I’ve already written in this space that black metal, by and large, is just a thing that I don’t get. The tinny guitar tones, the hummingbird-fast drum assault, the total abandonment of recognizable song-form — none of it makes a whole lot of sense to me. But the one straight-up black metal album that grabbed me in that dark place in the soul — my favorite unadulterated black metal album of all time, if I stop and think about it for a minute — is Instinct: Decay, the 2006 LP from the Chicago band Nachtmystium. That one had everything I don’t like about the genre, but it all came together into a mysterious atmospheric rasp that dodged in and out of experimental noise and somehow tapped into a raw instinctual fury that I never managed to hear in the band’s Scandinavian forebears, no matter how often I tried. It probably helped that the album came out around the same time I was getting heavily back into comic books for the first time since childhood, and I remember it made a pretty badass accompaniment to the Avengers: Disassembled trade. But for whatever reason, Instict: Decay resonated for me like a faraway feral wolf-howl. After that album, Nachtmystium strayed from the black metal blueprint on their next two full-lengths, playing around with black-light acid-rock and new-wave robo-synths, and I probably liked both of those albums even better than Instinct: Decay. But with their new Silencing Machine, they’re back to that old black metal pummel-rasp, sounding somehow refreshed for it. The album doesn’t tickle my lizard brain the same way Instict: Decay did, but it reminds me of everything I first liked about them in their ferocious form.
An important thing to remember about Nachtmystium: They don’t carry themselves the way European peers like Watain sometimes do, as painted feral howling demons from man’s bloodthirsty past. They don’t drench audience members in goat-blood or carry around torches in their press photos. They’ve admittedly played around a bit with the genre’s more theatrical edges in the past. Band mastermind Blake Judd used to call himself Azentrius, and I used to own a T-shirt that showed him clutching an assault rifle. But these days, the band’s members are pretty content to carry themselves as distinctly non-exotic dudes. Judd named Silencing Machine after a Nine Inch Nails lyric, and he’s absolutely publicly stoked that Thurston Moore is joining one of his bands. I don’t know if he still does, but a couple of years ago, Judd worked at the Chicago venue the Empty Bottle, and it was a bit weird to walk through the door and see the most popular and important figure in American black metal checking my ID so I could go see Girls. And in this Pitchfork interview with former Stereogum dude Brandon Stosuy, Judd talks about returning to straight-up black metal, pulling back from the last couple of albums’ experimental digressions and focusing instead on “really great songs.”
“Really great songs” — as opposed to, say, “roiling clouds of hate” or whatever — is a pretty rare concept within black metal. The music is supposed to be a pure representation of disgust for all, not a thing that a bunch of dudes are pounding out in their practice space. But it’s completely true: Blake Judd knows how to write the fuck out of a black metal songs. That’s not to say he writes verse-chorus-verse, though he sometimes does. But he knows how to take the music’s mysterious whiplash and maximize its effects — when to snarl, when to let loose with a blazingly triumphant solo, when to rip out an evil synthetic foghorn. In returning to his roots, he doesn’t abandon melody completely, and some of the quieter bits on Silencing Machine get dangerously close to prettiness. “Borrowed Hope And Broken Dreams” has a bouncy riff, and it’s practically catchy. He also doesn’t abandon production. fellow Chicagoan and frequent collaborator Sanford Parker, on the boards here, is one of metal’s best producers, and he knows how to layer on grime without losing the big-moment immensity that the music so often needs. But other than a few nods toward Chicago’s industrial legacy, Judd has mostly given up the cross-genre wandering that characterized the band’s last two albums. He’s here to remind us that he can still do this music as well as anyone alive.
Black metal has plenty of aficionados who can listen closely and pull great meaning from it. I’m not one of them. For me, an album like Silencing Machine works almost as background music. It works best if I let the album work as a tide of animosity that just washes over me. Sometimes, an element or an idea will jump out: The eerie bell-chimes on “These Rooms In Which We Weep,” the quasi-eastern tonal moans on “Reduced To Ashes,” the funereal organ on “The Lepers Of Destitution.” Mostly, though, it just works as one hour-long seethe. And when I’m in the right mood, that’s exactly what I need.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Rick Ross’s lovably absurdist luxury-rap fantasia God Forgives, I Don’t.
• Pains Of Being Pure At Heart side project Ice Choir’s romantically new-wavy debut Afar.
• Serengeti’s art-rap character-study series C.A.R.
• Bonde Do Rolê’s Diplo- and Poolside-produced dance-party return Tropicalbacanal.
• Evoken’s ambitious doom-metal LP Atra Mars.
• Jesse Harris’s urbane solo album Sub Rosa.