As a younger teenager I was exposed to melodic Japanese bands like Loudness and Anthem, and since then my fascination has only grown, for the country's metal scene, in all of its various categories, for it seems they have at least a few bands reflecting everything that goes on across the world. When power metal started exploding in the 90s with its symphonic overtures and modern blend of Iron Maiden, Helloween, Judas Priest, Accept and Yngwie J. Malmsteen, the Japanese did not really have an answer. Their bands were still performing strange spins on thrash and death metal, and the 'visual kei' was nearing the height of its popularity. Come the 21st century, the call has finally been answered, with artists like Galneryus and this younger Tokyo act Balflare taking up the reigns to mirror their European counterparts.
All of the fundamentals of a Stratovarius or Rhapsody were in place for the band's 2005 debut Thousands of Winters of Flames: fast-paced, forward anthems with a heavy use of keyboards and a key melodic vocalist, in this case Hideki Tada. Tada has a fairly wavering voice that often feels as if it shifts off key or strains to keep up in the music, but this is partially due to his native accent intervening with his pronunciation of the lyrics. At times, it can be quite charming and effective, but on close inspection it can also seem a little painful. Thankfully, the band smothers him in such a gooey melodic density that the listener's emotions will soar sky high during about half the tracks on this debut. The shredding capacity of Leo Yabumoto and Syuta Hashimoto is sound, to be expected in this sort of band, but they never quite over indulge themselves.
One of the things I truly enjoyed about this album is the way the synths just erupt as a major atmospheric component in their own dimension, without smothering the guitars. The band had yet to score an individual for the position, so they're performed here by Hashimoto, and you can really feel the presence in "Storm Mind" or "Bind Blaze", where they form a windy rush of power over the twisting, writhing guitar rhythms engaged in neo-classical note progressions and the rhythmic storm being delivered by bassist Takashi Odaria and drummer Isao Matsuzaki. I find the band's style here very reminiscent of the first two Rhapsody records, though the band does not break into the pompous choral sections or write endlessly about bad fantasy stories that sound like some abortion of a D&D campaign. Other comparisons to late 80s Helloween and just about anything by Gamma Ray or Stratovarius are not out of the ballpark.
In addition to the two I mentioned above, I really enjoyed the song "Dead Fall", with a forceful, chugged verse dripping with symphonic keyboards. Tada's verse vocals do leave something to be desired, though he picks it up for the chorus, like a siren running parallel to the thick banks of melodic rhythm guitar. "Four Hundred Years" has a brief sweeping symphonic intro before erupting into a shorter speed metal composition with some sinister underpinnings of mystique. "Thousands of Winters of Flames" itself is rather a chore, exceeding 9 minutes, but its cutesy classical segues and overall construction transform what could have been a disaster of epic proportions into a solid experience. The band close off the album with one of the most raging speed metal tracks of their career, the "Sound of Silence". Percussion crashes through the thrust of the rhythm guitars, dual leads explode across the face and it just your ass off into the night.
There is nothing to be gained from this debut, or Balflare in general, if you don't have a thing for the symphonic metal strands perpetuated by the host of European bands that have dominated this genre. Rhapsody, Labyrinth, DragonForce, Gamma Ray, Dark Moor, Heavenly, Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius all come straight to the fore-mind. If those bands tickle you in a pleasure zone, then there's a good possibility you are at least going to enjoy the musical element of Thousands of Winter Flames. Whether or not you will enjoy Hideki Tada relies on your experience with traditional Japanese metal and the difficulties in early Engrish lyrics. He's got the pipes and he's certainly got a range, but he often decays in some of the verse passages, when he's not overdubbed with numerous voices. I personally enjoyed the debut to an extent, but they would go on to better themselves with future efforts.
Verdict: Win [7.25/10]