NINGEN ISU — Kuraku (review)

NINGEN ISU — Kuraku album cover Album · 2021 · Heavy Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
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It's been two years and two months since the release of "Shin Seinen", the album that included the song "Mujou no Scat - Heartless Scat" whose promotion on YouTube made heavy music fans around the world go, "Wow! Who are these guys?!" The band had maintained a small following for over two decades before an appearance at Ozz Fest in Japan in 2013 gave them exposure to an international audience. For the next few years, Ningen Isu concentrated on making each of their heavy metal (think 70's inspired traditional doom/stoner metal with a flare for getting a bit thrashy or speedy at times) albums attractive to the foreign market but always maintaining their unique sound and approach to heavy music: they are very much a Japanese band playing western heavy metal. But their 21st album released in 2019 took them to a whole new level of international popularity. This resulted in their first ever trip overseas where they played two shows in Germany and one in England. They were scheduled to appear at the SXSW Festival in Texas in March of 2020, but COVID-19 shut that down.

"Kuraku" ("Suffering and Joy", or "Pain and Comfort" if you believe the Wikipedia translation of the title) is the band's 22nd album and the first new release since their overseas episodes of February, 2020. Fans of the band's last few albums will find that Ningen Isu are ploughing along in the same style. There have been no efforts to adjust their sound for any imagined possibility of broadening their audience, and this is what new fans to the band probably hoped for and expected. (Fans of the band's entire catalogue know that the band has explored different directions but always maintained a heavy base).

The album is 13 tracks and 71 minutes of Ningen Isu-styled heavy metal with lyrical themes such as space pirates ("Uchuu Kaizoku), ghosts ("Nikutai no Bourei"), kings of darkness ("Ankoku Ou"), motorcycles ("Hashire GT"), and robots ("Ningen Robot"). If I understood correctly, the album's concept was based around the vision of the future held by Japanese a hundred years ago. They believed in a utopian society free of hardship and strife. However, Ningen Isu are saying what we may have achieved is the opposite. The album title comes from a 1920's periodical of the same name, which was a magazine that published stories by Edogawa Ranpo, whose story "Ningen Isu - The Human Chair" was where the band took its name.

The opening track begins with an unusual sound for Ningen Isu, a strummed electric guitar that some may think inspired by Led Zeppelin but I hear as being similar to The Tea Party, though I am sure Ningen Isu has never heard of that Canadian band. The music soon changes into a typical Ningen Isu heavy rocker and plays out long enough for some change ups to happen in the music. The song title, "Toshishun" is from the title of a short story written by a famous Japanese author, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, who wrote many famous stories from 1914 until his death by suicide in 1927. This song, written and sung by Shinji Wajima, exemplifies Ningen Isu's ability to write heavy tracks with a slight progressive edge.

Though every track on the album is heavy (Ningen Isu don't do power ballads and have rarely touched acoustic only numbers), there are a few worth mentioning for their outstanding or unusual points. "Uchuu Kaizoku" has a guitar effects intro and features a Theremin in the solo section. Shinji Wajima has used a Theremin on several songs in the past, always space-themed ones. "Seikimatsu Jinta (End of the Century Jinta)" has a really groovy riff that sounds like it was pulled straight out of 1976. Wajima plays a bit of Taishogoto - a Japanese instrument based on the koto - on the tracks "Seikimatsu Jinta" and "Nayami wo Tsukinekete, Kanki wo Idare (Overcome Your Worries and Be Joyous)". "Koukotsu no Tourou (Ecstatic Mantis)" is the shortest track and one of Ken'ichi Suzuki's short but speedy and aggressive tracks. "Shijou no Kuchibiru" features drummer Nobu Nakajima on lead vocals. And the closing track, "Yoake Mae (Before the Dawn)" is one of those longer, dark and heavy tracks that Ningen Isu like to do.

The album is what you'd expect from Ningen Isu: heavy stoner, doom, and trad metal riffs, and a good mix of themes and approaches, plus a their unique sound cultivated over three decades. What the album doesn't include are any experiments with new sounds or directions or revisiting any of the one-track diversions of the past. I personally like a surprise or two on an album, and among my favourites are the albums where the band dropped in either something very progressive or something inspired by traditional Japanese music. "Kuraku" is a solid, heavy banger from start to finish.

So, once again, fans who love the last few albums will be just as thrilled to hear this one. Ningen Isu are veterans of what they play and don't make any mistakes. They know who they are and how they should sound. Once again, they have achieved that flawlessly.
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Tupan wrote:
2 months ago
Which album do you think is a good introduction to Ningen Isu?

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