Sound — 9
The release of a new Dir En Grey album is usually a big deal for me, as their last few releases have gotten a lot of praise from me (sometimes, after the fact), and they've quickly turned into one of my favourite bands of all time. And the band's transformation has been extremely drastic over the years. Starting off as pretty much the equivalent of Japanese glam metal on their debut EP, "Missa," they've run through a myriad styles of rock and metal, dipping their toes in genres as disparate as nu metal, progressive metal, metalcore, industrial, punk rock, death metal, and alternative rock. And all of this change happened without a single change in band membership, practically unheard of these days. Eventually, this culminated in their massive 2008 release, "Uroboros," which needed a little time to grow on me, but eventually became one of my favourite metal albums of all time. 2011's "Dum Spiro Spero" only upped the ante, with guitarists Kaoru and Die bringing back their epic guitar solos, playing almost exclusively seven-string guitars, and adding a whole new level of heaviness to their sound. But they also revisited some old material on last year's "The Unraveling," which leads us to this album, "Arche."
How could a band that has done pretty much everything in metal keep forging such a unique path? Just like how their pre-"Withering to Death" albums, which were only released in Japan, grew and took on an interesting path that led them to their current style, the same thing seems to be happening with these new albums. And if "Uroborus" was sort of like a second "Gauze" (their typically visual kei-sounding original debut album) for them, "Dum Spiro Spero" was like "Macabre" (much more progressive and heavy, with a lot more instrumental showmanship), and "Arche" is a lot like "Kisou": more song-oriented with a lot more emphasis on electronic and industrial elements than the last two records.
Right from the opening of "Un Deux," you can feel the change in the air for the band, as they had been using mostly-instrumental openers on the last couple records, it almost feels strange to have a full-fledged song come on in the first minute of the album. And it's a very good song, with a typical melodic Dir En Grey chorus, a pretty decent, if short, guitar solo, and entirely clean vocals. "Shosaku" starts bringing in the more doomy guitar riffs, and makes it clear that the harmonized guitar solo, a former Dir En Grey trademark, has made its triumphant return. But there's a lot more clean vocals on this record. It isn't until "Uroko" until we start getting the harsh vocals from singer Kyo, who does so over a riff that almost harks to the djent movement, but with a layer of gothic-sounding organ that ends up giving it an almost black metal atmosphere. "Phenomenon" ups the prog ante some more with guitar lines that snake around each other in a very King Crimson-esque fashion, over a very industrial-style drum and bass pattern. The epic ending is something to watch for on this album and is a true highlight. "Cause of Fickleness" has a very schizophrenic sound about it, switching between vocal styles often, and never quite getting too melodic until the middle of the song, and features what I assume to be Kyo's trademark mispronounced English. "Tosei" brings down the pace a little bit, with more of Kyo's trademark melodicism, and another Fripp-esque guitar solo.
"Rinkaku" had been out as a single for quite some time now, but the song fits in smoothly with the rest of the record, and doesn't feel like an afterthought at all. The sweet duelling guitar solo and super-dissonant ending are still true highlights on this record. "Chain Repulsion" has some really cool riffs, a little bit of harsh vocals, and has a unique style I can't quite place my finger on, but it has that sort of Dir En Grey "funk" style to it and if I had to compare it to a current domestic song, it'd be Periphery's "Parade of Ashes." Both "Midwife" and "Magayaso" are very slow, brooding, heavy numbers, with only hints of melody, and the latter contains some very Devin Townsend-esque vocal parts. "Kaishun" is another industrial-ish tune with some cool vocal parts and a nice guitar solo leading to a sort of traditionally heavy, epic bit. "Behind a Vacant Image" is relatively the same kind of story, though there's a really cool tritone riff in the middle. "Sustain the Untruth" is the other single, and it really seemed to set the tone for this record with its mix of brutally heavy, almost industrial guitar tones, strong melodic chorus, and its concise arrangement. Unlike the last couple of records, none of the songs on this album push the six minute mark, though the next song, "Kukoku No Kyoon," is the closest this record has to an "epic" cut. Acoustic guitars and melodic vocals share space with highly effected guitar power chords and distorted sounds. "The Inferno" and "Revelation of Mankind" round out the album by breaking the slow, plodding industrial mood with fast-paced, brutal metal sounds that edge their way into Meshuggah's territory at times, though "Revelation"'s clean vocals tastefully end the record.
So it seems that the theme, at least sonically, on this record, is the juxtaposition of the band's industrial elements like synths, distorted drum and bass sounds, over the band's current established style of melodic progressive metal. The songs are a lot more concise this time around, they don't really do any big "epic" songs like on "Uroboros" or "Dum Spiro Spero." There's no "Vinushka" or "Diabolos" here, but the album doesn't necessarily need one. There seemed to be no room for filler on this record, and they were really effective at "trimming the fat" off, and yet it doesn't feel like they really took anything out of the songs. The arrangements are still as complex as ever, the musicianship remains fully intact, and I'd still say this stands to be a very progressive release from this band. Guitarists Kaoru and Die still get moments to shine, and it really seems for the first time that Kaoru's Fripp influence shines. Bassist Toshiya gets a few shining moments as well, like the intro of "Kaishun," and the industrial fuzz-bass of "Phenomenon." Shinya bashes the skins with his usual playful abandon, even getting some blast-beat opportunities in "Inferno." The production isn't bad, either, though sometimes the electronic/effected sounds can get a little out of hand, especially when there's acoustic guitars going on.
Lyrics — 9
I can't really comment on the words so much, as I had a hard time finding translations or even just lyrics online, but as expected with Dir En Grey, many of those lyrics are sung in the band's native Japanese. Kyo occasionally sings in English, and it seems he's doing so on the song "Cause of Fickleness," but it's really hard to make out his pronunciations (let me out? cut it out? wet me now?).
Kyo's singing has been leaning more heavily towards the harsh vocals on the last several releases, but it seems on this record, he's favouring the clean vocals more and more. Where the last record had maybe a good 50/50 mix of cleans to harsh, I'd say this record is more of a 70/30 mix. And he does a lot of different things with his voice, from nearly rapping at parts to Devin Townsend-esque choral harmonies, and his voice often imparts this Andrew Lloyd-Weber kind of sound to the music. He's as capable a musician as any of the instrumentalists in the band, and uses his voice very effectively as an instrument. As a bonus, after some rather sketchy live performances in the past few years, the record has some live-in-studio footage, where he performs his vocal parts flawlessly. He's not only good in the studio, he can deliver the goods live.
Overall Impression — 9
Despite coming out so close to the end of 2014, "Arche" has the definite potential to become one of my favourite albums of the year, alongside Cynic's "Kindly Bent to Free Us" and The Contortionist's "Language." And it's definitely comparable to both of those records in that they sort of "cleaned up" a little. Trimmed a lot of the fat, and delivered a very song-oriented, structured sort of album that can be a little more easily digested, but still found new styles and sounds to add to their already-massive arsenal. Bands that can do pretty much everything, and still manage to put out a release that somehow both cements their style and augments it with new ideas... They're exceedingly rare in the cookie-cutter music industry nowadays. And yet, Dir En Grey has somehow managed to pull off this almost-impossible feat, and released another album where they somehow managed to top themselves. It's almost a shame this band doesn't have more exposure on this side of the Pacific, since a lot of metal fans seem to really enjoy this kind of style.
Kudos to Dir En Grey for putting out something wonderful. 9/10 record. Not quite perfect, but just about as close as any release I've heard this year has gotten! Definitely going to recommend this one.