Review Summary: A fantastic album really hurt by subpar production.
Sigh is a Japanese experimental extreme metal band that has become known for combining black metal with a wide variety of genres, using the combined sounds to create albums that can truly be described as unique. The band got its start playing straightforward black metal in the early 1990’s, and released their debut, titled Scorn Defeat, on Euronymous’s infamous Deathlike Silence label in 1993. After a similarly styled follow-up in 1995’s Infidel Art, Sigh began to experiment with new sounds, incorporating more avant-garde elements into their music. This experimentation began with two releases in 1997: the EP Ghastly Funeral Theatre and full-length Hail Horror Hail. While both are relatively strong releases that hold an important place in the Sigh discography, it was not until 1999’s Scenario IV: Dread Dreams that the band really began to master the experimental elements of their music. Dread Dreams is the perfect representation of a band that had finally begun to develop an interesting style of its own, and it laid the groundwork for the masterpiece to come in the band’s 2001 release, Imaginary Sonicscape.
While the music on Dread Dreams is still firmly grounded in the realm of black metal, the band makes it clear with the album’s opening track that this is an album on which anything goes. Titled “Diabolic Suicide”, the track begins with a short sample of a waltz before kicking into a slow-paced metal groove. The song changes again once frontman Mirai’s harsh vocals kick in with the verse, transforming the song into faster-paced melodic black metal with accented keyboards and tambourine backing. After repeating the verse, the song goes into a catchy chorus with Mirai’s harsh vocals being matched with ethereal female vocals. All of these changes come within the first two minutes of the album, and the first track has much more to offer. Clocking in at over seven minutes, “Diabolic Suicide” is absolutely full of interesting twists and turns, including an acoustic segment, an ambient synthesizer bit, and a sample of what sounds like a marching band. It is interesting to note that while the song clearly distinguishes verses and a chorus, it combines these expected parts of a song with a variety of surprising elements. In fact, many of the songs on the record follow the verse-chorus formula, creating some really catchy music that is broken up and enhanced by the experimental segments. The music performed on Dread Dreams can be best described as pop-influenced extreme metal fused with avant-garde elements. One of the most effective unconventional elements is the inclusion of a strummed acoustic guitar backing the other instruments on several of the album’s songs. This is particularly notable towards the end of “Iconoclasm in the 4th Desert”, a clear album standout and arguably the album’s best track.
Certainly the most experimental track on the album is “Black Curse”. Without outlining the entire song, it should be noted that the track contains a country guitar segment, satanic chanting, a jazz/funk section, ambient piano, and (of course) black metal, along with several other elements. The song, while actually one of the weaker tracks on the album, is the perfect representation of the album as a whole. It embodies the experimental nature of the band and their music, and should be seen as a defining track. That is not to say that every song on Dread Dreams is completely experimental, however. Tracks like “Infernal Skies” and “Imprisoned” more or less follow a typical black metal formula, albeit with a few elements that may seem out of place on other albums typical of the genre. While these tracks are certainly not bad, the band is at its best performing its more experimental pieces. Another experimental highlight is album closer “Divine Graveyard”, which features an excellent clean vocal contribution in its chorus by Damian Montgomery. The song also begins with the best guitar solo on the album, a nice bluesy lead backed by acoustic strumming. It comes across as very tasteful, and is the perfect track to end the album.
While there really is an abundance of brilliant music on this record, there is one glaring issue that must be addressed. The issue is the album’s production. While it may have been intentional, every song present has a sterile feel to it due to the album’s unconventional production. The music sounds muffled, and it is difficult to hear any real emotion in the music. It is clear that a great deal of emotion went into writing and performing this record, but the lackluster production prohibits the listener from experiencing it with any depth. Again, it is a possibility that the production was an intentional element. The production may have served to enhance the band’s message of going against musical convention, but this seems unlikely. Unfortunately, Sigh has had a spotty history in regards to their albums’ production. Their 2005 album, Gallows Gallery, was remastered only two years after its release (and again in 2012), and their much-praised Imaginary Sonicscape was also given a remastering in 2009. In both cases the band cited dissatisfaction with the original recordings. While the production may have been a musical statement, it seems far more likely that Dread Dreams was simply the first in a regrettable line of unsatisfactory recordings. Perhaps the album’s relatively low popularity is the factor keeping it from getting a quality remastering.
Briefly covering the album’s musicianship, all instruments and vocals are performed extremely well. The guitar work is outstanding, with nearly every song including one or two impressive solos performed in multiple styles. The percussion work is also laudable, with drummer Satoshi Fujinami enhancing his work on the kit with tambourines, handclaps, and other auxiliary instruments. Singer Mirai’s vocals have really not changed much from the band’s foundation to the present (with the exception of Gallows Gallery, which features clean vocals), and Dread Dreams is no exception. Mirai provides vocals that fit the band’s sound nicely, delivering a relatively high-pitched rasp that is as raw as it is unintelligible. His unconventional lyrical delivery also makes for an interesting listen.
Overall, this is an excellent album that is unfortunately not given justice by its production. The music performed on the album is of top quality, and demonstrates Sigh’s exceptional musicianship. Taking the music on its own merits, outside the context of the album’s poor production, Dread Dreams ranks among Sigh’s best releases, and would certainly stand as a career highlight if it was only subjected to a remixing. Even with its poor mixing, Dread Dreams is an album that deserves a listen from any fan of experimental metal. Fans of Sigh’s later material should find this album an engaging listen, and should appreciate it as the beginning of the band’s successful musical experimentation.
Album Highlights: “Diabolic Suicide”, “Iconoclasm in the 4th Desert”, “Divine Graveyard”