The Quietus Looks Back At The Career Of Dynamic Metallic Neurosis
, August 10th, 2009 07:54
Like pretty much all old punks, Neurosis will almost certainly tell you that they're still a punk band in spirit, should you ask them. And while we're all trained to parrot the truism that punk's an ethos, dude, not a genre, the music Neurosis have issued in the 00s as a band and as solo troopers hasn't tended to sound all that punk rock. When they formed in 1985, however, their early activity placed them firmly in the slipstream of the hardcore scene that bubbled and foamed around the East Bay of San Francisco - Neurosis emerged from the city of Oakland at a point where its level of crime and general unease was escalating.
Of course, it's probably futile to speculate to what extent these surroundings impacted on the bleak tonnage of their music, not least because by the time they started to get fearsomely, ritually heavy, members were dotted around the country. However, they still speak fondly of the ol'days of painted jackets and ill-considered anarchism, when asked, and Neurosis wouldn't be what they are without their local peers of two decades past, as well as seminal punk and hardcore building blocks like Black Flag, Die Kreuzen and crusty English brutalists Amebix.
So, when and why did the band - originally a trio, now a sextet including Josh Graham on live visuals - become one of the most crashing and obvious reference points for the presence of 'art' in metal? Extraneous and greatly varied influences seeped into their albums from the early 90s onwards; sometimes you would find them carried along by relentless, crypto-tribal percussion, sometimes by quiet, deliberate melody, and sometimes they would take time out to make an entire album from processed insect samples (Adaption And Survival by ambient offshoot Tribes Of Neurot).
A good deal of blame can be dumped on their doorstep for those earnest and insecure people who are really, really keen to let people know that metal isn't just for sub-intelligent, heavy-lidded dropouts and in fact can be just as cerebral as, oh, stuff that gets funded with an arts grant, or is composed on a Powerbook. As such they can also be held partly responsible for those bitter and insecure people who are really, really keen to let people know that metal is in fact SUPPOSED to be for sub-intelligent, heavy-lidded dropouts (pro tip: people who say this are never actually this) and has been tainted by the proliferation of bands who are influenced by fiction and use the ocean as a metaphor and release remix albums. Thing is, though: Neurosis catch very little heat for their ponderous leanings, beyond their legacy. A lot of metal dudes REALLY HATE Isis and Pelican, two of the most successful bands to capitalize on their slow, sometimes drifting, sometimes pounding style. Steve Von Till, tho'? Grizzled-looking part-time schoolteacher with a jones for outlaw country? He's alright. They're all alright!
In every sense, Neurosis demand a solemn respect. When I finally got to see them play, in London a few years back - this decade has seen greatly limited touring from the band due to familial and geographical commitments, normally meaning the UK gets a singular London show - the conclusion of their very long Amazonian trek of a set saw their support band, Made Out Of Babies, run onstage and dive into the crowd. Neurosis' ire at their bubble of metallic meditation being so childishly popped was purported to be such that MOOB's association with their label, Neurot, was severed. This may or may not be true, but their most recent album came out on a different imprint.
Ten pointers, then, to try and pinpoint why Von Till, Graham, Scott Kelly, Dave Edwardson, Noah Landis and Jason Roeder are contenders for the Mount Rushmore of extreme music. I've not included any of their 'standard' 21st century albums, not because they're unworthy but because they - comparatively - find Neurosis honing, perhaps consolidating, an intensity laid down across earlier works. Their growth across some 25 years is pretty fascinating and veers in a remarkable number of directions.
1. The hardcore 1980s
Violent Coercion were a teenage band featuring Scott Kelly and Dave Edwardson. They never made it to an actual release, but their demo - blurry blender thrash of the type the US hardcore scene pumped out a near-infinite amount of in the 80s - is floating around on a few blogs. (Noah Landis, who joined Neurosis in the mid-90s, was in fellow East Bay band Christ On Parade, whose '85 album Sounds Of Nature remains pretty respected among hardcore heads). Pain Of Mind was released on Californian punk/metal imprint Alchemy (reissued in the 90s by Alternative Tentacles, later on Neurot; the AT pressing has a cover photo featuring Republican senator Budd Dwyer about to blow his brains out on live TV) and is choppy hardcore that's fairly typical of the evolving style of the time, neither flat-out thrashing nor sparklingly melodic. The cymbals are too loud and the bass sounds like farts, but it's a statement. 'Aberration' is a three-track single from 1989 that sees the quartet attaining a certain grooviness for the first time, albeit waylaid by clattery production.
2. The Word As Law (Lookout!)
Self-evidently made during a transitional period in the band's sound, and yet Neurosis managed to effect such evolutionary leaps between 1987 and 1992 that their one album located between those years doesn't really sound like anything else they released. With a scattering of songs breaking the five- or even six-minute barrier, The Word As Law is snaky, tenacious and halfway-to-progressive hardcore that could claim contemporaries in bands like Fugazi (at the time, still only represented by their first two EPs), Swiz, Victim's Family and, rewinding a few years, the OGs of emotional hardcore like Rites Of Spring and Embrace. Underrated now, at the time it confirmed their status as leading lights in the Bay Area punk scene - likewise for Lookout!'s next release, Green Day's debut LP 39/Smooth.
3. Enemy Of The Sun (Alternative Tentacles/Neurot)
Fleeting temptation to describe this album as "ahead of its time" is tempered by wondering when, exactly, might constitute Enemy Of The Sun's most fitting 'time'. While they'd made another evolutionary step with the ragged metal wasteland rage of Souls At Zero (1992), Enemy… sounded like a nightmare no shrink could have pinned down. It barely sounded like Neurosis, or at any rate their discography to date - they would go on to handstamp this sound, but at the time few could have predicted this black hole of agonizingly precise metal riffs, unnerving backmasking, industrial folkisms and extensive sampling. Swans, Godflesh, Celtic Frost and Current 93 are progenitors of the eight songs here, to an extent, but that's a long way from the whole picture.
4. This quote from a bloke called Paul, writing about an early 90s Leeds gig in a punk fanzine roughly a decade ago
"Thinking about it, I've run away from many bands who I thought were rubbish, but Neurosis sent away their die-hardened fans too. They churned out the most evil, ear-damaging noise you're ever likely to encounter, coupled it with film footage and then turned it all up to eleven. People (me included) were showing how hard they were by attempting to stick it out to the end but, as the expressions of glee turned to agony, and the enjoyment turned into endurance, I realized this was a mug's game if I ever wanted to listen to music again."
5. Through Silver In Blood (Relapse)
This one is what they call a fan favourite. And a critic's choice. And a novice's starting point. Really, there's something for everyone here, or at least 'everyone' who wouldn't be cowed into a clammy corner by the opening title track being 12 minutes long (or hoot Neanderthally at the bourgeois indulgence of it all). Kelly and Von Till never inflated their riffs to a circumference greater than this - it's hard to imagine how they could - but thorns and petals protrude from every inch of Through Silver In Blood's stalk. 'Purify' concludes with spacerock shimmer avec bagpipes; 'Strength Of Fates' is, depending on how you'd prefer to look at it, post-Tom Waits or pre-A Silver Mt Zion in its desperately slow piano and 'divisive' vocal style.
6. Times Of Grace (Relapse) / Tribes Of Neurot: Grace (Neurot)
On its own, 1999's Times Of Grace is probably less experimental or otherwise 'out there' than the previous two albums mentioned in this article. Marking the first time Neurosis worked with Steve Albini, his previous sterling work with idiosyncratic metallurgists like Burning Witch and Zeni Geva was equalled here in 66 minutes of burly riffing - as 'prog' as it was 'sludge' - and gloom-blanketed Americana a la Red House Painters (the terrific 'Away'). The ensemble's attempt at envelope-pushing, then, rested largely with Tribes Of Neurot, their ambient/drone sideproject. Grace, their second full-length, operates more than adequately as a vaguely Eno-ish moodshaper on its own, but was composed with the intention of being played simultaneously with Times Of Grace, to drag the, um, listening experience through, ah, new dimensions. Think Zaireeka by the Flaming Lips, but without the effective necessity of simultaneous play, or the bloody hassle.
7. Neurosis & Jarboe (Neurot)
Like it says, back a bit: Swans … progenitors … Neurosis. Thus, you could look at this eight-song, hour-long album as the tutor (Jarboe, Swans member from the mid-80s) coming back to cast an eye over the work of the younger students. Insofar as Neurosis & Jarboe contains no monster sludge guitar, and lots of the night-terrors ethereality that Jarboe has made great sport of in her post-Swans career, she seems to command a considerable influence over the album. And her voice, of course! As the snakes in Jarboe's larynx form a roaring choir to sing a refrain of "DEFY ME!" at the close of 'Erase', it hits home her ability to collaborate or guest with artists and cause you to think - can't she be in the band all the time? (Granted that many people take quite the opposite view as regards her Swans work, but still.)
8. Blood & Time, Harvestman and Neurosis' take on country and folk
It's actually quite tricky to pinpoint precisely when the influence of American folk idioms started absorbing into Neurosis' music. There are, perhaps, trace elements in Enemy Of The Sun and Through Silver In Blood, but wrenched from their origins and offering very little to folk or country purists. This decade, Neurosis sideprojects like the neofolkish Blood & Time and Steve Von Till's Harvestman have found members exploring this avenue. Harvestman's Lashing The Rye uses Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Steeleye Span versions of standards as their jump-off point, the result being an often superlative album of psych-folk and cosmic drone. The brand new Harvestman opus, In A Dark Tongue amps up the drone and the rock, the result not sounding too far from Jason Pierce's best work. Also worthy of appraisal: the Von Till and Kelly solo albums from last year, both of which do a Cash/Lanegan/Handsome Family thing with the requisite dark heart.
9. Combat Music Radio
"Combat Music Radio is born of our passion for underground music and bloodsports," it is claimed at combatmusicradio.com, an online radio station helmed by Scott Kelly (who also hosts a show) and pal Christopher Moeschi. "Bloodsports" seems to be a red herring, if not an actual lie - a selection of guests play badass punk, hardcore, noise and metal, primarily, plus once a week Eugene Robinson of Oxbow talks about, mostly, fighting in its various legal and illegal permutations, as is his wont. All told, it's keenly maintained and an obvious DIY labour of love.
10. Beyond The Pale
This was a festival within a festival which took place in April this year, with Neurosis getting to curate a day of Roadburn - the widely-admired Netherlands-based weekender for doom, sludge, stoner, noiserock and all that. The band were an ideal choice to make choices: along with the dozens of acts they've bunked up via their Neurot label (many of which appeared on the bill, not unreasonably), they've always done the decent and dutiful thing of hailing their inspirations. The Young Gods, Zeni Geva and Skullflower were among the fellow old guard cherrypicked by the outfit - and Neurosis themselves headlined the main stage.