"Is that the venue? It looks like a shack!" Justin Broadrick says, and his bandmates laugh uproariously. They've just pulled up outside their venue in Austin, Texas, and it's not looking good. "Sorry," he apologizes to me on his cell phone. "It looks like a shed!" Broadrick is only joking, in surprisingly good spirits for being sick and a man who has a reputation as the king of bombast, the creative force behind the grindcore of Napalm Death in the '80s and the psychotic industrial blast beats of Godflesh in the '90s. Instead, he is disturbingly good-natured and genuinely concerned about taking the ethereal doom of his latest musical incarnation, Jesu, on the road while being ill. "It's infuriating," he confesses. "It's not like we're here every six months or anything." His words ring with a touch of wistful evangelism, as though there's a message that needs delivering.
That new missive is Conqueror (Hydrahead), Jesu's second full-length and a bleakly epic knight's tale where melodies spiral upward into ominous gray clouds of static to create ingenious, thundering shoegaze. It's a rude awakening for anyone expecting the tortured howls and demonic riffage of yore, but in many ways it's the obvious next step, particularly for someone looking to introduce pop music, his long-harbored love, into previously uncharted terrain. Conqueror, Broadrick explains, was created with an aim of "extreme prettiness and extreme heaviness at the same time. I guess we're taking melodies that are derived from popular culture and juxtaposing that with a sound which is basically rooted in extreme music." Where Jesu's last EP, Silver (Hydrahead, 2006), offered a more straightforward dose of anthemic pop crushed under the weight of plodding beats, Conqueror crackles and glows like a low-pressure system, trapping its dirgelike sound before releasing it into crashing cymbals and Broadrick's low, clear, mournful vocals. As pop music goes, it is nearly impenetrable, with hints of Broadrick's earlier works readily apparent throughout.
Broadrick's entry into the annals of music history came early, in the form of an invitation to join Napalm Death as a guitarist in 1985. Only 15 at the time, he would later find himself labeled something of a noise savant with accolades from John Peel furthering the myth. Andee Connors, one of the owners of Aquarius Records, describes Napalm Death's work as "intense, furious, forward-thinking heavy music. Short, sharp bursts of ripping, pounding, superpolitical, sort of lo-fi, crusty metallic grind. At the time nothing like it had been heard." It was Godflesh, however, that saw Broadrick truly take the reins as both composer and performer. In the same way that Napalm Death informed noise bands for the next decade, Godflesh were the architects of a now widespread unyielding morass of skull-pounding rhythms and guttural, scraping vocals.
But while Godflesh provided catharsis for a generation of noise-obsessed listeners, Broadrick is quick to point out the central irony of the band's mythos: "I'm one of those people who are ultrahypersensitive. Godflesh was a defense. My weapon was the sound." Though appreciative of all of his musical accolades, Broadrick is firm in his distinction between past and present, explaining simply, "I don't want to be confined by the genres that I helped create in some way." He sees Jesu's marriage of oppressive guitar and sweet melodic loops as "more personal, more indulgent, and more honest" than any music he has composed before. On "Weightless and Horizontal" he ends by chanting, "Try not to lose yourself," repeatedly through an ever-approaching onslaught of beats. It is an impossible combination, a hymn of brutality wrapped with hope.