"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.
The Marrow of a Bone
scheduled to perform on Friday, May 11
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.
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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.
At times, Dir en grey sounds like middle-of-the-road heavy rock. At other times, it sounds like power metal, and at others, like pop balladeers until death metal screams come blossoming out of the gloss. Sometimes the band thrashes with punk glee, while sometimes it displays chops worthy of '70s prog rock. Then again, it can sound like Mötley Crüe playing songs tailor-made to fill arenas with female screams, or like Orgy-influenced industrial goth-metal. The comparisons go on, and often stack up within the same song.
"I prefer different sounds and different types of music on the same album, because if you have the same types of songs on an album, it's not interesting," Kaoru says. "Also, each member has different visions of the song, so if I try to include all of the members' feelings in a song, it won't stick to one style."
Appropriately, The Marrow of a Bone's album art may provide the best way to describe the band. Though the cover appears to be solid black, silhouetted human shapes appear when you tilt it. Keep tilting at an angle for light to hit it, and the image crystallizes into civilians on a battlefield surveying and mourning the dead bodies of fallen soldiers. In essence, there's more going on with this band than meets the eye, and its stubborn penchant for surprise and ambiguity more than image or flash may ultimately serve it well on its continuing efforts to achieve viability in the West.