When Kenneth Thomas, director of Blood, Sweat & Vinyl: DIY in the 21st Century, explains how he started listening to bands like Neurosis, he characterizes his discovery of extreme music as an escalation of habit. In these times of infinite musical accessibility, it’s interesting and perhaps brave to admit that music can still be about habit and instinct as much as choice. Thomas says he instantly took to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, because he found them to be “emotionally engrossing.”
This kind of unquestioning devotion to the intensity or “affect” of music at first seems a little suspect. It’s too easy to be swayed by bands like GY!BE and Neurosis, with their rich sound and dramatic dynamics. But Neurosis prove that there can be value in perfecting these habits.
In 2012, they are slower and more doom-laden than ever, but no less ambitious. Their partnership with Steve Albini over the last five albums has revealed a sound conscious of its own rich flexibility, a majestic beast of subtly shifting tempos and always-unexpected climaxes rising out of sludge and doom metal’s muddy sloughs and then collapsing back again. Still casting the quasi-religious mantras of doom metal out over expanses of distorted and downtuned guitars, Neurosis’ loyalty to extreme metal tradition can be pinpointed in their lyrics. It doesn’t get more upstandingly metal than the title of the album Honor Found in Decay — as if sludge/doom metal were the most fitting genre to commemorate the heavy passage of time itself, with its abrasive toll on the body.
The integrity of Honor Found in Decay is that, while it traces a straight line from Given to the Rising, it still makes definite headway. Since the early 90s, Neurosis have yoked their metal allegiances to their musical ambitions. They have always delivered the expected sandpaper howls and doom-laden lyrics. Yet the irregular structures of their songs and the way their compositions sustain the anticipation of experimental breakdowns convey the sense that these tropes are always being tested.
With a mixture of slow grandeur and the tightness of industrial and hardcore, Neurosis still show that they can be relied upon to reassure metal orthodoxy with a convincing hybrid of its bastard tendencies: slow/fast, portentous/nihilistic, etc. Neither splintering into dissenting cultishness or selling out to a new drone or hipster aesthetic, Honor Found in Decay uses the warmer tones of Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly’s apocalyptic folk leanings to break up its blacker movements, but doesn’t shy from long and focused bouts of playing.
There are moments on “My Heart for Deliverance” that sound like Dirty Three, with trilled samples and thorny time signatures. These give the album a convenient resonance in 2012 with albums by Swans and Earth. But the band has always cited Swans as an influence. In fact, both bands grew out of similar scenes, casting off the frenetic brutality of hardcore punk and grindcore for a more steady, but no less extreme vision.
For both the fan and the player of extreme music, then, listening and playing becomes a habit. If habit is reinforced by the desire to improve, then it becomes practice. Like Opeth, who learned how to play their songs in the dark, the ethos of some of metal’s hardest working bands and fans isn’t academic, beginning to play only when completely enlightened and knowledgeable. Rather, it’s in learning how to begin in darkness and keep working until habit becomes perfection. This may result in some chaotic or purely emotional music at first, but eventually, after say, 27 years, you’ll get music from bands like Neurosis that rewards its followers and its players both emotionally and aesthetically. By forging a path from hardcore punk through sludge and doom metal and influencing many others along the way, Neurosis have worn their influences on their sleeves, yet have still managed to evolve by sounding more intensely like themselves.