Released: 2015, Candlelight Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
Japanese extremists Sigh's take on symphonic black metal is perhaps closer to the spirit of what "symphonic black metal" should be, and the band drive that distinction home with authority on their freakishly avant-garde and uncompromisingly weird 10th album.
As bands like Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, etc., frittered away ever-bigger recording budgets on extravagance and over-ambition, 80-piece orchestras, giant choirs and operatic nonsense have become de rigeur for so much symphonic black metal and stripped it of its soul and purpose. Sigh, however, haven't forgotten that the original intent was not necessarily to dress it all up and make it pretty, it was more to accentuate what was already there, give it some atmosphere and, if anything, make it sound even more evil.
Graveward is an evil sounding album even without any embellishment thanks to its primal but big-sounding production that glosses over none of You Oshima's gnashing riffs, Mirai Kawashima's sinister shrieking and growling or Dr. Mikannibal's often maniacal backing vocals. At its core, Graveward is as raw and true as black metal gets, though the arrangements throughout are unusual and unpredictable to say the least and the sound is nowhere near as threadbare as purists often demand.
The orchestration and sonic accents the band add capture that same sort of spirit, and are not nearly as outlandish or audacious as what many of their contemporaries lather on. While ever-present, the orchestral/string effects come in controlled, emphatic bursts that add punch and rarely seem intrusive or extraneous. The same goes for Mikannibal's saxophone forays, which sometimes stay in the background to the point where you barely notice them.
The brooding chug of “The Forlorn” is graced by eerie Wurlitzer organ-like strains that makes it all the more sinister. The swirl of electronic effects and bleeps and blips makes “The Molesters Of My Soul” sound like “Poltergeist,” as if Kawashima's very being was beset by demons – which is fitting, since the album was inspired by old Italian/Hammer Studios splatter/exploitation films. The utterly gonzo “The Casketburner” brings Mikannibal's sax to the fore with a wailing freakout and breaks into a jazz bar piano riff you might expect more from Tom Waits.
At times, however, the band put the “symphonic” elements on the backburner and just rage. The balls out “Out Of The Grave” is relatively unadorned, save for a brief burst of Mikannibal's sax that plays like a guitar lead. Same goes for the similarly frantic ripping closer “Dwellers In Dream,” which gets an extra kick from Rotting Christ frontman Sakis Tolis' frantic “Let me out” backing vocals.
There's actually a slew of guest performances on Graveward, from obvious choices like Tolis and Niklas Kvarforth of Sweden's Shining and Japanese guitar virtuouso Kelly Simonz to the more unexpected, like Matthew Heafy from Trivium or Fred Leclercq from DragonForce. But as with much of the embellishment here, they are integrated so well into the material that they do just what they supposed to: accent it instead of standing out or seeming ostentatious.