As a genre, metal leaves a lot of room for interpretation and experimentation. I don’t just mean in the sense of avant-garde metal, but rather in the sense of applying that heavy metal feeling to not-quite-metal music. An easy example that comes to mind is Celestite, the drone-heavy, trance-like fifth album from Wolves in the Throne Room, a band that otherwise spends its time making heavy-hitting, folk-infused black metal. Predictably, Celestite is a rather love-it-or-hate-it album, as is wont to happen when black metal musicians conjure up the nerve to create music that isn’t black metal. And speaking of which Stigma, the debut full-length from, Dödfödd, the solo project (or so I believe) of drummer and vocalist Atum (Reverorum Ib Malacht), is similarly presented; labeled as black metal by its promotional team, the actual aural experience is, well… different than expected.
With two tracks spanning a little over twenty minutes each, Stigma is an album designed to be digested as a whole. “Stigma I” opens with slow, synth-driven atmospherics before the drumming begins, as primal chants, animal calls, and other natural, twisted, or synthesized noises join the fray. As the record progresses, these soundscape-like samples flow naturally into one another, forming the basis for a record that leans far closer to trance than it does to black metal. There is no “true” singing or screaming, no blast-beat pummelling on the drum kit, no tremolo leads or deafening riffing. Stigma is, in many ways, a low-fi, primal cousin to Celestite, similarly born to a band who adopts the moniker of black metal, but is experimenting with a more formless style.
So Stigma winds up largely being a showcase for Atum’s drumming, as there is precious little else of note to decorate the forty-three minute album. Firstly, I should say that he is a skilled drummer, and that if I close my eyes and imagine even the most basic of riffs, this album becomes a lot more interesting. Continually, Atum hints at an explosion of black metal that never arrives, and plays the supporting structure to a song that feels like it’s missing everything else. The drumming is even mixed and produced as if part of a suitably fuzzy black metal album; no hits are particularly impactful, or high in the mix, but their relentless presence, serves as a reminder that this might just have been a beast of a black metal album, given literally anything else reminiscent of the style besides a fuzzy production and drumming.
I do understand what Dödfödd is going for with Stigma, and I understand that it is not for everyone. I get that there’s subtlety to music of this style, and that Stigma is not a collection of random samples haphazardly glued together and mislabeled for the creator’s own amusement. The drumming is keeping time, and the samples used do make an effort to keep up with it. But my biggest issue with Stigma in light of this is that it is simply too submerged in its own dense atmosphere to be accessible in really any way, shape, or form. I don’t necessarily mean accessible in the sense that this should be radio-friendly or even that it absolutely needs to have hooks and riffs, mind. But I do feel that the meaning and story beneath Stigma’s dense, lo-fi fogginess is buried too deeply to make the proper impact on very many listeners, myself included – and I think that’s too bad.
In a way, I almost want to feel bad for not “getting” Stigma; the knowledge that there is something there, just beyond my own reach that I can’t quite grasp is frustrating, to say the least. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that this album has had very little effect on me; it is too dense and too minimalist at the same time, and nothing about it is very memorable or emotionally affecting. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement. As Dödfödd undoubtedly intended, I quickly became lost in Stigma – but it was the bad kind of lost, the one where I really just want to get home again.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: AnnapurnA & Clavis Secretorvm
Released Worldwide: October 11th, 2019