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Anime, Featured, Japanese

L’Arc~en~Ciel at Madison Square Garden: 20 Years and Still Steady

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It was early this January that I stood pressed between a kind security guard and countless dedicated fans, pausing from my photographic duties to really take in the Earthbound Papas performance at MAGFest X. Fans and musicians alike had gathered across great distances to witness beloved anthems from gaming classics performed, transforming themes that had been shrilly sung by sound chips into guitar solos and rock ballads. It was an extremely emotional performance for many of the audience members, and yet despite the uniqueness of the experience I found myself feeling a very surprising sensation: nostalgia. I remembered another important musical event from years past, when I had made a similar trek from New York to Baltimore to see a different Japanese rock act perform, one by the name of L’Arc~en~Ciel.

Hit the jump for impressions and photos from their recent appearance in New York City.

It was the summer of 2004 when my friends and I had made the trip down to a city we despised for the sake of an event we assumed to be once in a lifetime. It was the band’s first time performing in America. I was broke, hungry, and tired after having waited in line outside in the July sun, but when the band finally took the stage and I stood up on my chair from the third row I knew it had been worth the unpleasant wait. I joined hundreds of other fans who jumped, cheered, and sang along to both old and new favorites from their recent album Smile, reveling in the moment. They had even played my favorite song, “Heaven’s Drive,” a song that a friend had told me was rarely performed live.

L’Arc~en~Ciel is a Japanese band with such a long, vibrant history that trying to summarize their achievements is no easy feat. Founded in 1991, the group whose French name that translates to “the rainbow” were first noticed amid the early days of the now well-known visual kei movement. Despite a few lineup changes in their early years, most notably the loss of their drummer sakura in 1997, the band’s current lineup has remained unchanged for the past 14 years: hyde, the heartthrob vocalist whose beautiful vocals never fail to impress; tetsuya, the often flamboyant, energetic bass player; ken, the cool and constantly smoking guitarist; and yukihiro, the quiet, steady drummer who rounded out the group upon joining in 1998.

Over the course of their career many of their singles achieved great success in Japan, and had even found recognition in America. Their success in the American fandom was likely due in part to their placement in anime and film soundtracks that became popular in the West, including “Driver’s High” as a theme for GTO, “The Fourth Avenue Cafe” for Rurouni Kenshin, “Spirit Dreams Inside” for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and “Ready Steady Go” for Full Metal Alchemist, the last of which may arguably be their most successful single. While the band has gone on hiatus more than once over the years, this never seemed to deter their ever-growing fanbase from coming to love the band’s entire body of work, new and old alike.

It was almost serendipitous that shortly after the Earthbound Papas performance that had roused those dormant feelings, it came to my attention that L’Arc~en~Ciel was planning to return to America for the first time since I had seen them eight years ago. With time I had stopped following the band as closely as I had in my younger years, and I was curious to see if after all this time, the band had managed to maintain the same level of energy they previously possessed. I hadn’t been particularly enthralled by their 2005 release Awake, really only finding enjoyment in the album’s singles, and wasn’t quite sure what sort of turn the band had taken after that.

With these memories and apprehensions I made my way to Madison Square Garden this past Sunday for the band’s first New York performance. As I headed up the stairs from Penn Station, it became quickly apparent which of the people in the station were also arriving for the concert. Fashion has always been very important to most music subcultures, and L’Arc~en~Ciel is no exception to that. While some peoples’ outfits were reminiscent of that 2004 Otakon experience (a friend later mentioned having stood near a cat girl), many others were decked out in their finest. Styles ranged from sweet yet trendy to darker, edgier fashions that saw their heyday when the band first found popularity.

Unfortunately, due to an overwhelming press response, I was unable to secure a photo pass, so while my strength usually lies with my photographs they will be uncharacteristically sparse from here on. About halfway through the concert I was told that if I continued using my SLR camera I would be thrown out, so I had to switch to my humble point-and-shoot instead.

After a short wait occasionally punctuated by eager cheering from the impatient fans, the lights dimmed and the black curtain hiding the stage fell, revealing massive television screens which began playing through a cinematic introduction. After displaying the names of all of the band members, hyde’s delicate features came to occupy the screens. As the fans continued to shriek, hyde’s image pouted and stared out intensely at the crowd. The video came to a close, the lights gently illuminated the band causing the coliseum further erupted into somehow still greater applause and exuberant screams as the music began. Fans rhythmically waved brightly-colored glowsticks in the air, keeping time with drummer yukihiro’s steady beat. I could even see some gesturing as if they were conducting an orchestra. The giant screens transitioned expertly between long shots of the performers; close-ups of their features and movements as they played their instruments, and atmospheric visuals made it possible for everyone in the far reaches of the stadium to enjoy the performance despite being so far from the stage.

Not long into the second song, tetsuya and hyde traveled to the extreme rights and lefts of the stage, singing and pandering to the fans seated in those areas. The large screens were quickly forgotten, and I watched from my seat as fans sprinted down the isles for a chance to stand closer to their idols, much to the ire of the venue’s security. They were all of course quickly banished back to their original seats, but it was still fun to have observed their brief moment of success.
As with at Otakon, the band did not disappoint with their occasional breaks from song to address the audience. “WHERE ARE WE?” hyde demanded of the crowd, then went on to promise us an incredible night before launching into one of the band’s classic hits, “Honey.” Purple and yellow lights shone brightly as hyde took a guitar in hand for the number, while Ken threw back his head, shaking his hair and crooning his backing lyrics under hyde’s smooth vocals.
Despite the arena’s size the band did an excellent job of performing to an audience that was nowhere near them. They expertly worked the massive stage, gesturing dramatically through the lyrics and maintaining interest in spite of the distance between them and the crowd. The band’s professionalism truly showed in these moments as they were able to cultivate an intimate environment inside an extremely unforgiving performance space, which I will admit had been a big concern of mine. My few stadium performance experiences have been extremely poor, and I was usually left with the feeling that I would have been better off saving my money and having stayed home to listen to the CD. Fortunately, this was simply not the case.

“Revelation,” another crowd pleaser, began with heavy, dramatic guitar beats and long pauses. The fans alternated with the guitar, cheering enthusiastically as the anticipation mounted for the first verse, and continued to cheer along at the designated breaks in the song. tetsuya danced, spun, and twirled about, pausing only to sing into the microphone as fireballs erupted behind the drums. “Why won’t you listen?” seemed painfully ironic lyrics considering they were being sung in a enormous venue filled with devoted fans.

If theatrics aren’t your thing, then L’Arc~en~Ciel isn’t the band for you. Many of their songs are ripe with melodrama, and their performances certainly don’t fall short of that. Beyond gorgeous visuals, flamboyant posturing and moody lighting there were occasional costume changes and pyrotechnics. Bassist tetsuya is also well-known for hurling bananas (and in our case lollipops as well) at the audience, giving closer members of the audience a token from the band to bring home that’s slightly more unique than your usual drumstick or guitar pick. While some may find it gaudy, the stage show definitely contributed to the experience, and while I can’t say I’d personally seek this sort of performance out on a regular basis, it was certainly an exciting change of pace.
The band switched frequently between newer tracks and beloved classics. While I did enjoy some of the new songs, I have to say I found the recent single “X X X (Kiss)” to be a bit to corny for my taste. However by the time the band launched into Stay Away, a song whose PV earned them an award for Video of the Year in 2000, I couldn’t help but give in and sing along with the rest of the crowd. That’s one of the best things about L’Arc~en~Ciel: Their well-crafted melodies very often stand the test of time. These memorable anthems and ballads possess a strength in their construction that allows the listener to develop powerful associates, making it nearly impossible to ever stop enjoying them. They are a truly a band whose work is built on strong emotions, and it’s clear that these emotions resonate deeply within their fanbase creating a strong bond between them and the music itself.

“NEW YORK!” hyde screamed repeatedly, with the crowd reacting with increasing excitement. “ARE YOU FUCKING READY?!?!” he finally asked before breaking into, of course, Ready Steady Go as fireworks exploded in front of the stage (as did the stadiums fans.) The song ended with a chaotic drum solo from yukihiro which gradually became slower. After building the drums back up into an absolute frenzy until he beat the set a few more times before getting up and walking away, leaving the cheering fans in complete darkness and begging for more. Visuals occasionally teased the crowd, prompting them to cheer each time they showed themselves, and visually requesting the crowd to do the wave. Thunderous, rhythmic clapping gradually turning into optimistic cheers, clapping and chanting the band’s name until the lighting finally revealed the band would return for an encore.

Throughout the night members of the band had been featured alone on the stage to solo, but at one point the giant screens showed only the lyrics to the song Anata, which the audience sang while swaying gently and waving their arms in the air. After playing the classics “winter fall” and “Blurry eyes,” hyde shared a particularly heartfelt moment with the audience. “It took us 20 years to get here,” he said with pride, before ending the night with their beloved song “Niji.” Before leaving the stage, and after hurling some fruit at the crowd, tetsuya made sure to address his fans one last time. “Mata ne,” he promised. “See you soon!”

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