“Stigmata” may well be the most forgotten of all TAROT's albums, with its songs not seeming to find themselves brought out on stage and it generally being sandwiched between two far more confident-sounding eras. TAROT still carried themselves with the gnarly elegance of true-at-heart Metal traditionalists however, and dropped an album that focused the rambling experimentation of “To Life Forever” into potency if not perfection. Still too catchy and explosive to be Doom, always too rough to sound quite like the Power Metal of their homeland, and often too slow and turgid for comparisons to the JUDAS PRIEST school of Power Metal, TAROT were reducing their pace, thickening out the guitars and keys and elaborating the vocals into a dark and epic Heavy Metal sound of their own.
Starting strong is a talent of TAROT's. "Angels Of Pain," with its buzzing riffs and scintillating synths, is one of the catchiest songs ever affiliated with Mr. Marco Hietala, and that's saying something. Y'all know what I'm talkin' bout. Pounding bass rhythms and ridiculously good vocals from the hairy one ensures his worming back into my affections after “To Life Forever”. “Loneliness is full of echoes, distant calls...you know you're lost, when they're comin' out of the walls!” Bitch yeah. Aside from this however the good stuff is all slow and heavy; the other fast'uns “Race The Light” and “Shades In Glass” are pretty stagnant, while even the relatively exhilarating “The Teeth” wears off after a few listens.
Zachary Hietala, after seven years, is finally back on top form, slicing up the songs with racing main shredding reminiscent of Ritchie Blackmore, passionate solos cut from the cloth of Adrian Smith and booming slower riffs a'la Iommi. It's all very much his own though; when big brother Zach is playing to his influences he comes into his own much more powerfully. “Stigmata” is the one where they got the slow, epic sound right. If a song is going to stretch into six, seven or eight minutes you better make sure the main riff ripples with '80s DIO-like levels of awesomeness. “To Life Forever” neglected this little detail, but the grunting main riff of the thunderous, lumbering “E.T.I.” alongside the cavernous bass guitar sound, is enough to make me forget all that. Even has a keyboard solo. I bet that back then keyboard solos were still just about titillating. “Expected To Heal” is a rather excellent slow-burning song with droning, growling riffs that might qualify this as some Marcolin-era CANDLEMASS homage what with Marco's riotous singing, while Zachary opts for an unhinged guitar solo something along the lines of David Chandler's Hendrix-raping trademark squealing.
The Hard-Rocking sound that grooved with TAROT's earlier records disappeared, but “State Of Grace” has a fair bit of '60s and '70s progginess working its slow-moving cogs. And those huge guitar hums at the end as Marco sings his final lines, fantastic. “Sleepless” is pretty annoying, a pointless acoustic number which is mixed oddly loud - it sounds like Marco is suddenly in the room with you, yodelling about some bird he watches while she sleeps. The closing title track is one of the finest pieces of TAROT song writing to be found, featuring rousing crescendos of synths, huge riffs like walls closing in on you, an epic, memorable chorus and a pummelling race to the end that makes most Progressive Metal look drab by comparison. It's just too fucking good, top five TAROT songs and no doubt about it.
If this thing was as good throughout as it begins and ends, packed to the brim with songs like “E.T.I.” and “Expected To Heal” I'd fucking buy it for you. I probably wouldn't, but you take my point. There's still some fluff to be worked through, but the band all sound on top form. Pecu Cinnari's drumming is of a very high standard here, with plenty of combustive crump and well placed clattering fills. Janne Tolsa smothers songs like “As One” with plonking pianos and '80s cop drama synths, but he's starting to get more at home and not sound like an extra cost for a band that could probably ill afford the travel to their own concerts by this time. Because of several weak tracks it remains the weakest TAROT album after “To Life Forever”, but in a discography like TAROT's that still means some very respectable and enjoyable Heavy Metal not to be missed by those who covet the band's other records.
(Online October 29, 2011)