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Martin Rev
Stigmata Ben Graham , December 4th, 2009 06:21

Suicide were one of the first bands I ever saw live. Back in 1987, they were a fearsome myth: namedropped by the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Sisters of Mercy, and even claimed as a primary inspiration behind Sigue Sigue Sputnik's intermittently brilliant sci-fi glam trash, but as enigmatic and elusive themselves as the similarly influential likes of the Stooges or Can. Bizarrely, when I saw them, they were way down on the bill at an indoor hippy festival in Leeds, headlined by Hawkwind and mainly consisting of a motley assortment of past-their-best psych-boogie merchants, though a relatively unknown Spacemen 3, who also borrowed heavily from Suicide's template, were the opening act.

That evening, Martin Rev's repetitive, distorted synth and echoing numbskull beats polarised the audience. Mellow-minded Enid fans retreated in disgust or sat passively grooving until a frustrated Alan Vega was driven to crouch on the lip of the stage, slowly dragging a broken bottle down his face as he sang, in an attempt to provoke some reaction from the spaced-out crowd. I was just inches away from him, thrilled and disturbed in equal measures.

Twenty-two years later, and Martin Rev's eighth solo album arrives in the post. A collection of cinematic, pseudo-classical themes, all rendered single-handed (probably literally) by Rev on his synthesiser, it initially seems a far cry from that confrontational spirit of yore. But beneath the smooth surfaces, Rev remains as uncompromising and hardcore as ever.

Alongside Suicide accomplice Alan Vega, Rev (full name Martin Reverby, fact fans!) emerged from New York's downtown art scene in the early 70s, and approached his keyboard much as an untutored artist might; in a spirit of discovery, using his limitations, looking for ways to generate texture and colour. He was a non-musician before Eno coined the term, the polar opposite to the classically-trained prog keyboard players of the day. It was this lack of reverence for chops, licks, technical proficiency and accepted tradition, as much as their iconoclastic minimalism and aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude, that separated Suicide from the floundering hippy tribes and aligned them with the punk barbarians already at the gates.

That same sense of painterly experimentation and non-conformism informs Stigmata. In a way it feels more like an art installation than a typical solo album by a rock sideman. Opener 'Laudamus' is based around an ominous, powerful looped riff with a built-in glitch that is initially irritating, but in fact deliberately draws your attention to the artificial, contrived nature of this recording: no matter how realistic the orchestral sounds might seem from this point on, Rev seems to be saying, never forget that this is music I've made alone with a computer and a synthesiser. It acts as a kind of overture, introducing the work as a whole.

Most of the pieces are short, repetitive and deceptively simple, as basic passages are layered on top of each other before being abruptly terminated. 'Te Deum' imitates the sound of massed violins, providing a gorgeous, shimmering melodic backdrop to Martin's minimal vocals; throughout the album he coos wordlessly from beneath smothering layers of reverb, the fact that he's never quite in tune offsetting the sometimes cloying, machine-tooled perfection of the music. On 'Gloria,' a meditative harp piece, Martin's echoing vocals seem to float in disembodied fashion across a CGI landscape of rolling hills and still blue oceans, while the martial pace and rising key changes on 'Sanctus' conjure marching lines of regimented legions. Later, on 'Salve' and 'Spiritus,' dawn breaks across a Walt Disney landscape of fluttering cartoon butterflies, lolloping rabbits and baby lambs shaking the sleep from their eyes.

This is Plastic Epic, Classical Bubblegum, deliberately artificial and contrived. It's Camp in the purest, Susan Sontag-defined sense, a brilliant fake that wears its artifice on its sleeve. And yet, there's a basic, heartfelt sincerity here that transcends any lingering sense of kitsch. The CD's dedication reads, “Angel Mari, spread your wings in joy and fly to the loving arms of the Divine.” 'Mari' was the title of the love song that opened Rev's first solo LP in 1980, suggesting- along with the religiously-themed Latin titles- that this is actually a self-penned Requiem Mass, articulating a genuine loss and engaging with the mysteries of faith and mortality from the heart and gut.

Flash Gordon sci-fi swirls may lift 'Exultate' and 'Sinbad's Voyage' to the level of space opera, but when the journey ends with 'Paradisio' and its evocation of welcoming heavenly hosts, you feel that Rev means it; that this album isn't the laughable, pretentious indulgence of a Keith Emerson or a Rick Wakeman, but an honest stab at beauty from the depths of Rev's synthesised soul. He's not a trained musician; he's just a guy with a keyboard, using the technology to express himself and see what comes out. Which is why, in its own way, Stigmata is as honestly moving as 'Ghost Rider' or 'Rocket USA.' Giving the finger to the proficiency and authenticity brigade, Rev remains true to his own singular vision.