It always pays to read the fine print, the name at the bottom of a concert bill or ticket that later makes you wish you could impress your rock & roll friends with those magic words — “Hey, man, I was at that gig.” Here is a good example: There are 70 bands on the poster for the 2019 Epicenter festival in North Carolina — a three-day heavy-music banquet this May in the perfectly named small town of Rockingham — and the headliners come from all over the past and present: Foo Fighters, Tool, Korn and Mastodon; and Seventies British warriors Judas Priest, carrying on as founding guitarist Glenn Tipton battles Parkinson’s disease.
And there is HYDE — those capital letters at the bottom of the menu on the second day. When the Japanese singer takes the stage that Saturday, it will be a little after lunchtime. But he will leave everyone in the mosh pit hungry for more — and everyone else wishing they hadn’t been stuck in traffic or standing in the beer line.
HYDE’s Epicenter show is part of a short, odd U.S. tour of cities and venues that varies wildly: clubs in Boston and Los Angeles; theaters in Maryland and Sioux Falls, South Dakota; an arena in Mankato, Minnesota; and nothing in New York City. But HYDE’s return to action under his longtime stage name for the first time in more than a decade, including 26 concerts this summer in Japan, is anything but normal. And the six singles he has released over the last eight months — two in collaboration with X Japan’s Yoshiki — make me think I should catch a train to Boston.
Ironically, I came very close to seeing the singer born Hideto Takarai with his first major band, the Nineties visual-kei sensations L’Arc-en-Ciel. They were on a 20th-anniversary world tour that came to New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 23rd, 2012, a show moved up from the smaller theater downstairs because of ticket demand, making the Osaka-born quartet the first rock group from Japan to headline in the same room where the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Metallica usually rule. But I was off by a day; I was at the Garden on March 22nd — to see the Black Keys.
As a rock critic, it was easy for me to miss L’Arc-en-Ciel’s’s big night. At that time, if I had to sum up my passion for Japanese hard rock in only three names, they were Boredoms, Flower Travellin’ Band and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. I’d now add Michelle Gun singer Yuseke Chiba’s next band the Birthday, Church of Misery and avant-rock ninjas Bo Ningen as well — in other words, loud, fast and very underground. Listening to L’Arc-en-Ciel again, they still sound too close to the surface, like Guns N’ Roses in everything but edge. Vamps were harder and heavier with fewer members — just HYDE and K.A.Z. on thickly stacked vocals and guitars. “Devil Side” on 2010’s Beast is located at the crossroads of Z.Z. Top and Nine Inch Nails, a tense, driving boogie with the kind of smart, pop writing that made Stone Temple Pilots overnight grunge stars — and still worked when HYDE and K.A.Z. stripped the song to piano and acoustic guitars on 2016’s MTV Unplugged.
That combination of focus and reach continues over HYDE’s recent singles, issued around a landmark birthday — his 50th in a career now lasting four decades if you include his earliest band, Jerusalem’s Rod. “Mad Qualia,” the latest, will be a knockout on tour: black fuzz guitars and stuttering drums, HYDE racing out of that fury with rousing sing-along effect in a mixed rush of English and Japanese that suggests Metallica, Mötley Crüe and mid-Seventies UFO crushed into the same hooks. “Zipang” will be a killer on the road too even without the record’s guest pianist, Yoshiki: a dreamy neo-classical ride that blows up with Queen-like pomp. And while “Fake Divine,” a Top 10 Japanese hit in October, has familiar soft-loud dynamics and raw vocal anguish — Foo Fighters have perfected that combo over 25 years — HYDE’s single has an explosive class of its own. The pit will go crazy in the chorus.
On the two singles that came out last June, announcing HYDE was back on his own, “Who’s Gonna Save Us” feels tentative, too crowded with hooks, too earnest without emotional distinction in its English lyrics. “After Light” is just as dense, as if HYDE tried to cram all of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All into three minutes. I have no problem with that.
If these five tracks are part of a forthcoming album, you can read the record’s potential in two ways. One is a classic hard-rock midlife crisis — the adult artist in what is still seen as a young person’s game, covering up nerves and uncertainty by going in every direction at once. The other is the absolute freedom to go all the way, wherever that leads. “Mad Qualia” and “Zipang” are two big reasons why I don’t want to miss HYDE when he comes back in New York — maybe at the Garden again. Meanwhile, I’m checking out the trains to Boston. And I hear Sioux Falls is very nice this time of year.