Dir En Grey – A diagnosis from a (faux) Doctor

Published: February 04, 2024

Previous Diagnoses:

Paradise Lost|Primus|Faith No More|Paramore|HEALTH

Hello music enthusiast, and welcome to another instalment of Dr.Gonzo’s ‘Diagnosis Series’– where I go through a band or artist’s studio recordings and find their strengths and weaknesses. Today’s edition is on Japanese legends Dir En Grey, so join me while I try and wade through their sprawling and epic work.

Band/Artist: Dir En Grey

Origins: Osaka, Japan

Founded: 1997

Members:

Kyo – vocals

Kaoru – lead guitar

Die – rhythm guitar

Toshiya – bass

Shinya – drums

Studio albums: 11

Active: Yes

Gauze (1999)

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 The Doctor’s rating: 4/5

Analysis: As far as debut albums go, Gauze is an excellent entry point for fans looking to listen to some great J-rock music. Tracks like “Yurameki”, “Akuro No Oka”, “Cage” and “Yokan” reveal the raw talent within the band, with a deluge of infectious melodies, fantastic vocal performances and solid playing from every member. “Cage” in particular is a song I hold close to my heart, as I spent A LOT of time trying to play it when I first started playing the bass (the solo is still one of Toshiya’s career highlights). In hindsight though, Gauze’s strongest attribute is setting the stage for the rest of Dir En Grey’s career. The album gives every member the opportunity to shine and show their personalities – Toshiya on “Cage”, Kaoru on “Yokan”, Shinya on “ZAN”, Die on “mazohyst of decadence”, and Kyo on almost every song here. The music itself is solid J-rock, but there’s plenty of experimentation, progressive songwriting, atmosphere building, and moments of genuine heaviness to make Gauze a worthwhile entry point for the band, and one of the strongest albums in their entire catalogue.        

Prescription: On the whole, Gauze is an excellent J-rock album with plenty of progressive elements in there to give it a memorable flavour. Jam 3-4 times a day for a week, then listen to it as necessary.

Macabre (2000)

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The Doctor’s rating: 2.5/5

Analysis: I’ve always had a tough time gelling with this one, even now my opinion on it remains largely undeterred from when I heard it sixteen-or-so years ago. On the one hand, the album contains some of the band’s best tracks, like the sashaying rocker “Wake”, the prog epic “Macabre”, and the pop-y “Hotarubi”, complete with gorgeous string arrangements and funky guitar licks. On the other hand, the production is terrible and does little to aid the potential some many of these songs have – a critical aspect that will plague the band throughout the rest of their career. Couple that with electronics which refuse to assimilate with the band’s bread and butter playing and the album falls very flat in my estimations. Another major issue is Kyo isn’t up to the same standard he was on Gauze, with a slew of tenuous performances filled with repetitive, long-winded segments and irritating approaches. It’s not a bad album as such, it has a lot of good moments on it, but the production and Kyo’s performance overall really damage what works well here, and dare I say, this is Kyo’s worst performance on a Dir En Grey album to date.

Prescription: Considering how extensive Dir En Grey’s discography is, I would say this is one you could easily overlook and not miss out on much. Personally, this record is for completionists only. I suggest using your time more productively, like doing a crossword puzzle, but if you’re that curious, jam once and see how you get on.   

Kisou (2002)

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The Doctor’s rating: 3/5

Analysis: While Kisou is a marked set up from Macabre, it still carries over a number of issues plaguing their sophomore album, i.e. iffy production and more tepid contributions from Kyo. Something I didn’t touch on with the other record was the run time, which sat at seventy-three minutes – exacerbating the record’s flaws to the nth degree. Kisou shaves a song’s worth of time off that, but it’s still incredibly bloated after the fact. Thankfully, the songwriting here is a little more engaging and omits the asinine electronics, and for all of Kyo’s flaws here, he nails “-Mushi-” and “24ko Cilinder” with his unhinged and emotive performances, brimming with raw energy. “Bottom of the Death Valley” proudly sits as one of my favourite Diru songs – with its ominous energy, Iron Maiden-tinged bassline and squalling guitar licks, and Kyo’s demonic retching – and the industrial-laced “Gyakujou Tannou Keloid Milk” with its gyrating dance grooves stand as the clear highlights here. Compared to last time, the quality is of a much higher grade, however, because of how long it is, it has a tendency to meander and is filled with filler tracks like “The Domestic Fucker Family” and all of the “Shinsou” parts. Still, you can hear Vulgar bubbling up in this album’s sound, and while it can get bogged down, it’s still a decent record filled with some real highlights.

Prescription: A fun, albeit flawed entry that gets to work on their sound in the near future. Give it a spin once and see how you get on.

Vulgar (2003)
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The Doctor’s rating: 4.3/5

Analysis: The Best way to describe Vulgar in terms of production quality would be to imagine driving down a road submerged in a dense fog, only for it to capriciously clear and the sun beam into your eyes. Seriously, the step up in sound quality is alarming, and extremely cathartic if you’re doing what I’m doing right now and listening to their catalogue in chronological order. The production is punchy, clear, and captures the ferocious brutality of their new sound: which is now more metal-centric than previous entries. However, unlike preceding works, the songwriting is pithier and more focused on grabbing your attention before quickly moving on. There are very few weak moments on this record, with maybe the exception of “Child Prey” being a song I outwardly dislike, but in all honesty, this has some of the band’s most iconic compositions. “Shokubeni”, “The Liid Empire”, “Red… (em), “Kasumi”, “Amber” and “Obscure” are all top-tier tracks that display a band hellbent on driving themselves to greatness. At just under an hour this is still a lengthy voyage, but the quality on here is night and day when compared to previous works. Everything goes harder, faster and heavier. Admittedly, Vulgar doesn’t have the prog-ish inclinations an album like Gauze or Macabre has, but the driving heavy metal sound, fierce vocal work and effective melodies set the album apart by quite a distance. The atmosphere is also excellent.

Prescription: Vulgar is a blinding leap in progression for Dir En Grey and sets a milestone for the greatness they’re destined to achieve in the coming years. Listen to it 3-4 times a day for a week, then jam where necessary after that.

Withering to Death (2005)
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The Doctor’s rating: 4/5

Analysis: On the trodden path Vulgar carved out, Withering to Death essentially sets out to refine what Vulgar so vociferously unleashed. Withering to Death is another fantastic entry that carries over the vibrant production values of its predecessor, but implements even more metal into their sound – with face-peeling riffs, blast beats, and grander, more epic choruses than last time. And that’s the album’s biggest selling point: the heavy parts are heavy, the melodies and hooks are memorable, and the arrangements are punchy and to the point. However, like Vulgar, this record carries some of the band’s most revered tracks, namely “The Final”, but the extent isn’t to the same degree. Indeed, Withering to Death is memorable and does so much to improve on the formula, but for me, it lacks the staying power Vulgar has. Listening to it now, the focus on being heavier results in a slightly more generic chug-chug outing than the unique offering Vulgar provides. That being said; this is still an awesome album and a worthy successor that continues to move the band into a darker, heavier place both sonically and stylistically.

Prescription: An excellent successor to Vulgar that is heavier in most regards, but loses some of the mystique that album had. Listen to it 3-4 times a day for a week, then jam where necessary after that.

The Marrow of a Bone (2007)
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The Doctor’s rating: 3/5

Analysis: It comes with a sense of irony that for a time, this was my favourite Dir En Grey album. I got into the band through Uroboros and loved it, but at that time The Marrow of a Bone’s more streamlined and accessible disposition led me to connect with it more. Over the last decade or so though, I’ve come to detach myself from it because it lacks the intrigue and experimental flavour all their other albums have. Even their weakest albums that rank lower than this, I can’t fault their urge to play around with sounds and styles. There is context behind The Marrow of a Bone sounding so generic though, and it’s largely down to the fact the band were trying to break out and appeal to Western audiences – touring with bands like Korn and stripping their Visual Kei image for baggy jeans, denim jackets and even sterner, stoic facial expressions for photoshoots. I still respect The Marrow of a Bone for doing what it does and as such, with hindsight, see it as a necessary experiment so that Uroboros could materialise. There are some legitimate bangers on here too, like “Ryoujoku No Ame” and “Disabled Complexes”, but for the most part this is just generic Western-styled metal that lacks Dir En Grey’s unique DNA.

Prescription: Boilerplate metal with some standout moments dotted about. Give it a spin once and see how you get on.     

Uroboros (2008)/ Uroboros [Remastered & Expanded (2012)
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The Doctor’s rating: 5/5

Analysis: And so begins Dir En Grey’s foray into legendary status. For brevity, I’m going to compile the original Uroboros and its 2012 remaster under one umbrella, but know that R&E is vastly superior to its original in every way. Essentially, the 2008 version is infamous for a swampy mix that submerged these superb tracks into oblivion, as well as containing the inferior English-sung versions of “Glass Skin” and “Dozing Green” – again, probably the label’s attempt to capitalise on the Western markets. On top of R&E’s mind-blowing new sound, it also expands on “Sa Bir” and adds a couple of tracks to solidify its position as one of the greatest metal albums of all time. And make no mistake here; Uroboros is just that – a masterpiece in every sense of the word, blending progressive and death metal with the band’s unique undertaking. At just over an hour in length, every second of it feels justified, and completely engrossing. From the gorgeously poignant ballad “Glass Skin” to the epic ten-minute peregrination “Vinushka” that taps into every facet of the band’s sound. The funk-metal “Stuck Man”, the grandiose “Doukoku to sarinu”, and the blisteringly catchy “Dozing Green” are all punctiliously crafted works of art that utilise every tool in the band’s arsenal. In short, Uroboros is a perfectly constructed masterpiece; a collection of tracks that seamlessly combine accessibility with inaccessibility with pinpoint precision. After only listening to pop, rock, punk and nu-metal, Uroboros was the gateway album that got me into the heavier side of music. An astounding achievement and another drastic transformation for the band that combines their nous and keen ear for great atmospheres and melodies with the despondent power of metal’s broad playing ground.

Prescription: Utterly enthralling, staggeringly composed, and easily one of my favourite albums of all-time. Play this 4-5 times a day for a week and replay as needed.

Dum Spiro Spero (2011)
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The Doctor’s rating: 5/5

Analysis: Dum Spiro Spero is essentially the band pushing every morsal of energy and negative emotion they have into one project, to ludicrous degrees. On here the band make accessibility second fiddle to mind-bending, avant-garde-esque songwriting and unrelenting heaviness. Sure, there are small reprieves in the form of “Lotus” and “Vanitas”, but overall, you’re in for the long haul, being slowly crushed by Dum Spiro Spero’s incredibly oppressive power. The connotations pertaining to DSS are about the human condition, suffering and still moving forward in spite of that, and the band certainly put their money where their mouth is, as everyone pushes their abilities to the limit – this is the album that almost destroyed Kyo’s vocal cords, due to how demanding it was performing live after all. The tone is totally dejected: unlike “Vinushka”’s ability to showcase a number of eclectic emotions in its ten-minute run time, “The Blossoming Beelzebub” is a different kind of introduction – a seven-string-chugging fever dream that sluggishly gnaws at you before blowing the skin from your bones Sarah Conner style by the time “Different Sense” enters the arena. Most of the songs emit hopelessness, but inside this nihilistic framework contains pockets of hope, like the twilight sky; little stars engulfed in darkness. As the years roll on, Dum Spiro Spero has worked its way up to be my favourite album from the band. It’s not an easy listen, but that’s why the rewards have been so enduring and worthwhile.

Prescription: Taking Uroboros’ sound to a different solar system, the band retains the prog-ish writing, but sends It down to the bowls of hell. Play this 4-5 times a day for a week and replay as needed.

Arche (2014)

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The Doctor’s rating: 5/5

Analysis: After Uroboros’ solemn prog-metal peregrination, and Dum Spiro Spero exhausting the band’s physical and psychological state, Arche sets out to conjoin the two and intersperse some of their past ventures into the mix. The result is yet another astonishing achievement. This is a much more melodic offering, with Kyo really tapping into his talents and proving he is one of the most diverse vocalists in the industry. There are plenty of heavy moments throughout the album, but the band focuses more on groove, mood, and crafting some truly exceptional melodies for the listener to remember long after listening to them. All of this is supported by, arguably, their most fully realised production to date; an intricately layered maze of sounds that all weave in and around each other. In fact, that’s probably the best way to sum up Arche as a whole – it feels like the band’s most refined and disparate venture to date. A culmination of fifteen years of work, fine-tuned to perfection. If you’re just starting out with the band, I would argue this is probably the best place to start as it represents everything the band is about. It also gleefully showcases Dir En Grey at their greatest. Everything points to Arche being a cathartic conclusion to all of their experimentation this past decade-and-a-half, running through every style they’ve ever toyed with but presenting it to you in its most distinguished form. How do you follow up with an album after this? Well, we’ll see, but it’s easy to guess where we’re going. Arche is the band at their pinnacle, artistically. These experienced veterans took everything they’d learned and sculpted their magnum opus out of it. While I listen to Uroboros and Dum Spiro Spero more – simply because I have more of an emotional attachment to them – I can’t overlook the fact this is their most balanced and perfectly crafted album to date.

Prescription: Arche is the apex of the band’s talents. If you’re wanting to listen to the band for the first time, but don’t know where to start, look no further. Play this 4-5 times a day for a week and replay as needed.

The Insulated World (2018)
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The Doctor’s rating: 3/5 (Calc’s friend’s mix: 3.5/5)

Analysis: While The Insulated World isn’t a bad album, and indeed far from being their worst album, it’s easy to see where it goes wrong. Firstly, TIW suffers from an horrific production that makes 2008’s Uroboros sound palatable, but I won’t dwell too much on the production as it’s something that has been beaten to death at this point. No, even if you listen to this album with a better production and base the songs solely on their own merits, they regress to Macabre levels of repetitious and dull. After completing three laborious masterpieces, it’s understandable why you’d want to let your hair down and write an album that’s easier and more fun to play, but the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater here. The guitar work is simply lazy, there’s no other way to express it – tedious guitar passages that become irritating the more a song progresses, and not a solo in sight. Kyo has some good moments on here, but his experiments go south on songs like “Values of Madness” and “Followers”, where ideas don’t gel well with what’s going on around him. The rhythm section is the saving grace here, with some excellent grooves at times, but on the whole the songwriting is quite uninspired.

The Calculating Infinity mix: So, after trudging through the mud of the original mix for this, I decided to give Calc’s friend’s remaster a go. Overall, they’ve done a wonderful job bringing these songs to life, and certainly brought out any potential these songs had – with the electronics in particular feeling much more natural in the mix – and as a result I enjoyed the album a lot more because of it. That said, I feel like the songwriting just isn’t up to par. This “fan mix” showcases TIW at its best, and while I think it’s more varied and interesting to listen to than The Marrow of a Bone say, it’s a drastic step down when compared to what just came before it.

Prescription: It goes without say, you should approach Calc for the better version, but ultimately, The Insulated World is a flawed, repetitive record at the core. Give it a spin once and see how you get on.     

Phalaris (2022)
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The Doctor’s rating: 3.5/5

Analysis: Phalaris is definitely a step in the right direction. After the austere songwriting in TIW, the band course corrects and opts for progressive structures and more intricate instrumentation, with the overall vibe of the record feeling much more in line with Arche and its predecessors. Unfortunately, Phalaris still suffers from a poor production that blunts a lot of the potential and what this album gets right. Still, shite production and a little wandering in the mid-section of the album aside, the band’s eleventh LP almost attains the same writing standards we’ve come to expect from the band. It’s pretty damn heavy at times, some of the solos are well executed, and Kyo sounds great. It’s not a return to form, but it’s certainly a fun time.

Prescription: Honestly, this should have come after Arche. It’s far from perfect, but it feels like a progression more in keeping with what they’ve been doing the last decade-and-a-half. Listen to it 3-4 times a day for a week, then jam where necessary after that.


Supplements:

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19990120 – An excellent EP that remakes three Gauze tracks, with a couple of differences.

The Unraveling – A collection of remakes, using material from their formative years to give it a modern spin. “Macabre” is essential listening.

Tour13 Ghoul – A fantastic live package with a documentary. What makes this one so essential is it has English subtitles – a rarity within Dir En Grey bonus content. 


Doctor’s Notes:

Strengths:

  • Dir En Grey have incredible versatility and have never shied away from pushing the boundaries.
  • One of the most exciting discography runs you are likely to experience; a joy to sit through.
  • Eleven albums in and they’ve still not written a bad one yet. There are lulls, sure, but for the most part, all of their albums are exciting, three of them being some of the greatest recorded works in metal’s history.

Weaknesses: 

  • Their earlier work is a little bumpy.

Diagnosis: Dir En Grey are pioneers. Their work is timeless, and even at their weakest, they’re still better than most bands at their best. It’s debatable whether they have another Arche or Uroboros in them, but regardless of all that, their work before and after the trilogy continues to be exciting and interesting to listen to. Going through all of this again, I’m quite surprised by how little my opinion has changed on them and all of their albums – the only one that really caught me off guard was Vulgar, which deserved a lot more adulation that I used to give it credit. If you’re new to the band, I’m jealous. Firstly, I urge you to take on the journey, but secondly, you’re in for one of the most unique and testing experiences you are likely to undertake.

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