It would not go amiss to say that this is one of the most ambitious musical projects that was ever embarked upon. X Japan were always ambitious in their approach. They practically invented the Japanese Visual Kei movement, which had been almost entirely unseen before them. Of course they were followed, but never to the quality that X Japan laid down. Vanishing Vision
was a comparatively simple beast; a fairly typical speed metal album that only hinted at what they were to become. Blue Blood
on the other hand, while still remaining a speed metal album, was slowly turning Yoshiki’s ambition into the limelight. Art of Life
was the album that finally showed Yoshiki’s desire to break away from the constraints of simple speed metal.
The 29 minutes of this song cannot be listened to casually. There is so much to listen to that you will have to start paying attention at some point or another. If the guitars fail to catch you, the singing or the drumming will. There are many phases of the song where no one thing takes precedent; all the elements come together perfectly to form one neat package. The same is true with the structure of the song. Whereas say, A Change Of Seasons
is just a lot of fairly similar but yet distinctly different songs placed onto one track, Art Of Life
just would not be right even if it only missed one passage or phrase. Everything is in its right place on this song.
This is despite the fact that the song jumps to and fro between many different sections. For example, the song starts with clean guitar arpeggios weaving their way in and out between the orchestral strings and some very subtle piano and the next minute the guitars are blazing their way to the forefront of the song with a very shred heavy riff. The way that the many layers of this song intertwine is almost sublime. Everything is timed to perfection and they all complement each other fantastically. There are so many examples of this throughout the song, such as on the second guitar solo when the strings join once again and balance with the guitars perfectly. It is not just putting things there and hoping for the best. This is compositional expertise and knowing what will sound right. It is unsurprising when listening to the song that Yoshiki took three years to write this piece.
It is helpful therefore that X Japan’s two guitarists were utterly fantastic. Pata and hide’s dedication and synchronisation puts them on another level above other guitar duos. That they may not be as technically skilled as their counterparts from other bands does not matter, they are the perfect pair. It is like they share the same mind in different bodies. For the rhythm sections, it would be difficult to know that there are two people playing if one was not already wise to the fact due to their integration with each other. The same can be said for the lead sections, except this is because they are constantly changing their lines with impeccable timing to give the impression that it is only one prodigiously talented guitarist. Of course, it goes without saying that any part of hide or Pata’s playing never feels out of place at any moment.
Continuing this trend, the rhythm section itself performs wonderfully too. Heath was the newest member of the band after the previous bassist, Taiji, left to play with other bands. While his playing never really reaches the standard of Taiji’s work with the band, he still does an admirable job. That is not to say that he is a bad player. On the contrary, he is an excellent hand at his instrument. However he never really takes the spotlight at any one time, leaving that accolade to hide and Pata. He just adds what’s needed when it is needed and keeps up a constant low end that of course complements everything else very well.
Similarly, Yoshiki and his drums never take the spotlight at any one time either, though they threaten to for the duration. It would be a severe understatement to say that Yoshiki is a talented young man. If you are not able to see that from the song itself and the way it is written, then you will definitely see it from his drumming. He rarely lets up on the skins, only where it is necessary to the song such as the slower chorus and the more symphonic sections. Apart from those times, Yoshiki plays a very strong and technically proficient song. Even though the beat is fairly consistent throughout the whole track, he successfully mixes it up well with copious fills that show his skill and keep the song rolling. If anyone has been lucky enough to see the live video of this song, Yoshiki’s fills are almost constant, which is a testament to his durability.
As if that was not enough, Yoshiki also indulges himself with an 8 minute piano solo, and it is a truly astonishing display. It’s extremely difficult to describe. It could be described as a summary of the whole song from a lyrical point of view, and that view is not without its merit. The solo moves from an almost shy phrase on the right hand, which goes as the main theme throughout the solo. Then the left hand comes in, steadily increasing the complexity. The solo then builds up gradually, until the build up stops and the process starts over. The solo then goes from there until it is a technical mess of sound, with dischords played all over the keyboard and, contrastingly with the rest of the song, nothing fits. This then dies away again to leave that opening melody, which should take us back to the start. However, it just is not the same as before, after what has just happened. It is difficult to understand what Yoshiki is trying to communicate with this, but it is time well spent trying to contemplate what it means.
Of course, X Japan would be nowhere without Toshi and his voice. At first listen, Toshi’s accent may be enough to put anyone off the whole song, but if you stick with it, you should learn to love the nuances and certain limiting factors on his voice. Such as the fact that the whole song is performed in English when they are natively Japanese. However Toshi has a fantastic voice, and he only really stretches himself at a few choice moments within the song which may lead people to think that he is giving a weak delivery. This may be true but he more than gets the job done. Credit must go to what he is singing too. Yoshiki has written a poetic masterpiece with these lyrics. They tell a story of desperation that can endlessly be analysed. If they seem simple, remember that these guys are Japanese and it is quite an achievement to be writing a song like this.
Art of Life was, and still is, the best thing that X Japan ever put out. This is quite a statement to make considering the quality of their other work, especially Blue Blood
which holds the most similarities. This song is a work of genius which should not be passed up by anyone, regardless of what they are into. This song is an experience, and thus should not be confined to one genre. The general quality to be found here should negate any misgivings about the length. If X Japan were to accommodate convenience and inhibit their ambition by shortening this song, they wouldn’t be fit to have the name X Japan anymore. Absolutely essential.