James Picks the 30 Best Albums of 2016, Part 2

cali≠gari via their official fan club's website

To read Part 1, albums #30-21, click here.

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 subgenres 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.

20. DAMYChōkyō

via ClubZy
I guess this is the year eroguro kei makes a big comeback? There has been, I suppose even the last two years, no shortage of bands channeling the darker facets of human experience, and Chōkyō pretty much just transports listeners there. An album that features screams and growls, hushed and delirious vocals, aggressive instrumentation and just the right amount of breathing time via a number of clean choruses and instrumental breaks, DAMY weaves a tapestry that recalls 12012’s concept of “the madness inside a human.” The songs here flow directly into each other, and from start to finish, amidst tempo changes, breaks, and switches in vocal styles, DAMY retains the sort of menacing sound the album launches in with.

All of this praise having been noted, this album only ranks so this high due in part to the mixing. The mixing on a number of tracks in Chōkyō makes the vocals perhaps more prominent than they should be, and doesn’t give the vocals reverb or other effects where they would clearly benefit from it. Similarly, I found myself straining my ear on tracks such as “Tosha to daishō” to hear the different guitar parts. While one could argue that this may be the sort of thing that emerges naturally via multiple listens, the mixing at times just doesn’t let some brilliance shine through.

In any case, DAMY is a relatively new band, and watching where they go from here will be quite exciting, given the sheer force of their creepy and haunting style.

Key Tracks: “Obutsu”, “Tosha to daishō”, “Chōkyō”

Official Site
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19. ArlequinUtopia

via their OHP
Arlequin is one of those bands where one member alone probably has enough personality to be their own visual kei band. Vocalist Aki’s flamboyant hairstyles, outfits, and unique voice have helped to define the band, as has the potent sound of Aki’s vocals soaring over heavy riffs. Utopia isn’t a groundbreaking evolution from their prior LP, Near Equal, but the band pulls of all the right moves here, and walks away with a pretty compelling album.

There is really only a single song here that could be considered a break in earnest from the intensity that dominates throughout (“Utopia”); a key feature of this album is how Arlequin succeeds here in integrating instrumental breaks that draw attention to the bass, drums, and specific guitarists more than when all engines are firing at once. Aki’s screams are also better worked into a number of tracks, and there is a solid representation of both tracks that are sludgier headbangers and more up-tempo songs.

The band doesn’t take too many risks from their established formula here, but perhaps for their sophomore LP, that was the best strategy. Arlequin shows off their talents here, and works in each instrument a bit better than Near Equal, as well as showing Aki’s growth as a vocalist.

Key Tracks:  “Paranoia”, “Kyōkai-sen”, “omit”  “Zankyō”

Official Site
Official Twitter


via JRockNews
The loss of BORN, MY BACTERIA HEAT IsLAND, and Sadie were all pretty big for visual kei, so understandably, when members of these bands resurfaced to form RAZOR, there was a lot excitement. While RED INVISIBLE is not a complete game-changer, it is an incredibly enjoyable first release from a band that will likely be on everyone’s radars.

All the pieces mark minor departure from the sound any members’ prior bands were known for. In the case of vocalist Ryouga, ex-BORN, this album sees him utilizing cleans and his full range a lot more, while still deploying his very distinct screams and yells.  The album features a number of tracks with programming, which may turn some off, yet like a number of BORN tracks, it serves to supplement the instruments and not detract. Overall, the album is not the unrelenting attack that one may have expected given the prior bands of RAZOR’s members. Rather, some songs here feature minimal screaming and shouting, and very clear melody guitar.

All in all, the album is a solid debut, with all the numbers quite enjoyable on their own. Each member of RAZOR brings some unique experience from a grouping of bands all known for their marked musical signature, so it will be interesting to see where RAZOR goes from here.

Key Tracks: “Another”, “PRIMARY”, “Give Me Bukimi”

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17. …。[Silence] - psycho : lens.

via Silence's OHP

Having reviewed visual kei albums for some years now, I feel confident in saying there are two ways of grouping almost all visual kei bands: those whose go out on a lackluster final album, and those who make their final album their best work. Luckily in the case of Silence, the latter is true. psycho : lens. builds upon their prior work, and sees Silence go out with a bang.

Their style is instantly recognizable for those who have listened to prior albums, immediately identifiable by Sou’s massive voice and carry, as well as Zell’s layered guitar. The airy and meandering sound of the tracks is often driven by Sou’s voice that serves as a sort of lighting rod for the instrumentation. Sou and the instrumentation trade throughout the pieces to allow each to shine independently, establishing a differentiation between the wandering instrumentation and the progression Sou’s voice lends the tracks.

The album contains some of Silence’s best work, from more conventional numbers like “faraway” and “AQUARIUM” to the spacey, bass driven “Haru Izanau Kaze ni Nosete,” to the soulful “Yasashii Senaka.” All in all, psycho : lens. sees Silence exit in their unique style, and with enough of a diversity of tracks assembled to represent the breadth of talent this band had.

Key Tracks: “faraway”, “Haru izanau kaze ni nosete” ,“Yasashii Senaka”, “Bara to jūjika no Relief”

Official Site

16.  nüesleep

via nüe’s OHP
nüe’s songs to this point have all proven rather intriguing, and this EP is the same case. With songs that move from a minimalist atmosphere of echoing guitars to feedback-laden chorus buildups to haunting melodies, nüe covers a lot of ground in these six tracks.

The album switches between glittering, fuzzed out, and delayed guitars across the tracks, demonstrating the band’s affinity for using effects to help craft songs brimming with detail and poignant moods. The guitar often comes to the front of songs, and the layering of overdriven leads with delayed notes in the background creates a unique texture that follows nüe’s prior release quite closely. However, the track “Onaji Tsuki wo Miteiru” sees verses supported by acoustic guitar in lieu of the usual distorted lead. Overall, the album builds the sort of spacious sound that their singles showcased, while including faster, more aggressive tracks, and slower numbers.

While sleep gives one a sense that nüe is still in the process of forming their style, all the tracks here are excellent starts. Picking up the reins of distortion-driven visual kei in the aftermath of a number of shoegaze-oriented band breakups, nüe heads for ground not commonly traveled and succeeds.

Key Tracks: “Akane Sora”, “Onaji Tsuki wo Miteiru”, “sleep”

Official Site
Official Twitter
Official YouTube


To be honest, I am not sure that I have ever reviewed a visual kei album that contained as many numbers that made me want to slow dance in a space with nice ambient lighting as WILLS, or perhaps be off to the side in a booth, contemplatively observing my surroundings. WILLS is not your ticket to images of hair twirling, crowd surfing, or mosh pits, but rather, a very refined, rich affair. Like a stew that has simmered all day and must be savored anew with each spoonful, WILLS contains layer upon layer of detail, and a delicate balance between Ryou’s powerful vocals and the lush texture of the instrumentation.

Ryou’s voice is as grandiose as ever, as his range is just as expansive. His voice goes perfectly with the shimmering guitars and keys that make this album such a delight, as does Yukino’s intricate bass playing. The album is a type of soft and calm that involves the listener constantly, rather than serving as reprieve from more intense songs. The tracks are carefully crafted and change tone and pace throughout, such as “Kalmia.” This album is a joy to listen to, and quite different from others on this list.

KEY TRACKS: “Lucent room”, “Kalmia”, “Where you go”

Official Site
Official Twitter
Official YouTube

14. cali≠gari - Dōkei, Suiren to Himawari

via amazon.co.jp
Often overlooked by Western visual kei fans, cali≠gari remains one of the most prolific, influential, and bizarre bands in visual kei. And I do mean bizarre in the absolute best way possible. Dōkei, Suiren to Himawari builds upon a legacy of innovation, and its spectacularly weird sounds.

This album features less synths than the previous two caligari LPs, and instead opts for a largely guitar and bass driven set of songs. The album as a whole is quite a bit groovy, with prominent crisp guitars and Kenjiro’s thick bass popping out. The album builds in spacious moments into a number of songs, and this time, the band largely eschews distorted synths and guitars for upbeat, bright numbers, such as “Allega ☆ Paradise.” Whereas on some caligari albums the synths have overtaken the other instruments, here they mix in, and serve to help highlight the guitar and bass.

While caligari’s distinctive sound may not be for everyone, especially those looking for a straightforward rock sound, they remain as pioneering as ever on this disc.

Key Tracks:  “ギラギラ”, “Allega ☆ Paradise”, “Dōkei, Suiren to Himawari”

Official Site

13. Xaa-Xaa - Ame ni Korosareru

via Xaa-Xaa's OHP
Last year, the combination of the sheer weirdness of the distorted lead guitars and exasperated, screamed, and howled vocals on “Kowai Kurai” marked the entry of a new band with a distinct sound. Here on Ame ni Korosareru, Xaa-Xaa expands on last year’s work with an excellent full-length that shows a band with depth and talent.

The album opens with the title track, “Ame ni Korosareru,” which beyond being an interesting image (to be killed by the rain, that is), is an unpredictable track, going from aggressive riffs, to spacious passages, and vocal-dominated moments. From there, the band launches directly into the groovy and delectably complex, “Ikenai, Mō Ikanakucha,” a track that transitions from solo acoustic guitar to layers of guitar to a powerful solo. The sort of fast changes, and mixture of the louder guitars that Xaa-Xaa used on prior songs with more intricate bass playing and drum work, as well as myriad changes in single songs, speaks to the band’s talent and diversity of sounds in their repertoire.

Xaa-Xaa expands further on the sound they laid out last year, demonstrating their acuity for crafting multifaceted songs that allow each instrument to fully emerge. Covering ground from crushing riffs to funky bass lines, all the way acoustic solos, the band demonstrate their evolution in a very enjoyable way on Ame ni Korosareru.

Key Tracks: “Ame ni Korosareru”, “Ikenai, Mō Ikanakucha “, “Ōame Keihō Hatsurei”

Official Site: http://xaa-xaa.com/
Official YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFORpd0tzzH5xROUl_4dDh

Official Site
Official YouTube


via JRock247

If I had been in charge of writing a short advertising tagline for this album, it probably would be short and to the point, something like, “And now for something completely brutal!” In a year marked by some songs that made me go, “Whoa, that was really loud,” this album stands out as a sonic attack with skill and precision that isn’t really paralleled by anything else. A unique mixture of dubstep style programming, screams, and just general aggressiveness, former Sadie members Mao and Mizuki have come back in a really big way.

I remember joking back in the day of the weekly VKH Video Countdown that Sadie, and specifically Mao’s screams and growls, were the stuff of nightmares around the time of their single, “Rosario,” and The THIRTEEN sees Mao and Mizuki bring such a tradition to their new band. Make no mistake, the tracks on PANDEMIC are far more oriented towards playing off of Mao and Mizuki’s strengths than incorporating the additional guitar, bass, and drums as fully as Sadie’s compositions did. The tracks here often feature less clean vocals than some fans be used to from late Sadie’s work. Additionally, there is a fair amount of programming used throughout, generally to quite good effect.

While the album is pretty intense from start to finish, the mix of anthem-like choruses on tracks such as “starry night” or the groovier sections of “FRIDAY NIGHTMARE” serve to break things up where other bands might put ballads. This album won’t be for everyone given its ferocity, but for those enjoy such things, this is a solid debut for The THIRTEEN.

Key Tracks: “Chainsaw”, “starry night”, “KILLER MAY”

Official Site
Official Twitter
Official YouTube


via HERO's OHP

HERO has remained one of the most persistently uplifting bands in visual kei. Through a mixture of upbeat songs, bright guitars, the inclusion of piano on many tracks, and incredibly distinct vocals have long marked a style of their own, and it is expanded upon in ALIVE.

Similar to AVANTGARDE from lynch., this album doesn’t see HERO experiment in big ways across the entire album, but rather, sees them pull of an album with few no weak tracks. The band maintains a sort of bright atmosphere for the entire album, switching between more rock-oriented tracks, and ones that are a bit more laid back. Here again, HERO’s usage of piano gives them a unique sound that not many other visual kei bands have. Another element of this album is the layering of guitars in virtually every track on the album, which lends the tracks a far richer texture than some previous songs that have featured a single guitar track (HERO, after all, does have only one guitarist).

While this album may not convince anyone to love HERO who hasn’t liked their previous work, for the unacquainted, and both new and old fans alike, this album is a solid outing that sees the band further hone their style.

Key Tracks: “Alive”, “Not Title”, “Tatta Hitotsu no Hana”, “Towel no Kami-sama”

Official Site
Official Twitter
Official YouTube

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