The Land of The Rising Sun, best known for sushi, anime, and cute women, rarely gets mentioned as a breeding ground of great Metal, save for the bands you already know (Loudness, EZO, Anthem, Dir En Grey), one of the mainstays of the Japanese scene, Tokyo’s Sigh, carry the originality and creativity banner beyond cultural and stylistic boundaries. Formed over twenty years ago by vocalist / keyboardist Mirai Kawashima and current Bassist / former guitarist and drummer Satoshi Fujinami, Sigh solidified themselves atop the early Black Metal scene, signing with Deathlike Silence Records of Euronymous fame back in 1992, certainly at the time an anomaly among what was clearly a Northern European style. And though soon after, Euronymous met his fate at the hands of Varg Vikernes, the Japanese Black Metaler’s persevered and expanded a genre within which they barely fit to begin with.
Nowadays, with their latest opus In Somniphobia being another hit among a string of huge critical successes, Sigh are barely a glimmer of what they were in 1992, adding variances in sounds, styles, instruments, and members. Most notably, the addition of a saxophone player and female vocals with Dr. Mikannibal in 2007, whose presence is felt not only sonically, she provides the backdrop for a growing lore and mystique surrounding the band, as stories abound about her strange eating habits and tendency to record in the nude. According to Mirai a back story is an important element of a Metal band’s persona, “I used to believe the biography of W.A.S.P. like one of the members had to leave school as he raped a female teacher etc. The problem about Dr. Mikannibal is that all these stories are true and she is crazy for real. It’s Okay she eats bugs as it’s her personal thing but she forces me to do the same. Once I was forced to eat roaches. Surprisingly the taste was quite good though.”
Still, even with a super hot and talented female folly providing charismatic anecdotes around the legend of Sigh, the meat and potatoes (or roaches?) of this band remains firmly entrenched in their music. Through the years they have borrowed elements of Jazz, Techno, Folk, traditional Indian and Japanese music, among other things, and tied it all into a Metal back drop which has both excited and confused many a Metal critic along the way. The amateur listener quickly files Sigh under the ‘Avante-Garde’ moniker, but this couldn’t be further from the obvious truth. “We do not think we’re doing something Avante-Garde at all. Rather, we’re more a conservative band. All we’re doing has been done and we’re doing nothing new. Saxophone is a traditional instrument in rock music. The Beatles already took in traditional Indian music 40 years ago. Cut-up / juxtaposition have been done by John Zorn in jazz, Schnittke in classical music, and Mr. Bungle in rock / metal. We compose in the traditional western functional harmonic system. We sometimes use modes, but it’s an old technique too. We just follow the way which has been already paved well. John Cage composed 4’33” in which the player does not play a single note sixty years ago. Now we live in the 21st century, and just combining some different musical styles can be called Avante-Garde? Obviously not.” Being a classically trained musician, Mirai certainly understands the theory behind all the nuances of his genre, and at it’s core Sigh is a classically based Metal band, working within those rules, which makes them about as traditional as a Metal band can be. Still, they have such an original vibe, it’s hard to call them just ‘another traditional Metal band.’
However, probably more than any of Metal’s other sub-genre’s, Black Metal has grown to embrace quite a number of variables. It’s the one section of the Metal world which doesn’t limit it’s self to a specific vocal sound, a common drum beat, a typical speed. Black Metal, though rooted in early Thrash, has evolved to be more concerned with ambience, textures, aural recreations of moods both harmonious and discordant, and Mirai agrees it is in the Black Metal world that Sigh is most at home. “Black Metal is the best categorization for us for two reasons. The first is that 90’s black metal was born as more or less the resurrection of 80’s thrash metal, which was considered to be totally outdated. As 80’s thrash is one of the biggest musical backgrounds of ours, I can say we have something in common.
The second is that the genre Black Metal embraces a really wide spectrum of musical styles. Both Blasphemy and Alcest are sometimes labled as Black Metal although it isn’t easy to find something musically common in them. So we can be a Black Metal band no matter how our music is varied.” Oddly enough, throughout their career Sigh has had things in common with both Blasphemy (a more traditional ‘brutal’ Black Metal band) and Alcest (a band that focuses on ambience and atmosphere). So what led Mirai to start expanding their boundaries a bit, breaking away from the more Traditional elements of Black Metal? “The reason we started expanding was definitely horror movies. I was searching for the way to create scary music and noticed that horror movies’ soundtracks often had 20th century classical music. Also horror movies use a lot of cut-up techniques to make them scary and they often use funny music as a contrast to the brutal scenes.”
In 1999 Sigh released Imaginary Sonicscape on Century Media and it was an instant artistic classic. Mirai’s brave attempt at composing an album so very different from his peers, while maintaining the integrity of Classical modes, established him as one of the great Metal songsmith’s of our era. And though Sigh have released a slew of great records since then, Mirai never really attempted something as visceral as Imaginary Sonicscape again, until their latest album In Somniphobia. “The biggest difference between Imaginary Sonicscape and In Somniphobia is the line-up. Now we have Junichi on drums and Dr. Mikannibal on vocals and saxophone. Also Satoshi, who used to play drums, is now on bass and he plays bass better than I do. Having a saxophone player is a huge advantage in this style. Plus, we now have Pro-Tools technology. When we recorded Imaginary Sonicscape, we had to compromise in some points as we had to do everything in the recording studio and of course there was a budget limitation. For In Somniphobia, I was able to keep working on it almost forever to make it perfect. Also as a composer, I think I’m getting more and more mature. It isn’t easy to explain it with words, the only word I come up with is ‘mature’. I was avoiding making an album similar to Imaginary Sonicscape because I really did not think we could top that album in the similar direction, but after 10 years, with the new line-up, I thought we were ready.” So basically, technology and talent had to catch up with Mirai’s brain. Pretty impressive.
And In Somniphobia (literally, the fear of falling asleep) tackles an awesome theme, delving into human fears, deciphering reality from nightmares, what is reality, dream time or waking time? And it’s handled phonically with a tongue in cheek Freddie Krueger type inspiration meets Kafka meets Rumi. As Mirai puts it, “The album concept is about losing the border between dream and reality, life and death, or imagination and reality. I tend to have nightmares and I often realize that I am dreaming in dreams, which are so-called lucid dreams. Because of this, I have lots of memories which I cannot tell if they were real or just a dream. I like movies with this kind of theme such as Carnival of Souls, Dead and Buried, and Jacob’s Ladder. This is all about fantasy. Fantasy means something between reality and imagination. Not reality, but not complete imagination either. At least seventy percent of people have a slight fear about something exotic, like H.P. Lovecraft often handled in his novels like Mad Arab. Edgar Allan Poe often dealt with this kind of exotic fear too.” I’m hard pressed to come up with another band, within or without the Metal world, to ferociously attack a topic with the same depth of the artists of other genre’s. In Somniphobia is the aural equivalent to Psycho in film and The Bells in poetry. Certainly Iron Maiden had a great hit with their account of a nightmare in Number of The Beast, but I’d find it tough to believe they gave it much more thought than throwing an interesting idea together with a catchy galloping rhythm. Sigh’s process, from writing to recording is a mapped out detailed exercise in precision, “I program everything on MIDI first then keep listening to it until I’m completely satisfied with the result. And then we finally go into the studio to start rehearsing the songs. And the recording process isn’t recording something from scratch but it’s rather replacing the programmed tracks with real instruments, so I can say 100% I know what the album will sound like beforehand. Of course I’ll keep changing the minor things until the very beginning of mixing, but they’re never nothing but minor changes.”
So lately, as Sigh’s underground legend starts to spread a bit more to mainstream ears, it’s hard to predict what the future holds for Mirai and company. Even Mirai, looking back at a younger version of himself, couldn’t imagine Sigh here 20 years ago with an album layered and textured the way Van Gogh painted The Screaming Man, “Probably the last thing I could imagine was the evolution of technology. Everything was so different back then. I never imagined that you’d be able to edit your album on your home PC! Even when we started Sigh, I had a concept of the album like Hangman’s Hymn, but there was no way to achieve it because of the technology limitation. As for In Somniphobia, it’s difficult to imagine how I would react to it back then. I still hadn’t delved into a lot of musical styles, so my reaction could be ‘What the heck!'”