Bigger in Japan: L’arc-En-Ciel

Phil Freeman on March 26, 2012

The novelist William Gibson has described Japan as “the global imagination’s default setting for the future.” And, indeed, that’s particularly true where music is concerned – for the most part, people see the country as a hub of glossy, almost post-human pop, ruled by female singers like Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda Kumi or the vocal trio Perfume.

But the extremely vibrant Japanese rock scene is largely mysterious to outsiders, especially Americans. The bands that do succeed in breaking through to a Stateside audience – Boris, Boredoms, Shonen Knife – are barely known in their homeland.

Meanwhile, acts that are genuinely gigantic at home, like L’Arc~en~Ciel – currently celebrating their 20th anniversary – are almost totally unknown here. This surprises L’Arc~en~Ciel’s vocalist and primary lyricist, Hyde. “The girl singers are more familiar?” he says, via email from Japan. “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

He has a better idea of his band’s position in their homeland. “I think L’Arc~en~Ciel is in a unique position in Japan,” he posits. “Over a long period of our history, we keep making good, quality of music that [has] built trust between the fans and us. This is why we can challenge aggressively.”

And they do challenge. L’Arc~en~Ciel rose quickly within the Japanese scene; they released their debut album, 1993’s Dune, on an indie label, but its success brought them to the attention of Sony almost immediately, and their next three albums, Tierra, Heavenly and True followed in quick succession, one a year until 1996.

The group’s music is rooted in vaguely psychedelic alternative rock – “Voice,” from Dune, has the flavor of The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” and is representative of their early style. But after more than 20 years together, they’re just as likely to erupt in punk-rock fury ( “Shout at the Devil,” from 1998’s Heart, and not a Mötley Crüe cover) or deliver a lush, harp-and-violin-slathered ballad like “Anata,” Heart’s closing track.

When the group released Heart, and returned to the public eye after two years away (drummer Sakura had been arrested for heroin possession, a scandal they’d ridden out by forming The Zombies, a L’Arc~en~Ciel cover band – no, really), they climbed to their greatest heights to date. They released their albums Ark and Ray simultaneously on July 1, 1999, and topped the charts at No. 1 and No. 2, much like Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion discs had done in America in 1991.

“The times were on our side when we released those two albums, so it was like we dropped a bomb on the music industry,” Hyde recalls proudly. “We also released a lot of singles simultaneously at that time. It was pretty interesting to see our singles dominate the top of the charts.”

After releasing one more album (2000’s Real ), though, the band went on another hiatus, this one voluntary and three years long. They made three more albums – 2004’s Smile, 2005’s Awake, and 2007’s Kiss – before disappearing again, taking a break from live performance for all of 2009 and 2010. “Placing a distance is necessary if you want the band to last for a long time,” says Hyde.

Now, they’re back again, celebrating their longevity with a triple-disc compilation: Twenity, released last year. The first volume covers their work from 1991-1996, the second from 1997-1999, and the third from 2000-2010.

“L’Arc~en~Ciel is characterized by diversity of music,” says Hyde, and the three CDs definitely demonstrate that, while also providing some firm stylistic through-lines, particularly the melodic yet screaming leads and solos of guitarist Ken. But that’s not all; their first studio album in five years, Butterfly, is also imminent. Hyde promises fans that “the album will be really multihued – like if you listen to the album for the first time, you won’t think that this is L’Arc~en~Ciel’s album.”

They’re also performing in the U.S. for the first time since 2004, with a show in the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York scheduled for March. Twenty years into their career, it may finally be the perfect time for American fans to discover one of Japan’s greatest rock acts.