Underrated: The exquisite 90s death metal of France’s Sthygma

This post highlights the obscure 90s death metal band Sthygma from France. I’ve pulled out their two releases from my personal collection, and I hope to convince you to check them out. I absolutely love this band, and I think it’s a shame that they vanished into obscurity before reaching worldwide appeal. France has never been known as a hotspot for death metal, which likely worked against the band in the global market. In attempting to research the band, the only interview I even found was within a French fanzine that the original publisher didn’t even have a personal copy of, so my information about the band remains lacking. The information on metal archives also indicates that each member of Sthygma seemingly fell into oblivion after the band ceased, as none of the members are listed as having been in any other bands. All mystery aside, let’s get right into what we do know:

Sthygma formed in 1993, and they put out two releases before breaking up sometime in the early 2000s. Both releases are part of a single loose conceptual arc based on their album titles, however, there is not a consistent narrative across the lyrics. The first release was the 1995 EP titled Act 1: Sthygma. The second release was a full-length album released in 1997 under the name Act 2: Khalimäa, although calling it a full-length might be somewhat generous, since the final bonus track is the entirety of their debut EP combined into a single track. The band was a three-piece act that maintained the same lineup for both releases.  That lineup was Quentin Moreira (drums), Arnaud Hattat (guitars), and Dave Morel (vocals & bass). Dave Morel was the main songwriter and lyricist, and he was also responsible for the band’s artwork and logo. He also provided album artwork for Dementia’s 1998 album Answer, which was another death metal band out of France.

There are many bands that have been lost to the sands of time, but why Sthygma should be brought up from the depths is because of all of the qualities that made them unique, innovative, and experimentally different. Musically, they could be compared to dissonant-era Gorguts, however, Sthygma’s music was not drenched in dissonance, and it included more movements. They interweaved something akin to the avant-garde nature of Gorguts alongside sometimes atonal playing and moments of profound beauty, but without ever losing sight of the intensity and brutality of death metal.  Sthygma’s music sounds just as fresh now as it did in the 90s, which is as telling as any description about how timeless their music is.

The music wasn’t the only thing that stood apart from other 90s death metal acts as they also had a novel album aesthetic and thoughtful lyrical themes. Both album covers used bold colors – the EP drenched in green, and the LP in yellow. Instead of the gory works of their contemporaries, their album covers were sensual and almost psychedelic depictions of elongated human-esque bodies. On Sthygma a woman’s torso is seen melting into the background that is conjoined with another feminine figure with a more masculine figure between them.  On Khalimäa a similar woman is depicted towering over a second woman. Further hints about the depictions can be drawn from the album titles, and although I cannot say with absolutely certainty that these translations are correct, I believe that they’re both references to Hindu mythos. Khalimäa is likely referring to Kali Ma (with ‘Ma’ meaning ‘mother’), who is often considered to be the kindest and most loving of all the Hindu goddesses. Kali is traditionally depicted with four arms, and as we can see on the cover of Khalimäa, the knife-wielding woman has four arms. There are also some unorthodox qualities to this image too, which could indicate a differing interpretation, as Kali is depicted with hooves on the album cover, so it’s difficult to know more about the image and what it means without being able to track down the band.

The lyrics are largely poetic and introspective. All of the lyrics are written from the first-person perspective on the first release, and are more varied, often told in third person, on the second. The lyrical content varies, with some depicting mythological stories, with ‘(Let You) Hear Out the Mermaids’ being a tale of being tempted by a mermaid, ultimately resulting in the protagonist’s death.  As another example, the song ‘Inner Peace’ is about struggling with mental illness. The lyrics are largely abstract, with the aforementioned examples being somewhat more straight-forward. 

If you needed yet another bizarre facet about this band, they released their Sthygma EP on a three inch CD – a practice that was just as uncommon then as it is now. Although Act 1 is difficult to obtain having been released through a now-defunct label, Act II is still cheap and pretty easy to track down. Note that Act II was released through Kaly Productions, which is another label that is now defunct, so if you want to add the Act II discography album to your collection, be sure to seek it out soon. I love it, and I hope you do too! You can find both albums on Youtube, but I've also included a couple of tracks below for your sampling pleasure.

Author: Kyle Messick

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