Poland’s Mord’A’Stigmata channel their black-metal roots through a contemporary conglomeration of styles and moods; with their fourth full-length Hope, they seek to explore even wilder post-black and avant-garde musical territories. With their previous releases, the band demonstrated a willingness to experiment with expansive and long-winded songs that showed signs of greatness but also signs of compositional chaos that made listening to full albums tough. We’ve experienced the highs of weirdness with European stalwarts Dødheimsgard and Thy Catafalque but we’ve also experienced the very real lows with bands like Aborym twisting the weird nozzle just a bit too hard. Mord’A’Stigmata, unwilling to release a plain-Jane of an album, have released Hope, a hopeless mixture of sullen atmospheres and ritualistic ominousness with the occasional bluesy lead. It sounds fantastically enticing on paper, but does the conceptual fantasy match up the aural reality?
To a certain extent, yes it does, especially with the twelve-minute opener “Hope,” a song that simultaneously makes and breaks this album. Only one song falls under the eleven-minute mark on this four-song platter, so conciseness is not something you’d associate with this meandering organism. “Hope” is constructed excellently and its discreet moments are joined with satisfying segues that largely make sense. Opening with double bass drum rumblings and bittersweet guitar melodies that sear through the mix with feathery lightness, the song transitions into a wash of conventionally ominous black-metal tones that pump an intensity that is largely lacking throughout the album. Spurts of unconventional tremolo-laden riffing and blistering drumming, a feature core driving force on their debut record Uberrealistic, are non-existent here. Instead, measured melancholy is the core feature of Hope.
At the three-and-a-half-minute point of “Hope” the drumming stops, the bass staggers to center stage, and the guitars — tinged with exploratory psychedelia — begin to weep. Loose, echoing emptiness emerges as clean vocals (think My Dying Bride) lament and mid-ranged growls cry out. The song then shifts into an even lonelier soundscape as eerie guitar licks flutter through the mix and the drums take on an even more minimalist form (though simultaneously a second guitar shimmers, wails, and soars in the background with feral disregard). Drums steadily begin to build with intensity, the guitars become more forthright, and the track increases in velocity and speed before coming to a stop at the nine-minute mark. Mord’A’Stigmata manage these transitions from lull to loudness excellently. The final 3-minutes is a cold and depressive outpouring of emotion ornamented with spacey ambiance, reminiscent of Violet Cold and other atmospheric black-metal outfits who look to the stars for direction. “Hope” has already made my list for song of the year.
The rest of the album fails to reach the levels of “Hope.” Second track “The Tomb from Fear and Doubt” opens with hollow, ritualistic drum rolls and dissonant guitar work mixed with flecks and traces of deconstructed melodies. This theme continues, lacking impact and direction; it never really gets going. It takes the song nine minutes to break out of its slumber, but by that point, it’s difficult to wake up. My main gripe is with the inconsistent sound of the drums. They’re occasionally excellent but too often their loud, plastic hollowness is distracting. Their importance is clear to hear but regrettably, their plastic hollowness too often saps the life from the mix.
“To Keep the Blood” plods along at an inoffensive mid-pace and does little to create a haunting and depressive atmosphere. It’s all by the book at this point: decent but nothing exceptional. A brief one-minute escapade into more diverse and peculiar territories demonstrates the ability that Mord’A’Stigmata obviously possess, however, there’s just too much forgettable build-up and not enough time for moments of actual substance to make an impact. Similarly, final track “In Less Than No Time” takes more than enough time to reach its excellent depressive summit. After seven minutes of bland build-up, the song cascades with forlorn lead melodies, emotionally-charged growls, and a lively bass that cradles the song in its bony twang. The most annoying thing is that there are moments of excellence that timidly show their face but quickly, and without notice, burrow back underground, never to be seen again.
Hope is a strange album. Mord’A’Stigmata built up my hope with “Hope” but destroyed my hope with what followed. In a genre currently overflowing with bands taking bits and pieces from every other genre, extreme or not, it’s difficult to measure what’s good and what’s not. Maybe the slower build-ups make the moments I confess to liking that much sweeter. Either way, there’s certainly something in this for fans of expansive and ambitious black-metal inspired music. There is still hope.