As a member of Oakland’s Neurosis since the late 1980s, Steve Von Till has been a part of some of the heaviest of all heavy records. That band’s sludgy hardcore-to-post-metal mixture is relentlessly crushing, cinematically beautiful in its epic scope. So it should be little surprise that Von Till’s solo work is equally dark and brooding, and equally evocative, even if it’s sonically a far cry from his primary outfit.
A Life Unto Itself is Von Till’s fourth record under his own name – he also operates under the Harvestman moniker, that project falling more in the drone/ambient realm. I won’t pretend I’m intimately familiar with the first three Von Till efforts (or the Harvestman releases) – I own a copy of his debut, 2000’s As The Crow Flies, but it never hooked me enough to spend too much time with the other two. But between Von Till’s killer contributions to Neurot’s Townes Van Zandt tributes and now A Life Unto Itself, it appears I may have been too hasty in not celebrating at least a greater portion of the man’s entire catalog…
One of my primary criticisms of Crow was that the songs droned on well past their sell-by point, with the average running time above six minutes. The paces were plodding, a la Neurosis, and the endless repetition proved hypnotic, but given the primarily acoustic basis and purposefully empty arrangements, there simply weren’t strong enough dynamics to keep the whole disc interesting across forty-five minutes. Somewhere between then and now, Von Till’s writing has developed to the point where these songs can carry that weight, and thus he’s overcome that hurdle. Like Crow, Life is long, and on average, longer even than before; it features no song shorter than five minutes (and over half of them above six), once again seven songs in forty-five minutes, although thankfully there’s no eleven-minute “epic” to close. And like Crow, Life crawls by at a torturously slow trudge, sparse chords and simple riffs repeating until they’re drilled well into your brain. Stylistically, it follows the same path as before: Acoustic guitars provide the basis of most of the songs; Eyvind Kang’s viola and Jay Kardong’s pedal steel add color, while periodic swells of noisy droning electric guitar chords and synthesizers bring the dark dynamics that keep Life from falling down. Atop it all stands Von Till’s world-weary voice, a gravelly growling baritone that, like all of this, owes much to the brooding rootsy work of Mark Lanegan. Like his songcraft, Von Till’s voice has markedly improved in the decade and a half since his solo debut, becoming increasingly rougher but in a great way, now with more character and more grit.
Given that my primary concern with earlier Von Till was (and is) the drawn-out pacing, it’s testament to the man’s growth that the best track on Life is the longest. At nearly eight minutes, “A Language Of Blood” drifts through a beautifully dour opening, with a twisting acoustic figure augmented by a perfect, single shimmering tremolo electric chord. Even as strong as the acoustic elements are, beyond “Language,” Life’s greatest moments lie in those that separate from that pack, that shift the focus away from the usual approach and into different waters – the pulsing guitars and synths of “Night At The Moon” or the appropriately haunting piano-based “Chasing Ghosts.”
A Life Unto Itself has its highlights, and those certainly rise above the rest (obviously, since that’s the nature of the highlight), but there are no low-points, only songs that are better than average and others that fall more in line, good but not transcendent. Now that Von Till’s material can support its own length and weight, the listening experience is only emotionally exhausting, and not a physical slog through the over-long. There’s certainly magic in the dark chemistry between Von Till’s Tom Waits-ish gruffness and the minor chords that frame it, and it’s on full display here.
Heaviness comes in many forms; loud or quiet, full or sparse, Steve Von Till knows heavy.