When the members of hard rock band Ningen Isu left the stage at Ozzfest Japan in 2013, they thought that was it for their Ozzfest experience. Little did the “Japanese Black Sabbath” know, Ozzy Osbourne himself would soon be calling them back for an encore.
“When the organizers asked us to play again in 2015, we knew that the dream wasn’t over yet,” says guitarist Shinji Wajima. “Last year was when I knew that we were in a good place as a band.”
Playing at Ozzfest Japan was just one of the milestones for Wajima and his bandmates, bassist Kenichi Suzuki and drummer Nobu Nakajima (all three handle singing duties), in 2015. After celebrating its 25th anniversary with the release of a two-disc best-of compilation and a return to Shibuya Public Hall for the first time in two decades, the band found the rest of the year fruitful, penning an instrumental soundtrack for the TBS/JBS television drama “JK wa Yuki Onna,” releasing a collaboration single with contemporaries Kinniku Shojo Tai, and contributing to a compilation soundtrack for the anime “Ninja Slayer.” The band also performed with a slew of other bands, including heavy metal veterans Doom, instrumental prog-rockers Hachijyuhakkasho Jyunrei and internationally acclaimed drone-noise rockers Boris.
“Our circle got bigger,” Nakajima says. “More people got to see us this year, and we were able to show them different sides of us.”
These experiences led to the creation of Ningen Isu’s new album, “Kaidan: Soshite Shi to Eros” (“Ghost Stories: Death and Eroticism”), out Feb. 3 from Tokuma Japan Communications. Like other Ningen Isu albums, there’s a barrage of heavy riffs, seemingly forged from a love affair between Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. The album was a conscious effort to convey the band’s music more clearly, but not at the expense of dumbing things down.
“We definitely wanted a lot of people to hear the album, and I think that’s reflected in the sound. The rhythms may be difficult, but there would be an easy to understand, catchy chorus. So we tried things like that,” Wajima explains. “I thought it would be nice if difficult songs didn’t sound so difficult.”
The album’s opener, “Kyoufu no Daioh,” starts the record off with a bang in the form of a barrage of colossal riffs. “Doro no Ame,” which was featured on the “Ninja Slayer” compilation, was the first song written for the album, and supposedly a sonic representation of a rainstorm. Other highlights includes “Kikuna no Kazoe Uta,” which features a riff using a traditional Japanese scale and a melody reminiscent of old nursery rhymes. The album even features a Buddhist sutra and the sound of a howling wolf, courtesy of Suzuki.
The album, centered around the concept of kaidan (Japanese ghost stories), echoes the initial concept of Ningen Isu’s idols Black Sabbath, renamed after pondering about why people pay to watch horror movies for pleasure, naming themselves after a 1963 horror film directed by Mario Bava. According to Wajima, the album was an attempt at creating a Japanese equivalent and for him, kaidan represented the Japanese version of that idea. The term brings with it an old-fashioned connotation, one different from the katakana “horā,” which is used to describe modern horror stories.
“The modern world has become very scary, but I believe that a lot of things have been lost, a sort of Japanese beauty,” he says. “Like, how you should smile and be polite when you meet people. There’s a hint of that which still exists, but I wanted to put the spotlight on that. As part of the idea of lost Japanese things, I wanted to bring in the idea of the kaidan.”
The subtitle of the album, “Death and Eroticism,” represents two sides of the same coin, both of which are generally taboo topics but also provide insight into life. In light of the recent deaths of music icons such as David Bowie and Lemmy Kilmister, the band members, all of whom will be turning 50 soon, say that they have thought about their own deaths more than ever.
“The reason we made the theme of death so prominent is because I think we know that we are getting close to it,” Wajima says. “By thinking about death, you can enjoy life.”
In contrast to the theme of death, the album also concerns itself with the idea of eroticism, which according to Wajima is essential for any art form, and life itself.
“We’re all here because of eroticism, which is a stimulus for living. Both death and eroticism have a degree of sadness to them,” he says. “By talking about them, I hope people think more about their own lives. Talking about death and eroticism is usually taboo, but in rock or art you can say these taboo things I think.”
Despite all the doom and gloom however, the aged rockers are hardly done. In fact, it seems as though they are finally getting started.
“With each riff Wajima and Suzuki brought to the table, I felt a sense of aggressiveness and ambitiousness,” Nakajima says. “I think the album is the most ambitious and most ‘wa‘ of our albums.”
“I quit the day job I was working at for the past 24 years before working on this album,” Suzuki says with a laugh. “Before I had to balance work and the band, but from this album I’m finally able to just be in the band. It’s the first album I’ve been able to go all out on.”
“We came face to face with the greatness of overseas bands at Ozzfest. We made an album that could stand equal to those bands,” Wajima says. “This is what happens when Japanese people make a hard rock album. I think we made a very Japanese rock album, so I hope people overseas get a kick out of it.”
“Kaidan: Soshite Shi to Eros” is in stores from Feb. 3. Ningen Isu play Shinsaibashi Big Cat in Osaka on Feb. 19 at the start of a nationwide tour. For more dates and information, visit www.ningen-isu.com.