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Day 6: X Japan – “Dahlia” (1996)
Genre: Symphonic Metal / Speed Metal / Rock / Industrial
You may have noticed by now that I’m big on singers and bands that are legends in one part of the world but essentially unheard of elsewhere. X Japan are one of those bands. Usually credited as establishing Visual Kei(think a Japanese twist on the 80s glam style), I’m far more interested in their excellent mix of power metal, speed metal, prog, pop ballads, industrial and classical influences and the immense talent of the band members. Dahlia was their final album before they disbanded(not to perform together again until 10 years later) and one of their most popular and creative members, hide, died unexpectedly.
The opening seconds of the album blast you with typical X Japan fare, heavy twin guitar riffs over tight drums(courtesy of bandleader Yoshiki, often considered one of the fastest and most precise drummers in Metal) before distorted vocals climb into the center and give way to a high-pitched chorus with orchestral backing. It’s euphoric, it’s fast, it’s detailed – it’s Dahlia. The song features some progressive elements as it doesn’t stick to a typical structure and includes some well-placed instrumental bridges. Dahlia is often considered the last of the band’s songs in their signature mix of symphonic metal and power metal that made them a household name, as the rest of the album will quickly show. It takes its time, moves from quiet to explosive passages freely and effortlessly, I love it.
But Scars swiftly takes the album into another direction. It’s messy, distorted and industrial at its core, yet sticks to the band’s roots by featuring some clean vocals and a high speed. I would have liked to hear the vocals a bit more front and center, but that’s just my personal mixing preference. Scars is a fun, rocking track that shows the band’s diversity while never becoming unrecognizable.
Talking about diversity, Longing～跡切れたmelody～ is a grand, orchestrated ballad. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll find Dahlia to either be infamous for its ballad or loved for them. They are drenched in the camp tackiness of 80s power ballads, but usually manage to strike an emotional chord in me – and this one is no exception. The arrangement is fantastic, clear and gorgeous and utmost care seems to have been taken to set it apart from the mountain of generic ballads available in the Japanese pop market. It’s lonely but shows determination.
After 7 minutes of sobbing, you’re treated to something slightly different. Rusty Nail has become a go-to concert opening for the band, with a delicate, cutting guitar line, explosive chords and a sing-along chorus. Rusty Nail is a song with a pulse, it forces its way inside your body and takes you along – even the piano and strings bridge doesn’t slow it down substantially, serving as a moment to breath rather than pulling the brakes all the way. It’s a classic!
White Poem I absorbs you into a wall of sound, with a heavy bass and a suffocating darkness to it. It’s almost ambient, really, and over as quickly as it starts. This track is best described as a phantom, it fleets by and you’re not quite sure just what you heard, but it leaves a deep impression nonetheless.
The introduction to Crucify my Love hints towards the composer’s roots in classical music. It’s a weeping ballad that lets the piano speak as much as the vocals. The rest of the band doesn’t join the song at any point, a good decision that keeps the stunning beauty of the composition in mind rather than cheapening it by turning it into yet another pop ballad that adds band instruments towards the end.
In a similar fashion, at least initially, the 10-minute Tears gives itself to the beauty of strings before going down a more progressive rock route, unsurprising given its length. Tears managed almost shocking success for its nature, reaching #2 on the Japanese single charts, gaining a double platinum certification and becoming the band’s best-selling single. The song is influential to this day, with pop and rock fans occasionally claiming that more recent ballads sound like it. Rightfully so, Tears is hauntingly sad, but has just the right amount of optimism to not be plain depressing. It’s a cleansing experience that few songs achieve all while being delightfully over-the-top.
If I was asked to describe the following track Wriggle in one word, it would be out-of-place. Yes, I realize that’s not one word. It’s a bass- and guitar-heavy instrumental similar to White Poem I that serves mainly as a wake-up call after Tears and as preparation for Drain.
Drain is a last foray into more industrial territories, composed by hide, who also composed Scars. It’s fun, a driving force with a melody reminiscent of early heavy metal and punk at the same time. The melody is one of the catchiest of the album and sure to place itself firmly in your head.
The final song on the final X Japan album is understated and bare-bones. Forever Love (Acoustic Version) is a gentler version of the hit single of the same name released shortly before the album. It serves as one last reminder of the band’s emotional and creative range and I can’t find it in my heart to criticise this nostalgia-fueled ballad. It’s drenched in the pain of parting ways and could not have been a more perfect choice for its placement. It’s a song that shouldn’t work, that should be too tacky to bring out true emotion, but instead it serves as a closing chapter of a great career.
X Japan are legendary. And this album is a testament to their career. You can hear traces of all the styles they have played with over time and the entirety of the record is soaking tears and blood. I was going to give this album a 4/5 rating, but upon listening to it again in one sitting and paying close attention to every aspect of the production, arrangement and individual instrumental and vocal lines, I was struck by the genius of this one-in-a-million rock band. My favorite album of theirs remains Art of Life, made up only of one 29 minute masterpiece of a song, but Dahlia is the triumphant finale the band needed. An album that should not work on either an individual song level or as one long piece of art, but comes together perfectly and will forever stand as proof that yes, X Japan were here – and they changed the world of pop, rock and metal music, if only in one country.