Monday, October 24, 2011
Get into: X-Japan
Japan has a very strange culture where enormous things can happen entirely within their borders and barely trickle out into international consciousness, as though pivotal moments in their culture are being intentionally dammed in to prevent contamination (whose contamination, theirs or ours, is another discussion entirely.) X-Japan is one such entity- christ, look at that crowd. I understand they're a Japanese band, but when you fill a stadium like that, shouldn't America know at least a little bit about you?
X-Japan were one of the harder-edged frontrunners of the visual kei movement- you know, that thing you probably read about on Wikipedia where Japanese musicians take the most demented excesses of '80s glam aesthetics and overdrive them in a way only the children of samurai are able to. The most surprising thing about the visual kei movement is that a lot of the music is actually pretty excellent- and on a related note, if you have a Japanese metal band that isn't explicitly death or black, it's almost guaranteed that visual kei is at least a part of their presentation. Apparently the visual aspect to this whole "genre" (if you can call it that) is rather important (as the name would suggest,) but it's so culturally bound to Japan the lexicon of imagery and the purpose thereof is basically lost on us baka gaijin. So we're actually in the rather enviable position of being able to judge these sorts of bands without any unnecessary cultural baggage weighing us down or influencing our ideas. It can be a nice change of pace.
To strip things down in a way that makes the term basically lose all meaning, you could essentially consider X-Japan a power metal band: fast palm-muted riffs, fast, straightforward drumwork, soaring clean vocals, periodic dips into ballad territory (including impressively played piano,) the works. Of course, this is a terrible way to explain their sound as they actually sound absolutely nothing like Euro or US power metal. What X-Japan sounds more like is an incredible overdriving of a combination of glam and prog rock, filtered through a sort of cluttered, inconsiderate mash of heavy, power, and thrash metal. The result is something which, despite its speed and aggressive rhythmic presence, resembles Queen a fuck of a lot more than just about anything else in the metal field- apart from other Japanese power metal bands, of course.
Why is X-Japan so notable? Well, it's mainly in their ability to be the exception to the rule in many aspects of metal songwriting. More specifically, X-Japan is infinitely more self-consciously "artistic" and "sophisticated" than I usually allow in my music; the absurdly overblown string arrangements, plaintive piano melodies, and teetering-on-laughably-emotive Engrish lyrics are all the work of a band with something to prove. It uses some of my least favorite musical vocabulary: verse-chorus song structures, ballads, soaring clean vocals, and a completely unabashed, impressively brave sense of melody. X-Japan are in some ways a sort of ritualization and consecration of the very IDEA of rock or heavy metal music- everything they do comes out of a distinct, carefully repeated playbook. It is some of the most formulaic and yet undeniably gripping music I've ever heard.
X-Japan : Queen :: Emmure : Hatebreed
What makes X-Japan so brilliant is a heady combination of their utter shamelessness and their simultaneously undeniable ability as pop songwriters. They're legitimately a case where their musical image (both visual and sonic) are so unspeakably humiliating and delivered with such an ignorant, straightforward conviction that they bypass your irony shields and just leave you gawking at the spectacle. But beyond the spectacle is what keeps you hook after the novelty has dried up: brilliant, propulsive riffcraft, a spectacular sense of complex yet natural harmony, and a burly, proud sense of melody that's nothing more than Nippon's reinterpretation of Iron Maiden within their own cultural context. Beyond the silliness (which doesn't even strike you as silly because it's that far beyond the pale) is a band with remarkable staying power who actually deserve a place in the metalhead's collection.
Does X-Japan make "significant art?" It's a term that's impossible to define, but you all know exactly what I mean when I say it. I don't think there's a yes/no answer to that question though; I think to "get" a band like this necessitates a massive rethinking of how you evaluate art vs. entertainment and what can be precisely defined as "important" in an artistic piece. I'd say that X-Japan falls into a similar aesthetic or philosophically conceptual category as Emmure, Enmity, or Dark Funeral, as absurd as those comparisons sound at first glance. In every one of those cases (including X-Japan,) you could accuse each band of making what amounts to musical candy; giving those who are merely obsessed with the respective style itself a cheap thrill via a stripped down, overdriven version of its parent style. And truthfully, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with such an assessment.
But I think there's value to such artists- a legitimate, artistic one. They cleanse and clarify their styles, cause discussion in their scenes, and force listeners to reexamine exactly what they're listening to such music for. Like Cephalotripsy's luscious embrace of the most primitive slam tropes, Lil B's ludicrous and only semi-conscious examination of hip-hop, or even Lady Gaga's conscious, unashamed regurgitation of pop music's greatest moments, bands like the aforementioned force us to think about the music we listen to- not just the music itself, but what it means and why we listen to it. And any artist that can do that is I think one worth the time of listeners.