Singles and EPs aren’t as big a thing in the music world as they once were, at least in the Western world. In Japan, they’re still very common. This is my Top 10 list for 2019 – with one caveat: one of my favorite EPs of the year was HELLO UK!! by Lipstick, which they recorded for their appearance at Metal Matsuri in London. I didn’t include it in these rankings because it wasn’t readily available. Rest assured, however, it would have ranked high.
- Headless Goddess by Fate Gear (Steam Steel, released 9 January)
Mina 隊長 kicked off 2019 by revisiting her DESTROSE roots. The Headless Goddess EP features six rerecorded versions of classic DESTROSE tunes plus a new version of “Megabullets,” a FATE GEAR tune from their debut, A Light in the Black. Following the template used on the 2018 full-length, 7 years ago, vocal duties are handled by a who’s who of up and coming singers. Frequent Mina collaborator IBUKI (Natsumetal, solo, ex-Disqualia) takes on what are arguably the two signature tunes from DESTROSE, “Skykiller” and “破壊の薔薇.” Maki Oyama, who handled the bulk of vocal duties on 7 years ago, takes on “Lifer.” Maiko (My Complex of Academy, LIPSTICK support, ex-JULiC) does “Fade Out” and a duet on “Headless Goddess” with Nana (Theo Nova, ex-Re*asterisk). Nana also handles the revamped version of “Megabullets.” I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, since I have long considered the Marina Hebiishi versions of these songs to be the definitive versions. I was pleasantly surprised to see how Mina and her crew (Erika on bass, Haruka on drums, and Yuri on keyboards) worked with these new vocalists to pay homage to the past while also putting their own stamp on them. No one tries to sound like Marina, and that’s a good thing. Each vocalist plays to her own strengths. And I loved it.
- Glory/Bubble by Band-Maid (Crown Stones, released 16 January)
Technically two separate singles released on the same day, this bundle included three 1-track bonus CDs, effectively creating a 7-track EP. The bonus tracks include acoustic versions of “Puzzle” and “Anemone,” and a studio version of “Onset.” This instrumental track had previously been released only in live form on the DVD/Blu-ray from the special edition of the Start Over single. Taken altogether, these seven songs really showcase all that I love about BAND-MAID. They can seriously rock (“Glory” and “Onset”), they can play some beautiful acoustic arrangements, and they can throw some catchy curveballs at you (“Bubble”).
- Maria by Lipstick (Good Vibration Records, released 4 April)
I checked out this single after Lipstick were announced for Metal Matsuri. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but its placement in this list makes it clear that it made quite an impression on me. A little bit hard rock, a little bit metal, and a whole bunch of punk rock attitude. On the title track, vocalist Sindy has enough snarl and attitude to last for days, and “Holy Knight” is power metal bliss. Unfortunately, shortly after this single was released, Sindy left. Remaining members Sally (guitar) and Sakae (bass) soldiered on, recruiting Nico (FATE GEAR) and Maiko (My Complex of Academy, FATE GEAR support, ex-JULiC) as live support. This single alone made me dig into the band’s back catalog. Unfortunately, that’s getting harder and harder to track down, but it’s worth it. Very talented bunch.
- Ground ZERO by Mardelas (Nexus, released 22 May)
Marina Hebiishi is one of my favorite vocalists. She has one of the most powerful voices in metal, with stage presence galore. After spending three years fronting DESTROSE (2011 to 2014), she started Mardelas in 2014, and has since released three full-lengths, five singles, and this EP. In all that time, I’ve never heard a bad performance from her and this EP is no exception. Deftly straddling the line between hard rock and metal, Mardelas are on fire. Marina and guitarist Kikyo Oikawa are a great songwriting duo, and he has the guitar chops to match her voice. I was a little concerned after original bassist Hibiki left in 2017, but Mardelas III and this EP show that they’re doing just fine.
- BAND-MAIKO by BAND-MAIKO (Revolver Records, 3 April)
In 2018, BAND-MAID played a wonderful April Fool’s joke on everyone and recorded a “maiko” version of “Secret My Lips,” retitled “Secret Maiko Lips.” The band changed their name to BAND-MAIKO and rearranged the song with traditional Japanese instruments. It sounded like BAND-MAID was going to start following in the footsteps of Wagakkiband. They did it so well, a lot of people took them seriously, not realizing what day it was. In 2019, they did it again, but this time with a full EP. Six of the seven songs are “maiko” versions of previously released BAND-MAID songs, and they recorded a brand new song – 祇園町 – specifically for this EP. I’m a sucker for a good left-field rearrangement, and BAND-MAID – er, excuse me – BAND-MAIKO, know how to do it right.
- Riot Bulb by LAZYgunsBRISKY (Age Global Networks, released 26 June)
I discovered this band thanks to bass player Azu, who was also in Cyntia. After being pretty prolific from 2008 to 2011, LAZYgunsBRISKY went on hiatus, after which Azu joined Cyntia. In 2016 (about a year before Cyntia went on a hiatus of their own, as it turned out), LAZYgunsBRISKY reformed. Since then, they have released two mini-albums and an EP. Riot Bulb continues to showcase their fun and vibrant pop/punk sound. As Azu is one of my favorite bass players, I couldn’t be happier that she’s still active. Vocalist Lucy is a force to be reckoned with, as well, pouring every bit of her heart and soul into her performance.
- The Shade of Holy Light by Saber Tiger (Hype Nation, released 18 December)
Longtime metal stalwarts Saber Tiger seem to be reinvigorated these last few years. Maybe that’s why bassist Hibiki chose to leave Mardelas so he could join as an official member. This single features orchestral and album versions of the title track (the album version originally appeared on their 2018 full-length, Obscure Diversity) and a handful of live tracks recorded in 2018. This orchestral version is not the typical “let’s just throw some violins into the existing mix” attitude you typically see with these types of things. No, this is a completely rearranged and newly recorded version with an actual orchestra. It’s also three minutes longer than the album version. So, no shortcuts on this one. They did it right. And they did it well. A really gorgeous rendition. Note: the international version of this single (on Sliptrick Records) features four additional live tracks from the same 2018 concert.
- sky & blue by GIRLFRIEND (Avex Trax, released 28 August)
For a long time, I avoided GIRLFRIEND. I enjoyed some of their covers, but I was convinced that their brand of pop/rock just wasn’t for me. Well, I was wrong. After fellow UniJolt contributor Cap kept raving about them, I finally checked out their 2018 full-length, CHOCOLATE. And, well, I loved it. I ended up listening to everything they had on Spotify and loved that, too. So, I bought everything of theirs I could get my hands on – which was everything except their debut, 360. sky & blue encapsulates everything I love about their music: well-written and arranged, upbeat, and fun.
- Bloody Sword by Lipstick (Good Vibration Records, released 10 October)
In addition to the HELLO UK!! EP, Lipstick also recorded this single with the Metal Matsuri lineup: Maiko (vocals), Sally (guitar), Sakae (bass), and Misaki (drums). The title track is a brand new song written by bassist Sakae, while the other two are new recordings of older songs. Track 2, 切なくて, written by guitarist Sally, originally appeared on their 2014 album, Killer Tunes. Track 3, “Mad Infection,” written by Sally and former drummer Syun, originally appeared on their 2016 album, X-Sense. It’s unclear whether Maiko will become a permanent member, but she makes it clear that she’s not just taking a paycheck. She makes these songs her own. If she doesn’t decide to join full-time, she has set a very high bar for the next vocalist. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy what they have to offer, because they do it well.
- 神様はきっと by Fuki (Fabtone Inc., released 13 February)
Fuki is my favorite singer, bar none. Regardless of gender, geography, or genre, if Fuki is involved, I will buy it. So, why isn’t this single my #1 pick then? For one reason and one reason only: it’s not metal. It’s a beautifully-written pop ballad and her voice is gorgeous, but the song itself simply doesn’t hit me the same as the more hard-rock and metal tracks on her full-length Million Scarlets do. Does that mean it’s bad? By no means. It did, after all, make my Top 10. For those who enjoy her softer side, this should suit you nicely.