For Fans Of
When you think Japanese heavy music, a handful of artists probably spring to your mind. Crystal Lake’s bouncy and riffy metalcore; the cyber-metal party of Crossfaith; the over-the-top musical spectacle that is Babymetal; the bleak and harrowing instrumental sounds that Mono create; and the harsh noise-rock that Boris dishes out. Hopefully, when it comes to Japan’s metal output, you also think of the obscure and eccentric Dir En Grey. Excluding this year’s Best Of release, ‘Vestige Of Scratches‘, the last time Dir En Grey put out a new record was 2014’s ‘Arche‘, a lengthy and impressive alt-metal/post-metal LP that was a little too big for its own good. Whereas here, the 45-minutes of ‘The Insulated World‘ seems just about right. With the band stretching their creative muscle and musical prowess across this LP’s 13 tracks; delivering the goods in the full-on, theatrical way that only these guys can do.
Die’s and Kaoru’s groovy, stomping alt-metal riffs are here in droves, best noted on the crunchy, blood-pumping ‘Keibetsu to Hajimari‘, the rhythmically brisk ‘Downfall‘, and the violent rollicking nature of ‘Celebrate Empty Howls‘. (Which has some really well-syncopated sample percussion measures within it). Of course, if you wanted death-metal-orientated chugs and vocals from Dir En Grey, there’s plenty on offer – something the band will never relinquish. Which can also be said of their lighter shades too. The contrastive melting-pot of ‘Ningen Wo Kaburu‘ and the stratospheric, uplifting ‘Ranunculus‘ – which is as radiant as the flower it’s named after – show off the group’s melodic sensibilities extremely well. Even though some of their audience don’t speak Japanese (like me), these choruses glue right onto the insides of your skull. (Lyrically, expect it to be grim as a rule of thumb). It’s seriously addictive, with the singles being two great examples. However, the likes of the frenzied ‘Utafumi‘ sound like an overwhelming collection from every angle of Dir En Grey’s personality. Which may turn some off, as there’s just so much going on in these tracks.
Electronics creep across the proverbial windows of songs like ‘Values Of Madness‘, ‘Rubbish Heap‘, and ‘Devote My Life‘. But don’t stress too hard, ye purists. The band isn’t trying to haphazardly jump onto any trends or bandwagons with such parts; merely expanding their instrumental and sonic palette with added elements to spruce up the track-listing. By that same token, this new record also has some of the strongest nu-metal leanings I’ve ever heard from the group with the rumbling bass work and dissonant panic chords of ‘Devote My Life‘, as well as those odd-ball rapped vocals early on in ‘Values Of Madness‘. That last part was a real surprise, but a welcome one at that; placing you further on your seat’s edge, wondering just what the fuck the Japanese legends will do next. Which is perhaps one of Dir En Grey’s biggest strengths: unpredictability. That aspect hasn’t at all been lost on album ten.
Buzzing tremolo guitars, Toshiya’s thick bass lines, Shinya’s tight drum grooves, and Kyo’s soaring, sky-scraping vocals of ‘Followers‘ make it as delicate as it is expansive; a prime cut for modern day Dir En Grey. The monumental ‘Aka‘ shows off the band’s penchant for creating avant-garde peaks without bloated lengths; from flashy solos, jazzy licks, dynamic breaks, and mammoth song forms where instrumental layering is absolutely key. If that’s not your speed, just wait until the seven-minute beast of ‘Zetsuentai‘ hits. This is the album’s zenith; weaving in strings, keys, huge melodies, big riffs, and incredible vocal performances. If there’s one thing you’ve hopefully noticed from my positive ramblings here, it’s that Dir En Grey hasn’t lost their touch for the grandiose, the interesting, nor the dramatic. But I’m happy about that fact, as these moments left the strongest impressions upon me.
Now, a review of Dir En Grey is never complete without mentioning focusing on the vocals. Kyo is honest-to-god one of the best frontmen in heavy music – period. His clean singing is pristine; angelic in tone yet full of life, emotion, and heart-rendering cadence. Kyo’s utilizes his massive vocal range to an awesome degree here, with his ridiculous falsetto slides being just as jaw-dropping as ever. His rabid, animalistic screaming is also incredibly impressive; switching from guttural growls, high-squeals, freakish yells, fore-boding vocalizations, and menacing contortions in a single heartbeat. His vocal flourishes are still as effective as ever – breathing extra character into the songs – and he even nails an opera moment during a passage on ‘Values Of Madness‘ too. Given the frontman’s crazed style and demanding performances, I’m surprised the dude can still do this after ten records and two-decades of contorting his voice in inhuman ways, let alone talk normally. Kyo is one of the greats, and this album shows his staggering talents off incredibly so!
With all of this in mind, this release is absolutely going to have its harsh detractors. For many longtime fans and lovers of the quintet’s earlier records, this might seem like one big ol’ self-reference at times. That it’s, as the album’s title suggests, quite insular. Almost like the band are out of ideas, resorting to retreading already mapped-out areas to appease loyal, long-standing fans. As if they’re saying, “Hey, remember how good that one album we did over ten years ago was!?“. While I can definitely see where those opinions may originate from, I don’t agree nor think they’d ever be a smoking gun against the solid quality of ‘The Insulated World‘. Its ear for effective contrast makes it work well, as does the band playing into their heavy, melodic and sometimes bizarre songwriting cues too.
I think a more genuine criticism would actually be the record’s production. As the dynamic range isn’t as large or as defined as I would’ve hoped for, meaning much of the record sounds too compressed and even a little flat sonically. (The creepy, sombre-meets-aggro ‘Keigaku No Yoku‘ still works dynamically, with each section landing with real weight, but is really the only exception). However, combatting this plain mixing issue is the solid songwriting and performances, which are all done very well. Language barrier or not, whether dark alt-metal or progressive/avant-garde tendencies, Dir En Grey really are a one in a million band. ‘The Insulated World‘ is more than enough proof that the group don’t have a bad or even underwhelming record attached to their established name.
Look, this isn’t going to be your favourite Dir En Grey record. It won’t be hailed as some classic release for the Japanese band years down the line like how ‘Gauze’ and ‘Vulgar’ are revered. And this record isn’t going to be the metal album to beat in 2018 either. What ‘The Insulated World’ is, however, is a colourful, varied, and heavy release from an iconic act who has up-kept their eclectic and powerful songwriting. Crushing alt-metal brutality and widescreen melodic beauty meet right in the middle on ‘The Insulated World’, with Kyo’s vocal performances still cementing him as one of the best frontmen in the world. 20 years down and there’s no sign of Dir En Grey stopping anytime soon. And shit, even if this was their last album, I’d be happy with where the band would’ve solidly left things off!
1. Keibetsu to Hajimari
2. Devote My Life
3. Ningen Wo Kaburu
4. Celebrate Empty Howls
6. Rubbish Heap
8. Values of Madness
11. Keigaku No Yoku
‘The Insulated World’ is out now!