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Breaking barriers

Dir en grey and the Japanese music scene cross the Pacific

Dir en grey and the Japanese music scene cross the Pacific

March 13, 2007|by LAURA JACOBS

Originally formed in 1997, Dir en grey has become hugely popular in their home country of Japan. Ten years later, that popularity is quickly growing here in the United States.

Dir en grey is comprised of five members: vocalist Kyo, guitarists Kaoru and Die, bassist Toshiya and drummer Shinya. The lineup has stayed the same since the band first formed.

Over their 10-year career, the band's sound has ranged from hard and dark to light and poppy. Accompanying their dark melodies are even darker lyrics that express pain, sorrow and a sense of morbid beauty. An example, from "Amber": "Goodbye to an anonymous girl I loved from my heart / I remember the promise we made, by the spring breeze I felt in my back / [] Let's sing until our voices go out."

Early in Dir en grey's career, they had big hair, pancake makeup and leather outfits almost reminiscent of '80s glam rock. They were known as a "visual kei" band (kei means style). Visual kei is a Japanese music sub-genre which puts emphasis on band appearance.

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Members of a visual kei band often use elaborate costumes and makeup paired with an overall androgynous look.

Dir en grey was often on the darker, more gothic side of the visual kei genre. Now they have moved away from costumes in order to focus on their music.

Musically, visual kei bands are found in many genres of Japanese music, so it is possibly one of the most diversified musical genres out there. That means there's really something for everyone.

Visual kei has evolved from being somewhat of an anomaly to a widely accepted genre in Japan. Now, visual kei is gaining acceptance and popularity all over the world.

Dir en grey sold out individual shows in both New York and Los Angeles in March of 2006. That landed them an opening slot in summer 2006's Family Values tour with popular metal bands Korn and Flyleaf. In February, Dir en grey launched their own tour in America through 13 states and one Canadian province. Dir en grey has also toured in Europe numerous times.

I went to the show in Baltimore on Feb. 5. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I became a fan of Dir en grey in mid-2004, but I never thought I would see them in concert. Most of the songs they played in Baltimore were recent releases, but they did play a few old songs from their early years. There were a couple times in the concert when the lead singer, Kyo, sang an a cappella introduction to the next song. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. I was touched despite language barriers; the emotion was right there in the concert hall.

With horror-based lyrics and antics, Dir en grey is definitely not for everyone. In fact, I generally don't like this type of music; but there was just something about their music that made me a fan.

Dir en grey is not the first Japanese group to play in America. Others have performed concerts at anim conventions all over the United States. Anim convention attendees are more likely to be open to Japanese music and the bands play for a good crowd. L'Arc~en~Ciel performed a sold-out show at 1st Mariner Arena during the 2004 Otakon anim convention in Baltimore.

Other major artists to play in the U.S. are pop singers T.M.Revolution and Nami Tamaki and visual kei bands Psycho le Cemu and MUCC.

Even indie artists are making waves outside of Japan. Indie visual kei bands 12012, Phantasmagoria, SID and Imitation PoPs Uchuu Sentai NOIZ have had successful concerts in the U.S.

Some Japanese artists have drawn crowds at concerts that were not part of anim conventions. Bands such as D'espairs Ray, nonvisual band the Pillows, the new-wave band POLYSICS and pop duo Puffy AmiYumi have visited. The visual kei band Blood will be briefly touring the United States holding concerts in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

In 2003, a new small California record company, Tofu Records, began to bring many bands over to the United States for U.S. releases of Japanese albums. The "American" CDs are the same as the Japanese CDs, only at a domestic price (importing Japanese CDs is expensive). Also, Tofu Records might add bonus tracks and DVDs found only on the American release.

The Internet has played a crucial role in exposing these and many more bands to audiences worldwide. People find out about artists through anim (some artists do theme songs for anim TV shows and films), interest in other artists, Internet communities, social networking sites, as well as word of mouth. While newer fans tend to pirate music and video clips, older fans tend to buy the imported (or sometimes domestic) goods from the bands through online shops.

I have noticed that fans of Japanese musicians tend to be ultradevoted to their favorite artists. Many artists are very personable toward their fans. This creates close bonds between bands and their fans.

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