Traditional Metal / Hard Rock from Japan
Heavy Metal Army were a very short lived supergroup featuring a totally unique cast of musicians from various decently popular projects from the 70s Japanese rock scene. One of roughly the first five metal acts signed to a large Japanese record label, in 1981 the quintet released their debut, and what turned out to be their only album under this name, Heavy Metal Army 1. While this is an album that had a few minor flaws, in the grand scheme it was something extremely important, I would even say vital to the fledgling Japanese metal scene.
For a bit of background on this all-star team, Heavy Metal Army began with some of the most prominent 70s rock musicians on the island of Okinawa joining forces, that being Hiroto Arasaki, singer of Mariner, Eiichi Miyanaga, dependable drummer of Murasaki, and Shinki Sugama, Condition Green‘s secret weapon on guitar. Then from the mainland add to the mix Japanese rock and metal matriarch Carmen Maki‘s keyboardist Yuki Nakajima plus Masahiro Takeuchi, bassist of later career Blues Creation and you’ve got without question the most promising lineups of rock musicians constructed at any point up until then in Japan. Oh yeah, they also threw a dose of Bow Wow‘s Kyoji Yamamoto in the mix as a guest too, for some good old-fashioned overkill.
The album’s first song is the title-track “Heavy Metal Army”, an immediate demonstration of what the band was all about, exploding into a fairly aggressive riff with Yuki Nakajima’s keyboard absolutely screaming over top of it all, utilized largely like a second guitarist for the band, a running trend across the album. Also made immediately clear early on is Hiroto Arasaki’s proficiency in English, which is to be expected from a half-Japanese, half-American singer I suppose. He possesses a strong middle range, is extremely clear, and has a smooth and enjoyable tone to his voice. The song in particular stands out for its fun chorus, and not one but two excellent guitar solos.
I won’t lie, Heavy Metal Army 1 is one of the softer metal albums out there, with a lot of AOR-like aspects to its musical construction, I suppose in a similar way to the NWOBHM movement’s Demon in that regard, a band who funny enough also released their debut this same year. There’s both stratospheric highs to the album, as well as mild low points which we’ll touch on a bit later. Another one of the major highs of the album is “Yes or No”, one of my favorite Japanese metal tracks ever and to me easily the best song on a for the most part very good album, it displays the talent and ability of all members the best of any of the album’s tracks, from Arasaki’s strong vocal performance including a wonderful chorus to Shinki Sugama and Yuki Nakajima’s incredible solo section, where Nakajima and Sugama’s instruments weave and intertwine in one of the finest dueling guitar and keyboard solos to be found in its time. “Yes or No” is simply an upbeat, catchy as hell slab of molten, early 80s heavy metal.
Other exceptionally strong points on the album include the two songs on which Yuki Nakajima takes over lead-vocal duties, “That’s Hammurabian Police” and perhaps the most shred-heavy song on the album, “Changeling”. “That’s Hammurabian Police” I believe is one of Kyoji Yamamoto’s features (who was interestingly listed as Mr. X due to label restrictions of some kind), though I’m not quite sure he’s playing his signature B.C. Rich Mockingbird here, his playing doesn’t quite sound normal, yet I’m certain it’s not Shinki Sugama playing at any point during the track. Rambling on my part aside the song features some very pleasant guitar work and is one of the most upbeat songs the album has to offer. As for parts where the album lags just a bit, I’m not particularly fond of either ballad, those being “Bird of Destiny” and “Rockin’ Long Spell of Rain”, they’re quite frankly boring despite good intentions and a decent guitar solo by I believe it’s Kyoji Yamamoto again on the latter of the two.
Highlights of this album on the individual performances front are numerous. One of my favorite things about the whole project was Yuki Nakajima with not only a good co-lead vocal performance, but also one of the most unique keyboard performances on a metal album I’ve honestly ever encountered, his keyboard playing is completely wild and not unlike something out of an old-school video game, yes he can be a bit overpowering in the mix in places, but the way he works in unison with Shinki Sugama is magical. Speaking of Sugama, and while I’m a big fan of basically every member of the band through their other works, he’s definitely the other standout member. While he contributes largely to the AOR-esque overtones on the album, rest assured he was being as metal as he could possibly be here. Primarily a southern and hard rock guitarist in a softer band, for this one he’s got the beefiest guitar tone he would ever muster, and while still not as heavy as other bands in the era, it works perfectly for his playing style. He was a magnificent guitarist for Condition Green, but hearing him be a shameless albeit tasteful show-off in a meaner, more aggressive band like Heavy Metal Army was an utter treat.
This is was a remarkably ambitious album from a Japanese band for its time, in fact, it’s so early that Loudness only first appeared later in the year, and that was a few months after this came out. Heavy Metal Army 1 was well received and the band gained a decent bit of recognition in its wake, with Heavy Metal Army being featured as the special guest performer at Yamaha’s legendary EastWest ’82 competition, performing in front of hotshot young bands competing that year including Show-Ya, Juni-Hitoe, Sleazy Luster and others, a major event in the rise of Japanese metal to say the least. Heavy Metal Army changed their formula by the end of 1982 and their name along with it, going by Eastern Orbit til disbandment, releasing one more album as good as this, albeit a proggier one, before going their separate ways. All these years later Heavy Metal Army aren’t particularly well remembered anymore in contrast to the country’s stalwarts, but alongside other largely forgotten names of the era, particularly Nokemono who came along just a little too early to attain any lasting fame, Heavy Metal Army and their lone album were and undoubtedly still are every bit as worthy of your time.
Album Rating: 84/100
Favorite Track: Yes or No