The new wave of occult heavy metal: Jess and the Ancient Ones and Jex Thoth

In pop culture theory, established wisdom has it that nostalgia runs in thirty year cycles. In the 1980s there was a wealth of film and music that referenced the 1950s. The carefree 1990s was a perfect echo of the 60s. The 2000s saw the return of drug fuelled classic rock, flairs, and nihilistic hippies. Although this trend was probably less pronounced due to the cultural warping powers of the internet and its unstoppable rise. This analysis is a top level analysis of course, concerned with the broader waves of cultural trends. But there’s no doubt that the last decade has seen an 80s resurgence, gradually bleeding into the 1990s. Maybe 2021 will see us celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall by the US erecting a whole new one. Who knows?

The effects of the 70s revivalism of the 00s was definitely felt in our little corner of metal. With a whole plethora of proto-metal, stoner metal, and psychedelic rock acts sprouting up; acting as the acceptable face of metal to the general public. When news came that Antti Boman of legendary Finnish death metallers Demilich was forming a 1970s revivalist outfit I was confused and excited. ‘Nespithe’ was such a mind bendingly weird album; what unearthly mutations would he apply to the psychedelia revival of the late 2000s?

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The answer: surprisingly bland ones. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Jess and the Ancient Ones’ debut LP ‘Come Crimson Death’ (2012) is a fairly straight forward dad rock album at first glance, but it’s a grower nonetheless. The trendy stoner doom kids will be turned off by the apparent enthusiasm of it. There is undoubtably a NWOBHM vibe oozing from the speakers. It’s fast, punchy, energetic, positively celebratory in places; despite the lyrics and imagery being in line with the occult and fruity pagan themes of their more laid-back peers.

Creative guitar leads, intricate keyboards that scream right back to British 70s prog rock, and a powerful vocalist, all connect in music that owes as much to Iron Maiden as it does Deep Purple. And this highlights the key problem with ‘Come Crimson Death’; it’s incredibly intricate, well composed music dressed up as something less than the sum of its parts; something hammy, cheesy, even bland. Look beneath the surface and each riff and melody is musically intuitive, intelligent, just fucking well written. But it may prove too entertaining for the trendy gloom of the usual crowd that metal-for-non-metalheads draws in.

On a totally unrelated note, Wisconsin’s Jex Thoth formed in 2007. Their self-titled debut of the following year exhibited is a pleasingly understated take on psychedelic rock. The guitars were minimal, relegated to provided rhythm, atmosphere, texture; understated keyboards and Jex’s spellbinding voice lead the show. But aside from some very loose grooves, rhythm is really not the focus of this music. Follow up, 2012’s ‘Blood Moon Rise’ expands these ideas further.

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Doom’s answer to ambient is drone along the lines of Earth. ‘Blood Moon Rise’ offers a more subtly menacing take on this idea. Yes, there’s drums, there are time signatures, but it’s so chilled out it’s as if the musicians are falling asleep as they play. Approaching this as a metal album, or even as a rock album, misses the point. Sure, there’s guitars and drums, but they are only present in the most minimal fashion, to hang Jex’s soaring vocals and the ethereal keyboards on. It is these that carry the music forward, that draw the ear.

In a sense this is an incredibly simple and obvious formula. But there’s something to these songs that remains compelling after repeated listens. Lullabies for metalheads. That’s not to diminish the role of the traditional rock elements – indeed they lend a depth and heaviness to the sound – but they don’t make up the essence of this music. Although they are a perfect complement to the ponderous delicacy of these melodies. Jex’s voice has a depth to it that grows organically out of the fuzzy bass. A layer cake of delights for the patient and willing.

This music has definitely driven through metal’s territory at some point in its past; whether its proto-metal of the late 1960s and early 70s, or aping off the modern doom revival; a revival that has all but run its course by now. But by the point of ‘Blood Moon Rise’ Jex Thoth have definitely left it behind and strayed into more ambient territory. Because this has been achieved without sacrificing the substance of the music, they are that rare diamond in the rough of this over saturated genre.

Both these albums buck the trend that they belong to; for the exact opposite reasons in my book. One for straying too far from the rock formula, one for indulging to heavily in it. Jess and the Ancient Ones offer a fun romp of nostalgia and creativity with a wealth of engaging riffs to unpack, aided by strong vocals which many may find too cheesy. Follow up releases to CCD have sadly played up to the blues and psychedelic aspects, abandoning the more traditional heavy metal guitar leads and their interaction with the organ. As this mixture was one of the main appeals of this music for me I have been turned off to them of late. Jex Thoth’s second effort is a haunting late-night feast of mystery. Follow up material has been painfully slow to materialise.

But to the point, ‘Blood Moon Rise’ is my pick of the week. Both these albums succeed on their own terms. But BMR’s terms just hold that intangible magical quality that makes an album a classic. It may well have been a fluke, a moment in time, less repeatable than the more musically complex CCD, but all too often that is the stuff of great music.

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