James Picks the 30 Best Albums of 2016, Part 1

via MORE's OHP
Another year has come and gone, and with it, attendant concerns that visual kei is (once again) dead. As I sat down to review all the albums that have come out this year - while there has indeed been a slew of notable disbandments – this year has seen some spectacular releases.

With my year-end list, as per usual, I have tried to strike a tone between catching those major albums that everyone loved, and recognizing some of the forgotten gems from independent artists. This year, there were far more diamonds in the rough than any year I can remember doing this list, and so I have tried to pick the key ones out. While the list is subjective as always, I can’t help but feel that, no matter what I have ranked things, it was quite a hard year to compare bands across visual kei, as the innovation different sub-genres was especially marked, with many artists breaking new ground; comparing the piano-laden debut from MORE with the eviscerating sonic assault of The THIRTEEN’s first LP is an impossible task, and one I don’t attempt. So, take whatever I say with a grain of salt.

And, you will also note that as usual, I am noncommittal and have two different slots that are ties. There were a lot of good albums this year, so, sorry.

Without further ado, let’s dive in. Let me know what you think, and feel free to tweet at me. 

[TIE] 30. ANOMIY - Appetizer 

Honestly, there isn’t a better opening track in visual kei this year. The lead-in from the instrumental opening to “You Complete Me” is stellar, as is the track. While Appetizer does not necessarily maintain the sheer stunning level of “You Complete Me” throughout, this is an incredibly impressive debut for a young band.

“You Complete Me,” and the EP as a whole, is a fun, upbeat track that sports a number of unique touches in the instrumentation that demonstrate how well thought out each element is. Appetizer is in many ways similar to some of the less dark bands that were more fashionable than gender-bending around the height of oshare kei’s popularity in the late 2000s to 2011 or so, such as Administrator.

The uplifting nature of the EP sets it apart from some of the darker, more aggressive albums on this list, and suggests a special niche for ANOMIY. going forward given the paucity of bands with a similar style. If “You Complete Me” is any indication, this band is quite talented, and hopefully we won’t be waiting long to hear from them again.

Key Tracks: “You Complete Me,” “Starlight”

[TIE] 30. Deviloof - PURGE

via Deviloof's OHP
When Deviloof, composed of members new to the visual kei scene, released their music video for “Ruin,” (linked below) it seemed that Nagoya kei may have had a new wonder-child. Attired in some fantastic, glittering leather outfits, and with a sound that could perhaps be described as very intense (to put it mildly), their crisp visuals, a mixture of blood-curdling screams, and aggressive instrumentation seemed to herald the arrival of a new mainstay.

Purge, while a really good EP, is unfortunately not “Ruin” on repeat, or that level of brilliance repeated. However, zooming out and evaluating the EP on its own, it is hard to be disappointed with what is here. PURGE is a relentless (there is no slow number, just some breakdowns) stew of sludgy guitars, low-tuned bass, and vocalizations running the gambit from pig-squeals to simulated vomiting to demonic voices. Obviously this may not be for everyone, which could be said of a variety of visual kei.

The album, start to finish, from cover art to instrumentation, truly is singularly devoted to crafting a messy (in the best way) nightmare of metal. While it would be interesting to have an album that demonstrates the skills of members’ more (see “Doll Play” for the best drum and guitar work on the album), this EP is a solid starting point for a band with a very unique style.

Key Tracks: “Ruin”


29. Sick. - Screaming Inside Can Kill.   
via Sick.'s official Twitter
The first EP from a band brand new this year, Screaming Inside Can Kill., brings a unique flavor to heavy sound. Sick.’s sound is noticeably heavy and dark, but this album sees them place powerful riffs next to piano and strings, and play through some compositions that change quite a bit throughout (see “Rain,” linked below). The vocals here range from pulling off some impressive range in cleans to a range of screams and growls.

The album, while not containing a single slower track, eases up at certain moments to not present a singular onslaught. While not fundamentally challenging any aspects of the genre, Screaming Inside Can Kill. shows off the band’s talent and ability to write interesting tracks. What will be interesting going forward is if they can expand on the unique integration of piano and strings a bit more, and put together more pieces that feature a variety of changes throughout.

Key Tracks: “Nightmare.”, “Rain.”


28. Angelo - CORD

2017 will be the 11th anniversary of Angelo, which I find hard to believe, seemingly for no particular reason. Angelo somehow, even despite my great fondness for them, always slips to the back of my mind. Not sure how this has to do with my take on their newest album, but perhaps I am trying to articulate how weird it is to occasionally have this band slip one’s mind when they release albums so frequently.

CORD does not do much in the way of paving new ground, but brings Angelo’s strengths to a set of songs that are generally more upbeat and brighter than what was found on their last two LPs. Or more precisely, the range of songs found on those LPs are condensed into a more focused stream here. Like prior Angelo LPs, there is a nice balance between songs, and a flow throughout.

CORD does feature some more rocking numbers such as “JUDGEMENT” and “Daybreakers,” but strays from the mold of prior albums by giving us an album that is a bit more oriented towards the upbeat. Given the band’s fast-paced release schedule, it is more likely than not we will hear from them in 2017, and while CORD is strong, it would be nice to see some more experimentation by Angelo.


[TIE] 27. Develop One's Faculties - I WANT MY FREEDOM
via Develop One's Faculties OHP
Develop One’s Faculties are a relatively recent arrival, and while I WANT MY FREEDOM shows a band still growing, they further chart their own style here, replete with organs, hushed vocals, and distinct guitars.

Half the band are ex-members of cocklobin, who went out with a stylized bang, and here the tint of more a more gothic, regal sound a la 9GOATS BLACK OUT is brought to bear, but integrated with far more upbeat and jazzy compositions. The guitar’s here have a nice pep and twang to them, and detto’s basslines remain interesting throughout the album. Moreover, the touch of organs, keys, and yuya changing his vocals up give the album unique feel.

While I WANT MY FREEDOM is short, it is an interesting piece. Each song pops on its own, but they also lead right into one another for a very listenable album. The melodies here are the star, and the smooth progression of each richly textured track makes the album seem to play quite fast. This is a very enjoyable outing for this band, and hopefully the teaser for a more ambitious full-length.

Key Tracks: “Melancholy na Seikatsu”, “Kesaran Pasaran”

[TIE] 27. SCAPEGOAT - Higaisha no Kai  

While the album is titled Higaisha no Kai, or Victim’s Association, it could equally be titled SCAPEGOAT Sampler Pack. It was an interesting year to watch this band as they released both a ballad and the rather aggressive, “Kyozetsu,” coupled with a rather intense (to be euphemistic) music video. “Kyozetsu” and tracks of similar force are not the focus of this album, however. Rather, SCAPEGOAT shows a multifaceted portrait of themselves, from the heavier front half of the EP, to a far softer and emotional latter half. The band runs the gambit here in a few tracks and two interludes (there’s an accordion on the penultimate track, for instance), demonstrating their chops for various styles.

This album is hard to paint with a broad brush as it is their most diverse to date, but it can perhaps be characterized by saying that SCAPEGOAT pulls everything off, and quite well at that. I was somewhat skeptical early this year to hear their ballad, but it truly is quite tender and soft (the music video is also exceptionally made, linked below). On a different note (quite literally), the first two tracks feature a far faster sound, and SCAPEGOAT’s go-to heavier style. In the end though, everything here works, but it would have been interesting to see their experimentation expanded upon a bit more in to a full album.

Key Tracks: “Maid in Spider”, “Kokuhaku tokidoki, ame”

26. Kuroyuri to Kage - Zouki no Nozokiana. 
via Kuroyuri to Kage's OHP

While relatively new to the scene (they formed in 2014), Kuroyuri to Kage demonstrates a stunning amount of growth and depth on this EP. The album is a dark and enthralling piece when listened from start to finish, but most tracks here are just as easily listenable by themselves. The band demonstrates a clear style here, with songs that stand apart from each other, but build a haunting atmosphere.

Specifically, mei’s voice is utilized far better in these compositions, from guttural growls to haunting high notes to hastily spoken lines. Similarly, kuro’s guitar stays heavily distorted throughout, but through utilizing different effects, hops between an overdriven sludgy sound on more aggressive track, and a more reverb-laden, atmospheric sound elsewhere.

While this album leaves plenty of room for growth, it further establishes that this band should be on everyone’s watchlist as one of the premier dark visual kei bands around. Creepy and eerie, yet with catchy songs, Kuroyuri to Kage will remain a band to watch.

Key Tracks: “Chokorēto Kaidan”, “Sen'nō”, “Furan Furan”

 25. lynch. - AVANTGARDE
via amazon.co.jp

The title of this album is somewhat misleading, as more than anything it is continuation of lynch.’s style, and not radical departure into experimental territory. The album is in many ways lynch. doing what lynch. does best: skillful guitar work, a superb rhythm section, and Hazuki shouting before utilizing his powerful voice for the chorus. While lynch. breaks little new ground on this album, it is excellently done.

AVANTGARDE maintains a relentless pace up until the final track, “Farewell,” which becomes a far slower ballad. Before that, however, the only moments that could be characterized as slow are those moments where the band relents momentarily or enters a breakdown. The album as a whole shows the polish that lynch. brings to Nagoya kei, and reminds the listener just how astoundingly good they are at doing so.


24. Gossip - Nōmiso Aiten Gu-ryū Gu-ryū Jigoku -Kokurekishi-ban-

Don’t let the incredibly long album title scare you away, Gossip is a newer band you should be paying attention to. Gossip channels their past work and builds on it with this LP, channeling the ero-guro spirit of bands like cali≠gari and DAMY, as well as the sound of 1990s-2000s indies VK bands. Gossip constructs a unique sound here, and with conversations inserted into songs, less delayed and effected guitars than contemporaries, and a mood oscillating from creepy to dance-y, the album is quite memorable.

Gossip calls upon elements that call to mind the sort of style that characterized bands like Gauze-era Dir en Grey, or early GazettE. The sort of frenzied vocals, fast guitars, and infallible rhythm section harken to these bands, as does the sort of dismal and horror-based atmosphere Gossip works on throughout this album.

While this LP won’t change the genre, it is solid footing for Gossip to continue to grow from. An experience best taken in as an entire album, the flow and unity of the mood here, and how tracks build on each other for a cumulative effect, is quite something.

Key Tracks: “Ijime Botchi no Onigokko”, “Ude”, “R-18”, “Kyōkinosakura”

via MORE's OHP
How different are you okay with? MORE’s new EP is not what you would perhaps expect from a visual kei band, especially considering that half the members (I am thinking of bassist En’ya, formerly in 12012, and guitarist JUDY, ex. Kiss my way) were not in bands anything like this previously. Instantly noticeable with MORE’s songs is that they prominently feature piano as an integral part of songs.

PARADIGMA calls to mind more gothic bands such as emmurée and Silence, yet also the centrality of the vocals in HOLLOWGRAM. The tracks here are quite eclectically arranged, moving between jazzy moments that showcase the piano and bass, and distorted guitars coming to the forefront. MORE succeeds with whatever they try on PARADIGMA, however, it may take a few listens to fully wrap one’s head around everything going on in each track.

While this album is a departure from standard visual kei fare, and even other more gothic leaning bands at that, it is a fabulous piece, and hopefully the foundation for an even more compelling full-length sometime soon.

Key Tracks: “Kohaku”, “Mawaru yume to gekijō to”

22. the god and death starsafter the addle apple
via the god and death stars's OHP

 For those out of the loop, the title of this album is reference to the band’s first album, addle apple. Given the five years’ distance between the two, it was interesting to listen to this and reflect on the evolution of this band. Then, as now, the most notable signature of the band is guitarist and vocalist aie’s at times minimalist approach that squeezes every ounce of sustain he can at times, and then at others, playing sharp chords. At the same time, Kazu’s distinct bass playing carves a niche of its own in the soundscape as does

While after the addle apple is hardly the band’s most ambitious release, it oozes the aesthetics this band has become known for, with aie’s unique playing style and Kazu’s driving bass comprising integral parts of the god and death stars’s style. Undoubtedly, this album, and band, may not be for everyone given the contours of their style and its at once atmospheric and minimalist nature. In any case, the band is back from hiatus, and has produced another album that finds itself best listened to from front to back, taking it all in.

Key Tracks: “Roka”, “damned”, “elephant in the room”

21.  MunimuniA KILLS A
via Nihon Ongaku on VK.com

While some visual kei fans are aware of more gothic bands such as emmurée or ones more in kote kote kei territory, Munimuni is often overlooked, despite a pretty unique style and impressive discography. While this album is not their best to date, it is an excellent, and very accessible, piece of music.

A Kills A is far more stylistically unified than some prior albums, owing in part to less of an oscillation between the guitar’s tone and effects from song to song. While this has its benefits, it also perhaps doesn’t show the diversity the band has in the past. Still, the layering of heavily effected guitars, such as on “Kogen,” creates the sort of eerie atmosphere the band is known for. Such an atmosphere pervades throughout the album, with the echoing guitars, reverb on the vocal, and excellent mixing.

Munimuni doesn’t reinvent their version of the wheel here; rather, A Kills A is a very solid outing that demonstrates their honed style. With multiple accessible tracks for those not thrilled about the band’s regular eerie sound, particularly “Big Money,” A Kills A will hopefully garner this band more attention.

Key Tracks: “A KILLS A”, “BIG MONEY”
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