• Balzac CD Round Up!

    One interesting aspect of Japanese culture is how they’ll sometimes latch on to parts of American pop culture and, while basically trying to rip it off, somehow turn it into its own unique animal. A perfect example of this is Guitar Wolf, who have made a career now stretching into two decades of taking aspects of American punk and rockabilly and somehow distilling it into something completely pure and uncut. By borrowing from acts like Link Wray and Robert Gordon and mixing up elements culled from Joan Jett and The Cramps, they seem to have magically created their own form of ‘jet rock’ that’s familiar and completely alien at the same time. Well, what Guitar Wolf is to rockabilly and that segment of punk, Balzac is to ‘horror punk.’

    Formed by lead by vocalist Hirosuke Nishiyama in 1992, Balzac started off as little more than a blatant rip off of The Misifts. They even recorded some demos as Naniwa Misfits (or 728 Misfits), a fully functioning Misfits cover act (although one with no official releases so far). Decked out head to toe in skeleton suits and sporting Devilocks bigger and badder than those worn by Glenn Danzig, Jerry Only and the rest of the guys in their prime, Balzac wrote a lot of songs with ‘wohs’ and ‘oh oh oh’s’ in them that had to have sounded very familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with The Misfits. But like Guitar Wolf, Balzac managed to put a weird spin on it and make it their own. Like their inspiration, Balzac references horror movies (is it a coincidence one of their albums shares a title with a Joe D’Amato film?) but sometimes even go beyond that, using samples from films like The Evil Dead to add a certain mood to their music. Their songs are all played fast and where The Misfits were sometimes sloppy, especially in the early days, Balzac have got a very tight and polished sound, particularly to their studio material. Not every song is a classic – some of the material leans a bit too far into industrial territory for some tastes, but the bulk of their output (or at least the bulk of what is available in North America) is incredibly infectious. They’re huge in Japan and even have their own clothing line, toys, jewelry and other oddball cross merchandising going on, but remain a lesser known act in North America.

    Maybe not so ironically, Misfits Records has been putting out their albums on CD for the American market. While there are still a few albums that have only ever been available in Japan, the Misfits Records releases are pretty impressive not just because of the music they contain but also because of the packaging and the bonus material that has been included with the albums themselves.

    The Misfits Records association with the band began in 2002 when they released as split single with The Misfits themselves. The two song release say Balzac covering a Misfits track and The Misfits covering a Balzac track. This was the first release on the label, but that next year Beyond The Darkness was soon released in North America, a two disc set that featured a full length album and a bonus DVD. The album contained twenty two tracks, a mix of live performances and rerecorded catalogue tracks from past Balzac albums, while the DVD featured some promo videos and a look at the making of some of that material.

    2005 saw the next release, Out Of The Grave And Into The Dark, another CD/DVD combo release. The band started to go in a slightly different direction this time, playing around with some more industrial melodies while still managing to stay true to the Misfits-inspired roots that found them their fanbase to begin with. Twenty-three tracks made up the contents of the CD, with tracks sung in both English and Japanese while the bonus DVD eleven promo videos and live performances as well as some previously unreleased audio only tracks. This was followed up fairly quickly with the 2007 release of Chaos From The Dark-ism, which contained twenty-two tracks on a CD and a complete live concert on the bonus DVD (which also contained a few more promo videos, a shot documentary on the tour, and some other goodies). This album also featured some industrial and hardcore influences that somehow managed to work really well alongside the more melodic aspects of the band’s output.
    The latest release, 2010’s The Birth Of Hatred (featuring cover art from comic book artist Liam Sharp), is a two CD collection that once again contains a bonus DVD. This limited edition double album crams forty-two tracks onto two CDs and seventeen promo videos onto a bonus DVD making for a pretty massive package. The first disc is a traditional studio album, again allowing the band to mix up various sounds and influences, while the second CD contains a batch of demos early tracks now re-recorded, which makes them interesting to hear.

    It’s important in this day and age where digital downloads are quickly becoming the norm that labels still passionate about releasing physical media take the time to give music fans a reason to want the physical product. These releases set the bar pretty high in that department as each one comes with bonus material as well as a full color, glossy booklet of liner notes. It’s easy and convenient to settle for the digital version but it’s not to appreciate a lavishly produced package like The Birth Of Hatred, particularly if you consider yourself a music collector. On top of that, the sheer volume of content that the American issues provide is impressive in and of itself, particularly when you consider that most punk albums tend to be on the shorter side. Hirosuke Nishiyama’s voice might not be as dark as Danzig’s or Michael Graves’ but there’s no denying the enthusiasm and spirit behind his songs. It’s also interesting to see how the band has evolved over the years without straying too far from what they do best.
    More Balzac releases are reportedly on the way in the U.S., and while they don’t tour stateside too often, they did appear on the Fiend Fest festival tour a few years back and they did open for The Misfits on the thirtieth anniversary tour. Here’s hoping they make it back sooner rather than later as anyone who has seen them play knows how infectious and energetic they are.