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.