||X JAPAN PRODUCE AN ORIENTAL RHAPSODY OF SIGHT AND SOUND AT WEMBLEY
X Japan: SSE Arena, Wembley, London
15th March 2017
Words: Andy Rawll, Pictures: Eric Duvet
This was an intoXicatingly triumphant feast for the senses. A three hour Metal-dramatic Godzillan extravaganza that rivalled Guns N' Roses for internecine drama, Queen for eclectic musical excess and Kiss for dazzling showmanship.
X Japan may still be an enigma outside of their home nation, but that oriental mystique adds to their allure. Selling out Shepherds Bush in 2011 is one thing, filling the one-time Empire Games swimming pool to capacity is something else. Yet, fill it they did and by the end, the arena was awash with emotion and both audience and band were drenched with mutual love and respect.
Looking around, it wasn't merely ex-pats from the land of the rising sun with friends and family, there was also a strong contingent from the indigenous Metal community. Truly, this was a show to appeal to anyone with penchant for the unique symphonic, glam, power and thrash amalgam that forms the blueprint of the X Japan sound.
However, the atmosphere before the show started was more expectant and reverential than I had ever experienced. There was a real sense of occasion, the prelude to something special, that permeated the arena. This was heightened by the meticulously prepared and choreographed small army of camera crews and lighting technicians boot-camp trained and ready to capture the long-awaited show for immortality.
With an advertised early kick-off of 18:30, almost the entire congregation was seated before the altar of X in deferential anticipation for the retelling of the gospel of X in the form of a special one hour edit of the new rockumentary 'We are X'. As reported in a previous article, this is a fascinating, redemptive tale of the band's rise, rupture and restoration, culminating in their triumphant concert at Madison Square Garden in 2014.
The edit cleverly used the same narrative, but as a wonderful coup de théâtre, as the final frame of the movie played and voiceover intoned: "Ladies and Gentlemen – X Japan", the band with the true X factor emerged back-lit onto the stage and illuminated with the light of a Godzillian suns to introduced one by one: Sugizo, Pata, Heath, Toshi and Yoshiki. There were also intros for their fallen comrades, Taiji the much-missed Cliff Burtonesque bassist and Hide the ace, six-string maestro, for whose loss many fans still grieve and whose image loomed large during the show.
With ferocious intent, the band hammered straight into the Kiss-n-Roses metal of 'Rusty Nail' with the Toshi in the Axl role, covering every inch of the stage with his piercing and powerful voice, undiminished by time and Sugizo reeling off a dizzying wah-drenched solo of which Stoke's finest would have been proud. Heath's fantastically chunky, thumpy bass was more Gene Simmons in style, but with not a duff note in sight. In fact, the opening trifecta of tunes was stunning, with Yoshiki's solo track, the be-Mused 'Hero' and the pyrotechnically thrilling Queen meets the Stone Age 'Jade' making for an exhilarating opening salvo.
Given the oft-maligned audio qualities of a venue, the sound was loud and clear. Ironically, I believe that this was achieved at the expense of band-leader Yoshiki's drums that were sunk a little low in the mix, meaning that the power of his frenetic Duracell bunny playing style was often diminished.
The set-list was all encompassing, drawing upon a 30 year legacy from their 1988 self-funded power-Metallic debut to a series of four platinum selling albums that displayed increasing diversity in style and power-balladic inclination.
As such, in the same spirit as those other masters of the arena, like Muse, Guns and Queen, X Japan have the confidence and trust in their audience to permit changes of mood and pace, including spoken interludes and solo spots, without detracting from the overall momentum of the show.
The focus for the following section shifted to the more symphonic driven by Yoshiki's supreme grand piano skills, prefacing the lush ballad 'Kiss The Sky' and leading into 'Beneath The Skin', which reminded me of Fates Warning with Toshi matching Ray Adler for power and range and Pata riffing like Matheos and then taking a short but sweet solo section. As mentioned earlier, memories of talismanic guitarist Hide pervaded the show and it was great to hear a tight aggressive version of 'Drain' the Manson-esque track that he wrote for the 1996's otherwise ballad-heavy 'Dahlia' release.
Relatively new member, Sugizo also made his solo bow, switching from six to four string and performing an elegant and poignant violin solo, with 'Life On Mars' as its centre-piece. In fact, this cover turned-out to be a mere appetizer for Yoshiki's lavish piano-led tributes, during the encores, to the artists that had inspired him.
It was great to see the relaxed interaction between the reconciled childhood friends, Toshi and Yoshiki, joshing about the long-awaited and still not-quite ready new album. Indeed, there was a strong representation of quality new songs in the set with a perfect symmetry of the great galloping 'Born To Be Free' juxtaposed with main set closer 'Kurenai' from their 1988 debut album.
There was a testing fifteen minute wait after the explosive confetti-cannon punctuated finale, yet the sense of reverence and anticipation remained before Yoshiki re-appeared in his iconic silhouetted pose astride his drum kit. Those with a percussive predilection would have to wait as he sauntered over to the piano to first play an effortless and spellbinding rendition of Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata', that would eventually segue into the Requiem for Hide entitled 'Without You'.
The sombre mood was finally lifted as bittersweet turned to molten metal with the symphonic menace of 'I.V.' that was used as the main theme for the 4th release of Saw horror movie franchise. This teed-up the final aural assault, or so it seemed, of the band's signature song 'X' as the crunching coda, complete with the call and response mantra "We are X... 'You are X'" reverberating around the packed arena and arms telepathically choreographed with the emblematic 'X' salute.
Only, that wasn't all folks. It was as if the entire audience was a transcendental trance, patiently waiting for the third and final act of this Oriental passion play. Sure enough, after ten minutes of fervent anticipation, Yoshiki returned and spoke of the music that he and Toshi listened to as twelve-year-olds that inspired their journey from 'X' to 'X Japan' and sales of thirty million units.
Rather than heading straight into end-of-show bombast, we were treated to beautifully respectful solo piano versions of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Space Oddity' that led to the tender ballad 'Endless Rain' which Rolling Stone magazine memorably described as "'November Rain' without the bullshit". Indeed, it was mesmeric in execution and fervently received with its haunting refrain echoing around the arena long after the band had stopped playing.
By 1992, X Japan were riding the crest of wave, with two successive platinum albums and easily selling-out the enormo Tokyo dome yearly. It also marked the year that original bass player, Taiji left the band and was replaced by current virtuoso incumbent, Heath, and Yoshiki embarked on writing and recording 'Art of Life' which many still consider to be his masterwork. To put their success into perspective, frustrated at his inability to secure studio time at Hollywood's renowned One on One Studios (Metallica – 'Black Album'; Kiss – 'Crazy Nights'; Alice In Chains – 'Dirt'), he wrote a large cheque and became the proud owner and completed the now iconic thirty minute suite. Some have compared it to the thematically similar 'Change Of The Seasons' by Dream Theater, but on repeated listens 'Art Of Life' reveals more intense emotional impact and diverse instrumentation.
Such is the renewed regard for this work, the second movement has been played as the last song at every one of their concerts since 2010. It was therefore apt that the band should bring the curtain down an a truly astonishing show with an unexpectedly extended version, featuring both second and third movements that escalated via Maidenly duelling guitars and air-raid vocals to an audio-visually ecstatic conclusion. 'Art Of Life' was a fitting finale as it distils the very best elements of X Japan's eclectic style into a stylish and cohesive work with a beguiling oriental allure.
As powerful and mesmerising a show as you are ever likely to see. Behold the true X factor.