X Japan is quite arguably the most important and most influential metal band for the entire Japanese metal scene. Their debut, Vanishing Visions, sold massively well and got them a major record deal to Sony. After that, the band launched Blue Blood which would sell even better and stay on the chart for weeks. In fact, the next album, Jealousy would be X Japan's best selling album at over a million copies. So after all this commercial success, what do you do? Write a 29 minute epic of course!
So here we have X Japan's 4th studio album, Art of Life. Whether or not Art of Life truly counts as an album is up for debate, but it is an extremely remarkable musical journey nonetheless. A crude glance of their previous history makes this release seemingly come completely out of nowhere, but that actually isn't the case. X Japan has experimented ever since Give Me the Pleasure off of their debut. Despite the western hard rock influences present on Blue Blood and Jealousy, you'll also find symphonic arrangements, ballads, power metal, and other such oddities. The point is that the band was always changing their sound, and Art of Life is another progression and to me, serves as the band's true magnum opus.
Featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (they're based in London and world-renowned for those who don't know), the recording process of Art of Life is just as ambitious as the music the music itself and this really shows in the production. The sound quality is downright gorgeous and breathtaking. Every instrument is perfectly audible and well-balanced to each other, there's tons of dynamics, the orchestra is spaced extremely well across the channels, and Toshi's voice soars on top just like it should. Quite frankly, Art of Life is the best production job I've ever heard in metal. I really find it just that stunning.
Gorgeous production is meaningless without interesting music, but thankfully Yoshiki delivers on this front as well. Make no mistake, Art of Life is an extremely ambitious and highly original, creative piece. The overall structure is very nonlinear and goes through multiple sections with little repetition making the progressive label well deserved.
The song starts off as a ballad with clean guitar and string accompaniment which may be worrying to some, but X Japan was always adept at writing quality ballads with interesting, moving music. Here, it's no different. Toshi is perhaps the band's weak point (the engrish doesn't help I suppose), but his vocal delivery on Art of Life is absolutely full of passion and emotion. His voice is very distinctive and the song simply wouldn't be the same without him.
Later on, the rest of the band comes in to bring the metal and with brilliant results. Yoshiki rips up his drum kit with energetic crazy fills. Hide and Pata play the X Japan-style, melodic, harmonizing neoclassical leads, and Heath does the bass counterpoint. Throughout the song, there are multiple displays of tasteful, skillfull playing from all members of the band. There's multiple guitar solos, excellent riffing, blazing-fast drumming, and neat little bass moments. Of course, the orchestra on top does an amazing job providing atmosphere and doing its own, interesting playing to add to the music. Despite the rather depressing tone of the lyrics, this part of the song feels quite uplifting, soaring and beautiful.
Around the 15 minute mark or so is where the magic happens, and where some listeners may be disgruntled. So after everything quiets down, Yoshiki is left playing an 8 minute solo on the piano. While the fact that the drummer can also play piano is interesting in and of itself (it was Yoshiki's first instrument actually), what really makes this part the standout of the song is the cacophonous roar in the middle. Starting out as a simple melody over a few chords; the solo builds up slowly (adding some additional piano tracks along the way), becomes more complex and eventually reaches the point where Yoshiki is quite literally bashing random notes. For some, this part just violently contrasts with the rest of the song and serves absolutely no purpose. But the contrast is the point, and it thematically fits.
In fact, this seemingly meaningless cacophony is really the highlight of this 29 minute epic. It's a remarkable symbolization of the struggle and trials of life, and in Yoshiki's case, it refers to his own suicidal feelings that he went through after his father took his own life. Honestly, I'm normally not one to look for deeper meaning in music, but it's definitely here. The random notes eventually end, and the orchestra returns to give the uplifting feeling back right before the rest of the band come in to play the last closing minutes. It finally ends on a hopeful note with Toshi passionately singing the last uplifting line: “A rose is breathing love in my life.” At the end, it's a confirmation to live life and move forward which is perhaps not the most original message, but it's executed in an absolutely genius and stunning way.
Art of Life is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece in my book. It's an extremely creative, ambitious song and a true, genuine raw expression of emotion. There's really just no flaws I can find. The melodies from all the instruments are gorgeous, there's blazing fast riffs and drumming, there's even good bass playing here. Hell, this album/song has sold over 600,000 copies to date and topped the Oricon charts when it was released. The fact that something like this was a commercial success still blows my mind, but it just goes to show the importance of X Japan. I immensely enjoy all of the band's studio albums, but this is the best. It's simply perfect in every way and deserves no less than a perfect score.Rating: 100/100