Originally released by Alternative Tentacles in 1992 and subsequently reissued in 1999 at the launch of the band’s Neurot Recordings label, Neurosis’ third album, Souls at Zero, is an essential document in an essential catalog. The post-hardcore (though not by the modern genre definition) approach of their first two albums, 1988’s Pain of Mind and 1991’s The Word as Law, led the seminal Oakland, California, outfit to new ground of sonic experimentation, and Souls at Zero is the first instance of that experimentation made flesh. Not even as assured as they’d be a year later on Enemy of the Sun, these songs capture a critical moment in the transition of the band. The raw immediacy of their earliest work is still there – you can almost feel the panic coming through the speakers nearly 20 years later on opener “To Crawl Under One’s Skin” – and they leaned heavily on their much-noted Swans influence, but the process of refinement that would result in Neurosis’ later career triumphs was definitely under way.
Like the 2010 Neurot Recordings reissue of Enemy of the Sun, this new Souls at Zero has been given a visual reinterpretation by Neurosis artist-in-residence Josh Graham. Sound-wise, the disc overall sounds louder and clearer, but that could just as easily be me reading into it as any change mastering/pressing technology improvements have brought about. The guitars of Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till are still distinct, and more present here than in the original is Dave Edwardson’s bass, which does much to thicken out the songs and make moments like the apex of “Sterile Vision” hit with more impact. The balance between the keyboards (then provided by Simon McIlroy, who was replaced by Noah Landis in 1995) and guitars/bass is given careful treatment on that track as well, and on “Stripped” and the chaotic “The Web,” where an underlying layer of noise seems to come through in a way it never did on previous versions of the record. Those who’ve spent significant time with Souls at Zero over the years either since its original release or previous reissue will no doubt hear things differently as well. Even if it’s the same album, it’s a new experience of it.
The three bonus cuts included on this version – demos of “Souls” and “Zero” and a live cut, “Cleanse III” from London in 1996 – come straight from the 1999 issue, and while their inclusion here is no less welcome now than it was then, it’s Souls at Zero proper that’s the highlight of this release. The track “Takeahnase” – one of the best single songs in the whole of the Neurosis discography – proves no less devastating for the years passed since it was written, and really, the same could be said of the whole album. If Souls at Zero sounds dated anywhere, it’s in the use of samples, and that’s less the fault of Neurosis or the songwriting than the fault of every other band who picked up on the tactic in the ‘90s and made it commonplace. Beyond that, the turmoil, the fiercely controlled chaos and the distinguished emotionality of “Souls” more than stands up to time gone by, and if reviewing this reissue is what’s gotten me to revisit the album, I’m all the gladder for the opportunity. Any day I get to hear Jason Roeder abuse his snare the way he does on “The Web,” I mark a win.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to Neurosis, I’m hardly impartial. I have maybe five “favorite” bands and Neurosis is at least two of them. Mustering whatever objectivity I can, I’ll say that if you’re either a longtime fan, someone who came in at some midpoint in their ascendancy or are just now getting introduced to their body of work, Souls at Zero is an absolutely necessary listen if you’ve never heard it. Completist nerds, for whom this review is basically pointless, will just be happy to have another Neurosis disc, even if it’s one they already have, but Souls at Zero isn’t limited to either novelty or nostalgic values. It’s a crucial piece when it comes to understanding Neurosis’ formidable progression of sound, yes, but it’s also one of the heaviest albums ever recorded and more or less the birth-point of a then-new kind of audio oppressiveness. Nobody before them crushed quite like this.
Neurosis, “To Crawl Under One’s Skin” (2011)
Tags: California, Neurosis, Neurot, Oakland