Review Summary: Dark, unsettling, and truly unique. A career defining work.
J-rock or visual kei is a genre that's pretty hard to take seriously. It's music that is most often showcased in snippets at the beginnings and ends of late night animes played by bands who frequently look like hair metal rejects. The background noise these bands play generally amounts to an unholy witches brew of passe styles of Western rock music that virtually no tasteful music aficionado would listen to out of context. Dir en grey is not one of these bands. In fact Dir en grey isn't like most bands, but to spit out another grandiose introduction for this group would be almost an insult to their long-standing, ever-evolving catalogue of quality releases and perhaps in a sense pandering to the stubbornness of Western ears. So with that said, take your head out of your ass and listen up, cause these whackos have something to say (even if it's unintelligible).
There is only one thing that never changes about Dir en grey; their utter refusal to stay the same. No two Dir en grey albums sound alike; early works like Gauze, could be considered J-pop, while later albums such as “Vulgar” and “Withering to Death” adopted a far, darker, heavier, and experimental base. The band even went so far with their last release, “Marrow of a Bone” as to nearly dip their feet into the metalcore pool. Each phase has been successful in different ways and to varying degrees and now with their seventh proper album, “Uroboros,” the band may have just topped themselves. Even keeping in mind the group's constantly changing sound and direction, their style presented on Uroboros still feels unexpected. There are certain bands that just don't allow for easy comparison or description and Dir en grey makes such a task nigh impossible on this record. Relating their current sound to other groups or contemporaries proves relatively useless unless the notion of a Deftones-Nile-Radiohead-Mr. Bungle-Slipknot-Porcupine Tree cocktail makes a lick of sense. And while progressive and metal have generally seemed fairly convenient labels for these Eastern genre-manglers, they aren't entirely accurate, at least in the traditional sense. Whatever one would call them, Dir en grey is probably closer to being a progressive metal band than they've ever been before, on Uroboros.
Uroboros opens with the “Silent Hill” OST meets belly dance music of “Sa Bir” which provides a creepy and exotic backdrop for the sickly sweet journey that is to come. However, the proper opening track, “Vinushka” is where things really get interesting. While it certainly does not belong in the front of the record, the nine and a half minute opus is completely different from anything the group has previously attempted. The track begins with hushed singing from Kyo and chilling acoustic strumming before the distortion kicks in with some tribal drum battering. From there the band fluctuates delicately between lush Eastern-tinged clean sections and positively brutal death metal/grind parts in almost Opeth-ean fashion before closing on a doomy note. Again, dropping such an involved track right out of the gate was perhaps a poor choice in terms of order, however the compositional skills and raw chemistry the group displays on the song is really remarkable.
If one could complain before on the band's previous outing about there being a certain lack of memorable moments and songwriting tact, such a gripe proves unfounded here. In addition to the magnificent Vinushka, the band proves that they have finally found the perfect balance between unsettling brutality and blissful melody on the late album standout, “Gaika, Chinmoku Ga Nemuru Koro” (try saying that five times fast!) which sounds reminiscent of fan-favorite “Obscure” on crack. “Stuck Man” presents the group at their grooviest with an onslaught of jazzy guitar chords, Bungle-esque bass lines, and some dangerously funky drumming. Also I'll be damned if it's not damn near impossible to resist the urge to headbang like you've never headbanged before at the sound of the bridge guitar riff. In Japan Dir en grey is pimped like no other so it is unsurprising that the group already has two very successful singles out: “Dozing Green” and “Glass Skin.” Oddly enough, the non-bonus versions of these songs present on the album are sung mostly in English, which seems rather silly considering vocalist, Kyo's ever-present difficulty with the English language, however, in pure form both songs are fantastic. “Dozing Green” is a searingly sinister hardrocker, the likes of which the band has not crafted in quite a while, chock full of aggressive guitar riffing, soaring harmonies, and inhuman shrieks. The later of the two is a ballad accented by subtle piano melodies and some of the highest, most heart-wrenching singing Kyo has ever delivered.
One of the aspects of the album as a whole the truly makes it stand out in the band's already very extensive library, is the distinct oriental influence in the instrumentation. Dir en grey has always in a sense distanced themselves from their Western contemporaries with their adherence to writing lyrics almost only in their native tongue and eschewing traditional song structure, however, this time around they further this separation with the addition of Mandolin on many tracks like the aforementioned, “Sa Bir,” “Red Soil,” “Reketsu Nariseba,” and “Dozing Green”. This little nuance really adds a lot to the band's textural complexity and the way it is implemented creates an even deeper sense of dis-ease and dread within their sound, almost as if it's soundtrack music to a ghastly Japanese horror flick.
It should also be noted that the individual members of the band perform like they never have before on this record. For a band to maintain the same lineup for it's entire career (particularly one that has been together as long as Dir en grey) is no small feat and it really shows here in the remarkable level of chemistry the players exhibit. While Kaoru and Die may not be what one might call virtuosos, the way they lay harmonies on top of each other and weave artful melodies and leads every which way certainly deserves recognition. The band also boasts one hell of a rhythm section that plays with more skill and creativity than ever before. Toshiya pops, slaps, and owns his bass in ways that would do Ryan Martinie proud and drummer, Shinya, in response, batters his kit with a precise spazziness that is rare to say the least. Much has been made of vocalist extraordinaire, Kyo, so all I'll say is this: I challenge you to find one singer in any genre with more range than this guy.
So without delving into any pretension, “Uroborus” could very well be Dir en grey's finest hour. Anyone still afraid to check out this Japanese juggernaut for fear of liking a band associated in any way with the pseudo-rock of most Japanese music movements or those turned away by the language barrier can lay such concerns to rest. Dir en grey have crafted an album that rivals Tool's “Lateralus” and possibly even Mr. Bungle's “Disco Volante” in terms of barfing all over mainstream ears and the lack of lingual familiarity ultimately proves irrelevant. You don't need a lyric sheet to feel the raw anguish and soul-rattling rage Kyo and company exude throughout the entire album; this is music that hits at the core.
Excellent review! I was thinking about writing one too, but this one is very well written and you made most of the points I was going to anyway :P
And, incredible album! I've been a Deg fan since the Macabre/Kisou days and they never let me down. Highly recommended.
If I can fault the album, at some points it does tend to ramble a little. And I wasn't sure the mandolin was a good idea :
Can't stress enough how wonderful and versatile a vocalist Kyo is. Listen out for the startling "vocal solo" in Red Soil. If you're thinking of taking that bet (finding a vocalist with more range) you will lose. Band plays really tight as always, and apparently this time around they wrote songs individually.
One caveat: it's a bit of a grower, so if you don't like it first time around I suggest you give it another couple of listens. Guaranteed, you will appreciate it more and more.This Message Edited On 11.21.08
Red Soil was probably one of my least favorites during my first few listens, but it's grown on me. This album doesn't seem to make a lot of sense on the first few spins, but it gets infinitely better the more you hear of it.
This guy has know's nothing about visual kei. He never heard of LUNA SEA, D'ERLANGER, MUCC, La'cryma Christi, MALICE MIZER, hide with Spread Beaver and some of others good visual bands. It's quite obvious that he doesn't know what even part of the visual kei music is when he says DIR EN GREY's "GAUZE" is a j-pop album, when the sound is in fact is pure visual kei.
He doesn't even know that j-rock means "Japanese rock" and that most of Japanese bands aren't visual, so "j-rock" is different of "visual kei".
Who's this guy? Why doesn't the site staff put a journalist instead of users for doing reviews?
And whoever thinks this album is creative and well done gotta listen to DIR EN GREY's "MACABRE" now.
Dir en grey is no longer JRock. They are a legitimate band now, if you will. Check out "Vinushka", "Stuck Man", 冷血なりせば", qand "Dozing Green". Some of my faves, but take my word for it, Dir en grey has broken the JRock barrier, and have stormed out as a real band, not an Anime theme credit.