Justin Broadrick throws me a rope.
I saw Jesu last night. I don't believe I've ever written about them on this blog before, which is a pretty criminal act of negligence if that's the case. I'd heard mixed things about the Jesu live experience beforehand, but all doubts were erased for me the second Justin Broadrick, Ted Parsons, and Diarmud Dalton hit the stage. They laid into the songs with a powerful, unrelenting attack, and the pre-programmed elements of their music, which can dominate at times on their recorded work, took a definite backseat. Keyboards and programmed beats were still part of the set thanks to a laptop that Justin operated between songs, but the set was all about the powerful wall of noise pumped out by the three live musicians onstage. Back when Justin was still doing Godflesh, and their touring unit featured a drum machine rather than live drums, I've heard that it was disconcerting to see them pumping out such heavy tuneage without a drummer onstage. Thankfully, that problem was avoided, and suffice it to say that former Prong skin-beater Ted Parsons is not just any live drummer. Those of you who are familiar with Jesu's music might feel that someone of Parson's enormous talent is wasted on Jesu's mostly minimalist beats, and you're not entirely wrong if that is what you're thinking, but there were definitely a few moments during the set in which Parsons moved beyond the basic rhythms of the song and displayed his talent in a manner that proved that the show would have been a lesser thing without him playing drums.
But for those of you who are unfamiliar with Jesu's music, this discussion must seem a bit confusing, as I'm making reference to a sound that you've never heard. Well, fear not, because I will now explain what exactly Jesu's deal is.
Justin Broadrick started his career as a musician by playing guitar in early lineups of Napalm Death. He left the band after recording the EP-length session that became side one of their first album, "Scum". At the time he played in Napalm Death, he was only 16 years old. By the time he was 18, he was playing drums in British industrial group Head Of David. Then, when he was 19, he and bassist G.C. Green formed Godflesh. Unlike his previous bands, Broadrick was not merely a sideman in Godflesh, but the main creative agent of the band. Other than Green's bass tracks, Broadrick did everything in the band: guitars, vocals, drum programming. Over Godflesh's 14 year career, they moved from their roots as a slow, heavy, crushing industrial metal group, through different phases and experimentations with genre. By the end of their career, Broadrick had gone from a typical death-metal growling vocal style to singing cleanly, and the band had brought in live drumming as well as a steadily increasing influence from electronic dance music.
After Godflesh disbanded, Broadrick picked up where that project had left off, with Jesu, a unit he named after the final track on the last Godflesh album. Godflesh had been growing steadily less heavy and industrial with each successive release, and Jesu continued this trend. When I first heard them, the only releases they had out were the 2-song, 40 minute "Heartache" EP and a self-titled debut album that lasted for over an hour. Justin's vocals were cleaner and more melodic than they'd ever been before, but the riff structures on these records were still pretty metallic in nature, if incredibly slow and minimal (as with much of Godflesh's riffing). I enjoyed them but didn't come back to them very often, as was often the case for me with Godflesh albums. I have admired Broadrick's work ever since Godflesh's first full-length, "Streetcleaner", came out back when I was in high school, but it's never been too easy for me to spend a lot of time with it. I have to be in just the right mood or the monotonous pounding of it all will wear me out quickly.
Jesu really caught my attention, though, when their "Silver" EP was released in 2006. I heard about it before I heard it, and descriptions I read of it had me intrigued. One reviewer described the title track as having a decided shoegaze influence, while another said that some of the riffs on the record sounded like Mogwai riffs in slow motion. I wasn't sure what those comments might actually mean in terms of what the record would sound like, but honestly, I perk up anytime anyone makes a shoegaze reference. Bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Pale Saints were very close to my heart back in the early 90s when they were releasing records, and have remained so in the years since. I often wish more bands had explored the territory in which those bands were working, so I was very intrigued to hear what Justin Broadrick might do with it.
I was not let down when I finally did hear "Silver". It seemed like the hints of melody that had floated around the edges of the first two Jesu records had finally caught Broadrick's attention fully, and he was now seeing just how far he could take his newfound melodic sense while still retaining the slow, powerful heaviness of his earlier work with Jesu and Godflesh. While not every song on the album was equally successful--the latter two kind of dragged compared to the title track and second track "Star"--I really felt like he was onto something, and "Silver" became the first Broadrick-helmed record that I ever found myself playing on a frequent basis for a long period of time.
I was even more excited when, earlier this year, Jesu released their second full-length album, "Conqueror." I had a theory that "Silver" constituted Broadrick finding his feet with a new sound, and that "Conqueror" would be where he found a way to consistently create the kind of high points that existed about half the time on the "Silver" EP. Sure enough, that was a good description of "Conqueror". Its 8 songs took up nearly an hour and were bliss all the way through. It still pounded incredibly hard, as does all of Jesu's work, but it felt like being pounded in the sweetest way possible, as if by a lover that could never feel anything but warm feelings for you. I guess this is what led the album to cross over to the new indie-rock audience that seems to be picking up on certain subgenres of metal these days--the fuzzy, melodic feel of "Conqueror" that let them play it at low volumes while lying in bed with candles lit, arms around their lovers.
This, of course, is not my experience with "Conqueror", or Jesu in general. It hasn't been my experience of anything for a very long time, in fact, and considering that Justin Broadrick has titled a past Jesu song "Friends Are Evil" and vents some serious frustration with day to day life on the lyrics to "Conqueror"'s "Old Year", I'm thinking that he's more on my wavelength than that of a contented indie rocker with a longterm lover and a decent-paying office job. When I listen to "Conqueror", I tend to do it in the middle of the day, on mornings when I wake up late and my roommate has already long since left for work. And I play it LOUD. This morning, I put on a Jesu CD, turned it up about halfway, and as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, letting the music wash over me, I could feel the vibrations from the bass and snare drum hits rattling my bed and shaking the walls of my house. This, to me, is the perfect Jesu listening experience. There's beauty in it, but the heaviness that underscores that beauty reminds me that it's not the beauty that really defines the experience. No matter how sweet the melodies are, I can't help but see Jesu's music as mournful, a description of the act of reaching out for positive elements of life that always seem, in the end, to elude. Their music is bittersweet, and the heavy elements emphasize that bitterness. Maybe this is why I was so into their live performance, and other people haven't been--maybe other people didn't expect the sort of heavy, pounding show they got. If not, that's a shame, but I personally don't think it would have been the same without it, so I'm glad it was the way it was.
By the way, Jesu had a just-released EP for sale at the show that I hadn't heard about. It's called "Lifeline", and it closely mimics the format of "Silver"--four songs, just under a half-hour in length. However, it's a good bit stronger than that EP, sounding solid all the way through in much the same way as "Conqueror". The opening title track, and the closing track, "End Of The Road", are probably more melodic than anything else Jesu has ever done. "End Of The Road", in fact, de-emphasizes the heaviness at the same time as increasing the melody, and sounds more like the Cocteau Twins or The Pale Saints than anything relating to metal. This is not to say that I don't like it, though--in fact, it's a really nice breath of untainted fresh air without the bitter undercurrent that's usually present. I like it as a change of pace quite a bit. I think I might be a bit unhappy if all of Jesu's songs started sounding like this, though. Fortunately, "Lifeline" and "You Wear Their Masks" are still heavy and brooding, with programmed beats doing the pounding instead of Ted Parsons (who has only ever apppeared on some of Jesu's tracks anyway). Parsons is present on the remaining track from "Lifeline", "Storm Comin' On", which not only features him on drums and Diarmud Dalton on bass, as in the live version of the band, but also former Swans vocalist Jarboe in a guest star turn, doing lead vocals and writing the lyrics for the track. The music has an almost folky element to it, with Broadrick playing acoustic as well as electric guitars, and Jarboe uses her voice to create much more complex and grandiose vocal melodies than Broadrick ever comes up with. One can imagine that, if Elizabeth Frazer from Cocteau Twins did guest vocals on a Jesu track, the results would be much the same. Man... that would be awesome.
Jesu - End Of the Road
Jesu - Conqueror