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Better 30 Years Late than Never - 90%

Cat III, January 19th, 2019
Written based on this version: 2018, CD, Independent

Unless its name is Sabbat, and it's the one from Japan, it is unusual for a band's live recordings to dwarf its studio recordings by a ratio of 4:1. In Carmilla's case, it's less impressive (though still unusual), because their studio material consists of a two track, nine minute demo plus one previously unreleased, three and a half minute practice recording. By releasing Live Explosion '88-'89, guitarist Kizakura Yoshino has rescued her old band from complete obscurity, bringing them to a place slightly less obscure. For that metalheads should be thankful. The talent on display here makes the band's obscurity all the curiouser.

Don't be fooled by the frizzy hair. This is hard-rockin', bar-brawlin', panhead-revvin', down-that-flask-of-whiskey-in-one-go heavy goddamned metal for rakehells and outlaws. Carmilla prefer their tempos fast but not blistering. Their recordings are from the end of the 80s, but the style fits more into the beginning of that decade when metal was beginning to divide into subcategories but the songwriting of the 70s bands still remained the blueprint; when the quest for extremity hadn't overcome tunefulness. Even at their hardest hitting, there's musicality to their attack. That's not to say there are no nods to harsher forms of metal. “Break Out” takes flight at insane speed with a few short solos that act as bursts of energy more than technical feats. Album highlight “2000 Maniacs” takes the crown for their heaviest track, starting with menacing riffage, segueing into a fluttering bass line, followed shortly by squealing guitar and then an explosion of white knuckled thrash.

Hooks abound with nice, sharp ones attached to each song. “Bloody Mary” sees the band at their most accessible. Of everything they recorded, it comes the closest to radio rock, though there's enough dazzling solos to assuage the purists. There are no ballads. “Christ” takes it slow, but it's built off classic bluesy metal riffs which land on a feeling of melancholy along with a subtle note of dread. Ten of the songs performed are new to this release. Live recordings aren't optimal, but we're not in a position to be choosers and the quality is good considering the recordings' provenance. Each instrument is audible, with the bass noticeably thick—as it should be considering Manami's excellent playing. Vocalist Nana drew the short straw. Her contributions are the hardest to appreciate because her voice is muffled by the rest of the music which is unfortunate as the studio recordings show she has fine abilities. You can still catch her inflections, the judicious use of screams and even pick out some lyrics (mostly the titles of the songs), but you'll have to put some effort into it. There's a hiss throughout that's so quiet I only noticed it after multiple listens. There's also at least one instance of audio peaking (near the end of the live version of “See You in Hell”). While it's regrettable these songs didn't get a studio recording, the roughness of these versions has an appeal of its own. Also, if there's a major difference in sound quality between the two shows, it passed by me.

Carmilla, the aforementioned demo from 1988, is included as bonus tracks. The sound quality is high; about as good as you could expect from a demo. I won't go into detail about the music as I covered that in a separate review. An untitled practice recording is the last bonus. It's a good, mid-paced tune. As it wasn't intended for release the production is spotty, which is especially apparent with the bass which sounds like it's coming from an adjacent room. Sadly, the CD follows typical Japanese pricing, i.e. significantly higher than those released in the Americas or Europe. Yoshino has put together a nice package including old photos, a scan of the demo cover and a short history of the band. Her English is stilted but understandable. She reveals that initially the band had an occult image, going so far as wearing face paint (sadly none of the photos depict this period), but later dropped that aspect, which explains why the song titles from the '88 show have a more satanic vibe than those from '89. If you don't want to pay for the CD, the album is available for downloading and streaming on Yoshino's Bandcamp page where she also posts new music from her solo pop rock project. Manami and drummer Roku continue making music as well. They're in metal band Werewolf Babys who don't seem half bad.

Spending lots of time searching for and listening to unknown and forgotten artists can lead to a loss of perspective. Middling to above average releases can be given outsized importance just on account of their obscurity, while the familiarity of popular releases leads us to discount their quality and influence. Adopting the opposite stance is also foolish, as there are unheard of bands that deserve your attention. Birthplace seems a likely cause for Carmilla's failure. What I gather from interviews with Japanese musicians is despite producing many great bands—some of the best in fact—Japan has a weak metal scene (aside from froufrou bullshit I don't care about) making the arduous task of running a band that much more difficult. Of course, this is speculation. Whatever the cause for the band's demise, Live Explosion '88-'89 proves Carmilla were the real deal.