Scenes from Hell

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Ever since they broke definitively with their trve cvlt black metal past on 2001's prog/psych/symphonic/jazz/metal masterpiece, Imaginary Sonicscape, Japan's Sigh have weathered the ups and downs common to all restless (some might even say, reckless) innovators. First came a stupefying swerve into what might only be summarized as extreme bubblegum metal on 2005's controversial Gallows Gallery (which also suffered from production woes so dire, they effectively lost the band their record contract!), and then a concerted about face via the rediscovered black metal fury laced with synthesizer orchestrations and a few oddball elements (like horn sections!) heard on 2007's Hangman's Hymn, making it virtually impossible to guess where Sigh mastermind and keyboard wizard Mirai Kawashima would dare venture next. That answer was only revealed (while raising even more new questions, in typical Sigh fashion) by the band's next opus, 2009's Scenes from Hell, which, perhaps most shockingly, saw Mirai relinquish most vocal duties to new saxophone-wielding frontwoman Dr. Mikannibal (!), whose death-like Cookie Monster growl proved no less fierce and fearsome than the scratchy rasps she replaced. The album also maintained its predecessor's general creative direction by blending symphonic strings into the music's manic metal core (see standouts like "L'Art de Mourir," "The Summer Funeral," and "Musica in Tempora Belli"), only, for the first time, these were performed by living, breathing musicians instead of Mirai's massive arsenal of synthesizers. Likewise, an equally flesh-and-bone, nine-piece horn section was enlisted to build upon the preceding album's tentative experiments at grafting -- get this -- Mexican bandito-flavored themes onto the roiling extreme metal maelstrom raging inside tracks like "Prelude to the Oracle," the slightly psychedelic "The Soul Grave," and "The Red Funeral." Needless to say, this frequently cacophonous schizophrenia challenged even the most open-minded of listeners and made it plain that Sigh simply refused to halt their rate of evolutionary experimentation, even if it meant their oldest fans had to latch onto the consistently jaw-dropping, neo-classical solos turned in by resident guitar hero, Shinichi Ishikawa, for some measure of comfort (that and the obstinately and explicitly satanic lyrics). But the bottom line is that, like most Sigh efforts, Scenes from Hell had a tendency to transform initial, frustrated head scratching into wide-eyed epiphanies, if only given enough time.

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