Genre Funeral Theatre
Heavy metal is about a lot of things. I guess you can try to bang out a list of restrictive musical requirements, but in the lyrics department, heavy metal music on the topic of, I don’t know, tax preparation is still heavy metal. But boy, there sure is a whole lot of it about death, right? (If I wanted to really get going, I might argue that all artistic endeavor is, if not about death, then at least in relation to death, inasmuch as it’s an attempt to create some permanence that might outlast the fraction of a sneeze in the life of the universe that is our physical life.)
But here’s the thing: so much of heavy metal is about death that a lot of it isn’t really about death, is it? Just like palm muting or dual guitar harmonies or double-bass drumming or any other musical convention, writing songs about death is… a trope. So when an album like Sigh’s Shiki (hi hello how are you this is what we are here for) strolls along that, surprise!, is about death, why should it register any more than the latest goregrinding absurdity from Tiny Maggots Nibbling On The Corpses Of Slightly Larger Maggots?
The reason it should – and does – register at a deeper level is that, apart from Sigh’s mainman Mirai Kawashima’s plainspoken statement (in this excellent interview and feature at Bandcamp) that Shiki is about “my honest, naked feeling about my fear of death,” the music on this beautiful, strident, expressive album does just as much to summon the specter of existential uncertainty as did Black Sabbath’s foundational “figure in black which points at me.”
Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the [Sigh]
“I have no fear of death / The ravens are waiting for my final breath”
– From “The Last Elegy,” Infidel Art (1995)
The album’s proper opener “Kuroi Kage” begins with a slow, snarling doom riff that sets the stage with a guitar tone like both rubber and sandpaper. Mirai’s vocals throughout the song are particularly scathing, but rather than putting on some demonic affectation, they sound like they are being coaxed from a place of powerful vulnerability. It’s easy to think of the heavy, unrelenting plod of that main riff as the steps of Death, pacing ever closer. (The song title translates to “Black Shadow,” if Google is to be believed.) The song rides that riff out on a satisfying conclusion, backed by myriad synthesizers, bongos, and other instrumental textures, but the riff cannot be shaken or talked down.
“You can never know your final moment, /
But worse, you can never avoid it. /
We all are born just to perish – /
To lose all that we truly cherish.”
– From “Invitation to Die,” Hail Horror Hail (1997)
Although the words to “Invitation to Die” (written 25 years ago) seem like a reckoning with the same themes Kawashima is working through on Shiki, the music on that older piece feels detached as it plays archly with a lounge style that sounds like it could soundtrack an alternate cut of the ballroom scene from The Shining. Shiki is never pompously over-serious, but it also moves with a laser-point focus. Each of the album’s seven proper songs is a meticulous architecture that moves from riff to riff, section to section, A to B to C and back around again with such ease that it almost defies comprehension.
“Shoujahitsumetsu,” for example, is built around a galloping, classicist heavy metal riff, but the song is interwoven with neoclassical guitar fretwork from session player Frédéric Leclercq, black metal blasting, and fierce, thrashy riffing. There’s even a tiny little melodic bridge riff that you’ll miss if you’re not paying attention, but it pops up twice (at the 0:32 and 3:01 mark), lasts maybe 5 seconds each time, and is the sort of masterful songwriting trick that Sigh makes seem effortless.
Journeyman drummer Mike Heller (of such stylistically different bands as Fear Factory, Raven, and Malignancy) is a tremendous asset to Shiki with his ability to shift seamlessly between buttery smooth blastbeats, patiently heavy thumping, light-touch jazzy fills, and everything in between. Check out the first half highlight “Shikabane” for a clinic in all of these styles as Heller shows off modern extreme metal drumming chops to rival anything Nick Barker has done for Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir but also handles the lighter sections with quiet, playful restraint.
“I don’t believe in your filthy death you fear; /
I don’t believe in this life to be here. /
I don’t believe in gods to judge me; /
I don’t believe in hell to scorch me, but it scares me.”
– From “Confession to Be Buried,” Gallows Gallery (2005)
A Tale of Two Sigh-ties
Shiki’s striking cover art plays an important role in setting the tone, particularly if you look at it alongside the cover for Infidel Art, the 1995 Sigh album that it most closely evokes.
The cover used for Infidel Art is actually just part of a larger three-part painting from the mid-19th century by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige. The art depicts the military leader Taira no Kiyomori looking out at his garden after a snowfall and seeing visions of skulls everywhere. Still, the three-part composition shows the warmth and color of the domestic life (with his home and concubine inside on the right-hand panel) gradually bleeding across into the stark, bloodless palette of the snowy vision. It is intended to be a frightening scene, perhaps indicating the man being haunted by his violent past, but in the midground, he is upright, hand on sword, defying the darkness.
The cover for Shiki is (as far as I have been able to tell) a modern painting done to mimic the traditional Japanese woodblock style. The piece is based on a thirteenth-century poem which contemplates the falling leaves as a symbol of the changing of the seasons – the seasons of the earth, the seasons of a life. In contrast to the Infidel Art cover, the man’s expression is far less ambiguous as he gazes in fear and sorrow at the falling petals. The color palette is also intentionally muted, awash in a sickly greenish hue that saps even the cherry blossoms of their beauty. And of course, rather than facing the external fear with sword in hand, the man is followed by a spectral skeleton, its missing lower jaw forming a ghoulish smile that mocks his pain.
I don’t know that there’s any necessary connection between Infidel Art and Shiki apart from the similar art, but Shiki is also noteworthy in that it is Sigh’s first album written and sung entirely in Japanese. As a non-Japanese speaker, it’s all the more impressive that the album’s thematic weight can still be felt fully without the benefit of understanding the words. Kawashima’s vocals take on an even more central role than usual on Shiki, in part because they are mixed much higher, but also because of the sheer, guts-deep conviction with which they are delivered.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Grave
Sigh’s music was equally confident and ambitious, even from the start. Scorn Defeat was surely influenced by the primitive black metal clattering of Venom, Hellhammer, Bathory, and early Mayhem, but it had already crafted a singular identity with blackened doom riffs, chanting vocals, organs, and all other manner of atmospherics. It’s easy – and also correct – to look at Sigh’s career as one of constant change, given the stylistic breadth covered on albums as different as Infidel Art’s blackened epic dreamscapes, Hail Horror Hail’s schizoid mania, Imaginary Sonicscape’s brain-fizzling psychedelia, Hangman’s Hymn’s Kreator-on-speed-plus-also-an-orchestra, and so on. But the thing is, even if the tools have changed over the years, the core artistry has not. Scorn Defeat is a massively different album than Shiki, but it is still recognizably the same band.
The other easy – and also incorrect – take on Sigh is that they are simply a weird band. They are an unusual band, to be sure, but to write them off (or even to praise them) as wacky, zany, off-the-wall, and so on, is disingenuous, because again, Sigh’s idiosyncrasy is identifiable because it is a path they have walked since the beginning. So, when “Shouku” pulls out a wicked organ solo that breaks into a hugely sassy chugging section that in turn opens up into an electrifying dual guitar lead and solo, you may have heard those individual elements elsewhere (even on earlier Sigh albums), but you can’t call it weird for weirdness’s sake.
Mirai’s rapid-fire vocals sometimes flow in a thrillingly funky hip-hop cadence alongside the guitars (see “Shikabane” and “Satsui – Geshi no Ato”). This rhythmic effect is hypnotic, but given Mirai’s reckoning with his own fear of mortality, these passages feel poignant, as if he feels the clock ticking and has to rush to say all the things he has not yet said. “Shikabane” also has an odd rhythmic kinship with Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief,” proving for the billionth time that music is a universal language that we should all strive to speak with as much fluency as we can muster. The album flows from strength to strength, with repeat listens revealing just how smartly the whole thing is constructed. The ferocious “Satsui – Geshi No Ato” winds down into a plaintive harpsichord section with various flutes, but that leads directly into “Fuyu Ga Kuru” (translated as “winter is coming”), which opens the album’s second side on an eerie note similar to Metallica’s “Sanitarium.” Mirai’s vocals on this track in particular sound truly anguished, whether in protest or resignation (or both).
The vocoder on “Mayonaka no Kaii” (reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories) is a beautiful touch alongside the synths, flute, and chimes. The song as a whole is almost a spiritual double or inversion of the opener “Kuroi Kage,” especially as it sprints into an open guitar passage and then organ solo right at the end. Perhaps more than any other song on the album, this one feels like a gleeful gob of spit in the eye of Death, as if to say, “You will win, but you won’t beat me.” I don’t usually like it when a band releases the last song on an album as a preview track, but for Shiki it no longer bothers me that “Mayonaka No Kaii” was the lead single. Maybe, like death itself, it’s not so much important that we know where we’ll end up, but about what we do before we get there. Following that fist-pumping catharsis with the calm, lilting drone of instrumental closer “Touji no Asa” feels like a valedictory funeral rite.
Shiki is an utterly magnificent album that, for Sigh at least, seems almost deceptively simple at first. The reason for that is mainly that the songs are built up from the ground level of riffs, but despite that scaffolding, the additional instrumentation feels just as necessary for the full emotional coloring of the music. If you’re a long-time fan of the band, Shiki is equal parts righteous and cozy; if you’re a first-time visitor, this is a fantastic entry point into the world of one of the greatest progressive metal bands ever.
An Hour Before It’s Dark
By pure coincidence, just last night I watched the Pixar movie Up with my children. I had seen the movie before – shortly after it was released – but this was the first time since having kids and having lost close family members. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking movie, but although it is framed by grief, loss, and regret, it’s not really about those things. The movie is about honoring the past by living in the present without fear of the future. It is haunted, like most things are, by the specter of death. Shiki is haunted by the specter of death. Anytime we love, anytime we let ourselves be open and honest, we are haunted by the specter of death, or at least of loss (which is the under-tracing of death). But none of this – not Up, not Shiki, not my love for my children and my family and my friends – is about death, not really.
The fear of death that haunts this magnificent album is actually the love of life. The fear of death is actually the love of life.
“Mayonaka No Kaii” is not a fearful song; it is a joyous eruption. It is not the sound of someone letting themselves diminish slowly into the gray haze of despondency; it is the sound of someone looking at the death that we all know must come and saying, “Okay, now what?” What if the man on this brilliant album’s cover art knows about that skeleton at his back, and instead of glancing back in terror has chosen to look forward, to look up, to look to the love beyond the fear?
Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” ends on a similar note:
“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
These are heavy thoughts, and this is a heavy album, but I have listened to it probably a dozen times so far, and each time I feel lighter. I am grateful for what Mirai Kawashima has chosen to do with his wild and precious life.