The question of which metal band is the loudest has been fertile conversation fodder for metalheads for about as long as we've had access to amplifiers. Some may point to the droning menace of Sunn O))), or Motörhead's decibel-shattering, or Metallica's stadium-shaking; others may rightly point out Manowar's Guinness Book of World Records-approved claim to being the "loudest band in the world." These are all valid responses, to be sure, but there has to be room in the discussion for the nomadic duo that make up long-running experimental doom/rock/noise project Jucifer. Gazelle Amber Valentine, Edgar Livengood, and their dogs are perpetually on tour; since 1993, they've traveled around the country in an RV, and highlight each of their live shows with what they call a “White Wall,” a ten-foot colossus of speakers that stands behind them like an intimidating sonic monolith.
A live Jucifer show is an out-of-body experience. Waves of pulsing feedback and deafening drum strikes ring out from a gigantic bass drum that would make Tommy Lee quiver in his shorts, and combine to inspire an almost meditative state. It conjures a grim sort of beauty, a rejuvenation of the soul as it’s washed clean of any impurities. Of course, this kind of experience is not for everyone, but those that follow Jucifer do so with the hope that they can achieve this sonic nirvana once again.
By contrast, most of Jucifer’s studio albums are devoid of any of this bombast. They straddle the line between jagged indie rock, chunky sludge metal, and catchy hard rock. Before the Internet made information easily accessible, one can imagine someone finding an album like 1998’s Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip, getting super into it, finding out the band was touring near them, and then being completely perplexed by the overwhelming volume once Jucifer hit the stage. As the years went on, the duo's albums became more closely to their live sound, albeit a slightly sanitized version.
This is the way Jucifer have largely conducted themselves since they formed in the mid-90s—releasing diverse albums that jump between genres, supported by ear-crippling live shows and a never-ending tour circuit. That dichotomy can make it difficult for a first-time listener to know just where to start, but as Jucifer heads towards their 25th anniversary, there is no better time to ease into a discography with songs that can appeal to almost any music fan. Let's dive in.
So you want to get into: Doom and Gloom Jucifer?
Even on their early albums, there was at least a song or two of foreboding danger rising up to deceive the hapless listener unaware of Jucifer’s alter ego. The last part of “Lambs,” off their 2001 EP of the same name, could be considered a pleasant shock for those whose only reference point was Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip.
As the years progressed, they found a way to sneak in a lengthy slab of sludgy metal that could be bold (starting out 2006's If Thine Enemy Hunger album with the eight-minute opus “She Tides the Deep”) or proggy (the stretched-out drum solo at the end of “The Mountain” that’s rhythmic indulgence on a half-speed Iron Butterfly “In A Gadda Da Vida” scale). And, sometimes, they just wanted to cause a ruckus, as evident by “Hiroshima.”
Their latter-day output has a high percentage of doom and gloom per song, which can get tiring if overdone, but it’s the subtle callbacks to their past—like the soothing vocals buried among the static plains of death on “Queen of Antlers"—that hold the key to the band’s longevity. They can be angry and bitter at everything around them, yet never forget that, sometimes, lush singing can make all that rage go down slightly smoother.
Just because there are no harsh vocals on songs like “Seth” and “Torch” doesn’t mean their sonic funeral procession is any less bleak. Hell, they don’t even need to use vocals sometimes to get that point across, as in “Procession a la Guillotine,” a cruel death march of an anthem stuck near the end of arguably their best album, 2008's L'Autrichienne.
Playlist: "She Tides the Deep" / "Procession a la Guillotine" / "Hiroshima" / "Siberia" / "Seth" / "Spoils to the Conqueror" / "Undertow/Lambs - Part 4" / "Queen of Antlers" /"Torch" / "The Mountain"
So you want to get into: Closest-Thing-to-Live Jucifer?
The fact is, there’s no way to recreate Jucifer's live show in the studio. There are too many factors at play—the wall of amps rearing up to the ceiling, the atmosphere inside the cramped quarters of a dimly-lit dive bar, a drunk person’s tolerance of constant feedback—that studio tools can’t produce. However, mere annoyances like logic and the laws of physics haven't stopped the band from trying to pull it off anyway throughout their career, “Thermidor” being a good example. The closest they’ve come to channeling their live energy on an actual album is 2014's District of Dystopia, which was recorded in their RV. It has a demo-like quality that supplements their raw sound instead of hindering it.
A little digging finds Jucifer reverting their studio music closer to the live reality on 2010's Throned in Blood, their first album on the Nomadic Fortress label they launched that same year. There’s no gloss on any of those songs, chief being the rampaging tempos on “Contempt” and “Good Provider.” And that spools over to 2013's За Волгой для нас земли нет (aka The Russian Album), where songs like “Wolf” ravage the snow-ridden grounds they were conceived on.
Then we get to songs like “It Can’t Be Helped” and “Justice,” which are slightly more coherent versions of their live counterparts. In a live setting, the endless buzzing guitar and banging percussion can mesh all the songs together into a symbiotic virus. With these songs split up and tied down to the limitations of a recording, elements like the groove of the guitar and drums in sync on the extended outro to “The Object of Power” stand out.
Playlist: "Thermidor" / "Contempt" / "Good Provider" / "Ni Shagu Nazad" / "It Can’t Be Helped" / "Wolf" /" Ratified" / "Justice" / "The Object of Power"
So you want to get into: Blissfully Melodic Jucifer?
For all this talk about Jucifer’s intensity and how unforgiving their live performances are, they aren’t tied down to a single genre; it certainly isn’t all noise, all the time. There are instances where all the duo needs are an acoustic guitar, an empty room, and time for Valentine to strum her way through forlorn tales, in sharp contrast to the aural dissonance that otherwise constantly surrounds them.
This mentality has led them to some of the best songs they’ve ever recorded, like the title track from L'Autrichienne.
A lonesome ballad cushioned between a tension-filled slow-burner and a distorted spiral into madness, it shows Jucifer standing at a crossroads, playing with a sincerity that can be difficult to express with the volume cranked to 1. If there was a ranking of “Top Moments in Jucifer’s History,” the squealing guitar solo near the end would be right up there. Those acoustic songs are sparse by design, capturing the group with a vulnerability usually masked and hidden out of sight. None of these are love songs or a grasp at mainstream stardom—tough to sell a love song performed on the banjo with the title “Armageddon”—but what these songs do is display just how vast their musical abilities go, and how they are unwilling to hold themselves to any exact standards. It’s an evolutionary style that few have been able to hold onto for as long as Jucifer has.
The band has also been unafraid to explore other languages in their lyrics, utilizing everything from Russian to Spanish. “To the End,” which has Amber singing fluidly in French, is driven by nothing more than a catchy guitar riff lacking the typical distortion they like to envelop their music in. Though melody has taken a bit of a backseat as their album releases begin to approach double digits, it’s an important feature that hasn’t lost its influence yet.
Playlist: "To the End" / "My Stars" / "Surface Tension" / "My Benefactor" / "Led" / "Lambs - Part 3" / "Fleur De Lis" / "L'Autrichienne/Armageddon"
So you want to get into: Rock 'N’ Roll Hitmaker Jucifer?
Jucifer is not a “singles” kind of band. Sure, they’ve released singles before (the “Pontius of Palia” music video is a personal favorite), but their albums are meant to be experienced as a whole, devoid of any specific focal track. However, if the world was actually a noble and just place, Jucifer would have notched at least a half dozen Top 10 hits by now, because they actually know how to write a rock song—the kind that make you want to bang your head and sing along.
This has been a career-long trick of Jucifer's, dating back to their first album and continuing through some of their more well-known songs such as “Amplifer” and the aforementioned “Pontius of Palia.” If Thine Enemy Hunger is top-loaded with songs that could’ve been released as singles, from the infectious chorus behind “Lucky Ones Burn” to the grungy ordeal of “Hennin Hardine."
It’s hard to name just a few underrated Jucifer rock songs (because, really, aren't they all?), but “Birds of a Feather” and “Window (Where the Sea Falls Forever)” warrant an especial mention here. The former is a short jam of piercing guitars and schizophrenic beats that somehow stays together when it appears ready to fall apart. “Window (Where the Sea Falls Forever)” is nestled near the latter third of L'Autrichienne, taking almost an hour to reach their infectious peak, its rousing finish still resonating like the strike of a gong 10 years later.
There’s a slim chance of Jucifer becoming big-time rock stars, or ever allowing their penchant for accessibility to supplant that joy of being drowned out by a feedback-induced haze, but these are the songs that show what could’ve been.
Playlist: "Blackpowder" / "Long Live the King" /"Amplifier" / "Queen B" / "Fight Song" / "Lucky Ones Burn" / "Hennin Hardine" / "Pontius of Palia" / "Birds of a Feather" / "Window (Where the Sea Falls Forever)"
Dan Marsicano is amplified on Twitter.