It's an interesting time for American black metal. The genre's focus is usually on Northern Europe, but years after Profanatica, Demoncy, Von, Absu and Judas Iscariot among others proved you could make black metal in New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Illinois, projects such as Leviathan, Bone Awl, Cult of Daath, Inquisition, Ashdautas, and Wrnlrd are creating a uniquely American voice within the genre. Some are crossing over into a noisier realm, like Ashpool; there are also ambient crews like Velvet Cacoon, the shoegaze of Wolves in the Throne Room, plus Averse Sefira and Negative Plane, who are rewriting orthodoxy. Then, on their own branch of the black metal tree, there's Nachtmystium.
When Nachtmystium started in the late 1990s, frontman/cofounder Blake Judd was a corpse-painted youngster going by the moniker "Azentrius," and the band was little more than Darkthrone and Burzum rehashed. After slowly and surely shifting and developing a more unique sound the Chicagoans surprised longtime fans and detractors alike by releasing 2006's excellent E-bow-drenched Instinct: Decay. It's a super album, flawed only in the production-- a recording style that worked well when Judd was interested in straight-up black metal, but that couldn't contain the newfound psychedelic scope of the newer set of compositions.
Enter Nachtmystium's brilliant fourth full-length, Assassins: Black Meddle, Part 1: The 45-minute collection's Judd's crowning achievement, one of the best albums released this year. Compared even to Instinct, Assassins is an upgrade in every way-- from the dense production by Minsk's Sanford Parker at his Volume Studios (Rwake, Lair of the Minotaur, Pelican) to the sharper guitar licks, the tighter songwriting, and the intense drumming of multi-tasking scene vet Tony Laureano. It adds up to a unique, powerful blend of 70s-drenched black'n'roll. Referencing Pink Floyd the moment something sounds like windswept head music might strike some folks as lazy, but Judd's Floyd references are everywhere, from the album title-- Assassins: Black Meddle Pt. 1, this is Nachtmystium "meddling" with the black stuff-- to the opening song "One of These Nights", a stormy, creaking, and then riffing introduction of sorts and straight-up tribute to (and echoing of) Pink Floyd's "One of These Days."
Assassins isn't a small production: Yakuza's Bruce Lamont plays saxophone during the proggy three-point "Seasick" closer, Parker added Moog and other effects, and there are guitar solos by Jeff Seay and Pharaoh's Matt Johnson. As usual, the band's sorta invisible member/Judd's right-hand man Chris Black (Superchrist, Dawnbringer) wrote the majority of the lyrics and added keyboards, programming, and some voices. Meanwhile, Neill Jameson, aka N. Imperial, aka Krieg, penned the words for "Code Negative" and Judd wrote the punk-rock call-to-arms "Assassins". Letting others provide the libretto must have given Judd more time to focus on and hone the other aspects of the songwriting, because these tracks kick ass in a way that best Watain, Disfear, Mastodon, or Motörhead tracks kick ass.
Following "One of These Nights" we get the aforementioned "Assassins", a blistering, weakness-rejecting, "fuck you." The song's eight minutes long, its riffs slowly emptying into doom-ier guitars and swirling atmospherics. None of these stretches are boring. Each excursion turns up something exciting: For instance, after "Assassins" dissolves into minimal atmospherics, we get another amazing headbanger, "Ghosts of Grace". Throughout, the heavier stuff is balanced by songs like "Away From the Light", which uses spare piano to create a two-minute build (and breath catcher) for my favorite metal track of the year, "Your True Enemy", in which Judd lets us know that "you have made my hatred possible."
Shifting gears, the album ends with the three-part, 12-minute "Seasick", which moves from the gentle, proggy guitars of the intro "Seasick (Part I: Drowned at Dusk)" into the Opethian boogie of the second section, "Seasick (Part II: Oceanborne"), where Bruce Lamont's saxophone competes with Spanish-inflected guitars. The final portion, "Seasick (Part III: Silent Sunrise)", is a proper, elegiac exit.
But is Assassins a black metal record? As much as Nachtmystium distance themselves from the black metal scene-- last month Judd told me "We're trying to break away from [black metal] and broaden our scope"-- the band's reference points remain within that genre. Attitude-wise, they dropped off the Nile tour because they weren't into it. And, as Judd told me, "we don't want to tour with guys with funny little haircuts and tight jeans on..." Musically, the vocals remain harsh and "evil," but they're also simply rock'n'roll. The guitars buzz as much as they reach for psychedelic heights. The foundation is forged in black metal, but Assassins is more about breaking molds than casting them. Assassins contains big, almost stadium-sized anthems, monumental drinking songs, gorgeous instrumental excursions, prog-metal, and solos that make you catch your breath. It's metal at its best, regardless of the genre tag stuck to it.
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