For Nachtmystium, there’s no such thing as a “return to form.” To suggest as much would be implicitly stating that the Chicago-based black metal band ever imposed any rigid boundaries on their music, the notion of which went out the window with the “Black Meddle” series, Assassins and Addicts (and frankly was pretty obvious with Instinct: Decay for that matter). Yet there’s also a somewhat condescending tone anytime anyone speaks that phrase, as if expanding one’s boundaries is somehow either against an artist’s ethos at best, or unwelcome at worst. For Blake Judd & Co., black metal isn’t a sacred ideal but rather a flexible and experimental form. That Judd recently announced Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore as the newest member of his other band, Twilight, should give some indication of how little tradition matters.
And yet, “Dawns Over the Ruins of Jerusalem,” the first track on Nachtmystium’s new album, Silencing Machine, is essentially black metal at its most pared down and straightforward. Hummingbird-speed riffs, unrelenting blast beats, Judd’s throaty croak — it’s black metal at its most basic. Gone are the saxophones of 2008’s Assassins or the post-punk textures of Addicts, though one would be best advised to take a deep breath before making any upfront assumptions about any perceived conservatism on the part of the band. As “Dawns” surely indicates, Nachtmystium can still play black metal stripped to its roots, but the remainder of the album stretches out into dark and punishing realms of industrial, and moody, epic ambience.
Certainly, the level of experimentation is nowhere near as boundless or as, frankly, surprising as it was on the group’s previous two albums. Yet there’s an organic level of growth here that finds Judd’s songwriting at its strongest. One of the biggest ways in which Nachtmystium set themselves apart from so many modern black metal bands is in their ability to craft songs with strong foundations of melody, and for that matter, hooks. One of the most shining examples of this can be found on “Borrowed Hope and Broken Dreams,” which rides a dark, post-punk riff and later incorporates some heady Moog backing. There’s a punishing, Killing Joke-style stomp to “I Wait In Hell,” while “Decimation, Annihilation” incorporates an unexpected, jaunty bounce. And “Give Me the Grave” is simply one of the best hard rock songs a black metal band has ever written.
For as much as this is another step forward in Nachtmystium’s increasing journey as one of North America’s most compelling black metal acts, Silencing Machine makes its advances not through radical reinvention but through a more careful balance of restraint and experimentation. The band could have just as easily thrown out the rulebook altogether, and very likely could have succeeded at it, but the tack they chose instead is potentially even more rewarding: Defining and defying black metal in one fell swoop.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.