UNDEAD “Ensemble Stars! Album Series UNDEAD” (Review)

UNDEAD steal the show with one of the most complete and exciting albums in the Ensemble Stars!‘s franchise.

The unit consists of  Toshiki Masuda, Yuki Ono, Wataru Hatano and Kei Hosogai.

Title: Ensemble Stars! Album Series UNDEAD
Label: Pony Canyon
Release date: 29/08/2018
Genre: Rock/Groove Metal/Jazz-Rock

Tracklist:

01.Melody in the Dark
02.Gate of the Abyss
03.Darkness 4
04.Break the Prison
05.ハニーミルクはお好みで
06.DESTRUCTION ROAD
07.Valentine Eve's Nightmare
08.Death Game Holic
09.Bloody Moon Vampire(Rei solo song)
10.Feather Heartache (Kaoru solo song)
11.RIOT WOLF (Koga solo song)
12.Saql Faith(Adonis solo song)

Track by track analysis:

01.Melody in the Dark

An harpsichord melody sets a dark tone for this high-tension rock tune. “Melody in the Dark” is all about its core bass sound – that drives the song forward at the same time that it adds depth to the instrumental -, fast paced drums and melodic guitar licks and riffs, all contrasting with the harpsichord’s somber melody. Its pacing and hard-hitting sound instantly catches the listener’s attention. This instrumental features one of the best guitar solos in UNDEAD‘s repertoire, this is the kind of solo that is not focus on just shredding but, instead, adding a passionate and fiery layer to this song.

On the vocal end, UNDEAD deliver what seems to be their best performance to date. Regardless if for solo parts or as a group, all members performed this song with power, delivering a quality and passionate performance that we couldn’t help but be impressed with. “Melody in the Dark” is a thunderous opening for this album. 5/5

02.Gate of the Abyss

[As previously reviewedGate of the Abyss kicks off strongly. With deep instrumentalization – mostly bass oriented – and an overall interesting composition, this is a powerful song to open this single with. Fast paced drums, a noticeable bass line, raging guitar riffs – and top quality solo parts -, plus dramatic strings, make this instrumental good enough to spark our interest. If you were waiting for an all out rock song after reading this short description, then you’ll be disappointed. Yes, it has all the typical rock elements but the execution was made in a way that this song can’t help but to sound more like a pop track – which doesn’t take away its quality. UNDEAD‘s vocals are incredibly well balanced. Everyone nails their solo parts and in the chorus there’s virtually no one standing out. Solid group performance. 4.5/5

03.Darkness 4

Darkness 4 shows a different side to UNDEAD‘s music. Instead of going towards their trademark dark sound, for this song the piano introduces melancholy, feeling befitting of this power ballad. The instrumental counts the best guitar and bass work I’ve heard in the Ensemble Stars!’s franchise. The guitar work has unique flair that emulates the great 80’s power ballad guitar licks and heavy riffs (especially in the chorus), while bringing to the table groove metal’s powerful, emotion-imbued solos and thunderous bass sound – courtesy of bass drum-driven drums and a memorable bass line. The verses are slow paced, putting the focus on the piano’s dramatic melodies and the strong bass line, building up the tension for the mesmerizing chorus. Still in the instrumental we find some industrial rock elements through the dark synths playing in the background (noticeable in the chorus).

On top of this powerful instrumental we find what is still UNDEAD‘s best performance to date. From Masuda‘s deep vibrato-ed vocals to Hosogai smooth mid-tones, Ono and Hatano‘s harmonies, their performances were filled with emotion and a power that is unique to this performance. Groove metal, 80’s inspired rock and industrial rock shape Darkness 4 into the best song on UNDEAD‘s repertoire and, safe to say, the best in the Ensemble Stars!’s franchise. Stellar performance. 5/5

04.Break the Prison

[As previously reviewed] Slowing down a bit, Break the Prison is a mid-tempo pop-rock tune in which guitar riffs, snare-y drums and a groovy bass line are kings. The instrumental is rather simple but quite effective at keeping the listener interested.  Adding to this rock base we have strings and delicate piano melodies. This is an easy to listen pop-rock song that will get stuck in your head. The performances weren’t anything otherworldly or impressive. There’s nothing especially tricky about the vocal parts and everyone performed those with ease – both solo and choruses. Safe performance in a song that didn’t require much flair. 4/5

05.ハニーミルクはお好みで

The gears change and the pacing is toned down for “Honey Milk wa okonomi de“, song that introduces jazz-rock to this album. This instrumental embraces a warm acoustic sound in which acoustic guitar licks, contrabass, jazz piano melodies, accordion, strings create a picturesque and, at the same time, romantic soundscape. The instrumental also counts with laidback blues-y guitar licks and stunning bass and piano work, particularly impressive through both solos in the bridge. For those familiar with Japanese rock music, this song channels a lot from SID’s acid-jazz/jazz-rock sound.

Vocally, UNDEAD‘s members fit perfectly with this slower, quieter approach to their sound. Both their solo parts and harmonies added a unique flavor to this song. Embracing jazz and opting for sweeter vocals did wonders to this group. 5/5

06.DESTRUCTION ROAD

Shredding guitar riffs open the way for DESTRUCTION ROAD. This song was featured on UNDEAD‘s 2nd unit song CD, released on 2016. Everything about this instrumental channels an 80’s glam rock sound, noticeable in the choices of instruments, tones and chords progressions and the song’s progression and pacing. The groovy bass line and guitar riffs and right-off-the-bat guitar solos are made to hype up this song and excite the listener. Snare-y drums and old-school synths add the final touches to this take on glam rock. The chorus is exciting and sounds as if it was made to have the listener – or public on a live setting – sing along to it.

On the vocal end, the excitement and energy in UNDEAD‘s vocals is addictive. Their performances added the cherry on top of this song. 5/5

07.Valentine Eve’s Nightmare

And we welcome jazz-rock once again to this release. “Valentine Eve’s Nightmare” brings back blues-y guitar licks, the playfulness of the contrabass and brass, the class of the jazz drums and piano melodies, shaping this song into one of the most flamboyant entries on this album. The verses count with splashy, jazz drums, rhodes piano melodies and a groovy contrabass line, slowly building tension for the addictive and fast paced chorus.

In the middle of such a playful instrumental the listener finds Masuda, Hosogai, Ono and Hatano delivering one of their grooviest performances, filled with vibrato and sweet harmonies. This song exudes a class and playfulness that is seldom found on their music – usually more aggressive and darker in tone. Stellar performance. 5/5

08.Death Game Holic

[As previously reviewedDeath Game Holic brings out a darker tone. The industrial rock instrumental mixed with some pop touches worked out incredibly well for this song. The splashy drums set a fast pace to this song, a song that makes great use of the bass – those bass lines are as groovy as they are imposing -, adds dirty synths in the good old fashion of industrial rock, lends help from raging guitar riffs, dark piano melodies and dramatic strings sections. The instrumental alone is a winner. The song features デッドマンズ on vocals, basically a sub-unit that includes Toshiki Masuda, Yuichiro Umehara (from Akatsuki) and Yuki Ono. This trio managed to deliver an impressive performance. Masuda and Umehara were a force to be reckoned with. Powerful vocals, exciting harmonizations and overall complete performances caught us by surprise. Vocals and instrumentals on point. Top marks. 5/5

09.Bloody Moon Vampire

And UNDEAD kick off the solo song corner on this album with Rei’s “Bloody Moon Vampire“. Tom-driven drums set a playful tempo for this song while vibes, a groovy bass, blues-y guitar licks, brass, percussion (bongos) shape this song into a crafty mix of bebop jazz and blues, capturing the listener’s attention with its sweet and playful sound. In the middle of this tasteful instrumental we find the saxophone stealing the show. Even though the saxophone is present throughout the song – adding a unique flair to this song – it is its solo that stole the show.

Toshiki Masuda’s performance kicks off with a whole lot of ad-libs. Those alone were enough to notice that his performance was going to be more melodic and technical than what we’re used to on UNDEAD‘s songs. Masuda gave his all for this complete performance that between ad-libs, sweet mid-tones and vibrato, didn’t lack anything. 5/5

10.Feather Heartache

A noticeable bass line and hyped up guitar licks kick off this groovy rock song. Kaoru’s Feather Heartache brings to the table delicate piano melodies, funky guitar riffs and licks, a groovy bass line and simple, snare-y drums. Technical drums steal the show in this song, being the flashiest element in the whole song. This instrumental is simple yet more than enough to catch the listener’s attention with its funky sound.

In the vocal department we have Kei Hosogai showcased his consistency in what is an incredibly solid performance. Funky-rock and consistent vocals sold us the song as soon as it started playing. 5/5

11.RIOT WOLF

Heavy guitar riffs and powerful drums lead the way for RIOT WOLF, Koga’s solo song. Like most songs on UNDEAD‘s repertoire, bass plays a major role in shaping this song. A thunderous bass line and fast paced, bass-drum driven drums drive this song forward and, at the same time, set a playful yet imposing tone to this song. From the old-school synths and exciting guitar riffs it’s noticeable the 80’s high-throttle rock sound influences. Even with a simple structure and predictable progression, this song irradiates energy and excitement, the kind of song that captures the listener’s attention within little more than one guitar riff.

Yuki Ono went all out for this performance, adding a lot of energy to this song yet never forgetting to add some flavor to his performance through the addition of vibrato. It’s impossible to not get hooked on this song and his performance. 5/5

12.Saql Faith

We wrap up this album with Adonis’ solo song “Saql Faith“. This song counts with a rather interesting instrumental that mixes rock with middle-eastern music to create a unique experience for the listener. Oud, sitar and ney are the core elements responsible for adding a middle-eastern touch to this instrumental, blending with Spanish guitar melodies, accordion and castanets to create an exotic mix of Andalusian and middle-eastern music. Aside from this instruments, this song counts with with electric guitars, simple snare-y drums, a noticeable bass line, brass, and playful piano melodies.

On the vocal end, Wataru Hatano channeled perfectly an exotic vibe through his exquisite vibrato-ed performance. “Saql Faith” dreamy soundscape and a strong performance make this song stand out in this album. 5/5

Final rating:

This album incorporates a variety of approaches to their rock sound that go from their trademark dark rock sound in Melody in the Dark, to groove metal/power ballad in Darkness 4, 80’s inspired rock in RIOT WOLF, acid-jazz in Honey Milk wa okonomi de, jazz-rock/blues in Valentine Eve’s Nightmare, bebop jazz in Bloody Moon Vampire, glam rock in DESTRUCTION ROAD and a cross between middle-eastern and Andalusian music in Saql Faith.

The album is filled with great songs, most mentioned above but it’s Darkness 4, song released in 2016, that continues wearing the crown of best song in UNDEAD‘s repertoire. This power ballad with groove metal and industrial rock at its core will grab your attention with its emotional, overdriven guitar riffs and melancholic piano melodies. Not to mention the vocals were so on point, packing an emotion and power that overwhelms the listener. There’s no way out of this song.

There are some weaker spots on this album through the sound of Gate of the Abyss and Break the Prison, songs that, in comparison with everything else on this album, paled a bit with their simplified sound. Regardless, both songs are still interesting and well worth a listen.

When it comes to the solo songs, I can’t help but to praise all. Every single solo song channels perfectly each character’s demeanor and personality, making those songs unique, even within the group’s repertoire. Bloody Moon Vampire introduced bebop jazz in their repertoire at the same time that Toshiki Masuda dazzled with a stunning performance filled with sweet ad-libs (something not as common coming from him as some would think), Feather Heartache showed us that a simple rock formula is still able to impress if the instrumental has a good structure, pacing and great vocals on top of it, in this case Kei Hosogai‘s consistent mid-tones. RIOT WOLF made us wonder once again why Yuki Ono is an underrated singer when he has the power, skill and emotion to make his performances always a blast to listen to. Saql Faith brought the fantasy and beauty of middle-eastern music to UNDEAD‘s repertoire, at the same time that proved once again how versatile of a singer Wataru Hatano is, tackling that song with a unique flair.

Each song brought something different to the table, showing that UNDEAD aren’t just a rock band with a dark, industrial sound, truth is there’s much more to them namely, insane talent. It’s not by chance that UNDEAD have one of the most consistent and richest repertoires among the franchise’s units, and if there were any doubts to begin with, this album made sure to erase those.

It’s top tier rock song after top tier rock song. It’s four unique vocal colors with a consistency and a richness that will leave you speechless with each performance. It’s their whole dark vibe and aggressive – sometimes melancholic – sound. Everything about UNDEAD is appealing and a thorough, start-to-finish listen to this album is enough to be overwhelmed by all that and more. This is an insanely talented group with a vibe and sound that is unique, even among 2.5D units outside of the Ensemble Stars!’s franchise.

“Ensemble Stars! Album Series UNDEAD” is, hands down, the best album released so far in the Ensemble Stars!’s franchise.

Ensemble Stars! Album Series UNDEAD” is available for purchase at CDJAPAN. 

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3 responses to “UNDEAD “Ensemble Stars! Album Series UNDEAD” (Review)

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