I came late to Justin Broadrick. In 2005, he donated a remixed and retitled Jesu track for a compilation to benefit the New Orleans radio station WTUL where I was a volunteer. At the time, in the aftermath of the notorious man-made flood, WTUL was broadcasting from a coffee shop, one of the glimmers of optimism in a city temporarily suffused with a sense of monumental doom.
I forgot about Broadrick until 2007 when he released a new Jesu record, Conqueror, and also Pale Sketches, an album of his Jesu offcuts from the preceding seven years. Now, in 2010, he adopts the name Pale Sketcher to issue this “de-mixed” version of the latter, wherein different elements are brought to the fore and others erased (as in dub) as he traverses a terrain dominated by beats and synthesizers—at times under a thin mist of recognizable guitar or voice.
Things begin very well as “Don’t Dream It (Mirage Mix)” is bristling with melodic vibrations and glitchy rhythm harnessed to a heavy thump and sonorous synth suggestive of an enormous robotic thief limping along spilling coin bags and cash registers. The track has some layered sounds which are near-impossible to describe: Is he being accompanied by a bunch of titanium weasels rubbing their paws over wine glasses? “Can I Go Now (Gone Version)” is mainly interplay between a percussive throb akin to the huff of a steam train and Broadrick’s processed voice. The effect is quasi-choral and industrial, as if Sigur Ros were somehow arriving at Birmingham New Street station for a spot of winter shopping (in the late 19th century).
As with the entire album, it would be easier to describe “Wash It All Away (Cleaned Dub)” if Broadrick’s methodology were mechanical rather than digital (see how he puts the violin bow over the guitar strings and then shakes his ample mane etc). But the relative invisibility shrouding the whole digital process shouldn’t detract from any of Pale Sketches Demixed, including this fantastic if simple instrumental. The piece resembles part of a soundtrack to a science fiction film as imagined by the Blue Nile (if they had a sense of threat or danger), and eventually winds down for the final half minute or so to set a quieter mood from which emerges “The Playgrounds Are Empty (Slumber Mix)”. This track will be the highlight for some listeners, as of the eight tracks it sounds most like a song and its gnawing gorgeousness is hard to shake off. Listen to this driving on a wet road on a dark night and you might be immersed in the feeling that you are not just in a movie, but that you are the star.
Pale Sketcher ranks with any of Broadrick’s various projects (such as Godflesh, Jesu, and Final) and may even prove to be the most popular. It is less “metal” sounding or guitar based than his other work, but the balance of gentleness and heaviness is as apparent as ever and the quality is as consistent as we have come to expect. Keen ears will find these reinterpretations quite broad, and should any listeners discover that “Tiny Universe (Interstellar)” and “Dummy (Banhoff Version)” are as welcome on the floor in a hip dance club as might be imagined, well, please report back. Final track “Plans That Fade (Faded Dub)” is a marvelous warbling slab of ambient-dub that shows how to make a song seems both spacious and suffocating. Play this loud at the traffic lights and people will run a red one to get away from the weird feeling of conducting a seance underwater.
At times, listening to Pale Sketches is the hypnotic equivalent to watching a mountain as seasons slowly pass over it. The basic landscape of the tracks is massive and consistent, allowing small changes to take on greater significance: A direction which Umberto Eco once predicted for popular music, although presumably he meant it as a monotonous bad thing. In Broadrick’s hands, though, the mountain is composed of liquid and gas, is swathed in sad, melodic sounds, and the passing seasons flicker with the light of hope.