Last September, just a few months after completing his fourth world tour, MIYAVI released Real? For this single, the samurai guitarist collaborated with legendary Grammy-winning production duo Jam and Lewis, as well as multi-platinum producer Jeff Blue, to create a highly-produced pop-rock sound that blends with his signature slap guitar style. While its sound is a noticeable departure from the more subtle production levels of his self-titled 2013 album, Real? is a unique and interesting single that should ultimately be viewed as the latest incarnation of MIYAVI's experimental releases that marks the continuing evolution of his musical style.

Real? Cover
1. Real?
2. Set It On Fire
3. Day 1 (Live In London)
4. Cry Like This (Live In London)
5. Ganryu (Live In London)
6. Survive (Live In London)
7. Horizon (Live In London)

(NOTE: This review will focus on the two recorded tracks. The live tracks are a nice extra, but I've always held the opinion that MIYAVI's live performances are too visually energetic to just listen to: you need to see it for yourself to get the full experience.)

The title track of Real? is a modern hybrid of blues, gospel and pop. The pop influences are especially prevalent: MIYAVI uses slow and catchy slap guitar chords to function almost as substitutes for the backing bass and melodic electronic notes heard in many pop songs. The song is also occasionally punctuated by brief jazzy guitar melodies, along with a slow blues-themed guitar solo. In addition to MIYAVI's current guitar/drummer/dance music core, "Real?" includes the use of a talk box to distort the guitarist's voice (no, that's not auto-tune), as well as a female keyboardist who provides backing synth music at very high and low keys,

The most surprising part of "Real?" begins right after the bridge, when the song completely drops its jazzy pop-rock feel and switches to a joyous, gospel-inspired tune. The lyrics "Let the music take you higher, move on til’ you’re filled. Scream out to the future louder, free to say what’s real." are sung over and over, each time adding in more musical and atmospheric intensity. MIYAVI shouts and strongly sings through the distorted talk box sound, and the keyboardist belts out some impressive high-pitched gospel vocals. The song switches back at the end for an outro resembling its intro, and finishes promptly with one last guitar riff from MIYAVI.

The star of this song is not MIYAVI's guitar work, but rather the exciting MIYAVI-flavored atmosphere he establishes using all of the new production tools and assets made available to him. While the guitar work is nothing special coming from him, it is used to replace and embody traditional pop sounds in a way that has never been done before. With the help of Jam and Lewis, MIYAVI was able to decrease the focus on his guitar playing, retain his signature style, and express a particularly groovy side of himself that fans have only previously seen during his live performances. This is a major achievement for a rock artist as experimental as MIYAVI.

"Set It On Fire" is what I had hoped post-2010 western rock music would turn out to be. Produced by Jeff Blue (credited with discovering and signing Linkin Park and other hit rock artists), this song is a perfect marriage of modern production and powerful rock music. Slow and steady, "Set It On Fire" uses MIYAVI's slap guitar chords as its primary foundation, more so than "Real?" did. The English lyrics are epic and inspiring, and the song masterfully uses rocking chords and melodies to build anticipation and explode into power moments that are really lacking in the western rock world. This song is as powerful and polished as "Real?" is experimental and catchy.

I almost view Real? as more of a musical concept piece than a traditional MIYAVI single. It's a very unique release, even for MIYAVI. Since first releasing his Survive single in 2010, most of MIYAVI's musical innovation has centered around his masterful and unique guitar playing. This gave us many interesting musical face-offs between MIYAVI and other talented artists, but it also limited him to being less of a well-rounded musician, and more of a guitarist (which was fine in the short run, but could have made him a one-trick-pony in the long term). In his self-titled album released in 2013, MIYAVI began to address that weakness, creating songs that sounded more complete than any of his releases in recent memory. With the release of Real?, it's clear the samurai guitarist has now fully committed himself to excellence in production and song-writing, just as he has with his guitar work for so many years.

The challenge now will be to bring back his more complex guitar work and successfully fuse it with these new production values. I'm looking forward to MIYAVI's upcoming album, as it will be a true test of his ability to do just that. If he can pull off this marriage of strong production values and unique guitar mastery, MIYAVI's unique samurai style may transform the mainstream pop, rock, and dance genres forever.

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