Circumcised! Down & Dirty!

Japanese headbangers Loudness have the last laugh

Loudness
Shadows of War

Loudness
Heavy Metal Hippies Once and for All
All on Wounded Bird Records

Loudness were described as furnishers of "brain-destroying" music in Tony Jasper's sometimes accidentally amusing 1983 book The International Encyclopedia of Hard Rock & Heavy Metal. It was a compliment, the longstanding Japanese band's high-water mark in print. Subsequently, they were never taken seriously in the West. Martin Popoff, accountant-certified compiler of thousands of metal reviews, dismissed them as "just foreign and weird," adding, "...they still remind me of Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies." Damning Loudness with faint praises, Popoff doled out failing scores for Thunder in the East and Lightning Strikes, albums mainstreamed at an American audience in the mid-'80s.

The gimmick was to sell Loudness as a cock-rock- and party-metal act, a role for which they were patently unsuited. For this purpose they were eventually adorned with a stateside frontman, Mike Vescera, pilfered from a fourth- or fifth-string U.S. metal band called Obsession, Loudness's native singer having been deemed too "foreign and weird." It didn't help much. Vescera lasted a few records before continuing on as a journeyman, trading marginally upward into Yngwie Malmsteen's band.

Wounded Bird Records has been reissuing the Loudness catalog for a few years, the first releases being CD editions of American vinyl that revealed a band committing a variety of sins while kowtowing to '80s 'mersh metal lowest common denominators. But more recently, the label has introduced, for the first time, a few records made by Loudness after they had disappeared from stores domestically. Paradoxically, they are an artistic about-face and the best of the batch.

The material old fans know is Loudness with a wooden rhythm section; an original singer with, take your pick, impenetrable or nonsensical lyrics; or, a sleaze-rocking American vocalist picked for the hair-band audience. But after the band washed out of the U.S market, a second Japanese vocalist, with better elocution, was hired and the rhythm section replaced. Behind all of it was a wall of guitar from Akira Takasaki, the band's one consistently "brain-destroying" component. Besides suggesting a micro-cult following that you probably didn't know existed, four '05 re-releases make a baffling collection that defies pigeonholing and rewards cherry picking.

Anyone trying to appreciate these reissues in one sitting is beaten senseless by the experience. Smaller slices are worthwhile, though, and the band roams so widely around metal subgenres that there's something for purists of various stripes. Liken it to blind pigs finding occasional truffles or busted watches being right twice a day, but contrary to their meager reputation, Loudness made a few good records.

Shadows of War hits on the backside of Loudness's American metal ride. It's mostly awful old Loudness with accordingly cheesy album art, seemingly dreamed up by junior high boys who've just discovered a love for two things that don't belong together--fire and dressing in women's clothes. The image of the band in silks and bouffants was and is an embarrassment of the most excruciating nature. Singer Minoru Nihara wages a mighty but futile struggle with the ways of the Cinderella/Britny Fox song stylebook. On "Black Star Oblivion" it sounds like he's shouting, "Drug store maniac!" over and over. Entertaining--but not in a head-banging way. On another tune, "One Thousand Eyes," he makes shrieking reference to "one hundred voices," thus creating history's most subtle examination of people with ten eyes.

But in between the hapless choruses, the listener hears a band that's supremely heavy when it's not trying to succeed. Had Loudness dispensed with the sham of writing songs, always a burden, and been photographed in denim and leather, Shadows of War could've been great. Loudness, Heavy Metal Hippies, and Once and for All, however, are an entirely different story, the style metamorphosing from Silly MTV Hopefuls to Marauding Visigoths.

Dismissed from having to make it in the West, the band reorganized, drafting their new vocalist from another Japanese stateside non-starter, EZO. EZO was a doomed Gene Simmons "discovery" that relocated to L.A., where a Geffen Records A&R rep took a shine to them in a fit of delirium. Plodding, tortured-sounding, and unwisely dressed up kabuki style, they sold about as well as bottled horse piss.

But the trio of albums made featuring EZO's Masaki Yamadi as frontman changed Loudness from party metallers to asphalt soldiers. Everything commercial went to a garage sale--the sissyman look, the old drummer and bass player, the Eddie van Halenism. Colors were out, the leather jacket discovered. On Heavy Metal Hippies the band is a bunch of greasy dolts coming out of the woods. Loudness and Once and for All look like black metal albums. Yamadi poses like he's ready to chew nails. Where'd the kabuki go?

Loudness's beats slowed down to a slinking and provocative pace. "Twisted" (from Loudness) is dark and funky hard rock; "Ride the Wind" is convincing cruising-&-chain-fights biker metal. On "Howling Rain" from Heavy Metal Hippies Yamadi makes the band sound like Guns N' Roses for a moment.

Takasaki's axe dispenses nothing but downtuned frying riffola. Known to be a shredder, he relies instead on knuckle-dragging rhythm and incinerating use of the wah-wah. Occasionally, the white-boy blooz float through the mix. His deathlike tone is infernally crunching, nasty enough to have influenced the underground Japanese grindcore band known for Satan-sitting-on-the-commode symbolism, Bathtub Shitter.

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