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Ningen-Isu (The Human Chair) is a criminally underrated doom metal band from Aomori in Japan. The tight trio has a very dynamical sound that also ventures into the heavy metal and progressive rock genres here and there. Imagine a mixture of Black Sabbath and Rush with a very own sound and a constantly high quality as the band’s discography doesn’t feature one single disappointment. The heart and soul of the band are guitarist and singer Wajima Shinji and bassist and singer Suzuki Kenichi who are both original band members and active since 1987. The trio is completed by drummer Nakajima Nobu who calls the band his some since 2004 and who is the fourth drummer of the otherwise perfectly stable line-up. The chemistry between the three band members is really stunning. There are no parts that sound boring or out of place even though a lot of tracks feel spontaneous and fresh as if they were recorded in jam sessions. The band has released a total of seventeen studio albums starting with “Ningen Shikkaku” (“No Longer Human”) in 1990 and their last record “Mandoro” (“Ten Thousand Hanging Lanterns”) was released in August 2013. The title of their latest output is a synonym for the full moon and the absolutely amazing cover artwork underlines this fact. As of May 2014, the perseverant band is already working on a follow-up.
The band opens its latest masterpiece with the short but very engaging “Shigan Goeika” (“Song In Praise Of The Buddha Of This Life”) that opens with some spiritual percussion before engaging riffs and hypnotizing vocals set in that could come straight from old Black Sabbath. After a few seconds, you are already nodding along and shaking your legs to this track. The gloomy sing along vocals are simplistic but extremely effective from an atmospheric point of view and apart of that quite catchy.
After the record’s shortest song follows the epic of the album entitled “Kuroyuri Nikki” (“Black Lily Diary”) which is a heavy doom metal anthem with thundering riffs, an apocalyptically pumping bass guitar, a tight drumming and dramatic vocals. The chorus is extremely catchy and won’t get out of your mind anytime soon. My favourite passage is though the slightly destructive instrumental part that reminds me of the heaviest songs of King Crimson like “21st Century Schizoid Man” which is one of my favourite songs ever.
“Jigoku Hen” (“Changes In Hell”) surprises with versatile and deep vocals and comes around as an engaging mid tempo stomper with a few psychedelic elements such as the hysterical laughter in the middle part. The instrumental work is out of this world again. The destructive bass guitar sound runs everything down, the riffs are precise and effective and the few short solo parts are ecstatic without sounding like wankery. They are always short and concise. “Jigoku Den” indeed has a hellish atmosphere and feels like a Black Sabbathian drug trip.
“Sakura Ranman” (“Cherry Blossoms In Full Glory”) is a mid-tempo stomper with perfectly chosen engaging riffs. The middle part surprises with a few folk sounds and the use of traditional Japanese instruments without letting go off the tight riffs. The guitar solo in this song is seriously one of the coolest I have ever heard of. It sounds a little bit like traditional Japanese music but still contemporary and tight. This amazing track which is maybe my personal favourite on the album ends with fast drumming and a very tight instrumental part that almost sounds like thrash metal. The combination of traditional Japanese folklore, classic doom metal and a few more modern heavy or thrash metal parts sounds perfectly balanced on this track.
“Neputa No Mandoriko“ is a quite short song with an energizing punk vibe, fast buildups and galloping riffs that convinces with hysterical and intriguingly menacing vocals and a few dynamical background screams here and there. I imagine that this kind of wild song must work extremely well in concert. The guitar solo in here is quite close to the amazing one in the previous song. Tight heaviness meets a few wisely used psychedelic sound collages here and there. This track is another instant album highlight and band classic. It represents perfectly what the band stands for in barely three minutes.
Every single song on “Mandoro” really deserves a detailed description. I simply chose these five tracks because they are the first songs on the album and represent the band sound very well. I could randomly chosen any other five songs and I would have been as enthusiastic about them. This album never ever falls off the edge and always remains excellent. I simply don’t want to write a book here. To keep it short, the chemistry between the band members, their tight sound without any lengths and the few well employed surprises in form of bass and guitar solos, dynamical pace changes and psychedelic sound collages are the three winning elements that make this band stand out. This record never gets boring and is constantly addicting with a running time of almost sixty-three minutes. Even in an extremely abundant and strong discography as Ningen-Isu’s, their seventeenth full length effort must be cited as one of the highlights. If you have never heard of this band before, I can absolutely recommend you this album to start with. If you care for doom metal, heavy metal and tight progressive rock, I would be surprised if you didn’t like this masterpiece. This is definitely one of the best albums of the year 2013. This album is worth spending some extra money on to get the expensive import version of this masterpiece.
Note: Ningen-Isu utilizes Japanese characters, text and language. For ease of reading and differentiating tracks, I'm going to be using transliterations into the Latin alphabet. Not only is it easier for my fellow English speaking readers, it is more universally acceptable to web browsers and page formatting. Apologies to my Japanese speaking and reading friends who were hoping to see the actual Japanese titles.
Ningen-Isu is a Japanese heavy metal act that has been toiling away in relative obscurity since their formation in 1987. Always featuring the dynamic duo of Kenichi Suzuki on bass and vocals and Shinji Wajima on guitar and vocals, the band has employed four drummers, with their current lineup being home to Nobu Nakajima, who joined the band in 2004. Ningen-Isu has released seventeen full length albums to date, with their latest, Mandoro, being released in August of 2013. The title actually means “10,000 Hanging Lanterns”, which is a reference to the bright light of the moon. While the band doesn't have an extremely large following outside of their home country, they've been dubbed “The Japanese Black Sabbath” by many fans. Unlike Black Sabbath's frequent drops in quality, though, Ningen-Isu is known for a commitment to releasing extremely tight and consistently high quality albums that, while not carbon copies of their previous releases, are instantly recognizable as Ningen-Isu. Even within their home country, the band was criminally underrated until a Japanese Ozzfest appearance that bolstered their native status.
Thanks to some of the regulars at the Metal Archives forums for recommending this band to me (Crick and Metantoine, mostly), as I probably never would have found this band without their recommendations and continuous high praise of the band. Delving into the band's back catalog, I found one of the most consistent bands that I have ever heard: seventeen albums and not a single dud. It's almost absurd in this day and age of fly by night bands and basement studios to hear a band so committed to excellence and so committed to producing top quality albums for their miniscule fan base. Any time I delve into a Ningen-Isu album for the first time, it is with the utmost anticipation and a very curious mind. While the band has seventeen albums under their belt, they have yet to repeat themselves. Every album is completely recognizable as Ningen-Isu, with humongous riffs inspired by Black Sabbath, Ritchie Blackmore / Rainbow inspired solos that border on shred at times, tinges of Stoner Rock, extremely tight musicianship and a pair of the most intriguing and unique vocalists in Metal history.
If you couldn't tell by the track titles, the band name or the album artwork, then you should know Shinji and Kenichi sing in entirely in Japanese. I know a lot of people that will never get into this band just because of that, but they are missing out. The Japanese lyrics give the band a mystical, foreign feel (at least to this somewhat backwoods American writer) and it helps cement the band as one of the most unique acts in metal because of that. Perhaps I'm not extremely versed in the Japanese metal scene, but all of the other Japanese acts I've ever listened to sing or scream in English (Sabbat, Church of Misery, Loudness). It's actually quite a refreshing change of pace. Both vocalists are heavily accented (well, no shit, they are singing in Japanese) and go for a mid-ranged singing style that sounds smooth and cool most of the time with an occasional, endearing gruffness to counteract. Perhaps the most striking aspect, vocally, is when Shinji and Kenichi harmonize their vocals to bring both sides into the fold at once. There's just this untouchable chemistry between the two, which leads me to the music.
Ningen-Isu is one of the tightest bands I've ever heard. Nothing sounds out of place or forced here, at all. Mandoro features over an hour of solid tracks; no reason for a track forward button here: thirteen tracks – no filler. I don't want to downplay the drums here, as they are solid and carry the music forward with some interesting patterns, but they are far from the focus, which is the incredible tightness of Shinji and Kenichi's instruments. That being said, Shinji's guitar riffs are reminiscent of Tony Iommi in all the good ways, with tons of crunchy grooves, catchy licks and an overall doomy feel. Kenichi's bass is constantly bouncing, technically proficient but not to the point of wankery. The chemistry between Shinji's Sabbathian riffs and Kenichi's thumping bass is just remarkable, like the main riff on “Neputa no Mandoriko”. While the music is decidedly heavy and the riffs are surely derived from the same school as Black Sabbath, the entire offering sounds very psychedelic in nature, as evidenced by the spacey leads towards the end of “Kuroyuri Nikki” or the clean strumming and melodic breaks of “Nekoja Nekoja” and “Eisei ni Natta Otoko”. Even with all the throwback riffing and psychedelic elements Ningen-Isu can still get heavy, as evidenced on the rollicking “Kumo no Ito”, which features a rolling drum pattern and some harsher, gruff vocals, or the pummeling double bass drumming and thrashy punk flair of “Jinsei Banzai”. The band keeps things fresh by constantly changing tempos, adding crunchy grooves and solid, psychedelic solos throughout.
Honestly, this is a band that deserves your attention more than any other band out there. Yes, their music is actually quite difficult to track down (at least it is stateside), but this band's brand of psychedelic grooving heavy metal and doom is better than just about any other band out there. Shinji and Kenichi are two of the tightest musicians in the metal world. I challenge you to find another band who has been around for nearly three decades, released seventeen albums and has yet to produce a dud or even have a noticeable drop in quality. Ningen-Isu are a rare breed. Check out if you like classic heavy metal and doom but are looking for an awesome twist. Ningen-Isu should be legends by now, so help them reach that status by supporting them now. Mandoro the band's seventeenth album, is mandatory listening, so go find it now.
Best Japanese album of the year just gets tougher and tougher as I come across more bands, but I think Ningen Isu might well be edging out Gotsu Totsu Kotsu this year as well as placing just above Cathedral for best doom. The band's continued onslaught of top notch heavy metal and doom in the last ten years has kept the Sabbathian vibes of early years as strong as ever while continuing to hone and refine their own recognizable identity. The recipe for Mandoro remains plenty of fresh-sounding Iommi riffs, frequent throwbacks to Blackmore's wizardry, and no fear of often going full-on rock-out. And tons of cool and very evocative singing in Japanese, obviously.
Visually they have this whole psychedelic sensei thing going on which, although it totally meshes in with their challenging, mystical and literary concepts, somewhat belies just how immediate and how heavy their output is. No faux-proggy fannying about here or anywhere in their discography; just tight riffs, splendid rampaging solos and huge grooves. Beginning with the sound of a bicycle bell - are we off to that wan yet ever-so-close moon depicted on the cover on that bicycle? - Mandoro opens with 'Shigan Goeika', defined by a slow and creepy doom riff that clangs out like something out of Paradise Lost's most dire portents, graced with ominous vocal chants. Really an inspired beginning to the record, functioning as a mysterious and evocative intro. Then the riff that totally got left off of The Devil You Know and that, seriously, gives me more of an Iommi-boner than all of the new Sabs album combined, the monster main riff of 'Kuroyuri Nikki'. The best doom song of the year, an absolute monster with a bit of a propulsive, groovy Candlemass feel too. The steamrolling verses, the desert rock break - all spellbinding, delivering on the mysterious, Miyazaki-esque journey promised by the trippy band pics and cover art and making for possibly the strongest opening salvo of any Ningen Isu record. Even with a history of records as spectacularly solid as Kaijin Nijuu Mensou and Hoochie Koo. And it all ends invoking Leif Edling's envy with the epic doom pummeling of 'Eisei no Natta Otoko', that in a parallel universe somewhere had Messiah Marcolin or Robert Lowe singing over its storming riffs and menacing atmospheres instead.
There's highlights all over the place of course, and once you get at all acquainted with this band you'll also be able to approach each album by them with nothing less than absolute certainty you won't be needing the skip button. If you like some of the noises that guitars can make, that is. 'Jigoku Hen' boots up a simply enormous stoner doom groove to make Orange Goblin look up from their spliffs and take note. 'Sakura Ranman' has some full-on seventies guitar licks to boast, and its pyrotechnically noodling leads are a thing of beauty. Then after the frankly bizarre, grin-inducing and excellent 'Neputa no Mandoriko' and 'Shinchou Kyurakyukyu Bushi', 'Nekoja Nekoja' breaks out some pretty gorgeous acoustic guitars and dreamy solos amongst its trudging pilgrimage through some of Cathedral's weightier and weirder adventures. Throughout, the album shows off remarkable songwriting and structuring acumen on top of the self-evident technical abilities of the band. 'Juu-San Seiki no Hanayome' tells its tale via passionately narrated vocals that I would love to be able to understand and some tense, dramatic riff-work, while 'Tsuki no Mona Lisa' is very, very Blackmore - in the style of Who Do We Think We Are's best moments. 'Jikan Kara no Kage' is all eeriness until it hits some sweet rocking riffs halfway through.
The vocals take on a rougher, rasping approach on 'Kumo no Ito' but generally stick to the sonorous, accented wailing that has characterized Shinji and Kenichi's vocal style all along. One very minor complaint is that, although the guitar tone here is sumptuous, really great classic metal vibes along with the ideal modern day heaviness as is par for the course, the bass has lost some of the rugged, grunting quality it had on Shigan Raisan, the previous record. The change may be stylistic, as much of the material here could easily have been written the year the band formed or even a decade prior and that bulldozer-on-crack bass sound might be less apt than the more Neil Murray-ish textures often visited on Mandoro.
I could mention the stunning consistency Kenichi and Shinji, with several drummers along the way, have managed from 1989 until this very year, never wavering from their established style and never suffering a serious dip in quality. Or the fact they are criminally underrated, even creating a huge stir in their home country when they played at Ozzfest Japan and all these Japanese metalheads suddenly realized they had their own version of Sabbath and why did they just spend 4000 yen on this baka album 13? I think I can leave it at, if you love heavy metal in the old Sabbath style, if you like your doom, if you have a fancy for the Japanese language, then get involved with as much haste as possible. Mandoro is an amazing starting place and up there somewhere in my top three Ningen Isu records.