When Justin K Broadrick announces he is putting out new music, it’s as if the world immediately pauses and waits with baited breath, out of sheer force of habit. Of course, this is what happens when you’re arguably the most influential single figure in extreme music over the last two decades. Broadrick has been defining and defying genres since the age of 15, first pioneering grindcore with Napalm Death, then with multiple side projects, highlighted by the mighty Godflesh, inspiring the early ’90s wave of industrial metal, predating the nu-metal explosion of the late ’90s, and laying down the groundwork for the very much in vogue “post metal” sound of Neurosis, Isis, and Pelican. Still merely in his late 30s, Broadrick’s intensely creative mind is still brimming with ideas, his main passion these days being his trio Jesu, which artfully blends the densely layered guitar work of Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine with the spaciousness and visceral power of Isis. Only this time around, Broadrick is far more introspective than aggressive, lending the music a shimmering, tender quality, but unlike Isis, who continues to take baby steps toward a more accessible sound, over the course of four releases Jesu has already achieved an impeccable blend of density and melody. Such is the genius of Broadrick, who simply can do no wrong, in the eyes of many.
Recorded in collaboration with bassist Diarmuid Dalton and drummer extraordinaire Ted Parsons (formerly of Swans and Prong), Jesu’s eponymous full-length debut was a head-turner in early 2005, a sprawling, 75-minute epic that required the listener to patiently absorb the vocal melodies, which, buried under so much distortion, slowly rose to the surface. Last year’s gorgeous four-song EP Silver, on the other hand, took a sharp turn towards a much cleaner sound and produced moments of devastating beauty (“Silver”) and electro-tinged euphoria (“Star”). On the new disc, Conqueror, Broadrick and his mates find a way to fuse the more cathartic elements of the first album with the melodicism of Silver, and the results are often thrilling.
Jesu’s music has always been infused with sorrowful, often dismal melodies, Broadrick sounding as if he’s singing quietly to himself, getting lost in his own misery, so it comes as quite a shock to hear the chord sequence that anchors “Conqueror” ascending, as opposed to sinking lower and lower into the depths of despair. Not only that, but the man sounds positively wistful as he spouts poetry that clearly sounds chemically enhanced, repeating the enigmatic mantra, “All our colors will always be with us,” while piano notes gently cascade over the guitar-bass-drums backdrop. While not joyous by any stretch, the song dares to let a little crack of sunlight in, and it’s a welcome departure.
“Old Year”, meanwhile, borders on vitriolic, Parsons’s stuck-in-tar drum beats and cymbal crashes disciplined yet sharp as daggers, as Broadrick’s guitars sound more jagged than mellifluous, perfectly complementing his caustic words: “Spend your time wasting / All the wasteful hating / Now who are you blaming? / Are we worth saving?” The massively heavy riffs on “Medicine” sound more insistent than what we usually expect, but like Silver‘s “Star”, what we think will be a rather brutal piece of work suddenly transforms into something altogether different, thanks to Broadrick’s vulnerable singing voice and a haunting, heartbreaking coda of chiming guitars. “Brighteyes” hints at the crunch of Godflesh, but again, gentle tones enter the fray, this time in the form of effects-laden stabs of synthesized drones.
Two songs in particular mark new high points for Jesu. The ten-minute “Weightless and Horizontal” is the album’s centerpiece, electronic effects commingling with a straightforward, ultra-slow groove as Broadrick puts in his most impassioned vocal turn yet, centered around the line, “Try not to lose yourself.” The song takes its time, but is absolutely hypnotic, building steadily towards a majestic climax that, strangely enough, echoes the aching beauty of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. The closing track “Stanlow” is the album’s single most accessible tune; even more than “Silver”, melody dominates over riffs, daring to rival the kind of sweeping stadium ballads that Coldplay excels at (in Chris Martin’s hands, this song would be a smash). So insistent is this song, in fact, that Parsons wakes up from his lugubrious trance and actually taps out eighth notes on hi-hat and ride cymbal, which for Jesu, is breakneck speed.
Ever the maverick, Justin K Broadrick is not one to rely on a set formula that so many bands influenced by him have lazily done in years past; instead, he continues to challenge his listeners. On Conqueror, he all but dares metal fans to accept the gentle beauty of his music, to acknowledge that it’s okay to take extreme sounds and make them pretty. For everyone else, he has crafted one of the loveliest guitar-based records of 2007. Extreme music rarely, if ever, sounds this warm and inviting.