Album Review: Nadja – Luminous Rot

[Southern Lord; 2021]

Berlin-based Canadian duo Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff have been churning out their fuzzy doom shoegaze dreamsludge hybrid racket as Nadja for 16 years now. Their albums have masterfully incorporated aspects of ambient, drone, and white noise as Baker and Buckareff explore the sonic possibilities and limitations of playing as a duo. Luminous Rot shifts slightly towards an industrial goth sound with some death metal vocals thrown in at certain places for good measure, another twist in the band’s journey. It’s clear that Nadja are a force that needs to keep on evolving as they develop. 

“Intro” kicks things off, a drone and distortion-fest that comes as close to sounding like label mates Sunn O))) as most have ever got. It’s agonisingly slow, each chord dragging itself into being after an elongated wait. And then it’s over far, far too quickly. This is the one major issue I have with the album overall as the length of tracks are often too short – all bar one are under 10 minutes long. For most bands that would be an almost insufferable mark of indulgence and yawn-inducing repetition, but for Nadja it’s their stock in trade – something they do with such grace that tracks never outstay their welcome. It’s often difficult to entirely get lost in the songs on Luminous Rot as they are done before their time is served. You can always skip to the beginning again if you want more, I suppose.

The title track comes next and is densely packed, as you’d expect from Nadja. There is a gothic tinge to the song that is a welcome addition to the noise created by the duo, and this adds a certain warmth to the track. The pounding, metronomic and mechanical drum machine and the deep drawl of the vocal hark back to prime era Sisters of Mercy (which was 1983 by the way, folks) and sounds like an offcut from that band’s glorious The Reptile House EP. The distortion on the guitars is dialled up to eleven, an impenetrable haze of volume with Baker’s vocals being languid yet confident. 

The theme of first contact with aliens is at the narrative centre of Luminous Rot, yet the vocals are so obscured in the mix that it would be tricky to pinpoint exactly what these tracks are about lyrically. Luminous Rot is the first album where Nadja have worked with a producer, and David Pajo of Slint, Zwan and Papa M fame does the job here, but it would be difficult to say what he has added to the band’s sound that hasn’t already been heard on numerous of their other records. The drums are a little harsher, with lots of treble on the snare in particular, but beyond that this is a standard sounding record for this band. There is a more angular, post-punk feel to some of the tracks here but it feels like the standard morphing-between-records thing that fans have come to expect from Nadja. And have I mentioned that the tracks aren’t long enough? It would be difficult to lay that at anyone’s feet, so I’ll just state again that THE TRACKS AREN’T LONG ENOUGH and move on.  

“Cuts on Your Hands” is the album’s centrepiece and is (finally!) a decent length at just over 12 minutes. The opening riff is so dense that it feels as though you are experiencing it from inside the amps, the vibrations of sound being skeleton shaking in their visceral intensity. There is a melancholic splendour at the heart of this song, with guitar chords descending and being mirrored by the vocal line. It’s like The Jesus and Mary Chain played at half speed, a contorting beast that has too much self-awareness to be anything other than filled with lethargy.    

“Starres” returns back to the fuzzy, goth cold-wave sound that is an obvious focal point for this record. The track’s minimalist instrumentation is obscured by the wall of sludge spewing from the amps as the space between notes is taken up by feedback squalls and sustained distortion. It’s the vocals on this track that elevate it above the rest of the work on Luminous Rot, as not only is there the standard Nadja monotone, emotionless delivery but also an exquisite death rattle vocal, akin to Atilla Csihar at his most gut-wrenching and feral best. The track’s beauty is in its repetition with cycles of sound cascading and swirling until they disintegrate into an oscillating wall of feedback. Not for the casual listener, for sure.

With Luminous Rot, Nadja have written their most accessible body of songs to date yet the melodies are obscured behind a haze of fevered distortion that makes them, at times, impenetrable. There is an effervescence at play here, albeit one cloaked in the dragging weight of experiential being. Nadja have often been a band who have played with aural textures, with the light and shade of sound, and have the rare ability to allow the listener to lose track of time as they fall into the music. Luminous Rot is no different and is up there with their best work.