Kamijo is, of course, the singer of the popular Japanese power metal band Versailles, which is currently on hold. While the other members joined forces with a new singer called Zin to form the band Jupiter (which released its first full length album Classical Element in summer of 2013), Kamijo started a solo career under his own name, and has delivered his first strike entitled Heart here in autumn of 2014. While Kamijo’s solo record isn’t far from the symphonic visual kei sound of his original band, this record turns out to be quite odd, and has massive ups and downs.
As so many Japanese artists, Kamijo also delivers an interesting mix of genres. This record features some very calm music with warm organ sounds, which are wonderful to listen to in winter time and around Christmas. There are symphonic elements, but they are decently employed and neither too fluffy nor too overwhelming due to a balanced but sluggish production. Here and there, we even get to hear some swing music, which is definitely something one doesn’t hear very often on a metal album. Minimal French chanson elements here and there fit in with the francophile artist who sang about Louis XIV and the Moulin Rouge, among other subjects. The stereotypical imagery and predictable lyrics are mildly amusing, but add to the grace of the record. Still, all these elements are mixed in a coherent, harmonious, and smooth way. Don’t expect too many random genre changes in the same song. This record sounds a lot more graceful, mature, and organized than Babymetal, for example, but here lies the main problem of Heart. Despite all the diversity, the album sounds quite lame, and starts getting very boring after a while.
An important problem is the tame production of the album, which works well for the chanson, sacral, and symphonic elements, but not for the power metal foundation. The guitar riffs are not so bad, but they sound somewhat lackluster, and even the few technically well-played solos don’t feel as liberating as they should on this kind of record. The rhythm section is not mixed in the foreground either, which would have added some much needed energy to the few faster tracks. Another huge problem is the vocal performance. Kamijo convinces in exactly one single style: when he sings in a grounded, low, and melodic way – which is the case on almost every song. His repetitive vocals have an elegant tone when he performs in this style, but as soon as he tries to sing in a more emotional way, his voice has massive problems keeping its balance. This hits hard when he starts to sing for the very first time on the record in the song “Rose Croix” (where the title obviously doesn’t respect any basic French grammar rules). Kamijo’s vocals sound androgynous, dusty, and old in the first thirty seconds of the song, and his aqualung performance is only slightly improved over the course of this track. It almost sounds as if he had just recovered from a pneumonia. Another point where Kamijo’s vocals fail hard is when he is trying to hit some higher or longer notes. During the closure of “Louis”, Kamijo sounds like a tired old wolf giving its final howl. This is sending shivers down my spine, and not in a positive way.
Another item one must criticize is the lack of originality on several tracks that seem to be directly inspired by visual kei records of the past thirty years. The worst thing is that Kamijo picked the most popular bands and songs of that genre, so the cheap rehash is obvious even to someone who isn’t an expert of the genre. I’m aware of the fact that X Japan is probably the biggest act of this genre and has influenced numerous bands, but the piano part in the middle of “Louis” reminds me way too much of the groundbreaking epic “Art of Life”, even if it’s just for a few seconds. “Dakishimerarenagara” is worse yet, as almost all of its melodies are directly taken from the track “Au Revoir” from famous visual kei heavyweight Malice Mizer. Additionally, the opening symphonic passages of the somnolent ballad “Romantique” sound like a mixture of Jean-Jacques Goldman’s “La Vie Par Procuration” and Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin”. All these influences reveal what this album really is despite the numerous genres it desperately tries to cover: a commercial visual kei release with a few French chanson elements mixed in haphazardly. We can call this unblushingly calculated mainstream pop music clad in the overused imagery of French aristocracy and vampire romance. If the Twilight franchise decided to set an upcoming movie in 17th century France, this would be the perfect plastic kitsch soundtrack. It’s a record for childish female teenagers, nostalgic die-hard visual kei completists, and boring self-defined intellectuals who would like to listen to some pseudo-open-minded J-Pop while reading their newest manga import series. This album has barely to nothing to do with rock and metal music.
Once you’ve accepted that this compilation is pseudo-experimentation by the numbers without much depth, as well as a lot of idol worship, you might still find a handful of decent tracks. “Yamijo No Lion” features some speed, a few nice guitar melodies, and an epic neoclassical atmosphere. The haunted house samples towards the end make me think of the soundtrack from a Pinball computer game, but this is one of the few experiments that somehow manages to work in the context of its song, because the track has coherently progressed toward a more sinister finale. The decent “Death Parade” is one of the few tracks which isn’t a boring rehash, but rather all over the place. This oddball still has a certain intriguing feeling to it, as it features a horror-ridden atmosphere and has a strange hypnotic sound to it which is supported by almost Middle Eastern-sounding symphonic background melodies. This mixture works well, but is muddied by a guitar solo and a short narrative part that are randomly inserted and don’t add anything but confusion to a more or less messed up track. The base of this song is great, but the additional gimmicks are just distracting and even disturbing. Less would have been so much more in this perfect example of a failed attempt at creative song writing. “Moulin Rouge” mixes old-fashioned swing music and great metal guitar work with a few powerful background vocals, it has a hectic feeling to it, but it fits the topic of a hot dancing show. This is not only the most original, but also by far the best song on the entire album.
In the end, Heart could have been a fairly decent record with more powerful production, a more talented and balanced singer, and more coherent and original song writing. As it is, this commercial visual kei product is a very hit and miss product with less than a handful of decent songs and many unimpressive genre rehashes. There is no real single stinker here, but apart from the swinging “Moulin Rouge”, no track is really worth a closer look. This record is for die-hard genre fans at best.