on August 23, 2009
It could be because they are from the fairly small country of Japan, did not receive the label promotion that they deserved, were overshadowed by much more popular groups like Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, and Old Man's Child) soon after they formed, and/or they possess a sound that has always been a bit of an acquired taste. But whatever the reason, the fact remains that even though they were signed by the Mayhem legend Euronymous to a renowned label (Deathlike Silence Records), and they were one of the first ever to incorporate keyboards into black metal (successfully, too), Sigh have always been one of the most underrated and overlooked bands in the history of heavy metal. And it certainly did not help matters that Sigh started experimenting with their sound quite drastically. Beginning with the mildly-funky and country music-like guitars heard on 1999's "Scenario IV: Dead Dreams"; the band then moved onto the Frank Zappa-style jazz fusion and classical music-inspired avant-garde metal of 2001's aptly-entitled (if undersold) "Imaginary Soundscape" (an outing which not to mention also reportedly featured trace elements of dub reggae, disco, and psychedelic sound effects). And, finally, this Tokyo-based quintet bottomed-out when they were dropped by a major label (Century Media) for not producing pure, brutal black metal music, and letting "Gallows Gallery," which was even more progressive, poorly received, and even arguably had some pop-ish elements (on account of its use of multi-tracked clean vocals), see the light of day in 2005.
A couple of minor lineup changes and being on yet another different label (Osmose Productions) not withstanding, the gentlemen in Sigh showed true character by pulling through and producing a seventh full-length, "Hangman's Hymn: Musikalische Exequien," in 2007. Yes, like anything else you've heard lately, this record does not skimp on their patented knack for innovation. For starters, ten songs are presented here, and they are divided into three "Acts" (with three songs used in Act I, four in Act II, and three in Act III), thus implying a concept album. Furthermore, some of them are quite lengthy (see tracks four and eight, for example), but they are all always very epic. And lastly, more than a few foreign instruments have made their way into the musical arrangements this time around. Thus, don't be surprised to hear full orchestras, majestic keyboards, samples, pianos, an unabashed use of clean singing, female vocals, trumpets, a saxophone, a requiem choir, tribal chants, choirs, vocoders, cellos, horns, chimes, and bells swirling and soaring all around you. However, don't stop reading just yet because all this talk of being experimental may be a bit misleading. So let it be known flat-out that "Hangman's Hymn" is definitely first and foremost a heavy album. Indeed, with intricate guitar work -- including blistering thrash riffs, head-spinning leads, and supoib soloing -- propulsive, grooving rhythms, impeccable thrash beats, and rapid-fire blast beats laying the foundation for each song, it is frequently quite brutal. Sacrifice's Rob Urbinati, Ares Kingdom's Chuck Keller, and The Red Chord's Mike "Gunface" Mckenzie all make cameos and lay down blistering solos, here, as well.
Frontman Mirai Kawashima has stated that "HH" is like "German thrash meets symphonies" -- a fair description considering it could readily be described as something akin to Kreator/Sodom/Dew Scented doing battle against the National Symphony Orchestra. But how successful were the results of merging these two polar opposite worlds into one? Indisputably masterful! In fact, this might darn well be their finest hour! It is simultaneously a triumphant and long-awaited return-to-form AND wildly inventive. And it doesn't take a genius to tell that this is a very intelligently-written and carefully-crafted work of art because it is extremely dense, meticulous, complex, and well-rounded while never sounding cluttered or over-ambitious. Also, it challenges the listener by revealing new secrets (i.e. additional layers and textures, bits of well-placed ambience, backing vocals, dazzling guitar chops, subtle shifts of mood, tone, key, emotion, etc.) with every listen (using headphones, of course).
Opener "Introitus/Kyrie" is a major standout track, and a choice example as to how things work this time around. It is a breakneck, pummeling, steamrolling, all-out metal onslaught propelled by Slayer-worthy riffing, a lightning fast guitar solo, and pummeling, hyperspeed blast beats. Yes, some orchestral and other experimental elements (including an outro that is reminiscent of "Damnation and a Day"-era Cradle of Filth) are present throughout, but they are mostly kept on the back burner, and used as an accent to and contrast the heavy parts, thus making them even moreso and making the choruses even more powerful and memorable. The tune's vocal arrangement also stands out because it combines guttural rasps with high shrieks, spoken words, and some creepy demonic vocals to excellent, skin-crawling effect. "Inked In Blood" is another Satan-approved, scorched-earth speedster with more really memorable choruses from start to finish -- but it is different because it also fuses in some subtle, chilling keyboard accents and surprisingly melodic guitar solos and vocals. However, the last song of Act I, "Me-Devil," is a little bit (but still noticeably) more melodic and docile, and features a trippy, symphonic-intro, and even a refrain with vocals that even verge on being clean(!).
Aside from a brief bit of brutality and excellent, machine gun drumming that comes into play near the end, "Dies Irae/The Master Malice" more-or-less continues down the same general path as "Me-Devil." It is a very involved and textural number with an awesome, and terrifically ominous intro (which lasts almost a whole minute), crunching, churning rhythms, melodic guitar lines, spooky female and choral interludes, and noteworthy keyboard flourishes. Song numbers five and six, "The Memories As A Sinner" and "Death With Dishonor," however, are different stories. The former explodes with frenetic guitar work (including blazing solos), crushing guitar-drum interplay, and impeccable, mind-boggling, jackhammer-fast blast beats; and the latter is a charging, head-down salvo of ferocious thrash riffage and deft, walloping skins that only relents for its epic, keyboard-abetted choruses. "In Devil's Arms" is another huge standout, and on account of being highlighted by memorable, Iron Maiden-inspired dual melodic guitar leads and great, wailing solo from Mckenzie, TRC's above-mentioned six-string virtuoso, is also a possible highpoint.
The last act (Act III) begins on a different note. Despite having some energetic blasting, track eight, "Overture/Rex Tremendae/I Saw the World's End," could actually be described as progressive, brooding, slow-burning, and at times even somewhat doomy. Similarly, its follow-up, "Salvation In Flame/Confutatis," boasts restrained tempos and positively haunting atmospheres; and it is also of note for its horrifying-yet-simultaneously-hilarious lyrics. But "Hangman's Hymn/In Paradisum/Das Ende," a blazing and old-school Mayhem-style piece of blasting black metal, returns the record to its aggressive, blood-pumping roots.
Getting right to the point, "Hangman's Hymn: Musikalische Exequien" easily takes a place right along side the finest metal heard in all of 2007, and is also one of the best and most essential pieces of blackened thrash/pure black metal since Immortal's "At the Heart of Winter." Surprised? Don't be! After all (due to a lot of experimenting and label-jumping), Sigh may have a really uneven and uncertain history. But if this album is any indication, it appears that's all in the past and it's only clear sailing from here, because it is nearly flawless from front-to-back. Astonishing!