Friday 11 November 2022

Sigh - Shiki (2022)

Country: Japan
Style: Avant-Garde Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Aug 2022
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There's so much going on in this album that I'm still not sure that I've truly come to terms with it. I know that I like it, but I didn't get a real grasp on it until at least a couple of times through. That's partly because Sigh have been around for a long time and have diversified their sound over a long career that I'm not overly familiar with. They were founded in Tokyo in 1989 as a black metal band in the Norwegian style. However, they soon added symphonic elements then shifted towards more of a more progressive, avant-garde style.

To highlight how long they've been shifting, they've named their albums acrostically for the band name since the beginning, so each cycle of four begin S, I, G and then H. This album marks the start of their fourth cycle, though the first G was technically an EP so this is a twelfth full length studio album. That G was Ghastly Funeral Theatre in 1997, the beginning of their experimentation, and I see that the most recent H, Heir to Despair in 2018, added traditional Japanese folk elements.

By this point, it's easy to see their black metal roots because lead vocalist Mirai Kawashima sings in a harsh demonic style, often spitting out lyrics with venom, and because there are fast sections where the drums ramp up to a serious tempo and the guitars follow suit, even if the result isn't an entirely traditional black metal wall of sound. These black metal sections show up in the majority of the eight songs proper on offer, but what's important to note is that they're far from alone.

They don't begin the album either. Kuroi Kage kicks off with a slow tortured guitar as if Sigh had a newfound passion for sludge metal. That song livens up during the midsection and there's a black metal part five minutes in, but it doesn't last too long. There's a much more gentle section after it featuring some soft alto saxophone from female vocalist Dr. Mikannibal, who otherwise provides equally demonic vocals that don't betray her gender. What's more, the guitar solos tend to be the sort of guitar solos we expect from traditional heavy metal albums, not that black metal has been ever known for guitar solos anyway.

So there are four clearly separate styles, three of which pervade the album: fast black metal, old school guitar solos and softer saxophone sections. Many songs include all three of these, plus the fourth, which is electronic experimentation that feels even older school than the guitar. There's a section in Satsui - Geshi no Ato that sounds like someone's changing the dial on a radio to float on through a slew of stations without ever stopping long at any of them. I did that on a demo back in the early nineties that I recorded in my bedroom, when my "band" was a couple of rulers, a desk and a Russian thrash album played at 78rpm instead of 33.

Oh, and just in case you thought that was it, there are all sorts of other tones and textures here to keep us on the hop. Shikabane starts out feeling like a punk song, before it goes experimental. Its percussion is absolutely fascinating, especially as its paired with electronic weirdness like ambient space rock. The second half of Satsui - Geshi no Ato couples a hip hop backing track with what feels like synth-driven harpsichord. There's a Metallica-esque groove on Fuyu Ga Kuru, but with a much more demonic voice than James Hetfield would ever deploy. More unusual drum rhythms prompt Kawashima to bring out his flute for a pastoral section.

I have little idea what to call out as favourites because I need to listen through more times. I felt a little confused early on, but Shoujahitsumetsu grounded me for a while. It's much more ferocious than Kuroi Kage, at least when it wants to be and oddly calming when it doesn't. Its primary shift away from black metal is the traditional guitar solo from Nozomu Wakai, which is excellent. Then I got lost again, but engaged with the more progressive sections in songs as the album ran on. Once I'd got to Fuyu Ga Karu, I was hooked.

However, the constant shifting between styles made it hard to get any individual song stuck in my brain. I stopped thinking about any of the songs individually and started thinking about this as an epic single piece, forty-six minutes long. It didn't seem to break down into a set of nine discernable movements, because each of those movements had movements and those movements reoccurred like themes, so where I ended up was that a strange concept where there are four versions of Sigh playing in different styles but they keep shifting in and out of the spotlight, resulting in us having impressions of each as well as impressions of the combination that coalesce within our brains at a later point in time.

For now, I guess I'd call out Fuyu Ga Kuru as my favourite track. There's the Metallica groove; that demonic lead vocal—even if it isn't spat out in a near rap the way it is on Satsui - Gesho no Ato; the pastoral flute part set against swirling keyboards; a black metal section that keeps dropping down to more traditional heavy metal riffs; more unusual rhythms to fascinate me; and eventually some of Dr. Mikannibal's alto sax to wrap things up. That might sound like an unholy mess but it works in that bizarre mixture.

After that, maybe I'd go for Shoujahitsumetsu but more likely the far more progressive Mayonaka no Kaii, which feels like a setpiece at the end of the album. It's the meat in a sandwich between a brief intro, Kuroi Kagami, and a less brief outro, Touji no Asa, but the three play well together. It's another fascinating mixture, not only including many of the elements that I've mentioned, along with a few more. There's a lot of Black Sabbath here, in the form of mellow but heavy psychedelic riffing, sometimes accompanied by flute. The vocals are demonic, of course, and the guitar solo as clean as those vocals aren't.

This is definitely for rock/metal fans with very open minds, but I think it's a gem. I'm very tempted to up my rating from a 7/10 to an 8/10 and probably well after a couple more listens. It simply isn't immediate stuff. We have to get to know this material to fully appreciate everything that's going on within it.

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