Dir En Grey first garnered attention during the late 90’s in the Japanese visual kei scene. Their music was a modernized take on David Bowie and T. Rex focussed through the fashion sensibility of X Japan. Finding success at home their profile continued to expand and their already-varied sound started to change.

With the release of their 2005 album “Withering To Death” and a ferocious appearance at Germany’s Rock Am Ring festival the band began to press steadily onward towards the West. Slowly and progressively the band shed their glam look, and while their sound continued to diversify it also became more distinct. The Dir En Grey sound is now an equal mix of pop, rock, metal, and punk. On their more recent recordings it’s normal to find a power-ballad next to a heavy track with guttural death metal vocals, then followed up by a swing-laden punk affair. They’ve even taken to re-recording and re-interpreting some of their older tracks, many of which are found on their latest EP “The Unraveling”.

This musical approach has found success across the board in North America with J-Rock traditionalists, the college alt-crowd, and a slew of new fans in the metal and hardcore scenes. It turns out their Western audience is fiercely loyal (they grabbed the most votes for Video of the Year on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball twice). The band is arguably the most popular Japanese-speaking rock act in North America. I had a chance to speak to bassist Toshiya (through the faithful translation of Tour Manager Nora) before the band’s recent jam-packed show at Toronto’s Opera House about their gradual change in style and the often extreme eclectic nature of their music.

 

A Journal of Musical Things

During a recent tour stop in Toronto I had a chance to sit down with the always quotable Dave Brockie, sometimes known as frontman Oderus Urungus of the costumed-metal band Gwar. The members of Gwar play a group of intergalactic alien warlords and produce a live stage spectacle where they vanquish their enemies and a gaggle of celebrities in front of an adoring crowd, who is rewarded by being sprayed with an excessive amount of stage blood and other faux-bodily fluids. People walking out of a Gwar show look like they’ve been reborn, and I mean that in the biological way.

The show itself is a tribute to live theatre and practical special effects. There are no pyro-cannons or lasers, just exquisite handmade costumes, props, and puppets that can change shape, move, and ultimately be destroyed onstage. Over the course of their career I’ve heard some criticize Gwar as being empty spectacle, but each tour has its own story which targets the status quo and destroys the idols of the day. From their early memorable appearance on Jerry Springer, to Oderus’ short tenure as an intergalactic correspondent for Fox News, Gwar has consistently managed to worm (or I suppose, maggot) their way into our consciousness for almost three decades. As long as the characters never age, and the world keeps pumping out politicians and celebrities for them to skewer, Gwar can always be current.

Most Gwar interviews are with Dave in character as Oderus, but I wanted to fill a few of the gaps I had in my mind about the band, as their story and their continued success makes Gwar one of the most unique performance entities in the world. Other than a few sound tweaks this is totally unedited. It’s one part music history lesson as Dave takes me through his early years in the DC punk scene, to his move to Richmond, Virginia and the formation of the band, and finally the various incarnations of Gwar that led to the unique catalogue of albums that form their 30-year career.

It’s also personal as well as Dave waxes on about his 50th year of existence and his newest flame, as well as some of his not-so-great encounters in the early years with Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye. Plus the story of how Gwar lost a gig with Rob Zombie over a post on Twitter.

 

A Journal of Musical Things

For my money, thrash is the genre that most people associate with heavy metal. I have no scientific proof of this, and the genre’s overall popularity is certainly in some part due to Metallica’s commercial success since the 90s. But it was the thrash bands of the 80s who pulled the bands that influenced them into the classification of “heavy metal”.

American thrash is certainly the most talked about with “The Big 4” and their contemporaries like Exodus and Testament still pumping out grandiose albums to new young legions of fans. But outside of America the thrash scene with the most dominance is in Germany. Along with Sodom and Destruction, Kreator is regarded as one of the founding fathers of German thrash metal, a rougher and grittier version of its American cousin.

Kreator’s 1986 sophomore effort “Pleasure To Kill”, is regarded as essential listening for thrash fans. Much like other classic thrash acts Kreator is doing well in the age of modern metal with their last two albums being the highest charting of their career. I had a chance to sit down with band frontman Mille Petrozza during a recent tour stop in Toronto to talk about the German thrash sound and the relative meaning of success in heavy metal.

 

A Journal of Musical Things

Ohio’s Skeletonwitch came to widespread attention in the metal scene in 2007 with their second album “Beyond The Permafrost”, a uniquely catchy affair that mixes thrash with the distinctive tone of black metal. With their following two albums the band continued to tighten that sound while mercilessly gigging with some of metal’s biggest names.

I spoke to guitarist Scott Hedrick outside Toronto’s Mod Club on their recent tour supporting The Black Dahlia Murder, about their new album “Serpents Unleashed” and how Skeletonwitch is working after five albums and ten years.

 

A Journal of Musical Things