Month: January 2016

Art of Life (1993)

In 1992, symphonic metal band X Japan were already hugely popular in their home country and were gaining popularity throughout the Far East, riding the coattails of their first two albums, Blue Blood (1989) and Jealousy (1991). They were also one of the first Japanese bands to get mainstream airplay and acceptance despite being on a independent label. And while many of their hard-rock peers from the ’80s were getting left by the wayside, X decided to go even bigger and better.

Following a minor lineup change (bassist Taiji left the group and was replaced by current bassist Hiroshi “Heath” Morie), songwriter/pianist/drummer Yoshiki decided to record X’s new album in the United States.

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He arrived in North Hollywood and dropped in at One on One Recording Studio, where Metallica had famously recorded its self-titled debut album. Yoshiki was blown away while taking a tour around the place, and he remarked that it was the best place he had ever seen as far as recording drums were concerned. He expressed interest in buying some studio time, but the manager said they were full, joking that if Yoshiki really wanted to record there, he’d have to buy the studio himself.

The next day, Yoshiki came back, money in hand, and bought the studio.

Always meticulous and methodical as a composer, Yoshiki decided that he wanted the entire album –titled Art of Life– to be one song, clocking in at 29 minutes long. That’s ambitious enough, but Yoshiki also wanted to have tempo changes, solos, no set chorus, and heavy orchestration. He got it, and a progressive symphony was born.

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A classically-trained piano player from the age of four, Yoshiki was inspired by Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” when he was composing Art of Life (which took about two weeks to write). Lyrically, the song is intensely personal, written from Yoshiki’s perspective after his father committed suicide. The song/album was recorded in numerous locations, including Yoshiki’s own studios in L.A. and Tokyo, while the orchestra parts were recorded at England’s legendary Abbey Road Studios.

Art of Life starts with a dreamlike acoustic intro accompanied by Yoshiki on piano. Vocalist Toshi sings the opening lines and this goes on for a few minutes until the power metal riffs start, filling the air with dueling guitars and a manic gallop from the drums. Several recurring motifs occur musically, but there are no real verses or chorus, instead allowing for guitar solos, heavy use of strings (courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), and a few spoken word passages.

And this is all before we reach the 11-minute mark.

At around 15 minutes, a piano solo starts and goes on for a good eight and a half minutes, featuring layered melodies and lengthy improvisation. It’s jaw-dropping to say the least. The final seven minutes of the song are another verse and several other complex parts before going into another recurring melody (but again, not an actual chorus). It’s really amazing how well it all connects, musically and emotionally.

Obviously, progressive rock/metal isn’t new and it certainly isn’t for everyone. I’d certainly recommend X Japan to anyone who would listen, but Art of Life, even more so than the rest of their catalogue, requires patience and an open mind. I’d also say that you also need some type of basic appreciation for classical music before you dive into X’s discography.

But none of that takes away from Art of Life. It’s a truly unique piece of art that is extraordinary and powerful. Blending so many complex emotions as effortlessly as it blends classical music and hard rock, Art of Life stands as maybe the biggest statement that X has made to the world of music — their “Stairway to Heaven,” if you will.

“If you like music, you owe it to yourself to hear this,” says Nick Butler of Sputnik Music.

TRACK LISTING:

  1. Art of Life (29:00)

PERSONNEL: 

Yoshiki – piano/drums/lyrics

Toshi – vocals

Hide – guitar

Pata – guitar

Heath – bass

String arrangements and orchestration by Dick Marx and Shelly Berg

Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

 

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ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Silent Planet

(Note: this post will function as both an artist spotlight and as an album review.)

Silent Planet is on a mission. They have set their course and are looking to become major stars in the world of Christian metalcore. Formed in Los Angeles in 2009, this band has set themselves apart in a genre that needed some new energy. After releasing two EPs independently, Silent Planet were noticed by Christian label Solid State Records, who played a prominent role in the success of Underoath, Norma Jean, and Haste the Day. And in 2014, Silent Planet showcased their musical and lyrical prowess on their debut CD, The Night God Slept. 

Silent Planet’s first album is exceptional. Musically, it features harsh screams, technical breakdowns, a brilliant blend of clean vocal melodies, and dream-like soundscapes created via a beautiful mix of lush synths and clean guitars.

Lyrically, it deals with a myriad of subjects: the history of Christianity, sociopolitical issues, and personal experiences of persecution and human suffering. Of course, being a Christian band, Silent Planet expresses all of this in a context of a loving God and a world gone wrong. They even took their name from the C.S. Lewis science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet.

Much of this is symbolized in the band’s logo: a barren-looking planet with a giant tear across it. Earth was created perfectly whole, but is torn away from God by the problem of sin. Still, God desires to see humanity made whole and united by the message of Jesus.

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Unlike most Christian bands, Silent Planet does not exclusively write songs from a personal perspective that deal with personal relationships with God or with other people. Their lyrics also don’t specifically suggest eternal struggles of good versus evil, as many bands do.

Certain songs, such as “The Well,” “Depths II,” and “First Mother (Lilith),” deal with various topics, with scripture references, poetry, and literary details scattered throughout.

The Night God Slept is notable in that it features three songs about various countries in WWII, two of which–“Tiny Hands (Au Revoir)” and “Darkstrand (Hibakusha)”–are written from the perspective of female protagonists.

“Women in heavy music are caught in a binary. They are either written as a ‘good’ moral, ideal woman or a ‘bad’ sinful, tempting woman–but almost never written from their own perspective,” lead vocalist Garrett Russell explains. “What links all of the women in our songs is that they ultimately have to make difficult decisions under the systemic oppression of their coercive ruling forces, which include government, authority figures and the society they live in.”

“Tiny Hands” is the album’s fifth track and is written about Marguerite Rouffanche, a French woman who survived a Nazi-orchestrated arson of a church in June 1944. The song contains powerful details (as written from Rouffanche’s point of view) and features clever guitar work that eerily resembles the sound of an air-raid siren.

“Darkstrand (Hibakusha)” details the story of a Japanese woman and child trapped under rubble and separated from each other as the bombing of Hiroshima ensues around them. It’s another aggressive, intense piece, full of thought-provoking lyrics about the beauty of creation being destroyed as lives are lost. Russell’s lyrical penmanship shows his characters not necessarily as good or evil, but simply as human beings–this is one of the album’s more underrated songs.

The second track on the album is called “XX (City Grave)” and deals with the crisis of sex-trafficking in America.

“We buried our sisters in a glass display, only to evaporate to a toxic skyline / Underneath we sell off the bodies….Where you drown in the comfort of our complicity,” growls Russell. It’s an intense song to say the least.

Track four, “Native Blood,” focuses on the shameful treatment of the Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government in the 19th century, and how–regrettably–Christianity was complicit in the deaths of innocents. Part of the first verse reads, “You built your Father’s house over my mother’s grave,” invoking the tragic irony of erecting a church on an Indian burial ground. However, the emphasis of the song is not “white guilt” (for lack of a better term), but rather a mix of sorrow and compassion–and ultimately, hope.

“Firstwake” is a song about the intentions of Christianity, as opposes to the mainstream public’s perception of Christianity. “Wasteland (Vechnost)” is an examination of Soviet Russia, which suffered the most casualties of any of the Allied nations in WWII. The song explores the Soviet Union’s views on religion and the implications thereof.

Russell really excels as a vocalist and lyricist; his passionate screams showcase the raw power and energy of his lyrics. A humble person by nature, Russell has a Master’s degree in clinical psychology and actually worked in a counseling center before pursuing music full-time. The son of missionaries, Russell chose to emphasize the struggles of women on this album because he was the only boy in his family and grew up with a basic honor and respect for women (among other reasons, as listed above). He’s also mentioned that his passion for life and pursuing deeper thoughts through music come from a relief trip to Haiti when he was 16.

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The heart of Silent Planet comes through Russell, the band’s lyrical mouthpiece. He is frequently the one posting on the band’s Facebook page, and on stage, he oozes passion and dedication. While that’s true of many vocalists, Russell’s compassionate demeanor and his desire to probe tough subjects earns him brownie points with many fans, both Christian and non-Christian.

And I can both respect that and identify with that. As a Christian, it’s difficult to grapple with the problem of evil–whether it be represented by repressive, dictatorial regimes or the brutality of the sex-trafficking industry. It’s hard admitting that many believers sat idly by and did little to stop the government forcibly relocating and killing Native Americans.

But Russell shows, through his humility and love for others, that he can bring an authentic message. As someone who has seen Silent Planet live in concert (twice!), I can vouch for Russell and his desire to see others know God and repair the dividing tear between the divine and the earthly.

“Hopefully our message is just that we see God as whole. God’s complete and we’re so incomplete. I think our hope is that we can be made whole again from that tear that separates me from you,” Russell says.

As Silent Planet embarks upon a new year and recording a new album, I can safely say that this ambitious band has nothing but positive things going for them. They are well worth checking out. Period.

Rating: 10/10

Track Listing:

  1. The Well – 3:00
  2. XX (City Grave) – 2:52
  3. I Drowned in the Desert* – 1:28
  4. Native Blood – 3:53
  5. Tiny Hands (Au Revoir) – 3:31
  6. Firstwake – 4:14
  7. Darkstrand (Hibakusha) – 3:18
  8. First Mother (Lilith) – 2:35
  9. To Thirst for the Sea* – 1:07
  10. Wasteland (Vechnost) – 3:30
  11. Depths, pt. II – 3:14

*instrumental track

Personnel:

Garrett Russell – unclean vocals

Spencer Keene – guitar

Mitchell Stark – guitar

Igor Efimov – guitar

Thomas Freckleton – bass/keys/clean vocals

Alex Camarena – drums

Silent-Planet-2015-Photo-by-Jonathan-Kemp-13