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Pyramids with Nadja, Pyramids with Nadja (2009)

Peace like a river

Released fairly late last-year on the frequently-excellent Hydra Head Records, this album is a collaborative effort that I never would have predicted, but which makes a good deal of sense now that it’s happened.  Most of the reviews that I’ve read of this album have come to the material with a lot of background in Nadja, but basically none in Pyramids; my experience is essentially the opposite.

To put it bluntly, I’ve always found Nadja to be rather alienating.  I feel like I really started to hear a lot about them around the time Body Cage came out, and I remember enjoying that album a fair amount, but the sheer volume of material this experimental drone/shoegaze duo have released since then is astounding.  Seems like a churlish thing to complain about, but they’re one of those bands that I can’t help but think is in desperate need of an editor.  You know the ones I’m talking about: Hellveto, Xasthur, Striborg, I’m looking at you.  I really enjoy all of those bands, in fact, but the overwhelming quantity of their music makes the task of differentiating them based on their quality a challenge that I typically don’t care enough to confront.

Pyramids, on the other hand, are a young band, with just their 2008 self-titled album released thus far.  That album, which included a second disc of remixed tracks from the impressive likes of Blut Aus Nord (a key touchstone, as I’ll explain in a bit), Justin Broadrick, and James Plotkin, among others, was absolutely astounding.  The most astonishing thing about their ghostly, unsettling, and otherwordly sound was just how fully formed it seemed, particularly for a debut album.

Incorporating bits of post-rock, ambient, electronic musics, and black metal into their swirling vision, the best way I’ve come up with for describing the sound of Pyramids is as basically the polar opposite of Blut Aus Nord’s excellent MoRT album.  That is, where MoRT took the accumulated traditions of black metal and shoved them through a pitch-black prism, Pyramids’ debut album takes those same traditions, grafts onto it a heap of other inspirations, and refracts the whole mess through a prism of shimmering light.

This collaboration with Nadja, then, stretches out their given format (most of the songs on the debut album only hit around the three-minute mark or so), and encases their weirdnesses in swaths of ambience, warm, shoegaze-y drones, and slowly shifting, highly textured feedback patterns.  The track “Another War,” in fact, was more reminiscent of post-rock scions A Silver Mt. Zion than anything in the world of metal; specifically, the echoing vocals and distant, treated piano recall A Silver Mt. Zion’s Pretty Little Lightning Paw EP, with that quintessential Pyramids drum treatment running in the background.  The album, as a whole, continuously flirts with all varieties of the ambient/post-rock/found sound scene, at times even dipping into glorious washes of noise more akin to Tim Hecker’s recent work (particularly Harmony in Ultraviolet).

“Sound of Ice and Grass” gets pretty metal, as these things go, bringing in some Sunn O)))-esque droning riffs about midway through, but these molten lava riffs are overlaid with jangly drone-leads on top, sounding very much inspired by (but not quite like) Blut Aus Nord.  As far as collaborative records go, this one is quite impressive for combining aspects of both bands into a whole which comes across as generally new, rather than sounding like “Oh, this track is a Nadja-penned track, and that one over there’s the Pyramids’ shtick,” etc (*cough* Kingdom of Sorrow *cough*).

Most impressive, to my ears, about what (I imagine) Pyramids brought to the show is a sense of some of heavy metal’s classic signifiers turned around and deconstructed.  For example, where there are drums on this record (even when they are programmed drums blast-beating away), they rarely function as drums, by which I mean providing a rhythmic backbone for whatever else is going on.  Instead, the drums, as was the case on Pyramids’ debut, are presented as simply another textural element in the overall sound-collage.

The closing track, “An Angel Was Heard to Cry over the City of Rome,” is probably the standout here.  It is both uplifting and weighty, in the best Jesu tradition.  But actually, more than Jesu (which is a bit of a too-easy comparison here), this song recalls “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” from Enslaved’s Below the Lights album, in the way the listener’s focus is glued to the ongoing tension between the driving pulsations of harsh noise and blastbeats, on the one hand, and a soaring, searingly melodic guitar figure on the other hand.

If it were up to me, these folks could ride out that blissful groove for hours, but the song ends at just a shade over the ten-minute mark, meaning that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and leaves the listener craving more of this very unique, highly textured collaboration.  I suppose it seems doubtful that we’ll see another full-length collaboration between these two groups, but the evidence on offer here suggests that there must have been some real lightning bursts of cooperative songwriting the first go-around.

It ought to go without saying that open-minded metalheads only need apply, but anyone with more than a passing interest in the various avant-garde strains of electronic, ambient, and post-rock musics would certainly find a lot in which to revel.  Plug in and drone out.

Overall rating: 84%.  The best part is, you can’t really tell if this is a drone-ier Pyramids, or a janglier Nadja.

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