First of all, my apologies for being a couple weeks late writing this post. Yes, I’ve been busy lately, but the last few days I’ve begun begrudgingly admitting to myself that it’s been more than that. The thing is, I’m sometimes just really shy. Sometimes I think that if I didn’t have green hair, I would just disappear. Anyway, to be more specific, sometimes I’m really shy about making opinions about music. It doesn’t matter why, and it’s usually not that big of a deal, but it’s made writing this post a lot harder than it should have been. So upon that realization, I decided that I had to finish this post right now. Is it 3:30 in the morning and do I have a double tomorrow? Yes. Well, let’s go.
A few months ago, via my lovely friend Collier, I found myself in possession of a VIP ticket to see the Japanese band Dir en Grey at the Center Stage in Atlanta on November 6, 2013 for their Ghoul Tour. On one hand, I was excited because I’d heard her rave about this band for ages, and I love new experiences that get me out of my comfort zone. (Remember when I went to Bonnaroo for the first time? Remember how it was my first music festival and how I went by myself? Yeah.) On the other hand, I’d never successfully really gotten into metal, and I worried if I’d even like the music. After all, I’m currently writing this post while listening to Love Lust by King Charles on repeat. A three hour concert of music that grates against the fabric of my soul didn’t sound appealing. Someone once told me that metal was a genre for teenage boys or musicians, and I am neither. Besides, teenage boys are annoying.
Regardless, Dir en Grey sounded interesting. They formed in 1997 and have kept the same five members despite the fact that they’re not actually friends. They know how to be friendly with each other, but their relationship is mostly professional. Their music has evolved a lot over the years, and in their earlier days, they were prominent in Japan’s visual kei scene, a movement among musicians that involved elaborately feminine appearances. Here’s a picture of Dir en Grey during their gender bending visual kei era.
Yes, they’re all male. Here’s a picture of them now.
At this point in their careers, their music has drifted more into the international metal scene, and they’ve largely left their visual kei period behind (though not completely). After all, that level of hair and makeup is hard to sustain for anyone. In their earlier days, Dir en Grey was also known for ridiculously crazy and intense stage performances like bloody self-mutilation. (Don’t watch their music videos if you’re squeamish, especially their earlier ones.) Needless to say, I was intrigued. I decided Dir en Grey was definitely worth the gamble.
When I finally arrived at the Atlanta Center Stage on November 6 after driving all they way from Nashville with my friends Collier and Devin, we somehow managed to get into the front of the VIP meet and greet line (Muahaha diehard fans who were in line since 6 am, I was that girl. No, it didn’t matter once we actually got inside), and I put on my best anthropologist-fangirl hybrid persona. Yes, it was a little awkward. I still had no idea who any of the band members were, but Collier helped me out as I curiously observed Dir en Grey when they finally came out. Collier had warned me that Kyo, the band’s legendary lead singer, is only 5’3,” but I was still shocked to see how small he looked in comparison to the rest of the band. He’s not very social with fans, and he was even standing apart from the rest of the band members with black cloth over his head. Collier told me that he spends the hours preceding shows getting into a pretty dark place in his head because he sings about some really dark, heavy material, but it was still a bit comical to see his roadies try to herd him toward the rest of the band. I thought about standing by Kyo for my picture, but he looked like he might bite me, so I stood by Toshiya, the bassist. His oh-so-subtle attitude caught my attention during the meet and greet, and I decided that he would be my eye candy if I didn’t like their music. Attractive men on stage are always attractive. Anyway, they answered some questions through a less than stellar interpreter (“a roadie who just happens to know Japanese”) about things I didn’t know about, we all got our picture taken with them as they silently stood far apart from each other, and then they left.
Now for the actual show. I’ll try to keep this part simple because otherwise I’ll just end up rambling until 2015. My jaw literally dropped within seconds of them coming onstage, and it stayed there for the entirety of the show. I’m not even joking. My mouth was literally hanging open in wonder for pretty much the entire set. I expected what would probably be a good show, but it ended up being a never-forget-as-long-as-you-live great show.
Kyo gave the was the most riveting performer I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes away from him. His vocals went from death shrieks to growls to falsettos to ballads within seconds, sometimes in the same breath. At a few points, I thought his sound crew had to be putting filters over his voice, but later I found out the only effect he only uses is an echo, sparingly. He arrived on stage wearing the same black cloth over his head from the meet and greet, but he slowly unveiled himself to reveal a striking skull painted on his face. But, his appearance wasn’t just a prop or a mask; it became his entire persona. I think people underestimate him at first because of his height, but he kills that doubt so quickly once he’s onstage.
Kyo’s lyrics are nearly entirely sung in Japanese, but Dir en Grey didn’t need English to engage with me. Their music spoke for itself. Kyo had the force of a lightning bolt on stage, and the rest of the band was just as strong. Toshiya played his bass like it was a warrior dance, Die jumped all over with his guitar, Kaoru was as steady as a rock, and Shinya killed the drums encased in his giant cage of a drum set. For an example of Kyo’s showmanship, watch this video of the song Dozing Green from a performance in 2010. They didn’t play this one at our show in Atlanta, but it’s worth the watch. Start at about 3:00, and turn up your sound to catch the depth his performance.
One thing I admire about Dir en Grey is that they’re very conscientious about their music, but they’re also not afraid of irony…at all. They’re not afraid of singing about difficult subjects like rape or war or Japan’s high abortion rate, and they’re also not afraid of singing an anti-war song with huge background visuals of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a bunch of headbanging Americans in Atlanta. That was maybe one of the oddest and most intense moments I’ve ever experienced in a concert. A venue full of Americans moshing to a Japanese band playing a song with atomic bomb footage=a very confusing moment I’ll never forget. Here’s the song, Dead Tree, that they played for that part of their show.
The last video I’m going to include in this post is a fairly recent performance of one of my favorite songs by Dir en Grey, “Karma.” I personally like this one because it has so much power. I went to an elementary and middle school run by an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, and they condemned basically all music other than old-fashioned hymns. (They were even against Christian rock. Yes, it was basically a cult.) I never fully bought into their ideology, but let’s just say that at one point I thought I was really awesome and rebellious because I listened to country and Christian rock. Imagine my confusion when I first heard the Rolling Stones and realized that they sounded just like…idk, regular music. Thanks whatever you believe in that that period of my life is over. Anyway, when I was witnessing Dir en Grey live, there were several moments, especially when songs like Karma were playing, that I realized this is the kind of music those people were afraid of. I don’t mean that Dir en Grey or metal in general is inherently Satanic or anything like that. However, I do mean that the people I grew up with were afraid of independent thought and anything that questioned their beliefs. They were afraid of any power other than what they got out of their own, narrow belief system. Dir en Grey’s music exudes power and independence like little I’ve ever listened to before, and I fell in love with it. Here’s Karma.
So yeah, that’s how I inadvertently fell into Japanese metal. I’m gradually trying to get into other metal bands, but I I keep finding myself just going back to Dir en Grey. It doesn’t help that a lot of metal vocalists sounds like they have Southern accents when they sing, a pet peeve that was probably generated from flashbacks to my middle school days. I’m always open to suggestions, but Kyo’s set the bar pretty high for now, and I’m ok with that. Seeing Dir en Grey live was basically a spiritual experience for me at a time when I needed to be reminded that the world has a whole lot more to offer for me. You never know what’s out there for you until you get out and explore, and Dir en Grey will always have a very special place in my heart for that reason.