Artist Spotlight: Jucifer

Jucifer are a cult band’s cult band. Throughout their 25-year career, the Georgia duo have become known mainly for two things: their female singer/male drummer lineup, almost unheard-of for a metal band, and for the giant wall of amps and speaker cabinets that singer/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Gazelle Amber Valentine plays in front of in concert. Although the onstage set-up is almost certainly more about visual presentation than a function of actual equipment use, their reputation for generating huge, overpowering levels of voluminous sound and fury in a live setting does precede them. However, the bulk of their studio output also showcases a surprising amount of diversity, as Valentine, along with husband and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Edgar Livengood, comb the depths of their creative/romantic connection to produce songs in a wide variety of genres, styles, moods, and even languages. Despite their well-deserved reputation as a crushingly powerful metal combo, most bands won’t cover as much stylistic ground in their careers as Jucifer typically will on a single album.

Jucifer (named after a quote from the O.J. Simpson trial) wasted no time establishing their identity-switching tendencies on their 1998 debut, Calling All Cars On The Vegas Strip (B+), originally released on the Crack Rock label. Alternating between Melvins-style sludge metal, lo-fi garage punk, and dark alternative rock, all shot through with a noisy indie rock sensibility, the band immediately comes across as restless nomads, led by the compelling, chameleonic vocals of Valentine. From breathy whispers to insecure pleadings to pitchy-but-confident caterwauling, all the way up to the most ferocious banshee shrieking, she lays down a rich and multi-layered emotional and musical foundation for a surprisingly varied set of songs. The usual dirt-heavy guitars and crashing drums generally remain constant, with 90s altrock production flourishes such as record scratches, wobbly synths, guitar effects straight out of R.E.M.’s Monster, and random sheets of white noise peppered throughout. Following the debut’s reissue on Capricorn Records, Jucifer released the rare concept EP The Lambs (2001, A) on Velocette Records, a darker set of songs that streamlined their genre-hopping abilities somewhat, with more concise song fragments adding an eerie feel to the skeletal piano-and-vocals arrangement of “Lambs 2” and the multi-part suite of “Platinum High”. An absolutely fantastic and concise release from a band generally given to sprawl and bloat on their studio albums, The Lambs proved that Jucifer was not just a gimmick, but an endlessly inventive and prolific project that was here to stay.

Before we get to 2002’s I Name You Destroyer (B+), I should mention a few things about Jucifer. These things are just opinions, but I feel these opinions bear mentioning. First, Jucifer are not always the greatest songwriters in the world. They can convincingly compose in a number of different styles, but there isn’t much variation in the structure of these compositions. Songs tend to either end abruptly or just go on and on repeating the same part until they slowly peter out, with little in the way of finality. Secondly, although Valentine has an often lovely and versatile voice, the back-up harmonies she records are some of the ugliest I’ve ever heard. It’s like, if normal harmony vocals are a fourth higher than the main vocal, she sings them up at least a sixth, making them sound somewhat discordant and off-key. Finally, their riffs aren’t always all that imaginative. When they are, it totally kicks the song up to the next level 1, but when they are not, the song quickly risks becoming tiresome.

These three issues all infect I Name You Destroyer (released on Relapse, along with their next three records) in places, but not enough to keep this from being another solid, mostly-killer, minimally-wasteful record from them. The band is still exploring both sides of their hard/soft dichotomy, resulting in the sweet, scuzzy garage stomp of “Amplifier”, the fiery bongo-rock of “Firefly”, and the cool, sexy, dark/smoky after-hours club vibe of “Lazing”, all of which constitute some of their greatest successes yet. This band can seemingly go anywhere, driven by its shapeshifter of a frontwoman, a vocalist who transforms from angelic sweetheart to sultry temptress to demonic hellbeast at will. I’ve got to dock War Bird (2004, B-) a full point for the 45-minute bonus track consisting of unbroken ambient noises, including household appliances, passing traffic, barking dogs, and someone (Edgar?) practicing their drums toward the end. But even without that, the new emphasis on doom metal above other genres drags it down a bit. Other than “Haute Couture,” a hypnotic little French-language rock song, most of this stuff adheres to the “slow, heavy, and slow and heavy” approach. As good as Jucifer are at this style, underlining the songs with haunting vocals, bludgeoning drums, and ultra-grimy guitar tones, it’s not enough to cover the overall lack of diversity, and it makes very little sense for them to pigeonhole themselves this early2. The saving grace of this release is “My Stars”, an honest-to-god country folk track played on a banjo, in which Valentine details an all-too-relatable account of growing up in America and learning to reject its institutions.

Initially, If Thine Enemy Hunger (2006, B+) appears to follow the same doom metal template as War Bird, at least until the straight-ahead grungy melody of “Lucky Ones Burn” and the weird banjo noise-rock of “Antietam,” on which Valentine’s vocals seem to be channeling Poly Styrene. There’s still plenty of slowness and heaviness to go around, but little touches like the punky vibe of “Pontius Of Palia” and the whispered Spanish-language vocals on “Luchamos” prove there’s still a lot more to this band than ear-bleeding slabs of destructive, lurching riffage. The final two songs, “Medicated” and “Led”, even show off more of Valentine’s vulnerable side than ever before. It’s as if Jucifer recognize the limitations of their chosen style, and all their sonic experimentation serves as a natural outgrowth of their emotional expression. They have always moved seamlessly between genres, but now they seem to be doing so with a greater sense of purpose.

All of this growth and gradual maturity in range and sound ultimately seems like a warm-up to the double concept album L’Autrichienne (2008, A), Jucifer’s masterpiece, a sprawling opus about the life of Marie Antoinette 3. Stylistically, the album swoops effortlessly between metal blastbeats, melodic bluesy fuzz-bangers, creepy acoustic mood pieces, and monstrously slow death dirges, all delivered with some of the band’s best songwriting yet. Lyrically, Valentine uses the story of a powerful female historical figure as a jumping-off point to explore the paradoxical contradictions and struggles with agency that all woman face in a society. Most of their albums tend to be overlong, but this is the one time where the band’s lack of restraint or discretion pays off for the better – a weighty theme needs a suitably bombastic approach to sustain it, and Jucifer’s passion, ferocity and eclecticism finds its perfect outlet here.

Jucifer parted ways with Relapse after L’Autrichienne, feeling the album deserved more of a promotional push than it received4. Their first album on their own label, Nomadic Fortress (which would account for all future releases), Throned In Blood (2010, B) feels like a markedly unambitious release by comparison. So much for eclecticism – this album throws all that stuff out in favor of making this Jucifer’s heaviest effort yet. Like on War Bird, it’s weird to hear them focus so single-mindedly on one element of their aesthetic, when we know they’re capable of so much more, but it’s not as though they are bad at this sound by any means, and they incorporate all kinds of extreme influences, from sludge to drone to crust to grind, even allowing stray bits of melody to sneak in. Only on the final track, “Armageddon” do they lower the volume a bit, with an eerie death folk song that’s as soothing as a lullaby in a graveyard. 5.

за волгой для нас земли нет 6(2013, A-) is another giant, historically conceptual piece, this time focused on Stalingrad, but with all the heaviness and brutality of Throned In Blood taken to the next level, if that album can be said to have even left any levels to go to. It cannot be emphasized enough – this is some of the most extremely harsh and uncompromising music Jucifer have ever made, which means it ranks among the heaviest recordings ever released by anyone. The same goes for 2014 EP District Of Dystopia (B+). Jucifer really bolstered their legitimacy as an extreme metal band on these later recordings. If you’re a metal fan who has somehow not heard them yet, definitely start with these releases, then work your way back. What’s not clear is exactly why they chose to go in this direction, at this stage of their careers. Twenty-odd years constantly on the road, with just each other and the dogs in your mobile home for company, will surely cause you to focus your priorities. Maybe they just wanted to have a few studio albums reflect their live stage personae more accurately. Maybe there were skeptics who felt that the giant wall of amps at their concerts was just for show. Maybe there were critics or scenesters who criticized them as dilettantes, or questioned their purity as a metal act because they liked taking so many quieter detours on their albums. If that is true, those people need to go fuck themselves, they don’t deserve bands like Jucifer. This is a band that never had anything to prove to anyone, who always lived their lives and created their music on their own terms. May they continue doing their thing always. Rock on, nomads.