Loudness (ラウドネス): Thunder In The East (1985)

“Can I get some nachos, please?”

Konjo-san, the owner, smiled. “Coming right up.”

Thunder In The East album art, Japanese edition.

I’d been in Takamatsu City, just off the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, for about three weeks, and the remaining 11 months and one week stretched out before me like a childhood dream come true.

But childhood dream or not, I was craving Mexican food. Having basically grown up in and around Austin, I was used to Tex-Mex 24/7. For the past three weeks I’d indulged in every kind of sushi and seafood I could get my hands on, some of it so fresh that it wiggled out of my hands at the supermarket, causing me to cry out in surprise. Causing no fewer than half dozen supermarket workers to rush over and see what was wrong. Causing no fewer than half dozen supermarket workers to shake their heads in disbelief, muttering at the foolishness of the clumsy gaijin.

Ruff House Bar, Takamatsu City, Shikoku, Japan. Ask for Konjo-san, the owner.

I looked around at the tiny establishment. Ruff House Bar was basically fifty feet away from where I worked, and was very popular among the gaijin. Famous for its ‘open mic’ nights, the place would fill up very quickly on any given night of the week. Of course, it only held about 30 people before the fire marshal had to be called in. Located downstairs from street level, there was an actual tree growing through the bar and into the street above. I was wondering how they’d managed to build the place while preserving the tree when Konjo-san showed up with my nachos.

I thanked him profusely in my ragged Japanese and looked down. I tried to hide my disappointment as I handed him his five dollars. Doritos. In a cup. With a slice of American cheese melted over it. In the microwave. And Pace picante sauce.

Oh well, I thought. You don’t go to Japan to eat nachos.

You go to Japan to eat incredible sushi. You go to Japan to play at Konjo-san’s open mic nights. You go to Japan to have Konjo-san applaud your efforts, only to join you at the mic and proceed to blow you away with his amazing lead guitar technique.

And on Friday nights, in Takamatsu, you go to Japan to hear Konjo-san crank up Loudness’ “Crazy Nights” so loud that you can hear it a block away.

From L to R: Konjo-san, owner of Ruff House Bar; two gaijin Loudness fans; and Koji-san, owner of Hariraya Tea House, across the street, and childhood friend of Konjo-san’s.

“It’s Japan’s Heavy Metal National Anthem,” Konjo-san proudly told me, clearly relishing my look of delight. “It took the world by storm.”

“I know,” I replied. “I loved Thunder In The East right away when it came out, but I never got into anything after that first album.”

“That wasn’t their first album,” he told me with a bit of a pious grin. “It was their FIFTH!”

I was clearly out of my depth, and I knew it. I decided to swallow what was left of my pride.

“So what do you like about this album?” I asked.

“Let me break it down for you,” he said, reaching down beneath the bar to start the cd at the beginning again.

Konjo-san Breaks It Down

1) Crazy Nights: First off, the opening guitar riff pretty much epitomizes the “scooped mids” guitar tone that defined the early- to mid-80’s metal scene, even internationally. Akira Takasaki (高崎 晃) plays flashy but solid guitar throughout the album. And right away, you English-speakers get to hear Minoru Niihara (二井原 実) singing in English. Kinda like Sukiyaki Western Django. Anthemic, heavy opening. Lots of chanting “hey!”, and the solo… oh my god… Starts off with some sweet bends, then into some sweet 8-finger tapping. Takasaki tears it up. Drums and bass are locked in tight. Outro solo has whammy madness and double-stops galore. He’s fluid, fast, and ferocious.

2) Like Hell: Drummer Munetaka Higuchi (樋口 宗孝) and bassist Masayoshi Yamashita (山下 昌良) join Takasaki on the opening of this one. Heavy, bright, and melodic, again with the entire band chanting the chorus, “Like Hell”. Typical cheesy 80’s lyrics (I’m gonna rock you Like Hell!), but you knew that when you bought the album. And that’s why you still love it today.

3) Heavy Chains: Nice clean opening with dirty, bluesy lead over it for the intro. Then vocals come in… kind of power-ballad-ey. Super kick-ass vocals. Then a heavy galloping rhythm (think Maiden) comes in, with screaming leads… a bit reminiscent of Mercyful Fate… but the lead flourishes are a lot tighter and more complex than just simple, throw-away pentatonic blues scale stuff. Nice break down in the middle before the rhythm changes to a slow heavy thing, then back to double-time for the solo section. Beautiful build, with a lot of Yngwie-style lead stuff. Then a beautiful screaming dive, and back to the galloping rhythm. Gorgeous.

4) Get Away: One of the most up-tempo songs on the album. “Don’t look back, run for cover. Save yourself, save your lover. Overkill, undercover. Kick and scream at midnight.” Well, okay. Again, we knew what we were signing up for, and Loudness doesn’t disappoint. Personally, this was always one of the low spots on the album for me, but I always looked forward to it because after it comes…

Loudness was a featured band at this concert in Houston, Texas, USA. “Of note was drummer Munetaka Higuchi’s penchant for throwing a drumstick 30 feet in the air above him throughout the show. The band would be playing and suddenly you’d see a drumstick go spinning up into the sky, arcing over toward one side or the other. He must have gone through 50 drumsticks that night.” — a Black Wax Reviewer

5) We Could Be Together: From the opening pick slide to the crashing drum intro to the blindingly-quick guitar licks that Takasaki-san throws in the spaces (???) between the rhythm lines to the super-anthemic chorus, this song is pretty much the perfect 80’s metal power ballad. Heavy and fast while still melodic, this song has got it all. Intro to the guitar solo is amazing… like a separate song unto itself… then into the solo proper. Nice vibrato… then some quick tapping stuff, then ascending arpeggio stuff that’s too quick to follow. Song closes with yet ANOTHER anthemic chorus, chanted/sung by the entire band: “I’ve got your real love, baby…” Okay, it sounds better than it looks on paper.

6) Run For Your Life: This one starts with some cool synth thing, setting up a simple, but moody 4/4 feel. Then everybody else comes crashing in, briefly joining the synth groove. Then comes a sweet 9/4 guitar groove that HAD to have been an influence on Marty Friedman when he wrote “Lucretia”. Then we’re in 3/4 for a brief respite… clean and ballad-ey… the calm before the storm. Then heavy, but still slow. Building, then suddenly we’re into a double-time section once again characterized by that muted melody picking that we all love so much. Through the cycle again, through the 2nd chorus, and then 7/8 alternates with 8/8 for a pretty sweet proggy-sounding solo section. Lots of echo and reverb on this. Then back to 4/4 whammy-bar madness and out.

7) Clockwork Toy: We can taste old Van Halen influences (first two albums) here a bit in the beginning… Then we’re off and running. Another super up-tempo rocker. Double bass mania. Excellent vocal range. Sweet chorus. Nice slow-down section, kind of Megadeth-ey in its halftime feel. Solo sounds like Alcatrazz-era Yngwie, or even more like Uli Roth’s earlier stuff. Very sweet.

8) No Way Out: If any of the songs sound like they belong on a different album, it’s this one. Actually sounds more like a B.O.C. song being covered by a Japanese metal band. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Almost a little S.R.V. feel in there, in the beginning, with just a shade more distortion. Pretty bluesy, at first. The melody line for the bridge is most intriguing: “Screaming, I shout: There’s no way out!” fa, mi, (up to) DO, sol. Whoa. Not exactly the smoothest, but certainly something that’s hard to forget. Which is good. I think. Then onto a really sweet-sounding chorus. Solo starts with a very basic melody line, then repeats. Then, goes into a frenzy of flailing fingers. Arpeggios and modal runs galore. Very Vai. Pushing Satriani. Rumor has it he loved Blackmore, as well.

9) The Lines Are Down: Another fast one, with breakneck speed gallop-picking. Chord progression is pretty simple on this one: vi-V-vi-V-vi-V for the verses… but that’s okay. The heavy drums really help to round things out. It’s not the best song on the album, but it does incorporate one of the most blatant Eddie Van Halen-isms at the 1:19 mark. Which, once again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not my favorite song on the album, but just as Get Away played the perfect foil to We Could Be Together, this song serves as the perfect preface for…

10) Never Change Your Mind: The style of the opening finger picked guitar part reminds me of the beginning of Dio’s Last In Line. Maybe a little quicker, but the basic feel is there. Then on to some very (!) bluesy licks. (To show that he can?) Still, it works. When this song comes on, you may as well pull out both Bic lighters and start slowly waving your arms above your head, from side to side. Because that’s exactly what this song is about. It pretends to get quicker toward the middle, but it’s just a ploy. We get the breakdown and some cool Who-influenced bass riffage just before the solo. Which is almost slow enough to sing. Then a very pretty outro solo, with guitar trading licks with vocals. All in all, a feelgood closing tune.

Arigato gozaimasu, Konjo-san!

Black Wax Reviews Rating: Ten Stars out of Eleven. Practically perfect.

Icon: Icon (1984)

Let’s face it… not all music that moves us as youth stands the test of time. One of the joys of Black Wax Reviews is traveling through time and finding out what was good and what was awful.

Case in point: When I was 9 years old, I needed heavy. Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” and Neil Diamond’s “America” made me feel like I was standing triumphantly on a mountaintop, wind blowing through my hair. Today… not so much.

Our beloved 80’s metal is no different. Some of these albums that seemed so incredibly powerful back then (e.g., Y&T’s “In Rock We Trust”… Lizzy Borden… sorry, guys) fall flat today. Like a two-day old 7-Up left open in the fridge.

That being said, I’m happy to report that Icon’s self-titled debut sounds just as heavy, tight, and cohesive as it did when it first came out 27 years ago.

THE STATE OF METAL IN 1984
To zoom out for a second, 1984 was pretty much the Perfect Storm for Awesome Metal Albums. To name but a few:

  1. Accept: Balls to the Wall
  2. AC/DC: 74 Jailbreak
  3. Anthrax: Fistful of Metal (actually “Fistful of Meal” on my copy of the cassette)
  4. Armored Saint: March of the Saint
  5. Deep Purple: Perfect Strangers
  6. Dio: Last in Line
  7. Dokken: Tooth and Nail
  8. Fates Warning: Night on Brocken
  9. Great White: Great White
  10. Grim Reaper: See You in Hell
  11. Hanoi Rocks: Two Steps from the Move
  12. Helstar: Burning Star
  13. Iron Maiden: Powerslave
  14. Judas Priest: Defenders of the Faith
  15. KISS: Animalize
  16. Lizzy Borden: Give Em The Axe
  17. Mercyful Fate: Don’t Break the Oath
  18. Metal Church: Metal Church
  19. Metallica: Ride the Lightning
  20. Queensryche: The Warning
  21. Ratt: Out of the Cellar
  22. Saxon: Crusader
  23. Scorpions: Love at First Sting
  24. Slayer: Haunting the Chapel
  25. Spinal Tap: This Is Spinal Tap
  26. Stryper: Yellow and Black Attack
  27. Van Halen: 1984
  28. Venom: At War with Satan
  29. W.A.S.P.: W.A.S.P.
  30. Whitesnake: Slide It In
  31. White Wolf: Standing Alone
  32. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: Rising Force

With such a wide variety of metal happening, it’s hard to believe that Icon could stand out among the rest. But it did. And still does.

IS IT PERFECT?

Now, don’t get me wrong… Just like a case of Budweiser or a healthy serving of AC/DC, it is what it is. If you’re looking for the answers to life, you’re probably not going to find them here. The lyrics aren’t necessarily very philosophical, existential, or deep.

However, to a scared, confused, disaffected 16 year-old male trying his best to figure out which way was up while living in a small, conservative Texas town in 1984, this album was a life saver. It addressed relevant issues like alienation, the desire to claim and illuminate an inner mettle I didn’t know existed, and, of course, women. Gorgeous women. Sexy women. Dangerous women.

Since I knew basically nothing about actual women, I found the topic highly interesting.

CATEGORIZING THE BAND’S SOUND
Not quite as fast (tempo-wise) as The Big Four… Not quite as dark (subject matter-wise) as Mercyful Fate or Venom… Heavier than Deep Purple, Dokken, and Ratt. More of a complete unit (as a band) rather than simply a vehicle designed to showcase one musician’s talents (Malmsteen)…

And I daresay not as melodramatic as Grim Reaper, Lizzy Borden, or WASP. (Multiple reviewers from back in the day made direct comparisons to WASP/Priest, as opposed to Ratt/Motley Crue. For what it’s worth.)

Somewhere in between all that. Somewhere right down the middle. That’s where I see Icon.

GUITARS
First off, guitar sound. (As of press time, our staff has an e-mail out to the Icon guys requesting specifics on the gear used for the recording of Icon. Will update with more info asap. –Ed.) Definitely not Fender Strats… not stock, anyway. There’s no way those are single coils we’re hearing. Too much gain. Definitely humbuckers; probably active… maybe EMG 81’s and 85’s.

More than likely the guitars used were Jacksons, Robins, or possibly Kramers, which were extremely popular back then. I’ll spare you the whole “Eddie Van Halen/Frankenstrat/Kramer connection, trusting that you know how to use Google. Be warned—you’ll be reading for awhile.

AMPS

I’m going to say Marshalls, simply because they were so incredibly popular. While they still are giants in the industry, these days amp companies have figured out that there’s an entire market of people who want to get full gain sound at low volumes. Today there are tons of boutique amp companies out there building everything from hybrid (solid state/tube) amps to lunchbox-sized, back-saving tube amps that offer monster tones and incredibly complex and rich distortion.

These options didn’t exist back then.

Back in the mid-80’s, the only way to get high-gain sounds with tube amps (which offer tones and feedback musicality that solid state amps simply could not rival) was to crank up the volume and get those vacuum tubes glowing. Since “gain” was tied to “volume”, you couldn’t get heavy distortion without waking the neighbors.

But I digress… I’m guessing Marshalls, and I’m going with that until the band tells me otherwise.

EQ

A popular EQ trend back then was to ‘scoop the mids’, meaning that on a graphic equalizer, the lowest and highest frequencies would be pushed high, the mid-range tones would be significantly lower, and everything else would be in between. Like a “V”. (See photo) Icon’s sound on this album is consistently edgy and bright, which suggests a lot of high end. At the same time, it sounds as though they have scooped the mids (a technique that significanlty contributed to defining the 80’s metal sound). Too much midrange can result in listening fatigue. (Listen to AC/DC’s “Fly On The Wall” album from start to finish and see if you get a headache. That’s an example of too much midrange.)

WHAT MAKES ICON UNIQUE

In addition to a unique, edgy, high-gain guitar sound, I’d say that what makes Icon stand out for me is Dan Wexler’s guitar technique. While he holds his own in the ‘soloing’ arena, it’s his rhythm playing that really stands out as being unique. He uses a lot of major 2nd intervals, rather than relying strictly on root-fifth shapes.

Lots of bands in the day could play fast. Lots of bands could write about fast cars, women, war, being tough, or ‘scary stuff’. Lots of bands could demonstrate technical proficiency and even virtuosity. Where Icon really shines is in Wexler’s ability to play a major second and sit with it, creating long, musical arcs, as opposed to relying on choppy rhythms all the time.

Even today, I find myself drawn in by the opening to (Rock On) Through The Night and Rock ‘n’ Roll Maniac for these very reasons. The opening to I’m Alive see-saws from root-fifth through a tri-tone down to a root-fourth, then back up through the tri-tone to the original root-fifth. So simple. Yet so incredibly effective in grabbing my attention.

Back in the day, I was in love with the instrumental, Iconoclast. It still holds up pretty well today, though now that I, myself have grown as a guitarist, I can recognize some of the lead guitar patterns (e.g., descending minor scale in four-note groupings) that he used (over-used?) and I’m reminded of the dangers and pitfalls of having a ‘new favorite lick’.

DOWNERS

While it’s not fair to judge anything out of context, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that this album does come off as a bit dated (“We’re in a world war… in 1994”) and even cliché at times (“together we stand, divided we fall”). I have to wonder about how strongly the popular metal bands of the day were influencing and being influenced by one another; Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil had been released just the year before, and from the looks of it, the guys in Icon was shopping from the same fashion catalog. (And I can’t help but notice some similarities between Killer Machine and Too Young To Fall In Love… but then again, I know I have to be careful on this or pretty soon I’ll be talking about how Welcome To The Jungle is really Zero The Hero, Dio’s “Invisible” is really “Shout At The Devil” (or vice-versa)… this song is really that song… it’s all downhill from there.)

But honestly, photos of myself wearing parachute pants that year make me wince as well, so I can’t really hold dated fashion against them. When I first saw the poster (included with the original release of the LP), I was highly impressed. While I haven’t necessarily hung the poster on my studio wall yet, I’m still considering. There’s still an admirable amount of retro-cool cache’ there.

RATING

Bottom-line—These songs stuck in my head long after my cassette copy died. Long after 80’s metal was no longer cool. Long after I’d ‘grown up and gotten a real job’. To paraphrase Bruce-Bruce in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, it’s important to keep that inner-child alive. Let him die, and life is a sadder place.

It took some time and energy to track down a near-mint copy of Icon on vinyl, but from the moment it arrived and I pulled it from the sleeve, it’s been completely worth it.

Doesn’t quite bring tears of joy to my eyes; isn’t quite as timeless as other stuff out there, and could do with a bit more bottom end (I understand it’s been remastered… hopefully available on vinyl, as well??). But still grabs my attention with interesting guitar playing and catchy, memorable hooks.

Icon rating: 9 stars out of 11