Well at this point it'd be pretty hard to know what to expect in the Gargoylian realm, since Natural threw everybody a curveball by upping the amount of light, experimental songs, only to be followed up with a much more back to basics thrashfest with Junreiin. Well, a mere five months later, we were given our answer, with the yellow and robin egg blue flower adorned Gaia. Well... shit. The band always knew how to keep things interesting, there's no doubt about that, but considering the fact that their thrash songs are almost always the highlights of their work, continually seeing signs like this, signs that imply they're trying to move away from that direction, is pretty disheartening for metal fans.
But with this in mind, these Osakan mad scientists decide to pretty much specifically say "Hey BastardHead, fuck you, stop doubting us" (because my ego only marginally smaller than my penis) by opening the album with "Wakakusa no Kimi", which is the most Tenron-esque track the band had written in five years at this point. It nails that uplifting spirit within the context of a fast heavy/thrash song that that previous album exemplified so alarmingly frequently. The main difference of note is that Kiba's voice is a lot calmer and more restrained than it was in the past. Could... could the man finally have completely obliterated his throat with that otherworldly rattly warble? I can't imagine how Gargoyle could ever sound without Kiba's trademark warble, but I guess "Wakakusa no Kimi" would be a decent idea of how that might turn out. Buuuuuuut like always, "Who Are You?" shows up and just gets right back to what the band is good at doing. In fact, the warbly nonsense is probably more pronounced on "Who Are You?" than anywhere else on the album. It's like "Welp, the intro track was too clean, better rough it up a bit".
My issue with Gaia, honestly and truly, is that most of the songs just don't grab me the way others have, basically the same issue I have with Junreiin. Like, I can acknowledge that "Unknown ~Annon~" is a very good song with an awesome chorus, but I'll seemingly never want to listen to it on my own, same thing with the aforementioned "Wakakusa no Kimi", and that's kind of my overarching problem with the album as a whole. Like Natural before it, this is a much more off-the-wall and experimental album, with tons of outside influences and weird ideas being pushed to the forefront, and it makes a somewhat inconsistent listening experience. I feel like this just isn't quite as well written or put together as its predecessor, and that's really the most I can say about it. I like it, it has a few classic tracks that are totally worth hearing, and it revels in that trademark quirky weirdness that Gargoyle always had surrounding them, but the thrash songs aren't quite thrashy enough, the weird songs aren't quite weird enough, et cetera et cetera.
With that said, "Unknown" is a good song, and definitely worthy of Gargoyle's setlist. It's a very fast, light song with a great contrast between tempo and heaviness. "Sanbika" is yet another attempt at doing the "Ruten no Yo Nite" thing and not doing nearly as well ("Bokuwa..." was a much better attempt at the long, crawly, proggy track), and "Yagate Hikaru" just bores me to tears in its inoffensive radio-friendliness, though it is still somehow interesting in the sense that it's just so different from the hard and fast stuff that the band is so good at doing. And goddamn the vocals on "Sayounara Zibun" are annoying as fuck. Seriously, there's no way this one is a fan favorite, I'm calling it. It's a lighter metal song and it's pretty energetic, but goddamn fuck those distorted vocals with dynamite.
Luckily, the songs I do like, I like a lot. "Unknown" may be in that weird nebulous zone where I like it but don't feel like listening to it very often, but there are a few moments that are just beyond awesome, and prove that even when they're at their most experimental and bizarre, Gargoyle know how to fucking rock. But before we get to the rocking, I need to address "Baby Cat", which is by far the best horn filled party choon they've pumped out in years. Really, this is "Hito no Tame" part two as far as I'm concerned, and it's every bit as lighthearted and fun as the original. It's not quite as bombastic I suppose (no super happy BANZAI shouts peppered throughout), but it's super cool and without a doubt one of the highlights of the album. The other three complete standouts are both the heaviest, fastest, thrashiest songs on the album (no surprise considering the band we're talking about here), "Yuibutu Chuudoku", "Kamikaze", and the mighty, mighty "Meditation". "Yuibutu Chuudoku" ranks as the shortest track the band ever released, clocking in at fifty eight seconds, and it doesn't waste a single one. It just opens up with a simple, stomping, groovy thrash riff, and then proceeds to lose its fucking mind. It rips, shreds, and tears just everything in front of it apart. I'd rank it as even one of the heaviest songs in the band's repertoire if it wasn't immediately followed up by "Kamikaze". Good fuck, remember how there were damn near blast beats and obnoxiously fast riffing that just overwhelmed everything on "Senzaiteki..." from Tsuki no Toge? Yeah, same deal here, but even faster. "Kamikaze" easily ranks up next to "Dilemma" as the heaviest Gargoyle song ever written, and it's amazing that it's featured on an album as generally light and innocent as Gaia, because goddamn this is some brutal fucking thrash.
But as much as I like those four songs, none of them hold a candle to "Meditation". Really, this is another one of those just damn near flawless thrash classics that Gargoyle is so known for. It opens on one of the most simple groove riffs ever (which will later show itself to be the same as the vocal melody in the chorus) while being also one of the most ear catching things I've ever heard come from the band. And when it really gets moving, it's not unlike a locomotive powered by the youthful energy of a thousand young Tokyo biker gangs ala Akira. As if the riffs weren't already some of the best the band had crapped out in years (excepting the marvelous "Satori"), Kiba also turns in one of the most madcap performances since "Shouryakukeitachi Yo". Seriously, that pre-chorus is one of the most memorable moments of the entire Kentyotaro Era (as I have dubbed it since just right this instant), with the awesomely manic call and return with the very creative looping theme.
So Gaia ends up being the last 90s album for Gargoyle, and it's also worth mentioning that there was a three year gap between this and Natural, whereas before the band had put out six albums in seven (only skipping 1991 from the time between '89 and '95) years, so I don't know if this signifies them taking a lot more time in the writing process, some massive tour for the previous album taking up all the time, or just internal problems with personnel/labels/whatever. The point is that it seemed like they lost a bit of that kinetic energy, and it shows somewhat in the duller spots, but on the more energetic cuts like "Kamikaze", "Meditation", and "Baby Cat", it feels like they never left. On some level, Gaia is a bit of a disappointment in the sense that it isn't consistently great like some of the early albums, but the good songs are so mindbendingly good that it almost doesn't matter. Not one of their better albums, but certainly a good one considering there aren't really any out-and-out terrible moments, just some that fall kinda flat amidst some absolute barnburners. It's probably their weirdest album in a way, so if you liked that aspect about them, you'll probably dig this a bit more than I can.
RATING - 81%