Japan's Dir en Grey may have the retained the same lineup since their inception in 1997, but that's it. Musically they don't even sound like the same band. In the early days they associated themselves with Japan's Visual Kei movement, and the music tended to be frantically emotional and experimental; other than calling it "rock," it was unclassifiable. Their first EP, Missa, was followed by a pair of independently issued singles that entered the Top Ten in Japan. By the time they issued their debut album, Gauze, in 1990, they were already headlining the Osaka Music Hall. While still evolving, the band moved its focus toward heavy metal, though metal elements were always in its sound. As their sound changed from album to album, so their popularity grew, and while they engaged the metal form as a base of expression, their experimentalism and unabashedly emotional pop sensibilities remained ingrained as well. They toured Europe and sold out shows everywhere they went based on nothing more than word of mouth. When they played the United States in March 2006 in support of Withering to Death -- their debut American release -- dates at South by Southwest were well attended (aren't everybody's?) but more importantly, the band sold out large venues in Los Angeles and New York as well. Sony issues Dir en Grey's Marrow of a Bone in Japan. Given the package and production, they've invested plenty in the band's growing popularity. (Upon first glance, the package is totally black -- booklet and all -- and with gray-on-black lettering in tiny type, it takes a magnifying glass and bright light to make out the lyrics and production details.)
But there is more risk attached as well. Dir en Grey's vocalist and lyricist, Kyo, may title many of his songs in English (all but two here), but he sees no need to sing in the Yankee tongue all the time and doesn't. The band's sound has embraced tendencies of American metal and nu metal (they participated in Korn's Family Values tour in America), and Dir en Grey bring so many other sonic and musical elements into the mix that they extend not only the reach of their own music, but the boundaries of any music they happen to incorporate into their sound. (This is not to mention their videos, which are more startling than anything by Björk and Matthew Barney -- check out the band's MySpace page.) And that sound is unmistakably their own, no matter what they do. Frontman Kyo, a vocalist as distinct as Bono or Gerard Way, can howl, croon, emote cleanly, scream, shriek, growl, bellow, and make nearly inhuman sounds whenever he wants to, and he puts everything and then some into his performances on record and in concert. (He's been hospitalized for exhaustion and irritated vocal chords a couple of times and has been known to mutilate himself during performances.) And does that ever come across on Marrow of a Bone. While the production values are higher here than ever before, Dir en Grey are as powerful on record as they are live. Check out the single (and video) "Clever Sleazoid," which is re-recorded for the album (as is "Ryoujoku No Ame") and is the disc's final cut. It roars out of the gate with a scraped guitar and overblown power chord riff with Kyo screaming in Japanese as the band sprints in front of him. Guitars are ablaze (courtesy of Kaoru and Die) with counterpoint riffs before hitting a hooky sung chorus that turns the crunching metal riff inside out, then resumes it before the listener can do anything but be captured by the drop-dead punch of the rhythm section (Toshiya, bass; Shinya, drums) that keeps it all grounded -- but not by much.
Before this, of course, is an entire album, full of so many twists and turns that it is dizzying in its 50 minutes. "Conceived Sorrow," a moody ballad with a threatening bassline, opens the set with an uncharacteristic piano accompanying Kyo as he digs deep emotionally. Acoustic and electric guitars slip in just atop the drums and don't really explode before the three-minute mark (the tune is less than five). By then the listener is tensed and ready for anything to happen, but it's clean, open, ringing, and beautiful -- think a young Ronnie James Dio or Ian Gillan at his very best. This is forgotten on the next cut, "Lie Buried with a Vengeance," an unabashed metal terrorizer with thrash, black, and death metal tropes fighting for domination in the mix. This is but a hint, as the other singles "Agitated by Maggots" and "Ryoujoku No Ame" attest, where everything from post-hardcore ear-bleeding scree (the former) to dramatic, near-symphonic progressive metal (the latter) with enormous rockist conceits are woven into the fabric of the music without irony or posturing. They also know a bit about soul and funk, judging form the rubbery bassline and off-kilter rhythms in "Disabled Complexes," where a nearly whispered soul croon gives way to something more expansive and tender, completely up-front in its vulnerability before the thing cracks open into something that Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad would have been rushing to sample for a Public Enemy track. Marrow of a Bone is a monster so beautiful and hideous that it has to be considered seriously; it has something to appeal to and offend everyone. That this was issued by a major label is a miracle.