Several weeks after the February 2008 release of the new Loudness album, Metal Mad, word came down that drummer Munetaka Higuchi had been diagnosed with liver cancer (Hepatocellular Carcinoma). At the time of this interview Higuchi was undergoing what frontman Minoru Niihara referred to as “cutting-edge medical care” in Kobe, Japan, with everyone hopeful and confident he’ll beat the disease. Until Higuchi is back to full strength Loudness have chosen to go on hiatus rather than move forward with promoting Metal Mad on the live circuit. Not an easy decision to make, particularly since the band had their hearts set on returning to North America to capitalize on their short but successful run in 2006. A market that clearly still has a place for Loudness in its heart.
“I still remember how enthusiastically the people responded to us and we all are still very grateful for that,” muses Niihara. “We’re also very grateful to the radio stations there for all the support they gave us. The North American fans were crazy and they really touched us.”
Metal Mad is Loudness’ strongest album since their 2001 reunion platter, Spiritual Canoe, even though it’s not a complete return to the classic mid-‘80s sound that made them famous. It’s also a benchmark of sorts for Niihara.
“It's been seven years already, and that' s how long I was with Loudness for the first time around,” he explains, referring to his initial firing from the band in 1988. “I never thought we would last this long, so it's a nice surprise. Especially after we got back together, we've tried to do new things and also have done some experiments with our music, which made some original fans not very happy, to tell you the truth. However, I believe that trying to do something new is one of the reasons Loudness has been around for so long. If we had done all the same things over and over, we probably would have gotten bored and gone separate ways. When I think back, we’ve changed a lot over the years; the depth of our musical knowledge, our technical abilities, experience as musicians, and of course now we’re all older. For those reasons we probably have different approach to the band, but one thing which has never changed is our passion for rock music. We also understand more about business part of this industry and that helps us enjoy making music more. I never thought I would be doing this for this long when I started 25 years ago, but 25 years went by very quickly!”
Keeping the Loudness name alive for a quarter century has been a struggle for guitarist Akira Takasaki, but the return of Niihara, Higuchi and bassist Masayoshi Yamashita to the line-up in 2001 saw the band return from the proverbial dead. They’ve been going non-stop ever since in spite of the metal scene being a much different game compared to 20 years ago.
“Well, obviously we sold more CDs before,” says Niihara. “I guess music fans right now don't even know our music. When you think about how so-called J-pop music is in the mainstream now, the music we do is pretty much going against it. The trend in Japanese music industry right now is not pushing our CD sales for sure, unfortunately. We now have more younger fans but nothing phenomenal. They started listening to our music because their parents are our fans. We probably should do more gigs at events like rock festivals and get more exposure to younger generations.”
Niihara is a confessed classic rock music buff, but he remains aware of what’s going on in rock and metal of today.
“Heroin Diaries by Sixx A.M. was great, and the Scorpions’ new one, Heaven And Hell and Led Zeppelin live were also wonderful. I check out unknown bands on YouTube and if I like them I look for their promotional videos and stuff, but I haven’t found anything inspiring yet. I love the vocalist of Killswitch Engage and wish I could perform like him, but that would kill my voice, unfortunately. It's a bummer that what I admire isn' t always something I could do myself.”
As mentioned, Metal Mad isn’t the full-on return to Loudness’ classic Thunder In The East / Disillusion sound die-hard fans would like, but it’s as close as they’ve come since reuniting. Niihara agrees.
“I know what you’re talking about, but to be honest we just happened to come up with it. I guess that since we had a former vocalist of Mayday, Steve Johnsted, as our lyricist and vocal producer, he gave us advice and ideas.We worked together on Hurricane Eyes (in 1987), so maybe his influence is reflected on our new album. However, we never thought or talked about going back to our old sound.”
Production plays a big role in Metal Mad’s positive impact. Over the last several years Loudness’ albums have suffered from the instruments overpowering Niihara’s performances in the final mix. Not so this time out.
“I know the mix plays a big role,” says Niihara. “On last album I heard critics saying the volume balance of vocals were a problem. This time the mix isn’t overwhelming the vocals so much, I hope (laughs). Every time we make a new album I take more time on how I can make my image come alive in my vocals. I always struggle when the image I have in my mind is different from what I hear in my voice. When that happens, I try everything I can think of until the image and the voice become closest to what I can live with. As a result, sometimes I have as many as five versions of one song. As far as I am a producer, nothing is stopping me from seeking the best of best, not compromising at all (laughs). Next time I probably should have somebody else as a producer.”
Winding down, Niihara addresses the issue of Takasaki’s guitar shred mindset, which has returned on Metal Mad and prior effort Breaking The Taboo, albeit with restrictions. He still has the chops and is a wonder to behold live, but when it comes to Loudness’ recorded works Takasaki seems to be holding back.
“In my opinion, I don’t think he would ever go back to the old guitar shred, and he seems not to feel the need for it,” Niihara says. “I don't think he’s even entertaining that kind of idea at all. What he is doing for heavy metal fans is that he’s making heavy and hard riffs for them. He’s trying his hardest to find the world’s best metal riffs.”