A Stranger To No One
Tomoyasu Hotei is no stranger to creating classic rock albums. With over 16 studio albums to his name, he has proven himself a champion of the electric guitar. His most recent album, Strangers, is full of meticulously crafted songs, each one glaring with his unique rock ‘n roll sound. Boasting an impressive combination of features including Iggy Pop, Matt Tuck and Shea Seger, Hotei attempts to meld together the sound of each featured artist with his own virtuosic brand of rock guitar. As a result, Strangers includes an eclectic array of genres all while establishing Hotei’s own reputation as one of the world’s premiere guitarists. Although his newest album is inspired by his sense of being an outcast in the rock scene as a Japanese artist, Hotei has proven himself a worthy world traveler who can fit into any style of genre he wants. On Strangers, he not only shows what he’s got as a lead player but proves that he has mastered the art of flawlessly accompanying the many different voices that combine to make Strangers.
The album itself, which includes a total of 12 tracks, is complete and extremely well-rounded. Each song has its own character and its own sense of time and space. Tracks like “Medusa” and “Into the Light” are Hotei’s distinct venture into the realm of surf rock. They are entirely instrumental and are instances where Hotei lets his guitar speak for him. Behind the funky, boogie-driven surf melodies exists dense sonic textures periodically interpolated with idyllic, ghostly choral arrangements. Variations within the rhythm section create a fusion between rock ‘n roll and surf to the backdrop of Hotei’s dripping, reverberating soundscape. During solos, Hotei will occasionally throw in one of his characteristic pinch harmonics, unheard of in the music of his surf-predecessors like Dick Dale or The Ventures. Nevertheless, this track alone encapsulates Hotei’s distinct approach to music: experiment with tradition while bravely pushing it forward in his own way.
One must not become complacent in the transience of Hotei’s surf music, though. Songs like “How the Cookie Crumbles” featuring Iggy Pop, and “Move It” featuring Richard Z. Kruspe immediately shift focus from soothing surf to punk pathos. Both tracks boast “stuck-in-your-head” riffs by Hotei as the frontispiece of each song. In “Move It,” Hotei reminisces on his obvious Led-Zeppelin influence when he lets his guitar lead the listener through the consuming fierceness of each song. Both tracks feature high-velocity singers performing some of their most impassioned work. Leave it to Hotei to accompany these world-renown singers with the greatest of ease.
On “Barrel of My Own Gun” featuring Noko, Hotei finds himself in a brand-new sonic environment: reggae dub. He switches from the preceding two punk tracks and melds the island vibe of “Medusa” with a reggae style bass line, a twinkling guitar and trippy reverberated vocals. Yet, “Barrel” is not entirely a reggae song as Hotei still maintains a western, cowboy feel with sporadic lead-guitar melodies in the minor mode. The lyrics in this recording are tightly crafted, but not quite distinguishable and contribute to the overall space of the track rather than deliver a message. As a result, Hotei finds himself playing with a brand new genre of reggae dub that examines the interaction between music and language in a truly unique and rich way.
The sixth track on the album, “Kill to Love You” featuring Matt Tuck, is Hotei’s take on the traditional rock ballad. As the title indicates, this track is much more than a love song. It becomes a Linkin Park-style ballad with Journey-like crescendos throughout, complete with scaling-guitar solos over intense blood-dripping, vampiric vocals. The song ends on a chord mysteriously reminiscent of the James Bond theme, invoking a concluding sense of mystery within the ear of the listener. At this point, halfway through the album, Hotei reminds us of his approach to music: to take traditional musical forms and make them entirely his own.
In the two tracks featuring Shea Seger on the album, Hotei takes the bull by the horns and tackles the regional music of The Lone Star State. “Kill or Kiss” and the self-proclaimed “Texas Groove” show Hotei’s ability to excel in blues-driven genres. “Kill or Kiss,” in particular, is not only a feat of musicianship, but contains arguably the most provocative lyrics of the album. With lines like: “kill or kiss somebody/ it’s a fine line when the crime of passion’s mine,” Hotei adopts the attitude of the outlaw while ensuring that his song maintains a Carrie Underwood level of pop potential. Although Hotei has set his guitar to emulate southern twang, he does not sound like a stranger to this regional and highly idiosyncratic genre.
Ultimately, Hotei ends Strangers with his most famous tune, “Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” most notably featured in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, Kill Bill Vol. 1. And although the track indeed deserves all of the recognition that it garnishes, the listener comes to this song with a brand-new appreciation for Hotei. By the end of Strangers, Hotei becomes much more than the guy whose song made it into a movie, instead, he is an innovator of genre, and the stranger who should already feel long embraced by the rock ‘n roll community. In an interview, Hotei once opened up about feeling like an outsider: “I want to connect with people individually and let them understand me through my music.” With Strangers, Hotei has indeed accomplished this task, inviting himself into the hearts of his listeners without having to say a single word.