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The Key to Escape - 90%

GiantRex, July 9th, 2016

For those of us who know the monotony of a Monday through Friday work week, the feeling of Sunday night is as familiar as it is desperate. At the risk of sounding like the most stereotypical braindead American metalhead in existence, allow me to state this: personally, there is no darker time of the year for me than a gray, dismal Sunday afternoon/evening in February after football season is over. Aside from the obvious signs of seasonal affective depression, the reason for this is simple: there is nothing left to distract me on Sundays from the forthcoming return of soul-crushing corporate culture and office drudgery.

The view from the window on the front cover of this album is, at least for me, reminiscent of that feeling, although not nearly as much as the music contained therein. Jesu's self-titled full length debut is the musical equivalent of a dismal Sunday afternoon in late winter. The hauntingly uplifting lyrics strike a dissonant chord with the harsh, gritty sound of the instrumental tracks underneath. Belying all this is a bittersweet atmosphere that captures the essence of what Darkthrone's Fenriz once called "the exhaustion of easy life."

Fundamentally, this is a post-rock album played in the style of drone or doom metal. All of the classic self-indulgences of post-rock are on unabashed display here. Jesu features guitars being used more for making noise than for making riffs, and song titles and lyrics which prominently feature juxtapositions of happiness and sadness, as well as explorations of awkwardness in human interactions. This would be a disgustingly overwrought, onanistic album if the experience was not so engaging and relatable.

The drone of this album takes a different approach than the Sunn O))), Earth, or Boris efforts that are more traditionally associated with the genre. Rather than use drone for the purpose of creating a dark, impenetrable atmosphere, Jesu employs it to create an atmosphere similar to the type of ambient music one would expect to hear in the waiting room at a therapist's office. The result is a bizarre hybrid of gurgling, distorted guitar noise and peaceful hum. Similar to the aforementioned literal meditation music, I would argue that this album is best experienced as a solitary, introspective listen.

From a production standpoint, this is a dense, many-layered effort. The drums are the most subdued of the instruments here, most likely intentionally reigned in to preserve the ambiance. In their place, the guitars and bass occupy multiple levels of the mix. At any given time, the bass is just as likely to be at the top level as the guitars, and the guitars themselves often feature multiple droning layers on top of one another. This album's bread and butter is using mixing to make holding the same chords for minutes at a time seem to go many more places than it actually does. The synth work here is neither negligible nor intrusive, serving only to support the music when the guitars or bass aren't present. The vocals are often multi-layered, processed, or otherwise distorted to blend into the drone. Frequently, the vocals seem to be floating away from the ear or coming at the listener from multiple angles. Whereas these effects would be terrible on most albums, they enhance the experience here.

The standout track here is Man/Woman, which takes on a drastically different tone than the rest of the album. In contrast to the rest of the material, the song has a malevolent atmosphere, with vocals distorted to sound demonic in a similar way to those of Glen Benton's early efforts with Deicide, and the most dismal, eerie drone to be found anywhere on the album. Perhaps what is most surprising is that it somehow manages to stand out among drone tracks on an album that explores a variety of moods, ranging from cheerful (Sun Day) to hopeful (Your Path to Divinity) to melancholic (We All Faulter) to desperate (Walk on Water). This broad emotional range is a large part of what makes Jesu as compelling an album as it is. If you are of a mind predisposed to some soul-searching, then perhaps consider this as your soundtrack the next time you go looking for yourself. You may be surprised what you find.