Graduations of deceit: Jesu and Solstafir

It’s the early 2000s, and the mainstream face of metal has gone through one of the weirdest decades of its existence. The birth of groove metal, the rise of alt rock, the decline of apocalyptic self-assurance that characterised the 1980s; all took their toll on metal of all forms to varying degrees throughout the 90s. Of all the available responses from those still looking for purpose within this music, diluting metal’s ambition with vapid indie influences was probably the most disingenuous. Largely because of its ill-advised attempts to needlessly redeem metal from perceived shortcomings. For Broadrick the short attention spanned, this move came as no surprise. Godflesh were defined by their genre hopping approach, just as wild fluctuations in quality became their calling card. With the success of Sigur Ros and Mogwai around this time it was only natural he would try and bend his hallmark style in this direction in the form of Jesu. But in broader terms it was just another incarnation of metal trying and failing to adapt to circumstance, as opposed to the other way around.

Jesu picked up where Godflesh left off, pretty much without missing a beat. Stripping out the dirty groove metal elements to ‘Hymns’ (2001) on their promising debut EP ‘Heartache’ (2004) gave us an impressively unique rendering of atmospheric drone metal, with Broadrick’s trademark symbiotic relationship with his drum machine. But the follow up self-titled debut album released later that same year, despite being furnished with a bassist and a drummer, hollowed out the sound entirely to give us well over an hour of flat, lifeless post rock which develops ideas at a tectonic plate’s pace. Despite continuing with late Godflesh drummer Ted Parsons there was zero benefit to adding a live sticksman to the mix. When comparing this performance to the rhythm track on ‘Heartache’ it’s remarkable how effective a well programmed drum machine can be in outperforming the real deal in terms of imagination and creativity.

The same goes for the bass, which is tasked with playing roots notes pretty much all the way through. Now this in itself need not be a detriment, many seminal albums have got by on such serviceable bass work with only the most minimal of accents and deviations from the central framework. But no, the problem is not so much the bass – flat and uninspiring as it is – the problem is said central framework. On the rare occasions when Post rock and related drone genres shine it’s done by manipulating a sense of euphoria, through thunderous crescendos and extended ambience. This utilisation of dynamics is key as it compensates for the outlandishly rudimentary chord progressions that characterise the genre. Jesu trade in similar offerings, occasionally drumming up an atmosphere that could be described as euphoric, cathartic, but the affair is dragged out for so long with scant little variation that these emotions quickly give way to boredom.

A clutch of decent segments could be extracted into a passable drone/ambient album, or else could be lifted by a more energetic and creative rhythm section. But such basic feats of imagination were apparently beyond Broadrick and the gang at the time. One would hesitate to say this was an exercise in box ticking in order to draw in the indie crowd, one already eager to lap up such base drivel in the name of an open mind, but so on-trend is this album for the time that it begs the question. Minimalism – especially if it is to be extended out into long, meandering passages as found on ‘Jesu’ – must trade on some other facet to compensate for the lack of musical architecture. It could be tension, it could be atmosphere, rhythm, dynamics, layering, anything, but Jesu is lacking in all but the most basic nods to these things, resulting in an album that’s about as stimulating as the EasterEnders theme tune played at an eighth of the speed.

Solstafir – an entity known for blending post rock with elements of sludge and prog rock – are often lumped into a more black metal classification, but aside from some fragments on their debut LP ‘Í blóði og anda’ (2002) this remains a mystery. The second album from these guys, 2005’s ‘Masterpiece of Bitterness’ is where Solstafir solidified their sound. Aside from the hugely presumptuous title, the success of this album really depends on the angle from which you approach it. Despite it all the contemporary 2000s tags attached to it, it feels more like a 70s rock album that never was. Ok, so there’s a bit of hardcore influence in there, and some very post 1990s trappings throughout, but the spirit of this album remains very much in line with proto metal and prog rock of a different era.

So aside from an overtly modern vaulting ambition, what are Solstafir really bringing to the table, besides being an angry Sigur Ros? Well, the melding of prog rock euphoria with post-hardcore aggression does afford its own appeal. It succeeds in every area that Jesu fails. Where one lacked rhythm, dynamics and variation and did little to justify these absences, ‘Masterpiece of Bitterness’ carries them in spades. Although being once again insultingly long, they at least try to look like they’re justifying the occupation of excess temporal space. If you hit on a good chord sequence there’s nothing wrong with hammering it home I guess, especially if your rhythm section is as hard working as Solstafir’s….but beyond that there doesn’t seem to be much ambition to this music.

The dots are connected not so much by intellect or creativity as they are by what feels easy. Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it means the music lacks ambition beyond a series of disconnected emotional states, which are dwelt on for various amounts of time, but forgotten the instant they are abandoned. Nothing endures beyond the present moment. This is temporary, shallow music with no interest in conveying anything beyond reactionary shadows of the musician’s emotional states, which actually puts it more in line with another strong trend of the mid-2000s era: emo music. It’s a testament to getting more from less, to working chord sequences to the bone through intelligent layering and phrasing, and no small degree of technical prowess. But it remains unambitious and vapid owing to the lack of any internal structure beyond unbridled impulse. This assessment is not born of some high-minded ideal to keep metal pure. It’s more the fact that Solstafir are playing indie music, and this particular brand of indie music is by its very nature less ambitious and more temporary than (good) metal…which is why I listen to…good metal.

Of the two albums picked out this week we must revert to what we find least insulting, which is why (title aside) it has go to ‘Masterpiece of Bitterness’. And it could simply be justified on the grounds of effort; who bothered to play their instruments and bring some energy to the table. But it’s really just the case that Solstafir succeeded in what they set out to, which regardless of how ambitious this aim was can be recognised in some objective sense when compared to Jesu, which fails even as a work of minimalism.

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