PACIFIC CROSSING 


;With their elegantly grotesque imagery, surreal sequencing and universally relevant (at least in developed countries) social criticism about the alienating effects of modern technology, late-'90s Japanese horror movies resonate with American extreme-cinema connoisseurs. While gorier than that period's slasher fare, films such as Audition (1999) and Cure (1997) didn't rely on graphic mutilations to shock audiences. Viewers were already tense and disoriented, due to inscrutable plotlines, malleable timelines and disturbing unexplained images. When the torture came, it was almost a relief to see the ominous atmosphere culminate in tangible atrocities.

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;Lyrically obsessed with evil and mayhem, metal correlates strongly with scary-movie subject matter. Formed in 1997, Japan's Dir en Grey established itself as the aural equivalent of its country's terror flicks: an artful alternative to the American approach. Instead of reveling in masculine brutality, Dir en Grey embraces an androgynous aesthetic. Singer Kyo balances his demonic screeches with suave crooning reminiscent of '80s-era David Bowie, and guitarists Kaoru and Die alternate between chugging riffs and chilly psychedelic jangles.

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;Dir en Grey was initially associated with the "visual kei" ("visual style") movement, popularized by the thrash outfit X Japan and characterized by aerosol-aided hair architecture, caked-on cosmetics and customized kimonos. Since 2005, the quintet has de-emphasized its appearance, but while its hairstyles and fashion choices have become less flamboyant, Dir en Grey's current look isn't exactly grunge basic. Kyo sports ghoulish Marilyn Manson-style contacts, styles his long hair into frazzled blond or black spikes and sometimes flashes an alarming metallic grill, as if he'd had razor incisors installed so he could rip through raw meat without silverware.

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;Dir en Grey's sound has changed significantly as well. Early albums such as Macabre (2000) and Kisou (2002) employed disarming industrial clatter, much like Cure used white-noise backdrops such as churning washing machines as a strikingly effective substitute for the usual symphonic crescendos that telegraph impending attacks. The group's quivering vocals and melancholic keyboards made it popular with Japan's Gothic Lolita crowd (teenagers decked out as little Victorian girls). While not necessarily associated with goth music, they developed a strong connection to visual-kei acts.

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;For U.S. headbangers, this merging of thrash outbursts and fey theatricality branded the band foreign more than its largely Japanese lyrics. Anyone accustomed to grindcore or death metal doesn't mind being unable to decipher the singer's rants.

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;Last year's Withering to Death still sounds like nothing else, with the eclectic program containing new-wave guitar spirals, a brazenly funky dance-punk romp, falsetto wails and heavy doses of nü-metal's chunky riffs and rhythmic vocal cadences. The latter element has longtime fans concerned about the West's corrupting influence as well as the tarnishing of the group's legacy. When Dir en Grey opened for Korn on the 2006 Family Values Tour, its first American outing, it was distressing to see the band introduced to mainstream American audiences through these songs, which announced it as loyal to a largely discarded genre instead of being trailblazers.

;;Dir en Grey's single "Agitated Screams of Maggots," from the impending album The Marrow of a Bone, raises red flags. While a solid metalcore track with sharp guitar harmonies and a variety of guttural growls, "Agitated Screams" abandons all traces of Dir en Grey's signature sound. Kyo becomes just another barker, and Kaoru and Die, known for taking intriguingly divergent paths, march in lockstep.

;;"Agitated Screams" meets American standards for heaviness, but only by sacrificing Dir en Grey's unique grace. With its gouged-eyeball cover, the single brings to mind December's blasphemously refilmed Black Christmas, in which the subtle 1974 original yielded to contemporary demands for splatter. The "Agitated Screams" cover plays like a continuation of the video for the Withering track "Saku," which features golf-club bludgeonings and taped-down torture victims.

;;Withering also produced a bleak video for "The Final" that pivots on quick shots of what appears to be a father-and-son chalk outline. It's as efficiently moving as Ernest Hemingway's six-word short story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." However, it was "Saku" that was named video of the year on MTV2's Headbangers Ball.

;;Inspired by such approval, Dir en Grey might subject itself to the same kind of reconstruction that occurs when American directors remake free-form Japanese nightmares (The Grudge, Pulse) into bland ghost stories. With Dir en Grey, an exclusive focus on "heaviness" would come at the expense of the jarring juxtaposition of brutality and beauty, and the conflicting emotions that incongruous presentation conjures.

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; DIR EN GREY ;
; with Fair to Midland, Bleed the Dream ;
; 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb 2, 2007 ;
; House of Blues ;
; (407) 934-2583 ;
; $29.50;
; music@orlandoweekly.com

More by Andrew Miller

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