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.

Mercyful Fate: Melissa (1983)

In 1983, Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” was dangerous.

Riding in the back of the school bus to gym class on a steamy April morning in a little backwater town (population 5,000) about an hour outside Austin (before SXSW, before the overpass, before “an hour outside Austin” meant “the suburbs of Austin”), turning up the portable cassette player and blasting this song would definitely raise eyebrows among the preps, the FFA kids, and the jocks. Reinforcing the fact that we were misfits. Outcasts.

Some of us attempted to straddle both worlds, running track, participating in drama, and wearing multiple alligator shirts with parachute pants, but also wearing heavy metal concert jerseys as often as possible. Others of us were summarily (and unfairly) judged as burnouts and losers on the path to destruction. Hearing us blast “Crazy Train” only cemented these beliefs in the heads and hearts of the coaches, school counselors, and bus drivers who watched us in the oversized rearview mirror, shaking their heads. “He ain’t worth pissin’ on.*” Somehow, that gave us a sense of power. We were flying our freak flag high, to borrow from the hippies with their ‘stones tongue’ tshirts, bell bottoms and bad haircuts. (*Actual quote from a highly respected school official at the time, speaking to members of the local high school football team in reference to a future Black Wax Reviews staff member who happened to be walking by.)

Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” felt like outright blasphemy for those of us raised Catholic… for those of us who, against all odds, still tried to have some faith in that system. But we’d seen badness. Divorce. (Resulting in excommunication from the church.) Abused mothers. Booze. Some stepdads who were cool; others who were not. In many ways, the ground beneath our feet felt like it was crumbling. Defying an omniscient, omnipotent being in the sky with a long white beard to strike us down for listening to Maiden felt empowering somehow.

Others felt the power, too.

The first time I popped in my “Mob Rules” cassette while riding around in my preppie friend’s little yellow Datsun pickup, he looked at me with confusion in his eyes. “It’s so HEAVY!”, he yelled over “Turn Up The Night,” not quite sure whether he liked it or not. I reveled in that moment for months.

If we were giddy with joy over the power of these bands, you can imagine our profound astonishment upon discovering Mercyful Fate’s Melissa. Here was a band that took things two steps further. They didn’t just use heavy distortion. They didn’t stop at making indirect references to beezlebub. Nope. They stuck it right in everyone’s face, and proudly, too. “Hail Satan,” King Diamond screamed, and I was simultaneously terrified and excited. If ever there was the power to make people step back, this was it, I thought.

I still remember popping the cassette into my cutting-edge technology, high-fidelity, portable cassette stereo.

Side One

Evil. Machine gun blasts of heavy guitar open the album, followed by some harmony guitar stuff. Then King Diamond (Kim Bendix Petersen, degree in chemistry) comes in with what was to become his signature falsetto scream. The sound of the drums. The bass. The mid-rangey, nasal tonal quality of the overall album. The creepy photos… obscured faces… who WERE these guys? We didn’t know. But we knew that they were blasting us out of our chairs. “Evil” was a kick in the chest in every way for me. I wasn’t sure whether to rip the tape out of the player and throw it away, or rewind and play it again louder. I opted for the latter.

Curse of the Pharaohs. More laid-back opening, guitar, with drums kicking in not long after. Then vocals. Some serious gallop-picking, which Maiden was also making very popular, but at the time sounded new and fresh. Crazy guitar solos… spiky, fast, and spooky-sounding. (Years later I would learn that those were actual scales that even normal guys like me could play, with a little practice.)

Into the Coven. Oh yeah… that sweet intro, all majored-out, like the intro to Metallica’s “Fight Fire With Fire” on Ride the Lightning. Very classically inspired. And maybe even a little bluesy, with that bend toward the end… then the main theme kicks in, and things are not so happy anymore. Dang. Even 29 years later, this is heavy. Even though I still can’t really understand the lyrics without the benefit of the googles, it kind of doesn’t matter. I still just fake it and sing along with my fake, made-up words. Then the sweet, laid-back breakdown at 2:32. King Diamond’s harmonizing with himself, then the razor-sharp solo. Second solo. Harmony solo. Fourth solo. These guys knew how to put together a really heavy song! Then back to the main theme. And another solo. I stood in front of the bedroom mirror for hours rocking the tennis racket. And in my pre-pubescence, I really felt like I was rocking those falsetto vocals rather well.

At the Sound of the Demon Bell. Cool beginning. Lots of double stops. Kind of an uplifting chord progression to begin with, from I to IV. Then, when the vocals kick in, sheer evil. Of course. And holy mother of god, those chorus vocals were so sweet. And then the time signature change. “If you don’t believe, then see for yourself…”

Early Mercyful Fate: Michael Denner, Timi Hansen, King Diamond, Hank Shermann and Ole Frausing.

At this point in the song (1:52), it becomes my duty as an Official Black Wax Reviewer to point out the direct and unabashed ripoff from Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat” (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). Okay, maybe “ripoff” is a bit melodramatic and overly harsh. But without a doubt, this section had to have been “strongly influenced by” Sabbath’s tune. I mean, come on. (Still, if you’re gonna be “strongly influenced” by anything, Sabbath’s not a bad bet.) Thundering double bass and crazy soloing. More time signature changes. These guys never quite cross into ‘prog rock’ territory… no 5’s or 7’s or anything like that… just the occasional switch from 4 to 3. Still very effective. At 4:57 we get a certifiably kick ass change into the closing section, where we shift from full-throttle, balls out cranking to a laid-back, spacious groove. Then back again. Wait. I lied. If we include the extra little repeat thing in there, we can call that 5/4 (or 10/4). Then the final gallop home for the last three seconds. Pure bliss.

Side Two

Black Funeral. So this one was the source of many jokes among our friends… “Bring the black box to the altar…” “Then set the black box down on the altar…” “Reach down and unlatch the lock on the black box on the altar…” “Lift the lid…” okay, you get the point. Over-the-top lyrics. But then at 0:41, with King’s falsetto vocals at the beginning of the chorus, we could never help ourselves. We had to sing along. Absolutely kick-ass changes; the arrangement is really genius. Each part is built on a really solid riff. Even if the vocals kind of border on the silly from time to time (through my eyes/ears today). Then crazy soloing and a sudden ending that makes me feel like I’ve just driven off a bumpy gravel road and over a cliff.

Satan’s Fall. From the opening drums/guitar solo to King’s frantic vocal phrasing, this song is just an explosion of energy. Slows down at 0:48 for a stoner rock groove punctuated by King’s upper-register screams (he hits at least a G7, for you fellow keyboard geeks) then right down to a guttural “with blood-stained wings”. And right back up to where he was three seconds ago. If he made a deal with some evil entity, like cashing in his soul for vocal prowess and fame, I’d say he did pretty good. (Well, until he dies, anyway.) Gorgeous wall of vocal harmonies at 5:28. They’re all King, and man, does it sound good. At 5:52, we walk through a doorway into what sounds like a whole different song. Heavy groove punctuated by crunchy muted guitar strokes that slowly take us through the paces of yet another creepy chord progression. A fantastic contrast to the pelting hailstorm we’ve been subjected to thus far. A nice aural break, of sorts, with groaning bass in the background making things creepy as ever. You know that scene in your favorite slasher movie, where things are quiet and you know the evil dude with the hockey mask and the chainsaw is right behind that tree over there, but the cute girl in the high heels and the ripped prom dress doesn’t know it, and is slowly stumbling through the woods right toward his hiding place? That’s what this sounds like.

Oh, and the classic and oh-so-subtle lyrics,

“Craniums high on stakes

Swedish band Ghost are heavily influenced by Mercyful Fate and Blue Oyster Cult. Could we ask for anything more?

It’s Satan’s epigraph
Something you can’t erase… 666
They call him the beast”

One of the coolest parts of this song is at 7:52, when it ends. Or so we think. After an apparent ending (crashing cymbals, definitive closing chords), we get a moment of complete silence. “Oh, the song is over.” Then clean guitar, nice and sweet, with the vocals, “Innocent lovers, it’s a lie.” For better or worse, the dude really knows how to construct a chord with his multi-tracked vocals. Very sweet. Then the fast part. Then the crazy solos. Finally, around 11:25, things wind down and die. And it’s time for their coup de grace…

Melissa. Beautiful opening guitar part. (Factoid: I learned how to play this opening rhythm part and wrote my own lyrics to it; a cheesy love song. Then played it for girls in college and told them it was about them. Didn’t actually gain me anything, but I tried.)  Awesome, creepy vocals. Drums. Nice and slow; half-time feel. Then, at 2:12, things get heavier, but not faster. Not yet. Vocals die out… quiet, then clean guitars come in with a 3/4 time signature. Solos over vocals. Back to the initial 4/4 theme. And into the galloping thing, the amazing hi-hat work and ride cymbal bell. Slows down again. Like way down. Solo. ‘Leave for a cup of tea and come back’ slow. ‘The hell were they thinking?’ slow. And for quite awhile, too. Some cool drum fills in there, though. Bass playing way up high on the neck. Then the best, most delicious outro ever… back to the 3/4 part, desperate vocals (“Melissa? Can you hear me? Melissa? Are you there?”) Then clean guitar with vocals for the final drop of the curtains.

“I think Melissa’s still with us…”

While the Black Wax Reviews team is divided on the lyrical content (some of us love it, others of us aren’t really into it), we all agree this is about as close to the perfect metal album as you can get. It was true back in ’83 and it’s still true today.

Rating: 10.5 stars out of 11. An almost-perfect record. (Minus 1/2 point, just in case there IS a God.)