Gig Review: X Japan at SSE Arena, Wembley (4th March 2017)

Two years ago, I’d never even heard of X Japan. But, fast forward to last weekend, and I was sat in the audience for their long-awaited Wembley Arena show.

And you know what? It absolutely rocked.

The road to Wembley though was nearly as full of twists and turns as X Japan’s history itself. Way back in 2015, X Japan announced “X Day” – a special one-off Wembley Arena concert due to take place on 12th March 2016, which would also coincide with the release of their new album and the world premiere of their documentary film “We Are X”. I didn’t know the first thing about the band back then, but my girlfriend was a fan and it’s not the sort of occasion that comes around very often, so I decided to book tickets for her birthday. Needless to say, it didn’t quite go to plan. In early 2016, X Japan announced that they had to postpone the concert by a whole year because their guitarist, Pata, had been taken into intensive care.

So, a whole year came and went. X Japan’s new album was indefinitely delayed as well, and “We Are X” has long since premiered in several other countries across the globe. The initial appeal of “X Day” waned and waned as the months passed by – what should have been the band’s explosive comeback was now fizzling out into a slow, almost painful burn. The reasoning for the 12 month delay was understandable, of course, but it’s hard to deny that it had a huge impact on hype and anticipation.

Thankfully, it was more than worth the wait. For anyone who has never heard of X Japan before, they’re essentially Japan’s answer to Queen or KISS. We may not know them very well in the West, but they’re a big, big deal in the East. A massive deal, in fact, and even that’s the understatement of the century. The first thing we noticed outside the arena was the insanely long queue of fans, a large number of which had travelled from overseas – many of them dressed in X Japan outfits or cosplay! But what’s considerably more bonkers is that this was just the queue for a merchandise stand. There were plenty of other stands inside the arena too (more on that in a moment), but the die-hard fans were jumping at the very first opportunity they got to pick up some exclusive memorabilia.

After a comparatively tiny queue to get into the arena, the next thing I did was start queueing up at a merch stand myself – and while it was a vastly shorter queue than the one outside, I was still stood there for what must have been upwards of half an hour. The hold-up was probably due to a number of reasons: not enough staff to cope with demand, the language barrier for most of the attendees… but most probably because the majority of fans were buying almost everything. T-shirts, hoodies, CDs, badges… you name it, they bought it, and totals were regularly reaching £150+ per transaction. It was a little frustrating at the time, but you’ve got to admire their dedication. When I eventually reached the front of the queue, my order must have seemed paltry by comparison – just an exclusive Wembley edition of the “We Are X” soundtrack and an embroidered sweatband for me, thanks.

With merch finally bought we found our seats in the arena and waited for the first of the night’s attractions. Despite no longer being a world premiere, we were still treated to a screening of “We Are X” – or a ‘special’ version of it, anyway. The 90 minute film was edited down into a 60 minute cut which supposedly included some deleted scenes, but having later seen the full version I couldn’t notice anything significantly different. Still, it was enjoyable at the time and a fascinating reminder of the band’s tragic, unbelievable past.

Even better was how the film transitioned directly into the concert. Just as we were all expecting the credits to roll, the big screen lifted away to reveal X Japan already stood on the stage, ready to rock. A dramatic voice introduced each member one by one – including the band’s two deceased members, Hide and Taiji – before kicking into their opening number, “Rusty Nail”, which is quite possibly my favourite X Japan song of all. Lasers flashed, pyrotechnics boomed, and the entire arena leapt to their feet, where they firmly stayed for the entire concert.

To call the show anything other than a tour de force would undersell it. X Japan began with a 1 hour 20 minute set that encompassed their greatest hits like “Kurenai” and “Jade” to more recent hits like “Born to Be Free” and “La Venus”. In between, individual members took their moments to shine – guitarist Pata and bassist Heath engaged in a guitar solo/duet, and guitarist Sugizo played a beautiful version of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on the violin. There was even a spur of the moment performance of “Say Anything” that wasn’t on the original set list (prompted by band leader/drummer Yoshiki pleading with vocalist Toshi to just “say something… say anything!”). What’s more, to make up for the year-long wait and the ongoing delay of the new album, the band recorded the audience singing along to new song “Kiss the Sky” which will be mixed into the final version of the track.

That wasn’t the end of the night, though. Yoshiki returned to the stage to begin the encore with a classical piano rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. This was followed by a simply epic Yoshiki drum solo which saw him push himself to his physical limits, as he does with every X Japan performance. It’s often easy to criticise Yoshiki’s character, but as a musician, his talent is unparalleled. Once Yoshiki had regained his breath, the rest of the band joined in to conclude the encore with the likes of “Without You”, “I.V.”, and the eponymous theme “X” which had the whole of Wembley Arena singing in unison and making X symbols with their arms.

But, despite Toshi saying “X” would be the last song… there was a second encore still to come! Again, it began with a Yoshiki solo, this time celebrating the influence of British music with piano versions of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The night ended with two of X Japan’s biggest songs – a powerful rendition of arguably their most famous song “Endless Rain”, and finally two movements from the (originally 30 minute long) “Art of Life”. After a combined 3 hours or so of bringing the house down, the band took their bows and left for (hopefully!) a well-earned rest.

Simply put, X Japan are the best band I’d never heard of and this Wembley gig confirmed that. This was one of the most impressive live shows I’ve ever seen, a visual and audio treat that will live long in the memory. After such a long build-up, it’s such a relief that it lived up to (and probably even exceeded) the hype. X Japan couldn’t really afford for this to go wrong, but thankfully there was nothing for us to worry about. This was a phenomenal, almost life-affirming concert that didn’t feel like it came from a band on the brink. Their future beyond this point might be uncertain, and the responsibility of keeping up the momentum now lies entirely with them – but the raw energy and talent on display was palpable, and moreover everyone both on and off stage just had fun. This felt a world away from the doom-laden X Japan witnessed in the “We Are X” documentary, and more like an almighty phoenix rising from the ashes to usher in a glorious new era of rock history.

My only niggling complaints from the night were the crazy queues for the merch stands at the beginning, and the ever-so-slightly-too-long gaps in between encores where it wasn’t completely clear whether the show was over or not – but these pale in comparison to the sheer majesty of the performance itself. Shows like this are a rare beast, and I feel incredibly honoured to have been a part of this band’s biggest UK appearance to date. It was moving to see just how much this gig meant to long-time fans from overseas – I had a couple of Japanese girls next to me in the arena who were singing, dancing, and crying tears of joy throughout the entire show. Frankly, I can’t blame them. This was something special, no doubt about it.

With X Day behind them, I can only hope X Japan do three things moving forward: I hope they cash in on this excitement and release their new album soon. I hope they finally make an impact overseas and gain the widespread popularity they deserve. And, perhaps most selfishly, I hope they return to England for another gig soon, because I’d love to see them again.

I don’t know what else I can possibly say that could properly round off this review, so instead I’ll just leave you with the band’s eternal mantra: We… are… X!

Set List

  1. Rusty Nail
  2. Hero (YOSHIKI song)
  3. Jade
  4. Kiss the Sky (Recording of the audience)
  5. Beneath the Skin
  6. Pata & Heath Solo
  7. Drain
  8. Life on Mars? (David Bowie cover) (Sugizo Violin Solo)
  9. La Venus
  10. Say Anything (Acoustic version, first verse and chorus only)
  11. Born to Be Free
  12. Kurenai

Encore:

  1. Moonlight Sonata (Ludwig van Beethoven cover)
  2. Yoshiki Drum Solo
  3. Without You
  4. I.V.
  5. X

Encore 2:

  1. Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen cover) (Piano)
  2. Space Oddity (David Bowie cover) (Piano)
  3. Endless Rain
  4. Art of Life (2nd & 3rd movement)
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