Gazelle Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood of avant-metal powerhouse Jucifer are a married couple, which means that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the duo’s creative process hasn’t been disrupted like those of bands whose members can’t “pod up.” Formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1993 and nomadic since 2000, when they began touring full-time, Jucifer are most associated with the loud, sludgy sound of their live shows, but they’ve maintained a commitment to stylistic and thematic variety throughout their career: 2008’s L’Autrichienne is a genre-bending concept album about the French revolution, while 2013’s За Волгой для нас земли нет is a historical epic about the city of Volgograd sung entirely in Russian. But even given their explorative ways and penchant for total immersion in an idea, their new eighth full-length, ظم (Nazm), is a dramatic departure from anything they’ve previously released. The title refers to a type of Urdu poetry, evolved from Arabic precursors, whose stanzas develop a theme and thus can’t easily be rearranged (unlike those in a ghazal, another major form of Arabic poetry). Jucifer use that as a jumping-off point to tell the stories of Valentine’s life, the lineage of women in her family, and the struggles and resilience of women in every place and time. The ambitious, sprawling double album is also Jucifer’s spin on Central Asian and Arabic music, with 14 tracks that combine traditional instrumentation with heavy guitar, reverb, and distortion. (Some parts repeat like loops, but as the band confirmed in a Twitter thread in November, “All the parts in our albums that [people] have ever thought of as ‘loops’ were actually tracked live, with the cramping/dented/bleeding hands to show for it.”) The sonic landscapes Jucifer build on ظم sometimes sound like traditional music transformed by metallic space-rock technomancy, and sometimes sound like Middle Eastern pop shaped out of a whirling vortex of energy. Valentine, who’s teaching herself Arabic, sings using the formal, literary form of the language, switching between plaintive ululations and long, rippling melody lines—spinning them like a guiding thread through a labyrinth. The opening track, “Return,” sounds like a call to adventure that can’t be refused, and the sharp guitars of “Mood” entwine with each other to map out the trail.
Jucifer produce their own albums, and in recent years have released them on their own label, Nomadic Fortress (a double LP version of the new record will come out on Alternative Tentacles in 2021), and because they sensed the danger of the pandemic in January, they’ve spent the bulk of 2020 close to a DIY studio they began building a few years ago. They also wield every instrument themselves—which on ظم includes a mix of bells and shakers they’ve picked up traveling as well a suite of stringed instruments (Jordanian rebab, Czech mandolin, Moroccan mandolin, Algerian mandole, central Asian dombra) and several hand drums (among them North African bendir and riq and Moroccan tamtam, also called tbilat or tikallalin). And when they didn’t have access to the traditional instruments they wanted—the Turkish double-reed horn called the zurna, for instance—they augmented their Western instruments to approximate the sound. Jucifer’s process makes every album a deeply personal offering that speaks to their dedication to create something new every time. The atmospheres on ظم build from track to track, culminating with the 12-minute incantation “To the Lost,” where Valentine’s vocals channel Diamanda Galás in a mesmerizing finale to a long, epic journey. v