Ningen Isu – “Heartless Scat”

If you’ve visited this blog with any regularity, you know that the focus here is on idol-pop, and on Hello! Project idol groups in particular. Today, we’re getting our metal on, because I need to talk about Ningen Isu. I opened up Youtube last week and saw an odd video recommendation. The thumbnail was of a bespectacled, elderly Japanese man decked out in a Meji Era kimono, a Gibson SG perched on his thigh, and appearing to be in the middle of explaining or teaching something. The title and description were all in Japanese (which I don’t understand) so I had to watch it to figure out what it was.

Turns out it was Shinji Wajima of Ningen Isu demonstrating the guitar parts for two of the songs on the band’s latest album, Shin-Seinen, the second of which was the album’s closer and their most recent video, “Heartless Scat”. After watching him teach the parts, I checked out the video for the song, which was my introduction to Ningen Isu. Eight-and-a-half minutes later I was sitting slack-jawed, staring at the computer screen trying to come to grips with what I had just watched and listened to.

The J-Rock Expendables arriving to teach these fucking insolent children a lesson.

What it was is the greatest new rock release I’ve heard in easily 20 years, and probably longer than that. Part of the fascination is how old Wajima appears to be, which I figured to be solidly in his 60s. He and the other two members of Ningen Isu are much younger than that – all in their early 50s – but still old enough to have retired to the Cashing-In-On-The-Old-Hits circuit that most rock bands settle into after 30 years in the business. Instead, these guys are like the J-Rock Expendables striding in to show the young kids what’s what.

“Heartless Scat” is a bottomless flame-thrower from the opening guitar arpeggio to very end of the final power chord; a relentless torrent of riffs, chug-a-chug-a power chords, military-precise double-kick drumming, and desperate melodic vocals. It recalls the best of Black Sabbath while sounding entirely current and utterly Japanese. It’s a dark and brooding track of a middle-aged man begging the gods to bestow upon him the simple joys of life denied to him despite his years of toil. That the lyrics are delivered with the perfect level of desperation by a man who looks like he might have actually lived this pitiful existence make them all the more powerful.

There are enough hot guitar riffs packed into this recording to carry three songs, so it’s no surprise that this 8:20 epic is practically two songs in one. The bridge is basically a bridge and second chorus, and there are two amazing guitar solos. Hell, the intro alone clocks in at well over a minute. I usually don’t like songs this long or with this many parts, but it works so well here that I can’t imagine any part being cut out to pare it down to a more conventional length.

What the old men of Ningen Isu have created with “Heartless Scat” is a perfect song. It’s a perfect mix of song writing, performance, arrangement and production. Wajima’s lead guitar sound bites like an ill-tempered cur, the drums are big and bold, and the bass cuts with just enough edge to be noticed without getting in the way of anything. It’s everything I love about rock and roll, and — with a few exceptions — everything I’ve been missing for two decades now. I wish I’d have discovered these guys a long time ago, but thankfully the Holy Angels have breathed upon my cheek and shone a light upon a future with Ningen Isu.

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