Friday 23 September 2022

Dir en Grey - Phalaris (2022)

Country: Japan
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jul 2022
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Dir en Grey are one of those infuriating or joyous bands, depending on your perspective who are impossible to categorise, which should make it no surprise if I tell you that they come from Japan, Osaka in particular. Just wrap your ears around Schadenfreude, the opener on this, their eleventh studio album and first since 2018's The Insulated World. It starts out quirky and alternative; turns gothic, even operatic with a male lead vocal that suddenly sounds female; crunches from rock into metal; and then goes full on extreme with death growls over a downtuned backdrop that's happy to match. After that, it only gets more complex, with technical progressive metal.

So yeah, they're a symphonic gothic metal band. They're a progressive death metal band. They're an experimental alternative rock band. And they're not uncommonly all of those things at once. It shouldn't shock if I highlight that the band's favourite albums include records by Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, David Sylvian, Pantera and, well, the Beatles. All of those bands can be found here and a whole lot more, across a multitude of genres, but they're all subsumed into a unique Dir en Grey sound. The most obvious is probably Pantera.

Schadenfreude, the pleasure generated by seeing someone else's troubles, is an ambitious track to open up here, which I'm sure is the point. It's a breathe shy of ten minutes long and it rides the intensity levels like a rollercoaster. There are points where it's almost music box quiet, but points where it's metalcore intense. The band leader is Kaoru, who plays lead guitar, but the wildcard of the band, who matches every instrumental shift, is vocalist Kyo, who reminds of a Japanese Mike Patton. He doesn't just sing in multiple styles, he vocalises in even more. To my mind, it's the best thing on this album, whether as a song or as any particular part of one.

In a way, if you like the sheer variety in this one song, you may like this album too because it does a similar job across fifty-plus minutes. However, it's not really that simple, because Schadenfreude's long enough to do those things but also short enough for our brain to acknowledge it as an entity of its own. The album is the former but not the latter, so we inevitably break it down into a bunch of eleven individual songs and most of those are not long enough to do what Schadenfreude does, so have to succeed or not with smaller sonic palettes.

The other song that is long enough to sit alongside Schadenfreude is its bookend at the other end of the album, カムイ, which translates to Kamuy, a divine being in Ainu mythology that exists in a state of spiritual energy. It's a strange track, not as fast or urgent as Schadenfreude but with a lot of fascinating texture. There's a tango in there and a whole lot of subtle operatics from Kyo that I found delightful. It's not quite as varied as the opener but it's just as grand and it highlights that the current Dir en Grey really need room for their songs to breathe.

By the way, that's not unusual subject matter for this band, who have generated controversy with their videos. The album title this time out references a torture device, the Brazen Bull, an ancient Greek statue built from bronze in which victims were burned alive, their screams manipulated into sounding like the bellowing of a bull. It was commissioned by Phalaris, a Sicilian tyrant, hence the album's title.

The video this time out is for The Perfume of Sins, which is a mostly up tempo death metal number that gets more complex with its orchestration overlays. It's not my favourite piece here by a long shot, but the video does feature the Brazen Bull and a whole slew of other torture devices amidst other dark imagery. It feels deviant for the sake of being deviant though, carefully tailored to its iconography, and that lessens the impact. It's not raw enough or visceral enough. It's deviant chic and that feels odd for Dir en Grey, given how wild Kyo can get.

I'm fonder of songs like Utsutsu, Bouga o Kurau, because it's far happier to be its own thing. There are all sorts of elements to this one that I recognise, but I haven't heard them in this combination before and the jagged beat ensures that it remains a fascinating collection of fragments that has a groove all of its own. Ochita Koto no Aru Sora also walks the line wonderfully between frantically out of control metalcore and tight death metal riffing.

And, excluding the epic bookends which are easily my favourite tracks here, this is what I like best about Dir en Grey, a feeling that everything's going totally off the rails but somehow never quite does, because it's all planned and very carefully and skilfully executed. It's a pretty decent album for their twenty-fifth anniversary. I didn't like everything, but I appreciated what I didn't.

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