Fires Within Fires feels like aging.
Now, hold up. I’m not talking about the ages of the members involved, or at least not directly. Neurosis’s music, at least from Enemy of the Sun onward (and honestly in some ways at least as far back as The Word as Law), has felt lived-in beyond its years. And ultimately, that’s what has always marked the band as one of the most reliably powerful institutions in heavy music: that their music, for all the editing and arranging and careful recording and rerecording that assuredly went into it, was nevertheless a seamless channeling of some buried volcanic flow, some wordless prayer pulled down from the ether.
Rather than bother with further preamble, here’s the primary complaint: Fires Within Fires is much too short. In fact, a Neurosis full-length album that barely cracks the 40-minute mark almost seems like a contradiction in terms. And the damnable thing is that if this was almost literally ANY other band, yours truly would be performing ill-advised cartwheels of praise at the type of self-restraint needed to trim a few decades’ worth of hour-plus albums down to an economical single LP.
So the complaint is not intended in the cloying sense of “Oh mercy, the album is just sooo wonderful that I wish it went on forever,” but neither is it intended in the sense of a jilted, jaded consumer wishing there were more minutes for the money. Instead, Fires Within Fires feels like it ends before it fully accomplishes what it sets out to do.
That fact is emblematic of a wider phenomenon, which is that the stakes simply feel lower for the band on Fires Within Fires. On one hand, that could be counted as an advantage, because without the necessity of proving themselves, there’s little risk of feeling rushed, or overstuffed and overfreighted with every ounce of possible expression. Of course, little about Neurosis has ever felt rushed, and a great deal of the band’s power comes from the sense of smaller creatures collectively summoning a force greater than themselves, perhaps a force greater than they intended. The thrilling tension is always, “Can they keep this together?”
The feeling of low stakes can’t be a result strictly of the fact that much of Fires Within Fires moves more quietly and pensively than the average Neurosis album, because The Eye of Every Storm, one of the most deceptively placid albums, contains some of the band’s most overwhelmingly dynamic material. And it also can’t be a result strictly of the short running time, because the Sovereign EP was mostly able to replicate the full narrative arc of a longer album in a shorter time than Fires allots itself.
Perhaps the most head-scratching piece of all of this is that Fires Within Fires is almost certainly still an excellent album. Its vocabulary is immediately identifiable as Neurosis, even if the syntax is a little foreign. The voices of Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till are utterly undiminished, and the band’s collective ability to play a riff not just as one or two or three sets of fingers on amplified strings, but as a conversation in unison (a seeming contradiction and certain recipe for failure and tedium in lesser hands) between five voices – that finely honed skill still radiates throughout each of these five songs.
Album opener “Bending Light” starts almost in the middle of itself, with a confidently relaxed shuffle that eventually widens into a Neurosis groove like so many Neurosis grooves you’ve heard before, but Steve Albini’s the-band-is-sitting-in-your-living-room directness and the obvious passion of the players overwrites all of that, as it always does. That’s the thing about trying to criticize a Neurosis album: you can only do it once you’ve turned it off, because if you put it back on, it will convince you. Even with Von Till bleating the most Neurosis-y of Neurosis lyrics perhaps ever penned – “Peeling the skin away / Reveals the heart” – it feels like the truth.
The mostly unspoken tension that has nagged at me here is between my expectations for what a Neurosis album should do and my hesitation in ascribing particular intentions to the band in crafting this particular album. One of the silliest logical fallacies reviewers often fall into is in trying to tell you, the reader-listener, what we, the writer-listener, believe the band MEANT to do. Of course, a musician can tell you herself, through interviews or press releases or whatever else, what she intended to do, but even those proclamations should always be viewed with healthy skepticism by critical listeners (whether writer-listeners or reader-listeners or just – best of all – listening listeners).
But if we start weaving a story that tries to match biographical details to particular sounds or songs or conclusions, we make fools of ourselves and we disrespect the ability of musical artifice to enrapture and lie to us. We should want music to lie to us, in its way. That’s what Neurosis is doing, after all, when I’m able to write that they sound like five people tapping into a primordial energy that threatens to overtake them.
And yet, like some unrepentant asshole, I told you up top that Fires Within Fires sounds like aging. Well, it DOES, for crying out loud. But whether that has anything to do with any particular member of the band aging or thinking about aging is completely irrelevant. The music is now a thing that exists, and it is the only thing we should confront.
So, confront this: The mid-section of album highlight “Fire is the End Lesson” is a display of such utter confidence and skill that it’s startling. Startling even to this unrepentant asshole who keeps trying to convince himself that this new Neurosis album isn’t all that great. The low-slung riff jumps familiar intervals, but it stretches way out, extending a full eight measures each repetition. This is the art of world-creation that Neurosis has perfected, where a single note, drawn-out, an expected drum fill delayed a half-beat, a rubber-band snapping back to whip the strings back to the tonic note – all these choices, strictly musical, signify titanic upheavals and cataclysmic narratives.
“Broken Ground” seems the most likely candidate to be about aging, because it rusts into view as a piece of Von Till’s increasingly unselfconscious Americana, but it, too, finds a point of combustion. And album closer “Reach,” although it stretches itself out to 10 minutes and change, feels in some ways like the least substantial piece of the bunch. Not quite calm enough to be calming, nor stormy enough to feel truly elemental, “Reach” finds a patch of sunlight and curls up fitfully in it. Paradoxically, the song’s final three minutes are a hard-riffing crescendo that feels both unearned and redemptive.
Is Fires Within Fires a bad album? At this point, Neurosis is more or less constitutionally incapable of making a bad album. What I don’t know is whether this Neurosis album will give you what you are looking for. I do know that it has not given me what I was looking for. However, it has also caused me a great deal of reflection about why it was that I thought I was looking for something specific in a Neurosis album anyway. My esteem for these musicians is high enough that the best way to approach their work ought to be, “My ears are here. Let’s see where you can take me.”
Even so, Fires Within Fires is an open parenthesis. That should be welcome, because it’s an invitation rather than a conclusion, a question rather than an answer. It feels like aging, I guess, because it’s the sound of confidence and certainty running up against an encroaching finality. It doesn’t spit and claw at the once distant and unknowable end becoming less distant, less unknowable, but neither does it open a warm hand and welcome. There’s a tentativeness that’s not couched in bravado, but it’s almost as if, because that tentativeness is new, the sound doesn’t quite know how best to represent it. There’s the churn and crash and clamor and that’s all well and good, and there’s the chime and drone and heavy pause and that’s all well and good, too, but… nothing resolves.
I don’t know if that open-endedness is intentional. Maybe the band doesn’t know, either. But that’s just life, mostly. That’s the gears turning smoothly while pondering the whens and hows and maybes of the grit and whine that will eventually wind them down. An open parenthesis is a fine place to be, but you have to get comfortable without the close. That’s life, too. A question you ask not so much because you want an answer or because you know there is no answer but because asking’s all there is. A sound that opens and rises up and probably stops somewhere but you don’t always hear it or can’t delineate its echo from that of itself.
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