Sigh // Scenes from Hell
Rating: 4.5/5.0 —Best black metal I’ve heard in a long time
Label: The End Records
Websites: myspace.com/sighjapan | sighjapan.com
Release Dates: US: 01.19.2010 | EU: 29.01.2010

Let me start with the a territory that isn’t very comfortable for many in heavy metal: orchestrations. Heavy metal has seen many variations on the classical orchestration in many different subgenres. Neo-classical metal, like the wanky stuff with Yngwe or Symphony X, has long bragged about the influence of baroque and classical music. Bands like Rhapsody of Fire and Epica do things that sound like they should be straight out of a movie score and black metal even has a symphonic sub-genre, most notably filled by Dimmu Borgir, whose symphonics have gone over the top in the last few years with the addition of Mustis (though we’ll see what happens now that he’s gone). Never before in my tenure of heavy metal listening have I heard orchestrations used in a black metal record to such effect as they have been used on Sigh‘s new record Scenes from Hell.

There are not very many bands that have the kind of respect for progressiveness, yet extremity, that Japan’s very own Sigh has in the underground. Not only has Sigh managed to reinvent themselves pretty consistently, they still consistently produce records that are both extreme and yet somehow oddly catchy and palatable. There are not many bands that can say that they can do both of those things with any consistency. While Scenes from Hell doesn’t technically take on new territory, it does so with an approach that I think is highly novel and very interesting: not only do they use a real orchestra, but instead of using the orchestrations as a background to standard black metal they are instead used, often times, as the leading piece in the track. Where good riffs exist, there is very little orchestration or not at all. In these sections, the rawness and riffyness of this record stands out on its own. But, when the blazing riffs or death marches are added together with orchestrations that is where this record shines.

Scenes from Hell is a triumph of excellent orchestration, musicianship and performance. Simultaneously raw and beautiful, Sigh walks the line between beautiful classical music and raw black metal and never falters or falls too far into one or the other. I am reminded, actually, of Fleshgod Apocalypse‘s 2009 release Oracles by comparison, which is the only album that I feel comes close to the same kind superior approach to classical music, however, they did that completely without orchestrations, carrying the melodies on the guitars instead. However, it is the same qualities, the heavy melody and smart arrangements, and thereby unique approach to metal, that make these two albums similar in my book. If you’re looking to sample this record, something you shouldn’t do (seriously, just go buy it), you should check out the tracks “L’art de Mourir,” a perfect example of the contrasts this album offers between rawness and trumpet orchestrations, and “The Summer Funeral” a funeral dirge that will be stuck in your head for hours after you listen to it.

Honestly, the only complaint that I can even come up with at all is that the production could be better. However, I’m actually torn on this as well, as I think the production actually helps keep this raw. Some of the modern orchestrated black metal stuff, in my opinion, has lost a lot of its rawness and atmosphere. While the production on this record is totally claustrophobic, it gives the orchestra the room it needs and it keeps the metal nice and raw. In some ways, the production, which some have complained about, is probably the best way they could have produced this record. Not too clean, but not too muddy as to lose the good contrasts.

In any case, I think that this is the best follow-up to Hangman’s Hymn that’s even possible. I think a lot of people will claim, unfortunately, that these two records are far too similar to each other and that Hangman’s Hymn is superior. I think neither of these claims are true. The writing on Scenes from Hell is not thematic and because of the production, and where the orchestrations sit, it also draws itself away from the pack when it comes to symphonic black metal. Scenes from Hell will go down as a masterwork of black metal, in my book, and shows that black metal can still be creative and interesting. Buy it.