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Sound Decision
Hark! It's L'Arc!

by Jonathan Mays,
Okay, here we go. It's been thirteen years since L'Arc~en~Ciel debuted in Japan, and after a two-year break for solo work, they're back. Aside from the now-defunct X JAPAN, L'Arc is probably the only Japanese band that needs no introduction to American rock fans. For the rest of you, it's time to jump on the bandwagon.

Before I get to the review, I'd like to give you a quick J-Pop news update. I've heard many times that T.M. Revolution is past his prime in Japan, but a couple of signs are suggesting otherwise. His new Seventh Heaven album is being well-received, debuting at #6 on the Oricon charts. Even more impressive, he was selected to sing the Japanese ending theme of "Spider-Man 2," an honor that earned him a trip along the red carpet for Tuesday's world premiere. So no, he's not dead in Japan. Far from it.

These haven't been the best six months for Chihiro Onitsuka. After having her fourth album and video clip releases cancelled, Toshiba EMI sold a box set of her singles against her desires. Then she and her label parted ways.

The second half of 2004 is looking a whole lot better, though. She's now the newest member of Sony Music Artists. And since Sony is the only label actively releasing J-Pop in the US (via Tofu Records), the chances of a domestic Chihiro CD just skyrocketed. Her style is very influenced by Western music, so I think a US disc would be a natural fit, even if her piano ballads would be a major change of direction for tofu. Cross your fingers.

There's more rumbling, too, but nothing that can't wait another week.

SMILE - L'Arc~en~Ciel Tofu Records (2004-06-29)

If, by chance, you haven't heard L'Arc before, understand this: They're the real deal. Yes, they're a pretty darn photogenic quartet, but there's no gimmick here. The band deserves every bit of praise it's received over the last decade.

That said, SMILE isn't the best display of the members' talents. A mostly unadventurous hard rock album, it's average work for L'Arc, with a uniform sound very much like HYDE's 666 solo album. Fortunately, even mid-range L'Arc work is aggressive, catchy, and better performed than almost everything else on the market.

The album opens with a guitar line that sounds suspiciously like the Kill Bill theme. A lazy song with a steady bass part, it's not the best introduction to L'Arc, but it's a fine overture for the album. You won't listen to "Kiss" more than once, unless you're interested in HYDE's surreal lyrics.

Appropriately named "READY STEADY GO," the second track is where the energy really starts to build. This one's closest to L'Arc's classic sound, an addictive mix of melody and pulsating rhythm. I especially love how Tetsu and HYDE throw the chorus back and forth. Chances are you won't get a good cut of this Fullmetal Alchemist theme from Cartoon Network's broadcast, so this one song is reason enough to pick up the CD. Like all good themes, it gets better with every listen.

"Lover Boy" has very dull vocals, but some good drum and guitar work in the middle section compensates well enough.

I think one of the keys to making great rock is giving the impression that you're having fun. "Feeling Fine" accomplishes this, with an intro worthy of the Beach Boys and a relaxed tempo that feels just right for kicking back and soaking in the summer sun. Yukihiro's drum work keeps the song from being too aimless, and HYDE's not-quite-perfect vocals have the vibrant sound of a live performance.

Track number five, "Time Goes On," is about as laid-back of a song as you can expect out of L'Arc. For such a reminiscent, 90s soft rock sound, the title is rather ironic. Tetsu's bass solo adds a much-needed creative spark to the calm tune, but that's about the only notable thing here. Generally it feels a lot like a toned down version of the previous track.

At last, the star song of the album: "Coming closer." Instant L'Arc classic. Each of the band's members is simply too good for songs that dilute their talents when they perform together. This time they get it right. It's a well-arranged song, but that's not what makes the track so fantastic. HYDE's cathartic cries do. Ken's absolutely spectacular guitar bridge does. Yukihiro's intense drumwork does. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a great string theme and a surprise 180-ending. The final result is overwhelmingly magnificent, a glimpse of L'Arc at their very best.

By the time we reach the second half of the disc, things are beginning to wind down. "Forever" is misnamed and forgettable. "REVELATION" is an awesome Queen-like anthem, but it's far, far too short.

Don't leave just yet, though. There's still "Living in Your Eyes," which comes too late to change the album's singular sound, but on its own, the song is probably equal to "Coming closer." It's also better than Tetsu's acclaimed "Pieces" and "Anata." HYDE's singing is completely controlled for once, and we finally get a good orchestral part after track six's tease. Even if you don't like the rest of the album, this song will win your loyalty to the band.

The token English entry, "Spirit Dreams Inside" makes its second US appearance after a sighting in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Unfortunately, it doesn't fit the album at all. But it's still a fair song, even if it has a bit too much wailing.

A karaoke version of READY STEADY GO is the album's over-hyped "US-exclusive" track. It's too bad they couldn't have tossed "Blurry Eyes" from DNA^2 on there instead. Oh well, it's a cool extra but nothing more.

So, should you buy SMILE? Yes, definitely. No exceptions. This is Japan's premier rock band, and unlike X[JAPAN], they're still hanging out together. If this proves to be the start of a second wave, brace yourself for a thrilling burst of energy, talent, passion, and rock, rock, rock.

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