Album Review: Nothing Can Prepare You for Sigh’s Heir to Despair

  • Axl Rosenberg

Heir to Despair, the eleventh full-length offering from Japan’s Sigh, to tell you that the album “depicts the world through the eyes of madness.” I’ve never lost my mind (I don’t think), but I imagine that this nine-song, 53-minute release is the best possible aural representation of what it would feel like to suffer such a tragedy. Arguably the band’s strongest work since 2001’s Imaginary SonicscapeHeir to Despair doesn’t feel like an album so much as it feels like an experience… and an unforgettable one, at that.

Pardon the use of such a tired cliché to describe a record that’s completely bereft of such banalities, but with Heir to Despair, it’s best to expect the unexpected. At this point, Sigh fans should be wise enough to predict that the only thing they know about a new Sigh album for sure is that they can’t possibly know much about a new Sigh album for sure. That is as true on Heir to Despair as it has ever been; somehow, nearly thirty years after their formation, mastermind Mirai Kawashima and his collaborators haven’t run out ways to synthesize a vast and unusual array of styles into something truly singular. Heir to Despair marries evil death metal riffage with righteous NWOBHM harmonies and a siqq guitar solo with insane panning and classical and sitar and world music and classic rock and ragtime and electronica and experimental white noise, and that’s all just on the first song, “Aletheia.” Elsewhere on the album, you’ll find power metal, black metal, dark synthwave, sea shanties, flute, lute, banjo, harpsichord, accordion, horns, taishōgoto, an orchestra, what I’m reasonably certain is a didgeridoo, and instruments I can’t even identify by sound. There are so many glorious oddities on Heir to Despair that discussing it almost feels like divulging spoilers for a movie.

Ambitious, to be sure, but Sigh have the game to pull it off; against all odds, all these styles are incorporated into songs that function first and foremost as, y’know, songs, not just self-congratulatory wank sessions. Dog shit laced with Krazy Glue and thumbtacks is less catchy than songs like “Homo Homini Lupus,” “In Memories Delusional,” “Hands of the String Puller,” and the ten-minute-plus title track, which is by turns melancholic, insidious, epic, and cinematic.

This mix of the supremely normal and the supremely abnormal alone would make Heir to Despair something special, but it’s a trilogy of tracks sandwiched in-between the others — “Heresy I: Oblivium,” “Heresy II: Acosmism,” and “Heresy III: Sub Specie Aeternitatis” — that guarantee its status as nightmare fuel. Noticeably slower and darker than their siblings, the trio begins as a piece that’s slinky and seductive before devolving into something irrefutably nefarious. “Acosmism,” in particular, with its Stephen Hawking-esque vocals, warbling orchestra, and slowly-melting pace, is one of the most unsettling pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Actually,”Sub Specie Aeternitatis,” which undermines its own poppier, friendlier nature with creepy radio static and random jump cuts in the sound — a giggling baby here, a running chainsaw there — might be a close second.

It’s the mix of all these elements — the willingness to experiment, the grasp of the fundamentals, and the mastery of atmospherics — that make Heir to Despair the kind of release that everyone — and I do mean EVERYone — should experience at least twice (there is simply no way your mind is going to be able to properly take the whole thing in with just one listen). Maybe you’ll love it as much as I do, but even if you don’t, you won’t be able to argue that it’s not breathtakingly impressive.

Sigh’s Heir to Despair comes out November 19 on Candlelight. You can stream the track “Homo Homini Lupus” here and pre-order the album here.

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