A new release of any sort from Neurosis should be seen as reason to celebrate, and their 11th studio album, Fires Within Fires, has hit with no shortage of fanfare, critical fawning, wax poetry, etc. I won’t necessarily disagree with most of it, but it’s hard to separate the record, which of course is released on the band’s own Neurot Recordings, from the context in which it arrives.
Part of that is narrative. The post-metal progenitors began marking their 30th anniversary in the past year, and with Fires Within Fires, they take on the task of summarizing their unmatched sonic progression in a variety of interesting ways, not all of them sonic. At the same time, one of the most pivotal aspects to what Neurosis do — and I’m writing as a fan — has been the forward-thinking crux, the willingness to push into uncharted places, relentless in passion and creative spirit.
Fires Within Fires representing that as well as pulling in aspects from the band’s past without being overly cerebral or coming across like a commentary from the band, by the band, about the band, might be its greatest triumph. Rather, in marking their history, Neurosis — the five-piece of guitarist/vocalists Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till, bassist/backing vocalist Dave Edwardson, drummer Jason Roeder and keyboardist/noise specialist Noah Landis — conjure here some of the rawest sounds they’ve elicited in more than a decade.
That idea applies even to the five-track/40-minute runtime. Fires Within Fires is the shortest Neurosis full-length since 1990’s The Word as Law, and the visceral nature of opener “Bending Light” mirrors that paring-down process in its sound. At the same time, Fires Within Fires caps with “Reach,” which presents the most ambitious melodic vocal approach of the band’s career, so even as they reflect, that becomes part of an overarching ongoing pursuit.
This gives the album, produced by Steve Albini, who’s helmed everything they’ve done since 1999’s Times of Grace and 2001’s pivotal A Sun that Never Sets — the latter of which seems to find some reference here in the penultimate “Broken Ground” (probably not on purpose) — a certain front-to-back linearity. Especially with its somewhat truncated span compared to more recent Neurosis outings, be it 2012’s Honor Found in Decay (review here), which was an hour even, or 2007’s Given to the Rising, which was 10 minutes longer than that, the shorter stretch makes Fires Within Fires easier to take as a whole work as well as in terms of its individual pieces and what they accomplish.
Their recordings with Albini have always been very tied to their live presentation, so Fires Within Fires isn’t necessarily any more “stripped down” in its presentation than any of their other collaborations, but it does carry that rawer feel in the material itself, in the full-boar lurch of centerpiece “Fire is the End Lesson” as well as in the still-tense atmospherics of second cut “A Shadow Memory.”
Landis, whose contributions in eerie sampling and manipulation of sound, as well as keys, etc., continue to bolster the material well, immediately complement the initial rollout of “Bending Light.” Crashing in, the opener weaves its way forward on an intricately-toned guitar lead, quiets down to lull the listener into a false sense of security and then at 3:40 slams into its verse, Kelly‘s guttural sneer unmistakable as it spits the lines, “Watching through the eyes of a crow/I let it guide me/I let it guide me/I let it in/The end is endless/And washing [or watching] over me.”
The rhythmic repetition there is important, and comes up again shortly with the same line, “I let it guide me,” before Kelly and Von Till come together to deliver and repeat the lyric, “Peeling the skin away reveals the heart,” which could easily be read as a declaration of intent for the album itself (though again, probably not), their insistence as they belt it out four times in a row punkish in its intensity. Following a slowdown, Von Till takes the fore vocally and the track lumbers and undulates to its finish and into the airier start of “A Shadow Memory,” the shortest cut on Fires Within Fires at 6:50.
Within the first minute, its forward motion is underway, the guitars and keys accenting each other as Roeder, as ever, gives fluidity to what for most drummers would be impossible to interpret (without his blueprint). Von Till and Kelly work through a call and response on vocals and drop out for a moment of ambience before a section of drawn guitar line reminiscent of “Water is Not Enough” from Given to the Rising hits and carries through the halfway point, after which they stop and then shift again into a more direct thrust. That will serve as the capstone movement, and the guitar line returns to tie it together, behind another effective dual vocal that only adds to the manic feel before swirling noise ends cold and cuts into the immediate impact of “Fire is the End Lesson.”
Also on the shorter end (6:54), it reverses the structure thus far of subdued intros into bursts forward, though it does build with much credit to Edwardson at the low end until they move through the two-minute mark, cutting out some of the wall-of-noise push to air out keys and what sounds like strings but could just as easily be a sample or other manipulation from Landis — it can be tricky sometimes to tell — but the thrust revives with a rising, consuming wash of noise and guitar, all seeming to come to a head and then only growing more abrasive, finally cutting out just past five minutes in to the same progression that answered the first payoff, which by this time has an almost soothing presence.
They finish with repeated lines before dropping to feedback to set up the gorgeous wash of keys that begin “Broken Ground.” One might be reminded of “A Sun that Never Sets” from the album of the same name by Roeder‘s drumming and the vocal that emerges, and as “Broken Ground” moves into its apex, it might seem to be speaking to the genre-foundational “Stones from the Sky” off that same record, but Neurosis today is a different beast than they were 15 years ago, and they shove what might be Fires Within Fires‘ standout riff into a chorus that holds its volume and opens into lines of what sounds like (but likely isn’t actually) flute behind the vocals, dipping back right away into the verse before a return to the quiet guitar, keys and drums of the intro just past the halfway point brings Von Till back for a more subdued delivery.
At 5:39, they kick back into that riff and take it through another chorus, and though it seems fair to expect them to ride that through the remaining three minutes, they instead cut back again and end quiet, watery effects on a few final lines on a long drift with just a current of noise remaining. The closer and longest track, “Reach” (10:37) begins almost like its predecessor, but the mood is immediately different, the drums accenting a march that Von Till meets with melodic singing in a voice usually reserved for his solo work.
Not only that, but soon enough Kelly joins in and the two duet in a way that I’m not sure has ever happened on a Neurosis record. A build has begun, however, and carries through the next verse and joint-vocal chorus, and at 4:30, they shift into what will be the ground level for Fires Within Fires‘ last push, a long section of melancholy guitar lead over patient and quiet, but tense, guitar, bass and drums.
You know it’s coming, you just don’t know when, but at 7:59, “Reach” lunges forth its crescendo, a vicious and somewhat angular rhythm very much the band’s own that moves back and forth between the guitars at the fore, brings in Edwardson on backing vocals — he’s a weapon not often but effectively used — and teases its finish with words that rhyme with the title before the guitar, bass, drums, keys and everything else drops away and the final call — “reach” — is delivered, the band basically living up to that promise in manifesting the undulled searching that has been their core for the last three decades. In the end, it only takes them one word to say it all.
The visual side of Neurosis‘ output — from the artwork to their years spent accompanied by Josh Graham‘s video presentations during live sets — has always been a major element in conveying theme. With Honor Found in Decay, there was a strong sense of ritual, and the open gray space of 2004’s The Eye of Every Storm was no less appropriate than the charred and fossilized flesh of 1993’s Enemy of the Sun.
With the Fires Within Fires cover by Thomas Hooper, we see several elements that factor into the story surrounding the album, from the burning world representing passion to the key that might very well be just that — the key — in saying passion is central to the band and what has sustained them. Also important and thematic through the package are circles, in both the world on the cover surrounded by ethereal lines that could well be taken as spirit, as well as on back and inside, and this too plays into the notion of Neurosis taking a rare moment to examine themselves and what their time together has wrought for them as artists and people.
I’ve made a lot of comparisons to their past work, and I think those hold up to scrutiny (or I wouldn’t have made them), but at no point do I believe Neurosis sat down and said, “Okay, now we’re gonna reference ‘Through Silver in Blood.'” Instead, it’s more likely these connections emerged naturally as the songs came together, and while at some point they had to consciously acknowledge they were doing something different than before — if only in realizing Fires Within Fires is 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor — I’m not convinced that’s anything so far removed from their usual method of making a record.
Still, the circles. One thinks of ouroboros, of ends as beginnings. It may well be that Neurosis have come full circle and they’ll draw that circle to a close, a completion, but just as likely, the turn in approach they present here may signify a new beginning for the band as much as punctuation for their first 30 years. What can be said for certain is Neurosis will keep moving forward, as it’s all they’ve ever done, and even as they may or may not be looking back, they refuse to stop changing on Fires Within Fires as well. Recommended.