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Of all the traditional Japanese metal bands out there, it must be Anthem who best represent what I love about that country's take on the genre. This is a band who have never flinched in the face of trends, never given a goddamn about the changing times and the onslaught of newer, more extreme strains of the art, and continued to produce good album after good album of old school, NWOBHM-derived riffing, powerful vocals and killer guitar solos. Whether I'm heading out on the highway or in dire need of an adrenaline shock while sitting in front of a stack of bills or being made miserable by a woman or some other life situation, I know that I can always rely on Anthem to get my fist pumping and testosterone amplified. Even at their worst, they are better than most other bands could ever dream. For fuck's sake, this is a band that pulled off an album called Domestic Booty successfully...does someone want to tell me why this treasure festers forever in obscurity while bands like Accept and Judas Priest remain decades deep in the rotation, and HammerFall and Dream Evil can tour internationally?
But No Smoke Without Fire is the album directly before that poorly-titled affair, and their sixth, already well into veteran status due to a string of great releases in the 80s. It doesn't mix up the formula much from its predecessor Hunting Time, though the presence of keyboards has slightly increased, adding a level of atmosphere that one may not have experienced so much on albums like Tightrope or Bound to Break. Anthem seemed primed here for their second decade of ass-kicking, and there is a simplicity and confidence to the writing which does in fact pucker up the buttocks with a red, swollen boot mark. It's amazing that so much of the lineup here differs from the current (only bassist Naoto Shibata remains), but the band sounds comparable to the most recent offering Black Empire. That is true consistency!
There is no weak link among the tracks of No Smoke Without Fire. Though certain of the songs may not stand as eternally triumphant as others, this is the sort of record you can put on playthrough 20 years after it was released and enjoy in its full 45 minute glory. The riffing is clearly inspired by Judas Priest, falling somewhere between Ram It Down and Painkiller in intensity but with the added layer of keyboards, used primarily to accent particular sections of songs like the opener "Shadow Walk". This mix of street metal and melodic sensibility only compounds the album's qualities, and when Hiroya Fukuda arrives at that blissful solo, you are either fully on board this train or a fucking poseur still standing on the tracks. No explanation is needed for the all out mid-paced rocking of "Hungry Soul". If you've ever found yourself head banging to a slower power metal riff in your life, you will like this song. "Blinded Pain" feels like the sort of anthem that would have a whole lot of Japanese fists in the air in the pause between the rollicking guitars, where the bass and Yukio work in melodic tandem.
Now would be the time for some dopey ballad if you were any other band performing in the late 80s power/speed metal genre, but NOT Anthem! No, the middle chunk of this record is the fastest and probably the best, beginning with the no-frills hammering of "Do You Understand", which should light a fire under your duff if you've ever dreamed of leather or a distant roadway. "Love On the Edge" features a righteous melodic hook that reminds me somewhat of the band's countrymen Dead End, and may be my single standing favorite from this entire disc. Simply an unforgettable composition, and when the synths arrive over the bridge, you get that unshakable feeling of generations being crossed. "Voice of Thunderstorm" picks up the pace even more, the sort of song Primal Fear should be writing instead of all the boredom they've induced with their latest offering. Excellent speed metal hooks, guitars going wild all over, and never forgetting its core melodic values as it heads straight for the top.
"Power & Blood" is like a "Breaking the Law" or "Balls to the Walls" only with a graceful keyboard cheery on top. Sure, it might feel dated, but all the best wines are... It's total party in the sun metal of the most accessible sort, with only subtle shifts in the vocals that herald the KISS-like chorus. Almost as if to apologize, "Fever Eyes" returns to a frenzy of burning lead speed metal, perfect for the motorcycle or any dragster you own. If anything, it suffers from sounding a little similar to many other tracks in the bands now vast repertoire, and it's not as memorable as the rest of this album, but it fits in snugly. "The Night We Stand" suffers no such fate, with a roaring twin melodic intro that drips on the ears like hot wax on the chest, before Yukio's swaggering vocals herald the shuffling, moody NWOBHM blues of the wandering verse riffs. More epic keyboards arrive here, like a clarion bouncing off the walls of a castle.
Pound for pound, Anthem are one of the few bands that have delivered almost 30 years of consistent, excellent metal for fans of the classic stylings which surfaced in the 80s. They deserve far more credit for their longevity and personal investment in quality, and I feel like they could appeal to a wide variety of metal fans, from the Accept and Judas Priest worshiping core of the power metal fanbase, to fans of edgier, moody hard rock like Deep Purple or Whitesnake. No Smoke Without Fire may not be their grand slam, but it's another of many album's in the band's catalog which continue to impress me today. Unless you were born in like 1993+ and thus have no exposure or concern for anything aside from death, black and metalcore, they are more than worth your attention, so what exactly are you waiting for?
Highlights: Shadow Walk, Hungry Soul, Love On the Edge, Voice of Thunderstorm, The Night We Stand
Anthem in the mid-to-late 80's is pretty well known, particularly for the vocals of Eizo Sakamoto, who after leaving Anthem in 1988, rose to superstardom as a solo artist and with his Animetal band. But the material after Eizo's departure is worth a look, particularly the early-90's output such as the album in question, 1990's 'No Smoke Without Fire'. First off, out of the entire Anthem discography, this is far and away the easiest to track down and cheapest to purchase from Ebay or Amazon or what have you. The reason why is apparent as soon as you spin this record: it's Anthem's 'Painkiller'. It was released in the same year as the Judas Priest opus, and the songwriting is just as solid, and at times resplendent, as the album I'm comparing it to. The only difference here is the vocals.
Yukio Morikawa is an incredible vocalist, but like the man he replaced, he is a man with a naturally high range, who sings full-voice, rather than falsetto, and does an incredible job plying his craft here. The triumvirate of tunes that hold this record together are actually the first three, which will tear the face off any Classic Metal fan, without question. 'Shadow Walk' is perhaps the most instantly recognisable of the three, but 'Hungry Soul' is the real gem, here. You will have the second track on this album spinning for weeks to come, and when it's not playing, it will be stuck in your head. It's a downpace, straight-forward Metal tune in the vein of Accept's 'Balls to the Wall' with an awesome driving riff and a bridge and chorus that are instantly memorable. 'Blinded Pain' caps off the unholy trio, with a similarly addictive chorus, but its real strength comes in the reverb-drenched haunting guitar solo sandwiched right in its middle.
The album at this point exchanges most of its catchiness for sheer brutality and thrashiness, which has always been one of Anthem's staples. 'Do You Understand?', 'Voice of Thunderstorm', 'Fever Eyes', and 'The Night We Stand' have a heavy Thrash / Speed Metal vibe, while 'Love on the Edge' and 'Power & the Blood' are more Classic Metal anthems that wouldn't be at all out of place on an Accept album. The songwriting remains spectacular until the very end, with a perfect Metal guitar tone and Morikawa's soaring performance keeping the proceedings together. Anthem experiments throughout this album with some keyboards, but never once do you feel as if it's over the top, and it certainly never detracts from the heaviness. Think of how keyboards were used on 'Painkiller', and you'll get the idea of what's going on. An exceptional album, and my personal favourite in their entire discography. Highly recommended for Classic Metal nerds and fans of bands like Accept and Judas Priest.
Standouts: Shadow Walk, Hungry Soul, Blinded Pain, Love on the Edge