April 5, 2013

Review: DIR EN GREY - THE UNRAVELING

When DIR EN GREY released their acclaimed "VULGAR" album in 2003, they left their visual roots behind, embraced a heavier and angrier sound, and alienated half their fanbase in the process. Ten years later, things haven't changed much, and what began as a middle finger to the ever-complaining fans with the thrashing quickie "Я TO THE CORE" on "VULGAR" has long been established as the direction they eventually chose to pursuit, much to the dismay of many.

While occasional melodic adventures like the recent single "RINKAKU" still manage to draw moderate interest from those who have long given up on their former visual kei idols, the majority of the band's output nowadays relies on rumbling, low-tuned guitars, while vocalist Kyo indulges in bowel-quaking growling and screaming – a trend that eventually brought to life the firework of rage that was their 2011 album "DUM SPIRO SPERO".

This new EP though, vaguely entitled "THE UNRAVELING", takes a turn left and comes with a handful of remade songs straight from their more melodic past. And while one may wonder if the five guys just like their beloved classics so much they wanted to interpret them in a new way, the EP comes with the distinct feeling that it's also a silent nod to their older fanbase, pretty much as if they wanted to tell everyone that they haven't forgotten the classics of their heydays.

DIR EN GREY – "Unraveling" (PV Teaser)

Now, a release like this should not be regarded as the grand new output fans have been waiting for, naturally, but more like a little gift from the band in between bigger releases, or maybe like a new single, because there's even an entirely new song on the CD, the eponymous "Unraveling". I wasn't all too fond of the previews beforehand, but what seemed like an unreleased remnant of the "DUM SPIRO SPERO" sessions emerged as a groovy showcase of the current DIR EN GREY.

Settling somewhere above the dark adrenaline rush of "DIFFERENT SENSE" and the more orchestral spheres of "RINKAKU", "Unraveling" presents the whole package of playful guitar work and excessive shredding, Kyo effortlessly alternating between amicable, high-pitched singing and grunts of disgust. It is not until its second half that the song really comes to life, and while it never breaks into epic territories, the undeniable groove makes it a worthwhile newcomer.

"KARMA" follows immediately after the new song, opening the remake section with a callback to their earliest efforts. Being one of the band's rarest songs to date, "KARMA" in its original form was never released on any audio CD, but appeared on their first two video collections, "Kaede~if trans...~" and "Mousou toukakugeki" in 1998. The remake keeps the wild structure of the original and its progressions from the slower, deceptive staccato verses into the frantic, furious chorus parts. I never cared about the original, whereas the remake is likeable and interesting especially for those who approve of the similarly updated versions of songs like "ZAN" or "KIRI TO MAYU".

Dip Evgeny?

And as if the band itself needed a little interlude after the two more aggressive openers, a new "KASUMI" brings bliss to fans like me who hold the original version of this beautiful, dramatic piece in high regards and among the best material the band has to offer. The changes on this one are of a more subtle nature and vary between welcome additions like the more haunting ambience, and expendable gimmicks like the more playful guitar play in some parts and additional backing vocals after the chorus. The cautious makeover is especially apparent during the almost untouched, stirring chorus, giving the impression that the band didn't want to add too much to their much beloved 2003 single.

Standing out as the biggest surprise, "KARASU" is finally the song it always wanted to be. Grown to a shimmering piece of atmospheric ambiguity, the song isn't quite as focused on the steady but monotonous build-up of the original and feels much more coherent, but it certainly lacks the impact of the original's final chorus, which comes along almost unnoticed in the "unraveled" version. As a whole it is vastly superior than the original, predestined for a release like this, even though its uniqueness suffered somewhat in the process. "Bottom of the death valley", however, suffered the opposite fate and stands as the unremarkable midpiece of this EP, trading its former distinct bass lines and unnerving last minutes for a softer, almost tiring composition with a blatantly weaker chorus and anemic performances from everyone involved.

"Yeah, I know. Bad day."

"Unknown.Despair.Lost" is similar to "KARMA" in that the original was one of the rarer DIR EN GREY songs, dating back to 1998, when it appeared as a B-side on the "JEALOUS" single. Never a song to capture my attention before, the remake fares considerably better without losing its roots along the way. It is an interesting remake considering that they aligned it to their somewhat default nowadays heaviness without getting rid of what made the original what it is, but it's just not that good of a song in either form. Last but not least, one of the best and most memorable songs the band has ever done shows up: "THE FINAL". Its appearance is also pretty interesting as it is the most recent of the remade songs (originally a 2004 single) and didn't necessarily need an update.

Instead of turning the beloved hymn into a thunderous growler, they cautiously adjusted it to their current sound in much the same way as they refreshed "KASUMI". Some parts are a little more aggressive, but the structure and basic feel is almost identical to how we know and love "THE FINAL", effectively turning this into a "that's how they would play it live right now" experience that doesn't hurt the EP in any way. As almost any reviewer before me, I too have to point out the flat "te no" delivery in the first chorus, though, which seems like a remarkable blunder from a singer with a range like Kyo and might just be the one tiny thing turning fans away from this remake.

But not before their new guitarists Atsushi Sakurai and Scarecrow turn them away.

A delightful extra for early buyers is the limited version's 3-track bonus CD, which includes the greatly anticipated 16-minute makeover of "MACABRE", another song that ranks among their greatest efforts. Personally, however, I have always been more bored than excited by it, but the updated version (with a song-long bridge added in the middle) fits into the band's current portfolio like a bloody chainsaw. Never straying too far from its original composition, the new "MACABRE" is a worthwhile addition to the band's catalogue and never feels like the band mishandled individual parts or just turned it into a whole new song. The other two unplugged gimmick versions of "Unraveling" and "THE FINAL" do seem quite mishandled, though, and aren't worth the CD they're on. Forgettable, but forgiveable as filler bonus material.

Summarizing my way too long writeup about this EP from one of my favorite bands, there are two main emotions I feel when listening to "THE UNRAVELING": First, I can't help but feel satisfied by what they delivered with this EP, which is far from being a perfect one, but not only does it justice to songs I have always utterly loved ("KASUMI", "THE FINAL"), it also corrects some missed opportunities from the band's past ("KARASU", "Unknown" maybe) and even features a completely new, likeable song ("Unraveling") as well as a sweet nod to fans with the remake of the almost prehistoric "KARMA". The second feeling isn't quite as pleasant, but isn't it weird how these songs are almost all ten to fifteen years old? Time sure flies like hell, but I still can't wait for DIR EN GREY's next full-sized CD. Some things just never change.

Want more new oldies? Check out my Top 10 Dir en grey Song Remakes from 2011!

6 Kommentare:

thechexican said...

Good writeup, Cliff.

Personally, I feel a little different on the matter. The feeling I got was more along the lines of exploring territory I don't care for; their older songs don't need to be reinterpreted in their current style because of that division that you mentioned at the beginning of your piece.

It felt less like a nod to my old Deg-fanboy self in the mid 2000's, and more like a a grab bag of old favorites that don't bring anything noteworthy to the table.



But, that's just me. If my tastes hadn't diverged the way they have over the past few years, I probably would been in complete agreement with you.

Cliff said...

I see it more as a nod to fans than as a simple output to snatch some easy money, for example, like many do, for the very reason they chose songs like Karasu or Unknown Despair. Those songs are rarely mentioned by anyone as their beloved ones, and if they wanted to cash in on their fans they would have probably remade songs like Marmalade Chainsaw, Byou Shin, Embryo or 24 Cylinders. So in that respect it feels more like a nod and a personal thing for them to me =) and you probably know that many musicians have a whole other relation to their own songs, so it's naturally quite possible they got more out of it than many fans ;)

TajRoy Duane Calhoun said...

Very good review. Though I do not necessarily agree with your opinion on it, you presented your views very intelligently and respectfully.

I personally, don't see it as simply a nod to their old fans. Or at least, while it might potentially be that, I don't see it as only being that. Dir en grey have for the longest time been updating old songs (Since Uroboros, I don't think there has been not a one single release to not have an updated song on it). But until now they've always followed a simple pattern in how they are updated - they've all been transformed into very dark, very heavy, thrash-influenced metal.

This is the first time we've seen updates that sound anything close to their older counterparts. And I think that is a sign.

I remember when Dum Spiro Spero came out, despite all its metal-trappings, people were comparing it to Dir en grey's older, Kisou era material, compositionally. Unlike Withering to Death, Marrow of the Bone, and, to a lesser extent, Uroboros, which were very heavily rooted in Western metal, Dum Spiro Spero was structurally more akin to the stuff on Macabre and Kisou, except with a extreme metal sheen.

Then Rinkaku came out, which I remember one reviewer calling "Different Sense but with clean vocals".

Then you have this, and I think the title "Unraveling" isn't vague at all. Before Vulgar, Dir en grey marked their shift in stye with their Six Ugly EP. We'll have to see their next major release/single to know, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see Dir en grey moving back to their older style, with the title of this EP being a hinting towards that return.

Coming full circle, for me, when I listen to the new Kasumi and The Final, while you are right in that in some ways they fail to capture certain feelings and moments held gold in the original, overall, what I hear (in those songs, and in The Unraveling) is them approaching their old style with all the greater technical sophistication and grown, professional refinement that they have learned in the decade of expirementation since then.

Cliff said...

Thank you for the kind words! I agree with your impressions, too, and I wouldn't mind them reverting just a little more to the older style you mention.


Your final paragraph is also something I wanted to add but then forgot to mention; some bands like to showcase really good older songs with the expertise they have gained in ten years, and to me there's nothing wrong with that, of course. And although I've been among Dir en grey fans for ten years now, I'm still baffled by how even the old fans manage to get themselves worked up over a per se nice release like this and can call it things like "shitty death metal update", when the band has not really done what it did to, say, Kiri to Mayu, to most songs here and kept most of the original spirits alive, just like you said in your comment =)

Reitsu said...

I dunno if you've read this, but some insight from Kyo about remaking songs. --> http://ageqoudagis.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/kyo-full-interview-tattoo-tribal-vol-54-2013/

Cliff said...

I have not, but I will read it right away, thank you! =)

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