Top 10 Albums of 2019

2019 was an(other) excellent year for music from Japan. My tastes run more toward the hard rock and metal side of things, and this list reflects that, but rest assured there were plenty of other great releases in a variety of genres.

  1. CONFESSiONS by Mary’s Blood (Japan Record, 12 June)

    For the second year in a row, Mary’s Blood has topped my AOTY list. Not just for music from Japan, but worldwide. The fact that 2019 was also the band’s 10th anniversary is just icing on the cake. These four ladies (EYE – vocals, Saki – guitar, Rio – drums, Mari – drums) are simply on fire right now.

    CONFESSiONS continues with the diverse and experimental soundscapes first heard on Revenant. According to interviews, the band have credited their producer, Hajime Okano, with urging them to step outside of their comfort zones, both as a band and as individual songwriters. As a result, CONFESSiONS sees the musical compositions spread much more evenly among all four members (taking the load off Saki’s shoulders, who had been the primary songwriter since joining in 2012): three each from EYE, Saki, and Rio, with EYE and Mari teaming up for two. EYE writes all the lyrics except for 「エイム」, which marks the first lyrical contribution from Rio.

    Musically, the album is all over the place, with the dark and moody themes from Revenant, the straight-up metal form earlier albums, and some seemingly left-field choices. 「Hello」 sounds like a song that could have been on a John Hughes movie soundtrack in the 80s. (To me, that’s not a criticism.) 「High-5」 sounds like 60s beach music crossed with punk rock. 「Go Ahead & Laugh」 sounds like speed metal mixed with punk. It just barrels ahead non-stop. And I’m positive it’s the fastest vocal delivery I’ve ever heard from EYE. 「Laylah」has a very Arabesque feel, with a very smooth vocal delivery from EYE. 「贖罪の鐘 ~Requiem For The Victims~」sounds as if it could be a direct sequel to 「女神の裁き~Death Queen’s March~」.

    Despite the diverse sounds, the album is held together by EYE’s amazing voice, which soars, plummets, soothes, and pummels as the song requires. She is like a force of nature, and she pours every bit of her energy into her delivery. What keeps it from being “an EYE album,” though, is the fact that every single other member has upped her game as well. Her voice excels because the band is able to provide material worthy of it. They feed off each other and make each other stronger. It’s a joy to behold. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

  2. Nucleus by Anthem (Ward Records, 29 March)

    This was my first Anthem album. They’ve been around for so long, and their discography is so vast, it was a little intimidating trying to pick a place to start. When they decided to release this album of rerecordings with all-new (English) lyrics, I figured I’d check it out.

    Normally, I don’t include rerecordings or compilations in my AOTY lists, but this one is so good, I decided to waive that rule. The production on this disc is fantastic. Big, beefy, muscular songs, with a hefty low-end and some fantastic guitar work. And vocalist Yukio Morikawa just blew me away. Gritty but melodic, with lots of power. This is an excellent starting point for new fans.

    A note on the English lyrics. Due to how different English and Japanese are, both sonically and grammatically, English lyrics give some Japanese vocalists a hard time. As a result, many fans of Japanese music would just prefer it if the bands they love didn’t even attempt English lyrics. If that’s you, fear not. The lyrics were written by Fubito Endo (who has also worked closely with Saber Tiger), who is not only fully fluent in English but has worked closetly with Morikawa-san to reach practically perfect pronunciation. When listening to these songs, you would be hard-pressed to think the singer was not a native English speaker, he sounds that good.

  3. 並行時空の音楽会 by Unlucky Morpheus (Independent, 5 May)

    並行時空の音楽会 marks the 31st release in 11(!) years from this extremely prolific progressive/power metal outfit. Initially a duo, with Fuki on vocals and Shiren (fka Yuki) on everything else, “Ankimo” started out doing touhou arrangements. Gradually, they started writing original material and added more members (current count: six). This album features acoustic rerecordings of ten touhou songs originally recorded between 2008 and 2012. (Yes, that means I waived my rule about rerecordings twice this year.)

    Guitarist and composer Shiren has always been a master arranger, and this album is no different. Acoustic versions can be hit and miss, because so many artists seem to think all it takes is removing all the electric sounds. While that might be technically true, doing so doesn’t always take advantage of the acoustic setting. Shiren knows this, and breathes new life into these songs. As a result, this doesn’t feel like a rehash at all, but simply a brand new take on some familiar songs.

    Every member gets a chance to shine, with Jill (violin) and Fuki (vocals) possibly shining the most. Jill was not in the band when these songs were originally recorded, so her violin parts had to be written from scratch. They fit perfectly, like they’ve always belonged. As for Fuki, well, it’s hard for her not to shine. Her voice is — as always — simply a wonder. She is so powerful, however, that her voice can sometimes feel almost too big for the music over which she’s singing. Not so here. Shiren knows how to arrange the songs to take full advantage of her amazing voice.

  4. Million Scarlets by Fuki (Fabtone Inc., 12 June)

    More Fuki, because there is no such thing as too much. This is either her first solo full-length or her second, depending on how you view Welcome!! released under the Fuki Commune moniker in 2016. Whereas Welcome!! had a super glossy sheen that made the songs sound like pop despite the power metal drums, Million Scarlets sounds heavier, despite having more actual pop-like songs. As a result, Million Scarlets has a more diverse sound than Welcome!!, which I ended up enjoying a lot more. Million Scarlets kicks off with four consecutive songs written by Fuki’s longtime collaborator, Mao. The no-holds barred power metal of 「Bloody Rain」is followed by the less heavy (but still metal) 「君の居ない世界」, 「R のない月の恋はよくない」,  and 「Habitable Planet」.

    The middle of the album slows things down a bit with four consecutive pop songs of varying energy levels, including the single from the album,「神様はきっと」, which also marks the album’s mellowest moment. I’m not the biggest fan of straight pop songs, but these are so well-written, and Fuki’s voice sounds so amazing, it’s impossible to not like them.

    The energy level jumps back up with「Zinger♥Ringer♥Gang♥Love」, an upbeat (and offbeat) song from Mao that wouldn’t have been out of place on disco dance floor in the late 70s. 「Sacred Bones Riot」, written by Shuhei from Imperial Circus Dead Decadence, bring back the metal and 「DAYS」 closes things out with a pop/rock song that would have fit nicely on AOR radio back in the 80s.
    Overall, an excellent album that allows Fuki to express all the various musical styles she loves.

  5. Into the Purgatory by Galneryus (Warner Music Japan, 23 October)

    Galneryus are an incredibly consistent band, regularly releasing top-quality power metal with a healthy dose of progressive metal. Into the Purgatory, which continues the story line introduced on Ultimate Sacrifice (2017), is no exception. That doesn’t mean the band is afraid of experimentation. Into the Purgatory sees the band experimenting with some darker textures, such as “The Followers,” where vocalist SHO showcases a lower and more operatic timbre that I’ve never heard from him. It sounds fantastic.

    This album is also the shortest the band has released in a decade (approximately 55 minutes) with only one song passing the 8-minute mark. By cutting down on the lengthy solos (although there are still plenty to be found), the shorter and more concise songs really showcase the band’s songwriting prowess.

  6. VORVADOS by SYU (Warner Music Japan, 23 January)

    Guitarist SYU (of Galneryus) released his third solo album at the beginning of the year. Unlike 2016’s You Play Hard, which was instrumental, VORVADOS features some of the most in-demand vocalists from the Japanese metal scene: Fuki (solo, Unlucky Morpheus, Doll$boxx, ex-Light Bringer), Haruka (Tears of Tragedy), Akane Liv (Liv Moon), Dougen (Undead Corporation, Thousand Eyes), SHO (Galneryus), Sono (Matenrou Opera), and 苑 (NoGoD).

    It shouldn’t be a surprise that these songs are very much in the epic power metal vein, with plenty of guitar heroics. This is still very much a vocal album, though, and SYU knows how to write to these vocalists’ strengths. Most of the lyrics were written by the singers themselves, making this a truly collaborative effort.

    While there isn’t a bad song on the album, my personal favorites are the ones with Fuki (「Reason」, 「AndroiDedication」) and Haruka (「暁」,「未完成の翼」). One thing that would have helped the sound of the album, however, is a live drummer. The programmed drums, while not terrible by any means, are noticeable. A live drummer would have provided more life and dynamics, in my opinion. Still, that’s a minor gripe, and in no way keeps me from enjoying the album.

  7. 夢幻大スリラー by 絶対倶楽部 (Queen Records, 4 September)

    Gothic alternative progressive power metal with a mischievous streak and a quirky sense of humor? Yes, please. Mixing all of that into one sound might seem impossible, but 絶対倶楽部 (Zettai Club) have the gumption to check all these boxes, the musicianship to back it up, and the songwriting talent to make it all work.

    Vocalist Azul switches seamlessly between cleans and growls, doing both equal justice. When I first heard one of their songs, I assumed one of the other band members was doing the growls. Not because I don’t think a woman can do growls, but because it’s rare to hear one singer do both cleans and growls so well. Usually, when a single vocalist tries to do both, it seems one style suffers (usually the cleans). I was impressed with both, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn they were done by the same person.

    Keyboardist Lumina often dominates the sound, giving the songs an offbeat cabaret feel. I’m not typically a fan of keyboard-driven metal (I’ve often referred to other power metal bands with a keyboard-heavy sound as “flower metal”), but I make an exception for Zettai Club. The quirkiness of the arrangements and the sheer fun they’re having while playing makes it work for me.

    That’s not to say that guitarist Muu plays only rhthym to Lumina’s keys. She gets her chance to shine as well, but she doesn’t seem hungry for the spotlight. She and Lumina play off each other very well.
    The rhythm section of Ichinose (bass) and Tohko (drums) keep things on track, providing the perfect sonic bed for Lumina, Muu, and Azul to work their magic.

    At 31 minutes and 8 songs, this is an “all killer, no filler” release. It gets in, does its job, and then leaves you wanting more. Fortunately, they’re prolific as well as talented, and have another EP coming out in April 2020.

  8. A Dream within a Dream by JEKYLL★RONOVE (Jekyll★Ronove, 6 December)

    I came across JEKYLL★RONOVE a couple of years ago, when they released their singe, 「Always 〜The Answer Is Blowin’ In The Wind〜」. It was a straight up power ballad like they used to make in the 80s, and it was awesome. As a result, I’ve been following them ever since.

    A Dream within a Dream is just the band’s second full-length, coming three years after E=mc², but the band has been playing live a lot during that time. As a result, the songs on this album have been road-tested and their bluesy hard rock/metal sound is well-honed.

    Vocalist Jekyll’s soulful and powerful voice pulls me in and won’t let me go. She reminds me of Kazue Akao (Kruberablinka, Terra Rosa), and I mean that as a high compliment. Guitarist N★oto’s emotive playing is the icing on the cake. The rhythm section of Sei (bass) and キャプテン★いえっち (drums) deserve mention as well, but sadly, they both announced their departures shortly after the album’s release.

    If you like music that straddles the line between hard rock and heavy metal, I highly recommend JEKYLL★RONOVE.

  9. Conqueror by BAND-MAID (Revolver Records, 11 December)

    BAND-MAID were my introduction to the Japanese music scene, so they will always hold a special place in my heart and collection. But that doesn’t mean I will place them in my Top 10 for nostalgia’s sake. They have proven themselves to be one of the hardest-work bands out there, and their songwriting just keeps getting better and better. It’s a testament to the other albums in this list that CONQUEROR isn’t higher in the list.

    Speaking of songwriting, ever since they took over the reins, they have demonstrated that they are no mere gimmick. They are constantly touring, having been the US and Europe multiple times, and their live shows are no joke. I had the privilege to see them in Dallas last September, and their musicianship and showmanship was on full display. I couldn’t be happier for them, that their plan for world domination seems to working.

    This album isn’t as heavy as World Domination, but I think that’s a good thing. It shows, again, that they aren’t a one-trick pony. They continue to show that they can create an eclectic sound, to keep things interesting, but they always (thankfully) return to their core sound: no holds barred hard rock with punchy melodies.

    Saiki continues to master what have to be some of the most difficult vocal melodies out there. Miku keeps upping the ante with her lyrics and rhythm guitar work. Kanami keeps adding layers of intricacy to her riffs and solos. And Misa and Akane just might be the best rhythm section in rock right now, bringing prog-level talent to bear on straight rock songs, elevating them above the norm. Despite the fact that BAND-MAID does not consider themselves a prog band, any prog fan would find plenty to love in their instrumentation. And CONQUEROR offers that in spades.

  10. Expose Your Emotions by BRIDEAR (Avex Trax, 4 December)

    BRIDEAR has gone through some upheaval the last few years. First, founding member Misa (guitars/growls) left at the end of 2017. Then, after releasing an EP and live album with new guitarist Misaki in 2018, two more founding members — Mitsuru (guitars and primary songwriter) and Kai (drums) — left. This occurred right around the time their appearance at Metal Matsuri in London was announced.

    Fortunately, the band was able to recruit quality replacements in Ayumi on guitar and Natsumi (ex-Telicide) on drums. The band spent most of 2019 playing live and gelling as a unit. By all accounts, their performance at Metal Matsuri was amazing. So, it was with this momentum behind them that they released Expose Your Emotions, their first album with the new lineup (and their first full-length in three years), at the end of the year.

    What does BRIDEAR 2.0 sound like? This is an upbeat album with lots of energy. Their love of mixing in “metalcore” sounds, and making it sound good, remains intact, and bassist Haru’s newfound growling ability is impressive. One welcome surprise was the completely acoustic ballad, “You,” by new guitarist Ayumi. Kimi’s voice sounds lovely and vulnerable, and is a perfect match for the acoustic nature of the song. The epic power metal of their early days is gone, but BRIDEAR remain a force to be reckoned with. This lineup seems revitalized, and I look forward to what they have to show me in the future.