tmospheric metal is so saturated now that it’s filled with clones of clones—Isis Jrs. Granted, Isis doesn’t sound like Neurosis now—the divergence occurred circa Oceanic—but they sure as hell did early on. That foundation will forever underlie anything bearded, slow, and Sabbath-y—what has been called the NeurIsis sound. Truth is, most of those bands bite the latter part. Isis is melodic, more accessible, critic-approved. Neurosis, frankly, is hard to step to. Twenty-one year-old bands don’t inspire imitators, they inspire acolytes.
What Neurosis has that Isis doesn’t (yet) is weight. Sure, the latter downtunes and plays so loudly that it sells custom-branded earplugs at shows. Few would accuse Isis of being lightweight. But when they started fiddling around with clean tones and female vocals, they lost a few pounds (though they found their own identity). While Neurosis have experimented exponentially more—strings, acoustic guitars, tribal drums, electronics, horns, even bagpipes—they’ve retained a sense of dread, gravitas, and cojones that only comes with years.
Neurosis weren’t born so heavy. Its debut full-length, Pain of Mind, was primitive hardcore punk, and follow-up The Word as Law stretched out awkwardly, adolescently. But the band’s punk, metal, industrial, psychedelic, and tribal influences coalesced on Enemy of the Sun and Through Silver in Blood. The latter, and touring for it, was so punishing that it drove Neurosis to retreat. Beginning with 1999’s Times of Grace, the band “learned how to burn it clean,” in the words of singer/guitarist Steve Von Till. Neurosis didn’t get less heavy; if anything, their songs became more oppressive—but they learned to do more with less.
This is truer than ever on Given to the Rising, despite the “return to ‘name of early album’!” hype. Yes, its songs are generally more aggressive, and the clean singing of recent albums is gone. But otherwise, the materials are the same as they were on its predecessor, The Eye of Every Storm. Though these songs range from lush to crushing, their ingredients are amazingly minimal. Single, echoing notes carry the intro of “To the Wind.” The latter half of “Hidden Faces” stomps through a bulldozing, three-note riff, which contracts to an insistently hammering two notes. “Distill (Watching the Swarm)” is like its name, one guitar doggedly chiming a dissonant chord through a dust storm.
The attention to sonic detail is astounding. Unison bends in “Fear and Sickness” pulse like headaches, then surrender to rolling, seasick grooves. Structurally, “Water Is Not Enough” is a masterpiece, answering an unresolved riff not with resolution, but with another question. However, its bridge enters pure sound with a simple, keening guitar bend (Neurosis has practically turned the intro to Sabbath’s “Iron Man” into an entire genre). A warm organ flicks on in the background, as if someone had hit a light switch. Electronic buzzing streams in, growing like a swarm of bees before dispersing over the inevitable six-string mayhem. Steve Albini engineered this; it knocks you on your back.
Notoriously, this album leaked over the Internet after the band shared advance copies with three confidants. The culprit should be shot, of course, if only because thousands of lazy bastards won’t get to read the lyrics. They’re not narrative nor obvious, but they’re laden with atmosphere: “The land here absorbs light / Inverting false hopes to night / Fault lines of reason shake thin / Grit erodes a skein of earth.” The liner notes divide the songs into lettered sections (a to d) of two and three. Indeed, songs within sections often flow into each other, a detail easily overlooked sans liner notes.
Given to the Rising hits no false notes. It holds up after 20 listens; it will hold up after 20 years. Ten albums into their career, Neurosis has only widened the gap between it and its pretenders.