The Japanese quintet returns to Europe less than two years after their previous tour for a series of hard-hitting shows very much focused on the present.
Even though Dir En Grey promised to come back after their late 2018 tour, few would expect to see them in Europe again so soon. To be fair, their 2018 visit to the Old Continent seemed to be cursed from the get-go, with a few problems popping up right at the first show in St. Petersburg; after that, they had to deal with a last-minute venue change in Munich, an interruption due to technical issues after just two songs in Warsaw, a ruined set closer due to guitar problems in Paris, and a forced setlist change in London after realizing that all their samples and extra layers failed to load on their computers, with bassist Toshiya posting on social media that their technical problems in the UK might’ve been the worst in the band’s career. For a perfectionist band that has been touring for roughly two decades, not even the sold-out venues and enthusiastic crowds would prevent them from returning to Japan with a bitter taste in their mouths.
After some extensive touring in their home country and an American tour in December 2019, they made good on their promise and here they were again, focusing almost exclusively on new material. They did play a few songs off “The Insulated World”, their 10th album, in 2018, but this time they were ready to play it from start to finish, though with a few surprises up their sleeves.
Fifteen years after their first time in Europe (and Berlin), it’s no surprise by now that they have a legion of devoted fans who will take any opportunity to see them. Queueing up in the rain that befell Berlin on February 1st long before the show started. Most of them didn’t mind waiting a bit longer inside and perhaps grab a piece or two of the exclusive tour merch. At 7 PM the fans were more than ready to get the show underway, but they had to wait a bit more – an hour more, which left us wondering whether this tour was having its own set of problems as well. The audience waited, eager but orderly, screaming for the band ever so often, until all band members entered the stage, one by one. With the lighting all set and projections in the background accompanying the sampled intro, they dove straight into “Zetsuentai”, the only “The Insulated World” song that surpasses the five-minute mark. They hadn’t played this song in previous European tours, but everyone was completely ready for the few singalong moments that the song provides, as well as to witness vocalist Kyo’s first displays of growls and fry screams that night. The way he can seamlessly switch from his deepest distorted notes to either raspy highs or a crystal-clean falsetto never ceases to amaze, especially when one’s aware of how many vocalists have destroyed their voices through bad technique (and Kyo almost joined their ranks a few years ago, but a decent scare and a few surgeries sent him on the right path). Credit has to be given to all string players as well, as their growls have definitely improved over the years and pack a proper punch nowadays, providing that extra layer of heaviness through their backing vocals when needed.
Starting the show with the penultimate song of the album sends a simple message: “we’re going to play ‘The Insulated World’, but on our terms”. The band did claim in interviews that they wanted to make a more straightforward album after the heavily experimental side found in “Arche” and the albums that came before it, but this latest venture suffered from two pretty clear problems. First of all, the album feels unbalanced, as the first nine songs are all under four minutes long and the first six or so are pretty much a barrage of heavy riffing; add that to the heavy post-production compression and you get some listener’s fatigue that might prevent you from fully enjoying the last four tracks to the fullest. Not only was the tracks’ order turned on its head during the first song, even the calmer moments benefited from the live setting, with Toshiya’s bass resonating across the venue and each guitar solo jumping to the front of the mix. We could tell we were in for a treat.
Next up we had “Ningen wo Kaburu”, one of many, many Dir En Grey compositions with an anthem-like chorus that gets stuck in your head for days. Here and throughout the night, Kyo pointed the mic towards the crowd or opened his arms wide and the fans took over vocal duties, making themselves heard loud and clear. The band does know how to work a crowd, and even their movements on stage are actions waiting for reactions: constantly switching sides, getting to the edge of the stage where they teased the front row by being barely within arm’s reach… there’s never a dull moment. Meanwhile, in the background, we could see projections closely tied to the song’s music video, with the same scenarios and a few extra scenes, as well as Japanese and English messages questioning the meaning of life and justice.
These visual aspects have really been a staple of their performances in the last few years, even in smaller venues. Their outfits aren’t usually as outlandish as the ones they wore in the late 90s and early 00s, but the whole stage immerses them in the songs’ environment. From the lighting that changes colours based on the song or passage’s mood to the microphone cable used as a noose by Kyo during “Aka”, everything ties in with the projections that range from the music videos for the songs to clips specifically created for the live setting, often coupled with bilingual messages or lyric translations. Going that extra mile enhances the experience tenfold, and few songs prove that as easily as the ones that closed the set: “Ranunculus” and “The World of Mercy”.
“The Insulated World” is a bleak album. The lyrical content throughout the 13 songs revolves around feelings of disillusionment towards society, self-hatred, distrust of others, and constant questioning of the meaning and value of life. Even “Merciless Cult”, the only older song that they played during this set, is linked to that general mood. Not uncommon at all by metal and punk’s standards, but the lyrics do seem to reflect Kyo’s feelings after writing more positive messages for “Arche”. Going by recent interviews, he stops just short of stating that he keeps creating music simply because he needs to validate his life through his artistic output, even if no one appreciated it, and just two songs in “The Insulated World” break the pessimistic pattern: “Followers”, where he thanks his fans in a roundabout way, and “Ranunculus”, the song that had to be at the end of the album. Indeed, after all the darkness, “Ranunculus” shines a light as bright as the flower that gives the track its name. Even though there’s a music video for the song, the projections focus on our planet’s beauty and display parts of the lyrics in English, reinforcing the importance the band attributes to them. This is particularly true at the end, where “Scream alive, I am alive” can be read as that final verse is sung.
But wait, something was missing. After the shared catharsis that was “Ranunculus”, a sombre sample starts playing and everyone can guess what’s coming next: it’s “The World of Mercy”, the 10-minute epic that was released in September. Seeing the full version being played live is a treat for the senses, and once again the lights reflect the song’s mood progression. Towards the end, the red microphone cable is once again used as a prop, as Kyo simulates a disembowelment which is accompanied by his chilling screams, filled with reverb and coming from nowhere and everywhere due to his distance from the mic. However, just as in “The Insulated World”, the darkness is dissipated at the end, with the verses “血を流せ / お前は生きてる / お前の自由を探せ” (“Bleed / You are alive / Find your freedom”), rejecting the notion that pain is something to be avoided at all costs, but rather a stepping stone to better things. The screen turns dark for a moment, it lights up with the name of the band and the tour, and the members leave the stage. The crowd stands still, though, waiting for an encore.
Sure enough, Dir En Grey come back for three more songs. First up was “Followers”, the aforementioned song for the fans, accompanied by uplifting projected messages about resilience and staying true to yourself in a cruel world. As soon as it’s finished, the screen turns dark (staying that way), the lights turn brighter, and they throw us a curveball: it didn’t seem possible at first, but it didn’t take us long to realize they had started to play “NEW AGE CULTURE”, a song off of their 2003 album, “Vulgar”, and one which they seldom play outside of Japan. Even then the crowd was able to sing along, and the song’s ending was met with raucous applause, which only increased as everyone sensed that the show was coming to an end. “Utafumi”, the first “The Insulated World” single and the one song off that album that they hadn’t played during this night was the last song of the show. The contrast with the previous tour, in which they used “Utafumi” as an opener, gave it a special feeling, as if they were finally able to forget the more unfortunate moments of their 2018 tour, wrapping things up and getting ready to move forward.
It’s a cliché to say that we have to expect the unexpected from Dir En Grey, but we are curious as to what “moving forward” will mean to this band, especially taking into account that their first release following an album of three-minute songs was a ten-minute single. We do know that there’s a new album in the making and that “The World of Mercy” worked brilliantly in a live setting, so all we can hope for is that they find the path they want to thread after two very distinct albums and that another European tour ensues, as successful as this one.
Ningen wo Kaburu
Devote My Life
Keibetsu to Hajimari
Celebrate Empty Howls
Values of Madness
Keigaku no Yoku
The World of Mercy
New Age Culture
A special thank you goes to Twisted Talent Entertainment and Okami Records.
Text & Photos: Daniel Sampaio
Managing editor: Filipe Gomes