Under a Strawberry Moon 2.0 by BlackLab

Release date: July 20, 2018
Label: New Heavy Sounds

The signing of new artists by a record label is always an act of speculation, the hope being that the artist has that certain something that the music buying public will be interested in. Sometimes pure talent is enough, but there are also matters of, taste and timing – the prevailing zeitgeist to consider. My recent experience of the New Heavy Sounds roster is that they just have an ear for interesting individuals within the always crowded UK metal scene. This time, however, they have cast their net further afield, all the way to Osaka, Japan and snagged the female duo, BlackLab. Now on paper they tick a lot of very big boxes in the current rock climate – A Japanese, female, bass-shunning duo? It’s like a dream package, right? All so hot right now. As you may know I’m old enough and been in this game long enough to almost permanently be in possession of the curly-toed slippers of cynicism, so before I heard a note I was a little wary. It’s nice to be proved wrong by Yuko (guitar/vox) and Chia (drums)!

BlackLab describe their sound as “dark witch doom” and it is a glowering, heavily distorted, manic, thrashing and lashing out with guitars so down tuned you don’t miss the bass at all. Their home town of Osaka is known as a haven for extreme metal, but also for having very diverse live bills, with metal, punk and shoegaze bands all likely to appear together. This open-mindedness can be heard throughout Under A Strawberry Moon 2.0. That ‘2.0’ at the end is significant though, as what we have hear is BlackLab’s demo of the same name, polished up and given an official release. In general it sounds great, ferocious but clean enough for high fidelity enjoyment. There are moments of naivety I would have excised from this release, but we’ll come to that.

It begins with ‘Black Moon’ and immediately lurches into a super fuzzy doom riff with drums hammering and teetering on the edge of explosion before quickly picking up a swinging pace as the vocals kick in. Here’s where it gets interesting, as lilting melodies crash into dangerous hysteria, with incredible harsh vocals from Yuko, at a level possibly only matched by the legendary Babes In Toyland. It’s a rich mix across its five minutes, packing in several hooks and conflicting styles. Right from the off it’s obvious Yuko’s vocals are impressive – switching from lilting to snarling to all out screaming across nearly every track, I would say only Jake Harding of Grave Lines (also on New Heavy Sounds!) has laid down varied vocal performances as strong as Yuko this year.

‘Hidden Garden’ is punky in attitude, but heavy on the dirge-like, wah-wah guitars and a siren-like vocal leading into almost lazily stoned solo… before going full on batshit banshee mental again. It’s another, very busy, complex and inventive song. They take a while to connect but reward repeated plays. However perhaps it’s a good thing not every track is as demanding.

‘Spoon’ is more of your classic, creeping, foreboding doom with clean, spooky vocals, and it’s where their ‘dark witch doom’ tag makes most sense. It has a more traditional structure, using a standard tension build, rather than pitching you into a vortex of competing musical textures. The pace picks up near its close and plays out on a great chugging riff with more blackened screams. It may be the best track, but my opinion changes nearly every time I listen.

One that isn’t my favourite is ‘Symptom of the Blacklab’ which starts out with ‘that’ riff and then just thrashes away like Exodus for a minute. It feels like a sound check joke, rather than something worth committing to an album, and is not the only time you question the wisdom in just tuning up the band’s demo.

The startling ‘Warm Death’ presents like a re-write of Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath. It contains the very essence of doom metal, in effect pulling it up by its damp roots and replanting it in modern Asia, with the key influences switching from Hammer and Dennis Wheatley to The Ring horror movies. The blood curdling screams of Yuko introduce death metal to the ingredients, thus creating a very modern hybrid. It’s so perfectly done that this song alone would probably have got the band a deal. Yes, it’s definitely my favourite, today!

‘His Name Is’ is another punky, chugger which increases with intensity out of the sing song verses, holding an air of barely controlled fury in the bridge/chorus. Again the vocals of Yuko edge into utter savagery before pulling back, just when you think utter chaos will ensue. Chaos is just around the corner though, whilst ‘Rise And Fall’ has a doom gaze meets riot grrrl vibe, and is as slow and as contemplative as the band ever get with clean vocals, it eventually thunders off into a sort of grungy amp-smashing climax. Phew!

Now ‘Big Muff’ I have issues with, being the most glaring evidence that this is at heart still a demo. It may well be a homage to both Mudhoney in its title and Boris in its sounds, but for me that doesn’t justify its inclusion. It is nine minutes of super-fuzzy guitar noodling which while not exactly tedious ends the album on a whimper rather than a bang. I can’t help wishing the record label and band had left ‘Big Muff’ and ‘Symptom of the Blacklab’ off and released what would be an absolute killer EP.

None-the-less Under A Strawberry Moon 2.0 is an album to get excited about. The sheer ferocity of the band’s attack, combined with a broad range of influences means BlackLab have real crossover appeal. They may be heroines of the Osaka underground for now, but their talent shines like a freakishly big and beautiful red moon of the title.

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