Onmyo-za - Inyo Shugyoku

review - 10.11.2006 23:00

Review of the European release of Onmyo-za's Inyo Shugyoku.

Onmyo-za's Inyo Shugyoku is a "best of" album that spans the entirety of the band's almost seven year long career. In that time, the band has released six full albums, one mini-album, and several singles most of which contain original songs (some of which appear on this album which is useful for fans who do not buy singles). This album is a massive two disc affair and each CD contains just short of 80 minutes of music.

The unusual band configuration of two lead vocalists, Matatabi (male) and Kuroneko (female), backed by twin lead guitars, Maneki and Karukan, and then supported by a rhythm section of Matatabi on bass and Tora on drums allows the Onmyo-za to produce music that is different and original just because of the complementary styles of the band as musicians alone. The band’s overall sound is definitely metal, a mixture of orthodox heavy metal with occasional melodic death metal influences along with some occasional progressive themes. There is also a strong Japanese influence intermingled throughout; for example the heavy use of the key of E minor and the vocal effects that both singers use.
The absolute synergy that Onmyo-za possesses with their voices and instruments is evident throughout, and this album is just as much a showcase for their talent as much as a jumbo sized selection of their best songs.

The two disks of Inyo Shugyoku are divided by theme. The first CD is yo which represents the "yang" aspect of the band contains mainly stronger, faster songs, although there are a few slower songs to vary the pace of the album. The second CD, in, represents the "yin" with darker, more intense songs including the mammoth 20 minute plus Yoshitsune suite. A total of thirty songs split between the disks show the complete diversity of musical styles that Onmyo-za have recorded and performed over their career.

The first disc starts off with the upbeat rock song, Mezame, before leading into its complementary "twin", Nemuri. The band's most recent popular release Koga Ninpocho follows. Koga Ninpocho is probably the most recognizable song on the album as it was used as the title music for the anime "Basilisk". The song features a synth flute introduction and Kuroneko on lead solo vocals in a straight forward but enjoyable rock track. A very nice twin guitar solo from Maneki and Karukan adds colour and character.

Hyaku no Oni ga yoru wo yuku brings up the tempo with its pummeling repeating menacing guitar theme which forms the foundation of the song. The lead vocalists swap back and forth and join together for the choruses embellished by demonic laughter and a steady backbeat from the rhythm section. This is one of the songs that Onmyo-za almost always play at live shows and it is not at all surprising that it has been chosen for this album.

Further highlights of the first album include the singles Oka no Kotowari, Yoka Ninpocho, and fan favourite Rasetsu with its lightning fast guitar work and passionate vocal line. The “traditional” Onmyo-za “Matsuri” - ~festival~ songs are in attendance too. The happy upbeat Maiagaru and the aggressively masculine chorus laced Gainagateya are included also. The addition of the Metallica flavoured Akuroo is also here to show just how heavy Onmyo-za can get!

Sandwiched between all these songs is the gem Hyoku Tensho with its Judas Priest influenced introduction piece, Homura no Tori. From this high point the lowest follows with the staid Aogiri no Oka, which is a slow ballad version of Hyoku Tensho. With so many other great songs which could have been included on this album, it’s a minor disappointment that this song is included.

Disc two begins with Manji, one of Onmyo-za's heaviest songs. Especially noticeable on this track is how incredibly tight and characteristic Tora's drumming is, with it's taiko-esque accents and double bass pedal kicks. Manji also features a rather excellent and very atmospheric guitar solo with the twin vocals of Matatabi and Kuroneko taking turns to range back and forth from snarling growls to passionate phrasing

Changing pace completely with the next song, Ayako, Kuroneko shows her full "cradle to the grave" signature vocals. At first, the song is a staid and enjoyable ballad before just after half way through when madness reigns with Kuroneko screaming, speaking in different voices, before the song resumes to continue to its uneasy but final conclusion. It's a fine song as well as a live performance favourite, and its inclusion on this compilation is most welcome

Kuroneko once again takes the lead in the next song which is part one of a two song "suite"; the two songs although separate tracks run together seamlessly to create a complete piece, but both songs can also be enjoyed separately. The magic happens when both songs are run together; the change in mood between the two is incredible and arguably one of Onmyo-za's greatest pieces. The first song of the pair is a pretty affair with just Kuroneko backed with just an acoustic guitar accompaniment which slowly builds up. First a guitar solo, with bass and drums cutting in to form a wonderful bridge, then another change in pace an agitated vocal with "creepy" sounding backing from the band before a strong set of bold chords breaks into the second part of the suite. Matatabi now joins Kuroneko on vocals and the band joins in energetically to bring up the pace with the song then building to one of the most wonderful interlocking dual guitar solos I have had the pleasure to hear. Furious but intricate, beautiful but sinister; it really is a masterpiece of guitar work.

Following is the beautiful ballad Kori no Kusabi, a minimalistic track carried along fully by Kuroneko's solo vocals and synth piano before subdued bass and drums are introduced to build up the sparse palete of sounds. This song is a fine example of the fact that even stripped down and without the signature guitar work of Maneki and Karukan, Onmyo-za can still produce wonderful songs.

Another long "storytelling" track follows. Nue is a song about the mythical creature of the title. Many of Onmyo-za's song subjects are based around mythical creatures such as the Nue. The song is actually like a mini-suite in itself as it changes theme radically as the story unfolds. A calm introduction, two chorus forms, fast and slow interchanging themes draws the listener in to the sad tale of the Nue. At ten minutes long, it's a song that needs repeated listenings to fully appreciate the many details that would be missed in an initial listening.

The next three tracks make up the "Yoshitsune" trilogy, a long suite of three songs which tell the tragic tale of the ancient Japanese warrior "Minamoto no Yoshitsune". The suite starts off with the heavy fast paced Akki Hogan which features a wonderfully agressive and meaty twin guitar solo. The suite then carries on seamlessly with Tora's taiko drumming style linking into the central part of the trilogy. Using their typical "storytelling" style, Onmyo-za leads the listener through several musical themes, some slow, some fast, some with unaccompanied vocals and long instrumental passages. Patches of talking and Kuroneko's highly emotional vocal stylings add a great deal of feeling to the music. Even if one does not understand Japanese, it is easy through the music to understand the progress of the story and to appreciate the feelings of the characters that Matatabi and Kuroneko are "playing" in this piece. The third song of the trilogy changes pace into a slow sad ballad accompanied throughout by synth and occasional bells to complete the twenty minute plus epic.

Keeping the same mood, the song Enenra follows and, unusually, it is Matatabi taking the lead this slow song. His rich voice is very well suited to this type of singing and it's refreshing to hear him take a lead in a slow song with Kuroneko embellishing the vocals with the sweetest sounding refrains imaginable.

Of course the CD could not finish without Onmyo-za's vintage trademark song Onmyoji. The song starts with a calm synth koto introduction before suddenly ripping into a frenzied back and forth vocal line between the two lead singers. The guitar solos on this song are lightning fast and exciting and are one of the musical highlights from the very beginning of Onmyo-za's career. The beloved fan favourite song brings the second CD to a fitting end.

With this album you will not get short three minute hummable songs; that is not what Onmyo-za produces. At first, six minute plus long songs which demand your attention may sound like too much, but keep listening and you will be carried along with the storytelling vocals and masterful playing of Onmyo-za. You will hear something completely different from any other band.
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