Saeko - Above heaven, below heaven 3/5

Reviewed: 9-9-05


1. Above heaven, below heaven
2. Sins for the gods
3. Nature of mortality
4. On the way to eternity
5. Seek the light
6. Hands of might
7. Sinners for false lights
8. Way to the one
9. Don't be afraid
10. Birthright
11. Song of delight
12. Heaven above, heaven below

All right, bear with me on this one. Here's the story of a Japanese woman named Saeko Kitamae who abandoned her homeland in the summer of 2002 to chase her metal dreams. Presumably she took such drastic measures because it is notoriously difficult for Japanese metal musicians to crack the international scene, and she thought that by going to Europe she stood a better chance of succeeding. Whatever the wisdom of that strategy may have been, somehow Saeko ended up in Hamburg, Germany, home of such metal legends as Kai Hansen and Rolf Kasparek. Saeko apparently blanketed the city with flyers until she attracted the attention of Metalium bassist/mastermind Lars Ratz, who at that time was hatching his fledgling Armageddon Records imprint. Before long, Saeko signed a deal with Armageddon, and holed up with Ratz and Metalium drummer/co-writer Michael Ehre to craft her debut CD under the Saeko banner, while piping in bass parts recorded by a female Japanese bass player in Osaka, Japan and tacking on a few solos from Accept rhythm guitarist Hermann Frank. Ratz handled producer chores, while Ehre surprisingly played both drums and rhythm guitars. Still with me?

The label has marketed this CD as exotic heavy metal, but I beg to differ. Aside from a few samples of the legendary Yamoto Japanese drumming troupe and Saeko's own thick Japanese accent, this is a straightforward, by the numbers European power metal CD with a light gothic touch in a few keyboardy/spoken word parts. Musically, tracks like the pulverizing "Nature of mortality" and the infectious "Seek the light" heavily channel the Metalium vibe, which is not at all surprising given that the Ratz/Ehre songwriting team responsible for Metalium's recent output receives co-writing credit on every song here. The other principal comparison engendered by 'Above heaven below heaven' is to Sinergy, not only because Saeko's voice (albeit not her waiflike figure) bears a passing resemblance to Kimberly Goss but also because there are musical similarities. Make no mistake, though: Sinergy is a catchier outfit with more skilled musicians and better songs than anything on offer here. The material on this CD is solid and enjoyable, but it's a bit generic and certainly not as strong as any Metalium CD. And while Saeko undoubtedly has a good voice, she is not so jaw-droppingly talented that her mere presence behind the mike elevates mediocre songs to a higher plane of greatness.

I have nothing but respect for Saeko for her undeniable dedication to her music. Her debut CD is good, and is recommended to aficionados of Metalium, Primal Fear, Sinergy and well executed European power metal; however, it simply does not stand out in today's crowded metal marketplace. Where should Saeko go from here? My recommendation would be that she either find new writing partners or coax Ratz and Ehre to share some of their "A" material instead of what could best be characterized as competent, workmanlike Metalium outtakes. And, for goodness sakes, don't be afraid to be exotic. Integrate those Japanese drums into your music instead of limiting them to intros and interludes. Develop your own flair, your own twist, while remaining true to the classic European power metal framework. It can be done. For now, Saeko has released a solid debut CD and is gaining positive momentum in Europe thanks to what was reputedly an outstanding live performance in one of the tents at the prestigious Wacken Open Air festival last month. Saeko is definitely a name to remember.




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