Somewhere deep underneath the city of Geneva, hidden in the corner of a basement car park, there is a tiny lock-up which has been turned into a makeshift studio. It is crammed with boxes, cables, and a bizarre array of paraphernalia – piles of ancient board games, a broken pram, the wheel of a gypsy caravan; remnants of past lives, each item is a story in itself. There are also drums, amplifiers, guitars, cables – because this is the inconspicuous setting for Nostromo’s lair, typical of their utter absence of pretension. I am privileged to have been invited to their weekly practice session, and despite the ear plugs, every fibre of my body is being pummelled by a sound that is so aggressive, so precise, so unsettling, that it feels like a personal attack. This is about as metal as it gets.
Nostromo are a Swiss grindcore/post-hardcore band consisting of Jerome Pellegrini (guitar), Javier Varela (vocals), Lad Agabekov (bass), and Maik Gudehus (drums). Formed in Geneva in 1996, they made a name for themselves on the underground hardcore scene, alongside compatriots Knut, Prejudice and Fragment. They navigated their way through the demo-CD network before going on to release several acclaimed albums (Argue, Eyesore, Ecce Lex, Hysteron-Proteron) and sharing international stages with the likes of Napalm Death and The Dillinger Escape Plan.
And then… they disappeared. Leaving a cult legacy behind, they quietly left the building for twelve years. And now they are back. It happened just as suddenly – a reunion at Maik’s wedding, followed by a call from their old friend Joe Duplantier of Gojira – but with much more fanfare this time. They were catapulted straight into supporting Gojira on the French leg of their tour, and now have a string of big festivals in the diary for this summer.
‘Nostromo’ refers to the spaceship from the classic horror movie Alien, a name which evokes an appropriate mood for their music – an eerie, far-away place, where ugly, bloody things happen without warning. There is horror hidden in between clean lines. The name ‘Nostromo’ is ultimately derived from Joseph Conrad, and the Conradian themes of morality, geographical disorientation, and a journey of self-discovery to the darkness within, are entirely suitable for this band’s music.
Nostromo tend to be described as grindcore, and I ask them how they feel about this term. Jerome responds: “We are not really true grindcore – the true grindcore was Napalm Death, Nasum. We play metal with blastbeat sections. We have also been categorised as hardcore.” What about metalcore, another subgenre sometimes used to describe them? “Oui.. whatever” is the flippant response. Nostromo are unconcerned with categorising their music – the grindcore influence is clear, and indeed they played covers of Nasum and Napalm Death at the end of their Gojira support set; but what they play cannot really be encompassed by a subgenre name.
Nostromo have a certain inarticulacy about their art that is typical of truly great musicians and composers. They don’t wish to analyse it, as if analysis would somehow debase it. There are no guitar solos; Jerome says they are not really him, and proceeds to insist that Lad (the bassist) is a better guitarist than him. His technical wizardry is there to see, though, in the speed and complexity of the riffs; solos are simply not necessary after all this. But this reticence belies an extremely high level of technicality. In 2004, they released Hysteron-Proteron, an album featuring acoustic versions of their songs. It was a brave and brilliant innovation, which brings out fascinating aspects of extreme metal musicality. With an album such as this there was nowhere to hide technically. It’s a great showcase for a band’s talents, and I’m surprised more haven’t done it.
I ask what it was like to be flung back into the fray – were they nervous, to be suddenly on a huge stage with Gojira, currently one of the biggest names in metal, after all this time? Jerome says, “For us it was ok, we know each other very well, we also know the guys from Gojira well from before – it’s true that the size of the venues was awe-inspiring, because we didn’t play many venues like that before, so 1200 people every night, that’s pretty big – the first and second nights were a bit stressful, but…” he tails off with a shrug.
So given the massive success of the tour – positive reviews abound on the internet and in the French press- do they have any regrets that they stopped all those years ago? Nostromo are philosophical. Lad takes the lead: “Well, we are here now, we are continuing now… we are on the same road and the important thing is today. Perhaps it had to happen like that.” Jerome follows up, “I’m so happy to start up again – we had a long pause, but it doesn’t feel like twelve years for any of us; it was very easy to come together again.”
During Nostromo’s years apart, the four members of the group pursued other musical interests. Jerome played in the ‘blastcore’ band Mumakil, Javier in the hardcore band Elizabeth, Lad became an electronic music producer, and Maik began playing in electro-traditional French variety group Ostap Bender. Given such a wide-range of influences and life experiences over the past twelve years, I ask whether this will be incorporated into their new music. The band have a trade-off in answers, but they all agree that experience in other musical genres can only add to their technical finesse when playing their instruments.
Lad: “We definitely won’t be doing electronic music, that’s for sure!”
Jerome: “Although in fact you do have an electronic stake in our sets; it’s Lad who does all the intros, the effects, the ambience.”
Lad: “I’m a producer, so we can do a bit of ‘electronic grindcore!’”
I ask what Nostromo think of the current state of the metal scene; for example, what do they think of Babymetal? There are four blank faces; not a single member of Nostromo has even heard of Babymetal. “C’est quoi ca, c’est pour des enfants?” [“What’s that? Is it for babies?”]
Lad offers that, ‘I imagine it’s a marketing phenomenon.’
Nostromo clearly don’t read the metal press, and are turned off by the idea of marketing a ‘product’. But they do follow metal in their own way. They light up at a discussion of Morbid Angel, who are clearly an influence. Maik listens to Trap Them, and the instrumental group Russian Circles. Lad recommends Black Tongue and Rotten Sound; while Jerome likes Feastem, Afgrund, and what he calls ‘the same old standard stuff’- Entombed, Morbid Angel, Meshuggah. Javier claims not to listen to metal or hardcore at all, which is all the more surprising when you hear him perform.
So the big question – when can we expect a new album? They shift awkwardly. Jerome takes the bullet: “We don’t have an album planned yet, but we are going to record several pieces this autumn – four or five. And they will be in a similar style, the same spirit in which we used to play.” They have issued re-editions of Argue, Eyesore, and Ecce Lex, though, which Maik implores fans to go and buy from distributor Season of Mist.
Now go to the top of the page to read Catherine’s impressions of their rehearsal practice!
A ‘rig rundown’ with Nostromo takes no time at all, because their equipment is minimal. Jerome and Lad both use ESPs, with heavy strings, and a Marshall simulation stack. No pedals at all save for their trusty Boss Noise Suppressor, although there is some whispering about the Torpedo, which they joke is their secret weapon.
There is an infectious camaraderie and enormous affection between the band members. The shared history is palpable, and indeed so strong that it is quite difficult to break into their circle. Jerome has an unnerving musical intensity, Lad is the thoughtful, spiritual member of the group, Maik the extrovert, the joker. Vocalist Javier is the quietest, most mild-mannered person you could meet, a bizarre contrast with his musical personality. It goes without saying that a grindcore vocalist needs volume and aggression, but Javier is the most apoplectic frontman I have ever encountered. I have seen Nostromo perform live, indeed I was lucky enough to be at their comeback concert at Cave d’Ilot in December, and onstage Javier is so incensed with wide-eyed angry energy he leaps across the stage.
I am allowed to stay for a few numbers, and it is moving to see their joy at playing together again. The interplay between guitar and bass is mathematically precise, whether tremolo-picking or rolling those menacing Phrygian riffs like waves. Nostromo’s minimalism is reflected in their sound; although there are lots of notes, not a single one is wasted or unnecessary, everything has an exact purpose.
At the risk of offending Nostromo by attempting to analyse their music, each song takes you on a challenging personal journey. The riffs crawl up your spine; although there are undoubtedly groove elements, and a sense of humour, the overall effect is one of eerie unpleasantness. While not as complex as Meshuggah’s, the rhythms are constantly shifting, surprising, invoking disorientation. With only one guitar, Nostromo are able to create a huge variety of atmospheres; for example the tortuous cinematic wall of sound in ‘Sunset Motel’.
It’s impossible to decipher the lyrics on listening- it sounds like one huge ‘Fuck You’ – but read them and there is dark poetry within. For example ‘There’s no pupil in the eye of the stillborn prophet’ (Stillborn Prophet) is giving me nightmares. Nostromo are clearly much more intellectual than they like to admit, with Victor Hugo amongst their literary references.
I leave them to pound the foundations of that car park with their pneumatic rhythms. Nostromo are entirely without artifice – and that, surely, is the very essence of authenticity. Their modest, Calvinist attitude is also the very essence of Geneva; theirs is the Geneva sound. You need to know about this band; it’s time to start following Nostromo, because things are about to get very exciting. Get ahead of the curve by listening to their albums and catching them at a festival this summer.
21.04.17 L’Amalgame, Yverdon
28.04.17 Pont Rouge, Monthey
29.04.17 Magasin 4, Bruxelles
07.05.17 Impetus Festival, Audincourt
13.05.17 Outbreak Festival, Blois
23.05.17 Kiff, Aarau
03.06.17 Festival Plein Air De Rock, Jarny
09.06.17 Download Festival, Paris
14.06.17 Espace Malraux, Six-Fours-Les-Plages
18.06.17 Hellfest, Clisson
15.07.17 Dour Festival, Dour
28.07.17 Xtremfest, Albi
11.08.17 Rock Altitude Festival, Le Locle
30.11.17 La Maroquinerie, Paris