, or arguably the band's prettiest ballad in the acoustic Voiceless Screaming. As for metal, this record boasted one of the most famous songs in Japanese metal history, that being Silent Jealousy. This record also saw one of the band's earliest songs in the speedy Stab Me in the Back appear on an album for the first time. The last record to feature their classic bassist Taiji Sawada, X, from here on out known as X Japan, would only become more experimental, leading to one of the highlights of their career in 1993 with the epic Art of Life.

Sabbat - Envenom

Forming in 1983, Sabbat, counted among the first wave of black metal, was another band who traversed Yamaha's band battles, albeit aiming for infamy as oppose to commercial success. For some context to the video linked above, Sabbat, already masterfully building their brand, showed up half-naked to Yamaha's MidLand '86 band battle as a competitor; this was an event featuring mostly soft rock, pop, and jazz groups. Though they clearly had no intentions of winning, they got to play a massive stage while attaining all the infamy/recognition they could have possibly wanted. In doing so they proceeded, in glorious fashion, to confuse and horrify the reserved festival-goers with their assault of black/thrash metal, hurling insults at the numerous record companies in attendance while they were at it. I guarantee nobody in the crowd that day forgot the antics of Sabbat, hence their unusual but brilliant publicity stunt was a resounding success. Though it took several more years before they would finally release their first full-length album Envenom, Sabbat were already highly experienced by this point with four EPs as well as various splits, singles and demos to their name and were already the face of extreme metal in Japan. With a polished up yet still fittingly raw and gritty production, the vicious Envenom was a monumental release for these guys and it was Japan's first significant mark on the extreme metal radar globally, setting in motion a massive career of widespread acclaim for Sabbat. Some of my favorite tracks from this one include Evil Nations, Deathtemptation or Carcassvoice. In the following years Sabbat would become one of the most well-traveled bands to ever come out of Japan across any genre, playing countless gigs and festivals across the globe nonstop over the next three-plus decades.

Aion - Aionism

One of Japanese metal's few big successes of the 90s, as well as a major pioneer of the visual kei movement, Aion were seasoned veterans by the time they put out Aionism, their major debut, in 1991. Hitting their stride, Aion, with their blend of thrash, power metal and various other styles took the Japanese rock world by storm in 1990 and early 1991, topping the Oricon indies chart three times with the album Human Griefman, their Ma-G-Ma EP, as well as guitarist Izumi's solo record; it was no surprise seeing the band ink a major deal with CBS/Sony subdivision Ariola. Aionism, the band's third full-length, took the band to new heights and the album hit number 37 on the main Oricon charts. One of the best visual kei records to be found in this era, Aionism is a stylistically varied and inspired effort, as exciting and energetic as anything you'd find in the 90s Japanese metal scene. You really can't go wrong with songs like S.S.S., Be Afraid or Chimeishou to name just a few great moments from this album. Aion's height would continue a few years beyond Aionism, with a further three successful albums before the band's popularity unfortunately began to dwindle towards the end of the decade.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Babylon - Farewell
  • Bad Loser - Utter Indifference
  • Bellzlleb - Mr. Ree ~ Kugutsu to SAD ~
  • City Indian - Howling on Fire
  • Doom - Human Noise
  • Ebony Eyes - Hard Rock Renaissance
  • Jurassic Jade - Dareka ga Koroshita Hibi (Never Forget Those Days)
  • Rosenfeld - Pigs of the Empire
  • Shellshock - Protest and Resistance
  • Terra Rosa - Sase


1992

Loudness - Loudness

Loudness - Loudness

Loudness - Loudness

After Loudness' international fame of the mid 80s evaporated, which was exacerbated by the departure of singer Minoru Niihara and subsequent replacement by Mike Vescera, the band went into a bit of a tailspin, and the results were the divisive and oft-maligned Soldier of Fortune and to an even greater extent, On the Prowl. While the duo of albums had their moments, Loudness were caught in the frustrating position of trying to appeal to their American audience (hence the Vescera hire, though I'm not pinning blame on him) and evolving with the ever changing metal scene and the results were mixed. After this turbulent period where much of the results which the band worked so hard for in the prior decade had all but vanished, Loudness returned home to regroup and restructure. Adding to the mix Masaki Yamada of the recently disbanded EZO as well as Taiji Sawada who had recently departed from X Japan, this disgruntled powerhouse of a lineup unleashed arguably the biggest comeback album Japanese metal would ever see in the self-titled Loudness. In what could only be described as a sheer assault of heavy metal, Loudness undid their last four years of misery and moved the band into the 90s era with ease. This album would reach #2 on the Oricon charts and set Loudness up to survive the tumultuous remainder of the 90s when the vast majority of the metal bands around them broke up. Just a few of this album's highlights are Hell Bites, Firestorm or Pray for the Dead.

Ningen Isu - Ougon no Yoake

Ningen Isu had a brief taste of success early on in their career, with both their debut and follow-up albums (Ningen-Shikkaku and Sakura no Mori no Mankai no Shita respectively) placing respectably well on the Oricon sales charts at 31 and 57. This brush with success however happened right as the Japanese metal scene came tumbling down in popularity, so from that point forward Ningen Isu, despite their talent, would be relegated to the underground for nearly the next two decades. In an era where the vast majority of metal bands were stuck releasing demos or appearing on split albums, praying for a record deal, Ningen Isu, in relative comfort, would continue releasing albums steadily on the small Meldac label and that run of albums started with their third full-length, Ougon no Yoake, establishing the trio as one of metal's best-kept secrets. A more seasoned Ningen Isu, this album really saw the band refine their trademark proggy heavy/doom metal sound. Just a few highlights from this one include Kyouki Sanmyaku, the title-track or the thrashy Koufuku no Neji.

Marge Litch - The Ring of Truth

One of the first symphonic metal bands in Japan, Marge Litch was another act that enjoyed a good career in the underground metal scene. Marge Litch released numerous demos throughout the 80s before their first full-length finally came out in 1991, titled Fantasien. Self-released and limited to a mere 500 copies, the band achieved what they'd set out to do with the album, as it was received well by those who heard it, and in the process they secured a record deal with the small label "Made in Japan", and thus began work on a follow-up, eventually named The Ring of Truth. Playing a hybrid of progressive rock/metal and grand, majestic symphonic metal, topped with the stunning voice of Junko Sera, while the band wasn't exactly a household name, they were one of the most technically impressive metal bands of their time in Japan. Here's the full album, note that it gets increasingly technical as the album progresses.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Aion - Aion
  • Anthem - Domestic Booty
  • Damzell - War Songs
  • Ded Chaplin - Final Revolution
  • Ebony Eyes - Final Fight
  • Gargoyle - Aratama
  • Musashi - Musashi
  • Sabbat - Evoke
  • Saber Tiger - Invasion
  • Tokyo Yankees - Overdoing

1993

X Japan - Art of Life

X Japan - Art of Life

X Japan - Art of Life

One of the most ambitious songs in Japanese metal history, this would be X Japan's second album to top the Japanese charts after Jealousy. I never personally thought of it as a full length, rather an EP due to its length, but that's beside the point. Viewed by a portion of their fanbase as the band's magnum opus, Art of Life was a 29 minute epic that had no business being a smash hit, yet against all odds this single song marketed as an album quickly topped the Oricon charts and sold over half a million copies. Themed around the song's subject's descent into madness and eventual rebound to some semblance of normalcy in their life, this wild ride, while brilliant, was also an extremely abstract piece, bouncing around from being a ballad to speed/power metal fury to a divisive nine minutes of Yoshiki practically destroying his piano. Art of Life helped X Japan to maintain their throne, all while the rest of the metal world was crumbling around them in the 90s metal lull.

Sigh - Scorn Defeat

This is a really neat piece of extreme metal history. After a couple demos and an EP, Sigh were taken on by Euronymous' infamous label Deathlike Silence Productions for the release of their debut record, Scorn Defeat in 1993. The album, receiving widespread praise, put the strange band and Japanese black metal as a whole on the world stage, with Sigh joining Sabbat as Japan's biggest export in the style. A much more straightforward black metal album by Sigh, what Scorn Defeat gave them was a firm base to grow from musically and eventually branch into the bizarre experiments and theatrical brilliance that made them icons in the scene. The Knell and At My Funeral are just a couple tracks from this classic Sigh record.

Fast Draw - Rinne-Tensho

One of the staples of Hokkaido's heavy metal scene, Fast Draw along with Flatbacker, Saber Tiger, Eliza, Screw Driver and a few others defined the trademark Sapporo metal sound, which typically was a gritty, fast and mean heavy metal with a thrashy edge. On what would end up being their final album, Kosei Iida and crew hadn't lost a step despite the ever-changing metal world around them. Still as inspired as when they'd begun, Rinne-Tensho was another rock-solid album full of the in-your-face attitude and energy they'd become known for. With songs like Dear Mr. Black, Osamanomimiharobanomimi and O Manju o Kudasai, Fast Draw closed the book on their career with a bang rather than a whimper.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Aion - Zetto
  • Amphibian - Doppelganger
  • Eldritch - Blood Breed Calls My Name
  • Gargoyle - Tenron
  • Hellchild - Where the Conflict Reaches
  • Ningen Isu - Rashoumon
  • Sabbat - Disembody
  • Stingray - One Night Rose
  • Voidd - Desperate Truth
  • Youthquake - Quake Dope

1994

Gargoyle - Tsuki no Toge

Gargoyle - Tsuki no Toge

Gargoyle - Tsuki no Toge

Forming back in 1989, Gargoyle were one of the exceedingly few bands to rise as metal as a whole was falling, in fact, they would go on to establish arguably the strongest career a Japanese thrash metal band would ever see, only really rivalled in success in the early 90s by Aion. The fifth Gargoyle album, Tsuki no Toge saw the band make a remarkably strong rebound following the departure of longtime guitarist She-Ja. By this point a far more seasoned and experienced Gargoyle, the band didn't skip a beat despite the major lineup change and Tsuki no Toge would end up being perhaps their greatest work and an essential piece of Japan's thrash metal canon. Playing the wild and lively, hot-blooded prog-thrash metal hybrid for which they're so widely loved, with songs like Senzaiteki Genkyoukaku Musabetsu Kakusei Kin Kansenshea, Kanzen na Doku wo Youkyuu Suru or the funky Doko ka de Jimushi ga Nai Teita, Gargoyle demonstrated on this album that they were a virtually unstoppable machine in Japanese thrash by this point, and it really set the tone for their career to follow. An all-time great visual kei pioneer and one of the exceedingly few Japanese metal acts thriving on a major label in the 90s, Gargoyle would continue to make excellent music for the better part of the following twenty-five years, releasing a further thirteen albums by 2016.

Fumihiko Kitsutaka - Euphoria

Under the Blizard highlight in 1984, we talked about the Grand Metal festival, and among the impressive roster of names was Arouge, the only band at the event that didn't really make it, despite musical quality suggesting that the band deserved a much better fate. Fast forward a decade however and so many things have changed for Arouge's old guitarist Fumihiko Kitsutaka. Now a widely recognized name in Japanese metal and rock through his career in Kinniku Shoujo Tai, 1994 seemed like an appropriate time for him to put out a solo album, and this would come to be titled Euphoria. An excellent neoclassical power metal and hard rock hybrid, Kitsutaka put an emphasis on quality songwriting and musical depth first and foremost ahead of flashy guitar heroics, although he's still very impressive in that regard, as you'd expect. This record had shown just how far he'd come as a musician; while always an excellent guitarist, his songwriting ability had grown exponentially by this point in his career. Listen to Sacred Garden, The Room (Named Despair) or Deep in Love for just a few of the metal highlights on the diverse package that is Euphoria.

Saber Tiger - Agitation

Going back to the beginning of their career, for their first eleven years leading up to their 1992 debut, Invasion, Saber Tiger played a more straightforward heavy metal, releasing a plethora of demo tapes and changing out pieces of their lineup constantly, attempting to find the right mix of musicians. Finally settling on a core lineup of members in 1992, particularly with the addition of the lovely Yoko Kubota on vocals and guitarist Yasuharu Tanaka, the band established their trademark sound which would last the remainder of their career, morphing into an abrasive progressive/power metal hybrid. Saber Tiger's second album, Agitation, continued the band's growth from their first album and firmly established the band as the best Hokkaido had to offer. Some favorites from this one include Dividing Line, All My Fear and Motive of the Lie. While they never managed to break out commercially in this era, thanks in part to being so far away from the country's main music hubs in Osaka and Tokyo, the band would be a staple in the underground for many years.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • After Image - Kuroi Kessho
  • Dirty Trashroad - Dirty Trashroad
  • Hisashi Takai - Radiant Heat
  • Loudness - Heavy Metal Hippies
  • Narcotic Greed - Fatal
  • Sabbat - Fetishism
  • Seikima-II - Ponk!!
  • Sly - Sly
  • Tokyo Yankees - Vacate Your Useless Brain
  • Youthquake - Youth... Mine and the Truth

1995

Kuroageha - Teiou Sekkai

Kuroageha - Teiou Sekkai

Kuroageha - Teiou Sekkai

With the massive success of X Japan, from the late 80s throughout the 90s there were countless underground visual kei power metal bands popping up all over the place. A fairly large portion of these bands were average at best, and to be fair it was hard to capture the magic of X in their prime, however on the other side of things, the higher-end X-influenced bands tended to be really good. One of the very best of these bands in my opinion was Kuroageha. Forming in 1993, Kuroageha would release a handful of demos and singles, as well as appear on a couple of omnibus releases before deciding the time was right for a full-length debut. Released through Tears Music, in 1995 Kuroageha's debut came to fruition with Teiou Sekkai. An inspired power/speed metal record with lots of bombastic, high-flying riffs, these guys were in my estimation one of the best metal bands visual kei had to offer in the 90s. In talking about Kuroageha, a friend of mine pointed it out best, they wouldn't blow you away with sheer instrumental skill or vocal prowess, rather their very biggest strength is that they just had so much character and heart poured into the making of their music. A few highlights here include Kiss Over Death, the anti-war Dear Hitler and Guernica.

Stone Edge - Gypsy of the Night

Another solid record from this era was Stone Edge's debut, Gypsy of the Night, self-released in 1995. Another one of the many quality independent bands of this era, Stone Edge came up alongside many of Mandrake Root records' bands, and even featured on one of the label's compilations themselves a year after the release of Gypsy of the Night, though a record deal would ultimately elude them unfortunately. Playing a brand of heavy/power metal with crunchy, even thrashy riff-work at times, paired with the gruff female vocals of Jakey, when first hearing this one I was honestly a little surprised it was self-released as it's so polished and musically tight, plus the production job was quite clean. A handful of songs for you to hear from this one are Feel the Pain, Live in Peace and A Red Light.

Sigh - Infidel Art

Following an acclaimed debut, Sigh's second album, Infidel Art was a fork in the road, so to speak. Now on Cacophonous Records thanks to Euronymous' untimely passing, Sigh, with some name-recognition, began to get more experimental with Infidel Art, and the album was somewhere in-between the more straightforward black metal sound of their first record and the avant-garde black metal insanity of their career following this album. Now boasting whimsical symphonic overtones in contrast to a grimey black metal sound, this album was a first in Japanese extreme metal. Songs like Izuna, Suicidogenic and The Last Elegy are great examples of the ever-evolving sound of this era of Sigh's music.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Dirty Trashroad - Daring Tribal Roar
  • Ezra - Toge
  • Gargoyle - Natural
  • Kuroageha - Isho Hakudatsu
  • Marge Litch - Crystal Heart in the Fountain
  • Ningen Isu - Odoru Issunboushi
  • Unholy Grave - Crucified
  • Vasalla - Insanity
  • Volfeed - Majesty
  • Yukihisa Kanatani - Eau Rouge

1996

Metalucifer - Heavy Metal Drill

Metalucifer - Heavy Metal Drill

Metalucifer - Heavy Metal Drill

Metalucifer began in 1995 as a side-project of Gezol, leader of the black/thrash metal legends Sabbat. Rounding out what would be the band's core lineup with brothers Elizaveat and Elizabigore. Wasting no time after formation, by 1996 we already got the band's first record in Heavy Metal Drill. With Metalucifer, the trio opted to play straightforward, no gimmicks traditional heavy metal, with a throwback sound to the NWOBHM movement and other groups from that era. As I mention no gimmicks to their music, that's not to say they didn't have fun, as they sing primarily about heavy metal and all its awesomeness, even going so far as to name the majority of their releases "Heavy Metal-something", as well as feature noted metal collector and friend of the band Neal Tanaka on most of their cover artwork. For a few tracks from this one, I recommend Heavy Metal Hunter (Part II), Headbanging or Heavy Metal is My Way.

Abigail - Intercourse & Lust

Another one of Japan's extreme metal titans, Abigail played a black/thrash combo as popularized in the country by Sabbat, however Abigail cranked up the speed and aggression a notch further here on their debut, resulting in a truly relentless steamroller of an album. Intercourse & Lust was another success for the Japanese underground, receiving widespread praise from black metal fans both internationally and domestically, cementing Abigail as one of Japan's best exports in the style. Along with several other strong studio albums in the years following this album, much like Sabbat, Abigail have enjoyed an exhaustive overseas touring schedule over the years. Just a couple of tracks from this one are Confound Eternal and Strength of the World.

X Japan - Dahlia

The final X Japan album. By the time X Japan released Dahlia, the writing was already on the wall for the band. They had enjoyed a great run, but the members were becoming increasingly distant from each other and by this point they were quite frankly burnt out from over a decade of intense touring and recording. Dahlia was a fairly mixed bag stylistically, far removed from the more direct power and speed metal sound from their heyday, and while continuing the experimentation of some of their middle-era works, it was apparent the band no longer had a clear direction. On Dahlia they had Yoshiki's obvious creative pull as the band leader clashing with a since self-admittedly brainwashed Toshi who wanted out, as well as the influence of a blossoming solo career for guitarist Hide. Despite Dahlia's creative conflicts, it did still boast two of the band's most famous songs in the title-track and especially Rusty Nail and again topped the Oricon charts for the third time in the band's career. Shortly after this album X Japan split, with Hide passing away in 1998 and the band would remain apart for the next decade.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Bad Loser - Winds of Tomorrow
  • Boris - Absolutego
  • Blasdead - Another Dimension
  • Grudge/Curse - Insanity Brain
  • Guardian's Nail - Believe
  • Ningen Isu - Mugen no Juunin
  • Sabbat - The Dwelling
  • Seikima-II - Mephistopheles no Shozo
  • Vasalla - Tsume ~Nail~
  • Youthquake - Youthquake

1997

Animetal - Animetal Marathon

Animetal - Animetal Marathon

Animetal - Animetal Marathon

Their debut record and the first in their Animetal Marathon series, Animetal was one of the funnest Japanese metal acts to appear in years. Putting a metal twist on covers of classic anime themes, Animetal were unlike any Anison band before them. With a star-studded lineup of Anthem's Eizo Sakamoto, Gargoyle's She-Ja, Reaction's Yasuhiro Umezawa and freelance bassist Masaki, the band was an instant hit, despite metal in Japan still being in the midst of the 90s popularity downswing. They were a gimmick from the start and they didn't care one bit; the immensely fun Animetal gave the world intense heavy/power metal versions of classic theme songs which people never knew they needed so badly, including themes from Space Battleship Yamato, Getter Robo!, Macross and thirty-five, yes, thirty-five other songs. This band in various incarnations would have a very strong run after this album, releasing a further nine studio albums under the Animetal name. Remaining popular in the years since their disbandment, even an American tribute called Animetal USA eventually formed.

Azrael - Run for the Night

One of Japan's more notable power metal bands to appear in the mid 90s; Azrael, while you'd never really call them famous, have enjoyed a long, fruitful career approaching three decades in length and are a respected name in Japanese power metal. The band's first major marker in this long run was the self-released album Run for the Night. Playing a hyper-melodic, Euro-inspired (Helloween in particular) power metal topped off by the impressive upper range of singer Akira Ishihara, this album has seen an increase in popularity in more recent years. For just a few examples from this record, here's the title-track, as well as Going for Glory and Waiting for You. Following this record the band signed with a small label in Highways Records for their second album, and following that they'd built enough momentum to even go major for their third, getting a shiny deal with Japanese industry titans Tokuma in 2003. They continue going strong to this day.

Fatima Hill - Valhalla

Fatima Hill are a band that simply never got the recognition they deserved as one of the best progressive metal acts Japan ever saw. Going back as far as the late 80s under the name Eternal Hill, they toughed out the rough years of the 90s recording numerous demos and gigging with other smaller names, refining their abilities and writing new material with the hope of using it later on. 1995 saw the band debut on a split album (Melodical Renaissance), showcasing them alongside three other relatively unknown, albeit quality acts in Volfeed, Guardian's Nail and Hidden, and following one more preparatory demo earlier in 1997, Fatima Hill would finally release their debut album titled Valhalla. A mid-paced progressive and power metal hybrid with avant-garde elements, this album is loaded with staggeringly complex riff work by guitarist Anjue Yamashiro as well as an impressive and powerful, yet also somewhat haunting vocal performance by singer Yuko Hirose. Some of Valhalla's highlights include The Sun of Thorns, Aesis and Your Bible and Egyptian Tarot. After Valhalla, Fatima Hill would secure a record deal with the notable underground label Worldchaos Production and release two other excellent albums and have remained a touring band in the years since. While not a lot of people know this group, practically everyone fortunate enough to encounter them became a fan.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Concerto Moon - Fragments of the Moon
  • Corrupted - Paso Inferior
  • Intestine Baalism - An Anatomy of the Beast
  • Jurassic Jade - After Killing Mam
  • Kuroageha - Capriccio
  • Munetaka Higuchi with Dream Castle - Free World
  • Seikima-II - News
  • Sigh - Hail Horror Hail
  • Sleazy Wizard - Stone Dead
  • Tyrant - Under the Dark Mystic Sky

1998

Concerto Moon - From Father to Son

Concerto Moon - From Father to Son

Concerto Moon - From Father to Son

Concerto Moon appeared in 1996 as essentially a merger of two underground neoclassical power metal acts in Zenith and Crystal Clear, built around a core of guitarist Norifumi Shima and vocalist Takao Ozaki. This extremely skilled young band was quickly picked up by the classic Japanese metal label Mandrake Root and from there they released an excellent debut in 1997 by the name of Fragments of the Moon. The record garnered immediate attention and the band was quickly signed by a large label in VAP, who were able to launch the career of Concerto Moon to an extent that the smaller Mandrake Root no longer had the means to do. The band's sophomore effort From Father to Son performed extremely well, and the band's popularity was on the rise. An expertly crafted modern neoclassical power metal contrasted by a 70s, Blackmore-esque feel, songs like The Last Betting (formerly a Zenith song), as well as Surrender or Dream Chaser made Concerto Moon one of the most exciting new bands in Japanese metal and one of the stars of VAP's roster. Over the next few years Concerto Moon would be one of a small handful of bands directly responsible for bringing Japanese metal back to prominence after the 90s metal decline.

Vigilante - Chaos-Pilgrimage

The 90s weren't kind to many of the quality progressive and power metal bands of the era, and among these bands who probably didn't get the recognition they arguably deserved was Vigilante. Fronted by Hideki Niwa, formerly of tech-thrashers Hidden, Vigilante's debut Chaos-Pilgrimage is another album where the band had no choice but to self-release the record due to a relative lack of interest in metal at the time. One of Japan's best progressive metal albums of the 90s; complex, tasteful and captivating, it's no wonder the album saw a reissue through Germany's Massacre Records a mere eleven months after its initial release. I have to say the band did a pretty decent DIY production job here considering the circumstances around this album. Some standouts from this one are Chaos-Pilgrimage, The Reviving World and Liars.

Sex Machineguns - Sex Machinegun

Rising to popularity at the same time as Concerto Moon, and by no coincidence also through the label VAP was Sex Machineguns, who while also a power metal band, were more rooted in traditional heavy and speed metal. The band's debut, Sex Machinegun, reached a strong #29 on Oricon and was another contributor in beginning to pull Japan out of the 90s metal slump. An upbeat power/speed metal hybrid, one of Sex Machineguns' most important traits is their sense of humor and lightheartedness, singing about everything from food to daily life to tongue in cheek ramblings about the glory of heavy metal. I'd say this band's biggest contribution was helping Japan to realize how fun heavy metal could be again. Burn (Ai no Hono o Moyase) and the title-track are just a couple of songs from this one. This band could rock with the best of the best while simultaneously putting a smile on people's faces too. Over the next few years they would become the best-selling Japanese metal act between roughly 1998-2005.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Animetal - Animetal Lady Marathon
  • Blindman - Sensitive Pictures
  • Cemetery - Reborn
  • Gargoyle - Junreiin
  • Marge Litch - Fantasien 1998
  • Moon-Struck - Moon-Struck
  • Ningen Isu - Taihai Geijutsu Ten
  • Ritual Carnage - The Highest Law
  • Seikima-II - Move
  • Yellow Machinegun - Spot Remover

1999

Sex Machineguns - Made in Japan

Sex Machineguns - Made in Japan

Sex Machineguns - Made in Japan

It was only the second album in their career, but here's where Sex Machineguns became stars in Japanese metal. Continuing their rapid rise in popularity, this album hit #9 on the Oricon charts and was the first predominantly metal record to crack the top ten in sales since X Japan's height in the early 90s. Musically this one is similar to their debut, in that it's another solid speed/power metal combo with all of the quirks that made these guys great. Some highlights from this one include Tekken II and Iron Cross. Sex Machineguns would continue roughly another five years of considerable success, including four more releases in the Oricon top ten before their star faded a bit, however, all these years later and they remain a respected name in the scene. I wager this was one of the most important albums in pulling Japanese metal back out of its weakened state of the 90s.

Concerto Moon - Rain Forest

Concerto Moon's third album and sadly the final one to feature original vocalist Takao Ozaki, Rain Forest was an all-time classic Concerto Moon album, in fact a large portion of their fanbase still call it their best work. With several of the finest songs Norifumi Shima and crew would ever pen — in particular the album opened with the deadly one-two punch of Prologue / Time to Die and the dramatic, mid-tempo Lonely Last Journey. Other significant highlights were Break it Down and Half Way to the Sun, the latter of which was a reworked song first performed by Concerto Moon predecessor Crystal Clear. As mentioned at the start of this segment, after this album Concerto Moon fell into lineup turmoil and went into a period of restructuring over the next couple years, with a portion of the band diverting their attention temporarily to a new project that we'll get to shortly.

Seikima-II - Living Legend

Seikima-II's final album, with Living Legend the band closed the book on a wonderful career, showing that they never lost a step musically, plus they fulfilled the band's "prophecy" as described earlier in this article, disbanding only a couple months after this album on December 31, 1999 at midnight. Living Legend was somewhat of a revival for the band in addition to a fitting farewell, as it reached #14 on the Oricon charts after their previous couple of albums lagged in sales slightly. By this point in their career they'd sold somewhere in the vicinity of eight million records and were only rivaled by X and Loudness in overall success. Century of the Raising Arms, Go Ahead or the album opener Heavy Metal is Dead are some of this record's highlights.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Aphasia - Mirage on the Ice
  • Blindman - Being Human
  • Castle in the Air - Castle in the Air
  • Magane - Mortes Saltantes
  • Ningen Isu - Nijuu Seiki Sousoukyoku
  • Onmyo-za - Kikoku Tenshou
  • Sabbat - Karisma
  • Terror Squad - The Wild Stream of Eternal Sin
  • VellaDonna - Chaos
  • Yellow Machinegun - Build & Destroy
50-years-of-japanese-metal

2000

Onmyo-za - Hyakki Ryoran

Onmyo-za - Hyakki Ryoran

Onmyo-za - Hyakki Ryouran

Forming in 1999, the start of Onmyo-za's career was a bit of a slower burn, as they self-released their first two albums (the first being Kikoku-Tenshou), while simultaneously maintaining a busy touring schedule and building a name for themselves in the live scene. The second of these two albums was Hyakki Ryouran, which saw Onmyo-za take tremendous strides following a strong, though relatively unrefined debut. Playing heavy metal with influences of thrash, speed and power metal, plus Japanese folk overtones, topped with the beautiful and contrasting vocals of husband and wife duo Matatabi and Kuroneko, this was one of those bands were you could see superstardom coming from a mile away, it was merely a matter of when. Some great moments from this record include Kegai Ninpocho, Ayako and the speedy opener Shiki Wo Karumono. Continuing the momentum they'd attained through Hyakki Ryouran, the band took their next big step in 2001 when they shared the stage with Gargoyle, Gonin-Ish and Ningen Isu at the famous Shibuya O-Air West, the footage of which would be turned into a split video through Mandrake Root records in promotion of the bands. Immediately after, Onmyo-za would ink a record deal with King Records setting in motion an incredible career to follow. Both this album and their first record would see reissues through Mandrake Root as well.

Double Dealer - Double Dealer

Here we have the debut of Double Dealer, a supergroup which saw members of Concerto Moon and Saber Tiger join forces. Forming in 2000, in large part due to the ongoing lineup conflict in Concerto Moon, the band wasted no time putting out a debut, with this self-titled record coming out in June of the same year, and with a formidable cast of musicians, Double Dealer didn't disappoint. This band was exactly what you'd expect a merger of the two aforementioned bands to be and it was awesome; slick melodic power metal with blazing neoclassical guitar runs and the abrasive snarl of vocalist Takenori Shimoyama capping it all. Some obvious highlights on this one are Pandora's Box, Raise Your Fist and of course The Long Way Road. Debuting on the VAP label with this record, the immediate success of Double Dealer presented the band with the unique opportunity to tour Europe in support of Symphony X in the winter of 2000. Quite the first year, huh? Double Dealer would make three more well-received albums as of 2007, with members unfortunately becoming too busy to continue the project.

Stingray - Heaven's Door

The final record in what was a respectable fifteen year run for Japanese power metal pioneers Stingray, who were unfortunately relegated to the underground for most of that time, despite a strong career start which saw the band debut in 1985 as part of Japanese mega-label King Records' roster for their first album Rain. While this fairly quick shift to obscurity was simply misfortune on the band's part, they persevered and continued to make quality music during this period, finally calling it quits in 2000 following the release of Heaven's Door. Musically best described as a melodic heavy and power metal hybrid, while the star of a lot of these old heavy or power metal bands was the guitarist (Japan is a world-class guitarist factory after all), Stingray's biggest strength was always singer and band leader Osamu Suzuki with one of the widest upper vocal ranges of any frontman in Japanese metal, and he possessed such a unique technique that while unorthodox was simply captivating; a good friend once described it as "hypnotic" which I most certainly agree with. Some of my favorite tunes from Stingray's grand finale are Incarnation, Show Time and Tokinonagare Ni.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Breeze Least - Scream
  • Gonin-ish - Gonin-ish
  • Grim Force - Circulation to Confusion
  • Gunbridge - Gladiator
  • Manipulated Slaves - Burst into Blue Flame
  • Ningen Isu - Kaijin Nijuu Mensou
  • Ritual Carnage - Every Nerve Alive
  • RoseRose - No Medicine Cures an Asshole
  • Sabbat - Satanasword
  • Volcano - Violent

2001

Volcano - Davi

Volcano - Davi

Volcano - Davi

Following his departure from Gargoyle, six-string maestro She-Ja opted to start his own project. Forming in 1993, Volcano spent their first few years establishing themselves, refining their musical identity and fine-tuning their lineup. Come 2000 when they finally made their debut with the acclaimed Violent, their lineup now included a new singer in Aion's Nov plus She-Ja's former Gargoyle bandmate in Katsuji on drums. As a result of their debut's success, the band landed a record deal with Victor and struck while the iron was hot, only a year later they released Davi, an album every bit as good as their debut — in fact many Volcano fans would tell you it's their best work. A high-octane melodic thrash metal record with melodeath and power metal overtones, Davi just has so many things going in its favor, from the expected excellent guitar work of She-Ja (he handled bass on Davi as well), to the furious, inspired performance by singer Nov, or the sturdy drum work of Katsuji, it wasn't hard to see why these longtime veterans were the top Japanese thrash act of the early 2000s. It's hard to pick just a few standouts from this one as it's so consistent, but you can't go wrong with songs like History Cries or Absurd. I also really like Child Eyes which features a healthy dose of Hammond organ courtesy of guest keyboardist Rei Atsumi, formerly of Vow Wow.

Church of Misery - Master of Brutality

Master of Brutality marked the beginning of what would become a legendary career for doom/stoner metal icons Church of Misery. Easily one of the most internationally recognized bands in Japanese metal, with Master of Brutality, bassist Tatsu Mikami's brilliant serial-killer themed creation stormed onto the global metal scene with their thundering, groovy brand of doom. Sporting a considerable helping of Black Sabbath inspiration, this is doom metal cranked to eleven and they effectively spin their influence into their own style; the riffs here are absolutely massive and the guitar and bass tones are otherworldly. It's grimey, ugly, greasy heavy metal and singer Yoshiaki Negishi, my favorite Church of Misery singer, tops it all off perfectly with his gravelly, rough voice. While I don't mean to pick the first three songs on the record as Master of Brutality is excellent from beginning to end, my three favorites are the stellar opening trio of Killifornia, Ripping into Pieces and Megalomania.

Concerto Moon - Gate of Triumph

Following the departure of singer Takao Ozaki, Concerto Moon would employ the talents of Takashi Inoue, who would end up being the band's longest tenured vocalist with a run spanning the next six albums and lasting over a decade. The first of these albums was Gate of Triumph, and I have to say that despite a major change to the band's core, the transition from singer to singer was pretty seamless and things still looked great for Concerto Moon. A transitional album with more emphasis on the band's considerable instrumental chops, Gate of Triumph was honestly quite different in contrast to the band's works that came before and after in that over half of this album was instrumental. With that in mind, arguably none of these instrumentals showed off their skill as well as the opener Waiting for the Coming Strike / To Die For, though I really like the title-track in this regard too. Not being left out amidst the flurry of instrumentals however was Takashi Inoue, delivering several solid vocal performances over the remaining tracks, with To Always Be Myself being his best work here in my opinion.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Aresz - Beat Blast Spiral
  • Double Dealer - Deride on the Top
  • Gargoyle - Future Drug
  • King's Evil - Deletion of Humanoise
  • Manipulated Slaves - The Legendary Black Jade
  • Shadow - Shadow
  • Sigh - Imaginary Sonicscape
  • Sorrow of Tranquility - Empire from Darkness
  • Vortex - Colors Out from the Emptiness
  • Xanadu - Forever Ties

2002

Musashi - Miyamoto Musashi

Musashi - Miyamoto Musashi

Musashi - Miyamoto Musashi

This was the final album by former Hellen keyboardist Yasuharu Takanashi's band Musashi, who had a fairly successful run since their formation in 1991. Following three strong albums, Musashi's fourth and final album Miyamoto Musashi was arguably their finest work. This band was about as authentic as Japanese folk metal could possibly get. The vast majority of "folk metal" bands in Asia have always opted for a more European sound, but Musashi were one of the first and to this day only ones to focus purely on an Asian, particularly Japanese traditional folk sound. Almost exclusively an instrumental band, they fused folk with progressive metal and rock, crafting beautiful, interesting stories taking their audience on an adventure without typically ever saying a word. This album was no exception to the above, themed around the life and adventures of the band and album's namesake, Musashi, and the way the band weaves through different moods and themes, intertwining intensity and beauty is nothing short of stunning. It's very much an album that needs to be listened to in one go for full appreciation, but some of my favorite songs here are Ganryujima, Shinken and Sekigahara. Shortly after this album, Yasuharu Takanashi would become an immense success in the soundtrack business, creating numerous soundtracks to various video games and anime series including obscure cult classic Naruto. He continues to collaborate with his former Musashi bandmates in many of his projects.

Boris - Heavy Rocks

A legendary Japanese band, Boris have made several of the most critically acclaimed rock and metal records to ever come from the island nation, and the most interesting thing about Boris is that, like their heroes Melvins, you simply never know what you're going to get from one album to the next. Boris have bounced around practically every style in the rock and metal world — and convincingly too. On one album you could get doom metal and on the next you could get noise rock, then they come back after that with a thrash album and so on, so forth. In this segment though we're highlighting Heavy Rocks, which is more of a garage/stoner rock and metal mix. In part I've chosen this one to represent the band as it's one of their most accessible albums for newcomers (the band can get really damn weird and abstract if that wasn't implied earlier) and it's just simply a really strong record. 70s doomy rock and metal influence abound, amplifier feedback blaring, yet the production crisp and clear; this was a good, honest stab at that retro sound by Boris and they executed it remarkably well. Some easy highlights here are Korosu, Rattlesnake and of course Heavy Friends.

Blood Stain Child - Silence of Northern Hell

Silence of Northern Hell set the foundation for Blood Stain Child becoming Japan's most successful melodic death metal act of the 2000s. A high energy brand of melodeath rife with flashy guitar heroics heavily influenced by Children of Bodom as much of the Japanese melodeath was back in the day (and still is), Blood Stain Child would eventually put their own spin on the style, incorporating a bunch of electronic elements into their sound, influencing a number of newer bands along the way including Crossfaith and MergingMoon. However, going back to the dawn of their career, Silence of Northern Hell was a more straightforward melodeath/power metal affair, with the electronic ideas they'd later incorporate being completely absent, which isn't a bad thing as it gave you a look at the band in a more simplified state before they added all the bells and whistles. While it's less unique than some of their later stuff, these very first footsteps for the band still holds up as a respectable melodic death/power hybrid and it boasts likely the best guitar work of Ryu's career. A short and sweet album clocking in at a modest thirty-one minutes, my favorite track here has always been Legend of Dark. A couple other highlights are Silence of Northern Hell and Requiem.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Overload
  • Concerto Moon - Destruction and Creation
  • Fatima Hill - Aion
  • Kadenzza - The Reality in the Phantasmagoric World
  • Kelly Simonz's Blind Faith - The Rule of Right
  • Onmyo-za - Koujin Rasetsu
  • Sex Machineguns - Ignition
  • Siegfried - Remains
  • Tyrant - Legend
  • United - Core

2003

Galneryus - The Flag of Punishment

Galneryus - The Flag of Punishment

Galneryus - The Flag of Punishment

Easily the best Japanese metal band to release their debut album in 2003, Galneryus was a brilliant young band primed for a quick rise in popularity, just as Sex Machineguns and Concerto Moon did only a couple years prior. Forming in 2001 with a core group of immensely talented, yet relatively unknown members including Syu and Tsui of Aushvitz on guitar and bass, drummer Junichi Sato of Mephistopheles plus the powerhouse vocalist of Gunbridge, Yama-B, Galneryus quickly released a demo and a single while adjusting their lineup (namely, they added the talents of keyboardist Yuhki, formerly of the criminally underappreciated Castle in the Air), making a name for themselves along the way. This in turn led to a record deal with VAP and upon signing, Galneryus promptly began work on their first album, The Flag of Punishment. They were still a really young band and there were areas they'd become much stronger in quickly, but overall this is one mighty power metal record, boasting top notch musicianship across the board, and this was another one of those bands where you could see stardom on the horizon. This was one of the first new-gen, really modern power metal records to come out of Japan, and along with the excellent work of both Sex Machineguns and Concerto Moon the past couple years, Galneryus joined them in helping power metal to really take foothold as the dominant metal genre in the country, lasting all the way through present day. Some of the finest songs on this album include In the Delight, Holding the Broken Wings and an old fan favorite in Struggle for the Freedom Flag.

Intestine Baalism - Banquet in the Darkness

One of the most internationally acclaimed death metal acts to ever come out of Japan, Intestine Baalism technically play melodic death metal, even though they're heavier and more brutal than practically any other melodeath act on the planet. Having already released an incredible debut, An Anatomy of the Beast, six years prior, their second album Banquet in the Darkness, released through British extreme metal label Blackend, was another homerun for the band. With a more developed and refined sound at this point, Intestine Baalism were masters of their craft and a rare breed in the realm of melodeath. Unforgiving and crushingly heavy, yet with melodic touches at every turn, songs like Banquet in the Darkness, The Planet and Flesh for the Twelfth Omnipotent made this an all-time classic of Japanese death metal. They released one more world-class album in 2008's Ultimate Instinct and they've remained a touring band ever since.

Kadenzza - Into the Oriental Phantasma

The solo project of eventual Sigh guitarist You Oshima, Kadenzza's origins go as far back as 1993 following his departure from the band Black Maria. Though Oshima didn't begin making albums until the early 2000s, his 2002 debut The Reality in the Phantasmagoric World landed him a deal with Holy Records out of France, which would handle the release of his next two albums, the first of which would be titled Into the Oriental Phantasma, his most popular release to date. Kadenzza's sound took quite a bit of influence from Sigh (which kind of made Oshima an easy hire when Sigh themselves needed another guitarist in 2014), although Kadenzza's sound was both far more atmospheric and far more symphonic, in addition to Oshima's considerable skill on guitar being showcased quite prominently. I don't like a lot of budget black metal acts, I'll have to be honest, although this one in particular is a really well-made one-man project. His vision was clear and his execution was damn-near flawless, with my only minor gripe being the drum machine used, but that can be forgiven as I'm sure he was about the only legit black metal musician honing his craft in Fukushima twenty years ago. Listen to Wheel of Fortune, War Phantasma or my personal favorite, Kamikaze Blows for a few examples from this one.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Abigail - Forever Street Metal Bitch
  • Ark Storm - Beginning of the New Legend
  • Azrael - Sunrise in the Dreamland
  • Barbatos - Rocking Metal Motherfucker
  • Concerto Moon - Life on the Wire
  • Hate Beyond - Perpetual Pain
  • Magane - Yomi Jushi (Beginning at the End)
  • Moi dix Mois - Dix Infernal
  • Onmyo-za - Houyoku Rindou
  • Sabbat - Karmagmassacre

2004

Ark Storm - The Everlasting Wheel

Ark Storm - The Everlasting Wheel

Ark Storm - The Everlasting Wheel

One of Japan's best-known neoclassical metal names, Katsu Ohta created Ark Storm in 2001 after spending the prior fifteen plus years in numerous independent bands, plus the reasonably successful debut of his solo career in recent years. By this point with metal being on an upswing again in Japan, Ohta was signed to King Records subdivision Nexus for the the debut of his newest project, with him rightfully being touted as one of the most skilled guitarists in the scene. Three increasingly popular albums into their career by the time 2004 rolled around, with the release of The Everlasting Wheel, this was arguably the best release of their career. Ark Storm is pure, unfettered and unrepentant Malmsteen worship and while you wouldn't necessarily call it the most original, it's well-made and Ohta is one of the more impressive neoclassical shredders you're likely to find. Add in the considerable skills of Galneryus keyboardist Yuhki plus Ichiro Nagai, formerly of Concerto Moon on drums and you've got a really competent core lineup. A handful of songs I really like from this one are Face the Evil Master, Final Faith and Symphony on Wings.

Blaze (Kaen) - Danger Zone

This is a neat one. Blaze (they went by Kaen in Europe) actually formed way back in 1975, and almost immediately after formation competed in various events in Yamaha's expansive band battle circuit, culminating in Blaze getting to perform the lofty stage of EastWest '76. That was it for the band however after what seemed to be a decent start, and from there I can only assume they opted to just play gigs locally for the ensuing decade before breaking up in 1987. Reuniting again in 1995 and active pretty much constantly since then, all the band managed to release in that time span was a demo tape in '95, so them suddenly dropping a studio album in 2004, twenty-nine years into their career was a bit of a shock to say the least. It was so worth the effort though. Danger Zone is such a cool album; with Blaze having never been a recording band with the outside pressures to evolve musically, their sound never really left the 70s, so this album is one of the most authentic sounding "throwback" albums you'll find anywhere. A catchy-as-hell 70s-style heavy metal and hard rock hybrid boasting a bunch of Blackmore influence, a few of Danger Zone's highlights are the title-track, Freedom and Devil Doll. While activity since this album remained about as sporadic as before, Blaze does have one other album as good as this in 2015's Dream Chaser.

Fastkill - Infernal Thrashing Holocaust

The debut record of Tokyo thrashers Fastkill, this one surprisingly garnered a lot of attention back in the day, despite thrash not exactly sitting at the top of the metal food-chain anymore by this point in time. Playing, as their name would suggest, a lethal, lightning fast brand of thrash metal, this one in particular boasted strong, complex riff-work from both guitar and bass, as well as fittingly shrieked, wild vocals barked in your face. The band never hides its influences here, you can hear Slayer and Dark Angel elements all over the place, but it feels organic. Maintaining what can only be described as a frantic pace, following a minute long intro of chanting, the remaining twenty-six minutes blows by in a flurry of thrashing insanity. Some standouts here in my opinion are Kill for Pleasure, Feel the Hatred and Drenched in Blood. This was a really successful album for the band and they've carved out a pretty decent career in the years since its release. A related recommendation is guitarist Akihiro Ito's most recent band, Coven, who play much more of a traditional heavy metal.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Eternal Warrior
  • Aphasia - Wild and Innocent
  • Church of Misery - The Second Coming
  • Concerto Moon - After the Double Cross
  • Endless Dismal Moan - Endless Dismal Moan
  • Followbane - At the Blizzard End...
  • Gallhammer - Gloomy Lights
  • Loudness - Racing
  • Ningen Isu - San Akudouchuu Hizukurige
  • Onmyo-za - Mugen Houyou

2005

Gonin-Ish - Naishikyo Sekai

Gonin-Ish - Naishikyo Sekai

Gonin-Ish - Naishikyo Sekai

A band you could easily place among the most unique Japanese metal acts ever, Gonin-Ish have never been the most consistent in terms of putting out music regularly, but while fans have generally endured long wait times between Gonin-Ish releases they've always been rewarded with music of the utmost quality. Playing an outlandish, avant-garde and startlingly complex breed of progressive metal, this second album being no exception, these guys' (and a lady on vocals) music is otherworldly. With a masterful blend of screamed, spoken word and sung vocals by Anoji; frantic, frenzied yet melodic and beautiful piano all over the place, clashing with winding instrumental technicality across the rest of the lineup, Naishikyo Sekai weaves in and out of being both serene and atmospheric as well as on the other side of the coin a violent, extreme prog metal. Gonin-ish are also one of the relatively few but awesome bands themed entirely around Japanese folk tales and historical literature, a-la Onmyo-za or Ningen-Isu. Some favorites from this album include Muge no Hito, Shagan no Tou and of course how can I not mention the incredible, near twenty-minute finale Akai Kioku; one of the most impressive progressive metal pieces I've honestly ever heard. As I'd mentioned earlier, Gonin-Ish don't exactly put music out often, taking a whopping fifteen years to release a follow-up to Naishikyo Sekai with 2020's Shibito Sanka, but they're just as impressive of a band all these years later despite such sporadic studio activity.

Corrupted - El Mundo Frio

One of the most fascinating works in the entire doom metal genre, Corrupted's fifth album, the single-song, hour and eleven minute long masterpiece El Mundo Frío was a career defining moment for the band. Dreamy, atmospheric and peaceful yet at the same time uneasy and ominous, what begins as gentle acoustics morphs into monstrous, crushing, despair-filled sludge/doom riff-work. This then slowly mellows out a little, and is eventually joined by menacing spoken-word musings before the song reaches one of multiple hideous, grim peaks. These segments are easily some of the heaviest doom you'll encounter, the rumbling guitars hit with the force of an earthquake, singer Hevi sounding like some ghastly creature the band dug out from underneath a rock. Add in a couple of surprising segments of harp as well as another crushing doom climax, the song eventually settles down to its relaxed beginnings to close out. The thing that makes El Mundo Frío such a special record and a resounding success in spite of its length is how the band perfectly balances the album's gentle and brutal elements, leading from one into the other seamlessly, transitioning from one mood to another, ensuring the record never overstays its welcome.

Bow Wow - Era

After Vow Wow faded in 1990 and Bow Wow reunited in '95, with a rotating cast of musicians the band managed to keep afloat surprisingly well, releasing a further seven albums by 2002, navigating the barren metal landscape of the 90s effectively. Taking three (nearly four) years off from recording for the first time in what had otherwise been a ridiculously busy career, it honestly felt like Yamamoto and company were nearly ready to close the book on Bow Wow. Putting together one final record in 2005 by the name of Era, you couldn't ask much better of a last hurrah from one of Japan's earliest metal icons. Era boasts a more modern mixed rock/metal sound, sure, but over thirty years into their career by this point and with the group's original member core of Yamamoto-Niimi-Saito intact, make no mistake, this is still the same Bow Wow everyone knows and loves. It's impressive just how much gas Bow Wow still had in the tank here; Kyoji Yamamoto's voice has held up well and his guitar work along with Saito's is still fresh and inspired, while Niimi's drumming is as tight as ever. Some standout tracks from Era include Hands Up, Fallen Angel and Rock 'n' Roll Swindler. While it's sad that Era seems to have marked the end of Bow Wow's recording career, at least they went out with one last quality record. While the band has only played a handful of gigs since Era, Kyoji Yamamoto's solo career continues strong to this day.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Akira Kajiyama / Joe Lynn Turner - Fire Without Flame
  • Alhambra - A Far Cry to You ~Ashita e no Yakusoku~
  • Blood Stain Child - Idolator
  • Coffins - Mortuary in Darkness
  • D - The Name of the Rose
  • Double Dealer - Fate & Destiny
  • Galneryus - Advance to the Fall
  • Onmyo-za - Garyou Tensei
  • Serpent - Cradle of Insanity
  • Sigh - Gallows Gallery

2006

Galneryus - Beyond the End of Despair

Galneryus - Beyond the End of Despair

Galneryus - Beyond the End of Despair

The third straight excellent album to open Galneryus' career, Beyond the End of Despair was the band's biggest success yet, reaching #55 on Oricon and was met with critical praise. Continuing to refine and add new elements to their sound, Beyond the End of Despair was an inspired and stylistically varied power metal record boasting world-class musicianship and, by no coincidence, it was loaded with numerous classic Galneryus tunes, the likes of which include Raid Again, My Last Farewell, Point of No Return and Shriek of the Vengeance to name just a few. From my recollection it was also around this time that metal fans began to really take notice of Galneryus overseas, especially online. Within Japan's borders, they had grown to become one of the country's three biggest power metal bands of the early-mid 2000s along with labelmates Concerto Moon and Sex Machineguns, and became one of the leading factors in power metal eventually catching on as the dominant metal style there. Galneryus would continue strong for two more albums before disagreement over the band's direction saw vocalist Yama-B as well as bassist Yu-To leave in 2008 resulting in the band entering a new era shortly after.

Terror Squad - Chaosdragon Rising

One of Japan's most respected names in thrash metal and a long-running one at that, forming back in 1992, you may be surprised to see that Terror Squad only have two full-length albums to their name, despite nonstop activity for their entire thirty year run thus far. Despite the fact that they don't pump out many albums, when they do you know it'll be something special. An all-out attack of blistering thrash/speed metal with elements of hardcore punk and mind-blowingly clever twists and turns of prog technicality, Chaosdragon Rising stands out as one of the most unique thrash albums to ever come out of Japan. While their excellent first album The Wild Stream of Eternal Sin boasted a lot more death metal influence, Chaosdragon Rising leans into more of a crossover sound, and is much more technical and experimental. Among my favorite tracks from this album, here's Sonicriot, Yami Yori Fukaku and Helldozer. With a new album finally on the way fifteen plus years later following the brilliance of Chaosdragon Rising, at this point fans expect nothing less than the best from Terror Squad.

Followbane - Dead Fantasia

A two-man melodic black/death metal project out of Kyoto, while they were never truly famous, I remember this band and this album Dead Fantasia in particular, the band's second, garnering quite a bit of chatter alongside a few other solid extreme metal projects such as Sorrow of Tranquility, Shadow or Blood Stain Child when Japanese metal was first spreading like wildfire online several years back, and I think Followbane still holds up pretty well today. As you might expect, it's got a pretty lo-fi, gritty sound, though (drum machine aside) it's extremely well-performed throughout with scorching melodic lead guitars in particular from Nosuke and Koba, and the songwriting is very good too, with pleasant symphonic orchestrations carefully intertwined with the meloblack/death aggression. A handful of the strongest tracks from this one I would say are Breath of Sea, Deluge of Life and the title-track Dead Fantasia.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Immortal
  • Balflare - Tempest
  • Blasdead - Ground Flare
  • Blindman - Pain for the Pleasure
  • D - Tafel Anatomie
  • Endless Dismal Moan - Lord of Nightmare
  • Infected Malignity - The Malignity Born from Despair
  • Mastermind - From Here to Eternity
  • Ningen Isu - Hoochie Koo
  • Rachel Mother Goose - Signs

2007

D - Neo Culture ~Beyond the World~

D - Neo Culture ~Beyond the World~

D - Neo Culture ~Beyond the World~

Here we have the third album by the wacky visual kei vampires D. In what can only be described as a potpourri of stylistic mixture, these guys were always guaranteed to give you something fresh and interesting in what has been an at times stagnant visual kei scene. Mixing elements of Gothic rock, symphonic metal, power metal, J-rock, folk and a bunch of other styles, Neo Culture ~Beyond the World~ is one of the most complete packages the band has ever offered. With a diverse range of songs like the Gothy Schwarzschild, the Japanese folk-infused Ouka Saki Some ni Keri or the exotic Sora ni Saki mu Hana, Mizu ni Sumi Chi ni Yadoru, it's far from your standard metal affair, but it's simply excellent, despite how unconventional it can be. In addition to how strong this album is musically, it was also a new commercial height for D (which they've since surpassed) hitting a strong #31 on Oricon.

Blaze - Blaze

In my opinion one of the best heavy metal/hard rock bands of the 2000s in Japan, in 2007 Hisashi Suzuki's Blaze made their full-length debut, with this self-titled record. Forming back in 1998, they were primarily a live band for most of their early days, making a name for themselves in the Osaka area with their signature 70s inspired metal and rock sound, taking cues from bands like Roth-era Scorpions in particular, as well as Saxon, Rainbow and others. This is pure, raw 70s heavy metal energy all the way through, without the gimmicky feel that so many other "retro" bands seem to be plagued by, and just to name a few of this excellent album's standouts, there's songs like Answer, On the Run, or Wiseacre in the Land of Nod. This record wasn't an immediate hit, as it was self-released in a small quantity and only reached a few ears, however it's been said good music finds a way to survive, and in 2012 the album saw a reissue when the band were signed by German powerhouse High Roller Records, earning the talented quartet a well-deserved cult following which has only grown in the years since.

Action! - Mystic Blue

The final release by classic Japanese metal act Action! and the second of their post-reunion works, this one was arguably the strongest release of Yoshiro Takahashi and crew's lengthy career, which spanned all the way back to the mid 70s if you include the band's predecessor Sansuikan who we spoke of back in 1978. Action's swan song Mystic Blue sounded every bit as good as when the band under this name first made waves in 1984 with an album and two excellent EPs. This is simply good, pulls-no-punches heavy metal and hard rock the way Action have always done it. It's hook-heavy, melodic, and most importantly authentic 80s rock and metal nostalgia and, really, it's just plain fun. Some obvious highlights here are the all-out-attack of Not So Bad, Jade which boasts a few nods to pioneering glam rockers Sweet (Action themselves are named after the Sweet song, so this is no surprise), and then with the band knowing this record would be curtains for their respectable run, they closed out the album with perhaps the best version of their signature song 100,000 Volt that they ever made.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • 403 Forbiddena - N.E.W.S.
  • Alhambra - Fadista
  • Swarrrm - Black Bong
  • Minstrelix - Memoirs
  • Onmyo-za - Maou Taiten
  • Sigh - Hangman's Hymn - Musikalische Exequein
  • Taia - Seeds of Rain
  • Takayoshi Ohmura - Emotions in Motion
  • Versailles - Lyrical Sympathy
  • Vrain - Rendez Blue

2008

Dir En Grey - Uroboros

Dir En Grey - Uroboros

Dir En Grey - Uroboros

Already a well-established and immensely popular band in years prior, beginning with Uroboros, Dir En Grey left behind much of the nu-metal roots of their past, adding progressive metal, more avant-garde elements a bunch of other traits to their sound, expanding their popularity beyond the reaches of the visual kei scene and bringing a bunch of more-traditional metal fans into the fold. Tied for the second highest charting album of their career to this point hitting a lofty #4 on the Oricon charts, this also marked Dir En Grey's international height, as it both topped the Billboard Heatseekers chart and reached #9 on the Billboard independent charts in the United States. An eerie, dark, and brilliantly artistic album striking a nice balance of emotion and aggression, Uroboros featured some incredible pieces such as Vinushka, Ware, Yami Tote... or Gaika, Chinmoku Ga Nemuru Koro. Dir En Grey would not slow down after this with their next three albums to close out the decade hitting a minimum of #6 on Oricon.

Versailles - Noble

The eagerly anticipated debut record of Versailles, Noble delivered on the hype that built surrounding the band's first single, The Revenant Choir, as well as their first EP Lyrical Sympathy. Versailles was a sensation in the visual kei scene and one of the freshest ideas to appear in visual kei in quite a while. Comprised of Garnet Grave guitarist Hizaki, Lareine vocalist Kamijo, Aikaryu axeman Teru, plus relative unknowns at the time in drummer Yuki and bassist Jasmine You, Versailles hit different than a lot of the other power metal bands making waves at the time. An extremely theatrical band, not to mention an unconventional one, their symphonic/neoclassical power metal sound was unmistakably theirs, from the glorious twin guitar leads to Yuki's incredibly versatile drum work to the unusual, somewhat deadpan vocal delivery of Kamijo. Some favorites off of this one are After Cloudia, Aristocrat's Symphony and of course The Revenant Choir, which in particular boasts a kickass Yoshiki-inspired flailing drum intro, courtesy of Yuki. After the success of Noble, Versailles would ascend to the top of the visual kei food chain for a number of years.

Anthem - Black Empire

By this point revered by metal fans as one of the most consistent bands in the business, after Anthem's disbandment which spanned most of the 90s, the group would reunite in 2000, picking up right where they left off. Following a collaboration with Graham Bonnet, Anthem would release a further four all-around excellent records between 2001 and 2006, proving that the veteran act hadn't lost a step whatsoever. This brings us to 2008 with their 12th full-length (excluding the Bonnet collaboration) titled Black Empire, an album that a large portion of fans regard as their finest post-reunion record (along with the preceding Immortal), with the quality to match their 80s masterpieces. While they'd dabbled in the style occasionally on older records, the band displayed noticeably more power metal elements in their post-reunion sound. Anthem in a way rode the power metal wave exploding in Japan at the time, incorporating it more prominently into their tried and true classic sound to bring the band into the new era, pleasing new and old fans alike. As just a few examples from this killer record, here's Awake, Go Insane and Perfect Crawler. As to be expected, Anthem still never lost their touch after this record, continuing along as strong as ever in the following years.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Akira Kajiyama / Takenori Shimoyama - Into the Deep
  • Balflare - Sleeping Hollow
  • Intestine Baalism - Ultimate Instinct
  • Jikuu Kaizoku Seven Seas - Imagination
  • Myproof - Pupil of Astraea
  • Onmyo-za - Chimimouryou
  • Poison Arts - Rising Sun
  • Quest for Blood - Quest for Blood
  • Screaming Symphony - Screaming for Heavy Metal
  • Shadow - Forever Chaos

2009

Church of Misery - Houses of the Unholy

Church of Misery - Houses of the Unholy

Church of Misery - Houses of the Unholy

By this point a well-established and respected act touring overseas regularly, in 2009 Church of Misery released their third studio album, Houses of the Unholy (note: 2007's Vol. 1 was a set of unreleased recordings from their very early days and not officially an album). Following the similar, yet tried and true, formula that made their first albums such a success, Houses of the Unholy is an excellent piece of grooving, pounding doom/stoner metal. The second album to feature Hideki Fukasawa on vocal duties, he fits the band's sound just as well as the departed Yoshiaki Negishi; just a bit less abrasive than his predecessor, but has a ton of charisma and does an excellent job. Additionally, Tatsu Mikami's bass work on top of his songwriting is splendid as always. Perhaps the strongest grooving record they'd made yet, the album explodes out of the gates with a killer (that pun was unintentional, I swear) one-two punch of El Padrino and Shotgun Boogie; another standout is Born to Raise Hell. Pretty much the unrivalled kings of groovy, psychedelic doom metal in Japan, Church of Misery have only continued to produce quality content in the years since this album.

Outrage - Outrage

One of the oldest names in thrash metal, Outrage, with the release of their tenth album, would become one of a handful of 80s acts to effectively adapt to the modern era. With the simple, self-titled Outrage, the band shattered their commercial peak, and in my opinion from this album onward their creative peak too. While the band drew heavy comparisons to Metallica in their early days, thanks largely due to the vocals of Naoki Hashimoto, they're one of those bands that slowly morphed and tinkered with their sound over the years to really leave those comparisons in the past, now sticking to a speed/thrash metal formula. Marking the return of the band's original lineup from their first studio release, this album was a rejuvenated, energized Outrage ready to make a statement. Clearly a vastly more experienced, polished band by this point, the album boasted great tunes like Until You Are Dead, Fist Full of Sand or Rise and is one of the most consistent releases of their career. Also noticeably improved was both Hashimoto's vocal versatility and English pronunciation, perhaps best demonstrated on the heavy ballad Shine On. This album successfully propelled the band into the modern era, with their success holding strong to this day.

Loudness - The Everlasting ~Tamashi So Kudo~

The late 2000s was a difficult time for 80s Japanese metal icons Loudness; after the band had finally navigated their way through an era of inconsistency spanning the late 90s through the early 2000s where they experimented with a groovier, heavier and more alternative sound, Loudness looked to be on the right track again, with their reunited classic lineup releasing a string of successful, modern heavy metal albums; especially those between 2004 to 2008. In 2008 however, with a new record already in the works, original drummer and co-founder of the band Munetaka Higuchi fell ill and passed away towards the end of the year leaving the band in disarray. Opting to continue the band, with tributes to their fallen bandmate pouring in from friends and fans the world over, Loudness released The Everlasting in 2009, which both featured the final recorded works of Higuchi while also welcoming to the fold the experienced, if relatively unknown Masayuki Suzuki who would go on to do an admirable job filling the massive void Higuchi's passing left. Despite the terrible circumstances preceding this record's release, this was a fine album all in all, and Loudness both gave fans a decent farewell from Higuchi plus to an extent inaugurated what is now their present-day sound. A handful of songs I really enjoyed from this one are Let it Rock, Thunder Burn and Flame of Rock.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Art Cube - Luxurious Cube
  • Crossfaith - The Artificial Theory for the Dramatic Beauty
  • D - Genetic World
  • Dead End - Metamorphosis
  • Grief of War - Worship
  • Mafu Mafu - Boku, Mafu Neko
  • Megaromania - Prophetic Faction ~The Universe~
  • Ningen Isu - Mirai Romanha
  • Riverge - Rebirth of Skull
  • Spinalcord - Remember Me 'til Your Dying Day
50-years-of-japanese-metal

2010

Aldious - Deep Exceed

Aldious - Deep Exceed

Aldious - Deep Exceed

Here's another really important album. This record marked a shift in the Japanese metal world. To this point in the 2000s the only highly successful female-fronted metal band at the time was Onmyo-za, whose vocalist Kuroneko played a big part in more women picking up the microphone in Japanese metal, however, Aldious and a handful of others helped inspire full bands of musicians. For Aldious, Deep Exceed was a resounding success, skyrocketing to #15 on the Oricon sales charts, but also, this album caused a bit of a chain reaction. This was quite clearly the album that opened the floodgates for the modern era of women's metal in Japan. By 2011 you had similar yet distinct bands popping up and making a name for themselves; bands such as Bridear, Cyntia and a handful of others, and this furthered the female-fronted and all-woman power metal band explosion as bands like Destrose or Albion began to establish themselves as well immediately after. The trickle down of all these bands appearing was making a clear impression, as with this new women's metal movement, dormant names from the past reappeared as well, with pioneers like Show-Ya, Mari Hamada and Aphasia resuming activities after long absences. A couple of this album's most popular tracks include Luft and Bind; additionally I think Ultimate Melodious is another one of the strongest tracks on here.

Galneryus - Resurrection

Resurrection was the first chapter following a major shift for Japanese power metal stars Galneryus, as it was their first album following the departure of the band's popular longtime vocalist Yama-B. In his stead was former Fortbragg singer and successful soloist, Masatoshi "Sho" Ono. While his voice was very different from Yamaguchi's, Galneryus adapted well and Resurrection was a considerable success, especially for a transitional album. It would be the band's highest charting record to that point (#35 on Oricon) and helped to continue Galneryus' upward trajectory into the metal mainstream, with praise from both critics and fans alike. While Yama B's singing was more power-oriented, Sho has always taken a more melodic approach, capitalizing on his wide upper range. With a vastly different singer, we got an entirely new stylistic array of songs from Galneryus, as exemplified by Destiny, Carry On or Burn My Heart.

Murasaki - Purplessence

This is a cool one. In 2007 George Murasaki felt it was finally time to round up the old band, and with the addition of Heavy Metal Army and Mariner frontman Hiroto Arasaki, these 70s rock pioneers rolled into the modern era and made their presence felt with Purplessence, their first album in thirty-three years. It didn't break any new barriers, no, but it was a bunch of heroes from the very dawn of Japanese metal coming back with a new-found fire and inspiration. With the addition of a longtime metal-man in Arasaki to the band, you could have foreseen the band's aggression being upped, and that was very much the case as Purplessence was the heaviest, most metal album Murasaki ever made. A modern album with a classic feel, some of Purplessence's highlights include Into the Sun, I'm on Fire! and Why Do You Lie?. The reunited Murasaki has continued to run strong over the ensuing decade following Purplessence, and the band even released another album in 2016's Quasar.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Alhambra - Solitude
  • Ancient Myth - Astrolabe in Your Heart
  • Concerto Moon - Angel of Chaos
  • D - 7th Rose
  • Galmet - Hellmet
  • Light Bringer - Midnight Circus
  • Loudness - King of Pain
  • Moi dix Mois - D+Sect
  • Sigh - Scenes from Hell
  • Versailles - Jubilee

2011

Versailles - Holy Grail

Versailles - Holy Grail

Versailles - Holy Grail

Having burst onto the scene in 2007, Versailles immediately became a household name in the visual kei scene, and their instant success only helped to further cement power metal as the dominant force in modern Japanese metal, as well as inspire the formation of several visual kei bands playing the style. The brainchild of neoclassical guitar wizard Hizaki and singer Kamijo, Versailles, by this point three albums into their career, continued their run of dominance with Holy Grail, which on top of being a largely excellent album also marked their commercial peak, ascending to #12 on the Oricon charts. Some of the songs that make this such a great record are Judicial Noir and the unusually titled Dry Ice Scream!! [Remove Silence]. While the album features a vast array of stylistic nuance, it's most notably closed out by perhaps the 'holy grail' of Versailles' discography in Faith & Decision, a grand, sixteen minute spectacle of symphonic power metal glory.

Saber Tiger - Decisive

Decisive is the album where Saber Tiger finally broke through, a whopping thirty years into their career. Always a talented band making quality music, they simply were unlucky to never sell much of their music outside of their home prefecture, Hokkaido. Following a mountain of demos in the 80s, by the time they started releasing albums in the early 90s most metal was already on the outside looking in, when it came to popularity. While they still released an excellent run of albums, particularly their era with Yoko Kubota on vocals, they weren't selling all that many as the band had no choice but to release their albums under their own label. Fast forward to 2010, when Japanese metal was in good shape again, Saber Tiger, who had toughed it out through the rough years, reunited with their other longtime vocalist Takenori Shimoyama and felt the time was right for a new album. What resulted was Decisive, the album that finally rewarded the band with some mainstream success after a long, hard-fought run of activity. A furious power metal record with the bite of an actual saber-toothed cat and with progressive twists and turns all over the place, Saber Tiger were back and arguably better than ever. This album's success opened the door to international touring for Saber Tiger for the first time in their career, and they've continued to go strong in the years since. It's easy to see why this album rejuvenated the band, with exceptionally strong material like The Hammer, Angel of Wrath or Avenger.

Liv Moon - Golden Moon

Liv Moon began in 2009 when the talented, though at that point relatively unknown singer Akane Liv joined forces with keyboardist Tatsuya Nishiwaki. With a strong cast of supporting musicians, the freshly minted project put out an extremely promising — if somewhat inconsistent — debut album in their year of formation, garnering quite a bit of interest throughout the Japanese metal fandom, especially due to the gorgeous operatic vocals of Akane Liv. Liv Moon took a massive leap forward with their follow-up Golden Moon in 2011, having rounded out their lineup most notably with prominent bass freelancer Masaki, plus the supremely talented neoclassical shredder Takayoshi Ohmura, later also of Babymetal. This record is a whimsical, fantastical symphonic power metal master-class on how to make a metal record stunningly pretty without tossing heaviness out the window. The beautiful songwriting of Nishiwaki and Liv is paced well throughout the album with stratospheric power metal highs contrasting with thoughtful, emotive slower symphonic rock and metal and is in my opinion one of the best Japanese power metal records of the early 2010s. A handful of highlights that shine through here are Say Goodbye, Black Ruby and Amarantos no Tsubasa.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Heraldic Device
  • D - Vampire Saga
  • Dir En Grey - Dum Spiro Spero
  • Gargoyle - Kisho
  • Lightning - Justice Strike
  • Loudness - Eve to Dawn
  • MergingMoon - Inauguration of the Black Sun
  • Ningen Isu - Shigan Raisan
  • Onmyo-za - Kishibojin
  • Serenity in Murder - The First Frission of the World

2012

Dead End - Dream Demon Analyzer

Dead End - Dream Demon Analyzer

Dead End - Dream Demon Analyzer

By this point in time Dead End had long been total legends in both Japanese metal and rock, however little did fans know this album would likely mark the end of an illustrious, innovative career for the band, as the Japanese metal world lost the immense talent of guitarist Yuji Adachi in 2020 before the band could ever release a follow-up effort. In hindsight, Dream Demon Analyzer is a simply wonderful way to cap off Dead End's career as it's their very being encapsulated in an album. This record is as heavy as anything the band had ever made, oozing with the band's signature dark and unsettling, Goth-tinged heavy metal and rock sound, executed with brilliance by the longtime core trio of members. It feels both sleek and modern, yet it calls to mind the band's classic sound too. Songs like SSS, Suishō-jū or Seiren are just a few examples of how Dead End evolved into the modern era with grace. A band who helped to change the entire landscape of Japanese rock music, particularly in helping to usher in the Gothic sound that dominated visual kei in the 90s, there will never be another like them.

Cross Vein - Birth of Romance

Like several other bands on this list, it took Cross Vein a little while to settle into a stable core lineup, but in this instance there's actually no original members left in the band, funnily enough. With the group's original members seemingly losing inspiration, second vocalist Julia was quickly given the reins to the project and from there she began constructing her band as she saw fit, rebuilding it from the ground up. Following the release of a couple of singles, in 2012 Cross Vein would release their debut record Birth of Romance; a brilliant album spearheaded by the hard work of Julia. Cross Vein are one of the most flowery, cute, and sugary metal bands you're likely to find anywhere, but the bedazzled dresses and tiaras aside there's a simply outstanding symphonic power metal band working their magic on this record. As glitzy and glamorous as this record often is, with whimsical, expertly played keyboards and the cheery and charming yet mighty voice of Julia, Birth of Romance is equal parts aggression with mean, crafty riff work start to finish, plus a surprising amount of technical prowess; guest drummer Kaida shines best in this regard. Some standout tracks from this one include Noble Scar, Sweet Spell or Incomplete Requiem. While Cross Vein's lineup has continued to be a bit of a revolving door, they've continued to put out pretty decent content in the years since this excellent debut.

Show-Ya - Genuine Diamond

Though they'd been partially reformed since 2005 as an occasional touring act; riding the wave of female-fronted and all-female metal bands that were starting to take a stranglehold on Japanese metal in the 2010s, Show-Ya decided they were back for good, and in 2012 the pioneering metal act finally hit the studio for the first time in seventeen years, producing their tenth full-length record Genuine Diamond. Intent on showing the young ladies how it's done, women which they themselves inspired with their sprawling catalog of classic works, this was a far better comeback album than I'd expected, and it was clear Show-Ya's creative fire still burned bright. Seeing no need try adopting a "modern" metal sound and being something they simply weren't, Genuine Diamond was a welcome return of the band's classic sound — straightforward, fun heavy metal and hard rock anthems, the kind that could have fit anywhere on their albums from the 80s and early 90s, albeit now with a slick modern production job. With the original lineup from their very first album remarkably still intact, the ladies still sound great here, especially the husky, powerful voice of Keiko Terada. There's tons here to please both new and old fans of the band, some excellent moments for me included Get My Beat, Rolling Planet and Ryuseishojo~Shooting Star 196X~.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Burning Oath
  • Cloud Forest - Rebirth
  • Daida Laida - Dreamer's Train
  • Desecravity - Implicit Obedience
  • Galneryus - Angel of Salvation
  • Light Bringer - Genesis
  • Mari Hamada - Legenda
  • Saber Tiger - Messiah Complex
  • Sigh - In Somniphobia
  • Versailles - Versailles

2013

Light Bringer - Scenes of Infinity

Light Bringer - Scenes of Infinity

Light Bringer - Scenes of Infinity

Having established themselves over the past few years as one of the most technically impressive power metal bands to ever come out of Japan, Light Bringer released what a large portion of their fanbase consider to be their magnum opus, Scenes of Infinity. Playing somewhat of a hybrid of their two prior albums stylistically, Scenes of Infinity was a dazzling spectacle of proggy, technical prowess and simply a beautiful, fun power metal record. From the soaring vocals of Fuki to the virtuosic play of JaY and Hibiki on guitar and bass respectively, or the dynamic, creative work of Mao on keyboards and Yumi on drums, this band was just flat-out skilled across the board with everybody contributing significantly to the end product. Scenes of Infinity boasts incredible material like Venus, Eau Rouge or the power metal masterpiece that is Hyperion. Light Bringer would make one more strong album before effectively breaking up, with the band's members turning their attention to other projects; in particular Fuki channeling her focus into Unlucky Morpheus and Hibiki joining Saber Tiger and starting a solo career.

Destrose - Destrose

In 2013 Destrose finally released what would end up being their only album. Simply called Destrose, this record finally cast aside years of lineup turmoil, delivering a solid slab of heavy and power metal goodness, just listen to Sword of Avenger, Headless Goddess or Nostphilia for a few examples. Charming and flat out fun, fans rejoiced in Destrose releasing the quality album they'd all been waiting for... until their lineup cratered again. You see, Destrose always showed significant potential, however, the band struggled, and I mean struggled mightily in keeping a stable lineup. In a run of only eight years, they cycled through well over twenty-five official and support members, and by the end that even included the departure of all of their original members. Here's the fascinating part though. With every musician that departed, the group was able to find a skilled replacement at every turn, and when these replacements inevitably left they would often start their own bands, so in essence Destrose's instability made them a talent factory leading directly to the formation of countless quality groups including Mary's Blood, Octaviagrace, Lovebites, Fate Gear and Mardelas among several others. This sheer chaos made Destrose an incredibly important piece of modern era Japanese metal, it's just a shame things didn't fare better for Destrose itself as the band was quite good.

Jupiter - Classical Element

When Versailles went on hiatus in 2012, a lot of fans were unsure of the members' futures; for as much success as Versailles had enjoyed by that point, it was only a mere five years into their career when they went on hold. The fanbase was put at ease a bit when vocalist Kamijo announced his solo power metal project, meanwhile Versailles' instrumentalists simultaneously opted to start something new themselves. Finding a new voice in former Tokami singer Zin, in 2013 they unveiled Jupiter. With a lot of anticipation building around this group, Universal Japan inked Jupiter to a record deal, with the band immediately getting to work on their debut, Classical Element. A blistering fast and dramatic symphonic power metal with the technical proficiency fans have come to expect from Versailles, in addition to a more accessible vocal performance from Zin, Classical Element was a strong debut for the band, hitting #31 on Oricon and being met with widespread praise. Also welcome here is the addition of a bunch of melodic death elements, which we had never really seen from a Hizaki-led band prior, at least not to this extent. Some of the best moments here for me include Scarlet, Allegory Cave and Blessing of the Future. While some division remains among fans over whether they prefer Jupiter or Versailles in the long run, this album and the band as a whole was a welcome shake-up and creative reset for the instrumental core of Versailles who I think felt things perhaps stagnated a bit by 2012. Both Jupiter and Kamijo's solo projects have continued strong in the years since, with Versailles resurfacing in 2015 as well.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Aisenshi - Heartstrings
  • Aldious - District Zero
  • Church of Misery - Thy Kingdom Scum
  • Concerto Moon - Black Flame
  • Gargoyle - Kijuu
  • Gotsu Totsu Kotsu - Legend of Sorrow
  • Ningen Isu - Mandoro
  • NoGoD - V
  • Rie a.k.a. Suzaku - Kingdom of the Sun
  • Shellshock - 肆 ~shi~

2014

Cyntia - Limit Break

Cyntia - Limit Break

Cyntia - Limit Break

For a while Cyntia was one of the most popular acts in the wave of female-fronted and all-female metal bands that dominated Japanese metal through the 2010s. Forming in 2011, the band was able to jump immediately into commercial success the following year with their debut Endless World climbing all the way to #22 on Oricon and securing the band a major record deal with Victor immediately after. Just six months later the inspired Cyntia had already released a follow-up album in Lady Made, which performed just as well as the debut; by this point, they looked like a direct rival to their old labelmates in Aldious. Continuing to strike while the iron was hot, in early 2014 Cyntia released Limit Break, a record which would become the most successful of their career. Playing a supremely poppy, yet infectiously catchy, fun and upbeat brand of power metal, it was easy to see why the band had become so popular in such a short amount of time, and Limit Break only furthered the band's conquest, reaching #9 on Oricon. The numerous poppy leanings aside, this was the band's most aggressive effort yet, and songs like Koei Shozen, Karma or the punchy title-track showed just how well their musical formula worked here. Unfortunately, the band didn't fare too well after Limit Break; it's hard to say what happened, perhaps a nosy label boss pushed them in a direction they didn't want to go, but they changed up their style almost entirely by the next record Woman and their popularity tanked as a result. While they rebounded at least partially on what would be their final album Urban Night, the band honestly seemed burnt out by this point and they effectively called it quits following the album's tour. An unfortunate tale of an astronomical rise and equally swift downfall, when Cyntia were on their game, they could hang with the best in the modern Japanese metal scene. Since their indefinite hiatus, singer Saki has recaptured a little bit of Cyntia's old magic with her solo career.

Anthem - Absolute World

By 2014 Japanese metal icons Anthem were thrust into lineup turmoil again, losing both Hirotsugu Homma to a worsening injury and Eizo Sakamoto to differences over the band's direction. This marked an end of the longest run of lineup stability in their career, but at the same time it offered the band a chance to shake things up a bit too. Anthem hired a largely unknown, but talented drummer in Isamu Tamaru on drums, and then on vocals, what could have been a better fit than a return of Anthem's other classic vocalist, Yukio Morikawa. This refreshed yet familiar Anthem lineup came roaring out of the gates with Absolute World, not losing an ounce of quality despite the enormous lineup change between their previous album Burning Oath and this record. Absolute World is Anthem at their best; it's not some revolutionary album, no, it's just good old Anthem doing their thing, and when you're the arguably the most consistent band in Japanese metal history, that's obviously a good thing. A strong, driving heavy/power metal album, this album is pretty widely considered one of the band's finest post-reunion albums. Songs like Pain, Stranger or Shine On show you exactly why these guys have enjoyed such a fruitful and long-lasting career.

Nozomu Wakai's Destinia - Requiem for a Scream

Before starting his solo band (and effectively a supergroup) Destinia and releasing Requiem for a Scream, the immensely skilled neoclassical shredder Nozomu Wakai was a well-established, though understated talent in the Japan, with his career reaching back to the 90s in the hard rock/heavy metal act Win Field and dotted with numerous other smaller projects in the years between then and now. With all due respect, I don't think a lot of people really knew who the man was before this record as he'd stayed fairly low-key, though he was obviously well-connected within Japanese metal, as rounding out the lineup in his new band was drummer Satoshi Miyawaki of 44 Magnum fame, in addition to Galneryus keyboardist Yuhki. Destinia's debut Requiem for a Scream was a rock-solid slab of power metal muscle with an impressive cast of guest singers including primarily Rob Rock, Masatoshi Ono and Yukio Morikawa. A well-constructed record, while this is technically a solo album, it's one of the relatively uncommon records that feels like a complete band showcase versus merely having a guitarist showing off for an hour straight; Requiem for a Scream is crafted with the guest singers' distinct voices in mind and that goes a long way in its favor, see The Trigger, Still Burning or Fight to Win for a few highlights. With a much more visible prominence in the years since this Destinia debut, Wakai has had a hand in a bit of everything around the Japanese metal world, with numerous guest and writing features with names like Mari Hamada, Show-Ya and even Alcatrazz, to filling the shoes of the absent Toshiya Matsukawa in Blizard when they reunited.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Blaze - The Rock Dinosaur
  • Dir En Grey - Arche
  • Galneryus - Vetelgyus
  • Kelly Simonz's Blind Faith - Blind Faith
  • Kruberablinka - Blanko
  • Loudness - The Sun Will Rise Again
  • Minstrelix - Chronostrings
  • NoGoD - Make a New World
  • Onmyo-za - Fujin Kaiko / Raijin Sosei
  • Scarlet Valse - Genesis

2015

Mary's Blood - Bloody Palace

Mary's Blood - Bloody Palace

Mary's Blood - Bloody Palace

One of an innumerable number of projects to spawn out of Destrose falling apart every other week, Mary's Blood got going in 2009 when all five founding members left Mina in their old band. Inspired and I think even slightly pissed-off, these ladies got right to work touring heavily and recording, churning out a steady flow of EPs and singles in their earliest years, building a significant degree of fanfare. By the time of their 2014 debut Countdown to Evolution, the band's lineup had been trimmed down, swapping out their original guitarists and bassist for just a single guitarist in Saki plus Rio on bass, cementing what would prove to be a rock-steady core for the band for the remainder of the decade. This brings us to 2015, where I think the band really hit their stride, marked by the release of their second full-length Bloody Palace. With a high-voltage and aggressive power metal sound loaded with old-school heavy metal and thrashy influences, Bloody Palace was a hit for Mary's Blood and continued their upwards trajectory, becoming arguably the leading band in what was by this point a bustling women's metal movement around them in Japan. There's so much to enjoy here, but some clear highlights include Bloody Birth Day, Bite the Bullet and Moebius Loop. In the years since Bloody Palace, Mary's Blood have remained one of the most successful metal bands in Japan, dominating the women's metal and rock scene alongside bands like Aldious and Lovebites, plus alternative and more rock-based, though line-walking groups such as Babymetal and Band Maid.

Earthshaker - Bird

One of Japan's metal icons of the first half of the 80s, Earthshaker's sound gradually became watered down, adopting more and more pop elements as the quartet tried to reshape their identity in the ever changing metal and rock landscape of the late 80s and early 90s before things fell apart and they temporarily parted ways in 1994. Upon returning in 1999, the band carved their way making several albums both independently and on smaller labels, gradually returning to their metal and hard rock roots that made them so successful in their early days. I've picked Bird to represent their modern output because I think it best exemplifies what's been a slow but successful comeback for this band, and it was certainly one of the better Japanese metal releases of 2015. It's got everything that made Earthshaker a great band back in the day. Still boasting their 1983 lineup from their self-titled debut, Bird is simply a fun, hook-heavy melodic metal and rock hybrid. It still features lots of Marcy Nishida's poppy overtones, Earthshaker quite frankly wouldn't be themselves without that, but at the same time Bird still has teeth... or I suppose more fittingly talons to please diehards of the band's heavier sound. With songs like It's Not Over Yet!, Trigger Effect or my personal favorite Yusei no Susukino to Sho Yu, Earthshaker demonstrate loud and clear they're far from finished.

Yukihisa Kanatani - Cry for the Moon

For his third solo album and first in nearly a decade, former Excuriver and Ebony Eyes axeman Yukihisa Kanatani brought together a few familiar faces from Japanese metal's past including Terra Rosa keyboardist Masashi Okagaki as well as the voice of X-Ray, Akira Fujimoto, and the result was an excellent neoclassical power metal album in Cry for the Moon. This one feels both familiarly classic, but modern and fresh and the spectacular guitar work aside, it was also great to hear Akira Fujimoto reappear after an absence from music spanning several years, sounding better than ever. Some highlights from this album include the tracks Happy Wedding and Dirty But So Beautiful as well as the excellent cover of Excuriver's Jail Break. I feel like this guy never quite got the recognition he deserved, particularly as one of the original pioneers of the power metal that dominates the Japanese scene in the present day. Rest assured, he's an extremely talented guitarist.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Aldious - Radiant A
  • Blaze (Kaen) - Dream Chaser
  • D-Drive - R
  • Galneryus - Under the Force of Courage
  • Gotsu Totsu Kotsu - Retributive Justice
  • Jupiter - The History of Genesis
  • Kinniku Shoujo Tai - Omake no Ichinichi (Tatakai no Hibi)
  • Saber Tiger - Bystander Effect
  • Serenity in Murder - The Highest of Dystopia
  • Sigh - Graveward

2016

Ningen Isu - Kaidan Soshite Shi to Erosu

Ningen Isu - Kaidan Soshite Shi to Erosu

Ningen Isu - Kaidan Soshite Shi to Erosu

This is the album where Ningen Isu became household names within the Japanese metal scene. After a tiny taste of success back in the early 90s, Ningen Isu, based out of the remote northern city of Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, would spend the many years following in the underground, partly due to metal's ups and downs in popularity, but also due to their location, far away from all of the major music hubs in Japan. Well, things began to turn around for the hard-working trio at the start of the 2010s. Going back to 2006, they were given a record deal though the massive Tokuma Communications, and with this boost they were able to get their records out to a wider audience than they were ever able to in the past. Starting in 2011 with Shigan Raisan, this distribution boost began to snowball into meaningful progress and the album hit #59 in sales on Oricon, then Mandoro in 2013 hit #35, and lastly Burai Houjou hit #27. Riding this momentum, Ningen Isu put forth perhaps the strongest album of their career to finally cement themselves as superstars in Japanese metal, and that record is Kaidan Soshite Shi to Erosu. This album had everything that made them "them" over the years, the clever progressive runs, the catchy and hook-laden heavy metal/hard rock and of course the crushing doom metal, played with a level of intensity they'd only reached occasionally to this point in their career. A brilliant album oozing with atmosphere and character, it was a hit, reaching #22 on Oricon, and additionally it garnered a bunch of international attention for the first time in their career, thanks largely to word of mouth online. Every song on this album is killer, however, just a few highlights are Kyofu no Dai Ou, Madame Edwarda and Nemuri Otoko. Ningen Isu hasn't looked back since this record and are finally enjoying the success present-day which they deserved decades ago.

Mari Hamada - Mission

One of the most successful women in the history of Japanese metal, legendary wailer Mari Hamada's career extends back to the early 80s, where she burst onto the scene with a string of excellent hard rock and heavy metal records. Moving with the times however, by the late 80s Hamada had made a smooth transition into more of a pop rock sound, which saw her hit new heights, attaining several top ten charting records (and even a couple #1s) on the Oricon charts as she navigated her way through the uncertainty of the 1990s before the remarkable run of success finally slowed down a bit in the 2000s. Beginning in 2010 however, Hamada, never shy to reinvent herself, surprised some when she decided it was time to return to her harder rock and metal roots, this time delving into a symphonic and power metal sound. Beginning in 2010, Hamada began an unprecedented surge back up the Oricon charts, returning her career to the prominence it held in the 80s and 90s. 2010's Aestetica hit #35, then 2012's Legenda hit #23 and this segment's feature Mission climbed all the way to #11 on Oricon. The best part of her metal comeback is that she seems to have done this purely for her own enjoyment, and she's assembled a legion of her friends to contribute guest performances on all of her modern records. Oh, and over thirty-five years into her career by the time of this album's release, the massive vocal range which made her so famous is still intact. Some of the metal standouts on Mission are Carpe Diem, Superior and Rainbow After a Storm. Mari Hamada's career resurgence has only continued to build in the latter half of this decade.

Tears of Tragedy - Statice

Leading up to Tears of Tragedy's third album Statice, the band had gone under the radar somewhat (to be honest they're still underappreciated), despite two high-end albums to begin their career. Those who knew Tears of Tragedy from that earlier material knew just how good this band was and had high hopes for this third record. An exceptionally pretty and upbeat — even hopeful sounding melodic power metal, adorned with progressive elements and crowned with the simply gorgeous voice of Haruka, Statice was everything fans of the band had hoped for. A few great moments from Statice include Blue Lotus, Always, or the winding twelve minute adventure of Curse Bride. This is just an all-around excellent, well-balanced modern power metal record, and while Statice was moderately successful for Tears of Tragedy, hitting #55 on Oricon, easily their best sales performance to this point, it still feels like this talented troupe still haven't quite achieved the success they're deserving of. Now four albums into their career as of 2020, the acclaim is there in spades, but the band has unfortunately yet to hit the lofty sales heights of some of their counterparts. Let's hope the latter part changes sooner than later, they truly deserve it.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Bridear - Baryte
  • Defiled - Towards Inevitable Ruin
  • Doom - Still Can't the Dead
  • Gotsu Totsu Kotsu - Where Warriors Once Dreamed a Dream
  • Hizaki - Rosario
  • Kruberablinka - Concalify
  • Loudness - Samsara Flight ~Rinne Hisho~
  • Mardelas - Mardelas II
  • Octaviagrace - Outward Resonance
  • Onmyo-za - Karyobinga

2017

Lovebites - Awakening From Abyss

Lovebites - Awakening From Abyss

Lovebites - Awakening from Abyss

Following a highly successful debut EP the year prior, in 2017 Lovebites made their much anticipated debut, which promptly thrusted them to the forefront of Japan's female-fronted and all-woman metal movement. Hitting a lofty #18 on the Oricon charts, the album opened the door for Lovebites to amass a considerably large international audience and from there they've only continued to build off of this hot start. A sleek modern power metal record boasting quality musicianship across the board, songs such as Don't Bite the Dust, Shadowmaker or The Apocalypse make it easy to see why the band were able to continue building momentum in the aftermath of Awakening from Abyss. We're only a few short years into their career and they're already a well-travelled band in terms of international shows; they've even played major events like Bloodstock, Wacken and Download festival.

Aphasia - Ever-lasting Blue

When this album was announced I was so happy to hear the news. Aphasia were a pioneering all-woman metal band from the mid 90s through mid 2000s, but due to their activity mostly occurring a few years before the current women's metal boom, while reasonably well-known, they never got quite as much recognition as they probably deserved, despite being a consistently good band. Aphasia always played "flower metal" and I mean that in the best way possible — they were never a particularly heavy power metal band, rather they put a major focus on pleasant melodies built up around the soothing, pretty vocals of Sion. See Sandplay is Over, Queen of the Night or Crush & Burn for a few examples from this album. With Ever-lasting Blue, Aphasia successfully moved the band into the modern era and showed they could still hold their own in the modern era of women's metal which they helped to create.

Matenrou Opera - Pantheon ~Parts 1 & 2~

A two for one feature, I figured Matenrou Opera's duo of Pantheon albums was a good choice for a feature this year as it's perhaps my favorite thing that the symphonic power metal and rock act had done. This two-album series, both released in 2017 are from what I've seen considered among the band's best albums by fans, they certainly are to me. Pantheon parts 1 and 2 were a success, despite a major shift to the band's lineup core with the departure of longtime guitarist Anzi just a year before. Filling the departed Anzi's shoes and doing an excellent job as a guest on both records was JaY, whose talent was a major ingredient in Light Bringer's sound just a few years earlier. I actually have a hard time picking which of the two records I like better, I think they both fit together nicely with tremendous high points on both albums; some of my favorite songs from these include Shine On and Pantheon from part 1, as well as Beyond the Sorrow and Pantheon Pt. 2 from the second album. Pantheon 1 and 2 were also the final releases to feature drummer Yu, who unfortunately departed from the band shortly after these albums due to musician's dystonia, I have to commend his work here, considering he was already struggling with physical ailments by this point; he guides Matenrou Opera's music along as reliably as ever. These albums hit #24 and #33 respectively on Oricon, maintaining the band's position as one of visual kei's most successful modern acts.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Anthem - Engraved
  • Concerto Moon - Tears of Messiah
  • Daida Laida - This is Daida
  • Denkishiki Karen - Carnival the Abyss
  • Fate Gear - OZ ~Rebellion~
  • Galneryus - Ultimate Sacrifice
  • NoGoD - Proof
  • Serenity in Murder - The Eclipse
  • Sex Virgin Killer - Vazinism
  • Vigilante - Terminus of Thought

2018

Onmyo-za - Hadou Myouou

Onmyo-za - Hadou Myouou

Onmyo-za - Hadou Myouou

Likely the most anticipated Japanese metal record of 2018, Onmyo-za's 14th album Hadou Myouou easily met the fandom's high expectations, nearly twenty years into the band's storied career. I can't think of any other bands that can capture emotion and atmosphere in their music while telling whimsical folk tales in the same manner Onmyo-za has always done so successfully, not to mention this was arguably their heaviest album yet. The way the band so delicately crafts their works, you get equal parts beauty and eeriness, as if the lovely Kuroneko is serenading you in the midst of some hellish nightmare. Picking just a few great moments on this gem of an album, it's hard to ignore songs like Tesso no Aza, the thrashy Itsumade, or the otherworldly opening track Hao. I don't know where Onmyo-za's career will take them from here, as they haven't lost a step fourteen albums and twenty years in, but I simply can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Saber Tiger - Obscure Diversity

Back with another strong album this year was Saber Tiger, unveiling their 11th full-length (excluding the Paragraph series) titled Obscure Diversity. Continuing their modern run of success, this album was another victory for Saber Tiger, as this lethal concoction of prog/power metal fury not only landed the band a worldwide distribution deal through Sliptrick records, but it also opened the door for their first overseas tours, with Saber Tiger playing numerous gigs throughout Europe in both 2018 and 2019 leading up to and following the album's release. There's just so much to enjoy here it's impossible to pick favorites; it's a technical, inspired, and flat-out mighty power metal album. Additionally, to singer Takenori Shimoyama's credit it featured damn-near perfect English lyrics, he had been working hard in recent years to improve in that regard and did a marvelous job here. Just a few standout tracks on this one are Permanent Rage, The Worst Enemy and The Forever Throne.

United - Absurdity

In 2014 Japanese thrash metal pioneers United's leader and bassist of over three decades, Akihiro Yokoyama sadly passed. With this sudden loss the band had the difficult task of replacing perhaps the most experienced bassist in Japanese thrash metal. The remaining members kept the band going, adding George Enda of thrash veterans Jurassic Jade to the fold in Yokoyama's stead, and over the following years the band would regroup for a comeback album. This album would be 2018's Absurdity, fittingly dedicated to Yokoyama. With this record, United left behind the hardcore and groove metal influences found on their past several releases, returning to the more straightforward thrash metal sound of their heyday. On top of being a well-executed tribute to their fallen bandmate, the album was received well by fans and also received a European print as a result of the positive reception it garnered. Arise and Trapped Fake World are just a couple of my favorite tracks off of this one.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Asagi - Madara
  • Blindman - Reach for the Sky
  • Kamijo - Sang
  • Loudness - Rise to Glory
  • Lovebites - Clockwork Immortality
  • Mardelas - Mardelas III
  • Mari Hamada - Gracia
  • Sigh - Heir to Despair
  • Veiled in Scarlet - Atonement
  • Zettai Club - Chimera

2019

Jupiter - Zeus ~Legends Never Die~

Jupiter - Zeus ~Legends Never Die~

Jupiter - Zeus ~Legends Never Die~

This is an interesting one. A bit of backstory, so in 2018 vocalist Atsushi Kuze parted from Concerto Moon after a run of four albums with them, meanwhile in Jupiter, their own vocalist Zin also left. Despite speculation that the band could be finished, Hizaki took this opportunity and hired Kuze as Jupiter's new singer, marking the first time in his long career in which Hizaki had worked with a professionally trained, established power metal singer. This rare merger of a non-visual kei musician joining a prominent visual kei band was unusual to say the least, but it worked and with a prettied up Atsushi Kuze the band quickly put out a single in preparation for their third album, Zeus ~Legends Never Die~. Over his career Hizaki has a track record of working with and elevating singers who are a bit lacking in natural singing ability, but with the addition of Kuze none of this was a problem anymore, rather Hizaki was instead able to help Kuze add more techniques to his repertoire such as harsh vocals for the band's heavier tracks. Zeus is a slick, exciting symphonic power metal record with plenty of melodic death metal influence. Some of the best tracks here include Zeus and Theory of Evolution. I also personally really like the new version of Tears of the Sun.

Gyze - Asian Chaos

Increasing in popularity steadily since formation, fans had long felt melodic death metallers Gyze held a ton of potential going back to their early days as they were always clearly talented, however it always seemed there were little preventable missteps along the way that kept them from truly hitting their stride. Over the first few years melodeath fans were a bit revolted at the numerous metalcore elements the band would utilize, then on Black Bride the production job was startlingly bad, and lastly Northern Hell Song was too long for its own good and burnt a lot of people out. Learning from criticisms however, these past issues were all put to rest when the band released Asian Chaos and finally tapped into the potential people saw in them. Coming from the Children of Bodom school of melodeath, Gyze are much more on the melodic side of things than death metal, and as such are more like a high-flying power metal band with harsh vocals and neoclassical elements all over. Asian Chaos also saw the band add, as its name would imply, quite a few Asian folk elements to the sound which were a nice touch and elevated this particular record. The whole album is their best work to date, but some highlights here include Dragon Calling, Eastern Spirits and of course Asian Chaos. Already likely the most popular melodic death metal band in Japan by the mid 2010s, this album showed that the prior hype wasn't unwarranted.

Ningen Isu - Shin Seinen

Following another strong album in 2017's Ijigen no Houkou, Ningen Isu has only continued to rise in popularity, and with their fanbase growing both domestically and internationally at breakneck pace, the trio spent most of 2018 touring before hitting the studio again in 2019 for their 21st album, Shin Seinen. This one really was a new commercial milestone for Ningen Isu, especially with the band's music now spreading online like wildfire. As cleverly written and as heavy as ever, a few favorites from this one are Kagami Jigoku, the ballad Tsuki no Apenin Yama or the immensely popular Mujin no Scat. With a considerably strong international audience now, the band was able to embark on their first international tour at the start of 2020, thirty-three years into their career. Ningen Isu were even slated to perform South by Southwest in March of 2020, however that was delayed for the time being.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Cerveteri - Arabesque
  • D-Drive - Maximum Impact
  • Devil Within - Dark Supremacy
  • Galneryus - Into the Purgatory
  • Hidden - Embalm ~Enbalm After 20 years~
  • Iron Attack - Japonism
  • Kinniku Shoujo Tai - Love
  • Octaviagrace - Radiant
  • The Sheglapes - Back'n'Forth
  • Tenrin - Shura

2020

Hibiki - Hands of Providence

Hibiki - Hands of Providence

Hibiki - Hands of Providence

2020 saw a wonderful merger of past and present with Alhambra/Light Bringer/Saber Tiger bassist extraordinaire Hibiki released his solo debut. Forming an all-star team with guitarists Kyrie of NoGoD as well as Masha of Crying Machine, plus one of Japanese metal's great frontwomen of the 80s and 90s in former Saber Tiger singer Yoko Kubota, this debut garnered hype to say the least, and fortunately it delivered. Expertly crafted, highly technical neoclassical power metal, this album wowed fans of these musicians, both new and old and cemented itself as arguably the best Japanese metal release of the year. Written with much more care and meaning than you would generally expect from an instrumentalist's solo album, Hands of Providence excels from strong performances across the board, with every member given ample time to shine independent of each other. For a few examples from this one listen to Children of the Sun, Sonic Drive or Inside the Scream.

Lovebites - Electric Pentagram

Electric Pentagram marked Lovebites' third full-length in only their fourth year of activity; that's on top of the two EPs the band also released during this stretch, so needless to say they've been an extremely busy band. With Electric Pentagram Lovebites reached a new threshold in their ever-increasing popularity, as it was their first record to crack the top ten on the Oricon sales charts (#9). With their previous effort Clockwork Immortality, a more melodic and rock-based affair, there was a degree of concern among the fanbase that they were going to further soften their sound on Electric Pentagram, however upon release Lovebites put those concerns to rest as this album was every bit as furious an onslaught of power metal as their first. Songs like Golden Destination, Thunder Vengeance or When Destinies Align are just a handful of the great tracks to be found.

Unlucky Morpheus - Unfinished

While Unlucky Morpheus (Ankimo for short) always carried a small and dedicated following in the doujin scene, in 2014, glass-shattering wailer extraordinaire Fuki's main band at the time, the excellent Light Bringer, effectively broke up, entering an indefinite hiatus. With her attention now diverted primarily to Unlucky Morpheus, the band used this opportunity to take a shot at a commercial breakthrough. Adding violinist Jill to the mix as an additional element to their sound, they put forth the Vampir EP which reached a modest #52 on the Oricon charts, their most successful release to that point, and they haven't looked back, climbing significantly in popularity with every release since. This brings us to 2020 where the band put forth their first fully original album with their new lineup, Unfinished. Continuing with their trademark polished, complex and proggy power metal, in recent years Ankimo had added a bunch of melodic death metal influences to their sound, which had a noticeable presence across most of the album. Just a few songs from this excellent album include Salome, Kago no Tori and Unending Sorceress.

A few other notable releases for this year:

  • Cran Arcanaria - The End of Nightmare
  • Gonin-Ish - Shibito Sanka
  • Hell Freezes Over - Hellraiser
  • Nemophila - Oiran
  • Outrage - Run Riot
  • Schonberg - Baroque Gravity
  • Takenori Shimoyama - The Power of Redemption
  • Tears of Tragedy - Trinity
  • Volcano - Godspeed
  • X.Y.Z.→A - Wonderful Life

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this article, with other tributes out there for the 50th anniversary of heavy metal music as a whole, I figured I'd put a spin on the tributes, themed to this specific country's scene which I've been a fan of these past several years. As always, if you'd like to further research some of the above bands yourself or learn more about Japan's metal and rock scene, I invite you to come drop by my home site, Japanese Metal Forum.

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