On their second album for Alien8, this Toronto doom metal duo craft an abstract opus that's both hot and heavy.
Many critics admire the primal mode of engagement that heavy metal encourages its listeners to adopt. The genre critiques rationalized modernity by reveling in irrational experiences -- violence, prejudice, extreme alienation -- during which the social self breaks down. Through theatrical and ritualistic performances, metal groups imbue the concert moment with a sense of aura -- a Sunn O))) show is an event that can't be mechanically reproduced. And metal fans adhere to a set of tribal mores in order to maintain a strong sense of subcultural identity.
But sexuality -- one of the most animalistic facets of human behavior -- is glaringly absent from most contemporary headbanging fodder. Mainstream hard rock still indulges misogynistic fantasies, but the stiffness and fussiness of the music that scores these fantasies saps such performances of their libidinousness. And by stripping their female objects of agency and motivation, cock rockers fail to construct realistic women, thereby adding yet another degree of sterility to their catcalls. Meanwhile, underground metal also traffics in idealized abstractions, favoring the language of religious, mystical, and science-fiction allegory, which allows characters and images to fully embody transcendent concepts such as good, evil, nature, or modernity. No room for boot knockin' here, either.
On Nadja's first widely released record, 2005's Truth Becomes Death, the Toronto-based doom rock duo of Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff crafted the sort of dauntingly conceptual narrative that goes over swimmingly with the metal intelligentsia, adapting a medieval legend to ruminate on the perils of 21st century technology. With Touched, the group eschews mythic conceits in favor of brief, imagistic poems that meditate on sensuality and the intertwining of bodies. And what emerges isn’t just one of the best ever metal albums about sex -- Touched explores eros with a dignity and depth seldom heard in the pop world.
Nadja's willingness to present sensations that are seemingly anathema to those most often voiced in metal should come as no surprise to listeners who have kept track of even a fraction of the band’s formidable CD-R output. From their birth, Nadja have shown little interest in adhering to metal’s scripts. Their aesthetic -- a murky well of queasy low-end, cemented in tarpit guitar churn, and enshrined in an echo chamber of bleary feedback -- bears a stronger resemblance to that of Tim Hecker's tidal harsh-ambient compositions than that of Corrupted or Godflesh's similarly elephantine slogfests. Since most metal junkies demand that precision accompany brutality, Nadja's sound-world strikes many of these listeners as frustratingly indefinite. Their songs come across, in other words, as the only kind of music pretentious enough to unnerve someone who sees nothing absurd about Iron Maiden’s adaptation of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
But noise never feels accidental in Touched. The torrential screeching doesn't obscure the music, it colors it. Dainty flutes are audible amidst the furor; Nadja clearly exercise a painterly sense of restraint. And the record's architecture testifies further to this music’s resolute composition -- each song serves as an act in a dramatic narrative rife with suggestions of physical passion. Opener "Mutagen" is foreplay: this instrumental rides a simple, repetitive chord progression for fourteen minutes, riffs oozing with the escalating tension of a modal Miles Davis piece, teasing us with, but never yielding, denouement. Next, "Stays Demons" grinds more fiercely and purposively, a shimmering, high-pitched beam of feedback projecting an unattainable horizon to which the earth-moving guitar-march aspires. "Incubation/Metamorphosis" is more smeared and amorphous, a paean to the loss of time, space, and self that transpires in an engulfing embrace: "Your fingers stretch webs across / My skin, entwine and enclose, / And wrap me within sticky / Strands of silk -- the cocoon / Of your flesh". The subject eventually bursts "out of the ends of your fingers / Like a thousand blind larvae…", and he then pushes on towards climax in "Flowers of Flesh", which, with its drilling drum machine and Kevin Shields-esque field of treble, is at once the album's most punishing and most melodic song.
While both poetic and sonic sensuality pervade Touched, one could argue that all of Nadja’s screaming and bludgeoning precludes (for most of us, at least) the possibility of actually feeling turned on by listening to the record, making for yet another ultimately sexless metal record. There's some credibility to this argument -- Nadja do indeed celebrate sexuality through abstraction. But by lending a monsoon of charcoal-colored amplifier carnage the form of a sexual encounter, Baker and Buckareff don’t perform an act of Gnostic transubstantiation; they instead induce in us synaesthesic overload, conflating two sensory experiences. This abstract, rather than mimetic, representation of lovers’ pleasure demands that we approach Touched with careful ears and limber imaginations. And by attacking the groin through the gut, Nadja, like any good metal band, impress upon us with a sense of force and presence so often absent from postmodernity’s simulations.