Japan's Dir en Grey have taken much of the indie metal world by storm over the last 11 years. Beginning as a wildly experimental pop band that first incorporated hard rock and heavy metal into their sound about three or four albums in, they've become an absolutely ferocious unit both on record and on stages worldwide. While their records have only recently seen release in the United States, it hardly matters in the digital age. Sony even reissued their Marrow of a Bone outing in 2007. Uroboros, on the venerable The End imprint, is Dir en Grey's seventh studio album. It is both an expansion of their metallic sound, as well as a return to their more experimental pop origins. Still comprised of its original lineup with Kyo on vocals, guitarists Kaoru and Die, bassist Toshiya, and drummer Shinya, this set may upset some of the harder core purists who yearn exclusively for the thrashing assault days. For the rest of us, this may be the band's most magical and thought-provoking set yet. Other than in the willfully misanthropic underground of black metal, heavy metal itself has been undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts, incorporating all manner of art rock, prog metal, and classic post-rock structures as well. Uroboros has all of the above in a seamless meld of lush textures, expansive dynamics, impeccably recorded sound, and above all brilliant musicianship. Kyo still writes his lyrics and sings almost exclusively in Japanese -- almost all of the band's titles are in Japanese, as well. That said, the translated lyrics are in gray on black in the booklet in two-point type, readable only with a magnifying glass. No matter. Kyo's voice is more like another instrument, whether he is singing melodically, growling, or shrieking.
The set begins with a brief instrumental intro called "Sa Bir," which employs deep drum loops, sub-bass synth oscillations, a cimbalom, and a warbling bass throb with a few background roars from Kyo. This gives way to the risky opener "Vinushka," with its acoustic guitars, shimmer ride and crash cymbals, and the vocalist nearly crooning before giving way to metallic riffing, sound effects, and plenty of reverb on the vocal. Dynamic and time signature changes occur with stunning regularity even as a gorgeous dark, nearly gothic rock tune begins to emerge from the din and hush. At nearly ten minutes, this is a step onto the plank hanging over the abyss, but with Kyo's wildly varying vocal styles (Mike Patton has nothing on him) the tune gels as a suite without seemingly separate parts. Whether it's the thrashing death metal in the middle of the cut with its insane growl, or the lilting, hushed darkling prog pop in the center, it all works. It sets the tone for a seamless listening experience that combines the many strengths Dir en Grey enjoys as a band, with a couple of other standouts being the warped, jagged funky rock of "Stuck Man" -- with a killer bassline by Toshiya -- and the elegantly layered "Ware, Yami Tote," with Kyo's emotionally honest and vulnerable singing, Shinya's breakbeats, and entwined acoustic and electric guitars with an actual hook. Seasoned fans will either smile knowingly or shake their heads and cry sellout (they'd be wrong). For the uninitiated, Uroboros is actually the best way to get introduced to Dir en Grey's complex and alluring musical magic and mayhem. Think of some strange cross between Anathema, Rush, the Gathering, and Katatonia, with some early Mission U.K. thrown in and you might get into the neighborhood of this mercurial band's sound.