Stingray were a band that was rather mysterious, they appeared essentially out of nowhere, were signed almost immediately by a large label in King records and dropped a debut album right away. They had seemingly no demos leading up to this, no known previous member experience in popular bands or anything. Not quite the typical start to a career for an 80s metal band to say the least, especially uncommon for Japan where metal bands being signed by big labels in the early to mid 1980s was a rare occurrence. Unlike the exceedingly few other metal bands who were set up for a strong start to their career like Earthshaker or 44 Magnum, Stingray’s popularity for one reason or another didn’t take off like the aforementioned bands did and instead they were dropped from King’s roster quickly. They would carve out a long career with both smaller labels and independently, but they were sadly relegated largely to footnote status in contrast to a lot of Japan’s other long-running metal acts, despite a skill set that was easily on par with and in some instances surpassing many of their more famous counterparts, and this first Stingray album Rain makes me wonder what could have been for the band had King records held onto them for just a little bit longer.
Rain features about 70% hard rock and 30% melodic heavy/power metal. While not as metal as the rest of the band’s discography to come, Rain is a coherent and pleasant rock and metal fusion with a good flow. The hard rock tracks are melodic and rockin’, but tasteful and not of the sleaze rock variety, which plays to this particular album’s advantage. Though they started out playing mostly hard rock, there were distinct moments early in their discography where Osamu Suzuki & co. would totally let loose and unleash powerhouse metal tracks, which was the case on this album, particularly the middle section. To you Japanese metal fans out there, picture a version of the band X-Ray where they break into melodic power metal anthems instead of traditional heavy metal ones, that’s the closest musical comparison I can draw, Osamu Suzuki’s vocals are even fairly similar in style to that of Akira Fujimoto, albeit with a larger vocal range, and the band merges hard rock and metal tracks just as masterfully as X-Ray were famous for.
This album’s middle section and the metal highlights of the album are “September Magic” and “Tokia no Shozo”. When first listening to this album, these two tracks are honestly a bit jarring when they begin, with the drastic change in pace from the the preceding relatively relaxed hard rock songs into a full-blown power metal monstrosity being “September Magic”, it’s seriously in the style of an early-90s power metal anthem in the middle of a mostly hard rock album and it kicks major ass… it’s furious, lightning fast, and intense. It’s also drummer Takemichi Tamaoki’s best performance on here. Think along the lines of the very best songs that their countrymen Hellen could offer from this era, but with squeaky clean album production, the kind which Hellen never got. “September Magic” is one of the coolest power metal tracks to be found in Japan at any point before the style really caught on in the early 90s. “Tokia no Shozo” is very nearly as good as “September Magic”, though it isn’t as nimble and is more emotional. The guitar work in both songs is excellent.
As for highlights among the album’s hard rock tracks, my favorite one is “Rising”, it’s an extremely catchy track with a fairly grand atmosphere, centered around a galloping riff and topped with pleasant keyboards and a strong vocal performance by Osamu Suzuki. Another highlight among the hard rock tracks is “Don’t Call Me” which boasts a nice chorus and a dreamy keyboard interlude played by Takeshi Hasegawa immediately following Yuichi Mikami and Tomokazu Sugiura’s guitar solo. I have to also give the band props for their decision to place the album’s ballad and title track “Rain” immediately following the two metal songs to slow the album back down from a huge peak and effectively set up the final few tracks. It’s a bold move, but I think it works well, particularly because it’s a very strong and dramatic ballad with an impassioned vocal performance again by band leader Osamu Suzuki.
Now where to begin with vocalist and primary songwriter Osamu Suzuki, the man is simply gifted. His keen sense of melody and songwriting ability were at an extremely high level, even this early in the band’s career. On this debut, he crafted a smooth blend of hard rock and heavy metal with a grand and elegant overtone, and then it was none other than his own voice which complete Stingray’s distinct sound. Before delving into Stingray, it’s important to note that Suzuki’s voice is extremely unique and for many it’s likely an acquired taste. Without a word of a lie, the man owns probably one of the three widest upper vocal ranges from any vocalist I’ve heard across almost four decades of bands in the Japanese metal scene. What makes that even more impressive is that he never sings at any lower than than a middle-ranged vocal tone, so as you can imagine his upper range is absolutely nuts. Suzuki also possesses a strange vibrato which would easily ruin a lesser vocalist, though much to his credit he has excellent control over his voice and while he goes wild many times, he doesn’t exceed his abilities.
Stingray were a band I’ve always been a bit surprised were never all that popular, given their musical chops. They were best remembered by metal fans for their Legend EP, and for the longest time, people who first encountered this band assumed that was all Stingray had ever made (myself included). For a band that was at one point on a massive label like King records, they stayed surprisingly low-key and that actually kept them largely in the dark online too until recent years before they started appearing on a few sites documenting discographies, so I can’t help but wonder how low the production numbers on the first run of this album was for them to never really get recognition, because it certainly wasn’t their music that kept them obscure. The band impressively made it another 15 years after this, mostly as an independent group and Osamu Suzuki would become a notable record producer in the mean time, before ending Stingray with their swan song album Heaven’s Door in 2000. Rain has received two reissues since the band’s disbandment in 2000 so it would seem some execs at King records finally recalled just how good these guys really were.
No, this isn’t Stingray’s most metal release, but it’s a lovely debut and it honestly set up the rest of their discography to come nicely. Fans of groups like X-Ray should be all over some of Stingray’s works, especially their more anthemic hard rock and lighter metal tracks, meanwhile I could see the band’s faster heavy metal as well as power metal tracks appeal to fans of bands like Hellen, Vanishing Point, Terra Rosa, or Azrael. If you’re entirely new to these guys and the other bands I’ve mentioned yet enjoy this album, chances are you’d dig the rest of Stingray’s works, it’s “more of the same” stylistically, but it’s a working formula that the band didn’t stray from and each and every release these guys made had its own unique flavor and quirks making them all good fun in their own ways.
Favorite Track: September Magic