So, as you’ve probably all heard, shoegaze isn’t just for “sissy indie rockers” anymore. Deafheaven drew accolades from the mainstream press and scorn from the metal community for sprinkling some Slowdive (among other influences) into last year’s Sunbather, and Victory Records’ dilution of their metal-as-fuck roster with Nothing has only added fuel to the fire in 2014. Thing is, shoegaze and heavy metal have been cozy bedfellows for a long damn time now, and the true aficionado of metal’s more adventurous side will be well-acquainted already with the offspring of the two seemingly contradictory styles’ sweaty coupling.
Berlin-by-way-of-Toronto duo Nadja were among the earliest groups to grab the post-metal baton from Isis and run it deeper into Kevin Shields’ home turf. While the group definitely does its share of ‘gazing, their catalogue is marked by a surprising diversity, stretching from extremely diffuse ambient work (see “Jaguar” from their Latitudes session Sky Burial) to albums with more focused, conventional song structures (their covers album When I See the Sun Always Shines on TV is a blast). Nadja’s most recent output has only further muddied the waters of easy classification: 2012’s Dagdrøm’s plodding stoner rock found them leaning further into the mainstream than ever, while last year’s benefit LP Flipper took a sudden left turn into slowcore.
Set against its immediate predecessors, Queller can be seen as something of a “return to basics” for Nadja, with Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff revisiting the sonic landmarks that have become most readily identifiable with this most protean of musical projects. The four tracks that constitute the album are pummeling, glacial eruptions bathed in cottony clouds of feedback and distortion. Yet, I think I’m justified in asserting that the reverberations from Dagdrøm’s more straight-faced rock leanings can still be felt; there are stronger melodic throughlines here as compared to their ambient work, even recognizable movements from verse to chorus. Within the tighter structures of these sprawling tracks, one can pick out subtler influences: caustic applications of wispy shoegaze textures recall the sonic aggression of A Place to Bury Strangers; the crawling drum track on “Liderc” could have originated from a sinister outtake from Codeine’s Frigid Stars; and I even hear a little Type O Negative creeping into the dissolves on “Dark Circles,” the cacophony of distended voices and lurching, fuzzed-out guitar recalling the ending of “Bloody Kisses.”
Opening track “Dark Circles” sets the template for the rest of the album. The axis on which the song turns is a languid guitar melody, upon which Baker slathers all manner of electronic noise. Its hypnotic gyre is disrupted by the sudden intrusion of a grandiose chorus, which quickly dissolves into indeterminacy, only to coagulate again into the second verse. With each iteration, the audio channels become more and more choked by the accumulating layers of fuzz, and through all of it, Baker’s bleached and distant vocals drone on, sometimes demanding the listener’s attention, sometimes lost in the maelstrom surrounding them. “Mouths” and “Liderc” come across like variations on a single theme, with each song arriving at the same thundering guitar riff from different directions. Of the four songs, “Quell” hits the hardest right out of the gate, with Baker rendering tones that would otherwise sound warm and inviting into something menacing through his staccato delivery.
On Queller, Baker and Buckareff strike a delicate balance between their experimental work and their flirtations with more straightforward rock music. The cost of this uneasy peace is that each song falls into a rather predictable arc. Although Nadja’s best work has always managed to conjure stunning moments of catharsis from gaseous compositions, every track on Queller tends to follow a similar path to its climax. Still, I’ve never been one to turn my nose up at expertly crafted crescendo rock, particularly a collection as gorgeous and flattening as this.