IBARAKI – Rashomon
Released: May 6, 2022
Matt Heafy | Vocals, Guitar
Ibaraki has been described as Matt Heafy’s black metal solo project. The Trivium frontman has used the time the pandemic afforded to him to get together with Ihshan (yes, of Emperor fame) to record a deeply personal collection of songs that reflect a wider musical palette than Trivium affords him. Whilst Trivium have blossomed into an incredible metal band (see our 10/10 reviews for their last three albums), Ibaraki gives Heafy a chance to indulge in his passion for more extreme sounds and find a personal approach to his lyrics.
Having been conceived and written over the last decade, this is not some slapdash rip off of Scandinavian black metal tropes. The project’s title is the first clue – Ibaraki is a legendary Japanese demon – and the fearsome warrior image on the cover is pretty far away from the black and white photos of Norwegian forests. Indeed part of this project’s journey has been Ihshan’s encouragement that Matt write about his own culture. Hence Heafy captures stories of Japanese gods and monsters, as depicted throughout his full body tattoos, with lyrical depictions of ancient battles, sacrifice as well as more modern concerns such as American violence towards Asians.
The most notable aspect of Ibaraki is the folk influence that penetrates the black metal. The introductory track ‘Hakanaki Hitsuzen’ features traditional instruments and chanting, creating a reflective atmosphere before the heaviness drops in. The first full song is the epic ‘Kagutsuchi’ [Shinto god of fire], a song that will occupy significant time in your head as it travels through doomy blackened sections, melodic clean vocal stanzas and throaty growls and double kicks. Fans of Trivium’s combination of clean and growls will feel at ease with songs like this, though it deliberately lacks that band’s knack for festival sized hooks.
Whilst Trivium fans might not feel isolated by Rashomon’s tracks, make no mistake this is not another Trivium record. ‘Ibaraki-Dōji’ appears as an enormous modern black metal track but features more progressive symphonic Japanese synth strings that add to the darkness. Halfway through there’s an acoustic and strings section to convey Ibaraki’s menacing plight, before going back to blackened thrash. Like all those fans who got into Vikings and Scandinavian folklore from other black metal bands, Ibaraki has the potential to encourage a broader narrative in metal lyricism, and I had a great time disappearing down internet rabbit holes in a bid to better understand each song.
Whilst it had long been labelled “Matt Heafy’s black metal side project”, Ibaraki has emerged as far more than a black metal record. The opening of ‘Jigoku Dayū’ [The Hell Courtesan] is just gorgeous. Acoustic instruments accompany Matt’s serene croon as he explains the Courtesan’s kimono and their depiction of the Buddhist hell (I told you this stuff was awesome). Naturally, the music’s intensity increases to include growls and blast beats, giving the tales on the kimono the right kind of soundtrack. LIkewise, ‘Komorebi’, a word describing the beauty of sunlight coming through the forest canopy between branches, is a heavenly song with long acoustic guitar, piano and string passages. It is still heavy but the solo really drips with melody.
As much fun as the first half is, especially the progressive moments, the second half really slays. Whilst much of the album depicts myths and legends, first single ‘Tamashii No Houkai’ [breaking of the soul] is a lot more intimate. There is a relentless fury that only subsides in the song’s later half with a more melodic interpretation of the song’s themes of depression and love. Whilst Matt’s lyrics have tackled these topics before, Ibaraki does so with a different energy. It’s dark but not hopeless and the music matches it, going to far heavier places than possible in Trivium. It’s followed by the album’s first guest spot with Behemoth frontman Nergal adding his recognisable rasp to the chorus of ‘Akumu’ [nightmare]. The vocal duo collide with a series of heavier riffs that thunder and stomp on your brain. Lyrically Nergal adds Polish to Matt’s English and the whole thing is perfectly scoped as a descent into a nightmarish hellscape. It’s here that everything crashes together in an Anglo-Euro-Japanese mix and it is glorious.
As noted, there is way more to Ibaraki than black metal, with a real sense of drama and theater. ‘Rōnin’ [a masterless samurai warrior] is probably the best example of this. Matt goes with a clean intro that lays the foundation for another epic. But there are more twists and turns ahead. Somehow Gerard Way (yes, this album has members of Behemoth, ex-Emperor and My Chemical Romance) jumps in and adds his own screams to actually increase the brutality of the track. It’s an unexpected but exciting development for the album and both artists. Heafy captures the loneliness of the warrior’s life, with Way bringing the unmitigated rage. Not only that, Matt leaves the soloing to Ishan and background chants to Ishan’s family.
Ihshan duets vocally with Heafy on ‘Susanoo No Mikoto’ [storm god], one of the final compositions completed for the album and one of the most extreme. Sure there’s clean vocals but there is some serious shredding too and the piano is just *chef’s kiss*. Then it drops into a deep double bass and cello with ambient noises, before the symphony adds some baroque character to the song. It’s entirely unexpected, it borders on musical theatre to be frank, it’s a different take on gothic black metal. It climaxes with a Dickenson-esque operatic vocal from Heafy and resolves with his bark and another killer melodic lead. I mean what the f**k? Who does this? Who decides they’re going to do Andrew Lloyd Webber-slash-baroque-slash-blackened metal?
And then ends the album with more traditional elements on ‘Kaizoku’ [pirate or invader]. There’s accordion, tambourine and acoustic instruments as Matt croons again about tearing “you apart… somewhere between my love and hate.” It is entirely unlike anything else before it and ends things on a strange note.
I can confidently say Rashomon is not Matt Heafy’s black metal album. It is way, way more than that. Aficionados of the genre should check out the recent releases by Dark Funeral and Watain. However there is a strong black metal influence through most of the tracks and ultimately Ihshan has guided Heafy in doing an authentic album that doesn’t mimic what other bands are doing. This is Heafy doing what he wants to do, telling stories he wants to tell, with a mentor and collaborators (which include the other members of Trivium at times) who lay down an onslaught of brutality contrasted with serene musicality. It is nothing like Trivium, and it’s not just black metal either, but it is entirely Matt Heafy.
IBARAKI – RASHOMON tracklisting:
1. Hakanaki Hitsuzen
4. Jigoku Dayū
5. Tamashii No Houkai
6. Akumu (Feat. Nergal)
8. Rōnin (Feat. Gerard Way)
9. Susanoo No Mikoto (Feat. Ihsahn)