About a year ago, Gyze changed their name to Ryujin and signed with Napalm Records, promising more music to come. As a big fan of Gyze, I was thrilled by this news because Napalm is a great label. I recently had the opportunity to interview Ryoji Shinomoto, the frontman of Ryujin, about their latest album, which is also their self-titled debut.
The band is delivering a new style of samurai folk-inspired power metal that you have never heard before. In the interview, we discussed how working with Matthew K. Heafy was partly the inspiration for that. We also talked about the band’s exciting year in 2023, when they went on a long European tour. And we got some insight into the new album and what it means to them.
You can pick up the new album via Napalm Records
Great to chat with you! Happy New Year! So, it’s the year of the dragon – pretty cool timing for you guys. How’s everyone doing as we kick off 2024?
Nice to meet you! I’m very honored to be interviewed! The album was finally released just two days ago! I’m very excited. Since the first day of the new year, there has been a huge earthquake in Japan, and over 200 people have already died. So I personally feel very bright, but I can’t say that with 100% certainty. However, the dragon god also has the meaning of nature worship, so I humbly accept it as a threat to nature.
Before we dive into what’s coming in 2024, let’s take a quick look back at 2023. You went on a major tour across 18 countries alongside bands like Pain, Ensiferum, and Eleine. What was that experience like?
When our name was GYZE, we hadn’t visited Europe since 2018. So I felt very happy. And I was so excited. We rehearsed for a few days in Germany before the tour. We shared the tour bus with Ensiferum and we had a lot of fun talking!
It was fun sharing the bus with Ensiferum and being able to share a lot of music information with them. For example, Finnish metal has its roots in 70s pop! from Mahi & Janne. Something like that. I’ve been a fan of Petri, the frontman, since he was in a band called Norther. It was also great to be able to talk about various things with the same Jackson users.
Pekka and I learned a lot about mental care and vocals during tours, and Sami and I talked a lot about politics. This time, former Agonist Simon played the drums and it was a lot of fun! Like family. I had a lot of fun with Pain and Eleine. If we had taken the same bus, we might have been able to talk more. But my favorite memory was of course performing in front of fans from various countries. That’s all. Also, going to a new country for the first time is a great feeling. I’m really glad that I worked hard in the band.
I would imagine getting to Europe is quite a lengthy plane ride for you guys, right?
Yes! It is a 15 hour flight. Especially I have to fly from Hokkaido to Tokyo as well, so it takes especially long. But it was easier than before because I had to fly via Dubai or Turkey. And I don’t mind long flights. I got along well with the crew on the plane, and they even came to my performance in Germany!
There are so many great Japanese bands that rarely tour extensively in Europe, and especially here in America. So, it’s always special when you guys come around. With such a diverse audience across 18 countries, how did you find the response to your music varied from place to place?
It is indeed interesting to see the different reactions in different countries. All four bands play the same thing every day, but the reactions are different in each country. I don’t know why, though. But I don’t give any opinion about the audience’s reaction. Even if the audience is quiet, they are enjoying the show. I think it’s more important that we give our best every day and that the quality is the same.
We actually did live coverage of the show at Kavka Zappa, in Belgium. And my photographer kept talking about what an amazing show you put on! Of all the countries and venues, or other places you played in 2023, do any standout as particularly memorable or significant to you?
I am glad to hear that! Please pass on our big thanks! It’s hard to choose because the audiences at all the venues were great. However, it is true that after 35 shows, there are days when I am in good condition and days when I am not. During the Czech show I was in amazingly good physical condition. You wouldn’t believe it, but I can vividly remember the stages of all the venues.
For example, in Romania, we started playing the show two minutes after soundcheck. And so on! The audience in France was enthusiastic. But Poland was great too. But Poland was also great, because it was the first European country where we played our first solo show. Slovenia and Bulgaria, where I went for the first time, were also great experiences. There is really no way to choose.
I know that fans loved the theme of this tour. Vikings and Samurais are an epic lineup! What was it like sharing the stages with bands such as Pain, Ensiferum, and Eleine?
All the bands except us, Ryujin, were Scandinavian bands! Especially Ensiferum and Ryujin were a great coupling of Viking and Samurai! Both the dark world of Elaine and the frenzy of Pain were wonderful. I learned a lot from all the bands! I learned the importance of songs for call and response and slower songs and actually wrote a couple of new songs since I’ve already returned home. Those are definitely the effects of the tour.
I didn’t have any complaints during the tour! But there were times when there were traffic problems on the road along the way and everyone was exhausted. From a Japanese point of view, we don’t get to tour this much, so I think it’s the essence of European metal culture. It’s just not possible in the island nation of Japan.
And lastly, when it comes to 2023, there are some collaborations on this album, which we’ll get into, but also there were some vocals done for Marc Hudson’s solo debut. Can you tell us about what it was like working with him and that project for his new album?
Marc and I have been friends since we GYZE and Dragonforce performed together in Taiwan in 2015. We chat frequently, show up at each other’s gigs, and he was a guest on “The Rising Dragon” on our 2019 album “Asian Chaos” and he was a guest on the music video for our single “Samurai Metal”!
So we were talking about me guesting on his solo album in 2020 when he started working on it! I would do anything for him in the future. He is truly my best friend! And his vocals are my favorite singer in speed metal. Plus his guitar skills are amazing. I would love to play on stage with him someday!
It’s almost the one-year anniversary of you guys signing with Napalm Records and announcing the new album. I remember this very well because you guys made the announcement on my Birthday. And of course, the new name, Ryujin. Can you tell us more about the new name and what inspired the self-titled album and how you chose the themes that run through it?
Happy Birthday to you! In the East, dragons are auspicious and peaceful. In the West, dragons are dark and villainous, right? The dragon god is considered the god of water. Japan is surrounded by the sea, right? Because of the proximity of mountains and oceans, he probably exists as a god of nature as well.
When you go to shrines, you see dragons everywhere. The basis of my music is nature worship and a wish for peace. That’s why the name “RYUJIN” fits so well. Besides, when you think of metal, you think of dragons, right? Our music style is a very mixed crossover.
And with this new album, new name, how would you say this album represents an evolution from your previous work, both musically and thematically?
If there’s anything worth mentioning, it’s the introduction of clean vocals, which they’ve been doing a bit since Asian Chaos, but this time they’ve included more of them. This was made possible by Matt’s advice. I was originally a growl singer, so I wasn’t too keen on it, but he told me, “You should sing. He strongly recommended that I should sing. I think it turned out to be a great idea!
I had never had a pop song like The Rainbow Song before, and a ballad like Saigo No Hoshi was even more of a surprise. Ballads like Saigo No Hoshi were even more surprising, because Matt chose them from the demos. I think those two songs are now firmly in the RYUJIN canon.
Mark’s sound is also very tight, which is perfect for this song. Mathieu did the artwork, and he did some great hand-drawn art that really represents the band. Moritz, our manager, did a perfect job on the release, and Lea at Napalm Records was one of the most accommodating people I have ever met! I trust her enough to call her my best friend already! I really appreciate all the people on the team.
Ryujin’s visual presentation, spanning from the artwork of the new album and merchandise to your music videos, really stands out, particularly with its integration of Ainu tribal elements. How vital are these visual components in expressing the band’s identity and heritage?
I am sure that having a Japanese style of costume is a great way to differentiate yourself from other western bands, and when touring, wearing hakama is a very uplifting experience. We are very careful when we use Ainu costumes. We actually used one borrowed from an Ainu friend. In Hokkaido, the Japanese are the so-called later inhabitants. I used them with a sense of respect.
Our bassist Aruta was a ninja, our drummer Shuji looked like a video game character, and I am sure that people in the West will ask for it with their eyes as well! The torii gate⛩, which appears in the Saigo No Hoshi video, has been used since the third album. The Japanese dragon design and Raijin & Fujin’s paintings for the music are also uniquely Japanese!
Working with Matthew Heafy must be exciting. Can you describe the collaborative process with him and how it shaped the album?
At first, after a recent interview with Metal Hammer, the reporter and Matt were talking about us at X. It was around the time that his Ibaraki was released, and he was also talking about the three tones. It was around the time his Ibaraki was released, and both he and I were using the shamisen. We saw them talking and got in touch!
We were just getting ready to start our new activities after Corona, and we wanted to try something new. So I asked him to be my guest at first and he agreed to do more work for me! He taught me the possibilities of clean vocals. He also coached me a lot on vocals. I think it was a lot of work for him. Because I was a screamer. Also, as I said earlier, it expanded the band’s possibilities.
In other words, it opened my eyes to the possibility of playing many different types of music. I never thought the day would come when I would sing a ballad. I also like making pop songs, but I try not to play them in a band. But he also broke those chains. I’m sure that what he gave me will continue to live on forever.
I’m really fascinated by how you integrate such a diverse range of styles in your music, from folk to extreme and power metal. It all comes together so harmoniously. Could you share your approach to blending these contrasting genres? How do you maintain this balance without losing the distinct identity of each element in the album?
Thank you very much! Very easy! I can’t say that. As you said harmony and balance can be very difficult at times. Because some of the ancient Japanese music is not tonal music, so it is not so compatible with clear music like metal. If it were classical music, it would go very well with metal music. Japanese music can be very wonderful if you get into it well.
I am sure I can come up with some good ideas since I play other kinds of music as well. I also like classical music, and some years ago I was a flute player at a shrine. I also played punk when I was a student, and I was always exposed to anime music and video game music since I was a kid.
When it comes to blending Japanese and English lyrics, how do you decide which language fits a particular song?
Hmmm…very difficult question. I always write the melody and music first and the lyrics last. So I try to choose a language that fits the melody. I also try to choose a language that fits the melody and the music first, and then the lyrics. Ah! This one should definitely be in Japanese! I can’t help but think, “This is definitely in Japanese!
And people around the world know that we Japanese speak very poor English. So, if I had to choose, I would prefer to sing in Japanese. Saigo No Hoshi has my Japanese version and Matt’s English version. It would be interesting to compare how much the same song can be changed in different languages.
‘Saigo No Hoshi’ is a beautiful track and a unique offering of both Japanese and English versions, featuring Matthew Heafy. When translating a song like this from Japanese to English, how do you ensure the core themes of – conflict and hope as I perceive them – are preserved? Did you find that the song took on a new dimension or meaning in the process of translation?
We were actually going to share it between the two of us. But we both liked each other’s versions, and we’ll tell them in our own languages! So we decided to record two versions of the song. So the lyrics are not literal translations. They are arranged in such a way that each language is well understood. The lyrics for the English version were created by Matt reading translations of the original lyrics! I look forward to singing it on stage with him one day!
The band has a wide range of musical inspirations, from creating lively anime covers in a Japanese power metal style, which I love, to crafting deeply story-driven original material. Among the tracks on the album, are there any stories or songs that hold a special, personal significance to you?
All the songs have their own feelings and meanings! But Raijin & Fujin, which I co-wrote with Matt, is the iconic song. I think RYUJIN is the song that best represents the band. It’s symphonic and folk. Gekokujo is our roots, or what death metal should be. All the songs are so important that I can comment on each and every one of them!
And overall, reflecting on your journey so far, from the creation of the album to its release and the great reception the new tracks have been getting from fans, what are your thoughts or feelings about where Ryujin is at this moment?
I try not to think about that kind of thing too much. Of course it is nice to be popular and it makes a lot of things possible. But I think the most important thing is to keep a creative mind, to make new music, and to make songs that people will listen to for a long time. Above all, I want the members, the team, and the fans to be happy.
I will be getting older, so I don’t know how long I will be able to play my current guitar and sing on stage. I am sure it will be very taxing. But for now, I still want to play this samurai metal sound in many countries I have never mentioned! If we can stay happy and be popular in the future, I couldn’t be happier. But I certainly feel proud to be the first Japanese band in a company like Napalm that has made metal history!
Also, I live in the countryside of Hokkaido, and I hope there will be more people like me working internationally in the future! And not just in music!
And I do want to ask about touring and the summer festival season, if things are in the works, or if you’re in the early stages of making any plans?
They are known only to the manager, Moritz. Please ask him for more information! We are planning to play some festivals, though!
I do know how difficult it can be for Japanese bands to tour in America, but I do want to be a little selfish at the moment and say, I hope at some point we can see you guys here in the States.
We also really wanna go to the States!!!!!
Thank you so much for speaking with me, and I do want to say that this album is absolutely phenomenal, but is there anything else you’d like to share with your fans or a message you’d like to leave them with?
Thank you for reading to the end! If you want to listen to Japanese samurai metal, please check out RYUJIN! The merchandise is Japanese and cool, so I believe it will be enjoyed not only by metal fans but also by anime fans! See you in your city someday!