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The crushing beauty of Neurosis

The crushing beauty of Neurosis

Six key tracks from the legendary metal band, who play Sunday, August 2 at the Majestic. | By Ben Munson and Scott Gordon

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Neurosis’ Sunday, August 2 show at the Majestic is one of the biggest treasures in this year’s Madison concert calendar: The Oakland-formed band hasn’t done do a lot of touring in the U.S. period for years, and Madison often gets passed over for good metal shows. (Yay, we don’t have to drive to The Rave!) But more important is the path of greatness that Neurosis have carved out within heavy music over the course of a 30-year run. The band’s music is viscerally punishing but full of open space and subtle texture, and the songs often are long and complex but seldom drift away from a gut-churning sense of urgency. While it’s true that Neurosis helped inspire post-metal, that genre tag doesn’t really do it—across their 11 albums, Neurosis have always sounded like a band in a constant, fertile state of evolution. With that in mind, we consider a few key tracks that offer a window into this massive and brutally gorgeous band.

“To The Wind” (from Given To The Rising, 2007)

Neurosis took big leaps into diffuse, moody atmosphere in the early 2000s, and on Given To The Rising they sound like they’ve digested all that, keeping the sonic growth but taking a more instinctive footing. You can feel that sense of balance, as well as an uncompromising gut-punch, on the monstrously doom-y riff that opens the album (and its title track). The third song, “To The Wind,” opens with a patiently ringing clean guitar, yet there’s a sturdy resolve even in those gentle first two minutes, and then the band whips into something faster and nastier. At about 4:30, the song comes around to another atmospheric passage, but this time the hush feels ominous, and at about 5:20 guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly punctures it with a magnificent, guttural howl: TO THE WIIIIIIIII….. —SG

“In Harm’s Way” (from Neurosis & Jarboe, 2003)

A creepy, spacious passage doesn’t always have to end with a big meaty crescendo, especially when there’s so much dynamic variety a band can explore by sustaining and subtly varying all that malignant tension. That’s something Neurosis and former Swans member Jarboe harness to unsettling effect on their full-length collaborative album from 2003. All the delicate, hissing noise that shades Neurosis albums comes to the fore and creates an ideal foil for former Swans member Jarboe’s stately, sinuous vocals on “In Harm’s Way,” with Jason Roeder’s rumbling drums giving everyone a sparse frame to modulate around. The song might get thicker and heavier as it progresses, but there’s never a true resolution or release—the song fades out to a burbling low-end noise, leaving listeners on their own to deal with the previous six minutes of itchy apprehension. —SG

“All Is Found… In Time” (from Honor Found In Decay, 2012)

It’s hard not to have divided feelings about Neurosis’ most recent studio album, in part because Neurosis is all about change and it’s easier to make sense of earlier releases within the bigger arc of what came before and after, and in part because Honor Found In Decay is just not their most memorable set of songs. (It was the first since 2007's Given To The Rising, which is a tough one to follow.) But it invites repeat listens, because it still has that sense of a band taking stock of its varied faculties and pressing forward—whatever the results, you couldn’t accuse Neurosis of wallowing in self-repetition. “Bleeding The Pigs” builds on Neurosis’ affinity for warped electronic noise: The first passage with vocals uses a squelch-y synth and little else to accompany vocalist/guitarist Steve Von Till’s cavernous rasp. And though the song travels through some of the layered arrangements and unconventional structures you’d expect from Neurosis, what it mostly leaves you with is intimacy, because—as they also showed on Neurosis & Jarboe—the band is adept at making space for the human voice, not just treating vocals as another shade of their mighty sludge. —SG

“The Doorway” (from Times Of Grace, 1999)

Times Of Grace is a powerful example of how every Neurosis album sounds, to a point, transitional, and of how the band usually makes that into a strength. The 1999 album opens with the glinting majesty of instrumental track “Suspended In Life,” then goes right into the bruisingly jagged chords of “The Doorway.” For all that we love Neurosis’ complexity, it’s incredibly satisfying to hear them in basically full-on lurching noise-rock mode for much of the first part of this song. That said, the song expands near the end into a tunnel of feedback and churning rhythm, establishing this standout album’s balance of experimentation and face-scraping austerity. —SG

“Locust Star” (from Through Silver In Blood, 1996)

As bassist Dave Edwardson pointed out in an interview in 1996, the band was reaching toward an epic undertaking with their fifth album, Through Silver In Blood, and hoping to create something greater than the sum of its parts. But if a part must be singled out, it might as well be “Locust Star,” which splits down the middle of the band’s first album for the venerable Relapse Records. The song baits and switches, trading in restrained drums and muted strumming early on in order to fully mutate into a pulsating mass of minor chords and industrial shrieks. Then the guitars twist in a stabbing pattern and begin to bore skull holes to let in guttural exhortations, calling the star to “rain down on yyyooouuu.” —BM

“Flight” (from Souls At Zero, 1992)

Dropping listeners into intricate labyrinths and letting them find their way or suffer the consequences of getting lost is what Neurosis does best. But when expediency calls, the band can toss you in a headlock and execute a quick and brutal sonic noogie on your scalp. On Souls At Zero, amid the band’s blossoming interest in incorporating more delicate sounds, “Flight” steps in and builds from a gurgling bass line to a lacerating riff to a roaring cave wind in just seconds. A brief passage of flute arpeggios relents long enough for Kelly to color in the story, uncork a melodramatic “No!,” and then cryptically proclaim “The mutiny’s been electrocuted!” before the riff machine returns to finish the job. —BM

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