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What happens when you find a song that so well represents life and all its eccentricities? Do you go around, advertising it to everyone you know, or do you keep it to yourself, making sure only you and your trusted circle of friends know about it? It’s a questionable topic in itself, because this would have to be an incredible song. And in this case, that it is.
Art of Life came out as an album in August of 1993 under Atlantic Records. Written by X Japan’s drummer, pianist, and main songwriter, Yoshiki Hayashi (Yoshiki), this is X Japan’s most unconventional and progressive song to date, as well as the only one-song album released by them. Unsurprisingly, this masterpiece was only played live a few times, both performances having also been released on DVD/VHS later that same year.
There are too many things about Art of Life that make it different from anything else out there. To listen to it, you really have to dissect it with your ears, absorb it, so to say. This, however, does not mean that you can listen to it in parts. Art of Life is, in every sense of the word, an incredibly connected and flowing piece of music.
Starting off with incredibly softly and mellow, the first 3 minutes of the song only feature the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with which the song was recorded, and a single track of acoustic guitar, accompanying vocalist Toshimitsu Deyama (Toshi) introducing the mood and overall feel of the song. Lines like those sang in the first few minutes really represent the rest of the song, and one can’t help but notice that they feel similar to the rest of the song, while the accompanying instrumentals are ever-changing. Themes that become apparent immediately are loneliness (“Desert Rose/why do you live alone?”) and despair (“if its all dreams/now wake me up/if its all real/just kill me”), while pain shows itself to be even more important (“how long have I been feeling endless hurt”, “in the pain I'm waiting for you”) and interweaves with the other themes to strengthen them even more.
After this short introduction, we are kicked in the back right into the main portion of the song, with the first thing we hear being Yoshiki’s outstanding drumming skills, which need no warm-up of any kind. He is accompanied by Hideto Matsumoto (Hide) and Tomoaki Ishizuka (Pata) on lead guitar and rhythm guitar, respectively, which are completely interwoven for a good half minute until Yoshiki starts to really kick things up and the lead and rhythm guitars also start to slowly take their own paths into the song. Toshi’s voice, starting up again just after the 4 minute mark, has also taken a new path. A new theme that appears here are fear (“it scares me to look at the world”), another mainstay for the rest of the song, and the increase in strength in his voice is also a blatant hint towards the other themes. The orchestra is a lot more suppressed by now, really to accentuate the beginning of the song, but when we listen closely, their presence can very well be felt, as well as the presence of Hiroshi Morie (Heath) on bass, the bass line ever evolving throughout the song.
As expected, the orchestra doesn’t stay suppressed for long, and just after the 5-minute mark they become just as loud as X Japan’s own instrumentals, really adding to the direct atmosphere of the song with lyrics like “my emotions losing the color of life” and “insanity takes hold over of me”, bringing up again the despair shown in the song.
6 minutes into the song we are introduced to the first of a series of spoken word inflicting eeriness upon the listener, of which we will be hearing even more throughout the song. These appear to be atmospheric, almost creepy at times, but they only help to bring up the other themes in the song (despair, hatred, and others).
The song continues on, even faster than before, after the female voice stops speaking, and the strings are ever more apparent in the background. After around the 8-minute mark, we are introduced to a keyboard part, after which the pseudo-chorus of the song starts, which for name’s sake we will call “Art of Life”. Variations of this segment repeat throughout the song, and they all repeat the first line “I believe in the madness called ‘Now’”, while also naming the themes for the ‘Art of Life’ (in this first case, “insane blade stabbing dreams”) and have Toshi singing lyrics like “but I can't heal this broken heart in pain/cannot start to live, cannot end my life/keep on crying”. In a typical ‘Art of Life’ fashion, the song speeds up again after the first pseudo-chorus, this time giving the stage to Hide and Pata while they exchange solos and riffs, the orchestra and Yoshiki playing in the background.
The game is up at 12:40, as we hear the typical lines leading to “all love and sadness melt in my heart”, despair kicking in again. The band leaves the stage, and all that is left is the orchestra, until at around 13:30 another spoken word sequence occurs, more eerie than ever before, and this time multi-layered, almost as if there is more than one woman speaking, and all these layers jump at you from different directions yet at the same time. The drums and guitar start up again in full force just in time so that the line “and you are trying to kill me” is almost completely drowned, and another chorus occurs, this time with the accompanying “Art of life/I try to stop myself” which will repeat itself again later in the song. The final lines here are “I want the meaning of my life/do I try to live/do I try to love/in my dream” while the word ‘dream’ is held onto by Toshi for a good few seconds, the orchestra accompanying him.
Just after the 15-minute mark now, Dream is what has symbolized half of the song, with the typical ups and downs of dreams (shown by the mix between the power drums, classical orchestra, fast guitars, and vocals), the sometimes uncanny nature of dreams (the strange spoken part sequences now and again), and mainstay themes for dreams (that is, people often dream about their fears, in this case, loneliness, despair, and lifelessness). At this point, the listener will wake up from the dream, even though it takes him all through the next part to wake up and recollect himself.
Then, the piano solo, starting up with a single note on the strings being held onto for the last few seconds, and then going on alone. This is no ordinary solo. This is unreal up to the point where it becomes impossible to describe on its own.
It starts off simple. A few notes played by the left hand, a few played by the right. Gradually, the left hand adds to the harmony more, and switches over to chords when the right hand is playing. A little over 16 minutes in, a foreshadowing of what is to happen starts up with quick fingers playing note after note, still retaining harmony. This becomes louder and louder, faster and faster, until just before 18 minutes it starts to become almost chaotic, shades of harmony are all that are keeping this from falling apart. One hand starts to go off in its own direction after this, the other desperately trying to keep up the harmony. Half a minute later, the sequence becomes almost impossible to follow and yet another half minute after this, it is more like a sledgehammer is hitting the keys and not the fingers of Yoshiki. At the 20-minute mark, for a few seconds, it seems like the chaos has settled, but the reality is far from it. This represents, in a way, the eye of the storm. Where we are situated, in the middle, we hear the start of the solo repeating itself, but it’s coming from a different piano. At the same time, the chaos continues, but it’s not coming from the same direction, more like it’s trying to break into the fortress the listener is in now, taking seemingly random stabs at the piano and sometimes trying to perform a sequence of notes.
Just past 21:40 comes salvation. What seemed like an eternity of torture is now coming to an end, as the strings of the orchestra suddenly start to play again, out of nowhere, unaffected by the chaos and despair of the piano. The piano takes a few last blind shots at 22 minutes, but it’s too late, as the poetic representation of the pianist is seemingly exhausted. Almost eight minutes of piano chaos is coming to an end, as the woodwinds join the strings and together drown the piano that, in harmony, brings itself away.
As much as the opposite seems true, the piano solo is one of the most important parts of Art of Life. Symbolic meanings aside, it is a chaotic sequence of a psychopathic pianist at best. However, it is when we start to assess it by poetic meaning that the true nature of it arises. This is hard to see at first, and takes a few listens to really be understood. The piano solo represents love and life and hate, indeed, the major emotions of life, the subtle and hidden ones as well as the blatantly obvious ones. In perfect harmony yet perfect chaos, they represent how life itself really is. The slow start shows a good life after birth, when an unnamed child is but a simple creature. Growing up, the child gains experience and knowledge of the world and in adolescence starts to learn about conflict (the lack of harmony, beginning of chaos, and random notes of the piano). As the dust settles on the teenage years, conflicts come up again, this time more powerful and more mature, but as the evil nature of life (through hate and anger) becomes more powerful, the piano strays off more and more into discord. In the end, when all seems like it has come to and end, another issue will come up, and it is this time up to a third party (the strings and later the rest of the orchestra) to bring it to a halt. It is only after this is done that life can continue as it was normally.
Life continuing normally, in this case, means the instrumentals starting again, and, like at the start of the song, they need no practice or warm-up whatsoever before they tackle the beast again. Not even Toshi starts off mellow, he continues like nothing ever happened. However, the orchestra now becomes even more powerful, and so do the vocals. Life is what this is, the presence of harmony and variation in people’s everyday lives. However, what makes the Life different from the Dream is that the Dream was really an illusion and, compared to the Life, seems almost bleak and unvaried, an exact representation of the reality in its own sense. Dream is confinement, Life is freedom.
A final chorus is sang, more slowly than all the others, at the end of the song. A previous Art of Life [I try to stop myself] is repeated, but it makes way for a last one, “an eternal bleeding heart”. The last chorus, with the most harmonic and peaceful instrumentals of the song, goes “Art of life/an Eternal Bleeding Heart/you never wanna breath your last/wanna live/can't let my heart kill myself/still I'm feeling for/a rose is breathing love/in my life”, with the last word, in a similar style to the utterance of “in my dream” right before the piano solo, being held onto for as long as possible, this time without the backing of instruments, showing the last symbolic meaning of the song – that at life’s end, every one of us will be alone (a similar quote was uttered in the 2001 movie Donnie Darko – “Every living creature on earth dies alone.”). The last word, like at the 15-minute mark, represents what this part of the song was about – Life.
In every sense of the word, Art of Life is perfect. If there is one song that you can listen to every day for the rest of your life and not be bored of, it would be this one. In every way, this song continues to impress time and again, simply because it is just what it is named: this is a musical representation of the Art of Life. If you claim to like music, you owe it to yourself to listen to this song a few times before you die, at the very least. You will not be disappointed.