[Album Review] Shellshock - (2013) 肆 - SHI - 9.5/10

Artist: Shellshock
Release: 肆 - SHI - (2013)
Rating: 9.5/10

Experimental Thrash/Crossover with Street Cred

Shellshock is probably one of the more well-known thrash acts from Japan. They were label mates with with Doom back on Explosion records in the 80s and also participated in a legendary split a featuring the almighty X-Japan in their early days. Like a lot of other famous experimental thrash acts, Shellshock began their career playing fairly unremarkable but solid thrash metal. As time went on, they significantly upped the experimental elements and became something very strange. For Shellshock, the big turning point is definitely when Die Chiba joined the band on bass. Die is actually a fretless bass player, and thus this put Shellshock in a rare category at a fairly early time.

Now, I know that "weird Japanese thrash with fretless bass" also perfectly describes Doom. However, Shellshock actually never once sounded anything like Doom. Their second album, Protest and Resistance, is sort of a transitional album and also an excellent blend of technical elements and good, old thrash. The subsequent two releases, Fiel Lärm and Graythem...of Chaos, are absolutely brilliant at their peaks. Unfortunately, they also get pretty deep into "weird for the sake of being weird" territory and overall both of those albums are a fairly rocky experience. 肆 ~shi~ (which creatively means "four" by the way), is the band's fourth album and first new offering after reforming roughly 14 years later. It's also hands down my favorite release from the band.

Post-reunion albums from old bands are almost always nail biting affairs, and they generally have a bad track record. On the other hand, this fourth album perfectly blends all of the good elements of Shellshock in their old days and fuses it into one, mind-blowing album. Make no mistake, this release is full on technical/experimental thrash. All of the instrumental work is nothing short of excellent, and this is miles away from the garage-type of thrash that almost anyone can pick up with just a bit of practice. And unlike a few misfires in their past attempts at experimental thrash, Shellshock never once loses focus on this record. From start to finish, it's a weirdass thrash affair.

One interesting thing about Shellshock is that they still sound very mean and tough when compared to other technical/progressive thrash metal bands. A lot of those bands have sort of a more "white-collar", "highbrow" or even just "nerd" feeling to them. Now don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Nothingface, but listening to that album never gave me the feeling that Piggy (RIP) would beat the shit out of me if I looked at him the wrong way. It's more likely we'd end up watching cheesy black-and-white sci-fi movies about aliens. Or in the case of Doom, their take on thrash sounded basically like something straight out of the psychiatric ward. Listening to them too much could end up putting you in the nut house.

Shellshock's music, on the other hand, sounds like it came straight off the street from some very rough, working-class type of guys. Of course, I've never met the Shellshock guys in person and stereotypically Japanese people are all very nice, but they certainly don't sound like nice guys on the album. The strong crossover influence as well as the barking vocals give 肆 ~shi~ a strong, mean urban vibe. There's a feeling that you might get dragged into a back alley by the Yakuza at any moment. Of course, these particular Yakuza would just rough you up while listening to avant-garde music or something.

On 肆 ~shi~, Shellshock shows off their technical/experimental side by playing some highly rhythmic, complicated, and mean riffs. There's certainly other elements at play here (like some of the odd guitar solos or Die's crazy bass lines), but the most distinguishing feature of this album is easily the extreme focus on rhythms. Thrash metal is generally more rhythmic than other metal genres but seldom do you see anything that approaches what you get on 肆 ~shi~. The meter constantly shifts, and odd time signatures are featured in abundance. Every song on here still thrashes pretty hard, but the thrash itself is delivered in an unpredictable, erratic manner.

It's hard to really praise any one particular member here because they all pretty much kick ass. The guitar assault from Akilla Ito and Norikazu Saeki is nothing short of amazing. You'll hear plenty of totally twisty riffs and bizarre solos. In a genre where mindlessly chugging is pretty common, the guitar riffs on this album are more or less the total opposite of that. Die Chiba was always an excellent bassist and certainly doesn't disappoint here. His work on the fretless adds a ton of character and flavor. And of course, everyone loves a good fretless bass tone. Pazz's resume was already amazing (Doom and Gastunk), and you can safely add this album to that list. For an album as rhythmic as this one, the drumming would have to be nothing less than incredible.

On the vocal front, I do actually appreciate that the guys mostly stick to their native tongue. It's pretty common for Japanese thrash bands to go all Engrish on you. In fact, older Shellshock works have way more English than 肆 ~shi~. Now given that the style of vocals in thrash usually less "singing" and more "barking/shouting/yelling", it's rarely ever irritating to deal with Engrish. But it still is very nice to hear this kind of vocal style delivered in Japanese. It's honestly not that common, and I find the flow to be a lot different than the typical stuff in English. It's just yet another element that separates this Shellshock album from the competition.

Overall, I do enjoy the experimental elements the band introduced on their older output in the 90s. Even if there were some missteps (especially in the Graythem... of Chaos) that had me wondering what they were going for, I much prefer that kind of direction over a bland, western clone type of approach (which to be frank, is what they were in their earliest days). I'm not sure how they managed to do it, but 肆 ~shi~ ended up being the album I've always wanted from them. Shellshock perfectly combines experimental/technical elements with hard-hitting thrash. What you have here is truly a gem. It's a completely unique, fresh take in the experimental/technical thrash world that also happens to be Shellshock's greatest work yet.
Occasionally, I write music reviews.

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