Musicians and fans both suffer when songs become passé. The former begins to tire of its old work, which the latter inevitably wants to hear. The fans receive less-than-enthusiastic performances of the old standards in return, and no one goes home happy.
Dir En Grey, a popular experimental metal band from Osaka, took the problem to task with its most recent release, The Unraveling. The EP features seven songs: one new (the title track), and six reconsiderations of the band's past work. The group's last full release, 2011's Dum Spiro Spero, also featured a number of remixes and reimaginings. Grey seems to be awfully caught up in its past.
"As human beings, as long as you're alive, you're growing," said bassist Toshiya, speaking through the band's manager (and translator), Nora. "It's the same for us in regards to our songs. We don't want to continue playing our old songs the way it was made, so we thought it was more interesting to take some of the older songs and rework them to see what we could come up with today."
Most of the tracks have gotten more aggressive. No one has ever accused Dir En Grey of going the populist route, but its earlier sound came closer to mainstream "J-Rock" than its more recent releases, and the band used to sport the elaborate hairdos of the visual kei scene. If Spiro Spero wasn't a hint, the band has settled on a decidedly metal front, and the experimental nature of Grey's music hasn't taken anything from its heaviness.
Guitarists Kaoru and Die switch from straightforward, stomping riffs to bouts of technical picking, and no "art rock" labeling will discourage them from taking a solo when it fits. Vocalist Kyo has one of the most dynamic voices in metal, ranging from the death-iest death growls to the blackest black metal shrieks, and he'll jump into a melodic hook without so much as clearing his throat (a style no doubt responsible for the multiple instances of vocal chord damge throughout his career). Particularly entertaining (and frightening) is the vibrato that turns said shrieks into horse-like whinnying.
The death and doom metal elements that critics have noted on Dum Spiro Spero seem to be the musical themes pervading the band's current tour in the United States as well. All of the tracks featured on The Unraveling have been played at the group's (as of press time) three U.S. dates thus far, with fans noting on each setlist that songs such as "Karma" and "The Final" are the "2013 versions."
Toshiya promised more than new versions of old songs for Dir En Grey's gig at New York's Irving Plaza on November 11. The bigger venues featured on the "Ghoul 2013" tour will allow the band to "finally" bring all of its stage elements across the Pacific. He also guaranteed the show would feature songs never played before in the U.S. One might argue that all dates during the "Ghoul" run will feature similar highlights, but the bassist has fond memories from the band's trip to the Big Apple during its "All Visible Things" tour in 2009.
"I remember it was the middle of November and it was very cold," he said, recollecting Dir En Grey's three night stint at the Gramercy Theater. "The fans were camping out every night, and it was so cold. It reminded us how supportive and passionate our fans are...the fans in New York hold a special place in out heart."
The faithfulness of its fans helps overcome the language barrier as well.
Dir En Grey's lyrics, much like its music, run the gamut from brutality to introspection (sometimes both), and although many song titles are in English, Japanese serves as the primary dialect of delivery. Considering that most of the band's American followers can't understand the language, frustration from main lyricist Kyo would be justified. Toshiya could only speak from his own point of view, but he offered a more metaphysical approach to music when explaining Grey's success while speaking in its native tongue.
"It's not about the lyrics when it comes to understanding music," he explained. "For me, the most important thing is for people to feel. When listeners feel, they'll be able to understand the messages, the intentions of the band, even if they don't understand the lyrics."
Subdued for most of the interview, the bassist snorted slightly when asked how Dir En Grey has made it 16 years without any lineup changes. His humor came from the suggestion that the band meshed so well out because of similar taste. Bands as heavy as Dir En Grey normally don't normally strike listeners as particularly abstract or spiritual, but Toshiya's description of the group's recording process almost became a metaphor for collective destiny.
"We don't agree on everything. There are always clashes of ideas when we write our music...one person wants 'A,' someone else wants 'B,'" he said. "But in the end, even the person who didn't get what he wants realizes the final product is what he wanted as a whole."
Whether through spiritual connection or good musicianship, a good live show is a good live show. The German dialect of Rammstein hasn't stopped them from being one of the most renowned touring acts in the world, and the language "barrier" at Dir En Grey's show Monday shouldn't scare fans from enjoying this act's progressive approach to metal. If anything should scare fans at a Grey gig, it should be Kyo's vocals during "Different Sense."