Recently the American cultural love affair with the retro seems to be at an all time high. Shows such as Netflix’s Stranger Things are not viewed as disturbing flashbacks to a time when Reagan was president and fear of nuclear war was imminent, but instead as fond recollections of the past. The clothes paint a (often painful to look at) portrait of a simpler times where it was still considered OK to wear jean jackets. Not to mention the beautifully done settings of the show which act about as close to physically possible as a time machine back into a mid-sized, 1980’s American town as can be. And, scoring all of this, is an analog synth heavy soundtrack that helps viewers fondly recall classic 80’s movies scored by artists such as Goblin. Yes, those were a simpler, happier times.
And then, on the coat tail of the 80’s and the eve of the 90’s, everyone seemed to remember just how badly everything seemed to suck. The culture shifted to the left, breaking free of the cultural correctness of the 80’s in favor of the unwashed aesthetic of the 90’s. Things were supposed to be grimy, alternative, and face, realistically, a bleak reality people seemed to ignore before in favor of God and country. It is no surprise then that in a time like this black metal found the beginnings of a firm footing in the metal underground as it celebrated, in a way, how truly shitty everything really was.
Now, some odd 20 years later, Stilla find themselves trapped between the two aesthetics of these periods, deciding whether or not they want to plunge in the bleakness of the 90’s or cling to the retro design of the 80’s. They struggle to answer this question themselves on their latest offering, Skuggflock, as the music pulls itself between the analog synth driven soundscapes that encompassed such an iconic era of film music or descend into the cold of black metal. The two are very distinct identities alone and often prove difficult for the band to manage as they dance through the albums nearly hour long run time, such as on track four, “Till Den Som Skall Komma”.
The track, for the most part, remains a fairly standard black metal affair which, in its own right, is absolutely fine. Stilla prove that they are comfortable in this territory and do an excellent job of paying attention to their idols while still whipping up enough interesting riffage of their own to remain distinct in a scene full of worship acts. Where they begin to have trouble is when they attempt to integrate the side of their sound that so desperately wants to play with analog synths as, about two minutes and a half into the song, a seemingly pointless synth line begins. It doesn’t do a whole lot for the overall atmosphere or tone of the song and mostly just clashes with an already well established, darker melody. However it is bearable as almost as soon as the band picks up they drop it, launching once again into a furious black metal assault. Once again the song feels cold, frost bitten, grim, whatever you want to call, when, suddenly, the floor drops out again. From a full on black metal track the listener is placed into an awkward, synth driven space, completely ruining the atmosphere previously created. It’s admirable that Stilla wants to distinguish themselves from other acts and pay homage to their influences, but doing so in such a curt manner completely ruins whatever groove they had previously established.
By the time song ends the synth is once again introduced, only this time in a more subtle effective way. It meanders with a shallow, dark riff and some light howls before successfully closing off the track on its own. The ending feels incredibly satisfactory and at least ties together an otherwise choppy song. The rest of the record, on the other hand, is not so lucky. Many of the songs suffer from endings that feel either completely forced (imagine a bus going fifty miles per hour suddenly slamming on its break) or just seemingly trail off into nothingness. This creates an overall atmosphere for the record that feels, again, very stop-start and difficult to fully engage with. And, coupled with already choppy song segments, makes it extremely difficult to find any sort of comfortable flow to listening to Skuggflock.
Stilla, while admirable in the sense that they took a very big musical risk, ultimately fail to fully integrate them into one continuous form. As of right now the band feels as if they have each section marked as either “black metal” or “analog-synth/prog”, creating a generally uncomfortable listen as songs swing between the two. Where Stilla will find their strength is joining the two so that they play off one another, enhancing each others atmosphere instead of fighting for control of one atmosphere. On Skuggflock, the ideas are certainly there, and many of them as stand alone sections prove interesting, but ultimately fall flat as a lack of overall musical flow creates a difficult listening experience.
Stilla – Skuggflock gets…