Review Summary: The Insulated World's place in DIR EN GREY's career is the equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci drawing a moustache on his Mona Lisa painting.
4 years ago, DIR EN GREY completed the final chapter to its impressive artistic peregrination; a painstaking pursuit at pushing one’s abilities to their limits. Arche
was a culminated response to those 16 years of experimenting, all condensed into one big epic sonic celebration. It is debatably the highest point for the band, but it wouldn’t have been half as effective had it not been for the two precursory albums before it. These three albums retain a key trait in sound which presents itself as a sort of trilogy. Looking at the entire period retrospectively, you wouldn’t be judged for thinking these guys sold their souls to up the creative ante. After all, from Uroboros
onwards their craftmanship hits levels very few could even dream of; a journey filled with unparalleled idiosyncrasy, thought-provoking depth and eclectic songwriting that is both unchallenged and wildly experimental. This extensive genre-breeding led to some of their heaviest, emotional and uncharted sonic territories yet and was expertly moulded with their Japanese roots to give birth to Arche
: a record that finds perfect harmony with experimentation and candid structure. It is the band’s most fully realised release, combining the crushing heaviness of the last ten years with the textured elegance and grace of their earlier works. They did it so well in fact, you could mistake it for being the conclusive chapter to their career. I’m not kidding either, where does a band go after Arche
– what’s left to say？ How do you match that level of ambitious songwriting and progression when everything feels unequivocally resolved？
The anticipation for The Insulated World
has been one of speculation and anxiety, bearing in mind its singles, “Utafumi”, “Ningen wo Kaburu” and “Ranunculus” hardly set the world on fire. I’ve been a fervent fan of theirs since Uroboros
, but when I heard “Utafumi” for the first time I exchanged certified confidence in getting a unique experience for apprehension if there was going to be a new album. “Utafumi” and “Ningen wo Kaburu” are not bad songs by any means, but they procure several problems that make this new chapter a worrying one – the most saddening thing to witness is DIR EN GREY’s creative plateau. Indeed, if you’ve ever shared the sentiment Arche
felt like an irrefutable ending for the band, this new chapter will most certainly back up that mindset. “Ningen wo Kaburu” suffers from a brace of awkward tonality transitions, albeit with an enjoyable, yet recycled, take on “Kukoku no kyouon”’s gorgeous melodies for its chorus; meanwhile, “Utafumi” sounds like a heavy track salvaged from the cutting room floor of Arche
. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that these tracks are safe, familiar but still fun. No, the real damage comes from “Ranunculus” and its more violent deviation from a code of limitless possibilities, stripping itself down to a bare-minimum and sitting snuggly in the status quo of generic J-rock formulas while Kyo does the brunt of the workload; solely relying on his symphonic influences and keeping the rest of the band in the shadows. It’s hard to shake the thought it’s a track ill-suited to DEG and would benefit more from being on a Sukekiyo album. However, the problems don’t just stop there. Couple these flawed singles with a flaccid and muddy production – as well as a questionably awkward album cover that represents this new project – and a blackened sense of foreboding looms over the approach to this release.
There’s more at stake here than just the fact it could end up being a weak album. Up to this point DIR EN GREY have built up a legacy with a near perfect ending, and the prospect of seeing that going up in smoke is a terrifying scenario for many [including myself]. So, with that kind of pressure hanging over the band you have to question why they’re essentially flogging a dead horse – and more to the point, does the final product convey as much？ Well… yeah, to a degree it does. The Insulated World
is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable record that maintains its self-awareness and utilises every tool in the band’s shed – albeit relying far more on the former end of the band’s sonic skill set than the latter. It’s an accurately educated guess Kyo opts for symphonic ideals and a lullaby approach to his singing, in favour of the impressive guttural screams and screeches he’s perfected over the years, because of his vocal cord problems. And when we’re listening to the silky-smooth melodies of “Aka” or the exiting segment of “Values of Madness”, he holds the fort quite admirably, but for the most part it’s hard to shake the niggling feeling he’s tired here; vocal diversity is frequent, but seems to fall a little short. He sounds blunted and in a “been there done that” fashion. Like the rest of the band, they’re a little too reliant on recycling sounds and progressions. Where previous albums explored new territories, The Insulated World
picks up ideas of old a little too often: from the Withering to Death
vocal approach of "Keibetsu to Hajimari" and its metalcore styled riffing, to the Vulgar
-y undertones of “Celebrate Empty Howls”, songs never feel like they’re standing on their own merits but rather using history as a crutch. And, arguably, you could say Arche
did the same kind of thing, but the difference between this and its predecessor is that Arche
did this reflective writing with its own character and identity in tact. Not to mention this has its first serious misfire in over 10 years, with the horrendously dated “Values of Madness”: built around a staccato NU-metal groove and one of the most cringe-y vocal approaches I think I’ve heard from Kyo since they formed. The song is redeemed with a cathartic interlude that strips its distortions for shimmering clarity, but the initial impression remains and it’s hard to imagine what they were aiming for with it.
In the end, DIR EN GREY have stripped themselves of their God-like mystic and impenetrable creative designs for a far more grounded and earthly experience here, one that sits next to a conventional and accessible way of thinking. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but the problems reside in the execution: from a compositional standpoint the writing leaves a lot to be desired, while the production does little favours in delivering these songs properly. As promising as "Keibetsu to Hajimari" starts off, it becomes apparent there’s little to explore bar its initial sounds and it’s a frequent occurrence for the duration of the album; these songs sit on the straight and narrow but they lack the charisma to keep you invested. There’s some higher-grade work here of course, the Macabre
tinged “Aka” delivers on the sprawling epic soundscapes the band are so well known for, and the despondent vibes from “Devote My Life” shows that the band can still move forward in all the right ways – the electronic contributions here (and throughout the album) are an asset to the track and makes you wish they’d explored the electronic texturing a little more. But unfortunately, the production is just shy of being a disaster. The guitars sound muddy, made even more blurred when distorted, the drums are buried and lack the punch required to give these lifeless entities some exuberance – I think the only positive comes from the fact Toshiya’s bass is pretty high in the mix (normally fighting for space on previous LPs). But the biggest crime of all comes from the production letting a lot of the potential here go unnoticed. There’s no dynamics involved, just walls of sounds fighting it out. Had a track like “Keigaku No Yoku” been given the proper treatment, this Sabbath-meets-prog sludgefest could have really taken the show, as it stands it’s just a track showing glimmers of what could have been. The electronics are a great addition here, but largely stand out like a sore thumb to the point of causing tonality clashes. The scratching sounds that scrape along “Celebrate Empty Howls” make as an unpleasant afterthought, but had they been mixed well, could have had a positive effect on the track.
All this sounds like a crucifixion, but the truth of the matter is this is still a solid album, it’s just hindered by shoddy production and lacklustre songwriting. Was The Insulated World
worth a deconstruction on what they’d built？ I guess it’s based on your stand from it all, but for me it’s like watching the Sistine chapel getting a C4 makeover. In terms of the contemporary bands it stands next to it's great, but compared to their previous three records it doesn’t even reach the same radar. Hell, even in its context “Ranunculus” comes across like a blue-balls, anticlimactic finisher which sums up where the band is at at this point. If Arche
was the big celebratory party for their career, The Insulated World
is the hangover from it all.
FORMAT//EDITIONS: 2-CD 1-DVD/̶/̶2̶-̶C̶D̶ ̶1̶-̶B̶L̶U̶ ̶R̶A̶Y̶/̶/̶C̶D̶/̶/̶D̶I̶G̶I̶T̶A̶L̶
PACKAGING: Continuing the slipcase book design of previous singles and Arche
, The Insulated World
continues to offer a high-quality product with great presentation and art design. The paper sleeve on the outer case is made more user friendly and is the easiest box set to unpack thus far. No stickers or incentives previously included are present, but you get a lyric book with English translations and a photo shoot booklet. 4.5/5
SPECIAL EDITION: The DVD contains excerpts from two live sets that hold a varied selection of songs from their catalogue of music. Also included is the "Ranunculus" music video and the formulaic behind the scenes for the album's creative process – which continues to fail at delivering subtitles. The second disc contains three remake tracks: "Kigan", "THE DEEPER VILENESS" and "Riyuu", as well as live recordings of "Fukai", "Ash" and "Beautiful Dirt". 4/5
ALBUM STREAM//PURCHASE: http://www.cdjapan.co.jp/product/SFCD-235 spotify:album:2TKweqOQYNgkxZV7Qm2060