Culture Shock

Shape-shifing Japanese rockers Dir en grey bring blood-stained agony

"I haven't seen a band with that much intensity in a long time." That's what Korn frontman Jonathan Davis had to say last summer about his Family Values tourmates Dir en grey, a versatile quasi-metal Japanese band that has met with baffling success in Europe and, more recently, the United States. In February, when Dir en grey embarked on its first headlining U.S. tour, shows in several cities sold out quickly. Before that, Davis, the members of Dir en grey, metal tabloids, and newspapers reported audiences singing along to the band's music in Japanese.

Dir en grey reportedly was greeted with the same familiarity in Europe. Strangely, though, the band had no distribution in either Europe or the States until 2005. In other words, its records were barely available enough to account for widespread awareness of the music. To make matters more confusing, the lyrics to the band's second American release (and sixth overall), the just-released The Marrow of a Bone, are printed in gray ink on black paper, making them virtually impossible to read.

But the point is moot: The awareness is there. And if fans don't know the words per se, they know them phonetically. That means that as Dir en grey returns to the U.S. to open for Deftones, the expectations around the band have probably shifted from pleasant surprise and puzzlement to a concerted desire to maximize success. Considering that the past two heavy bands out of Japan to be groomed for U.S. stardom, Loudness and EZO, were pushed on us during the hair-metal era and failed miserably, the pressure must be compounding on Dir en grey.

If this is a concern within the band, then guitarist and principal songwriter Kaoru isn't letting on.

"We don't care if people are positive and enjoying the show or not," Kaoru says. "When we play onstage, we don't see any of the people's attitude. The people should feel something, but whatever it is that they feel, the band doesn't care from the stage. If people are enjoying it, it's a very good thing and we feel honored, obviously, but the audiences should feel something by themselves. They don't have to think about what the band concept is or what we expect."

Kaoru recently acknowledged to Metal Edge that the buildup from people not being able to buy the records for a long time may be feeding the demand for Dir en grey's concerts. But, perhaps, there is something more universal at work. Americans, in particular, are not accustomed to processing art in other languages and, for the most part, resist it and even tend to laugh nervously. People throughout the rest of the world have much more frequent exposure to foreign languages, particularly English. Dir en grey not only gives us a taste of our own medicine, but a more welcome opportunity to experience an aspect of rock music that the rest of the world has enjoyed as standard for a long time: raw emotion freed from the constraints of words.

"Anger and sorrow," Kaoru says, "are not exclusive to Japan. Our target is normal people everywhere. If we can communicate with someone or if we feel some part of people's feelings — the dark part — this is something we want to express to the world. We don't think too much about Japan. We also try to focus on things that happen in the world or every day so we can find the negative background feelings. We can see something difficult which normal people cannot see in their daily life."

That ethos stands to gain long-term traction in the States, where, as they have in Japan, isolation, depression, and suicide have reached pandemic levels. Nonetheless, it is dismaying to see Davis and critics cheer for vocalist Kyo's onstage self-mutilation as if he were the second coming of Iggy Pop — as if the music or his charisma needed cheap gimmicks.

In interview clips, Kyo, who looks like the love child of an angry dwarf and a rooster, appears surly and enraged. That is particularly striking and humorous in an old Japanese talk show clip where the band comes out in outrageous outfits: stiff, trashy-glam futuristic robes straight out of The Fifth Element or some confused fashion designer's answer to Robert Heinlein.

Formed in 1998, Dir en grey's origins go back to a band called La:Sadie's, which included four of Dir en grey's five members.

La:Sadie's, like Dir en grey, were proponents of Japan's highly image-oriented "visual-kei" movement, which remains active in Japan today. "Visual-kei" (bisaru kei in Japanese) began in the early '80s. Imagine Japanese bands applying the made-up moodiness of the Cure and Bauhaus to the previous decade's glam and, in their trademark ways, adding doses of their own dramatic traditions and then intensifying it all. Unsurprisingly, by the mid-'80s, that style absorbed the look of bands like Ratt and Dokken.

But anyone ready to dismiss Dir en grey as hair-mongering poseurs may want to think again. Hardly anyone accuses Peter Gabriel or David Bowie of threatening their music with their image. Similarly, although Dir en grey's claims to have toned down its emphasis on looks seem ridiculous when you see Kyo performing with monster-yellow contact lenses, the band's dizzying ability to glide between genres with chameleonic grace in the blink of an eye speaks for itself.

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7 comments
Akira
Akira

(continued)

Overall, it was a good article I suppose, and I just wanted to help with some of the facts I guess. Although, this one paragraph kinda turned me off... "In interview clips, Kyo, who looks like the love child of an angry dwarf and a rooster, appears surly and enraged. That is particularly striking and humorous in an old Japanese talk show clip where the band comes out in outrageous outfits: stiff, trashy-glam futuristic robes straight out of The Fifth Element or some confused fashion designer's answer to Robert Heinlein." If Kaoru states that the band expresses anger and sorrow, isn't Kyo's on-stage antics to be expected? And to the second sentence... That's Visual Kei for ya back then. I'm not sure if the outfits Visual Kei bands wear now are more outrageous than the ones back then... Thinking of bands back then with Yoshiki's spiked hair and comparing them to this generation...it's probably about the same if not more. hahaha, I don't think those fashion designers are confused- they know exactly what they're doing. XD

Oh and Dir en grey was indeed formed in 1997.

Akira
Akira

Is it really that confusing to people that we as American fans of Dir en grey can sing the songs in Japanese? It seems that is brought up alot in articles such as this... We mostly utilize the internet for information and I think that's one of the main reasons we know so much already. As for singing the songs in Japanese, there are translations people put up online so we know what the song is about, but some people may even be able to figure it out just by watching the PV (Promotional Video). For me, the sounds just stuck in my head and after awhile, I was able to sing them like any other song (and that's basically for every song I listen to).

Oh, and the lyric books printed in America for The Marrow of a Bone have problems with them. This was stated by Warcon Records, but unfortunately, there hasn't been any news lately on how we can obtain the corrected lyric books.

Usadari
Usadari

To the author: Thank you very much for writing this, your views and opinions made it one of the more enjoyable Dir en grey articles that have been written in the states. I appriciate the fact that you did some research on the band, even if your facts aren't 100% accurate. I look forward to reading any future articles you may write about the band.To "Manda": Please get over yourself. The author went through the trouble of publishing an article with a overall positive image of the band. I appriciate that s/he's getting the word out to future fans. If you can't get past the fact that people are allowed to have their own opinions, you need to grow the fuck up. Our fanbase doesn't need any more whiny, elitist bullshit than it already has, thank you very much.

Manda
Manda

To whoever wrote this articleThis is bullshit, thank you for calling my idol a dwarf/rooster, you should be ashamed of yourself. And I'm seconding SOS, get your facts straight before you write things like this.

Shondolyn Gibson
Shondolyn Gibson

Fascinating article.I've been into Dir en grey since 2001.There's no band quite like them. No other band plays with the sort of deep feeling they play with.They are excellent and I wish them success.

Alexa
Alexa

I've been a fan of them for 5+ years now and have to say that their constantly-evolving sound has definitely hit a new and unique high in The Marrow Of A Bone era. Nothing is comparable to this band live in concert if you let yourself be pulled into the music and performance- nothing. A good number of fans overseas have made concentrated efforts to furthering their understanding of the band by doing translations and discussing lyrics and interviews, but the fact that so many people are drawn to them without initial understanding says something about the incredible emotional impact they can have on people.

SOS
SOS

Just FYI .Dir en grey was formed on Feb 2,1997 .They did one show after LaSadies disbanded ,under the name ,"Death Mask",with the present line up ,but then played as Dir en grey ,for the first time ,on Feb 2 ,97.Not 98 .They did just have their 10th anniversary .

 
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