Big In Japan

(Appeared On January 15, 1998.)

Why should we miss out on great music just because radio won't play it over here in the USA? Some English-language Hard/Melodic Rockers are Big in Japan, such as Canada's Harem Scarem, the UK's annual "The Gods" festival headline act Ten, and Denmark's Royal Hunt, groups whose new albums sell tens of thousands in Japan alone during their first week of release. They may be largely unknown in the United States, but they're right at home in the Big Room, so come on in -- fans of energetic, intelligent, polished hard rock have suffered long enough.

Royal Hunt -- _Paradox_ (Magna Carta, 1997)

You'd never know it in the USA, but apparently Royal Hunt rules the Japanese hard rock market, combining strong performances and catchy hooks in intricate songscapes. _Paradox_ is their first album to receive wide US distribution and, with their worldwide success, it enthrones them as kings of a hybrid genre, solid Progressive Metal smoothed out only slightly for the Arena masses. Based in the classically-influenced Euro-Metal pioneered by Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple, Rainbow) and others, _Paradox_ impresses because it goes beyond the typical Metallic soundscape, focusing on vocal arrangements and keyboard texture over the still plentiful guitar growl. It can even surprise an experienced Prog listener, with the nearly 10-minute "Time Will Tell" taking a neat turn, showing creativity without unnecessary intricacy. It's like an album full of Dream Theater singles, full of engaging solo passages, tight ensemble work, mastery over the juxtaposition of textures within a song (check out "Silent Scream"), and hits waiting to happen on USA Metal radio (check out "River Of Pain"). _Paradox_ is charismatic and accessible, diverse but not excessive. Radio station 95X should be playing this stuff regularly, 'cause for a mix of musicianship and songcraft, it's as good as it gets.

Ten -- _The Name Of The Rose_ (SaRaya/Now & Then/MTM, 1996)

Take 3 parts Dream Theater, 3 parts Whitesnake, 2 parts Journey, and 2 parts Asia, and you've got Ten, lauded around the world as Metal's brightest hope. Ten is beginning to break into Canadian Metal circles, and if US radio had a format that fit them, they'd soon be huge here, too.

_The Name Of The Rose_ is their second album of intense, polished hard rock, 12 tracks and 77+ minutes of greatness. The nearly 9-minute title track is catchy and theatric, an awesome achievement that has to be heard to be believed. Featured single "Don't Cry" should be on classic and heavy rock playlists everywhere, with a pulsating keyboard and guitar foundation and a killer commercial chorus. The album gets heavier with the seductive texture of "Wildest Dreams", mellower with sweet ballad "Turn Around", epic with the Egyptian-mythological themes of "Pharoah's Prelude" and the blazing "Wait For You", and solidly, often sweetly mainstream on many of singer Gary Hughes' other excellent hard rock tunes. This range of textures means people who _only_ like (so-called) Alternative Rock will find it too slick, folks who _only_ like top-40 will find most songs too heavy and intricate, and people who like well-performed rock, whether it be crunching and crying guitars or lush vocal and keyboard arrangements, will be blown away. Radio station 95X should really be playing this stuff regularly, 'cause it's as good as it gets. When the next wave comes around with Melodic Rock at its crest, we'll all be talking about the perfect Ten.

(For more information, SaRaya Records can be reached by email at sarayarec@aol.com.)

Harem Scarem - _Karma Cleansing_ (WEA Canada, 1997)

Harem Scarem manages to fuse the emotion of +Live+, the rock and polish of Van Halen, and the sheer command of music that Queensryche never fails to demonstrate. While they clearly have the chops and artistic sense to do anything they want, they stay focused on 4 minute chunks O' greatness, not getting as polished as Ten or as intricate as Royal Hunt. "Hail Hail" is one of the best songs of 1997, layering an early 70s keyboard feel with 90s power balladry and a killer chorus hook. "Rain" is emotional, timeless simplicity, a monster hit ballad waiting for airplay. "Karma Cleansing" is modern-textured hard rock, crushing guitars driving through psychedelia-textured keyboards and vocals. "Morning Grey" filters the Beatles through Queen, sounding simultaneously modern and classic. "Die Off Hard" is what Van Halen could have been if only they hadn't turned into... well, whatever they are. As a whole, _Karma Cleansing_ is organic, expressive, and only moderately ornate, appealing to both modern and old-school rockers as it casts aside the unnecessary raggedness of today's guitar-rock and exposes great songs with a slight commercial edge. Maybe more than even those other bands, radio station 95X should be playing this stuff regularly -- heck, so should locals WICB, WVBR, and I-100 -- 'cause it's as good as it gets.

(Harem Scarem albums are available as Canadian imports for roughly the same price as domestic USA releases.)

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Eric Aaron feels a kinship with anyone who hears the phrase "Big In Japan" and immediately thinks of the group Alphaville. He is a graduate student, guitarist in Ithaca-based modern rock band The EFFECT, a fan of 95X who hopes they pick up on his subtle hints, and completely unknown in Japan.


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