From the time they first came together in the year 2000, Stigmata has grown in leaps and bounds from a fiery and unusually talented teenage metal getup to a group of musicians that is taken very seriously in the international musical community. They have produced three full-length studio albums (Hollow Dreams in 2003, Silent Chaos [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Pure Sri Lankan metal


Stigmata: A long journey together. Pic by Abhishek Guneratnam

From the time they first came together in the year 2000, Stigmata has grown in leaps and bounds from a fiery and unusually talented teenage metal getup to a group of musicians that is taken very seriously in the international musical community. They have produced three full-length studio albums (Hollow Dreams in 2003, Silent Chaos Serpentine in 2006 and Psalms of Conscious Martyrdom in 2010) and a special collectors’ edition release (Hollow Dreams remixed, remastered and with bonus tracks in 2013) to rising critical acclaim, and played for the kind of audience other Sri Lankan bands have not yet encountered. They played the Melbourne Arts Festival in 2010, the SAARC Bands Festival for the second time in 2013, South Asia Rockfest to 30,000 people in Dhaka last October, and most recently became the first Sri Lankan band to play original music in the Middle East at Resurrection Dubai.

Stigmata claims a fan base spanning three generations, caught up not only by their technical wizardry and the weight of their steel, but also their electric stage presence and the energy of their live performance. You see these guys live, and you can’t help but recognize the magic, even if you’ve sworn to denouncing metal at every given opportunity.

Of the myriad metal bands that have come out of the small and suppressed but nevertheless thriving scene in Sri Lanka, only Stigmata has managed to make it this far, this long and this consistently. The winning factor? The original music, and the fact they never lost focus.

Performing at the video launch of ‘On the Wings of the Storm’. Pic by Natalie Soysa

“We knew from the get-go we’d have to push and shove to get anywhere, but we all have so much conviction,” explains frontman Suresh. “We each have our personal vision of the collective mission. The ‘sex, drugs and rock-n-roll’ is attractive and whatnot, but it’s the music that keeps our fires stoked.”

When they started out, these guys were in their late teens, with time on their hands and too much energy to know what to do with. Things are very different now. Guitarist Tenny has just got married and drummer Taraka will also tie the knot in a matter of months, while all five of them (the other three being frontman Suresh, second axeman Andrew and bassist Lakmal) work regular 9-5s (or 24/7s rather).They still find time to practise five or six days a week, from late night to the wee hours of the morning, not simply because they are ambitious as a band, but because these few hours together, jamming out, creating something, exploring the force of their ‘Pure Sri Lankan Metal’ is what makes the rest of the day worth going through.

The tagline ‘Pure Sri Lankan Metal’ is something the band-members took on as their collective identity from the outset.“Sri Lanka’s geographical location makes it cosmopolitan in many aspects,” Suresh explains. “Our art, our culture and even our science have from centuries gone by been a vibrant mix of global influences.” Music, undeniably, is no exception to this pattern, and what Stigmata identified with and appropriated for themselves from the launch of their first album, is the deep-rooted cosmopolitanism of their music.

An official shot from the South Asian Band Fest in Dhaka

While this makes their compositions unique, it also makes the listening experience deeply unsettling. But over the years, they’ve smoothed out the rough edges of their methodical madness. One point where Stigmata’s critically acclaimed albums have often suffered is the record production quality. But this time around, they’re working with well-known metal ripper Ravin David Ratnam as producer at Paragon Muzik Studio, and are convinced it’s going to make the difference.

“It’s brilliant working with Ravin,” Andrew says, calling him “a phenomenal guitarist, an instrumentalist, a metalist!” The producer being a musician and metal fan himself means to the band that a lot of pressure is taken off them during the recording process.

“We are very tired,” Suresh confesses, “but in a very good place, thanks to Ravin.” For Ravin also, a younger but equally talented and committed musician, working with Stigmata is different to any of his previous production experiences. This is his first full-length album recording, but more than that, working with musicians of Stigmata’s level of experience, he says, makes the whole process so much more challenging and rewarding at the same time.

Stigmata as a whole, is a stickler for perfection. They retell stories of how after completing a production, one band member takes up a minuscule point and insists on re-recording because he is unhappy with it, and nobody argues. They are always in agreement that they must always be in agreement about the sound they are producing. Everyone has to be on the same page.

“The chemistry is still so good, despite the line-up changing,” says guitarist Andrew, explaining how drummer Taraka played with Tantrum for four years after their last album release, and came back into the line-up in January 2015.

Taraka stayed in touch with Stigmata during this time, and for him, getting back in the studio feels literally like “nothing has changed”. “We grow with every album,” Tenny explains the progression of their music-making experience, “these [albums] are milestones in our musical journey, and we’re a little more advanced every time.”

The band is determined to outdo themselves this time, and remain convinced that this album is going to be “the big one”. Like all their previous albums this also draws amply from Stigmata’s eclectic roots, with hints of jazz, Carnatic and tribal music and even baila infused to the unshakable metalism of its musical structure.

“We’ve never been afraid to try something different,” Suresh explains, “and that implies we create a sound that people immediately identify.” And sure enough, the driving rhythms, the hard-hitting evocative vocals and the mad drumming are all falling in place to create that distinctly familiar unpredictability that is the sound of Stigmata.

The so far unnamed work is set for release in August 2015, following which the band will take on a very small and carefully selected number of performances. These include the album launch, a special 15th anniversary show, an unplugged session, a tribute, a tour of Australia and New Zealand and mind-bogglingly and characteristically genre-bendingly, a collaborative project with Soul Sounds. Stigmata has embraced and helped grow and then outlasted much in the music industry over the last decade and a half, and it seems like they are only about to reveal more magic.

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