Marty Friedman may stand alone in rock and heavy metal with the singular distinction as the foremost bridge between western metal and Japanese culture. While Americans generally recognize Friedman as the virtuosic lead guitarist of the most successful Megadeth records, Japan knows Friedman-san as a linguistically fluent, full-time Japanese resident and star of both stage and television. In fact, so omnipresent and magnetic is Marty, that the Japanese Imperial Government appointed him as an official Ambassador of Japanese Heritage, no small feat for an American living abroad.
It is this unique convergence of cultural constellations which has given genesis to Marty’s Tokyo Jukebox recordings, which are mainly a collection of popular Japanese (or “J-Pop”) music in a stylized Friedman flavor. Instrumental, and often blisteringly technical, the covers of these songs resonate with the native Japanese audience, as well as with Marty’s loyal international fans who may not recognize the songs themselves, but can appreciate good writing and masterful musicianship when they hear it.
Marty hammered out rapid-fire back-to-back releases of volumes 1 and 2 of Tokyo Jukebox, in 2009 and 2011 respectively, and now, after a ten-year hiatus, he scratches the J-Pop itch one more time with “Tokyo Jukebox 3,” an even dozen choice cuts of Marty Friedman’s Japan. Unlike some of Marty’s solo work of the 90s, like “Scenes” and “Introduction,” which are largely acoustic or semi-clean electric playing, “Jukebox 3” is a “Full Assault Fire Threat,” to borrow from Dave Mustaine. With few exceptions, all systems are “go” for a fifty-two minute shred metal demolition derby.
It is almost certainly no accident that Marty opens the album with a song of weighty cultural importance, even if it does fall under the pop music banner. “Makenaide” by Zard is an anthem of the 90s by J-Pop icon Izumi Sakai. During what was a bit like Japan’s own 1929 stock market economic crisis, this song, which literally translates to “please don’t lose,” or “don’t give up,” was a rallying cry for a generation needing a morale boost. Sadly, Sakai-san herself lost a battle with cancer a few years back at the age of 40, but we like to believe she too never gave up. In fact, in the music video for Marty’s cover version, about three minutes in we see our old mutual friend Jason Becker holding a sign from his wheelchair, saying “Never Give Up On Yourself,” a message which perfectly ties the song to the themes of Jason’s life and work. Musically, Marty’s arrangement of this track is so intense, it makes a fairly pronounced departure from the original, especially the heavy-gnarly meltdown a couple minutes in. However, the core melodic elements remain intact, and fans of the original will know it, even if it comes with some seriously upgraded guitars, complete with wah pedal and masterful vibrato.
The album next goes after another big hit, in the form of “Senbonzakura,” (One Thousand Cherry Blossoms) a hit arguably best known for the Wagakki Band rendition, fusing traditional Japanese instruments with contemporary metal arrangement and texture. While Marty’s version may be short on shamisen, it is big on energy and production value. Is Marty’s interpretation better than Wagakki Band with its flutes, shamisen, and traditional drums? We’ll let you decide, but there is no question Marty’s take is a fresh one and a fun new version, especially for seeing how heavy something can be, while still remaining the same song. Next on the menu, Pop artist LiSa fuses pop vocals right out of anime theme music with heavy guitars and hip-hop drum machines in her pop hit “Gurenge.” The Marty Friedman may replace LiSa’s vocal parts with surprisingly tender and delicate electric lead guitar playing, but for the heavier portions of the original track, Marty’s band is able to match the thundering crunch, and then some. Marty also gets creative adding arpeggios over top of the chords of the original song, along with some isolated lead playing, all stellar as any of his usual work. In fact, his leads add so much to the track, it raises the question of how many other popular Japanese tracks would benefit from the occasional Marty cameo, especially songs like Gurenge with the heaviness already present.
If LiSa’s track felt like opening theme music from anime, the next track has all the markings of closing credits material. Female-fronted rock trio Ikimono-Gakari penned an anthemic eight-minute ballad in 2013 by the name of “Kaze ga Fuiteiru,” or “The Wind is Blowing.” Where the original consists of Kiyoe Yoshioka’s sweet vocals over top of indie alt-rock band instrumentation, and eventual strings orchestra accompaniment, Marty Friedman takes the track in a completely different direction. While the melody remains intact, it’s a big high-energy take on the original, with several fun production elements, although this one never crosses the line into being too heavy for what the song should be. In fact, there are even quieter moments where blues guitar jams around with piano and synth, so the track gets its ups and downs, exactly as would be appropriate.
The next track only vaguely resembles its original, coming to us via Japanese vocal pop girl group “Little Glee Monster,” and their track “Echo.” Where the original is slow, and fairly acapella, complete with angsty teen girl ‘tude, Marty’s interpretation for whatever reason starts out in the car on a cold Cleveland morning, listening to an FM morning puke jock tell us all about the weather and traffic, before we get a grandiose layered lead guitar uptempo crusher, complete with Kiyoshi’s usual incredible bass guitar work. Unless one is really into Japanese Christina Aguilera, this is a case where Marty took a somewhat unremarkable pop track and made it a respectable headbanger.
In one of the more interesting moments on an album of covers, Friedman covers one of his own original songs. It is the only vocal track on the album. Marty did a track called “Perfect World” for a Netflix series called “B: The Beginning” in 2018, and it topped the Japanese iTunes chart that very same day. This new version replaces the original male vocals with vocals by pop icon Alfakyun, and the song gets a radical treatment and a whole new feel. It isn’t necessarily faster, or darker, or heavier, it’s just… very different. The best way to describe it would be as the new version is a little more raw, closer to traditional 4-piece metal band arrangement, where the original has more production. Both are brilliant, and we would love feedback on Facebook and Twitter which one you prefer.
In other news, a couple years back J-pop boy band “Da Pump” did a little dance number called “USA,” which is about as authentic Americana as corn on pizza, but at least it has a fun beat. Marty Friedman, per his usual modus operandi, never likes leaving things as “just okay,” and so he stripped down this unsuspecting dance track, gutted the catalytic converter, put on straight pipes and a whole new intake system, and it’s now officially mean and nasty. There might even be a crate motor swap involved. All we know is it’s a heavy headbanger we look forward to Marty’s next tour. What’s most interesting is that he bolted on a one-minute Japanese blues intro that’s “straight outta” Tak Matsumoto’s “Hana” album. Does it fit the track? Maybe? It’s really well done regardless.
In an interesting departure, Marty also covers brass-pop artist Hige Dandism, which originally consists of boy band vocals paired with front-and-center brass section of Chicago proportion, along with interesting percussion and arrangement. For this cover, Marty might discard the brass and the pop vocals, but he keeps the fun arrangement and puts it through the Friedmanizer 4000 again to yield a fun pop-guitar-lead rocker which although little like the original, stands alone as a very cool track. Receiving similar treatment is “Ikuze! Kaitou-Shoujo” (or Let’s Go, Thief Girls) from J-Pop sensation Momoiro Clover Z. While the original is fairly forgettable musically, as music for the “tween” market tends to be, Marty does much the same for this one as for Hige Dandism’s pop-brass track. It really no longer resembles the original, except to a trained ear listening for pieces of the original melody.
Another chart-topping act of the Japanese scene would be Sekai No Owari (“End of the World,”) a versatile pop-rock act whose ballad entitled “Sazanka” (“Mountain tea flower”) Marty elected to adapt for this Tokyo Jukebox album. While he does preserve the softer piano and melodic guitar elements, he definitely gives the track a shot in the arm, and it has more power and majesty than the original. Before bringing us to his grand finale, Marty Friedman presents us with his interpretation of the #1 hit from then-trio Every Little Thing, their song “Time Goes By.” Originally a piano-based vocal song with relatively understated guitar and percussion, the new version has some definite hair on it, but it is not just full-speed heaviness for its own sake. The arrangement has some rising and falling action, and a few creative turns. The resemblance to the original is there, although only music fans who have been hearing the original on Japanese radio since 1998 might readily recognize it.
The album ends with what is truly a Marty Friedman original in every way. Technically it is not a cover of anything, but we’ll happily allow it, considering it’s the first time we get a hard copy of Marty’s crowning achievement: his official Japanese heritage song he composed for the Japanese government for official state functions. The song starts with traditional instrumentation and atmosphere probably predating the Sengoku period, but once Marty’s clean electric guitar leads the way, and is joined by the Tokyo Philharmonic and his own wife Hiyori on cello. Taken as a whole, the composition is a bit like something Marty could have used to close out any of his previous solo albums, but it’s clear he put in the sweat equity to make this extra-special. It is understandable that it is difficult to compose something adequately ambitious to serve as a magnum opus while not offending the traditional sensibilities of state officials, but it seems Marty has walked the line with aplomb.
As instrumental albums go, it becomes increasingly difficult to do something new or special. If one were to be especially cynical, one may venture that everything has already been done before. However, in this case, Marty is taking a diverse assortment of a body of music the West does not often hear, and putting his own signature on it. From the reinvigoration of “Makenaide,” to a complete reimagining of his own Anime theme music hit, to complete transformation of J-pop staples, to his own crowning glory in the official Japanese Heritage Song, this album does a great many interesting things. Add to that Marty being one of the very best players alive, and being backed by an exceptionally brilliant band, and this album is especially memorable. Look for it on April 16.
Released By: Mascot Label Group
Release Date: April 19th, 2021
Genre: Instrumental Rock
- Marty Friedman / Guitar
“Tokyo Jukebox 3” Track-Listing:
Marty Friedman continues to reinvent himself and his music, and find all-new ways to impress and entertain. "Tokyo Jukebox 3" manages to take a diverse sampling of Japanese Pop music and transform it into outstanding instrumental metal for the whole world.