Never heard of X Japan? Well, if you live in the Western world, I don't blame you. They never so much as made a dent in Europe or the Americas. In Japan, however, it could not be more different. I'll let someone else explain why.
"It would even be an understatement to call this band legendary. It is safe to declare X Japan has been the most influential band in Japan's history and a major landmark in general music history. No, I am not crazy; they are that big."
Yup, that's right - X Japan were pretty much Japan's answer to Led Zeppelin. They were absolutely huge, defining the current state of Japanese rock and metal, and pretty much inventing the visual kei movement to boot.
So why should you care? Most people, sadly, equate Japanese music with disposable pop, so cheesy you can smell it before you hear it (as found on most Anime soundtracks). I won't deny that there's a lot of that, but then again, there's just as much in America, and there's WAY more in Europe. Well, either that, or they think of music from video games. In which case, two words - Nobuo Uematsu.
Like any urbanized country's music industry, though, there is a distinct difference between 'rock' and 'pop'. X Japan definitely fall into the first of the two categories.
The band are the brainchild of Yoshiki, the band's drummer and pianist. He formed X Japan - originally named X, and later changed before an American tour to avoid confusion with the LA punk band - when he was just 12, in 1976. They would eventually split in 1997, after leaving their indelible imprint on both Japanese music, and Japanese culture. Yoshiki would go on to work with artists as diverse as KISS, George Martin (yes, THAT George Martin, Beatles fans), and Roger Taylor (yes, THAT Roger Taylor, Queen fans). Their defining moment came in 1993, with the release of this album, Art Of Life.
Even if you ignore X Japan's cultural relevance, Art Of Life is an extraordinary album. It contains only one song; a song that weaves its way through 29 minutes of classical strings, avant-garde piano and speed metal guitars. It is, as one website claims, Japan's Stairway To Heaven - a multi-layered song with a near-mythical reputation, that crytallizes everything that made the band so great.
By the time Yoshiki wrote Art of Life, he'd been writing music for 17 years. With that sort of experience comes maturity, and maturity is the one thing you really need when attempting a song that almost tips the scales at half an hour. The song never outstays its welcome during that period, nor does it show any evidence of a lack of ideas. Suggesting the song could be seperated is silly and redundant, so well does it work as a complete piece.
The obvious comparison when talking about Art Of Life is Dream Theater's A Change Of Seasons. Both are songs that attempt to deal with the meaning of life and a person's passage throughout life, and take on the other weight themes of death and love. Both deal with these themes in suitably a epic manner, running a full gauntlet of moods and textures. And both bands have players with almost scary technical ability (in fact, although Yoshiki never fully stretches his talons here, he is capable of outplaying both Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess at their respective instruments - and I don't even feel I need to mention that Toshi is a far better vocalist than LaBrie).
Well, now that the comparison is made, I'll tell you that Art of Life is A Change Of Seasons, times two. Don't get me wrong - A Change Of Seasons was my favourite song of all time for a very long while - but Art of Life is more emotional, diverse, intense, impressive, and epic than Dream Theater's masterpiece. And, as an aside, X Japan don't ruin this album with a bunch of tacky cover versions as bonus tracks.
So, to the song itself.
It begins with clean guitar and piano, before Toshi comes in with the opening lines. "Desert rose....why do you live alone?" At around 3.30, the song appears to blossom out, as harmonized guitars reach outward. A mere 10 seconds later, the song powers itself into a speed-metal frenzy, complete with plenty of Iron Maiden-esque harmonized leads.
The first of many voice-overs starts at 5.30. It's a female voice, seemingly responding to the song's protagonist. It's hard to make out what she's saying. This character re-appears several times during the song.
Just after the 8-minute mark, proggy keyboards appear, backed by what sounds like a string quartet. This segues into a melodic respite from the metal riffing. This might be considered the 'chorus', as it re-appears later to close the song. Toshi's voice trails off as more harmonized leads enter, this time more epic in nature, and sounding a little more like In Flames. For the next two minutes, the two guitars trade lead licks, before another thrashy riff comes in at the 11 miute mark. Yoshiki's drums really pick up in this section, giving a hint of what he's capable of. A string section behind the guitarists gathers in intensity and volume, playing a call-and-response role. It's the musical equivalent of storm clouds gathering.
This breaks down at around 12.30, as circular string passages and more basic instrumentation from the band themselves back another great melody.
After this, the band drops away altogether, leaving the orchestra to play. Another female voiceover comes in, this time mutli-layered, sounding like several conflicting voices pulling your mind in different directions. The chorus reappears again.
And then, the piano solo.
I feel daunted by the very task of describing this piano solo. It's....unreal. Nearly 7 minutes in length, it's without a doubt one of the greatest things I've ever heard. Beginning simply enough, with a plaintive, uneasy melody in the right hand part, the left hand part gradually becomes more and more complex, adding more and more harmony, before it becomes an urgent, jumpy set of chord stabs. The melody returns, and then the chords again. It seems to hinting at a desire to do something, but a simultaneous unwillingness....a dischord appears. Then another. Then another. The beautiful melody gradually dies away, conquered by a series of "wrong" notes. Eventually all sense of key and meter disappears too. We are left with an immense piece, spawned from the world of Penderecki and Xenakis, yet never feeling derivative or contrived. How many rock or metal bands can geuinely count 20th century avant-garde composer such as these as influences? Yoshiki does, and here, he proves it.
The melody reappears 3 minutes later. Again, dischords run over the top of it, but now they seem almost futile. The melody is fighting back, bubbling again to the surface.
This is your first love, set to music. It is your first ever taste of how beautiful love can be, it is your struggle to come to terms with your emtoions, it is your constant self-doubt as you wonder whether to act upon them....it is conceived perfectly. The first time I heard this solo, I felt nostaliga. And that feeling only gets stronger every time I hear it subsequently. That is how powerful this passage is. It is executed and concieved perfectly.
The piano falls back, seemingly exhausted, at around the 23.30 mark. Another string passage comes in, giving the listener a chance to recover from what they've just heard.
How do you follow that? A nuts-out riff fest, that's how!! Returning to earlier passages of the song, Toshi sings with a renewed purpose, beginning to draw the song to its conclusion. A final trimphant comes in just before the 28 minute mark, the piano driving the band forwards.
Art of life
I try to stop myself
But my heart goes to destroy the truth
Tell me why
I want the meaning of my life
Do I try to live?
Do I try to love?
Art of life
An eternal bleeding heart
You never wanna breathe your last
Wanna live, can't let my heart kill myself
Still I'm feeling for
A rose that's breathing love
In my life.....
The band dies away, leaving Toshi to bellow the final line. His voice fades away, leaving a stunned silence.
I've had this album for 2 and a half months now. I've listened to this song, in its entirety, every day since I got it, and I am not sick of it. Not in the slightest. I haven't listened to it so much because I want to decipher the hidden meanings in the lyrics, or because I'm trying to learn the guitar parts - I've listened to it because I've wanted to. It is, undoubtedly, the best song I have ever heard. I'm not the only one, either - this album has the highest score in the whole database of http://www.metalreviews.com/ .
ck genres. If you like music, you owe it to yourself to hear this.
As an aside, Yoshiki should soon be releasing a trip-hop influenced solo project under the name Violet UK. How sweet is THAT gonna be?
On this record, X-Japan are Yoshiki (pinao, drums), hide (guitars), Toshi (vocals), Pata (guitars), and Heath (bass). This album was released in 1993.