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THIS IS ARMAGEDDON!

THIS IS ARMAGEDDON! SIGH's Mirai Kawashima On Early Days Of Norwegian Black Metal: "Varg Was Always Boasting About Burning Down Churches And Told Me To Do The Same In Japan"

Posted by on December 18, 2018 at 11:22 am

Yeah, we know… Japan's Sigh are not Norwegian. We get it. For the purposes of this very special installment of This Is Armageddon! you'd be best served removing that indisputable fact from your brain. It matters not. What does matter is that Sigh, over their twenty-eight years of existence, have shared an impenetrable bond with the land of frost and fjords.

The story begins way back in '93 with the release of Sigh's debut album, Scorn Defeat. For those that may not be aware, Scorn Defeat was originally released by Deathlike Silence, the label owned and operated by legendary Norwegian black metal musician/personality, Oystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous). This unlikely pairing came to fruition via a burgeoning friendship between Euronymous and Sigh mainman, Mirai Kawashima – a kinship born of tape-trading and a mutual respect/fondness for proto-black metal bands such as Venom and Bathory.

As the following photo of Mirai showcases (circa '93), the band's adoration of the Nordic aesthetic was clear and definitive. That said, Sigh were different enough, musically, that they immediately stood out from the Nords…

Though not Norwegian, Sigh would be welcomed with open arms by both fans and musicians of the second-wave of Norwegian black metal. The band would later go on to garner favorable reviews and praise from around the globe. Then, shit got weird. The untimely demise of Euronymous, at the end of a Varg Vikernes-wielded knife, moved the focus from the actual music into sensationalistic and tabloid-ridden realms. Anyway, we all know how the story unfolds from here.

Today, nearly thirty years after the events in Norway, Sigh are still plugging away stronger than ever. In fact, the band just released their eleventh full-length effort, entitled Heir To Despair. To these ears, the album is one of the finest in a catalog filled with gems. It seamlessly blends both extreme and traditional metal, while delving ever-deeper into the musical roots of his homeland.

We tracked down Mirai upon the release of the album in an effort to allow the man himself to shed some light on both his connection with Norwegian black metal and the refreshing genius that is Heir To Despair…

On Sigh's strange-yet-beneficial connection with the early days of the second wave of Norwegian black metal…

MIRAI: There are a lot of crazy stories from back then. At first, I was hunting a label for a possible LP deal. I sent out the Requiem For Fools EP to all the labels I knew from all over the world. I sent one to Dead, too. A few months later, I heard back from Euronymous somehow. He said Dead had shot himself and he found it [the Requiem For Fools EP]. The first thing Euronymous did was go out and get a disposable camera to shoot the scene, etc. Dead was already gone when I sent him the EP, but I didn't know that because it was well before the internet era. Euronymous also told me that he was interested in signing us to Deathlike Silence Productions and I said 'yes' straightaway as there was no other labels interested in us. In the early 90s, everybody was enthusiastic about grindcore and death metal and nobody cared about thrashier stuff at all. Euronymous showed us some new Norwegian bands like Burzum, Enslaved and Emperor and I started swapping tapes with them.

It was at this time that Varg was always boasting that he was burning down churches and told me to do the same in Japan. But I was not sure if he was burning churches for real at all. Burning churches, then boasting about it and still being on the loose, was something I could not believe. Such a thing can not happen in Japan! When I was talking on the phone with Euronymous, he told me not to talk about those arson things because ICPO [Interpol] could be tapping the phone. Of course it wasn't easy for me to believe that ICPO could be listening to me, but now I believe it. I had talked with Euronymous on the phone for the last time just three days before he was murdered. He said he might have to go to jail for a while as he had a fight in a bar. I just hoped that wouldn't affect Sigh's release. About two weeks later, I got a letter from Samoth of Emperor. He told me that he liked the advance of Sigh's debut album but we'd need to find a new label because Euronymous was murdered. I called up everybody I knew from Norway. I called up Snorre from Thorns. A woman answered and she told me Snorre wouldn't be back for a while. This was probably somebody from the police. It was a big shock to me that somebody I talked a few days before was brutally murdered. I cannot thank Euronymous more. He was the only one that was interested in releasing a Sigh album back then. I am sure without him, Sigh would have ended up as a demo band and my life would be something completely different.

On his continued relationship with his Norwegian friends…

MIRAI: It is great that all those old friends are doing very well. We played with Emperor here in Japan a few years ago. We've also played with Mayhem several times. And this year we played with Enslaved, Dimmu Borgir and Gorgoroth. I never expected this twenty-five years ago. Back then, I was thinking a new movement overwrote the old genre. I mean, when death metal and grindcore became a boom, thrash metal was almost killed. Then, black metal overwhelmed both death metal and grindcore. So, I thought black metal would be overwritten by some new genre, but it did not happen. Now all those genres co-exist, which I guess is a very healthy situation.

On the prevalence of Japanese traditional folk music found scattered throughout Heir To Despair…

I can say Heir To Despair is a very personal album. It is nostalgia to my childhood and it also is culmination of my musical activities. When I was a little kid in the 70s, there were many more "Japanese things" in our lives. The songs that sounded VERY Japanese were always in the top 40. I didn't like that kind of Japanese thing at all back then, which must have been very normal for the kids from the 70s. Japanese traditional music sounded so lame. However, as I'm getting older, I started understanding how great those Japanese cultures were and I completely miss them because I don't see or hear them at all these days. Unfortunately, they all are gone now. So, this time, I took in Japanese traditional instruments such as Shamisen, Shakuhachi, Shinobue etc. and sang in the Japanese traditional way. I am sure the album is not accessible at all. It does not have to be. It's my personal thing, so it is alright as long as it is accessible for me. I've been saying nobody is going to enjoy the album but I'm not talking about the quality of music. I really do not think other people could understand my personal nostalgia. Also, Heir To Despair was born out of the backlash to [last album] "Graveward", which was a very symphonic album, or to be precise, too symphonic of an album. I still don't like that album, so I intentionally excluded the symphonic elements from Heir To Despair.

On the decision to pen Heir To Despair's lyrics in Japanese…

MIRAI: There are a few reasons behind it. The simplest one is that I can sing much better in my native tongue than in English. I don't have to care about the right pronunciation. Also, I thought singing in Japanese would give a completely different feel to our music as Japanese and English are aurally different. I think my expectation was right. I always sang in English because I wanted the fans to understand what the songs were about. But, as I said, this is a personal album so I really do not care about that. And, even if you're a Japanese, I really do not think what I am talking about. The lyrics are very, very vague.

On the palatibility – as it relates to the average metalhead – of Sigh's eclectic, sometimes mindboggling, blend of genres…

MIRAI: I believe some people think too much when they listen to music. You do not have to "understand" or "digest" it when you hear it. Just smoking weed and listening to an album, without thinking anything, is good enough. "Understanding" music or any form of art is just an illusion. You will never ever understand the real intention behind it and you do not have to. It is true that we take in a lot of elements in our music but it is nothing new at all. The Beatles did everything from rock, orchestral to Indian, and they did it in the 60s. What we are doing is nothing but cliché. Symphonic arrangement, middle eastern elements or whatever, they all are something very common in at least rock music.

On the recurring theme of insanity and aberrations of the human psyche that seem to dominate the ethos and narrative of Sigh…

MIRAI: I 100% agree with Michel Foucault on his analysis that "mad people are mad because they are defined as mad". We usually think there are sane people and insane people, and insanity exists for real. But, actually, we all are just different and some people are defined as "insane" and that's how "insanity" was born. If little kids are shouting around on the street, nobody thinks they are insane. They are just "educated" to be normal as they grow up, because shouting round on the street is considered to be something only the crazy do. They prescribe psychotropic drugs to make crazy people act normal to their standard. It's all just a matter of definition. To my eyes, showing off what they eat for lunch on social media is the craziest thing. Who cares what you had for lunch? Probably everybody, including people defined as crazy, think they are normal. I don't think I am crazy and what I am saying makes sense here, but I cannot assure that. Like this, thinking about insanity is a lot of fun.

For fun, let's assume the next Sigh album is one that abandons all the usual elements, focusing on bare bones, straight-up compositions. Mirai goes on to explain what such an album might sound like…

MIRAI: Actually I sometimes think of making an album like that. I do love early thrash metal like Venom, Sodom, Whiplash, At War, Kreator etc. I also love punk/hardcore stuff like Misfits, Ramones, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, Circle Jerks, etc. So, I sometimes have an urge to start up a band that plays very simple rock n roll. But, at the same time, I've always questioned myself why I have to make new music when there's already so much great music in this world. There are so many rock n roll albums that it is impossible to listen to all of them in your life. Why should I add another album on top of that? Of course, I am not sure if I have to make an album as Sigh, either. But, probably an album like Heir To Despair never existed before, so some kind of justification could be made for that. I'd rather listen to Misfits again than trying to make a simple rock album. I must say, our album Hangman's Hymn was the album that abandoned most of Sigh's usual elements. It's got only crazy thrash and classical elements and nothing else.

Heir To Despair is out now via Candlelight/Spinefarm. Check out the brand new video for the track "Aletheia" below…

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