Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Jesu - Jesu


Released 2005 on Hydra Head
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 21/08/2009ce

Heavier than a death in the family...

Metal music has been around the houses in the decades since Tony Iommi first rumbled out the iconic opening riff of "Black Sabbath" against a back-drop of rain and thunder as Ozzy muttered those dark, murderous lines: "What is this that stands before me?". And yeah, sorry Led Zeppelin fans, but Sabbath were the founders of metal. Your guys only came close on IV, and always remained a heavy blues act rather than proper hard rock heathens.

Since those glory days of 1970, metal music has got spacier and psychedelicised, with guys like Hawkwind, UFO and High Tide; it's been bluesed up by Free, Groundhogs and the Edgar Broughton Band; it was propelled through the outlandish Eastern filters of Flower Travellin' Band and Speed, Glue and Shinki; sped up and pummeled into the ground by Motorhead and their followers Metallica; commercialised and commodified by the hair metallists and America's hardcore; adopted by the darker edges of American roots music by EyehateGod and Alice in Chains; it's been industrialised, slowed down, gone all doom and gloom, been married to folk and drone and electronica. It's basically the most manipulated and adaptable rock genre out there, to the point that it manages to encompass slow, atmospheric, drum-less experimentalists like Sunn O))) and Oren Ambarchi just as much as it covers the sturm-und-drang thrashing of Godflesh and Pantera.

But, despite all the changes, shifts and new sub-genres, metal continues to progress and to throw up new surprises. Justin K Broadwick has become a bit of a master at this. He was once a member of seminal extreme metal band Napalm Death, before pioneering industrial metal with Godflesh. But Jesu may be his most successful and startling project yet.

First off, Jesu is heavy. Take Sabbath's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", then multiply the heaviness by 20. Then turn the volume up. Then hit the drums even harder. That's the sound of Jesu. Oh, and slow things down even more. Jesu is sloooooowwww. Plodding, thunderous, insistent drums push each song forwards with brain-dead determination, the musical incarnation of Lurch from the Adams Family, or that giant moron who goes "Yarp!" in Hot Fuzz. The bass is basically one long rumble, like a flat-lining heartbeat amplified by Thor.

But the heartbeat of this music is Justin K Broadrick. Not content to play most instruments, he also produces, writes and sings everything. But his approach is a far cry from that of most other metallists out there (bar perhaps Nadja and Boris). Taking his cues from My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and other shoegazers, he drowns his voice in layers of feedback and effects-laden sheets of guitar, effectively transforming his crunching slabs of metal into ethereal hazes of sound.

So, Godflesh fans pretty much reviled this debut, and would be even harsher towards the more pop-like follow-up Conqueror. Not being particularly familiar with Godflesh myself, I couldn't give a toss, really. Because the music on Jesu is beautiful. It's hard and heavy, but in a graceful, heart-rending way, with JKB's emotions pushed into the spotlight (ironic given the muted vocals). Where Godflesh (and his more recent Greymachine project) spewed bile and hatred over audiences, Jesu opts for a sense of pain and loss, the tracks stretching over a minimum of seven minutes, subdued vocals competing for space with the storm of guitars and omnipresent rhythm section.

But, metal-heads, fear not! I repeat, Jesu is HEAVY! For all its shoegazery grace and wistfulness, it still thunders, crunches and bangs at full volume like a motherfucker. Songs like "Your Path to Divinity" and "Sun Day" are as heavy as anything ever heard in metal, like Motorhead slowed down improbably, with only the shimmering vocals and occasional graceful guitar riff drawing a hint of a shoegaze comparison. And on "Man/Woman", JKB completely reverts to hardcore mode, with a rough, aggressive vocal worthy of Agalloch. It is the album's only true stinker, though, so I prefer to stick to the album's 4-pronged high water mark. It starts with the crunching and merciless opening riff of "Friends are Evil", which quickly collapses into a dreamy haze of ravaged guitars and ghostly electronics. Follow-up "Tired of Me" is the album's masterpiece, a beautiful metalgaze beauty that features the haunting refrain "You're/so tired of me/I'm too tired/to disagree" delivered in a ruined, distorted vocal. Broadrick sounds like he's ready to collapse, and I am yet to hear a metal song with such pathos and anguish.

"We all faulter" (methinks the spelling mistake is deliberate) continues the pain and self-flagellation with more of the same power and drive, before this "central suite" concludes with the epic 11+ minutes of "Walk on Water", where JKB's themes of strife, pain and spiritualism collide in an overwhelming morass of noise and thunder. That the rest of the album doesn't quite match the intensity of these four songs is a shame, but this is such a suckerpunch that I hardly care. It doesn't stop Jesu being one of the most powerful and staggering metal albums of the last ten years.

The music of Jesu is ultimately a reflection of its beautiful album cover: a lonely lost soul wanders aimlessly through a barren wasteland of urban desolation and industrial ruin. Hemmed in, abandoned, lonely, but defiant, Broadrick rails against this isolation with a stirring combination of heavy force and desperate pain. It is metal music for the modern world.

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