Black metal can take inspiration from the devil, philosophy, nature, war, suicide, even national cultures. One thing is certain, though: it's always dark.
Nachtmystium guitarist/vocalist Blake Judd follows suit by dressing his music in images of skulls and desolate landscapes. As co-founder of Sycamore-based Battle Kommand Records, he's released work by such Satan-loving acts as Cleveland's Nunslaughter, Vancouver's Gloria Diaboli and Finland's Archgoat. Nachtmystium's own discography includes the tangle of demos and EPs expected for underground blasphemers, including splits with some of American black metal's most respected names (Xasthur, Krieg), and in 2005, Judd was part of black metal "supergroup" Twilight's sole album.
As the band's only remaining original member, the Wheaton native insists that despite these connections, today's Nachtmystium does not play black metal. Judging from their newly released fourth LP, "Assassins: Black Meddle Part I" (Century Media), that's not just iconoclast posturing.
Furthering the title's psyche-era reference, album intro "One of These Nights" crossbreeds Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" with the identical rhythm of Black Sabbath's "Children of the Grave." From there, "Assassins" vacillates between black metal's breakneck speed, accessibly melodic metal passages and a sludgy miasma typically associated with the post-hardcore scene, all laced with bright solos and trippy atmospherics that reinforce the band's love of '70s-style psychedelia. Slightly reminiscent of forward-thinking Norwegians Enslaved, it's one of 2008's must-hear metal albums, transcending the limited appeal of Judd's lo-fi black metal peers with engagingly diverse songs and powerful, prickly production by Minsk's Sanford Parker.
Nachtmystium celebrates the album's release this weekend with a hometown headlining show at Reggie's Rock Club in Chicago, then hits the road with the indie-friendly doom duo of Boris and Torche. In anticipation, an edited conversation with Blake Judd follows.
Q: You grew up in Wheaton. Is that where you started playing music?
A: I started playing guitar when I was about 12, but I was never really in a band until I was 16 or 17. The first four or five years of Nachtmystium's existence were run out of my parents' house (laughs). I'm sure you know a little about Wheaton. It's not an unsurprising place for a black metal band to pop out of.
Q: "Assassins" is a higher-profile release than you've ever had.
A: A lot of the Nachtmystium records originally came out on small labels, much like the one I run, Battle Kommand. Because we never had contracts or legal obligations to those labels, I was able to re-press those records, and I did all the pressings for our last full-length, "Instinct: Decay" . We wound up selling over 10,000 copies of it and I realized that the band had outgrown the label.
Q: Why don't you feel you're a black metal band anymore?
A: I really respect what I view to be real black metal, and real black metal to me is more than just a sound. It's a lifestyle, it's an ideology. I look at a band like [Sweden's] Watain. They're the real deal. They take it very seriously, there's nothing cheesy or fake about it. To me, that's what real black metal is, it's a whole "counter-life" situation. It's not for everybody, basically. I think that what we do isn't tied into antireligious sentiment so much anymore, we're writing more about societal issues, things that we deal with in our personal lives. Also, as a fan of black metal, I'm offended by someone who calls their music black metal and incorporates outside elements. In a sense, I'm still a purist when it comes to being a fan. Bringing essentially a hippie rock influence into our sound goes against what I think is real black metal.
Q: Can you talk about that "hippie rock" influence?
A: My parents grew up during the '60s and they were very into Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath ... the first concert I ever saw was the Allman Brothers in second grade. I grew up with that element present in my life, and as I got older, I revolted against it like any teenager who rebels against what his folks are into. Once I grew out of that phase, I went back to all this great music that I was raised with, and these days, I couldn't tell you the last time I put on a black metal album that wasn't one of the first three Bathory records or a Venom record. I just don't listen to it anymore, and it's not really where my heart's at musically. I'm sort of coming back to my roots, and I think that's a more honest place for me to be as a musician. I'm not trying to hold on to something that I'm really not into because it's convenient. I think it's a challenge to come from what we've come from, given that we've built a name for ourselves there. It's much more challenging and rewarding to be able to "meddle" with black metal as much as we are and still be somewhat present in that world.
Q: You've also made inroads with the indie doom scene, which locally is a big hipster force right now.
A: I started to dabble with the doom thing around 2001 or 2002. By '03, I was really getting into the Southern Lord Records stuff, and if you remember, that was before the whole Sunn O))) phenomenon happened. I kind of caught the tail end of that underground scene. At that time, it wasn't the hip thing at Reckless Records or whatever. It was around the same time that I was coming to terms with the fact that I was burned out on black metal and death metal as well. I embraced it because there is definitely an element of rock in that music, and it was cool to see an extreme metal form taking on rock elements. It was a way for me to start to step back to my roots .
Q: "Assassins" is actually a great "headphone" album.
A: I definitely wanted that element to be there, but (producer) Sanford Parker is fully to blame for that aspect (laughs). He's a great engineer and in my opinion, he's got the most similar taste in music to mine of anyone I've ever worked with. I think he feels things in music that make him love it the same way I do. In that regard, we didn't really even have to talk about it. He knew what we were going for and we knew what he was capable of. It was very natural, nothing was forced in the studio. We all got along, there was not a single argument in 14 days of being together 24/7. That's not how we roll, man, that's fun, that's why we do this, to get in and make records. Why people would fight in those circumstances is beyond me.
CD release with Minsk, Yakuza, (Lone) Wolf & Cub
Saturday: 6 p.m. at Reggie's Rock Club, 2109 S. State St., Chicago
Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door
Contact: (312) 949-0220 or reggieslive.com