Japan is a land of astonishing contrast, from its peaceful and distinctive moss gardens to its elaborate Kabuki drama’s all the way through to the dazzling splendor of cities such a Tokyo, which brim with a distinctively Japanese approach to western architecture and city planning. These contrasts could not be more accurately represented in musical form than they are by legendary Japanese extreme metal act Sigh. From their early straight up raw black metal informed by their communication with the infamous Euronymous through to their contemporary avant-garde approach to extreme metal which melds traditional Japanese chord progressions and stylistic trappings with a wide variety of genre influences that extend well beyond the metal sphere. With “Shiki,” Sigh must successfully continue to meld their unwavering commitment to their Japanese heritage with excellent extreme metal idiosyncrasies, lest they become a fond memory instead of an influential driving force in the genres they span.
Immediately, an ominous atmosphere descends with the aid of a extremely brief throat singing passage, “Kuroi Inori” which is then cut short by a doom metal laced guitar and incredulously loud but sparse percussion that forms the core of the first real track of “Shiki” – “Kuroi Kage.” The doom core is quickly enveloped by menacing and demonic harsh vocals which convey an overtly dramatic and theatrical sense of grief and emotional instability. These are further accentuated by a well-delivered choral refrain which adds a sonic depth to “Kuroi Kage” in the form of another expertly implemented layer. In fact, the way “Kuroi Kage” layers up from a theatrical doom metal inspired piece all the way up a rapacious black metal expression of extremity is extremely impressive, not to mention that once it reaches its pinnacle of intensity, “Shiki” descends back down the path it built up along with a few instrumental additions (a synth and a pair of traditional drums) in equally satisfying fashion. Equal parts progressive romp and extreme metal stomp, “Kuroi Kage” is exactly the kind of contemporary and poised introduction an album like “Shiki” needs in order to get you excited for what’s to come further into the album, and it additionally serves as the perfect expression of Sigh’s intentions for the album as a whole.
With an altogether more energetic and thrashy style, “Shoujahitsoumetsu” represents a less refined and frankly brutal edge to Sigh’s sound. This is a straight up black metal track, but with excellent traditional Japanese chord progressions and a vaguely Dragonforce inspired guitar solo that must’ve been incredibly hard to get a nailed on and perfect as it is here. It’s ironic that when contrasted with “Kuroi Kage” “Shoujahitsoumetsu” is far simpler but equally as engaging, with it’s frenetic and explosive percussion being paired with catastrophically desperate screams and wails, “Shoujahitsoumetsu” sounds like a Ronin’s lost soul being ripped from his body before he had a chance to reclaim his honor, pleading and thrashing against inevitability and a shame that can never be erased.
This stunningly stark contrast is the genesis of what makes “Shiki” and Sigh themselves great. So many bands swap between styles with aplomb, but few do it in such a fantastically expressive and distinctive way. When trying to meld genres, it often feels like bands fall into a trap of making this melding the key focus of their compositions, like they set out before hand to mix the genres together in a very intentional and telegraphed way. This is all well and good, but it leaves the music hollow and a mixture of the most generic and stereotypical aspects of each genre they pull from, as opposed to feeling like an organic combination of a variety of approaches that stems from a deep intellectual appreciation of those genres. Sigh manage this perfectly here, the first two tracks pull from a massive base of sounds and styles and yet they feel so vivid and raw, they feel so intentionally combined and artistically refined that they blend into this wonderful and earnest mezzo of sonic bites.
With its razor edged guitars that evoke images of a clouded Mt.Fuji in a storm, standing ardently in the view of a lost explorer, the plodding initial throws of “Shikabane” lull you into a false sense of what the track is about, such relative peace is brought to an abrupt end with another 1st wave of black metal reflecting burst of unbridled intensity that once again is perfected by a fantastic vocal delivery. As addictive as this segment of “Shikabane” is defined in its extraversion by a somewhat ghostly electronic segment that whilst perhaps is slightly clichéd, provides this overarching sense of evolution that is so fundamental to the sonic core of “Shiki.” I think it really says something that even when adding a passage that in and of itself is perhaps below the giddily high standards of other parts of the album, that it still manages to contribute to overall enjoyability of the track.
Continuing the run of fantastic songs is the head-bang inducing “Satsui _ Geshi No Ato” which doubles as one of the singles released by Sigh. Raspy grows, rich operatic passages, yet another amazing solo and a vaguely hardcore punk edged set of riffs that are met with much brighter guitar led traditional Japanese flairs all make “Satsui _ Geshi No Ato’s” initial passages. Nothing though will prepare you for the second half of the song which is a… hip-hop instrument. I have no idea how Sigh made it work, but somehow the transition into a Lo-Fi hip-hop beat is a work of genius, and spectacularly weird. Clearly there are no sacred cows in regards to what Sigh are willing to blend into their core. What we have here is the deep-fried mars bar of Sigh‘s discography. On paper it’s a horrible idea, an exercise in excess, but just you wait and see, it’ll find its fans, and in the particular case, I am one of them.
The Japanese influences on “Shiki” are fairly visible when you consider that outside of the percussion, they’re pretty restrained in terms of instrumental variety in most songs. Instead, the Japanese influences are in the scales used, the chord progressions, the structuring and of course in the prominent display of the Japanese language, which that album is in entirely. Ultimately, as much as I do love traditional Japanese instrumentation, I feel I would take the implementation of the traditional elements as it is done here over one that perhaps compromised intensity and felt energy in order to shoehorn in instruments that don’t really lend themselves to the style of music being played. Sometimes, progressive bands fail to reel in their wish to create something that pulls in the largest base of instrumentation possible and as a result, things can end up feeling forced and the vision for the album can end up being compromised to accommodate this. Maturely, and as you would expect for a band of Sigh’s vintage, they’ve avoided this pitfall and have wisely chosen to re-contextualize their influences with a western black metal flair as opposed to the opposite way round.
Next up is “Fuyu Ga Kuru,” which perhaps is closest to “Shoujahitsoumetsu” in sound when contrasted against the other songs of the album. In the early phases of the song, there’s mysterious and minimalist sections that are then immediately met but raw as it comes black metal sections that repeat over and over until eventually the black metal takes over and is allowed to run. Eventually, this collapses into a folky and calm segment which is surprisingly serene and makes ample use of traditional instrumentation, perhaps more than anywhere else in the album, before ramping up into a fascinating Iron Maiden-esque cacophony of galloping drumbeats and breakneck fast riffage, with a notable jaunty quality. This all eventually culminate in a repetition of the earlier black metal segments and a synth led, jazzy final minute. “Fuyu Ga Kuru” is another excellent example of just how well the song evolution is handled on “Shiki,” it’s simply gorgeous, a marvel to behold, more band need to be looking at how it’s done here and implementing these ideas themselves because I would struggle to think of a track I have heard in 2022 (or all of the 20s thus far) that ebbs and flows so fantastically.
Carrying over from “Fuyu Ga Kuru” with a really intriguing transition is the hard charging and exhilarating “Shouku.” The Celtic Frost influence is palpable in here, with the ultra-thrashy and brutal riffage being compounded by a razor sharp guitar tone. There’s not really any fancy song evolution here that I’ve raved about in the other songs of the album but in a way it’s refreshing to have a relatively straight forward, unapologetically crushing and distinctly harsh song as it stops the songs further into the album from feeling too closely related to one another. It’s always important to keep and album fresh, and even if “Shouku” is compositionally unremarkable in any sense wider than it’s relative lack of complexity to other songs on the album, it is a refreshingly gleaming edge on an otherwise rather ornate sword.
Approaching the end of the album, it’s clear that “Shiki” does a fairly rare thing in the extreme metal world, it stops just being about listening itself, and it becomes about the process of listening. The flow, the changes, the grasp of dynamics and the wonder timbre of the instrumentation, the record says more in its propensity to be analyzed as an example of why we listen to music, why we like what we like, what makes music stand out? Plug this album into a hedonistic calculus and you’ll find that this sort of higher order joy is edifying to one’s mind and provides the sort of listening joy that extends well into the tens of listens and will have you approaching the listening experience from a different angle every time.
There’s not an awful lot to say about the interlude “Kuroi Kagami” other than that it’s pleasant and jazzy, but it’s not particularly exciting. I can’t say I am a fan of the trend of throwing intros, interludes and outros into everything all of the time, I’d rather remain stuck in the meat of things, but, that’s the current fashion and no doubt others will enjoy “Kuroi Kagami” for entirely justifiable reasons.
Restarting the action is “Mayonaka No Kaii” with a classic prog-rock sound that fills the first minute of the tracks run time, it’s rather pretty and well-handled reminding me of a Japanese Pink Floyd (Nick Mason-san, eat your heart out.) Even the main chorus of the track despite being louder and harsher than the introductory phase is relatively sedate but is just about harsh enough to not feel at odds with the general sound that has been developed up to this point in the album. An ethereal aura surrounds “Mayonaka No Kaii” which is equal parts intriguing and stunningly beautiful and provides further contrast in an album already full with them.
Last, but not least is “10 Touji No Asa” which carries on the beauty of “Mayonaka No Kaii” with an absolutely stunning Japanese folk continuation of the spirit of the previous song. So tranquil, so delicately balanced and so immerse, you can imagine hearing such a track in any peace garden, any otherworldly forest or at a Shinto shrine. I cannot think of a more wonderfully conclusive way to end “Shiki” even if it is far removed from almost anything else that came before it.
“Shiki” sits joint first at the top of my AOTY 2022, I do not often find albums as immediately transfixing, arresting and breathtakingly diverse as it, nor have I often found myself so keen to write about an album and share my love for it with others. I would not only wholeheartedly recommend giving “Shiki” a listen to anyone who has even the most remote interest in extreme metal, prog-rock or Japan, but I’d also strongly recommend it to those who don’t. Sigh have perfectly encapsulated the dualistic spirit of Japan in “Shiki” and a finer testament to their home nation they could not have hoped to make.
Released By: Peaceville Records
Release Date: August 26th, 2022
Genre(s): Progressive Black Metal/Extreme Metal
- Mirai Kawashima / Vocals, Flute, Keyboards
- Satoshi Fujinama / Bass, Percussion
- Junichi Harashima / Drums
- Mikannibal / Vocals, Saxophone
- Nozuma Wakai / Guitars
- Kuroi Inori
- Kuroi Kage
- Satsui _ Geshi No Ato
- Fuyu Ga Kuru
- Kuroi Kagame
- Mayonaka No Kaii
- Touji No Asa
Contrasting in spirit,
Black clouds of tender cotton,
Such joy, audible.