[22 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
After several years spent plugging away in the American black metal underground, DeKalb, Illinois band Nachtmystium decided to throw its listeners a bit of a curveball on 2006’s Instinct: Decay. While it was still firmly rooted in the lo-fi, primitive style that the genre’s most demanding fans crave, amidst the dense wall of riffs and blastbeats were startling moments of clarity. All of a sudden, we’d hear slick, melodic, clearly defined solos, synthesized guitar licks, down-tempo grooves, experiments with noise and effects ... all gimmicks that bordered on classic psychedelic rock, not black metal. Although the stylistic shifts were still very subtle, it was more than enough to generate buzz among those outside the insular black metal realm, first among mainstream metal glossies, and then, much to the consternation of USBM purists, indie tastemaker publications. With equally spellbinding black metal albums by Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room attracting much attention as well, Nachtmystium, led by guitarists Blake Judd and Jeff Wilson, had laid the groundwork for some potentially exciting experimentation, “true” black metal be damned.
However, nothing could possibly have prepared us for the astonishing turn the band has taken on its fifth album. In a musical transformation as riveting as Voivod circa 1988, or even Enslaved circa 2004, Nachtmystium has embraced its inner prog rock geek with Assassins: Black Meddle Part 1, a near-masterful opus that ingeniously bridges to musical forms hitherto considered too disparate to mesh: blunt, unflinching, throttling black metal, and the sedate, sublime stylings of early 1970s Pink Floyd.
While the combination of bleakest darkness and shimmering light was captured superbly on Instinct: Decay, the band raises the bar several notches on Assassins, thanks in large part to the production work of Sanford Parker. Along with Kurt Ballou and Erik Rutan, Parker has emerged as one of the finest, most in-demand metal producers today. His influence on Nachtmystium’s new album is enormous. His skill at incorporating synths and effects into the band’s sound plays such a pivotal role that he’s even credited as a band member on the album. Most important of all is the clarity and warmth his analog recording style provides, allowing Judd and Hamilton to place unprecedented emphasis on more understated melodies and understated sonic touches.
In fact, the album’s early forays into extreme metal sound so streamlined that it almost borders on hardcore punk, as Judd howls away nihilistically on the title track, “We feel nothing / And are nothing.” But it’s not long before the music heads off into strange tangents, starting midway through that track, when it suddenly downshifts into a movement of chiming guitars and swirling, space rock-style Moog synth. The thunderous “Onmivore” echoes the doom of latter-day Celtic Frost, while “Ghosts of Grace” is stunning, with trilling guitar notes providing the foundation for a fierce, down-strummed desert rocker that cruises along at a Kyuss-like pace as Hawkwind-esque synths and black metal double-kicks gradually converge. And just in case you thought Nachtmystium had completely lost its black metal muscle, “Your True Enemy” erases any doubt, its breakneck pace topped only by its undeniably catchy riffs and a predictable yet still wickedly cool breakdown highlighted by an audacious cock-rock solo right before the blast beats kick in again.
Of course, with its title a glaringly obvious Pink Floyd reference, it’s easy to pinpoint the homages to Floyd’s classic album Meddle. Opening instrumental “One of These Nights” mimics the swagger of “One of These Days”, “Away From the Light” channels the sedate keyboard style of Rick Wright, and the languid “Code Negative” features solos reminiscent of the work of David Gilmour. Nowhere does Nachtmystium get its collective Floyd on more than on the three-part suite “Seasick”, which draws heavily from Floyd’s landmark “Echoes”. Part One, entitled “Drowned at Dusk”, is a low-key jam driven by Tony Laureano’s slow, deliberate drumming and accentuated by underwater-sounding vibrato guitar. The jazzy Part Two (“Oceanborne”) is dominated by a spellbinding free-form solo by Yakuza saxophonist Bruce Lamont. It’s the third and final section (“Silent Sunrise”) that proves to be especially revelatory. Judd and Wilson go for a more spacious arrangement that borders on indie rock. And for the first time ever, Judd, who normally emits a monotone black metal screech, brings a little nuance to his vocal performance, carrying a simple melody.
And just like that, 45 minutes later, Nachtmystium has transformed itself from audacious black metal upstarts into one of the bravest American metal bands going today. So engaging is Assassins that as soon as “Seasick” fades out, we can hardly wait to find out where Judd and Wilson will take their sound next. At the rate they’re going, we can only expect the bar to be raised yet again. It’s just a matter of how high they’ll go.