Jun 09

[live report] L’Arc-en-Ciel or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Japanese Music (Part 1)

What can I say about L’Arc-en-Ciel’s 20th L’Anniversary Lives? For starters, all the proceeds are going to relief for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which is beyond charitable and they should be worshipped for that alone.

Also, it rained. Hard. The band sounded great. Vocalist hyde’s eyeliner and cornrows made him look like the illegitimate lovechild of Boy George and Jack Sparrow. Bananas are nutritious and erotic. That’s it. Sign it, lick it, seal it with a kiss.

No, readers, I can’t leave you with a long-winded version of the paragraph above, filled with flowery commentary and pseudo-analysis of the music.  I don’t feel right pompously praising the unadulterated balance between gruff, unbridled vocals and near-perfect instrumentations.  It’s simply not fair. Oh, not to all of you. I’m talking about how it’s not fair to me.

Sitting down at the open-air Ajinomoto Stadium on May 28, I immediately remembered why I even write about Japanese music to begin with. Let’s skip the suspense. It’s because of L’Arc-en-Ciel. No one had heard of them in the US at the time I discovered them. They were already venturing into “aren’t they kinda old?” territory in Japan, and jaded rock fans were beginning to write them off as more pop than anything else. But I didn’t know any of this.  Even if I did, I wouldn’t have cared in the slightest. This was the first band whose music I found by myself, without any preconceived notions or outside influences telling me what was cool and what wasn’t.

Over the years, my affection for the band has fallen more into the realm of nostalgia than the girlish giddiness of getting my hands on a new release. I will never forget listening to their 1998 album Heart on repeat with a sense of high school awkwardness mixed with the slightly rebellious feeling of listening to music that was different from my peers. Or when Smile came out in 2004 and how my best friend and I did interpretive dance in my parent’s living room to it.

Lately, I’ve felt that I needed a walk down memory lane and I needed one bad.

And nothing addressed my need for a flashback more than the May 28 show, which featured the giant sweater-wearing, bowl cut-sporting, bright red lip-smacking glory that was L’Arc-en-Ciel from 1991 to 1998.

Japan of the early 1990s was riddled with bands whose hair knew no bounds. High-toned wailing was in its heyday, black was the new, well…black, and everyone’s guitar made the sound of Styrofoam brought down about ten octaves. The faster and more melodramatic the music, the better.

Then along came this L’Arc-en-Ciel band clad in, of all horrors, white. The vocalist let his hair flow down naturally while the drummer mostly wore plain tank tops. Sure, the bassist and guitarist put on ruby-red lipstick, but it was more of an accent than a bold statement of men reclaiming makeup.

Regardless of image, it was the sound that made this band different. Opting out of the speed metal that was popular in the day, L’Arc-en-Ciel turned toward something risky. When the simple bass line from their 1994 song “In the Air” opened their first show of 2011, it was hard to forget why the band stood out back then. The root to all their songs is tetsuya’s melodic bass. If you pick apart each layer of nearly all of their tracks and only leave the bass line, you have melodies that could easily stand on their own. This is consistent throughout their music even today, and the immense complexity of tetsuya’s work takes a careful ear and hours of practice to even begin to imitate.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of L’Arc-en-Ciel’s early work is the use of a vocalist who rejected the shrill, vibrato-heavy style of the day. Hyde is a master of all-out belting, letting his tone loose like a wild horse that refuses to be broken. His voice is unmistakable in a sea of shrieking rock vocalists, ranging from a deep, beastly bellow to a rich, high-range shout. He can be gruff and mean, or clear and serene, or anywhere in the middle. As nice it is recorded, it takes a live performance to fully appreciate the force of his natural gift.  No filters, no touch-ups, just pure voice.

As tetsuya’s bass reverberated off the vinyl rain ponchos of the audience and hyde’s voice challenged the rain to drown him out, I knew May 28 would be the day L’Arc-en-Ciel reminded all us nostalgic saps why they got to where they are now.

The set list consisted of good mix of singles, album tracks, and even a b-side, all of which seemed to strike a chord with the audience, but more importantly, with the band themselves. Songs like “Blurry Eyes” are the staples of most L’Arc-en-Ciel tours – audience pleasers that even the most casual fans might have heard. But bringing out the nearly-forgotten, untouched old favorites changed the usual demeanor of the band. The enormous jumbotrons on either side of the main part of the stage zoomed in at each of the member’s faces, revealing a sparkle of emotion in their eyes. By the time they reached the chorus of “White Feathers”, I could have sworn I saw a couple of tears. I know I was getting blurry eyes (note: I have been dying to do that pun for years, so let me have it).

As they thanked the audience after the final song, “Niji”, I quickly swallowed the lump of welling emotion that had formed in my throat, applauded, and realized I didn’t want it to be over. They had played some of my favorite L’Arc-en-Ciel songs, but there was still so much more they could do. I knew May 29 would bring the latter half of their two-decade career. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something missing. It wasn’t until the second day that I realized what that was.

To be continued…

Photo Credit
Kazuko Tanaka
Hideaki Imamoto
Aki Ishii
Tsukasa Miyoshi
Toshikazu Oguruma


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  1. ReveLi7

    Its really a joy to read your report.
    Reading this remind me why their special place in my heart cant be replaced even I’m soooo into KPOP right now.
    I found them on 2001, kinda late, but at the time they was known by just some Jrock fan in Indonesia, and for my province, none, except some close friends that I ‘forced’ to listen to their songs. Ark n Ray is my first love, plus a lil bit of HEART and I listen to their 1993-1996′s albums later.
    Its pure music, not looks that captured my heart at the time *although I can’t denied that long haired Hyde during Dune-Heavenly indeed a beauty^^*, and still cant forget the excitement… or I say, the perfect words for that moment is I was ‘enchanted’.

    Thank you for sharing the experience plus the emotional moment as a fan.
    Just by reading this, I had the welling emotion as well…

  2. Randolfe Wicker

    A really superb write-up. I’ve always loved this band as well. As someone who only discover Japanese music five or six years ago, I often feel lost & alone on the other side of the world here in the U.S.A.

    I loved your title. I discovered Japanese music through JPOP. A DBSK video apparently aimed at kindergarden age kids entitled “Balloons” exudes such a feeling of joy it lifted me out of the depression that seemed to be gathering at that time around my new life as a 65-year-old retired businessman.

    As I explored JPOP groups like NEWS I must say I almost shuddered whenever I saw those audiences that seemed to be composed entirely of teenaged girls. I worried I might be entering what they call “a second childhood” :-).

    Then I found groups whose use of video (one of my major hobbies) was incredibly creative. Besides JPOP groups like Arashi, I discovered rock groups like L’Arc-en-Ceil whose videos were simply fantastic–like “Finale” & “Neo-Universe”.

    During the past several years, I’ve been capturing videos off YouTube & other sites with Snapz Pro & KeepTube.
    I create my own DVDs–sometimes putting one song from each of 12 groups on a one hour disc. I have developed a diverse taste for several genres of Japanese Music.

    What is so disappointing about many of the early groups is that the videos of them are old & of such a low quality. I do continue to find older groups that I consider really classic like L’Arc-en-Ceil–The Blue Hearts, X-Japan& Unicorn among others.

    I’ve considered attending one of the rock festivals in Japan this coming summer. Seems like that is the most likely way to see many different groups I enjoy. However, I think seeing close-up videos spoil you. I’m amazed when I see shots of Tokyo Dome or open fields with the crowds stretching almost as far as the eyes can see.

    Would you have any suggestions as to how to plan a “popular music tour” of Japan this summer?

    1. Sarah

      A lot of people discover Japanese music through J-pop. My discovery was more of a random, “What is this CD?” sort of situation. But going from DBSK to L’Arc? Now THAT is different. *cough* Good for you. *cough*

      As for rock festivals, there’s Summer Sonic, which has anything from R&B to visual kei (X Japan is performing there). Fuji Rock Festival, Jack in the Box, and V-Rock Festival (that’s in October) are more rock-oriented. Other than that, Summer is a ripe time for live shows and the season’s just begun!

  3. Akaromi

    Wonderful report <3 And we all forgive the Blurry Eyes pun. ;)

  4. Meg

    I always love your reports but I absolutely adore this one. It speaks what so many of their fans were feeling and experiencing that night and how easily this amazing band could bring so many emotions forth. This is beautiful. And I can’t wait for the next part… <3

    1. Sarah

      Thank you, Meg! Emotions are the KEY, afterall. ^_~

  5. mitsu

    You encapsulated my feelings about L’Arc~en~Ciel perfectly with this; especially my eternal, deep-running nostalgia for the band that I can still call my favorite, ever. I wish I was there but I will settle for a DVD (and the chance to see them next year in NY!) I am glad to read that you could see the emotion on the big screens; sometimes I worry about a prolific band with such a long history just going through the motions, you know? I can’t wait to read the next part!

    1. Sarah

      Thank you for reading, Mitsu! Yes, nostalgia was a big theme for this show and the next one, but it was the first evening that really brought me into flashback-mode.

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