Reviewed By Michael O'Brien
Into the grave
Even way back in 1993 when Sigh released their debut album, Scorn Defeat, on Euronymous' Deathlike Silence Productions (which was a feat unto itself for a band that was not only not from Scandinavia, but hailed from Japan), it was clear that they had a very unique and unusual perspective on what black metal could be.
Over the course of nine full-length releases (and now ten), the ever-evolving act has continued to push the boundaries and has thrown themselves fully into a multitude of genres (German opera meets King Diamond anyone?) that are played across countless instruments, but have always kept a foot in the camp of metal, as wide-reaching and amorphous as that umbrella may be. More importantly for me, though, is that there has always been an underlying sense of fun at the heart of what Sigh does; a deathly serious approach to the craft of musicianship that’s expressed with a certain playfulness that seems to poke fun at the inherent self-consciousness of heavy metal without coming across as malicious or condescending in doing so.
Sigh's tenth album, Graveward, doesn't buck this state of play but it does see the band bringing more "metal" to the party than last time around, with a very thrash-oriented approach that's fuelled by plenty of riffs and solos in amongst the usual rich and lush orchestral arrangements. The other major change this time - and it pains me to say it - is that the giddy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I get from every new Sigh release is far more tempered this time around; wow moments are fewer and farther between on Graveward than I have come to expect.
There's a few reasons contributing to this, but the most immediate is an unusually lo-fi production that is both rather quiet and somewhat dull. While the instrumentation can definitely be heard with enough distinctiveness, there's also the sense that what you're hearing is being filtered through a wet sock as well. The highs soared by the band through their musical excess and bombast fail to resonate as strongly as they should through the lack of bright definition that has blessed prior recordings, and the listening experience suffers as a result.
Secondly, but no less importantly, is that Graveward isn't an overly hooky album, and nor does it feature the kind of narrative consistency I would’ve expected from an album that follows a thematic concept. This is despite the litany of riffs and solos that feature throughout its near 50-minute running time, too, which is more vexing, but this isn't to say that there are no hooks to be found, however.
"The Tombfiller" alone is almost reason enough to pick the album up, standing out for its catchy as hell chorus and its super-melodic verses. Elsewhere, "The Casketburner" is a thoroughly enjoyable, highly-paced, and flashy thrash romp, while the one-two of album opener, “Kaedit Nos Pestis”, and follow-up, “Graveward”, is an infinitely (and instantly) satisfying way to begin proceedings.
While these are the standout cuts for me, there truly aren’t any bad tracks to be found here. The issue I have is with the songs’ narrative consistency which, frankly, is threaded pretty thinly. This is especially noticeable in the album’s second half, which tends to feel just that little bit different to the first. The songs here all work well individually but don’t slot together as neatly as an overall package as did the first four of five situated at the album’s beginning did.
The third reason, which is perhaps the most subjective of all, is that the material on Graveward feels just a little too familiar when it’s compared to previous output. I wouldn't say that it's predictable, per se, but there is an underlying sense that Sigh is treading over territory that they've pioneered before and this is probably what’s primarily responsible for stunting that giddy feeling in the pit of the stomach feeling that I referred to at the beginning of the review. The material is still really good, no question, but it just isn’t overly surprising or mould-breaking, from a Sigh perspective.
I think it’s safe to assume that when you've made a career out of embodying the very definition of weird and genre-pushing, the prospect of having to up the ante with each new release must bring with it feelings of uncertainty as to where to go next. This is what Graveward feels like to me; that Sigh knew that they wanted to keep on the same oddball trajectory but weren't quite sure how to push their sound into new territory.
The result of this is an album that is still very good and still very "Sigh", but is also perhaps the first Sigh release that I can think of that hasn’t elevated the band’s ambitions higher, but has rather stayed the course. This doesn't make the album bad in the slightest - because it isn’t - but it does mean that it has forfeited any chance of sitting amongst the band's very best works.
I tend to think that I would’ve enjoyed Graveward a lot more had I not already been familiar with how Sigh has evolved over the course of their existence, and this leads me to wonder how other rusted on fans of the band will view it. I’ve no doubt that many will be of the same opinion as me which is that it’s a good but not great album, but there will likely be others still who either won’t see or will be willing to ignore the faults that have detracted from my listening experience.
Ultimately, whilst I’ve found a number of things to be critical about with respect to Graveward (it’s my job here, after all), it is still a solid album from an extremely hard-working band. That it doesn’t quite live up to the best that they’ve done is disappointing, to be sure, but it is no less worthy of taking its place within the band’s catalogue.