James Picks the 30 Best Albums of 2016, Part 3


To read Part 1, albums #30-21, click here.
To read Part 2, albums #20-11, 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

10. 藍-AI Confusion   

via Ai's OHP

If you, like me, were devastated by DEATHGAZE’s ending of activities, perhaps it came as solace that vocalist, Ai, would be starting solo activities. And, perhaps, like me, you thought this album sounds a lot like DEATHGAZE. Certainly, Ai travels through some familiar territory here (the lead guitars are a complete dead ringer for the sort of soaring sound that DEATHGAZE tracks featured, and the fuzzy rhythm guitars the same), but he also charts a bit of a new path.

Dispersed throughout Confusion are a number of slower (if anything this dark and serious can be categorized as such), and the album overall never reaches the sort of blistering intensity of latter career DEATHGAZE tracks found on Creature and Enigma. Yet, Ai brings back all manner of growls and screams, although clean vocals are far more prevalent than DEATHGAZE productions. This is of course quite nice, as Ai’s deep vibrato is a powerful asset, and gives a very distinct feel to the album, particularly when switching between screams and singing.

The tracks here alternate between ballads, head-bangers, and everything in between, all pulled off with equally skilled execution. In short, no matter what part of DEATHGAZE’s catalog you liked, there is something pretty similar here. Yet at the same time, Ai’s voice really stands on its own here, and (presumably) the rhythm guitar he is contributing is more prevalent in the mix. Overall, not to repeat myself per my evaluation of Munimuni’s A Kills A, there is not major reinvention going on here, but everything here works very well. To recall D.I.D.’s first album after they emerged out of the ashes of Para:noir, moving away from the shadow of a very well-known and stylistic prior project can take time, but for artists this talented, usually takes shape sooner rather than later.


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9. LM.C  - Veda

via LM.C's OHP
LM.C, with their generally bright visuals and upbeat, electro-pop-influenced songs, aren’t necessarily the band you would think was going to drop an album that channels Buddhist aesthetics. Yet here we are. And somehow, miraculously, the band pulls it off, mixing pop, rock, and a generous dose of electronic music together.

Veda sees the band explore some new directions, mixing in religious chanting in the beginning of “The BUDDHA,” while often playing with refined elements of their style. Throughout, LM.C shows off their usual peppy style, with songs from the danceable, “Avocado“ to the more rock-leaning, “CHAKRA.” And in-between are songs like “Rainmaker,” which play with slower verses and upbeat chorus.

Veda isn’t revolutionary in the grand scheme of things, but if you approach it on its own, LM.C’s style remains just as refreshing as before; an interesting hybrid of pop, rock, and electronic as well as dance music.

Key tracks: “The BUDDHA”, “MONROEwalk”, “Avocado”, “Rainmaker”

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8. Codomo DragonWOLFMAN

via Codomo Dragon's OHP

Codomo Dragon has been an interesting band to watch develop, as they have continued to mix heavy, down-tuned guitar riffs with synths and peppy beats. WOLFMAN expands on this style, and succeeds even more than their prior albums. From start to finish, WOLFMAN is a rollicking, headbang-a-long collision of synths, gang vocals, and beat-driven tracks.

To demonstrate the variation in a single song on this album, on the title track, “Wolfman,” the band mixes funky and jazzy sounds before launching into guitar-driven breakdowns, and then barreling into the chorus. The album doesn’t remain predictable for a minute, and throws everything at the listener, ranging from synths, half-rapping, slap bass, screams, and sudden slow-downs. Codomo Dragon shows once again that they are not a band to be boxed in to a specific style, and rather, have premised one of their own on upbeat tracks that roam across genres to find inspiration.

Key Tracks: “Kuro to aka”, “Jikōshu”, “Sixth SenSe”, “ Hai SOCIETY”, “HEMLOCK”

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7. DEZERT - Zanteiteki Occult Shuukanshi 2

Few bands manage to put out two albums in a year, much less put out two very good albums in one year. However, DEZERT has managed this feat, and presented us not only with Saikō no Shokutaku, but the also blistering, eerie Zanteiteki Occult Shuukanshi 2.

This album remains catchy throughout, sprinkling rapid tonal changes all over, such as jumping between catchy choruses to sludge-laden guitar-driven breakdowns. Overall, compositions here are stunningly varied, and the album never grows old from retreading the same ground. For instance, “Sakura no Uta” features only clean vocals, and a juxtaposition between crisp lead guitars and a distorted rhythm section, including a pronounced and thick bass. Yet immediately after the more accessible track comes “Strawberry Syndrome,” a chaotic track replete with growls, shouts, and all manner of vocalizations. Tracks such as “Strawberry Syndrome” perhaps best bring home the sort of bizarre and creepy atmosphere that DEZERT is aiming for.

This album is overall quite interesting in that, while seemingly picking up with the opener, “Hentai,” which launches into a direct aural attack, a number of the tracks are quite accessible to listeners not enthused about heavier tracks. Ultimately, Occult 2 sees DEZERT demonstrate their proficiency for a variety of songs, while hammering listeners with their unique style throughout. Here, as in Saikō no Shokutaku, the band excels at everything from thrash numbers to slower ones to tracks worthy of popular radio play that stick with the heavy bass and crisp drums that give this band their unique sound. This year has seen DEZERT truly come into their own.

Key tracks: “Hentai”,  “Nōmiso-kun”, “Sakura no Uta”, “Rokkotsu Shōjo”, “Ghost”

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6. LilithGenuine to the Core

via Shi no Kakaku

I may be mistaken, but I am thinking this is the first time I have had a non-Japanese band be on the year-end list? If I am wrong and someone feels strongly, do correct me. In any case, Lilith have treated us to a full-length at last, and it has been worth the wait.

The album shows Lilith fully coming into their own and taking the sound they have built to the next level. For the uninitiated, Lilith’s songs lean towards a hard rock style, with smooth vocals and the occasional shout and scream. However, cleans are the general rule here, and Kyoka excels in this area; he has a phenomenal range, and the band makes great use of it. The band also gets the most mileage possible out of a single guitar, partially due to multiple tracks in numerous songs, but also switching effects and creating rich tones, from dirty, aggressive riffs to glimmering breaks in songs such as “Stellar Secret.”

What is a bit new with Genuine to the Core is that the band includes a number of ballads. While their singles have been more upbeat rock numbers, the ballads here show a softer side, using piano and strings (both of which have also been utilized in more standard Lilith fare before). And similar to the usage of the piano on some ballads, the band even makes use of traditional Chinese string instruments on “雪未央”. In general, while many bands relegate piano or other non-standard rock instruments to the background as a sort of highlight, Lilith successfully weaves them into a number of tracks, where they become integral parts of the sound (see “Spring Snow”).

This album, to be frank, exceeded my expectations. I had been waiting for a Lilith LP for some time, given the quality of their singles, but this went above and beyond. The band continues to take risks here, integrating new instruments and pursuing an even more ambitious sound. They may get overlooked due to being outside of Japan, but this is a band you don’t want to miss.

Key Tracks: “Arcadia”, “Spring Snow”, “Fenice”, “X Sense”

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5. Arimura RyutaroDemo

via Ryutaro's OHP

I feel like I have already used too many jokes about “do you like thing X because, gee, do I have a thing Y for you!” in writing this list already, so I will spare everyone. But, between my usual aversion to solo projects in visual kei, as well as the sort of irony in this EP being called demo despite it being far more impressive than albums that have taken a year or two of work (I doubt this was intended as a demo), Plastic Tree’s Ryutaro has an interesting piece here. Reminiscent of shoegaze phases within Plastic Tree’s oeuvre, but with more melancholy, less intense bass and lead guitar, Ryutaro brings a melancholic mood to bear across some excellent songs.

The first song (after an opener track, all the rage these days), “Fuyuu” is dreamy, shoegaze-y (still not a real adjective, unfortunately), and sets the sort of contemplative, spacey tone that the rest of the album runs with. However, at least for me, it is on the second song, “Manegoto,” where the album comes into its own. Ryutaro’s instantly recognizable rhythmic, at times exasperated, and nearly ethereal, voice takes the fore. All the instruments are mixed to fully draw out Ryutaro’s voice, which is laden with emotion across the album.

The album does, however, recall Plastic Tree and their compositions at certain times. The airy “Nekoyume” features drawn-out, echoing guitars before launching into a chorus with louder guitars and Ryutaro’s tone becoming more emotional. For those who are fans of Plastic Tree, there is much to enjoy here, yet, for those who have been wary of that band’s distinctive sound, Demo is a bit more accessible and oriented towards softer numbers. Ultimately, this album is positively calming, yet in a way that brings Ryutaro’s sort of melancholic appearance and bodily comportment to bear on listeners. This is especially the case in the final two tracks, which are both softer affairs.

Demo is an album that is in many ways dominated by the sort of downcast, introspective-seeming style that those familiar with Ryutaro’s work in Plastic Tree have come to know. Demo is a slow, beautiful, and memorable solo debut from one of the most distinctive voices in the genre.

Key tracks: “Manegoto”, “Nekoyume”, “Rentogen”

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4. NoGoDRenovate

via NoGoD's OHP

It has been a little while now since NoGoD last treated us to a new album, but, the wait was worth it. Renovate is yet another album chalked full of rock anthems, power metal tracks, and phenomenal performances by the entire band.

As per usual, the guitars, bass, and drum are nothing short of masterful, comprising a significant part of why this band is such fun to listen to. Between elaborate and creative guitar solos, to Karin’s driving bass paired with K’s precise and unrelenting drums, all the songs speak both to the band’s talent for writing catching songs, as well as technical prowess. Mixed in with the usual fast-paced rock numbers is the ballad “Hikari” and the instrumental track, “Toki wo Koete,” both of which introduce just enough of a break and change of pace to help the album along.

In some ways it is hard to go on further about this album, as it is better to just suggest everyone go and listen to it. Superbly well-done from start to finish, each and every song stands on its own as an engaging piece. NoGoD shows once again that they are one of the most talented acts in visual kei.

Key tracks: “VAMPIRE”, “Sōzō Graffiti”, “Killer Clown”, “Kamisama no Iu Tori”

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3. DEZERTSaikō no Shokutaku


DEZERT’s first LP of the year, Saikō no Shokutaku, is an outing of utter unpredictability mixed an intense and varied sound. Here, the band advances their sound once again, putting forth an album with no bad tracks that shows their growth and skill as a band.

From the opening track, “Ah.,” that features some of the sludgiest guitar and fattest slapped bass of they year, alongside a crisp drum track, the band shows how they can launch almost instantaneously into aggressive, guttural growls and heavy riffs, or switch out to creeping, airy breaks. The rapid switches in tempo that the band uses across Saikō no Shokutaku help the album to retain the chaotic atmosphere that DEZERT’s music videos excel at creating.

Chiaki’s voice is a real highlight, and he accomplishes a great deal despite having a range more akin to SuG’s Takeru than some of the more expansive ranges in visual kei. Chikai’s clean vocals have improved over the course of DEZERT’s work, and come through crystal clear here. Similarly, his shouts and screams are quite impressive in terms of depth. Likewise, all the instrumentation here pops out on its own, including the bass and drums. In short, the mixing and performances on this album are a treat.

In a year that has seen a fair number of albums with dark atmospheres, grungy guitars, and aggressive sounds, DEZERT’s Saikō no Shokutaku is noteworthy for the consistent quality, skill, and variety in their effort.

Key Tracks: “Ah.”, “Kimi no Shikyū o Sawaru“, “Pictogram-san”

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2. KiryuHyakkiyakō

via CDJapan.co.jp
The kings of mixing horror with visual kei and a heavy dose of traditional Japanese aesthetics are back, and as many may expect, flawless as always. In Hyakkiyakō the band blends together traditional Japanese instruments, strings, and the experience of both a rock epic and horror movie.

Anyone who has listened to Kiryu knows well just how talented the band is, and between intricate guitar solos, meticulously arranged songs that are layered with everything from demonish shrieks to traditional koto playing, Hyakkiyakō does the unthinkable and shows the band continuing to grow. This album is so enthralling due partially to just how catchy most songs are, featuring powerful drums and bass, laced with distorted guitar straight out of a horror movie, backed by heavy riffs. The interplay between traditional Japanese instruments, from flute to shamisen, and more standard heavy metal fair, is brilliantly executed here, and has one’s foot tapping or head banging every track of the album.

Kiryu succeeds once again in Hyakkiyakō, and in a huge way. Given the variance even a single song of Kiryu’s has, it is difficult to say that there is a formula at work here, but their innovative mixture of horror metal, aesthetics, and traditional instruments continues to be an utter delight.

Key Tracks: “Kyuubi”, “ Aun”, “Aya”, “Amaterasu”

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There is a lot going on with THE BLACK SWAN, not the least of which is the fact that they released a song entitled, “I’M SHIT NOODLE BUT…”. While their drummer may have been on national television not too long ago thanks to him rescuing a stray cat, the focus on Ousia is decidedly not such compassion, but the rather dark and vicious sounds and image the band is mired in. Ousia is an album consistently on par with THE BLACK SWAN’s earlier singles, but sustained across 13 tracks.  The album is not the relenting, brutal assault of The THIRTEEN’s PANDEMIC or any DEATHGAZE LP, rather, Ousia shows a band that can carefully calculate every last fragment of a way to channel a chilling, dark aesthetic. And also be quite brutal. 

All the songs assembled here are quite excellent, and show the depth of THE BLACK SWAN’s talent. Songs such as “DEJECTED RAIN” move seamlessly from building, aggressive verses to highlighting Jin’s voice with strings in the chorus, before a scream sees the band begin to pummel the listener. The precision with which everything in Ousia is pulled off, and the distinct character of each instrument is marvelous, and by the end of the album, one walks away having lost track both of time spent listening and a firm portrait of the band in mind.

The sheer elegance of Jin’s vibrato during clean vocals, coupled with his range and particularly harrowing screams give the band’s style a unique push, given THE BLACK SWAN’S sophisticated, dark image and rapid switching between sludgy and crunchy guitars to passages that feature only Jin’s voice and piano. In short, the band reminds one of a comic book that plays off stark black and white contrasts to highlight the action. Listened to apart from any sense of the band’s attire of music videos, one is still treated to an interplay between hauntingly spacious portions of songs, before Jin’s piercing screams and delayed guitars announce a change in tempo.

Ousia is a superbly well-crafted debut full-length, and one that is quite ambitious. Yet THE BLACK SWAN pulls everything off astoundingly well across a diverse set of songs, many of which are brilliantly varied themselves. The chaos of tracks like “Asumodeusu no Yari” to symphonic, airy moments, to the meditated and relentless attack of “THE HOPELESS,” THE BLACK SWAN executes everything here with remarkably distinct style and grace. The atmosphere of the album can be in many ways summed up by the epic conclusion track, “OUSIA,” that clocks in at 11 minutes and 12 seconds, but remains a thoroughly enjoyable piece throughout. This album comes highly recommended.

Key Tracks: “Nagare-goe, Sōkoku no Hai to”,  “THE HOPELESS”, “[S]TRIPPER”, “DEJECTED RAIN”, “RUVISH”,  “OUSIA”

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