Sound Decision
L'Arc~en~Ciel LIVE in U.S.A DVD

by Jonathan Mays,
Before we get going, I'd like to plug my new book, Warriors of Legend: Reflections of Japan in Sailor Moon. Learn about Tokyo and Japanese culture through a popular show. Fun and informative. I think you'll like it.

L'Arc~en~Ciel Live in U.S.A. at 1st Mariner Arena 2004 Tofu Records (May 31st)

Memo to HYDE: Stop smoking.

Tofu's new "L'Arc~en~Ciel Live in U.S.A" DVD has some of the best live guitar and drum work I've heard in a long time, but the concert takes a steep dive when the lead vocalist is not on his game. Not that anybody in Baltimore cared; the crowd of 10,000 was lucky enough to see and hear the biggest, most expensive J-Pop concert in American history. Still, atmosphere and awesome pyrotechnics only do so much when you're watching a rock concert from the living room couch.

HYDE aside, Yaz Noya and the crew at Tofu Records deserve serious props for daring to put on such a massive production, especially after Pacific Media Expo failed to bring in big crowds. They took a risk nobody else would take, and judging from the turnout, their confidence paid off big time.

Why should you care? Because in addition to the fun of having L'Arc on DVD, you will want a record of this milestone performance in Baltimore. If you've been reading this column for the last two years, you know I'm not one to overhype, so I hope you take me seriously when I say this was a huge, huge breakthrough for Japanese music in America. J-Pop fans will remember this concert for years to come.

But enough about history—let's talk music. The show began like any good rock concert, with smoke and flames and a nicely coordinated lightshow to go with Ken's revved up guitar. HYDE is spot-on at the opening, but when he gets to the first chorus, trouble rears its ugly head. HYDE's lethargic pace just barely stays in rhythm, and his high notes ring false. Meanwhile, the rest of the group plugs away, a little low on energy perhaps, but "Kiss" is not an energetic song.

"Lover Boy" ramps up the excitement in a big way, doubling the speed of the first piece. HYDE is still off, missing the occasional note and groaning through what are awesome passages on the album recording, but it's okay because "Lover Boy" is Ken's time to shine. There's something really cool about doing impossibly hard parts without breaking a sweat.

HYDE pulls out the guitar for "Heaven's Drive," and it ain't for decoration. He finally hits his stride by lowering his vocal volume a few notches as he throws down some solid chords. As for the song, it's pretty nondescript until the chorus, and then, oh man, disco! Somewhere in that song is a time machine that drags you back a few decades for a twenty-second taste of yesteryear before depositing you back in reality.

Next we run into one of the strange quirks of the DVD, a quick cut to L'Arc's press conference. It's jarring to say the least, but at least the entertainment value is high. "We had no idea we were popular outside of Japan." Yeah, HYDE, that's a good one.

When the concert comes back, the first number is the muddy "Spirit Dreams Inside," from the ill-fated Final Fantasy movie in 2001. The big problem is that it has no hook, and it definitely doesn't help that the song is too shallow for you to pick up much of the guitar and bass parts. "Invitation to Freedom" is a bit better because Yukihiro gets a good workout on the drums. Plus, it's always fun when HYDE goes stratospheric on the vocals—sure makes him sound less husky.

The Baltimore photo shoot that follows is every bit as funny as the first cut-away; you get to see HYDE and company fooling around and whistling down an alley before snapping into "too cool to smile and look at the camera" mode.

Song number six, "Forever," tries to get the whole "Hell's Bells" thing going, but synthesizers are a pretty poor substitute for electric guitar. Power ballad? I'd say L'Arc is showing its age. Some delectably dark chords give the song a little bit of life, and HYDE's voice is also in pretty good shape for this one.

Funk is the name of the game in "Kasou," where we find out just how high you can take the electric guitar. But not much else to see here. "Living in Your Eyes" makes the teenage girls go gaga (what is it with squealing teens?), but insert a vaguely amusing analogy here because HYDE completely whiffs on the chorus. It's as if he were sight-reading a new song, ran into a really high note, tried to figure out the pitch, and settled for "really high."

Then we're back to the interview room, where I'm sure HYDE had some great answers, but nobody bothered to translate on the DVD. That's kind of stupid.

And finally, we get to the really good stuff. "Driver's High" (and the fans go wild)! Fireworks! Psychedelic lights! Average vocals! And Tetsu just threw his bass! "Feeling Fine" keeps the energy but HYDE starts groaning again. And he swallows at a really bad time. Other than that, though, it's like the sign he gives the audience: A-OK.

Ken and Tetsu totally steal the show in "Stay Away," but HYDE... well, now he's slurring some lyrics. This is the smoothest song so far, and it's hard to knock anything that gets the audience clapping in rhythm, but HYDE... slurs his lyrics.

"Revelation" may have the best opening in the history of L'Arc music: a simple "bang bang" on the guitar and drums, but man it sounds spectacular. Totally classic rock music, just in Japanese. I'm really starting to feel like I need a running HYDE-o-Meter, because he's much better here than a few minutes before.

And then it all comes crashing, flaming, burning down in "READY STEADY GO." Compared to his backing vocals in the chorus, HYDE sounds a good thirty years older. The slurring is the worst it's been, and getting out of sync because you're too busy climbing an amplifier looks real silly on video. What's most frustrating is that Ken, Tetsu, and Yukihiro are awesome, even better than on the "Fullmetal Alchemist" recording.

Then it's encore time, and HYDE—is that a banana t-shirt on Tetsu?—whips out the guitar once more. Maybe playing along calms him; knock the HYDE-o-Meter up a couple of notches for "Honey," but don't spend so much time on him that you miss Ken's daring bridge part.

At long last, it's time for the ultimate L'Arc classic, "Blurry Eyes." If for some inexplicable reason you don't like L'Arc this late into the concert, "Blurry Eyes" will win you over. Crazy catchy theme and an awesome curveball in the middle of the chorus; what more could you desire?

To wrap things up, HYDE shows just how much of a pro he is and pulls a flawless vocal performance out of nowhere for "Pieces." It's the best he's sounded all night, by far. The dreamy song is a nice finishing number; earlier in the concert it would have sounded sappy, but as you start to realize what an incredible event you've just witnessed, the mood is right for it.

"L'Arc~en~Ciel Live in U.S.A" is an absolute must-buy, despite a frustrating number of bumps in the road. Tofu still has to learn that translations are not optional for an English-language release (imagine if ADV just didn't feel like subtitling a few minutes here and there), but like HYDE, they pull quite the spectacular stunt at the end. How about a bonus DVD of "Revelation" from L'Arc's 2004 tour in Japan? A bonus that's not even included in the Japanese release? That's one hell of an extra—only four minutes long, but the thing plays like a music video.

And yes, HYDE is right on target.

L'Arc~en~Ciel: Jojoshi —Sony (May 18th in Japan, a chilly day in hell in America)

In the spirit of cool L'Arc~en~Ciel bonuses, here's a look at their newest single that just hit Japan. We begin with the most obvious of obvious statements: L'Arc knows how to write a hook. Three seconds into "Jojoshi," a quick five-note turn dares you to resist its pull. You just have to know how this thing is going to develop. Unfortunately, most of the song is so laid back that it's only a step above lazy. (My friend is shouting, "It's classic L'Arc!" in my ear. Yeah it is, but that doesn't mean it's still a thrill thirteen years later.)

When it reaches the chorus, the song is sublime. That five-note passage, a bit lower this time, fills so much space that you can't help but imagine how it would sound in an arena. "Jojoshi" is all about good turns. One note, a couple higher, and a couple lower. Simple but addictive.

Heaven's Drive 2005 is another in L'Arc's recent series of remade songs from their "P'unk~en~Ciel" musical chairs stunt. Tetsu moves from bass to vocals, HYDE from vocals to guitar, Ken from guitar to drums, and Yukihiro from drums to bass. No commentary needed here, just be sure to pick up your jaw when it's over.

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