Six years ago X Japan was scheduled to play Madison Square. September 13th 2008 was the date. They would become the first Japanese band to headline the most famous venue on the planet. They were riding a storm of hype: This was one band that no one really thought would ever get back together again, and with Japanese rock at that time reaching some degree of success in the states the iron was hot for one of the most enduringly popular bands in Japanese history to strike. (Now, if you’re familiar with the band you can probably skip the refresher course in X Japan history and down to the 13th paragraph for the actual concert review)
No one really thought this was a band that could get back together, indeed. Lead guitarist, and often songwriter, Hideto “hide” Matsumoto was found hanged in his apartment in Tokyo just a few months after the band’s vocalist ToshI Deyama left the band to join what he recently admitted was what amounts to a cult (although he stops short of that word). In the decade between hide’s (stylized lowercase) funeral and the first rumblings of a reunion in 2007, band leader and drummer Yoshiki Hayashi says they didn’t speak at all.
It is rumored that Yoshiki and hide intended to revive the band without ToshI (who, with Yoshiki, was the only remaining founding member), but with neither hide nor ToshI most fans never even considered a reunion a possibility. But in 2007 ToshI dropped a bombshell on his blog that they were discussing the matter and the hype train took off full steam.
They returned with a vengeance, announcing two shows at Tokyo Dome, which is considered the top venue for a band to play in Japan. Those two shows proved so popular in pre-sale that they added a third night. They announced they were going international, but for real this time. A world tour was announced, with their crown jewel being their MSG performance. (During the 1980s, there was some interest in Japanese metal here in the states with bands such as LOUDNESS, EZO, and Dead End having varying success. X Japan attempted to come to the states in 1992 once they had made it big, but by that point metal was fading and grunge was king. X Japan never played a show or released anything stateside).
In a cruel twist of fate, the band nearly was forced to break up again just months into their reunion. At a May 2008 concert festival played in tribute to the 10th anniversary of hide’s death, Yoshiki aggravated an old spinal injury. Just four shows into the reunion it looked like it was all over again.
Yoshiki was able to make it onstage for a short set that New Years Eve, and apparently felt well enough to take another stab at a world tour. They finally debuted overseas in Hong Kong in January 2010, but were inactive for another four months before a two-night stand at the Tokyo Dome followed by a show in Taiwan. But, alas, Yoshiki wasn’t healed and was forced to undergo spinal surgery.
In 2010 Yoshiki made it back to the stage. A new world tour was scheduled. X Japan made their long awaited USA debut at Lollapalooza. They honored their past by bringing their former bassist Taiji Sawada back to help play their popular self titled theme song “X” during their tune-up concerts, and for the first time they embarked on a World Tour that was by most all accounts a success.
But they didn’t play MSG, settling for smaller American and European venues. And release dates for a new album came and went. New singles, with music videos already recorded during a high profile shoot on a massive stage constructed on a rooftop on Hollywood Boulevard in LA, went unreleased.
Tragically in July 2011, just short of a year after reconciling with the band, Taiji committed suicide by hanging in a holding cell in Saipan after being arrested for causing a disturbance on an airline flight. He left no suicide note, but had been battling a laundry list of serious medical issues. In the wake of the tragedy and the reconciliation, X Japan began to credit the bassist as a member of the band. Several western publications have indicated that he was a member of the band at the time of his suicide, but in fact he never rejoined the band beyond the two songs he played for the band in 2010.
Later in the year the band toured Europe, and Asia again, and also debuted in South America. But still there was no album, and those music videos still missing in action other than previews (Even though one of the singles was released). They more or less weren’t heard from again until this year when they announced they were finally going to do it. They were going to play Madison Square Garden.
Bits and pieces of ToshI’s battle with his former cult had been published but this summer he released a book really going into depth about everything. Things such as his identity being stolen and him being driven into bankruptcy, prompting his name change to “ToshI” from “Toshi”. Things such as the cult leader forcing him to only perform songs written by the cult, performing hundreds of shows a year dedicated to these songs, or how his wife ended up being part of the plot to brainwash him.
The band was in need of another reboot and a fresh start. They intend this to be that restart. Forget the fact that Japanese rock’s niche in the states had waned, and forget the fact that they were no longer going to be the first Japanese band at MSG (Pop/prog rock heavy hitters L’arc~en~ciel beat them to it in 2012). They were going to play MSG, and they were going to take another stab at that new album.
And this band, known for delays and drama, kept their word. At almost exactly 8:00pm on the dot, and 1000 words into what’s supposed to be a concert report, the show began.
While the show didn’t appear to have completely sold out, most seats were filled and the standing room on the floor was sold out. Considering the declining interest in Japanese music in America (not that it was terribly high to begin with)…and that New York Comic Con was happening the same weekend… it was really an impressive turn out.
They started with their 2011 single “Jade” which wasted no time giving the fans a taste of the show they were going to be witness to over the next two and a half hours, with flame canons and green lasers flanking the stage. This song also features some of the widest range of notes that ToshI has to hit in an X Japan song, making it a great statement song to start a show with. Especially with ToshI’s very distinctive high pitched voice (Its really unlike most any vocalist. If you’re thinking Axl Rose, not that despite the comparisons between the two bands). They’ve been starting with this song since it was released. From that first song it was demonstrated that the band was not suffering from any cobwebs.
The band lightly addressed the crowd after “Jade” but wasted little time rolling into “Rusty Nail” which was their standard opening track for many years. It is easily one of their most distinctive tracks, opening with a synth harpischord but in no way shape or form is the song a ballad. This song was, as per X Japan tradition, another showcase of cannons, flame, and lasers.
But then the stage went silent and the lights directed to the full grand piano situated next to Yoshiki’s drums. Yoshiki dramatically took his seat and keyed the beginning notes to “Silent Jealousy” and then everything went to silence again as ToshI slowly sang the first verse, drawing out the last note seemingly to infinity as Yoshiki ran back to his drums and the rest of the band ran back on stage.
If anyone thought it was the first ballad of the night they were mistaken, as this is a seven minute power/symphonic metal head banging track drawing more resemblance to their metal origins in the 80s. Its a throwback song, one that towards the end of the bands first incarnation was not played. Its been a standard since the band got back together, to great praise from the fan base.
New material has always been a rare treat at an X Japan concert. The band has been around since 1982, but has only released four albums and an EP. With the 4th song of the night came that rare treat. This new song, “Beneath the Skin” was actually written for a previous project that Yoshiki and guitarist Sugizo formed just before X Japan reunited. When X Japan re-united and Sugizo joined X Japan as the new guitarist (The band does not consider him a replacement for hide) that project was indefinitely shelved.
Seven years after this song was played just once, it returned re-imagined as an X Japan song much to the delight of the thousands in the audience. This song represented a great deal of the concept of X Japan as a reborn band, moving into the future. Other than Yoshiki, the only two members to write fully fleshed out songs for X Japan dating back to their first album were Taiji and hide. This song represents Sugizo’s first composition with the band.
But from there they went right back into recognizing their origins. Everyone left the stage except from Pata (3rd longest tenured member and guitarist) and Heath (Taiji’s 1992 replacement on bass) who then dueled speed/thrash bass and guitar solos up and down the catwalk.
By this time fans must have noticed the total lack of appearances from hide. Throughout every show the band has played up until this mini-tour, the deceased guitarist has played a very heavy role in the band’s live performances. This has included his guitar tracks being played along side the band with video of him playing synced on screen behind the group, as well as their ground breaking use of hologram technology to actually bring him back to the stage (something later used to being Tupac back to the stage).
But tonight he wasn’t there. Until the 6th song at least. “Drain” was one of the songs he composed for the band and sang a great deal of backing vocals for. ToshI returned to the stage as the intro to the track played but Yoshiki and Sugizo did not. There used to be something called “Hide no Heya” during X Japan concerts where hide, who was arguably becoming more famous than the band itself by the mid 90s, got the stage to himself for a few minutes to do whatever he wanted.
For as much as X Japan can be about Yoshiki sometimes, he once again turned over the stage to his deceased comrade. Sugizo stepped to the side as well, to let hide’s guitar tracks shine through and let him once again sing back up for Toshi.
It was an expertly sculpted transition, as this allowed Sugizo time to prepare for his next solo. It wasn’t another guitar solo though, as he returned to the stage alone with his electric violin and played the eerie and ethereal style that he’s known for.
While this was winding down Yoshiki snuck back to the piano and keyed the new intro to 1985’s “Kurenai”. Once again, what sounded like the start to a ballad was anything but. This number lacks the symphonic flair the band developed in the late 80s and is pure power and speed. Red streamers, the song’s name translates to “Crimson”, exploded all over the stage bathing the now headbanging crowd in red, as described in the lyrics. According to Last.fm this is the bands most played song over their history.
Once again after that song concluded the band traveled through time, with ToshI introducing another new song entitled “Hero”. Rather than just play the song, the band spent several minutes teaching the audience the chorus…because at an X Japan concert most of the crowd sings along to most of the songs, and a number of them feature call and response. The song featured more ballad style lyrics than most of the band’s driving songs but was backed by the full band rather than orchestral tracks or acoustic guitar.
They kept the set -relatively- new, by moving onto what until this month was the band’s newest song “Born to be Free”. This is a high flying number that is sure to be a hit in karaoke when the new album is released. Given all the news about ToshI decade plus ordeal with the cult, its easy to draw meaning from this song in context with the band.
X Japan took a brief breather at this point, but although the set list from their tuneup show indicated this was an encore break, Yoshiki returned to the stage in short order without waiting for the crowd to whip itself into a frenzy calling for the band to come back as is part of the song and dance of concert attendance.
He parked himself at his piano once more and played an un-named solo to an entranced MSG before slipping over to his drum for what is perhaps the centerpiece of an X Japan concert. As the light show focused in on Yoshiki and he started pounding away, his drum platform rose up from the stage and slowly over the course of about five minutes moved, about ten feet in the air, towards the end of the stage’s catwalk that stretched a good 70% of the way across the arena floor.
Dramatically, the rest of the band returned to the stage and began was the night’s first ballad. Now, I keep mentioning ballads because X Japan’s catalog is very ballad heavy and they have, in the past, stuffed their shows with them. But not tonight, this was 13th individual piece of the evening before they got to a ballad. And this was expertly timed.
As Yoshiki climbed the stairs off his drum kit at the end of the runway as ToshI began to sing “Forever Love”. Lights revealed a four piece live strings accompaniment. Yoshiki dramatically strolled back to the main stage, embracing the vocalist with a long embrace before climbing the stairs to his piano. Then, in perfect unison all four joined ToshI in the song as a slide show of behind the scenes photos and videos dating back into the mid 80s began playing on the screen behind them.
This was the first that either hide or Taiji were seen during the night, and rather than presented as actually playing with the band this was more of a touching retrospective. The audience erupted each time a new clip of hide or Taiji flashed on the screen. Most of the photos were private snapshots rather than official photoshoot images, adding to the intimacy.
There probably weren’t too many dry eyes in the audience, but Yoshiki continued straight into the intro for their 2007 comeback single “I.V.” which saw their international debut as part of the “Saw I.V.” soundtrack. Aside from representing their long awaited international debut, this song was based off some unused guitar demos from hide’s private collection.
With the intensity of the set restored, it was time for the bands theme song. Only a band as bombastic as X Japan could be so bold as to pen their own theme song. (In fact this wasn’t even the first theme song they had in their repertoire.) This speed metal number from the mid 80s , in its live version, stretches quite long as the bridges in the song are extended for ToshI to engage in call and response with the audience. At pretty much every show since the band debuted the song, ToshI has screamed to the audience “We are?!” and the crowd jumps into the air with their hands in the air making an X screaming “X”. After doing that several times he then asks “You are?!” to which the audience responds the same.
After the conclusion of the song the band finally took an intermission. When they returned, Yoshiki restarted the set by playing The Star Spangled Banner on his piano. As he left the piano and sat down on the stage, the other members returned to the stage. Yoshiki addressed ToshI, asking him long they had known each other. ToshI replied that it had been 45 years. The drummer revealed that the previous day was in fact the vocalist’s 49th birthday. Sugizo picked up his guitar and strummed the first few notes of “Happy Birthday” prompting the arena to serenade the vocalist.
Having lived in L.A. since the 90s, Yoshiki is actually fairly fluent in English. In fact it bares mentioning that most of their new songs are written in English. After the birthday salute, Yoshiki addressed the crowd giving a reminiscing walk down the band’s memory late dating back to when ToshI and Yoshiki met at just 4 years old and made their first music together at age 10. From a band that can be so over the top and cheesy, it was a touching monologue.
“Endless Rain” was the next song of the evening, another sprawling sing-along ballad that was accompanied by the original 1989 music video mixed with more archival footage. This would have been a suiting finish to the night, but since their re-uniting the band has chosen to close their sets with their magnum opus: 1993’s 29 minute symphonic metal epic “Art of Life” (originally recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) .
Well, at least they have been playing the second half of it beginning with Yoshiki’s somewhat avant garde piano solo in which he duets with a recording of himself. The full piece has only been played by the band twice, and perhaps some fans had hoped they might attempt it for MSG, but that’s not to say anyone would be disappointed by half the song. Even before the band broke up the first time it safe to assume it would never be heard live again.
This was a band in need of a fresh start, one that many fans had lost patience with, but in one epic night they likely convinced even the most jaded fans in attendance that they are prepared to move forward. Not just as a nostalgic relic, but one that could be relevant again and bring it in concert as intensely as anyone else on the Japanese rock circuit. While X Japan has never really gone the “deep tracks” route since they reunited and played material from their formative years, they really effectively blended their various eras with the new at this show.
At the conclusion of “Art of Life” the members pelted the audience with picks and water bottles, and ToshI and Yoshiki tossed long stemmed roses to adoring fans. When they had run out of things to throw out as souvenirs Yoshiki gathered some remaining roses and dashed at a full spring to the end of the runway. Without hesitation he tossed the roses to the side and dove headlong into the general admission crowd and was mobbed by screaming fans, shocked by something he probably hadn’t done since the 80s. A fitting ending to a life long dream fulfilled.