Ian Chainey’s take:
Metalgaze? So, that’s what we’re calling this now?
Okay, sure, Justin Broadrick’s recent riffs are comparable to a slowed down “Only Shallow” being played through Type O Negative‘s amps. I get that. But, My Bloody Valentine‘s songs tended to go somewhere. Shields and Co. had the same penchant for studio tinkering, but underneath their hypnotic swaths of sound were honest-to-god pop ditties, with fairly traditional structures, fighting to get out. Jesu on Conqueror is more interested in applying the sonic techniques of shoegaze to a minimalist template, one where variation in song structure is traded in for variation in timbre.
If anything, Jesu should be called industrialgaze. On the surface, they’re miles away from the brutish, repetitive creep of early Godflesh or early Swans. The difference in timbre, melody, and harmony are a complete 180 from Broadrick’s and Ted Parson’s past work. But, when you peel all these pretty layers back, the old industrial tinged minimalism of their former outfits is at the heart of these tunes. In Conqueror’s case, we’re talking about incessant, never changing rhythms that have been a staple of industrial for generations and a “simplistic” song construction; no verses, no choruses, just one basic idea. That lack of overall variation is certainly not far from the stylistic ground that early Swans covered, but the difference between then and now is that Conqueror has no rise and fall, no real build up and release. Instead, there’s an artificial rise that takes place when Jesu tacks on ear candy (treated guitars, treated vocals, etc.) while trying to build many-layered, “deep” textures.
Thing is, Jesu‘s music isn’t all that deep. Some of the hallmarks of industrial and minimalism is that the mechanical rhythm or slow transformation numbs the listener while the repetition allows for the subtle addition of new elements into the piece (or, allows your mind to imagine subtle additions), thus making it sound simple on the surface, yet impossibly intricate the harder you listen. The big problem with Conqueror is that it proves to be the exact opposite: sounding deep on the surface and simplistic when stripped of its ear candy. The songs feel rather manipulative, guiding you towards the intended emotion instead of letting you find it yourself (Check the cloying melancholy of “Mother Earth”). Not only that, but it loses one of industrial’s key traits, the pounding percussion.
Parson’s drumming sounds neutered of its intended power because of the production. Deep guitars and Broadrick’s shaky vocals overwhelm the mix while the drums are lost in the middle. Without the up front percussion to push everything forward, Conqueror sounds aimless, like it’s stuck in a perpetual dream state where time doesn’t move. You get the feeling this was Broadrick’s M.O. from the start, and it could’ve worked under different circumstances, but without any sense of movement, the compositions have to rely solely on the strength of the textures. Considering that Loveless is still the defining album of the shoegaze genre nearly sixteen years later, Conqueror’s textures sound bland and played out, even in a metal world that is just starting to invest more interest in the past innovations of shoegazers.
So, Conqueror proves to be superficial and underwhelming. There’s no doubt that a lot of work went into the making of this album and it sounds gorgeous at times, but there’s no real depth to the music being played. More time was spent making it sound great instead of writing a great set of songs. Because of that, Conqueror is relegated to the task that has fallen to many a post-rock album, serving simply as nice background noise. Taken as an exploration of sound, an investigation into whether you can fuse the unique timbres of shoegaze and metal, it might be a success, but, while these experiments are pleasant to the ear, it’s excruciatingly boring to the brain. Gives a Broadrick fanboy Heartache in more ways than one.
Chris McDonald’s take:
Justin Broadrick‘s music has always been special to me, and I’ve been a big fan of Jesu since the band‘s beginning in 2004. I’ve been anticipating this album even since the phenomenal Silver EP was released last year and introduced a more melodic, poppier side to the band’s droning sound. This catchier, prettier side of Jesu was more compelling and emotive to me than the draining, downbeat style of the band’s self-titled debut (which I still loved), so when I heard that the band’s second full-length would continue in the style of Silver, my anticipation grew. And sure enough, Conqueror delivers in an amazing way.
Beautiful. Uplifting. Emotional. These aren’t often words used to describe a heavy metal album. But Conqueror manages to be all these things while still retaining the depressing tone that characterizes all of Broadrick’s work and provides the heaviness necessary to keep this in the metal spectrum. This work covers many bases and will appeal to fans of many different types of music. But above all, Conqueror is a really great album that redefines Jesu’s sound even more successfully than Silver and sets the bar high for releases this year. However, those only familiar with the band’s debut full-length album will be in for quite a shock when they hear this, for while there are still similarities tying the two together, Conqueror is a very different animal from Jesu.
The most noticeable change in sound would be Justin Broadrick’s singing. Always important to the compositions yet somewhat buried and indistinct on previous releases, Broadrick’s voice takes on much more of a lead role on this album, coming in clearer in the mix and occupying more time in the songs. And it’s a damn fortunate thing, because Broadrick’s clean voice has been improving for years to the point where he can now be considered near the top of the vocalist heap. His singing on Conqueror is some of the best of his career, sounding world-weary and bleak yet somewhat bright and hopeful all at the same time. It fits with the atmosphere of the album perfectly and gives the music a very relatable, human quality that makes these songs that much more enjoyable to the listener. Musically, Conqueror expands on the aforementioned poppier side of Silver in a huge way. Everything here is much more melodic, accessible, and generally happier than we’re used to hearing from Jesu. Drums are finally played by a real drummer (Ted Parsons) and it makes a big difference; while the drum machine worked great for Godflesh and past Jesu releases, the live drumming helps contribute to the warm, organic feel of the album that Broadrick was obviously seeking. Synths are also used in more abundance, usually accenting the heavy guitars but sometimes taking the spotlight, such as the beautiful break halfway through “Weightless & Horizontal” or the blissful sounds heard throughout “Mother Earth.” Guitar and bass playing are still as monolithic and heavy as ever, but more riff-based and upbeat. Production is pretty much flawless and balances the many layers of sound so that you can always hear exactly what you want to at any particular time.
It all comes together to form some positively breathtaking tunes. From the pulsating, hypnotic flow of the title track and “Weightless & Horizontal” to the pleasant shoegaze of “Transfigure” and “Mother Earth”, Conqueror will captivate you from the get-go and leave you feeling amazed and enlightened after it’s over, not to mention with an earworm bigger than an anaconda itching your brain. There is more variety in tempo and feel than on the self-titled, and it gives each song a distinct identity to match whatever mood you’re in. My personal favorite has to be the closing track “Stanlow”, a beautiful song all the way through that buries the listener with layer after layer of synth harmonies, clean guitar picking, and sorrowful vocals that end the album on an appropriately sad yet optimistic note. This is easily one of the best songs Broadrick has ever written.
The only real fault I could find with Conqueror is the same problem I had with Jesu: a slight lack of consistency. While the material here is all very good at worst, its like the great songs here are so great that they overshadow some of the songs that are merely good, and as a result there are a few things that don’t quite click. “Old Year” stands out as a song somewhat lacking direction, and the vocals here don’t really stick like they do everywhere else. There are other moments, but I have a hard time really describing them, as they seem to change every time I listen and stand out more sometimes than they do others. I guess it’s more of an intangible thing, but it’s there, and this is the only aspect keeping me from awarding this album my first triple-six.
Regardless, Conqueror is a success in every way for Jesu. Justin Broadrick has been saying that its been his dream for awhile to make a pop record, and while this album is far from that, it nevertheless stands as a work that will likely garner more attention and appeal to a larger listening base than ever before for the band; not out of lack of depth or sacrifice of artistic integrity, but out of skill of composition and the true emotion and care that is being put into this music. For fans of the self-titled debut who are skeptical about the band’s new direction, I urge you to approach this with an open-mind. Justin and Co. have accomplished their goal with this recording and once again thrown the metal world for a loop with a work that is as innovative as it is appealing. I can hardly wait to hear what these guys come up with next. Simply put, a triumph.
Clay Moore’s take:
If last year’s sublime Silver was indeed considered an experiment, it would appear that Justin Broadrick has not yet left the laboratory. Conqueror picks up much where its EP predecessor left off, and finds our protagonist continuing to meditate on the lush pop structures that left so many fans and critics fawning last year. There’s nothing on Conqueror as irrepressibly poppy as the deliciously sugary “Star”, but the lion’s share of this album leans on these new tendencies harder than the despondent, droning dirges of the self titled record. Not that those have vanished, by any means, as tracks like “Weightless & Horizontal” prove, but the two aspects are more intertwined than on past Jesu efforts. At the very least you’ll be tapping your foot while getting your mope on.
As you’d expect, the common element that ties both of these elements together is Broadrick’s tremendous penchant for meticulously sculpted soundscapes. An avalanche of shimmering layers of heavily effected instrumentation and vocals create the billowy, ethereal, yet downright weighty atmosphere at the core of the band’s sound. Although much will be said about Broadrick’s melodic proclivities, Jesu’s power continues to stem from the hypnotic dreamy waves that carry the listener along like a raft. Without the use of traditional heavy handed industrial/electronic percussion (the drums this time around are natural and quite understated) or epic arrangements, these relatively simple but effectively constructed and immaculately recorded songs are able to engage the listener well enough to create illusions that these songs cover more ground than they actually do, and that they do so in less than their listed track times.
Let’s be clear though, Jesu still owes a considerable debt to My Bloody Valentine, and has yet to best Kevin Shields’ masterfully compelling, hypnotic, and melody-rich Loveless, an album so packed with swirling layers it can result in vertigo. And incidentally, while I’m name-checking an underrated indie band circa early ‘90s, let’s mention an (eventually) overrated one as well, as the early vocalizations on the album opening title track sound like they could be spawned from the partnership of Billy Corgan and James Iha. From back when they were good, but from them nonetheless. When Jesu comes off as less convincing, it’s typically because Broadrick’s clean, dreamy delivery, while improving, still sometimes pales next to more naturally gifted vocalists. That said, the echoing vocal melodies are also sometimes undeniably effective in their role of providing a hook and/or ethereal pensiveness. While the vocal melodies on tracks like “Medicine” are quite average, songs like “Transfigure” and “Stanlow” best uses Broadrick’s talents, overlaying vocal and keyboard melodies to build compelling and memorable songs.
It’s worth mentioning that in addition to these melodic explorations, there seems to be something else happening to Mr. Broadrick as well. Despite his claims to be “Way past hoping/I’m way past caring” on “Weightless & Horizontal”—and he sounds like he means it, too—much of Conqueror sounds downright uplifting and quite pretty. This newfound sense of affirming hopefulness contrasts nicely with the downcast elements and themes to create increased depth. Although Jesu probably fall just shy of the effusive and consistent praise heaped upon them, Conqueror offers more than enough to make it an easy recommendation, and fans should be well pleased with this effort.
David Ochoa’s take:
Imagine, if you will, the experience of going to Heaven. Your cognitive soul offered eternal sanctuary and endless fantasy. First you might have lifetimes of serenity and calm mixed with a sense of wonder. Then comfortable, happy resignation like a second life. Then, after what may be aeons, a growing boredom that leads to simply wanting a second, final death. Thus, Justin Broadrick showed Heaven to me, and he named it Conqueror.
The much talked-about and anticipated ‘pop’ aspects of Conqueror are something of a misnomer to me, being as Jesu‘s unhurried, droning brand of post-sludge is still the main ingredient here. Although Broadrick’s vocals have become entirely clean and softly dreamlike, they are memorable by virtue of intelligible, questioning lyrics, and not by something so empty as pop hooks. Heavily reverbed lines like ‘Are you worth saving?’ from “Old Year” and ‘Try not to lose yourself‘ from “Weightless & Horizontal” repeat and repeat until the listener is forced to take a clue as to the song’s intended mood, just like classic Godflesh material. Other tracks such as “Transfigure” and “Brighteyes” recall Jesu‘s roots when their lurching riffs instigate a slow, colossal groove that makes the most of the deep, belching guitar sound. Straddling the guitars thoroughly, in production and songwriting terms, are crystal clear vocals and synths that sparkle like ice in sunlight.
Though any given track is an explorative and oddly uplifting epic, the singular rhythm, handful of chord progressions, and mercilessly layered vocals on each track makes Conqueror quite a transparent proposition. Basically, repeated listens don’t reveal much more than the very first one. In that way, its memorability and initial appeal get the better of it, with songs feeling carried on vocal merits rather than that of all instruments involved. The latter half of “Mother Earth” makes an example because, despite its lack of vocals, the guitar plods quite plainly along with the drums, which in turn play a simple holding pattern for the final four minutes. While simplicities such as that made Godflesh the era’s dark leviathan, their use now can make a draining listen of Jesu at odds with Broadrick’s, in all other respects, upbeat new direction.
This direction is definitely promising, however. Sometimes the deep and droning guitar contrasts with Broadrick’s singing in a way that creates a hypnotic majesty, not dissimilar to the beautific heights of a band like Sigur Rós. This helps convince me that Jesu is still a worthy byword for cutting edge music, but Conqueror, at an hour long, may prove too soporific for its own good.