Review Summary: Scenes from Hell is an overwhelming, overpowering metal album that perfectly celebrates the band's 20th anniversary by celebrating everything they've done since their inception.
In the last 20 years there hasn't been a metal band as eclectic and enigmatic as Japan's Sigh. In their relatively normal, surprisingly humble beginnings, Sigh began playing what can be described as a sound that bridges the gap between first and second wave black metal; a relatively linear continuation of Venom's thrashy, scathing sound. I say relatively because, even in their infancy, there was something a little off about Sigh. Concerning Scorn Defeat
, the band's first full length and the album in reference to what you've just read, Sigh employed a palpably loose sense of guitar playing, an almost bluesy, free-flowing way of distributing leads that were by no means technically proficient, but all the while intriguing and unique enough to separate them from the swarm of derivative clones coming out of Northeastern Europe at the time. As time went on, black metal began to exist only in traces throughout their music, and as it dissipated the band continually stepped further into a world characterized by words like 'psychedelic' and 'avant-garde'. For the next decade-plus, Sigh continued to expand their sound, releasing increasingly challenging records in a cycle that titled each album with a letter from the band's name. In 2007, Sigh released Hangman's Hymn
, completing the second incarnation of the S.I.G.H titling pattern. Fitting, then that Scenes from Hell
ushers in a new era by restarting the cycle with perhaps the band's best album yet. Not only that, Scenes from Hell
epitomizes everything Sigh is and always has been about.
Whether it's revisiting the symphonics––now organically recorded––established on Hangman's Hymn
or Gallows Gallery's jovial tone, Scenes from Hell
plays out almost like a modern re-write of what we'd call a greatest hits album. This is to say that while it is by no means a compilation, and it exclusively features new music from the band, it carries an insinuation towards their complete body of work. It's very cumulative, evoking an entire back catalogue of material that doesn't necessarily seem like it would blend and smashing into a new, tightly composed package (which features some of the coolest album art I've seen in years). It's a redefining of the greatest hits, which serves as a reminder of what they've done just so they can outdo themselves.
If you've not yet heard Scenes from Hell
, and at time of publication I'll assume you haven't, what I'm about to propose might be surprising: with the release of Scenes from Hell
, Hangman's Hymn
finds itself, in hindsight, as little more than a blueprint. A great blueprint, sure, but a blueprint nonetheless---surely a sweeping statement given the excitement with which I reviewed it upon its original release. I can even go further, adding that the pacing of Hail Horror Hail
or the instrumental experimentation of Gallows Gallery
were little more than templates for what the band is now producing. Being reductive and revisionist isn't really my intention, though. I really just want to outline how strong of a release Scenes from Hell
To start, Scenes from Hell
continues the band's enigmatic nature with the addition of Dr. Mikannibal. A real life Ph.D currently working at the US National Laboratory, Dr. Mikannibal is also known for her propensity on the (alto) saxophone, her bellowing growl and her peculiar habits, which include recording topless and casually dining on everything from bull penis to cockroaches. She's also been a great addition, in part because of her obvious chemistry with the band (natural, given her relationship with Mirai) and because of the seamless nature in which she fits with what they're trying to do. This is made no more clear by the level of vocal responsibility she's taken since joining the band. After providing nearly all of the vocal's on the band's 2008 tribute to Venom, she spends much of Scenes from Hell
alternating with long-time vocalist Mirai Kawashima, a technique that is never more viable and well executed than on “Vanitas”, which sees Kawashima and Mikannibal alternating vocal duties with such precision that they could almost pass as one were it not for their rapid fire delivery. What's interesting is that in the band's traditional 'do-it-differently' mindset, Mikannibal growls exclusively, barking in contrast to Mirai's typically scratchier, higher shouts.
“Prelude to the Oracle” and “L'art de Mourir” are both good songs, that much is clear, but the constant barrage of horns (performed by Mikannibal on sax and Sear Bliss' Zoltán Pál on trombone) and Junichi's almost incessant drumming (those who've heard Hangman's Hymn
will know what I'm on about) is a little much. Beyond that, the liberal use of horns does come off as a little unexpected and, with the orchestrations going full-blow in the background, the album doesn't have the most welcoming, or even promising, beginning. In its infancy, Scenes from Hell
can come off as overly busy and far too layered. It's all in the bigger picture, though, as both songs do a mindful job of introducing the album's full instrumental body at once, allowing the rest of the album to evolve and perform at its own pace and, specifically, for the saxophone soloing at the end of “The Soul Grave” to sound as natural as it does conclusive. Conclusive because what follows is a triumvirate of songs bookend-ed by spoken monologues delivered by the delightfully insane David Tibet (of Current 93).
“The Red Funeral” is an initially slow-burning track that begins with air raid sirens and what could be the sound of fighter jets and climaxes in a Shinichi Ishikawa guitar solo that instantly reminds us that he's not Gunface (of the Red Chord, who's worked on the previous two Sigh album), yet one that works because of its cacophonous delivery––think Kerry King, only less terrible. “The Summer Funeral”, which can only be described as John Williams' “Imperial March” adapted into a black metal waltz. Slowly and quietly building upon itself, it culminates in a film-score-like combination of swooping strings, trombone and piano which, as it fades, starts to mirror X-Japan's Art of Life
in its awkwardness. The song ends with the piano being abruptly cut off by a maniacal laugh and the speedy intro that begins “Musica in Tempora Belli”, a seamless transition that further confirms the album's status a complete package rather than a random assortment of single songs. Musically, “Musica in Tempora Belli” is the closest Sigh come to recapturing the unique atmosphere produced on Gallows Gallery
(in part due to its use of the theremin and in part because it's just off-kilter enough to work), but no facet of the song is as worthwhile as Tibet's closing words. Sandwiched between another squealing sax solo, the sheer insanity in his voice is outdone only by the words themselves, which close as follows, "Alpha, Alpha, Alpha, whose is the night in the shower of flies? Omega, omega, omega, to whom do you belong with your unreal face and pale, crown answers? I fell from heaven with future armies, coming soon to fields and towns near you."
Somehow, it works.
Scenes from Hell
will likely pace itself to many year end lists. Realizing that it's only January, I only emphasize my point by urging you to listen to it carefully and as one. While Scenes from Hell
may not be as conclusively classic as Imaginary Sonicscape
, it succeeds not just because it comes close, but because it perfectly captures and encapsulates the band's entire body of work. Having been around for 20 years (the band was formed in 1990), that's no small feat, especially given their eclectic, polarizing (both in sound and opinion) body of work.