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  • Heathen - Empire of the Blind (2020)

    I understand that the times when thrash metal veterans have released two albums within a few months are over but ten and a half years between two records is still a stretch. What matters though is the final result but Heathen's fourth studio album is only good at best and mostly average.

    There are a few positive things to point out about Empire of the Blind. The guitar play by Lee Altus and Kragen Lum is excellent. The band can especially convince in the calmer instrumental parts that value melody over speed. The three instrumental tracks aren't fillers but very decent in that regard. I also like the fact how the album closer goes back to the opener, making the entire record sound whole, fluid and coherent.

    As you might have guessed, this record also has its flaws. The production sounds rather sterile, flat and cold. I would have expected some more edges and energy coming from a thrash metal album. The few groove metal riffs in the middle section of the album were unnecessary. That's still one of the least imaginative metal genres. The songwriting sounds rather uninspired. While there is no stinker on the album, there isn't one single truly outstanding tune on the entire album. The tracks rush by without leaving a deeper impression.

    If I had to recommend songs to check out the album I would probably go for the consistent, energetic and focused ''Blood to Be Let''. The dreamy, haunting and melodic ''Shrine of Apathy'' is also great for what it is even though thrash metal purists might disagree. Otherwise, stick to the playful instrumental tune ''A Fine Red Mist'' which is ironically the second longest track on the album.

    In the end, Heathen delivers too little too late on Empire of the Blind. The album isn't a disaster and essentially saved by the excellent guitar play. However, it doesn't leave a deeper impression and is overall good at best and mostly just average. Thrash metal fans can skip that one. Empire of the Blind might only be interesting for avid collectors and fans of the band.

    Final rating: 65%

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  • Fin de semaine épique à Gatineau avec mon ami Charles

    Fin de semaine épique à Gatineau avec mon ami Charles

    Fin de semaine épique à Gatineau avec mon ami Charles

    Fin de semaine épique à Gatineau avec mon ami Charles

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  • Ladybaby - Reburn (2020)

    The idol group Ladybaby as well as The Idol Formerly Known as Ladybaby seemed to be dead and gone after Rei Kuromiya's exit in November 2017. She went on to focus on her work with BRATS that has released two solid full length albums to date. Rie Kaneko however was on her own and many experts expected her to start a solo career at that point. However, the management had other plans and cast three new singers around her to initiate Ladybaby's third and final phase. Rie Kaneko took on more responsibilities in the line-up as she was in charge of choreography and overall direction of the group. After directing a first music video during the idol group's second phase, she also directed two more music videos in the third phase. Fuka Karasawa joined the group as additional vocalist. Nana Ikeda came in as another singer but also performed as rapper and crafted the group's costume design. Emily Arima completed the quartet as singer, lyricist and harsh vocalist. Especially the latter member became as outstanding as Ladybeard had been with her truly energetic vocals, grunts and growls and her unique style with pink hair. The band's debut single was already released in May 2018 and the quartet would go on to be quite active over the next twenty months. The group released two singles, nine music videos, two concert videos and appeared in radio and television shows. Despite its success, energy and activity, the idol group announced that it would suspend all activities in October 2019. The group released a final music video, played its final concert that would later on be released as concert video and released this compilation of the third phase in January 2020.

    Reburn offers ten out of eleven songs recorded by the dynamic quartet. Sadly, the only song that was left out was the quartet's surprising collaboration with former member Ladybeard in the quirky, energetic and amusing ''Biri Biri Money'' that came along with a particularly memorable music video in which the cross-dressing wrestler trained the four group members to achieve their goals.

    Despite that notable exclusion, Reburn is certainly a very good release featuring ten songs and offering more than forty minutes of diversified entertainment. First single ''Starless Sky'' is the first highlight as it mixes pop music, electronic music, industrial metal and death metal in a highly addictive manner as all four singers manage to stand out and shine. The chaotic ''Haten Ni Raimei'' features a sinister industrial rock song with unchained screams and energetic rap passages. ''Bite Me'' is nearly six minutes long and convinces with numerous surprising genre changes and unpredictable breaks, making it tough to digest at first contact but quite outstanding due to its experimental songwriting in the long run. Final single ''Misogi Island'' goes in the opposite direction with a length below the three-minute mark that still offers all four singers their time to shine while the instrumentation varies from death metal outbursts with sharp riffs and blast beats to epic pop elements with melodic guitar play and smooth keyboard layers. Despite its title, ''Riot Zone'' is the compilation's quietest song with melodic vocals, futuristic keyboard sounds and an overall epic atmosphere.

    Reburn offers even more soundscapes to discover than the previous two compilations. It's a record that might sound somewhat overwhelming at first contact but that is worth to be rediscovered every now and then as it ends up growing with every spin. This release shows how diversified this idol group, how energetic its four unique members and how skilled the songwriters in the background have been. Ladybaby has officially stopped all activities and it's unlikely at this point that the idol group will ever return. The three compilations and especially this last strike however are excellent products of their time and will certainly endure. If you have never taken this group seriously, you still have the chance to change your mind and find out what you have missed out on.

    Final rating: 90%

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  • The Idol Formerly Known as Ladybaby - Beside U (2018)

    After Ladybeard's sudden departure from Ladybaby, remaining singers Rie Kanako and Rei Kuromiya decided to continue as a duo. Instead of continuing under the Ladybaby banner, the idol group re-branded itself as The Idol Formerly Known as Ladybaby which is clearly inspired by a similar move by American pop singer Prince in the nineties. The duo had perhaps lost its most unique member and decided not to replace him by a similar artist. Instead, the band rather adapted a sound comparable to other Japanese rock and pop idol groups with only very few metal influences in form of occasional guest musicians or background singers. The image of the duo also changed quite a bit, moving away from quirky, lighthearted and creative elements to a more serious, profound and emotional tone. The two band members were portrayed as very close friends in the music videos of that era and there were even a few hints at a possible romantic relationship. This direction was certainly inspired by Russian duo t.A.T.u. that had received a lot of controversial attention in the beginning of the millennium.

    The same can't be said about The Idol Formerly Known as Ladybaby. Even though the three singles released under that moniker performed surprisingly well on the Japanese charts, the duo had certainly lost its unique identity. The duo was never really able to find a new consistent artistic direction. Rei Kuromiya left the duo after a little bit more than a year. A few months later, the greatest hits compilation Beside U, featuring nine songs from three singles as well as one brand new track, was released and also managed to enter the Japanese charts. Sadly, no video album of that era has been released to date. 

    The compilation shows that the duo was trying to find a new niche as the different songs are stylistically diverse. ''Pelo'' for instance is a vibrant rock song with a dynamic rapper on guest vocals and a surprising vintage piano break in the middle section. ''Me! Me! Me!'' on the other side is an uplifting pop punk song with a childish but energetic chorus. ''Easter Bunny'' goes back to the group's origins as it mixes cute pop vocals with growls by an unknown backing singer while the music varies from metal over rock to pop influences with even a few slightly jazzy elements. ''Lady Baby Blue'' on the other side is an elegiac, emotional and inspiring alternative rock ballad that enables the two singers to show their skills in five haunting minutes. New song ''Shibuya Crossing'' however is much colder and could be described as trendy danceable electronic pop track with a few dynamic metalcore interjections.

    Beside U might not have a clear guiding line but it's incredibly entertaining and offers multiple soundscapes varying from death metal over metalcore to alternative rock as well as electronic pop music and even even jazz and rap elements can be found. The only guideline are the two vocalists who are obviously much more in the spotlight than before when most people only focused on cross-dressing growler Ladybeard. This record can be seen as the artistic emancipation of Rei Kuromiya and Rie Kaneko and shows how talented they really are. In my opinion, this release represents the group's most interesting and most underrated era and it would have been interesting to see what this duo could have become if it had ended up finding its very own niche.

    This compilation might therefore even be more interesting than the previous output because it includes ten diversified songs with a running time around forty-one minutes and features a generous booklet with forty-eight pages as well as a poster. The release also comes in book format and looks much better than the previous One Year Best 2015-2016.

    In conclusion, if you like Japanese idol music meandering between metal, rock, electronic and pop music, you should certainly get this great compilation. If Ladybeard was the reason why you initially fell in love with the band, you should listen to some songs and watch some music videos first to verify whether the new material pleases you enough to purchase Beside U. In my humble opinion, both greatest hits records are highly entertaining but I slightly prefer Beside U because it has been crafted with much more attention, care and love.

    Final rating: 85%

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