It takes a certain amount of hubris to name your band Jesu. And even more to name your fourth album Ascension. It’s surely no accident that a Google image search of the two terms yields not just Justin Broadrick’s post-Rapture-ish cover art (a deserted playground, a fog-bound park without a trace of human life), but also Sunday-school visuals of Jesus rising up into heaven. The message is clear, if a little blasphemous. On the third day, the stone rolled away from the cave and the master appeared, wearing luminous white robes and floating skyward on clouds of glory and full-throttle guitar distortion.
Not surprisingly, then, Ascension reaches for the sublime early and often. Its slow-moving textures of guitar superimpose giant crashes of sound on the lightness of synthesizer, the faint reassurance of Broadrick’s singing. These songs move at a glacial pace, melodies evolving over multiple measures of sound. And yet, for all their self-conscious grandeur, the tracks on Ascension seem more turgid than revelatory. “Broken Home” moves at a ritual pace, a bell-clear synthesizer melody slipping in and out of the shadow of obliterating guitars, its plainsong verse and vocal flourishes lifting improbably under a ponderous weight. Yet lovely as these elements are, they don’t go anywhere. The song proceeds in a stately march to nowhere, its heaviness an end in itself. And that seems to be the problem with a good bit of Ascension -- that weight never transmutes itself into meaning or crescendo into illumination.
The album’s drudgery lifts in the second half, with epic “December” investing its slo-mo climaxes with drama rather than empty bombast. There’s a saw-toothed abrasion embedded in this late-album highlight’s guitar attack, so that every rupturing blast has an impact. Just after, “King of Kings” (Broadrick’s god complex at work again) makes its massive riffs bend and blur, a weighted damask curtain that somehow ruffles in the breeze. Toward the end, “Ascension” showcases the disc’s most pop-flavored guitar playing, an evolving series of chords that reminds me, bizarrely, of the intro to The Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road.”
But in the end, Ascension seems more about textures and atmospheres than anything else. At intervals here, Broadrick captures the crash of impending doom, the stray rays of melodic hopefulness, the patient repetition of a mystic in search of enlightenment. But he doesn’t construct much of a narrative here, a sense of beginning, middle and especially (oh where is it?) end. Ascension reaches for the infinite, but achieve it only intermittently. Mostly you’re left with songs that don’t stop time, only slow it down.