2014 was a rough year for visual kei fans. In between the seemingly infinite stream of disbandment announcements, many fans were disheartened to see household names like Sadie and Born releasing music that either fell flat on its face or just barely met their own standards. Other bands like Exist Trace, Alice Nine, and MUCC experimented with new styles and sounds, and while many of them were successful, it was no doubt polarizing to some of their fans. All in all, if you’re a visual kei fan, there’s a pretty good chance that you feel a little jaded about last year.

But, it wasn’t all bad. Powerhouse indie bands like Royz, Kiryu, Buglug, and R-shitei continued to release fantastic music that expanded their styles and dazzled listeners, granting them success in both the indie and mainstream markets. Also present were a handful of interesting band debuts (RAVE and Arlequin come to mind) that showed huge potential. And at the very end of the year, visual kei fans finally got what they were looking for: a truly fantastic release that lived up to its own hype. 

That release was provided by one of the leading innovators in the Japanese music industry as a whole: Dir En Grey. With the release of ARCHE, Dir En Grey has provided an inspiring example of musical evolution that the entire industry can learn from. With too many facets to list and an ever-changing atmosphere that will keep you entranced throughout all 16 of its tracks, ARCHE is hands-down my pick for best album of 2014.

ARCHE Regular Edition Cover
1. Un Deux
2. Soshaku
3. Uroko
4. Phenomenon
5. Cause of Fickleness
6. Tosei
7. Rinkaku
8. Chain Repulsion
9. Midwife
10. Magayasou
11. Yasuharu
12. Behind a Vacant Image
13. Sustain the Untruth
14. Kuukoku no Kyouon
15. The Inferno
16. Revelation of Mankind

I can’t remember the last time I listened to an album that leverages its overall impression on the listener as effectively as ARCHE does. Throughout the entire album (and I mean every track), Dir En Grey creates, evolves, destroys, and resurrects an ever-changing atmosphere. It put me in a trance-like state of mind that allowed me to accept and internalize the massive amount of musical variation that takes place. This atmosphere is bolstered by excellent mixing that prevents any one sound from ever overpowering the others. The one potential caveat of the atmospheric and mixing approaches is that some of Dir En Grey's more impactful traditional elements, such as the vocalist's screams or the drummer's intensity, do not come through quite as powerfully as they have in past albums. However, this seems to be a purposed modification to keep the overall sound balanced and adaptive, and it will be up to the listener to decide if it improves or detracts from their personal experience.

The beautifully tragic “Un Deux” serves as a slow but powerful introduction to the album. The melodic intensity of the chorus and the build-up preceding it pull you into ARCHE’s melancholically majestic atmosphere. “Soshaku” continues to build on that atmosphere with its equally powerful choruses while simultaneously introducing just the slightest amount of sinister sound into the mix.
It isn’t until “Uroko” that Dir En Grey reintroduces the darker and heavier side of their sound. Vocalist Kyo’s signature screams return in full force, but the aforementioned mixing done on the album keeps them from overpowering the song.  Kyo also makes use of a curious blend of falsetto and bravado in some parts, which makes the song sound like it is being haunted by the ghost of an opera singer. As amusing as it is to describe, it is performed quite well, and adds an ominous dimension to “Uroko,” further building on the album’s intense atmosphere. The guitarists do an equally masterful job providing the perfect balance of instrumental excellence and effective timing, which results in greater instrumental depth throughout the track, along with most of the album.

“Phenomenon” is a sudden but incredibly well-placed shift in ARCHE’s tone. Instead of building on “Uroko’s” energetic heaviness, it invokes a steady, plodding pace that is enforced by periodic rests in each of the instruments at different points throughout the song. This pseudo-minimalism gives the track a deep brooding feeling, and I caught myself dramatically pacing and staring off into space throughout its entirety. Thankfully, ARCHE’s next track made sure that my mind snapped back into focus. “Cause of Fickleness” takes the elegant atmosphere carefully crafted by the previous four songs and promptly tramples all over it. Maniacal screams trade blows with rapid instrumentation and ridiculously over-the-top use of Kyo’s previously-introduced opera-esque voice, all while following a steady tempo that somehow manages to keep it all together. On its own, this track sounds absolutely insane, but I was so used to ARCHE’s constant shift in style at this point that it just felt like Dir En Grey was wiping the slate clean before it got too cluttered.

If “Cause of Fickleness” shattered your grasp on ARCHE’s pace, then “Tosei” will help you put the pieces back together. It’s a powerful yet absolutely gorgeous track, and is more reminiscent of the lighter side of Dir En Grey’s signature sound than many other tracks on the album. The restoration of order and elegance provided by “Tosei” serves as a perfect transition into “Rinkaku.” This epic pseudo-ballad wraps up the first leg of ARCHE with fantastic guitar instrumentation (both acoustic and electric), mesmerizing drum beats, cryptic backing piano notes, and elegantly-sung high notes. It was an excellent single, and it now serves as an excellent way to bring emotional closure to the listener before ARCHE takes a turn for the darker.

“Chain Repulsion” moves the album in a heavier, more familiar direction. It has frantic pace that Kyo does an excellent job matching with a variety of singing and screaming styles. It doesn’t completely drop into heavy-metal territory; rather, it teases the listener just enough to let them know what’s coming. The harmony of the guitarists, bassist, and drummer is quite prevalent in this track, and the technical intensity of each instrument blends together to provide a solid foundation for the song. The slightly more sinister sound in the first half of “Midwife” enhances the already-frantic nature that ARCHE has taken on. The guitarists, bassist, and drummer separate from their previously-unified sound to perform individual roles of musical dissonance that add up to an extremely haunting sound throughout the first half of the track. Halfway through, the song tears itself in two with heavy guitar riffs, rapid drumming and growls and screams approaching levels of intensity found in Dir En Grey’s previous heavy metal-influenced album, although still not quite as impactful.

The first half of “Magayasou” serves to restore order to the pacing of the album, while the second half alternates between mesmerizing and shocking the listener in all the right ways. The beautifully-sung chorus stands out along with “Tosei’s” as being especially epic demonstrations Dir En Grey’s ability to create powerfully melodic moments in their songs. “Yasuharu’s” gentle vocals and exceptional guitar work prevent it from being completely classified as either a ballad or a rock song. I personally enjoyed this song a lot, and would consider it the most relaxing track on the album.
“Magayasou” and “Yasuharu” do a good job providing balance and a certain amount of calm to balance out the madness of the tracks that preceded them. However, the intensely passionate “Behind a Vacant Image” uses a solid combination of melodic and hard rock sounds to keep energy levels high and transition into the final part of the album. In “Sustain the Untruth,” Dir En Grey uses interesting distortions in their guitars and backing tracks that I wouldn’t have expected to hear at this point in the album, but very much enjoyed. I feel that out of all the tracks previously released as singles or used to promote the album, this is the only track that stands out as being designed with that intention in mind, and that broke up the pace for me a bit. “Kuukoku no Kyouon” is the album’s only true ballad, utilizing gently-played acoustic guitars and distorted electric guitars to create a powerfully mournful sound and leave a lasting impression on the listener.

While “Kuukoku no Kyouon” would have served as an excellent ending to the album, ARCHE would have been missing a key component of Dir En Grey’s sound: dark, anguished heavy metal that shows off both Kyo’s chillingly broad vocal range and the instrumentalists' penchant for establishing a crushingly dark musical framework. . So, in what could be considered a brutal epilogue to the ominously elegant story told by ARCHE, Dir En Grey returns to form with “The Inferno” and “Revelation of Mankind.” “The Inferno” is a headbanger track through and through, and focuses on covering the entire range of Kyo’s growling and screaming. “Revelation of Mankind” is an epically heavy track that combines intense screaming and growling, ominous singing, and fantastic instrumentation to create a glorious return to Dir En Grey’s much-loved darker music. It ends the album on a truly intense note that makes you crave more, and is the only track on ARCHE that I can see myself listening to over and over outside of the context of the entire album. But most importantly, it sends a clear message: through all of their experimentation with a lighter and more elegant style (both as a band and in the members’ side projects), Dir En Grey has evolved, but they most certainly have not moved on from their beloved heavy sound.

We all know music is an art form, but in this day in age it’s much more common to hear an album or single and think “this is a product I enjoy” instead of “this is a fantastic work of art”. But with ARCHE, “art” is the first concept that comes to mind—beautiful, tragic, epic, brutal, ominous art. As someone who took 3 years of multiple listens to appreciate the sheer brutality of Dir En Grey’s music (I had to start with “Lotus” and “The Final” and work my way up to “Different Sense” and “Obscure), I appreciated Dir En Grey’s departure from what was starting to become excessively heavy metal in pursuit of a more elegant style. However, like many other listeners, I was curious to see if they would ever return to a heavier sound, or Kyo’s time with his side project sukekiyo had cleansed him of a desire to create the horrifyingly dark sound that has shaped so much of the visual kei scene.

As it turns out, ARCHE does neither, rather, it fuses the old with the new to create a sound that is beyond unique. It is incredibly inspiring to see one of the leading figureheads in the visual kei scene innovate so intensely with their music while staying true to their original concepts. I strongly recommend listening to this album, and I look forward to the effect that this example of musical evolution will have on other bands in the visual kei movement. Say what you will about last year: the biggest silver lining of 2014 was the revelation of who the true role models of the visual kei scene are. And among major bands, Dir En Grey still reigns as one of the kings of visual rock originality.

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Special thanks to Gan-Shin Records for providing us with the materials for this review!
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