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Like the junior senator from Illinois, Chicago black-metal musician Blake Judd knows a thing or two about breaking with the past. In the May 2006 issue of Decibel, the Nachtmystium singer-guitarist renounced what he called “indirect ties” to a controversial group within the black-metal community. His statement, regarding the release of 2002’s Reign of the Malicious on a label affiliated with the National Socialism movement, was a no-brainer: Who wants to stay on good terms with neo-Nazis? It was surprising, however, that such a connection—no matter how tenuous—even existed. Around the time of the interview, Nachtmystium released Instinct: Decay, a model of forward-thinking black metal and a Pitchfork favorite.
If that album doesn’t quite jibe with a narrow-minded ethos, its follow-up, Assassins: Black Meddle Pt. 1, will seem even stranger. The new album not only shows that Judd has a sense of humor (“black meddle,” get it?), but also that he’s beginning to outgrow the subject of his jest. Assassins’ opening track, “One of These Nights,” for example, is a muscular tribute to “One of These Days,” the opening track on a 1971 Pink Floyd album called—wait for it—Meddle. The song is followed by several tunes that either begin or end with electronic interludes. One such track, “Assassins,” concludes with two minutes of synthesized ambience. Performed by producer Sanford Parker, the instrumental sections bring to mind the work of Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright, who, in his early-’70s prime, coaxed ominous undertones from a stack of analog synths.
The quartet reaches the pinnacle of Assassins’ extra-metallic experimentation on “Seasick,” a three-part, 12-minute suite that closes the album. The saxophone-laden middle section, subtitled “Oceanborne,” confirms Judd’s professed interest in jam bands, and backs up his recent assertion in the Illinois Entertainer that he and his bandmates are “like hippies.” (“We’re totally cool with everybody,” he says.) Judd’s appetite for fusion will no doubt appeal to the intrepid music fan who might otherwise steer clear of metal. But what’s most endearing about the new album—and what it shares with classics like Metallica’s Ride the Lightning and Mastodon’s Remission—is that, by sheer strength of songwriting, it transcends all manner of stylistic barriers. In the same way that no one thinks of Ride the Lightning as just a thrash album or Remission as just a metalcore album, on Nachtmystium’s latest the riffs are so fierce and the choruses so memorable that it doesn’t matter what flavor of metal it is. It’s just metal.
The same can’t be said of its predecessor. For all of its progressive intent, Instinct: Decay bears all the hallmarks of a traditional black-metal record: tremolo-picked guitars, blast-beat rhythms, and, most important of all, substandard sound quality. The production renders the vocals all but indistinguishable from the guitar, which sounds like it was recorded over a bad phone connection. Black metal’s devotion to this aesthetic has partially obscured the extremist politics of some of its Scandinavian originators, many of whom were quite young when the genre took off in the early ’90s. It’s possible that Judd, who was 17 when he started Nachtmystium in 2000, was attracted to bands like Darkthrone and Emperor because of their boneheaded sentiments. But perhaps he accepted the boneheadedness as part and parcel of music that appealed to him for artistic reasons.
Either way, Judd, who’s now 25, says he’s sick of the black-metal scene, and I believe him. There’s plenty of evidence on the disc. “Ghosts of Grace,” the best song on the new album—which sounds great, by the way—is an obvious bid for Queens of the Stone Age’s audience. The track is built from time-tested material: a sturdy four-on-the-floor beat, a sustain-filled chord progression, and a sirenlike guitar figure that all but screams, “classic rock anthem!” Even Judd’s vocals are relatively clear. “The ghosts of grace/Haunt your bones/Your spirit/Left for dead,” he sings in a voice that is almost a shout. There’s no trace of black metal’s purposeful obfuscation. Judd sounds less like a man who’s comfortable in the shadows than someone who wants a crowd to scream along with his every word.
No one should be surprised if this comes to pass. Most of the choruses on the new album seem to have been composed with audience participation in mind. And yet it’s not so much what Judd sings as how he sings it. On all but the jangly “Code Negative,” a balladlike tune that’s sung in a whisper, Judd delivers the lyrics as if lungpower and enunciation could communicate meaning—and, in a weird way, they do. One of the best lines on the album, a lyric from the refrain of “Your True Enemy,” appears somewhat limp on the page: “Know this now/I never sleep.” Belted out by Judd, however, it becomes almost inspirational, like Green Lantern’s famous oath: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight.”
It might be in poor taste to compare a guy who once recorded for a neo-Nazi-affiliated label to a superhero or Barack Obama. And it’s true that Judd doesn’t exactly sing about vanquishing evil. Largely written by Nachtmystium’s Robert Hunter, collaborator Chris Black, the lyrics simply do what metal lyrics need to do: They vent frustration ambiguously, allowing listeners to mold them to fit their own frustrations. There’s no “We Shall Overcome” or “Come Together.” And there doesn’t need to be. Judd’s giant step—his change you can believe in—is best measured in synthscapes, jazz solos, and songwriting that transforms underground music into mainstream metal. The genius of Assassins has everything to do with the music itself. Judd doesn’t sing about inclusiveness. He just plays it.