I recently came across a Youtube video that helped me to articulate why it is that, ten years after its release, Metal Gear Solid 3 is still one of my favourite videogames ever, not just because it’s fun to play but because of its story and how it’s told. In it, the host explains how the game is a great example of camp entertainment, which earnestly attempts to convey an emotionally complex narrative and provoke thought about political questions, but also embraces the conventions of cheesy 60s spy flicks, and pits you against a man who shoots bees out of his mouth. It avoids the sometimes po-faced air of its predecessors, but the realistic and the ridiculous aspects are both presented equally straight-faced. We go in expecting mindless fun, and we get that in spades, but the game’s emotional moments are also more affecting because of the contrast with its sillier moments, and especially because the latter are treated with the same care, attention and seriousness as the former, not just tossed off as little “aren’t we clever” jokes.
What does all this have to do with veteran avant-garde metallers Sigh, then? Just like MGS3, the band’s music works as camp entertainment that is still genuinely enjoyable. They’re not deliberately trying to make you laugh with their over-the-top symphonic arrangements, or think “what the fuck is this?” when they take a bizarre detour into some unexpected genre, but for all their technical skill and conviction, their latest album Graveward does all of those things. Like other great metal bands, though, the camp factor is not a drawback, but a virtue. Whether you can take it seriously or not, the album sweeps you along for a ride that combines all the extremity of death and black metal with a strong melodic centre*. For all the occasionally comical vocal deliveries, its thematic obsession with death and the terror it inspires draws the listener in to actually listen to the lyrics and consider what they mean. For someone like me, who generally focuses more on metal’s wicked sick riffs than its often unintelligible vocals, that’s no mean feat. I would argue that, similarly to MGS3, Sigh use camp not to make audiences laugh, but to disarm their expectations about what heavy metal is and should sound like, so that the emotional and thematic content they want to convey has more of an impact.
Of course, labelling this music “camp” carries the implication of incompetence on some level, which is neither fair nor accurate. Sigh have always been tremendously skilled musicians, and ringleader Mirai Kawashima in particular has a gift for composition that few in extreme metal can match. I normally can’t stand power metal or the symphonic end of black metal at all, and yet when Sigh fold these influences into their sound it’s somehow irresistible. It’s not that the band make these touchstones sound less cheesy or ridiculous- they still are those things, they’re just welded to such strong melodies that they sound exuberant rather than pompous or laboured. Across the album Kawashima crafts songs that take you on a journey from dizzying symphonic highs to quiet, contemplative lows, the latter giving you space to breathe and prepare for the next burst of activity. The bridge halfway through the title track is a great example, building up from soft, spooky synths and somehow making subtle use of double-bass drumming before guitars come in to drag us back into the fray.
Speaking of guitars, special mention should be made of recent recruit You Oshima. Any wariness fans might have felt about some upstart replacing founding guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa has thankfully been proven unnecessary; Oshima fits perfectly into the Sigh milieu. From the very start of opener “Kaedit Non Pestis”, his shredding ability is on full display, and he proves equally adept at the melodic leads and chunky riffs littering every track, branching out beyond archetypal metal guitar sounds with a variety of tones to keep things fresh. More important than mere ability, however, is that he plays like he’s on a Sigh album, serving the needs of the song as opposed to just showing off. It’ll be interesting to see how his role in the band develops on future albums, but he’s definitely off to an assured start here.
Regardless of the band’s enviable pool of talent, Sigh has always been Mirai Kawashima’s baby: like any good bandleader, he knows how to make best use of his players, but the group’s vision is unquestionably his own. And what a gloomy vision it is. Sigh albums have long been fixated on death, but beginning with its title, Graveward seems especially so. If metal subgenres were defined by lyrical focus rather than increasingly rigid sonic identifiers, his work would be death metal through and through, and far more evocative of the terror of dying than a thousand gore-obsessed tryhards. Which is not to suggest that he treats the subject with more subtlety than others. “The Forlorn” is an especially morbid tale, with the narrator’s increasingly panicked proclamations that “I am not dead” attempting to deny an obvious truth as much as convince those around him. The track’s howls, wails and sobs are only the hammiest of many hammy vocal deliveries, and yet this camp treatment of the subject is, again, more affecting than death metal clichés of zombies, dismemberment or full-scale armageddon. The theatrics might suggest that we’re in parody territory, but this first-person horror is delivered without irony, no wink to the audience; the juxtaposition of seriousness and silliness is what makes it work so well. And while it might be Kawashima’s show, he’s not the only voice on display. Across the album, he’s offset by an increased use of vocalist/saxophonist Dr Mikannibal’s quasi-operatic singing, handling the high notes while he growls away. Her delivery might be something of an acquired taste, but it certainly fits the orchestral surroundings, and helps contrast Kawashima’s somewhat more typically metal vocals.
In terms of pacing, the album is a noticeable improvement on 2012’s In Somniphobia. That album featured a couple of the most concise and exciting songs of the band’s entire career, but was somewhat dragged down by a seven-song suite that, for all its strengths, got somewhat exhausting by the end of its 40-plus minutes. Graveward is lean by comparison, with most songs staying just over or under five minutes and only one exceeding seven. The sprawl is reduced, but not the scope- there’s still a lot going on in those shorter running times, with the same amount of bombast and excess as Somniphobia compressed into a more immediate form. Rather than stacking fast-paced thrashers one after the other, the pacing is more deliberate, with slower, moodier pieces and transitions to let us catch our breath before something like “Out of the Grave” takes it away again. The aforementioned breathing space in each song is represented on a macro as well as a micro level; the flow from song to song is reflected within the songs themselves. (The only real pacing issue, and the only place Graveward fails compared to its predecessor is the abrupt ending to final track “Dwellers in Dreams”, which closes the affair not with a bang or a whimper, but a confused “huh?”)
Every review of Graveward I’ve seen has commented on its idiosyncratic production, and it seems important to do so here as well, since it does have the potential to affect your enjoyment quite a lot depending on how much it distracts you. There’s more dynamic range on display than a metal listener might be used to when the current emphasis seems to be on making everything as loud as possible. That seems like it should be a good thing, but at times it sounds as though the volume levels on different instruments are being mixed more or less at random, and the many, many layers of synths sometimes threaten to drown out everything else. There’a a wealth of musical riches to be found here, but they might not be evident on the first, second or third listen while you acclimatise yourself to the aural landscape.
If you’re not already a fan of the band’s funhouse-mirror version of extreme metal, Graveward is not going to be the album to change your mind, particularly if the production puts you off. For those of us strangely drawn to the camp, theatrical musical world they create though, all of that is what makes them so compelling. For better or worse, no one else sounds like Sigh.
Graveward is out now on Candlelight Records. Watch the video for “Out of the Grave” below.
* After struggling for a while to come up with an appropriate description for Sigh’s particular microgenre, I’ve ending up settling on “videogame metal”. Since bringing more and more outre elements into their original, traditionally black metal sound with every album, they now recall nothing more than the soundtrack to a Final Fantasy game from an alternate universe where that series hasn’t descended into self-parody.