X Japan, a musical phenom like no other. Born from the embers of the Western hair metal movement, characterized by extravagant aesthetics and dynamic compositions, X Japan themselves breathed life – and continue to breathe life – to a legion of new bands and an entire, ever-evolving genre. While most would expect a legend of this caliber to be written in stone and remain there, in the third decade since their inception, X Japan is gaining momentum and collecting on bets they made when they were young.
Despite their incomparable level of fame and selling out numerous arenas, the members of X Japan held on to a lifelong dream of playing at New York’s Madison Square Garden. On October 11th, 2014, in front of nearly 20,000 fans, that 30-year dream became a reality.
On a mild Saturday night in the heart of midtown, trains rumbling below and cars rushing all around, the five members of X Japan took to the stage precisely on time as late arrivals filtered in. A chorus of operatic voices began to sing, and a mesmerizing, symmetrical pattern which like smoke in water, emerged on the enormous screen behind the stage. From the very first moments, it was clear this would be a carefully choreographed performance with every second meticulously planned to plunge the audience deep into X Japan’s world. Compared to their last performance in New York – October 10th, 2010 at the recently shuttered Roseland Ballroom – this was set to be a spectacle of epic proportions.
As drummer Yoshiki towered over his drum set, a domineering silhouette despite his slight frame, the crowd erupted into an earth-shattering roar. With only the slightest, almost bashful introduction, the fivesome gathered towards center stage and leapt into the first song of the night – 2011’s “Jade”, rapidly followed by “Rusty Nail” and “Silent Jealousy”.
From this start to the “Forever Love” reprise finish, there was no shortage of glamour and grandeur, though the visuals were certainly more subdued than the sky-high perms and gaudy 80s makeup of their youth. From vocalist Toshl‘s trendy shades and sequined blazer, to guitarist and violinist Sugizo‘s spiked and studded leather jacket, there remained only a trace of X Japan’s original pomp and pretense, but the essence remained.
The stage show was every bit as indulgently X-cessive as would have been expected from these men at half their age. While time and libertine lifestyles may ravage mere mortals, the supernatural beings that stood the Madison Square Garden stage seemed all the more robust and invigorated. Eyebrow-singeing pyrotechnics that could be felt from three tiers up; lasers in every color piercing through dry ice fog; streamers and confetti, shot over the crowd through cannons; and real, bona fide fireworks all served merely to temper the heat of the musical performance taking place among them.
An early highlight of the night was the introduction of a new song from X Japan’s upcoming album, titled “Beneath the Skin” — a re-skinning of the 2007 track, composed by Sugizo for the short-lived supergroup S.K.I.N. The contemporary metal feel of this track, and the novelty, left fans completely hyped for the clash of chords and string battles between guitarist Pata and bassist Heath that had the two shredding their fingertips raw, up and down the runway that extended the stage into the clutches of hundreds of standing fans.
Soon to follow was “Drain”, the first appearance of the dearly departed original guitarist of X Japan, hide. hide wrote and lent his vocals to the track, and when it was time to play, Toshl’s piercing, characteristic timbre was complemented by a recording of hide’s more nasal, heady register and his original guitar, as Sugizo respectfully excused himself from stage. Though the experimental punk-metal track could hardly be thought of as a ballad, there was nonetheless a slight, lugubrious gravity in the air as everybody in the arena paid a rocking tribute to a fallen hero who changed his world in life and in death.
Responding rather appropriately to the solemn atmosphere, Sugizo emerged upon a dark stage, highlighted in blue, as he began to play a weeping violin composition of his own imagining. This was one of many moments throughout the night that put the spotlight on the classical musical training of X Japan’s current members, and it provided a soothing counterbalance and temporary relief for sensitive eardrums to the melodious metal cacophony of X Japan’s more electrifying works.
Yoshiki climbed to his “glass” piano and continued where Sugizo left off, and while some may have expected this to be his turn at a solo, instead it was an introduction to one of X Japan’s most popular tracks, “Kurenai”. A sudden burst of streamers broke the wall between the ballad and the breakdown, and as Yoshiki moved to his drum kit, all the tension the fans were restraining during Sugizo’s set, erupted.
Preparing for the next song, a Yoshiki-penned piece titled “Hero”, Toshl coyly asked Yoshiki to teach the fans the lyrics, but Yoshiki employed his favorite English word when politely refusing – “no, fuck you, I’m not going to sing!” Thankfully, the words were projected for all the fans to learn:
There is a hero inside of you…
Ah, who’ll resolve the doubt.
But I’m asking why I’m still here standing in the rain
The proper set concluded with “Born to be Free”, a standard ’80s power metal anthem punctuated by fireworks of red, pink, and green, which featured an early breakdown from Pata and a later pas de deux between Heath and Sugizo. As the song mellowed out, Yoshiki took to the piano, tickling the keys like the master composer he is.
The lights went down, and the X logo was projected on the back screen. The crowd was illuminated in a deep indigo, peppered with the red and green of glow sticks, when suddenly a flash of color came from the synchronized LED souvenir bracelets that all attendees received upon entry. Red, blue, green, and white, these bracelets would continue to flash rhythmically in tune with the songs.
Yoshiki strolled down the catwalk with his trademark ten-mile smile, tossing roses from bouquets into the outstretched hands of fans who ravenously clutched at them. He was backed by a solemn, vernal waltz.
He returned to his piano, and soberly oriented himself, bringing his hands together in what could even be prayer. He began to play in a minor key as he opened his long-awaited solo with a medley of songs, original and classic. Suddenly, a storm rolled in – a tempest – and the bracelets began to flicker like lightning. Yoshiki slipped behind his drum kit once more, and now the most memorable display of the night took place. While fans were absorbed in Yoshiki, red lights illuminated the catwalk and a fog filled the stage. After lingering just long enough to create an ambiance of mystery, the fog dissipated, and the elevated platform that held Yoshiki began to suddenly and slowly creep down the catwalk, bringing Yoshiki to the true center of the stadium. On a small synthesizer entangled in his drums, he played a theme based upon “Forever Love”, and once the platform came to a halt, returned to his drum solo.
The beat rippled through all of Yoshiki’s muscles, calling attention to the discipline, control, and stamina required of a percussionist of his caliber. As more fog kicked up below his elevated floating platform, he burst into an insane flourish that ended with a literal bang – more fireworks exploding from the stage, this time shimmering gold.
Yoshiki took a moment’s breath on the steps to his platform as Toshl began to sing “Forever Love a capella, a string quartet’s arrangement slowly filling in. A slideshow of old snapshots, tracing X Japan back to their roots, was projected on the enormous screen, reminiscing of the hair metal days – with the gaudy crimped hair and makeup – and paying tribute to hide and the more-recently deceased original bassist, Taiji. Vignettes from stage and backstage formed a video montage that faded to a photo collage as the band transitioned into “I.V.”, their first “comeback” song of the 21st century.
The last song of the first encore was the notably absent, eponymous identity chant, “X”. As Yoshiki goaded the crowd – “We are?! Louder, louder, scream! New York, we are waiting for you, for this moment, for fucking four years!” – even the most resistant fans in the farthest, darkest corners could not help but throw up their arms and scream, “X!” After a rough and gritty, distorted guitar solo, an enormous blue X closed in front of the screen at the back of the stage, flashing as a cue for fans to throw up the X. The song continued through clouds of confetti that reached the rafters and fireworks that threatened to light that confetti aflame. After a final pyrotechnic burst, the song was over, but the fans continued to shout, “We are X!” in disjointed entreaties for another encore.
When Yoshiki did re-emerge wearing a white cape, he sat at the piano and played, to everybody’s bewilderment, a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States. Toshl soon followed, and Yoshiki greeted him. One by one the other members of the band, including hide and Taiji (present, of course, in spirit only), joined in.
Yoshiki then took a moment to embarrass Toshl: “I met Toshl when I was four years old. So how long have I known you? 45 years. By the way, yesterday was Toshl’s birthday.” This was Sugizo’s invitation to play “Happy Birthday,” with the audience providing vocals.
Yoshiki continued, “Toshl, did we start [our first] band when you were 10 years old? When we were in elementary school? Did we start X when we were 14 years old?” He went into a cursory overview of the band’s entire history, of how the original members had come to meet, how they played in so many small clubs, how their car would break down constantly, how they never had money to stay in hotels – “actually, we had the money, but we spent it all, so we slept in parks.” Though their lives have undoubtedly improved, the fondness with which he spoke suggested that those days spent traveling around playing in small clubs — “every day we were rocking” — were some of the best of their lives.
In a sudden moment of vulnerability and candor, Yoshiki began to quiver talking about how it was their dream to come overseas to play in America, and though that dream has come true multiple times over, Madison Square Garden was their white whale.
“Today we are playing with Taiji and with hide in our hearts… As you know, X Japan, we have so much trauma… But that’s in the past, and we are here now.
“As long as you, our fans,keep supporting us, we will keep flying… As long as we are here, keep on rocking. KEEP ON FUCKING ROCKING!”
With a rising piano intro, “Endless Rain” began to fall. The camera panned over Pata and his age was evident in his white beard, even if he still plays with the vitality of his younger self. A video of performances of “Endless Rain” lined up exactly with the song as it was played live, linking the present to past.
Finally, the concert closed with an abridged version of the half-hour long “Art of Life”, beginning with Yoshiki dueling against himself on the piano. One of the rarely performed masterpieces of X Japan’s early career, this was a powerful, fitting end to a stellar performance.
The concert ended on a characteristically playful note. All the band members tossed mementos like water bottles, guitar picks, and roses into the crowd, and Yoshiki tossed himself, taking an unsettlingly long time to re-emerge after spawning a frenzy from the flanks of the stage to the end of the catwalk. The band collected towards the front of the stage, backs facing the crowd, and took a photo of their still-eager American audience. After promising that, “We will come back! WE ARE X!”, Yoshiki gave Toshl a piggyback ride down the catwalk, where they both collapsed, laughing and gasping for air while staring beyond the rafters above.
When the proverbial curtain was due to fall, Yoshiki and Toshl shared a heartwarming hug in the center of the stage, a gesture surely imbued with camaraderie, fraternity, love, and forgiveness.
Just as it took fans quite some time to filter in, it took them just as long to filter out. Despite the house lights rising and all traces of the band vanishing, the hypnotized audience wanted to linger in the moment just a bit longer before reluctantly accepting it had become a mere memory.