Live: L’Arc-En-Ciel Land At Madison Square Garden


Madison Square Garden
Sunday, March 25

Better than: Hearing critics just talk about weird foreign scenes and stylistic blends and collisions at the EMP Pop Conference.

Japanese hard rock band L’Arc-en-Ciel have been in well-deserved self-celebration mode of late. They celebrated their 20th anniversary with the 2011 triple-disc best-of Twenity, then announced their first U.S. concert in nearly eight years (they’d made their Stateside performance debut at 2004’s Otakon anime convention in Baltimore). Originally booked for the Theater at Madison Square Garden, this show was bumped up to the main arena due to demand. And while it wasn’t a total sellout, it was damn close. The audience, though predominantly Asian, included folks of every race and color, many of whom doubtless didn’t know a word of Japanese and/or first heard L’Arc via games or anime soundtracks (their songs have served as themes for Fullmetal Alchemist and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, among others). I saw a Mexican flag and a Venezuelan flag being waved on the floor at various points.

The group released their twelfth studio album, Butterfly, last month; it’s an ultra-slick blend of crunching hard rock guitars, melodies that recall The Cure at their most psychedelic (think “Friday I’m In Love”), frontman and occasional rhythm guitarist hyde’s keening, upper-register vocals, and lush ’60s pop-influenced arrangements that pile on the strings and horns at times (think the Doors’ “Touch Me”). They don’t play the cyber-R&B Asian pop most think of when contemporary Japanese music is discussed in the West; L’Arc-en-Ciel are a rock band, straight up, even if keyboard lines borrowed from house music occasionally nudge the guitars out of the way. Their songs frequently feature screaming solos from lead guitarist ken (none of the bandmembers capitalize their names), and drummer yukihiro is a living jackhammer. And the concert included guitar, bass and drum solos, ken’s a slow, David Gilmour-esque exercise in spotlit melancholy.

Live, L’Arc are significantly weirder than on record. First of all, hyde has to be the single most androgynous frontman I’ve ever seen—he makes Antony Hegarty look like Henry Rollins. He wore a waist-length black blazer with shoulder pads over a black tank top, pants baggy enough to hold a spare microphone or two, and his hair was in blond cornrows, dangling loose for better whipping. His primary stage move (other than sticking his tongue out at the audience) is a version of Axl Rose’s snake-hips dance, but with added twirls and what can only be described as flouncing. Oh, and five songs or so into the set, he donned a floppy, wide-brimmed hat Alicia Keys would envy, making him look like a ’90s R&B diva having a rock moment.

There were a few nods to the location of the event; ken delivered a slightly rambling, but funny, speech in English (read off a piece of paper) describing his trip to the Museum of Natural History (which he wanted to see because he was such a fan of the movie Night at the Museum), and three amplifiers on stage had been painted red, white and blue. The set included four songs from Butterfly, along with a selection of the band’s greatest hits, and every selection, even the new ones, was greeted with wild enthusiasm. Some inspired cheers after only their introductory sound effect—like a motorcycle engine revving—or an image on the gigantic video screens had been played. This may have been L’Arc’s New York debut, but the audience had clearly absorbed their earlier performances. A lot of recordings bolstered their sound, from strings to keyboards, but aside from the video screens displaying images ranging from coelacanths swimming back and forth to an eyeball that transformed into the Death Star, the band counted on their own charisma—of which they had plenty—to keep the arena enraptured, and it was more than enough.

Critical bias: I’m usually more of a J-pop fan; my iPod’s full of Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda Kumi, Ami Suzuki, capsule and Perfume albums. But L’Arc’s songs are catchy as hell.

Overheard: Screaming. Lots and lots of screaming.

Random notebook dump: Outside the arena pre-show, a pair of Japanese fans with a pack of markers were asking people to sign a giant card which would be presented to the band later. I demurred—journalistic objectivity, don’t you know.

Set list:
Ibara no Namida
Chase [in English]
Good Luck My Way
Drink It Down
X X X [in English]
Forbidden Lover
My Heart Draws a Dream
Caress of Venus
Driver’s High
Stay Away
Ready Steady Go

Winter Fall
Blurry Eyes