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.

Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (1976)

Four years old.

Standing with my face pressed against the front of the jukebox at Jerry’s Pizza King, outside Tampa. Chaser lights flashing. Music blasting. If I reached with all my might, I could almost touch the selector buttons. “Do It Again” at full volume. I heard that song so many times that I assumed every other child was listening to the same thing in their heads. (Two years later, it would be Side One of Apostrophe that my tender little mind and heart would be absorbing through osmosis and repetition.)

College. Austin, Texas. Sun Harvest Farms, hawking produce. Muzak. “Hey Nineteen”. “Peg”. “Babylon Sister”. My psyche’s hazy aural backdrop. I should find out who this is and get some. On compact digital chromium oxide cassette.

And pretty soon, it’s all I’m listening to. Again. But this time, by my own choice. Wait. Never mind. I have no choice. It’s the only thing that consistently soothes me.

Orlando. Indianapolis. Puerto Rico (“the city of St. John…”). Back to CONUS. Japan. Years fly by. Circumstances change. But The Dan is always there, playing in the background. Even put out some new stuff. (Most of which I love.) But the classic soundtrack remains.

Fast forward to present day. Back to vinyl. Digging in to the meat of things. Who played on what. Reviews. Interviews. And best of all, instant access to direct quotes from Don and Walt themselves. DVDs revealing ‘behind the scenes’ of tracking sessions. Mixdown sessions. How many lead guitar breaks were considered for that song. Who said what. Who propped up a cardboard sign in front of his drumset. A doorway into a dreamworld.

But those doors never take me as far through those inner hallways as the music itself. They might show me a little more of Don and Walt. But as it turns out, that was never what I was searching for. As it turns out, I was searching for more insight into my own self. And somehow the music is the mirror.

“Arch pop ditties.” The inner sleeve notes on Aja are hysterical. Suitable for framing. And give some real insight into the genius of these two guys. There. I said it. I guess by now, Gentle Reader, you’ve figured out that the Black Wax team strongly approves of the musical pursuits of Steely Dan.

I downloaded the Internet and found that The Wikipedia has this to say about The Royal Scam: “The album was not as highly rated upon its release as its predecessors with most reviewers noting that it did not seem to represent any musical advancement.” Of course, hindsight is 20/20. The Royal Scam is a work of art, and as such, is celebrated on turntables from Topanga to Watts. Brooklyn, even.

Side one

  1. Kid Charlemagne” – 4:38
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonThe Wikipedia tells us it’s a song about Bear. Upbeat. Cryptic. When I was eight years old and the bicentennial stickers were at eye-level on the glass doors of every convenience store, the funny pants, the crazy moustaches and all other accoutrements (sights, sounds, smells) of the era were like water to the fish: so normal, common and accepted as to be seemingly invisible. More than 35 years later, the lyrics elicit a smile and vague memories of a wild time. Sorry I was only a kid and missed it, but it’s probably a good thing I was only a kid and missed it. A sad and wiser man, all the same.
  2. “The Caves of Altamira” – 3:33[7]

    Larry Carlton. Mister 335. Hero.

    Tenor saxophone solo by John KlemmerIs that hope I hear in the chord progression?

    My friend Wiki says, “The lyrics, written in first person on the theme of art, follow in typically abstruse fashion the story of a young boy who would avoid society by entering a cave and admiring cave paintings on its walls.”So, art as escape… the cave of the psyche… make up your own.

  3. “Don’t Take Me Alive” – 4:16
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonHere’s a little gem I found at
    http://www.guitaretab.com/s/steely-dan/18296.html :

    • Date: Mon, 2 Oct 1995 20:31:44 -0300
      From: Bruce & Peggy Mackinnon
      Subject: s/steely_dan/don't_take_me_alive.crd
      INTRO:
      First slowly strum out a G7#9 with this shape: EADGBE
                                                     355466
      This may look like an impossibility, like a cruel, unusual and
      unplayable chord, but it can be done. You must use the power
      of the force. First you use your ring (3rd) finger to cover
      BOTH the 4th and 5th strings on the 5th fret (straight down on
      the fingertip, not barred), and next you  use the baby finger to
      barre both the 1st and 2nd strings on the 6th fret. Of course your
      index finger is on the 6th string, 3rd fret, and your middle
      finger is on the 3rd string, 4th fret.

      Thank you, dear friends, for shining a light on that godforsaken first chord. Like the opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night“, it wakes many of us guitarists from our peaceful slumber. Killing dreams. Crushing souls. Well, mine anyway.

  4. “Sign in Stranger” – 4:23
    Piano Solo by Paul GriffinGuitar Solo by Elliott RandallStories of the seedy underworld. Like most Dan songs. I can almost see these cretins standing in line, queueing up politely as they can. Slowly winding back and forth through the little rope barriers, quietly working their way toward the Glass Booth. Lady behind the glass sitting there with a bored look as one after another shuffles up, pushes giant wads of cash through the slot and fills out the application to make those mugshots disappear. But even the tempo and erratic piano solo suggest a looser, more laid-back, under-the-table approach to things. Maybe a bit more informal than signs with arrows and “for service ring bell”. To each our own, right?

    The Dan in 1970

  5. “The Fez” (Becker, Fagen, Paul Griffin) – 4:01
    Guitar solo by Walter BeckerIt would be decades before I’d learn that they weren’t talking about the guys with the go carts. The tradeoff for losing innocence is finally being in on the joke. Bittersweet. But worth it, I think, in the end.

Side two

  1. “Green Earrings” – 4:05
    Guitar solos by Denny Dias (1st) and Elliott Randall(2nd)I can see her. The dental work. The way she pushes her hair back behind her ear without even being aware of it.
  2. “Haitian Divorce” – 5:51
    Talk box guitar solo by Dean Parks, altered by Walter BeckerHopelessly in love with the way “soon everybody knew the thing was dead” happens before we’re even through with Verse One. Ever been divorced? New York City’s tie with sunny islands / foreshadowing for the end of the album is happening here in spades. I could make up something here about intertwining story lines and hypothetical spectres. Best if I just stick to personal opinion. I like it.

    Modern-day Dan.

  3. Everything You Did” – 3:55
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonThis is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful house.
  4. The Royal Scam” – 6:30
    Guitar solo by Larry Carlton
    Quite possibly one of the greatest Dan songs of all time. Cold. Calculated. Brooding. The lyrics are pure poetry. Contrast. Bright colors against shades of gray. The American Dream. The lies we tell to keep it alive, even as we’re being plowed under.The percussion work is brilliant. Actually, it feels rather pointless to say that any aspect of the music is brilliant or amazing, since all of it is. “That wave is so WET!” Okay. Whatever.Still. The crazy, subtle hand percussion that happens at the very beginning of the song, behind the piano (the tapping, clicking, whatever it is) really adds to the spookiness. The darkness. And this is truly the perfect song to summarize the entire album. The seventies. The American Dream.

    Call me a jaded cynic. Call me what you will. Steely Dan for President.

    RATING: 11 Stars out of 11. The Perfect Album in every way.

    EPILOGUE: Lots of love for Mister Whatever on the Webs. For starters, go here: http://www.steelydandictionary.com/