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L'Arc-en-Ciel: The Aesthetics of J-Rock

Written by Kitazawa Tell a Friend

Japanese rock band L'Arc-en-Ciel recently wrapped up their TOUR 2008 L'7 ~Trans ASIA via PARIS~. Held from April 19 to June 8, the world tour brought L'Arc-en-Ciel to Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Paris, Tokyo, and finally full circle back to Osaka, where the band first began their musical journey 17 years ago. In close to two decades of ups and downs, this Japanese aesthetic rock band has grown from a Kansai indie to a world-class act.

There is, of course, a reason I'm describing L'Arc-en-Ciel as "aesthetic rock" instead of "visual rock". In 1999, the host of Japanese music program Pop Jam repeatedly called L'Arc-en-Ciel a "visual kei band", a label that the band strongly resists. Usually mild-mannered bandleader tetsu was visibly angered by the slight, and L'Arc-en-Ciel left the program early in a show of discontent. From that day on, L'Arc-en-Ciel has had nothing to do with the words "visual kei".

Even so, early L'Arc-en-Ciel did display many visual kei characteristics. Image wise, the band had visual rock's sense of Japanese aesthetics. Music wise, their early style was similar to visual contemporaries SHAZNA, PENICILLIN, and SOPHIA, and the later PIERROT and Janne Da Arc. However, since L'Arc-en-Ciel has repeatedly stressed to the media that they are not a visual kei band, we can only say that their music and image includes visual kei elements.

The Rise of L'Arc-en-Ciel

L'Arc-en-Ciel was originally formed in Osaka in February 1991 with tetsu as leader, hyde as vocalist, hiro as guitarist, and pero as drummer. In May, they held their first concert at Namba Rockets, a renowned local live music venue. They initially focused their activities in Osaka before gradually, like all other bands from the Kansai region, shifting center to Tokyo. During this time, the band lineup changed twice, with tetsu's childhood friend ken replacing hiro and Tokyo drummer sakura replacing pero. By 1992, L'Arc-en-Ciel had not only made their name in Kansai, they were big enough to hold a sold-out concert at the Shinjuku LOFT, though it would not be until 1994 that L'Arc-en-Ciel made their major debut.

With visual kei rising flamboyantly to the forefront in 1995 and 1996, L'Arc-en-Ciel was actually quite tame in comparison to many other bands. Their second album heavenly entered the top three of the Oricon charts, and in December 1995, only one and half years after their debut, they held their first Budokan concert. Thanks to the visual kei boom of the mid-90s, it wasn't difficult for a band with a sharp image to attract attention, especially one with a fair-featured frontman like hyde, but with so many visual bands debuting, to truly break through was not easy. Although L'Arc-en-Ciel wasn't a visual kei band, they did come of age during the height of visual rock.

1996 was an important year for L'Arc-en-Ciel. All the singles they put out that year made it to the Oricon top ten, and album True took them to the ranks of million-selling band. Technically speaking, however, their music style was still not very clear. Some critics would later attribute this to drummer sakura, suggesting that there was not enough variation in his tempo, which is an unfair assessment of both sakura and the L'Arc-en-Ciel of 1996. Looking back at L'Arc-en-Ciel's history and development, it is perhaps because the band would go on to put out so many great works that, in comparison, their earlier years seemed lacking.

In Adversity Comes Opportunity

In February 1997, sakura was arrested for drug possession, sending the band into an uncertain hiatus. L'Arc-en-Ciel CDs were pulled from shelves and all activities came to a halt. During this time, the band focused on songwriting, and it proved to be a valuable period of growth for their later music. After sakura's arrest, the other band members and their management asserted that they would wait for sakura to return. In May, sakura was handed a two-year suspended sentence and three years probation. In November of the same year, sakura officially left L'Arc-en-Ciel because of "musical differences". hyde, ken, and tetsu resumed activities and released the single Niji.

Although sakura left L'Arc-en-Ciel under murky circumstances, his contributions to the band are undeniable. It was only after sakura's joining that L'Arc-en-Ciel officially debuted. In comparison to the steady infallacy of current drummer yukihiro, one could also say that sakura's drumming feels more human, lending a more relaxed mood to L'Arc-en-Ciel's early music.

Niji was released the same week as SPEED's White Love, globe's Wanderin' Destiny, Kawamura Ryuichi's love is..., Judy and Mary's LOVER SOUL. In the face of such stiff competition, L'Arc-en-Ciel still made it to #3, selling 330,000 copies. Clearly, L'Arc-en-Ciel's popularity was not diminished by the controversy and hiatus. Instead, ten months of rest had given the band the chance to gather forces and come back stronger. Coinciding with the release of Niji, L'Arc-en-Ciel also announced they would hold their first Tokyo Dome concert 1997 REINCARNATION on December 23, 1997. The 56,000 concert tickets sold out in four minutes, setting a new record and sealing L'Arc-en-Ciel's comeback.

L'Arc-en-Ciel's three-man lineup only lasted for one single. Afterwards, former ZI:KILL and DIE IN CRIES drummer yukihiro, who was listed as a support drummer for Niji, officially joined the band.

1998, The Year of L'Arc-en-Ciel

In January 1998, L'Arc-en-Ciel released winter fall, which became the band's first #1 single. This was followed in quick succession by the album HEART in February, the single DIVE TO BLUE in March, and the DVD A Piece of Reincarnation in April, with the band getting more and more popular with every release.

L'Arc-en-Ciel shocked the music industry in July by unprecedentedly releasing three singles - HONEY, Kasou, and Shinsyoku ~lose control~ - on the same day. B'z took the top Oricon spot that week with HOME, but the second, third, and fourth spots all went to L'Arc-en-Ciel. The following week, HONEY surged ahead to #1. The prolific releases did not stop there. In October, L'Arc-en-Ciel released two more singles, snow drop and forbidden lover, displaying the "yin" and "yang" of the band's music.

L'Arc-en-Ciel released seven singles in 1998, all of which made it to the top 30 of the yearly charts, totaling to 7.3 million copies sold. This remains Japan's record for the highest number of singles sold in a single year by a music act. At the year's end, the band was awarded with Best Composer at the Japan Gold Disc Awards and made it to Kohaku Uta Gassen New Year's countdown stage for the first time, writing a storybook ending to a phenomenal year.

The Transition Years

L'Arc-en-Ciel's rise to the top in 1998 and 1999 coincided with the golden years of visual kei. At the time visual bands like GLAY and LUNA SEA were extremely successful, so it was understandable that many people also connected L'Arc-en-Ciel with the visual kei wave. But the members of L'Arc-en-Ciel themselves did not want any association with the visual label and television hosts were generally careful to not refer to them as such until a certain Pop Jam host challenged the taboo. The spat cast a shadow over the release of the band's new single Heaven's Drive, and many observers consider it to be a turning point in L'Arc-en-Ciel's career.

In July 1999, L'Arc-en-Ciel returned to their roots and simultaneously released two outstanding albums, ray and ark, both of which were big sellers. The two albums combined for sales of close to five million. In addition, the band also held their nationwide 1999 GRAND CROSS TOUR. Their two shows in Tokyo alone attracted 25,000 people.

Entering the new millennium, the rise of R&B also marked the retreat of J-rock. Even top bands like L'Arc-en-Ciel and GLAY had to integrate new elements into their music to stay relevant. L'Arc-en-Ciel started out 2000 with the single NEO UNIVERSE which added eurobeat to the band's usual rock repertoire. The song revealed yukihiro's prowess for beats and remixes and paved the way for the band's first remix album, ectomorphed works, in June. L'Arc-en-Ciel's first greatest hits compilation, Clicked Singles Best 13, came in March 2001. With the songs selected via fan voting in eight Asia regions, the album was a clear sign that L'Arc-en-Ciel was starting to think internationally.

After the album REAL in August, the members gradually realized their music had reached a plateau. Though they were still capable of creating great music, they seemed to lack new inspirations. Therefore, after releasing the single Spirit dreams inside -another dream- in 2001, the band decided to go on their second hiatus.

The four members officially began their solo activities. hyde released a solo album (for his solo album, he went by "HYDE" with all capital letters), and tetsu became a guitarist under the name TETSU69. ken and sakura reunited to form the band S.O.A.P (Sons Of All Pussys), and yukihiro revealed his vocals with the new band acid android. This period of solo activity was an important creative period for the members, and helped their later work as a band.

Ready Steady Go Again

In 2003 L'Arc-en-Ciel's record company released three greatest hits albums for the band: The Best of L'Arc-en-Ciel 1994-1998, The Best of L'Arc-en-Ciel 1998-2000, and The Best of L'Arc-en-Ciel c/w. The three compilations plus the seven consecutive Shibuya Seven days 2003 concerts at National Yoyogi Stadium fueled speculation that L'Arc-en-Ciel may be disbanding, but the rumors were soon put to rest.

In 2004, L'Arc-en-Ciel officially returned with the new single Ready Steady Go, followed by Hitomi no Jyunin. Both singles were outstanding music releases, but the Japanese music scene and L'Arc-en-Ciel's place in it was clearly not the same as it once was. Faced with a changing industry, the band could only continue to battle a declining market with good music.

Starting with the 2004 single Jiyu e no Shotai, L'Arc-en-Ciel began to include P'UNK~EN~CIEL B-sides to their releases. The members of L'Arc-en-Ciel switched positions for their alter-ego punk band with guitarist tetsu becoming lead vocalist TETSU P'UNK, vocalist hyde becoming guitarist HYDE P'UNK, drummer yukihiro becoming bassist YUKI P'UNK, and bassist ken become drummer KEN P'UNK. The formation of P'UNK~EN~CIEL not only affirmed the band's versatile talents, it showed that they still had many surprises up their sleeves

New Inspirations: From Baltimore to Shanghai

In July 2004 L'Arc-en-Ciel held their first overseas concert in Baltimore, Maryland. The success of their US concert indicated L'Arc-en-Ciel's future path. From single Killing Me to album AWAKE, L'Arc-en-Ciel took on a more western style, be it in their hard rock or the jazz elements, and AWAKE greatly increased the band's prominence overseas.

The band returned to J-rock style for 2005's Link, the theme song for Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie. The popularity of Fullmetal Alchemist gave L'Arc-en-Ciel an extra boost of fame in Asia, and later in the year they held ASIALIVE 2005 concerts in Seoul and Shanghai.

After ASIALIVE 2005, the members went back into a period of solo activity. The next single they released, the Fourth Avenue Cafe, was not a new creation but the single that was originally set to release in 1997 before sakura's arrest sent the band into hiatus. In the end, the Fourth Avenue Cafe was only included in the album True, and never released as a single. L'Arc-en-Ciel decided to release it anew in 2006 to celebrate the band's 15th anniversary.

The Kiss of L'Arc

2007's SEVENTH HEAVEN announced the return of L'Arc-en-Ciel after around a year of rest. L'Arc-en-Ciel's 2007 singles took the band back to the glory of their peak years and proved to be their highest sellers since 1998. SEVENTH HEAVEN saw yukihiro taking charge of beat programming again for a very energetic number; My Heart Draws A Dream and Daybreak's bell showcased the band's lyrical side; and Hurry Xmas was the band's first stab at a Christmas song. The singles were duly followed by the #1 album Kiss and the launching of the nationwide TOUR 2007-2008 THEATER OF KISS in December.

During their nationwide tour, L'Arc-en-Ciel announced their new single DRINK IT DOWN and, to the excitement of fans throughout Asia, a world tour with stops in Paris and throughout Asia. L'Arc-en-Ciel's final tour stop at Osaka Dome on June 8, however, also marks the band's last concert in a long while as the members stated they would not hold any more concerts until 2011, their 20th anniversary year.

Though L'Arc-en-Ciel will not be holding concerts in the next three years, they will continue to put out music releases, with a new single announced for August. The members can also be seen on stage through their various solo projects. HYDE's new band VAMPS with OBLIVION DUST guitarist K.A.Z., which just released a single on July 1, already has plans for concerts in September. Three years is a long time to wait for fans, but when L'Arc-en-Ciel returns to the stage in 2011, we can expect them to be stronger than ever.

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Translated by Sanwei

Published July 7, 2008

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