by Phil Freeman
Dir En Grey are a Japanese band who’ve been together for 20 years without a single membership change—vocalist Kyo, guitarists Kaoru and Die, bassist Toshiya and drummer Shinya have all been present from Day One, across nine albums, three EPs, and nearly three dozen singles.
The band hasn’t released an album since 2014’s Arche, which didn’t even come out physically in the US. It’s been about a decade since they tried to break into the American market. Their first album to come out in the US was their fifth overall, 2005’s Withering to Death. (punctuation in original). After 2007’s The Marrow of a Bone, they embarked on a full US tour, opening for Deftones. I saw them play New York’s Roseland, and they were great. Kyo had a flailing, convulsive, magnetic and theatrical stage presence that was equal parts Marilyn Manson, Iggy Pop at his artiest, and Ogre from Skinny Puppy, and the rest of the band were equally committed to live rock performance as a show—they originally came out of Japan’s “visual kei” movement, a kind of hyper-glam style that emphasized extremes of costume, hairstyle and makeup in the service of hooky but relatively straightforward hard rock. But Dir En Grey‘s music had always been dark and complex, shifting between postpunk, metal, and more singalong-friendly songs, even throwing in weird touches like a ska break in “Taiyō no Ao,” from 2000’s Macabre.
With every album, Dir En Grey‘s music got darker and more alienating, though; as early as their third album, Kisō, they were adding industrial elements, distressing production techniques, and extreme metal screaming vocals to their songs. Kyo sounded less trained and more unhinged, shifting rapidly between styles in order to keep the listener on his or her toes, while the band itself added more and more blasts of discordant noise to songs like “Filth” or “Child Prey.”
Vestige of Scratches is a three-CD compilation celebrating the band’s 20th anniversary. All the songs were chosen by fans, and three—”Fukai,” “The IIId Empire,” and “Beautiful Dirt”—have been re-recorded. The first two discs are roughly chronological, beginning with one of the group’s early independent singles, “I’ll,” and offering three or four songs from each album, and a few other tracks like the non-album “Ain’t Afraid to Die” or “Umbrella,” from the Six Ugly EP. As each goes on, the music gets harder and harder, heavier and heavier, angrier and angrier as they grow from their full-length debut, Gauze, to their global releases Withering to Death., Uroboros, and The Marrow of a Bone. The third disc sprinkles in B-sides and re-recorded versions of early songs, as well as tracks from their most recent albums, Dum Spiro Spero and Arche. “Kiri to Mayu,” the first track on Disc 3, is for all intents and purposes death metal, and the re-recorded songs are blastingly aggressive and crushingly heavy as well.
Dir En Grey are a hard band to get into; their music is hyper-aggressive, but it’s also stylistically chameleonic enough that their “extreme” moves aren’t predictable. Also, they are resolute about almost never singing in English—Kyo believes Japanese contains nuances that English does not. But his unearthly voice allows him to deliver ultra-guttural growls and roars as well as almost falsetto screeches, and a wide range for clean singing. He’s a phenomenal talent, so even if you just take his voice as one more element in the overall sonic picture, there’s always a reason to keep listening. This collection represents an ideal starting point; check it out.
Stream the re-recorded version of “The IIId Empire”: