A chameleon-like entity with no two works sounding exactly the same yet always retaining an identifiable personality with each stylistic shift, Japan’s Sigh are the very definition of a progressive band. As is the case with many of the best bands who truly deserve the “progressive” stamp, Sigh are also a truly pioneering band. Their status as such is fairly difficult to overstate, particularly when taking into consideration geography and the timing of their formation. Initially a covers outfit known as Ultra Death formed in 1989 by frontman and main songwriter Mirai Kawashima, Kawashima proved to be an anomalous artist even during the earliest Ultra Death days. Despite the seminal thrash and speed metal styles of Slayer and the pioneering black/thrash of Venom, two foundational influences on Ultra Death, which became Sigh in 1990, being “big in Japan” as the cliché goes, the Japanese extreme metal underground itself wasn’t exactly burgeoning. With the obvious exception of Kuwana’s Sabbat, Japanese bands taking initiative from the likes of Slayer and Venom seemed few and far between, Japan’s most famous metal export at the time being the mainstream, arena-ready Loudness. Kawashima’s ever expanding and globetrotting tastes continued to delve further underground, “searching for more and more violent stuff”(1), discovering the German thrash stylings of Sodom and Kreator, American cult oddities Post Mortem [i] and eventually Norway’s Mayhem. The later proving pivotal for Sigh with Mayhem’s Øystein Aarseth, better known as Euronymous, a pioneer in his own right, loving the band’s Requiem for Fools EP (1992)[ii], Sigh becoming the first and only band outside of Europe to sign with Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions, releasing their debut album Scorn Defeat on the label in 1993.     

The newfound relationship with Euronymous saw Sigh becoming acquainted with the thriving Norwegian black metal movement, Kawashima feeling a kinship with black metal’s attitudes of rejecting trends and appreciation of 80’s thrash (1). The visual aesthetics of black metal also furthered Kawashima’s vision. With Euronymous’ encouragement, Sigh were soon donning black and white “corpsepaint” and incorporating more theatricality. Despite this association with second wave black metal and the adoption of black metal based imagery, sonically Sigh were a wholly original unit from the outset on Scorn Defeat. While there was unquestionably a grim and necro atmosphere to the album, Scorn Defeat was noticeably different from the Norwegian sound. 1995’s Infidel Art set the band even further apart from contemporaries in black metal or any other subgenre in metal at the time with an expanded, more progressive and symphonic soundscape further revealing the band’s cinematic ambitions. “Even back in 1990, we had an idea to mix raw black metal and horror soundtrack-like atmospheric music”(2) Kawashima explained in Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal. Horror film soundtracks, 20th century classical and avant-garde composers along with various other outside influences such as the free jazz of Sun Ra and John Zorn became second guiding muses for Sigh alongside metal and traditional classical, Kawashima admitting being an especially big fan of J.A. Seazer (3), chief composer of soundtracks for Shūji Terayama’s avant-garde Tenjo Sajiki theater troupe. Solidifying the cinematic and horror aspirations on the Ghastly Funeral Theatre / 葬式劇場 (1997) EP and Hail Horror Hail (1997), Sigh’s recorded trajectory became ever more fascinating with each new release offering its own unique set of characteristics.

Where Scenario IV: Dread Dreams (1999) saw the band somewhat streamlining their approach to symphonic experimentation, Imaginary Soniscape (2001) dove head first into the deep end of psychedelia featuring the bands most extreme tonal shifts up to that point with the additional influence of electronic and dance music. Psychedelia, more specifically the Hammond organ-heavy psych rock of the 60’s and 70’s, also featured prominently on the divisive Gallows Gallery (2005), Kawashima even utilizing a clean vocal singing style on the album. Follow-up’s Hangman’s Hymn – Musikalische Exequien  (2007) and Scenes from Hell (2009) however saw a return to feral, thrashing metal. The latter marking two more turning points for the band. Where the orchestration of previous albums had all been synthesized, Scenes from Hell was to feature live orchestration including trumpet, French horn, euphonium, oboe, accordion, clarinet, flute, piccolo and three trombones. Scenes from Hell was also the first Sigh full-length to feature Kawashima’s partner, saxophonist and additional vocalist Mika Kawashima, AKA Dr. Mikannibal [iii], as an official member of Sigh, Mikannibal’s saxophone providing additional layers to Sigh on subsequent albums In Somniphobia (2012), Graveward (2015) and Heir to Despair (2018). Released on August 26, 2022, Sigh’s twelfth studio album Shiki marks some more firsts while also finding the band in somewhat of a reflective mindset. The band’s first album for the legendary Peaceville Records, Shiki is also the album most explicitly influenced by Sigh’s homeland as first evidenced by the album art. Depicting an older man gazing at falling cherry blossoms, the cover art is based on “The Scattering Years of My Life” by Fujiwara no Kintsune, poem 96 from the Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首), a 13th century anthology of 100 Japanese poems, which reads: 

“花さそふ (It entices the flowers,)

あらしの庭の (the storm-but through the garden’s white)

雪ならで (it is not snow)

ふりゆくものは (and what it is that’s scattering)

わが身なりけり(are, in fact, the years of my life!)”(4)

The skeleton lingering behind the man on the cover, the specter of death, is the central theme of Shiki. In Japanese, the word “Shiki” has multiple meanings from “ceremony” to “morale” to “direction” and even papier-mâché-like crafts [iv]. The album title “Shiki” however carries two meanings as Kawashima has explained, death or “time to die” and a “change of seasons”, both meanings illustrated on the album cover. While not a concept album in the classic sense, Kawashima’s contemplation and fear of death while in the “autumn” stage of life as well as after the loss of friends informs much of Shiki. With the concept of death becoming more personal and close to home, Kawashima opted to pen the lyrics and perform the vocals on Shiki entirely in Japanese, with the song titles written in Japanese on the back of the album and kanji appearing next to the band name. Traditional Japanese instrumentation is also given a prominent showing on the album, Kawashima playing the      shakuhachi, shinobue and hichiriki flutes as well as the taishōgoto and three-stringed shamisen. The recording line-up for Shiki however is an international affair with Kawashima, who also handles guitar and all keyboard and organ duties on the album, Dr. Mikannibal and Sigh mainstay Satoshi Fujinami on bass being accompanied by Kreator’s Frédéric Leclercq on second guitar providing solos throughout and Mike Heller of Fear Factory and Raven on drums and added percussion, Heller employing bongo and conga hand drumming techniques throughout the album, described in the press release for the album by Peaceville as “an opus of dark and eclectic blackened heavy metal, shrouded in traditional Eastern influences.”  

Shiki, like the albums that came before it, continues in the Sigh tradition of crafting an album baring its own unique identity yet various traits heard on previous albums can be traced throughout Shiki. A brief fifteen second introduction of “Kuroi Inori” (黒い祈り) featuring what sounds like Kawashima throat singing segues directly into “Kuroi Kage” (黒い影) opening the album in a lumbering fashion with a death/doom-esque riff. While the hulking groove recalls Finland’s Hooded Menace by way of Celtic Frost at their most doom-laden, Sigh’s idiosyncrasies reveal themselves with the spooky keyboard sounds hovering over top the mass, later adding organ and stabs of spacey, science fiction keys to the track. The leisurely pace and heft of Kawashima and Leclercq’s guitars during the early portions of “Kuroi Kage” highlight the equally massive production of Shiki. One of Sigh’s heaviest albums to date, Shiki is certainly contemporary sounding yet still lifelike and organic. The recording, which had to be done across multiple studios with Leclercq and Heller geographically separated from Kawashima and the rest of the band, also greatly serves Heller’s drums which gain momentum as “Kuroi Kage” reaches its midpoint. Blasting to a considerably calmer, almost pastoral break allowing Heller’s hand drumming to make its first appearance alongside the first instances of Dr. Mikannibal’s sax, the hand percussion accentuates the doom groove which rides out the track. Slightly more straightforward is “Shoujahitsumetsu” (生者必滅), an extreme metal assault of tremolo riffing, blast beats and a thrashy midsection, Kawashima’s vocal attack as savage as the instrumentation. Always one of the finest voices in any metal subgenre, Kawashima is particularly inspired on Shiki wretching in Japanese, feeling his native language was the only way to properly convey the themes of the album.  

Both “Shikabane” (屍) and “Satsui – Geshi no Ato” (殺意~夏至のあと) feature dives into electronic psychedelia reminiscent of Imaginary Soniscape, the former a mid-paced thrashing showcase for Heller’s percussion while Heller’s hand drumming, stringed instrumentation and chanted vocals work in tandem on the latter. The most quintessentially Sigh song on Shiki, album centerpiece “Fuyu Ga Kuru” (冬が来る) finds all the sonic influences informing the album converging in one of Sigh’s finest pieces, first trading between a relaxed, exotic groove formed from Heller’s percussion, Eastern flavored guitars and contrasting metallic verses. “Fuyu Ga Kuru” is also psychedelic in its own way, the Japanese flutes, hand drumming and Kawashima’s faint clean singing a lysergic calm before the storm of triumphant heavy metal turned extreme via blast beat. Similar to “Kuroi Kage”, “Fuyu Ga Kuru” circles back to the same opening groove to close, Mikannibal’s exquisite saxophone providing some of the finishing touches. The metal of “Shouku” (生苦) is also of a triumphant, battle cry-like quality, the track a war-torn, apocalyptic Hellscape, very much painting its own Scenes from Hell in a sense, yet being a Sigh song also features a wild left-field psych rock organ solo early on. “Mayonaka no Kaii” (真夜中の怪異), for which an animated video was created, follows the brief minute and change flute and guitar driven interlude “Kuroi Kagami” (黒い鏡). A return to the hallucinatory electronic touches of Imaginary Soniscape with Kawashima’s clean vocals altered ala Gallows Gallery, “Mayonaka no Kaii” also follows a similar structure to “Fuyu Ga Kuru” with early alterations between soothing and savage, some of Kawashima’s best extreme vocals on the album contained within the track which concludes with an organ solo similar to that heard on “Shouku”. 

The final and most tranquil piece of music heard on Shiki based almost entirely on the traditional Japanese instruments, “Touji no Asa” (冬至の朝), seems at first to be ending the album on a peaceful note, as if the fear of death conveyed by the rest of the album has passed. However, the track is not to be interpreted as an “acceptance” that death is near or inevitable, the eerie throat chanting from “Kuroi Inori” returning to end the album. “I don’t think there’s any way to conquer the fear. All I can do is just to live with it”(5) Kawashima explained when asked if writing and recording the album was cathartic. Kawashima, 52 years old during the writing and recording of Shiki, has been very vocal however on the personal nature of the album, reflecting on his years making extreme metal saying of ShikiWhen I started Sigh, I never thought I’d be still in a band when I was 30… It wasn’t easy to picture an extreme metal band older than 30…So what can you do when you’re 50? Shiki may be an answer to my own question. This is an album which only the 50 year-old me can make.”(6) While completely satisfied with the final results of Shiki, Kawashima has also admitted that the future of Sigh can be uncertain at times, feeling creatively drained following the writing and recording a new album as opposed to earlier in the bands career when new material would manifest almost immediately. While Sigh’s plans post-Shiki remain in Kawashima’s hands, both the themes and execution of Shiki itself immediately give the album an important placement in Sigh’s discography as well as a high placement on the list of best music released in 2022.  

[i]. Kawashima performed lead vocals on Post Mortem’s 2009 comeback album Message from the Dead following the passing of original vocalist John McCarthy.

[ii]. Kawashima had originally sent the EP to former Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve “Pelle” Ohlin, AKA Dead who had, unbeknownst to Kawashima at the time, taken his own life in April of 1991.

[iii]. The “Dr”. in “Dr. Mikannibal” is a legitimate title, Kawashima an associate professor holding a PhD in physics from the University of Tokyo. 

[iv]. Other meanings of “Shiki” among many, many more include conducting an orchestra, color, historical records, formula and enforcement of Ritsuryō, a historical Japanese law rooted in Confucianism.

1. “Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult”. Feral House. February 13, 2014.

2. “Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal”. Bazillion Points. December 1, 2010.

3. “ INTERVIEW – Mirai Kawashima (Sigh) – Nightmares and Dreamscapes Abound”. https://risingsunfreestyle-blogspot-com.translate.goog/2012/06/interview-mirai-kawashima-sigh.html?_x_tr_sl=ja&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc. June 9, 2012. 

4. “The Scattering Years of My Life: Poem 96 – TheHyakunin Isshu”. https://100poets.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/the-scattering-years-of-my-life-poem-96/. February 28, 2014.

5. “Embracing The End: A Conversation With Mirai Kawashima of Sigh”. https://www.heaviestofart.com/post/embracing-the-end-a-conversation-with-mirai-kawashima?fbclid=IwAR2qqymuEXxbI0ao7QU_kD8QBopNVuFQyHtkZJ9OfkviTwORZeF4pxisN_8. September 6, 2022. 

6. “Interview with Mirai Kawashima from Sigh”. https://www.jame-world.com/en/article/161194-interview-with-mirai-kawashima-from-sigh.html?fbclid=IwAR1TQ7—v7abV_AA6p7pmncipBkqijzd5IqHWwGlXs-2v5cNZiY9GUZsBwE. Auguest 24, 2022.