Loudness: Japanese Heavy Metal Icons
"Konichi-Wa, mother-@#$%'ers!" - Minoru Niihara onstage in the 1980s
"M! Z! A!"
Japan loves hard rock and heavy metal music... really, REALLY loves it. England may be metal's birthplace and Germany may claim its most dedicated fan base, but Japan is definitely a close second. Ever since KISS adorned the cover of 1974's Hotter Than Hell album with Japanese writing and Cheap Trick chose Tokyo's famed Budokan arena to record their breakthrough live album, hard rockers have enjoyed a special relationship with the Japanese audience. Just about any touring band that's spent time in Japan can tell you stories of sold-out Enormo-dome shows, with throngs of gift-bearing fans following them everywhere they go in the country. Even during the darkest days of the 1990s when depressing Grunge rock ruled the rest of the world and traditional heavy metal was on the run, many "old school" hard rock and metal bands still maintained a frenzied and receptive audience in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan is also home to its own thriving hard rock and metal scene, of course, and while local bands such as Sex Machineguns, X Japan, Vow Wow, 44 Magnum and Seikima-II (to name just a few) have all enjoyed long and successful careers in their homeland, very few Japanese bands have managed to break out internationally and become well known outside of Asia. Most would agree that the group that came closest to worldwide fame was LOUDNESS.
Considered the "godfathers" of the Japanese metal scene, the quartet led by powerhouse vocalist Minoru Niihara and guitar wizard Akira Takasaki blazed a trail in the 1980s and scored a number of "firsts" for a Japanese band. They were the first commercially successful home-grown hard rock act in Japan, and the first to record songs in English, which led to them becoming the first Japanese metal act to sign a worldwide deal with a major American record label (Atco). Though they made a brief splash in the U.S. with the minor hit single "Crazy Nights" (off of 1985's international debut Thunder in the East), long term mega-stardom was unfortunately not in the cards for Loudness, but three decades after their brief brush with fame, they still continue to release new albums and tour relentlessly throughout the Far East, cementing their position as Elder Statesmen of the Japanese metal movement.
Guitar wizard Akira Takasaki and drummer Munetaka Higuchi formed Loudness in 1980 after quitting the popular late 70s pop-rock band Lazy. Drafting vocalist Minoru Niihara from rival band Earthshaker and hiring Takasaki's childhood friend Masayoshi Yamashita to fill the bassist position, the newly formed band signed with the Nippon Columbia record label and quickly made a name for themselves in their homeland with their first three albums - Devil Soldier (1981), The Birthday Eve (1982) and The Law of Devil's Land (1983) - all of which, naturally, were sung in their native language. Despite the language barrier, Loudness was soon attracting international attention thanks to the flashy guitar work of Akira Takasaki; who was dubbed "Japan's answer to Eddie Van Halen" by guitar magazines. The Law of Devil's Land was released in Europe by RoadRunner Records, which gave Loudness their first touring opportunities outside of Japan. In order to broaden their appeal with non-Japanese listeners, Loudness released two different versions of 1984's Disillusion - one with vocals in their native tongue for their homeland, and one sung in English for the rest of the world. Thanks to tracks like "Crazy Doctor," "Esper," and "Milky Way" and positive reviews for Disillusion in metal magazines around the globe, Loudness was soon showing up on the radar of the major U.S. record labels. By 1985 Loudness was about to step up to the big leagues - for better or for worse.
"Crazy Doctor" (1984)
The American Years - THUNDER!
Loudness signed a worldwide deal with Atco Records (part of the Atlantic Records empire) and released their first "international" album, Thunder in the East, in 1985. Produced by Ozzy Osbourne knob-twiddler Max Norman, Thunder received positive reviews and enjoyed a massive promotional push from the major label, who took the unusual step of shooting music videos for nearly every song on the album. The best received track was the anthemic single "Crazy Nights," with its instantly-recognizable guitar riff and nonsensical but oh-so-damn-catchy chant of "M! Z! A!" Thunder in the East peaked at #74 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. and the band increased its notoriety in the "hair metal" scene by touring America as the opening act for such heavy hitters as Motley Crue and Stryper.
"Crazy Nights" (1985)
1986's Lightning Strikes, produced again by Norman, provided another minor hit with "Let It Go" and more U.S. touring opportunities with bands such as Cinderella and Ratt. The album was remixed and released under the alternate title Shadows of War in their homeland, and the track "Ashes in the Sky" - a song written from the perspective of a World War II kamikaze pilot about to take off on his suicidal mission - apparently caused some controversy in Japan, where the band were accused of "glorifying" the brutality of war. Lightning Strikes scored even better than Thunder on the U.S. Billboard charts, achieving a position of #64.
"Let It Go" (1986)
Pop Metal was at its height in 1987 and Hurricane Eyes was Loudness' obvious "shot for the top" album, with less "metal" bite and slicker, glossier production than its two predecessors. The band collaborated with KISS producer Eddie Kramer and members of Giuffria (who provided backing vocals and "English lyric assistance" according to the liner notes) on Hurricane and hoped to score a major hit single with the track "This Lonely Heart," but the album performed poorly in the U.S., only reaching #190 on Billboard. Hurricane Eyes also marked the beginning of Loudness' ill advised habit of cannibalizing their past goods for the American audience - the track "So Lonely" was merely a re-worked version of "Ares Lament" from Disillusion. When Hurricane faded from the charts, the band's U.S. handlers decided that a change was needed.
"This Lonely Heart" (1987)
Following the release of the Japan-only EP Jealousy, Loudness' management team convinced them that Minoru Niihara's lack of English proficiency was becoming an impediment to the band's chances for worldwide success, and suggested that they'd be better off with an American singer. Thus, Niihara was ousted and Michael Vescera, formerly of Obsession, was brought in. The change in singers did little to reverse Loudness' declining fortunes in the U.S. market, and naturally, their Japanese fanbase considered it blasphemy. The band released two albums with Vescera on vocals - 1989's Soldier of Fortune and 1991's On The Prowl - both of which consisted mainly of newly recorded, English language versions of past songs from the band's early, Japan-only releases (a move that reeked of "contractual obligation"). Neither album set the charts afire on either side of the ocean. Most Loudness fans agreed that even though Niihara may never have been a great singer in the technical sense, he brought a certain "character" to Loudness with his odd phrasings and off-kilter wailing. When the smooth-voiced Vescera was brought in, Loudness suddenly sounded like any other generic "hair band." Atco Records dropped the band in 1992, citing lack of record sales and the fact that grunge had eclipsed hard rock's popularity in the U.S. Michael Vescera moved on to front Yngwie Malmsteen's band, and the rest of Loudness returned to Japan with their tails between their legs.
"You Shook Me" (1989)
Struggling in the 1990s
As the 1990s dawned, the only original members left in Loudness were guitarist Takasaki and drummer Higuchi. Their 1992 Japan-only release Loudness featured a heavier, almost thrash-oriented sound and marked the debut of new vocalist Masaki Yamada, formerly of EZO, and bassist Taiji Sawada of X Japan fame. No doubt spurred by interest in the "supergroup" all-star lineup, the album went to #2 on the Japanese charts, which encouraged Takasaki to continue performing under the Loudness name.
Higuchi left after the Loudness album but Takasaki carried on throughout the 1990s as the only mainstay within a revolving door membership. Takasaki's version of "Loudness" released a string of highly experimental, occasionally bizarre albums that deviated from the band's classic metal sound and never saw the light of day outside of Japan. Loudness and 1994's Heavy Metal Hippies are probably the most highly regarded albums from this era, but most fans agree that their late 90s discs like Dragon, Ghetto Machine and Engine are to be avoided at all costs due to their reliance on then-trendy nu-metal and groove metal stylings.
"Black Widow" (1992)
Loudness Side Projects and Related bands:
Lazy - A late 70s hard rock band that featured guitarist Akira Takasaki and drummer Munetaka Higuchi. The pair left to form Loudness because they were dissatisfied with the increasingly "pop" musical direction that Lazy was taking.
Earthshaker - Vocalist Minoru Niihara was the bassist and vocalist for this long running Japanese hard rock band prior to joining Loudness.
Sly - a heavy metal band formed in the mid 1990s by Minoru Niihara and Munetaka Higuchi during their time away from Loudness.
EZO - formerly known as "Flatbacker," this band were signed to the Geffen label in the U.S. and released two albums, one of which was co-produced by Gene Simmons of KISS fame. When EZO broke up, vocalist Masaki Yamada and drummer Hiro Hamada joined Loudness for several studio albums.
Anthem - Naoto Shibata, bassist of this famed Japanese metal band, was also a member of Loudness during the mid 1990s.
Ded Chaplin and X.Y.Z.-A - Minoru Niihara sang for both of these bands during his time away from Loudness.
The Soldiers Just Came Back!!
By the early 2000s, Loudness' influence was waning even in their homeland. In order to re-ignite interest in the band and to celebrate their 20th anniversary, the "classic" lineup of Takasaki, Higuchi, Niihara, and Yamashita reunited in 2001, releasing the Spiritual Canoe album. The reunion was apparently intended to only be a one-shot deal, but response was so positive that the band has kept going ever since. In the dozen years since the reunion, Loudness has been an amazingly prolific band, releasing at least one new product (a new studio album, live album, single, compilation, or concert DVD) every year like clockwork. Most of their recent albums have only been released in Asia, but several have managed to make their way overseas, like 2004's Racing (released in Europe by the Drakkar label), 2004's Rockshocks (released in the US by Crash Music in 2006) and Eve To Dawn (released in the U.S. by FrostByte Media in 2012). Some of the earlier "reunion" releases like Spiritual Canoe and Biosphere were criticized for continuing with the "nu-metal" sound heard on their late 90s albums, but more recent discs like 2008's Metal Mad show a more "balanced" sound which satisfies their "traditional" metalhead following while still showing some experimental flourishes. No matter what era of Loudness you listen to, however, you can always count on absolutely shredding guitar acrobatics courtesy of Akira Takasaki, whose six string skills remain untouchable even after all these years!
Sadly, drummer Munetaka Higuchi passed away in late 2008 after a battle with liver cancer, at the age of 49. He was replaced by Masayuki Suzuki, formerly of the Japanese bands Hard Gear and RDX. Suzuki made his recording debut with Loudness on one track ("I Wonder") from 2009's The Everlasting, which was the last album Higuchi worked on prior to his death and is dedicated to his memory.
Still Metal Mad!!
As Loudness celebrated their 35th anniversary, they showed no signs of slowing down. Their twenty-sixth (!) studio album, The Sun Will Rise Again, was released in June of 2014.
Even though less than half of their discography has been released outside of Japan, Loudness still maintains a loyal cult following in the U.S. and Europe, as evidenced by their presence at numerous European and American retro-rock festivals in recent years.
In addition to their vast amount of studio albums, Loudness has also released a dizzying array of live discs, compilation albums, concert videos/DVDs, and singles. Collecting a complete Loudness discography would be a daunting task indeed (not to mention prohibitively expensive, considering the cost of imported CDs from Japan!!), but thankfully their best stuff is fairly easy to find in the U.S. at an affordable price. If the only song you remember from Loudness is "Crazy Nights," you owe it to yourself to start digging and rediscover one of the metal world's best kept secrets!!
"The Sun Will Rise Again" Teaser (2014)
What's your favorite "Classic" Loudness album?
Rock N Roll Crazy Nights!
LOUDNESS select discography:
The Birthday Eve - Nippon Columbia, 1981
Devil Soldier - Nippon Columbia, 1982
The Law of Devil's Land - Nippon Columbia, 1983
Live-Loud-Alive: Loudness in Tokyo (live) - Nippon Columbia, 1983
Disillusion (Japanese Version) - Nippon Columbia, 1984
Disillusion (English version) - Music For Nations, 1984
Thunder in the East - Atco, 1985
Lightning Strikes - Atco, 1986 (released in Japan as Shadows of War)
Hurricane Eyes - Atco, 1987
Jealousy (EP) - WEA Japan, 1988
Soldier of Fortune - Atco, 1989
On the Prowl - Atco, 1991
Loudness - Warner Japan, 1992
Once and For All (live) - Warner Japan, 1993
Heavy Metal Hippies - Warner Japan, 1994
Ghetto Machine - Rooms, 1997
Dragon - Rooms, 1998
Engine - Rooms, 1999
Spiritual Canoe - Columbia Japan, 2001
Pandemonium - Columbia Japan, 2001
Biosphere - Tokuma Japan, 2002
Terror - Tokuma Japan, 2004
Rockshocks - Tokuma Japan, 2004
Racing - Tokuma Japan, 2004
Breaking the Taboo - Tokuma Japan, 2006
Metal Mad - Tokuma Japan, 2008
The Everlasting - Tokuma Japan, 2009
King of Pain - Tokuma Japan, 2010
Eve To Dawn - Tokuma Japan, 2011
2-0-1-2 - Tokuma Japan, 2012
The Sun Will Rise Again - Universal Japan, 2014