Seeing Dir En Grey is always somewhere between surgery and exorcism; they will yank things out of you whether you’re ready to face them or not….
The last time I saw them, in 2008 supporting the Uroboros album, they were so intense that I didn’t even make it through the set. Kyo’s performance was so desperate and anguished that it was like being on the other end of a suicide hotline – in a language you don’t speak, to boot – and I honestly wondered how he made it through. Last night was my third time with them, and I was prepared for anything.
The vibe was different from the start, though, thanks to the unexpectedly endearing opening band, The Birthday Massacre. (I should have gotten a clue when I got my first ever headbutt from a unicorn during their set, courtesy of an over-excited fan’s plush-animal backpack.) They played an enjoyable set of dark synthpop given visual appeal by the members’ distinctive looks and the nonstop bounce of singer Chibi, whose photo ought to be in the dictionary beside the word “perkygoth”. “Chibi” in Japanese means anything little and cute, and it’s well chosen here. Setting theatrical, quirky vocal power and control (I kept thinking of Bjork), against a schoolgirl uniform and pigtails, and nocturnal subject matter against boundless energy, she delivered an irresistible performance, decorated with dramatic silent-film poses and thumb-and-forefinger hearts. Can’t help but be charmed by someone having such evident and unrestrained fun onstage. –I had barely heard of TBM, but ended the set as a fan.
But OK, now for the big story. The album Dir En Grey are touring to support is called Dum Spiro Spero – “While I breathe, I hope” – and guitarist Die has said that “Ultimately, it means to keep faith and hope alive even though you are living the worst.” A guy I’m talking to comments that he’d heard they’re playing almost exclusively tracks from DSS on this tour, with older songs only in the encore. Will that mean a more positive tone, or just a desperate one? We’ll see…
Dir En Grey have a presence that holds you at arms’ length. Fourteen years in, tough veterans of the metalcore scene, they walk out with cool dignity, all in black; they don’t smile, or speak, or react when the fangirls squeal. And when Kyo makes his appearance, and the crowd goes ballistic, he looks out with lidded eyes and no expression whatever, as if thinking we’ve got no idea what we’re looking at. And maybe we don’t.
[Disclaimer: Kyo sings entirely in Japanese. My Nihongo is nowhere near good enough to follow him, and they don’t translate in their liner notes, so I won’t even speculate on what the songs are about.]
Seeing Dir En Grey is always somewhere between surgery and exorcism; they will yank things out of you whether you’re ready to face them or not. They are so raw, so ferocious, that you can’t assess what’s happening to you, you just hang on and breathe whenever you can get your head above water. This time Kyo doesn’t seem to be in the same sort of psychic pain as last time, but still sings like a man capable of punching in his own ribcage and hauling out his heart barehanded. He doubles over on the metal podium, howling, head down to his knees, and the band just calmly and solidly backs him up, watching him. Several times he stands on the podium and pours out long strings of syllables that are run through a processor, doubled back, raised and lowered and distorted into a strange incantation; several times his extraordinary voice sinks into a thick, bestial snarl that sounds as if he’s spontaneously channeled a pre-human ancestor. It’s not theatrics. It’s magick.
The set is consistent and strong, a little sprawly, but plainly all of contemporaneous material, one steady tone throughout. The band is tight, and Kyo’s singing – when he is just singing – is pure soul and clarity. I’d never say he sounds upbeat, but there’s more balance and resolve to the sound in between bursts of bloody-throated screaming, and a lot more control and elegance in his body language, which includes some flowing arm and hand gestures worthy of a Balinese dancer. Midway through the set he peels off the top of his track suit to reveal gorgeously detailed tattoo work, including full sleeves and backpiece, and when he turns his back to us we can clearly see it shows a seated Buddha-like figure. (Is it Arya Tara, the Buddhist Mother of Liberation, who appears on the album cover? Wouldn’t surprise me.) So maybe he’s come to some sort of peace, or is on the Way, perhaps. It would make sense.
They walk off with the same abrupt dignity they arrived with, but the crowd stamps and yells for more, “One more song! One more song!” turning into “Dir En Grey! Dir En Grey!” and when they reappear there are actually some smiles. Smiles, wow! The encores include, as I’d heard, older songs – “Kodou” from Withering to Death, and “Red Soil” from Uroboros – before Kyo climbs up onto his perch once more and proclaims in emphatic English, “Last song!” I cross my fingers for “Spilled Milk”, but oh well; It’s “Rasetsukoku”, one of the tracks from Macabre remixed for the new album, and the band members actually play it up, coming to the fore one by one for solos. (Kaoru’s purple-glitter guitar decor sports, as ever, his great logo “Japanese Zombie Heroes”.) I let Liz get in front of me with her camera and go lean on the wall to soak it in while they roar to the finish, raise guitars in salute, and disappear into the darkness.
Long may they breathe.
(All photos taken by and © 2011 Elizabeth V. Bouras, All Rights Reserved)