“The Transfiguration Fear Lucid Nightmares”
Formed in Tokyo in 1990, Sigh isn’t like most extreme metal bands. To the uninitiated: imagine a mad scientist who has left traditional morality behind in his quest for discovery. Imagine Mr. Bungle, doubled down on metal brutality. Imagine John Zorn as a founding member of Iron Maiden. Imagine that someone left Scandinavian-style metal out on the counter overnight and that strange, hypnotic, polychromatic molds have started to grow on it. You still haven’t quite imagined the unique strangeness of Sigh, but you’re getting there.
Singer, songwriter, keyboardist, and front-man Mirai Kawashima’s Sigh has spent the past two decades producing black metal truly outside the norm, stirring genres such as classical, disco, electronica, riff-driven ’70s British metal, and film scores into the mix. To him, blending styles is unavoidable.
“It’s not our purpose at all, but a mere result,” Kawashima says. “We always choose the best style to describe our views musically. Sometimes it’s distorted guitars while other times it’s sitar. Heavy guitars can do something that classical string quartets can’t, and vice versa.”
The band’s landmark 2001 record Imaginary Sonicscape took the listener on a bizarre ride through metal’s strangest back alleys, with choirs of laughing babies and interludes reminiscent of game-show themes working themselves in. In 2010, Scenes from Hell delivered epic, symphonic metal while adding Dr. Mikannibal, a scantily clad saxophonist, to the band’s lineup. And Sigh’s latest, In Somniphobia, follows a storied history of risk-taking, boundary-ignoring metal — but still finds ways to surprise.
Over its career, Sigh’s production quality has had its peaks and lulls, but this self-produced album, recorded almost entirely at Kawashima’s home studio, finds the group at the top of its game production-wise. Guitars squeal and crunch crisply, and the drums have the weight they deserve. In Somniphobia opens with a pair of self-described “very heavy metal” tracks — they’re loud, fast, and brutal, as one would expect from a band so influenced by classic European black metal. But Sigh can’t help but add organs, saxophone, keyboards, and a whistled melody that sounds like it was ripped from a lost Sergio Leone film. Even listeners who aren’t used to the harsh guitars and vocals of metal can find melody to latch onto, and Kawashima is no stranger to crafting a catchy tune, with composing credits on everything from TV shows to videogames.
The meat of the album comes in the middle, with a suite of gleefully creative compositions based on Kawashima’s recurring lucid nightmares. “I often have nightmares in which I realize I am dreaming,” he says. “I love movies that blur the border between reality and dreams, or life and death. This time, I wanted to musically describe this.”
The resultant songs are decidedly unsettling in their strangeness. Growled vocals, thundering drums, and Shinichi Ishikawa’s ever-melodic riffs envelop the eclectic interludes and genre exercises that are sprinkled throughout. Dr. Mikannibal’s presence is a near-anomaly in itself, and her inclusion opens Sigh to avenues that other bands simply can’t replicate. For proof, check “Amnesia,” eight minutes smack in the middle of the record that bursts with twinkling piano, soulful sax, and a bluesy guitar solo that dances and flits like a candle flame. Sigh here sounds like the house band at the classiest jazz club in hell, ever willing to unleash a blast of metal discord in case the listener forgets what kind of record he or she is hearing.
Even more baffling: not a single other track on In Somniphobia sounds like this. From the classic thrash of “Fall to the Thrall,” to the strings and harpsichord on the three-part closer “Equale,” to the squealing synthesizers that kick off “Somniphobia,” almost every song on the record stands alone in its style. In Somniphobia doesn’t suffer from a case of split personality, though. Despite all the detours, Sigh plays metal, and when its instrumentation doesn’t fit the genre, the tone remains aggressive, foreboding, and frightening. If ever it seems that metal is stale or formula-driven, In Somniphobia shows that some bands aren’t afraid to push it outside its comfort zone. Kawashima has been doing this for longer than many metal aficionados’ lifetimes, and he shows no signs of slowing.
“When I play or listen to metal,” he says, “I still feel like I’m 18.”