Music

Dark and Provocative

Japanese underground sensation Dir en grey is the very definition of a cult band.

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Its albums and singles frequently chart in its homeland despite relatively little mainstream exposure, due to a positively rabid following that buys everything it releases on pre-order. Tickets to its concerts sell out so fast that fans have to resort to buying them on Yahoo auctions. Its followers in America camp out overnight in front of concert venues just to get a spot close to the stage. More than ten years into its career, Dir en grey still inspires a sort of hormonal adolescent reaction that's usually associated with boy bands — although musically it couldn't be further from such territory.

In terms of style they're hard to pin down. Even guitarist and unofficial spokesman Kaoru can't seem to do it, stating that they're a hard rock band, but they're not quite sure which specific category they fit into. Singer Kyo writes all the lyrics, but all five members write the music, and that clash of varying tastes and styles is a big part of what keeps Dir en grey interesting. "We try to focus on each individual, and we focus our minds on the tension of our performances," said Kaoru. "We're putting emphasis on how we can create a mood on the stage individually one by one." With a back catalog that features metal, punk, hard rock, some lovely acoustic-driven ballads, a few pretty pop songs, and even a string section and a chorus of singing children on "Ain't Afraid to Die," the band has always been stylistically diverse and it seems to like it that way.

And then there are the visuals. Clearly influenced by the Japanese ero-guro movement, which blends the creepy and the erotic to create disturbingly memorable images, Dir en grey's videos are part of what initially brought them into the public eye. Over the last few years the members have abandoned the cross-dressing and unnaturally bright hair of their youth, but they continue to use imagery to complement and enhance the mood of their songs.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Dir en grey is that it's them, rather than more mainstream Japanese artists like Glay or Utada Hikaru, that have have made the biggest impact on this side of the ocean. In terms of ticket or record sales, Dir en grey is unquestionably the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the J-rock scene in America. It's an interesting phenomenon built mostly on the backs of a devoted hardcore audience; long before Dir en grey actually toured America, it had a substantial presence on the Internet, created not by the band but by its fans. While a number of other Japanese bands do small American tours covering only a handful of cities, mostly for PR purposes and to create goodwill among its American fans, Dir en grey does full national tours that actually make money. Only experimental rockers Boris experience a similar level of success.

The band itself seems to have been totally unprepared to see its Japanese fandom replicate itself in America. "We didn't know what the reaction of the fans in the US would be, and once we got here we were surprised how many dedicated fans there were," said Kaoru. The reaction is quite something to witness. Dir en grey's fans are so devoted it's almost frightening, their relationship to the band an odd mix of identification with dark emotions that are usually shoved politely out of sight and sheer lust, because they are, after all, an unusually good-looking band. That tension between the band and its mostly female fanbase is reinforced by a savvy marketing machine that puts out a constant stream of images and promotional videos, but never enough to oversaturate.

As a result, America has become a regular part of Dir en grey's touring schedule. The band's first full solo tour in 2007 was a shot in the dark but ultimately paid off. Still, the members refuse to categorize themselves and stubbornly hold to their own unique vision. "I think each person has a different perception about our music," said Karou.

Dark and disturbing, weird and deliberately provocative, Dir en grey isn't quite like any other current band. The pretty faces don't exactly hurt, but it's their uniqueness that's really put them on the map. As Kaoru sums it up, "If I was to explain my band, I'd say it's a dramatic rock band that has a lot of emotion in it."

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