Akin to many kids raised by music-loving parents, Nachtmystium guitarist/vocalist Blake Judd fondly recalls raiding his folks' record collection and spending hours listening to Pink Floyd albums in his bedroom. He'd gently place the phonograph needle on classics such as "Wish You Were Here." And then he'd resume playing with Legos. Judd, at age 5, was photographed holding up a copy of Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon.".
The English band has stayed with the DeKalb resident ever since, never more so than on Nachtmystium's new "Assassins: Black Meddle Pt. I" (out June 10), a dark homage to and heavy extension of Floyd's 1971 opus, "Meddle." The record's fusion of psychedelic melody, dramatic pathos, moody ambience and strangulating aggression is unlike anything in the metal canon.
"The idea of 'Assassins' is that an assassin kills, gets rid of or destroys something," explains Judd. "It's not directly about us. We want to assassinate all these preconceived notions about where the metal community feels we belong in music and want to do our own thing. And what we do is black meddle."
"Assassins" isn't the first time Nachtmystium has upended convention. Recorded in living rooms and released in 2006 on Judd's Battle Kommand imprint, the quartet's "Instinct: Decay" garnered widespread acclaim for raw riffs and expansive tonalities.
"I asked myself, 'How can we make this even more different?' and started messing around with Floyd-esque guitar leads as opposed to shredding metal stuff," says Judd, who grew bored adhering to established loud and fast structures.
Having more fully realized this capacity on the professionally appointed "Assassins," Nachtmystium is poised for breakout success. The band recently signed with Century Media, an indie label known for its mainstream-minded metal roster. "Assassins" is set to receive coverage from outlets that in the past either ignored or gave the band short shrift. And the group just returned from its first European tour. Not bad for an underground act started by self-taught novices.
Early daysJudd founded Nachtmystium as a teenager, joining with a drummer whose skills were equally amateurish. Their crude demos largely imitated the sour buzz and bleak hate of influential Norwegian artists. Similarly, Nachtmystium's early anti-religious thrust, corpse paint and blasphemous imagery corresponded to black-metal code—as did Judd's adopted stage name, Azentrius.
But as he matured, the singer progressed away from primitive trappings and experimented with cutting-edge ideas. The 25-year-old frontman has since dropped the alias and turned the thematic focus on the outside world. What hasn't changed is Nachtmystium's inability to hold on to members. Save for Judd and guitarist Jeff Wilson, the lineup is in perpetual flux. Such volatility fuels the collective's reputation—best represented on band swag in the form of a big syringe surrounded by the slogan "Never Stop the Madness."
"They're definitely a weird bunch to work with, [given] the chaos that naturally surrounds them," says producer Sanford Parker, who recorded "Assassins" at his Wicker Park-based Volume Studios over a two-week period during the winter. "They are probably more of a punk band than a metal band."
Disaster fearedThe recording sessions support Parker's assessment. On a visit to Volume on a snowy Saturday afternoon in December, half-smoked cigarettes, empty beer cans and other debris were scattered on tables near the mixing board. The band's living quarters resembled a dormitory after a party had blown through. A carefree vibe persisted, even though music remained unfinished and deadlines approached. Parker credits the results to inspired improvisation, brilliant chemistry and luck.
"From the first note to the last note was a surprise. It was literally like, 'We got nothing. What are we going to do now?' 'Um, I don't know, try this.' 'Hey, that sounds cool.' Everything was like that."
Judd, who feared disaster upon entering the studio without any concrete songs, credits accomplished session drummer Tony Laureano (Dimmu Borgir, Nile) for helping shape fragmented parts into cohesive wholes. Yet, the vocalist still prefers unprepared methods and happy accidents to slavish perfectionism.
"When you don't have something telling you subconsciously what it should be, there are no restrictions. You don't have a preconceived notion of what this should or shouldn't sound like."
Wilson agrees, and believes taking risks outweighs gains associated with predetermined consistency. "The main thing is not writing the same record twice. Lots of bands put out the same record every time. They put out five records and they all sound the same. What's the point?"
Not derivativeNo one will accuse "Assassins" of duplicating an existing effort. Despite the title and plans for a "Pt. II," it is not a concept record. But the Floyd parallels are both clever and subtle. The opening "One of These Nights" hearkens to "Meddle" lead track "One of These Days. " Guitar fills owe more to David Gilmour than any metal god.
The album's omnipresent sonic gristle and creepy-crawly noises arrive courtesy of another Floyd standby: Moog synthesizers and pedals. Judd specifically chose Parker to helm the record due to his expertise with the equipment. He's credited as a member on the album and, on occasion, will join the band onstage.
As might fellow Chicagoan and Yakuza member Bruce Lamont, who plays saxophone on the closing "Seasick." The three-part suite's instrumental nature, horn part, length and water motifs mirror "Meddle" epic finale "Echoes." Just as important, the song's theme of drowning alone in an ocean reflects Nachtmystium's feelings toward apathy and ignorance, topics that continue to fuel the band's anger.
"We're all so ... drowned in our reality TV, personal lives and worrying about making enough money to pay the bills," Judd says. "People don't pay attention. That's the idea, and that's the problem."
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune