My feet are bleeding. My forehead is dripping with sweat. My ears are buzzing. My right palm may have permanent fingernail marks in it. The human body is simply not conditioned for this kind of physical strain. But oh, sweet reader, after you find out where I was for nine straight hours, you will realize that these pains are a small price to pay for a marathon of greatness.
On a balmy August 15 in Chiba, just outside of Tokyo, thousands upon thousands of rock, visual kei, and music fans gathered. It was time for JACK IN THE BOX 2009 SUMMER at Makuhari Messe. The expansive convention center with its semi-open air, standing only concert arena was an odd choice to house one of J-rock’s peak live events. Hosted by MAVERICK DC, this was no ordinary rock concert. It was a pilgrimage.
In the Beginning…
Jack, as its known to many fans, hosts some of the biggest names on MAVERICK DC’s roster and perhaps in the J-rock world altogether. This year brought in fifteen different acts ranging from the up-and-coming to the comeback, the fledgling artists to the hall-of-famers. But there were no headliners, no opening acts, and no one overlooked. All bands received equal time to show us their all.
After trekking from the train station, my skin and eyes burned by the unusually bright sun, I arrived at the miniature city that is Makuhari Messe. Upon stepping inside, you feel like you’re entering some sort of place of worship. The sudden rush of cool air is soothing but brief, as masses of fans frantically rushed around the convention-type area. This area housed the merchandise booths, which had a line so long and so compact I couldn’t even venture past the end of it. There are also some miscellaneous booths like Tower Records, a quick nail salon, and a small karaoke stage that went on throughout the concert. At one side sat an empty signing booth, which would later be the place of frantic peering as some of the artists signed autographs for the first fifty people who bought their CDs.
While this was all impressive, the other side of the partition was the subject of real excitement. Once I entered the area I squinted at the stage in the distance. There were two jumbo screens on either side, which meant everyone could technically see, though not necessarily in real time. The curtain was down and there was nothing of interest that my poor eyesight could scout, but I immediately noted how the floor was easily half filled with people. It was forty-five minutes before showtime and fans weren’t wasting their precious minutes lollygagging around the karaoke stage. The entire audience was to stand on one level, blocked off into four sections with a catwalk extending from the stage in the middle and a perpendicular walkway halfway back. The blocks themselves were huge and there were no restrictions on entering or exiting them. Stand as you please, but once you left your spot it would be gone.
There was no way I could compete for the front spot, especially not for fifteen bands in a row, so I settled on standing in the middle in front of the catwalk. Even standing on my own for most of the concert, the air was thick, humid and hot. They had the air conditioner blowing, but the open sides that led to the outdoor food stands pushed the hot sun’s wrath into the crowded area. I predicted madness. Fainting. Dehydration. Suffocation. Vomiting. And I wanted to see the security staff cart these people away.
Once the lights fell, I knew those sacrifices were necessary for the imminent fun of all.
Let There be Rock
Screams and shrieks welcomed the first band, Zoro. A small visual kei band, this was probably the grandest stage they’ve played on so far. The band came out all together, vocalist Ryuuji in a sparkly Ziggy Stardust cat suit and aquamarine jacket. All smiles and bounce, the music was energetic enough to get the three-quarters filled audience up off the floor and moving. The first song, “PINK,” induced a couple, half-hearted hand waves from the audience. Ryuuji asked the audience to become Zoro’s fans and though they left the stage in a hurry, they seemed to be quite pleased with themselves.
The transitions between bands were extremely short. With a dozen or so black-clad roadies clambering across the stage, the entire set was wheeled off and replaced by a new one. After an extremely brief sound check, the next band appeared. The entire process took roughly five minutes. While I certainly have to applaud their unsurpassable punctuality, this left everyone little time for food runs and dreaded potty breaks. And with the line to the ladies’ room a half hour long, it wasn’t unusual for many people to miss some acts.
As the second band appeared on stage, I soon forgot the slight rumbly in my tumbly. girugamesh took the stage in their typical dark manner, but with a slight bounce in their step. The crowd suddenly pushed forward, compacting itself even further as more people rushed in. With music vibrating through the massive speakers and thousands of eager fans jumping up and down, the entire floor shook and shifted. I began to wonder if girugamesh was the cause for the recent earthquakes in the Tokyo area.
For a band typically known for their menacing, doomsday shadow type atmosphere, girugamesh was surprisingly relaxed. With a vibrant, cleaner tone to the guitars and vocalist Satoshi’s slight grin, the music felt alive, rather than the typical plod through the graveyard. Everyone except the drummer moved freely across the stage, utilizing the catwalks on the sides and the front. The band had grown immensely in the past year, and still shows a great deal of potential to fill stages of the same size as Makuhari Messe.
Am I My Guitarist’s Keeper?
I had little time to stretch my legs and back before the screens on either side of the stage announced the next band. After years of dormancy, cali=gari returned as a band earlier this year. The crowd at Jack was obviously eager to see them. Cheering, hooting and hollering, the fans were boisterously excited to see the band back amongst its peers. And once the band took the stage, they also seemed a bit too excited to the point where I felt voyeuristic.
The title of the first song, “Erotopia,” should have given me some sort of hint, but I was perhaps naively unaware of how erotic they could be. The vocals in this number were in two parts with guitarist Ao singing the harmony. Every time he opened his mouth, something sinisterly sexual escaped as he ceased playing his guitar to grope his chest or make out with the head of his guitar. At one point he paused in the middle of singing to wail like a cat in heat before collapsing to the ground in ecstasy. Did I mention that some people brought their toddlers to this show?
Aside from Ao’s antics, cali=gari performed with great energy and fluidity, harking back to a few older songs mixed with their latest creations. Bringing the intimate nature of their music to a large stage, you might think they would be lost in the sea of bouncing fans. But the sheer presence of the band more than filled the area and the catwalks extending from it. With the silly sarcasm of “Maguro,” the band got everyone from the front row to the very back to twirl their hands in unison. The band closed their set with Ao beating himself upside the head with his microphone.
But all that oozing excitement was not wasted on the next act. On came MUCC, which certainly had more than a couple fans in the audience. As the opening instrumental played, people had Tourettes-like fits of screaming out the band members’ names. Taking the stage, vocalist Tatsurou exclaimed in his earth-shaking baritone, “Are you ready, mother fucker?” The crowd’s cheers seemed to be the cue for an explosion of confetti over the stage.
While Tatsurou plodded up and down the catwalk, the music seemed to gain volume, reverberating off the walls like thunder overhead. Although the band fairs more than well in smaller venues, the only way for MUCC to display their true power is in front of thousands, as they have the ability to get everyone and anyone riled up. The song selection was chock full of dynamic energy, though unfortunately the set was the second shortest of the night. Still, the music was solid and too much of a good thing can only do you harm.
Through the Valley of Death and LOL
I have to admit, after the previous two bands, I was feeling a tad antsy. Not wanting to miss the next act, I bolted to the food booths outside, purchased an overpriced and under-portioned taco rice, and took a load off at one of the tables near the booths inside. On the screen in front of the tables was a live feed of the concert, which I peered up at to see that Kinniku Shoujo Tai had already started. Not having heard of this band before, I decided to chill and watch from the safety of a seated position. But after about thirty seconds, it became obvious that I needed to wolf down the rest of my meal and return to reality.
I rushed past the fans in the back, who were dancing like the 80’s were back and better than ever. I heard the wail of a nasal vocalist over the punkish guitar and pounding drums. While I was unsure if this was a parody or a stone-cold serious band, I giggled slightly at guitarist Fumihiko Kitsutaka, who was swinging his V guitar around his giant blond hair and Band Boom velvet frock. My uncertainties were cleared up once the MC began as vocalist Kenji Ootsuki cracked wise, causing eruptions of laughter from the audience. They commenced their hilarity with “Ningen Kirai no Uta,” which sounded like a combination of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Sweet Cherry Pie.” The band was occasionally interrupted by a lone band member scampering down the catwalk, snickering to himself before returning to the rest of the stage. Though I was slightly confused, I was glad to get a break from the melodrama and intensity of some of the previous bands.
But that was only the eye of the angst storm as acid android was next. A few fans cried out for vocalist Yukihiro (drummer of L’Arc-en-Ciel) as if they were getting their throats slit. I huddled in a corner by myself, fearing the grim reaper was amongst us. And the way Yukihiro swooped out on stage with his gnarled voice, you might suspect he was. Pounding with a heavy industrial beat, acid android’s music was cold and trance-inducing, but stylistic enough for me to realize it was intentionally that way. The composition style is flawlessly exact in terms of musicality, to the point where I suspected some of the band members on stage were indeed androids.
What brought the tiniest amount of personality to the band was Yukihiro’s snake-like, nasal voice. While I didn’t doubt there were lyrics to these songs, I could hardly make out a syllable except for how Yukihiro changed “ni” and “no” to an overenthusiastic “NYA!” He eventually ventured part of the way down the catwalk, though quickly retreated to the safety of his microphone stand.
The Amazing Technicolor Mumu
As the crew turned up the lighting on stage, Kiyoharu came on as colorful as a peacock in his multi-colored almost-mumu and reddish coiffured hair. Bouncy and barefoot, Kiyoharu looked down at the audience through half-closed eyes as he strut down the catwalk in the middle, stage left, stage right, and everywhere in between. His ego was overwhelming, but I found myself unable to look away.
Performing songs from different points in his solo career and even the SADS hit “Sandy,” Kiyoharu had an amazing way of wooing his fans. There was a certain clarity to his typically nasal voice that built momentum off his signature vibrato. The support band provided much of the solidity needed to give shape to his voice.
Karsu is a new band. So new, no one knew who the members were. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” played as the jumbo screens introduced the band’s members. Lo and behold, they were already from established bands. Karasu just happened to be Kenji from Ayabie on drums, dunch from jealk on bass, Mizuki from Sadie on guitar, Hiroto from Alice Nine also on guitar, and Tatsurou from MUCC on vocals.
Their set was short, covering Kuroyume’s “Like a Angel” and Creature Creature’s “Red” before performing an original song entitled “Lastica.” The covers were almost as precisely played as the originals with the guitar solos slightly toned down. Tatsurou even graced us with his Kiyoharu and Morrie impressions, which were pretty impressive considering his voice is quite different from both of theirs.
As if the bands weren’t genre jumping enough, solo artist Ken, of L’Arc-en-Ciel fame, came on stage to wow and slightly confuse the audience with his new found leaning towards jazz. Standing on a platform to the side was backup singer Tomo, a sultry songstress with a commanding stage personality. Her voice was a strong and smooth complement to the experimental nature of Ken’s new album. She seemed to fit well with the music, as if it were composed for her.
The Second, Third, or Maybe Fourth Coming
I dragged myself back to the concert area for Tetsu. By now we were on L’Arc-en-Ciel solo act number three. Pink and blue glow sticks filled the audience, which seemed to be rocking back and forth to the sweet lullaby Tetsu was performing. On the jumbo screen Tetsu’s eyes were half-closed as if he were putting himself into a deep coma. But almost schizophrenically, Tetsu snapped out of the trance and starting waving around his banana squirt gun like a madman holding up a fruit stand.
Though riddled with pop and bounce, Tetsu’s performance was solid. He has the ability to compose the epitome of tight pop songs without sacrificing musicianship. While he did not step behind the bass, the presence of his melodic bass was there with a clear sense of who Tetsu really is as an artist.
A sound similar to crickets chirping in the night filled the dark concert area before an instrumental opening led each member of Dead End in. This was more than your average introduction; this was the resurrection of a band that had revolutionized the Japanese rock scene. As if to symbolize the shock back into life, a lone guitar screamed from the stage. Dead End was back.
While many of these songs haven’t seen the light of day in years, they each felt contemporary and fresh. Morrie’s vocals were especially vibrant, but with a certain mysterious quality that gives Dead End its dark side. At one point he belted out a nearly impossible feat for voice; he seemed to be doing a vocal tremolo. Clutching his head as if in utter agony, Morrie ambled down the catwalk. A few intermittent and desperate cries of his name became an appropriate chorus for the layering of these tunes. But not everything was doom and gloom as guitarist You wailed on his axe like a hell beast of power metal. The guitar solos he pumped out were nothing short of extraordinary, making me wonder if I was watching and listening to a video in fast forward.
High off of and slightly jealous of Dead End’s sheer musical talent, I took a stroll around the back, smiling to myself in a way that caused people to back away.
Forgive Me, For I Have SID
My smile was turned into an expression of confusion as SID took the stage. Granted, all the previous acts had gathered huge, compact crowds, but SID caused lines fifty to sixty people deep trying to get into the standing area. I held back as vocalist Mao ordered everyone to “Jack Jack Jump,” fearing a massive human domino effect. There was no question that SID has a big following, but the sheer fanaticism of the clambering, screaming girls and boys only solidified their place in visual kei stardom.
But between the shaking floor and the burst of silver confetti, there was a band in there somewhere. For the most part SID’s set was the typical pop and visual kei fair. There were songs you could wave your arms to, songs you could do a little head banging to, and songs that make you squeal about how oh-so-cute the band members were. But I wasn’t sold on this until they brought out a slightly older song, “Watashi wa Ame.” Utilizing an acoustic guitar, SID suddenly turned into a jazz band with Mao’s smooth, youthful vocals singing the woes of the world. He even managed to stay in tune during the a capella interlude. This was a rare tune where you couldn’t wave your arms, head bang, or point out cuteness. This was a song for listening and feeling an emotion that goes below the surface.
While I thought the SID crowd was unfathomably huge, nothing prepared me for the rush for the next band. I returned to my spot in the middle after shoving my way through the massive throng of people. I heard a roadie on stage say something to the effect of, “Let’s turn this thing up.” I wondered if the speakers went up to eleven. My suspicions were right when VAMPS hit the stage. Guitarist K.A.Z suddenly appeared at the end of the catwalk while vocalist Hyde (L’Arc-en-Ciel member number four) held up on center stage. The crowd, as they say, went wild. There was so much shouting of names, I began to wonder what the audience hoped to accomplish.
Hyde and K.A.Z began to play a guitar riff in unison on their respective guitars. Or what was supposed to be unison. One of them was a good half a beat behind the other. They went through the riff three times before they were together, causing me to cringe. My face continued to contort into all sorts of uncomfortable positions as they continued on, the volume noticeably higher than any of the other acts. It didn’t help that Hyde has the ability to shout and sing at the same time, turning their set into a giant screaming match. Once they added the flashing lights, I felt like this was psychological conditioning reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange.
But in some sick, pained, masochistic way, I was enjoying myself. And when the jumbo screen showed Hyde spitting on the front row, I knew I wasn’t the only one getting sick pleasure out of the pained music. Hyde had an undeniable way with the crowd, utilizing his booming voice to shake his people into submission. While the music wasn’t necessarily ballsy or revolutionary, VAMPS brought an acceptable form of punk-rock to the masses, not sparing any abrasiveness or theatrics. The set ended with a blood-curdling scream from Hyde, microphone stand thoroughly knocked down, and K.A.Z rounding out the guitar riff. I knew another sound out of them would burst my eardrums.
Unfortunately, my time at the show was cut short as I had to take the hour and a half journey back to reality before the last train, causing me to miss 44MAGNUM. Nine hours on my feet, in the balmy summer, music blaring in my ears, feverishly writing as much detail as humanly possible, I learned something about myself. I dress impractically for concerts.
But beside that, I found a new appreciation for the sheer magnitude of rock’s influence in people’s lives. JACK IN THE BOX 2009 SUMMER wasn’t just a concert; it was a gathering set up for fans to become a unit, basking in the glory of their favorite bands, not-so-favorite bands, and bands they had never heard of. And perhaps I already knew that. It just took something of this magnitude to make me see the light. As the old song goes, I once was blind, but now… I’m deaf.
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