“What does Dir En Grey sound like then?” Only very few questions are more frustrating to me as a reviewer, whose job it is to describe music along with my opinion, because the difficulty I have describing them suggests inability for me. Admittedly, they’re not the only Japanese band that is difficult to describe, but how do you classify a band that keeps changing styles with each album without ever sounding like a different band? They’re a crazy band with a crazy singer. And they’re fairly loud and unsettling, despite the presence of a few calmer moments. That’s as close as a description comes.
Nothing could describe Dir En Grey’s music more adequately than the actual music. So for those of you who don’t know them, let these ten Dir En Grey songs at least provide some guidance to help you get an approximate idea of their sound. Or at least the scope of their sound. Newcomers should know that their mid-period (‘Vulgar’, ‘Withering To Death’ and ‘The Marrow Of A Bone’) may be somewhat underrepresented here, simply because I don’t enjoy that era quite as much as their earliest work or their recent material. There’s still a handful of excellent ballad-like tracks on those records though.
P.S.: While it took more time to put this post together than any former entry, I rather enjoyed doing this. As a result, you can expect more of these.
10. Zan (Gauze, 1998)
Dir En Grey’s debut album ‘Gauze’ was recorded in two sessions. About half of the album was self-produced and recorded in Tokyo, while the other half was recorded in Los Angeles under supervision of X-Japan drummer and main man Yoshiki Hayashi. The latter session was defined by the highly melodic, almost Poppy sentiments of the album… And ‘Zan’. While it’s not the only aggressive moment on the record, its high speed riffing and Shinya’s almost constant Thrash polkas make it the most high adrenalin, destructive experience on ‘Gauze’. The extremely noisy guitar lead and Kyo abandoning all sanity in his performance do the rest. The song is obviously supposed to frighten its listener as well, but I’m not sure if people who listen to Dir En Grey are that easily scared. A remake was released in 2011 and it’s probably the re-recording that stays closest to the original, despite Kyo trading his insane delivery for a deep grunt. It’s slightly tighter than the original, but I still take the original over the new version.
9. Ruten No Tou (Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)
AllMusic contributor Thom Yurek described ‘Ruten No Tou’ as a ballad subverted by multi-textured Pop and Power Metal. As an adamant fanatic of the latter genre, I don’t actually hear it, but it is a downright excellent composition in which expertly layered and haunting guitar melodies with a beautiful clean guitar sound are contrasted quite heavily by the progressive Death Metal of the middle section. That chorus is among the most passionate that Dir En Grey ever recorded and most definitely the most memorable on the highly inaccessible ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Since that album features the band at its most brutal and complex, especially the calmer, more melodic moments stand out. ‘Lotus’ is another excellent example from the same album, but this closing track is rightfully the apotheosis of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. It’s also one of the very few songs the band recorded an acoustic version of that is worth hearing. If you’re curious, you can find it on the ‘Sustain The Untruth’ single from 2013.
8. Rasetsukoku (Macabre, 2000 or Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)
Easily my favorite of the band’s more aggressive songs. I’m probably not the only one, because it’s the only song from the earliest days that still appears on Dir En Grey setlists quite regularly. In fact, they often close their encores with it. The original version on ‘Macabre’ is my favorite, as it’s got a much more energetic vibe than the heavily downtuned remake on the limited edition of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Especially Kyo’s rabid vocal performance. Because of its strong Hardcore influence and slight industrial edge, ‘Rasetsukoku’ wouldn’t have felt out of place on an early Prong record. When Shinya omits the snare drum from his patterns during the passages between the verses, the rhythm has an almost electronic feel that shouldn’t work with such a heavy, riffy song, but it does. Fun fact: the title of the track translates to “man eating devil country’, which is the name China gave to Russia during the era of the last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty if you’re keeping score). It fits the Russian theme that pops up on ‘Macabre’ every now and then.
7. Mushi (Kisou, 2002)
In many ways, ‘Kisou’ is the most emotionally raw record that Dir En Grey has ever recorded. As dense and heavy some of their more recent work is, that’s how open and straightforward ‘Kisou’ is. These compositions strike a nerve emotionally and the stripped down approach only emphasizes that. Just check out the compelling ballad ‘Mushi’. Kyo’s hyper passionate performance in the video above sort of already gives that away, but even on the studio recording, the vocal melody in the chorus is profoundly sad. But the delicate acoustic guitar melody greatly contributes to the fragile nature of the composition as well. It is probably the most acoustic song the band ever recorded; the only electric guitar is the sparse, haunting solo that Kaoru closes the track with. ‘Zakuro’ from ‘Macabre’ comes close in style and quality. It’s pretty much the mirror opposite of the almost claustrophobic songwriting on ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, but that’s the fun thing about Dir En Grey: every album is basically a reaction to the one that came before. The only other band I’ve seen that with so distinctly is The Gathering.
6. Cage (Gauze, 1998)
During the early phases of Dir En Grey’s career, they were basically the more experimental answer to the Visual Kei scene. More melodic than their later work, more versatile than the average J-Rock band. That doesn’t mean that the material isn’t worth hearing though. In fact, ‘Gauze’ is probably my favorite Dir En Grey album together with ‘Uroboros’. The soaring melodies are fantastic, Kyo’s vocals are generally clean and amazing, the production is bright and the choruses basically scream to be sung along even if you don’t know any Japanese. What is most notable, however, is the amount of space there is for Toshiya’s melodic, jumpy bass lines. There’s even a bass solo in this song, but the way he carries the melody of the main section even moreso than the guitars – it first occurs right after that musical box intro – is simply amazing. For me personally, that defines ‘Gauze’ even more than the almost poppy songwriting approach; Toshiya’s really going for the depth rather than the highs these days.
5. Yokan (Gauze, 1998)
Those who discovered the band after their breakthrough in the west with their crushingly heavy sound and borderline disturbing visuals may be surprised to hear how upbeat some of their oldest material sounds. ‘Jessica’ is probably the happiest sounding song they have, but ‘Yokan’ from their excellent debut ‘Gauze’ sounds fairly cheerful as well. I’ve been told the lyrics are still rather dark, but I couldn’t factcheck due to my practically non-existing command of the Japanese language. What I can judge though, is that amazingly bright sound of Die’s clean guitar. Also, I love the way his rhythm part interacts with Kaoru’s in the verses, though the above live version from 2014 highlights that moreso than the original album version. The uncharacteristically Bluesy guitar solo – again courtesy of Die – is excellent as well and Kyo’s performance on this song is just perfect. While ‘Yokan’ may be a bit too Poppy for fans of the brutal direction Dir En Grey took recently, it’s simply a beautiful song that bears all the merits of the band’s early sound.
4. Un Deux (Arche, 2014)
After the technically impressive, but sometimes indecipherable songwriting on 2011’s ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, I was happy to see the band compose some more distinguishable tracks for its follow-up ‘Arche’. When you listen to the album’s lead-off track and highlight ‘Un Deux’, you can hear two decades of musical experience come together in one track. Despite its limited length and catchier approach, it’s still rather progressive by nature. Quite a lot happens within those three minutes musically and dynamically while unsurprisingly, I find it a significant improvement that Kyo is singing clean more often. I find the riff work brilliant, but the rhythm section does something even more important by keeping things as open as possible. When I interviewed Kaoru and Shinya around the release of ‘Arche’, they said they were aiming to write material that was a little easier to translate to the stage and since I’ve seen them live on that tour, I can only confirm that it works. But it works pretty damn good on record as well!
3. Macabre (Macabre, 2000 or The Unraveling, 2013)
For a song that is well over ten minutes long – or even over sixteen for the re-recording on the limited edition of the 2013 EP ‘The Unraveling’ – ‘Macabre’ is surprisingly tightly structured. Sure, there’s a vaguely abstract section around the five minute mark, but overall, there’s a clear verse-chorus structure. Therefore, the length of the song is rather determined by the fact that it slowly unfolds. As for the 2013 remake, which is easily the best reinterpretation of their older songs, it adds a somewhat dissonant segment as well as a few extended solo sections that truly highlight the melodic quality of Kaoru and Die’s playing. Love the twin solo, but that will hardly surprise anyone who knows me. The transitions in guitar sounds are as seamless as they get. Just check out that beautiful clean guitar tone in the 2013 live version above. And let’s not forget that strong beat that drives the song; these may not be Shinya’s most technically demanding parts, but among his most impressive performances. All things combined, simply an excellent song.
2. Ware, Yami Tote… (Uroboros, 2008)
When Kyo’s lyrics aren’t plain disturbing, they’re often deeply depressive. Perfect material for dark, moody ballads. That’s also when there’s most room for Kyo’s wide range to excel. However, Kyo’s amazing vocals aren’t the only reason why ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’ is the ultimate Dir En Grey ballad. Kaoru and Die weave a beautiful tapestry of acoustic guitars and when the first full-on distorted riff enters, Shinya’s subdued percussion keeps it from being one of those cliché power ballad climaxes as we have heard them a million times before. If anything qualifies as an actual climax, it would be Kyo’s bone chilling scream, but the lack of actual release following the tension is one of the song’s greatest merits; instead, more layers are gradually added to the dark, somewhat unsettling atmosphere of the song. On any contemporary progressive record, this would easily have been the absolute highlight. ‘Uroboros’, however, has one other trick up its sleeve…
1. Vinushka (Uroboros, 2008)
A contemporary Progmetal masterpiece. Quite ballsy to start off their amazing ‘Uroboros’ album with this highly complex slow burner of a track, but it is likely the most complete representation of the band’s range. There’s a dark, unsettling atmosphere and within ten minutes, the band excels in both acoustically based melancholy and the two violent explosions of Death Metal in the middle and at the end of the song. That’s where you can hear Kyo go from his soothing cleans to one of the deepest and most frightening grunts ever recorded without effects. I personally have a strong preference for his cleans, but it really emphasizes the shifting dynamics. Shinya’s timing is interesting; while the time signatures are fairly common, he unconventional way he times his beats creates a great deal of tension within the composition. And when the guitars envelop you, you’ll realize this isn’t so much a song as it is a deeply immersive experience. Warning: the video contains footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims that some may find shocking.