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Album Review: IBARAKI Rashomon

8.5 Reviewer
Score

Matt Heafy's choice to call his solo project Ibaraki (a mythical Japanese demon) reverberates within his Japanese-American identity—a definite step in him taking ownership of his black metal aspirations. Though he played in a blackened band prior to helming the internationally renowned Trivium, Heafy knew well enough what the scene would think of a mainstream cat dabbling in black metal. Nevertheless, an early cosign from Emperor's Ihsahn pushed Heafy to throw caution to the wind and realize his ambition. Though not alien to Heafy's established M.O., Rashomon recontextualizes the creative nucleus that cemented Heafy as a true hero of modern metal.

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Like Ihsahn, who imbued his own solo material with all kinds of weirdness, Ibaraki finds Heafy having his way with the extreme music. To that effect, his album starts with the inexplicable waltz "Hakanaki Hitsuzen"—as if to say, "I want my black metal to start with ghostly choirds, tambourines and accordions. Deal with it." To then get hit by the spiraling riffage, gargantuan rhythms and explosive melodicism of "Kagutsuchi" shows the brutal side of Ibaraki's layered sound. Heafy's almost-operatic singing remains as impassioned as his witchy shrieks, extracting memorable motifs from a whirlwind of blast beats, tremolo picking and orchestral layerings.

"Kagutsuchi" even embodies the softer side of prog/death era Opeth with a meditation of dueling bass and guitars, similar to the immersive classical-tinged acoustic guitars of "Jigoku Dayū." As the song's balladry gives way to shredding chaos, Ibaraki remains dedicated to songwriting and a vehicle for Heafy's imagination. He intuitively chooses when to push his acrobatic fret-work, and when to settle into some ominous tremolo picking. Perhaps this is why its massive crescendos and acrobatic musicality don't shatter the moodiness of the first part. It certainly explains why Ihsahn's enthusiasm about producing the album, as well as his musical contributions like that in "Susanoo No Mikoto."

"Susanoo" displays Ibaraki's respect to roots of black metal spectacle, as well as tasteful subversions. It's clear that Ihsahn empowered Heafy to bring a more-is-more approach to the scope of this music. From forays into baroque music, to inspiring leads and vocal interplay, the song shows how a less brutal Ibaraki can still be memorable.

While the symphonic bombast of "Ibaraki-Dōji" and the blizzard-like wall of blistering speed that starts "Tamashii No Houkai" will likely surprise Trivium fanatics, it's hard not to hear the influence from his longtime bandmates. Granted, Ibaraki still sounds great when certain Trivium-isms appear in the riffs, but it's worth pointing out that it won't exactly win over the people Heafy already knew wouldn't accept him in the scene. On the bright side, tight, beefy execution affords more scaffolding of high-voltage heavy metal for those who might get turned off by a lot of black metal's campy primitivism.

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Elitist pretensions aside, metalcore breakdowns within "Akumu" remain quite natural as the pepper the frost-bitten tremolo guitars and goulash growls from Behemoth's Nergal. The mere fact My Chemical Romance vocalist Gerard Way, of all people, provides the wraith-like vocals in "Rōnin" shows how boundary-less Ibaraki really is. Complete with a choir comprising Ihsahn's family, not to mention his own incredible guitar solo, the single's grand modulations and infectious hooks make it accessible and dynamic power. It drives its vivid story well, centered on a disgraced warriors' quest: "Carried through the gates/ I will avenge my name/ This rage shall not be tamed."

Like Trivium, the cherry on top for Ibaraki becomes Heafy's thoughtful, intelligent lyricism. In this case, he informs personal struggles with the mythology rooted in his heritage—essentially doing what the Norwegian masters did from his own cultural perspective. This narrative thrust makes a cut like "Komorebi" all the more riveting as it evolves from surging blackened death to disquieting acoustic serenades. Heafy sings and screams of inevitable demise amid the rousing dynamic shifts: "Night has finally advanced/ And quieted day, light fading/ Standing over a grave built for the world"

As "Kaizoku" brings things full circle with a baroque, folksy farewell, it's hard to deny the gravity of Ibaraki for Heafy's career. The amount he put into each track on Rashomon is impressive enough, but its replay value redoubles thanks to the authentic way it all fits together. Ibaraki offers deeply personal interpretation of a style yet unheard from a standout talent. Heafy not only pushes himself beyond the confines of Trivium, but wrote an album that holds its own wit in the lexicon of forward-thinking metal.

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