When Taking Off dropped, I was less than thrilled. It sounded over-processed and too much like Fueled by Ramen had rubbed off on a band that I loved. I wasn’t too excited for Ambitions to drop and, to be honest, Taking Off was the only song that I had listened to. I didn’t bother with the other singles, couldn’t have cared less about the star-studded guest list of all of their friends making an appearance on tracks. I thought I knew what was coming because I had been here before: Signing to a new label had broken something that I loved. But that didn’t stop me from packing in to a car with my bestfriend, the iTunes digital copy of Ambitions loaded on to my phone, and all of my usual pre-concert anxiety on the day that it dropped. I didn’t listen to it. We drove the 370mi/596km up the east coast to our weekend, couch crashing destination in Manhattan. And we spent the next 24hrs hanging out, eating food, playing some video games, catching up. The cats weren’t very interested in us, but I really wanted to be their friend.

I pretended that all of my nerves were because of my excitement at seeing my favorite band, but there was this feeling building in me — I still hadn’t listened to Ambitions and I was afraid that their setlist was going to be very dominantly from this album. What was saving me was that I know ONE OK ROCK better than I know most things, and I know their live presence. I knew that when they played Taking Off or whatever else, that all of the effects and processing and things that I didn’t like about the album were going to go away. I knew it was just gonna be the boys and their voices, their instruments. I kept telling myself to give the album a shot, but I was so underwhelmed that I waited until about the last possible moment to get it in. For the rough hour and a half before doors, I listened to the album. Not in its entirety, but I picked out the songs I knew they were going to play, to familiarise myself with, at the very least, the choruses. So I would have a bit of a feeling for it, so I wouldn’t be so left out of the loop.

The line was long and the air was cold and I wasn’t sure if I was more surprised by how many people kept showing up or by the sheer number of Japanese fans that came out. We packed in to the line down the block, huddled together in a mass that the venue staff tried to control but gave up on, settling for the sort of organised chaos that they had created in trying to keep us from single-file. Two of the staff made their way through the mass of people checking IDs and marking hands, issuing wristbands. The sun had gone down almost completely by the time the doors were open, and immediately I could hear the authoritative “Stop pushing” coming down the line. Bag checks. Ticket scans. I always have this moment of wonder as I look at the venue staff at these kinds of events, because they always look a little bit shocked — as if they expected some sort of paltry turn out and have their worlds turned on their heads. I did discuss this briefly with some of the Madison Square Garden staff when I saw X JAPAN, and the consensus is always simple: They’re from Japan, we expect a couple people, but mostly well-mannered Asian kids.

Now we’re standing in a slightly more compact huddle. On the second floor, as it fills out, to the left are people sitting at tables and to the right are these girls sitting, legs hanging over the edge from underneath the wire cable partition. One of them falls asleep and has her head in her friends’ lap, which causes several moments of flashlight-shining and backup-radioing from the security guard down on my floor. I don’t get too much of a view of what’s going on on the third floor, but I imagine it’s more of the same thing. The cold has followed us inside and it wafts in to the spaces between us, the excited chattering of the people around me doing very little to make it any warmer. I keep my hat and my hoodie on, for now.

Behind the second floor partition, which starts right about where the rails are on the first floor, we can see lights and feet moving. And then the curtain pulls back and we see hands and a face and the crowd screams. A few minutes go by, and it happens again. This continues, and it just makes the excitement and the nerves that much more palpable. There’s a sort of frenzy brewing, and the air is electric, and we know we still have a good hour and a half or so until we even get what we came here for. Our appetites are curbed by the appearance of the opening band. Now we have something else to focus on.

Their name is CRUISR and they are from Philadelphia, and their frontman says “We’re the only thing between you and ONE OK ROCK” and the crowd screams and we laugh and he does too because it’s the sort of brutally honest that you can only laugh at. Some of the people in the audience are here for CRUISR, and they lead us on in claps and cheers and the camaraderie that always comes at a venue. Music, the great unifier. They’re fun. Upbeat and energetic and the kind of earnest that makes it easy to entertain a love affair with them. They have the softest T-shirts in the world, and they have the sort of charisma that shines. I wish I’d bought an album off them, but the internet will sell it to me just the same.

But CRUISR ends their set, and we remember the nervous energy. It sparks in the room, dangerous and enticing and you can feel it building as the equipment techs, stage hands, roadies, get everything in to place. They unveil the backdrops and this maze of lights that hang and spin and come in several different shapes and sizes.

The excitement mounts. The tension you can cut with a knife, but everyone is talking to fill the void. Some guys behind me are making jokes, talking about the Cowboys/Packers game. People around me are talking about last time they saw ONE OK ROCK, one of them reminiscing about their opening set for 5 Seconds of Summer at Madison Square Garden. Bring Me to Life by Evanescence comes on at some point, and the crowd is singing and laughing and shouting the lyrics, in this weird sort of acceptance that this is what we have resigned ourselves to. A mediocre song from our collective childhood while our palms are sweaty and our hearts are racing.

Finally the music cuts off, the lights change. We can once again see the very clearly lit drum kit. Scream. Tomo walks out. Scream more. Ryota, Toru, Taka walk out. Scream louder, longer, harder, give it everything you’ve got. The tension is still mounting, even as they launch in to Taking Off — what a perfect opener. Textbook. Then Take Me to the Top starts and the mounting electricity is set free and the whole crowd shifts violent, compacting itself, stumbling and hot and panic and the calls of the opening verse. Somehow, myself and the people around me manage to get back to upright, but we’re barely afforded breathing room. Taka is looking out at the crowd,he isn’t singing the words. “Are you guys all right?” And the audience responds with a very loud “no” and he stops the guys from playing. My eyes follow his, and whatever poor girls are stuck under the bodies of their friends finally pop up from the floor. A girl appears out of nowhere next to me trying to squeeze out. She looks a bit panicked and she’s saying “I have to get out I can’t do this it’s too claustrophobic” and my heart goes out to her and I start shoving at the guys to my left, trying to make them make room for her to get through and out.

Nothing hits you quite like being suddenly incapable of breath and movement and the overwhelming heat of being crushed between strangers.

But we make it through. Taka asks the audience to give the go-ahead, whenever we’re ready. We get a little room, we give each other a little space. I come out of my hoodie and hat and we yell. We’re ready.

Take Me to the Top
Cry Out
Deeper Deeper

Few things in life are quite as exciting as knowing your (second) favorite song by your favorite band is about to be played. The lights are blue and Taka stands out front, holding one finger in the air above his head. I’ve seen the DVDs, I know the song, I know what that one finger means. I scream. Sorry again to the girl in front of me — she sort of plugged her ears a few times, but I know this was the worst of it. So the audience follows Taka’s lead. We all raise one arm, hold up one finger. The ticking starts, his hand descends slowly with each audible second. More screaming. I love this song. It is important to me in and for ways I cannot express, and I know it’s a bit basic because Clock Strikes has been a fan favorite since it was released, but it went off without a hitch and was perfect, including the sing along chants.

Decision is one of those songs that I am always underwhelmed by, both on the album and whenever they play it live, but it’s always a good time and, in this instance, was the perfect way in to Hard to Love. Which is a really sweet song, and I have a lot of feelings about Ryota playing his bowed bass. The audience lit up their phone flashlights and in the dark we all swayed back and forth, singing the song that Taka never fails to tell us he wrote for his father. It’s kind of personal, in an exposed and genuine sort of way, and though we all knew all of the words he didn’t stop singing for a single note, and he looked out over the audience like he was thinking about something else for a moment, and then he disappeared from the stage.

The instrumental break came. It’s familiar from the Mighty Long Fall at Yokohama Arena DVD, and it’s a really fun experience overall. But the crowd gets a little antsy listening to the instrumental, though there is no shortage of shouts and cheers in all the right places.

Bedroom Warfare. I don’t like this song. I feel like Taka found something in Zayn’s Pillowtalk the resonated deeply within him and had to express his own bits of those feelings. But it’s much better live, in my opinion, than on the album. And the crowd loved it, it was very obviously a fan favorite. And I can see why, of course, it’s just not my thing.

Back to Jinsei× Boku = which is, in my opinion, the sort of quintessential album. I loved all of the albums before this one, and I adore 35xxxv, but there’s just something special about Jinsei× Boku = that will never get old for me. The Beginning is another one of those fan favorite songs that everyone loves and you can’t help but react to. A real crowd pleaser.

I was King is another song that is so, so much better live than on the album. When the processing goes away and it’s just four guys and some lights, it’s really good. Now one of my favorites from AmbitionsTake What You Want is not a song I was familiar with before the show, because I didn’t really listen to the whole album and I didn’t think they’d play a song that featured someone else. But they did and I was so, so pleasantly surprised. The first part was done acoustic, with Taka sort of ambling around the stage and baring the rawness of the lyrics to the audience who joined in with the instruments. It was really, really cool in affect and made me love this song, too. Even if I still can’t name a 5 Seconds of Summer song.

We Are. The emotionally charged call-to-arms for all the kids to just remember that they aren’t alone and can make it through. This song was a bit of a big reminder of the way that ONE OK ROCK always manages to get the audience involved. From Ambitions, it’s really the one that the mastering works best on.

Might Long Fall. What’s a ONE OK ROCK show without it? A cornerstone of their shows since its release. No complaints here. Every time they play it is as perfect as the last time that they played it. I imagine we’ll be hearing this song at all of their shows for the next five years, and it’s gonna be great.

At this point, the band leaves the stage, but we all know that there’s more to be had. I was, however; surprised that it was  actually one more song. As they launch in to American Girls there is this moment of, “of course they’d play this as their encore” and I have to laugh. From an artistic standpoint, the song is pretty good. To me, it’s a little cheesy and it comes off a bit pandering — but that’s just the sort of thing that I am willing to forgive because, like I always say, no one has more fun than ONE OK ROCK at a ONE OK ROCK show.