Last summer, I had the pleasure of joining about a dozen classmates in a roundtable discussion with the author and journalist Joan Acocella, perhaps most recognized as the dance critic for The New Yorker. Somewhere towards the end of the chat, I asked her whether she finds it necessary to immerse herself in the background of what she’s reviewing or if she feels comfortable evaluating something without really knowing its context. Her firm conviction was that any responsible reviewer does as much studying for a piece as possible, as good criticism suggests a specialty in whatever it is that’s being criticized. To do anything less for your reader would suggest that you find an inherent superiority in your own opinion.
Ever since then, I’ve tried my best to devour the discography behind any record that I review. But I realized early in my travels through the annals of Rev’s musical history that such diligence might do me little good here. Stigmata, as it turns out, is the rare late-career record that has just about nothing to do with anything that came before: there is nary a trace of his band Suicide’s hazy synth-punk reverie or the dalliances with keyboard pop sometimes found in his solo oeuvre (Stigmata is the eighth record to bear his own name). While it is unlikely that anyone might pick up this record without familiarity with something Rev’s done in the past, reminders of who you’re listening to are scarce.
So, what does it sound like? Well, although it took me less than half a listen to the record to arrive at this conclusion, I’m only now accepting it: Stigmata sounds like videogame music. To be more precise, it sounds like Japanese role-playing game music, like something Yasunori Mitsuda might compose. To be more precise still, it sounds like a Mitsuda score being played by a Sony PlayStation (yes, the first one). To be as precise as I possibly can, these songs sound exactly like outtakes from the Xenogears soundtrack.
Seriously. As orchestral music programmed by Rev on his synth, pretty much everything on this disc resembles the musical accompaniment for one of two common RPG videogame scenes. On the one hand, there are tracks like “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “Sanctus,” “Domine,” and “Exultate,” which have that sort of bombastic, self-consciously ‘epic’ vibe that is used for either a battle or the pump-up scene leading into a battle. And then there’s some pretty fake harp and digital pizzicato on tracks like “Gloria” and “Jubilate,” for the more emotional, contemplative turns in the narrative. And, not only for the soundfonts he uses but also because of the compositions themselves, this album really sounds like Xenogears in particular. It’s bizarre. The only real distinguishing factor is that a good portion of Stigmata is adorned by Rev’s mock-haunting bleats and warbles, which almost completely avoid lyrics or add anything interesting to the music itself.
Which is precisely the problem. While evoking one of the better soundtracks by one of the best composers in videogame music isn’t such a bad thing, I called these songs “outtakes” in my analogy for a reason. Like the aforementioned “Gloria,” the sad string figures of “Te Deum” are reverbed just enough to transcend their synth-cheese origins, and for once Rev’s minimalist vocals really add to the song’s ethereal feel. But aside from that — and the novelty of hearing a relic of 70s punk take such a wild detour so late in his career — there is almost nothing here that merits attention.
There is one place my research might have paid off, though. Even though Rev seems most interested in placing himself on a classical pedestal with Stigmata (the first three tracks all share names with Handel pieces from 1712), the reference in the liner notes to “Angel Mari” is worth noting. “Mari” was the leadoff track from Rev’s self-titled solo debut from 1979, and in hindsight, it sounds an awful lot like the chiptune jams of the earliest Nintendo and Atari games. But while “Mari” presaged a bold new era of digital music and fun (it’s a catchy tune), the sound of Stigmata is grayed and stale — reaching, perhaps, for 18th-century Baroque, but instead winding up stuck in a rusty soundcard from 1998.