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Dub metal par excellence - 92%

Bertilak, October 2nd, 2007

In the pantheon of metal’s true innovators, Justin Broadrick has a reserved seat near the head of the table. Beginning with Napalm Death and Head of David then moving onto Godflesh, all the while encompassing stints on guitar, drums and just about every other instrument imaginable, his multitalented presence casts a very long shadow across a range of metal genres. Broadrick’s latest project – jesu – has seen him setting many of the benchmarks in drone metal and the ‘Sun Down/Sun Rise’ release on Aurora Borealis, recorded alongside bassist Diarmuid Dalton, finds him at the top of his game.

jesu seems often to be talked about in the context of the indie music phenomenon of ‘shoegaze’, and specifically My Bloody Valentine, but this is highly misleading (despite what MySpace might indicate…). The immature, half-formed shoegazer bands of the late ‘80s were chronically bereft of real ideas and never did more than aimlessly retread the garage and psychedelic sounds of the 1960s. jesu is a far more complex, resolutely contemporary beast and the real comparison is to Broadrick’s long-term love of dub music and, crucially, the sense of space that is so fundamental to that genre. Godflesh often made this fascination overt (such as the giveaway-titled ‘Love and Hate in Dub’ EP or the alternate dub mixes on ‘Messiah’) but with jesu the importance of dub has become implicit, not a basis for a remix but a modus operandi. The powerful, full-blooded confidence of jesu is a solar system away from the anaemic under-achieving of My Bloody Valentine, who would weep salt tears of childish jealousy to ever have created anything even a fraction as good as ‘Sun Down/Sun Rise’.

Beginning with one of the slowest, longest fade-ins in the history of music, ‘Sun Down’ uses its epic length to explore the mass of ideas packed into it. From a mesmerising, swirling background, a fluid, underwater-sounding bass gradually emerges, establishing a cyclical tune before the first layer of guitar washes over, gradually joined by multiple, sweeping layers each highlighting a different part of the tune. Then, with heart-in-the mouth suddenness, a massive bass line crashes in with a monumental riff, slow and hugely heavy. The guitars eddy around this gigantic bass, which stops briefly to allow the guitars to rise to a peak before it smashes back, stronger than before.

The control apparent in the precision with which ‘Sun Down’s interlocking structure builds across the opening half of the track and the space allowed to each component as it gradually merges into the musical whole are all redolent of dub, but it is the brutal simplicity of the bass married with the complexity of the multiple guitars that exemplify Broadrick’s imaginative ability to take the principles of a sub-genre of reggae and graft them seamlessly into metal, thereby creating music of sublime power.

The main guitar riff echoes the bass line but brings out the simple harmony with chiming clarity, until, at around the half-way mark, jesu’s characteristically clean vocals appear briefly. The theme of transcendent isolation – “I don’t need your questions/And I don’t need your answers” – is driven home by emphatic cymbals and, at this exultant mid-point of the track, where everything has risen to a crescendo, the monumental juddering bass abruptly stops.

The second half to ‘Sun Down’ is more ambient, the bass riff replaced by slow, fuzzed out guitar strumming, distorted but muted, and distant feedback, the bass now just a subtle element in the background. A drumbeat signals washes of multi-toned feedback that drench the speakers before the introduction of a heavily scratched drumloop, underpinning gently plucked repeating notes. The feedback sweeps and precisely plucked guitar very gradually dissolve from the track, as the scratched drum is left in isolation before being abruptly cut off.

Not a second of the 17-and-a-half minutes of ‘Sun Down’ is wasted and despite its length, it is still overflowing with ideas. In all probability, another 10 minutes wouldn’t have harmed it one jot. This is mature, complex, intelligent, assured music. Dalton’s effortlessly solid bass playing is a crucial element, but it is Broadrick’s instinct for harnessing low-end power and delicate harmony that is so riveting.

Although certainly introspective and tinged with melancholy, there is still a definite positive sense to ‘Sun Down/Sun Rise’ and the confidently solitary lyrics of ‘Sun Down’ reflect the beautiful lone tree depicted on the cover, shrouded in grey hues of mist but sure of its place in the world. Thus, it is perhaps fitting that the running order of the release has it ending with the sun rising, rather than going down.

A pulsing fade-in, with a beautifully bowed bass from Dalton, opens ‘Sun Rise’, as a slowly plucked distorted guitar appears over the top. The track proceeds to gradually build the tune over a background of gently breathing static white noise. Mirroring the title, different guitar parts begin to rise from the feedback, circling the central tune, before a distorted and urgently clapping synth drum drives the song into the vocal section, which is situated at about the half-way point as with ‘Sun Down’. The lyrics are again positive (“Sun rise/On the inside”) and the clean vocals are almost entirely swamped by the music as the guitars become more dense and overlapping, orchestral tones seeming to lurk within these surges.

Following the same principle as ‘Sun Down’, the vocal section signals a change in the song’s structure, although on ‘Sun Rise’ it is a more subtle loosening of the tune than the dramatic shift of the former. The multiple guitar parts gradually become more disparate as the static drops away, creating a clear sense of expansion and space within the song. Ultimately, as the various components fade out, a single guitar just repeats the same four notes over a gently humming bass as the whole track slows to a stop.

‘Sun Rise’ has fewer elements than ‘Sun Down’, and is perhaps the purer example of Broadrick’s spacey dub techniques, but although more austerely linear it still follows the same basic structural principles as its companion track (opening sequence/vocals/closing sequence) and thereby creates a reflexive record, where each side parallels the other, as with the sun’s daily journey around the planet.

The beauty of good drone metal is the balancing of simplicity with complexity and jesu carries this art to a new level. Superficially simple and stark, ‘Sun Down/Sun Rise’ affords countless listens and each time some new aspect to the composition will become apparent. From dub’s template of control and space, fragmentary vocals and processed drum loops, jesu creates systematic music that knows exactly what it’s doing, played by people with the skill and confidence to carry the vision through. jesu takes a multiplicity of simple components and uses them to fashion complex, carefully thought-out ideas in pursuit of a massive sound.

As to those people who baulk at regarding jesu as real metal (“Where are the tearing riffs? The epic solos? The screaming, committed vocals?”), the answer is more fundamental. This fiercely uncompromising monumental music is pushing back all the boundaries of drone to get to the heart of their sound. Just as Black Sabbath didn’t know exactly what genre they were creating in 1970 they just knew it was heavy, so jesu in 2007. jesu writes their own rules: modern music does not get any heavier than this, melodies and all.