DIR EN GREY are a band whose past seems to haunt them. They formed in 1997 in Osaka, Japan as a visual kei band playing a sort of gothic-themed type of rock music. Visual Kei is “a movement among Japanese musicians, that is characterized by the use of varying levels of make-up, elaborate hair styles and flamboyant costumes, often coupled with androgynous aesthetics.” Their image from their early years has done them no favours with much of the western metal community, which in my view is an absolute tragedy. DEG have been on a continuous evolution as a band, moving from alternative rock to a unique style of metalcore. In 2008, with Uroboros, they continued their evolution by exploring elements of death metal, progressive metal, and avant-garde music. These elements were explored and deepened in 2011’s Dum Spiro Spero producing their most accomplished album yet with long, haunting, pieces, significant orchestration, and a level of unprecedented unpredictability. On ARCHE DEG continues that natural evolution.

Where Dum Spiro Spero was long and winding, with songs often lasting up to 8 or 9 minutes at a time, ARCHE feels relatively lean: The longest track here is 5:48, and the vast majority of the 16 tracks don’t make it past the 5 minute mark. The band has previously said that they wanted to focus on making songs that people can sing along to; an album that’s more enjoyable live. But do not take that as a sign that DEG have in any sense ‘dumbed down’ their sound: ARCHE is just as fascinating and progressive as its two predecessors. Though the songs are shorter, many lack the traditional ‘verse-chorus’ song-structure, seemingly focusing on specific ideas and expanding on them. ‘Midwife’ moves gracefully from slow, eerie melancholy, to death metal, with some dissonant guitarwork and furious riffing, as well as creepy backing vocals, all while lacking any clear chorus or verse sections.

Tracks like ‘Un Deux’ and ‘咀嚼 (Soshaku)’ rumble on, exploring deep, crunchy guitar and bass lines as well as accompanying orchestration. You have more traditional ballad-like tracks such as ‘空谷の跫音 (Tramplings In the Lonely Valley)’ and ‘濤声 (Voice of Waves)’, as well as the excellent ‘輪郭 (Contours)’ that was released as a single last year.”輪郭’ is by far one of DEG’s most accomplished songs to date: bringing together elements of the most unsettling darkness and compelling beauty, with a truly incredible chorus. ‘Cause of fickleness’ and ‘Chain repulsion’ hark back to their middle years, to albums such as Vulgar or Withering to death, with eccentric, crazy, but catchy, riffs and Kyo’s trademark manic vocals.

These heavier tracks invoke elements of western metal styles such as alternative metal, death metal, or even deathcore at times. They hark back to their earlier, crazier albums, but they also bring more recent elements to that sound, such as their increasing proficiency at the use of electronics and greater experience at songwriting. They also show just how far bassist Toshiya has come since The Marrow of the Bone, as his basswork is very prominent here: he provides the perfect accompaniment to the accomplished guitarists Kaoru and Die. While they riff away his bass provides a deep, rumbling low-end to their sound. Drummer Shinya is capable as ever and again displays his deftness at shifting styles and intensity at short notice, shifting from catchy grooves and fills to the most intense death metal blastbeats. These songs are catchy as hell but suitably insane, and I can see them becoming staples in DEG’s future live setlists.

Vocalist Kyo again demonstrates his unbelievable range, moving from the most delicate croon to the harshest scream or growl effortlessly. On ARCHE his singing is just as powerful and compelling as it has ever been, again acting as the focal point of attention for the band. As the band’s lyricist he has spoken in interviews about the themes he explores on this album: largely, pain. Now, the lyrics are all in Japanese so obviously it’s difficult to understand exactly what he’s saying until translations begin to circulate on the internet, but Kyo’s lyrics in the past have always been intelligent and compelling, and there is no reason to think he’s dropped the ball here.

If I had any criticism to offer of the album it would be that, while near every track on this album delights in its own way, they rarely reach the astonishing heights tracks on previous albums such as ‘Vinushka,’ ‘Dozing Green’, or ‘激しさと、この胸の中で絡み付いた灼熱の闇’ do. Despite that, it still remains one of my favourite metal releases this year. It brings together and harks back to elements from all of their previous albums while feeling totally fresh and new. It doesn’t feel like the band is retreading old ground, it feels like they’re looking at the lessons they’ve learned from their two most recent albums and are now looking to see if they can learn anything by trying those ideas in a new way. Fascinating and often totally insane, ARCHE is a difficult album to really appreciate, and I know I still haven’t gained everything I can from this album. It’s one that rewards investment: throw yourself into this album heart and soul and you’ll get so much out of it.