Say what you will about Dir en grey’s music, management, fans, or attitude: these five men put on an amazing rock show. Cathartic and revealing, their performances seethe and roil with a furious energy, and the three concerts they played this fall at New York’s Gramercy Theater were no exception.
Dir en grey has had twelve years to hone their craft, and the experience shows in their ability to manipulate the emotions of a crowd through music. Their latest album Uroboros is a carefully constructed collection of tracks that seem made for the stage, each one a roller-coaster ride of moshpit-inducing metal guitarwork and airy, melodic choruses. Soaring vocal sections punctuate heavy riffing and guttural growling, letting you up for air just long enough to take a breath before being pulled back down by violent rock into the inky darkness at the heart of Dir en grey’s music. It’s always electrifying, never boring, and damn fun to hear these songs live.
With a range that would make most metal vocalists green with envy, frontman Kyo never fails to astonish, no matter how many times you’ve seen him perform before. His ability to transition from pitch-perfect singing to wailing, screeching, and growling — and then back again — is both unexpected and impressive. Kyo showed off his lung power towards the end of both performances of the rhythmic, headbang-ready “Shokubeni,” when he dropped the microphone and belted out the chorus solo into the suddenly dead silent theater. His haunting, tortured voice could be heard clearly even in the furthest corners of the hall: a feat for any singer, let alone one shorter than most of his young female fans.
Demure drummer Shinya lets all of his silent strength out on stage, commanding both his massive drumset and the movement and momentum of the music with skill, precision, and control. Guitarists Kaoru and Die refuse to be relegated to the roles of lead and rhythm guitar, instead merging harmonies and styles into a rich, textured soundscape. Bassist Toshiya’s theatrical, lively stage presence in some ways belies and in others highlights his ability to build a melodic foundation with earthy, raw, substantive basslines.
Considering that Dir en grey’s American fanbase is infamous for its cattiness, the fact that the crowd at these shows felt almost sisterly was an accomplishment. (Perhaps sisterly is the wrong word: there were a surprising amount of male fans at all three shows, unusual for a fanbase that is predominantly female. Is Dir en grey finally getting through to metal fans in America?) Despite the fact that many of these people had been sleeping on the sidewalk outside the venue for a few days, fighting the weather and their own exhaustion and each other for these privileged spots in front of the stage, the crowd was for the most part friendly and considerate — a closeness that was made obvious in the spontaneously synchronized chanting, singing, and clapping seen during songs like “Grief,” “Akuro no Oka,” and “Ugly.”
After the last show let out on Saturday night, I heard some of the more experienced fans saying that these shows felt different: that they felt like Japan shows, and not only because of the collectivist spirit that seemed to have overtaken the crowd.
The New York audiences were given a special gift in the encores of these shows: a total of six older songs — two per show, taken from Japanese setlists — that had never before been played in America. These included, among others, mournful ballad “Akuro no Oka” and manic thrasher “Schwein no Isu” off the band’s first album, 1999’s Gauze. While all were a delight to hear, the showstopper of these six rarities was far and away Saturday’s performance of “Ugly,” off the 2002 EP Six Ugly.
Unique in the band’s catalog for its long, repetitive instrumental bridge, “Ugly” makes for perfect encore material, allowing the band members to interact with the crowd and each other while playing. This performance of the song saw much of both. The usually unapproachable Kyo came to the front of the stage to spit water at the crowd and egg on the cheering fans in the front rows. Kaoru and Die played side-by-side, a rare expression of camaraderie between the two guitarists who usually stand at opposite ends of the stage. Toshiya leapt around in his pleated kilt and high-fived any and all fans he could reach. All of this may seem standard fare for a rock concert, but these and other tidbits of affection are hard-won from a band with a reputation for their aloof demeanor, and were eagerly eaten up by the crowd.
The only letdown of these shows was the lack of variety in the setlists. While New York was admittedly treated to a few unexpected songs, the rest of the sets were disappointingly predictable. The three-day format of the concerts suggested to many fans that the band would play a series of setlists showcasing the band’s large and diverse oeuvre, similar to their legendary five day run at Akasaka Blitz in 2003. Unfortunately, many songs were played on all three days in New York, and in their repetition lost some of their energy and charm. Especially disappointing was the decision to play “Gaika, Chinmoku ga Nemuru Koro” as a set closer on all three nights. While a very solid song in its own right, “Gaika” feels out of place at the end of a set, its energy too dark and angry for this cherished spot usually reserved for a more dynamic song. It was especially unusual directly after “Ugly” on Saturday. Fan favorite set closers “The IIID Empire” and “Rasetsukoku” would perhaps have been a better fit.
It’s been almost four years since Dir en grey first made footfall in the United States. Six tours later, it seems like they’re finally warming up to America. Their attention, at long last, to the desires of the fans to hear older songs and see more crowd interaction did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. They gave their all in New York this year, and their efforts made the shows that much more fun, rewarding, and satisfying. Few were the fans who left the theater wanting.