HUMAN DEPRAVITY has always been fodder for metal bands, and Chicago musician J.R. Robinson has a healthy interest in the bad things we do to one another. Wrekmeister Harmonies, the doom-and-drone collective he heads, has lent sprawling soundtracks to real-life horror stories over the course of three records. The laatest, Night of Your Ascension, is Robinson's most ambitious album to date, making use of 30 musicians from all over the globe.
"It was a really meticulous and drawn-out process, and it wasn't always a pleasant process," he says. "Toward the end I was like, 'Am I losing my mind?'"
But the results are stunning. The 32-minute title track—one of two compositions on the album—tells the story of Carlo Gesualdo, an Italian count and musician who, in 1590, caught his wife and her lover in the act and butchered them on the spot. The story is one thing, but Robinson went as far as to use one of Gesualdo's madrigals—Renaissance-era choral music—in the piece's opening 15 minutes. It's a riveting swirl of vocals (provided by singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler) that takes time to unfold before the terror of the act shows its teeth in a wash of guitars and tormented screams.
The album's other composition, the 16-minute "Run Priest Run," revolves around a pedophile priest who was murdered in prison, and includes the same kind of tension and release. Under the hand of Robinson and his collaborators, these stories come to life in the most frightening ways.
Robinson worked with a diverse group of musicians, including composer Olivia Block, Alexander Hacke (of long-running German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten), and members of metal bands Indian, Bloodiest, and the Body. Wrekmeister Harmonies isn't exactly metal, but Robinson uses its blackened color palette to great effect. He made inroads with some of black metal's most fringe figures years ago while working on a documentary for Vice called One Man Metal. "I wouldn't have them over for dinner," Robinson says. "But I seem to communicate with them well."
Night of Your Ascension is the third Wrekmeister Harmonies album in as many years—impressive, considering the work that goes into the recordings. Robinson admits that, in terms of sheer enormity, he's taken the collective as far as he can (the live band is a four-piece that includes violinist Esther Shaw and members of Seattle doom band Bell Witch). But it doesn't mean he's slowing down. Robinson is already working on a new record with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor that will be out next summer.
"I'm an old man, and I've got a lot to say," Robinson says. "I want to get it out while I can."