Even among Sigh records — albums that take a giddy pride in slinking around expectations — Heir to Despair is an odd duck. Some of the band’s previously bagged waterfowl are among the rarest and most colorful to ever take flight, flashing their lavish plumage in iridescent hues and streaming with fanciful feathers. After the modern classic of In Somniphobia and Graveward‘s acceptable, if not always exciting, follow-up, the band needed something different to end this quartet with something more powerful than mere exhalation. Heir to Despair, bred in the bizarre barracks of Sigh as surely as any other bird, looks and swims like the band’s usual production — but the quack will throw you off.
Almost as if to spite the tremendously over-the-top orchestral and progressive ambitions of the band’s third S-I-G, Heir to Despair’s sound is stripped comparatively bare. For the first time in a long time, Sigh sound like a heavy metal band, though admittedly one that’s completely off-the-wall. Take “In Memories Delusional,” a song built around impressively knotty guitar work and galloping black metal riffing; while the band flashes plenty of odd instruments in the bridge, the beginning of the song is built not for brain-melting, but head-banging. The album’s shortest standalone song “Hands of the String Puller” builds around this core as well but is more overt with its early incorporation of flute and keyboards. After three albums of the densest, most claustrophobically layered compositions the band could muster, even these wild songs feel surprisingly breathable and simplistic.
That can catch you off-guard if you’re salivating for something stranger. “Aletheia” kicks the album off in properly weird fashion, but its slow pace drags a hair and doesn’t set up the fretboard-melting “Homo Homini Lupus” particularly well. Even at its most bizarre, the three-part “Heresy” cycle, there’s something very honed and direct about Heir to Despair that takes a while to get used to. While the band’s last few albums flared and festered in the rainbow pus of open psychic wounds, Heir takes the approach of the weapon rather than the infection. The band pronounce this assaultive outlook through their choice of lyrics; what little English can be heard is as paranoid and terrified as ever, but the majority of the album’s lyrics are in Japanese, presenting an intimidating linguistic wall to non-Japanese-speakers. The duality in songs like “Heir to Despair” creates a conflict that the album feeds from.
I spent many listens in conflict with Heir to Despair before I started to understand it. On first glance, it seemed like a cop-out, lacking the immediacy of the last few records as well as a great deal of their adventurousness. Yet this new and novel strangeness kept growing on me; the normal alienation of a Sigh record comes from its intensity and eclecticism — Heir alienated me on a more personal level by professing its perversity in simpler terms. In a roundabout way, it’s the band’s most direct record, subverting rather than annihilating the metal tradition it stems from by chipping away at the edges of the acceptable. The songs are reflective of impetuous experiments rather than defiant explosions of oddness, yet feel engrossing all the same. Sigh‘s paranoia and despair are oppressive features on the landscape, but not the bedrock itself.
Given enough time, Heir to Despair looms larger in the Sigh discography than Graveward because of the success of its stripped-down approach. Ever-willing to try new things, the band’s foray back into shredding, galloping, strange metal demonstrates their commitment to progression far better than Graveward and never feels like a rehash of old material. I may not love it as I love In Somniphobia, but the truth is that few records can stir such feelings in this brutal bosom. Heir to Despair is as exhilarating or unsettling as you allow it to be, and that subtlety speaks to the depth of an album that seems on the surface to be Sigh‘s least ambitious — whether after a casual listen or a glance at the delightful cover art1. Sigh have once again coaxed their audience into territory we could have never prepared for — and sprung the trap.