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From triumph to anguish - 87%

Abominatrix, September 21st, 2008

Sigh are a very special entity within the universe of metal, and no band will ever sound as they do. A lot has been said about their transition to a more "avant-garde", less black metal-oriented way of making music, but I think that conceptually this never really happened and anybody who dismisses them on the basis of some jazz or prog rock influences never really understood what they were about. Sigh never left any facet of their sound behind, never abandoned the metallic quality of their core, and were pretty damn esoteric almost from the outset. No doubt the instrumental and compositional skills of the band members have improved since 1993 from a technical standpoint, and perhaps the band did get a little lost a few years ago among the legion of styles they hungered to incorporate into their horrific and existentially challenging blend of music, but there has always been that powerful heavy metal riff, wailing guitar solo or morbid Sabbath-esque dirge to remind you that you're listening to a metal band first and foremost, no matter how many orchestral patches, pianos, saxophones or accordions they decide to throw at you at any given time. All the same, by the time of "Imaginary Sonicscape" the band had quite a few detractors within the realm of "true metal", and it could be said that they had moved quite far from the blackness that characterised their sound until the "Hail Horror Hail" album, roughly speaking. That's just it, though ... when it comes to Sigh's abrupt shifts and turns into unexpected territory, one can only roughly speak of their intentions and the reasons behind the band's decisions to do what they do. Indeed, I would argue that whatever the hell they sounded like, their mood has always remained horrific, disquieting and "black as pitch", even among brighter, bombastic musical passages. I suppose any naysayers the band might have can't have understood their latest album, "Hangman's Hymn", either, as that is pretty much a terrific snarl in the face of anybody who maintains that Sigh have lost touch with their origins and don't play any sort of black metal nowadays. That, however, is a subject for a different review.

I think Sigh probably took the black metal world by surprise in 1993. Sure, there were a few other filthy hordes operating in Japan, mostly playing in the tradition of prototypical black and death metal, but I don't think that these bands really made much headway in the West at the time. When Euronymous signed Sigh and was prepared to release their debut, he must have heard something uniquely powerful and felt the black aura of the "eastern force of evil" creeping along the fibres of his cortex. "What a weird band!" he probably said. "Weird, and morbid in the extreme!"

And he would have been right. Sigh were, no doubt, aware of the early Norwegian black metal bands, but the elements that combine in their cauldron of mephitic halucinogens come almost exclusively from the previous two decades. I believe there is something called the "horror metal aesthetic", and it is more of an ideal than a sound. Through this ideal, bands like Black Sabbath, Venom, Death SS, Mercyful Fate and Hellhammer sought to reveal, in its naked and stark clarity, the truth about death in a cold and implacable cosmos, and the pitiful scrabblings of the human psyche (scrabblings we call religion) to come to terms with existence fraught with adversity and terror and which could, in any case, be snuffed out in a second by some unpredictable external force, or simply eaten away from the inside by decay and disease. I believe that Sigh represents a logical progression of this unspoken current that runs through the core of so much of the metal we love, and you can feel this unease and horror in varying degrees through all of their recordings, even within the most seemingly whimsical peregrinations.

For the most part, however, the aforementioned whimsy does not reveal itself much here. The tone of "Scorn Defeat" is heavy with threats, crackling with the power of darkness, and yet it carries with it a certain detachment from the judeo-christian concept of good and evil that much metal music (and so many other things) born in the West implicitly endorses. It isn't that Sigh aren't embracing the darkness to an extent, as every black metal band should .. no, they certainly are; the feeling of ever-present danger and evil is all over this record. However, what Sigh aim for is something more cosmic, more altogether deistic in a sense. Darkness and Light are certainly forces of power within the universe, but the borders are nebulous indeed, and all life, all force and motive, falls prey to the same inevitability. Entropy and the wheel (the karmic wheel, if you like) are the only truly immutable forces at work, and nothing can withstand their ever-increasing weight.

So, taking this perspective into consideration, it is possible to see "Scorn Defeat" as a work of seven pieces that detail the inevitable turn of the Great Wheel. It's not a linear journey in time, or anything quite so concrete as that, but rather a psychological and emotional exploration of something that begins as conquest, glory and bloodlust; travels through war and pain and resignation, viewing death and the resurrection through occult means as the only chance for the proliferation of the indomitable spirit, before finally sinking into despondency and hopelessness. "Scorn Defeat" is the cry of the emissary of darkness as he screams invectives from his ornate wooden coffin as it is set alight. "Scorn Defeat!" is what he cries to the stars as his serpent self shivers into wakefulness, for he fears not death nor its encroaching minions, all of which have already been conquered by his strength and knowledge.

"A Victory of Dakini" is conceptually a brilliant way to begin this journey. Musically we have an ominous melody played on bass and guitar that portends something terrible approaching and call to my mind the lowing of great battle horns; everything stops for a moment and there is an ascending broken chord played on bass before the brilliantly strong verse riff and Mirai's exhortations take control. The Dakini, a female embodiment of enlightenment and the triumph over ignorance and ego, reflects a powerful dicotomy of the terrible and the beautiful, the positive and the negative. She moves through the sky, yet dances naked upon your corpse. In one hand she holds a cup brimming with menstrural blood; in another, a wicked curved knife. Her cult has risen and they are war-like and merciless, feasting on human livers and holding the sundered limbs of those who would stand against them aloft as they step through space, seeking to transmute the poison of lost love and life into the illumination of their path to spiritual immortality. It seems a dangerous perversion, but its glory is heady and full of allure. One can't get enough of that incredibly heavy and extremely dark riff (it's even more hard-hitting in the live environment, I must say), and the triumphant section near the song's close, which seems to symbolise the Dakini hordes converging and ascending through the spheres over a sky redolent with ashes and even gives us some choir-like chanting, can bring a receptive listener to his proverbial knees. The piano makes its first appearance here, and it can be heard as a leading instrument at various times during almost every song on "Scorn Defeat". The song-writing here is really interesting, as Sigh tend to repeat sections often but twist the motif slightly each time they return to it. For example, the ponderous crawl of "A Victory of Dakini"'s refrain is lead by a tolling clean guitar over the distorted rhythm track the first time through, but the second time around this role is occupied by the piano. The chord progression is the same, but the altered instrumentation, slightly different accentings and so on create very palpable sensations of tension and a feeling that, despite the music's comparative simplicity and sparseness, songs are definitely moving somewhere, progressing very purposefully and leading you away from the safety of your mundane life. Of course, this is a Sigh album and that means that something bewildering has to happen at some point or other, and in this case I think that that moment occurs right off in the first song. Most of this piece is, as already hinted, a menacing dirge, but things do speed up around half-way; there's a moment of build-up with a rolicking riff that ascends a few chords repeatedly, and then suddenly we're left with a single guitar track squawking out a completely over-the-top, sloppy pentatonic solo. It sounds very rock 'n' roll, very drunk and almost spontaneous, and on top of all that (with the drums clattering and tumbling away) we get mirai groaning in ecstacy and chanting what sounds like "kill! kill! kiiiilll!". Just as suddenly as it began, this moment of bizarre catharsis stops, and the refrain returns for the second time, slow and sombre, as if cleansed in blood and now ready for transition to a higher plane of reality. There are times when I'm still not prepared for this little outburst and it took me a while to fit it in to what I feel is a strong conception of the song and what it entails, but I must say I've grown used to it and, while it still seems a little jarring, I've simply had to resign myself to the fact that Sigh has always enjoyed doing this to their listeners; sometimes the effect works, sometimes it doesn't, and in the context of the song, this is probably one of the better examples of the mind-games the band likes to play, precisely because it isn't a game at all and the mad exultation is quite real.

"The Gnell" epitomises Sigh's habit of stark juxtaposition without really crossing any genre boundaries, as it alternates between whirlwind black/thrash and woeful keyboard-lead sloth. It's a very short song and if you're not paying attention it can slip through your hands before you've even really become used to it. There's something strange going on with the production in this track as someone turned the reverb knob all the way up! I don't think any of the other songs sound quite this way, and while it's a cool atmospheric effect it becomes hard to discern exactly what riffs are being played, especially toward the song's close when the evil thrashing is joined by the threnody of a vaguely choral-sounding synthesiser. The drums and vocals almost obliterate everything else in the soundscape, the latter being spat forth with a lot of venom and hatred though the lyrics are gloomy and almost more reflective of the largely instrumental doom half of the song. These thrashier Sigh tunes always contain these fiery vocalisations and they manage to sound very wearing on Mirai's voicebox and breathing! It sometimes amazes me that he can vomit forth all those lines so quickly, but I guess this kind of rapid-fire delivery is something we are used to from thrash vocalists like Don Dody and Tom Araya. Much of Sigh's music however is not at all thrashy in delivery, so when things accelerate it always ends up being a bit of a surprise. It's perhaps slightly unfortunate that the band opted to tweak the mix of "The Gnell", as the guitar melodies are actually really good and the cavernously echoey sound makes everything sound quite obscure. There's a little mid-paced section that bridges the two contrasting parts of the piece that features one excellent riff that you don't get to hear more than four times or so, and the plodding dirge motif is topped off with a ghostly little organ solo the second time through that sounds a little bit Hamond-like. The lyrics tell of the end of the world and hint that there are worse things than death; that death, in fact, could be an escape from whatever is happening to terrestrial life. No explanations are given, but the cryptic quality of the lyrics and the melodies at work in the piece make for a very haunting effect.

To further my theory that there is a sort of concept making this album into a unified piece of art, "At My Funeral" opens with the line: "SO I've chosen death". I think this might be tied with "A Victory of Dakini" for best piece on the record. "At My Funeral" is pulsing, eerie and exudes icey resolve and otherworldly malevolence through its simple chord pattern, picked out in sixteenth-notes through nearly the entire duration of the song and given the backbone of a steadily thudding drum beat, like the pounding of some kind of inhuman heart that keeps a corpse alive. In its elegant simplicity, the actual guitar melodies even call to mind something like Burzum, except here the piano and sprinklings of synthesiser (again, that eerie choral sound) along with a sudden drop into a catchy heavy metal riff and climbing rock lead guitar bring it to a different dimension entirely. I do believe this has got to be one of the catchiest black metal songs ever composed; indeed, since my band decided to cover this tune it seldom seems to leave my head for long!

The "Revenge" side of the album is completed by "Gundali", a piece that contains no guitars, but which I still consider a full-fledged statement and not some ambient filler or mood-setter that one often finds on black metal albums. It's lead by an organ as Mirai incantates about the serpent Kundalini and the awakening of the third eye. Then we get a short and spectacular piano piece to finish the first half of the album, one that displays some considerable "chops" that are restrained through most of the album's length. It sounds gorgeous, but the exposed nature of the piano during this section reveals its obviously synthesised nature. It doesn't distract too much though, and they would employ better keys on all subsequent albums.

The "Violence" side extends through two longer compositions, both displaying both some primal Celtic Frost-like tendencies while bringing in more of those esoteric elements the band is most known for. "Taste Defeat" features prominent clean singing , and while these vocalisations are rather flat-sounding their presence in collusion with snail-paced doom riffs calls to mind slower English bands like Pagan Altar or Witchfinder General. Yes, this one is the melancholy closer all right, and the piccolo-like instrument that suddenly commands the attention at one point to play a morose melody is surprising and, I must say, exceedingly cool-sounding. "Ready for the Final War" is long-winded indeed, and shows a more overtly japanese sound among its trudging Hellhammerlike constructions, as well as a tinkling piano exit that's like a sprinkling of dangerously powerful dragon dust. Burning and snarling in the middle of these is "Weakness Within", a grinding and churning black metal hymn of just over three minutes and a rather standard structure, featuring commanding tom fills and memorable piano accents strengthening a fist-pumping chorus that'll have you screaming along in a biting rasp in an attempt to mirror Mirai's possessed calls.

"Scorn Defeat" is universally built on a solid foundation of somewhat primitive and mouldering metal riffs, and you could say this is true for the majority of their work, though they would employ further guitar harmonies and more rocking tempos and instrumentation later on with varying degrees of boldness. The inventive qualities of the album show through with arresting clarity, just as is often the case with the band's influences, though none of them have striven to achieve what Sigh has done here. Consistent and powerful, "Scorn Defeat" will have you attached to your stereo for its duration while your spirit imbibes the majestic yet bitter tale it weaves.