Fires Within Fires

To begin by confirming that the eleventh studio album by Neurosis is another Neurosis record which sounds like Neurosis could be a case of Reviewer’s Folly. Do you even need to read any more after that? Already, I might be bloviating to an empty room as the readership rush off with the intention of either snagging Fires Within Fires by whichever means, or giving this latest stone-faced opus of manly anger a wide berth.

There is, though, the possibility of people reading who have never actually heard Neurosis, but were interested enough to click idly. Even if they’re one of the biggest names in the quote-unquote metal underground, it’s pretty easy to get on with one’s business and never hear them. Thirty years old as a band this year, the Oakland quintet’s continuing appeal is multi-layered. There are such phenomena as obsessive Neurosis fans, as befits a group whose releases are infrequent, intricate and ripe with mysterious imagery. They aren’t in danger of becoming the offputting public face of the band’s fanbase, though, in the way that (for example) Radiohead or Tool are often badmouthed in the context of their superfans. Also, there’s an element of ‘metal for people who don’t like metal’ that follows them, but if you think this means they don’t or can’t bring the heavy, then yer of the self-clowning ilk for sure.

So, should long-term Neurosis heads dive into Fires Within Fires with the expectation of a band still at the top of their game? Should detractors attempt to reassess their sludge trudge, looking for the majestic, apocalyptic greatness that nearly every review invokes but which remains wildly elusive to some? And should new jacks start with this album if they want to be inducted into the world of Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till and company? In order: yes, no and hmm maybe.

The first thing one might notice about FWF is that it’s unusually lean for a Neurosis album: at a mere 40 minutes, it’s their first sub-one-hour long player since they changed up their wonky, proggy Bay Area hardcore gear and turned into a doomladen industrial metal machine on 1992’s Souls At Zero. (Someone speculated to me that this was probably because double LPs cost too much now no-one makes money off music, but Neurot – the band’s own cottage label – have in fact released this in double! 45rpm! 180 gram! audiophile! format. Limited to a curiously non-round number, just to top it off.) With just five songs, though, this has not lead to a meaningful upswing of tempo or concessions to the pop format. ‘Bending Light’, which opens the album, runs to nearly eight minutes, and right from the off it’s quintessential Neurosis: 50 seconds of hammer-blow sludge riffs.

Thereafter, it gets a shade weirder: creepy, blues-influenced note-bending giving way to uneasily humming bass and possibly backmasked ambient drifting. Yet the comparative calm can’t last, twin guitars barreling back in around the 3.45 mark and Scott Kelly sounding, perhaps, more vocally wounded than normal. Shorn of his burnished, bearish larynx, Neurosis’ lyrics don’t necessarily invite much close reading, and frankly read pretty cornily… but the nautical imagery of ‘Bending Light’, all manner of chat about “watching through the eyes of a crow,” “the ever breaking tides” and “nihil waves”, sounds deathlessly compelling when Kelly takes the mic. There’s an curveball in the song’s coda too, the last 30 seconds seeing the instrumentation fall away and expose the weird synthesised scrabbling that was beavering away behind the metal.

‘A Shadow Memory’, which follows it, is the album’s shortest song at six minutes 50 seconds (Neurosis are the iteration of ‘prog metal’ you can talk about when you don’t want to talk about Dream Theater) but contains multitudes. Its fizzing electronic intro, while but a swift palate cleanser, is unusual territory for Neurosis – Tribes Of Neurot, their quasi-ambient and seemingly dormant side-project, would have been a cleaner fit – and when the guitars kick in, they have a gauzy coating of feedback that isn’t quite shoegaze, but isn’t exactly sludge metal either. Its final two minutes, however, are a different story: burly, riff-driven grandstanding not far from the likes of Yob, this is as straight-ahead doom as Neurosis get. Accordingly, Kelly’s lyrics are especially dramatic, biblical and sometimes vengeful and violent: “Slit the throats of those who light the torches / Smother with their blood.”

More squealy, inscrutable synth effects, presumably the work of the band’s chief electronic manipulator Noah Landis, mooch in the background when ‘Fire Is The End Lesson’ starts up. This one is, if only by the band’s exacting standards, a mite sub-par and Neurosis-by-numbers – until about the halfway point, where an insistent, cyclical riff first jumpstarts the track’s bones and is then abetted by an abrasively high-pitched second guitar and the title repeatedly chanted by Von Till.

The influence of folk and Americana on Neurosis has waxed and waned for nearly 25 years, from the Current 93-style wyrdness of 1993’s Enemy Of The Sun. Latterly, it’s tended to manifest itself in a grave, gravelly stab at the black hearts of Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt – see ‘Bleeding The Pigs’ and ‘Raise The Dawn’ from their last full-length, 2012’s Honor Found In Decay. ‘Broken Ground’, the penultimate song on this follow-up, is very much FWF’s showcase for this side of Neurosis. Von Till takes vocal duties, and he really does sound richly satisfying when he’s in croon mode; a set of lyrics with the questing feel of nineteenth-century American poetry help his case. “The wood burns dark and cloaks the rain / See what we have wrought again / Shadows scrape across the bones / Speak only of stones and home / We seek the sun in endless night / And burn in its forbidden light.” Again, there’s a lot going on across this eight-and-three-quarter minutes: sparse, muted opening chords, plenty of the kind expansive riffery that Neurosis coined and others called ‘post-metal’, a highly effective quiet-to-loud transition at five minutes 40 and, towards the denouement, a strange and not wholly welcome bubbling effect on the vocals.

If ‘Reach’, FWF’s last and longest number, doesn’t audibly continue the Americana vibe, it opens in almost goth fashion: chiming, precise, bassline-driven and with Kelly intoning his vocals like he’s exhausted and weatherbeaten. Plumes of guitar feedback, again backmasked I think, are looped throughout to nicely creepy effect, faintly resembling Slint sideproject The For Carnation; the recording nous of Steve Albini, who has engineered every Neurosis album since 1999’s Times Of Grace, is showcased especially well in the sparse, contemplative midsection. Guitars variously sound like distant church bells and, when the powerchords are unleashed at the eight-minute mark, a Roman candle shooting into the sky just before it explodes.

Neurosis have not reinvented extreme metal on Fires Within Fires, and at this point it seems unlikely they’ll ever again record anything as gamechanging as Enemy… or 1996’s Through Silver In Blood. These albums and others give them ample credit in the bank to merely – merely! – bust out a new record every few years, tweak their various formulae, play by their own rules and timescales, and keep on delivering the goods in punishing, end-time-preacher fashion.

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