While there are many international artists who have made their way, as the expression goes, “across the pond” and have done well in America, most of them do so by bringing a similar formula of what is popular in today’s music and blending in before anyone realizes that they’re “not from ’round here.” The artists who stick to their own form of a creative mold and are unique and unchanging in their ways can either make or break their careers when they land on U.S. soil; some of them, indeed, will stay on the other side of the world for their entire career, despite the cult following that might have simmered into existence on this side of the States. Tonight, however, one of these artists not only came to this country for their first stateside tour, but it was on the tails of an incredible reunion tour after almost twelve years of absence from the musical world. For the first time in their career, X Japan, arguably one of the biggest acts in the country’s history, has come to the U.S. to tour — and boy, were we ready for them!
News that the Fox Theater not being sold out for the performance was difficult to believe, as the fans arrived in droves and quickly filed into their seats upstairs and the general admission standing room downstairs. The entire floor of the theater was packed, nearly two-thirds of the way to the back, even before the opening band arrived. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the opening act of the night put on a rather disappointing performance. The Hollywood metalcore quintet known as Vampires Everywhere! certainly entered the stage to enthusiastic applause, but their performance was marred with poor sound mixing and a general disspirited charisma onstage. It seemed like the band wanted to be enthusiastic and wild, but their limited space onstage (mostly due to the collasal drum riser behind them) and generally more violent sound seemed to be a thorn in the side of their delivery. It is always difficult to be an opening band, especially opening for a headliner with a dedicated cult following, but the band seemed to be giving up the fight within even a few songs of their performance.
Around the hour of 9:00 PM, the tension and enthusiasm in the theater was positively electric. Scores of applause, cheers, and chants of “X! X! X!” broke out amongst the floor crowd as a crew of camera operators scoured around for clusters of megafans to film. It was the dropping of the house lights, and the sudden onset of deep blue floodlight across the top of the stage, that brought out an insane frenzy of cheering, as if a god had suddenly appeared in the theater. Figuratively speaking, this was certainly true; moments later, when the surviving members of X Japan walked onstage (joined by new guitarist Yasuhiro “Sugizo” Sugihara, formerly of Luna Sea), the roar of voices in the theater was almost deafening, beaten out only by the opening blasts of drummer Yoshiki Hayashi as the band kicked off the set with their new single, “Jade.” A hundred bright lights lit up the stage, giving the appearance of the arrival of a fleet of UFOs amongst the elaborate structure of the drum riser, and the vision of their heroes onstage made the fans of X Japan go ballistic.
While not terribly animated onstage, the precision and vigor that the musicians exercised was near-immaculate; despite having been on a decade-long hiatus, they played as if the last twelve years were but a moment ago. Singer Toshimitsu “Toshi” Deyama belted out the high-tenor notes and harsh screams of the songs with no hesitation, while original guitarist Tomoaki “Pata” Ishizuka and bassist Hiroshi “Heath” Morie churned away at the monstrous riffs with minute care and what appeared to be very little effort. The most exciting member of the band, without a doubt, was drummer Yoshiki, who gravitated between his colossal clear-plastic drumset and the gleaming silver piano that sat on the right ride of the drum riser. Wildly energetic, he bounced from instrument to instrument, kicking off most of the songs with a miniature piano ballad before sitting back down to thrash his kit into oblivion as the thundering rock riffs kicked in.
In addition to the songs themselves lasting for many long minutes, the space between pieces was filled with the banter of Toshi and the antics of Yoshiki. The former egged the crowd on from song to song to sing along with the choruses, the excitement in his voice reaching a fevered pitch as it went up several octaves. At one point, after a spirited performance of “Born To Be Free,” Toshi directed the crowd’s attention to Yoshiki, who snapped back to life as he flipped back and forth between frenzied drum solos and intricate piano interpretations of Beethoven and Bach, all the while dousing himself — and the crowd — with most of the water bottles that the band had onstage. Far from trying to avoid the spray, there was a mad rush of pushing and shoving to chase down each water bottle that found itself soaring across the theater into the screaming crowd below.
Not one to let the lateness of the evening slow them down, X Japan closed their set with the dark eponymous rocker “X,” kicking the energy into overdrive with a set of cannons that bathed the stage in a thick white wall of smoke bursts. Yoshiki threw in a few extra solos in for good measure at the end of the song, which saw Toshi bellowing a call and response at the crowd (“We are?” “X!”) as the rest of the band shredded away at the final moments of their set. Muted lighting and a soft symphonic interlude set the stage for the encore, which saw a gorgeous performance of “Endless Rain” that kept the crowd singing along loudly for many minutes after the final piano notes had been struck. To finish the night, X Japan treated their fans to a rare, albeit slightly abridged, performance of their half-hour masterpiece “Art Of Life”, before coming together onstage for a final photo op for the front-row fans that was greeted with almost as much enthusiasm as when they had appeared onstage two hours earlier.
X Japan, in my opinion, fills the empty spot that has always been known as “arena rock”, the definition of which has been changed and confused over the last decade. While, often times, people may think of large performances or huge rockstars to be the personification of the genre, it is the showmanship, the elaborate stage design, the monumental songs, the intricate structures, the dazzling solos, and the unencumbered enthusiasm that truly makes for a brilliant arena rock show, and X Japan delivers that experience in spades. To be able to pack such an enormous show into a theater as comparatively small as the Fox Theater is, in itself, an impressive feat. Perhaps this tour will be the first clue that X Japan needs to be brought to American stadiums; if this show was any indication, it can only get bigger from this point forward.
All X Japan photography by Alan Ralph.