Avant-en-Garde: Graveward and Sigh’s Fickle Relationship With Convention
At this point, when you sit down with a Sigh album, you more or less know what to expect. Not to say that the Japanese paragons of unorthodox extreme metal have become predictable; far from it. Rather, we’ve simply been exposed to Mirai Kawashima’s fascination with the unconventional for long enough that we’re ready to accept whatever insanity he’s cooked up every time a new Sigh release drops. Few artists can consistently release such over-the-top material without veering into masturbation and/or gimmickry, but Sigh have somehow done just that for twenty-five years. Graveward, the band’s tenth full-length, doesn’t stray from that pattern; it’s a whimsical ride through aesthetic and compositional experimentation that draws on the band’s previous successes while simultaneously adding new elements to the mix.
It’s just as fruitless to try to generalize about Sigh’s entire discography as it is to try to generalize about any particular release, and Graveward is no exception. The album is riddled with disparate sounds, from 80’s arena rock riffage and manic horns to folk instrumentation and spoken word samples (all the elements that Sigh have utilized over the course of the years could comprise a pretty comprehensive canon of modern music). Sigh still sound like a (vaguely) black metal circus – there’s more than a little bit of Castlevania-esque riffing instilled in the tracks here. It’s certainly not the case that every aspect of Graveward is enjoyable. Mirai allows incongruity to run rampant throughout the album, for better or for worse, like in the startling transitions that bookend “The Forlorn” and “The Molesters of My Soul.” Likewise, the production is all over the place – synths slash in and out in swollen flourishes that occasionally drown out the guitars and percussion; the bass drum is all but inaudible; no two tracks really sound alike.
Like most other Sigh releases, Graveward is a sonic hodge-podge, but it still comes across as a cohesive whole. For all its disorder, Graveward is undeniably focused in ways that Sigh’s previous releases haven’t always been. Maybe it’s the fact that Graveward is structured as a series of shorter tracks instead of a few sprawling anthems, which lends the album more resonant power than something like 2012’s meandering In Somniphobia. Graveward sees Sigh incorporating pop structures and more conventional sensibilities under the disconcerting layers of sound and texture (Kawashima has been experimenting with J-pop since long before Babymetal was a twinkle in Key Kobayashi’s eye). The band’s strengths have always lain in their ability to produce music that is both digestible and experimental, something that can’t be said for a lot of artists that try to travel as far out as possible.
So while Sigh and Graveward may occasionally be inconsistent, it’s hard to argue with anything Mirai produces: either you like it, or you don’t. Sigh are as close to untouchable as you can get, and though Graveward’s got some mixed points, it’s as good an album as Sigh have ever put out; an album that’s undeniably Sigh, whose evolution and prowess can be traced from the very beginning to the most recent past.