The advent of a new Neurosis album is noteworthy even in concept. If you count 2003’s collaboration with Jarboe, there have been four in the last decade – which is a better average than some – and yet each new release seems to arrive with more anticipation behind it, the band members’ prolific side-projects and solo outings only feeding the fire that burns its way back to the root act. The 10th studio full-length from Neurosis (that’s not counting the aforementioned collaboration) is called Honor Found in Decay. It features seven tracks and clocks in at an hour even, making it the shortest since 1990’s sophomore LP, The Word as Law, though the difference between it and much of the band’s post-Souls at Zero (1992) discography, time-wise, is only five to 10 minutes. Still worth noting. More pivotal, however, is the emotional and musical progression of the band. It’s been more than five years since Given to the Rising was issued in May 2007, and of course the work in individual members of Neurosis have done outside the band since then – guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till in Harvestman and with his solo project, guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly with Shrinebuilder and his solo projects, keyboardist Noah Landis’ outside collaborations with Kelly, drummer Jason Roeder with Sleep and even visual artist Josh Graham with A Storm of Light – has fed into that progression, but Neurosis at this point is like the temple to which these players – as well as bassist Dave Edwardson, whose work here and throughout the band’s discography is both overshadowed and essential – sojourn every few years, coming together for periodic shows from their various geographic locales in the western part of the country, California, Oregon, Idaho, and writing either via the internet, or individually, or some combination of that, or some mysterious other process. Perhaps distance is part of the reason it’s taken Honor Found in Decay (which, like everything Neurosis does at this point, is released on their own Neurot Recordings imprint) five years to materialize – engineer Steve Albini’s schedule might also have something to do with it – but even if so, the new full-length works quickly to justify the wait. Among the many hyperbolic things it is, it is the work of a group of artists unmatched in their relentless pursuit.
What exactly they’re pursuing could probably be the subject of a master’s thesis, but in the case of Honor Found in Decay, one need not look much farther than the album cover for some clue. Since 1993’s landmark Enemy of the Sun, but especially since 2001’s A Sun that Never Sets (the art for which came from the venerable Seldon Hunt), the visual presentation of Neurosis releases has been an especially apt statement of the mood of the album. Thanks to Graham, 2004’s more ambient, brooding The Eye of Every Storm came dressed in cloud-greys as though descended from some snowy mountain, weathered and tired, and Given to the Rising made its bleak, angrier perspective clear in its foreboding but still textural blacks. To look at Honor Found in Decay, then, Graham (who, judging by this and his cover for the forthcoming Soundgarden album, seems to have entered his “put stuff in a pile and take a picture of it” period; no complaints) brilliantly maintains the realistic aspects of Given to the Rising – a photograph, not a painting – while also feeding into a sense of ritual with candles and what looks like tribal-design covered armaments and keeping a connection to the land via the dirt and ash at the bottom. The lighting is natural, but there’s a human sensibility there too. You’re clearly in a room, looking at a wall behind, covered with pictures or who knows what, and there’s a workbench or some other shelving, covered in the chaos of a working life. It could very well be Graham’s studio space, I don’t know, but it gives that kind of impression, mirroring some of Honor Found in Decay’s more chaotic musical moments, like those of “All is Found… in Time”’s early stretches or the masterfully churning culmination of “Bleeding the Pigs.” So there is the earth, the bones, the ritual, the chaos, the humanity, and we can’t ignore the three spear or arrow points below the logo and title, so there’s violence as well, or at very least the aftermath thereof. It’s a scope no less encompassing than the songs themselves – all the more fitting for that – and the melding of browns and yellows with the black char underscores the central mood of the album, which is not as outwardly raging as was Given to the Rising, and still dark, but wizened, older seeming.
Interpretations will of course vary, but it’s important to keep in mind that Neurosis themselves are not that calculating or cerebral in their processes. Even if Graham was playing off the atmospheres in the songs in his creation of the cover art, there’s no doubt he had something completely different in mind than what I’ve stated above; the work’s success is in being evocative. In this as well the art stands in line with the audio density of Honor Found in Decay, the album’s atmosphere allowing the imagination to foster a host of visual landscapes and scenes – “Bleeding the Pig” being particularly vivid – while nonetheless crushing everything in its expansive sights with tonal and ambient weight and lyrics concerning time, kin, penance, nature and the passage from one to the next that the titular “decay” hints at. The progression between the songs is markedly fluid – Kelly discusses his feelings on structuring albums in the recent interview for his latest solo album – but because the personalities of the tracks are nonetheless distinct and representing individual ideas, it seems appropriate to engage them one at a time in a track-by-track analysis. I was back and forth on the idea, because I didn’t want to take away from how well Honor Found in Decay works taken as a whole – it should be taken as a whole, it’s not like Neurosis are writing 12 three-minute radio singles – but hopefully a better look at the pieces will lead to a more engaged understanding of the whole. We’ll begin with the opener, “We all Rage in Gold.”
1. We all Rage in Gold (6:36)
Shortly before the five-minute mark into late album cut “Water is Not Enough” from Given to the Rising, the song hit its peak in furious riffing topped with a kind of high-pitched swirl – presumably from Landis, but I wouldn’t count out the possibility of that being either Kelly or Von Till’s guitars, either – and that same kind of noise begins Honor Found in Decay. Here it is repurposed into a lonely, spiritual kind of digital smoke that winds its way up from silence to precede the opening guitar figure that becomes the basis tempo-wise for what follows. Edwardson joins with subtle rumble, and it’s all unassuming until at 54 seconds, “We all Rage in Gold” bursts to life, Roeder signaling the launch with a crash that brings the full version of the initial progression, surprisingly upbeat in its kick and higher-end while the bass underscores with runs that will stand out as some of the album’s best. The first vocal lines of the album are, “I walk into the water/To wash the blood from my feet,” and they resound the interplay between Kelly and Von Till that will ensue. The duo’s deliveries have grown so much in tandem with each other that it’s hard at times to pick out where the one or the other is singing when the themes are as consistent as they are on Honor Found in Decay – one always wants to credit Kelly with a harsher, angrier growl and Von Till with reverence to the land, but that’s no more a metric than anything – but they’re most effective and most serving the dynamic when they come together, as they do on the subsequent “At the Well” or the later “Casting of the Ages,” as well as elsewhere throughout. With “We all Rage in Gold,” it’s the encompassing whole that carries you with it, rather this or that element, though Kelly’s vocal readily displays the range of emotion he’s come to convey as a singer over time. Following an elongated verse, the song breaks at 2:41 to a quieter stretch – once again Edwardson’s bass shines from beneath the guitar – and when Roeder breaks on the drums, Landis chimes in to fill out the soundscape with foreboding keywork. A soft vocal line turns guttural at 4:05 and the instruments offer likewise explosion, rounding out the last two minutes-plus of the track with a slower push topped at first by throaty vocal lines, and then marches out instrumentally, strings arriving at 4:52 – I don’t want to assume it’s Jackie Perez Gratz on the cello, though she’s contributed to Neurosis before; if you told me Landis’ keys or a tape loop, I’d believe you; the noise is obscure but melodic – and rumbling to a close that feeds into the quiet opening of “At the Well.”
2. At the Well (10:05)
The core of “At the Well” is a linear build. It’s one of Honor Found in Decay’s most effective – going from near silence to raging cacophony in its 10-minute span – and made all the more so by various fluctuations between. A soft guitar strum and breathy Von Till vocal offer initial minimalism torn through at the one-minute mark by Roeder’s tribal drumming and distorted guitar and bass. They seem at first to plateau here, Von Till raging out a verse over Roeder’s precision thumping – presented, as ever, cleanly and naturally by Albini’s recording – and sustained, feedback guitars openly riffed, but even here there are changes taking place to signal movement in the overarching build. Flourishes of (what sounds like) slide guitar add to the tension being created, the stomach tightening for a release that comes 3:24, when Roeder adds cymbals to roughly the same rhythm, no less driving, and Kelly joins on in on vocals. The apex of “At the Well” is still a long way off, but that’s something of a preview, breaking to synth swirls, ambient guitar and backwards cymbal washes at 4:19, either sampled or real bagpipes bringing up a mournful feel that persists even as the instruments resume their lumbering trail, the slide guitar resuming, echoing behind the revived vocal line and fuller distortion. The line “Smoke from a gaping wound,” is a standout and should be telling in terms of the track’s overall impression at this point. They break again to quiet circa six minutes, Landis’ synth taking the fore once again, though a quiet guitar remains, and a likewise subdued spoken word recitation begins, culminating with the line, “Prophecy flows in whispers” before at seven minutes in, “At the Well” meets its payoff. It’s important to remember for the longer track that this is still relatively early into the context of the whole album, and though there’s no shortage of back and forth playing out, the line Neurosis draw is still very much moving forward. Nonetheless, it is with their own and so often imitated feeling of apocalyptic claustrophobia that they culminate “At the Well.” As has been the case thus far into Honor Found in Decay, there’s tension but no gradual swell. The song explodes. Its action is tornado violent. Eight repetitions of the lyric “In a shadow world” only make the churn more visceral before two guitar leads take hold, the first a wavering, plotted course and the second a buzzsaw that cuts through everything in its path – including Roeder’s increasingly manic tom runs – and threatens to derail the song entirely with the force of its plunder. Any other band and it might have, but the “In a shadow world” incantation resumes, this time for a course of 16 that acts as a foundation for additional vocals built on top of it, bringing in Edwardson to excellent effect alongside Von Till and Kelly, the first two blocks of four lines marking the changes and the last eight acting as the apex prior to the finishing crash and feedback hum at 9:41. Neurosis have arranged three-part vocals before – the prior instance that comes to mind most immediately is “Falling Unknown” from A Sun that Never Sets – but they employ it well here, and at the point “At the Well” crashes, it legitimately feels like there’s nowhere else the song could have gone. Like they pushed it to the very edge and then off the side of a cliff.
3. My Heart for Deliverance (11:41)
Track three’s quiet, gradually building ambient opening is another example of how well the songs on Honor Found in Decay play off each other. After the madness that caps (and to mix metaphors, capsizes) “At the Well,” the beginning of “My Heart for Deliverance” both perfectly sets the mood for the less jagged thrust of what’s to come and offers respite and a moment to recover from what’s just taken place. It is one aspect of Neurosis’ long since established mastery of their form, and often overlooked in favor of how heavy they are is how much that heaviness is accentuated by the mood, by the atmospherics in their approach. “My Heart for Deliverance” – if such a thing can be said – is a highlight for the grace with which its build plays out, a swirl mounting and coming forward from the distance of the mix, the sound of rain on a metal roof and the arrival of the synth line at its destination leading the point where the verse starts at 2:11. “Deliverance” is a theme Kelly has visited already this year – see also Scott Kelly and the Road Home’s The Forgiven Ghost in Me (review here) – but his verses in the first half of the song top a smoothly-running riff that leads the bass and drums through their course. The motion of the swirl in the intro, it seems, has not disappeared entirely, only changed its form. There’s a shift into an instrumental chorus and the verse is renewed, only to be complemented by a second run through that chorus, this time with vocals, and when the song transitions into the softer beginning of the instrumental build that will encompass the entirety of its second half, the sense one gets is less of a break than a letting go. They don’t cut it suddenly, but that last chorus is exhausted and descending, so that at 5:08, as Roeder shifts to his ride and changes the rhythm just so slightly, the shift is natural. When Kelly finishes the line “…And left me beneath the river,” his “the river” is spoken, further highlighting the seamlessness. There’s melody in the decay, from wistful guitar interplay that’s gorgeous and evocative, and even Edwardson, who can be so, so pummeling, is smooth here. Roeder drops out at 6:35, leaving just the guitars and a sample comes on a short while later – “We follow the earth/The earth follows the stars/The stars know their way/And though the body dies/The stars will remain/Like the waves of the sea and restless slate” – and as the last words are spoken, “My Heart for Deliverance” slams into its climax. The quiet stretch was nearly a lullaby, and the resulting surge is undeniably one of the most affecting moments of Honor Found in Decay. Sweeter now, the same buzzsaw tone of “At the Well” returns to top a thundering victory of a guitar line, the band lumbering in unison behind like a weight that reminded itself it could be lifted, and after it cuts out and is answered in kind by another that ties itself to the undulations of the music behind, just adding notes of melody rather than standing out so much, there is a consuming totality to it that makes the eerie chorus of synth that takes hold after the guitars, bass and drums are finished all the better, Landis having final say as the ringing guitars and eventually everything else fades out to end the song folds to silence: Delivered.
4. Bleeding the Pigs (7:20)
What rapture there is to be had is short-lived, however. True to the violence inherent in its title – one does not imagine the pigs are being bled for medical purposes – “Bleeding the Pigs” is immediately darker. It’s Landis with the first statement, a bed of foreboding electronic and droning noise from which the guitar is soon to rise. The contradiction between the beginning of Honor Found in Decay’s centerpiece and the joy “My Heart for Deliverance” found in its conclusion is not subtle, but the two songs work well next to each other, particularly because Landis is given the first 10 seconds or so to establish the bleaker atmosphere. One guitar appears, then two, repeating hard-strummed chords into an open-mouthed abyss to herald the coming of a verse they do not actually take part of. Von Till’s verse tells of a hunt –
“When the serpent swallows its tail
With a half-eaten heart
The god of reason deserts me
Only earth and sky remain
Mountains shake and wake me
Words of a seeress be revealed
Carve out my eyes that I might see
Treacherous thoughts unfold
In time men show their nature
Bleed the pig of its life”
— over the drone and sampled percussive noises, suitably tribal and ritualistic, and slowly the guitars are reintroduced. A build is underway, grueling as the vocals become more aggressive beginning with the “Carve out my eyes” line, and it’s Roeder’s drums that bring it to the next stage. They are lower on “Bleeding the Pigs” than they’ve yet been on Honor Found in Decay, and larger, more resonant. He throws in a quick fill at 2:38, as if to signal a change, and then switches from his hard-hit toms to a movement based on that fill, as the guitars join in to move the build to its next stage and Landis’ synth becomes a wash at the head of the mix. A sorrowful lead takes hold, Roeder keeping the same percussive base, and vocals both clean and whispered, recite a few lines before once more dropping off to let the atmospherics establish a bed. The bass drum has dropped out, and were it not for the tom line maintained – faded, but still there – I’d think “Bleeding the Pigs” was about to delve headfirst into its ambience, but the tension created there requires its payoff and gets it, a soft guitar line, turning into frantic abuse at 5:18 and a panicking viciousness. Through it all, Roeder keeps the same drum rhythm cycle as the music surrounding becomes more and more disorienting. At 5:35, a sample comes on and is repeated through the end of the song that’s among the most appropriate inclusions of the whole of Honor Found in Decay. It says, “My brain just was on overload,” and it answers back the lines of the last verse, physical in its volume as it reaches its apex, and when the drums hit their last thud, there’s no doubt it’s the final one. The guitars, bass and drums are gone, but the noise persists, and the sample as well, a kind of siren sound backing it as the original sample plays in the right channel and in the left is a lower voice saying almost the same thing, but switching the placement in the line from “just was” to “was just,” which only makes it more unsettling as “Bleeding the Pigs” is finally swept up in an echoing answer to the beginning ambience.
5. Casting of the Ages (10:03)
Almost an album unto itself, the last of Honor Found in Decay’s cuts to top the 10-minute mark begins low and serene, Kelly describing a valley sunrise over a quiet guitar and accordion noise, like Neurosis answering back the Americana-inspired harvest doom they’ve also in no small part influenced, but doing so subtly, with melody at the fore rather than an immediate shot of aggression. Plenty of time for that later. Like “My Heart for Deliverance” after “At the Well,” “Casting of the Ages” after “Bleeding the Pigs” meets bedlam with peace. If “my brain just was on overload,” it isn’t anymore, and the electronic, noisy feel of that song is striking set against the contradiction of the natural feel here. Over the course of the next minute and a half, Kelly sings only four verse lines, but he does so in his quiet, ultra-patient delivery, hypnotic and engrossing enough so that he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about when he delivers the title lyric in the third line, backed by the melodies of the accordion and the guitar. Synth noise emerges just after two minutes in, and the slow, heavy-footed course of the remainder of the song is revealed, the tradeoff from quiet to loud no less effective here than it was in the second half of “My Heart for Deliverance,” but again, slower and more natural. There are verses spread throughout the rest of the track, and a change in the middle, but it holds firm to the central riff, Edwardson thickening out a faster midsection as a host of noises organic and mechanical chime in, the rhythm they play out being both signature Neurosis and a fresh execution of those familiar ideas. Shortly before six minutes, Von Till and Kelly come together for a final verse and it’s no less stirring than anything the instruments have done to this point, but as Roeder’s fill introduces the last instrumental push of the song, it’s like a more languid reinterpretation of the thrust that consumed “Stones from the Sky” from A Sun that Never Sets – another often imitated pinnacle moment in Neurosis’ catalog – not necessarily that they’re trying to capture the same energy (one imagines if they were, they’d play it faster), but showing how the subsequent 11 years have provided the shift in perspective that only age can. Also, where half the appeal of that ending was the noise that seemed out of the band’s control in a meta-execution of deconstructing the song, here they have it firmly in hand and aren’t seeking to give an impression otherwise. Nonetheless, similarities persist. A crying guitar lead emerges late and seems to sing out as the music beneath fades, until all that’s left is a sample of what sounds like running water but might actually be Roeder’s cymbals run through effects, some noise and the fading guitar line, which seems to go on forever until, of course, it doesn’t.
6. All is Found… in Time (8:51)
And if “Bleeding the Pigs” was rife with electronic noise and “Casting of the Ages” had a more organic sprawl and seemingly limitless patience, it’s only fitting that “All is Found… in Time” should be the most intense singular piece of Honor Found in Decay. The crunching guitar line is immediate, and the drums and bass are soon to follow, but even as guitar freakout noise persists and Roeder enters a madman’s marathon of a percussive line – “All is Found… in Time” is my bid for the album’s peak drum performance – if you listen closely, Edwardson is playing the bassline of the riff to come. It’s hard to catch it for all the turbulence around, but he’s locked into it, and all that remains is for the rest of Neurosis to join him on that plane. The guitars settle some first, still testing the strength of their strings along a winding lead, but as the minute mark passes, the tension is so palpable that something has to give. Of all the riffs, and all the grooves they lock into through the course of this record, this one is the best. It’s not that the song goes from quiet to heavy. It goes from heavy to whatever comes after that. It is a massive, crushing riff that Kelly and Von Till both come to top before dropping out to ambient noise and softer guitar while Roeder continues the drum progression to let you know the respite is only momentary. Around 2:45, they kick back into The Riff for another verse and cycle through again, the more open chorus filled out by Landis’ soundscaping and Edwardson’s skillful runs, which continue even after they break from the tradeoff into a more ambient section, but drop out as Roeder steps back on the drums and even the synth line dies off to let the guitar at 4:40 introduce the build that will consume the rest of the song. Initially, the guitar and the synth do this work alone. The ambience remains tense thanks to the inclusion of various noises, and the guitar pacing is faster than Honor Found in Decay has been at its most subdued, so when thicker riffing and more active electronic noise – think the Blade Runner soundtrack – kick in shortly followed by the drums and bass, it’s not without some prior warning. Once more, Roeder is authoritarian on his toms, but when he moves to the snare to set the foundation for the final payoff of “All is Found… in Time” – and, I’d argue, the entirety of the album – he’s also going back to the beginning of the song, to that initial intense burst. He signals the rest of the band with two snare hits and they join, the guitars plucking ambient lines while Edwardson aids in the carry, and as the guitars ascend, there’s nothing left to do but bring the whole thing forward, which they do past the eight-minute mark, with barely 30 seconds left in the song and after nearly five of no vocals, Kelly and Von Till return for a last verse, ending with the lines, “Tearing the sickness from hearts that are hollow/Cracking the bones to get at the marrow,” after which there is only a final thud and some echoing remainder of the storm they constructed. Silence is rarely as quiet as it is in the space before “Raise the Dawn” comes on to close out the album.
7. Raise the Dawn (5:58)
What seems like it must be – would have to be – an afterthought gains atmosphere and context of its own as “Raise the Dawn” begins with the sound of burning embers and a spoken sample that urges you to empty your heart and untangle the knot, detach to be with all, etc. Kelly begins his vocal immediately after the sample’s last line, joining a grooving bassline from Edwardson and simple, relaxed beat from Roeder, and has a bluesy confidence to his voice that can only be the result of his time spent focused on his solo projects. If he wasn’t delivering lines like, “I can’t walk away anymore/The moon stuck the promise through my heart,” and groaning before the thrilling moment where, like “Casting of the Ages” before it, the natural, ambient beginning is met with slow but undeniably grooving and ferocious heaviness, he’d almost be sultry. When the song kicks in at 1:03, the nod is enveloping. Kelly is quick to continue the verse, and Von Till joins over more of Roeder’s endless tom cycles and a rising tide of synth melody from Landis. If Isis hadn’t already put out an album with the title, you might call the heavier verse of “Raise the Dawn” oceanic, but the song’s identity is the band’s own, without question, and the chorus it moves into continues and expands on the progression, rearing and coming around to strike with each new line. As the verse comes around again, a background yell being Kelly and Von Till, presumably from Edwardson, adds another layer of intensity, though they change the rhythm after the first two lines and finish with a different cadence than they started as the track moves into its second chorus around the halfway point. One last yell at 3:39 – fittingly, it could be either of the guitarists – is met with the arrival of strings, and the final instrumental movement of “Raise the Dawn” enters direct conversation with that of the opener – a final offering of symmetry, its beauty emergent from the grotesque trudging beneath. No sooner than it’s arrived, the cello takes the lead ahead of the guitars, Neurosis neither of the ego nor the need to hold the final statement of Honor Found in Decay for themselves. Edwardson and Roeder maintain the rhythm as the guitars keep a distorted atmospheric line, and with the last minute of the record left to go, the fadeout is underway, the drums seeming to be the last remnant underneath the forwards and backwards strings as they too are brought down from their place and the ending sounds of the album are gone.
That Neurosis close with their shortest track – and that that track reignites the string elements of the first – only serves to further highlight the brilliance in the structuring of Honor Found in Decay and how well these songs work in terms of the record as a whole. The complexity and flow from “At the Well” into “My Heart for Deliverance” into “Bleeding the Pigs” into “Casting of the Ages” into “All is Found… in Time” is no less fundamental to the success of those songs than the loud/quiet interplay that takes place within them or the varied approaches that Kelly, Von Till, Edwardson, Roeder and Landis bring to the music. As songwriters, Neurosis remain memorable without relying on pop structures – though not necessarily averse to them either, as a few of these tracks show – and as really no one else can, keep a ceaseless sense of evolution in their music. Honor Found in Decay presents growth from Given to the Rising as that album did from The Eye of Every Storm and so on back through their 1988 debut, Pain of Mind – each outing has its own atmosphere and though there are consistencies throughout, of mood, of emotional honesty, of a level of authenticity that seems inhuman, the albums remain unique unto themselves much as Neurosis has done despite a generation subsequent to them that has fed liberally from their influence. Their evolution is natural and ongoing, and even after a five-year lapse, which is their longest break to date, they’ve shown that they may have nothing left to prove, but that’s not enough to make them rest on past glories. The songs of Honor Found in Decay are alternately hideous and beautiful, human and mechanized, stunning, devastating, emotionally resonant and cerebrally engaging, and there’s only one source that could have given them life. In every sense, they are Neurosis’ own, and they encompass the exact completeness of what that means. Honor Found in Decay will be the pick of many for album of the year. It might also be mine, as everything I put next to it seems to find itself unmatched in this or that aspect, and it’s hard to imagine these songs won’t resound for much longer than the remaining months of this confusing 2012. I won’t call them timeless, but in many ways, they serve to define their era, as only the best of the creative arts can. Highly recommended.California, Neurosis, Neurosis Honor Found in Decay, Neurot, Oakland