When you hear about certain genres, do you have an image that pops into your head? It’s not always fair, but the most obvious one is black metal. You just got an image of a corpsepainted weeboo hanging out in a dark forest. Boom. I’m a fucking magician. What about sludge? Did you see a backwoods redneck with a twelve-gauge and a six-pack?1 Sporting beards, greasy locks, and enough flannel to challenge Saskatchewan? Groups like Eyehategod and Mastodon kick down the doors with steel-toed boots and wave a Confederate flag over my drop-B Black Sabbath riff-mangled body. I know, I know, I’m only thinking of ‘Murican sludge, but wait… “instrumental cinematic sludge metal?” This was my confusion with Rome collective Juggernaut‘s third album Neuroteque, a title that conjures images of industrial shenanigans, while the cover looks like the latest pretentious structure to grace TesseracT‘s cover. So, like, what the fuck are we getting into here?
Instrumental sludge seems to be a limited style, with Bongripper leading the army of one before you start drifting into the post-metal and drone territories. And it remains a one-man army, as Juggernaut, in spite of its mammoth name, instead revels in ridiculous experimentation alongside a backbone of crushing mathy riffs while influences of free jazz, post-rock, and drone fly around like angry pigeons, in the same amount of chaos you would expect from angry pigeons. While its reach exceeds its grasp and it suffers from inconsistent mood, Neuroteque is worth a look for a unique approach to sludge and instrumental music.
It’s a tale of two halves. The album’s first act frolics in oddity, reveling in a jazzy laid back atmosphere compounded with complicated riffs and weird tricks galore. “Limina” and “Astor” are clear highlights, laying out all of their tricks on the table with jazzy passages, droning tremolo, noodling bass, crazy complex drumming, and playfully dissonant chord progressions and melodies. There are moments of melodically sanguine tremolo that recalls the post-rock buildups of Explosions in the Sky and Mono. The mood shifts to something much darker beginning with “Titanismo,” a downright ominous affair that stands out for its layering of dissonant tremolo, tribal drumming, and mathy rhythms. “Orbitalia” does its cosmic name justice, layering reverb-laden bass, distant melodies, and layers of ambiance into a post-rock dynamic that pays off wonderfully. Other weird tricks include folky melodies, polyrhythms,2 and goddamn bongos are haphazardly thrown in like Salt Bae throws zesty herbs. In general, Neuroteque‘s sonic palette feels complete enough and its components work so well that we don’t need vocals.
Neuroteque is at its best when it settles on a distinct mood, so the Italians’ biggest setback is inconsistency in mood. Tracks are generally all over the place, and while their transitions are solid enough to make it work, I get audio whiplash with its multifaceted attack. The approach certainly shows competence and technicality, but it feels wearisome by the time the novelty factor wears off. By the time “Charade” started, I’d gotten fed up with the many jazzy passages, mathy riffs, and every other style out there, and was more than ready for the slow burn that “Titanismo” offered. Also, collateral of the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, there are simply moments in which the different styles just don’t mesh, such as the awkward-sounding central synth of “Iponauta” and the stiff transitions of the aforementioned “Charade.”
Juggernaut does nothing to evoke the image I associated with sludge metal. It’s an ambitious and amorphous beast that touches upon so many genres that its categorization is nearly impossible–even sludge seems like an afterthought. If sludge is the hick, Juggernaut only wears a Dallas Cowboys hat, while the rest of him lumbers along in Frankenstein’s monster-esque patchwork: part jazz pants, part math-rock Tourette’s syndrome, part post-rock angst, part Twilight Zone WTF shit, it’s all happenin’ man. Now, while it’s certainly original and spares no expense to convince you of it, it suffers from an inconsistent tone and a hit-or-miss ambition and ends up being really interesting background music. In order to create the punishing and challenging album it strives to be, tie up those loose ends and choose a tone to stick with. But for the weirdness alone, let this monster into your house to impress your party guests.