Avant-garde photographer Man Ray once dreamed of taking a photograph so unsettling that it would literally drive its viewer to insanity. No one ever proved if he actually accomplished this, and nobody knows if artists in any other medium have managed to pull off a similar feat. But if the day ever comes that it happens in the world of in music, there's a good chance you'd hear the words Dir En Grey mentioned in the same breath. Because there's madness waiting in the digital recesses of their new album Uroboros... and I mean that in the best possible way.
To begin with, it's almost impossible to describe a band whose greatest strength lies in its ability to defy description. Like the infinite mythical snake of the album’s title, as soon as you think you've got them nailed, they slither from your grasp as they continue in an endless loop of reinvention. In the band's decade-plus career, I'm hard-pressed to pinpoint a period where their sound became predictable enough to label them, whether it be Visual Kei (Japan's take on Glam-rock), industrial metal, progressive metal or some kind of weird J-pop/metalcore hybrid. Dir En Grey has been all of these things... and none of them.
The only consistent factor remains the supernaturally dynamic vocal range of lead vocalist Kyo. From the rounded tones of a '90s Tokyo pop crooner to a full-throated demonic roar that rivals the Cookie-Monster-on-crank raging of Cannibal Corpse's George Fisher, Kyo's voice will challenge and amaze you with its versatility and audacity. While his madman technique is seldom subtle, he has a skill for nailing the emotional tone of a song in an instant, then flipping it around just as quickly – and besides, who wants subtlety when you're in the mood for spine-ripping metal?
Already legendary in their homeland, Dir En Grey have made significant waves in the Western world in the past couple of years – a remarkable accomplishment considering nearly all of their lyrics are sung in Japanese. It’s a testament to their distinct character, and of course the earth-shaking power of their metal. After great success in European metal festivals, they crossed the Atlantic to take on US gigs like South by Southwest and Korn’s Family Values Tour, eventually headlining their own North American shows last year (in support of their previous album Marrow of a Bone), accompanied by Deftones. The band also scored stateside with their bizarre, often horrific videos, and won the Headbanger’s Ball “Video of the Year” award in 2006 for the surreal “Saku” (from Withering to Death).
The band’s seventh album Uroboros is their most complex and experimental work to date. It’s also among their heaviest, despite Kyo’s declaration that he wanted to put more emphasis on melodic elements and a more elegant style, rather than the expected full-on noise explosions. True, his “clean” vocal aspects are more evident, but the banshee wails, cave-troll bellows and thunderous blastbeats are still there, and they still have the power to make you soil your skivvies.
Another significant stylistic change in Uroboros is the addition of new instrumentation, from Latin and Middle Eastern percussion elements (some sampled, some recorded live), to Sitar and Mandolin, combining with many traditional Asian elements and forms to give the material a distinct East-meets-West flavor. The extreme metal components of thrashy speed-picking and double-kick drums are still prominent, but more controlled as part of a tighter structure, with more recognizable song parts and patterns.
The album opens with mood-setting instrumental “Sa Bir” before launching into the nearly ten-minute apocalyptic assault of “Vinushka” - a bold move that’s sure to polarize anyone still undecided about this band, but it’s fully representative of what’s to come. The current singles “Glass Skin” and “Dozing Green” are also the only English-language tracks (although Kyo’s skewed pronunciation had me going to the liner notes a few times), but don’t come across as watered-down for the American market… “Green” goes plenty heavy, but still finds the opportunity to fire off some catchy melodic hooks and some of their strongest vocal harmonies. But if you’re looking for total brutality, along the lines of their most sinister work (like “Obscure” from 2006’s Vulgar), fret not: their evil side comes through in tracks like “Doukoku To Sarinu” or “Gaika, Chinmoku Ga Nemuru Koro” – both of which could strip paint off your walls at even half-volume.
Richer textures and more varied styles come into play on tracks like the jazz-influenced “Stuck Man” (with its funky drumming and bouncing bass line), the atmospheric “Ware, Yami Tote...” and the layered instrumental tapestries of “Toguro” and “Red Soil.” Tracks like “Bugaboo” and “Reiketsu Nariseba” represent an over-the-shoulder acknowledgement of the metalcore style that the band had begun to incorporate with Withering to Death, but I’m glad to hear them move further away from this territory… frankly I was a little afraid they’d try to Americanize their sound after their recent stateside success, but thankfully I think there’s no danger of that in the foreseeable future.
If you’ve never heard this band before, it’s high time you got with the program… and Uroboros is the perfect starting point. Don’t let the language barrier hold you back either; this music has universal power, and there’s a whole world of styles and colors to choose from in these tracks. Once you’ve immersed yourself in their sound, I’m betting you’ll be back for more… and you’re in luck, because they’ve got a new DVD coming out early next year. Rest assured you’ll be hearing about that soon on these very pages.