Review Summary: A glorious testament to human emotions, trials, and triumphs, Art of Life is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word.
Have you ever wondered about what would happen if we all had a soundtrack playing to our daily lives? Songs that represented our pain and sorrows, our triumphs and merriment, or the more complex thoughts in between? Think of the situation as a film; about 90% of the time, a wonderful soundtrack is capable of coloring a scene and making it feel larger than life, but slows down for the personal, intimate moments to balance things out.
X Japan (hailing from, you guessed it, Japan) had always been adept at capturing raw human emotional resonance in their songs, whether heavy or soft. Case in point: "I'll Kill You" from their first record Vanishing Vision was an exceptionally frenzied and violent affair a la Metallica's 80's thrash heyday, and yet "Crucify My Love" and "Tears" from their final (as of this review, but they're working on a new record) album Dahlia are quite possibly two of the most beautiful ballads to come out of their time. However, the crowning achievement in musicianship, lyrics, emotion, and just about everything else they've tapped into, is 1993's Art of Life.
First off, despite the record consisting of only the one titular song, that very song is 29 minutes, and goes through everything from speed metal, classical, symphonic music, progressive metal, power metal, pop, the works. The lyrics illustrate the vision of life and what it represents, its trials, love lost, love found, and continuing living even through any circumstance. The lyrics are impressive on their own, but mixed with Toshi's heartfelt wails, the experience feels downright cathartic. Even more impressive is how the song never loses focus; everything gels so wonderfully and nothing ever feels like extraneous baggage.
As the song begins with a longingly flowing piano line from Yoshiki, the symphonic backing grows and becomes grander by the second until Toshi belts out the first lines, and the song really gains momentum from that point on. What follows is a lightning-fast speed metal riff-fest reminiscent of Helloween's early days, and here the band start to really unfold their skills as musicians. Chaos ensues, with Toshi and everyone else engaging in a musical war; vocals fight against the blazing guitars, while the drums and bass guitar are cutting through the production cleanly and effectively.
The more intimate moments come in a few ways. One of these is the chorus, which sees several returns and lets Toshi show off his emotional side, coming close to resembling Journey's Steve Perry in quite a few of those spots. Also, in the middle of the tune, all the instruments fall out for an all-symphonic segment that could almost be expected from a grand fantasy movie like Lord of the Rings. The instruments come back in for the chorus, going for what you might think would be the end of the piece. But nope, we have a piano solo to listen to.
And holy f*ck, it is amazing.
Not only is it a beautifully composed solo on its own, but the meaning behind the playing is perhaps what deserves a greater mention. The melody is simple enough; it's simple but sorrowful, a great way to inspire curiosity for what's to come. But then, as Yoshiki's playing becomes more complex, more dissonance starts to take place. The piano discord gets out of control as
not one but TWO pianos are playing and overlapping one another. However, the main melody, while buried, still remains even as it takes so much heat from the rest of the madness attempting to crush it down.
To me, it's a symbol of how anything can be overcome, no matter what tragedy or pain strikes. No matter how tempting it may be to succumb to the lonesome darkness and give in, there's always that little glimmer hidden beneath the rubble, telling us we can carry on despite our past and our troubles. The solo fits that depiction so perfectly, especially when the symphonic backing fades in and takes over the discordant piano work completely. Think of the symphony as the redemption, the grand picture of promise unfolding before the listener's eyes.
After that, however, the frenzy sees a reprise as the assault of riffage bursts right in to carry the tune out. The singing is as triumphant as it can get, and the atmosphere of finality in the chorus is just, for lack of a better word, beautiful. Suddenly, the lyrics start to get even more meaningful and inspiring as the song comes to a close, and Toshi sings one last word in silence: life.
It's a sin that this album doesn't get the attention it deserves. It taps into what we think about everyday, what we feel, what appeals to us or drives us away. It's the essence of life itself and never lets the listener go until its thrilling finale. The musicianship is outstanding, the lyrics heartfelt and Toshi clearly took his time on them, and the message is brilliant and clear. I don't care if you have to buy this thing at a store, buy online, torrent it, whatever... just listen to it.