Monday, October 29, 2012

Sigh - In Somniphobia

The most pretentious thing I've ever written. Hands down.

I'm going to spoil the ending right off the bat, I pegged In Somniphobia as my potential Album of the Year way back in March, and here, rolling near the end of October, it's only cemented its position in the lead spot.  I try not to spoil my year end list beforehand, but I see nothing dethroning this, the only albums that were even remotely close were also released very early on in the year, and they lack all the intangibles that make this album so special.  I was unfortunately not introduced to the magic that is Sigh until roughly 2009, so Hangman's Hymn, undoubtedly the best album released in 2007, was unfortunately snubbed of my album of the year, so it's only fitting that they come roaring back so powerfully five years later to easily usurp the top spot from my mystery #2 album (I need to keep some suspense, people!).

In Somniphobia finds itself continuing Sigh's unending theme of evolution, considering they haven't written anything resembling the same album since their inception.  If you held a gun to my head whilst simultaneously dangling me over a pool of sharks and forced me to choose the Sigh album this resembles the most, I'd say Imaginary Sonicscape (maybe it's just me, but (assuming you all know the band's naming formula) the "I" and "H" albums always seem to be the best) based on how "out there" it is and how many different ideas are thrown into the huge melting pot.  A huge majority of this album isn't even based in metal, instead opting for a weird, tripped out jazz style, complete with long psychedelic jams and a genuinely terrifying atmosphere.  Seriously, listen to tracks like "Amnesia" or "Somniphobia" or portions of "Equale" and then promptly tell Cynic and Atheist to fuck right off.  This is the purest mixture of jazz and metal I've ever heard, and as a result I have even more reason to hate Cynic, those uninteresting hacks.  Perhaps it is my own personal psychosis, but there are several sections of the album that remind me of mid-to-late nineties videogame music as well.  For example, I could swear "Ending Theme: Continuum" is straight out of Goldeneye, and the mechanical, background noises of "Somniphobia" bring to mind the darker areas of Donkey Kong 64.  Keep in mind that I know the band isn't actually paying respects to the City of the Ancients Theme from Final Fantasy VII, but the point is that there's a nostalgic quality to the album, even upon first listen.  An esoteric warmth of familiarity lying dormant underneath a harrowing, bleak surface.

Sigh has been pretty squarely detached from their black metal roots from as far back as Hail Horror Hail fifteen years ago, and what they exhibit now is a mad avant garde blend of traditional metal with hints of black metal and electronic ambiance and trip hop and jazz and orchestral suites and pretty much anything else you can think of that ponytailed and neckbearded psychology majors in Agalloch shirts claim to listen to by the fireside with a nice Merlot.  I really couldn't explain in words precisely what Sigh sounded like if you had a gun pointed at my son, they truly are the most unique metal band in the world today.  They get crapped on by people (numbskulls) who accuse them of being silly carnival music masquerading as metal, and I can see where that comes from to a point.  The instruments used can definitely be tied to more festive origins, and the climax of the album, the build and release and final chorus of "Equale", can definitely be pointed to if you were to make this accusation, but if you were to actually make this accusation you can be safely disregarded and ignored since you are clearly an idiot.  When the album isn't wandering off down the dark and twisted path, there is indeed an eerie jubilance to be found.  I'll touch on this a bit more in depth later, but despite the light guitar tone and major melodies scattered about, this album is nothing if not nightmarish and dark.  "Fall to the Thrall" is probably the most in-your-face example of the harm the album surely wishes upon you, as it is the most aggressive and pessimistic track on the record.  "Purgatorium" and "The Transfiguration Fear" are more hooky, and despite the more upfront presentation they are still rather layered, with different little things you'll catch each time you listen to it, while simultaneously being interesting the first time you hear it (a rarity when it comes to songs like that).  I also feel I have to point out that the only metallic song during the middle stretch of the album is "Amongst the Phantoms of Abandoned Tumbrils", which isn't very riff heavy regardless, instead focusing on a suffocatingly frantic atmosphere.  It reminds me a lot of "Salvation in Flame" from Hangman's Hymn.  I also adore the opening of "Equale", as it sounds like Weather Report went down the rabbit hole and landed face first in a puddle of LSD.  Despite the seemingly random assortment of shit I've been mentioning, Sigh manages to actually not be proggy, which is a great thing since the proggier the music, the less likely I am to like it.  Everything is progressive in the technical sense because it moves along and evolves naturally throughout the length of the song, but they're still songs, with an intended beginning, middle, and end.  Unconventional as they may be, they're still well thought out and executed perfectly.

I need to step back for a moment before I really delve in to why this album is so perfect and point out just one thing that should sell you on the album alone: "The Transfiguration Fear" is, bar none, without a doubt, 10000% positively the best metal song written since... my god since "The Oath" all the way back in 1984.  I'm dead serious, never in my life have I heard one song with so many ideas, so many unconventional quirks, and so much raw and unfettered brilliance contained in under five minutes.  Everything I love about Sigh and about music in general is showcased and presented in the best possible way.  The main theme repeated throughout hooks instantly and never lets go, and literally every melodic line layered over the frantic and bizarre trad metal inspired fire underneath is endlessly hummable and fits perfectly.  I never thought I'd use these next twenty words in a row, but when the band breaks down into the Cosmo Canyon theme, the keyboard to saxophone to guitar solo is fucking magical.  It transitions so smoothly and builds up masterfully to one of the most soulful guitar solos ever found in the genre.  In this one section, Shinichi proves once and for all that people who claim that you cannot inject soul or feeling when it comes to soloing in metal are batshit crazy and flat out wrong.  It's a stunningly beautiful trio, and I promise you I will never get over how masterfully the entire section is handled.  The almost childlike chorus of "End of torment coming / See the world, it's to disappear" is bone chillingly haunting and executed  flawlessly.  That's something this song does exquisitely well, the atmosphere is downright unsettling despite an air of levity.  What I mean is that the drums drive the song forward with a strong galloping pattern, and the melodies seem almost merry in a way.  The theme is sometimes accompanied by clapping and there are sections with an elongated whistle in the background, and despite all these qualities that would normally never be found in a dark and apocalyptic track, it never comes off as bouncy or lighthearted.  Instead, the visual I'm given is of a madman who has strapped you to a gurney and is happily whistling to himself as he lifts up and inspects each and every sharp instrument he plans on using to dissect you with.  I can clearly see his sharp, Kefka-like face and his Glasgow smile, gleefully inspecting you from behind a rusty scalpel.  This hypothetical madman, and more importantly this song itself, absolutely revels in the evil that it embodies.  It loves how dark and horrifying it truly is, and uses every trick in the book to make you feel uncomfortable, and makes you beg for more.  This atmosphere is conveyed perfectly and only helps to reinforce my claim of this being the best song written in nearly thirty years.  Just the way the song fades out with the cheery rhythmic clapping and the distant whistling of the main theme, punctuated by church bells... spine tingling.  You, as a fan of music in general, are selling yourself short by not listening to "The Transfiguration Fear".

Okay, now that I've spent over 530 words describing only one song, you're probably wondering "well is the rest of the album as good?".  Amazingly, yes.  Not one moment of In Somniphobia falls flat, all sixty four minutes are crammed with equally brilliant and terrifying ideas, and this is one of the few albums you experience more than you hear.  Now this is going to sound strange coming from a guy who typically likes his music to be on the fast side, and usually melodic (hence my love of thrash, power metal, and punk), but this record is paced perfectly.  I mean it, and that's including the half hour consisting only of spacey jazz jams in the middle.  We're initially started off with a barnburner in "Purgatorium", before being treated to the auditory equivalent of being told you won the lottery whilst mid-blowjob that is "The Transfiguration Fear", and then we're treated with what I assume is meant to be a long suite.  I say this because track three is labeled as an intro and track nine as an outro, thus bookending over 40 minutes of music, most of which therein being the slow jazz based stuff and strange noises.  I wish I could adequately describe what the fuck is happening for the majority of this record, but I can't, but I love it.  It's so unremittingly bleak and suffocatingly heavy in atmosphere.  The whole experience just oozes malice, from Mikannibal's deep growls to Mirai's harrowing rasp.  If you could extract a physical manifestation of dread out of In Somniphobia, you'd need an aircraft hangar to store all of it.  I realize I'm rambling like an idiot fanboy, just tossing around hollow descriptors left and right, but I promise you they're all true and fitting.  Plus I'd have to write a damn dissertation if I were to touch on every single aspect of what makes this album so flawless (I mean, Mirai is credited for twenty one different instruments, and a helpful "et cetera" on the end).  There's so much to find, it's a veritable treasure trove of mad genius, a tapestry woven of flesh and nightmares.

And that word there plays a large part of this album's tone; "nightmares".  The word "somniphobia" means "fear of sleep", and knowing that really helps make yourself vulnerable to the horror within.  Have you ever read the famous internet "true story" of the Russian Sleep Experiment?  If not, a quick summary is that during WWII, Russian scientists decided to test the effects of sleep deprivation on five captured German POWs.  They achieve this by locking them in an observation room and steadily pumping in a small amount of a gas that prevents them from sleeping.  After a short time, the POWs start acting strangely, and it is later discovered that they began mutilating themselves to preposterous extremes.  It is discovered that putting the men under for surgery instantly kills them, and the madness has made the pain pleasurable.  It leads to some disturbing imagery and an overall unsettling atmosphere.  It's a decent short story, but most importantly it really helps illustrate what In Somniphobia means to me.  The deprivation of sleep leads to utter madness, and the imagery wrenched from this album is that of slimy, nasty, soul shattering madness.  The thought is that sleep will kill you, and so against your sanity you must persevere through the terror you're inflicting upon yourself.  The juxtaposition of the lighter elements (the light melodies and childlike whistling and clapping, for example) furthers the idea that there is a form of peace in insanity, and invites you to leave what you know behind and instead fight for the unknown and unbalanced lunacy of what's inside your own mind.

And this is the big draw of the album, the main reason it's so perfect in my eyes.  It's the same reason I love HORSE the Band's The Mechanical Hand so much.  Nobody will experience In Somniphobia the same way as anybody else.  Yeah, we're all hearing the same music, but it means something else to each individual.  The Mechanical Hand strikes me as a huge, overarching concept album about the cycle of an unfortunate and mentally broken life.  Beginning with the childhood rage and confusion of "Birdo", continuing to the struggles of adolescence and early adulthood, the hypothetical narrator fights against his shortcomings and psychological trauma, eventually culminating in his mental collapse and early death, with the soothing, peaceful piano at the end of "The Black Hole" symbolizing his eventual peace in his tumultuous existence finally coming to a close.  The thing is, that album has no narrator, there are no lyrical themes connecting one song to the next, and my journey is undoubtedly not what the creators intended for listeners to take away from the album.  But that's what makes it so magical, that's what it means to me.  That is the connection I have to the music, and how I relate the stories told to my own life, all within my own imagination.  That's what makes The Mechanical Hand more than mere music, it makes it art.  In Somniphobia is the exact same thing, it's art.  What this album is to me, is being on your deathbed, mere minutes left in your existence, everything you'd done in your life is about to be rendered moot and nobody is there to share in your sorrow in your last moments.  What you experience in your last conscious moments awake are a series of twisted hallucinatory fever dreams and nightmares from your past, all flooding back to remind you that no person is perfect, and no matter what good you've accomplished in your life, you've caused and equal amount of harm and suffering and heartbreak.  In your last moments, you aren't who you used to be, you are instead broken down into fragments of what used to be a whole consciousness, now splintered and scattered across landscapes adorned with horrible, shameful memories and twisted, deplorable monsters.  In Somniphobia is a journey through those last moments to me, as evidenced by the occasional punctuation of what sounds like a flatlining heart monitor, and the closing lines of "I'm sorry, but I must go now...".  Was this Sigh's intent?  Most likely not, but that's why it's so gorgeous.  I'm not having my hand held through a linear narrative, Sigh doesn't paint picture for me to marvel at.  Instead they give me a gigantic canvas and all the materials they have and say "Now paint me a picture".  The sheer imagination is given vicariously to the listener, and is then allowed to project whatever twisted nightmares one can imagine on to your own psyche.  This is an album that you, the listener, write as you listen to it.  By experiencing and embarking on this journey, you have become the creator of your own nightmare, and In Somniphobia merely supplied you the tools.

It's the intangibles that make this album so beautiful, and that's why I could safely predict its position at the pole before the year was really even in full swing.  There is nothing I don't like about this album, everything from the pacing, to the atmosphere, to the driving songs and the laid back songs and the mindboggling songs, just everything about In Somniphobia was done not only correctly, but flawlessly.  I hope I don't appear to diminish the prestige by awarding my second 100% in just over a year, something I planned on doing as sparsely as possible, but anything less than the absolute highest marks would be an insult to the brilliance displayed by Sigh on their ninth full length album.  Buy this album, kiss it every night, make love to it, clean up after yourself, and thank Mirai and company for the best experience you've had listening to music since the day you were born.  In Somniphobia is, in a word, divine.  "The Transfiguration Fear" is again, the greatest song written in generations, and "Equale" is astoundingly not far behind.  For the love of everything, listen to it, I implore you.  How often do you see me fanboy out quite this hard?

This was easily the most pretentious review I've ever written, (and already usurped my Wintersun review as the longest one I've written by word count) but if any record earned it, it's this one.

RATING - 100%

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