August 3, 2011; Firewall/The End
Dir en Grey are a hard lot to pigeonhole. Formerly one of the establishing bands of the visual kei scene in Japan, a subgenre defined by flamboyant (some would say downright fruity) dress as much as the distinctly Japanese mishmash of post-hardcore, goth balladry and metal most of those largely mediocre bands play, Dir en Grey have since expanded to Western shores and have gradually evolved into something distinctly different and far better. They are often unfairly shoved into the Hot Topic/nu-metal/metalcore ghetto for their dramatic (at times bordering on overwrought) and bleak lyrical imagery and videos, or more recently dubbed as pandering sellouts by many of the fickle J-fetishists who originally popularized them here for their more metallic stylings starting with the 2003 album Vulgar.
All this static aside, Dir en Grey are unusually popular for a foreign-language band in the U.S., and they make pretty damn good albums to support that popularity. Dum Spiro Spero is one of them, continuing the development into transcendent sonic juggernaut began by its predecessor Uroboros while possessing its own darker, thornier and more complex nature.
From the eerie minor-key piano and disturbingly hellish distortion of intro "Kyoukotsu no Nari," a direct antipode of Uroboros' "Sa Bir," this intention is announced pretty early on--and then it launches into "The Blossoming Beezlebub," which sounds like nothing else prior from this band. Superhuman frontman Kyo displays the full extent of his vocal range here, from choir-like, barely lucid chants to a freakish shriek and strangled moans over dark, sinuous guitar melodies courtesy of adept duo Kaoru and Die, all rendered with a washed-out, nightmarish mix. It feels far shorter than a seven-minute song has any right to.
I was initially somewhat disappointed with following track and single "Different Sense"--it begins much like a fairly average deathcore song, right down to Kyo's new deep gurgling vox, blastbeats, and even full-blown guitar hero solos (a first for this band)--yet by the middle it has evolved into a "typical" Dir en Grey sound, with the powerful soaring vocals fans have come to expect. It breaks interesting new territory for the band, even if it seems a little derivative on first blush. Both "Juuyoku" and ""Yokusou ni Dreambox" Aruiwa Seijuku no Rinen to Tsumetai Ame" (don't ask me to translate that) are more successful, the latter a miasma of churning midpaced sections punctuated by eccentric thrashing breaks with Kyo once again going fucking nuts. Anyone that can draw frequent comparisons to Mike Patton is doing something very right. "Lotus," the other major single, is a traditional Dir en Grey ballad filtered through their latter-day sophistication--among the best they've done in that style, and one of the few tracks on here that clearly falls into such easy labeling.
Then there is "Diabolos," the token schizo epic in the vein of the previous album's "Vinushka" or Macabre's title track (still one of the best things they've ever done), and while it's a strong track I don't think it quite makes it to that esteemed level. It isn't formulaic by any means, but other than a few new vocal turns and a beautiful, shimmering section close to the end it doesn't feel especially innovative. Still even an "average" DEG epic shits on most bands, and "Diabolos" hardly impairs the momentum of the album. After a few quicker, thrashing numbers that somewhat blend together, the last two tracks end Dum Spiro Spero very strongly--the somber and gorgeous "Vanitas," and "Ruten no Tou" which effortlessly blends soaring choruses, creeping verses, some blasting sections and a stunning outro in a way that makes it more representative than anything else on the album and would've made the most logical single in my estimation.
Bottom line, Dum Spiro Spero is another solid entry in DEG's growing oeuvre, and if it falls short of the excellent Uroboros in accessibility and standout tracks, its uniquely murky and cryptic ambience and full embrace of metal influences combined with the darker, heavier feel of earlier albums like Vulgar and Marrow of A Bone make it an inevitable grower and show that the band is committed to the experimental path they've forged for themselves. At this rate their future material promises to be something to behold, and here's to hoping that next time it doesn't take three goddamn years to drop.
Harmonium takes the folk elements of a group like Simon and Garfunkel and distills the weepiness from it, adding shades of jazz as well as symphonic elements that are fittingly august but tasteful and nuanced, leaving music that is emotionally charged but never overwrought or pitiful. Saison is a record that is truly joyful in places, with a coat of melancholy that keeps the experience layered.
More than that, it is an album that feels strangely private, like the band is putting on a special concert just for you. The vocals are often borderline whispered and even at its most grand the lack of percussion leaves the album feeling oddly compressed, as though it were composed in an open field but preformed in a small room. It leaves the music with a wistful quality that's hard to describe: The music feels like it was made to be bigger than the album that contains it, so instead of merely bursting to get out it scales itself back and translates all of its drama and glory into a form that's more easily expressed for recorded musical purposes. The effect is often nothing short of magical.
Speaking of magical, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the album's centerpiece, and Harmonium's magnum opus as a band, the side-length "Histoires Sans Paroles," or "History Without Words." It's an apt title as the song proves to be a mesmerizing instrumental work, immaculately composed and lushly preformed, something akin to Pink Floyd's "Echoes" as played by Nick Drake. Cosmic yet pastoral, harrowing and somehow comforting at the same time, the song is one of contemporary music's most overlooked epics and the quickest 17 minutes of your entire life.
In a pair of genres rife with unambitious groups who are content to ceaselessly mimic their inspirations, Saison is the rare progressive rock album that is as beloved by diehards as it is by the casual listeners who stumble upon it; it's a testament to the creativity and innovation that can inhabit both the progressive and folk genres simultaneously, an olive branch between complexity and emotional resonance, and a heartwarming work that quiets troubled souls and puts worries at ease even as it supplies a stage for its own enthralling emotional ride. It's the musical equivalent of a soft kiss and it's an album that nobody who desires a balanced music collection can afford to miss out on.
2011; Frenchkiss Records; Pittsburgh, PA
Seven odd years ago when I first downloaded The Shins’ “Chutes Too Narrow” from Limewire (and subsequently launched my first flat-out band mania) I never imagined that via the internet I would one day interact so flippantly, so casually, with one of my favorite bands. The whole Antlers thing felt so run of the mill, so banal, that in retrospect, it was almost boring- that’s not how the prospect of meeting and greeting my idols used to feel. When I think about just how normal and how boring the whole thing really was, I feel a very palpable malaise, and I’ve since lapsed into a spell of cynicism with regards to the pop music, and the popstar-killing blog culture that surrounds and defines it.
Putting aside the distress that this whole phenomenon has caused me (and the difficulty of reconciling the Antler’s extraordinary music with the reality of their overwhelmingly ordinary lives) it’s worth saying that it was in this very turntable.fm chatroom that I first encountered 1,2,3’s absolutely infectious single “Confetti.” And so I promptly opened a new tab, and quickly discovered two things: a name like 1,2,3 is infuriatingly “un-googlable” and 1,2,3’s “New Heaven” is a deliberate, cohesive, more-than-impressive debut LP that has me convinced of band’s talent. In my mind, good pop music should do a number of things: it should establish a new, unique voice that’s at once recognizable but inimitable, it should be simple enough to hook you within a listen or two but complex enough to take on a new character with each new listen, and it should have lyrical focus and depth that’s at once nuanced and general. 1,2,3 hits the mark on all counts.
Let’s not pretend for the sake of “journalistic integrity” that I didn’t glance over several reviews of “New Heaven” before sitting down to write this piece- especially today, when online critical outlets posses the eminent ability to make a band likable (more so, arguably, than bands posses themselves) critical reception is fair game for criticism. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen writes of “New Heaven” “it's pure populism down to their lyrical concerns: girls, drinking, or being broke as fuck…” The drinking, the girls, the poverty- it’s all there, but its not as general, or as trendy sounding as Cohen would have you believe. It all feels real- everything on “New Heaven” rings true, as Snyder’s lyrical style deftly blends a gentle wit with keen observation, a bit of paranoia, a fear of stagnation and finally, cautious optimism. Most importantly, the record’s lyrics convey a clear and direct sense of uncertainty that lucidly elaborates the paradoxes of blog-pop, and displays an understanding of personal insignificance that is rarely- rarely- coupled with such satisfying pop music. At its best, the lyrical style of “New Heaven” seems to articulate exactly how it feels to be both a mostly unknown musician, and a bored, confused kid. The nuance of the lyrics, which require a bit of effort to pick out (especially because none of 1,2,3’s lyrics are available online [a rare thing, these days]) will not be lost on any aspiring musicians.
And that’s just the thing- the ears to which New Heaven will probably find its way, will largely belong, I predict, to aspiring pop musicians and/or critcs- it’s funny, but doesn’t it feel like that’s the way it goes these days? As pop music become easier and easier to make, produce and share, the people who really enjoy pop music are making it themselves, and sharing it, and for the most part its not half bad. So as the internet democratizes the sharing process, records like “New Heaven” seem to get lost in the noise; but it feels like 1,2,3 realizes all of this, and accepts it, and as a result, the record is infused with a knowing sadness, a kind of heavy shrug, that’s truly surprising and delightful. I count New Heaven among the best LPs of 2011 so far.