[14 February 2010]
This album is not what I expected.
Forgive me, I think I’m suffering from that same old reviewer’s sickness of expecting an older musician to produce work of an identical boilerplate to his former band’s glory days. When I think of Suicide, I think eerie, pulsing synths courtesy of mad scientist Martin Rev, and the droning, monotonous mutterings of his comrade Mr. Alan Vega. And while it’s difficult to listen to Suicide’s self-titled masterpiece of a debut in 2010 and not think of all the bands they’ve clearly influenced (Raveonettes, I’m all but glaring in your direction), it’s still fairly easy to see how the innovation and pure audacity of the music may have shocked folks in 1977. Suicide was a perfect fit for the blossoming ‘downtown’ scene of late seventies New York, and an obvious root system for the enigmatic tree of No Wave to soon blossom.
So I suppose when I received my copy of Martin Rev’s latest solo effort, Stigmata, I guess I was expecting something along similar lines, except nowhere near as vital or heart-quickening, because, well for starters, no Alan Vega, and for two, it’s been forty years and change. No one stays relevant that long, although God knows Dinosaur Jr. may prove all of us wrong on that one at the rate they’re going.
Stigmata is a collection of short pieces all titled in Latin, with the odd exception of one (“Sinbad’s Voyage”), and if every artist could stick to naming their records this accurately as to what awaits listeners, it would make music shopping much more literal. This is indeed a hellish journey of dark Christianity, albeit an uneven and puzzling one.
Other critics have pointed out the parallels between Rev’s choices of titles and that of the composer Handel, and certainly there’s comparisons to draw between the elegant flavors of the Baroque age with Rev’s compositions. Still, there’s precious little to be called peaceful in many of these tracks. Much of the work (“Dona Nobis Pacem”, “Sanctum”, “Laudamus”) sounds like the kind of haunted, Gothic Catholicism that cropped up years ago in the soundtracks of films like The Omen or (shudder) The Ninth Gate. With Rev’s eerie, keening mumble buried somewheredeep in the mix, it’s as if we’re hearing a damned and lonely soul, a schizophrenic or mad murderer, chanting to himself in a giant cathedral as God turns his very face away from him. Now that may sound a bit dramatic, but there’s nothing more dramatic than the more bombastic pieces on this album. Melodrama is the intensity Rev traffics in, all shrieking horns and mournful violins stabbing at eternity. On “Laudamus”, there are moments where I swear the subsonic chanting sounds chillingly like “Oh no!” That seems suitable, somehow.
Not all of the album is quite so on-the-chin. There are some beautiful, suitably angelic sounding chants and incantations. “Gloria” floats on a bed of what sounds like harp and organ, lifting to the heavens on tattered and fragile wings. “Te Deum” is a similarly gorgeous piece, stuttering keys opening on a vista of shimmering gold.
All of these pieces have individual characteristics that suit them well. “Sinbad’s Voyage” is the most produced and electronic-sounding track here, “Exultate” the most epic fists-in-the-air moment, and “Paradiso” the most overtly-sounding Baroque of the bunch. This keeps an album of brief and similar pieces from sounding repetitive.
The only thing frankly that irks me here is the sequencing. Stigmata, like any well-made instrumental album, could’ve been a journey, a soundtrack for an unseen story, progressing from naïve hope, to damning thunder and horror, and possibly back towards grim and stubborn hope again. Instead, we’re jerked in an out of a world of terror, with occasional glimpses of sunlight patches in between. The effect is disorienting, and interrupts what could’ve been a beautiful progression, a fascinating mystery unraveling. Perhaps Rev’s intentions were just that. I suppose it doesn’t matter; the beauty of the digital age is we can rearrange tracks in our iTunes as we see fit, can’t we?
So all in all, it’s nice to see that forty-plus years on, at least one member of Suicide is still making bold, challenging, daring music, and you’ll probably struggle to find a more groundbreaking album than Stigmata in 2010. It may not be something you blast in the Wrangler on the way to the coast on Memorial Day weekend, but it’s sure to keep you guessing, and best of all keep you thinking.