by Phil Freeman

Tokyo Blade were part of the flood tide of British metal acts making their debut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” that also gave the world Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and several other less successful but still notable groups like Saxon, Venom, and Raven. But while Tokyo Blade didn’t sell a lot of records, nor were they particularly influential, their music was good enough (at least at first) that they’ve retained a small cult following. Now, their first three albums, along with various singles and EPs, have been gathered in a three-CD box, Knights of the Blade. (Get it from Amazon.)

Tokyo Blade, the album, was released in 1983. The group’s style owed a lot to European hard rock of the years immediately preceding their debut; vocalist Alan Marsh‘s high-pitched screeching, and even the off-kilter spin he put on certain phrases, despite being a native English speaker, recalled the ScorpionsKlaus Meine, and both the band’s guitarists, Andy Boulton and John Wiggins, were obvious disciples of Michael Schenker (of UFO and later the Michael Schenker Group). They were all supported by bassist Andy Robbins and drummer Steve Pierce, whose rhythms were supple and driving at once. The band came screaming out of the gate with the almost punky “Powergame,” Pierce blasting away behind the kit like Motörhead‘s Philthy Animal Taylor. “Break the Chains” was a slightly slower, heavier rocker; “If Heaven is Hell” was the ballad; and “On Through the Night” was a seven-and-a-half-minute guitar jam on which Boulton and Wiggins tossed phrases back and forth. The album’s second side kicked off with “Killer City,” which could easily have been a cover of a song from Iron Maiden‘s debut album; “Liar” tricked the listener by starting off with a slow-burning blues intro, before becoming another galloping Maiden knockoff, with chorus backing vocals recalling early Mötley Crüe; “Tonight” was about as pure an example of Side Two filler as was ever recorded; and they closed it out with another shredtastic burner, “Sunrise in Tokyo,” bringing the album full circle. (The actual final track was a minute-long singalong of “Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” but let’s not bother with that.) It was a really well produced, musically powerful debut, if a little too long (six of its eight songs pass the five- or even the six-minute mark).

A year later, the band was already flailing a little. They released an EP, Midnight Rendezvous, containing four songs recorded with guitarist Ray Dismore, an early member who’s only heard on “If Heaven is Hell” on the debut. Then they got rid of Alan Marsh after he’d already recorded all the vocals for their second album, Night of the Blade, forcing new guy Vic Wright to redo them.

The music on Night of the Blade represented a change from the debut, but not necessarily for the better. It was louder and shriller; the title track was basically one long scream, vocals and guitars. The drum sound was punchier, but new bassist Andy Wrighton lacked the fluidity of his predecessor, and the melodies were much more indebted to hair metal than their earlier material. The album opener, “Someone to Love,” was basically a Ratt song, and “Rock Me to the Limit” was as vacuous as its title suggested. “Warrior of the Rising Sun” started out promisingly, but tries too hard to be operatic and progressive. The second side was a little more bare-bones and aggressive: “Unleash the Beast” was fast and hard, with some really solid guitar shredding; “Lovestruck” was strip-club hair metal, very much in the Ratt vein again; “Dead of the Night” was the power ballad, but Wright got to toss in a Ronnie James Dio-ish “fool, fool!” right before the guitar solos got started; and the closer, “Lightning Strikes (Straight Through the Heart),” was maybe the poppiest song on the whole album, and definitely had its strongest, most memorable chorus. The one lesson Tokyo Blade clearly learned between albums was the value of concision; Night of the Blade was a full 10 minutes shorter than the debut, and only the overblown “Warrior of the Rising Sun” passed the five-minute mark.

The third Tokyo Blade album, 1985’s Blackhearts & Jaded Spades, came wrapped in one of the ugliest album covers in rock history. The music was even more blatantly aimed at radio, simultaneously heavier and sweetened with keyboards. They’d clearly been listening to bands that had made hit records, Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot seeming like particularly obvious influences, though the background vocals were cleaner than either of those bands. The guitar solos were as squealy as ever, and the Wrighton/Pierce rhythm section remained mostly earthbound and thudding. They took a few detours; “Lovin’ You is an Easy Thing to Do” was a knockoff of Van Halen‘s “Secrets,” from Diver Down, and “You are the Heart,” which ended the first side, was their softest ballad to date. On the second side, they tried to recover some momentum with the title track and the deeply silly “Tough Guys Tumble,” maybe the least macho song theoretically about badass metal dudes since Accept‘s “London Leatherboys,” but they had to stuff another ballad in there, even if no one forced them to call it “Dancing in Blue Moonlight.” And while we’re discussing song titles, the last two on Blackhearts & Jaded Spades were “Playroom of Poison Dreams” and “Monkey’s Blood.” The former was heavy in a post-Randy Rhoads solo Ozzy sort of way, but was also the longest song on the album. “Monkey’s Blood,” by contrast, was the most cranked-up thing they’d done since their debut, deeply indebted to Van Halen at their most aggressive, with drumming as relentless as Accept‘s “Fast as a Shark.”

Ultimately, Tokyo Blade didn’t deserve to be more than also-rans. Their first singer was better than his replacement; they made craven concessions to the marketplace instead of playing to their own strengths; and the cover of Blackhearts & Jaded Spades was so ugly it should have gotten them blackballed from the industry entirely. But if you’re enough of a fan of early ’80s mainstream metal, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in this box. Get it from Amazon, if you’re of a mind to.

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