Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jesu's 'Pale Sketches' album (2007) review

Only available directly from the artist in a limited edition of 2,000, this is the hands-down contender for the best of the four Jesu releases for 2007. A lot of readers and fans of Jesu aren't going to like this observation, but I think it's in order: February's release of 'Conqueror' was a mixed-bag that featured some very powerful psychedelic hard rock songwriting (usually compared to early-1990s 'shoegazer rock' like My Bloody Valentine), but it fell flat overall and lacked the emotional power that one generally expects from the artist.

That being said, it's still pretty good and almost sounds very 'up' at times! It all sounds like a strange description of the music from one of the founders of Napalm Death, doesn't it? Conversely, the recent 'Lifeline' EP kills, and it's a sign of real growth. The same could be said about 'Pale Sketches.' A lot of die hard metalheads are going to say this is just another example of how Justin Broadrick lost it long ago (after Streetcleaner), that he sold-out, and that he's gone soft. Like gorehounds, religious fundamentalists, and orthodox punks, who really cares what they think anyway?

The 'shoegazer' comparisons are apt, however, as Broadrick has collaborated with Robert Hampson of Loop and Main (Hampson is the second guitar on the stunning 1992 Godflesh opus, 'Pure'). Loop was a great late-80s, early-90s throwback to droney, fuzzed-out 60s psych, and still ranks highly in the 'shoegazer' pantheon. Do yourself a favor: find Loop and give it a listen, it's the real deal. Conqueror isn't a bad album, but there are some very run-of-the-mill rock standards present on it, a very 'been-there, done-that' affair on about half of the album's songs. I didn't expect a repeat of Godflesh, or even the sometimes extraordinary Techno Animal, or ICE, but there were about four-of-eight songs that really soared. Considering what else is out there right now, that's not too bad. The artist was overdue for a straight-ahead hard rock album, and we can expect every Jesu release to be different from the last.

Granted, all of this is coming from a longtime-fan of the music of Justin K. Broadrick: I've been hooked on just about every release he's done ever since a college acquaintance loaned me his copy of 'Streetcleaner' in late-1991. I don't expect the nihilism or the crushing heaviness in these new releases, but what I do expect from Justin is that his music moves me, that he presents me with a little something that I've never heard before, and to basically do something new somewhere in the arrangements. Even the Beach Boys managed that.

'Conqueror' does manage this occasionally, yet the crowning track 'Weightless & Horizontal' could be considered one of Justin's greatest contributions to rock songwriting. To say it's an epic anthem would be an understatement, it simply destroys while it lifts the spirits, clocking-in at ten-minutes of bliss. 'Old Year' was also a great rocker on Conqueror, and has a very shimmering quality to it, and it has that incredible feeling of yearning that all great music has. That's what one usually expects from Broadrick--something deep, something epic. There just wasn't much of that on Conqueror. Little has changed in the overall sound since Godflesh, but there's a distinct lack of much dissonance with a more harmonized approach. You cannot always be angry, outraged, and crying--sometimes it has to end. What comes after nihilism?

Enter 'Pale Sketches,' which has been available for a little over two-months at this writing. Where Conqueror fails at times, Pale Sketches succeeds-in-spades: it is epic, it is moving, and it speaks volumes on the sorrow and the emotional torture of this peculiar era we're inhabiting. This was also the feeling one got from Godflesh, Techno Animal, and many of Broadrick's countless side-projects up until 2003. Even the first Jesu full-length from Hydrahead (the self-titled 'Jesu') accomplished this with an almost cathedral-like structure. Not so strangely, many of the tracks on Pale Sketches date between '2000-2007,' and Conqueror overlaps the same period. What you have here is an artist with so many sides that it's probably difficult to decide which songs belong on any given release! Considering that this is the first release in seven years from his Avalanche imprint, Pale Sketches ranks as a very special release for Justin in every respect, even with its dismissive title. In many ways, it's exactly what I've wanted to hear for several years from him.

If I would compare the music on Pale Sketches to a particular band, it would be Joy Division. There's a great balance of heaviness, electronics, heavy sound-processing, and that strange tone of sorrow and joy coexisting together. That aesthetic is exactly what makes the music of Broadrick so timeless and so powerful when he's at his best. Songs like 'Dummy' take elements of the very best of UK post-punk with an injection of elements of the present. The result is the future. 'Supple Hope' could have almost been a Godflesh song, except that most of the arrangement focuses on some beautifully-layered electronics and some truly inspired vocals. Guitar is backgrounded, and there is more than a hint of an Eno and krautrock influence in the sounds and arrangements (with a dash of 'Frippertronics' ala' James Plotkin of that other grindcore band Old).

Maybe Justin Broadrick had tired of the crushing sound and nihilism of Godflesh by 2001 (I was also ready for something new), but the sorrow remains fully-intact in all his releases in 2007. The changes in his sound are a move towards the melodic and the poppy. To many old fans, this is sacrilege, and Broadrick has expressed the feeling that he's not going to miss them. Considering many of them are fixated on Streetcleaner, I'd have to agree. Even so, the excitement of creativity, curiosity, and discovery have also carried-over from the years predating Jesu. Half of Pale Sketches comprises songs, while the other half are instrumentals. Every one of them is a classic balance of heavy rock combined with electronics just waiting to be discovered by the curious. Contrary to most of the reviews--and even comments from Broadrick himself--this is significantly more psychedelic than Conqueror.

This miscellany of tracks (as most releases by Jesu are) is the real 'Conqueror,' and hardly a collection of 'Pale Sketches.' It's another great observation that life is a strange combination of misery and joy, beauty and ugliness. That describes the music of Justin K. Broadrick in every respect, especially in his current incarnations. Making those two elements harmonize is what makes some of his work very inspired, even genius. This man has grown, showing us emotional vistas that we never thought possible through his music. The occasional misfire will be well worth it.