The backlash against the cultural omnipresence of nu-metal in the late 1990s to early 2000s threw a few babies out with the otherwise pretty foul bathwater. Korn, for one, were always a cut above the average with a strong willingness to delve deeper both musically and emotionally while expanding the sound palette and experimental elements within their body of work. It makes sense to find a key member of the group dabbling in deeper waters on the first album-length statement from Venera.
Shaffer, already acknowledged as one of heavy metal’s foremost guitarists, already got his feet wet with his project, Fear and the Nervous System, a compelling LP of industrial rock that held its own against contemporary releases by the likes of Nine Inch Nails in the early 2010s. Here, he works in tandem with Hunt, who, alongside his work as a filmmaker and composer, has a decade-and-a-half-long track record in this genre-splicing vein as part of Cloudeater, Off the Vine, and in collaboration with wildly talented percussionist (and producer and filmmaker and actor) Deantoni Parks.
Venera differ from these previous outings in heading unrepentantly into realms beyond rock, subjugating the guitar to the potential of cracked electronics, glitch, and machine energy. That doesn’t mean there’s much time for polite ambience. Vanera’s opener, “Alignment”, clarifies what page we’re all on with aggressive cycles of digital crunch unceremoniously glued to a spell of pogoing hiss and then shimmering treated guitar amid sputtering cables. That final spell rises gradually to what, in post-rock, would signify the start of some kind of kinetic payoff, but here, it is allowed to clatter without ever working free of its bolts.
“Erosion” feels like the logical second half of the same track, electronica scaled to be the rumbling soundtrack to an all-bells-and-whistles 8K cinematic experience lacerated by guitar surges. Parks guests on percussion and contributes a skittish and imaginative layer to the composition, which eventually coheres around a spider-web keyboard riff before concluding in howling anthem mode.
At just over 30 minutes in length, the record feels concise, well-edited, and complete – there’s not a hint of bloat anywhere on its lean, athletic physique. It’s best experienced as a single suite of music, given how tightly composed everything is. Health‘s Jacob Duzsik adds vocal atmospheres to “Ochre”, hanging above a shadowy and cavernous abyss given shape and feature by the prominent live drums. There’s a line of brief silence drawn across the track before its final eruption, and it’s this fragmentation of songs into distinct passages that contributes to the overall coherence of Venera as an album-length experience rather than merely a grouping of songs separated by instrumental interludes.
“Swarm” follows, and its title is a relatively spot-on description of the blowtorch and arcweld sonics that fill the initial two minutes before a surge of orchestral electronics and a last rush of ocean waves. “Disintegration” again showcases the fluid skills of Parks, who turns the drums from mere rhythm-keeper to virtuosic centerpiece of the track. While friends are a regular presence on the album, it’s always for clearly distinct creative purposes, which seems to show Shaffer and Hunt playing to their guests’ unique strengths. Far from the kind of stultifying roll calls that drown many hip-hop albums, the duo extend invitations only where it leads to impact.
As an example, “Hologram” was apparently a product of Shaffer and Hunt’s first session together, and maybe that shows in the relatively conventional song structure and straightforward tick-a-tack-a-drum machine rhythm. What distinguishes it is singer-keyboardist Rizz from Australian post-punk revivalists VOWWS, who delivers a gorgeous torch song to the uncanny valley of deceased artists being resurrected in three-dimensional form. It’s also the start of a lighter back-end of the LP where clean air is let into the dark ambient bunker vibe up to this point.
“Surrender” plays in a relatively high range and slides into orchestral, electronic strings before giving way to “Triangle”, on which multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes – who has played with Chris Cornell and Queens of the Stone Age amid a remarkably varied career – sings in a mannered David Bowie-esque style that cuts through the fogged air of Venera like a lighthouse beam. The album closes with “Helium”, a gaseous swell of overlapping shades and strobe-powerful chords shimmering past one another until gently fading out.
Surveying this first missive from Venera with a cool eye, OK, there’s nothing here that you’ll not have heard before if you’re into the darker end of soundtrack music, electronica, or the synthpop revival. But it’s rare to hear it done with this level of flawless professionalism and expertise. There are no weak moments; nothing drags; every track unfolds unexpectedly or with an imaginative flourish. The press release accompanying the record includes the duo’s statement that the album is “a collision of puzzles combining towards a unified assembly of the ecstatic abyss, a nested sensitivity within the intensity programmed in the fleeting final seconds of a deadly, perfect, alien thing before being destroyed”. I’ll have to ponder that statement a while longer, but it does testify to the intellectual and visual engagement underpinning this incredibly strong first release. More. Give me more.