Neurosis fans tend to be an all-or-nothing bunch: You worship the band or you don’t; you “get it” or you’re a fool; you’ve followed the hallowed path into the wilderness and drunk deep your mystic initiatory rite, or you’re a piteous dilettante. Debating the relative merits of such a revered pantheon of albums is a right tricky business, then. Far be it from me, of course, to deny the band’s slavering fanbase (of which yours truly is, in all likelihood, a card-carrying member) its reverence, but obviously such unstinting, unquestioned praise is entirely at odds with the necessary “kill your idols” thrust of the best of extreme music’s raw, festering underground. So, the question is, nearly twenty years on, how does Souls At Zero hold up?
Souls At Zero was a relentlessly evolutionary album for Neurosis. Although 1991’s The Word As Law had shown definite steps away from the band’s crust/hardcore past, 1992 saw Neurosis on a new label (Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles) with a decided turn to metal. 1993’s Enemy Of The Sun is rightly privileged as the band’s first true masterpiece, but Souls At Zero is no mere warm-up act. In fact, its sprawling sonics might in fact represent the band at the height of its aural expansionism, sucking in all and sundry sounds as it learns to speak in its new voice. Later albums will work at honing these components to their sheerest, most elemental nature; this, friends, is the sound of the spreading of deep roots.
If I can step into meta-critic mode for just a moment here: The lazy genre-fucked tags of “post-metal” or “NeurIsis” are neat little shorthands, I suppose, except that, at least in regards to this album, they completely miss the point. These tags often denote a band utilizing a generic quiet-LOUD-quiet structure in its songs (and suggest that some indie/post-rock dipshits invented the tension-and-release game of, y’know, like actual dynamic composition…). Thus, where the myriad less-talented descendents and acolytes think they are paying homage to Neurosis by playing a widdly quiet part and then stomping on the ol’ distortion for a few bars of limp caveman puppetry, they have in fact completely misread the genius they intend to ape. To put it roughly, Neurosis isn’t doing the Explosions In The Sky thing. These songs are all about slipping into rhythms and grooves that sound as though they have always been there, and about riding the sinews and connective tissues between.
“Flight,” for example, would be an essentially brilliant introduction to the band, as it manages to pack just about all the attributes of prime Neurosis into a tidy little four-minute burst of near-impossible brilliance. “To Crawl Under One’s Skin” builds its stalking tension for nearly four minutes before exploding into massive vocal exhortations, after which the guitar squeals and squalls backing the verses are something like cracking open a giant concrete orb only to find elemental fires burning within. Dudes don’t even need riffs here to crack your fucking head. Meanwhile, another textural triumph is the frequent use of violin to back up the slow-churning guitar chords (see “Flight” and “Sterile Vision”). It’s never pushed too far to the front, leaving it to hover mysteriously atop the overall sound. The trumpet on “Sterile Vision” is also used in a sufficiently regal, understated fashion. But if ‘regal’ and ‘mysterious’ straight-up bum you out, check out the gonzo shit going on in “Stripped,” with the full-on chimes backed up by that wonderful staccato synth bit that sounds like it could have given birth to the genres of martial ambient (see Puissance and the like) and rudimentary black/industrial (à la Samael’s Passage) all in one go.
With three different vocalists trading off fluidly, the album sounds like an emanation from an organic collective rather than the work of individuals collaborating. This has always been one of Neurosis’s greatest strengths: to transcend the worldly connotations of being a “band.” A Neurosis album never feels like the product of months of hard work (though it assuredly requires that), but more like a channeling of geological fissures. None of the labels used have ever fit the band, so why not just call them ‘tectonic metal’ and be done with it? The title track, “A Chronology for Survival,” and “Takeahnase” together seem to point the direction forward for Neurosis, from Enemy Of The Sun to Through Silver In Blood and beyond: alternating between contemplation and ferocity, deep, hypnotic drum grooves (there is a particular word usually tossed around that I am avoiding because it is frankly racist) and wide open spaces. That main melodic figure of “Souls At Zero” will be stuck in your head for days, with its two guitar lines underwritten by the vaguely unsettling trilled piano. Plus, that section’s done up in the 6/8 time so beloved of black/folk metallers all the (revisionist-ly pre-Christian and defiantly no-fun) world over. Plus, you’ve got to just melt at the false ending that reintroduces the theme as a coda. This is, like, some real “Strawberry Fields” shit here, folks.
The voice of critical moderation has failed: This is a great record, end of goddamn story. Still, although Neurosis inspires more fits of impassioned naturalistic metaphor than any other band, their albums are never quite centered around anything as linear as clawing one’s way to the summit of a vast mountain, or rowing the breadth of murmuring oceans, or warping the fabric of the cosmos with the pure force of one’s will and bounding off through the galaxy’s deathless eons. At their best, these albums are a halting, imperfect journey to the center of something – not the earth, per se, but a journey to the center of the earthen self. Inwards, always, but with the most quietly tenacious thought of maybe, one fine day, pushing through to the other side, and of what strident terrors of beauty beyond none can speak. Neurosis is no more Dante the Pilgrim than Dante the Poet, but this band might just be your Virgil.
And anyway, if you’re not down with my desperate, flailing prose, it’s some great fucking heavy metal, so dive in and taste the first ashes of the end times, just like it’s the first time.