Sound Decision
X[JAPAN] Files

by Jonathan Mays,

NOTE: In the past I haven't found the need to give age ratings for the products I review in my column. The X[JAPAN] CD/DVD set is an exception. With graphic violence, drugs, and occasional coarse language, this one is strictly for older teens and up.

Once upon a time, X[JAPAN] ruled the music world. Arguably the most influential band in Japan's history, they pioneered the "Visual Kei" style of the 1980s and merged top-quality rock music with a stunning visual style. Despite a worldwide record sales count of over five million, it's always been difficult to see or hear much of the group from the states. Two decades after X[JAPAN]'s debut, Tofu Records has stepped forward to give us a CD/DVD set that fills most of the gap.

X[JAPAN] is heavy metal/punk rock in every sense of the label, but the beauty and passion of their music elevates them above almost every other band in the genre. Leave your punk prejudices at the door; X's music demands your attention and respect. It all starts with Yoshiki Hayashi's complex—and shockingly diverse—compositions. Reaching from slow ballads to maniac rock songs, Yoshiki's works are uniformly intense and cathartic. His piano skills are considerable, and his talent with the drums borders on the superhuman. Yoshiki is the epitome of a music prodigy, which is almost a requirement to lead a band like this.

The rest of the band complements Yoshiki's foundation well. Deyama Toshimitsu's voice is haunting and soothing when necessary, yet he still manages to belt out a few screams like a typical punk group. Heath, hide, and Pata lend their bass and guitar skills, and I can't imagine anyone playing their parts with more passion or proficiency.

Even with their exceptional music, X[JAPAN] is perhaps more notable for their wild on-stage appearance. Huge pastel-colored hairstyles and layer upon layer of gothic makeup dominate X's look and set the trend for every Visual Kei band after them. You've almost certainly seen over-the-top androgyny before, but few groups ever dared to reach X's extreme. And of course, their behavior on stage is just as unruly.

The collection of nine DVD tracks and sixteen more on CD is suitably diverse. "Silent Jealousy" is the most complete of the selections, which begins with an innocent piano solo before exploding into a fantastic display of drumming and a simple, addictive vocal theme. "Endless Rain" starts in similar fashion, but it stays the course and turns out to be a wonderfully melancholic piano ballad.

It's a blessing whenever a band like X[JAPAN] gets a domestic release. Unfortunately, a half-baked production effort from Tofu Records seriously mars the set. With the exception of the audio, a rich PCM presentation, the release is unacceptable given today's domestic anime/jpop standards. The most grievous error is the total omission of subtitles or lyric translations. The insert with romanjii lyrics is a nice bonus, but you simply can't release a foreign-language DVD in English-speaking countries without some kind of English translation. When people buy an import, they know it might not be in English. In this case, with a domestic DVD, it's downright misleading. There isn't even a note about the language on the back of the case. This is far too basic to overlook.

Equally unforgivable is the lack of any background info on X[JAPAN] or its members. This isn't a no-name band, it's is one of the most influential groups in Japan's history! How could you neglect to mention even their names? The third issue, albeit one that was out of Tofu's hands, is the sub-par video quality. Although the encoding is just fine, the source material looks like it came from a second generation VHS or VCD. It's not a huge problem, but with fuzziness and cross-coloration galore, it's far below average for a DVD released in 2004.

In the end, you're basically getting a good CD along with a domestic dump of a Japanese concert DVD. Looking at it that way, especially with the $20 retail tag, it's not a bad deal. After you get beyond the poor treatment, the actual content of the disc and CD is phenomenal.

X[JAPAN] broke up in 1997, and hide, one of the guitarists, took his own life a year later. Watching the DVD of their best performances feels almost like watching clips from a dusty old tribute to their success. It's fascinating to see what they were like when they were on top, but at the same time, knowing the self-destruction that followed makes the entire experience a little chilling. Somehow the feeling fits their music perfectly.

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