As a foundational member of nü-metal pioneers Korn, James Shaffer‘s songwriting has produced more copycats than many would like to admit. The low tunings, the syncopation, the infectious bounce… so many tropes of modern trends in heavy music trace back to him. It’s easy to assume Shaffer‘s project Venera would tread at least some of those hallmarks, but Shaffer‘s collaboration with producer/filmmaker Chris Hunt is an entirely different animal. Even by the standards of post-rock, industrial, and dark ambient, the project’s self-titled debut is profoundly challenging. It’ll certainly provide a wild ride for anyone who just wants to “Follow the Leader” back to the ‘90s.
The noisy textures and droning cinematics of “Alignment” have more in common with the Coil or Current 93 brand of industrial — so, not the kind for Hot Topic. Venera might retain punishing sonics at times, but in an entirely different condition. When protracted beats and mournful guitar strains enter the mix during “Erosion,” a drifting, untethered atmosphere pervades through every synth blast or tumbling percussive rattle. It’s like listening to improvised jazz through the filter of down-tempo electronica and horror movie scores, which makes the final minutes that much more cathartic when all of the song’s layers lock in for a climax that’s as hypnotic as it is punishing.
If anyone understands the synthesis of weird electro-pop and angry guitar music, it’s the Echo Park export HEALTH. Their presence on “Ochre” deepens the musical context of Venera, as Shaffer offers more of his unmistakable guitar tone, commingling with rattling drum loops and buoyant falsetto from singer Jake Duzsik for a vibe reminiscent of Kveikur-era Sigur Rós. The balance of dissonant heaviness and bold art pop has certainly been done before, but Shafer and Hunt bring more than a meandering ambiance to Venera as seen when “Disintegration” goes full nu-jazz. Interspersed with explosive embellishments from drummer Deantoni Parks (The Mars Volta). His pushing and pulling of tempo and constant rhythm changes fly in the face of the usual post-industrial mantra, bringing vital unpredictability to the eerie modulations and crushing soundscapes.
Shaffer isn’t a stranger to collaborating with electronic producers (look no further than Korn‘s dubstep crossover album Path of Totality), but working with a staunch experimentalist like Hunt pushes him far into the nether regions of dark ambient. Instrumental tracks like “Swarm” and “Surrender” depend entirely on swelling sound baths and non-linear textures. The difference between good and bad in this instance becomes whether the droning trance remains distinct in its glacial progression. It’s a big ask, considering four of these nine tracks are pure ambient music, but attention to detail and emotive crescendos keep this side of Venera engaging. It will surely challenge folks who prefer more structure and motifs in musical palettes, but it’s hard to see why ambient music fans wouldn’t find a lot to chew on here.
Respectively featuring “death pop” exports VOWWS and underrated powerhouse Alain Johannes, “Hologram” and “Triangle” show just how many directions Venera can go in without losing cohesion. Whether it’s the former’s spectral vocals and plodding four-on-the-floor beat, or the latter’s resonant singing range and stabbing back beat, Shaffer and Hunt flex more of their collective songwriting chops to send the music to suffocating depths or soaring heights. Improvisations aside, these passages display intuitive and dynamics in spades. Better yet, they flow into the album’s ambient portions gracefully, blurring the line between individual songs and easing the passage into sonic oblivion.
At 33 minutes, Venera doesn’t become a patience tester. In fact, it’s hard not to wish the final track “Helium” took more time to close the album with its final sound bath. Its use of rafter-shaking volume and chasmic drones has the makings of a satisfying close, but it could have used more time to arrive at that point. Yes, perhaps a debut outing doesn’t need to indulge in that way, but leaning into the long-winded ambient tropes would have surely paid dividends for Shaffer and Hunt.
Venera could have easily been a forgettable fluke (“Remember that weird album from the Korn guitarist?”), but it actually plays remarkably well in the current landscape of heavy music and beyond. As synthetic oddity commingles more frequently with angry guitar music, albums like this will only find a stronger foothold in the scene. It’s certainly cool to see a luminary from one of heavy music’s commercial peaks dipping his toes in music that’d repel many an MTV executive, but even cooler to hear it succeed on its own merits.