On March 11 of this year, Japanese art-metal mavens Dir En Grey were hard at work on their eighth operatic effort, “Dum Spiro Spero,” in a studio just outside Tokyo.
The next day, everything changed. The great East Japan earthquake hit, a devastating 8.9-magnitude temblor that sent 133-foot tsunami waves traveling up to six miles inland, claiming nearly 16,000 lives. And the band was suddenly faced with an incredibly grave decision: whether or not to even continue the sessions at all.
“We weren’t hit directly, but where we were, we still felt the tremors,” says bassist Toshiya, who appears with the band in The City on Thursday.
“Then, later on, we realized just how big the earthquake was,” he says. “It was such a terrible time, we actually asked ourselves if it made sense to keep recording while everyone around us was suffering. But then we sat down and spoke about it, all five of us, and we decided something — it was important to go on, moving ahead, instead of just stalling and waiting for things to get better.”
The results — molasses-thick riffs and filigrees anchored by the Jekyll-and-Hyde stylings of vocalist-lyricist Kyo — echo the tragedy in dirges like “Juuyoku,” “Akatsuki” and “Vanitas.”
It’s underscored in the cover art — a forbidding woods reminiscent of the Aokigahara, the notorious Japanese suicide forest. Actually, they intended the photo (which features a shadowy Buddhist statue) as uplifting.
“We wanted to integrate Japanese bamboo and elements from other Asian cultures into one final image,” says Toshiya.
It’s just that everything Dir En Grey touches often comes out spooky. The bassist knows of the forest — the second most popular suicide spot in the world behind the Golden Gate Bridge. He’s not sure why the Japanese suicide rate is so high (31,690 reported cases last year alone). He only knows that his group’s music seems to have healing powers.
“We receive fan letters sometimes, saying, ‘Your music has saved my life,’” he says. “Unfortunately, in most cases we don’t really know what the kids are battling with.” Hence, the title of the new album, which translates to “While I breathe, I hope.”
Fans can easily see it as a heartening sentiment. “But it was actually something that we felt as individuals, and as a band,” says Toshiya. “It was hope for us, ourselves, before it was any kind of message to others.”
Japan is recovering, Toshiya reports. But he hopes people remember the disaster now that it’s no longer front-page news — “because that would be the scary thing, if people totally forget what happened to us last March.”
IF YOU GO
Dir En Grey
Where: Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $29.50 to $32
Contact: (888) 929-7849, www.axs.com