Tetsuo Sakurai (bass); Greg Howe (guitar); Dennis Chambers (drums)
In 2001, Japanese bass legend Tetsuo Sakurai (Casiopea, Jimsaku, solo artist) released Gentle Hearts (Victor Entertainment) - a critically acclaimed instrumental rock fusion album that featured the stellar combo of Greg Howe on guitar, and Dennis Chambers on drums. This energetic disc was loaded with heavy riffs, and killer guitar work from Howe. The band also took their act on the road, and subsequently released Gentle Hearts Tour 2004 (2005 - Victor Entertainment) on CD and DVD. Now for his latest album, Vital World (King Records), Sakurai has joined forces with Howe and Chambers once again, and the results are even heavier and more guitar-driven than the group's previous outings.
What's striking about Vital World is its sheer heaviness. While it does include shades of jazz harmony here and there, the music is largely driven by heavy guitar riffs - Sakurai is definitely shooting for a rock vibe with this album (Some tunes could even be described as prog metal). From a guitar perspective, Greg Howe's style makes him a great fit for the material on this disc. Unlike many other players who make the attempt, he sounds authentic when utilizing a jazz influenced vocabulary with a rock approach and tone.
The album's in-your-face opener "Critical Planet" sounds like a throwback to "Brain Storm" from the Gentle Hearts album. It's a relentless, slap-bass tour de force that gives Sakurai a chance to show off his considerable chops. Up next is "Alien's Feast" - an uber-heavy tune that would not sound out of place on a Planet X record. It also features Howe shredding over a harmonic minor tonality - something he rares does on his own albums. "A Tear Of The Clown" is a heavy tune as well, but in more of melodic "arena rock" vein. Howe's solo near the end of this piece may be his best on the album. The V chord at the end of the progression gives him a chance to peel off some nice altered scale runs.
Sakurai's amazing bass work is showcased once again on "Are You Ready" - a fun, uptempo tune that may best be described as instrumental pop rock (if there is such a thing anymore). Following a killer Chambers drum break in the middle of the tune, Sakurai takes a wild solo chock-full of crazy slapping and fast runs.
The following piece, "Another Kingdom," is one of the only songs I've ever heard that successfully fuses the styles of neo-classical and jazz. The Yngwie-esque A section features long 32nd-note lines doubled between the guitar and bass (reminiscent of "Flight Of The Bumblebee"), while the double-time B section reminded me of a jazz orchestra on a film score session. This would seem to be a strange combination, but the two sides to this tune flow together nicely.
Two more heavy riff-based tunes follow - "Triangle Square" which features some Eastern-influenced melodies and an off-the-rails drum solo courtesy of Chambers, and "Monster Parade," one of the hardest-rocking tunes on the disc. This song also has Howe playing some amazing outside lines. In a total gear shift, the album closes with "Father" - a flowing melodic ballad that serves as a nice palette-cleanser after the onslaught you've just experienced for the previous 7 tunes.
Vital World is certainly one of the best heavy fusion albums of the year. Sakurai obviously went into this project with the intention of laying down some aggressive music, and he delivered in a big way. He explores a wide-array of rock styles here, yet still leaves room for his jazz and improvisational side. And with Howe and Chambers, he has the perfect bandmates for this endeavor - Both are well-versed in the styles presented on Vital World, and have an obvious rapport with Sakurai from the trio's previous projects. Highly recommended.