Posts Tagged ‘ extreme progressive metal ’

Interview: The Asian taste of Sigh


Eccentric is probably the best word to describe Sigh. Their sound is anchored in extreme metal – black metal particularly – but is rife with influences from other genres. Progressive and psychedelic rock, classical music, jazz, electronic music… All of these are elements that have been appearing in their experimental music since the mid-nineties. “Black metal encompasses almost every musical genre“, says singer, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Mirai Kawashima. “All kinds of bands from Blasphemy to Alcest and Deafheaven are often categorized as black metal. Black metal is so non-limiting that it does not describe any musical style at all. Also, obviously, what we play is not thrash or death metal, so we stick to the black metal tag.

November 16th sees the release of Sigh’s twelfth album ‘Heir To Despair’. On it, the extreme metal has almost been put on the background in favor of distinct influences from progressive rock and East-Asian folk. “The seventies prog vibe has always been there, say since ‘Gastly Funeral Theater’ (1997)”, says Kawashima. “I love crazy prog stuff from the seventies and I am a vintage keyboard collector. Also this time, I tried some flute, which must give a more prog feel to the album. Actually, ‘Graveward’ (2015) was supposed to be a very prog album, but during the recording, I got into more orchestral stuff and the direction of the album drastically changed.

As for the Asian feel, I’ve been experimenting a lot with the traditional Japanese way of singing and wanted to incorporate that into Sigh’s music. And this time, most of the lyrics are in Japanese. I can sing much better in Japanese, as I do not have to care about the accurate pronunciation, unlike when I have to sing in English. Also, I thought the Japanese lyrics could give a different atmosphere to the songs. And to be honest, not much is left for me to say in English after ten albums…

Expectation

When Kawashima announced the release of ‘Heir To Despair’ on social media, he said that everyone would hate the album. Allegedly, no one who heard it liked it. Have the reactions been a little better in the meantime? “So far only ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ has been published“, Kawashima explains. “And actually, it’s got a lot of positive reactions. However, the song does not represent the album in any way. The feature of ‘Heir To Despair’ is an Asian taste and the use of flute. ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ does not sound Asian and does not feature the flute. People liking ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ means there’s a bigger possibility that they are going to hate the album.

Not that Kawashima cares: “Especially right after the album release, the audience reaction is rather misleading. When ‘Imaginary Sonicscape’ (2001) came out, more than half of the reviews were more than bad. People were thinking that we were a black metal band and the album did not sound black at all, so they were confused. But seventeen years have passed since then and ‘Imaginare Sonicscape’ must be one of the most popular Sigh albums. When people listen to an album for the first time, they just listen to the gap between their expectation and the actual music.

Objective

‘Heir To Despair’ has a remarkably clean, almost polished sound. The contrast with the raw production of ‘Graveward’ could hardly be greater. This is not the first time that there is such a sizeable difference between the sonic approach of two consecutive Sigh albums. “I believe it pretty much depends on the direction or the theme of the album“, Kawashima explains. “The theme of ‘Scenes From Hell’ is hell, so we wanted a hellish production. The production of ‘Heir To Despair’ was kind of an experiment. ‘Graveward’ was engineered by our own guitarist, which I must say was a big failure. I’m not saying he was a bad engineer or anything, but he was too biased. Obviously he wanted his guitar to be heard more than anything and he knew too much about the songs, which excluded objectivity.

In order to maintain that objectivity, I left it up to our Canadian engineer Phil Anderson this time. Of course I wanted some of my playing or vocals to be more audible, but I didn’t say anything about it, as it was an experiment of objectivity. I guess it worked very well.

Insanity

A thematic approach is Kawashima’s modus operandi anyway: “The concept of this album is about insanity. I’ve been wondering what insanity is these days. Of course, there are some real mad people of whom everyone can tell that they’re mad, but insanity is not always that distinctive. It’s just a matter of where to draw the line between sanity and insanity and it is one hundred percent arbitrary. When you are insane, you cannot tell that you are. I don’t think I am insane. I think that what I am saying in this interview makes perfect sense, but there is no way to assure that. Completely insane people probably think they’re talking completely logical.

The artwork by Eliran Kantor perfectly describes what I wanted to express with the music. The woman looks happy, but everything else on the artwork is wrong. The plant is dead and the room is a mess. As I said, insanity is not always very distinctive. Some people look very normal while having a deep darkness inside their mind. And that is the real horror.

Spontaneous

Since Sigh commenced activity in the late eighties, the band has been centered around Kawahima. More often than not, these kinds of line-ups tend to be highly unstable, but Sigh always maintained a relatively constant line-up. Save for the arrival of guitarist You Oshima in 2014, the band has not had any line-up changes for over a decade. “I’m sure there should be better players“, says Kawashima. “But what makes them peculiar is that they are all crazy in some way, which works good for Sigh maybe. They are all really hard people to work or communicate with. It’s truly frustrating that I have to deal with them, but maybe that is proof that they are artistically unique. At least I hope so.

Yet, it is Kawashima who is pulling the strings. “I write most of the songs and all the lyrics“, he explains. “As for ‘Heir To Despair’, half of ‘In Memories Delusional’ was written by our guitarist You Oshima and I left all the guitar solos up to him, but I can say that’s the only compositional input from the other band members.

My method of composing varies. Sometimes I compose playing piano. Sometimes I just come up with the ideas walking down the street. I usually keep collecting those bits and pieces and assemble them into a song on MIDI. Then I keep listening to the demoes and change or rearrange them until I am a hundred percent satisfied with it. Then I pass it on to the other members. The songs on ‘Heir To Despair’ were composed very spontaneously compared to the past ones. I usually use a lot of musical theories to arrange the songs, but this time I did not think about theories that much. I just kept writing without thinking that much.

Success

Compared to many other Japanese bands, Sigh has a reasonable degree of succes worldwide. “It’s just a matter of how you define success“, Kawashima nuances. “I personally do not think Sigh succeeded at anything. Anyway, I just thank Euronymous (guitarist of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, who was murdered in 1993). When we were hunting for a label around 1992, he was the only one who showed interest in us. I am not even exaggerating anything. I sent the demo to every label in the world and nobody but Euronymous wanted to sign us. So without him, Sigh probably would have ended up a demo band. He liked us, then the black metal boom happened. Nobody or nothing else got us that.

Since being signed to Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions, Sigh has been performing all over the world, albeit not that frequently. Not even in Japan. Yet, Kawashima notices a difference in preferences: “Here in Japan, our most popular album is obviously ‘Hangman’s Hymn’ (2007), so when we play here, we play more songs off this album. In Europe and the US, I believe they want to hear earlier, more black metal stuff, so when we play abroad, we play a lot from ‘Scorn Defeat’ (1993). In the coming weeks, we will play some shows with Dimmu Borgir, Gorgoroth, Samael and Sinsaenum and we will play only songs from after 2007 and almost all the songs are fast. That’s what the Japanese audience wants.

Advertisements

Album of the Week 45-2018: Sigh – Heir To Despair


While Sigh started out as one of Japan’s first extreme metal bands, they have become one of the country’s most unpredictable bands. Though black metal is never completely gone, their highly experimental albums can contain anything from jazzy breaks to film noir soundtrack interludes and electronic beats. In a way, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the more accessible albums the band has released so far, but they once again follow a completely different direction than ever before. As long as you don’t expect a symphonic black metal record, the oriental melodies and traditional heavy metal riffs may enchant you.

A brief genre description for the music on ‘Heir To Despair’ is as difficult as ever, but progressive East-Asian folk metal covers most of the bases. The inclusion of main man Mirai Kawashima’s flute gives certain sections a distinct seventies prog feel, while the shamisen of guest musician Kevin Kmetz – along with the general atmosphere of the melodies – gives the album what is arguably the most oriental vibe ever to be heard on a Sigh record. And yet, the eighties metal feel of the guitar riffs is also there. It is a mix of influences that is as unlikely as it is successful.

Some people may be surprised by the relatively large amount of clean singing on the record. In addition to employing several traditional Asian vocal techniques such as throat singing, Kawashima has put down a handful of excellent, haunting vocal harmonies. The brilliant midtempo opener ‘Aletheia’ is full of them, for instance. A daring opener, as it does not ease the listener into the album’s sound, but drops the new sound on them immediately. ‘In Memories Delusional’ balances more traditional heavy metal sounds with more folky touches and strong hamonies and may be an excellent starter if you have not heard the excellent thrashy metal of ‘Homo Hominis Lupus’ yet.

Elsewhere, the album can get a little weird. The electronic rhythms of the ‘Heresy’-trilogy can have a dubby feel due to the use of reverb, while most of the band’s influences are crammed into the three tracks. That is just a short detour though, since as a whole, ‘Heir To Despair’ is one of the most consistent Sigh albums both stylistically and in terms of quality. The album ends with two exceptional extreme progressive metal tracks that are filled with excellent ideas and sudden shifts in atmosphere. A very climactic ending to an album that isn’t exactly short on interesting musical ideas anyway.

The most remarkable thing about this, however, is how Sigh managed to streamline all of those ideas. Sure, the trilogy is an obvious departure in terms of overall sound, but ‘Heir To Despair’ has a very pleasant flow for an album with such a wide range of influences. Sure, the pristine production helps, but in the end, it is a triumph for Kawashima in terms of songwriting and arrangements. This is a must for fans of adventurous metal, but even progressive rock fans who don’t mind a bit of extra grit could find something of their liking here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Aletheia’, ‘Hands Of The String Puller’, ‘In Memories Delusional’

Album of the Week 42-2018: Warrel Dane – Shadow Work


‘Shadow Work’ is a bittersweet affair. While it is good to have a new album with Warrel Dane’s vocals, he died during the recordings of the album in São Paulo, making this the last time we are treated to new material by Dane, who I consider one of the best metal singers of all time. One thing his fans can rejoice about is the fact that his unexpected farewell album is incredible. It is a dark, twisted record that should please all fans of Nevermore and Sanctuary, save for maybe those who only enjoyed the earliest work of the latter.

Dane’s solo debut ‘Praises To The War Machine’, released ten years ago, sort of felt like “Nevermore light”. While it sounded similar to his main band, it had a simpler, more open sound, with the virtuosic technicality of his main band reduced to a minimum. By contrast, ‘Shadow Work’ is heavy as it gets with some impressive playing by Dane’s Brazilian backing bang. Guitarists Johnny Moraes and Thiago Oliveira must be fans of Jeff Loomis or at least must have studied his work closely. Their heavy riff work and melodic ornamentation certainly would not sound out of place in Nevermore.

Where ‘Shadow Work’ does distinguish itself is its atmosphere. The intense ‘Madame Satan’ and the nearly extreme metal of the intro to ‘The Hanging Garden’ are quite possibly the darkest stuff Dane ever worked on. The guitar work manages to be vicious and atmospheric at the same time, the compositions take a few unexpected turns and Dane’s emotional vocals give this stuff a melodic dignity that many progressive death metal bands can only dream of. ‘Disconnection System’ sounds closest to Nevermore (and even recycles a bit of the lyrics of ‘The Politics Of Ecstacy’) and would therefore be the best track here to sample before diving into the album.

Metal was never Dane’s only ace in the hole though. Much of his increasingly equipped lower register has a strong gothic quality to it, which fits the ethnic sounds of the overture ‘Ethereal Blessing’ perfectly. The closing epic ‘Mother Is The Word For God’ features him snarling, bellowing, begging and whispering into your soul, truly enhancing the constantly shifting moods of the song. The track has echoes of Nevermore’s ‘This Godless Endeavor’, without sounding like a copy. The arena rock vibe of ‘As Fast As The Others’ and the ballad ‘Rain’ are slightly more accessible, but no less gloomy.

It would be tempting to call ‘Shadow Work’ unfinished. It was supposed to be an eighty minute record (instead of slightly over forty) and I’m sure Dane would have polished up a few vocal lines had he lived long enough to do so, but complaining about that would be missing the point entirely. Dane’s band deserves all the praise they can get finishing these recordings as well as they did and the singer’s emotional, dramatic delivery is exactly what makes ‘Shadow Work’ the goosebumps-inducing experience it is. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges sometimes, but that doesn’t deter from the fact that this is easily the best album with Warrel Dane singing in thirteen years.

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Satan’, ‘Shadow Work’, ‘Mother Is The Word For God’

Album of the Week 27-2018: Obscura – Cosmogenesis


With the increasing popularity of nerd culture, it is not too surprising that there has been a veritable boom of technical and progressive death metal bands a couple of years ago. Very few managed to impress me as much as Obscura did, however, as the German quartet seems to forego pointless displays of virtuosity and aim at an immersive atmosphere and a strong sense of melodicism instead. In that regard, ‘Cosmogenesis’ was a breath of fresh air when it was released nine years ago. And though they have consistently released great music since, it is still stands as their best work.

Obscura’s music contains a lot of the elements that made Death such an amazing band a decade and a half earlier, but without deliberately trying to copy Chuck Schuldiner’s work. Sure, frontman Steffen Kummerer has repeatedly admitted to “totally ripping off Death” with ‘Incarnated’, but connaisseurs would never mistake Obscura for Death. The latter obviously laid the groundwork for this type of unpredictable, technically challenging extreme metal with fretless bass work, but the uptempo, insistent twin riffs are a characteristic that is quite unique to Obscura and Death never sounded this spacey. The conceptual focus on German philosophers creates this unique universe as well.

Another thing that makes Obscura favorable to most other bands in their genre is that they understand the concept of dynamics. Hannes Grossmann is technically capable of spending the entire album sounding like he’s falling down the stairs with admirable rhythmic precision, but instead he chooses his moments wisely and lets the music breathe when it has do. ‘Desolate Spheres’, for instance, is a dense song, but suddenly calms down during Christian Münzner’s fusion-esque solo to prepare for the final burst. The instrumental ‘Orbital Elements’ also makes excellent use of strategically placed, more subdued passages.

However, Obscura’s main asset is that they can combine intensity, brutality and technicality without sacrificing even the slightest bit of any of those. Opening track and audience favorite ‘The Anticosmic Overload’ is virtuosic, yet vicious, while there is more happening melodically than on an entire album of most of their peers. ‘Nospheres’ has some of the most violent riffing on the album, but also an incredible middle section with Kummerer and Münzner at their harmonic best, while closer ‘Centric Flow’ has an incredible finale that could just as easily have been on a classic eighties heavy metal record. ‘Incarnated’ could have been on a progressive power metal record, had it not been for Kummerer’s aggressive barks.

Though I often claim that I hate technical death metal, I would not be as averse to the genre as a whole if more bands had an approach similar to Obscura’s. For Obscura, their compositions are not a vehicle for their virtuosity. Rather, virtuosity is a means to increase the power of their songs when needed. The Germans – at the time with a Dutch bassist – are just as comfortable just letting the inherent aggression of their music take the lead. And isn’t that the characteristic that made metal so appealing in the first place?

Recommended tracks: ‘Incarnated’, ‘Centric Flow’, ‘Universe Momentum’

Album of the Week 24-2018: Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy


Two years ago, Alkaloid thoroughly impressed me with their highly creative debut album ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. Despite the band members’ association with high profile metal bands – Obscura most prominently – it transcended the supergroup burden by coming up with a highly progressive, almost avant-garde extreme metal that forsakes most of the exhausting hyperactivity of most contemporary technical death metal bands and aims for atmosphere and maximum impact instead. Fortunately, Alkaloid found time in its busy schedule to record a second album and it manages to amplify all the best aspects of ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’ beyond what yours truly had expected at this point.

In a way, ‘Liquid Anatomy’ is slightly less extreme than ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. There are still plenty of hyperspeed death metal passages to be heard and Florian Magnus Maier still throws his hateful growl around like there’s no tomorrow, but the focus seems to have slightly shifted towards the progressive side of the band rather than brutal force. Overall, Maier does more clean vocals here, which really enhances the immersive atmosphere of the material. Pink Floyd and Cynic appear to be the most prominent influences in that matter, but not as spacey as the former and much more organic and effective than the latter.

One would have to look no further than opening track ‘Kernel Panic’, which appears to mirror the first half of previous opener ‘Carbon Phrases’ stylistically with its gorgeously layered clean guitar lines and vocal harmonies punctured by blunt moments of aggression. Hannes Grossmann’s interestingly timed rhythms and and the guitar solos by both Christian Münzner and Danny Tunker are incredible. Anyone expecting pure death metal may be discouraged by the opener, but it is a brave opener that emphasizes the unique nature of the band. Those desiring a heavier approach will still be satisfied by ‘As Decreed By Laws Unwritten’ and parts of ‘Chaos Theory And Pratice’.

Personally, I strongly prefer the more experimental approach though. ‘Azagthoth’ profits from somewhat exotic rhythms, crazy lead guitar work and a perfect balance between pounding heaviness and sophisticated subtlety, while the acoustic-based title track is a beautiful extreme progmetal ballad, as unlikely as that sounds. The guitar arrangements of ‘In Turmoil’s Swirling Reaches’ are downright brilliant, but most attention will probably go out to the 20 minute beast that is ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’. It is a highly dynamic track that takes the listener through all the extremes of Alkaloid’s sound, from the cleanest, calmest acoustic sections to some of the most thrashing death metal on the record.

My only minor complaint would be the production, which feels a little less dynamic than last time around and really does not benefit the amazing bass playing of Linus Klausenitzer. Sometimes you’d even have trouble hearing him if you pay close attention and that makes the record slightly less immersive sonically than its predecessor. The song material is a definite step up from what was already a high quality debut, however. As such, Alkaloid has not only outdone itself, but also proven that the band is so much more than just a new project with a prominent “ex-Obscura” label. Highly recommended for fans of progressive music of all sorts.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kernel Panic’, ‘Liquid Anatomy’, ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’

Advertisements